Tokyo is one of the greatest cities on earth. Home to 14 million people, stretching from mountains to sea, the metropolis has been stealing hearts for centuries. With a sophisticated culture, world-class food, smooth public transport and endless treasures to explore, it’s no wonder Tokyo attracts waves of visitors from across the globe every year.
It’s a city with an aesthetic like no other: dense neon hanging from weathered office blocks. Shrines dotting the landscape, opposite brightly lit convenience stores. The streets busy and dense, thick with excitement. It drips electronic sweat. Tokyo’s waves and vibes have inspired countless artists over the years, from Bladerunner and City Pop, Persona 5 to Vaporwave, via Pizzicato Five and Your Name. If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo and would like a taste of the specific a e s t h e t i c gems the city has to offer, these are the districts to visit.
Late Night Delight
Shinjuku & Shibuya
Twins Shinjuku and Shibuya are the beating hearts of Tokyo. Immense and intense these districts make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of Mega City One. Taking your first step outside the station, into the blazing streets below, is sure to be a vision.
Neon upon neon, each sign loudly, defiantly competing for your attention. Years of accumulating electronics building into a power web.
Shinjuku & Shibuya serve as a brilliant example of one of Tokyo’s most notable traits: shops, bars and restaurants stacked on top of each other high into the sky. While western cities tend to focus on the street level experience, Tokyo is all about verticality. A great tip for any visitor is to make sure to look up over your head as you walk the streets. Don’t be afraid to ride elevators and pound stairs to reach that quirky bar that’s just caught your eye.
When you combine the countless skyscrapers full of shops, with the signage used to promote them you start to appreciate the full power of Tokyo’s nightlife. Each and every single one of those dive bars and izakayas are full of people who have come from somewhere and are going elsewhere. Every single block and floor has a story to tell.
Bladerunner isn’t just a movie from the 80s. If you want to feel connected to the city, dizzy with excitement and the possibilities open to you, these districts are a must.
While not in Tokyo itself- no discussion of neon in Japan would be complete without mentioning Osaka. Specifically its rolling central district of Dotonbori. Dotonbori has some of the most famous neon displays in all of Japan and one of the busiest nightlife districts in the country. If you’ve got a JR Pass (you definitely should) and are looking to chase the lights make sure to check out Osaka.
Japanese shopping malls have a distinct vibe. Clean and crisp, with a focus on neatness and propriety. Unlike the more practical shopping centres you might find in the UK or America, Japanese malls can be a calmingly pleasant, almost beautiful. The kind of gleaming ‘Mallsoft’ aesthetic captured on Palm Mall or Hologram Plaza can be felt in the flesh.
Nowhere in Tokyo boasts more elite malls than Ginza. The feeling of excess, wealth and money sticks to the district. Yet it’s not without an artfulness.
Broad, clean streets, glass and steel, shops gleaming with luxury goods. You can easily spend an afternoon casually wandering. Browsing the shops, visiting the many cafes and food courts. Letting loose your inner Millionaire.
For another kind of style visit Roppongi Hills- a shopping mall complex built high on one of Tokyo’s major hilltops. It comes sporting fantastic views of Tokyo Tower in the distance. If Ginza is the place for Mallsoft during the day, Roppoingi is the place to go at night.
The Sumida River
Tokyo’s main river, the Sumida, might be not be as famous as the Thames, Seine or Tiber, but it comes brimming with its own unique charm. The low-key nature of the Sumida is where its appeal lies. A clean crisp flow of water, buttressed by a jagged urban landscape, its banks are some of the quietest areas you’ll find in Tokyo.
Far from the main tourist trail, the riverbanks are well-used by locals. Many Tokyoites use the banks for jogging and running. And for visitors, the Sumida can be a great place to come to relax and reflect. When you want somewhere quiet to process your experiences of the city. It brings calmness and stillness to a place defined by energy and movement. Put your earbuds in and let world’s end girlfriend twirl you.
Since it flows through so many districts of Tokyo there are multiple ways you can approach the river. I usually get the train to Asakusabashi and walk down the high street. Eventually reaching the banks and following the bends and winds of the water from there.
I find myself walking down this same stretch of river each time I come back to Japan. Usually on the last day before I leave the city. Thinking about everything I’ve experienced and forming plans for the future.
Far Side Virtual
Arguably the most popular tourist area of Tokyo. Akihabara is a district of the city almost entirely swallowed up by anime, manga and gaming culture. The streets are packed with anime figure shops, DVDs, merch, Blu-Ray vendors, maid cafes, gaming stores and karaoke parlours. Akihabara is all about what’s new and what’s hot in the world of anime and gaming: billboards for currently airing anime dot the skyline. For any modern anime fan, the district is a sight to behold. Anime characters plastered on buildings and billboards. Multi-storied department stores full of virtual merchandise. A physical space dedicated to a hobby which most people only partake in through the computer screen. Akihabara can feel like a victory, that niche, weird hobbies can blossom and develop into something truly powerful. Vaporwave fans take note.
But it’s not just about anime. Akihabara’s roots lie in the electronics shops which still dot the district. Originally the city was dedicated to the kind of cutting-edge progressive tech which once defined Japan. Filling the streets around Akihabara station with vendors selling computer parts, wires, processors, LEDs and capacitors. Over the years, anime (with its similar demographic audience), was layered over the top, leading to the mesh between the two cultures which now exits. Explore the backstreets of Akiba and you’ll be able to find the echoes of the area’s old focus. Old CRTs, countless jumbled mechanical parts and retro video game stores, an absolute goldmine of computer nostalgia waiting to be discovered.
Whether you’re a diehard anime fan or not, Akihabara is a fascinating vista. An ideal place to spend anywhere from hours to days exploring. A space where the virtual and physical connect, a trip to the far side.
If Akihabara is dedicated to modern anime, what about older series? Where do I go to find my Sailor Moon and Urusei Yatsura merchandise? The answer is Nakano Broadway.
While equally famous for its anime culture stores, unlike Akihabara Nakano Broadway operates less like a grand shopping district and more like a flea market. A mix of shops selling edgy fashion, curios and niche collectibles (think model trains, anime, Godzilla figures and Sentai merch).
Since the majority of wares for sale in Nakano are second-hand, the anime which populate it tend to be older series. This makes Nakano a great place to go to look for merch from the ’90s and ’00s classics which got many western fans into anime in the first place. The kind which now populate a million looping Future Funk .gifs. The selection is constantly in flux, so you’ll need to do some serious crate-digging and window shopping to filter through the massive selection. But as with all hidden treasure, it’ll feel that much better when you find it.
For the now era, Akihabara is your friend. But for nostalgia, Nakano Broadway is hard to beat.
No visit to Tokyo would be complete without a skyline view. Luckily the Tokyo Metropolitan Government provide a free viewing platform at the top of their gigantic towers. Remember: make sure to get to the towers an hour or two before sunset- so you can watch the sun go down and the city spring up.
If you’ve got a few yens weighing down your wallet you could also visit the Tokyo Skytree. While not free like TMG the Skytree is more modern and offers an especially slick viewing experience at the top of one of Tokyo’s most famous buildings.
Odaiba is, without compare, the most Vaporwave place on the planet. An artificial island built in Tokyo Bay, during the 1990s the island was turned into an ultra-modern entertainment district. With morphing architecture blending in with bright sidewalks, palatial greenery, giant shopping malls and crowned with a gleaming monorail. The island remains popular today with tourists and locals alike. Proving itself to be one of the most unique and singular of all Tokyo’s districts.
Take a trip to the Joyopolis, a Sega theme park built at the height of ’90s Sonic-mania. Relax at Oedo Onsen, a massive Onsen complex complete with an eternal Summer festival. Take a stroll through Palette Town and experience a faux Roman shopping market, complete with a fake blue sky and plastic roman busts. Enjoy some culture at teamLab Borderless, an art installation designed to be experienced just as much through your selfie camera as your eyes. Peruse the grand mall of Diver City, before emerging under the shadow of a giant Gundam robot. Take a photo of the miniature Statue of Liberty at the shoreline, before heading back to the station next to the giant rainbow Ferris wheel.
When I took a friend to Odaiba recently they remarked that it reminded them of the world imaged by 1950s retrofuturism. Too clean, too pristine, too full of pleasurable sights and sounds. It shouldn’t feel real- but it is.
This article only scratches the surface of the multitude of delights which Tokyo holds. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to explore yourself and find your own delights. The secret parts of the city that give meaning to you, and that you find yourself returning to. Tokyo is too big to be distilled effectively into guides and lists. Use parts of what others suggest to you, and combine that with what you discover yourself. That way you can really make Tokyo yours.
Words and photos by Sam L. Barker. Sam is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory. Follow him on Twitter.
This piece was originally published at AE2 Online