Whether it’s your first, second or tenth time visiting Tokyo, there’s always a new, wacky experience waiting just around the corner for you.
If shopping in Shibuya has lost its lustre, or riding the bullet train is getting a bit old-hat, read our list of some of the best offbeat things to do here. Get ready to experience a whole new side of Tokyo.
See Tokyo’s underground city
Scratch beneath Tokyo’s surface and you’ll discover a vast network of flood tunnels deep underground that have become something of a hidden tourist attraction.
The underground labyrinth was built to store rain water from Tokyo’s downtown district and discharge it into the river during heavy rains and typhoons.
Public tours are offered at the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel – otherwise known as the ‘G-Cans Project’ – on certain days.
A word of warning: there’s no English translation on the tours, so get your pointing finger ready!
Drop in on a pachinko parlour
Japan’s national obsession with Pachinko is a sight to behold. The computerised version of pinball is played on vertical machines in neon-lit parlours and the rattling of steel balls will leave your ears ringing for hours.
While gambling for money is illegal in Japan, pachinko parlours skirt the rules because winners can exchange their trays of steel balls for non-cash prizes: from cigarette lighters to TVs and computers. But there is a loophole as players often “sell” their winnings in conveniently located pawn shops for cash.
Swing by a cat café – the pet shop and coffee house
Licenced cat cafés – and we don’t mean the cosplay kind – offer a place where visitors can relax and mingle with pet cats over a latte. These are popular with the locals, as strict housing regulations often forbid residents to own a pet cat.
Join in at Cat Café Calico, which charges a cover fee, generally hourly for entry.
You can also pop into Japan’s first reptile café, ‘Subtropical Teahouse’, which opened in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. Here, visitors can get up close to a lizard or snake and socialise over a drink.
Go vintage shopping in Shimokitazawa
A short train ride from Shibuya, Tokyo’s hip enclave of Shimokitazawa is a great place to people watch while perched in a cosy little café or bar, wander the boutique shops and do a spot of vintage shopping in secondhand good shops.
If you happen to stumble on ‘Mixture’ – a café and bakery – try their famous espresso bread, made with coffee beans sourced from a popular nearby café.
Take in the sights (and smells) at the world’s busiest fish market
If you’re jet-lagged and awake in the early hours, a 5am visit to Tokyo’s bustling stalls at the Tsukiji (also called ‘Uogashi’) fish market is a fascinating introduction to Tokyo.
It’s one of the world’s largest wholesale fish markets, selling more than 450 kinds of seafood. The inner market (‘jonai shijo’) is where the famous fish auctions take place and by 8am, the market is at its most lively with buyers crowding in to bid for fresh produce, including giant tuna.
Visitors aren’t officially allowed into the tuna auction, but as long as you don’t get in the way of trading or take photographs with a flash, you should get a view. The outer market (‘jogai shijo’) is open from 5am to everyone and sells seasonal fruit and vegetables, kitchenware, meat and fish.
After your visit, you are well-placed to enjoy one of the freshest sushi breakfasts at a nearby local restaurant.
Witness Japan’s obsession with high-tech toilets
As one of the most technologically advanced cities, even the toilets are high-tech in Tokyo.
Toto Super Space in the Shinjuku L Tower is a sparkly showroom, displaying the latest kitchen and bathroom fixtures.
But before you wander why we’re suggesting you visit a toilet store, it’s worth noting that this is no bog standard showroom.
Japan’s Toto toilets feature a control panel with buttons for just about everything –from invisible deodorisers to blow dry functions.
Here, you’ll discover toilets with lids that automatically flip up when you stand in front of them, shower rooms with instant-dry flooring and baths that fill up automatically.
Stay in a ‘capsule hotel’
If you’re looking for a unique hotel experience in Japan, spending the night in a capsule hotel should be top on your list – if you’re not daunted by the prospect of sleeping in a room the size of a shoe-box.
Your adventure begins by taking off your shoes at the door and placing them in a locker, before taking a shower, gowning up and finding your capsule among a sea of others. The individual pods are stacked on top of each other and you may have to climb a ladder if you’re on the top floor.
Inside your pod, there’s enough space for an alarm clock, control panel for your own light and even a TV up in the corner. Surprisingly, the pods are roomy enough to sit upright in.
While not the most private of hotel rooms, they are cheap and usually favoured among businessmen who miss their last train after a night out. Many capsule hotels are male only, but others have separate floors for men and women.
Have a drink behind bars
Japan is no stranger to bizzare themed cafés, bars and restaurants and Alcatraz ER in Shibuya is no exception.
The bar and restaurant lies inside a “medical prison”. Customers call out their blood type and are escorted by women in nurses outfits to their ‘cell’. Cocktails are sucked up out of test tubes or a ‘hospital drip’ – and meals are eaten off metal trays, as deranged ‘patients’ (actors) run through the place.
After you’re let out of prison, try the Niagra curry restaurant –nearby Yutenji Station in West Tokyo, where your meal is whizzed to you on the back of a model train which runs from the kitchen through to the restaurant.
Visit a hot springs theme park
If you feel like escaping Tokyo’s urban jungle, visit the Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatari: a hot spring and theme park in one.
Here, you can bathe in a mineral rich hot spring bath, indulge in a Japanese full-body massage or relax in an outdoor foot spa.
Once you’ve regained your energy, head over to the attractions and try your hand at fortune telling, ninja-knife throwing and blowgun darts. If that doesn’t work up an appetite, the smells wafting from its 16 restaurants probably will.