I like to keep things positive around here, but I just scanned the umpteenth itinerary forwarded to me by a coming-to-Japan friend, and I can’t believe that trip planners keep sending people to do this stuff! If yours tries to sell you a plan with these destinations on it,* send them back to the drawing board. Here’s why (and what to do instead):
The Imperial Palace
What you think it is: A chance to explore the opulent and historic palace where the Japanese royals live
What it actually is: A view of a moat, a European-style stone bridge you can’t cross, and a hill of trees pruned in the Chinese style. The truth is, nobody is allowed to go into the vast wooded island in the middle of Tokyo where the Emperor lives. The only places the public is allowed are the East Palace Gardens (which don’t even make my list of beautiful Japanese gardens, except when the azaleas and late-blooming cherries are in bloom), Kita-no-maru Park (marginally worth seeing during leaf season and cherry blossom season if you love crowds) and the art museums on the outer edges of the grounds (if their current exhibitions are interesting).
Why trip planners love it: It’s free (so they can spend your budget elsewhere), they can park you in front of it to give their spiel on Japanese history, and it’s easy to get to other places from there.
What to see instead: The Meiji Shrine has a treasure house that gives a glimpse into imperial life through the ages, and while there’s no palace to tour, it’ll get you closer to the royals than looking at a stone bridge.
What you think it is: The most amazing 360° view of Tokyo
What it actually is: The most expensive 360° view of Tokyo. The only other thing that’s special about this observation deck is that it’s the only view of Tokyo WITHOUT SKYTREE IN IT.
Why trip planners love it: They can tell you it’s the best view of Tokyo because it’s from the tallest building in Japan, plus the lower six floors are a shopping mall, so it’s an easy one-stop souvenir and eating place where people with different tastes can all be happy. It’s also conveniently near Asakusa (which, if it’s not on your itinerary, it should be. Unlike, say, Skytree.)
What to see instead: The view from these free observation decks in tall buildings
The Diet Building
What you think it is: A historic building, like the U.S Capitol, or the Halls of Parliament, or the Kremlin, except it’s uniquely Japanese.
What it actually is: An office building. A 20th-century, Western-style office building that borrowed its design freely from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. (An odd choice of inspiration for the home of the Diet, but maybe they didn’t realize “mausoleum” means “inhabited by fossils.”)
Why trip planners love it: Honestly, I’m baffled. Unless your tour guide is Japanese, then it makes total sense. Japanese tour guides always show you the Diet building, because Japanese tours only show you the things they’re proud of, not things you actually want to see.**
What to see instead: Anything would be better, really.
Shibuya scramble crossing
What you think it is: The world’s craziest, busiest 5-way pedestrian crossing, where over a thousand people stream across with every light, but miraculously don’t run into each other
What it actually is: All the tourists in Tokyo colliding in the street with their selfie sticks and/or elbowing each other out of the way to stage YouTube videos. If you really must Instagram it, the best photo spots are the observation deck at Shibuya Sky (the top of the new Shibuya Scramble Square building at the station), or from Mag’s Park, on the roof of the Magnet 109 building across the street. From far overhead, you can’t tell that the little ants below are all tourists holding their phone cameras overhead as they barge their way across. If you’re already there to see other good stuff in the neighborhood, go for it, but don’t brave the hell that is Shibuya Station just for this.
Why trip planners love it: People insist on going there because they saw some amazing (non-recent) video on the internet.
What to see instead: There’s really nothing like it, but there are other great things to do in Shibuya.
What you think it is: The crème de la crème of shopping districts
What it actually is: Flagship stores of the same international luxury brands you can find anywhere in the world, and expensive Japanese department stores where everything is sized to fit Japanese people (i.e. if you’re a woman who’s bigger than 5’1″ (159cm) and 117lbs(53kg), or a man who’s larger than 5’7″(171cm) and 138lbs(63kg), you’re out of luck).
Why trip planners love it: People insist on going there if they want to do Japanese luxury shopping, and it’s easy to get to other tour destinations from there.
What to see instead: If you love luxury shopping, head over to Omotesando in Harajuku, where at least there are more interesting things to see nearby. And if you’re traveling with someone who insists on shopping in Ginza, here’s what you can do in the neighborhood instead.
What you think it is: The Japanese version of Central Park in New York – a beautifully-landscaped oasis that’s legendary during cherry blossom season, with traditional temples, a uniquely Japanese zoo, and museums filled with Japanese art.
What it actually is: A big, crowded, paved park with a zoo that features the usual assortment of exotic animals, and museums that do contain a cross-section of Japanese art, but also house a lot of Western art and art from other parts of Asia.
Why trip planners love it: They can check off the “see Japanese art” box at one stop that covers all the bases, it’s got a couple of shrines and temples that give people that “hey, we’re really in Japan!” feeling, and it’s easy to get to other tour destinations from there.
What to see instead: If you want to see Japanese art, there are museums specializing in certain kinds of art that are far more interesting, and if you check their current exhibitions, you’re certain to see something extraordinary. If you want to see Japanese gardens, Kiyosumi Tei-en, Koshikawa Koraku-en, and Rikugi-en are beyond lovely in every season. And if it’s cherry blossoms you’re after, here are the best places to take cherry blossom photos in Tokyo.
What’s actually worth seeing in Ueno: The Shitamachi Museum (walk through a meticulous recreation of shops and alleys from the Meiji Era), The National Museum of Nature & Science (the All Things Japanese wing is unique and entertaining), the Shinobazu Pond during lotus season (July), the Ueno Toshogu Shrine’s rotating dahlia (Oct) and peony (mid-Apr to mid-May) exhibitions, and the Toro Nagashi floating lantern festival (July).
Ameyokocho street market
What you think it is: An authentic & historic Japanese street market, filled with unique street food and bargain-priced products made in Japan
What it actually is: A district of alleys lined with stalls selling “Japanese” souvenirs that are cheap because they’re made elsewhere, and food that’s tasteless enough not to offend anybody
Why trip planners love it: It’s easy to get to other tour destinations from there, and it satisfies travelers’ idea of a “Japanese street market” if they’ve never been to one that’s not a tourist trap. There are, of course, a few genuine vendors who sell uniquely Japanese goods tucked away amid the hucksters, but you need an excellent guide to winkle them out.
What you think it is: A photo mecca for spotting wildly-dressed young Japanese Lolitas, Gothic Lolitas and other cosplayers
What it actually is: Foreigners shuffling along for two blocks in lockstep, swiveling their heads looking for wildly-dressed young Japanese Lolitas, Gothic Lolitas and other cosplayers. Once this “underground” street became known, the fashion cults it became famous for moved elsewhere. There are still a few shops that sell to that crowd, but the local customers who frequented them are long gone.
Why trip planners love it: It injects the fun-sounding possibility of seeing uniquely Japanese pop culture into a tour of the more ordinary and traditional Harajuku destinations (the Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, the woodblock museum, and the shopping district of Omotesando).
What to see instead: Akihabara is where a lot of the cosplay energy has relocated, and there are quite a few shops catering to costuming, but the cosplayers themselves have mostly retreated behind closed doors, to events like Comiket.
Tea ceremony “experience”
What you think it is: A Japanese version of English “high tea,” wrapped in a serene zen attitude
What it actually is: Unsweetened green tea served in a bowl instead of a cup, accompanied by a gorgeous seasonal sweet that looks like it will taste sublime, but is actually made of super-sweet (yet oddly flavorless) bean paste. Usually these “experiences” are held at hotels or other tourist centers, and they bear about as much relation to a real tea ceremony as hitting a ball in a golf simulator is to playing at Gleneagles. Unless you sign up for a real class, taught by a tea ceremony master in a genuine Japanese tea room, you won’t begin to understand how this can be something people would ever want to do twice, let alone study for their entire lives.
Why trip planners love it: Travelers often ask for it, but participating in a real tea ceremony requires a certain amount of study before you can even be a guest, let alone share in the ceremony itself. The hotel and tourist center versions are a rather pricey way for foreigners to taste the fascinating-looking tea and sweets, without requiring that they do anything more rigorous.
What to do instead: If you’d just like to taste the tea and sweets, but not spend hours kneeling on the floor to do it, for about ¥500 you can do that in various Japanese gardens around Tokyo, while enjoying the beautiful view. Rikugi-en, Hama-rikyu Teien, and Hōkoku-ji temple in Kamakura all offer it on a walk-in basis, without reservations. Or you can hire a guide who has connections to someone who can give you a more in-depth exploration of the art.
The fish market
What you think it is: A vast and bustling open-air fish market you can explore, featuring giant frozen tuna being auctioned off and stalls offering tempting-looking tanks of every kind of seafood in the world
What it actually is: A new multi-story building with a glassed-in mezzanine looking down on the place where they sell the giant tuna (which only happens between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. and can only be viewed – from behind the glass – for ten minutes if you are lucky enough to get one of the 120 tickets for that day). Sadly for travelers, when they moved the venerable Tsukiji fish market to the outskirts of Tokyo a couple of years ago, they turned it into a modern commercial food processing and distribution facility that’s closed to anyone who’s not in the business.
Why trip planners love it: People have seen the photos of the amazing giant tuna and been told that the fish market is the best thing to see in Tokyo, but all that applied to Tsukiji, not the new version. It still makes the itineraries because it’s something free to do with travelers in the very early morning, guides can give a talk with many interesting factoids (even though there’s not much to see anymore), and the new set-up doesn’t require that they wrangle a group through a (dangerous and occasionally hostile) working fish market
What to see instead: Walk the alleyways and browse the stands in the Outer Market that still exists next to the old Tsukiji fish market. You won’t get to see the giant tuna, but it’s an authentic taste of how vendors of seafood and vegetables still sell their wares the old-fashioned way (and you can buy stuff at great prices too!)
*Exception: if you’re actually being taken around by a great guide, they may be showing you some of these on the way to something better and/or may have something interesting to say about them that I haven’t heard. If you DO find something redeeming about one of these, please come tell me in the comments!
**Do I recommend getting a Japanese tour guide? Hmm. Three guesses. Tokyo is one instance where having a native Japanese person show you around is NOT better than employing a foreigner. Japan is filled with excellent quirkiness and underground destinations and fascinating, thought-provoking sights/experiences, and you won’t see them if you’re someone who doesn’t understand why you’d rather see the Ghost Cat Parade than the Diet Building, or you’d rather stroll through the red light district of Kabuki-cho than admire the record tallness of Skytree.
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist