Six Unique Things To Do In Tokyo

Tokyo is my favorite vacation place, partly because there is so much to do, and because many of the experiences are unique to Tokyo. Here I’ll take you through some of my favorites. Note that these aren’t exactly things the average tourist might do on their first visit to the city, but they’re great if you want something a little different.

Go To An Owl Cafe

Japan “invented” the cat cafe, a concept that has now made its way to other continents around the globe. The Japanese have also extended this idea to other corners of the animal kingdom, including hedgehogs and owls.

On my last trip I visited Owl Village in Harajuku, which was a hoot (you can’t go there and not make that pun). It was unlike any other cafe I’d visited. First, during peak times you are expected to make an appointment. You pay a fixed price (currently either 2000 or 1500 yen, depending on whether you want food or not), and are allowed an hour at the cafe (35 minutes of which is spent with the actual owls).

I showed up at my appointed time and spent about 20 minutes in the cafe portion of the establishment, drinking a Coke and perusing their owl-related merchandise.

Then the other guests and I were escorted into the owl room, where we got to spend about 35 minutes of quality time with an assortment of different owls. You could hold them, pet them, and (for an extra charge) feed them.

Owl and me

Here I am with one named Bob:

Bob and me.

Visit Tokyo DisneySea

Ok, so this isn’t exactly off-the-beaten path, since it literally gets millions of visitors a year. And it’s not technically in Tokyo either, it’s in the next prefecture over. But the reason it’s unique is because there is no other DisneySea park in the entire world, so this is something you can only do here.

Monorail at Tokyo Disney

It has a general nautical theme, with a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride, a replica ocean liner, a Little Mermaid-themed land, and lots more. In my opinion, it’s well worth spending a few hours there, and it’s substantially less expensive than Disney parks in the U.S.

Tokyo DisneySea
Tokyo DisneySea

There’s also an Indiana Jones ride – except instead of being called Harrison Ford, the star is Harrison Toyota (just kidding).

Indiana Jones at Tokyo DisneySea

Go On A Tour Of The Japan Airlines Sky Museum

I love this free tour at JAL’s Haneda Airport facilities – there is a cool little museum that features some of their business class seats, flight attendant uniforms through the years, and other exhibits that will pique any AvGeek’s interest.

Japan Airlines Sky Museum
Japan Airlines Sky Museum
Me at Japan Airlines Sky Museum

But the best part is the tour of the maintenance hangars, where you get to see lots of planes in various states of undress. Generally the tour is conducted in Japanese, so you might not understand what they’re saying, but it’s still a great way to spend a few hours. (Also, I learned that “seven” in Japanese is “nana,” so whenever they talk about the Boeing 777, they say “nananananana.”)

Unfortunately JAL asks that you not post photos from the hangars online, so you’ll have to see it for yourself. The one drawback to this tour is that the online booking system is in Japanese (and still confusing even after it’s translated), and reservations are required (and spots do tend to fill up well in advance). If you plan to do this, my best recommendation is to contact your hotel concierge at least a few weeks before your trip to see if they can reserve spots for you.

Participate In A Traditional Tea Ceremony

Ok, so these are a little kitschy, but you do actually learn about the traditions and rituals of ancient tea ceremonies. There are a number of places in Tokyo where you can reserve a spot in one of these, and generally they are fairly low cost. I recommend doing one that involves sitting on tatami mats, rather than sitting in chairs.

I went to the Keio Plaza Hotel’s tea ceremony, which was 2000 yen per person (about 20 bucks), and I really enjoyed it. There were only four participants total, so it was very intimate. I was able to reserve online, which made it really convenient.

Tea Ceremony at Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo

Stay At A Capsule Hotel

Ok, this one isn’t for everybody, but it is a very Japanese experience, and one that I really enjoyed (though I wouldn’t want to spend my whole vacation at one). Apparently these sprung up to cater to salarymen who occasionally worked so late in the city that they missed the last train home, but didn’t want to spend lots of money on a hotel room in Tokyo.

I spent a night a couple years back at the Anshin Oyado capsule hotel in Shinjuku, and found it fascinating and kind of fun. There are lockers at the entrance for your luggage, and then you change into slippers and a robe for your stay.

Capsule at Anshin Oyado Capsule Hotel (yes those are my feet)
Anshin Oyado Capsule Hotel Shinjuku

A few words of caution: I didn’t feel claustrophobic sleeping there, though some people might. You might hear other people snoring, which can be distracting for light sleepers. (I talk in my sleep sometimes, so I hope I didn’t disturb other people!)

Another thing that might offend American sensibilities are the communal showers. Also do keep in mind that men and women are separated. Overall this is probably best for solo travelers. And if you have a tattoo, you’ll have to keep it covered up in communal spaces.

If you’re interested, booking.com has a fair number of capsule hotel options – other American travel sites don’t seem to have quite as many.

Drive A Car At Mega Web

Mega Web is an indoor theme park on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay called Odaiba. Odaiba is a cool place in general with really fun architecture, and Mega Web’s automotive theme is fun for car buffs. There are historic cars as well as the latest models on display, as well as some rides, shows, exhibits, and other attractions.

Car I drove at Toyota Mega Web

If you’d like, you can test drive a Toyota around a 1.3 km course. You need an International Driving Permit, which you can obtain for a small fee at your local AAA office in the U.S. I did this a couple years ago and really enjoyed it, though I thought the course itself was kind of narrow, so I wouldn’t recommend driving a larger vehicle on it your first time around.

Anyway, these are just a few of the things I think makes Tokyo one-of-a-kind. Are there other only-in-Tokyo experiences you think deserve a mention?

Comments

  1. Many capsule hotels are actually male only, and this isn’t always clear when booking, especially through an OTA. Be sure to check the notes. I ended up never staying in one, since it was too much trouble to find one that I was sure would take a female.

  2. Great post, Andrew! I too love visiting Tokyo. I was a frequent visitor during my career at Northwest Airlines, as we had major passenger and cargo operations in Tokyo. Over the years I found the Japanese people to be mostly friendly towards Americans, especially if they knew you worked for NW. NW started serving Japan in 1948, and the Japanese people place a high value on long term relationships. At the restaurants and shops around Narita Airport we would often get special discounts or better service than our friends at United and American who were relatively newcomers to the Japanese.

  3. Please don’t encourage visits to owl cafes. Wild, nocturnal predators, tethered down and stroked all day…. It’s not right.

  4. I love Tokyo (and Japan in general) and would echo most of your recommendations above (although I’m not sure what the appeal of paying to drive a Toyota around a track is?!). I would note/add:
    1. If Owls aren’t your thing, there are plenty of themed restaurants which are uniquely Japanese – cat, robot, ninja restaurants just to name a few. I did the ninja restaurant for my birthday and it was good fun. You sit in these dark private closed off rooms/booths and the food is delivered by stealth! The food was better than I thought it would be and wasn’t overly expensive. There’s a magician that comes and does tricks in between courses which was a bit naff but it was still good fun.
    2. Capsule hotels are about as Japanese as you can get but if you are going to do it, do it either at the end of your trip or on your second trip once you are a bit more acclimatised to the Japanese way of life otherwise it can be quite overwhelming. It will help greatly if you read up on the rules/etiquette in advance and also speak some very basic Japanese as some check-in staff will not speak English.
    3. Tokyo DisneySea is excellent but be prepared to stand in queues for 2+ hours per ride. Investigate Fast Passes and plan your day around them. I would not even think about going on a weekend or during school holidays. If you can handle the heat go on a hot day in summer – less locals will be there. I was a bit disappointed that all ride instructions were in Japanese only so I had no idea what the stories were about.
    4. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Tsujuki fish markets (and fresh sushi at dawn) and onsens! They are 2 quintessential Japanese experiences.
    5. If you want to really experience just how big Tokyo is, rather than doing the standard Ginza intersection, change trains in Shinjuku station at peak hour!

  5. Don’t go to an owl cafe. Wild animals shouldn’t be held captive, and especially not in such unnatural environment. Lots of these are night creatures.

  6. Anyone looking to stay in a capsule hotel in Tokyo I’d highly recommend the MyCube by MyStays Asakusa (I’m guessing with a name like that it’s part of a chain). Immaculately clean and modern, better bathrooms than some luxury hotels.

    The same concept of a capsule hotel but the “rooms” are floor to ceiling and you climb in from the side.

  7. Tokyo is amazing. It’s so clean and the thing that strikes me is that there are no garbage bins Love the jingles on the metro The owl cafe is a bit cruel though. They are not pets

  8. Japan Airlines also has a Safety Promotion Center dedicated to airline safety. There is wreckage from a JAL 747 crash where an improper repair of the rear bulkhead caused a crash. They say that all employees are required to visit. The public can visit by appointment. It’s by Haneda Airport in an office building that is hard to find. Like the JAL hangers, no photos are allowed.

    As an example of good service, when I was looking for the place and could not find it, the director came out to look for me. He saw me walking on the street in an industrial area and asked if I was the person with the Safety Promotion Center appointment who called a few minutes earlier.

  9. Tokyo’s got a fabulous food scene with the largest concentration of Michelin started restaurants for any city. When I’m in Tokyo, I plan my travel around Michelin two and three starred establishments.

  10. Don’t go to an owl cafe. It’s cruel to imprison a wild, nocturnal animal and subject it to being pawed at all day.

  11. Surprised nobody’s mentioned a cat cafe. Those got started in Tokyo, after all. If you’re a hardcore avgeek, there’s also the airline swag shop at NRT where you can get logo keychains for pretty much every commercial airline on the planet.

  12. Don’t be afraid of eating food from 7-Eleven, Lawson or other convenience stores. Unlike in the US, the food is generally good.

    MariCar – driving around the streets of Tokyo in a go-kart type car while dressed in an optional costume. Get it: Mario Cart. But since it’s not a Nintendo operation, they have to change the name!

    Tokyo Dome area has an amusement park with a great coaster, spa/onsen and shopping center. I like that Uniqlo and Muji are there and offer duty-free.

    Note that some onsens like LaQua at Tokyo Dome forbid entry with any tattoos and there is a large multi-lingual sign at the entrance. Don’t try to sneak in, please!!!

    The Toyota MegaWeb used to offer rides in self-driving cars on a special track a little over 10 years ago. I think the allure now is to try out cars not in your home country.

  13. Check out the wide variety of items one can purchase from vending machines, especially on the perimeters of the train stations. Everything from hot food, cold beer, marital aid devices…

  14. Check out the exotic car garage in a hotel near Akabanebashi. I went on a weekday morning, and there are dozen of Lambhorginis, Astons, and Rolls. Order Ichiran ramen with a Japanese customization form. Shop for Sukajan jackets at Ameyoko shopping street.

  15. Incompetent fool!! The first thing you do in this post is promote the captivity and exploration of wild animals for financial gain. Not to mention I’ve observed owl cafes in Tokyo first hand (not as a paying customer) and often times the conditions for the owls is deplorable. Anything for readership and likes hu? Sadly the world is full of you naive narcissistic assholes that will do anything to be able to post it online in order to seek self validation and attention. Next thing we know you’ll be telling us how to book our next dolphin and wale hunting trip next time we are in Japan.

  16. I would like to add to the comments against the owl cafes. These are nocturnal animals being held captive for a primarily foreign customer-base that doesn’t know any better. The constant, abnormal contact stresses the animal and is not healthy for them. I lived in Japan for 9 years, love the countries, but abhor these exploitative cafes. Shame on you, OMAAT, for promoting this.

  17. Also note that a lot of capsule hotels will not allow people with tattoos stay there (at least when I stayed in one last year.)
    I think going to a Pachinko parlor is also uniquely Japanese.
    As for DisneySea, I went on a weekday in November and never had issues waiting in long queues (maybe a 20-30 min wait but not 2-3 hours.)
    Also try to eat whale meat or fugu (puffer fish).

  18. I went to an Owl Cafe but I don’t think anyone is missing anything by not having gone to one. I went to one in Harajuku, can’t remember the name of it.

    MariCar was pretty cool but I recommend everyone do the short 1 hour tour. I did the 3 hour tour just 15 hours after I landed and I was exhausted. The thrill is driving the go karts in the streets of Tokyo, not where you go, 1 hour is way cheaper and probably a funner experience as you don’t get bored by it being too long.

    And if you haven’t been to the Tokyo Tree yet, it’s worth it to pay to go to the top (just not the optional very top for an extra 1,000yen). They have a fast pass line for tourists for an extra charge (around 1,000yen) if you don’t want to wait in a long line. Though when I went in mid July, the regular line was only about 5 mins.

  19. The Studio Ghibli (e.g., Spirited Away) museum is one of the coolest things to do in the world let alone Tokyo. You need to buy tix in advance, but it’s worth it. Tokyo also has really quirky fun sort of independent museums (e.g., the sword museum or Touken and the kite museum, etc.).

  20. We loved DisneySea. Easy to get to from Tokyo via the JR train, even for non-Japanese speakers. We never had to wait more than 45 minutes for an attraction, and Fastpass does help. Highly recommended!

  21. Love how OMAAT’s philosophy when they realize they are complete fools for promoting ansimal abuse is to just stick their head in the sand. No comment, no retraction, no nothing. Nothing to see here folks. We’ll just hope people forget.

    Or worse yet, the writers don’t realize their own incompetence. All in all pretty terrible form.

  22. @Evan +1

    This is the problem when a established organization tries something new that they clearly have little experience in. In this case that would be destination guides. It’s best not to pay much attention to OMAAT’s opinions on this field since there are excellent blogs and magazines dedicated to such topics while being aware of the optics. My favorite articles on conscious environmental travel is by Jared Traverse for CNT and NatGeo, if you’re interested in truly unique and difficult to get to places.

  23. For old school rpg gamers, you can visit the Square Enix Cafe or the older Artnia Square Store/Cafe.

  24. Some addition to mention on Haneda Airport:
    1. On the upper floor of International Terminal, there are some flight simulators that you can try. Quite pricey, but these are probably one of the better simulators that are open to non-pilots.
    2. Ito-en serves quite good Japanese tea. It is also on upper floor of departure area.

  25. I was thrilled to see the owl cafe and thought how exciting that would be. But then I read the comments from others and now understand it’s not a great idea. Pity, I’d love to meet an owl.
    But thanks for the other ideas.

  26. I find it profoundly sad when wild animals (owls) are used that way. As bad as swim with the dolphins and ride an elephant.

  27. ‘Nice one Andrew!

    I’ve not yet been to Tokyo, and now’s there’s more to do when we get there! Our son is an all-things-Japanese freak. Indeed, one of our cats is named after a Japanese cartoon character – Yukiko Amagi – so we’ll be going to Japan sooner, rather than later!

    I maybe a corporate manager, but is it weird that I really, really want to visit Tokyo DisneySea and the Owl Village?

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