When travelling to a new country we often feel compelled to visit all of the well-known and popular places, but isn’t it sometimes nice to go somewhere less crowded and more unique? Today’s article will feature the ultimate showdown between Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions and their lesser-known alternatives.
I have been to every place mentioned here and enjoyed all of my visits. However, this articles is to let you all know what is worth seeing and what may be worth a miss if you are only in Tokyo for a short time.
I have listed all of the pros and cons for each place and at the end I’ll give my overall judgement on which one I would personally recommend visiting.
So, without further ado, let the showdown commence!
1. FASHION= Harajuku vs. Shimokitazawa
Wanting to revamp the wardrobe and buy some cute pieces for an affordable price? Well, you’re in the right place. From well-known international brands such as Bershka and Topshop to Japanese brands such as Wego, Spinns and more, Tokyo facilitates for all kinds of looks and styles.
If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time it’s likely that many people will recommend visiting Harajuku and who can blame them? Harajuku is a district in Shibuya and ‘Harajuku’ fashion itself is popular around the world. It’s an area that many fashion bloggers and vloggers hit up when they visit Tokyo – but is it worth the hype?
⁃ A large array of clothes shops (such as Stylenanda, Wego, Spinns and more).
⁃ Cute jewellery shops and great make-up shops.
⁃ If you search far enough you will also find some really cool thrift stores.
⁃ A wide selection of character goods and even character cafes.
⁃ Known for its delicious crepes; you will find a crepe stall on every corner.
⁃ It is also possible to try the famous ‘rainbow candyfloss’ here.
⁃ Overly packed. If you are aiming to go anytime past 12 then good luck – you will get stuck in the massive swarm of people going down Takeshita Dori street.
⁃ Slightly overrated. Don’t get me wrong, I love Harajuku, but it has turned into a bit of a tourist fad and some of the shops now reflect this.
⁃ Mostly aimed at women; not many clothes shops for men.
Hop on a train from Shinjuku and in a few stops you will arrive at Shimokitazawa: a district in Setagaya. Shimokitazawa is a thrifter’s paradise, filled with a variety of unique and independent vintage clothing shops. Shimo is the perfect place for those who are looking to stretch their money further. I am not going to go into too much detail about this place as I have already written an article about it (click here if you would like to know more about Shimokitazawa).
⁃ Definitely a more artsy and unique area which has independent and original stores. The massive and famous garage/warehouse stocks homemade jewellery by independent artists that you won’t find anywhere else.
⁃ Some branded shops such as Wego can also be found here.
⁃ It’s generally more fun to wander around. The fact that you have to walk down several different side roads to find shops makes the experience seem a bit like a mini adventure. Every time I would revisit Shimo I would find a new street with new shops and cafes.
⁃ Less crowded and busy – just a really chill and relaxing atmosphere .
⁃ Plenty of shops for both guys and gals.
⁃ The cafes are amazing and totally insta-worthy. Some of my favourite meals were in Shimokitazawa.
⁃ Shimokitazawa is home to one of the best pancake shops in Tokyo
⁃ Better for those who are on a budget. You can find great items for cheap prices. For example, I got a Comme des Garcons t-shirt for around ¥3000 (£20)!
⁃ Shimo is mainly filled with thrift stores so if thrifting is not your thing then this may not be the place for you.
⁃ Mostly clothes shops (not the best place to find make-up and things like that).
⁃ Shop staff here are less likely to speak English.
Final Judgement: For me, it has to be Shimokitazawa. The fact that I went there nearly every week when I was living in Japan just shows how much I loved it. No doubt, Harajuku is a fun and vibrant place which gives you a taste of contemporary Japanese culture but there is something about Shimokitazawa which is unique and wonderful. I got some amazing pieces for brilliant prices and it is honestly the best place that I have ever been thrifting.
Even though I would still recommend going to Harajuku because it shows first-hand modern Japanese fashion, if you want to fulfil your shopping desires whilst making every last bit of your holiday budget count I think a visit to Shimo is more worthwhile.
2. GAMING & MANGA= Akihabara vs. Nakano Broadway
Japan is home to some of the most-loved games and characters around the world. If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time then it’s pretty fun to see popular gaming and manga culture come to life; what better way to celebrate a love for all things games, anime and manga than visiting either Akihabara or Nakano Broadway?
Akihabara is everything you imagine modern Tokyo to be. It’s filled with massive billboards plastered with different anime characters and feels excitingly vibrant and alive. Known worldwide for representing the Otaku (a fan of anime/manga) culture, Akihabara certainly lives up to the hype.
⁃ A cool and vibrant energy.
⁃ Great place to shop for games, anime and manga goods.
⁃ You can also try out a games centre or visit a maid café.
⁃ Filled with masses of electrical stores and department stores. If you’re looking for a games console or any other electrical item for a good price then Akihabara is the best place to visit.
⁃ If you don’t love anime or manga then there really isn’t a lot for you here.
⁃ Once again, slightly overrated. It is good for shopping and the atmosphere but apart from that there is not much to do.
⁃ Gets busy quickly.
Nakano Broadway is a shopping complex located a few stops away from Shinjuku station. Like Akihabara, it is home to many anime, manga and gaming shops and is a haven for those who love to collect character figures. What is special about Nakano Broadway is that is has a lot of vintage goods as well so you are bound to find something rare here. The ground floor of the complex is also a food market – so there is plenty to see and do!
⁃ You can get some great vintage collectibles here (some even very rare and unique).
⁃ It’s less busy than Akihabara and feels a lot more local.
⁃ There is a better variety of shops; it’s a great place to look for modern as well as traditional souvenirs.
⁃ Quite small in comparison to Akihabara. Nakano Broadway is just a shopping mall whereas Akihabara is a whole district.
⁃ You don’t get the ‘feel’ for contemporary Japanese pop culture as much as you do in Akihabara.
Final Judgement: For me the winner has to be Akihabara. Although I personally prefer the shops in Nakano Broadway the atmosphere of Akihabara is just too incredible to miss if you are visiting Tokyo for the first time. You can easily spend a whole day there.
3. FOOD (SUSHI) = Genki Sushi vs. Shionzushi
Tourists gravitate to this restaurant located in Shibuya. Surrounded by an array of shops, it is a great place for families and tourists. Chairman Takashi Hoshito states that GenkiSushi’s mission is to ‘impress with each plate’ and wants to bring ‘sushi to the masses.’
⁃ A fun and immersive experience – you have the chance to win prizes whilst you eat.
⁃ Affordable – great for those on a budget.
⁃ Unique – its conveyor system is somewhat different as food comes out on a little train just for you.
⁃ A lot of choice and a lot of interesting and unusual combinations: hamburger sushi anyone?
⁃ Although the sushi tastes good it is not ‘authentic’ Japanese sushi; the quality of the fish is not as fresh.
⁃ It is always busy – you may have to queue a while.
Address: 24-8 Udagawacho, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0042, Japan
Contact: +81 3-3461-1281
Me and my Auntie stumbled across this quaint sushi restaurant in the heart of Shinjuku one day and I now consider it one of Shinjuku’s best-kept secrets. The atmosphere is at times quiet but Shionzushi is one of the nicest and cheapest sushi restaurants I have ever been to.
⁃ Super cheap with most plates costing around ¥100 (68p) and super great quality.
⁃ You can try an array of different types of fish such as your traditional salmon and tuna to octopus
⁃ Authentic Japanese sushi.
⁃ A hidden gem tucked away in the heart of Shinjuku.
⁃ Staff only speak Japanese so it is often hard to ask what is in the sushi or request a precise type.
⁃ The restaurant itself is quite small and the atmosphere is relatively calm and quiet meaning it might not be the place for those seeking a lively atmosphere.
Address: Japan, 〒160-0022 Tokyo, Shinjuku, 3 Chome−34−13 三経２５
Contact: +81 3-3356-1319
Final Judgment: Despite GenkiSushi being a really fun experience, going into Shionzushi makes you feel like a true local and you get to taste real and great sushi for a low price. The atmosphere has the potential to be quite intimidating because it is often very quiet in the restaurant itself, but it is just somewhere you can’t miss.
4. CHARACTER CAFES= Kawaii Monster Café vs. Alice in Dancingland
Character cafes are pretty exclusive to Japan. They’re generally more expensive than regular cafes but it’s worth splashing out at least once for the experience. Tokyo is brimming with character cafes and, if you do your research, you can regularly find pop-ups or new arrivals. I’ll be writing a separate post on my favourite character cafes in Tokyo in the near future so keep an eye out for that.
Kawaii Monster Cafe
Located in Harajuku, Kawaii Monster Café is super popular with people who love all things kawaii as well as first-time visitors in Tokyo. Filled with bright lights and colours and almost having a psychedelic feel to it, the Kawaii Monster Café is a pretty cool visual experience. With all staff members dressed up as Kawaii Monsters and a massive rotating merry-go-round in the middle of the restaurant, there is plenty to see whilst you enjoy a similarly interesting looking plate of food.
⁃ I mean, it’s great for the Instagram.
⁃ It’s a really cool experience; I have seen nothing like it before.
⁃ The ordering system is meant to be quite cool: you get iPads and can order from an array of colourful drinks and foods.
⁃ I personally had a bad experience in this café. We were not given iPads but instead were given a much more limited menu without much choice.
⁃ There are a couple of rules that you must follow. For example, each diner has to at least buy one drink and something to eat. There is also a ¥500 (£3.42) fee to enter the cafe. We got caught out and ended up paying a lot more than we bargained for so remember to read through the rules before you enter.
⁃ Expensive (not really for those who are on a budget).
Address: Japan, 〒150-0001 Tokyo, Shibuya, Jingumae, 4 Chome−31−１０ YMスクエア 4F
Contact: +81 3-5413-6142
Mon-Fri: 11:30am-4:30pm, 6:00pm-10:30pm
Sat: 11:30am-4:30pm, 6:00pm-10:30pm
Alice in Dancingland
For all of those Disney lovers out there, this is the place for you. Tucked away on one of the many side roads in Shibuya is one of the 6 Alice in Dancingland Cafe’s in Japan. I ended up visiting this particular branch two times; it was such a thematic and immersive experience that both times I truly loved it. I honestly felt like I was a part of the story and magic itself.
⁃ Ultimate cuteness – you can get some stunning photos for the Instagram here.
⁃ It is such a magical experience. The music and seating arrangements (you sit in a carousel wearing bunny ears) make you feel like you’ve actually stepped into the film.
⁃ The menu has a great selection and the cocktails here are some of the best I have ever tried.
⁃ You are greeted by the mad hatter and Alice tosses your salad – everything is made to make you feel as if you are part of the story.
⁃ Once again the menu is quite expensive. You’re probably paying for experience over food quality.
Address: Japan, 〒171-0022 Tokyo, Toshima, Minamiikebukuro, 2 Chome−47−6 16-8 パレス南池袋
Contact: +81 3-3770-2750
Mon-Sun: 11:00am-4:00pm, 5:00pm-11:30pm
Final Judgement: If you’re planning to splash out on one meal at a character café then go for Alice in Dancingland. As much as the Kawaii Monster Café is visually awesome there is something special about the Alice in Dancingland café; it’s a wonderful little experience.
5. THE VIEW= Tokyo Tower vs. Shinjuku Government Building
As I’ve mentioned before, I genuinely believe that Tokyo has one of the most beautiful skylines in the world. However, there are so many viewing platforms around Tokyo that it is often hard to decide which one is the best. Currently, Tokyo Skytree is the most popular but also the most expensive. Unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to visit Skytree so today the competition is between Tokyo Tower and the Shinjuku Government Building.
Tokyo Tower is the second tallest structure in Tokyo today standing at around 333 metres high. It is a significant landmark that is often featured in films and on TV. It currently serves as a broadcast antenna for media outlets such as the NHK. The bottom of the tower is also now home to the ‘One Piece Tower’: an indoor amusement park themed around one of Japan’s most loved animes.
⁃ The view is absolutely breath-taking (it made me quite emotional).
⁃ It’s a pretty cool thing to say that you went up Tokyo Tower; it’s one of the original viewing platforms in Tokyo and is a prominent landmark of the city.
⁃ It’s a nice experience. There are gift shops and restaurants and you can even pay a couple of ¥100 to get your own customised Tokyo Tower coin
⁃ There is a lot to do and see.
⁃ It costs ¥900 (£6.16) for the lower viewing platform which I personally think is not that bad but if you are on a strict budget then the Shinjuku Government Building might be a better choice.
⁃ It is likely that there will be a bit of a wait. Even though when I went I didn’t have to wait that long it was a weekday and I would imagine that it is a lot busier on weekends.
Address: 4 Chome-2-8 Shibakoen, Minato, Tokyo 105-0011, Japan
Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Building
Standing tall at 202 metres, the Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Building houses the Tokyo Metropolitan Government with its 45th floor now acting as an observation deck. It has not gained as much of a reputation as the Skytree or Tokyo Tower but it is famous in its own right after featuring in a number of animes and films such as the 1991 Godzilla.
⁃ Free entry.
⁃ You still get an amazing view.
⁃ Less crowded – it’s not as likely that you will get stuck in a long queue.
⁃ There are a couple of gift shops on the floor where the viewing platform is so you can purchase some traditional Japanese souvenirs.
⁃ It is not as easy to find. Even I got lost a couple of times trying to find the entrance to the government building which is located in the heart of Shinjuku.
Address: 2 Chome-8-1 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo 163-8001, Japan
Final judgement: I’m going to choose Tokyo Tower this round. Although the Shinjuku Government Building is free and you still get a pretty amazing view my experience at Tokyo Tower was just so memorable that it has to be the firm winner. If you do decide to go to Tokyo Tower I would recommend going on a weekday at around 5-6pm. This timing will not only give you a less crowded experience but will also allow you to see Tokyo change in the light of a gorgeous sunset.
In today’s showdown I think it’s fair to say that Tokyo’s ‘hidden gems’ won. I always say to people when they are thinking about visiting Tokyo that it is best to see a mixture of more touristy things and more local things. If you are ever in Tokyo I highly recommend that you try these places out – they will make your experience just that bit more memorable.