Big City, Little Things: Our Guide to Tokyo, Japan

From winding parks to hidden alleys, every corner of this city is bursting with sights to delight

Alley in Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is a vast and sprawling city; too much to explore in a year, let alone a day. To get the most out of each day, focus on one neighbourhood and explore it thoroughly.

Many guides recommend heading straight to the Tsukiji Market, where jet-lagged travellers can enjoy an ultra-fresh meal of sushi for breakfast. The hustle and bustle of the market, however—especially in the early morning hours when restaurants and suppliers are doing business—is a hectic way to start the day. (Plus, with the market moving to a location twice as large in late 2016 to make way for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it may only get more overwhelming.) Instead, go directly to the Meiji Shrine, which opens at sunrise. The grounds are so large you can barely hear the traffic. It’s the perfect spot to calm the mind before diving into the busy city life.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite walking around the grounds, head south to the nearby Shibuya Station. It’s home to the famous crosswalk featured in movies such as Lost in Translation and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Seek out the closest location of Gontran Cherrier, a French pastry shop that deftly combines local ingredients and tastes into the familiar spread of croissants and brioches. Try the cro-dog, a savoury treat that wraps a hotdog in croissant dough, garnished with shiso and mayonnaise. It’s exotic yet familiar in an unexpected way.

Next, take a short walk to Cat Street. Little more than an alley in some spots, this long, winding street is home to some major names in fashion, but there are plenty of vintage and local shops for those on the lookout for unique bargains. Vintage-hunters and label-chasers alike will find shops on this street to suit their tastes. Woven between them are cafés specializing in rolled crepes, takoyaki (octopus fritters) and gyoza (steamed or fried dumplings)—quick bites that are easy on the wallet, especially after all that shopping. The Japanese do not eat while walking around, so take this opportunity to grab a seat and people watch: the fashionistas of the nearby Harajuku district love to put on a show.

After sunset, loop back south and find Nonbei Yokocho, tucked just behind Shibuya Crossing. This alley is impossibly small, with many of the bars and shops likely occupying less than eight square metres. It feels more like hanging out in someone’s kitchen than a bar. It may take a few tries to find one with seating, but many places have second and third floors to accommodate extra guests. In such close quarters it’s easy to make friends. Despite being so far from home, it is a small world after all.

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