10 Off the Beaten Path Attractions in Tokyo
Tourist traps can be lethal—avoid them with our guide to 10 of the best off the beaten track attractions in Tokyo.
Sick of the tourist traps? So are we. While they occasionally have their merits, we prefer the off the beaten track attractions, the places you won’t read about in too many guidebooks. Find our choice pick of the top 10, below.
For more hidden gems, check out 24 Best-Kept Secrets in Tokyo.
1. Akasaka Palace/State Guest House
Akasaka Palace, or Akasaka Geihinkan, is Japan’s answer to Buckingham Palace. The former residence of the Crown Prince, this Neo-Baroque building has since served several purposes, from housing millions of books to organising the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Now, it functions as a glorified guest house.
After renovations from 2006 to 2009, Akasaka Palace was designated as a National Treasure of Japan. And in 2016, it opened its doors to the public year-round for the first time. Visitors can marvel at the awe-inspiring exterior while freely roaming the front garden, though you’ll have to queue for a ticket or make reservations in advance. Photography is not allowed inside, but the palace is sure to leave a lasting impression regardless.
Before making the trip, be sure to check the schedule, as opening days are notoriously sporadic. Additionally, since Akasaka Palace only admits a limited number of people, arrive early or make an online reservation.
Open: Akasaka Palace's Public Opening Schedule Admission: Front Garden: Free/Main Building: 1,000 yen/Japanese-style annex: 1,500 yen Address: 2-1-1 Moto-Akasaka, Minato, Tokyo Access: Yotsuya Station, Shinanomachi Station or Akasaka-Mitsuke Station Website: Akasaka Palace
2. Urasando Garden
On the outside, Urasando Garden looks like an unassuming old apartment building. That might have been the case before 2016, but now, Urasando Garden is a unique retro-chic shopping complex. The wooden interior has been beautifully refurbished and the place filled with an abundance of traditional Japanese goods.
The first floor boasts a Japanese tea and sweet shop, Uji-en, which also allows visitors to experience a tea ceremony—with a twist. Here, you get to be your own tea master and prepare the matcha (green tea) yourself. Don’t worry, Uji-en’s staff will patiently guide you through each step.
As you head on upstairs, you’ll be hit by a wave of fragrant aromas courtesy of Juttoku, the incense shop. Once again, you’re given the reins here, with the opportunity to create your very own fragrance.
Address: 4-15-2 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo Access: Omotesando Station Website: Urasando Garden
3. Tokyo City Keiba (TCK)
Here’s a little Japanese lesson for you: keiba translates to “horse race.”
It’s no surprise then that Tokyo City Keiba (TCK) is the city’s number one spot for horse racing. TCK organises races throughout the year, but the evening races held between March and December are particularly dazzling. Aptly, and rather cutely, named “Tokyo Twinkle.”
As the sun sets, horses and jockeys take centre stage under the floodlights—awaiting that imminent gunshot. BANG! The race is on. This is one experience in Japan that requires no translation—the excitement as you clutch your betting slip in hopeful anticipation is universal. Nothing beats the rush.
Anyone can be a winner here at TCK (unless you’re under 20) with bets as low as 100 yen accepted. If you’re not a fan of gambling, head down to the paddock by the North entrance to admire the horses instead. If you’re not a fan of gambling or horses, on weekends the racetrack transforms into the self-proclaimed “best flea market in Japan” which is well worth checking out.
Gambling problem? Check out TELL, a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing mental health advice to Japan’s international community.
Schedule: TCK's Schedule Admission: 100 yen (free for 15 and under) Address: 2-1-2 Katsushima, Shinagawa, Tokyo Access: Oi Keibajo-mae Station Website: Tokyo City Keiba
4. After Hours Music Festival
After Hours is a new music festival that is attempting to break the conformity endemic in Japanese society. Stressing unadulterated self-expression, the festival, in their words, “stand[s] against things that ruin art.”
Local giants MONO and Chinese band Wang Wen, as well as a smorgasbord of other acts will take to the stage at the 2017 iteration, all united in ther savage non-conformism and originality.
Tickets to After Hours and the music festival Synchronicity [Official Website] the day before are collectively cheaper than when purchased separatetly—perfect for those looking to immerse themselves in the local scene.
When: Apr 9, 2017 (Sun) Where: O-East Building 2F, 2-14-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo Website: After Hours
5. Henn Na Hotel Maihama Tokyo Bay
A stone’s throw away from Disneyland and Disney Sea, Henn Na Hotel (“Strange Hotel”) is Tokyo’s first hotel staffed entirely by robots! After being greeted at reception by fully automated multilingual dinosaurs, you’d think things couldn’t get much more bizarre. And that’s where you’d be wrong. There’s robot fish and even Tapia, your own robot personal assistant. For an early taste of our fully automated future, there’s certainly no better place than Henn Na.
Address: 5-3-20 Fujimi, Urayasu, Chiba Access: Maihama Station Phone Number: 047-316-2828 Website: Henn Na Hotel Maihama Tokyo Bay
6. Cafe Asan, 2k540
Hidden under the tracks of the Yamanote Line, find 2k540, a multi-purpose space home to over 50 studios, galleries, shops and cafes. The whole place feels very contemporary, yet there’s a strong focus on artisanship, with even the opportunity to try your hand at a few crafts yourself. It’s the perfect place to pick up a unique souvenir to take home with you.
Cafe Asan is a particularly great spot to check out. A place to relax or work, the cafe has free WiFi, ample power sockets and iPads for customer use. Best of all, you can take a snooze in one of their many hammocks if the feeling should take you.
Their ever-popular souffle hotcakes are made to order, meaning they can take up to 40 minutes to arrive. But, believe us, they’re well worth the wait.
Opening Hours: Thu-Tue 11:30 - 19:00 (Closed on Wednesday) Address: 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, 5-9-9 Ueno, Taito, Tokyo Access: Suehirocho Station Phone Number: 03-6803-0502 Website: Cafe Asan
7. Yanaka Cemetery
Come sakura (cherry blossom) season, parks across the city are besieged by blue-tarp and booze armed revellers, all looking for the perfect hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot. In the spirit of getting off the beaten track and avoiding the crowds, our advice instead is to head just north of Ueno, to Yanaka Cemetary.
Instead of the crowds, you’ll instead be in the company of esteemed novelist, Natsume Soseki, and Japan’s last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu no less. While it may seem a little morbid to hang out in a cemetery, Yanaka is a beautiful spot and incredibly atmospheric.
When: mid-Mar - early Apr Address: 7-5-24 Yanaka, Taito, Tokyo Access: Nippori Station
8. Free Sumo Stable Visits
Are you cheap and unwilling to pay for something when there’s a free alternative? You’ve come to the right place. We’ll let you in on a little secret. Instead of paying upwards of 40,000 yen for tickets to the Grand Sumo Tournament, head on over to a sumo stable and watch their asa geiko (morning sumo practice) for free!
Most sumo stables start their morning practice as early as 5 am, so be sure to set your alarm. Treat the stable, or beya, with the utmost respect because not only is it the sumo wrestlers’ training ground but it’s also their home. Abide by the following 10 simple rules and everything will be smooth sailing:
1. Bow to the stablemaster and wrestlers before entering and leaving the stable.
2. Take off your hat and sunglasses.
3. Take off your shoes before stepping onto the tatami floor.
4. Sit cross-legged and avoid pointing the soles of your feet to the ring as it’s disrespectful.
5. Silence is golden, even loud breathing can be a distraction.
6. No flash photography.
7. No unnecessary movements.
8. Do NOT enter the ring; it’s only for wrestlers.
9. No eating, drinking, smoking or chewing game.
10. Bring a gift (e.g. sake, tea or a box of sweets).
The last rule is more of a nicety than an obligation. We recommend the Arashio-beya sumo stable as it’s the most foreigner-friendly.
When: Jan, Feb, Apr, May, Jun, Aug, Sep, Oct and Dec Arashio-beya Address: 2-47-2 Nihonbashi Hamacho, Chuo, Tokyo Access: Hamacho Station Phone Number: 03-3666-7646 Website: Arashio
9. Mori No Tosho Shitsu
Public libraries can be a drag, especially with their early closing times. Shunsuke Mori thought so too. He decided to crowdfund for a late-night library in Shibuya. Japan’s netizens enthusiastically obliged, raising cash far in excess of the original goal. The result is Mori No Tosho Shitsu, or Library in the Forest.
Like any late-night establishment, Mori No Tosho Shitsu serves alcoholic beverages, ranging from beers to cocktails. With a Daiquiri in hand, grab a seat, kick back, crack a book and find yourself transported to a whole new world. This ultra-hip establishment is perfect for winding down after a long day of sightseeing. It’s also known to throw the occasional silent disco.
Admission for one-time entry is 500 yen, while an annual fee of 10,800 yen gets you unlimited visits. That’s a steal! A visit every two weeks practically pays for itself.
Opening Hours: Sun-Thu 11:00 - 17:00, 18:00 - 24:00/Fri&Sat 11:00 - 17:00, 18:00 - 26:00 Address: 5-3 Maruyamacho, Shibuya, Tokyo Access: Shibuya Station Phone Number: 03-6455-0629 Website: Mori No Tosho Shitsu
10. N3331 Cafe & Bar
Watch the Chuo Line trains pass you by every few minutes at this unique cafe and bar. Find N3331 on the site of the old Manseibashi Station, sandwiched between two busy tracks. If it weren’t for a piece of glass and a few meters of gravel, you could literally be touching the passing trains.
The casual, laidback atmosphere is great, as is the outdoor patio area, particularly for the thrill as a train passes by.
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 11:00 - 23:00/Sun 11:00 - 21:00 Address: 1-25-4 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda, Tokyo Access: Awajicho Station or Akihabara Station Phone Number: 03-5295-2788 Website: N3331