Both are Asian economic success stories. Both are incredible foodie cities, rich in history and culture. Still, Tokyo is distinctive enough to lure Hongkongers back time and again. To understand why – and make the most of your next visit – here are 10 things to do in Tokyo that you won’t find at home.
Remember to book ahead for popular restaurants and attractions – and that offerings may change to reflect COVID-19 measures.
1. Visit a Fish Market for Ocean-Fresh Sashimi
Skipping out on sushi in Tokyo is like visiting Rome without trying cacio e pepe. In other words, unthinkable. The coastal city enjoys access to the freshest catches, so its many sushi restaurants have no shortage of premium ingredients. (If you’re splurging on a chef’s tasting menu, brush up on these omakase etiquette rules.) For an only-in-Tokyo sushi experience, head to the Tsukiji Outer Market. The fish market – famous for its early-morning tuna auctions – has moved to Toyosu, but plenty of vendors remaining in Tsukiji serve fresh cuts of sashimi, sushi and more fish for very reasonable prices. Get there early to avoid the lunch queues.
2. Step into the World of Studio Ghibli
While both Hong Kong and Tokyo have Disneylands, only Tokyo has the Ghibli Museum, which celebrates Japanese animation. You’ll recognise characters and scenes from masterpieces such as My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, created by animator and national treasure Hayao Miyazaki. He designed the museum himself, modelled after an Italian hilltop village, and the effect is akin to wandering around a dreamy Ghibli set – replete with giant Totoros, a replica catbus, automaton robots from Laputa and a recreation of a Studio Ghibli art director’s studio. Give yourself a full day to enjoy the museum grounds, which are located in Inokashira Park in far western Mitaka. And book your tickets well in advance (weeks or months, if possible) as this is one of the most popular things to do in Tokyo.
3. Soak up Onsen Culture
The uniquely Japanese tradition of a steamy onsen bath lives on at Odaiba Ōedo-Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo’s south. Start by slipping into yukata robes, before exploring the Edo-styled hall with its convivial atmosphere, hanging lanterns and wooden shopfront facades. Stroll through zen-like Japanese gardens and soak in a variety of indoor and outdoor onsen, from communal affairs to individual tubs. Break for takoyaki (fried octopus balls), ramen and more treats in laidback izakaya. Everything is paid for with smart wristbands for a friction-free experience – just settle your tab at the end.
4. Sip on Medicinal Yakushu Cocktails
Hongkongers accustomed to traditional medicine in the form of bitter herbal soups or teas may be pleasantly surprised to learn that in Tokyo you can opt instead for a postprandial yakushu cocktail. Meaning ‘medicinal liquor’, yakushu feature all manner of apothecary-style ingredients steeped in alcohol (mainly shochu). The bars themselves are also packed with character: Bar Ben Fiddich has a handsome raw wood counter and shelves loaded with brewing jars, tinctures and herbs; Yakushu Bar Sangenjaya fits only six seats, like the micro bars of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai; and BuddhaBreak gives off an alternative vibe with its musical instruments, Sanskrit texts and shisha pipes, not to mention the peyote tequila.
5. Watch Sumo Wrestling
Only in Japan can you witness sumo wrestling, an ancient, noble sport that’s gone largely unchanged for hundreds of years (consider that the ring is still purified with salt). Wrestling matches and tournaments are held at Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall in Tokyo’s northeastern riverside district of Ryogoku. It’s free to observe morning practices and to explore the on-site museum devoted to the history of the national sport. Another sort of sumo experience awaits at Ryogoku Happyakuyacho Hananomai, a restaurant with a ring where you can watch matches between heavyweight sportsmen while tucking into sushi and shabu-shabu. For a taste of the action, don an inflatable sumo suit and tussle with one of the competitors.
6. Get Your Fortune Told (and Retold)
The Buddhist temple complex at Asakusa has stood for over a millennium, even as the neighbourhood has risen sky high around it. One constant is the temple’s tradition of omikuji paper fortunes – a popular activity, along with browsing the long shopping lanes of snacks and souvenirs and visiting the various shrines and temples. Pay 100 yen to shake a box of sticks until one falls out, then find the corresponding box to retrieve your fortune. Unlike at Hong Kong temples, the monks here built in a clever failsafe: if you’re unhappy with your fortune, fold the paper up; tie the omikuji to a wooden pole for the monks to pray away the bad luck; and pay for the process again until you’ve secured a favourable fortune.
7. Immerse Yourself in Kawaii Culture
Meaning ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’, kawaii manifests itself in myriad ways, from sugary sweet cartoon characters to grown women dolled up as children. Nowhere in Tokyo is this more evident than the Harajuku neighbourhood, home of Le Shiner, famed for grilled cheese sandwiches with rainbow-coloured filling. Wander down Takeshita-dori, where you can buy kawaii souvenirs and pastel cotton candy; explore Laforet Harajuku, home to 13 floors of small, eccentric youth culture-focused boutiques; and check out young cosplayers at Jingu Bridge on weekends.
8. Snack Like a Pro at Konbi
Tokyo offers a high-low mix of culinary delights. On the low end, the city’s wondrous konbi (convenience stores) are a snacking heaven. Open around the clock, they’re perfect for refuelling between temple visits and karaoke sessions and popular with locals and visitors alike. Pop singer Katy Perry once declared her love for Lawson’s fried chicken nuggets as she gobbled a mouthful on Japanese television. Egg sandos are another favourite, available at Lawson’s as well as Family Mart and 7-Eleven. You also can’t go wrong with onigiri (rice balls stuffed with an assortment of fillings). Finish with a palate-cleansing squeezy bag of Coolish ice cream.
9. Have Your Mind Blown at TeamLab
Hong Kong has museums, sure, but it doesn’t have anything like TeamLab. After years of mesmerizing pop-ups, Toshiyuki Inoko’s digital arts collective opened a permanent space in 2018. TeamLab: Borderless fills almost 108,000 square feet of the MORI Building Digital Art Museum with mind-blowing projections. Some you can walk through or interact with; others you can observe shifting and evolving across entire rooms. A second location, TeamLab: Planets in Toyosu, offers a more tactile experience as you walk through it barefoot, sometimes up to your ankles in water. It all amounts to Instagram gold and will have you digging through your camera’s gallery for pictures to share with friends and family.
10. Experience the Robot Restaurant
While not for the faint of heart, one of the most ridiculously fun things to do in Tokyo is visit the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. It is boisterous, bonkers and absolutely a tourist trap. That’s also what makes it an unmissable 90-minute crash course in Japanese pop culture. Munch on bar snacks and swig icy pints of Asahi as robots bop about, drummers bash away and choreographed dancers and singers woo the crowd – all set to a technicolour laser show and a non-stop party soundtrack.