Just getting off the train in Shinjuku Station can be a sight all in itself. The steady stream of thousands of people entering and exiting the building and filling the platforms is just an introduction to the amazing electricity of the neighborhood outside.
The list of things to do in Shinjuku is endless, but there are a few big sights you just can’t miss. This major Tokyo neighborhood has enough museums, monuments, and other attractions to spend a whole trip there. If you’ve only got a day or two, these are the tourist attractions to organize your time around.
Shinjuku City is a special ward in Tokyo. It’s one of the most important parts of the city and features the world’s busiest train station, Shinjuku station. Since World War II, it’s become one of Tokyo’s—and therefore Japan’s—economic hubs, with many companies basing their headquarters in the area.
Shinjuku is to the northwest of Tokyo bay and features many of the buildings famous in the Tokyo skyline as well as numerous other sights popular with tourists. The neighborhood has about 350,000 residents and covers about seven square miles.
How to Spend a Day in Shinjuku
If you’re dedicating your whole Japan trip to Tokyo, you might wisely decide to take a full day or two for Shinjuku. Below you’ll find a wide variety of things to do that you can pack a day with, keeping both the adults and kids in your party entertained.
Shinjuku is very compact, and you can get a lot done. After sightseeing in the morning, an onsen makes a great place to relax after lunch. Then you can go to Omoide Yokocho for dinner. With organization, you can soak up a lot of what Shinjuku has to offer in just one day.
7 Sights You Have to See in Shinjuku
1. Samurai Museum
The Shinjuku Samurai Museum is one of the highest-rated sights in Shinjuku City and all of Tokyo. The museum covers just about every detail of Samurai culture and history and has a number of different tours and activities for the whole family.
The Samurai were important military nobility, kind of like knights in the West, who were an important part of Japanese culture for almost a millennium, from the 12th Century until they were abolished in the 1870s. They were paid large retainers by feudal landowners and had special privileges. Along with their typical armor and weaponry, the Samurai are known for their bushido code of values. Much like the Western code of chivalry, the bushido code dictates a Samurai’s values like stoicism and loyalty.
The Samurai Museum is an in-depth look at all aspects of the Samurai. The exhibits include authentic artifacts of Samurai armor and weapons along with explanations of their use. The museum’s self-proclaimed mission is to share the true Samurai spirit with its guests and teach them how they fought, who they were, and what they believed.
The best part of this museum, though, is its long list of special events. On top of general admission, you can purchase entrance to things like a Japanese sword course or Samurai calligraphy class. There’s a photo booth where you can dress up and take pictures as Samurai, and there are four scheduled free sword shows to watch every afternoon.
The Samurai Museum is open from 10:30 AM to 9:00 PM and is an eight-minute walk from the JR Shinjuku Station. General admission is ¥1,900 for adults, ¥800 for children under 12, and free for children under three. You can explore at your own pace or join organized groups every 10-20 minutes that include English tours.
2. Tokyo Toy Museum
Kids tend to balk at the idea of a “museum,” so try pitching this idea as an “indoor playground.” That’s closer to the truth, anyway. In fact, the Tokyo Toy Museum is a three-story center with a collection of over 10,000 toys from around the world, most of which you can try out for yourself.
Of course, the Tokyo Toy Museum is also a great place for adults to discover their inner child. The exhibits feature a long history of traditional Japanese and international toys and board games. The friendly staff can explain the toys to you as well as their origins. There’s even a “toy workshop” where classes are offered teaching you to make toys from recycled materials.
The museum is actually located in an old elementary school about a five-minute walk from the Yotsuya-sanchome Marunouchi line station, which you can catch from the JR Shinjuku Station. It’s open from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM with the last entry at 3:30 PM. Admission is ¥800 for adults and ¥500 for children under 12.
3. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the government headquarters for the city of Tokyo. Of course, you’re not going there to pay parking tickets. Luckily, there’s plenty more to do.
The first attraction is the building itself. At 243 meters (797 feet), the main building of the complex is an architectural marvel that rises to 33 floors before splitting into two separate towers. It was designed by prize-winning architect Kenzo Tange and built by Kiyoshi Mutō, “the Father of the Japanese Skyscraper,” in 1990 for ¥157 billion, roughly $1 billion. The building resembles a modern integrated circuit and an antique Gothic cathedral all at once, making it one of the more impressive buildings in the Tokyo cityscape.
Once inside, tourists can visit one of the two panoramic observation decks, each on the 45th floor of either tower. These are free of charge and open from 9:30 AM to 11:00 PM. You can go during the day to see important parts of the Tokyo skyline including the Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, and Mt. Fuji. At night, you can see the twinkling lights of the world’s largest metro area. The observation decks contain cafes, gift shops, and tourist information about other Tokyo sights.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is about 10 minutes west of the JR Shinjuku Station. Or you can catch the Oedo line that stops right in the basement of the building at Tocho-mae Station.
4. Meiji Memorial Gallery
If you want a complete view of Tokyo culture, you can’t skip the Meiji Memorial Museum. Opened in 1926, the gallery hosts 80 paintings depicting events in the life of Emperor Meiji. 40 of the paintings are in the traditional Japanese style while 40 are in a Western-style.
Emperor Meiji ruled Japan from 1867 to 1912, a formative time in Japan’s history naturally known as the Meiji Era. During this time, Japan rapidly transitioned from the feudal society isolated by the Edo policy of sakoku to an advanced industrial nation that began colonizing its neighbors. The art in the memorial gallery captures this transition and important time in world history in the eternal memory of art.
The complex surrounding the gallery also includes a park for children and restaurants as well as an ice skating rink, golf driving range, and other facilities. You can get to the complex using the JR Chuo line and getting off at Shinanomachi station. The gallery itself is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM with the last admission at 4:30 PM.
5. Omoide Yokocho
Omoide Yokocho is a nightlife area popular with Shinjuku locals and a great way to get a glimpse into Tokyo's cultural history. In fact, the name omoide yokocho literally means “memory lane.”
This small neighborhood is confined to one small alley, which is why it was a black market after World War II. Due to all the drunk patrons who would relieve themselves on the street, it was nicknamed “Piss Alley.”
The neighborhood hosts about 60 bars and restaurants where you can get cheap beer and sake as well as street food like yakitori skewers and nikomi beef stew. A few restaurants even serve exotic dishes like fried frogs and salamanders.
Though tucked away in the bustle of the city, Omoide Yokocho is extremely easy to get to. It’s right outside Shinjuku Station. In fact, some of it was even torn down to build the station. For easy access, the neighborhood has a website that shows which bars and restaurants are where.
6. Hanazono-jinja Shrine
Hanazono-jinja is a Shinto shrine tucked right into the dense city of Shinjuku, Tokyo. Built-in the 17th Century during the Edo period, this building is a historical site often considered one of the most important shrines in the Shinto religion.
Hanazono-jinja Shrine is dedicated to Inari, an androgynous god of fertility and worldly success. As a result, it’s a common place for businessmen to pray for success. You can see why it has become so symbolic of Tokyo culture. Surrounded by skyscrapers and modern buildings, it’s a serene reminder of Japan’s unique blend of tradition and modernism.
Most of the year the shrine is quiet, but there are festivals for certain holidays like New Year’s. You can see important Japanese and Shinto symbols like its big red torii gate and the main honden building. In late March and early April, you can also see the famous sakura cherry blossoms.
Hanazono-jinja Shrine is easy to get to, just a few-minute walk from Shinjuku station. Just head northeast from the station and you’ll find it nestled among city buildings across the street from the Yotsuya Police Station.
7. Thermae Yu Onsen
Onsen hot spring baths are a must-see part of Japanese society, but if you’re spending your trip in Tokyo, they can be hard to find. Thermae Yu is a great option that’s not only within the city, but easy to access and fun to use.
In an onsen, you can relax in a bath of water provided by hot springs heated by the geothermal processes underneath Japan. Along with the baths, Thermae Yu has a full spa that includes a salon and massage center.
To enter the baths, you pay an admission fee of ¥2,405, which gives you 12 hours of use. It’s open 24 hours, but there is a cleaning between 3:00 AM and 5:00 AM when the baths can’t be used. Late night/early morning and holiday sessions include extra fees. Access is simple, just nine minutes from Shinjuku station. Just be aware that like many onsens, Thermae Yu does not allow people with tattoos to enter.
A last bit of advice—Take it easy!
People can get stressed traveling, especially families with members of all ages and interests. That’s why our list of sights includes such variety. Make a plan, but don’t be afraid to play it by ear when people get tired, cranky, or bored. You can’t see it all, and the important thing is to enjoy your time in Shinjuku. Go where the mood takes you, and you’re sure to have a rewarding Tokyo experience.