Everyone knows the main sights to see when you’re in Tokyo—Tokyo Tower, the Emperor’s Palace, Skytree. These places are popular for a reason, but the downside of a popular attraction is how full of other people it’s bound to be.
Tokyo is the biggest metropolitan area in the world, and there is no end of things to do, experience and enjoy. Along with the famous must-sees, try to slip a few of the lesser-known attractions into your itinerary. Not only will you skip the crowds and long admissions lines, but you’ll get a unique glimpse of the city that most travelers don’t get to see. These will inevitably be some of your most awesome memories of your time in Tokyo.
Of course, one of the hardest parts about visiting these hidden gems is, well, finding them. If they were well known, then they wouldn’t be hidden, would they? Luckily, we have a solution. Keep reading for an in-depth guide to the ten best-kept secrets in Tokyo.
10 Best-Kept Secrets in Tokyo
1. Mannenyu Onsen
Onsens are traditional Japanese hot spring baths. Since the country is basically a group of volcanic islands, the geothermal heating near the surface provides for many naturally occurring springs like this. The word onsen can refer to the spring itself or the facilities built around the spring that allow people to use them. Some of these may be simple buildings, or others might be elaborate spas or even hotels.
Unfortunately, the onsens are often in the countryside or small towns difficult for foreigners to access. At the very least, it takes a lot of time catching trains and making bus connections. Mannenyu saves you a lot of time because it’s one of only a few onsens located right in the city of Tokyo. In fact, it’s only a five-minute walk from Shin-Okubo Station on the main Yamanote Line.
Despite being small and well hidden, Mannenyu is an impressive well-kept onsen that provides shampoo and soap as well as towels for rent. In addition to the hot baths, there are jet-stream baths and a plunge pool for cooling off, things you might not find in other similar onsens.
However, the most convenient thing about Mannenyu might be its tattoo policy. Most onsens do not allow anyone with tattoos to use the facilities, but at Mannenyu that isn’t the case. That’s certainly nice for inked Westerners who might otherwise have trouble experiencing this aspect of Japanese culture.
2. Jimbocho Book Town
Japan is a nation of book lovers. The country frequently ranks as one of the largest publishers of new titles both in total and per capita. If you too are a bibliophile, you can’t take a trip to Tokyo without visiting one of Japan’s biggest neighborhoods dedicated to this literary culture.
This neighborhood makes a circle with about a walking radius of 15 minutes from Jimbocho Station. It consists of nearly 200 bookstores, all with different styles and full of books. Not only can you find cheap mass paperbacks and popular manga, but occasionally you might come across a rare woodblock print from the Edo Period or a collectible map.
While most books are, of course, in Japanese, some bookstores sell English books too. Along with used bookstores, there are also large chains selling new books. Some of the stores stretch up multiple stories. Needless to say, you could probably spend an entire trip just in this neighborhood.
If for some reason, several lifetime’s worths of books isn’t enough to convince you, Jimbocho Book Town also features an unusually large number of curry restaurants. That’s right. Whenever you need more energy for your day of book hunting, you can just hop a few doors down to enjoy some delicious curry.
3. Reiyūkai Shakaden Temple
Anyone making a trip to Tokyo has to visit as many temples as they can fit in. The city is full of both Shinto and Buddhist temples, some small and quaint, others large and elaborate monuments to Japan’s ancient culture.
That said, no matter how many other temples you visit, the Shakaden temple should be on your list. That’s because it’s not exactly traditional or similar to any of the many others around the city. In fact, it was completed in 1975 and is a massive feat of modern architecture used as a meeting place and social center for members of the Reiyūkai Buddhist movement in Tokyo.
For visitors, the interesting design of the building, which looks like a starship, is one of the biggest draws. However, the monks inside the temple are very hospitable, and they even offer free Japanese classes for foreigners. Conveniently, the temple is located near popular sights like Tokyo Tower and the Emperor’s Palace.
4. Omoide Yokocho
Omoide Yokocho literally means “Memory Lane” in Japanese. It’s a small neighborhood—just an alley really—full of bars and restaurants. Originally, the neighborhood was a black market that started right after World War II nicknamed “Piss Alley” because of how many drunk people would relieve themselves outside on the street. Close to the busy Shinjuku Station, it’s easy to get to no matter where you’re staying.
Nowadays Omoide Yokocho is a popular nightlife zone among locals, small though it may be. Go at night to get the full experience of cheap beer and sake along with yakitori skewers and nikomi beef stew. For the especially adventurous, you can even go to the bar Asadachi to try unusual dishes like fried frogs and salamanders.
5. Omori Shell Mound
A lot of people enjoy visiting Tokyo for the history, but the Omori Shell Mound takes it to the next level. The archaeological site itself is a piece of history, discovered by Dr. Edward Sylvester Morse, an American biologist, when he came to study shells in 1877. Apparently, he was riding a train from Yokohama to Tokyo when he discovered a peculiar mound of shells. Thus began Japan’s first archaeological excavation.
The shells themselves take you even further back in time. They are actually remnants of an ancient dumpsite that also contains things like animal bones and accessories like earrings. The excavations also revealed evidence of other things like dwelling sites and tools like fishhooks. While you can see the original site of the shell mound and the surrounding park, the nearby Shinagawa Historical Museum tells the story and displays many of the discovered items. By foot, it’s about five minutes from the shell mound.
The Omori Shell Mound and corresponding park are a bit outside of central Tokyo, but since Dr. Morse discovered it on a train trip, it’s not hard to get to. It actually touches the Keihin-Tohoku and Ueno-Tokyo lines and is about a five-minute walk from Omori Station. You can also take a bus to the Omori-Soshajo bus stop.
6. Tomozuna-beya Sumo Stable
Sumo wrestling is a grueling sport that requires hours of dedicated training. Of course, as a traveler, you don’t have to participate yourself to enjoy the sport. Watching a sumo training session is one of the most fun things you can do in Tokyo, and it really gives you a feel for authentic Japanese culture.
Tomozuna-beya is a sumo stable that allows visitors to watch their training sessions. You can stand out on the street and look in through a big window in the front. After the training, you might even get lucky and have the opportunity to take some photos with a few of the wrestlers.
You just have to make sure you schedule your visit well. The wrestlers only train for a few hours in the mornings, so you don’t want to be late. It’s located in the Sumida ward, but plan your route ahead of time because Tomozuna-beya isn’t a well-marked tourist destination. You may have trouble finding it at first.
7. Izu Oshima
Izu Oshima isn’t technically in Tokyo. It’s an island about 100 kilometers away, but it is administered by Tokyo. It’s also a pretty popular place, but more so with Japanese natives than foreign tourists. It’s a common weekend getaway for people escaping the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Oshima has a ton to do. By car, it’s about an hour in circumference. There are parks, lookout points, and interesting natural formations like volcanic cliffs all along the way. In the summer, you can swim or snorkel from the beaches, or in early spring, you can go see the famous camellia flowers. Plus, there are several nice onsens heated by the volcanic activity of the island. Finally, you can spend some time in Motomachi, the main village, or go to one of the many museums.
The main attraction on the island is Mount Mihara. It’s a 758-meter-tall active volcano that last erupted in 1990. You can see evidence of lava flows from major eruptions like the one in 1986 that caused an evacuation of the island. You can even hike all the way up to see the volcano’s caldera and experience some breathtaking views.
Izu Oshima is relatively easy to get to. There are high-speed and regular ferries that go to the island from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Ferry Terminal. You can also catch a plane at Chofu Airport. This is faster than the ferry but more expensive. In general, you should plan on making Oshima a day trip since the ferries and flights have very specific timetables.
8. Suntory Musashino Brewery
This one is for the beer lovers on their way to Tokyo. Suntory is one of the major beer brands in Japan, and their Tokyo Musashino brewery offers free tours on a daily basis. It’s one of the oldest breweries in Japan, and you not only get to see how they make the beer but at the end of the tour, you can even try some.
The tours of the facility are free, but they are in Japanese, so bring a native speaker. You also need to make a reservation, so call ahead of time. Getting there is convenient because the brewery has a shuttle bus that takes you straight to the facility from Bubaigawara Station, which is on the Keio Line.
9. Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel
Have you ever heard of urban exploration? It’s a popular hobby where people explore aspects of modern infrastructure like sewers, factories, or abandoned buildings. Participating in this hobby often faces obstacles because many structures consider this trespassing.
In the case of the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, not only is it one of the world’s most impressive feats of engineering, but it’s wide open to the public. There are even tours. The tours are free, but you do have to have at least one Japanese speaker with your group.
This massive underground structure is basically a drain for the city of Tokyo. In fact, it’s the world’s largest underground water diversion facility, built to handle overflows and flooding from Tokyo’s major waterways. It’s a labyrinth of giant pillars that will impress anyone interested in engineering.
Getting there is more complicated than a lot of other sights. You’ll have to take a train to Omiya Station and then transfer to the Tobu Noda line. Take that to Minami-Sakurai Station and then catch a taxi. The ride from the station is about seven minutes.
10. Unique theme restaurants
There’s no reason to ever have a boring meal in Tokyo. The city takes theme restaurants to an extreme, and you can have pretty much any experience you can think of while dining.
One of the best examples are maid cafes. Maid cafes are special theme restaurants primarily located in Akihabara, the world-famous electronics districts. In a maid cafe, waitresses dressed as Victorian-era French maids serve you. More than that, the environment is designed to feel more like you’re being served by a maid in your own home rather than a waitress in a restaurant.
When you go to Akihabara, you’ll have no problem finding a maid cafe. Promoters dressed in maid uniforms hand out fliers for their restaurants on nearly every street. Just know that the focus of these cafes is more the experience than the food, and you do have to pay an hourly coverage charge at most of them.
If maid service isn’t your cup of tea, there are endless other themes. There’s a Vampire Cafe in Chūō City. The Lockup is a restaurant in Shinjuku entirely dedicated to horror. Ninja Akasaka keeps you entertained with waiters that, as you probably guessed, are ninjas. There’s Robot Restaurant, the 8-Bit Cafe, Kawaii Monster Cafe, the list goes on. You can try out a different theme for every meal of your trip if you’re so inclined.
One last word of advice
One of the best things about hidden gems like these is that they often lead to other hidden gems. Be flexible. You never know when a local you meet in Omoide Yokocho is going to tell you about their favorite arcade or shopping district.
It’s always a good idea to have a plan and schedule, but on the days you’re looking to scout out those unpopular places, keep an open mind. You never know which one of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets you could end up finding out.