Headed to Tokyo, but seeking a vacation that is filled with experiences that go beyond the standard tourist itinerary? If Shibuya Scramble, Tokyo Skytree and the Robot Restaurant just aren't your thing (or maybe you've already done them!) then seeing Tokyo from a local's point of view could be more your style. There are many ways that you can experience a more 'everyday' kind of Tokyo, which offers a charm all of its own - and will undoubtedly leave you with some unique trip memories.
Here are just ten possibilities that you could add to your Japan travel plans -- you'll find that in next to no time you'll be livin' la vida local.
Visit a University Campus
Tokyo has several different universities in the city limits, and you're able to tour most of them if you'd like to get a feel for what college life in Japan would be like. Many of these schools have charming buildings and histories, so for architecture and fascinating stories alone they make a great spot to stop by. Two in Tokyo that are worth a look at are the University of Tokyo and Waseda University, who both offer guided tours of their campuses. If you click on the website links you'll be taken to some more information about arranging a tour.
The map for the University of Tokyo is below - it's close by to Ueno Park so it could make a fun additional sight to check out when you're in the area (as well as some of the great museums too, of course).
Waseda University is located about 10 minutes from Tokyo Station by train. If you are headed to Waseda University to have a look around, Waseda Station is on the same train line as Nakano (on the Tokyo Metro Tozai Line). Odigoer Johanna has a great piece about things to do in the Nakano area, so check it out if you'll be in that part of Tokyo.
Check out a local farmer's market
Want to pick up some fresher than fresh produce to cook up back at your AirBnB, or even some to enjoy on the spot? Perhaps grabbing something to eat at a fun food truck might be more your style. Farmer's Markets are a great way to live like a local while you're on vacation - but you might be thinking "come on, it's Tokyo - where on Earth am I going to find a Farmer's Market?"
One of my favorites when I lived in the heart of the city was the UNU Farmer's Market, which is situated right out the front of the United Nations University - part way between Omotesando and Shibuya. As well as there being loads of tasty eats at the market, there are often coffee vendors and even craft beer brewers on site depending on the weekend. They've got a Facebook page which you can check out here, but stopping by there to pick up some goodies is a must-do if you're in that part of town. The UNU Farmer's Market is open from 10am until 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays. If you're headed there, getting out at Omotesando Station's B2 Exit is your best bet, and the market is just a short walk down the street from there.
Head to a baseball game
When you think of sports that are popular in Japan, you might think of ones that originate here such as sumo wrestling or different forms of martial arts. Baseball though has to be one of the most loved - by participants and spectators alike. Introduced to Japan back in the late 1800's, it is now something that has leagues spanning from social teams and high school groups all the way through to professional league level.
If you want to check out a baseball game while you're here, you can get tickets at convenience stores in advance, or at the venue itself on game day depending on how popular the team is. I've watched several games at Meiji Jingu Stadium, which is the home ground of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows - and have been able to turn up on game day and get the tickets on the spot then and there. If you want to check out a game at Meiji Jingu Stadium, the map details are below, and there's more information about the Tokyo Yakult Swallows over on their website here. The closest station to the stadium is Gaienmae on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line.
Picnic in a park
Tokyo has loads of gorgeous parks, and what better way to enjoy the surroundings like a local than packing a bento box (or grabbing something from a local convenience store) and enjoying some lunch at one of them? It might not be the most fun sounding idea when we're at full steam ahead for winter, but if you rug up it's really not too bad. Prime time though for park picnics in Japan would have to be the spring months for the cherry blossoms (hanami celebrations are a big thing), or during autumn for the beautiful changing leaves.
Some great parks for picnics in the Tokyo area are Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku Gyoen, and a little further afield (but still in the Tokyo city limits) is Showa Kinen Park. Perhaps you might be traveling solo, and don't want to picnic alone. Never fear - if you check on Meetup for Tokyo based events, there are often group picnics being held in parks (particularly Yoyogi) with other locals. It's a perfect way to not only enjoy a meal amidst gorgeous surroundings, but a chance to make some new friends, too.
If you'd like to picnic in a park, Yoyogi is a personal favorite for that - and the map details are below. The link to Tokyo based Meetup events can be found here (as well as tons of other fun activities across the city).
Stop at a random train stop and explore a new area
One of the best ways to see Tokyo more like a local is to get in amongst the neighborhoods that aren't as heavily trafficked as others. When I lived in the heart of Tokyo, a lot of the time I'd just pick a train line, and pick a random station along the line - and get off, walk around and explore the area. It's a great way of finding new places you'll love -- you might discover your new favorite ramen shop that no one else knows about, a super cute clothes boutique, or an off the beaten path shrine that has you as their only visitor when you stop by. One of the many great things about Tokyo is that there aren't really areas that would be deemed unsafe like you might get in other cities around the world -- so try your luck, pick a random stop and enjoy all of those hidden gems.
Overwhelmed with where to start? Odigoer Sherilyn has a great piece here on five off the beaten path Tokyo neighborhoods - maybe one of the options on her list will take your fancy!
Shop at a supermarket or drug store
Even if you're trying to experience Tokyo like a local, you've probably got a list of people you want to pick up some kind of souvenir for. Well, what's more local than shopping at places like supermarkets or drug stores? Food souvenirs always seem to be a winner for people in my life - after all, who doesn't want to try some awesome Japanese candy or wacky flavored potato chips? The same goes for drug stores - you've got everything from Sailor Moon mascara to Gudetama lip balms and Hello Kitty moisturizing sheet face masks. Even though you might be shopping like a local, you'll find that Japanese supermarkets and drug stores are anything but dull and boring. If you're looking for store names of supermarket or drug store chains on a map, there are supermarkets such as Aeon, Seiyu, Peacock and Daiei. For drug stores, try Matsumoto Kiyoshi, Welcia, or Sundrug.
(Just a quick FYI - those Lycee eye drops that you can see in the picture are touted by Victoria Beckham as one of her most-loved beauty buys - they apparently make the whites of your eyes even brighter).
Listen to some live music
Checking out some live music performances is a great way to get a local's feel for a city. Sure, you could go to a big concert venue like Tokyo Dome (they also host baseball games there, too!) but personally I find the smaller venues a lot more enjoyable. A lot of international acts play at places like Akasaka Blitz, but if you'd prefer to go and see a more local group then it's worthwhile to check out the Tokyo Gig Guide to see what's on. They have a range of different venues and different artists listed on their upcoming events page, and you could easily browse their calendar and pick a random gig to check out. Koenji in particular is a great suburb for fun live music venues - and there's everything there from punk rock to disco, so no matter your music tastes you're bound to find something you'll like.
Cycle as a method of transport
If you want to really feel like a local, cycling as a method of transport is a great way to get from A to B. Not only will you get a great workout in (which is helpful, considering Tokyo is one of the best cities for delicious eats on the planet), but you'll also likely see a lot of sights that may have been missed if you were just catching the train from one destination to the other. I've found in my time in Tokyo that it's a very bike friendly city, and it really is a way that I found a lot of hidden gems. If you're wondering how to get your hands on a set of wheels, there is some information about places that operate bike rentals here, and Odigoer Sherilyn has some more details about the process at her article here.
Experience a rush hour train
I know, I know - I just said to live life like a local you should cycle as a means to get around. But it wouldn't be Tokyo without trying a peak hour train at least once. If you head to the Tokyo Metro or the JR Yamanote line as people are headed to work or clocking off for the day, you'll get a real "sardines in a can" experience that has to be felt to be believed. A lot of the time when you think "surely, they can't fit anyone else on here!" the station attendants keep packing them in. There's been a lot of talk in Tokyo about staggering people's work start and finish times to try and ease the burden on the train network here - but it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon, so try it at least once!
Try a local festival
Tokyo - and Japan in general - have a reputation for having some wonderful festivals. Some of them though are more well known and in more prominent spots than others, which generally means one thing...crowds aplenty. If you're after a different festival, some good English language magazines to check out are Metropolis and Tokyo Weekender, who have sections in their magazines with upcoming events across the city. They have those free magazines at some hotels, train stations, and even different retail outlets, but if you can't get your hands on one in print form there is also information on their websites. An added bonus is they don't just have festivals listed, but all manner of fun events to check out - galleries, new restaurants and shops, museums and more! A favorite festival of our family's is the Shimokitazawa Tengu Festival, which is held in late January or early February each year. The Tengu Festival celebrates Setsubun, and beans are thrown and scattered to get rid of bad luck and evil spirits. The Shimokitazawa is a great neighborhood of Tokyo to check out anyway, but this festival is quite unique and definitely worth a visit if you'll be in the city around that time.
Hopefully some of these suggestions help to give you a different perspective on Tokyo than what you might get in guidebooks or lists of the top tourist hotspots. The city has plenty of amazing things to do -- but after living there for four years myself, some of the local life events are the memories that stick with me the most. No matter how you choose to spend your time , whether it's following the well trodden tourist spots, or soaking up some lesser experienced local gems (or a mix of both!) you're bound to have an incredible trip.
Enjoy Tokyo, and Safe Travels!
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