Updated: January 31, 2017
The 15 Best Hotels in Tokyo
- Grand Hyatt Tokyo
The stylish Grand Hyatt Tokyo is located in Roppongi Hills, which is like a city-within-a-city with its 200-some boutiques and restaurants, multi-screen cinema, the avant-garde Mori Art Museum on the 53rd floor and a heart-stopping rooftop observatory. That’s on top of what the hotel itself offers, including 10 restaurants and bars and a fitness club with an indoor pool and spa. Rooms are spacious and thoughtfully designed, with oversize desks, button-controlled blackout blinds and huge bathrooms that take up a full quarter of room space, making this a comfortable home-away-from-home.
There aren’t many choices in Tokyo for visitors wishing to experience a traditional Japanese inn, making this one in historic Asakusa one of the city’s best bets. It opened almost 70 years ago, which makes it almost ancient in the fast-changing capital, and is decorated with Edo-era touches from the time of the shogun, with a rickshaw parked outside its front door, paper lanterns, antiques, woodblock prints, staff dressed in period clothing and traditional tatami rooms. Meals are optional, but you’ll get in the mood by dining in, followed by a soak in the inn’s public baths, separated, naturally, by the sexes.
- Park Hyatt Tokyo
Whereas the Grand Hyatt attracts a clientele that enjoys being in the middle of the action, the Park Hyatt cultivates a lower profile, buffered from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo by its slightly out-of-the-way location in west Shinjuku, remedied, naturally, by a free 5-minute shuttle bus to Shinjuku Station. Gaining worldwide fame after its debut in Lost in Translation, the hotel has gorgeous rooms, all with stunning views (those facing east toward Shinjuku’s night lights are the most popular) and walk-in closets. Hotel highlights include a 2,000-book library, the ever-popular New York Grill with its famed weekend brunch and expansive list of Californian wines (including hard-to-find vintages), free use of bicycles, spa and fitness facilities that include sun-lit lap pool and gym offering yoga and other classes all free of charge.
- Shangri La Hotel
With an enviable location right next to Tokyo Station, making it a top place to stay if quick and easy access to both Narita airport and the rest of Japan is a priority, the Shangri-La spared no expense in its design and décor, which includes 2,000 works of art and lavish appointments. Rooms are among the largest in Tokyo, there’s a spa and health club complete with indoor pool, and the hotel offers a complimentary meet-and-greet escort service from Tokyo Station to the hotel lobby
- Imperial Hotel Tokyo
Tokyo doesn’t have a grand old hotel, but the Imperial, first opened in 1890 and rebuilt by Frank Lloyd Wright, comes close. Unfortunately, a 1970 expansion and makeover signaled the demise of the former Art Deco masterpiece, but the famed architect’s legacy can be found in the Old Imperial bar and Wright-inspired designs. The hotel is highly respected among Japanese, evident in the huge popularity of its 13 restaurants, bustling lounge and underground shopping center. Rooms are split between the main building and a 31-story tower, the latter preferred by international guests for its higher (and therefore better) city views and closer proximity to the hotel pool and gym.
- The Peninsula Hotel
Whereas The Peninsula Hong Kong is renowned for its colonial-age architecture and history, this sister property goes the opposite direction, choosing an understated Zen-like atmosphere nevertheless resplendent with eye-catching contemporary artwork. Rooms are humongous, with tubs big enough for two, but outstanding service is what elevates this great hotel to one of Japan’s best, with a Rolls Royce that delivers guests within a 1.2-mile radius, bicycles for exploring the neighborhood, iPod tours of the surrounding area and a health club and indoor pool with outdoor terrace, all available to hotel guests free of charge.
This boutique hotel is a design-lovers dream, with only 21 rooms decorated in one of 5 different themes, from contemporary to one-of-a-kind inspirations created by individual interior designers. Although located off the beaten path, about a 12-minute walk from the nearest station, it’s in a fashionable part of town, offers a personal touch sometimes missing in large hotels, and is highly favored by artsy types who eschew the cookie-cutter monotony of chain hotels.
- Asakusa View Hotel
Asakusa is considered one of the “old downtown” neighborhoods of Tokyo, but there aren’t many hotel options in this tourist hotspot, making the Asakusa View Hotel one of the best bet for visitors wishing to be within walking distance of famous Sensoji Temple. Note, however, that rooms are fairly small, unsurprising for medium-range accommodations in this space-starved city; those facing Asakusa and SkyTree fetch higher rates than those facing west with occasional glimpses of Mount Fuji in clear weather. Note that there are no rooms with double-size beds, due to the fact that most Japanese couples prefer twins.
- The Ritz-Carlton
Views are what set this deluxe property apart, because although there are many skyscraper hotels in the city, none are as high as this with views in all compass directions. Ensconced in Tokyo’s second-tallest building, which towers above Tokyo Midtown with its shops and restaurants in the nightlife district of Roppongi, the hotel offers first-rate restaurants (those serving contemporary French fare and Japanese cuisine are among the best in town), free access to its health club with an indoor lap pool, and some of Tokyo’s largest guest rooms at 560 square feet, with choices of eye-popping views of Mt. Fuji, the Imperial Palace gardens or Tokyo Tower. As expected, the hotel is beautifully appointed, and the service is among the best anywhere.
- Hotel Century Southern Tower
Travelers who can’t afford the Park Hyatt but still want that Lost in Translation hotel experience find the Century Southern Tower a worthy alternative. Occupying the 20th to 35th floors of an office building near Shinjuku Station and the Takashimaya Times Square shopping complex, it offers simply furnished rooms (90% of which are non-smoking) that make up for their small size with expansive views, with those facing east toward Shinjuku Park and the city’s night lights considered the best. Fun touches are the in-room skyline maps identifying landmarks visible from your room and TVs with keyboards for free Internet access.
- Conrad Hotel Tokyo
With its location near the Ginza, artwork by 23 leading Japanese craftsmen, sleek contemporary design and one of the city’s largest spa and fitness centers, this hotel is one of Tokyo’s best. Although guests can save money by staying in a room facing inland, it would be a shame to miss the superb panoramic views offered by the more expensive bayside rooms, which overlook Hama Rikyu Garden toward the bay and Odaiba and are made even more inviting with couches that extend the full length of wall-to-wall windows.
- Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba
With Haneda International Airport offering an increasing number of long-distance flights from the US and elsewhere and only a 20-minute ride away, this vacation destination has lots going for it, especially when factoring in its location in Odaiba with its museums, shopping centers, Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari hot-spring baths, and many kid-friendly attractions. Odaiba’s sights draw many Japanese to Odaiba, but the hotel ups the ante by offering facilities Tokyoites looking for a weekend escape from the city can appreciate, including both indoor and outdoor swimming pools and rooms with views of the water and either the airport or the Rainbow Bridge in the background.
- Mandarin Oriental Hotel
The lone luxury property in the historic Nihombashi district, once home to merchants and now to the Tokyo Stock Exchange and venerable Mitsukoshi department store, the Mandarin Oriental wins kudos for its three Michelin-starred restaurants and its lavish décor that includes textiles and weavings created expressly for the hotel by artisans across Japan using age-old techniques handed down for generations. Rooms, on the 30th to 36th floors, provide views of the surrounding city, including those of SkyTree, Tokyo Bay, Imperial Palace gardens or Mount Fuji, but the Hong Kong transplant also offers characteristics of its sister property, including a delivery box at room entrances so that shoes cleaned complimentarily or laundry can be returned without disturbing guests.
- Hotel Okura
Wonderful, iconic hotel but currently under a major renovation. Avoid for now, but look for it’s reopening (planned to coincide with the Olympics).
- Shibuya Granbell Hotel
Reasonably priced yet chic is the signature trademark of this hotel, located just minutes from Shinjuku Station and famous Shibuya Crossing intersection with its foot traffic converging from all directions when the lights change (read photo op). Small rooms come in various designs, with “Artistic” rooms featuring neon-colored lighting and “Comfortable” rooms going in the opposite direction with muted, warm colors. In any case, rooms follow the popular trend of only a glass wall separating the bathroom from the sleeping area, about the only thrill offered in this budget hotel with otherwise few frills.
- Four Seasons at Marunouchi
With only 57 rooms, this luxury property could be considered a boutique hotel, offering intimacy and great, personalized service. With a convenient location near Tokyo Station, the hotel offers a free “greeting” service at the station, or, for a fee, even at Narita Airport. An ultra-contemporary property, its rooms are large and high-tech, but views from floor-to-ceiling windows are confined to surrounding buildings or bullet trains pulling in to the station. Facilities are limited to a spa with hot-spring baths, fitness gym and a farm-to-table French restaurant.
Tokyo’s sheer size of 13 million people (37 million including the surrounding metropolitan area) can give even seasoned travelers pause. But there are many pluses that make this adrenalin-charged capital both navigable and rewarding, including an efficient and excellent public transportation system, a ranking as one of the safest cities in the world, and a people who are hospitable and kind. It helps to think of Tokyo as nothing more than a patchwork of many unique and distinct neighborhoods, most with origins stretching back to the days of the shogun. Of course, you will get lost. Heck, even the Japanese get lost. But in a country where walking the streets can be considered a cultural experience, getting lost can be considered part of the adventure.
Fourteen Things to Know About Staying in Tokyo
- There is no overwhelming first choice in neighborhood when it comes to where to stay, as top attractions are spread throughout town and transportation by subway or JR commuter train gets you anywhere you want to go.
- If you need a hotel with quick and easy access to Narita International Airport or the Shinkansen bullet train, stay near Tokyo Station. Marunouchi, extending west of the station’s historic brick façade, is an up-and-coming urban destination, with tree-lined streets, outdoor artwork, designer boutiques, and restaurants in all price categories. The 2 most convenient hotels to Tokyo Station are the Four Seasons Hotel at Marunouchi and the Shangri La Hotel Tokyo – both are just outside the station and an easy (mostly indoor) walk from the Shinkansen and airport trains.
- For rooms with expansive views, head to where skyscrapers sport hotels on their highest floors, including Shinjuku, Marunouchi, Roppongi, Shiodome, Shibuya, Nihombashi, and other central business districts.
- Asakusa and Ueno are two of Tokyo’s old “downtown” neighborhoods, full of centuries-old shops and restaurants that make them best bets for travelers seeking a traditional atmosphere. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Ginza, with swanky designer boutiques, art galleries and tony restaurants.
- Night revelers who want to be close to the action should stay in Roppongi, Shinjuku, or Shibuya, all with restaurants, bars and dance clubs that cater to night owls.
- Fashionistas and foodies will find plenty of diversions along the winding streets of Omotesando, home to stores selling international and Japanese designer wear and to some of Tokyo’s trendiest restaurants and cafes.
- Although it doesn’t provide discounts, the Suica card goes a long way toward making travel in Tokyo easier. The prepaid card, available at major JR East stations like Tokyo, Shinjuku, Ueno, and Shibuya, means you don’t have to buy individual tickets when boarding the city’s JR trains, subways and buses. That alone is worth the Suica, but it can also be used for purchases from designated vending machines, at convenience stores and for snacks aboard JR long-distance trains.
- Avoid rush hour, but if you must, know that there are subway cars designated only for women weekdays until 9am.
- Taxis with a red light above the dashboard, showing they’re free to pick up passengers, can be hailed from almost any street. Driving is on the left side; the left rear door is operated automatically by the driver, so don’t try to open or close it on your own.
- There’s no tipping in Japan, whether it’s the bellhop, taxi driver or waitress. Rather, a 10- to 15 % service charge is added to higher-priced restaurants and hotels. In addition, an 8% consumption tax is imposed on goods and services, including hotels and restaurants. As for goods, including consumables, foreign visitors are entitled to a refund of the consumption tax if they are taken out of the country within a certain amount of time and cost more than a minimum amount, but note that only department stores and shops used to dealing with foreigners offer the refund, minus a 1.1% handling fee charged by most establishments.
- Stand on the left side when riding escalators so that those in a hurry can pass on the right. In Osaka, Kyoto, and other cities in the Kansai area, commuters do the opposite and stand on the right.
- You can save money by eating your biggest meal at lunch, when many restaurants – even exclusive ones – usually offer a set meal that may include an appetizer, entrée and side dishes, tea or coffee, and sometimes dessert.
- Last entry to museums, gardens, and attractions is usually 30 minutes before the actual closing time. Public museums are usually closed on Monday, but if Monday is a holiday they stay open and close on Tuesday instead. Private museums, however, are usually closed on public holidays.
- Several wards and neighborhoods offer free Wi-Fi hotspots, including Ginza, Marunouchi and Shibuya, mostly along major thoroughfares or from iconic buildings.
Ginza is Japan’s swankiest and most famous shopping district, comparable to Paris’ Champs-Elysees or New York’s Fifth Avenue. Home to department stores, art galleries, international name-brand boutiques, upscale restaurants, sophisticated bars and specialty shops, Ginza draws well-heeled Japanese and international visitors, including busloads of Chinese tourists eager to buy designer goods.
Ginza’s name translates as “silver mint,” after a mint that created silver coins for the shogun. After Japan opened to foreign trade in the 1860s following two centuries of self-imposed isolation, Ginza emerged as the most Westernized district in the country, with brick sidewalks, gas streetlamps, cafes modeled after those in Paris and shops selling beef, ice cream, Western clothing and other exotic goods.
While Ginza today lacks the intimacy of neighborhoods like Asakusa, and young Tokyoites are more likely to favor Omotesando and Shibuya, Ginza appeals to those who like world-class shopping and dining close at hand. In addition, served with seven subway lines and JR’s Yamanote Line loop, attractions elsewhere are easily reached. Ginza Dori (also called Chuo Dori) and Harumi Dori are its main thoroughfares, lined with department stores like Matsuya, Mitsukoshi and Wako, the latter famous for its clock tower and innovative window displays. There are also hundreds of specialty shops, like Ando, selling cloisonné since 1880, and Shisedo, opened as Japan’s first Western-style pharmacy in 1872 and renowned for its beauty products. Modern additions like the Sony Building and Apple display their latest products.
Kabukiza opened in 1889 as Tokyo’s premier kabuki theater, but more entertainment in the form of bars and restaurants can be found along small lanes like Namiki Dori. Restaurants offer everything from sushi and steaks to French cuisine, often with hefty prices to match. There may no longer be a silver mint in Ginza, but the coins keep rolling in.
Located between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace, Marunouchi is one of Japan’s most important commercial and financial districts. Just a few decades ago, it was bleak and boring, with mostly office buildings and little to attract visitors. Since the turn of this century, however, Marunouchi has been revitalized, thanks mostly to Mitsubishi, which owns much of the land and has its headquarters here. There are skyscrapers chock-full with restaurants, shops and multi-national corporations, luxury hotels and designer boutiques. Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi side, with a splendid 1914 Renaissance-style brick façade, provides quick and easy access to Narita Airport and the rest of Japan and contains a Travel Service Center catering specifically to foreigners with train information for all of Japan.
The area’s most defining character is the Imperial Palace, home to the Imperial family. It was in the adjoining East Garden that the story of Tokyo began, when the first shogun of Edo (present-day Tokyo) built his magnificent castle here in the early 1600s. Today, the East Garden with castle remnants and landscaped grounds is an urban haven, while the three-mile promenade around the palace’s circular moat is popular with joggers.
Otherwise, there’s no mistaking you’re in the midst of a large city. At Marunouchi’s core is tree- and artwork-lined Marunouchi Naka Dori, famous for its winter illuminations and home to a Tourist Information Center, high-end stores like Armani and Tiffany, cafes, and Mitsubishi Ichigokan, built in 1894 and housing a museum for 19th-century Western art. On the first and third Sunday of each month, the Oedo Antique Fair is held in nearby Tokyo International Forum’s courtyard. For sightseers, the Sky Bus Tokyo provides a 45-minute run around the Imperial Palace and through Marunouchi and Ginza. Both the Marunouchi and Shin-Marunouchi buildings have restaurants with views of the station or over the city, while the most sophisticated night venue is the Cotton Club, featuring world-class jazz performances.
With its narrow streets, modest homes and quaint shops selling boxwood combs, fans and other traditional crafts, Asakusa seems like a village far removed from central Tokyo. Together with Ueno, Asakusa reminds Tokyoites of the city’s old shitamachi (downtown) atmosphere more than anywhere else in town. But it’s also one of Japan’s most popular destinations, primarily because of Sensoji Temple, founded in the 7th century. About 30 million visitors flock here annually, imparting a festive atmosphere every day of the year.
Nakamise Dori is the pedestrian lane leading to the temple, lined with stalls that sell crafts, souvenirs and kitsch, including yukata (Japanese sleepwear), crackers, umbrellas, hair accessories, key chains, fake tattoos, toys and much more. Venture off the beaten path, however, and you instantly find yourself on quiet streets that might be graced with pruned bonsai, the well-tended entrance to a Japanese inn or short curtains signaling a restaurant, like Waentei-kikko, which occupies a small traditional house and offers box lunches and live shamisen performances.
Next to the temple is the Amuse Museum, which houses an amazing private collection of clothing from the Edo Period (1603-1868), antiques and more, with a 6th-floor bar providing night views of an illuminated Sensoji Temple. Chefs and chef wannabes will find the 15-minute hike to Kappabashi-dougugai Dori worth it, for shops here specialize in everything a restaurant needs, including woks, aprons, lacquered trays, disposable chopsticks and even mouthwatering plastic food renditions. A 15-minute walk (or short subway ride) in the other direction is Tokyo SkyTree, Japan’s tallest structure, with an observatory and restaurant providing heart-stopping views.
While Asakusa’s location in northeast central Tokyo is a bit out of the way from central Tokyo and has little in the way of nightlife, it’s ideal for travelers seeking a more traditional experience and is a convenient gateway for train travel to Nikko.
In contrast to the sophistication of Ginza, Ueno has always been working class, even during the days of the shogun when it was home to merchants, craftsmen and townspeople. Together with nearby Asakusa, it retains some of its old shitamachi (downtown) atmosphere, a bit rough around the edges, especially at its lively Ameya Yokocho street market, which originated as a black market after World War II and offers food, clothing and accessories under and around the Yamanote train tracks.
Located on the northeast end of the convenient Yamanote Line loop, Ueno’s biggest draw is Ueno Park, one of the most popular destinations for Japanese families due to its zoo, green spaces and cluster of museums, most notably the Tokyo National Museum with the largest collection of Japanese antiques and art in the world. Ueno Park is also famous for its cherry blossoms, which bring in droves of sightseers. On the downside, since Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, Ueno Park and its periphery have attracted the homeless, with a soup kitchen operating on Saturdays. Tokyo, however, ranks among the safest cities in the world, and for the most part Japan’s homeless keep to themselves.
Just outside the park are marshy Shinobazu Pond with its bird refuge and the Shitamachi Museum, which preserves the lifestyle of Tokyo’s Edo-era commoners. The best place for exploration is Yanaka just north of Ueno, which boasts more temples than any other place in Tokyo, most dating from the Edo Period. Ueno abounds in traditional restaurants, many with long histories, like Innsyoutei in Ueno Park, serving kaiseki and box lunches since 1875, and Unagi Kappo Izu’ei, offering grilled eel for more than 265 years. Ueno isn’t known for its nightlife, but Warrior Celt offers live music several nights of the week and stays open until the wee hours.
Located on the western end of the Yamanote Line loop, Shinjuku is home to Shinjuku Station, Japan’s busiest commuter station with about 3.5 million passengers coming through daily. Surrounding the station is everything to meet commuters’ needs, including restaurants, bars, pachinko parlors, department stores, convenience stores and specialty shops. Because of its many hotels, many visitors stay in Shinjuku, with JR lines, subways and private railways providing easy access to the rest of Tokyo and beyond, including the private Odakyu line with service to Hakone.
Serving travelers has been Shinjuku’s role from the beginning, when it originated as a post town in 1698 for feudal lords and their samurai retainers making the trek between Edo and homes in the provinces. It remained an isolated outpost until the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, when Tokyo’s widespread destruction convinced businesses to relocate here. Japan’s first skyscraper was erected here in 1971; when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) relocated here 20 years later, Shinjuku’s transformation into a business hub was complete.
Today, Shinjuku Station divides Shinjuku into distinct east and west sides, different as night and day. The west side is respectable and somewhat stodgy, home to several department stores, several streets lined with electronics stores, the TMG (with a tourist office and free observatory) and Tokyo’s largest concentration of skyscrapers (many with restaurants on their top floors), which create windy urban canyons; commuters tend to stick to underground passageways.
Eastern Shinjuku is known for its shopping and nightlife, most notorious of which is Kabuki-cho with its hostess bars, strip clubs, dance halls, cubby-hole eateries and restaurants. Farther east are Golden Gai, a warren of narrow alleys and ramshackle tiny bars favored by musicians, writers and celebrities, and Shinjuku 2-chome, Japan’s premier gay nightlife district with 300-some establishments. Nearby is Shinjuku Gyoen Park, a tranquil oasis with a Japanese garden at its center, providing respite from Shinjuku’s madness.
Shibuya is famous throughout Japan because of Hachiko, a dog that waited at the Station every day for his master’s return from work, even after the professor died in the mid-1920s. A bronze statue of the Akita stands outside the station’s Hachiko Exit, now a popular waiting place for friends meeting up in Shibuya. Just past Hachiko is Shibuya Crossing, one of the most famous intersections in the world with its giant video screens, neon advertisements and hordes of pedestrians converging from all directions when the lights change, captured in films like Lost in Translation.
Located on the southwestern end of the Yamanote Line loop, Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most important commuter hubs, serving Yokohama and regions to the southwest. Shibuya Station is in the midst of massive renovations that will extend into the 2020s; until complete, navigating current construction can be somewhat frustrating.
Shibuya is immensely popular with students, young office workers and professionals, some of whom work in Shibuya’s burgeoning IT industry. In 2015, Shibuya ward became the first place in Japan to recognize same-sex partnerships. More down to earth than uber-cool Omotesando and with a less frenetic nightlife than Roppongi’s, Shibuya has a healthy mix of both shopping and entertainment, giving it vibrancy both day and night. It’s a shopper’s paradise for fashion and interior design, with an impressive concentration of specialty department stores. The 109 fashion building has been setting trends for more than 35 years, while Tokyu Hands for the homeowner and hobbyist carries everything from picnic to office supplies. Spain Slope, a narrow and winding pedestrian lane lined with boutiques and restaurants, is the quintessential Shibuya shopping street, but there’s also the 34-story Hikarie, opened in 2012 and with shopping, dining and entertainment geared toward older commuters.
Whereas Shibuya and Shinjuku haul in the crowds because they’re commuter hubs, Omotesando is a destination in its own right, with a reputation that places it squarely in top position as Tokyo’s hippest neighborhood. The name also of a subway stop, Omotesando is actually a wide, zelkova-lined avenue that connects Harajuku and Aoyama, two neighborhoods that have fused since the gentrification of Omotesando. The area’s laid-back atmosphere, with homey cafes, one-of-a-kind boutiques and ethnic restaurants tucked along twisting narrow alleys, make it one of the city’s most relaxing getaways. For Tokyoites who can afford to live here, it’s also one of the city’s most posh addresses. On the downside, Omotesando lacks much in the way of nightlife, but both Shibuya and Roppongi are a short bus or taxi ride away.
Harajuku, at the west end of Omotesando, is anchored by venerable Meiji Jingu Shrine, erected in 1920 to pay homage to the emperor who ushered Japan into the industrial age and surrounded by dense forest. Otherwise, Harajuku is teenybopper heaven, with narrow lane Takeshita Dori the epicenter for shops offering inexpensive clothing and accessories; it’s usually so packed on weekends that it’s a virtual human traffic jam.
At the eastern end of Omotesando is Aoyama, which attracts a yuppie crowd with its chic restaurants and homegrown fashion houses like Issey Miyake, Commes des Garcons and A Bathing Ape. Here, too, is the Nezu Museum, showcase for Asian art and with its own private garden.
In between Harajuku and Aoyama, Omotesando is home to flagship fashion houses, from Tod’s and Louis Vuitton to Prada, to the upscale Omotesando Hills shopping complex and to Oriental Bazaar, Tokyo’s largest one-stop store for Japanese crafts and souvenirs. On weekends, sidewalk vendors lay out jewelry and trinkets for the steady stream of passersby. Sidewalk cafes make this Tokyo’s best place for people watching, with Omotesando a runway for designer wear, edgy local creations and funky street styles of the moment.
Centrally located, Roppongi has been popular for decades as one of Tokyo’s premier nightlife meccas for Japanese and foreign revelers in their 20s and 30s. Compact in size, it has the largest concentration of bars, restaurants, dance clubs, hostess clubs and strip joints of any district outside Shinjuku. Although packed in the evening, until recently it was empty by day, scruffy and with little to recommend it, despite the fact that many embassies, national corporations and expat residences are located in the area.
Things began to change in 2003, when the 28-acre Roppongi Hills opened as Tokyo’s largest urban development, complete with 230 shops and restaurants, offices, apartments, a Japanese garden, movie theaters, a luxury hotel and a 54-story building with the Mori Art Museum occupying its top floors and an outdoor observation platform on its roof. In 2007, Tokyo Midtown opened nearby with many of the same facilities, as well as the Suntory Museum of Art with its changing exhibits of Japanese art and antiquities. With the opening of the National Art Center showing changing exhibits of contemporary art, which together with the Mori and Suntory art museums created what is known as Art Triangle, Roppongi became a destination for day-trippers. Meanwhile, the addition of luxury hotels infused the area with an older international crowd, which in turn brought sophisticated cocktail bars and tony restaurants.
Today’s Roppongi is respectable, catering to both business types and young revelers, with bars both sleazy and sleek and restaurants serving international cuisines in all price categories. What sets Roppongi apart compared to other nightlife districts like Shinjuku is that it’s very accessible not only to Japanese but also to expats and foreign visitors, with English-speaking staff, English menus and even expat-owned venues. Roppongi is still rowdy at night, making it an attractive place to stay for night owls who like being in the thick of it, but quiet backstreets and a growing roster of shops, restaurants and other diversions make it also interesting to explore by day.
Located between Tokyo and Ueno stations on the useful Yamanote Line loop, Akihabara is all about consumerism, with signs, displays, posters and other advertisements creating a visual extravaganza of color along Chuo Dori, the main thoroughfare, and its side streets. Until recently, Akihabara was known as Akihabara Electric Town for its role as the largest shopping district in Japan for electronics and electrical appliances, packed with big stores and cubby-hole-size stalls selling calculators, TVs, watches, cameras, rice cookers, audio devices and then, toward the end of the century, computers and later mobile phones.
It was the computers that brought in young nerds (otaku in Japanese) and with them a growing number of shops specializing in hobbies otaku love—namely anime (Japanese animation) and manga (comics, or graphic novels). Today, Akihabara is Japan’s largest otaku mecca, with electronics and otaku-oriented stores living in a kind of jarring symbiosis. One of the most unique additions is the so-called maid café, featuring young Japanese women dressed as French maids and serving coffee, tea, desserts and conversation.
The biggest player in Akihabara is Yodobashi-Akiba, a nine-story mega-complex offering computers, vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, cameras, phones, bicycles, massage chairs and more, including restaurants on the top floor. On Chuo Dori, Don Quijote wins the prize as the most eclectic store you’ll ever see anywhere, packed with clothing (including those ever-popular maid costumes and other cosplay outfits), candy, cosmetics, alcohol, household goods, party items and more, including its own maid café. Other standouts include Mandarake and Radio Kaikan, both with manga, figurines and collectibles.
On Sundays, Chuo Dori is closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian paradise. This is a fascinating area for a look at Japan’s gadgets and gizmos, even if you’re not in the market to buy anything. For nightlife and a great meal, however, you’ll want to head elsewhere.