Neon lights everywhere, drunk salarymen stumbling in the streets, squishing yourself on the trains overflowing with hurried commuters, robots, steaming bowls of ramen, robots serving ramen — this is how everyone in the world views Tokyo — except those who’ve been there and found things to do in Tokyo outside of the city.
Yep, Tokyo’s neon lights are visible from Mars and undisputedly there’s an insane amount of ramen to eat. And yeah, you’ll encounter a robot or two. But that isn’t Tokyo. Tokyo is an endless expanse of quiet neighborhood streets barely wide enough for an American-size car to drive down. Tokyo is green with nature, or pink with nature when the cherry trees bloom in the spring. Tokyo is craft beer bars and the best coffee of your life from a cafe tucked between grandma’s house and an Edo-era shop selling tofu. It’s not a crowded crosswalk.
When you touch down in Tokyo, you must see the Shibuya crossing, eat ramen, get a tan in the neon lights, and explore what makes it the city with the best things to do in Japan. But after that, go see my favorite Tokyo, the hidden Tokyo, in these neighborhoods:
In this hidden Tokyo spot, you’ll think you’ve somehow ended up on the other side of Japan, but an hour and a half train ride from Shinjuku (snag a Japan rail pass!) will land you in the serene mountain area of Okutama, still within Tokyo’s city-limits.
Follow the Okutama Mukashi Michi, the old road, that leads to Lake Okutama. The path hugs the Tama River, a green-tinted perfectly clear river. Work up the courage to cross over the two suspension bridges that lead you over. The first one sways immediately when you step onto it; it can only handle three people on it at a time. I made it halfway across, got the picture and tip-toed back to solid ground. The second suspension bridge can handle five people at once and doesn’t sway quite as much, so if you bailed on the first one, like I did, you can handle the second one. The bridges are only there to offer a view of the river and ravine from above, so if bridges and heights aren’t your thing, not to worry, they’re not actually part of the hike.
The only neon you’ll spot here is in the fall, with the ginkgo and maple trees showing off their yellow and red hues. The road passes through picturesque villages with houses set into the mountainside. Most homes here include an impressive hillside farm, and you can spot wasabi growing (a ridiculously temperamental process, which is why most of the wasabi we eat is actually horseradish dyed green).
Be sure to have a handful of small coins on you before you depart Okutama Station. Most farms sell small bags of whatever is growing in season for a few hundred yen, on the honor system with a jar to drop your coin in. After the hike, hang out at Port Okutama, a restaurant above the train station, for a beer or a meal before heading back on the train. Your glutes are gonna feel those hills you just hiked — better make it two beers.
Waseda University will make one of these things happen: if you’ve attended college, it’s going make you angry that no one told you to go to this university. If you haven’t attended, it’s going to lead you straight to the admissions office for an application. The campus is in the heart of Tokyo, but it’s a serene oasis.
The buildings are European-esque brick beauties, and the museum looks akin to a house in Bavaria. It feels nothing like Japan except in the cleanliness and courteousness of everyone on campus. As a non-student (not yet, anyway), you can dine in any of the campus cafeterias for a stupidly cheap, but delicious, meal. Next to campus is the Ana Hachimangu Shrine which dates back to 1062. It’s been reconstructed post-WWII, but it’s still beautiful to see the Shinto guardian of the Waseda neighborhood. Take a tour of the library for the ultimate silent-Tokyo tour, and visit the two free museums on campus for a calm, feel-good day in Tokyo without the stress of dealing with mid-term tests.
Kasai Rinkai Koen
Tokyo on the weekends can be rough. Those packed rush-hour trains run at all hours, packed with people who clocked over 60-hour work weeks getting out to enjoy life outside of a cubicle. But out in Kasai Rinkai Koen, there’s no lack of personal space.
This hidden Tokyo park is massive, almost 200 acres, and sits on Tokyo Bay, which has a proper beach for wandering with toes in the sand. Fun fact: the beach sits on an artificially created island. Pack a picnic and a frisbee and spend the day with Tokyo families out enjoying the day off.
If you eventually realize you’re really bad at tossing a plastic disc, head into the Tokyo Sea Life Park, the aquarium located within the park. If you prefer to stay outside, hop on the 383 foot high ferris wheel where you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji during the 17-minute ride. Be sure to wander west between the ferris wheel and the bay where the canoe and kayak slalom course for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is under construction. If you’re still around come nightfall, look to the east where you’ll catch the Tokyo Disney Resort nightly fireworks show.
Food trucks specializing in shaved ice, grilled meat sticks and coffee are at the aquarium entrance if you need a snack. And if you run out of adult beverages, there’s a convenience store at the train station which is also the entrance to the park. Food, great views, a beach, aquarium, ferris wheel, and testing your frisbee skills is sure to make for an authentic Tokyo Sunday.