It might sound counterintuitive, given that Tokyo is the planet’s largest metro area, but it can be tempting to write the Japanese capital off after you’ve been to Japan a few times and visited the most popular neighborhoods of Tokyo. There are so many other exciting destinations to discover in Japan, after all, and huge cities like Tokyo are simply a waste of time and money once you’ve seen their main attractions.
Underrated Neighborhoods of Tokyo
The thing is, Tokyo is not so much one huge city as it is a huge agglomeration of dozens of small ones, each with its own character and culture. Here are six underrated neighborhoods of Tokyo to discover the next time you visit, whether it’s your first or fiftieth trip to Japan.
Akihabara is well-known among certain segments of Japan enthusiasts (namely, anime fans and gamers), but it’s relatively easy for unsuspecting Tokyo travelers to miss, which is why it earns a spot on this list. Even if arcade games aren’t your things and you don’t known Pikachu from Princess Mononoke, a stroll through Akihabara can be as illuminating as the millions of neon lights that brighten its streets by night.
Have a meal at Maidreamin’, a theme café that can seem erotic from the outside but is really more of a kawaii (cute) experience, or take advantage of a more practical benefit of visiting Tokyo’s “Electric Town:” where you can purchase cheap (and, for tourists, tax-free) electronics at shops like BIC Camera, Labi and Radio Kaikan. Alternatively, indulge your inner 90s kid and ride a Mario Kart through the neighborhood’s streets. We’ve all got a little gamer in us, after all.
Home to the Hongo Campus of the University of Tokyo, Bunkyo is only a few stops north of Tokyo Station, but feels like a different world. The relaxed vibe contrasts dramatically with the bustle that defines most other parts of Tokyo. And the youthful energy that the large population of university students lends the neighborhood is palpable, particular when you stop in at one of the many cafés and fast food restaurants that line Bunkyo’s roadways.
Bunkyo has a great deal to offer sightseers as well. It’s home to Tokyo Dome, which is where Tokyo’s famous sumo matches take place, while the observation deck at Bunkyo City Center offers a view of the Shinjuku skyline — and, on clear days, Mt. Fuji behind it. Bunkyo is also where you’ll find Homeikan, one of the only proper ryokan guest houses in Tokyo.
Transiting through Tokyo Station can be a stressful experience, so it’s understandable why you might not want to hang out longer than need be. But Maranouchi, the neighborhood immediately surrounding the station, is a delightful and surprisingly relaxing place to spend a bit of time, to the extent that you might consider waiting for the next Shinkansen.
Take the Maranouchi exit (see, navigating Tokyo Station is simple!) and walk westward from the station to enjoy a view of its heritage facade, which doubles as the posh Tokyo Station Hotel. For an even better view of both the old and new parts of the station, head south from here and ascend to the roof of KITTE, a shopping mall built into the historical Tokyo Central Post Office Building. Or, continue walking west until you reach the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which is open to the public during cherry blossom season.
Speaking of sakura, it’s during the time of year when they’re at full bloom (in Tokyo, this is typically the last weekend in March or the first one in April) that you’re mostly likely to traipse along the banks of the man-made Meguro River. However, the surrounding Nakameguro neighborhood is a great part of the city to explore 365 days per year — particularly, in fact, when hanami crowds have dissipated.
The river itself (and the countless eateries and watering holes along it) notwithstanding, Nakameguro offers an eclectic range of attractions for the curious traveler. Before—well before—you eat, take a look around Meguro Parasitological Museum, which is home to a 26-foot long tapeworm, among other disgusting discoveries. Or go a more palatable route with a promenade through Sparrow’s House Green Park, home to one of the only bamboo forests in Tokyo-proper.
“Shibakoen” is the name of the park that sits at the base of the iconic Tokyo Tower. It’s also only the beginning of what the highly underrated Tokyo neighborhood of the same name has to offer, whether you stay here or simply pass through. I’d personally recommend the former, due largely to Celestine Hotel, a boutique property a stone’s throw from the park where you can enjoy free-flow champagne at breakfast, which I’ve never seen elsewhere in Japan.
Attraction-wise, two main things in Shibakoen stand out. The first sits just steps from Tokyo Tower: Maruyama Kofun, a massive tomb you’ll almost certainly miss if you aren’t looking for it. The second is actually a bit outside the boundaries of Shibakoen, but worth the extra trek: The observatory atop the Tokyo World Trade Center, which is neither the tallest nor the fanciest in Tokyo, but offers the most unobstructed view of Tokyo Tower.
Like Akihabara and Nakameguro, Tsukiji isn’t a wholly underrated Tokyo neighborhood. Tourists come here, quite a lot of them, and quite regularly. Unfortunately, most of these tourists leave before the sun even comes up, convinced that the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market (or the sashimi breakfasts you can order at one of the holes in the wall nearby) is the only thing worth seeing in this part of Tokyo.
To be sure, since the tuna auction will be relocating sooner rather than later, it’s probably best to get a leg up on other things to do in Tsukiji. Say your prayers at Tsukiji Honganji, whose Indian-inspired facade is among the most distinctive you’ll find in Tokyo or maybe Japan. Or, pop into the tea house at Hamarikyu Garden, whose lush walkways are charming even if you don’t sit down for a steaming cup of matcha.
The Bottom Line
Tokyo offers endless worlds of discovery, no matter how often you visit. Whether you mingle with the university crowd in Bunkyo, study parasitology along the Meguro River or see just how much more there is to Tsukiji than its famous fish market, Tokyo delights and amazes you more the deeper you explore the city. Spend at least a couple of days in Tokyo every time you visit Japan to gain a more profound understand of the world’s largest urban area.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been obsessed with Japan since the moment he set foot there. His most recent trip to the country saw him visit the northern island of Hokkaido during the peak of lavender season. Bookmark Japan Starts Here, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.