“So, what’s Japan really like?” I get this question a lot when I go back home for the holidays. After living here for a few years I find it harder and harder to answer. How could I ever explain in so many words a culture with more faces than a diamond? But whenever I am asked this question, one image always flashes in my mind, and as it does in many others I’m sure, Shinjuku.
The world’s busiest train complex, the epicenter of Japan’s business industry, famous for entertainment for the one and the ninety-nine percent… yes. Shinjuku is probably the rare case where we can see all of Japan in just a few square miles. Well, not so few really. Shinjuku is the largest neighborhood in Tokyo, and without the right guide, it’s easy to get lost. Here we’ve provided a quick and easy overview of 10 things to do in Shinjuku!
Front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
A government office may not seem like the most exciting thing to do, but visitors who skip this leg are really missing out! The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is 243 meters (797 feet) of fantastic panoramic views of the city. On a clear day, you might even catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji! There are two towers to choose from, North and South, and unfortunately, there isn’t a pedway that connects the two.
Upon entering you must choose which tower you’d like to go to and ride the appropriate elevator. But don’t worry, whatever your choice you won’t miss out on anything! Entrance to either tower is free of charge, and both elevators reach the 45th floor in about 55 seconds. It’s entirely possible to see one side, go down to the main entrance, then check out the other!
View from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building with the Tokyo City Opera Hall
Both the North and South Towers offer picture guides by the windows of the main sights, so you won’t have to fight with your friends and family about who can spot buildings the best. Both towers also offer food, comfortable seats, and souvenir shops.
The South Tower houses a café with sweets while the North has a bigger, restaurant-style bar to get a full meal. The North Tower’s restaurant also has seats by the window! Be aware, because this is a government building it closes at 6:45 pm, and to enter you must get there at least 30 minutes before closing time. After spending some time looking at the sights, why not go to them? Read more to find out what places we recommend!
Demonstration of Sword Fighting Styles
The swift, katana skilled samurai in ornate armor are long gone, but there are still plenty of opportunities to get your samurai spirit on! Shinjuku’s Samurai Museum in Kabukicho is one of the most popular places to see, learn, and wear history.
A red replica of a samurai’s armor greets you outside of the traditional Japanese-style front door of the museum. You can purchase tickets for group tours in Japanese, English, Korean, or Chinese. The guide takes you through each room of the two-storied building and shows you the old weapons and armors.
At the end of the tour you can dress in kimono, traditional clothing, or even a full set of armor. There are also performances of sword fighting, and you can learn about the different fighting techniques the samurai used. You can even try out these techniques yourself under the guise of a choreographer. Even in modern times, you too can become a samurai! Now, let’s step out of the past and…
Entrance of the Robot Restaurant with Entry Fees and Showtimes Displayed
Prepare to be assaulted by amazement in this fantastical place. Just down the street from the peaceful Samurai Museum of the past is the raucous Robot Restaurant of the future. The front lobby is a madhouse of gold and chrome. Every which way you turn there’s something to look at whether it be a sparkle bouncing around the room, or a flamboyant painting of a wild animal. A robot band even comes in to entertain you with some classic songs while you wait. All patrons are lead to the main theater in an organized fashion, and the show begins.
Dancers roll out on driven platforms with colorful wigs and lit costumes. Jugglers cavort across the stage and add a few flips. Drummers battle each other to be the best musicians, and the robots are driven out spitting sparks and bangs. Personally, this show was my absolute favorite experience in Japan, but I have known some people who were disappointed because they took the name “Robot Restaurant” a bit too literally. This isn’t a sit-down, family-style restaurant with a menu served by servers who are androids. This is an electric vaudeville show with a few light meals and snacks up for grabs. If you’re looking for a great place with a meal, read on.
One of my friends had the fortunate opportunity to visit both South Korea and Japan, but hitting two countries in one vacation means a tight schedule. If you wish you could have planned a trip to Seoul but it just wouldn’t work out, head to Shin-Okubo for all your Korean needs!
Korean bars and restaurants line the streets offering classics like spicy, savory pancakes, thickly cut grilled meats, fried chicken and more! For the K-Pop lovers, you’ll find an endless supply of shops selling merchandise from your favorite bands. If you’re a make-up aficionado you can buy the highly sought after Korean cosmetics like Etude House. As strange as it might sound, I can’t more than recommend the snail essence face masks to rejuvenate dry skin! If you’re lucky, you might even have the chance to meet one of Korea’s celebrities as they often come here to promote their new projects. If the city life is getting to be a little much for you at this point then...
View of the Taiwan Pavilion in Shinjuku Gyoen National Park
When most people think of Tokyo, they don’t think of wide, green, open spaces with trees taller than houses. It’s here we can escape the crowds and the cars without hauling over to the next town. Once the Emperor’s private garden, Shinjuku Gyoen National Park was opened for the public in 1949. The park features three types of landscapes: traditional Japanese, English, and a formal French garden. The park is especially popular during springtime because of the cherry blossom season, but if you can’t book your next vacation in spring there are featured flowers year-round!
You can check out the camellias in winter, roses and hydrangeas in summer, and chrysanthemums in the autumn. The park is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Entrance fee is 200 JPY (US $2) for adults and 50 JPY (US $0.50) for children up to age 15. Before you get back on that train make sure to stop by the shrine conveniently located next to the station!
The Hanazono Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. Its subdued nature contrasts sharply against the backdrop of glitzy Shinjuku, but it actually isn’t so out of place. This is the shrine for business people to receive blessings on their next capital ventures. On most days you can watch folks in suits stop by during their lunch break to give a quick prayer. On Sundays, Hanazono Shrine holds a flea market where you can find all kinds of antiques from furniture to collectible coins.
This is a great place to find those out-of-the-box souvenirs for all your loved ones back home. If you’re coming to Japan in November, be sure to check out the Tori no Ichi festival here. The number of vendors almost triples and some 200 food booths pop up. Don’t worry about opening and closing hours in regards to this shrine. In fact, a night view of the Hanazono Shrine is a great way to end the day. From evening the Hanazono Shrine is illuminated by soft, glowing lights giving that ethereal presence we love Japan for. If you’re sick of Shinto shrines, (is that even possible?) change it up and check out a Buddhist temple instead!
Taisoji Temple's Statue of One of the Six Jizo Bodhisattvas
The Taisoji Temple is a Jodo Buddhist temple that also serves as an ancient graveyard for feudal lords from the 5th century. Immediately upon entering you’re greeted on your right side by a huge statue of one of the Six Jizo Bodhisattvas. The statue is more than 300 years old and used to be gold plated, but over the years has turned copper-green with age. If you look closely, you can see the names of the solicitors who first raised money for the statue’s construction those many years ago.
Taisoji Temple is also known for being a home for the local stray cats. If you’re a cat lover, feel free to pick up a few treats on your way! After running around town and seeing all the sights you might be exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep, or a nightcap. Here are a few suggestions for enjoying Shinjuku’s nightlife!
Patrons Walk Down One of the Wider Paths
Omoide Yokocho, the Corner of Memories, may look like just another alley-way of bars, but the history of this place makes this corner stand out. Prior to WWII, this area was a prosperous place for shops selling various goods and food. When the air raids on Tokyo devastated the land, many families had to escape from the city and this area became a transit post for refugees. After reconstructing around the 1950s Omoide Yokocho came back as a place for shops, but food was strictly rationed by the government. Shop owners persevered through this by opening up motsu-yaki (fried offal) shops as these meats were easier to obtain.
Today, motsu-yaki shops still take up most of the space in Omoide Yokocho. The shops are tightly packed together with thin walls between. Some of the streets along the shops aren’t wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side, so take care when walking through not to bump anyone. Here, you can get a real sense of how Shinjuku used to look before modern times and revel in the spirit of the Japanese perseverance.
One word of warning. Most shops don’t have bathrooms, but there is one available in the center of the alleyways. Look out for the easy to follow “Toilet” signs and it’ll lead you right to it, though you might be shocked. Gentlemen will recognize the urinals right away, and so will the ladies! It’s a unisex bathroom. Ladies must walk behind the men to get to the private, Japanese style toilets.
Bars Line the Road of Golden Gai
If you want to continue exploring old Japan, Golden Gai is another spot that holds on to that scruffy, post-war charm. Like Omoide Yokocho, the shops here are small and squished together, but you’ll find less food and more drinking establishments here. It might be overwhelming to choose which place you’d like to go to, and you might want to try them all, but be careful.
In Japan, bars often charge customers a cover fee. While the cover fee includes a small snack, it’s sometimes more expensive than you might expect. Most bars in Japan don’t advertise this because it’s so common in Japanese culture. Thankfully, Golden Gai has learned from the surprised tourists of yesteryear and bars either display their cover charges plainly on menus outside or completely drop the charges! Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai are great places to really see how the salt of the earth Japanese unwind after a long day of work. But if you don’t feel like drinking at such a “down to Earth” establishment, head to the Park Hyatt Hotel New York Bar and “look down on” everyone… from 52 stories up!
View From Tokyo Park Hyatt Hotel
The Park Hyatt Hotel’s bars restaurants aren’t just famous for their fine dining, vast selections of wines, and art. The top stories of this hotel have wall-to-ceiling windows instead of walls giving diners a 360-degree view of Shinjuku.
The 40th floor boasts the restaurant "Kozue" where you can find an assortment of Japanese dishes to choose from including grilled fish and hot pot. The 41st houses three bars to choose from that all will brag have the finest selection in spirits. Finally, on the 52nd floor is the famous New York Grill which keeps nearly 2,000 wines in its cellar, and offers a wide selection of beef cuts. Guests here can sit back and enjoy the light show that dances nightly through Tokyo.
If you would like to see Shinjuku’s famous nightlife, daylife, or anything in between, book with us for your personalized tour!