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Top 10 Places To Visit in Tokyo

I love Tokyo! I never thought I would say this, but after 10 days spent there, Tokyo became my favorite city in the world (over Paris!!). I was always a city girl, and though I love nature, I could never live too far, nor too long away from the concrete and electric jungle. And I'm afraid I will never again be able to stay away for too long from Tokyo - the most civilized and well organized jungle of them all. I stayed at a great hotel in Tokyo near the subway station, which was perfect because I had easy access to the entire city. Most attractions in Tokyo can be reached by subway or train (a JR Pass comes in very handy by the way), and though huge and a bit intimidating at first, you can be anywhere in the city in no time.

Tokyo was the first destination we visited in Asia, and comparing it with all the other places we've visited before (and after), Tokyo is a different world altogether. If I were to recommend you only one city to visit in the world (given that you are not Japanese), I would recommend you Tokyo. You get the idea, I'm in love with this city! And this is not only because for me it represents the peak of civilization, law, order and fashion, it is also because from all the places I've visited so far, this is the one that stands out most, in all the good ways. 

The following list of places to visit in Tokyo is based on our personal experience and organized in no particular order. Please feel free to add your favorite places in Tokyo in the comment section below.

Shibuya 109 & Shibuya Crossing


Shibuya Crossing at Rush Hour

Shibuya is the point zero of Japanese fashion and the Mecca of chic; and it fascinated me so much, I must be a Shibuya girl in a parallel universe or something. The way these girls dress, the contact lenses that make the eyes look bigger, all that lace, ruffles, colorful socks, and ribbons, make for the most elegant casual outfits I've ever seen. I get goose bumps every time I remember the time I spent shopping in the trendy boutiques at Shibuya 109. I left part of my heart there, and ever since I got back home all I want is to go back. 

The Shibuya Crossing is a couple of minutes from Shibuya 109 and just outside Shibuya Station served by JR Yamanote Line. This crossing, made famous by the 'Lost in Translation' movie, is one of the busiest in the world and the quintessence of organized chaos. The traffic lights from all directions turn red all at the same time and for the next couple of minutes people invade the crossing like spilled beans out of a can. You can observe the spectacle of lights and people from the Starbucks on the crossing's north side or you can experience the madness for yourself, which in my opinion is far better. My husband and I crossed the road quite a few times here just for fun and not one single time did we bump into another person or people bumped into us. Everybody matched their peace at the speed of the person in front, walking at unison, on lanes. Now if this is not the ultimate example of civilization, I don't know what is.

Meiji Shrine


Traditional Shinto Wedding at Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in the Shibuya Ward, in the middle of a beautiful forest with huge Torii gates leading to the main hall and it is accessible from the Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line. Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, it is now a favorite place for wedding ceremonies. We were lucky to witness such a procession. Led by two shrine priests and two shrine maidens,  the couple followed under a big red umbrella. Family and friends came next, but we were surprised by both the reduced numbers of participants and by the lack of joy on their faces. Apparently Shinto wedding ceremonies are very solemn and quite unique. Also there were lots of worshipers ruminating around the shrine's grounds, and many of the ladies and young girls were dressed in gorgeous kimonos. As opposed to the nearby Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine is the place to go contemplate the old Japan and Japanese traditions.

Yoyogi Park on a Sunday


Young Japanese people dancing in Yoyogi Park

There is no better place for people watching in Tokyo than the Yoyogi Park. The park is very popular with young Japanese people, especially on Sundays, and you can spot the unleashed wackiness of an otherwise reserved nation. We spotted from shy Lolitas and classy girls drinking red wine from crystal glasses while seated on a picnic cloth, to couples in love, club meetings, teenagers rehearsing plays, and homeless people giving a ride to their cats in supermarket trolleys. Everything goes and nobody feels out of place. The park is pretty huge and doesn't give the feeling of being crowded at all, but then again, this is part of a special Japanese talent - in spite of Tokyo being the world's most populous metropolis, we never felt overwhelmed by the number of people around us.

Zojoji Temple


Unborn Children Garden at Zojoji Temple

Next to Tokyo Tower, the Zojoji Temple is a Buddhist temple, head of the Jodo sect in the Kanto Region. The temple dates back to the 14th century, though it was moved to its present location at the end of the 16th century. The temple was badly damaged during the WWII and therefore most of the buildings are reconstructions, nevertheless stunning. The temple is surrounded by a forest and in spite of the heavy traffic going on around it, the place has this serene atmosphere that invites the visitors to meditation and contemplation - the cats leisurely napping on the temple's grounds are proof of it. Behind the Main Hall there is a cemetery and six Tokugawa shoguns are buried here. But for me, the most unique feature of this temple remains the Unborn Children Garden. Rows of beautiful stone statues represent the unborn babies, be them miscarried, aborted or stillborn. These statues decorated by the parents with baby clothes and windmills are like little angels that supposedly help the children with the transition to the afterlife. It is an equally sad and charming sight.

A cat café


Ladies feeding cats in a cat cafe in Ikebukuro, Tokyo

Even before going to Japan I knew there were two things I wouldn't miss for anything in the world when I finally got there - eat sushi and visit a cat café. I'm a self declared crazy cat lady (my husband totally agrees) and indulging on my petting urges on the other side of the world was something I was really looking forward to. I found this cat cafe in Ikebukuro, at the 5th floor, and I didn't hesitate. In what is probably the most purrfect 500sqm in Tokyo, there were comfy sofas, manga books, cat toys and more kitty cats than people. The puffy balls of fur came in all colors and fur lengths, all adult, some of a certain pedigree, others not so much. 

We had to take off our shoes before entering and we were given slippers instead. There was a set fee for every 10 minutes spent in the company of the cute kitties and there were set rules we were given to read in English, as the staff spoke only Japanse and the cats only Meow. We agreed not to pick up the cats, nor to bother them if they showed signs of being annoyed and they let us in. All in all, the atmosphere was very quiet, just right for a nap actually, and well under the noise level of any other café - everybody was whispering. There was a juice and tea vending machine on the premises and we could take photos without flash. For an additional cost you could even buy cat food for the kitties. Nowhere and never in history were cats treated with more respect. 

Nevertheless, like any royalty born or made, these cats looked bored. They were't impressed with the cat toys I flashed in front of them; most of the time they didn't even seem to notice me and they definitely didn't show much interest in being petted. In spite of being an overpriced experience that involved more petting and less playing, I would recommend it to any cat lover out there.

Tokyo Tower & Tokyo Skytree


Tokyo Tower at night

Tokyo Tower probably gained it's fame due to its similarity with Eiffel Tower and up till now it has drawn many tourists. But my question is, now that a new kid came into town will it steal the show? Tokyo Skytree (634m) completed in 2012 and Tokyo Tower (333m) are the two tallest artificial structures in Japan. While the orange and white Tokyo Tower is wrapped in a warm light at night, the Skytree is painted in a circus of lights every evening. Time will tell which is the tourists favorite.

Senso-ji Temple


Entrace of Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

This is Tokyo's oldest temple and the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) is the symbol of the city. Leading to the temple is a 200m shopping street where you can buy anything from snacks, to Hello Kitty dolls, trinkets and Buddhist scrolls. Close to the Main Hall are the Asakusa Shrine and the 5 storied pagoda. Both the temple grounds and the shopping street were extremely busy when we visited. This was the first Buddhist temple we went to in Japan and I was surprised to see that the worshipers clearly outnumbered the tourists. In spite of being a super modern metropolis, the inhabitants of Tokyo are still clinging to their traditions (more than the western world, anyways). The story behind this temple is an interesting one as well. In the 7th century, two fishermen found the statue of Kannon in the river while fishing. The village headman recognized the deity represented in the statue and decided to transform his own house into a temple. 

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1


Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1

This is Tokyo's City Hall, and with its 243m, it is the 7th tallest building in Japan. Built to resemble a computer chip and also a Gothic cathedral, it makes for one of the best observation decks in Tokyo. On a clear day visitors can even spot Mt. Fuji far in the distance, but the views of Tokyo's skyline are just as breathtaking at night as well. There are quite a few buildings in Tokyo that feature an observation deck from where you can admire the city from above. Some do it for free, as it's the case of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, others charge a fee. My point is, viewing this immense city from the top is quite a different experience than seeing it from the ground level. While the latest gives you the feeling that the possibilities are endless, the views from the top give you a sense of endless discovery. Taking a no-stops elevator ride all the way to the last floor is an experience in itself too. Apart from not making any noises during the few seconds it takes to travel over 200 metes, the elevator doesn't seem to be moving either.

Tokyo by night


Tokyo by night

Far from being a city that never sleeps, Tokyo can get surprisingly quiet at night. As we walked the streets of this metropolis around 10PM, both the buildings aiming for the sky and the sidewalks seemed to be falling asleep. OK, I'm not talking about Shibuya or Ikebukuro here, which are the gathering places of the young and restless, but I am talking about the residential and business districts. There is an hour between dusk and the end of office hours when Tokyo's skyscrapers are beautifully lit and are a head turner. But as the night gets older, people go home and the tall buildings become black monsters against the sky. This contrast between something so huge and full of life and the stillness it can all come to never ceases to amaze me. I believe you haven't fully experienced Tokyo till you walked its streets at night and saw what sudden transformations this amazing city is capable of.

A manga shop 


Japanese girls in a colorful manga shop in Tokyo

I don't read manga, thought to be completely honest with you there are some Japanese anime movies that I really love. But I believe any traveler should enter at least one manga shop, and if you do so, please make sure you pick one that is a 7-8 story building dedicated entirely to the genre. You don't have to buy a book. All you have to do is look around and observe and emerge yourself in the local culture. I never realized how inspired from reality manga is, nor how much influence the manga culture has upon the daily life of the young Japanese people, till I arrived in Tokyo. My first impression about Tokyo was actually "It's a manga world!", and to a certain extent, it is.

Way too bright neon lights, colorful drawings that cover even the floors of the shops, the loud TVs that each play a different movie all at once, resulting in a babel of voices, and the impossible to read (for me) books, combine in a wonderful way with the boys and girls, women and men, all dressed in that school uniform inspired fashion I came to love so much. I'm sure any European book store dreams about having this many and dedicated customers. The Japanese nation really reads a lot comparing and it is pretty common to see people of all ages reading manga on trains or subway.


This is a subjective list of the top 10 places to visit in Tokyo. However, there's so much more to be experienced and discovered in this amazing city. Spending the night in a ryokan, having lunch or dinner in a hole in the wall noodle shop shoulder to shoulder with the locals and trying to blend in, attending a festival (there are plenty to choose from - we went to four - Ikebukuro Autumn Festival, Jidai Matsuri in Kyoto, a street festival in Nagoya and a festival in Arashiyama) and going on a day trip outside Tokyo, the possibilities are endless.


Useful information:

How to move around: The best way to travel around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and economical way to see the country. For train route ideas and city guides, you can check out Japan by Rail.

How to get there: There are plenty of flights to Tokyo from both Europe and US alike. Air Canada and Alitalia are just two of the companies having regular flights to Japan and if you plan your trip in time, you can get some pretty good deals too, which makes it even more worthwhile.
Further readings:

Before going to Japan we highly recommend you read the following books for a better understanding of the Japanese culture and lifestyle: A Geek in Japan and Japan: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture.

Where to stay: We spent a few night at Kimi Ryokan close to Ikebukuro train station. We loved the experience of staying in a traditional Japanese inn, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

67 comments:

  1. Oh wow, I loved reading your post!! This is exactly how I like hearing about cities: from someone who has fallen in love with them, and who shares away some of the must-do sights, as well as their personal favourites. Great pictures, too. Very intrigued now:).

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    1. Awwww, thank you, Vera! Tokyo is an amazing city, so unique, so remarkable!

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  2. This is beyond wonderful!! I cannot stop taking deep *sighs* when reading and looking to every single beautiful picture from this post! The love for Tokyo, the culture and the attractions … contagious! Thank you for taking us in this trip with you!

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    1. Thank you for the lovely comment, Mike! We love this giant so much! :)

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  3. Beautiful images! I keep hearing about cat cafe's, and still cannot wrap my head around them.

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    1. Haha, they are cafes elevated to the most purrfect state :) We wanted to go to one for so long... but you have to see it to believe it! With so many cat lovers all over the world it is just strange to us the concept didn't pick up in the west as well.

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  4. Gorgeous pics. I am going to link to this page from my blog right now... Good work!

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    1. Thank you, Maryanne! You are too kind!

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  5. What...no Disney? Ok, I'm kidding, but I would love to visit Tokyo Disney. Of course, I'd just love to visit Tokyo period:)

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    1. We didn't make it to Tokyo Disney unfortunately. But I'm not sure I would have included in the list anyways because it's not really all that Japanese at core. Probably the Hello Kitty theme park should have been included, but we haven't visited it either, so there's no way to know.

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  6. Wow your photos are amazing - you really highlight the magical essence of Tokyo in this post. I agree, there is nowhere in the world like Tokyo. It is a place that everyone should try and visit.

    Thank you also for checking out my blog - linking mine to yours as I love it!

    http://www.travellingtalesofciara.com

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    1. Thank you, Ciara! Tokyo is a magical place indeed and its people are the key element.

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  7. I want to go to Japan so badly. This is such an inspirational post!

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  8. Tokyo is probably my favorite city, too. I lived there for a year and really liked the Ikebukuro neighborhood a lot. It's kind of gritty, but it has Japan's biggest bookstore, the formerly tallest building, a couple of parks and a ton of tiny restaurants, especially ramen shops. And I love ramen.

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    1. We 'accidentally' booked our hotel in Ikebukuro so we explored this neighborhood quite a lot. It's one of Tokyo's best and the ramen shops are good priced and the plates generous. Loved taking the elevator ride in Sunshine 60 :)

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  9. I am getting more and more interested in Tokyo, whoever I spoke to told the same.. it can not be a coincidence. Thanks for sharing :)

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    1. Tokyo is fascinating and there are so many things to see and do here. Definitely worth visiting.

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  10. Beautiful photographs and narrative. I always pictured japan as the place with most beautiful cherry blossoms in the world, however, this post is very inspiring and tells a rookie like me more about it.

    Thanks for sharing the info,
    Raji
    www.raji-the-traveller.blogspot.com

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    1. Oh, Japan is so much more than cherry blossoms, Raji! However, we would love next time we visit to do it in spring so we could see the beautiful cherry trees in bloom too. Getting goose bumps just thinking about all the photos we could take :)

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  11. Ohh, I wish I had known about the cat cafes on my trip to Tokyo, I would have LOVED to go to one of those! Ahh, next time, right?! I attended one of the traditional Japanese style bathhouses in Tokyo, which was quite an experience, too! http://www.usedyorkcity.com/2012/07/11/memoirs-of-a-japanese-bathhouse/

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    1. You must go back to Japan to experience a cat cafe, Jess! :) I didn't go to a traditional bathhouse... My inner geisha is sad now :(

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  12. Seems you had a great time!

    I visited Tokyo for 7 days during my trip to Japan in April 2010 and loved it. You're so right, despite the city being so big, it is surprisingly fast to get around from place to place by train or subway.

    Good picks for your top things to do... I did all of them except the cat cafe :P

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    1. I'm a crazy cat lady so I definitely couldn't have missed the cat cafes...

      Even now it is difficult for me to grasp the vastness of Tokyo though. As we moved from one place to another mostly underground, it didn't seem as big as it is in reality.

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  13. Tokyo really is a wonderful mixture of past and contemporary! Finding another city like this is quite impossible.

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  14. Okay, I don't think I've ever truly considered jaunting to Tokyo before. Sort of. I mean, if the chance arose I'd never say no. However, after learning of cat cafes? Oh hell yeah! I want to go experience that!!!! Had to pin that to my Animulies board. Too awesome!

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    1. Cat cafes are a super cool idea, aren't they?

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  15. Bookmarked for when I finally make it to Japan... I want to save up loads of money first for a massive shopping spree! :D

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    1. I am with you on this one, Jade! While we discovered Tokyo is not all that expensive (Oslo for example seemed more expensive), a girl definitely needs a shopping budget for Tokyo. There are so many cute and sexy things you can buy! I am a bit sad my shopping budget was somehow limited, but I will totally make up for it next time :)

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  16. Favorite city in the world over Paris? Now that's an endorsement. I'm hoping to get to Tokyo someday and see the places in your terrific photos.

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    1. Yes, I think it has something to do with how incredibly different everything is. Tokyo is such a wonderful mixture of old and modern! It's impossible to find anything quite like it anywhere else.

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  17. This is a useful compilation! I have a friend who is working in Tokyo now and he's inviting me to come over. I need to save up though since I feel that traveling in Tokyo is as expensive as gallivanting in Paris!

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    1. Fingers crossed you'll get there soon! :) But honestly, Tokyo is just as expensive as you want it to be.

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  18. Let's add up the Giant Gundam Statue in Tokyo Japan

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    1. We only saw the one in Kobe, but oh my, what a sight! Crazy!

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  19. so so so awesome! Japan is very high on my to go list and this makes it even bigger

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    1. Japan and Tokyo in particular are great. You should totally go and I'm sure you will love it.

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  20. I would love to visit the Manga shop since I like to read anime series! I started collecting manga when I was still in high school and I have tons of it on my cabinet.

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    1. Oh, wow, then you would appreciate the manga shops even more than I did. I don't read manga, so for me it was more in the category of cultural studies :)

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  21. I have been to Tokyo many times, but my favorite place is Kamakura. It's about an hour ride on train. Right by the beach, big Buddha, and such different feeling from being in the city. Highly recommend it.

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    1. You are right, Kamakura is a wonderful place, and so different from Tokyo. And while I appreciate a quiet day from time to time, I feel that Tokyo, in all its diversity, is the one must see place in Japan above any other.

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  22. Wonderful top 10 places to see in Tokyo! I wish I could visit Japan sooner rather than later... Fingers crossed.

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    1. I hope so too. Japan is an amazing country and Tokyo is a city like no other. This list of places to visit in Tokyo is just the beginning, believe me!

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  23. Reading this post was a great pleasure, thanks for your efforts.

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    1. Glad you liked my list! Hope you'll get to see at least some of these places someday.

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  24. Thanks for talking up this amazing city. I hear there are also niche restaurants/bars on the outskirts of the city, five and six seat affairs where a few people gather for hours, drinking each other under the bamboo table. I think the area is Shinjuku Golden Gai, if I'm not mistaken. Anyway, I studied SGI buddhism some years back and Taiseki-ji @ Mt. Fuji was all the rave. It was lauded as a must visit. Anyone actually been to Fuji?

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    1. Sorry, Jackson, my husband and I haven't made it to Mt Fuji this time, but with a bit of luck, we will next year. There are many curiosities and habits in Tokyo that a tourist would rather see as an attraction in themselves.

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  25. Seriously how good is Japan! I agree, Tokyo is amazing, as is the rest of Japan. The people, culture, landmarks, ski, rail network, it has it all. I really like your photos - Thanks for sharing your stories.

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  26. Hi there Laura,

    Wonderful blog! I am planning on going to Tokyo myself in January. For a very limited time (4days, 3 night), I wanted to make the most of it. Is it possible to get to these places with the limited time I have? Where is the most convenient spot most accessible to the spots you pointed out?

    Thanks,

    Gio here.

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    1. Hi Gio,

      These attractions are spread all over Tokyo, but starting the day early and making use of the public transportation system, it is possible to see everything in 3 or 4 days. However, if you are jet legged, you might not get to see much during the first day. Have fun in Tokyo, it's a wonderful city!!

      Laura

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  27. Nice! I so want to visit Tokyo at night. So cool!

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    1. Tokyo is amazing both during the day and during the night. There are so many interesting places to see in Tokyo... plus the atmosphere... oh, the atmosphere!

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  28. Great list of places one must see in Tokyo!

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    1. Thank you, Ginger! I'm happy you enjoyed reading about my favorite attractions in Tokyo.

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  29. The photos are all nice! Thank you for these shots! Shibuya's my favorite, because it made me remember the scene in Death Note. Do they really get to watch news from a large TV attached on a building facade? hihi. I'm glad you had fun there!

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  30. Shibuya is one of my favorite places in Tokyo as well. It has a vibe that is all its own. I loved the feeling of being in a fast moving place and yes, compared to the rest of Tokyo, things in Shibuya do seem to move extra fast. Maybe it's the prevalence of giant screens that add to the people moving all over that makes the pace seem like it is constantly on the go.

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  31. Great list wonder if you have done something like that for UAE?

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  32. You have to go to Super Potato video game store in Tokyo... 4 big floors filled with every video game ever made... Awesome!

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  33. Lovely pics! I'm planning to visit very soon and this was helpful to read :)
    Did the rail pass you bought cover all types of transportation (like subway too) ?

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    1. The JR pass covers only JR lines, but in large cities the JR trains have multiple stops and its really easy to move around.

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