Rainbows and Rising Suns: Where to Stay in Tokyo
Now that Japan is open for travellers, Tokyo is one of the ultimate “bucket list” experiences.
Tokyo is a wonderful melting pot of the cutting edge, the deeply traditional, and of course, the weird and wonderful. Tokyo is almost a country in and of itself – with many districts springing up due to necessity and blossoming into mini-cultural hubs over the decades.
Tokyo may be a “mega-city”, but it’s also home to cities within cities – even streets or neighbourhoods can take on their own unique character.
This is where the locals carve up Tokyo into distinct districts or city wards. They may have started for beautiful and bizarre reasons (as you’ll find out later.) Staying in one district means waking up to new flavours, incredible sights, and activities you won’t find anywhere else in Japan – or the world!
There are so many options when it comes to accommodation: traditional Ryokan, ultra-luxe Western style hotels, and the much talked about “capsule” hotel. With that in mind, let’s explore where to stay in Tokyo to suit your budget, lifestyle, and particular appetite for adventure.
When people think of the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo, they are probably thinking of Tokyo’s premier skyscraper district, Shinjuku. Shinjuku houses the huge dual towers of the Metropolitan Government Office, which gives you an unfettered view of the entire city from its observation deck. Shinjuku is home to Kabukicho, the (in)famous red-light district. You’ll find an abundance of nightclubs, love hotels (not for accommodation and definitely not PG…), pachinko parlours, and other hole-in-the-wall watering holes and eateries.
The skyscraper district is home to Tokyo’s premier hotels such as the Hilton Tokyo, Hyatt Regency, Park Hyatt, and Washington Hotel. If you have the dough to splash around and want everyone to know it, Shinjuku is your kind of place.
Roppongi is in Southern Tokyo and caters to foreigners more so than other districts. It’s home to many nightclubs and bars that attract tourists. You can also find the “Art Triangle Roppongi” which features the National Art Centre. Though there are many affordable accommodation options in Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi, you can choose upmarket options such as the Grand Hyatt, Villa Fontaine Roppongi, and Tokyo Prince Hotel. Roppongi may be an option for the nervous traveller, as it’s close by to many foreign embassies and consulates. Also, tell the kids that the dominating Mori Tower is home to the Pokémon Company (unfortunately, they do not live inside.)
Ginza is where fashion and trends are born – and staying there is a wonder on the eyes as much as your wallet. This is all about luxury and designer brands, darling: high-end retailers like Christian Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Gucci are all found in this decidedly “Paris” end of Tokyo. Oh, did we mention the mega-mall Tokyu Plaza Ginza is … duty free?
Staying in Ginza is also a fashionable affair. One of the first and most famous capsule hotel, the “alien” box-like structure known as the Nakagin Capsule Hotel, springing up in the district.
Capsule hotels are like hostels on a budget – if you can imagine such a thing – with your “room” being approximately the length and width of a single bed. There is usually a small TV by your feet, some measure of AC, and power sockets. More upmarket capsule hotels may also include private spaces with desks or even personal computers for gaming. Like a hostel, your amenities are communal – toilets, onsen (hot baths), showers, wi-fi, and dining rooms (though some may have dining facilities nearby instead of on premises.) Though you’re sleeping in what some have called a “glorified coffin,” you do save a bit of money by sacrificing the ability to stand up in your hotel room – costing about ¥2,000-4,000 ($22-43AUD) per night.
If you’re lucky, you can nab one of ten coveted seats at the (formerly) three-Michelin star sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, the subject of award-winning documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. You’ll need to be “referred” there by a nearby luxury hotel – they only take reservations via select concierge services.
If you happen upon Tokyo in spring, Ueno comes alive with the awe and charm of cherry blossom or Sakura in bloom. Ueno is one of five of Tokyo’s oldest public parks, a melting pot of temples, cultural artifacts, and serves as a mini-museum district. Ueno holds the Ueno Royal Museum, National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo National Museum, and the National Museum of Western Art. To get immersed in culture, Ueno has the Shitamachi Museum, or artisans and craftspeople museum, documenting the working class of old Tokyo’s lower town. A short walk is Ameya Yokocho; a culinary experience encompassing exotic candies, local street food, and outdoor dining.
Be careful though – despite Ueno’s beauty, many “disgraced” unemployed salarymen live among a makeshift tent city in the park; which is something you should be wary of especially after dark.
About 1.2km from Ueno is Akihabara. Known as Tokyo’s “Electric Town,” Akihibara is the digital heartbeat of Tokyo – electronics, anime, manga, games, high-tech wonders – it’s all here. Much like all of Tokyo’s other districts, “Electric Town” got its name as a black-market hub for electrical equipment such as cables, light bulbs, and wires. Akihibara is a retro gamers’ delight, with the famous Super Potato game store (and it doesn’t advertise itself!) that glorifies the “otaku” (manga obsessed) lifestyle.
If you like cafes with a theme, Akhibara is your kind of place. There exist many “host” or “hostess” cafes, where waitresses in maid outfits or waiters in suits cater to your every whim. You can also enjoy animal cafes with cats, ducks, otters, rabbits, hedgehogs, or even owls! If the fast pace of Electric Town is too much, you could choose to stay at the Dormy Inn Akhibara Hot Spring, which are all-traditional affairs with its own relaxing onsen. Once you’re relaxed, you can literally step out into the hustle and bustle all over again.
The focal point of Asakusa is the awe-inspiring Shinto shrine – more incredible as you walk around its manicured surrounds and meticulously kept – even through the Second World War – since 1649. The cutting-edge modernity of Tokyo melts away as you saunter through the sanja-sama (Shrine of the Three Gods) drinking in the Gongen-zukuri architectural style. You may even see a Geisha in traditional garb walking by.
Accommodation is abundant in Asakusa – though to get the true traditional experience, it’s recommended you book a ryokan; that means tatami mat floors, communal onsen, sliding doors, a futon to sleep on, and a community experience – you might see the owner floating about saying hello. Ryokan tend to include dinner and breakfast – Japanese style – which is what you want when you’re in a place that’s been around since the Eighth Century, right?
If you see anime characters with wild hair jumping out at you in Shibuya, then you know you’re in the right place. Shibuya is the youth fashion and culture capital of Tokyo, dominated by the famous neon-lit Center Gai – “the” place to be seen as a teenager in Tokyo. That means super cool visual kei looks, cosplay (lit. costume play, dressing up as anime or manga characters) and the occasional bout of mischief that makes the over-30s avoid the street entirely.
The intersection outside Shinjuku JR (Japan Rail) station is the famous one where floods of people cross the street when lights turn green – which is a sight to behold whether it’s day or night. Recently, sports lovers have clamoured for “Basketball Street” replete with high-end boutiques. Of course, there’s multitudes of shopping malls to hang out in (if you’re hip enough.)
Though there is a “Love Hotel Hill” (again, not to stay in) Shibuya’s trendy hotels such as Trunk, The Millenials, or Cerulean City can set up Shibuya as your home base to explore greater Tokyo and beyond. Or a convenient place to set down all your shopping bags!
Kinishcho is a bit of an anomaly – even for Tokyo – adjacent to Oshiage and Tokyo’s tallest building, the Tokyo Skytree. This district in the northeast is home to many Asian migrants from China, Phillipines, Thailand, Indonesia and the like – and is sort of like a mini “Asia-town” that caters to ex-pats. Entertainment such as music and nightclubs are on offer, which have distinct foreign flavour compared to the rest of Tokyo. Kinishicho has modestly priced accommodation as well as capsule hotels. The Moxy Toyko Kinshicho has a library, gym, and dancefloor. All you need for a great night out or in, really!
Ikebukuro is a district that has a “city within a city” known as Sunshine City, centred on the 240m tall Sunshine 60 skyscraper. Ikebukuro is family friendly, boasting huge department stores, an aquarium, planetarium, the Namco “Namja Town” indoor theme park, and the Sunshine 60 Observation Deck. Sunshine City also has its own hotel, the Sunshine City Prince Hotel – moderately priced compared to other hotels such as the Hotel Varkin, with its ultra-luxe touches and futuristic entrance. It also has a Dormy Inn budget accommodation, as well as capsule hotels.
Ikebukuro is also home to the resplendent Rococo-styled Swallowtail Butler Café. As you walk through resplendent French doors, you’re lavished with a special “royal treatment” as butlers fuss over you upon arrival. You’ll have various handsome tuxedoed men serve you high tea, desserts, and pampering fit for an Emperor – in discrete 80-minute increments, of course.
With so much diversity and fun on offer in all the various districts of Tokyo, it’s understandably difficult to pin down one place to stay. No matter what you choose, you’re sure to enjoy an unforgettable experience – and one guaranteed you won’t get anywhere else.