Tokyo is known for its bustling nightlife and world-class eateries, but it’s also one of the best major cities for hikers, bikers, and runners. Theoretically, you could spend an entire Tokyo trip outdoors — not that we’d necessarily recommend that approach, since you’d miss out on some of the city’s exceptional restaurants.
That said, when you’re ready to explore some of the city’s many parks and cultural monuments, we’ve got you covered. Here are a few ways to spend your downtime in the Japanese capital (without spending a dime).
1. Jog (Or Walk) The Path Around The Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is a major tourist destination, as it’s the home of the Emperor of Japan and one of the country’s most iconic architectural monuments. You can (and should) take a guided tour of the palace proper, but simply strolling through the outer grounds will provide plenty of memorable experiences.
There’s a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) route around the palace, and it’s extremely popular with runners. Emperor Naruhito even runs the path on occasion; if you’re lucky, you might see him on your route.
You’ll want to follow the course counter-clockwise, keeping the palace on your left. Follow the other joggers and you won’t breach etiquette. You can also walk the path, but allow room for runners to pass you easily. The course slopes slightly, but it’s a fairly easy jog.
2. Walk The Path To Meiji Jingu
The Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu) is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, who are generally credited with transforming Japan from an isolationist nation to a world power. Japan’s Shinto religion is heavily based on linking the country’s history with its present through rituals and prayer, and Emperor Meiji’s spirit is said to rest at Meiji Jingu, one of the best-known Shinto shrines.
That sounds fairly complex to Westerners, but visit Meiji Jingu, and you’ll gain an appreciation of the religion’s practices. You’ll often see Shinto priests walking the 170-acre grounds, and various displays tell the story of the Meiji Restoration. You’ll see barrels of wine from France and Japanese sake presented in honor of Emperor Meiji’s spirit. Groundskeepers brush the walking paths with bamboo brooms, and visitors remain quiet while walking the hallowed grounds.
We wouldn’t recommend running through Meiji Jingu, but walking slowly through the grounds is an extraordinary experience. If you’re looking for more active exercise, plan to visit the shrine on your way to Yoyogi Park (which we’ll discuss in a minute).
This is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy nature, as it features a beautiful evergreen forest with some 120,000 trees. You’ll forget that you’re in the middle of Tokyo. If you’re feeling slightly overwhelmed by the bustling city, Meiji Jingu is an essential stop.
3. Get Some Fresh Air At Yoyogi Park
Just past Meiji Jingu, you’ll find Yoyogi Park, one of Tokyo’s largest parks (and another one of its most popular tourist attractions, though there’s plenty of room to spread out — no feeling cramped by the crowds). Explore the cycling trails on the north and west ends of the park, or, if you’re feeling pensive, take a slow walk through the central field to enjoy the cherry blossoms.
On the weekends, street performers, theater groups, and artists converge on Yoyogi Park to practice their crafts. Head to the park for a morning jog, then watch a few performances while sampling food from the pop-up vendors. There’s even a dog run, so if you’re traveling with a canine companion, bring them along (just be sure to stay on the path and keep your pup on a leash).
We visited several parks in Tokyo, and while they’ve all got their perks, Yoyogi was our favorite. It’s large, eclectic, and beautiful, and given that it’s right next to Meiji Jingu, we think it’s fair to call it a must-see.
4. Walk Through Shinjuku Central Park…
Shinjuku Central Park is — quite obviously — located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, and while it’s much smaller than Yoyogi, it’s typically less busy. You’ll often see office workers in suits enjoying their lunch in the park’s center, and it’s a nice place for a casual walk or jog. It’s also another great place to see cherry blossoms, although some of the other locations on this list offer more breathtaking views.
Shinjuku Central Park is surrounded by some of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, and if you’re looking for a true “city park” experience, you’ll feel right at home. However, if you’re making the trip, be sure to add another stop to your schedule: the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings.
5. …And Enjoy Skyline Views Of The City
These two buildings have free observation decks, and they’re some of the best places in Tokyo to take in the skyline. We visited the observation deck in Tower 1, which is 663 feet high.
The entire city opened up before us, with snow-peaked mountains in the distance adding some context that elevated (pardon the pun) the rest of our trip.
If you’re going up in the Metropolitan Building, head there early on a weekday for the best possible experience. This is one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist destinations, and even during low-traffic times, you’ll wait in line for at least 20 minutes. The view is worth the wait, but savvy travelers can avoid the big crowds by timing their visits appropriately.
6. Explore The Markets Of Kabukicho
If you’re visiting Tokyo, you’ll need some decent shoes. Odds are you’ll spend a lot of your time on your feet, and if you’ve got a packed itinerary, you’ll spend most of your time walking from one place to another (often while trying to decode the city’s complex subway schedules).
On our trip, however, we made time to walk the streets without any specific purpose, and that led to some of the best experiences of our vacation. One of the highlights: walking in the dense crowds of Kabukicho, an entertainment district in Shinjuku. Kabukicho has the bright lights, odd advertisements, and offbeat street stores that Westerners often associate with Tokyo, and you don’t have to spend a dime to enjoy your time here.
Be sure to make your way to Tohos Cinema, where you’ll see a giant Godzilla head peeking out from the top of the building.
When walking Kabukicho, you’ll deal with large crowds, so don’t plan on jogging or running. This is more of an urban hike. You’ll also want to plan your trip during the day as the area is famously a red light district. While it’s not dangerous, most older tourists will prefer the casual feel of daytime Kabukicho.
7. From Kabukicho, Head Over To Toyama Park
We noted that Yoyogi Park was our favorite Tokyo park overall, but Toyama Park is our favorite place to get some exercise. It’s surprisingly large, with plenty of hills to delight joggers and hikers, plus it features some truly beautiful plant life.
You’ll also see the Shinjuku Sports Center, and you’ll likely cross paths with students from nearby universities, as Toyama is a popular practice meet-up spot. Of the parks we visited in Shinjuku, Toyama seemed to have the fewest tourists, and it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the weather.
8. Take A Trip To Kamakura
Most Tokyo vacations include at least one day trip, but if you’re trying to avoid spending too much time on the train, head just south of the city to Kamakura. Once the political capital of Japan, it offers a distinctly different experience than what you’ll get on the busy streets of Tokyo.
Walk by small, quaint shops, making your way to the statue of Amida Buddha at Kotoku-in. Kamakura has some of Japan’s greatest Buddhist temples, including Engaku-ji, Jochi-ji, and Jufuku-ji, all three of which are major draws for tourists. Hikers will want to visit the Asaina Pass, an entrance to the city lined by the Saburo Falls.
Kamakura is also home to a number of dedicated hiking trails, most of which take 30 to 90 minutes to complete. If you’re looking to get some exercise while enjoying some of Japan’s most treasured cultural sites, the trip is well worth your time.
9. See Red Pandas At Edogawa Natural Zoo
This small, admission-free zoo might shock Westerners, as it doesn’t really resemble the zoos you’d find in the States. There aren’t ice cream vendors or souvenir-purchasing opportunities at every corner, and on most days, you can enjoy a relatively quiet stroll through the grounds.
Located in Gyosen Park, Edogawa Zoo features red pandas, Humboldt penguins, and various other small animals. There’s also a petting zoo, which makes this an essential stop if you’re traveling with kids in tow.
You’ll have to cross into Tokyo’s Edogawa ward to get here, but that’s an easy trek via subway, and it’s a great starting point for other Edogawa excursions.
10. Jog The Tama River Trail
Dedicated runners, joggers, cyclists and hikers will want to visit the Tama River trail at least once (and, in all likelihood, several times). It’s a great place to get in a long workout, and it features some stellar views of the Tama River.
The trail begins in Hamura, a quiet suburb on the edge of greater Tokyo, and runs along the Tama Hills Recreation Area. It also passes by Tamagawadai Park in Southern Tokyo, which features gorgeous hydrangea in the summer.
Best of all, the Tama River trail has no mandatory stopping points, so you won’t have to pause your workout. It’s 50 kilometers in total, so keep an eye on your smartphone to make sure you’re not getting lost in your workout — you’ll want to have enough energy to make your way back to your starting point! If you’re an experienced cyclist, however, the 50-kilometer trail isn’t especially challenging, as it’s mostly flat and well maintained.
Photo Credit: apiguide / Shutterstock, vichie81 / Shutterstock