When we traveled to Tokyo, we had a few goals in mind: Eat real sushi, learn about Japanese culture, and take plenty of pictures. Granted, photography isn’t our strong suit, but the right photo can provide a stirring reminder of a once-in-a-lifetime trip -- plus, it’s the only way to prove to friends and family that we actually went to Japan (a friend was convinced that we spent the week hiding in the airport terminal).
If you’re heading to Tokyo, you’ll want to plan your trip to include a few photo ops. Here are some key locations to add to your travel itinerary, along with suggestions for snapping those priceless pics.
1. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings
The Tokyo Metropolitan Buildings are certainly “touristy,” but even if you’re looking to stay off the beaten path, they’re worth a visit. Building No. 1 has a free observation deck that offers incredible views of the Tokyo skyline from 202 meters (662 feet) off the ground. It’s a great place to visit on your first few days in the city, as it gives an impression of Tokyo’s size and lets you view the nearby volcanic mountain ranges without taking a day trip.
For the best possible experience, head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Buildings early on a weekday. The observation decks will be crowded, and you’ll likely spend 45 minutes in line waiting for an elevator. Once you make it to the observation deck, you can pick up souvenirs and toys -- which are very much tailored to Western visitors -- and take your time enjoying the view.
2. Takeshita Street
With more than 37,000 inhabitants per square mile, Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. For tourists, that’s part of its appeal: The city feels incredibly alive, and its varied culture is a direct result of its massive population.
Takeshita Street is one of Tokyo’s most popular destinations, and it’s frequently packed elbow-to-elbow with excited tourists and Tokyo-ites. It’s home to a line of independent stores that range from high-end fashion boutiques to fast-food restaurants and punk-rock shops, and you can easily spend an entire afternoon here without seeing everything.
Takeshita Street is a great place to snap a photo, as it gives a sense of Tokyo’s size -- ironic, since the street itself is fairly short.
Approach Takeshita Street from Harajuku Station in the afternoon and you’ll be able to get a great photo of the milling crowds. You’ll be tempted to take photos of the shops themselves, but pay attention to the signage; some stores don’t appreciate amateur photography, and they’ll let you know with a well-placed placard.
One more note: Harajuku is known for its radical fashion, but avoid taking pictures of anyone without asking -- even if you’re impressed by their unusual clothing. As in the States, it’s considered rude to photograph strangers without their permission.
3. Meiji Jingu
The Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, two rulers credited with ending isolationism in Japan. It’s a tranquil space near the Shibuya and Shinjuku neighborhoods, and it’s an essential stop for any history buff. In fact, even if you only have a passing interest in Japanese history, you’ll probably want to include this magnificent park in your travel plans.
The winding approach to the shrine provides a welcome respite from the bustling city (incidentally, Meiji Jingu is located near Takeshita Street, so visit both on the same day to see Tokyo in its extremes). A massive torii gate makes for a great first photo, though you’ll want to keep your camera at the ready for your entire stroll. You might see Shinto priests performing rituals, and you’ll certainly see plenty of interesting landmarks along the lengthy walking path.
Of these landmarks, one of the most interesting is a wall of sake barrels, dedicated to Emperor Meiji’s spirit. Gorgeous designs decorate the sides of these consecrated containers, a thoughtful tribute to the ruler who modernized his country without sacrificing its traditions.
4. Yoyogi Park
Located right alongside Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi Park is one of the most enchanting green spaces in Tokyo. That’s saying something -- the city has world-class parks in just about every neighborhood, but Yoyogi is something else.
Starting in 1945, the park hosted military barracks for U.S. officers. These days, it’s a meeting place for runners, bikers, and artists, and it’s especially busy on weekends. Head to Yoyogi Park on a Sunday, and you can enjoy performances from musicians, cosplayers, and other performers. In the spring, it’s a great place to capture shots of cherry blossoms.
Like Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi Park is free, and it’s open seven days a week. Commit to going on a weekday if you’re hoping for photos of the park itself, or if you’re after unobstructed pictures of the cherry blossom trees.
5. Toho Cinema
We had to include Toho Cinema in Kabukicho on this list. It’s not a must-see cultural landmark by any means, but it offers something that none of the other locations on this list can provide: Godzilla.
To be fair, it’s just Godzilla’s head. It’s 40-feet tall, and it occasionally roars at the Kabukicho masses (you may have to wait a few minutes to hear the roar, as Godzilla’s much more polite these days than when he ravaged the city in the original 1954 film).
While you’re in Kabukicho, you can enjoy some great food, drinks, and karaoke, and you’ll have another opportunity to take photos of the crowds. The neighborhood also features dozens of neon-lit billboards and bizarre advertisements, so if you want a picture that shows Tokyo in its modernized, densely-packed glory, this is as good a place as any.
We’d recommend visiting in the late afternoon or early evening. Kabukicho is Tokyo’s most famous red light district, and while it’s not a dangerous area, it’s most pleasant in the earlier hours.
If you’re up for a day trip, Nikko offers gorgeous landscapes, classical Japanese architecture, and Buddhist-Shinto shrines. It’s about a two-hour train ride from Tokyo (a good excuse to try out one of those fancy bullet trains that Americans can’t stop talking about). You’ll be able to snap pictures of the striking mountain ranges that encompass the city, which certainly isn’t possible from anywhere in Tokyo proper.
This is a particularly fun town to visit during the spring, as the nearby Nikko National Park is a great place to watch the changing seasons. Be sure to stop by Toshuga, a spectacular Shinto shrine dedicated to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Of course, you could also just wander around Nikko -- it offers a decidedly different Japanese experience than Tokyo, and its bucolic appeal should satisfy any curious traveler. It's also a place for photographers to explore while gaining a new appreciation of the country's culture.
And while all of these locations are spectacular spots to take photos, we'd make one more recommendation: Be ready to wander. We took plenty of interesting photos in Japanese convenience stores, worn-down back alleys, and other less-than-photogenic spaces. Tokyo presents an outstanding blend of computer-age modernism and centuries-old tradition, and if you've got a keen eye, you certainly won't run out of opportunities for great shots -- in fact, you're much more likely to run out of film.
Planning your first trip to Japan? Don't miss these 10 great free things to do outside in and around Tokyo.