It’s a pretty well-established fact that visiting Japan’s capital is a sensory overload. From the neon-lit streets of Akihabara to the gritty bars of Koenji to the stylish back streets of Shibuya, you’ll never run out of things to do in Tokyo.
However, while the tourist hangouts can be fun, to understand the city, you’ve got to get off Shibuya scramble and get out into the city’s outer neighborhoods. Here the locals are laid back, the food is incredible, and the real Tokyo shines brighter than any LED screen. And if you don’t speak Japanese or have local friends to hand, the best way to gain access behind the city scenes is by signing up for a tour. These are some of our favorites.
1. Kichijoji Hashigozake Bar Hopping Tour
Tokyo is a city comprised of what seems like hundreds of microcities. Each has its own unique culture, vibe, and hidden quirks—and the stylish neighborhood of Kichijoji is one great example. This new Kichijoji Hashigozake Bar Hopping Tour is an excellent avenue through which to take a deep dive into Tokyo’s local scene. Organized by the Kichijoji Hashigozake Executive Committee, the tour includes an hour-long cultural experience, as well as two bar visits, offering the best of both hidden worlds.
In terms of cultural experiences, the options vary on the day of the sign-up but cover a wide range of interests. Cultural classes include participating in a samurai or awaodori traditional dance performance, trying your hand at some traditional shodo calligraphy or kado flower arrangement, or getting crafty with an art class.
Once the cultural experience is done, it’s time to hit the streets of Kichijoji to discover just why this neighborhood has a reputation for being the most popular place to live among Tokyoites. Hopping between bars, guests can mingle with the regulars, enjoy a few refreshing drinks, and truly immerse themselves in an authentically laid-back, everyday slice of Tokyo.
2. Survival Japanese Tour
The Tokyo Handsome Boys are Kevin and Naoki—two guys who don’t take themselves too seriously but are serious about ensuring you have the best time in Tokyo. The boys offer a range of walking and bar-hopping tours across the city, but if you’re looking to immerse yourself in local Tokyo culture rather than just observing it, then their “Survival Japanese Tour” is the way to go.
Created by Kevin, the non-native Japanese half of the pair, the tour is designed to give visitors the chance to pick up some quick Japanese language skills before getting out there and practicing them in the real world.
Based in the ultra-local neighborhood of Asagaya in west Tokyo, the tour starts at a nearby cafe with a one-hour crash course in survival Japanese. When it’s time to take your new language skills to the test, guests are encouraged to partake in the Tokyo tradition of picking up necessary supplies from a convenience store, using only Japanese. The tour continues to a local bar where guests can meet and chat with locals, in their newly learned Japanese. And we all know that alcohol helps language fluency!
3. Old Town Tokyo Tour
If you want to take a peek at Tokyo’s more historical side, then there’s plenty to explore, and Yanaka is a great place to begin. Yanaka is one of the few pockets of the city that survived both the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire of 1923 and the Allied fire bombings during WWII, so much of the area has retained its old-world “shitamachi” (downtown) atmosphere and charm.
Arigato Food Tours offer an “Old Town Tokyo Food Tour” where you can soak up the ambiance of this charming corner of the city while simultaneously filling your belly to the brim. The tour runs through the food stall-lined streets of Yanaka, popping by senbei (rice cracker) stands, kushikatsu shops selling fried goodies on sticks and other more secretive locations you’ll have to join the tour to discover. This tour is perfect for those who want that unique foodie Instagram shot, as you’ll also stop by a local izakaya before wrapping up the journey with a tea ceremony. If you’re looking to meet the city’s longer-term locals (a.k.a. senior citizens with twinkling smiles) and see a side of Tokyo not often explored by outsiders, this is an excellent choice.
4. Shimokitazawa Local Neighborhood Walk
Shimokitazawa or “Shimokita” to the locals is one of the city’s most unique, and multifaceted neighborhoods; it’s a place where trendy inner-city kids and long-living local folk live in chill harmony. Shimokita with its modern cafes, ubiquitous live music venues, and much-loved family businesses is a microcosmic encapsulation of the wider city’s cultural diversity; spending some time here will give you a real insight into what makes Tokyo tick.
The layout of Shimokita is complex, which is what makes it simultaneously exciting and, at times, infuriating for the first-time visitor. The neighborhood’s labyrinth of criss-crossing alleyways and multistory buildings hidden with yet-discovered gems means that even if you’ve lived here for years, you’re always discovering something new.
One way to get a hold on the neighborhood is by taking Ellista’s Shimokitazawa local neighborhood walk tour. You’ll visit the photogenic Suzunari theatre, local soy-donut hole-in-the-wall shop Captain Donut, and cozy local bars like Mother, as well as overflowing record shops and vintage stores. Along the way, the tour offers visitors a fascinating overview of the area, shares some of its hidden secrets and leaves you wanting to go back and explore even deeper again.
5. EYExplore Tokyo Rush
Tokyo is arguably one of the most photogenic cities in the world and a must-visit destination for those who seriously want to up their photography game. Japan is, as a matter of fact, the country that gave birth to the best camera brands in the world; Sony, Olympus, Ricoh, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax are all Japanese creations. If you’re a professional behind the lens or just an aspiring shutterbug then EYExplore’s range of photo tour workshops will help you harness new skills, discover secret photo locations and leave you with memories you’ll never forget.
The company’s Tokyo Rush Tour is excellent for those who want to avoid all the cliched cityscape photoshoots and capture the real energy of big city life. The tour is based in Nihombashi, Tokyo’s financial district and home to the EYExplore offices. It’s an area the tour guides know like the back of their hand. Expect to learn all you need to know about the history of how the city’s landscape came to be as well as plenty of tips and tricks covering long-exposure night photography and how to compose the perfect photo.