When you’re traveling to a new city and thinking about a place to stay, you’ll want to know where the city center is. In Paris, there’s the Eiffel Tower for reference. Beijing has Tiananmen Square. The name of New York’s Central Park gives the game away.
But ask any Tokyoite where the center of Tokyo is and they’ll probably answer that there isn’t one — it depends. It could be Tokyo Skytree but that’s more of a modern shopping district. Tokyo station? Hmmm, not unless you want to sleep in an office. The Tokyo Islands? Now you’re a 24-hour ferry ride away on a volcanic archipelago.
Heads up: Tokyo does have a center. It signifies not just the innermost point of the capital city but that of the whole of Japan.
It’s called Nihonbashi. Marking the zero kilometer point at which all distances are measured to in Tokyo, it’s a neighborhood that not many travelers consider when looking for holiday digs, despite being the heart of the city — literally.
Because it’s often labelled as a business district — home to both the Bank of Japan and the Tokyo Stock Exchange — it’s therefore not the kind of place where the average Tokyoite hangs out (unless they’re heavily into economics or stock tickers).
Wrong! There are actually a ton of very cool things to do in Nihonbashi that attract locals regularly and prove that you should never pay attention to labels. Here are eight things to do which may also double as reasons to stay in Nihonbashi (just sayin’… )
1. Go urban kayaking on Tokyo’s waterways
Yup, you read that right: kayaking in Tokyo is a thing — and the waterways around Nihonbashi are one of the best places for it. Exploring the city from the water offers a completely different view of the world’s biggest metropolis, one that will help you piece together its complex layout and begin to understand how it was all built. Tokyo Great Kayaking Tours offer guided sessions through eastern Tokyo on the Nihonbashi River to take in iconic sights like the Skytree, before passing through the Ogibashi Lock Gate, a smaller version of the locks along the Panama Canal.
Details: Tours are usually offered on weekends for ¥9,000 per person. Check the tour calendar for availability.
2. Drink beer on the roof of Japan’s oldest department store
Mitsukoshi is Japan’s original department store dating all the way back to 1673, and this flagship branch in Nihonbashi is where it all began. As grand as it gets, this is seven floors of gleaming marble showcasing a careful selection of prestigious Japanese and international brands — making for an impressive indoor stroll. A real highlight comes in the summer, when Mitsukoshi transforms its spacious rooftop terrace into a classy beer garden. Help yourself to all-you-can-drink beer and food while you watch the sun set over skyscrapers so close you feel you can almost touch them.
Details: Mistukoshi’s rooftop beer garden is open 5.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. and runs until Sept. 18. Prices start at ¥3,400 for a two-hour course. Reservations required.
3. Wander the Edo alleyways of Ningyocho
During the Edo period, Ningyocho was the place to go for a spot of traditional entertainment. Puppeteers and doll makers set up shop in the area (ningyo means “doll” in Japanese), regularly entertaining the crowds with their bawdy brand of puppet theater. Remnants of the heydays remain in the form of two clock towers that come to life every hour with their own small puppet show. Go for a wander to stumble upon traditional sweets along Amazake Yokocho (Sweets Alley) or slip behind Okannonji Temple to Kogiku Street, nicknamed “Geisha Alley” for some sophisticated kaiseki ryori — a formal, multi-course dinner of classic Japanese dishes. If you’re feeling spiritually inclined, take a tour of the sevens shrines for seven deities that circle Ningyocho station for good fortune in everything from relationships to personal finance.
Details: Ningyocho station is the next stop on the Asakusa line from Nihonbashi station or a 20-minute walk. You can reach all of the above sights easily on foot.
4. Experience a fish disco at the Edo Nihonbashi Art Aquarium
This hugely popular summer exhibition by pioneering artist Hidetomo Kimura is a mesmerizing showcase of some of nature’s most beautiful sea life against the background of traditional Japanese art. The kingyo (Japanese goldfish) is the star of the production: you’ll see these and other varieties of tropical fish posing in avant-garde tanks illuminated by neon light. After 7 p.m., the exhibition room turns into a bar, with cocktails, DJs and performances. The art aquarium is usually themed and runs throughout the summer months.
Details: The aquarium is located inside the Coredo Muromachi shopping complex, directly accessible from Nihonbashi station. The next exhibition is scheduled to start in early July and run until late September.
5. Trade yen at the Tokyo Stock Exchange
The Tokyo Stock Exchange building is open to the general public during trading hours when you can sneak a peek at Japanese economics in action. Since most of the deals are made electronically, the trading floor atmosphere is almost Zen-like. There’s a small museum that tells you more about the history of the exchange and a stock trading simulation game playable at certain times during the day. Free English-guided tours are available at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Here, you’ll get a powerful sense of how Japan recovered from World War II to become the third-largest economy in the world.
Details: Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. except national holidays. Trading takes place from opening until 11.30 a.m. and again from 12.30 to 3 p.m. Free.
6. See a Japanese comedy performance
On a superficial level, rakugo is comedic storytelling delivered in high-speed Japanese that’s difficult for even native speakers to understand. So what can a foreign audience get out of it? Quite a lot, actually. Rakugo is a fascinatingly complex, multi-layered performance art. Minimalist props can convey several different objects; a handkerchief can become chopsticks, tobacco, a fan or paper; while the performers facial expressions, tone of voice and particular set of movements move the story through different characters and plot points. Watch how the audience reacts and see if you can follow the story — it’s a unique immersion into a centuries-old tradition that you won’t find anywhere else.
Details: Daytime performances take place at the Oedo Nihonbashi-tei at 1 p.m. Tickets are just ¥2,000 and can be picked up at the theater. The closest station is Mitsukoshimae on the Ginza and Hanzomon lines. Take exit A10; it’s the second building on the left.
7. Fly high at the Kite Museum
This unique museum is packed floor-to-ceiling with traditional kites from Japan, China and other Asian countries in a completely whimsical display of one man’s passion for kites. Founded by Shingo Modegi, the former owner of the restaurant downstairs, the collection numbers up to 3,000 pieces — all crammed into a space the size of a tiny apartment. The Japan Kite Association has set up home here but it’s unlikely that you’ll find much information about the ins and outs of the kite industry on display. In fact, it feels more like stepping into the house of a mysterious collector in a Ghibli movie.
Details: Take exit A4 or C5 at Nihonbashi station and look for the restaurant, Tameiken. The museum is on the fifth floor.
8. Stay overnight at Grids Nihombashi East
So, there’s a bunch of cool stuff to do in Nihonbashi. There’s also this pretty swish budget accommodation called Grids that’s located in, well… what do ya know — Nihonbashi! In all seriousness, this international hotel and hostel is a great option for travelers to Tokyo looking to stay in a central location and experience designer hotel facilities with the friendly atmosphere (and value for money) of a hostel. Previous guests rate the friendly staff — who also organize weekly events like walking tours of the area and day trips outside of the city — along with its ever-so-stylish interior. You can check out the promotional video above or find out more here.