With so many things to do and places to see, it can be hard to decide on the top things to do in Shinjuku. However, with my almost local knowledge from 16 years living in Japan, I hope this short guide will give you an idea of where to start.
We’ll start at the station!
Shinjuku is the busiest station in the world! It serves about 3.5 million passengers daily; putting that into perspective the entire London Underground serves 3.9 passengers daily. Thinking differently, it is as if the entire population of Uruguay passes through Shinjuku every day!
That is a lot of people!
And it is huge! It has 200 entrances leading to 20 tracks and 12 train links; the Yamanote Line, Chūō Main Line, Chūō Rapid Line, Chūō-Sōbu Line, Shōnan-Shinjuku Line, Saikyō Line, Odakyu Odawara Line, Keiō Line, Keiō New line, Marunouchi Line, Toei Shinjuku and Toei Ōedo lines.
Now, we could spend the whole video talking about this modern man-made-marvel, but I think that’s best left for an entirely different video. Right now, we want to talk about Shinjuku itself. What can you do or see when you are here?
Here are our top things to do in Shinjuku!
Metropolitan Government Building
Arriving in a new city is always a bit bewildering. And it can be very hard to get your bearings, especially a city such as Tokyo. To help get over this, we recommend you head over to the west side of Shinjuku to get an overview of the area from the Metropolitan Government Building.
This relatively new building in Sky Scraper district will give a great first impression of the city and help you find your bearings as you prepare for he day(s) ahead. Built in 1995, it is part of a complex consisting of three buildings which house the Tokyo Metropolitan Government .
The building we are interested in is a 48 floor skyscraper that splits into two towers from the 33rd floor. On the 45 floor of each tower, imaginatively named North Tower and South Tower, there is a panoramic observation deck. And, unlike most observation points in this city, entrance is free!
From these vantage points you will get a sense for how dense the city is, and even pick out some of the other famous locations, such as Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Sky Tree, Roppongi Hills, Meiji Shrine, and of course, weather permitting, Mt. Fuji.
The observation decks are open from 09:30 until 23:00. However please note, the North and South towers are open on alternating days.
It gets pretty crowded with long lines for the elevator, so we recommend you head out early, maybe skip breakfast. Don’t worry, their is a coffee shop up there so you can grab your morning fix while viewing the city.
That said, when I made the above video, I went on a Wednesday afternoon, and there was no waiting around!
Further Reading: Five Things to Do in Tokyo
Shopping in Shinjuku
The east and south east side of the station takes you to the main shopping areas. Here the main attractions will likely be Isetan and Toshimaya, both large luxury department stores with high end brands. They also boast some very nice restaurants and awesome food halls – selling ready packed meals, all manor of drinks, chocolates, patisserie items and general groceries.
In addition to Isetan and Toshimaya, you will also find plenty of high-end brand boutiques, electronic stores, specialist shops, beauty parlors, furniture purveyors and of course, cafes and restaurants. So knock your self out and peruse to your heart’s content!
There are several blocks worth of shops and boutiques to get lost down and spend your hard earned cash. For those who like electronic items, there is a recently opened Apple Store across from Isetan and Japanese heavyweight electronics retailers Bic Camera, Soft Map and Yodobashi Camera, the latter is actually near the west exit.
Of course, once you have had your fill of shopping, you might want to grab a hearty bite to eat. At this point we recommend you head on over to Piss Alley!
Yes, you heard that right, I’m not going got say it again… It used to be an illegal drinking area back in the 1940s that soon became a popular spot for cheap drinks and yakitori during the hard economic times that followed the end of the second world war. Due to the area’s lack of toilet facilities people would go to the nearby train tracks to take a… I mean, to er… relieve themselves, thus earning the place that less than stellar moniker.
Don’t worry, it has all changed now! There are perfectly good toilet facilities in the middle of the alley, and the place no longer smells of, er, you know…!
Now it is a rather trendy spot for drinking, yakitori and photography. It is a very “instagrammable” spot and you will no doubt have seen a few images floating around on social media at some point.
A lot of the bars and restaurants down the alley are very foreign friendly and the food is rather good. So don’t be put off by the name, and be sure give it a visit if/when you are in town to try some of the local fare!
By the way, now it is officially called Omoide Yoko-cho, which translates to Memory Lane! A much better name than the alternative!
Kabukicho, a stones throw from skyscraper/business district, and a perfect stop after completing your Yakitori in Omoide Yokocho, is an area that has everything: bright lights, noise, pubs, restaurants, love hotels, regular hotels, cafés, pool clubs, entertainment centres, convenience stores, hostess bars, “adult entertainment,” cinemas, public baths, pachinko parlours and even a museum! Naturally, like any red-light district, it really comes alive at night! However, there is still plenty to do during the daytime.
As well as the aforementioned museum, the Hotel Grocery – with Gozilla peering from above – has a pretty good cafe that serves some rather nice afternoon tea and is open to the general public. The cinemas and game centers are pretty much open around the clock.
Take a stroll through the neon lit streets, expose your ears to the cacophony and get your cameras ready; there is plenty to see, do and record even on a “quiet” night in Kabukicho.
Unlike red light districts in other parts of the world Kabukicho is surprisingly safe; just be careful of street touts who will try to pull you into a hostess bar or strip club. Needless to say, the costs of which can be pretty extortionate!
If the noise and bright lights of Kabukicho get a bit much for you, you can always head over a couple of blocks to Golden Gai. Another Piss All… er… Omoide Yokocho type area, this time covering an entire city block.
Here you will find small, nay, tiny drinking holes seating five to eight people at a time. Get a feel for how the Japanese like to drink, up close and personal, albeit likely with a whole bunch of other tourists!
The thing about this place is that it gives you a view into the recent past, when huge swathes of Tokyo resembled Golden Gai. The buildings are a mere few feet wide, and built so close to each other they practically touch. Most bars are on street level, though some have a second floor. These floors are accessible only by climbing a very steep flight of steps.
Don’t let the ramshackle nature of the place fool you though, Golden Gai is not a cheap place to drink, and the regular clientele can afford to spend a pretty penny or two!
After partying hard all night in Kabukicho or Golden Gai, you might want a low energy daytime activity to relax the mind body and spirit. For this, look no further than Shinjuku Gyoen.
This is a veritable oasis in the heart of the bustling metropolis, and It is a national park with three distinct areas: a traditional Japanese garden, a formal French garden and an English landscape.
The latter, with its wide open fields and plentiful cherry blossom trees is a popular picnic area, especially during late March early April when the blossom is in bloom.
Most people will stop by Isetan or Takashimaya on their way here, pick up something to eat, and sit on the grass and tuck in. Just remember, no alcohol!
No doubt however, as tourists, the main draw will be the Japanese Garden, which is simply stunning!
I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
After reading this post/watching the video, hopefully you won’t feel so overwhelmed when you make your first trip to Shinjuku.
If you have already been here, let us know your favorite spots, and perhaps we’ll include them in another video/blog post.