It was a cold day of December when I first visited Shinjuku, Tokyo’s most vibrant district. Having just arrived in Tokyo a night before, I barely had any time to explore the Japanese capital, hence I had no idea what to expect from this district. When I got out of the subway, something incredible happened. It was the first time when I got to see Tokyo’s true colours. Shinjuku is home to Asia’s biggest entertainment district as well as the world’s busiest train station. With so many locals and tourists alike passing through Shinjuku on a daily basis, it’s easy to see why you can spend days exploring this epic neighbourhood.
When I think of Tokyo, I now immediately imagine Shinjuku. I know many of you associate Tokyo with Shibuya, but after spending 2 weeks in Japan, I now immediately think that Shinjuku captures the modern essence of Tokyo.
Table of Contents
There are myriad of things you can do whilst in Shinjuku, but in order to really make the most out of your trip, here is what I suggest you try first.
1. Best thing to do in Shinjuku? Enjoy Japanese Street Food
It’s hard to beat Japan when it comes to street food. I know many love Thai and Korean street food, but to me, the real deal happens in Tokyo, in Shinjuku. Be brave, as you will find a lot of weird looking food at first, but once you start digging in, you will understand why eating is the number one thing to do in Shinjuku. Start by trying Octopus Balls, a brilliant Japanese street dish which is composed of octopus bits mixed in the savoury batter. Serve it with shredded nori sheet, green onion and ginger, alongside Japanese mayo. Try the famed yakitori which are chicken on a stick. Note that yakitori can contain meat from various parts of the chicken. It's not always just breast. Move onto matcha sweets, dangos, mochies and red bean paste cakes. Eat as much as you can, sleep, come back the next day and repeat. You can read more about the top 18 type of street food you can enjoy in Tokyo.
2. Shinjuku Gyoen
The Shinjuku Gyoen is a really large green space with landscape gardens and a beautiful lake. Because it’s so quiet and zen, it’s really difficult to grasp the idea that this soothing park is located right in the heart of vibrant Shinjuku.
Shinjuku Gyoen is a wonderful place for cherry blossom lovers too. It can get rather busy during the hanami period, but somehow, Shinjuku Gyoen remains a tranquil place despite a large number of locals and tourists meandering through the park. It’s a bit like magic. Shinjuku Gyoen was created in the Edo Period, almost destroyed during the Second World War, then eventually rebuilt and open to the public in 1949.
There is a small entry fee to access the Shinjuku Gyoen (200 yen) and note that it closes at 16:30 (last entry at 16:00).
3. Shinjuku Train Station
Shinjuku is home to the world’s busiest train station in the whole world, with over two million daily riders. Yes, you read this correctly, there are over 2 million people using this train station on a daily basis. I would strongly advise avoiding peak hours if at all possible. It can get pretty crazy otherwise. Always make sure you respect the signs around you and please get out of people’s way. The Japanese are known to be efficient and respect the rules and signs, so please do the same. If you just want to people watch, sit nicely in a corner, out of the way.
What you will find, however, is that no matter how busy and crazy this place gets, there is somehow an incredible order and efficiency, people still respect your personal space and you just don’t feel claustrophobic. Only in Japan, right? Gosh, I love this place!
4. Shinjuku Golden Gai
When salarymen and career women finish work, they love to indulge themselves in an after the office hours drinking session. You will find many of them scattered around Golden Gai, an epic place for beer and food lovers. The establishments in Golden Gai are somewhat different than your ordinary bars you may be used to. These places are small, with only a few seats. They are very intimate and you really can’t escape a chat with a local (providing they know English or you know Japanese). Sometimes you will find that the owner might not allow you to go in even if there are a couple of empty seats. Don’t take this to heart, as usually, it means they have regulars which they need to reserve the seats for. Keep an eye for English signs outside these establishments as that is a clear indication travellers are more than welcome and the owner has some English skills.
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5. Tokyo Metropolitan Building
One of the best things to do in Shinjuku, is to head over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building? Why? Because you can’t visit Tokyo without seeing this incredible city from above. The funny thing is that Tokyo stretches for so many miles, that you can’t actually see its borderlines from any observatory tower. There is a sea of beautifully arranged and organised buildings. As I mentioned in a previous article, Tokyo is not a concrete jungle, but an urban landscape. It’s really spectacular and beautiful. You can check out this article about the best spots to see Tokyo from above, but if you are in Shinjuku, you might as well go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building which has a FREE entry observational deck. Yep, you read this correctly: it is FREE for all. You pay nothing to go in, climb at the top and admire the city in all its splendour. I strongly recommend you do this either at sunset or after it gets dark as Tokyo looks best during night time. It transforms into an ocean of colour.
6. Shinjuku Central Park
I’ve already told you about the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen; well, the Central Park is yet another green corner in the middle of one of Tokyo’s busiest districts. The Central Park tends to be used as a lunch spot by many salary men and career women who work in the nearby skyscrapers.
As vibrant as Shinjuku it may be, one of the best things to do in this district is chilling under a cherry tree.
7. Red District - Kabukicho
No trip to Shinjuku is complete without a stroll through Asia’s largest entertainment district: Kabukicho. There is a lot to do here, depending on what you are after. You can have dinner in a Robot Restaurant, enjoy some cocktails in a hostess bar, take a new lover to a love hotel or get a relaxing (or erotic) massage. You can find the perfect karaoke bar for you and your friends, eat tonnes of good street food, shop for cheap trainers or just walk around to capture some really great photo shots. As with most areas, Kabukicho comes to live after dark, but be aware, as more places are said to be run by the Yakuza. Don’t be afraid to walk around as Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, but common sense is always required, so stay vigilant and out of trouble. You can read more about adult only activities in Tokyo.
8. Shinjuku Don Quixote
Here is a fair warning: do not enter this shop unless you have a few hours set aside for it. I am not kidding, this place is enormous and full of so many weird items, that you will really need to take your time with it. I mean, I think I spent an hour just meandering around the sweet section. There was an abnormal variety of crazy cool stuff which I just wanted to eat… continuously. If I could, I would live in one of these Don Quixote shops. It’s cheap and full of awesome Japanese stuff. Apart from the ridiculous amount of sweets I purchased from this shop, I also got tonnes of heat patches (gosh, those are amazing for winter) and a talking penguin. A talking penguin, you might ask? Yes, a talking plastic penguin which you put in your fridge and talks to you when you open the door. If you leave the fridge door open for too long, your little penguin will start moaning that it’s getting too hot or it can’t sleep because of the light. Weird but AWESOME.
9. Piss Alley (Shonben Yokocho)
Also known as the Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho), this is a really small and cosy network of small streets dotted with bars and restaurants where you can sit down, grab a beer and some delicious yakitori. Although the name otherwise suggests, this is not a place full of drunken people which use the alley when nature calls.
It’s a colourful place where locals go to eat and drink. I’m going to admit it that I didn’t actually sit down for food here, as the name put me off a little, but I definitely recommend this place for a stroll if nothing else. It’s something about it which makes it quite unique.
10. Shinjuku Capsule Hotel
Unless you can afford to be in Park Hyatt and relive Lost in Translation, then I recommend trying something rather different: a Japanese capsule hotel. This is a unique experience and perfect for the budget traveller. The capsule hotels are cheap, reliable and very clean.
They are used by salarymen who got a bit too drunk to be able to get home, as well as by travellers eager to experience something highly unusual. As many others, you probably imagine the capsule rooms to be claustrophobic, but in reality, they are spacious enough and equipped with all amenities for a good night sleep.