From multi-storey 3-D billboards and blaring neon animation on every street corner, to pulsing street markets and roaring arcade parlours, Tokyo throbs with life. Yet it also has its pockets of serenity, transporting you back in time to a simpler past as effortlessly as it catapults you into the future.
Here’s how you can experience the best of both worlds in Japan’s capital city – and why, when you’ve had your fill of skyscrapers and bustling city streets, you should round out your trip with a visit to the country’s unforgettable tropical region of Okinawa. It’s as infinitely relaxed as Tokyo is effervescent and luckily, just as accessible.
Old-Meets-New: What to See and Do in Tokyo
For a glimpse into Tokyo’s past life, head to Ryogoku for a comprehensive overview of the life and work of the country’s most celebrated artists at the Sumida Hokusai Museum. This museum in Asakusa’s Sumida city is home to an extensive collection of paintings and woodblock prints by iconic artist Katsushika Hokusai, best known for his print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” His work represents a uniquely Japanese genre of art called ukiyo-e, which flourished in the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The museum is designed by award-winning of contemporary architect Kazuyo Sejima, a work of art unto itself. This four-storey museum houses a permanent collection of high-quality print replicas and a full-scale model of Hokusai’s work studio. You can also view the real ukiyo-e prints by the artist and his disciples within the temporary exhibits on the third and fourth floors of the museum.
🄫 The Sumida Hokusai Museum
Continue your journey through Tokyo's historical roots by visiting Yanesen's residential district east of Ueno Park. This charming community buzzes with local life that you'll scarcely find in modern Tokyo wards, with narrow alleyways lined with low-rise buildings, colourful potted plants, and wafting scents of street food vendors. The best way to experience Yanesen is by doing what the locals do: stroll into its centuries-old temple district or head to Yanaka Ginza shopping street. You can easily spend the afternoon at Yanaka Ginza people-watching as locals and visitors sip on coffees or grab a bite at one of the street vendors before browsing through stylish shops selling local wares. Yanesen is also a happy home for its resident cats sunbathing on sunny streets and as the welcoming mascot for Yanesen’s street signs, posters, and even the cat-version of the red bean-filled taiyaki cake. After your fill of Yanesen’s tasty treats, you can spend the rest of your visit taking in the nostalgic Showa era (1926 – 1989) ambiance of the neighbourhood, gently taking you back to a time before Tokyo’s modern transformation into a capital of pulsating city lights.
Yanaka Ginza shopping street
When you’re ready to leave the past behind, fast forward into the future with a visit to teamLab Planets, a multi-sensory, full-body interactive art exhibit you’ll be walking through barefoot and in some places, wading through water (you’ll get a locker for your shoes and belongings, as well as towels). Here, the boundaries between art and body vanish to become a phenomenal immersive exploration of digital art, technology, science, and nature that stimulates your senses of touch, sight, hearing, and smell. As you shift from each teamLab Planet room to the next, the light, sound, and digital art spectacle constantly moves and changes with you to absorb you into the artwork. These boundary-pushing digital art experiences are crafted by an award-winning team of creative artists, engineers, animators, mathematicians and architects from all over the world, with the main headquarters stationed here in Tokyo.
Where to Sleep in Tokyo
MANGA ART HOTEL, TOKYO
If you’re struggling with jet lag, why not make the most of it by staying at the centrally located MANGA ART HOTEL, TOKYO? Get some shut-eye – or not – in cuboid spaces designed for one, nestled among bookshelves lined with more than 5,000 graphic novels on display. More than 1,000 of these manga volumes are in English, but if you can’t decide which title to choose, just ask one of the manga sommeliers on staff who have already read most of them. Then, with a good manga in hand, sink into your capsule bed or one of the reading chairs facing the floor-to-ceiling windows framing the Tokyo’s cityscape for a night of meeting new characters or getting reacquainted with your favourites.
Ready to wave goodbye to the hustle and bustle of the city? Only a three-hour flight away, you’ll find UNESCO World Heritage sites centred around the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom and the diverse and highly endemic ecosystems and much more relaxed pace of life of sunny Okinawa. Best known for being the home to residents with one of the longest life expectancy in the world, this trip is an opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the rich nature, history, and culture of Okinawa at a leisurely pace.
What to See and Do in Okinawa
Shikinaen Royal Garden
Take time to stroll through the Shikinaen Royal Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once the largest villa of the Ryukyu royal family. Built in the eighteenth century, this quiet garden was used by the king and his family for recreation and entertaining former dignitaries. Feel the ripples of Ryukyu’s past with its unique garden culture combining Chinese and Ryukyuan-style architecture of wooden palace buildings with red tile roofs nestled within its greenery-rich natural setting. Home to an observatory with stunning city views of Naha, a banana plantation, a freshwater spring, and dozens of flowers and trees native to Okinawa, there’s plenty of opportunity to soak in the area’s natural beauty.
Yagi Karate Dojo
Few people know Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, developed from indigenous self-defence methods after citizens were banned from carrying weapons. Take a lesson in this revered martial art from Yagi Karate Dojo, the headquarters for a karate association with more than 70 training centres in 20 countries worldwide. Training is tailored to each individual and kept at a comfortable level, making it an easy activity for all ages to enjoy. You’ll quickly find that karate isn’t just training for the body but also for the mind, with each movement and breath leading to the clearing of the mind, deep introspection, and deepened spirit of compassion for others the facets that make up Okinawa’s spirit of healing and relaxation.
For a deeper immersion into Okinawa’s natural landscape, head to the designated World Natural Heritage sites of northern Okinawa and Iriomote Island, to catch sight of some of Okinawa’s endemic fauna and flora species. At the Okinawa Nature Office, you can sign up for a sunrise canoe ride through the mangrove forests or an expert-guided birdwatching tour like no other. The region is renowned for bird watching; the Yambaru region, a World Natural Heritage site north of Okinawa’s main island, is home to nearly half of all of Japan’s birds and about half of the 12 bird species endemic to Japan, despite encompassing only 0.1 per cent of Japan’s total land area. Keep your eyes peeled for the Okinawa Rail, Okinawa Woodpecker, and Ryukyu Robin, bird species endemic to the area, while taking a moment to absorb the rejuvenating energy of Yambaru’s forest bathing therapy or welcome the sunrise from your canoe.
Eat like Ryukyu royalty at Suitenrou, an Okinawan fine dining establishment where you can also enjoy the traditional performing arts and architecture of the Ryukyu Dynasty. Splurge on a gourmet multi-course meal to get a taste of dishes that have been handed down from the dynastic period to modern-day times while also savouring local ingredients unique to the region. As you sample the flavours of Okinawa’s past, the colourful Ryukyuan dance and music will bring you back with a presentation of the islands’ traditional performance, once held at banquets to entertain visiting dignitaries and members of the royal Ryukyuan family. As you take in this show that offers a glimpse of the era, this designated National Important Intangible Cultural Property of Japan will remind you that no distance is too far to pay a visit to these unique islands.
When You Go
Getting from Canada to Tokyo
Air Canada offers direct flights from Canada to Japan. Tokyo is serviced by two airports which accommodate long-haul international carriers: Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND).
Direct flights currently offered by Air Canada:
- Toronto – Tokyo (NRT & HND): ~13.5 hours
- Montreal – Tokyo (NRT): ~13.5 hours
- Vancouver – Tokyo (NRT): ~10 hours
Click here to view the most up-to-date Air Canada airfares
Getting to Okinawa
The main island of Okinawa is served by Naha Airport (OKA), which is an affordable, approximately three-hour flight from either of Tokyo’s airports. Travellers who want to visit Okinawa’s smaller islands can arrive via direct flights from Tokyo to Miyako, Shimojishima and Ishigaki airports.
Discounted domestic flights
International travellers may want to take advantage of All Nippon Airways’ ANA Discover JAPAN Fare. (ANA is one of Japan’s largest national carrier.) These discounted domestic flights can be booked through the Canadian version of the ANA website, through a travel agent and can even be purchased in advance of your international ticket. The offer is valid until October 28, 2023 and can be purchased up to 355 days prior to your departure date.
The Shimoji Island route doesn't operate during the winter of 2022 and is not included in the ANA Discover JAPAN Fare program.
Health & Safety
- Visitors must be fully vaccinated with three vaccination one booster or provide a negative COVID PCR test result taken within 72 hours of departure.
- Masks are not required in hotels, restaurants or outdoors, but be prepared to wear one in other public areas. Hand sanitizer is widely available in public places.
- Should travellers be infected mid-trip, a hotline resource for English speakers is available: Tokyo: ☎ 0570-550-571; Okinawa: ☎ 0570-050-235.