This year was supposed to be a grand one for Japan – right now, we would have been in the midst of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, inviting the whole world to come and share the wonders and excitement of the capital. Instead, international visitors are faced with entry bans and domestic tourists are being discouraged from travelling to Tokyo, as the city has even been excluded from the Go to Travel campaign.
It’s disappointing, but there is a silver lining: with so few tourists around, now is the perfect time for Tokyoites to come out and play (while adhering to social distancing and safety measures, of course). Here’s how to take advantage of Tokyo’s best attractions while they’re empty, from top museums to world-famous restaurants.
teamLab and the Yayoi Kusama Museum
Tokyo is world-renowned for its art scene, and it’s always difficult to nab a ticket to popular galleries. Digital art museums teamLab Borderless and teamLab Planets have introduced a strict online reservation system to ensure proper social distancing and anti-infection measures. But don’t let that put you off – with fewer visitors, there’s no need to reserve tickets a month in advance, you can even book online on the day, as long as there are still spots available, and there usually are.
The highly Instagrammable Yayoi Kusama Museum also has a surprisingly large number of tickets available for its current exhibition (pictured above). Only open from Thursdays to Mondays, it used to be a race to reserve a ticket online, but the next few months offer quite a number of empty slots. Just remember to wear a face mask, reserve your ticket online and you’ll be ready to spend a hot summer’s day in the comfort of a mostly empty museum.
Harajuku is still busy these days, especially with the new Ikea, but the neighbouring Meiji Shrine is far more quieter than usual. Enter the sacred forest under the gargantuan torii gate, say your prayers at Meiji Shrine and spend the afternoon wandering under the treetops, a few degrees cooler than the city just outside. With hardly any big crowds in sight, you'll be able to fully appreciate the spiritual, calming side of this iconic shrine and its surrounding mature forest.
Don't forget to also catch the Meiji Jingu Forest Festival of Art. Currently, stainless steel sculptures by Tomokazu Matsuyama are on display, along with a couple of animal installations, hidden amongst the trees in the tranquil sanctuary.
When the shops along the Nakamise approach leading to the main temple have shuttered for the day (around 6pm), Sensoji is surprisingly devoid of large crowds. The temple grounds become calm and quiet, unlike the bustling Sensoji that we are all familiar with.
Tokyo Tower and Shiba Koen Park
Sure, you’ll have to climb up to the observation deck, but Tokyo Tower is refreshingly devoid of crowds. If you’re not feeling like a trek, pick up a bento and hang around the nearby Shiba Koen park, which offers the best views of Zojoji Temple and the grand tower. In the evening, watch the tower light up from the outdoor Highball Garden at the foot of the tower, which is decked out in the style of a traditional Japanese matsuri (festival).
Tokyo’s most famous restaurants have been given a worldwide signal boost, thanks to food giants Anthony Bourdain and David Chang singing their praises. Ordinarily, people travel from all over the world just to try the handcrafted udon noodles at Shin (get there at 11am when they open to skip the line) or the best pizza in Tokyo at Savoy (the Mishuku location has outdoor seating). The queues at these top-rated restaurants are much shorter now, if any at all. We went to Konjiki Hototogisu for its Michelin-starred ramen on a Thursday night and there was no one waiting in line (we usually had to wait for at least 30 minutes during our previous visits before the travel ban).
Remember to read our guide on how to go out safely in Tokyo.
More places to explore in and around Tokyo