No one mixes tradition with off-the-wall quirkiness quite like the Japanese.
1. Seasonal beauty Tokyo's exquisite parks and gardens are the perfect showcase for seasonal colour: cherry blossoms and azaleas in spring, carpets of moss in summer, the technicolour palette as leaves turn, and the hush of the winter wonderland. My favourite retreat is the willow-lined Japanese pond in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the top-ranking attraction on TripAdvisor (entry ¥200 $A2), (env.go.jp/garden/shinjukugyoen/english/); while the glorious Imperial Palace East Gardens are free, and popular with morning joggers and families.
2. Tokyo Metro Tokyo's subway map may look like a maze of brain neurons but it's actually simple to use, with coloured lines and numbered stops making it foolproof. You'll wait no longer than two minutes between trains; passengers line up politely on platforms and an open day pass will only set you back ¥710 (about $A7). Trains are clean, airconditioned, and mobile phones must be set to silent. Sydney Rail, take note, this is how to run a mass transit system. (toykometro.jp)
3. Views forever Skyscrapers are a relatively recent phenomenon in Tokyo, offering panoramic views to distant Mount Fuji on a clear day. Tokyo Skytree is the city's tallest tower, with two observation decks, while the top floor of the Roppongi Hills complex is dedicated to contemporary art at the Mori Art Museum. For a sunset drink with a view, don't miss the new Rooftop Bar at the Andaz Hotel, gracing the 52nd floor of the Toranomon Hills complex. (tokyo.andaz.hyatt.com/en)
4. Something fishy If you can tolerate an early start and the fishy aroma, the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market offers an unbeatable show as the tuna catch of the day goes under frenetic auction. Tourist numbers are limited to 120 people in two shifts, and there are no pre-bookings; so rise early and join the queue at 4.30am. Visitors can also visit the outer market for a sushi breakfast, guaranteed fresh. Note that the markets will be relocated to the more distant Toyosu area from 2015, making way for new 2020 Olympic Games venues. (tsukiji-market.or.jp)
5. Harajuku Girls Tokyo's fashion scene is a parallel universe, and there's no better place to gawk at teenage cosplay geeks than in Takeshita Dori, the narrow pedestrian mall in Harajuku. Quirky boutiques sell mind-boggling styles from cutesy Alice petticoats to Gothic Lolita and Sailor Moon outfits; there are also plenty of T-shirt emporiums, doggy outfitters and sock shops, as well as Moshi Moshi Kawaii, an adorable souvenir shop selling all things Harajuku. (moskikawa.com)
6. Theme restaurants Dining is never boring when you're served by Buddhist monks or vampires, or handcuffed in a cell as you eat. Tokyo's infamous "theme" restaurants include a Ninja hideaway, a medical-themed bar where snacks are served in kidney bowls, an Alice in Wonderland labyrinth, and the outrageously over the top Robot Restaurant, where electro-punk meets porn, served with a dash of alien schlock. Sensory overload, and definitely not about the food. (robot-restaurant.com)
7. Ninja school Fancy yourself a stealthy ninja, flying backwards through bamboo forests flicking star blades? Or perhaps you're more the samurai type, chopping off heads with a double-edged sword. This private 1.5-hour workshop is ideal for fantasy-loving teens, with the ancient secrets taught by a martial arts sensei. A fun cultural experience. (viator.com)
8. Sumo This seasonal sport is high drama and great entertainment, with battles between the big guys held in January, May and September at Ryogoku Kokugikan, the National Sumo Hall. Off-season, try to catch a morning training session at a sumo stable, or beya; or chow down on chankonabe, typical sumo fare consisting of a hearty hot-pot stew, served in restaurants surrounding the stadium. (sumo.or.jp/en/)
9. Purify your soul Set in evergreen parklands or surrounded by gardens, Shinto shrines offer tranquil respite from city chaos. Harajuku's Meiji Jingu is Tokyo's most famous; enter through the 12-metre torii gate before purifying your spirit at a communal water basin. You can also write wishes on little pieces of paper for good luck. (meijijingu.or.jp)
10. Asakusa I asked several locals for their top "must see", and they invariably suggested Asakusa. Once the centre of Edo nightlife, this northern district retains its traditional ambience, albeit swamped by tourists. The main attraction is the impressive Senjosi Temple, approached via Nakamise Dori, lined with shops selling kimonos and yukatas (cotton dressing gowns), antique woodblock prints and delicious cake snacks filled with red bean paste, called Ningyokaki. You can also take a rickshaw ride through the streets, pulled by buff young men wearing tights.
11. Cheap eats With a host of udon and ramen restaurants, sushi trains and ubiquitous bento boxes, you can dine like an emperor on a pauper's budget in Tokyo. For a cheap, traditional meal, follow the red lanterns to Shikuju's Omoide Yokocho (or "Piss Alley") where hole-in-the-wall bars sell draught beer and skewers of grilled meat, or "yakitori". Be warned: simple "chicken yakitori" consists of skewers featuring every part of the bird: skin, liver, intestines. Be specific with your order if you just want breast meat.
12. Golden Gai Beyond the neon lights of Shinjuku is a series of narrow, dark, atmospheric alleys lined with more than 200 tiny bars; literal cubby holes, with perhaps seating for five or six customers. Each bar is more eclectic than the next. I loved Albatross, decorated with chandeliers and stag heads and serving potent cocktails made from sweet potato vodka, called shochu. A small cover charge adds to the drinks bill.
13. Department store food halls The basement of every glitzy Tokyo department store is occupied by a gourmet food hall, or depachika; a culinary wonderland selling freshly prepared meals, pastries, cheese, over-packaged fruit ($10 rockmelon, anyone?) and wine. Wander through, simply admiring the artistic presentation or taste-testing on the run; or for truly royal treatment, be the first customers at 10am when vendors line up and bow deeply as you approach.
14. Kitties galore A large crowd has gathered on a sidewalk in Harajuku, photographing and gushing over . . . a cat. Yes, in Tokyo, a mere moggy can have superstar status. Pet-starved Japanese are so obsessed with cats, they happily pay a hefty cover charge to sip cafe latte in the company of feline friends. There are dozens of cat cafes in Tokyo, some featuring exotic breeds or rescue kitties, complete with written bios. For contact with other critters, there are also rabbit, dog and bird cafes, and even a goat cafe in Shinjuku. (whereintokyo.com)
15. Bath culture While the most authentic onsens are located in regional mountain resorts, you can get your bath-fix in Tokyo at several spa complexes that replicate the traditional bathhouse ambience. Spa LaQua at Tokyo Dome City is a sprawling complex drawing on natural springs 1700 metres underground. It features open-air pools, three types of sauna and a massage bubble bath (laqua.jp/spa). Resembling a theme park, Ooedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba features six different types of bath, plus a Japanese garden with a 50-metre foot bath, restaurants, massage facilities, and a replica street from the Edo era. (ooedoonsen.jp/daiba/english)
16. Sing it loud Lost in Translation fans will want to replicate Scarlett and Bill's big night out: i.e., drink at the Park Hyatt, run through Pachinko parlours, and sing karaoke in a pink wig. The bar featured in the film is Karaoke Kan (rooms 601 and 602) in Shibuya (karaokekan.jp); join a group for the most hilarity. At Karaoke No Tetsujin (various locations), singers rent cosplay fancy dress to make the experience all that more Japanese (karatetsu.com).
17. Join the Scramble Shibuya's famous five-way intersection – affectionately called The Scramble – also starred in Lost in Translation. It is arguably the quintessential Tokyo experience, dizzying in its intensity as the lights change and the surge of humanity commences. The upper level of Shibuya Station affords a great aerial view, as does the second-floor Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the far side of the crossing.
18. Replica food Every restaurant window features it, and now you can make your own replica food, creating fake culinary masterpieces in the original wax technique. It's fun, a little crazy, and you'll bring back a unique souvenir; possibly a lettuce heart or tempura. The showroom, Ganso Shokuhin Sample-kan in Asakusa, has been producing replica food for 80 years, and also sells souvenirs such as sushi fridge magnets, plastic cupcakes and plates of wax spaghetti (ganso-sample.com)
19. Tokyo Station After being partially destroyed in an air raid during World War II, Tokyo's beautiful red-brick central station has recently undergone restoration, with the destroyed top floor and domes finally replaced after nearly 70 years. A grand luxury hotel now occupies this space (thetokyostationhotel.jp), while underground there is a maze of shopping arcades featuring a "Character Street" (robots, anime and Hello Kitty, in one location), "Sweet Street" (for a sugar and carb fix; yes, you can buy a potato chip ice-cream sundae here) and "Ramen Street" (real food, real good).
20. Disney with a twist Perhaps even more charming – not to mention bigger – than the original, Tokyo Disney offers standard Mickey and Goofy fare, but with a distinctive Japanese twist. Just 15 minutes from Tokyo Station on the JR Line, the resort consists of two separate theme parks: Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. Teens who have already visited the US parks may prefer the latter, with its exclusive ocean-themed attractions and rides; while Tokyo Disneyland features the classics from the Magic Kingdom: Cinderella's Castle, Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and Toontown. (tokyodisneyresort.jp/en)
The writer was a guest of Andaz Toranomon Hills Tokyo.