Shinjuku has a lot to offer, but it’s hard to pin anything down to certain attractions. You’ll find retail shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors, karaokes, cinemas, clubs, and cat cafes here. Just have a wander and you’ll undoubtedly come across something that catches your eye.
This walking tour starts at (1) Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, one of Tokyo’s oldest and largest parks. It’s only a short walk away from the Shinjukugyoen-mae Station if you’re coming by train. Originally the home of a feudal lord in the 1700s, the garden was destroyed during World War II and was rebuilt after the war. It’s strange how peaceful Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden feels, being located near one of Tokyo’s busiest areas.
The park is open from 9 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. There’s an admission fee so it’s technically not free. However, at 200 yen, it’s practically free, right? (I know this doesn’t look good because this is our first stop and already you’re spending money. But I promise this is the only item on this list with an entrance fee.)
From the park, walk toward Shinjuku Station — literally the busiest transport hub in the world according to the Guinness World Records. You’ll pass some of Tokyo’s best and biggest retail shops on this route, so feel free to have a wander.
Tip: the basement floor of Japanese department stores are usually reserved for food stalls. It’s a great place to visit if you want to try something strange and delicious. Connected to the Shinjuku Station are department stores called Odakyu, Lumine, and Keio. Other Japanese department stores: Isetan, Takashimaya, and Mylord. Walk on in if you spot any of these names on buildings.
This route then takes you away from the shopping district and toward the business district. Make your way to the (2) Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to take a free peek at Tokyo from above. It’s just a short 10-minute walk from the Shinjuku Station. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is actually a pretty big complex with multiple buildings. There are two free observation decks located in the two towers of Building 1. They are open to the public from 9.30 a.m. The South Observatory closes at 5.30 p.m. and the North Observatory at 11 p.m.
If you haven’t had enough of the bird’s eye view of the city, there are two more free observation decks nearby. The (3) Shinjuku NS Building’s observatory is open from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. The (4) Shinjuku Sumitomo Building across the street has another free public viewing area that you can access from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
You’re probably hungry at this point, so make a stop at (5) Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane), a narrow passage lined with little restaurants and drinking houses that come alive after dark. It’s also known as Piss Alley because apparently it used to be a shady area without proper toilet facilities back in the day. (It doesn’t smell of urine at all now, if that’s what you’re worried about.)
From Piss Alley, you’re only a few steps away from Kabukicho, which is a busy nightlife/entertainment area. You’ll find everything from cat cafes to movie theaters to pachinko parlors to love hotels here. I went to the bizarre Robot Restaurant (pictured) and watched the weirdest show ever. Have a wander and take in the neighborhood.
I stumbled upon (6) Golden Gai while I was exploring Kabukicho. It’s a network of narrow alleys with hundreds of what are probably the tiniest bars in the world (each bar seats fewer than 10 people). It’s a great place to have a drink to end the night.
Note on timing: If you only have one day to visit Shinjuku, go on a Sunday because that’s when they close down a few streets between noon and 5 p.m. (or between noon and 6 p.m. from April to September) for the weekly Shinjuku Hokoten (hokoten = pedestrian paradise) event in Shinjuku 3-chome (read: sanchome).
Image credit: Kakidai [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; Japanexperterna [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.