When creating your bucket list and dreaming of exotic locations to visit on our wonderfully unique planet, not many should be higher on your list than on a first visit to Japan.
Situated in the Western North Pacific Ocean on the eastern edge of Asia, the country of Japan is made up of a string of Islands. Fusing ancient traditions with modern life, this is a country that portrays magical rugged landscapes and vibrant modern cities.
A country that has characterized fascination and captured the imagination of humankind for thousands of years.
There are endless cultural monuments to visit, such as The Imperial Palace and sprawling cherry tree-lined avenues and parks like the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park which is home to the iconic Mount Fuji.
There is however one city in particular that offers intrigue and allure like no other and this particular bustling metropolis should be your first destination.
I am of course referring to visiting Tokyo as as well as being a major transportation hub, it is the capital city of Japan and the largest urban economy in the world. If you’re still unsure about Tokyo, check out our Hong Kong vs Tokyo comparison!
There are however two of Tokyo’s most famous neighborhoods, centrally located that should compete for your immediate attention. So, which one should you choose, Shinjuku or Shibuya?
Shibuya – The Crossroads of Youth and Fashion
Let’s start with Shibuya.
You may well recognize the iconic Shibuya Scramble Crossing and this must-see spectacle perfectly exemplifies the apparent urban chaos that embodies most preconceived visions of Tokyo.
An attempt to cross Shibuya Scramble Square must be ticked off your list when you visit Tokyo.
Other inquisitive Shibuya attractions include the Hachiko Statue, a curious tribute to a loyal dog that comes with a tale and also serves as a popular focal meeting point for locals and travelers alike.
However, as a renowned hotspot for young people showcasing Japanese youth culture and street fashion, Shibuya offers so much more, from the moment you walk out into the iconic Shibuya Station, you’ll be left jaw-dropped in anticipation of what lies ahead.
With just the smallest of scratches enabling us to peek curiously below the surface, we can discover an unrivaled urban frenzy.
From curious dining areas like Shibuya’s Center Gai and Spain Zaka alongside Cat Street, a mostly pedestrianized hip and trendy promenade that accommodates the young pop culture and links Shibuya and Harajuku, to the tiny bars of the narrow lantern-lit drinking area of Drunkard’s Alley.
Pulsating with youthful energy, an infectious young pop culture and a littering of impressive world-renowned landmarks and tourist attractions, Shibuya, along with its status as a trendsetting destination, with its many shopping and dining options, feels like a city from another sphere.
If that’s not enough to pique your interest, then let’s have a look at some alternative reasons to make Shibuya a bucket list destination.
A Shopping Paradise
Quite simply, the Shibuya area is a utopian shopping haven, especially for those of us with our fingers firmly on the pulse of the ever-evolving, wonderful world of fashion.
The famous Shibuya 109 Mall with its plethora of stylish department stores is arguably the most photographed building in Tokyo and is home to some of the world’s hottest brands and trends.
The Mall is a popular haunt for both Japanese and foreign celebrities and this also adds credence to Shibuya’s firm grip on its reputation as Tokyo’s fashion mecca.
Fashion and Culture
Street fashion and youth culture in Shibuya are as happy together as peanut butter and jelly, or even sushi and wasabi.
If you are a young person with a penchant for cutting-edge and eccentric fashion styles, then you will certainly not feel out of place as you graciously make your way around this ultra-modern and contemporary corner of Tokyo.
Shibuya street culture is infectious and whatever age you are, or from whichever walk of life you originated, it will be almost impossible not to suddenly find yourself immersed in a colorful cacophony of urban sophistication.
Dining and Nightlife
Although Japan is known as ‘The land of the rising sun’, it’s after daylight hours that the Shibuya area bursts into life.
There is no shortage of bar-hopping entertainment options with a seemingly endless choice of theatres, restaurants, Japanese-style pubs, clubs and karaoke fun bars, each offering its own exclusive flavor of Japanese and East Asian culture, that helps to envelop the charismatic spirit of the Shibuya district of Tokyo.
There are not many better examples of how Tokyo has evolved into a buzzing global metropolis that still holds recognition for its historical values than Miyashita Park. A newly imagined expanse of shopping, side street restaurants and quiet cozy Japanese cafes.
The park itself is situated on the rooftop area and incorporates a skate park and a sand court where visitors can enjoy the unique experience of city-center beach volleyball. When the sun sets Shibuya awakens with a plethora of offerings that cater to all tastes and demographics.
Among the many ‘must visit’ tourist attractions. From the breathtaking 360-degree vista, 230 meters above the ground, you’ll bear witness to an extraordinary experience. Perched aloft on the observatory of the future, you can take a peek over the daunting ‘Sky Edge’. Make no mistake though, this is not for the faint-hearted.
You will find yourself peering directly down at the fervent flow of the city, hundreds of meters below. While you’re up there at such a height, don’t miss the opportunity to take time to relax on the hammocks provided and partake in a session of cloud watching. An utterly exhilarating experience by doing nothing more than having a lie-down.
This unique building, in the heart of the city, is by no means just an observation deck. Comprised of 45 levels, split between three main floors, you’ll be blown away even before you reach the top. Digital art displays hypnotize and enthrall the mind as you exit the Sky Pods on the 14th floor to begin your journey.
A cafe bar provides a warm and welcoming atmosphere to relax and enjoy the views across Tokyo.For opening hours and ticket information click here
Unlike what we may have become accustomed to from TV programs and movies of yesteryear, Tokyo is not just bright lights and tall skyscrapers.
Conveniently situated adjacent to Harajuku Station, which provides convenient access to many of Shibuya’s major attractions, Yoyogi Park is within walking distance and offers a visual delight and a treat for the senses at any time of the year.
Located next to the entrance to the park is the Meiji Shrine, as one of Japan’s most impressive shrines it is well worth a stop in itself. Admission to the park is free and once inside it is up to you how you enjoy the experience. Relax with a walk through the woods and if you’re lucky enough to be there in spring (around mid to late March and early April), you’ll find yourself treated to an effervescent visual explosion of hundreds of cherry trees in full bloom.
An observation tower offers wonderful views across the many forested areas of the park and there are clues all around as to the history of the park, from its beginnings as a residential area used by United States military personnel to serving as a site for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Olympic village.
Again, when it comes to catering for all visitors, you’ll certainly not struggle to find anywhere to stay during your visit. A quick search online as you plan your trip will uncover an endless list of cheaper hotels for budget travelers to extravagant luxury hotels.
As Shibuya is a popular destination for young people there are multiple youth hostels and guest houses that are centrally situated and work as an ideal base for a younger crowd. If your budget allows a more discernable blend of comfort and style then you’ll not be disappointed as Shibuya is home to some of Tokyo’s trendiest boutique hotels.
We know now that if it’s a bustling street life, cutting-edge capital culture, or trend-setting fashion that gets you out of bed in the morning, then there is no doubt at all that Shibuya should be your immediate destination of choice.
But what if your visit to Tokyo requires a more commercial approach along with your desire to visit the obligatory tourist attractions? Somewhere a little more cultured that caters to the more discerning business type perhaps?
Then after a short train journey from Shibuya station, on the JR Yamanote Line, you’ll conveniently find you’ve arrived at Shinjuku Station right in the heart of Tokyo’s commercial epicentre.
It’s worth noting at this point that the Tokyo public transportation network is among the most efficient and reliable in the world, allowing you to avoid busy places and see the sights from a relative comfort not afforded by, or comparable to many other major global capital cities.
Shinjuku – An Urban Extravaganza
What about Shinjuku?
Just a little further along the JR Yamanote line, Shinjuku is best known for a skyscape of awe-inspiring, high-rise superstructures, that include among them the more than impressive Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
Also, along with its value as one of Japan’s most important commercial hubs, the multifaceted neighborhood of Shinjuku is situated in the heart of Tokyo and helps to showcase this modern dynamic city to the world.
For business travelers, serious shoppers and the cultural enthusiasts among us, the Shinjuku area of Tokyo presents a huge array of attractions and experiences that will complete any vacation or business itinerary.
There is endless exploration to be had around the entire Shinjuku district of Tokyo, but for first-time visitors, what are the main attractions and what pleasures does the district that’s described as ‘the beating heart of Tokyo’ actually provide us with?
Japan’s Urban Oasis
Shinjuku, or Shinjuku Ku to give this vibrant and buzzing district of Tokyo its correct name, means ‘new lodgings’ in Japanese. The word ‘Ku’ means ‘ward’ and is a term given to subsections of Japanese cities that have large enough populations to be named as a designated city. There are noticeable differences as you step off the train and out of Shinjuku Station.
You’ll be surrounded by a seemingly endless stream of business types and international travelers, into the sprawling urban city center that winds itself towards the labyrinth of wide shopping streets, littered with department stores, hiding among towering skyscrapers that define Shinjuku as a vigorous and energetic commercial center and business hub.
Make no mistake, a lot is going on in many Shinjuku areas all day, every day and it’s worth taking on board that you’ll expect to come across a far more diverse mix of Tokyo’s inhabitants from the moment you exit Shinjuku Station.
Although Shinjuku has a reputation for being a relatively safe part of the city, it’s worth staying aware of your surroundings. If you want to avoid the busiest areas then head west out of the station towards Century Southern Tower and Sunroute Plaza, both close enough to the main hub, but a quieter end of town.
Making your way across towards the east side of Shinjuku you’ll find your access point to all things shopping. The shopping area of Shinjuku caters to a slightly different taste from that of Shibuya and the, let’s say older clientele would recommend Shinjuku rather than the younger audience that are attracted to Shibuya shopping.
There is a more refined and sophisticated feel to shopping in Shinjuku where you can experience an endless variety of top-end department stores like Takashimaya Times Square, Kinokuniya and Odakyu which offer a range of brands that have a higher-class designer feel.
One of the first images that spring to mind when thinking of Japan is technology. Japan has been synonymous with technological expertise since the early pioneering days of the 1970s, so if it is high-tech gadgets you are on the lookout for, then head for the area west of Shinjuku Station where you’ll discover pioneering innovation, gadgets and gizmos galore among a cacophony of electronics megastores.
Dining And Entertainment
After a day of retail therapy it’s time for some dining discovery and whether you have chosen to visit Shinjuku or Shibuya, one thing that can’t separate these two not-too-dissimilar areas of Tokyo is the nightlife. Hidden deep beneath the enormous towering urban jungle above is the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku.
Now hold back any preconceived ideas you may have of what is essentially the red light district of Kabukicho and embark on a fun bar-hopping evening through the tight alleyways and pavement-hugging bars while ignoring the touts and the countless invitations to the slightly less reputable establishments in this area.
The Golden Gai area is where you’ll find bars, clubs and restaurants that are inclusive to everyone and cater to people of any sexual orientation, particularly in the Nichrome District. This for some will be an experience of venturing into the unexpected and one also to be remembered, no matter how fleeting, but very worthy of a visit during your stay.
The district of Shinjuku gifts us with many areas that enable us to discover the hidden gems of traditional Japanese culture in a district dominated by high-rise, neon-clad steel towers.
One of these unique areas that perfectly articulates the time-honored Japanese concept of honne (a person’s true feelings and desires) and tatemae (the contrasting behaviors of public display) is Memory Lane.
The main street is hidden out of site, behind Shinjuku Station among the modern department stores, but is a true example of real-life Japanese honne. Walking in you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d crossed over into a parallel dimension, dark, crowded and enveloped by old ramshackle buildings.
It genuinely is a tight squeeze as you make your way through crumbling bar-lined streets just about wide enough to walk side by side. Originally a 1940s post-war location for vendors and illegal traders, memory Lane is somewhere to soak up a uniquely individual atmosphere and explore a customary world of traditional Japanese culture that exists seemingly out of sight.
The Tokyo Metropolis
Another of the many popular observation decks that adorn the rooftops of the tall buildings of Shinjuku is situated on top of the odd-looking, but equally as impressive Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
The building is free to enter and is the home of Toukyou Tochou which governs the Tokyo Metropolis. From 200 meters above the ground, visitors are privy to commanding views across the whole of the city, taking in landmarks such as the Tokyo Tower, the Meiji Shrine, the Tokyo Skytree and if the weather is favorable even Mount Fuji is suspended in the distant horizon.
It may not be the most immediate thought for visitors to any of the Shinjuku areas, but a trip to this building will give you a real insight and understanding of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s policy process and what makes this fabulous city tick.
While Shibuya is more accommodating to budget travelers, it’s in Shinjuku that you’ll come across the real high-end affluent options with a plethora of exclusive luxury hotels and apartments.
Shinjuku is home to some of Tokyo’s most expensive places to stay, all of which offer luxurious amenities and stunning views across the city which to some is well worth the price in itself.
In contrast, Shinjuku is also famous for its Love Hotels, where singles and couples who may or may not be involved in some sort of illicit relationship, meet for a night of revelry and debauchery. As has been mentioned frequently in this article, Tokyo has something for everyone.
There is no shortage of places to stay in the urban sprawl that is Shinjuku, but it’s well worth planning ahead before your trip so you’re not completely overwhelmed upon your arrival.
Shinjuku Vs Shibuya: Summary
I hope this article has helped to guide and inform you of the differences between Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Whilst there are many similarities between these two must-visit areas of Japan’s capital city, I’m sure you’ll agree that each area submits its blend of endless indulgence and things to see and do.
In an ideal world, you would have enough time during your visit to Japan to take in the exquisite sights, sounds and surroundings of both areas.
The intense energy of Shibuya, the traditional and modern contrast of Shinjuku. This was never meant to be a choice between one or the other, but a side-by-side comparison of these two equally cosmopolitan districts of Tokyo.
If you’re a young, fashion-conscious trendsetter who likes their finger firmly fixed on the pulse of all the latest trends then perhaps Shibuya is for you. However, if it’s a more cultured experience you desire among the high-end fashion boutiques, then it seems like it could be Shinjuku should be your destination of choice.
Each and every one of us is an individual and there are no rules for who we have to be, what we have to follow, and how we have to do it.
So go on, take the leap and indulge in the offerings of both these amazing areas, and when you do plan your trip to the land of the rising sun, do it with a visit to both Shibuya and Shinjuku in mind, because there is a reason that Shibuya and Shinjuku are two of Tokyo’s most popular places to visit.
When all is said and done I shall be left in no doubt that you’ll not be disappointed, wherever you go whoever you are, wherever you’re from.