Japan's biggest day out -- our insider guide to Tokyo Skytree
With very little information currently available in English on all Tokyo Skytree has to offer, we've come up with the ultimate guide to exactly where, when and how visitors can get the most value for their time and money spent at Tokyo’s newest Big Thing.
At 634 meters, Skytree holds the record for tallest broadcasting tower ever. It's also currently Japan's No. 1 tourist attraction and not just for its jaw-dropping size.
Skytree Town's sprawling entertainment complex covers several city blocks. Shops, restaurants, an aquarium, a planetarium (with a one-of-a-kind aromatherapy show) and, of course, the tower itself pulled in 16.66 million visitors in the 100 days after opening last May.
Even though summer vacation is long over, Skytree Town is still averaging around 170,000 visitors per day. Avoid weekends or holidays if your itinerary allows.
Crowded or not, you can still have a great time -- eat, drink, shop for unique souvenirs, see the city from the viewing platform 350 meters in the air and get those perfect shots of Skytree – if you know where to go.
First things first. Skytree Town is divided into three zones: East Yard (anchored by the East Tower skyscraper), Tower Yard and West Yard.
The shopping area that rambles between them all is called Solamachi. Oshiage Station is at the East Yard, Tokyo Skytree Station at the West Yard.
Most of the shuttles from Ueno and Tokyo stations let you out right in the middle (literally), inside Tower Yard. The Panda Bus from Asakusa drops you off across the street at West Yard.
Here's our essential insider guide to each of the three main areas and Skytree itself.
Insiders know that all-important first close-up look at Skytree stretching up to the clouds (or hidden in them) is best seen from the East Yard and Oshiage Station, where the tower soars above you. The West Yard does not pack this dramatic punch.
Arriving at Oshiage Station, take Exit B3 with escalator and elevator access to street level, right across from the East courtyard.
Most people don't know this, but there's a viewing platform specially built for excellent photo ops of Skytree without the crowds getting in the way just across the street.
As you leave the station, bear to the right past the taxi and bus waiting area. At the crosswalk just a few meters away, cross at the light in front of you (not to the right).
A sloped platform on the left leads to a series of broad viewing terraces that are hard to miss. (The structure actually hides a massive bicycle parking garage above the station.)
If there's a trainspotter in your group, the platforms border the busy Tobu line tracks. A perfect place to snap a shot of the sleek new Spacia Express.
Cross back over to Skytree Town and the entrance to Solamachi. Don't go inside yet. Take the outdoor escalator up for more neck-cracking views of the tower.
On the way, stop at Studio Ghibli's Donguri Garden with hard-to-find goods and displays from their popular movie series including “My Neighbor Totoro” (“Tonari no Totoro”).
This route has another hidden photo op for posing people with the Skytree right behind -- a difficult shot to manage so close to the tower.
On the third-floor landing is a Tully's Coffee. Stand on the steps a little below and look up to the narrow walkway bridge one floor above. Send your subject up there, lean back and you've got a perfectly composed shot of your party and the tower.
More on CNN: Tokyo Skytree open for business
The escalator ends at the fourth-floor promenade connecting all three areas of Skytree Town and leads to the tower ticket lobby. If you want to visit the tower now, get your ticket for the first viewing platform and join the queue. It moves faster than you think.
1-4/F Shopping Plaza
Go directly to the fourth floor for the best in non-Skytree themed souvenirs and shopping.
Mamegui, Wango, Nara's Nippon Ichi and Gatchara Ya are stuffed to bursting with unique textiles, accessories, collectibles, folk art and many more appealing Japaneseque designs at very reasonable prices.
Over at Sengoku Busho (its first store outside Kyoto), you can join the reikshi-jou (women who love history) queuing for Samurai-themed goods from the Warring States, Sengoku period (mid 15th-17th centuries).
Choose your hero and pick up T-shirts, towels, key chains, armor-link charms and folders decorated with clan symbols and outrageously robust interpretations of famous Japanese warriors. (Spoiler alert: The Tokugawa Clan won.)
This floor also hosts the flagship store for wildly popular Medicom collectible figures.
Four new bear-like characters with a Japanese theme were introduced to celebrate the store's opening and are available only here at Solamachi. The small versions are just ¥1,000 (US$13) each.
High-end fashion your thing? The first, second and third floors are filled with Japanese and international fashion houses and boutiques.
Super-girly handbag designer Samantha Thavasa has an achingly cute dessert store in pink, pink and more pink, attached to the boutique on the first floor. The (pink) berry yogurt (¥340) and exclusive Rilakkuma character cream éclairs are also available for takeaway.
Samantha Thavasa is just one of 18 venues (and counting) in the East and West complexes offering soft ice cream or yoghurt confections. The first floor has almost as many cafés as boutiques.
5/F Japan Experience Zone
Back upstairs, most of the attractions here are not worth your time or money. However, if you have a few extra minutes, the Sumida zone highlights craftsmen and their work from the area around Skytree.
There's also a quiet outside terrace with tables and chairs.
Your choice here depends more on budget and patience than on avoiding a poor dining decision. There are a lot of tasty eating places. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of hungry visitors.
Currently, the three restaurants with the longest waiting times -- we're talking hours -- are: Toriton Kaiten Sushi; Rokurinsha (tsukemen dipping noodles); and Salon de Sweets (dessert buffet plus pasta and salad).
Unless you have your heart set on those, you should be able to find somewhere with more manageable lines.
Popular, but speedy, joint Udon Honjin Yamadaya (6/F) sells around 1,000 bowls a day of its thick white noodles in salty hot or cold broth. Many restaurants do not have English menus, so be aware.
With a capacity of 300, the World Beer Museum, Sekai Biru Hakubutsukan, (7/F) almost always has seating.
The wide-open terrace is a wonderful place to unwind on fine days and nights. Beer-hall food from the United States, Germany, Czech Republic and more. Hours 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (last order 10 p.m.).
For those who need their Starbucks fix, there's one here on the sixth floor. (The other is in the West Yard, outside on the first floor, facing the little canal.)
7/F Minolta Planetarium
If you can budget the time, come for the 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. show to experience one of the only aromatherapy planetariums in the world. The evening show is a smellariffic journey through a night forest. Evening price: ¥1,300, all tickets.
8/F Dome Garden
Exit through the unobtrusive glass door to the terrace. Here you are actually right above the planetarium. This is the place insiders come to take a break and stretch out on the grass or wide benches.
This is also where you can snap both the Skytree and its reflection in the polished glass of the tower's companion high-rise. Lie down on the grass and you can just fit both in one shot ... sort of.
30-31/F Skytree View restaurants
Watch the sun go down and the lights come up perched on the 31st floor of the East Tower at the Top of Tree lounge. Here, all tables face the tower, and for the cost of a drink, you can enjoy a one-of-a-kind view of the Skytree. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (last order 10 p.m.).
Other restaurants on the 30th and 31st floors, like La Sora Seed Food Relations, also have some great views. Prices, though, can be as high as the altitude.
The only elevators that climb to the top of the East Tower are on the first floor, directly on your left as you enter from the plaza in front of Oshiage Station and the taxi/bus area.
All other elevators in the complex stop at the eighth floor.
The multi-level outdoor decks in the East Yard are a great spot to just hang out and wait for Skytree's signature LED lighting to come on.
Depending on the day, it will be white with blue to reflect the once-blue waters of the Sumida River, or Miyabe purple, a popular kimono color in the Samurai era of old Edo.
More on CNN: Climbing the Tokyo Skytree
Daytime views from the 350-meter high Tembo Deck are often hazy and if the weather is bad, all you will see is clouds.
In our opinion, the best time to go up is sunset and evening, when Tokyo sparkles across the Kanto Plain and the lights on the bridges shine over the bay.
Despite the ultra-modern technology, Skytree's designers have tried to include Japanese artistic traditions and historical references to old Tokyo throughout the tower and Tower Yard area.
Look at the artwork over your head during the elevator ride up. Each of the four elevators is decorated in one of the seasons.
The Tembo Deck consists of three levels, including a café, sit-down restaurants and souvenir shops and can hold around 2,000 people at a time.
You waited this long to get up here, so you might as well relax at the Skytree Café (more ice cream) and enjoy it.
Restaurant 634 and several other upscale dining choices serve up pricey Continental-style menu items. Worth noting is that 634 is usually booked solid a month in advance.
One of the best secrets of the Tower Yard is the multimedia mural of Tokyo stretching along the inside wall of the first-floor passageway.
Whimsical and inventive, it's part painting, part animated computer graphics and full of comical scenes, characters and hidden treasures.
Look for the giant sushi in Tsukiji, Yodobashi Camera's buzzing batteries in Akihabara, Asakusa's legendary thousand-armed Golden Kannon, a dragon, tiger, pandas, the gods of wind and thunder swooping over Asakusa's Sensoji and much more.
The easiest way to find the mural is to enter from the outside, through the 1/F Skytree Shop souvenir store (the biggest in the complex).
Walk straight through and bear to the left into the corridor. It's impossible to enter the mural area directly from the West Tower, as the shuttle bus unloading zone cuts through.
Just beyond the end of the mural is a viewing area for the massive steel struts supporting the tower.
1/F Dining and bike rental
The water-play area and statue in Solamachi Hiroba serve as the central plaza for the Tower Yard, which is a good designated meeting place.
A KFC, Kamaaina Burger and several small cafés provide low-key/high calorie snacking options.
Want to see more of the Sumida riverside and Asakusa? Rent a bicycle at Booster Café, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.: ¥1,500 for two hours, ¥2,000 for four hours, with a ¥2,000 security deposit.
Though traffic is pretty frantic on the streets, it's a nice ride over the many bridges crisscrossing the river and through the landscaped park along its banks. The good thing is, even if you get lost, Skytree provides an unmissable beacon back.
2/F More desserts
Twenty-nine shops selling packaged sweets, cakes, ice cream and endless variations thereof. See how many towers you can find like Morozoff's chocolate Skytree or Eponge's towering cream puff confection.
Brothers Patisserie is currently favorite with visitors for its square cream puffs decorated with intricate chocolate paintings of Japanese scenes (Sumo, Asakusa Sensoji, even Skytree). Just ¥370 each, they really do taste as good as they look.
This area is connected to the fresh food market in the West block, though it may take a little wandering to find it.
3/F Fashion boutiques
Basically, an extension of the East Yard shopping extravaganza. If you've started from that side, you probably won't even notice the change in venue.
Uniqlo is on this floor, as is hip Rodeo Crowns. What's odd is that third-floor fashion bleeds into the West Yard Food Court -- where you certainly can't eat if you plan to fit into any the more high-end clothes.
The West Yard is connected to Tobu's Tokyo Skytree Station. A few meters outside the station exit is the One Two Tree shop run by the wildly popular RanKing RanQueen chain that keeps track of Tokyo's top-selling goods.
Here, it's all about the Tree. Find out which souvenirs locals are buying by reading the regularly updated charts posted in-store.
1/F Shops and cafés
This area is called St. Street. Really.
The street level is mostly a service area for bike and motorcycle parking, dividing the West Yard into station side and canal side opposite.
Moomin House Café stands on the station side. It's easy to spot as there is usually a line of Japanese fans of the Finnish books and cartoon series waiting to indulge their mania for marshmallow-shaped folk creatures.
Moomin curry, cakes, drinks, dishes and stuffed Moomin figures at your table. Hours: 8 a.m-10 p.m.
On the canal side sit Starbucks and Mister Donuts, both just around the corner from the One, Two Tree ranking shop.
Drugstore chain Matsumoto Kiyoshi is inside, next to Mister Donuts, if anyone in your party feels ill after eating all those desserts.
Follow this sidewalk to the Tower Yard and East Yard beyond.
2/F Food Market
A gastronomic tour of all -- and we mean all -- Japan has to offer in fresh and prepared food to take-away.
Take a bright, colorful, aromatic stroll that will leave your mouth watering -- with good reason; this is quality stuff.
If the weather is good, pick up tasty treats or a boxed lunch, go up to the fourth-floor promenade and dine al fresco.
3/F Food Court
Skytree has a huge variety of eating options, but if you're pressed for time, the Food Court is a cheap and cheerful choice. It is not, however, restful. The search for seats can get positively frenzied on weekends.
There is a small, kid-friendly area for families at the entrance opposite the restaurants (all the way on the other side). This floor also has several character shops -- Jump Comic Store, Ultraman M78, Tomica and Relakkuma -- squeezed in around the edges.
4/F Outdoor terrace
A rambling walkway connects the West Yard to the Skytree Ticket Lobby and the East Yard shopping and dining area.
Inside, Tree Village, by the escalator, is crammed with character goods from leading Tokyo TV stations including Skytree-only items.
5/F Sumida Aquarium
What is it with mega-structures and aquariums in Japan? Tokyo Tower has an aquarium, so does the Sunshine City high-rise in Ikebukuro. Still, Skytree's Sumida Aquarium far surpasses either of those puny efforts.
If your passion is Magellanic Penguins, you're in the right place. If not, walk on. Adult tickets cost ¥2,000, high school ¥1,500, middle and elementary school ¥1,000, younger children ¥600.
The Tokyo Skytree can be accessed from Tokyo Skytree Station on the Tobu Isesaki Line or Oshiage Station on the Hanzomon and Asakusa subway lines.
The best times to visit in the next few months will be clear winter days, when Tokyo’s usual haze is minimal, or at night when the skyline, as well as the tower itself, lights up.
Prices to the first deck: Adults: ¥2,000, students ¥1,500, children ¥900, preschoolers ¥600. Tickets to the second deck attract an additional fee and are sold only on the day. Go to www.tokyo-skytree.jp for more information.
More on CNN: Best Tokyo Skytree photo ops