Introduction: Tokyo City Guide
From the moment you master the sprawling train network that governs this city, the vast metropolis of Tokyo starts to unfurl before you. This is the city where you’ll find ancient shrines just moments away from drip coffee stores and boutiques, where women in kimono brush shoulders with suited individuals rushing to work. It’s a place where you can live out your anime fantasies and enjoy food that has been crafted to artistic perfection.
Here the truly vintage melds seamlessly with the futuristic, and convenience is made an art form. You’ll just as easily find a rooftop bar to enjoy Tokyo’s impressive skyline and signature cocktails as a smoky old Izakaya to down a cup of sake and enjoy some Yakitori. Tokyo is busy, bright, and ready to get lost in.
Find out how to make the most of your time in Japan’s seductive capital with this city guide and three-day itinerary and if that’s not enough (or you’re looking to get outside Tokyo) check out this amazing Japan bucket list to keep you very busy.
When to visit
Japanese people are very proud of the fact that their country has four very distinct seasons. Most people agree, however, that the very best times to visit are during the hanami or flower-watching season in the Spring (April-May), where you’ll find plenty of cherry blossom-themed events and trinkets, and during the Autumn (September-November) due to the bright red foliage that sets the country ablaze. This is a country where you can track the foliage as it moves up the country and it’s not unusual for people to take long road trips to catch the very best views.
The summer is hot and humid, and there’s very little chance to escape the heat except by visiting the far north of the country. While the winter is bitterly cold, you’ll find plenty of onsen (hot springs) to warm you up after a day’s exploring. You can save plenty of money by visiting during these two off-seasons compared with the popular Spring and Autumn time.
Unsurprisingly, they speak Japanese in Tokyo but don’t let this deter you. With multilingual signs to guide you everywhere (English being the most prevalent), getting around won’t be an issue. Most restaurants and coffee shops will have an English menu available. Known to be a country full of the politest people, knowing how to say thank you will get you a long way and arigato gozaimasu will certainly be the words you hear most on your travels. People are very happy to help in Japan, so if you get lost or need help from one of the train conductors, don’t be afraid to use English and some confident body language.
Safety is rarely an issue in East Asia, and Japan is no exception. This is a country where people don’t think twice about leaving their MacBooks on the cafe table before heading to the bathroom. That being said, it’s always good to practice basic safety precautions, and there are women-only carriages on the subway trains for women who prefer to ride the crowded trains without men around.
You can also visit the police boxes ‘Koban’ if you want to report something or call 110 (to go straight to an English answer dial – 03-3501-0110) for the police and 119 for an ambulance or in case of a fire.
Tokyo is a city famous for its transportation. You’ll have no trouble finding your way around with the extensive train system that will take you to every inch of Tokyo and beyond – into greater Japan. Both airports are connected to the city subway and you’ll also be able to find convenient coaches at the airports to take you in to the city or to popular tourist destinations like Disneyland and Disneysea (also accessible by subway).
Using the Shinkansen bullet train is the best way to get around Japan fast, you can reach Kyoto from Tokyo in just over two hours. If you’re going to use the train more than once then grab a JR Pass, it gets very expensive!
Google Maps is your best friend here, the transport is timely and you can rely on Google Maps to give you the best route and accurate times. It can also help with the buses and will give you the stops along your line. The subway lines are owned by different companies so be prepared to tap out with your subway card or ticket just to enter another part of the station as you change lines along your journey. The Tokyo subway is massive and can definitely be intimidating, so it’s best to leave with plenty of time to spare. Taxis should be avoided if you’re a budget traveller as they’re far more expensive than any other East Asian city and a twenty-minute ride can easily reach $40-50.
We’re adding lots more Tokyo articles soon – subscribe below to hear about:
Food and Drink Guide to Tokyo
Events and Festivals Guide
Tokyo’s Nature and Parks Guide
Itineraries – Essential Tokyo Day One
If you’ve only got one day in Tokyo then the green Yamanote Line is your best friend. The green circle line that runs through the major areas of Tokyo and most tourist spots makes it convenient for visitors, particularly given the Japanese train system can get very complicated to the uninitiated. This itinerary takes you along three stops of the famous line to and shows you the best of modern Tokyo life from shrines to food, and shopping.
Start your day in Harajuku, so much more than a colorful food destination and people-watching spot this is one of the hippest spots in Tokyo with something for everyone.
Meiji-jingu Shrine is right in the heart of this area and one of the most beautiful and most visited shrines in Tokyo. It’s much quieter in the morning so grab a bento from 7/11 or Family Mart or try some of the exquisite Japanese bakery options and make your way over to the park and shrine.
There’s world-class shopping in Harajuku from boutiques, big-name brands, to thrift stores (Japanese thrift stores are very high quality) and if that’s not your thing then there are a number of rooftop bars, some of the best coffee shops and the city and plenty of restaurants (there’s plenty of ramen restaurants here so it’s good time to try Japan’s famous dish).
After lunch, hop on the Yamanote line and take a break from the urban jungle at one of Tokyo’s most famous parks. Japan’s seasons are famous and the parks are a sight to behold whatever the time of year. Find the big sake barrels, Meiji-Jingu shrine, and enjoy people-watching.
Once you’re rested carry on along the Yamanote line to Shibuya. Say hello to the famous Hachiko dog statue (at Hachiko exit), pick up a snack from the Tokyu Food Show underneath the station if you’re peckish, and look up at the famous Tokyo neon.
There’s so much to do in Shibuya but it’s worth going just to admire the bright lights and tall buildings of Tokyo’s version of Times Square. Go shopping, head to one of the independent cinemas in the area, and take a picture on that famous crossing. You can get a great view of the crossing from the big Starbucks directly above it.
There are some fantastic barbecue restaurants (wagyu) in the area and is one of the most fun eating experiences you can have. One recommendation is Han no Daidokoro Dogenzaka, an intimate restaurant with excellent quality meat. If not, the many department stores in Shibuya have excellent food courts that you can take your pick from.
There are plenty of bars in the area so if you’re not tired from your day exploring then find a rooftop bar to enjoy the view with a drink.
Itineraries – Essential Tokyo Day Two
If you have more than one day in Tokyo then you have a chance to go further afield and see a little of Japan’s long history. Balancing traditional culture with hyper-modernity is what Tokyo does best and today’s itinerary will take you from one to the other with ease. Once again the Yamanote line will get you through most of today with a little help from the Ginza line.
It’s time to head to the spiritual heart of Tokyo, Asakusa on the Ginza line. There’s a lot of history in the area and you can start your day by seeing Sensoji-Temple and the nearby Asakusa-Jinga Shrine.
There are lots of brunch spots in Asakusa so take your pick before heading just three stops west on the Ginza line to Ueno. A great recommendation is Suke6 since the café has a relaxing vibe, they have an extensive menu and the staff are lovely.
If you’re looking to rent a kimono while in Asakusa, check out this great guide from my friend Gina.
Ueno Park/ Tokyo National Museum
Take some time to stroll around the park as there’s so much to see in there including the statue of The Last Samurai, temples, and a scenic pond. The huge Ueno park is also home to the city’s most established museums and while you can take your pick of several galleries and museums, Tokyo National Museum is the biggest museum in Japan and spans hundreds of years of Japanese history.
Time to head to the bright lights and heights of Roppongi for the evening. You can take your pick of restaurants here and the Mori Art Museum is open late if you’re not tired out from Tokyo National. To extend the evening further the 5-Chome area of Roppongi is home to several clubs, bars, and live music venues like V2 Tokyo, Roppongi Club Edge, and Esprit Tokyo.
Itineraries – Essential Tokyo Day Three
If you’ve got three days in Tokyo, then the last day is the one to get out of the buzzing metropolis and see some historical Japan. Kamakura is one of many day trips you can go on but for those short, on time it’s one of the easiest that also has the most to offer. It’s ideal for people who wish they could see Kyoto but don’t have the time to go to Kansai, or who just want a quieter option. From local shopping to history and fantastic views, Kamakura is a real pleasure. You can get to Kamakura on the subway so make sure you get on the JR Yokosuka Line headed towards Zushi. It takes 55 minutes and you’ll need to hop off at Kamakura Station.
There are some key places to visit in Kamakura, the first up being the giant Buddha (or Kōtoku-in), you can either walk from Kamakura station for about 20 minutes or change at Kamakura station to the Enoden railway line to Hase station then it’s a 5-10-minute walk.
Click here for a more detailed guide to Kamakura then visit here.
Komachi Dori Shopping Street
Head back to the station area and up to the Komachi Dori shopping street, this is an amazing place for souvenirs and gifts due to all the shops selling handmade goods.
There are so many restaurants on this street that it’s difficult to choose but it’s also a good time to try some food if you’d rather as you can essentially eat and drink your way up the road while shopping. Some great choices would be yakitori (chicken skewers), okonomiyaki (vegetable and egg pancake), takoyaki (octopus balls), or karaage (fried chicken).
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
At the end of this street, you’ll find Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine set in its grounds and lake which gives you plenty to explore. There are some famous sake barrels, various statues to look at and some street food vendors.
Head back to Tokyo on the subway and finish off your night in Shinjuku. There is a strong restaurant and nightlife scene in Shinjuku so take your pick as you wander through Kabukicho and go see the famous ‘Piss Alley’ with old bars, barbecues, and olde-worlde vibes.
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