Visiting Japan is an experience unlike any other. After all, it’s the only place in the world where straight-laced business people can stay out all night singing Britney Spears karaoke and popping into cafes to cuddle hedgehogs and it’s totally normal. It’s also the only place where you can enter a public restroom without needing a hazmat suit and the average toilet has more amenities than a day spa at the Ritz (potty-training in Japan must be more complicated than the NASA recruitment program).
Despite the fact that I despise sushi (we don’t eat land weeds. Why would I shell out an exorbitant sum to eat weeds that are salty and covered in more microorganisms than a chihuahua’s chew toy?! Not to mention the whole raw fish thing.), I had always wanted to visit Japan. And we finally had the chance to go last year when we cashed in our stash of Delta Skymiles for roundtrip tickets to Tokyo.
Sam and I decided that instead of running ourselves ragged attempting to see the entire nation in ten days—because that’s basically our MO—we would be much more practical and spend the first five days of our 10-day trip to Japan in Tokyo and the last five in Kyoto. It ended up being a great plan.
We quickly discovered that Tokyo is a city—like New York and Paris—that someone could live in for years and still never see everything. Each neighborhood is a fascinating maze of quirky shops, aromatic restaurants, and busy thoroughfares. But despite the fact that I was three-months pregnant and battling next-level nausea and fatigue, we were able to explore most of the main wards and hit many of Tokyo’s major attractions.
Of course, how you spend your time in Tokyo will depend on your interests and preferences. If you’re an Anime-crazed techie who thinks ancient history is the Super Nintendo-era (the barbarism) you will organize your schedule differently than a foodie whose only interest in technology is checking out Yelp reviews for the best sushi joint in Shibuya. It is totally fine to spend more time in one neighborhood and skip another.
But if you’d like to see a good variety of the city’s attractions, here is a guideline for spending five days in Tokyo (and the itinerary we followed).
Arrive in Tokyo. If are traveling from far away, you will likely be an exhausted, jet-lagged mess by the time you get to your hotel. So, plan to take the rest of the day pretty easy.
Since I felt super nauseous when we got to our room, we ended up taking a long nap and then eating dinner at a small ramen shop near our hotel.
If you are unfazed by jet lag (or can actually sleep on airplanes) and want to get a jump start on exploring, you can head to one of Tokyo’s cool neighborhoods for a fun evening of eating, shopping, and world domination—because you are obviously a superhuman. We recommend Harajuku or Shinjuku.
We spent the whole morning and much of the afternoon exploring Harajuku, which ended up being one of my favorite areas in Tokyo (we actually visited it several times!). If you’re excited to experience Japan’s bizarre fashions and have weird obsession with all things kawaii (cute), Harajuku is your jam. But just because it’s a popular destination for young people doesn’t mean you have to be a Hello Kitty-obsessed fifteen-year-old to enjoy it.
Find Serenity at the Meiji Shrine.
Though Harajuku is famous for its wild teen fashions, quirky shopping, and over-the-top crepes, it is also a surprisingly good place to connect with nature. To get some fresh air and shake off the jet leg, we made a bee-line to the Meiji Shrine. Completed in 1920, the shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of modern Japan, and the Empress Shoken.
Despite the fact that it was a dreary, rainy day, we enjoyed the tranquil atmosphere as we made the ten-minute walk through the forest to the shine. Though the shrine was destroyed during WWII, it was later rebuilt and is a neat place to learn about Japanese history.
The Meiji Shrine is easily accessible from Harajuku station. The grounds are free to visit. Admission to the buildings is 500 yen.
Browse the Shops.
Tokyo is known for its crazy fashions, and Harajuku is the best place to find them. Throughout the neighborhood—and especially along Takeshita Street, which is pedestrian-only—you can find some awesome boutiques, shops, and thrift stores that cater to young Japanese fashionistas.
Looking for something a little more upscale? Head to Omotesando, which is the Tokyo equivalent to New York’s Fifth Ave. and Paris’ Champs-Elyeeses.
Eat a Harajuku Crepe.
When you think of Japanese cuisine, sushi, ramen, and soba noodles might spring to mind. But the Japanese have another love: crepes! And—as is often the case in Japan—they take a good thing and make it, well, better. While you can find the traditional fillings you would find in a Parisian creperie (Nutella, strawberries, bananas, cream, etc.), there are also more decadent offerings that include entire slices of cheesecake, brownies, ice cream, and more.
Harajuku is the best place to sample the Japanese delight, as you will find funky creperies scattered all throughout the area. Just be prepared to stand in line at some of the more popular stalls. We sampled several crepes during our visit to Tokyo!
Once you’ve spent a full morning/afternoon exploring the wacky world of Harajuku, head to Shinjuku—home to the busy railway stop in Tokyo (which is saying something, since every Japanese train station seems to, at any given time, be populated by more people than there are in most small eastern European countries).
Shinjuku is a popular Tokyo ward for shopping, eating and nightlife.
Arrive in the World’s Busiest Train Station.
One must-have experience in Shinjuku is simply arriving at Shinjuku Station—the busiest railway station in the world. It is essentially a small city. Or, more accurately, a regular-sized city.
We had planned to meet up with some friends from Canada at the station but didn’t pinpoint an exact spot. Since as my friend is 6’2 and whiter than an albino polar bear, we didn’t think he’d be hard to spot. Boy, were we wrong. We spent a full hour wandering around in vain.
Since we had rented a pocket Wifi device, we were able to use our phones to communicate. But that wasn’t terribly helpful. We agreed to meet by the Gucci store, since we figured that would be an easy enough landmark to find. Until we realized there are three Gucci stores within a half block of the station. (The fact that Tokyo can sustain as many luxury goods stores as there are McDonald’s says a great deal about Edokkos. Apparently, it’s a nation full of Kardashians.)
We did eventually find our friends. But by then we were hangry and feeling the effects of jet lag pretty hard.
All that to say, be more specific if you’re meeting friends at Shinjuku station. Otherwise just wander around and enjoy yourself. And maybe buy yourself a Gucci bag.
Experience Sensory Overload.
If you’re visiting Shinjuku at night, you will inevitably experience sensory overload. Because it’s basically Times Square but bigger, flashier, and even more crowded. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world that can compete with Tokyo’s crazy nightlife.
Sam and I don’t drink and prefer to be home by nine—especially when I’m jet lagged and pregnant—so the nightlife was certainly not a main draw for us. But even we enjoyed soaking in Shinjuku’s lively atmosphere.
Perched atop the eight floor of Hotel Gracery, the bust of Godzilla is an iconic figure in Shinkjuku. Sam loved that the statue made an appearance in the background of the pregnancy announcement photo we took there. (After getting engaged at the top of the Swiss Alps and flying into our wedding reception in a vintage WW2 airplane, we decided to make our pregnancy announcement fittingly travel-inspired)
Explore Omoide Yokocho.
Omoide Yokocho is a narrow alley that is jammed full of tiny little restaurants (and bars). It is a neat place to explore, even if you don’t stop to eat.
Enter an Introvert’s Paradise.
If you’re an introvert in Tokyo, odds are good that your people-o-meter will be running on fumes pretty quickly. After all, Tokyo is home to more than nine million people and who knows how many tourists. That thought alone is enough to make an introvert take a Valium and flee for the nearest deserted mountaintop.
But, take heart. Tokyo has the perfect solution: Ichiran Ramen, a restaurant designed for introverts. That’s right. You can order, receive your food, and pay without having to endure face-to-face interaction with another human being. You order at a machine, sit in a private booth, and only maybe catch a glimpse of your server’s hands as he or she reaches through the small window and places a steaming bowl of ramen in front of you. And if that weren’t reason enough to go, the food is actually really good too.
After spending a full day hitting the crazy, fast-paced, modern parts of Tokyo, take this morning to catch a glimpse of Tokyo’s more traditional side in the Asakusa district of Tokyo’s Taitō ward. Though it was the entertainment capital of Tokyo during the Edo period, now Asakusa is a great place to experience ancient Japanese culture.
Shop for Traditional Goods.
Unlike the luxury goods in Shinjuku and the wild “Kawaii” pop culture trends in Harajuku, Asakusa is the place to look for more traditional souvenirs. Though you will come across cheap, gaudy trinkets, you can also find some items that are truly special. We bought some pretty wooden chopsticks to commemorate our trip. The main shopping areas in Asakusa are Nakamise and Shin-Nakamise.
Pass through the Kaminarimon Gate.
The Kaminarimon Gate is the impressive outer gate leading to the Sensō-ji Temple. First built in 941 AD, the gate has been destroyed numerous times throughout history. Its current iteration was built in 1960.
Visit the Sensō-ji Temple.
A visit to the brightly colored Sensō-ji Temple is a must when exploring Asakusa. Originally completed in 645 AD, it is the oldest temple in Tokyo.
Admission is free.
Get a Bird’s-Eye View from the Visitor Center.
For great views of Asakusa, take the elevator in the visitor center up to the free observation deck. There are also free bathrooms in the visitor center.
Sample Japanese Street Food.
Along the market streets of Nakamise and Shin-Nakamise are plenty of vendors selling traditional Japanese street foods. Though I was feeling super nauseous, Sam enjoyed sampling several Japanese snacks, including dango (a skewer of rice balls covered in a soy-based sauce).
After spending the morning experiencing ancient Japanese culture, enjoy an evening in another one of Tokyo’s popular modern wards: Shibuya. Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s premier shopping and entertainment districts.
Witness the Famed Shibuya Crossing.
Outside Shibuya Station’s Hachiko exit is the Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crosswalk in the world. Approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at once.
Though actually crossing the street is a must—both for the experience and to get to basically anywhere you’ll want to visit—it is also an amazing spectacle to witness. The best place to watch the crossing is from the second-floor window of the Starbucks in the QFRONT building. Just be prepared to wait for a seat by the window; it gets very crowded in the evening!
Purchase Ramen from a Vending Machine.
One thing we kept hearing about Tokyo was that everything—and I mean everything—is available from vending machines. Not just the typical Coca-Cola and candy bars like we have in North America. So, we were excited to see these miraculous vending machines first hand (because if the Japanese toilets were anything to go by, these were going to be mind blowing).
While we were in Shibuya, we visited a restaurant that sold ramen from a vending machine. I admit that I had kind of hoped that the steaming bowl of noodles itself would drop directly out of the machine…because that would be pretty cool, if not entirely sanitary. But that’s not exactly how it works. Instead, you can choose what you want to eat, pay, and the machine will spit out a ticket, which you can then take inside and hand to a restaurant employee who will fulfill your order. The whole process is quick and efficient (entirely what you’d expect from Japan!), and the food is super tasty.
Squeeze in Some More Retail Therapy.
In case you haven’t already drained your bank account and all your life savings, Shibuya is another major shopping destination in Tokyo. If you fancy yourself a trendsetter, head to Shibuya 109 or Shibuya Hikarie.
Morning: Imperial Palace
A popular tourist destination in Tokyo, the Imperial Palace is the current residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. The Imperial Castle was built on the site where Edo Castle once stood. The palace was originally completed in 1888, though it was destroyed during WW2 and was later rebuilt in a similar style.
Take a Guided Tour.
Guided tours are available at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday and last a little longer than an hour. The tours are free but should be reserved in advance. Register online up to one month prior to your visit.
We didn’t take the tour because we forgot to make reservations, and I was feeling pretty sick the morning we planned to visit and wasn’t able to get to the tour desk early enough to ask about filling any last-minute openings. It was also raining, and we arrived, soaking wet, at the complete wrong side of the complex. So, things weren’t exactly working in our favor.
But if you are even marginally more organized than we were and manage to take the tour, just keep in mind that it won’t take you inside the palace, but instead through the grounds.
Explore the Gardens.
Even though we didn’t take the guided tour, we were able to explore the gardens for free. The three main garden areas are the East Gardens, Kitanomaru Park, and the Kokyo Gaien National Garden.
Admire the Bridges.
There are two bridges on the grounds that are worth seeing: the Meganebashi and the Nijubashi. Both lead to the inner grounds, which is unfortunately not open to the public except for two days per year (January 2 and February 23). But they are pretty to photograph.
Visit the Museum of the Imperial Collection.
A highlight of our visit to the Imperial Castle was checking out the Museum of the Imperial Collection—and only partially because it was a sweltering September day and the museum had air conditioning. Entry is free, and the museum contains a collection of more than 9,800 artworks. It is located in the Imperial Palace East Gardens.
Minato ward is probably best known for its iconic Tokyo Tower (Japan’s answer to the Eiffel Tower). At the risk of losing every drop of travel cred I’ve ever had, I admit that the main reason we visited Minato is because I was craving something familiar and desperately wanted to go to the Hard Rock Café for a cheeseburger. (In my defense, I was still suffering from some fairly extreme pregnancy nausea and finding food I could keep down was a growing concern.) But even if you’re super hard core and live on nothing but sushi for five days, there are still some sights worth visiting in this interesting ward.
Check out the Tokyo Tower.
The Tokyo Tower, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, is taller than the Eiffel Tower and quite spectacular to behold. Because I’m an unapologetic Francophile and Paris is my favorite city in the world, I will admit that I don’t find the Tokyo Tower as appealing as the Eiffel Tower. But it is still pretty cool.
For 1,600 yen you can go to the top. While I imagine the bird’s eye views are spectacular, we chose to view the tower from the ground. We especially enjoyed seeing it at night when it was lit up.
See Tokyo from Above (For Free).
For great (free) views of the Tokyo skyline, take the elevators to the top of the Caretta Shiodome. There are restaurants at the top if you want to hang around longer.
Explore the Roppongi District.
A lively entertainment district that is especially popular with expats, Rappongi is a fun area to explore in the evening. Since clubbing is definitely not our scene—even when I’m not jet lagged and pregnant—we skipped the nightclubs and headed to Hard Rock Café for the aforementioned cheeseburger. Afterward we meandered around for a while and enjoyed people watching (and there are a whole heck of a lot of people to watch in Rappongi in the evening!).
Morning: Hamarikyu Gardens
One thing we couldn’t get enough of on our trip were the serene Japanese gardens. Despite its location in the center of one of the biggest metropolises in the world, the Hamarikyu Gardens are a peaceful escape from the Tokyo crowds.
Admission costs 300 yen per adult.
In central Tokyo, Ginza is one of Tokyo’s swankiest neighborhoods. It has basically everything the other wards have but nicer, classier, and a whole lot more expensive. It’s a great place to visit if you’re feeling fancy.
Visit Tokyo’s Coolest Bookshop.
I’m a total book nerd, so whenever we visit a new destination, I always make a point of visiting the local bookstores. One of my favorite bookstores I’ve ever visited was Tsutaya (located in Ginza Six, a lux, multi-story shopping center). A blend of bookstore and art gallery, the layout of the store is as beautiful as the art and design books it sells. It is seriously the bookstore of my dreams.
Do Some Upmarket Shopping.
If you are in the market for a new designer handbag or luxury watch, Ginza is the place for you. Ginza Six in particular is definitely worth checking out.
Check out a Themed Café.
I had heard of the crazy themed restaurants and cafes in Tokyo, which range from robots and rabbits to ninjas and Nintendo. And I was pretty keen to check one out. We ended up visiting one of several Alice in Wonderland themed cafes in Tokyo. Though the food was fairly expensive and subpar, the decorations were fantastic, and it was certainly a memorable experience! We sat in a plush pink booth and nibbled ice cream while wearing giant bunny ears. And it was totally normal and ok. Only in Tokyo.
No matter how obscure your interests, you are bound to find a Tokyo café that caters to your tastes.
Tokyo is a city that would take a lifetime to explore thoroughly. But if you’re short on time, five days is the perfect amount of time for first-time visitors to get a good taste for the major districts and landmarks.
Tips for Visiting Tokyo
A visit to Tokyo can be amazing but also overwhelming. Following these tips will make sure you have a fantastic experience. (Well, that and not traveling while 13 weeks pregnant and feeling like a drunk ferret is trying to claw its way up your esophagus every time you catch a whiff of raw fish…)
Fly into Haneda rather than Narita. If possible, try to fly into Haneda airport (HND) rather than (NRT), since Haneda is more conveniently located to the city center. (In preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we are seeing more international routes popping up from the US to HND. We took a direct flight from MSP on Delta.)
Japan is a cash culture. Somewhat ironic for a city that is so modern that its toilet seats are more technologically advanced than an Apollo space shuttle, Japan is still very much a cash society. Though many places will take credit cards, it’s always best to have some yen on hand just in case.
The metro is extensive and efficient. Public transit is the best, most affordable way to get around Tokyo. We recommend purchasing a Suica Card (a refillable metro card) from a kiosk in the airport on arrival and using it during your stay in Tokyo. (NOTE: the Japan Rail Pass is a great value if you plan to take bullet trains and hit several different Japanese cities. But it will not be valid on most local Tokyo public transit.)
Get a pocket Wifi device. For a nation that is known for being cutting edge and innovative, the Wifi situation is surprisingly poor. Though most hotels will have a decent connection, finding good Wifi while out sightseeing can be challenging and quite frustrating if you are relying on Wifi for navigation or to look up reservation information! We were glad we’d taken a friend’s advice and reserved a pocket Wifi device online before our trip. (We got ours here and had no problem picking it up and dropping it off at the airport.)
It is exceptionally orderly. So go with it. The fact that Japan is home to roughly 9 million people and still manages to have a low homicide rate speaks to the orderliness of its society. It probably says a lot about Sam and me that one of our favorite things about Tokyo was the fact that, on escalators, everybody stands single-file on the left so those in a hurry can easily pass on the right. I mean, WHY DOESN’T EVERY COUNTRY DO THIS??! I think there would be less obesity, lower rates of hypertension, and a generally happier outlook on life if everyone followed the Japanese model. In the same vein, talking (either to travel companions or on the phone) on the trains is considered rude. Which, in my opinion, is kind of the bedrock of any functioning civilization. And in case that doesn’t make the entire nation eligible for a Nobel Peace prize, it is also shockingly clean. Littering is a major no-no in Japan—as it should be everywhere. So just be respectful.
How to Visit Tokyo on a Budget
One reason many people avoid traveling to Tokyo is the cost. With other Asian nations offering a bargain (Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka to name a few!), it is understandable that Japan falls lower on many people’s travel lists. But visiting Japan is a unique experience every traveler should have at least once. The good news is that, like most “expensive” destinations, there are plenty of ways to save money on a trip to Tokyo. Here are a few ways we kept costs down.
Stay at a business hotel. Rather than splashing out on a super expensive hotel—since we barely spent any time in our room anyway except to sleep—we chose to stay at an APA hotel, which is a chain that primarily services business travelers. And though our room was as spacious as a matchbox, it was clean, comfortable, and had everything we needed. If you’re looking to save even more money, consider staying at one of the famous capsule hotels!
Eat ramen. Tokyo has a range of culinary options ranging from ultra-cheap ramen shops to Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants. Since we aren’t really foodies (and I was so sick I could barely eat anyway), we ended up eating at lots of ramen shops. The food is cheap, delicious, and will satisfy even the most raging appetites. Sick of ramen? Check out the convenience stores and 100-yen shops for more dirt-cheap options!
Enjoy free activities. A great thing about Tokyo is that some of the best attractions are free! People watching in Shibuya, browsing the market stalls in Harajuku, exploring the gardens at the Imperial Palace, or visiting shrines in Asakusa, you can easily fill several days with activities that don’t cost a yen.
Take the Subway. With one of the best subway systems in the world, there is really no need to use taxis, Uber, or car rentals. Just purchase a refillable metro card and become familiar with the subway system, which is surprisingly intuitive.
When to Visit Tokyo
With sticky hot summers, chilly winters, and Typhoons, the weather in Tokyo can reach extremes. While we were in Tokyo (in early September) we caught the tail end of a heat wave, lots of rain, and a typhoon. We quickly discovered that planning your trip for the right time of year could make all the difference!
The best weather is typically in April-May and October-November (though expect some price hikes and LOTS of crowds in the spring around cherry blossom season!).
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