Our guide is geared towards first-time travelers to Tokyo, but we believe that it can help you no matter how many times you’ve been here. Because whether it’s you’re a first-timer or not, there’s always a “first-time experience” for everyone each time you come here.
As an example, if you’re a foreign resident who’s been living in Tokyo for several years, you probably don’t need to know how to greet someone in Japan properly, but you may find the information about buying Ghibli Museum tickets or how to watch a Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo useful.
Lastly, while we’ll certainly hit the standard highlights, we try and give lesser-known options as well, such as Yanaka, Sanrio Puroland for families, a day-trip to Mt. Fuji or Fuji-Q Highlands for thrill-seekers, or a local bar which might not appear on TripAdvisor. In short, we want to give you the tools and knowledge needed to make your time in Tokyo unforgettable.
So we hope to give you a glimpse into what to expect during your visit to this fantastic city and help you to better prepare for your stay. But, be warned, once you come to visit her streets, you’ll find yourself returning to her again and again.
Aside from this guide, here are a few resources to help you plan your ultimate trip to Japan:
- Japan for First Timers: 43 Useful Tips and Things to Know
- Japan Travel Essentials: The Full List of What to Pack for 2019
- Tokyo Attractions & Things To Do that are Cheaper When Booked Online
- Portable Wi-Fi rental in Japan: Best plans and deals compared (2019)
- 9 Must-Have Apps to Download Now for your Trip to Japan
- The Ultimate First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo — Things to Do & See in 2019
A Short History of Tokyo
Once a tiny fishing village situated on the banks of the Sumida River, Edo became the seat of Imperial power and was renamed ‘Tokyo’ in the 1800s. Since then, the area has seen major disasters, both natural and manmade, in both the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II bombings, but has risen from both to become an economic powerhouse and trendsetter for the rest of the world.
What is Tokyo Today
Tokyo is now one of the top 10 most visited cities in the world 1, and it’s not hard to see why.
It may sound cliché, but there is indeed something for everyone here. The city mixes the ultra-modern with traditional; where temples, shrines, and castles sit amongst towering skyscrapers and neon lights.
Even if you prefer small towns over large cities, you should still give Tokyo a chance; it just feels different than any city we’ve ever visited. And, despite it being a sprawling mega-city, it has an intimacy not felt in other cities. Everyone here sort of lives within their own little bubble, which seems to give you the illusion of privacy even while pressed into the overcrowded JR Yamanote Line at rush hour.
So we hope to give you a glimpse into what to expect during your visit to this fantastic city and help you to better prepare for your stay. But, be warned, once you come to visit her streets, you’ll find yourself returning to her again and again.
How Much to Spend Each Day in Tokyo
Budget or not, prepare to spend between ¥15,000-¥25,000 (about US$134–224) per day in Tokyo. That should cover your accommodation, train or bus transportation, a restaurant, and occasional treats like desserts or street food. If you plan on shopping for clothes or souvenirs, then add at least another ¥10,000 to your budget for that day.
Food and drinks
To give you an idea of the huge price fluctuations in Tokyo, dining at a restaurant such as an izakaya (restaurant bar) can set you back ¥2,000-¥4,000 per person. Compare that to dining at family restaurant chains like Jonathan’s, Saizeriya, or Cafe Gusto, where you can get a decent meal for around ¥400-¥1,500. Convenience stores are even better since you can get a bento lunch from ¥300-¥600, and these bentos are actually better than the food at some restaurants. See our favorite restaurants in Tokyo.
Want to grab a beer?
If you’re in an expensive area like Roppongi, then prepare to spend a ridiculous ¥900-1,200 per beer, or you could go to a cheaper area, such as Ebisu, and find it as low as ¥350. So, be sure to take all of this into account if you’re budgeting for your trip. Perhaps add in a few bento lunches here and there to allow for some lavish dinners and drinks.
The thing to remember about accommodation prices in Japan (not just in Tokyo) is the closer it is to a train station, the more expensive it will be. So if you find a cheap one that’s close to a station, then it’s probably tiny and minimalistic.
Hotels and other types of accommodations in Japan typically range from ¥5,000-¥15,000 per night for budget accommodations and ¥15,000-¥50,000 per night for deluxe and traditional Japanese accommodations.
We recommend our favorite booking sites for Japan hotels Booking.com and Expedia.com. We used to love Agoda.com, but we find that Booking and Expedia always have better availability of hotels in Japan.
Japanese tours and cultural activities
There is an abundance of travel booking websites across the internet; so it can be a bit overwhelming at times to find the best deals while traveling. And, as we discussed above, Tokyo can be pretty pricey. We tend to use (and trust) Voyagin and Veltra.
Voyagin and Veltra are online travel agencies specializing in Japanese tours and experiences and they have their own offices in Tokyo. They partner with local Japanese travel agencies that don’t have English websites to buy from. So, as a result of that partnership, they offer discounted prices as part of the promotion.
When to Visit Tokyo (Pros and Cons of Each Season)
The answer to this question ultimately comes down to you and what you’re looking to do while visiting Tokyo. Personally, our favorite time of year has always been autumn, and that’s especially true for Japan.
We suggest avoiding travel to Japan during most Japanese holidays because of overcrowded attractions, long lines at restaurants, and traffic. So we’ve included important holidays and significant national events to take note of for your travel dates.
Important events in Tokyo in 2019-2020:
- Grand Sumo Tournament in Ryogoku, Tokyo: May 12-26, 2019.
- Grand Sumo Tournament in Ryogoku, Tokyo: September 8-22.
- Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics: July 24-August 9, 2020
Spring (March, April, May)
- Often considered the most beautiful time of the year, as Japan is surrounded by pink hues from the cherry blossoms.
- Pleasant weather.
- Most touristy time, expect lots of crowds.
- Expensive hotels.
- The rainy season starts at the beginning of May.
- Golden Week. All the major attractions will be absolutely packed!
Summer (June, July, August)
- Off-season, hotels and other accommodations are cheaper.
- Mt. Fuji climbing season.
- Lots of greens.
- Lots of opportunities for hiking around Tokyo.
- Humidity is awful. Even my wife (who’s from the Philippines) is quick to find shelter in the nearest air-conditioned space.
- Typhoon season.
Autumn (September, October, November)
- Leaves are changing to golden hues.
- Lots of local festivals.
- A more pleasant season for hiking many mountains surrounding Tokyo.
- Oh, and don’t forget to visit Shinjuku and Roppongi for Halloween, it’s wild!
- Is there a con here? Oh yea, lots of holidays! Prepare to be mixed with the Tokyo crowds.
- In our opinion, you might want to leave Tokyo for Kyoto or other mountainous regions during this season. Being a metropolis, Tokyo isn’t particularly stunning in the autumn.
Winter (December, January, February)
- Great visibility of Mt. Fuji as skies are almost always clear.
- Lots of skiing opportunities near Tokyo.
- Less touristy and cheaper hotels.
- Lots of beautiful nightly illuminations.
- Very dry season. Expect to wake up with a sore dry throat.
- If visiting Disneyland and DisneySea, it can be very packed on New Year.
Japan is situated in a volcanic zone within the Pacific Ring of Fire, so expect many low-intensity earthquakes to occur during your stay. You get used to them after a while, but I remember my first experience with them left me a bit shaken (pun intended). To be better prepared in the event of a severe earthquake, you can refer to this guide designed for foreign residents: https://www.tokyo-icc.jp/guide_eng/kinkyu/05.html
Flying into Tokyo
Narita International Airport (NRT) is Japan’s major international hub, handling around 50% of international travelers 2, and is the most likely point of entry for you.
However, Narita airport is a lot farther from the city than Haneda airport, as it is actually in Chiba Prefecture, which is next to Tokyo Metropolis Prefecture.
So getting to Tokyo from Narita Airport can be a lot more complicated than you would think. Because of that, we recommend flying into Haneda if at all possible, as the travel to Tokyo is shorter and cheaper (30 minutes vs. 100 minutes).
How to Get to Tokyo Center from Narita Airport
Use any of the options below to get out of Narita Airport and use the same to return.
Option 1: Fastest
Fare: ¥2,470 one-way
Travel time: 41 minutes
The fastest is to take the Keisei Skyliner from Narita Terminal 1 or 2 towards Keisei-Ueno* and it will take you straight to Ueno Station in just 41 minutes. This option costs around ¥2,470 one way. For those of you arriving at Terminal 3, you’ll first need to walk to terminal 2. This option is great if your hotel is near Ueno Station.
If your hotel is not in Ueno, then using the Keisei Skyliner is not a great option due to multiple train transfers, particularly if you are traveling with large and heavy luggage (we’ll get to a great solution to this problem shortly).
Option 2: Cheapest
Fare: ¥900 one-way
Travel time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
If your hotel is near Tokyo Station or Ginza Station, your best option (which also happens to be the cheapest and least amount of hassle) is to take the Keisei Bus Tokyo Shuttle. A one-way bus from Narita Airport to Tokyo or Ginza Station is only ¥900 and takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes. This bus is also convenient if you have large luggage because it has designated storage space.
Tickets for this bus can be purchased directly from the Keisei website, but be aware, their website is not the most user-friendly and runs on an unsecured server. Alternatively, buying tickets via Voyagin is both easier and safer, but you’ll have to pay an extra ¥500 for the convenience. Since it’s a long ride, make sure to use the restroom before leaving as there is no toilet inside the bus and there are no stops. If your hotel is not in Tokyo Station or Ginza Station, then you need to take the train hereafter.
Option 3: Convenient
Fare: ¥3,100 one-way
Travel time: 1 hour and 55 minutes or more depending on the traffic and number of stops.
Now, if either Ueno or Tokyo Station isn’t your destination after arriving in Narita Airport, the Airport Limousine Bus is your next option. It’s a bit more expensive at ¥3,100 for adults or ¥1,550 for children. Tickets for this bus can be purchased inside the airport, but buying them online is discounted at 27% (from ¥3,100 to ¥2,800).
Unlike the cheap Keisei Bus, the Airport Limousine is equipped with a toilet and free Wi-Fi. The Airport Limousine Bus stops at most major areas in Tokyo: Ikebukuro, Ginza, Ebisu, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Kichijoji, Shinjuku, Roppongi and Akasaka, Shiodome, so if your hotel is near to any of those stations, this is your best option.
Alternatively, the Airport Limousine bus is also best if you want a direct trip to your hotel, assuming your hotel is on the list of Airport limousine bus stops (check if its stops at your hotel here).
Option 4: Narita Express (N’EX)
Fare: ¥3,020 for Tokyo Station; or ¥3,190 for Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro Stations.
Travel time: 1 hour and 20 minutes to Shinjuku Station.
Another fast and easy but more expensive option (if you buy one-way tickets) is the ever-popular Narita Express (N’EX). A one-way ticket starts from ¥3,020, but the roundtrip ticket is only ¥4,000. The roundtrip ticket has a 14-days validity period, so Narita Express works well if you’re visiting Tokyo for 14 days or less, and both arriving and departing from Narita airport. You can only buy tickets at the airport counter.
The Narita Express (N’EX) will take you directly to the following stations: Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Yokohama.
Option 5: Private or Shared Shuttle
Now, if you have money to blow and just can’t be bothered to wait for the above options, you can always rent a private or shared shuttle service to get you where you want to go. It’s the most expensive option (short of taking a private taxi) at a little over ¥6,100, but might be for you if you want less hassle after a long flight.
How to Get to Tokyo Center from Haneda Airport
Transportation from Haneda has lots of options. In fact, you just have to use your internet and Google Maps or HyperDia to board the correct train going to your destination or hotel. Since Haneda Airport is near, expect to be in Tokyo center in less than 20 minutes. That’s why we always prefer flying into Haneda. But to give you an idea, here are some of the available options:
Option 1: Cheapest
Fare: ¥550 for Shinagawa Station
Travel time: 30 minutes
Board the Keikyu-Kuko Line train from the international terminal towards Keisei-Takasago and ride until Shinagawa Station. From Shinagawa Station board the JR Yamanote Line to take you to your destination in Tokyo. This option is the cheapest costs from ¥550 and only takes 30 minutes, but, as before, offers limited space for luggage.
Option 2: Convenient
Fare: ¥1,350 for Shinagawa
Travel time: 20 minutes
Just like with Narita, Haneda offers Airport Limousine Bus service to major stations like Shinjuku and even a direct stop at the hotels listed on their bus stops. It’s also much cheaper at ¥1,350 and takes half the time to get there. Tickets can be purchased inside the Haneda International Terminal (your arrival terminal) near the bus stop. Just buy your ticket and hop aboard. For less hassle, you can also buy it online.
Understanding Tokyo’s Transportation System
1. Trains and subways
- JR East Lines.
- Tokyo Metro and Toei subway systems.
- Private railways (Odakyu and Yurikamome).
- Tokyo Monorail.
- Shinkansen or bullet train.
Trains are the primary mode of transportation in Tokyo for sightseeing–it is extensive, clean, safe, and on time.
Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway.
JR Pass cannot be used in these lines. So if you’re navigating these subway systems, we recommend getting a prepaid PASMO or Suica IC Card. That way, you don’t have to get tickets from the machine every time you ride the train.
A lot of blogs and websites say that navigating the Tokyo subway systems is complicated, but that’s not true. All you have to do is download the Tokyo Subway Navigation app (Google Play | Apple Store) and it will give you an easy-to-understand route to take you to your desired destination.
This was the exact app I used when I cherry blossom hopped in Tokyo last spring. It saved me a great deal of time as it gave me very precise directions and is more accurate than Google Maps (which is only good for JR Lines and Private railways). Tokyo Metro and Toei subways now offer free Wi-Fi for tourists in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
Yurikamome Line, on the other hand, is the gateway to Odaiba (a man-made island) and is the only train that crosses the Rainbow Bridge.
The Tokyo Monorail provides the simplest and most direct access to Haneda Airport which begins at Hamamatsucho Station.
Shinkansen or Bullet Train.
Tokyo Station is Tokyo’s main hub for bullet trains or Shinkansen as the Japanese call it. Shinkansen trains travel up and down the northern region of Honshu and into the southwest region of Kyushu.
As a tourist in Tokyo, the chances of you getting on a bus in Tokyo is pretty slim, as the train is always more convenient for getting around. From my experience, I’ve only ridden a bus in Tokyo once because the train line that I was supposed to take was down. You may experience this at some point, but the chances are pretty slim. Buses accept cash, PASMO, or SUICA cards for payment.
3. Taxis and Uber
For those of you accustomed to Uber, GrabTaxi, or some other app-related transportation, don’t expect to use this in Tokyo. Uber does exist here but is actually far more expensive than just taking a taxi. I don’t really recommend using taxis to get around either. That’s because the typical starting price is between ¥400-¥700 and ¥80-¥90 per 300 meters traveled. For my American readers out there, 300 meters is just under 1000 feet or 0.18 miles. And all this is before you have to deal with the language barrier.
For great resources about Tokyo’s accessibility:
- Train Stations: Accessible guide to Tokyo Metro and Toei subway lines.
- Sightseeing: Accessible guide for exploring the greater Tokyo area.
Passes and Tickets to Get Around in Tokyo
1. IC Cards
My first suggestion for those of you without JR Passes is to purchase either a PASMO or SUICA IC card from almost any ticket vendor at the train station. The primary purpose of IC Cards is to avoid having to get tickets from a ticket machine every time you ride a train–so you can just swipe and go. These cards can be charged (using cash) at ticket machines in the train stations. They can be used to pay for buses and taxis too, and even used to pay for most vending machines and convenience stores if you feel like carrying less cash.
PASMO vs SUICA: Although sold by different companies, they operate the same way and can be used at all trains and buses in Tokyo. The only difference is that, with SUICA, you can charge your card via an app on your phone.
2. Day passes
As the name suggests, it’s unlimited use for the day you purchase them for. An example of these day passes would be the Tokyo Metro 24-hour ticket (¥600) and the Tokyo Metro & Toei Subway 1-day ticket (¥900). Odakyu also has day passes, called Freepass, and there are many of them here. The JR Yamanote line also has day pass called Tokyo 1-Day Ticket, and it covers the JR East lines, Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines for ¥1,590.
Travel Hacks to Know for Smarter Travel
1. Consider using TA-Q-BIN.
Boy oh boy were we late to the party on this one. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we must have suffered lugging around huge rolling suitcases for about 9-years, while traveling to and from Japan, before we learned why every Japanese traveler was lined up in front of the Yamato Transport counters (famous for their black cat logo) upon arriving at the airport. Turns out, they were picking-up or dropping-off their luggage!
What is TA-Q-BIN? TA-Q-BIN is a next-day delivery service which allows you to forward your luggage to your hotel, or to the airport; though same-day delivery is sometimes available. This leaves you hands-free and hassle-free to travel to between them. Yamato Transport is the genius company behind this service.
So if you want to experience the convenience of luggage-free travel in Japan, just find a TA-Q-BIN counter inside the airport. Or if you’re already check-in in your hotel, talk to your hotel’s reception, they’ll give you more information. You’ll know it by their “black cat” logo. Just make sure you have everything you need in your day pack before dropping it off at the TA-Q-BIN counter.
The price depends on the size of the luggage but ranges between ¥1,555-¥2,678 per bag. The cost of convenience.
2. Consider these luggage storage options.
If you can’t or don’t want to use the TA-Q-BIN service, but still want to sightsee during your first and last days in Tokyo without lugging around large bags or suitcases, then there are luggage storage options available for you.
For those of you staying in a hotel, this is simple as most will hold your luggage until you can check-in. However, if you’re staying at an Airbnb or hostel, chances are you won’t be able to leave your luggage there.
- Coin Lockers. Coin lockers are everywhere but can always be found at train stations. They come in Small (¥300), Medium (¥400), and Large size (¥500-¥800), though the per-day prices may vary. Unfortunately, large-wheeled suitcases won’t fit inside these lockers, and this is why we always recommend traveling light.
- Leave your luggage at the Voyagin Office in Shibuya. A rate of ¥1,000 per day per item and there’s no size restriction. Their prices may change, and if it’s during the off-season, it can drop to ¥500 per day. So make sure to check the price here.
3. Get some yens before leaving the airport.
Despite being a very high-tech nation, Japan still relies heavily on cash for transactions. And this is doubly true in the old quarters of Tokyo and rural areas of Japan. Your best bet is to exchange your currency at the airport or to pull out money from ATMs.
- Currency Exchange. Located in each airport terminal and usually, have short lines. The exchange rate is sitting at 112 JPY for 1 USD (or about 89 USD for 10,000 JPY). There are also many currency exchange stalls around Akihabara, Shinjuku, and Shibuya Stations, but their exchange fees are usually pretty high.
- Airport ATMs. ATMs are easy to find at the airport. Your card should be fine if the ATM has a Visa, Plus, MasterCard, Cirrus, American Express, Discover, Diner’s Club, or Union Pay symbols on it.
4. A word about buying JR Pass.
If you’re only traveling to Tokyo, you don’t need it to buy the JR Pass. Japan is addicting. Visit once, and you’ll find yourself coming back for more. This is why, in my opinion, getting a JR Pass isn’t really a great option, particularly if you plan on returning. JR Pass is useful for visiting multiple destinations across Japan. But it forces you to “squeeze” everything is within the days your pass is valid.
How Many Days to Stay in Tokyo
We like to suggest at least 7 days as it gives you enough time to see much of Tokyo and its surrounding areas. If you have the JR Pass, try and fit as much as you can into 3 days to cover Tokyo’s important highlights.
Accommodations Options in Tokyo
1. Major Hotels.
Known hotel groups such as Hyatt, Marriott, and The Ritz-Carlton fit into this section, and, of course, you know the price for hotels such as these. If you can afford it, these will almost always be your best bet.
For families, you might find the Japanese hotel rooms a bit cramped, so staying at one of these western hotels might be a better option. That said, be sure to book far enough ahead of time to get discounted rooms.
2. Business hotel.
Toyoko Inn, Hotel MyStays, and APA Hotel are all examples of business hotels. For budget travelers willing to sacrifice some in-room amenities, you have a few options.
Toyoko Inn is a favorite business hotel that’s generally inexpensive and simple, while the APA hotel chain is an affordable option popular with many tourists in Tokyo, but keep in mind that most of their locations are a bit inconvenient.
3. Capsule hotel.
Capsule hotels cater to overworked (or overdrunk) salarymen who miss the last train. This is why foreigners are not generally welcome at most capsule hotels, especially when it’s located right near the bars and nightclubs. An exception to this is the 9H ninehours capsule hotel in Narita airport, built for international travelers, so their capsules are actually quite spacious.
4. Spa hotel.
Oh, how we love spa hotels. These are our favorite type of accommodation by far, especially when you’re traveling with a toddler! They provide the ultimate form of relaxation after a long day of sightseeing, and you always leave feeling spoiled.
If you were to ask what us for our favorite spa hotel, it’s gotta be Dormy Inn. We don’t care about the area or train line, we only care about finding a Dormy Inn, wherever it is located.
Why do we prefer staying at Dormy Inn?
- Outstanding amenities and hotel staff. Dormy Inn has an in-hotel onsen (hot spring bath) with sauna. This is a must for us since we travel with a toddler and it helps us a ton to relax after a long day of exploration. The front desk staff is always very helpful.
- Free ramen at night. My favorite part.
- One free beer for each adult. Also my favorite part.
- Great complimentary breakfast. It’s actually pretty hard to find a good breakfast in Japan, so we always opt for breakfast with our rooms.
- Most comfortable pillows and beds we’ve ever slept on (in hotels). Believe it or not, this is the only hotel we’ve managed to get a full night’s sleep in; that includes our daughter.
- Super blackout curtains. Dormy Inn was the only hotel in Japan we’ve stayed at has effective blackout curtains. I genuinely have a difficult time knowing if it’s morning or not whenever we stay at Dormy Inn.
Dormy Inn has 12 locations in Tokyo. If you’re considering at stay here (and still curious) check out all the raving reviews here.
5. Love hotel.
Typically charged by the hour, these hotels aren’t designed for overnight stays. Most of the hotels are themed and offer a variety of… amenities for their customers.
These hotels are actually quite respectable in Japanese society and provide an escape for many Japanese couples still living with their families; which is still quite common here. They are best for couples traveling in a group who want some time alone, or for people just looking for a little fun.
Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with Japanese style interiors such as tatami flooring and shoji (sliding doors with rice paper). You also get a traditional Japanese meals called kaiseki served with perfection. Staying at a ryokan best for those who want to experience authentic Japanese style experience.
A true Ryokan however is rare in Tokyo because this type of accommodation is usually offered in rural onsen (hot spring) towns in Japan. Hakone is the nearest onsen town from Tokyo to experience ryokan. If you happen to spot one in Tokyo, expect to be ridiculously expensive.
Japan’s version of a bed & breakfast where you share the house with your host, so privacy might be an issue. Best for travelers who wants to connect with a Japanese host.
Exactly as you would expect, bunk beds and privacy issues. Best for solo travelers.
9. Airbnb apartments.
Airbnb accommodations in Tokyo are usually in what they call a “mansion” building (small apartments). Airbnb prices in Tokyo vary greatly according to its location. We’ve tended to stay away from Airbnbs since having our kids, because they’re always located out of the way and trying to keep our daughter from breaking everything in the room is a hassle.
If you’re new to Airbnb, you can sign-up using my link to get $45 of Airbnb credit which you can instantly use for your first stay.
Best Area to Stay in Tokyo
Honestly, this all depends on your itinerary and budget. As a general rule, the further away from the major cities you stay, the cheaper it will be. That said, the further you stay away from your daily activities, the more expensive it will be to travel to them. So you really need to find the right balance.
Guide to choosing your accommodation in Tokyo:
- Is it near a train station?
- Is it near a convenience store or a drugstore?
- If you’re carrying a large luggage or babies in strollers, does the hotel and train station near it have elevators?
If you have kids:
- Roppongi and Akasaka areas. These areas have family-friendly shopping complexes such as Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. Your kids will also enjoy Robot Park, the Mori Art Museum, and numerous family-friendly cafes and restaurants.
- Tokyo Station and the Marunouchi areas. Your kids will enjoy running around the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, Marunouchi Brick Square, and KITTE shopping malls. The downside is that, hotel prices are limited to upscale market such as Courtyard by Marriott, Four Seasons Hotel, and Shangri-La Hotel. There’s also a direct train from Tokyo Station to Tokyo Disneyland (Maihama Station).
If you’re interested in historical and cultural aspects of Tokyo:
- Asakusa and Ueno areas. Hotel prices are a bit more reasonable here than in other areas. As a result, most backpackers and budget travelers stay around here.
If you’re seeking vibrant nightlife:
- Shinjuku and Kabukicho areas. We hate that most travel blogs always suggest staying in Shinjuku area. But that is if you’re into nightlife and drinking, as Shinjuku is a hub of bars, clubs, and entertainment.
- Ikebukuro area. Less touristy and much cheaper than the more popular hotspots.
If you’re a shopper or fashionista:
- Shibuya area. Most hotels here are actually located a ways away from the train station. The added walk won’t be much of a bother though, because Shibuya is always a feast for the eyes.
- Ginza, Shimbashi, and Shiodome areas. Luxury and high-end fashion stores are all centered around here.
If you’re interested in modern architecture:
- Odaiba. Odaiba alone has a ton of incredible engineering achievements to admire. The downside is the location is not ideal for sightseeing throughout western Tokyo, Odaiba is located on the far east side of Tokyo, making travel to and from your hotel a hassle.
I hope these area suggestions help you find your base in Tokyo. For easy booking, you can search using our map to check for prices:
15 Neighborhoods & Attractions to Visit in Tokyo
Our best tip is to keep yourself to one area each day to reduce any wasted travel time. Our attraction list is based on this principle. By doing this you’ll avoid wasting precious time by bouncing around the many different districts of Tokyo.
Ueno is home of Ueno Park which is undoubtedly one of the largest public parks we’ve ever been to, and it definitely has the most to do within it. The park is a day trip by itself if you visit all the museums and shrine within it.
In fact, you can find many museums within the park such as Tosho-gu Shrine, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo National Museum, Shitamachi Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Central Building, The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, and Tokyo National Museum of Nature and Science. So you’ll not be short of activities here.
Japan’s oldest and best-known zoo (due to its Giant Panda), Ueno Zoo, is also here. It also gets absolutely packed during Cherry Blossom season. It also gets absolutely packed during Cherry Blossom season.
Ameyoko is also in Ueno which used to be a black market for consumable goods, such as alcohol and cigarettes. Nowadays, its atmosphere still feels like it because of the bargain foreign brands like Nike, Chanel, and Korean cosmetics. But the Ameyoko of old is a thing of the past, and all the items sold here are (mostly) legit, contrary to what most tourists believe. You can find practically anything here, from fresh produce to shoes, to US Navy jackets; making Ameyoko a great escape from everyday department stores!
Visiting Info: Nearest station – Ueno Station.
One of the most iconic places in Japan, Sensoji Temple is what most foreigners think of when they picture Japanese temples, and it’s in Asakusa. The gigantic Kaminarimon Gate is the first thing you’ll see before entering the Sensoji temple grounds, as locals and tourists alike flock to get a selfie.
Continuing on, you’ll be greeted by a long shopping street called Nakamise-Dori selling souvenirs, kimonos, and tasty snacks, all the way to the second gate of the ground, Hozo-mon Gate. You’ll find a large incense burner is in the middle surrounded by devotees puffing the smoke all over themselves, as it’s believed to give good health. And last but not least, the main hall of the Sensoji Temple and the five-story pagoda; a sight not to be missed!
Visiting Info: Nearest station – Asakusa Station.
3. Akihabara (Akiba).
Akiba is a must-see for all Tokyo Travelers. Don’t forget to see Jimbocho, a famous used-bookstore district that is walking distance from Akihabara.
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Akihabara Station
4. Otemachi and Marunouchi.
Please note that the Imperial Palace is only open to the public every January 2 and February 23. The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace is open year-round but is closed on Mondays and Friday and New Year holidays.
Visiting Info: Nearest Stations – Otemachi Station, Marunouchi Station, and Tokyo Station.
5. Ginza and Tsukiji.
Only a few minutes walk from Kabuki-za theater, you’ll find yourself in the former popular Tsukiji Fish Market. Although the famous wholesale fish auction site (the inner market) has moved to the Toyosu Market (Odaiba), the outer Tsukiji Market is still booming and still has plenty to see and eat. While historically catering to professional chefs and restaurants, the market has shifted towards ordinary customers and amateur chefs.
Visiting Info: Nearest Stations – Ginza Station and Tsukijishijo Station
Be sure to stop by and get a photo with the old steam engine train in Steam Locomotive (SL) Plaza!
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Shimbashi Station
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Roppongi Station
If you ever have trouble finding it just look for the life-sized Gundam or miniature Statue of Liberty. Now, how many places can you say that about?
Palette Town is also in Odaiba. Not to be confused with the hometown of Ash Ketchum, Palette Town is a massive shopping complex and a great place for families looking for kid-friendly shopping areas.
The main shopping area is Venus Fort with an interior made to resemble classical marble architecture –kind of like Caesars Palace in Vegas– filled with restaurants, shops, and even a casino.
Japan’s largest Ferris wheel is also here, along with the Toyota Mega Web, which showcases all of Toyota’s cars; both new and old. The psychedelic MORI Building Digital Art Museum which features teamLab borderless is also here.
The tuna fish auction has moved here, which is in to Toyosu Fish Market.
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Daiba Station
9. Shinjuku and Kabukicho.
East Shinjuku is where you’ll find Kabukicho; home of pubs, hostess bars, restaurants, karaoke, Toho IMAX, and a vast number of pachinko parlors. This is also where you’ll find the infamous Robot Restaurant and Golden Gai.
On the west side, you’ll see the iconic Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, which is a 50-story educational facility. While you’re on the west side of Shinjuku, don’t forget to enter the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, as the South Observatory Deck has recently reopened and provides excellent panoramic views of Tokyo, and, if you’re lucky, Mt. Fuji–best of all it’s free to enter.
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Shinjuku Station
The must-see attraction here though is the Yebisu Garden Place, where you can learn about the history of the area and visit the beer museum.
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Ebisu Station
This is also the city’s primary shopping sector, which is quickly demonstrated by the fact that nearly every building is covered in advertisements.
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Shibuya Station
We suggest visiting on a weekday to avoid being trampled by the swarms of teenage girls looking for clothes.
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Harajuku Station
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Omotesando Station
Outside of cherry blossoms, however, there are plenty of small cafes and trinket shops along the river as well. And, for those of you interested, this is also the home of the largest Starbucks in all of Japan.
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Nakameguro Station
For those less anime obsessed you can find the Tokyo Art Space located here, as well as the Sunshine City building complex which has numerous shopping malls and restaurants, or just walk around and go on a food trip like we did!
Visiting Info: Nearest Station – Ikebukuro Station
7 Cultural Experiences to Try in Tokyo
1. Japanese Gardens.
Once you visit a Japanese garden and sat down, you just want to stay there forever. Japanese gardens are always a fascination to me. There’s something about it that always leaves my bum magnetized to my seat once seated on a viewing porch looking at its stylized landscapes touch with miniaturization and wabi-sabi (imperfection) aesthetics. In Tokyo, my favorite garden is Rikugien Garden which is especially beautiful during the cherry blossom and autumn season.
When most of you think about karaoke you probably picture a small bar with drunk truckers singing Sweet Caroline while spilling their beers. Instead, picture a multi-story building with hundreds of private rooms, many with zany themes to suit your interests, with drinks and food to order, and a group of your closest friends laughing and joking about your impeccable (to you at least) rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine.
That’s what you get in Japan. There are some bars which offer karaoke as well if you’re not traveling in a large group though.
3. Tea Ceremony.
The Japanese tea ceremony also called sadou or chanoyu (the way of tea), is a part of Japanese arts of refinement along with ikebana (kado) and incense (kodo) preparation. The ritual involves a server preparing a cup of tea for the first guest starting from cleansing of utensils in a very stringent manner.
In Tokyo, you can witness and experience the traditional Japanese tea ceremony in an authentic tea room but it strictly requires advance reservation.
The Japanese word meaning Cheers! You’ll hear this often in bars throughout Japan. Unlike most western cultures, the Japanese have a deep and accepting culture of drinking. There are no last call laws, there are no laws against public consumption of alcohol, and, as long as you’re not causing a huge public problem, you aren’t going to be arrested for public drunkeness.
So enjoy yourself and let loose for an evening. Just be sure to raise a toast to your hosts and loudly exclaim, kampai!
In sumo wrestling, two opposing sides both of which are called “rikishi”compete in an elevated ring called “dohyo” whose goal is to either bring the opponent outside of the 4.55-meter diameter dohyo or make the opponent touch the ground using allowable means.
In Japan, there are only one of two ways you could witness sumo wrestling—via a televised broadcast which you could view remotely or up close in person during any of these four events—Sumo Practice, Sumo Events, Sumo Tours, and Grand Sumo Tournament. In Tokyo, tournaments are held three times a year and if you’re interested in watching you should always book way ahead through an authorized seller. Check out the type of Sumo tickets you can purchase through Voyagin.
6. Maid Cafes.
There are few things that scream “Japan” as much as a maid cafe. Most cafe’s have very limited and very expensive menu, but the food is usually pretty good. That said, you aren’t exactly going to a maid cafe for the food. Maid cafes allow customers to partake in a “master-and-servant role play” with a young lady wearing a dainty ruffled maid dress with a matching apron and headpiece.
Now, that may sound like the only customers you’ll find are single men, but they’re actually pretty popular among young women in Japan as well. This is probably due to the “kawaii” factor of the cafe’s and their food. You are served with small food dishes designed to be as cute as possible and seem custom made for Instagram. Some maid cafes even extend their menu to full body massages. I guess if you’re really curious about what Maid Cafe is all about, then you should give it a try.
7. Kimono Dressing.
Although dressing in a kimono is best experienced in Kyoto, Tokyo offers plenty of options for this experience as well. A good kimono service will offer a large selection of colorful kimonos in gaijin (foreigner) sizes, and professional dresser who will assist you to properly select and wear your kimono.
They will also usually include a professional photographer for a few posed photos, and, if you’re really lucky, who will follow you around town for a photos around town. You should also be able to store your normal clothes and belongings at the shop, so you don’t have to worry about needing to carry large bags around with you. Overall, this is a great way to experience Tokyo and we highly recommend that you do the Kimono experience in Asakusa.
Top 7 Foods to Eat in Tokyo
Ah food, my favorite subject. And if you’re a foodie like me, then Tokyo will be a treat (pun intended). This list is just a small taste (also intended) of what is available, and when in doubt, choose the restaurant that’s in the small back alley. Seriously, it’s almost always the best option.
While there’s plenty of traditional Japanese cuisine here (obviously), don’t limit yourself to it alone. Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, American, British, it’s all here, so go wild!
Believe it or not, this iconic Japanese dish is actually originally from China. Ramen is my favorite food in Japan. If hear that and start thinking about those cheap packages of ramen noodles, clear your mind of that abomination and get ready for one of the most filling and delicious experiences of your foodie life!
Ramen generally comes in a few different variations, including shoyu (soy sauce); shio (salt); miso (fermented soybeans); tonkatsu (pork); tsukemen (dipping noodles), and is complemented with toppings such as boiled eggs, fish cake, and nori (seaweed). And don’t forget to order some gyoza (fried dumplings) to go with it!
Even the famous Cup Noodles that you see everywhere are 1000% times better here, with tons of unique flavors and ingredients. So don’t forget to give them a try as well!
Our ramen restaurant recommendations which have several branches in Tokyo:
- Ichiran restaurant.
- Kosyu Ichiba restaurant.
Also visit these ramen facilities:
Probably the only food more iconic to Japan than ramen, sushi needs little explanation. But as simple as raw fish on rice may seem, real Japanese sushi is nothing like what you might have had before. That’s because most sushi chefs spend decades apprenticing to learn the art of sushi making.
Sushi in Japan comes in a few varieties. There are the sushi rolls, which most of you are probably familiar with and probably picture when you hear the term sushi. Then there is nigiri, which is the most common form of sushi in Japan; fish on top of the rice.
There’s also gunkan, temaki, and sashimi (raw fish alone) to name a few, but all have one thing in common; they’re delicious. Except for natto…yuck.
Our sushi recommendations:
- Sukiyabashi Jiro Sushi. From the famous Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Sukiyabashi Jiro Sushi is awarded three Michelin stars. The only way to dine in here is by reservation.
- Sushizanmai. We love their branches in Tsukiji market and near Roppongi Station. Very kid-friendly too!
- Uogashi Nihon-Ichi. A standing sushi bar in Shinjuku.
These are budget kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurants have several branches in Tokyo. Just type the restaurant name on Google Maps for directions:
- Genki Sushi.
- Sushi Roll.
- Katsu Midori.
3. Japanese Curry
I know what you’re thinking. “Curry? In Japan?”
Well, believe it or not, curry is one of the most popular foods in Japan, and, in fact, most stores have entire aisles dedicated to nothing but curry. So, yeah, we’re going to talk about curry.
You’ve got a few choices when it comes to curry here; Indian, Nepalese, Thai, and Japanese. Each has its own thing which makes it unique, and each has fanatics willing to claim theirs is superior. But in the world of food, they’re all great in their own ways.
Our curry recommendations (just type the restaurant name on Google Maps for directions):
- Downtown B’s Indian Kitchen.
- Spice Jhupadi.
- Ban Thai.
- CoCo Ichibanya. Lots of branches in Tokyo.
- Curry Bondy.
Ever wanted to cook your food at your table for yourself? Well, that’s what you’re going to do if you happen into a Japanese barbeque. You may have seen something similar to this in your own country, but with the chefs cooking the food at your table. Not so here!
In Japan, you’re an adult! If you can do your own taxes, then by god, you can cook your own meat! There are two kinds of Yakiniku restaurants here; a flat-rate all you can eat, or pay for what you eat. I prefer the former, but the latter tends to have higher quality meat. Whichever you choose, have fun, and don’t burn yourself.
Our yakiniku recommendations:
- Yakiniku Kobe-ya
- Beast Yakiniku
5. Fast Food
Don’t skip ahead just yet; hear me out. The term “fast food” tends to scare off most foodies as greasy burgers and limp fries. And while Japan certainly has plenty of chains we’re familiar with, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC (which are all slightly different than their western counterparts), this is also a society that doesn’t skimp on quality when it comes to food.
Some of the places listed here aren’t your traditional idea of fast food, but are delicious nonetheless.
Our fast food restaurants recommendations:
- Wendy’s First Kitchen
- Mos Burger
6. Any Convenience Store
Go to a convenience store! Though we’re partial to Ministop for desserts and 7-Eleven for bentos. Look, I know convenience stores often have a terrible reputation for mediocre food and food-related illnesses, but Japan has stepped the convenience store game up.
Sandwiches, boxed lunches (bento), ramen, and even sushi (yes, actually good sushi!) can all be found at these stores. So consider this as an alternative to an expensive restaurant to save money.
7. Everything Else
If I were to give a long write-up for EVERY kind of food available in Tokyo, this article would be a thousand pages long, and worse, I’d run out of witty remarks and friendly banter! So to speed things up a bit, I’m just going to post a few of my favorite restaurants here, regardless of the type of food it serves.
Our everything else recommendations:
- The Warrior Celt; a bar, but one with the best fish and chips I’ve had in Japan
- Rize Mize
- Sizzler (Yes, Sizzler. Stop judging me!)
- El Pato
- Tenfusa Tempura
7 Helpful Japanese Phrases
A little effort can go a long way. Here are some useful words and phrases to get you through your time here:
- sumimasen (Excuse me)
- gomennasai (Sorry)
- arigatou gozaimasu (Thank you)
- For shopping: ikura desu ka? (How much?)
- At restaurants: ijou desu (I’m done ordering)
- Eigo wa dekimasu ka? (Can you speak English?)
- Toire wa dokodesu ka? (Where’s the toilet?)
- Mastercard’s 2018 Global Destination Cities Index [Press release]. (2018, September 25). Retrieved April 12, 2019, from https://newsroom.mastercard.com/press-releases/big-cities-big-business-bangkok-london-and-paris-lead-the-way-in-mastercards-2018-global-destination-cities-index/
- Narita International Airport – MLIT Japan. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2019, from http://www.mlit.go.jp/koku/15_hf_000032.html
- What should I know about booking a home in Japan? (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2019, from https://www.airbnb.com/help/article/2274/what-should-i-know-about-booking-a-home-in-japan