Guide: Tokyo, Japan

by Carrinicole

MY FAVORITE CITY IN THE WORLD

Tokyo is a conundrum, a puzzle, a juxtaposition.  

It perfectly weaves the modern and the traditional into one of the most exciting cities on the planet. Walk a city block — one minute you’re in a bustling neon-lit arcade alley, and the next you’re in the middle of a forest, facing an ancient temple. I love Tokyo for this. 

You can get whatever you want out of your Tokyo trip. You can spend the entire time eating and exploring nightlife (Tokyo consistently has the most Michelin star restaurants), you can keep it to traditional sights, or you can explore the technological boundaries they push. My trips to Tokyo are always a combination of the three. Every trip is different, and that’s what keeps me coming back.

You can go any time of year but I like spring and fall the best. Springtime brings the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festival. Fall has cooler temperatures and less tourists.

  • Currency: Japanese Yen
  • Getting here: Narita (NRT) or Haneda (HND)
  • Getting Around:  Metro & Taxi
  • Where to Stay: JR Blossom Shinjuku
  • Itinerary:
    • Key Sights:Senso-ji Temple, Meiji shrine, Ueno Park, Imperial Palace, Tokyo National Museum, Akihabara district
    • If you have more time: Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Disneyland, Shinjuku Goyen National Garden, Roppongi, Edo Wonderland, VR Zone.

  • Restaurants:
    • Fuunji
    • Ichiran Ramen
    • Golden Gai 
    • Toyosu Fish Market

GETTING HERE

There are two airports that you can fly into – Narita or Haneda. Narita is the larger airport, but farther outside the city. Haneda, on the other hand, is right next to the city. I’ve flown in and out of both, and I don’t have a preference one over the other.

PRO TIP: Withdraw cash at the airport. It can be hard to find an ATM and Japan primarily functions with cash. 

Once you land at the airport, you have a couple options to get into the city:

  • Limousine Bus: One of the easiest ways to get into the city is using a “limo bus.” This is essentially a quality large bus that makes stops throughout the city at prominent hotels. Its also a fun way to see an overview of the city upon arrival.
    • Both times I’ve traveled to Tokyo, there’s been a limo bus stop a block away from my hotel.
    • The bus runs frequently and isn’t full, so I’ve never purchased my tickets ahead of time. There is a kiosk in the lobby of the airport, and we’ll buy our tickets there.
  • Metro: If you fly into Haneda you can take the metro. (See my pro tips re: the metro below)
  • Taxi: Also an option for curbside drop-off at your hotel.
    • PRO TIPS:
      • Note that many taxi drivers don’t speak English, so have the name and address of your hotel handy in Japanese.
      • Taxi doors automatically open and close.
      • DO NOT TIP. 
      • Always hand things to others, like currency, with both hands. Read my top 10 Japanese customs to know.

GETTING AROUND

Tokyo has an extensive metro network, and using the metro is the easiest way to get around.

PRO TIPS:

  • Two companies own metro lines with separate ticketing kiosks. Be careful to confirm the right lines you need to take, and which company owns the rail line. Then, find the correct kiosk to buy your ticket.
    • Toei Subways has four lines.
    • Tokyo Metro has nine lines.
  • Use Google Maps to determine your route, and they will outline the correct line and company to take.

Taxis are always an option, but I rarely felt the need to use one.

If you plan to go outside the city then there are the various railway systems.

  • JR East loops around the city, with suburban railways off shooting to the different suburban regions.
  • Again, Google Maps is your guide in helping you understand which rail lines (and which rail companies) to use.

WHERE TO STAY

JR Blossom Shinjuku

Location: Shinjuku

I highly recommend staying in the city, which can be costly if you don’t know where to look. Japan –and Tokyo specifically—is filled with expensive hotels.

My priorities for a Tokyo hotel were: in the city, within a neighborhood that was walkable to restaurants and nightlife, close to a major metro station, affordable with a well-reviewed, included breakfast.

JR Blossom Shinjuku was exactly what we were looking for. Quality, near the Shinjuku Metro Station and Rail line, and affordable. The room was small – which in a city of “pod” hotels – was expected.

Highlights were:

  • The breakfast spread was amazing. Its clear they have global travelers staying at their hotel, because they had the perfect mix of western and eastern breakfast foods. All of it was delicious.
  • Each room came equipped with a mobile phone! The phones came pre-programmed with maps and city highlights. For us— people who don’t always travel with international phone plans and rely on WiFi – this was a valuable amenity. It helped us find our way on the go, and not be reliant on stopping to find WiFi if we were lost.

PRO TIP:

Specify that you want a non-smoking room. We learned the hard way that in Japan smoking rooms are still common.

ITINERARY

I recommend spending almost a week in Tokyo, four nights.

This itinerary is for your first trip to Tokyo, which is seeing all the key sights.

PRO TIPS:

  • Read my Japanese customs to know before you go.
  • Don’t schedule too much in a day – Tokyo requires a lot of walking, so be sure to take breaks to rest and recharge. There are amazing tea and coffee shops everywhere to relax.
  • There are many cool, advance-ticket opportunities in Tokyo, if you have the time to plan ahead. My trips have always been spontaneous, so I’ve never been able to get tickets. Here are places I’ve always wanted to visit but never been able to:

DAY 1 – Travel Day

 

  • Once you arrive, take the rest of the day to get over jet lag.
  • The hotel is located steps from shopping and restaurants. Stretch out your legs and walk around the Shinjuku area.

Dinner: Fuunji

  • A couple blocks from the hotel is one of the most sought-after tsukemen restaurants.
  • There will likely always be a line, whether its snaking behind the counter space, or outside curving around the neighboring park. Wait in line for it, its worth it.

What to order: Fuunji is most well known for their tsukemen (thick dipping noodles).

  • PRO TIP: here is how you eat tsukemen…
    • You’ll order at a machine in the front of the restaurant and hand your ticket to staff who will instruct you on where to sit (if you’re more than two people, be prepared to split up).
    • Mix up the soup, tip your noodles and slurp.
    • When you’re finished, grab the hot broth from the counter (it is not tea or water!) to dilute your soup, and drink it directly from the bowl.

CN Traveler Review

DAY 2 –  North Tokyo

Breakfast: Eat at the hotel

 

AM Activity – Sensoji Temple

This is Tokyo’s most sacred temple. While it was destroyed in World War II (so may buildings are newly constructed) the site of this Buddhist temple was founded in 645 AD.

The temple follows the ancient Edo-era layout:

  • You’ll walk through the main entry gate called Kaminarimon Gate.
  • Leading into the temple is a market selling traditional Japanese goods.
  • Incense burner (jokoro) – waft the smoke over yourself to keep healthy.
  • The Main hall definitely draws your eye, but take some time to walk around the various buildings, gardens, and shrines within the complex.

PM Activity – Ueno Park

This park used to be a temple complex, with various buildings sprinkled throughout the park. 

The main walkway has hundreds of cherry trees — so if you happen to be in Tokyo for the Sakura (cherry blossom) festival, this is a key park to visit. 

Ueno houses a handful of national museums: The Museum of Western Art, Nature & Science, Metropolitan Art Museum.

 

Tokyo National Museum

We loved visiting this museum.

From ancient art, to porcelain and samurai armor, it gave a holistic snapshot of Japanese history and Japanese art. 

Dinner: Golden Gai

Near the hotel is Golden Gai – a small area known for its nightlife. 6 narrow alleys house over 200 bars, clubs, and eateries. 

Some bars and restaurants are for regular patrons only, others are themed (jazz, punk rock, horse racing). 

Note that these are private streets, and photography isn’t always permitted.

DAY 3 – West Tokyo

Breakfast: Hotel 

AM Activity – Meji Shrine & Yoyogi Park

Meiji Shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo. It was built in honor of Emperor Meiji in 1920, and there is always a flurry of activity occurring. You might even catch a wedding! 

Meiji Shrine is within Yoyogi Park. This park is so huge that it makes you feel like you’ve escaped the city. Its a great place to relax and recharge. 

Key sights from the shrine: 

Entrance gate (tori)

Sake Barrels: a donation to the shrine

Burgundy Barrels: Donated from France to the shrine

Inner Courtyard: We stumbled upon a wedding on our visit! 

A trip to Japan has to include fluffy pancakes

Burn Side St. Cafe is tucked into a corner in Harajuku, and delivers amazing coffee and yummy food. 

Its a great place to stop for a moment and put your feet up.

PM Activity – Harajuku

Adjacent to Yoyogi Park is the neighborhood of Harajuku. Its known for fashion and shopping, and is a fun place to stroll and window shop.

If you feel so inclined, you can also stop at one of the dedicated animal cafes. 

Dinner: Ichiran Ramen

Down the street from the hotel is one of the most popular ramen brands – with locations all over the world. They’re most well-known for the customizable options for ramen… AND that you eat in separate, individual stalls.

DAY 4 – South Tokyo

AM Activity – Akihabara

This district reminds you of the quintessential Tokyo you see in the movies: tall whimsical buildings with floor upon floor of electronics, video games, collectible toys, and arcades. 

We lost track of time exploring and playing in the different arcades! 

Lunch: Toyosu Fish Market

In 2018, Tsukiji Fish Market closed in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. Prior, it had been the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.

The entire market shifted to Toyosu. Walking the stalls, and trying the different food is a perfect way to spend lunchtime. 

PM Activity –  Imperial Palace

This palace was built in 1590, and ultimately became the world’s largest castle. Today only the inner circle remains, having to be rebuilt after World War II. 

The imperial family still lives on the grounds, with their palace open twice a year (New Years & the Emperor’s birthday). 

You can walk the parks / rest of the grounds any day. 

Dinner: L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele

One of my favorite Neapolitan pizzerias (check out my visit in Naples here) has a location in Tokyo.

After many days of eating yummy Japanese food at every meal, I enjoyed changing it up for a night, to eat my favorite food.

DAY 5 – Travel Day

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