Tokyo: Things to see on your first visit
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published: September 08, 2017
Trip to Tokyo is a psychedelic experience and no guidebook, documentary or movie can prepare you for it. Home to more than 13 million people, Tokyo is sprawling, frenetic and endlessly fascinating. The visuals, the smells and the sounds all merge into what I like to call a city of thousand layers and endless contrasts. Japan’s capital has insatiable appetite for modernity, yet never loses the sight of its history and deep-rooted cultural heritage. It’s the kind of city where a centuries-old Shinto shrine can be found just next door to the state of the art architectural masterpiece. Or where a kimono-clad woman, poised and elegant in her wooden geta, boards the uber-modern bullet train and shares the seat with Lolita girl. Tokyo will equally dazzle you with its soaring skyscrapers, tranquil landscape gardens, flickering jumbo neon billboards, quirky characters and rickety mom-and-pop shops. In short, whether you are looking for the luxurious, the bizarre, the cute or the quintessential – there is something for everyone.
It took me almost two years of living in Tokyo to finally sit down and write my guides. The truth is, there is so much to explore in the rambling metropolis, it is impossible to list it all in one post. That’s why I will be grouping it all thematically in a series of posts: Tokyo for first-timers, off-beat Tokyo and unique experiences in Tokyo. Whether it’s your first time in Japan, or you’re coming back to explore more, hope you’ll find something useful in the upcoming articles.
Planning your stay in Tokyo
For answers to general questions about planning your trip to Japan, please refer to my Japan Top 10 Travel Tips.
How Long Should I stay in Tokyo? The answer to this question depends on your budget and available time. I’d recommend allocating at least three full days to exploring Tokyo, and couple more days for day trips to Kamakura, Hakone, Nikko or Mt. Fuji to name a few.
Where should I stay in Tokyo? There is no lack of luxury, as well as more budget-friendly hotels in town. You also have a wide array of hostels and capsule hotels to choose from, not to mention Airbnb options. Unlike many other capitals, Tokyo doesn’t have a single “downtown” or “city center”. Wherever you book your lodging, make sure you are located close to the metro station for easy access to the public transportation. Neighborhoods like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, Akasaka and Tokyo Tower area are all good places to stay at.
How do I get from Narita or Haneda Airport to the city center? There are regular shuttle buses going from both airports to different areas of the city (approx. ¥3000, up to 90-minute drive depending on traffic), or limousine bus services taking you directly to your hotel. You can also take train: Narita Express costs ¥2940 and will get you to Tokyo, Shinjuku and Shibuya Stations (among a few others) in about an hour; Narita Skyliner costs ¥2,400 per person and will get you to Ueno station in 45 minutes; Tokyo Monorail from Haneda, costing ¥470 per person, will get you to centrally-located Hamamatsu Station where you can transfer to other mass-transit services. Naturally, you also have an option to take a taxi, but beware of high cost.
Is Tokyo Safe? Absolutely! The crime rate is incredibly low, and I have never felt even a tiny bit unsafe no matter how late it was. The city also has a wonderful lost and found system, so if you happen to leave something behind in the train, or loose an item in the street, there is a big chance to retrieve it at the local Police Station.
Is it easy get by in Tokyo, are there English signs? Yes, you will have no trouble navigating the city as there are English signs almost everywhere, especially in the metro/train stations (this unfortunately doesn’t include restaurants, as some have signs only in Japanese). Attendants in the train stations are also very helpful and speak some English, so they will gladly point you to the right direction. I recommend you download Hyperdia app to easily figure out the train times and routes. I also rely heavily on Google Maps, I think it is the easiest way to find the place and it has not yet failed me. In general, people here are very friendly and helpful, even if they are too shy to speak English. More than once have I seen strangers go out of their way to escort me to the place I was going. So yes, don’t hesitate to ask for an assistance.
Is there free wifi in Tokyo? Only in select places, like airports, certain train stations and cafes. I recommend to rent a pocket wifi at the airport, that way you will have internet access everywhere you go. Very important for the Google Maps!
Is language an issue? Yes and no, and it all depends on a situation. You will not have a problem navigating cities and finding information (information centers are particularly helpful!). However, most of the shops and grocery stores, for example, still don’t have English signage. Many local restaurants also don’t have English menus and staff typically struggle answering your enquiries (especially over the phone). They are also all very shy, which at times complicates things. Having said that, Japanese are generally friendly to foreigners even though English is not well spoken. I *very* rarely am in situations where I cannot figure out a thing and have to turn around and leave. There is always a way to get the message through, just don’t feel intimidated, stay patient and polite. Remember, Japan is your host country!
Points of interest in Tokyo
Each of Tokyo’s neighborhoods have a distinct character of its own. The goal of this guide is not to list all the “must-see places in Tokyo”, but rather give you options and inspire you to explore the city. Whether you are traveling to Tokyo for the first time, or are a returning visitor, I hope you’ll discover something new for yourself here. Don’t try to cram as much as possible into your itinerary. Japan is a place to be savored, observed, admired, and pondered. Even in the mad rush of Tokyo, try to go slow, let your curiosity wander, observe and soak it all in. Follow the links in each subsection to get an in-depth information about each place.
I often call it the Time Square of Tokyo. This place has a verve like no other. It is like a beating heart after a vigorous cardio exercise, filled with energy and crazy pace. Being the world’s busiest interaction, there is lots to take in: crowds flood from all directions every time the light goes green, ginormous flashy billboards scream from all directions, shopping malls offering latest trends and smaller shops selling kitschy merchandise, restaurants with enticing signs and plastic food displays. Take Hachiko Exit from the Shibuya Station to see the statue dedicated to the famous dog. L’Occitane Café as well as Starbucks on the opposite side provide great vantage points of the crossing. Another great spot for the aerial view of the Scramble is the 25th floor of the Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu. It’s a floor that houses the hotel’s restaurants and is open to the public. The elevators of the hotel are also a good spot. The corner two elevators facing the crossing are made of glass and provides a perfect vantage point.
If you’re hungry, I recommend either perusing the underground food parlor called Tokyu Food Show to pick up a bento box, or enjoy sushi at Uoriki Kaisen located on the same floor.
There are many incredibly pretty temples and shrines in Tokyo, but one that should absolutely make your list of places to see (alongside the Buddhist Senso-ji complex in Asakusa) is a magnificent Meiji Shrine. The complex was built to honor the divine souls of Emperor Meiji, who made significant contribution in the modernization of Japan, and Empress Shoken and to commemorate their virtues and venerate them forever. While the shrine itself is beautiful, it is the path leading to it that leaves me speechless every time I go there. A massive wooden torii gate made of 1,700-year-old cypress greets you at the start of the wide passage into what feels like a massive green forest. The minute you step on the other side of the gate a calm silence replaces the relentless bruit of crowded Harajuku and you seem to be immersed into a bit magical world where an atmosphere of tranquility and austerity takes over. You are in the heart of the huge metropolis, yet detached from the rest of the world and all its worries.
Harajuku, Omotesando and Aoyama
Once you are done touring Meiji Shrine, head down the street to Harajuku neighborhood for a contrasting experience. Start your tour at the Takeshita Dori, a hub of kawaii culture and Japanese teenagers with their outlandish street fashion that is a source of inspiration to designers around the world. You’ll find a mix of psychedelic vintage boutiques, music-filled fashion shops, crepe stalls and cafes, plus photo booths known as purikura, where visitors customize pictures of themselves with kitsch decorations. If you are looking for the famous cosplayers (who nowadays are as elusive as geisha in Kyoto), I recommend to time your visit on a weekend afternoon. Read more about cosplay in Tokyo here.
Omotesando Avenue is often referred to as Champs Elysee of Tokyo, with luxury shopping and restaurants. There are also a number of interesting galleries to check out. For a comprehensive guide, refer to my Top 10 Things To Do in Harajuku & Omotesando. The neighborhood harmoniously links to Aoyama, which grants more opportunities to empty your wallet and satiate your appetite. It’s also home to Nezu Museum, home to a treasure trove of more than seven thousand examples of pre-modern art from across Japan and East Asia, from calligraphy and metalwork to sculpture and tea ceremony tools, all painstakingly collected by the Japanese industrialist Kaichiro Nezu until his death in 1940.
City within a city, Shinjuku is a central business and entertainment district of Tokyo. During the daytime, savor the view from the observation deck of monumental Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office and enjoy picnic at Shinjuku Gyoen Garden. For those seeking excitement, the red-light district of Kabukicho (with one of the most impressive neon lights) comes to life after the sun sets. The psychedelic show at Robot Restaurant will certainly leave you positively perplexed and you can always continue the night at one of many karaoke bars nearby, or have shots at a more retro-style bars lined up along Golden Gai.
Starting from October 2017, Shinjuku will also be home to Yayoi Kusama’s first permanent museum in Japan.
Asakusa, Ueno and Tokyo Skytree
For a glimpse at Tokyo of yesteryear head to Asakusa. This is one of the oldest and most extensive neighborhoods in the metropolis that brings together cultural sights, dining and entertainment in vibrant surroundings that are historic and modern at the same time. There’s plenty to do and see in Asakusa, like visiting the 17th-century Shinto shrine Senso-ji or shopping in Kappabashi Kitchen Town.
It would make sense to end the day at Tokyo SkyTree, the tallest tower in the world, which not only offers wonderful views of the entire city, but houses entertainment complex which includes aquarium, shops, restaurants, etc..
Imperial Palace, Marunouchi District and Tokyo Station
Marunochi is a super sleek business center of Tokyo that gets a dose of royal zen from the Imperial Palace grounds located nearby. While you cannot access the Imperial Palace (since it is still an active residence of the Emperor and his family), you can tour its stunning garden in the east. Tokyo Station reminds me of the Grand Central Station, it is huge and has quite a few points of interest including the famous Ramen Street and the Character Street (shops selling merchandise for Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and so much more).
Akihabara is a hub for all things quirky, cutting edge and extraordinary. It’s a place for geeks to share their gaming passions and indulge in their preoccupations. Home for Japanese contemporary sub-cultures such as manga comics and anime cartoons, Akihabara draws crowds of so-called otaku geeks. As soon as you step outside the train station, your senses are assaulted from all directions – speakers scream out Japanese pop, billboards blind you with its neon glow and waitresses dressed up in frilly maid costumes are passing out the flyers.
There’s certainly a lot to take in, but it’s a cultural experience like no other. Here’s my guide to this this geeky side of Tokyo.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Sushi is on everyone’s mind when they come to Japan, and Tsukiji Fish Market is a perfect spot to enjoy the fresh fish. You can also attend the famous tuna auction and buy authentic Japanese knives. Here’s my guide to help you plan your visit (most importantly, make sure the market is open on the day of your visit!).
This district has two faces: during the day time it has a thriving art scene and is bustling with salarymen rushing to work, while at night it turns into the cosmopolitan nightlife center where expats like to party in clubs and karaoke bars. Tokyo Tower, the symbol of the city, is not to be missed (Zojoji Temple nearby has a very good view), while Roppongi Hills houses the Mori Art Museum as well as observation deck.
Ginza needs no introduction, it is an uber-luxurious neighborhood with one of the best restaurants and shops seeding its streets. Don’t miss the newly opened Ginza Six, if not for its designer boutiques then for the installation by Yayoi Kusama in its main hall. Ginza also boasts with one of the best bars in town – think intimate basement spaces with subtle music, dim lights and artisan cocktails. Tip: on weekends a part of Ginza Avenue turns into a pedestrian street, making it a very pleasant spot to take a stroll.
Located in Tokyo Bay, this artificial and ultramodern island is one of the most popular sites among locals and tourists alike for a reason: it has it all. From flamboyant and futuristic-looking architecture to an array of amusement spots, shopping malls and restaurants — this destination in Tokyo even has its own Statue of Liberty. Regardless of what season you’re visiting, Odaiba is the perfect year-round day trip for geeks, budding architects, families and shopaholics alike. Here’s my detailed guide to Odaiba’s numerous activities.
Last, but not least, if you need assistance in planning you trip to Japan, I now offer travel consultation services: I can compile detailed fully customized itineraries for each city, review your existing itinerary, and provide even city guide and photography services on selected days. I already successfully planed trips for over a dozen clients and photographed over 50! If you’re interested, head over to My Travel Services page to find out more.