Did you know that Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world? This densely populated city has so much to offer visitors that it could be overwhelming when putting together a Tokyo itinerary. This article will hopefully help you narrow down that list!
When visiting Tokyo, you want to think about it in neighborhoods and that each neighborhood has a different personality. I would recommend allowing yourself some time to walk around the neighborhoods aimlessly and soak in all the little details. You might miss these details if you’re too focused on going from point to point. Observe the local fashion, customer service, packaging, street hygiene, architectural designs, building colors, local mannerisms, interaction between men, women and children, and the list goes on. Now let’s get going on a Tokyo itinerary and all the things you cannot miss! But wait, caveat here…this article does not include the day trips or food and restaurants I would recommend. I will dedicate an entire article to that in the next post!
I’ve combined neighborhoods that are close to each other into specific “areas” so you can explore each area in a day or two! Easiest way to get around Tokyo would be via their subway system or by foot. If you haven’t already, check out my previous article on tips & tricks for traveling in Japan!
Ginza, Marunouchi, Tokyo Station, Imperial Palace Area
- Shopping, shopping, and more shopping! Ginza is the upscale area of Tokyo. You’ll find department store after department store, luxury brand after luxury brand, and countless restaurants and bars scattered throughout the neighborhood. For those who love the affordable Japanese brand Uniqlo, its flagship is also in the heart of the shopping street in Ginza. PROTIP: Uniqlo’s Asia sizing is smaller than the US, for example, I wear a size S in Uniqlo US but an M in Uniqlo Asia stores. On Saturday & Sunday from 12-5pm, the main streets in Ginza are closed off to cars making it a wonderful place for visitors to take photos and walk around freely.
- Restaurants in department stores and the food marketplace in department store basements are totally worth it! A lot of people, maybe not you, but many that I know believe that department store food is mediocre and not for foodies. I get it, mall food in the US is rarely instagram worthy so why would department store food be? Well it is! On the top floors of Mitsukoshi house a variety of delicious restaurants. The food marketplace on the basement floor is also a great place to buy different things from various food stalls and bring it back to your hotel to eat! It is cheap and good, what more can you ask for. One of my favorite things to buy is fruit. Why? Well, look at these photos, the apple is humongous and one strawberry looks like two strawberries merged together. Both taste heavenly.
- Visit the Ginza Natsuno chopsticks store. They have the widest range of high quality chopsticks that I have seen. There are long ones, short ones, heavier ones, lighter ones, thinner ones, thicker ones, ones for smaller hands, ones for bigger hands, and more! It is the perfect gift to bring back. Most of them are hand-wash only and a small selection are dishwasher safe. Over the years they’ve opened stores across Tokyo, but the Ginza is the original.
- Get lost in the back alleys off the main shopping street of Chuo-dori. There are small coffee shops, inconspicuous restaurants, more luxury goods, and chocolate and pastry shops. You never know what you’ll find!
- I like to stay around Ginza because of its convenience. Most locals don’t live around here, but there are quite a few hotels in the area. My go-to hotel is the Courtyard Marriott Ginza. It’s a 4 star hotel, the rooms are a tad old, but the service and buffet-style breakfast are impeccable. It is also centrally located, close to multiple subway lines and walking distance to Tokyo Station. Additionally, during off-peak season the price is quite reasonable.
- Marunouchi Brick Square shopping area. Shopping again? Yep! There’s so many great shopping areas in Tokyo that are beautifully designed and worth visiting.
- The perfect place to buy Japanese snacks to bring back home is Tokyo Station. The station is huge, I’ve gotten lost a few times trying to find a place that I’ve been the previous day and I just couldn’t find it. There’s a mall area inside that sells Japanese snacks. They’re beautifully packaged and make perfect gifts – affordable and yummy.
- Want to visit Japan’s emperor at the Imperial Palace? Sorry, you probably won’t be able to see him other than on the Emperor’s birthday or January 2nd when the public gets to see him from afar. Other than seeing the emperor in person, the park surrounding the Imperial Palace is a great location for a stroll. The landscaping has a calming effect and entices you to slow down your pace.
Tsukiji, Roppongi, Tokyo Tower Area
- The Tsukiji tuna auction is one of a kind, but it’s not for everyone. Don’t expect anything glamorous, but instead a grueling process. They only take 120 people a day and tourists start lining up around 2-3am since it’s first come first serve. Honestly, to guarantee a spot, you should go at 2am. They start passing out the “entry vests” at 5am, however if there is a long queue, sometimes they pass it out earlier to allow those who can’t get in a chance to catch up on some sleep. The first 60 people get to go in at 5:25am and second 60 at 5:50am. After you get your vest, there’s more waiting inside and you’ll be sitting on hard wooden floors. Your bum may not be too happy. During this waiting process, you might be asking yourself, why did I do this…will it be worth it? I would do it but many of my friends wouldn’t. All depends on you! Make sure to click the links I have in this section to research the experience more and understand whether it is something you want to do. There are quite a few rules you need to adhere by otherwise you won’t be able to get in. I think this blogger does a really good job summing up her Tsukiji tuna auction experience. PROTIP: Check the Tsukiji tuna auction calendar, they don’t open everyday!
- Eat around the fish market for breakfast or lunch. First, there’s a ton of great little sushi joints around the market. Most people go to Sushi Dai and the line is annoyingly long (especially if you’ve just waited in line for the tuna auction). I don’t think it’s THAT much better than some of the others around that area. One that I would recommend and the wait is short to reasonable is Sushi Zanmai. It’s a chain, but the ones in Tsukiji are better! Check that it isn’t the conveyor belt Sushi Zanmai. The ones where the sushi chef makes each piece fresh is better. Second, don’t get full off of sushi. Leave some room for the grab-n-go food stalls. There are grilled oysters, different types of tamago, ramen, and much more! Indulge yourself at this market, you can work off the calories when you get back home.
- Explore Roppongi Hills and the surrounding area. It’s kind of a maze so don’t be surprised if you get lost in there. There’s shops, restaurants and even a museum. Don’t forget to take a photo with the famous spider sculpture, “Maman”. If you’ve been to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, you’ll recognize it. Yep, it’s the same one!
- More shopping and eating! Check out Tokyo Midtown and the Ritz Carlton, it’s only a 5 minute walk from Roppongi Hills. Tokyo Midtown has a beautiful architectural design and it has even more shops and restaurants than Roppongi Hills. Not only that, it is connected to one of the best luxury hotels in Tokyo, the Ritz Carlton. If you’re not staying at the Ritz, don’t worry, you can still go to their lobby on the 45th floor for free. The view is spectacular, especially at night! Such a romantic atmosphere right at the lobby, that’s why it’s the Ritz.
- Nightlife! Put on your dancing shoes and check out the bars, clubs and adult-only clubs. Roppongi is where most foreigners prefer to party as opposed to Shibuya or Ginza where the locals like to go.
- My honest opinion is that the Tokyo Tower isn’t worth going to. The panoramic view of Tokyo is nicer when you can actually see the Tokyo Tower as part of that view. Most travelers and concierge will recommend that you go since the Tokyo Tower is an iconic tourist destination. However, my recommendation is to go to the Skydeck at the Mori Tower (218m/715ft) at Roppongi Hills and you’ll get a spectacular view of the Tokyo Tower. That is the first choice. Unfortunately, sometimes the skydeck closes due to strong winds, then your second best option would be the World Trade Center observation deck (152m/498ft), which is also close by.
Shinjuku, Yoyogi, Harajuku, Omotesando Area
- Need a store that sells almost anything? Tokyu Hands is the place. The biggest store is in Shinjuku right next to Shinjuku station. It takes up a full 7 floors selling anything from stationary to beauty products to luggage. Almost anything you can think of, they’ll have. I spent a couple of hours scavenging through everything and ended up buying enough to be overly qualified for a tax refund.
- Omoide Yokocho translated to Corner of Memories is a street that still retains the charm and memories from before. This street houses many small yakitori (BBQ skewers) joints where patrons are seated in very cramped quarters. Each shop is built right next to the other. There are also some restaurants there that serve stranger things such as horse sashimi (surprisingly delicious and not gamey at all) and frog sashimi (I have yet to try).
- Experience the red light district of Japan – Kabukicho. I went during the day since someone warned me to be careful at night. The area is run by the Yakuza (Japan’s mafia) and could get too rowdy. Unfortunately, during the day nothing is open and you don’t get to see the action. Check out the link above to learn more about how to stay safe and enjoy Japan’s red light district.
- People watch and wander around Takeshita Street. Harajuku is one of if not the main area where young people hang out. This is where fashion forward trend setters congregate and show off their latest neon-colored outfits. On the weekends, you might even catch some youngsters dressed up in cosplay walking around. Walk around the alleys in addition to the main streets, there’s so many hidden gems you’ll only find if you allow yourself to get lost.
- Eat French-Japanese crepes! As you walk around you’ll see many crepe shops scattered in the area, try one! Don’t expect french crepes, Japanese ones have more whipped cream or ice cream inside.
- Have afternoon tea with real owls at the Owl Cafe. You get to take pictures, touch and even feed real owls! The staff takes very good care of the owls and makes sure they have time to themselves and not bombarded by people.
- Take photos with Japan’s famous Line friends at the Harajuku store. In case you don’t know what Line is, it started as a mobile messaging app that became extremely popular in Asia because of its adorable Line friends (started out as the bunny and the bear) stickers. Now, they have Line friends stores selling all sorts of keepsakes.
- Make a wish at the Meiji Shrine. Learn about the correct etiquette when visiting the shrine. If you follow the rules, you’ll have to bow and rinse your hands and mouth. You’re not expected to do it, but it could be fun to do it with your friends. Once you make it inside, you can purchase lucky charms or an Ema where you can write your wishes on a wooden tablet and tie it to the wooden hooks provided. In other shrines, I’ve seen people tying them to trees!
- Picnic in Yoyogi Park, located right next to the Harajuku station. One of the largest city parks in Tokyo, Yoyogi Park is a great place for cherry blossoms, autumn foliage and in the wintertime they sometimes have lights on the trees in a section of the park. This past winter, they had blue lights and it turned on exactly at 6pm or 7pm. A swarm of tourists and locals flock to that section of the park waiting to snap a photo. It can get a little crazy.
- Photo-op time! Omotesando is well-known for its extraordinary architectural designs and luxury shopping! Omotesando is often referred to as the 5th Avenue or Champs-Élysées of Japan. Walk down Omotesando street and wind in and out of its alleys just like you did in Harajuku. Check out the Dior, Prada, Hugo Boss, SunnyHills, Tod’s and Audi Forum buildings. Next time I visit, I definitely want to go with a better camera than my iPhone.
- Visit the spiral walkways in Omotesando Hills. This shopping mall has (again) luxury brands, restaurants and cafes. But, what a lot of tourists like to go there for is the unique angles you can capture with your camera.
- Marvel at the hypnotizing kaleidoscope interior of Tokyu Plaza’s entrance. Again, this is another instagram moment. Don’t get dizzy looking at yourself from all angles!
- Buy some Japanese honey cake from Higashiya Man. This is probably one of the cutest Japanese confectionery shops. Their honey cake is to die for! My sister brought 5 of them back to New York! They make perfect gifts for foodie friends.
Shibuya, Nakameguro Area
- Stand at the center of a frequently filmed movie intersection – Shibuya crossing. If you’ve seen Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This is the busiest intersection and the only time I’ve been there when it wasn’t packed with people was January 1st when all the locals leave Tokyo. PROTIP: Best view to watch the Shibuya crossing from above is the 2nd floor of Starbucks, and you don’t even have to buy a coffee to hang out there.
- Take a pic with the famous Hachiko statue right outside of Shibuya station. If you have no idea who Hachi is, watch the movie Hachi with Richard Gere, it’ll tell you the whole story. Hachi is basically the definition of loyalty in Japan.
- Restaurants stacked on top of each other. When walking around the streets of Shibuya you’ll discover that there’s an endless number of places to eat. It’s so hard to choose! They have restaurants ranging in cuisines and price. Shibuya tends to be the area young locals hang out at night. Other than restaurants, there’s a lot of bars and clubs in the area that you can check out.
- Take a stroll along the picturesque Meguro River. Nakameguro is Tokyo’s most popular and expensive residential neighborhood. Apparently, celebrities and cool artists live here. You’ll experience it for yourself, it’s a beautiful, classy and artistic area. The trees that line each side of the river make for a romantic stroll. Doesn’t matter what time of the year you go, it’s always stunning.
- Slow down your pace for coffee at Daikanyama T-Site. This place is made up of a bookstore, Starbucks, camera shop, toy store, electric bike store, and a few others. The star of the show is definitely the bookstore. The decor and lighting make it feel like home. It is calming and homey. You can take your time in there, nobody is rushing you. I’ve heard that if you go to the travel section of the bookstore, there is a travel concierge that can help you research and plan your trips! How cool is that?
Akihabara, Asakusa, Tokyo Sky Tree Area
- Get electrified! Walk around Akihabara aka Electric Town. It got the name Electric Town because almost all the stores in the area sell electronics. Check out Yodobashi, the largest electronics department store.
- Play games at arcades! This is such a great place to go with your friends and you can let your competitive juices flow. You can also watch others play. There are always students who probably play everyday after school and have gotten incredibly good at the game that other people gather around to watch.
- Find out what Maid Cafes are all about. Don’t worry, it’s not anything kinky. I think it’s interesting to experience once, but it’s not as fun as it may seem. Maid cafes are cafes where the staff dresses up as french maids and butlers and provides extra good service. They sometimes sing songs for you, cut your meat, feed you, and stir your tea. Some people find it a bit awkward. See for yourself! One of the biggest ones is home cafe.
- Experience the sex department store – M’s. It consists of 7 floors and sells almost anything you can think of and more. People shop there as if they’re buying kitchen ware, very normal. You’ll see mostly men or couples in the store. The space is kind of cramped, the walkways don’t fit more than 2 or 3 people. You’re warned, it may get cozy in there.
- Walk through the Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon) and Treasure House Gate (Hozomon). The Thunder Gate represents the whole city of Tokyo and is the outer gate before entering the Sensoji Temple. The two black characters on the middle red lantern spell out Thunder Gate. The Treasure House Gate is the inner gate before entering the temple and the red lantern has three characters on it.
- Visit Tokyo’s oldest Temple – Sensoji Temple. This is a Buddhist temple and you can purchase some lucky charms inside. What I enjoy doing is the Omikuji or paper fortune. For 100 JPY (and it’s an honor system that you pay), you get to shake a wooden cylinder and a wooden stick with a number on it falls out. With the number, you look for the corresponding paper fortune. On the paper, you’ll see whether you got a good or bad fortune. Don’t worry, they have it in both English and Japanese. And don’t worry again, if you received a bad fortune, you tie the paper to a metal pole to get rid of your bad fortune. You’ll see it in there, it’s multiple metal poles with many pieces of paper tied to it.
- Buy some finger food and fans at Nakamise-dori shopping street. After you leave Sensoji Temple, check out the street right in front of it. You won’t miss it. You’ll see tourists dressed up in Kimonos that they rented there. The street has food stalls where you can buy some finger food to munch on while you shop for other Japanese goodies.
Tokyo Sky Tree:
- See the view from the top of the second tallest structure in the world. The Tokyo Sky Tree was built-in 2010. It has two observation decks, one at the 450th floor and one at the 350th. I would recommend just purchasing the ticket for only the 350th floor since it is cheaper and the view is not that big of a difference at that height. On a clear day you can even see Mount Fuji! PROTIP: if you’re not Japanese, you can purchase a Skytree ticket for international visitors only. The line is much shorter, the ticket is slightly more expensive but totally worth skipping the long line. Especially on weekends, it can get extremely crowded.
Other random things!
- Visit the cutest museum in the world Ghibli Museum. If you haven’t watched Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, I highly recommend that you watch it. It won countless awards and features the cutest fantasy creatures. Growing up, I’ve always wanted them to be real. The museum showcases the work of Miyazaki and the animation studio Ghibli. You have to purchase tickets in advance and during high season, they sell out rather quickly. I would recommend purchasing the tickets online a month or two before the date you want to go.
- Real Life Mario Kart! Do you love the game Mario Kart? Or a fan of the Mario characters? Well, here’s your chance to participate in real life Mario Kart! You dress up as your favorite character and zoom around the city zipping in and out of various neighborhoods. Trust me, everyone walking on the streets will wish they were part of the race. PROTIP: Don’t forget to bring your license! It’s safer to have an international driving permit. Check the website for more information on which licenses they accept.
- Check out the pharmacies and don’t be scared to buy some stuff. If you have any drug allergies, then I would stay away from buying anything you don’t know since all the contents are written in Japanese. What should you buy from the pharmacies? These are my two must-buys. Japan is known for their awesome eye drops (it stings but trust me, your eyes will feel more refreshing than ever), my favorite brand is Rohto Z!. They have it for both contacts and no contacts. I get really bad migraines and their headache medicine branded EVE works like a charm. I got the EVE Quick.
This is still a long list! Unless you’re staying for a full week in Tokyo, it’ll be hard to cover everything. Pick out what sounds interesting to you! I enjoyed all of these sites and I hope you will too.
This article is not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the above mentioned brands.