Japan, Japanese Food
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The Ultimate Tokyo Guide for First Time Visitors

It started innocently enough – a friend messaged me today asking for Tokyo recommendations as he will be visiting for the first time. I got overexcited and immediately wrote him a novel-length Tokyo itinerary and recommendations. While writing I realized that… for someone who has been to Tokyo a million times (read: four times since 2014), I’ve never actually written anything about it.

So I’m on a mission to fix the lack of Tokyo-ness in this blog. If you are reading this as a first-timer in Tokyo – OMG, I am so happy and jealous of you. The feeling of visiting Tokyo for the first time is one of my fondest memories in all of my travel so far.

An Introduction to Tokyo

Tokyo is MUCH bigger than you probably expected

One thing I did not realize is that this city is MASSIVE. On my first trip to Japan, I went for 7 days and had aspirations of doing a few day trips outside of Tokyo. That plan was quickly trumped when I realized just how big this city is. In the end, I allocated 5 days in Tokyo and managed to squeeze two days in Hakone. It was still not enough to cover the city. I ended up coming back a few more times and even then there are always new areas of Tokyo I kept discovering on subsequent return visits. So in short, I recommend setting aside minimum 4 days in Tokyo.

Fly in and out through Haneda Airport

Find a flight that flies to/from Haneda (Code name: HND). Unless the flight is much cheaper don’t even think about going through Narita. It will save you both money and time because Haneda is so much closer to the city. In fact, it’s pretty much already in town – it would take you about 30 minutes to Shibuya using the local train. Narita on the other hand takes about 1.5 hours by airport express train (!). Slightly faster if using the bullet train but it will cost more.

Getting a Data SIM Card

I am lucky that one of our providers StarHub in Singapore has an awesome travelling SIM card called Happy Prepaid, which allows us to roam at various destination at the same cost as back in Singapore. I’ve been using this card for the past year and glad to report they have worked very well.

If you are not living in Singapore, you can look into getting b-mobile visitor SIM card. You have to order this two weeks before your arrival to Japan, where you can arrange for it to be shipped to the airport or your hotel. I used this for my first visit to Japan in 2014 and it worked swimmingly well.

Another option is to rent a travel router at the airport. This usually provides unlimited data and you can connect multiple devices to it, but it’s more expensive and you have to charge the router everyday and also remember to return the router at the end of your trip. So I’d recommend getting this only if you are travelling in a group.

Getting around Tokyo

As soon as you get to Tokyo, get yourself a SUICA or PASMO train card. Whichever one is fine because they both work the same. These cards will be your lifeline during your stay – they allow you to tap in and out of each station without having to buy a ticket every single time you take the train. You can refill the credit at any train station.

In terms of train schedules and routes, I’m happy to report that Google Maps work really well in Japan! So you can use it as per normal but set it to the public transport mode, and it will give you the best way to get from point A to point B by train.

Example Tokyo Train Route on Google Maps - Shinjuku to Asakusa

Example Tokyo Train Route on Google Maps – Shinjuku to Asakusa

Trains stop running at midnight

Cab is expensive in Tokyo so if you’re out late, you want to make sure you still catch the last train. Most stations has trains running until midnight but you should try to be at the station by 11:30PM, especially if your travel involves changing lines. In one of our nights out, we missed our last connecting train in Shibuya and had to take a cab back to our accommodation. The short 20 minute ride costed us $50 :|

Be mindful of train peak hour

I try to stay away from using the train in the morning during peak working hour – this means any time from 8AM to 9:30-10AM on a weekday. I’m sure you’ve heard about people getting pushed by sticks to encourage them to move more inside the train so that more people can get on, and you end up packed into the train like sardines.

Tokyo is the perfect city for a solo travellers

Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world. Two of my trips to Tokyo were done on my own and it couldn’t have been more perfect. Okay, I know there are incidents involving perverted peeping toms in the train, and i’m sure crimes do still happen, but I personally have never felt scared or threatened even when I was walking alone at night.

Where to stay in Tokyo

With Tokyo’s extensive train system – anywhere close to a train station is a great place to stay. For a first timer I’d try to stay close to Shibuya, Shinjuku or Asakusa. This means you should look for a place within 15-minute walking distance or 1-2 stations away from these places.

Here are places I’ve personally stayed at in Tokyo:

  • Retrometro Backpackers Hostel ($) in Asakusa. I stayed at the 6-bed female dorm for roughly 1,500 yen (US$14) per night. It’s a very basic hostel and on the smaller side compared to say, european backpacker hostels, but i imagine it’s average size for Japan. The location is very convenient as it’s quite close to the train Asakusa station. The hostel is small and quiet so you’ll get a good rest.
  • A private Airbnb room in Sendagaya ($), 15 minutes walk to Harajuku for about US$31 a night. If you are new to Airbnb, you can sign up using my link to get some discounts. The room is small and only has a single bed so it can only fit one person, but the location is amazing and you get to stay in a Japanese-style apartment. You do have to share the apartment and bathroom with two other roommates, but I barely saw them. When I did see them though, they were very friendly. One of them even drove me all the way to Umegaoka to have dinner at Midori Sushi.
  • The Strings by Intercontinental ($$$$) in Shinagawa. This one is a more expensive option as I stayed here during a business trip, but this hotel was very nice and convenient. It’s right on top of Shinagawa station, which is close to both Shibuya and Haneda Airport. There are several convenience stores and a shopping mall in the same complex as the hotel. Also, it’s one of the taller buildings around and on a clear day you can see Mount Fuji.

Tokyo Daily Itinerary

As I’ve mentioned before, Tokyo is a massive metropolitan city. Therefore it’s worth planning your trip and grouping the days by area so that you don’t waste time and energy travelling back and forth. Keeping this in mind, this is how I’ve structured the itineraries below. These itineraries are not meant to be done chronologically. Rather, I’ve put together some of Tokyo must-visits in sections based on their proximity to each other, so that you can optimize your trip by choosing which sights you want to visit in the same day.

Also, don’t feel bad if you did not get to do everything! It’s just an excuse to come back :)

Alright then – let’s get into it:

Itinerary 1: Yoyogi Park, Harajuku, Omotesando and Roppongi

Choose one of the days on a weekend for this itinerary, because the places I’m going to mention are more happening on weekends!

You can start your day at exploring Yoyogi Park. It’s a huge park with pleasant shaded walk and all of the walking route will go through Meiji Jingu, a beautiful Shinto shrine, where you can buy an amulet and other traditional souvenirs. Don’t forget to do the water purification ritual at the temple entrance! Read more on etiquette of visiting a temple in Japan. If it’s on a weekend, you might even see a Shinto wedding there as well. I was lucky enough to see one when I visited.

Prayer boards at Meiji Jingu

Prayer boards at Meiji Jingu

A Shinto wedding at Meiji Jingu

A Shinto wedding at Meiji Jingu

The Meiji Shrine

Next, you can check out Harajuku, a walkable distance from Yoyogi Park (it’s actually right across) and walk along Takeshita Dori. Harajuku embodies everything you’ve probably heard about modern Japan – It’s a crazy area filled with people, trendy shops and street food. Harajuku became well-known as the hangout spot for trendy youngster who would wear their most outrageous, fashion-forward outfit. Sadly, this is a dying culture and they’re not seen as often as they used to, so to increase your chance you might want to visit on a weekend. Aside of that, you can easily spend 2-3 hours in Harajuku just walking and looking at the various shops. Oh, and you’ve gotta try the Japanese Crepes while you’re here!

Harajuku's Takeshita Dori

Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori

If you keep walking along Takeshita Dori towards the east, you’ll end up in Omotesando and then Roppongi.  In total, this is about ~3km walk from Harajuku station and totally walkable because the entire route is lined up with shops and food.

I recommend visiting the the Tokyo City View And Sky Deck in Roppongi where you can take the lift up to the rooftop and get an amazing view of the city, including the iconic red Tokyo tower, for just 1,800 yen. If you’re lucky and the day is clear, you might even see Mount Fuji! I recommend going close to sunset to get the best lighting for photos. Make sure you stay a little bit after sunset too for night time photography.

At the rooftop of Tokyo Skydeck in Roponggi

At the rooftop of Tokyo Skydeck in Roponggi

Tokyo Tower just before sunset

Tokyo Tower just before sunset

Tokyo Tower from the Sky Deck

… and Tokyo Tower just after sunset

Sunset from the Tokyo Sky Deck roof top

Sunset from the Tokyo Sky Deck roof top

If you are a museum person, Mori Art Museum is also in the same building. They might have an interesting exhibit to check out.

Where to eat

Harajuku Crepes

Harajuku Crepes at Takeshita Dori

Japanese Crepes at Harajuku. This can be found all throughout the famous Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, so just snap them up whenever you see a stall. It wouldn’t be a very big stall, usually just enough for one person to serve you the crepes through the stall window. You can customize your crepe with different fruit toppings and sweet syrup. More information on Harajuku Crepes here.

Kurobuta Cutlet Rice bowl at Maisen Tonkatsu

Kurobuta Cutlet Rice bowl at Maisen Tonkatsu

Maisen Tonkatsu at Omotesando (maps). While walking around Omotesando, be sure to stop by here for one of the best tonkatsu in town. Their specialty is Kurobuta aka the japanese black pork. I have to say their tonkatsu set can get pretty pricey, but there are cheaper alternatives such as the cutlet rice bowl. More on Maisen Tonkatsu by my friend Daniel.

Vegetarian Meal at Sincere Garden

Vegetarian Meal at Sincere Garden

Sincere Garden (maps). My friends are going to be surprised I’m recommending a vegetarian restaurant, yet here we are. Long story short, I made a friend at the hostel I was staying at in Asakusa, and ended up tagging along for lunch with him and his Tokyo friends. We ended up at this vegetarian place that serves all organic food in Omotesando. For someone who loves meat as much as I do, this was actually a very decent meal! I feel that it fits perfectly to the trendy vibe of Omotesando. The entire cafe has this light wooden theme and made me feel good about eating healthy food.

Itinerary 2: Shibuya, Ebisu and Shimokitazawa

Check out Shibuya for the famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing road, where every few minutes the pedestrian light would turn green and the entire crossing will be filled with a ton of people coming from all directions. Located just outside the Shibuya station, this is the crossing has been featured in many movies, video games and music videos. It’s a crazy scene and the true definition of an organized chaos – everybody is going everywhere but amazingly, nobody is bumping into each other! I recommend doing this during the day so you can see the craziness in all its glory. There is a famous Starbucks branch where people love to sit and watch the scramble crossing from, but I find it to be quite crowded so I preferred to just watch from the ground zero (plus it’s free!)

The famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing

The famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing

At one corner of the scramble crossing, you can check out the famous Hachiko Statue. Hachiko is the legendary Japanese dog, famous for being extremely loyal as he kept waiting for his owner’s return at the train station years after he had passed away. Shibuya is a major train station and it can get pretty confusing when you are trying to meet up with friends, so Hachiko statue has become a famous meeting point.

Hachiko, the loyal dog

Hachiko, the loyal dog

You can spend some time exploring more of Shibuya. It’s a huge shopping district and you can even say it’s the centre of Tokyo, along with Shinjuku. Check out Shibuya Loft for floors of random goodies, each floor with its own theme. You can also check out Don Quijote for even more random stuff. If you are tired or shopping is not your thing, I recommend going to Dogenzaka area. Formerly a yakuza hangout, Dogenzaka is now filled with ramen shops, pubs and izakaya (small stalls selling skewered meats) – good place to be if you are there for night life.

Famous 109 Shibuya Building

Famous 109 Shibuya Building. This exact angle was featured in one of my favorite video games – The World Ends With You.

Dogenzaka at night

If you still have some energy after the madness that is Shibuya, you can take the train to Shimokitazawa or Ebisu for some cafes and chill out night life. These are more laid back areas, so it’s probably not the place to go if you want to be around lots of people.

Chilled-out streets of Shimokitazawa

Chilled-out streets of Shimokitazawa. There was ambient music playing for a loudspeaker

Where to eat

Ichiran ramen at my cubicle

Ichiran ramen at my cubicle

Ichiran Ramen (maps) for the famous Tonkotsu Ramen from vending machine. Basically you go up to a vending machine outside the restaurant, punch in your order, receive a ticket based on your order and pay, then wait to get seated in your own personal cubicle to slurp on your ramen. They have many other branch around the city, so you don’t have to eat this in Shibuya.

My Okonomiyaki at Hiroki in Shimokitazawa

My Okonomiyaki at Hiroki in Shimokitazawa

Hiroki (maps) for Okonomiyaki in Shimokitazawa. There are only 8 seats in this hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Try to sit on the counter if you can, this is where you can watch the action as it happens! The chef will cook and mix your Okonomiyaki for you according to order and once done, he would push it to the hot plate area in front of you so the Okonomiyaki stays warm as you eat it off the counter’s hot plate. For each Okonomiyaki, you get to pick soba or udon as the noodle base, then add-on toppings as you want!

There was no english menu, but here are some toppings I can remember off the top of my head. This is how it’s written on the menu (in katakana), how to pronounce them and its translations.
イカ – ika – squid
ホタテ – hotate – scallop
エビ – ebi – shrimp
タコ – tako – octopus
もち – mochi
チーズ – chiizu – cheese
ネギ – negi – spring onion
シソ – shiso – japanese basil
レタス – retasu – lettuce

The lively Ebisu Yokocho

The lively Ebisu Yokocho

Ebisu Yokocho (maps) – This was a random surprise find for me. I was just aimlessly walking around Ebisu when I decided to go into a random building that seemed very unassuming on the outside. Once inside, I was greeted with a lively atmosphere of people eating and drinking in rows upon rows of small restaurants. Sure enough, none of them had english menu, but just put on your brave face and try something new. I randomly chose a modern sushi joint and was able to order with my very limited Japanese. I ended up with a plate of beef and mushroom sushi… which is interesting as that’s not what you’d normally expect from a sushi.

Itinerary 3: Akihabara, Ueno Park and Asakusa

As a first time Tokyo visitor, you have to check out Akihabara for all those outrageous things you’ve heard about Japan – the infamous Maid cafe, cat cafes, electronics, comic books, floors and floors of arcade games, just to name a few. If you go on a Sunday, they close up the street from cars and open it up for pedestrians so you can roam around freely.

Akihabara on a Sunday car-free day

Akihabara on a Sunday car-free day

Video games and cafes at Akihabara

Then once you’re done with Akihabara, you can walk to Ueno Park for an afternoon stroll. If that’s not your thing, then you can head to Asakusa and check out Senso-ji, a famous buddhist temple. There is a cool street in front of this temple too, called Nakamise Shopping Street, which has lots of street food you can try and souvenir stalls. PS: This was where one of my earliest Girl Eat World was taken! Asakusa is a backpacker district so there are lots of cheap food and shopping you can do here. If history is your thing, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is also nearby this area.

Black Sesame Agemanju from Nakamise Street

Black Sesame Agemanju from Nakamise Street

The food street in front of the Asakusa Sensoji Temple

Nakamise Shopping Street in front of the Asakusa Sensoji Temple

I went to a smaller shrine and found a mikoshi!

The small festival around the temple

Where to eat

Beerbal ビアバル NAGAOKAYA (maps) – I actually came across their stall while I was at Fuji Rock through an acquaintance recommendation. Their lamb chops was seriously the best I’ve had. I still dream about it, so I stalked them down and found out that they have a full-blown restaurant / beer garden in Ueno! Please give them a visit and let me know how you like it!

Itinerary 4: Shinjuku

Shinjuku deserves its own itinerary because this area is massive.

A typical sight in Shinjuku

A typical sight in Shinjuku

First, visit Omoide Yokocho. “Omoide” means memory and “Yokocho” is a lane / small alley, so loosely translated you are walking down the memory lane… everything here feels nostalgic of traditional Japan. There are tons of little stalls (izakaya) and while most don’t have english menu, some had pictures. I suggest going with google translate if you plan to know everything you are eating, otherwise just point your fingers and be surprised. They mostly serve small skewered meats but be warned that they aren’t exactly cheap. You can drink beer or whiskey highball here too!

Omoide Yokocho

Me and my new friends at a small izakaya! Juuuust kidding, I was eating alone :P

The result of pointing randomly at pictures

At night, go to the famous Robot Restaurant for dinner, drinks and show. You must purchase the ticket ahead of time or book online. Just go for the show and maybe some drinks – but don’t bother ordering food there. You would be better off eating somewhere else in Shinjuku.

Us + Robots in Shinjuku

Us + Robots in Shinjuku

Where to eat in Shinjuku

Kushiage at Tatsukichi in Shinjuku, Tokyo

One of the deep fried veggies at Tasukichi

Tatsukichi (maps). We went for dinner on a local Tokyo friend recommendation. They were quite packed during dinner so be prepared to wait. It’s an omakase-style restaurant, meaning they will just keep serving you whatever they are cooking until you ask for the bill. Their specialty are kushiage – deep fried vegetable/meat skewers – and although it might seem daunting and unhealthy to eat fried food for a meal, i swear all of them were good, super crispy and not overly oily. With each skewer, the chef will tell you which sauce to use. If I remember correctly, we each spent S$50 after 10-12 skewers and 2 whiskey highballs.

Golden Gai (maps) for some night life. This area was super cool! It was filled with tiny bars with different themes, so you can easily bar hop to your heart’s content. Keep in mind the last train in Tokyo is just before midnight so you have to make it or else you will have to fork out some cash for taxi.

Looking for more? There are so much to eat and drink in Shinjuku! Check out my friend Daniel’s Shinjuku eating guide.

Itinerary 5: Tsukiji Fish Market and Ginza

If you are a foodie like me, visiting Tsukiji Market for a sushi breakfast is a must. It does involve waking up at crack of dawn early and getting there by 6AM, but it’s worth it! If you want to visit the Tuna Auction, you have to come earlier (5AM or earlier) and apply for a spot once you get there as it is limited to 120 people per day. Take note that the market is closed on public holidays and Sundays, so make sure to check their calendar before you go. I tried to go during one of their public holiday and had to come back the next day. They are also scheduled to move to a new area some time in 2018, so do double-check their location.

Tsukiji Market after the crazy morning bustle

16-piece sushi for breakfast? Why not!

16-piece sushi for breakfast? Why not! For the record, I finished them all by myself

I recommend to first check out the sushi stalls and have breakfast there, since the market itself is off limits until 10AM. The market is extremely busy during the morning as the fishermen are rushing to sell their catch of the day and buyers are rushing to get the best ingredients, so don’t be surprised if you get yelled at for obstructing their way. In terms of where to get your sushi, I know some blogs would recommend one sushi stall over another, but if you’re like me and didn’t want to queue then just pick a random stall with the shortest queue. I did exactly this and it turned out just fine. You can either order a sushi set or do an omakase set, where the chef will serve you whatever sushi they can make with the day’s ingredients.

After your sushi breakfast, you can then go to into the market to see what’s on offer and perhaps eat even more! There is also an outer market area you can visit for some more street food. Once done with the market, you can walk back to the direction of the train station and walk around Ginza for the high end shopping and to visit the Imperial Castle which is also nearby.

Other Places worth visiting

Onigiri at any Konbini

Rows of neatly stacked Onigiri - my personal heaven

Rows of neatly stacked Onigiri – my personal heaven

Convenience stores (called “Konbini” in Japanese) are an integral part of Japanese cities. The Konbinis that can be commonly found in Japan are Family Mart (Famima for short), Lawsons and 7/11. My fondest memory of Japan has always been going into a konbini first thing in the morning to see what Onigiri they have that day. Onigiri is this triangle shaped rice wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with various fillings, perfect to eat as a snack on the go. My personal favorite is the salmon onigiri!

Midori Sushi at Umegaoka

Loooooooong tailed sushi at Midori sushi

Eating sushi while you are in Japan is undeniably a must-do. While staying at an airbnb apartment in Tokyo, I got to know one of my roommates, a Japanese guy who kindly offered to drive me to his favorite local sushi joint. It’s called Midori Sushi – they are famous for being affordable yet offering high quality food. They have a few branch in Tokyo, but the original one is at Umegaoka and located in a very local residential area. They are famous for shaping their nigiri such that the meat topping forms this very long “tail”, much longer than normal.

Studio Ghibli

Any Japanese anime fan must make a visit to Studio Ghibli. Yours truly included, of course. The studio is located it Mitaka – not too far away from Shibuya. At the studio, you can see their early sketches, watch a short animation and buy some Ghibli merchandise. It’s a bit small though, so I would say this is doable for a half day trip. To visit the studio, it used to be have to buy tickets a few days in advance at Lawsons, all in japanese. However, nowadays you can book them online or even purchase them outside of Japan! Click here for ticket informations.

Shop at Japan’s variety stores

I love shopping for random goods while in Japan, especially for home goods. In my recent trip, I discovered LOFT at Shibuya and I was just blown away by the sheer amount of shopping you can do there! They sell everything and anything, from home goods, kitchen wares, stationeries and clothing. Another similar shop is Tokyu Hands.

I also love checking out eclectic discount stores like Don Quijote and Daiso, guaranteeed to be fun and easy on your wallet. Living in Singapore, we have a lot of Daiso stores around but not Don Quijote, also known as Donki to Japanese people. They also have everything from home goods to make up and groceries.

… And even more places to visit!

Alright, that was super long. If you end up doing any of my itinerary, please comment below and let me know how it was! Also, if there is any information you want to know about Tokyo, let me know in comments below and i’ll try to answer them. I want your first visit to Tokyo to be as magical as possible :D I love Tokyo.

12 Comments

  1. Pingback: Top Things To See In Tokyo, Japan | Serena's Lenses

  2. Pingback: Beginner’s Guide on How to Plan a Trip to Japan | Serena's Lenses

  3. Bless you, I swear. Thanks for this! If I ever blog about my Japan experience next year I’ll definitely credit your for a few of these things.

    Like

  4. I agree with you that Tokyo is very safe for solo travelers. I was there alone and I enjoyed it. 3 days in Tokyo isn’t enough *sigh*

    Like

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