Traveling to Tokyo for the first time? Boy oh boy, have I got the goods for you. If you are reading this as a first-timer in Tokyo – I am simultaneously happy and jealous of you. The feeling of visiting Tokyo for the first time is one of my fondest memories of all of my travels, by far.
A bit of backstory: it started innocently enough – my friend Lachlan messaged me today asking for Tokyo recommendations because he will be visiting for the first time. Tokyo is one of my favorite cities in the world so I got way excited and immediately wrote him a novel-length Tokyo itinerary and recommendations. While writing my novel, I realized that… for someone who has been to Tokyo a million times (read: okay, four times since 2014), I’ve never actually written anything about Tokyo on this blog! So I’m on a mission to fix the lack of Tokyo-ness in this blog.
An Introduction to Tokyo
Tokyo is MUCH bigger than you expected
One thing I did not realize is that Tokyo 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 was quickly trumped when I realized just how big this city is. In the end, I allocated 5 days in Tokyo and only 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 on subsequent return visits, I kept discovering new areas of Tokyo. So in short, I recommend setting aside minimum 4 days in Tokyo alone.
Fly in and out through Haneda Airport
Find a flight that flies to/from Haneda (Codename: 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 you are using the bullet train but of course it will cost you more.
Getting connected in Tokyo
Getting a Data SIM Card
I am very lucky that one of our providers StarHub in Singapore has an awesome traveling SIM card called Happy Prepaid, which allows us to roam in various destinations at the same cost as it is 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 every day 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.
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
Again, Tokyo is a massive metropolitan city. It’s worth planning your trip and grouping the days by areas, so that you don’t waste time and energy traveling back and forth. This is the basis of how I’ve structured the itineraries below. 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.
These itineraries are not meant to be done chronologically so you can mix and match your days. 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 by exploring Yoyogi Park. It’s a huge park with a pleasant shaded walk and all of the walking routes 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 the 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.
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 the trendy youngsters 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 from 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!
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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 with 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!)
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.
You can spend some time exploring more of Shibuya. It’s a huge shopping district and you can even say it’s the center 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 the nightlife.
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 check out the nightlife. These are more laid back areas, so it’s probably not the place to go if you want to be around lots of people.
Where to eat
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 branches around the city, so you don’t have to eat this in Shibuya.
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 hiragana and 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 – sticky rice cake
- チーズ – chiizu – cheese
- ネギ – negi – spring onion
- シソ – shiso – japanese basil
- レタス – retasu – lettuce
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 an 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.
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.
Where to eat
Beerbal ビアバル NAGAOKAYA (maps) – I actually came across their stall while I was at Fuji Rock Festival through an acquaintance recommendation. Their lamb chops were 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.
First, visit Omoide Yokocho. “Omoide” means memory and “Yokocho” is a lane / small alley, so loosely translated as 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 any 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!
At night, go to the famous Robot Restaurant for dinner, drinks, and incredibly Japanese 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.
Where to eat in Shinjuku
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 is 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 nightlife. 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 the 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 holidays and had to come back the next day. They are also scheduled to move to a new area sometime in 2018, so do double-check their location.
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 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 visit the Imperial Castle which is also nearby.
Other Places worth visiting
Onigiri at any Konbini
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
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.
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, you used to 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 information.
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, guaranteed 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 makeup and groceries.
… And even more places to visit!
- Top Things to See in Tokyo by my good friend Serena
- The Instagrammer’s guide to cafes in Tokyo by Drea Chong
- Tokyo eats by Daniel Food Diary
Alright, that was super long. If you end up doing any of my itineraries, please comment below and let me know how it went! 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 😀 I love Tokyo.