Japan’s mesmerizing capital city is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s ultra-modern, alluring, dynamic, daunting and sensory overload all at the same time (and I mean this in the best possible way).
It’s also a metropolis of contradictions, where rich traditions harmoniously intersect with cutting-edge and world-leading technologies. This is exactly what I find so intriguing about cities like Tokyo and Shanghai, where ancient temples and shrines often stand adjacent to towering skyscrapers, quiet and time-honored customs are surrounded by flashing neon lights, and pockets of history and well-preserved culture sit alongside modernity and constant innovation.
We spent a total of 3 days in Tokyo and thought that was the perfect amount of time needed. Of course it’s impossible to truly see and experience a sprawling city like Tokyo in a course of 3 days, but given its magnitude and constant commotion, that seemed to be just the right amount of time.
Below is what to see and do in Tokyo. For more detailed information on Japan’s transportation system, purchasing Pocket Wifi, Japan’s glorious toilets, and other important tips and tidbits, please read my extensive Kyoto post.
Stay tuned for an in-depth feature on Japan’s phenomenal food scene soon!
Tsukiji Fish Market
The mother of all food markets, Tsukiji Fish Market is an absolute must on any Tokyo itinerary. From sashimi, to oysters, to dumplings, to everything in between, it’s hard not to sample every morsel of deliciousness as you bounce from vendor to vendor. This market is both a feast for your eyes and your tastebuds; while much of Tokyo is high-tech and flooded with neon lights, Tsukiji is a no-frills culinary haven filled with historic and traditional character.
The market was our first glimpse into the amazingness that is the Japan’s food market scene. Immediately following our 5:30 am flight arrival, we checked into our hotel to drop off our bags and freshen up, and then set off to explore the market.
Unless you are planning on going to the famed tuna auction (starts at 5:25am and there are two sets of 60 people who are allowed to watch the auction–many recommend that you should start lining up at 3:00am, or even earlier), it’s not necessary to arrive super early. In fact, the actual fish market itself doesnt open to tourists until 10am.
Things to know: Tsukiji Market is located near the Ginza neighborhood. The closest train station is the Tsukiji Shijo Station.
In addition to Tsukiji’s countless vendors and stalls, there are a number of sit-down restaurants within the market. You can pretty much expect two things at these restaurants: long crowded lines and phenomenal food.
Some of the best sushi we had during our entire trip.
A delightful city park that’s great to stroll through–especially when seeking a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. We visited in December, so I can only imagine how gorgeous the park is in its spring and summer splendor.
Thing to know: The gardens are about a ten minute walk from the fish market, so meandering through this urban oasis was the perfect way to follow up our time at the market.
One of our favorite districts that we visited in Tokyo, Asakusa is a lively area that is most known for the colorful and ornate Sensoji Temple. This ancient Buddhist temple was founded in 628 and is recognized as one of Tokyo’s oldest temples.
Things to know: Open 24 hours/day and admission is free. The temple is just steps away from the Asakusa train station. Since we came from Hamarikyu Gardens, we arrived by ferry, which is a 45 minute journey with only one stop along the way (about $9.00 one way).
Nakamise, a pedestrian only shopping street that boasts a history of several centuries, leads from the outer gate of the temple and is lined with typical Japanese souvenirs including folding fans, various traditional local snacks, and chopsticks.
The primary residence of the Japanese emperor, this palace is set among multiple gardens and an attractive park-like area. While the lovely surroundings are certainly worth exploring, it’s worth noting that you really can’t get anywhere near the palace–your entrance ticket pretty much only gives you access to the grounds.
If you happen to be visiting on December 23rd (like we did), you’ll be visiting on the emperor’s birthday, so expect long long lines. But don’t worry, you’ll surely make some new friends during your extensive wait. Here’s Bryan with his new best friend for life.
Visitors are encouraged to sign a greeting book where they send their well wishes to the emperor.
Things to know: The palace is about a 10-15 minute walk from the Tokyo Station, admission is free, closed Mondays and Fridays.
Explore Tokyo’s fascinating neighborhoods
Famous for its extreme fashion scene and just plain weird crazy $hit, exploring the Harajuku neighborhood provides an intriguing glimpse into the latest teenage fads and quirky trends.
The heartbeat of Harajuku is Takeshita Street, a pedestrian street lined with chic boutiques, restaurants, and cafes. Expect to be surrounded by lots and lots of people here–which is arguably another part of its allure.
We stayed two of our three nights in the Shibuya neighborhood adjacent to Shibuya Crossing, the famous intersection that is often regarded as the busiest junction in the world. The traffic lights at the crossing change every two minutes and pedestrians cross simultaneously from five directions. What’s so amazing about this scramble crossing is that it’s so incredibly representative of Japan. Even though there are hundreds, and at peak times, even thousands of people simultaneously crossing, it never really seems chaotic. There is a remarkable order to it all–so indicative of Japan’s fascinating culture.
Thing to know: We stayed at Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyo, which was in an excellent location.
Shibuya is an enthralling area that can be visited at any time, but to really soak in all of its palpable energy, experiencing it during the nighttime under the dazzling neon lights really can’t be beat.
Need another reason to visit Shibuya? JBS (Jazz, Blues, Soul) is an awesome and unique cocktail joint where the coolest owner/bartender on the planet pours stiff drinks all while playing music from his extensive vinyl library.
More than 10,000 records fill the floor-to-ceiling shelves that frame this badass place.
SHINJUKU & GOLDEN GAI
We stayed in the Shinjuku district for the last night of our trip at RIHGA Royal Hotel, a nice hotel that is more of an international hotel than it is traditional Japanese–rooms here were the largest of the entire trip, although the hotel wasn’t as centrally located as our other hotels. So, clearly some advantages and disadvantages.
Make sure to spend a night in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district, where more than 270 tiny bars and taverns fill an endless maze of winding alleys and tunnels. While each spot offers a unique vibe and sometimes specialize in one type of alcohol (i.e., sake, soju, etc.), most establishments share one commonality: they are teeny tiny–often having only 4-6 seats.
We saved Golden Gai for the last night of our trip and my karaoke dreams finally came true at Champion’s Bar, one of Golden Gai’s more notorious bars. So worth the wait.
In case you’re wondering which Hill was the karaoke champ, let’s just say that my performance of Blondie’s One Way or Another brought the crowd to its feet (okay, fine, they were already standing since there weren’t seats here, but you get the idea). I was ELECTRIFYING.
T’s version of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire was somewhat of a snoozer if you ask me.
Reminiscent of Times Square, Roppongi is somewhat of a rite of passage when visiting Tokyo. You kind of hate it for its flashy lights, chain restaurants like TGI Friday’s, and those annoying people dressed up in ridiculous outfits trying to lure you into their shops and clubs, but you also feel like you have to see it, even if just once. You can’t help but feel kind of icky surrounded by all of that cheesiness, yet you’re kind of glad you at least visited.
One of the most redeeming aspects of Roppongi? Eating shaved ice at Yelo.
welcome the WEIRD & WONDERFUL
Japan is weird and wonderful all at the same time, and that’s what it makes it so undeniably fascinating. Do your best to soak up all of the uniqueness and craziness that you can possibly can!
Some of the wonderful weirdness that is Japan…
Because who wouldn’t want to live out their favorite childhood video game and go go-carting throughout the streets of Tokyo?
A culture obsessed with animation, cartoons, and childlike “cuteness”. Clearly cuteness is subjective.
Kit Kats come in every flavor under the sun: from sake (not bad, but definitely not that good) to azuki bean to everything in between.
Vending machines are EVERYWHERE. It’s hard to turn around a corner in Tokyo without encountering one. It’s estimated that there are over 5.5 million vending machines nationwide!
Japan take its toilet system VERY seriously. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Japan’s rail system isn’t weird, but it is wonderful. One of the most efficient and cleanest in the world.
Love this “women only” car concept…
It’s important to note that I’m solely being an obnoxious American here. Japan’s air quality is fine!
Tokyo is truly a spectacular spectacle that will surely leave you astounded, captivated, and maybe even a little bit overwhelmed. What can possibly make Tokyo even more incredible than it already is? Exploring it with some of your favorite people.
Dinner at Ren, one of Tokyo’s many Michelin 2-Star restaurants
Meeting up with Cairo, T’s friend of over 20 years who has called Tokyo home for nearly a decade, and his girlfriend.