Tokyo was, in some ways, exactly as I’d imagined—the bright lights, the fast trains, the sensory overload. In other ways, it completely surprised me with its charming neighborhoods and hilly backstreets. I’m a total sucker for charming neighborhoods after all. Must be the NYC in me.
My best Tokyo travel tip is to bring some comfortable walking shoes and simply get lost. It’s a massive city, so you won’t cover it all by foot, but you’ll never find yourself too far away from a subway line or places to eat if you get tired or hungry. After all, hitting the ground with your own two feet is the best way to explore!
This is part 2 of my Japan series. Read more here:
Slow Travel Japan: Two Weeks in Tokyo, Izu and Kyoto
Traditional Japanese Onsen Ryokan for First Timers
3 Days in Kyoto: What I’d Do Differently
Discovering Shuzenji: A Hidden Gem on Japan’s Izu Peninsula
Make the Most of Your Tokyo Trip
Meet the Discover Journal, a travel journal with prompts that cultivate self-discovery and mindfulness while documenting your memories in a quick and meaningful way.
Many tourists choose to use a JR pass in Tokyo, which grants you access to the JR Yamanote line as well as the JR trains and bullet trains outside of the city. The Yamanote line circles the city, which is great for covering a lot of ground. However, we found that using the metro was actually more convenient for roaming. We got JR passes but only used them once we left Tokyo. Get more information on JR passes here.
Where to stay
We stayed in an Airbnb in Ginza. Airbnb is still somewhat new in Japan, but our experience was fantastic. Our host gave us such detailed and specific information that it was super easy to find the place and get acquainted. I love using Airbnb and Tokyo proved to be no different.
Ginza is known for its high-end shopping and dining, and even though that’s not really our style, we liked staying there. It’s easy to get to from pretty much anywhere in the city, it was super quiet at night (at least it was in our area), and there’s plenty to do and see if you just want to hang out nearby.
For our final night, we stayed at Hotel Unizu in Shibuya and loved our stay there as well. The location is in the heart of all the big-city action, but the hotel is tucked slightly away so it didn’t feel overwhelming.
7 day Tokyo itinerary
Day 1: Getting settled in Ginza
Day 2: Tsukiji fish market, Asakusa, Akihabara, Yanaka
Day 3: Roppongi, Shibuya, Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku
Day 4: Daikanyama and Shibuya
Day 5: Harajuku, Omotesando, Meiji Shrine, Golden Gai
Day 6: Imperial Palace and Hanami in Ueno Park
Day 7: Aoyama and Karaoke in Shibuya
We arrived in the afternoon after having left our apartment in NYC about 20 hours prior. Exhausted and giddy we checked into our Airbnb and hit the streets of Ginza, our home base for the week.
We had our first meal, ramen, from a local place under the train tracks filled with businessmen. There was no English menu, so we selected the dish that seemed to be the most popular by the size of the photo on the ticket machine and just went for it.
Considering that I’m not the biggest fan of Japanese cuisine in the first place (gasp, I know, I know…) this was a big gamble and I have to admit, it was NOT my cup of tea…or noodles, if you will.
Even though my first meal in Japan was a bit too much for me, I’m still glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried something new. That’s what travel is all about, no? (And don’t worry, there were amazing meals too.)
After dinner, we stopped by Family Mart to pick up waters and snacks and had a grand ole time checking out the fascinating world that is Japanese convenience stores.
To officially start our trip, we spent the day exploring and learning with Backstreet Guides. Even though I’m not a huge fan of tours, I do like to take a small-group walking tour at the beginning of a trip to get an overview of the city and an idea of what I’d like to explore further or skip. Plus it’s nice to be able to chat with the tour guide and get local tips. I look for tours that cap at 10 people for the best experience.
But first, coffee.
I love going to independent coffee shops when I’m abroad because I think they’re great places to get a glimpse of local life. I also like good coffee.
On this day, we got our caffeine fix at Turret Coffee, a teeny-tiny one-man shop in Chua with amazing coffee.
Next, we met up with our guide for an 8-hour walking tour. Good thing we had that coffee. 😉
Here are the highlights:
Tsukiji fish market
Crowded, lots of tourists, wacky foods, totally worth it. We walked through the outer and inner markets and I ate my first sushi ever here. Yep, first ever. Now I’ll never be able to eat it anywhere else!
We explored the beautiful—yet utterly packed to the brim with tourists—Sensō-ji temple. Our guide taught us how to properly enter and exit a temple, how to cleanse ourselves by washing our hands and mouth, and how to waft incense smoke over our bodies to bring good fortune.
We got a glimpse of the “geek” heaven of Tokyo, popping into insane electronics, manga, and figurine stores. This is a place where the word “obsession” doesn’t even start to describe it.
One of the best places to see cherry blossoms, Yanaka was quite special. The area was spared during WWII bombing, so it still has its original character. We explored a zen garden, a Buddhist cemetery, and wandered the charming neighborhood.
We had a food tour planned in Shinjuku in the evening, so we set out from Ginza in the morning with an idea of what neighborhoods we wanted to see and possible things to do but no set agenda until we wound up in Shinjuku.
The day led us through Roppongi, where we narrowly avoided a stumbling drunk guy still trying to make it home at 10 am. (We soon learned that we’d be seeing a lot of this level of inebriation in Tokyo.)
We wandered to the upscale Roppongi Hills and through business districts bustling with salarymen.
We admired the endless cherry blossoms, walked past an owl for sale in a pet store (yes, an owl), and stopped frequently to check out what was for sale in those crazy vending machines. In Japan, this should be considered its own tourist activity, if you ask me.
Finally, we found our way to Shibuya, the busy, buzzing area that you think of when you think of Tokyo.
Dodging our way through streams of people, we wandered down a nondescript side street that led us to Los Barbados, a small, eight-seater restaurant run by one man serving African vegetarian food to Japanese locals to the beat of calypso music. It might not have been Japanese food, but the experience felt amazingly authentic!
Afterward, we walked off our lunches in Yoyogi park and enjoyed “hanami.” Hanami means “cherry blossom viewing,” which really means families and friends hang out under the trees spending quality time together, eating, and drinking booze.
Leaving the park we wandered through quiet, residential streets in Harajuku (away from the madness of Takeshita St.) until we hit Shinjuku, the busy, intense, and somewhat seedy ward. Shinjuku is home to the busiest railway station in the world, so prepare for madness.
After meeting our guide from Arigato Japan and two other visitors, we set off on our food tour. It was great to have a local who speaks English take us to restaurants that would’ve been really difficult to navigate on our own.
The evening started with yakiniku (grilling your own meat at the table), followed by a homestyle restaurant serving homemade miso and vegetables, dumplings, and nikumaki onigiri (rice balls wrapped in pork).
The night ended in Golden Gai, an area consisting of a few blocks of super small, ramshackle bars still reminiscent of the postwar era. These bars get packed fast; many have room for only four or five guests! Some of the bars are for regulars only, so if there’s no English posted outside, or the place looks closed, it might be best to try another.
Wanting to take it a bit slower today, we started with a little supermarket shopping. Going to the grocery store is actually one of my favorite things to do in a new country. So many unique foods and curious packaging! After picking up a few items, we spent the morning wandering the upscale, LA-esque area of Daikanyama.
Back in Shibuya, we found ourselves, much to my excitement, in a purikura parlor. Popular with school girls, purikura takes your typical photo booth experience to a whole new level.
After taking the photo, you photoshop yourself into the most kawaii (cute) version of yourself and decorate it with hearts and animal faces and anything else you can imagine. My boyfriend and I got some weird looks being the only people over 15 in that place, but it was totally worth it.
We spent the rest of the day wandering through Shibuya, finding ourselves lost in Hyakkendana among the love hotels, and indulging in Japan’s burgeoning craft beer scene at Goodbeer Faucets.
Tip: Men aren’t allowed to go into purikura places alone. So if you’re a dude who wants to take silly, kawaii photos of yourself, grab a lady friend to go with.
After brunch in Ginza, we made our way to Harajuku’s Takeshita Street, the place for Tokyo’s subculture fashion scene…and subsequently, tons of tourists.
The insane crowds became overwhelming in about two minutes, so we popped into Harajuku Gyoza for dumplings.
Turns out we got lucky because there was only one person in line in front of us. We walked by again on our last day in Japan and the line went for blocks.
Tip: The gyoza was good, but not that good. I wouldn’t wait more than 20-30 minutes tops.
All gyoza-ed out, we made our way to Mocha Cat Cafe and escaped into a world of the cutest cats I’ve ever seen.
Post kitty hour, we found ourselves in one of my favorite neighborhoods during the trip, Omotesando. I’d heard of Omotesando Koffee while doing research and knew I wanted to stop there. We didn’t quite make it, though, because we found Urasando Garden instead, tucked away in a quiet back alley.
Refreshed after green tea everything, we headed back to Yoyogi Park and made our way to Meiji Shrine just in time to wander the grounds before closing time.
Ready for a drink, we started out toward Shinjuku, finding our way through the quieter side of Harajuku, passing funky boutiques, hair salons, and design studios along the way.
We decided to give Golden Gai a second try and ended up at Albatross, a funky, chandelier-laden bar that was a little too expensive and the tourist-to-local ratio a little too high to stay for more than a couple drinks. Don’t be fooled by Golden Gai’s sketchy looks, it’s known to be one of the most expensive places to drink in Tokyo.
Ready to jump back on the ramen train, we stopped at Kamukura, an Osaka-based chain. The ramen was tasty and the price was good. The verdict? More, please!
We planned to visit the Imperial Garden this morning but it was closed. (Don’t go on a Monday.) So we walked the perimeter instead, admiring the old bridges and Edo era rooftops hedging up against the modern skyline. Oh and cherry blossoms, always cherry blossoms…
Next, we jumped on the metro and headed to Ueno Park. After exploring the temples and surrounding markets we grabbed a couple beers, found a good people-watching spot, and sat under the cherry blossoms to reflect on our trip.
It was pretty rainy for most of our trip, being spring and all. This day it decided to really come down. What to do in Tokyo in the pouring rain? Eat, shop, and sing karaoke!
We’d heard about Cafe Kitsune in Aoyama, a trendy coffee shop by the French / Japanese record label and fashion brand and just had to check it out. In addition to great coffee, I’m also a sucker for beautiful spaces and this place lived up to the hype on both fronts.
After lingering in the coffee shop (and eavesdropping on business meetings) we braved the rain and ventured over to Tokyu Plaza for a little shopping and watching the world go by from above. Head up to the top floor for an open air deck with great views (when it’s not raining ????).
We said goodbye to Harajuku and headed back to Shibuya in search of karaoke. If you aren’t familiar with Japanese karaoke parlors, you sing in private rooms, not in front of a crowd. So we spent the rainy Tuesday afternoon singing karaoke with a couple beers. Not bad for a weekday! Many karaoke places are open 24/7, so just pop into one and get your song on.
For a great matcha latte or coffee in Shibuya, seek out the uber tiny Tsukuyomi Coffee near Shibuya station. It’s tucked away and below ground level, so keep your eyes peeled. You won’t be sorry!
Closing in on our last day in Tokyo, and still dodging the rain, we made our way to Lumine, a trendy shopping mall with endless dining options inside. I know what you’re thinking. A mall food court, really? Turns out that depachikas, department store basements, are known to be subterranean food meccas. Who knew?!
In fact, everything in Tokyo seems to have multiple layers. The more I explored, the more I realized that I’d barely scratched the surface. That’s the beauty of it. See the sites, but make sure to carve out plenty of time for wandering and ducking into random places. You never know what secrets they might hold.
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