Tokyo is such an amazing and dynamic city that has so many fun spots to explore. We were recently in Tokyo for three days and three nights and because it was my first time in Japan, I wanted to maximize our time and get to see all of the highlights and bucket list types of activities. (Note: There will be a separate blog post dedicated to everything we ate in Japan, so be sure to check back if you’re a foodie).
In terms with coming up with this itinerary, I literally spent months figuring out what we wanted to tackle, getting recommendations from friends and then mapping them by area so that we could see everything in one area/ward of Tokyo before moving onto another. This is a comprehensive 3-day guide to Tokyo, with all the must-sees. If you are only going for one or two days, stick to the first or first and second day of the guide we put forth.
We should note that we took the subway nearly everywhere during the day, which helped us get around faster and much cheaper than taxi. It is relatively easy to follow as a foreigner and we suggest that you take the subway as much as possible as well. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku, which we wrote about here.
We took a redeye from New York to Tokyo, so by the time we got to our hotel and checked in, it was around 5pm. It was tempting to climb into bed and call it a night, since it was about 4am back at home and we barely slept on the flight, but luckily we had come up with a plan to combat any signs of jet lag. Months before getting to Japan, we booked tickets for the Robot Restaurant show, which is such a unique, Japanese experience. We had a 9:30pm reservation, so we dropped off our things at the hotel, changed and had a quick dinner near the Robot Show.
It’s impossible to accurately describe the Robot Show, but it should be a must-do. It is one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite things to do in Tokyo. Skip the food there and eat before you go. Essentially it is a light show with actors and robots and other very Japanese influences that is extremely entertaining and makes for some amazing Instagrams. Book it in advance online, and we do suggest booking it the night you land to force yourself to go out and get yourself into the right sleeping schedule. We were in bed by midnight that night and slept a good 7 hours which set us up for the rest of the trip.
Day 1: Shibuya, Shinjuku & Harajuku
Tokyo is broken into 23 different wards and some are iconic. One our first day, we tackled three of the most famous areas for sightseeing, all by subway. We started in Shibuya, where we walked across the world’s busiest intersection, called the Shibuya Crossing. The best way to watch the crowds rush through the crosswalk is from he top floor of the Starbucks in the intersection.
After we checked that off of our list, we headed to Yoyogi Park, or Tokyo’s answer to Central Park. This park is massive and really serene for being in the middle of a thriving city. We timed our trip right because all of the leaves on the trees were brilliant shared of red and orange and yellow. Walking through the park we headed to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, which is a massive shrine in the middle of the woods dedicated to Japan’s former emperor Meiji and his wife. The shrine is a must-see and we loved that local families were visiting it with their children dressed up in traditional Japanese silk outfits. After spending about 45 minutes at the shrine, we used Google maps to walk over to Harajuku.
Once we got to the Harajuku area, we were able to tackle a bunch of different things on our itinerary. First, we stopped by the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando mall, a detour that will take a total of 10 minutes, but worth it. Here, at the top of the first elevator bank, is a wacky mirror that reflects onto the street in every which way and makes for some fun Instagrams (see the photo I took above).
From here, we walked to Takeshita Street which is at the heart of Harajuku and one of my favorite bits of the day. This bustling, very crowded street is lined with clothing shops, restaurants, candy stores and other very Japanese types of stores. You can spend hours exploring Takeshita Street. Here are our favorite things we did while there.
If you go down this street, you must go to the insane photo booth shop that is called Purikura. Bring cash and have some fun in the crazy number of photo booths that will change your features, such as widening your eyes, slimming your face and giving you an airbrushed look. It makes for a fun and uniquely Japanese souvenir.
There are a number of really cool sweet shops on Takeshita Street. The one I had been looking forward to for weeks in advance is called Totti Candy Factory, which is known for their giant, ombre cotton candy. Each color has a different flavor and it is insanely cute.
From here, we headed back to the hotel in Shinjuku but went to an insane discount store that is around Japan called Don Quixote, which has floors upon floors of goods. I bought tons of cheap paper face masks there, which was awesome.
That night, we had our much-anticipated dinner reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro, which we will fully chronicle in our food blog post to come. In the meantime, if you want to take a look at how we were able to miraculously get a reservation at Jiro, read this blog post here.
After dinner, we went to a district in Shinjuku called Golden Gai which is an absolute must for a night out in Japan. This area has hundreds of tiny, little bars each with their own theme of sorts inside. They are super intimate and have tons of character and make for an epic night of bar hopping in tiny alleyways. Our favorite bars in Golden Gai were Albatross, pictured above, which has a chandelier hanging outside of it and has chandeliers and candelabras all over the inside and eclectic touches throughout. Their cocktails are amazing and I really loved the vibe and decor. Then, we found a bar with karaoke called Champion Bar which we did with a bunch of locals, which was so fun. We ended the night at Bar Bali, which became this giant party that included belting out Backstreet Boys songs with other travelers and an impromptu Japanese former rockstar. It was a completely epic night and probably the one we talk about most about the trip.
Day 2: Tsukiji Fish Market, Ginza, Ramen Street
The next day was an early start because we traveled about 45 minutes by train to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, which was one of my bucket list items on the trip. It is the oldest and biggest fish market in the world and where the sushi purveyors all over Japan come for fresh fish. It is such an amazing place to explore and it’s incredible how much access they give tourists given that we aren’t buying 500-pound tunas and are pretty much just ogling their goods. We didn’t get there early enough to have a chance to witness their famous fish auction (that required getting there at 3 am, no thanks), but we got there for around 9:30 am, which was perfect, because the main hall is open from 10 am until noon, so make sure to go in that window of time.
We walked u and down the aisles, watching as fish mongers broke down giant pieces of fish and looked at the hundreds of varieties of fish on display, some very exotic. It was a really memorable experience and the main floor was super busy with all sorts of workers rushing to and from with different fish. After seeing the goods, be sure to have a traditional sushi breakfast at the restaurants just outside the fish market, which have really fresh sushi at a fraction of the prices you will find around Tokyo. The most famous places near the fish market have really long lines. They are Sushi Dai, Torito and Nakaya. We didn’t have time to wait in line so we went into a random restaurant and had breakfast.
From here, we walked to the Ginza area, which kind of felt like Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue. There are loads of high-end shops and department stores. We stopped into Mitsukoshi, which is one of their oldest and most high-end department stores and explored their food hall in the basement, which could make a good spot for lunch or a snack. But, we were planning on ramen after so we looked and didn’t touch.
From here, we walked dot Tokyo Station for their famous Ramen Street in the underground portion of the train station, This alleyway is home to a number of little ramen shops where you order your ramen dish from a vending machine of sorts. There are some old stalwarts such as Ippudo and Rokurinsha, which typically have extremely long lines. We ended up eating at Soranoiro Nippon, which was really great. It’s an inexpensive but really interesting and filling lunch. Editor’s note: I hadn’t really eaten ramen prior to coming to Japan because it’s heavy on carbs, but am really happy I let myself eat it while there because it was super flavorful and local. Also, it’s a quick meal, so you can get back out and sightsee.
From lunch, we took the train to a ward of Tokyo called Akihabara, which is the technology hub of Tokyo. It is firmly stuck in the 1980s with neon lights and towers filled with electronics, gamers, and nerd culture. The shops here are multi-levels and house everything from giant video game arcades to anime and manga shops to sex shops that specialize in nerd culture. The entire area was interesting if not a tiny bit seedy. We also went into a maid cafe, which was a strange experience.
That night, we had dinner at a tonkatsu restaurant which is a Japanese pork cutlet. It was called Kimukatsu and we had all sorts of pork cutlets and sake. After, we went out for drinks with a friend in town at a place in Shibuya called DJ Bar Bridge and then spent the rest of the night doing more karaoke.
The next day we got up, bought souvenirs and had a decadent lunch at the Park Hyatt’s restaurant called Kozue which has the most amazing views of Tokyo before hopping on a train to Kyoto.
Some practical tips for Tokyo: Be sure to always have Japanese yen, because many places are cash only. Subway is the best way to get around.
Check back later this week for more travel guides in Asia!