Tokyo is the city of the future, always trying to stay ahead of other cities in the world – a heavy dose of hyper modern, both vibrant and unique, yet mixed with an undercurrent of the classic and traditional, and suffused with history. It remains one of the largest cities on the globe and is still expanding constantly, with a great hunger for improvement and change. A buzzing metropolis with millions of people, buildings that touch the clouds and cafes where you can enjoy your cake seated next to an owl. Tokyo is a city you will want to visit again and again. It will never cease to amaze you.
Guest post by Vanessa Hofmann
Blog: Wanderlust Plus One
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT TOKYO?
Tokyo is famous for its cherry blossom season, “Hanami”, which is in full swing between March/April. Bring your blanket, some food and drink and find yourself a spot in one of the many parks under the blossoms.
Most people avoid June/July because of the rainy season, and in August the heat and humidity can make a visit unbearable for many.
In September/October, the summer heat might still be lingering around, but by mid-October the leaves change colours and the trees change their leaves to any colour between yellow, orange and red.
Winter can be quite cold, but there usually is plenty of blue sky and sunshine. The festive lights in December and January make it a special time to visit, and around New Year the temples are overrun with locals.
WHAT’S GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT TOKYO?
Originally called Edo, due to its location on the Sumida River, it was once a small farming village. In 1603, the feudal Tokugawa family established a shogunate (military government) in the swampy land surrounding Edo. The Tokugawa clan grew to govern the whole of Japan and therefore transformed Edo into a bustling city which eventually became the de facto political and economic capital. In 1868, the authority of the emperor was reinstated from the shoguns, and the capital was officially moved from Kyoto to Edo. The city was renamed to Tokyo, meaning eastern capital.
After over 250 years of isolation from foreign influence, Tokyo suddenly started welcoming foreigners again. Even the great Kanto earthquake in 1923 could not hold back the city’s growth despite being leveled by fires. Surviving more fires in WWII, and after the end of the US occupation, Tokyo quickly took hold of industrial modernization. A soaring economic growth followed the Olympic year of 1964, peaking in the 1980’s. After the burst of the “bubble” in the 90’s, Tokyo failed to hold its ground globally amid recession, but it never ceased to reinvent itself and still holds significant influence over technology, design and fashion today.
One day in Tokyo Itinerary
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do during your one day in Tokyo.
Early start at the Tsukiji Fishmarket
Try to get there early, 6 in the morning or earlier is the best time to get lost in the maze of the Tsukiji Fishmarket. The market, as it stands today, started operating in 1935 as a wholesale market for mainly fish, but also fruit and vegetables. Walking through the little alleys, past the stalls and vendors, you can find almost anything that swims in the sea. Some of the animals are actually still alive, and the market is a monument to Japan’s love for fish and sushi. Tsukiji is the mother of all fish markets and should be a must visit. Beware of the electric carts called turrets that buzz the narrow passages! It is open Monday to Saturday except holidays.
Tokyo’s Kitchen – Japanese style breakfast at Tsukiji
Walk back out of the market and head left to Shin-Ohashi Dori. The next block is lined with stand eateries and food shacks, serving anything from sushi, sashimi to ramen. Choose any of the stands that take your fancy and order a la carte or, if you cannot read the Japanese writing, order off the picture menus. If having sushi for breakfast is not your thing, try Turret Coffee, opposite Tsukiji metro station, as it serves the best coffee in the area.
Hama- Rikyu Teien – the Detached Palace Gardens
Head south-west to take a stroll through this beautiful garden away from the frantic bustle of the fish market. Hamarikyu Teien dates back to 1654 when it belonged to generations of shoguns. The imperial family gave the garden to the City of Tokyo in 1945, and it has since been open to the public. It features the only seawater pond in Tokyo, a 300 year old pine tree and flower fields which are a sea of yellow in spring because of the rape flowers and in autumn the cosmos make it a colourful scene with the skyscrapers of Shiodome in the background.
Open from 9:00 to 17:00 (entry until 16:30)
Closed: Year-end holidays (December 29 to January 1)
Ginza – shopping at the oldest and most prestigious department stores
Return north a few blocks and find your way to Ginza’s Chuo Dori via many elevated walking paths past the skyscrapers of Shiodome and the famous Nakagin Capsule tower, which is a rare example of Japanese Metabolism architecture and houses 140 prefabricated capsules which function as living or work spaces.
Once you arrive at Chuo Dori, immerse yourself in the Hakuhinkan Toy Park, one of the largest toy stores in the world. A 5-story heaven filled with toys and souvenirs. Look at some of the crazy gadgets that are only available in Japan and buy a gift for one of your little ones back home. Had enough of toys? Walk along Chou Dori for a dose of retail madness. Ignore the usual international chain stores and head to Wako, Mitsukoshi, Matsuya or Hankyu for a true Japanese shopping experience.
Tokyo Station – the busiest rail terminal in Japan
Once you get to the Tokyo Expressway at the end of Chuo Dori, turn left towards Tokyo station. The building dates back to 1914 and once again shows its brick façade, which was recently renovated and restored to its pre-war condition. Get a platform ticket and watch the shinkansen high speed trains depart every few minutes. These bullet trains show Japanese engineering at its best.
Tokyo Imperial Palace – the residence of the Japanese emperor
Less than 10 minutes’ walk to the west is the Tokyo Imperial Palace and its grounds. The emperor lives here in a residence surrounded by expansive gardens and a moat. Unfortunately, the palace is not open regularly, but it is worth strolling along the moat, past the bridges, while watching the locals and joggers circling the palace ground or speeding past.
Lunch – sample some of the most delicious okonomiyaki at Kiji
At lunchtime, Tokyo offers so many places that it is hard to choose where to go and what to eat. When at Tokyo station, maybe go down to B1 and try some authentic Okonomiyaki at Kiji. These Japanese-style savoury pancakes originate from Osaka and usually you would cook them yourself on a hot plate at your table. Here you choose from an English menu and then get a freshly prepared pancake delivered to your table. Enjoy!
Meji shrine – the largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo
Take the JR Yamanote line and enjoy your ride to Harajuku station. A visit to a shrine is a must when in Japan. Meji-jingu is the largest shrine in Tokyo and boasts the largest Torii gate at its entrance. It is a wonderfully austere and serene place of worship.
At the entrance purify your hands and mouth with water by using a ladle at the “temizuya” cleansing station and then throw some yen into the offering box, bow your head twice and clap your hands twice and then bow again. If you are lucky, you might get to see a traditional Japanese wedding.
Open every day from dawn until dusk.
Harajuku – Takeshita street, the place of kitsch, cool and kawaii
The nearby Takeshita Dori is famous for its “kawaii” culture. Wandering the streets of Harajuku, you will not fail to notice the young girls dressed up in fantasy cute princess clothes or in goth style outfits and the many shops selling clothes for these trendy teenagers. This vibrant street is the birthplace of many fashion trends and a great place to watch the people go by while enjoying a crepe or a bubble tea in one of the many cafes.
Shibuya crossing – the busiest scramble crossing in the world
A short metro ride away is the Shibuya station, exit here and go down to street level where you pass the famous Hachiko dog statue before you get to the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Wait for the green man to come alive and watch 2500 people at a time walk across the intersection. To get a better view, try L’Occitane café.
Now it is time to have some fun. Jump back onto the JR Yamanote line to Shinjuku. Get yourself in the mood with a drink at the bar at Robot Café. The bar seems to have come straight out of the mind of Gianni Versace, all gold, prints and mirrors everywhere. Then make your way down to watch one of the craziest shows you will ever experience. Expect plenty of neon lights, taiko drumming, pretty dancers and giant robots. Book ahead to secure your preferred performance.
Shinkuku – Kabukichō, the entertainment district
Immerse yourself in the crowds of people visiting the largest entertainment district in Japan – Kabukichō. You will not find any obvious red lights here, but a wide array of bars, clubs and restaurants. Admire the lights, sounds and atmosphere. By now you might be hungry, and there is no better place than to have dinner than at Niimura, try Shabu Shabu or Sukiyaki (Japanese hot pot dish with beef and vegetables) with the famous Wagyu (Kobe beef).
Park Hyatt – Nightcap at one of the most famous bars in the World
Have you seen the film Lost In Translation? Not yet? You should. Once you do, you will surely want to end your day at Park Hyatt, the magical place on the 41st floor, and enjoy a cocktail while gazing at the glittering sea of lights below.
WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO?
Kaisu Hostel is a great recommendation due to its great location and design.
For a quick overnight sleep – almost only in Japan – try capsule accommodation, Nine Hours Shinjuku North.
If staying in the city for a few nights, consider Sadachiyo, one of the few remaining traditional ryokans in Tokyo.
Fancy a stay in one of the skyscrapers overlooking the city? Then Park Hotel Shiodome is the perfect place for you.
day trips from tokyo
Tokyo is an incredible city, but Japan is an incredible country, too. Therefore, you would do well to see and explore as much of it as possible if you have the time. Day trips from Tokyo are a great way to do that and there are a lot of choices, as well.
By far the most popular Tokyo day trip is a visit to Mount Fuji. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered a holy place by the Japanese. The mountain’s beauty has inspired countless artists, so you really have to see it to get a real sense of its importance. It is surrounded by several lakes which are also a great place to admire this incredible sight from.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site near Tokyo is Tosho-gu, a Shinto shrine from the 17th century. You can also grab a traditional Japanese lunch nearby. However, Tosho-go is located in Nikko National Park, so you will have a lot more to explore if you opt for this trip. Incredible and peaceful nature will show you why Buddhist and Shinto worshippers used to come here all the time.
A day trip to Kyoto will give you a chance to enjoy Japan’s famous trains (it’s a 2-hour ride) and the incredible nature around you. Kyoto is a city of culture and was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, so you will have loads of things to see. There are hundreds of temples and shrines in the city, but Sanjusangen-do Temple is the place you absolutely must visit because of its thousand statues dedicated to Buddhist gods.
Meet the snow monkeys
This is a bit longer day trip from Tokyo (it takes about three hours to reach the Nagano prefecture), but seeing these unique monkeys will be well worth it. You will find them at Jigokudani Onsen, a beautiful hot spring to which they come in winter to keep themselves warm. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them swimming around and playing. It’s a great place for pictures and a truly magical experience.
If you want some more authentic Japanese culture, head to Kamakura. The city is home to an incredible Great Buddha statue, a symbol of the country. Furthermore, you can visit a tearoom that is 400 years old and try some truly exquisite tea, plus there are so many gardens to relax in. This is a great example of traditional Japan, so don’t miss out on grabbing lunch here, either.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING TOKYO
– Japan is still very much a cash society; therefore it is advisable to have at least some cash in your wallet. The local currency is the Japanese Yen, easily obtained at Japanese post offices, which have international ATMs.
– Tipping in Japan is almost a cultural no go, even in restaurants and taxis.
– Japanese is the main language spoken, and even though the street signs are in English characters and many restaurants have English or picture menus or plastic food in the window, you might find it easiest to rent a local WiFi/4G pocket hotspot and use the Google translate application if you are struggling to communicate or read any signs.
– Japan is one of the safest places in the world and theft is very rare. However, lone woman travellers should probably avoid busy, crowded metro or places.
– Tokyo is a vast metropolis, so getting around can take longer than expected. Taking the metro and walking are the preferable ways to explore the city, however taxis are inexpensive for short rides and cycling is becoming a popular alternative. The metro uses cash rechargeable Suica/Pasmo magnetic ticket cards that can also be used in many vending machines and shops to pay for purchases.
– Get high up to the Mori Tower for some fantastic views of the city.
– For your next adventure in Japan, be sure to check Japan Art Islands
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