A Quick Tokyo Travel Guide

Of all the places I’ve travelled to, I think Tokyo would hands down win the award for being the coolest city ever! It’s a world onto itself, and it’s almost as if the past, present and the future have found a way to co-exist right beside each other in this mad, mad city. In April last year, at about the fag end of the cherry blossoms season, I was in Tokyo for a work trip, and was lucky enough to get a weekend to explore the city. I made the most of the situation and used every moment of that weekend to the fullest. The weekend was a whirlwind, in the best possible way. I saw so much, that I wasn’t quite sure if my brain was truly absorbing all the moments. And Tokyo is H-U-G-E! There is so much to see and do that a weekend really does no justice to the city. But then again, you make the best of what you have, right?
I was staying in the Ginza area (closer to where most of my work meetings were, but I think Shibuya / Shinjuku are a lot more tourist friendly) and after getting over how tiny (yet fully functional) my room was, I took off to find myself a Tokyo guidebook. Here’s the thing – despite knowing that I would have a little less than 2 full days to explore Tokyo, I landed at Narita Airport on Saturday morning woefully unprepared. I mean, I hadn’t even checked how to get to my hotel from the airport. Except for the one pointer to not take a taxi, I knew absolutely NOTHING. Work had been brutal for a few weeks before I was about to travel and I had no downtime to check anything, including the weather. Anyway, now I know better. It took me a couple of hours to get my bearings in place. And after that, I was OFF! By the end of Sunday evening, I think I could hear my feet screaming “no more, no more”. I legit could not have walked / explored any more in those two days than what I did. I’ve put together this mini Tokyo travel guide for you, if you find yourself spending a few days in this crazy, lively, beautiful city.

THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN TOKYO

1| TSUKIJI AND TOYOSU FISH MARKET

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo
Most guide books would probably count this under the top 5 things to do in Tokyo. And I don’t think that’s a misguided sentiment. The world-famous Tsukiji fish market is one of the largest wholesale markets in the world, and the daily fish auctions (which are a sight to see!) that take place before sunrise have a bearing on sushi supply across the world. UPDATE (Jan 2020): In 2018, the tuna auctions and the wholesale market moved to nearby Toyosu market, and it is supposed to be spread across an even larger space. The outer market in Tsukiji with all the sushi restaurants and seafood shops continues to run, and even just for that it would be a worthwhile visit. The sushi for breakfast that I had at Yamazaki Sushi was one of the best ever!

2| MEIJI JINGU

Meiji Jingu - must visit place in Tokyo | #quickguidetoTokyo #tokyodiaries
This was probably my most favourite thing to do/see in Tokyo. Meiji Jingu is shrine a dedication to Emperor Meiji (who ruled Japan during the early 1900s) and his wife, Empress Shoken. He was a revered figure in Japan, and is credited with having brought about the industrial revolution in Japan and transforming it into a world power. I visited on a windy, rainy Sunday morning, and there is something to be said about watching those tall trees that line the pathway to the shrine, swaying in the wind. The shrine, and the grounds surrounding it, are unbelievably serene and you could very well forget that the shrine is actually located only about two minutes away from the extremely busy Harajuku station. The sense of quiet and calm is all pervasive, and the shrine is in so many ways, a wonderful testimony to the culture of Japan. Read my detailed guide to Meiji Jingu here.

3| SHIBUYA SCRAMBLE / EXPLORE SHIBUYA

This is just crazy, crazy, crazy. The Shibuya station crossing is one of the busiest in the world, and at peak hours, thousands of people cross the intersection every time the lights turn red. The sheer number of people is just unbelievable. I did the scramble a bunch of times to just soak in the fun! Places to get a view – Starbucks (it has the best view but almost all the Scramble facing seats are forever occupied), L’occitane Cafe and the walkway between Keio Station (Inokashira Line). Before I went, I read articles which suggested going up to the 25th floor of the Shibuya Excel Hotel, but once there, I was flatly refused from taking a shot. Also, there are some raised flower beds around the crossings. It’s possible to get a good photo / video of the Scramble if you stand on them and hold your arm up high. In front of the Shibuya Station, there is a life-sized statue of a dog – Hachiko, which dates back to 1925. He’s revered as a symbol of loyalty and devotion (even once the dog’s owner died, Hachiko still went to the train station to wait for him to return from work for over 10 years). The area around the Shibuya crossing is also very walkable. Lots of options for shopping (Japanese departmental stores and European/American fast fashion) and people watching.

4| Senso-ji TEMPLE

Sensoji #thingstodointokyo #quickguidetotokyo
Sensoji is an ancient Buddhist temple, and one of the oldest and most significant temples in Tokyo. The original temple was built in the 7th century, which has since then built rebuilt (after World War II when it was destroyed in the air strikes). It is considered to be a symbol of rebirth and peace to the Japanese people. I will be honest about this one – it honestly felt like a bit of a sellout to me. The streets leading up to the temple are lined by small stalls and eateries and it hardly feels like a Zen atmosphere. Being such a tourist hotspot (it’s one of the most visited religious places in the whole world!), I would suggest trying to get there really early in the day to get a true feel for the place.

5| Take in the EVENING views OF THE CITY from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tocho)

Tokyo Night Views | #quickguidetotokyo #thingstodointokyo
This building is in Shinjuku, and one of the best places in Tokyo to get a bird’s eye view of the whole city. I had a bit of a struggle in finding the entrance. After wandering around the building for a good 15 minutes, I finally figured out that the entrance of the building was from the basement. It was almost dusk by the time I went up to the observation towers on the 45th floor. It was a somewhat clear day and I could barely make out Mt Fuji in the distance. I stayed on till the lights came on all over Tokyo and spent some time marvelling at the vastness of the city from up above. It did make for a gorgeous sight!

6| EXPLORE NIGHTLIFE IN SHINJUKU

Shinjuku
The neon light drenched streets of Shinjuku are kind of the quintessential shots of Tokyo that you see in magazines and movies. I didn’t end up going into the Robot Restaurant (I was really tired by that time and didn’t feel like spending all that money for a 90-minute long show), but I’ve heard it’s just completely whacked out and I’m sure it would be a fun experience. Also, Golden Gai. Basically the hippest, coolest watering hole in Tokyo.

7| UENO PARK

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo #thingstodointokyo #quickguidetotokyo
This is one of the best places in Tokyo for hanami (cherry blossom viewing), so if you’re visiting during cherry blossom season, it should be on your must-visit list. Even otherwise, it’s a rather large park with enough places to sit and relax, and you can even try boating in the swan boats on the lake. Ueno Park is a popular picnic spot with locals, especially during the weekends.

8| VISIT YANAKA GINZA TO GET A SLICE OF OLD-STYLE TOKYO

Yanaka Ginza - Tokyo Travel Guide
One of my favourite places in Tokyo. It’s a bit of a walk from Ueno Park (about 30 minutes or so), but I was so glad that I made the effort. This felt like a completely different part of Tokyo. Far removed from the towering glass buildings and big digital screens that we typically associate with modern Tokyo, this had a rather old town ambience. Yanaka Ginza is a mostly local, residential area and I spent some time wandering around the streets and enjoying the relaxed, laid back vibe. You shouldn’t miss Yanaka Ginza while you’re there. It’s the perfect street to pick up (mostly) handmade Japanese souvenirs. I picked up some pretty crockery as well as a couple of small wooden figurines.

9| ROPPONGI HILLS

Tokyo at night | #thingstodoinTokyo #quickguidetotokyo
This is probably the most racially diverse area in Tokyo that I’d seen. It seemed like a melting pot of people from all over the world. There are plenty of cafes around the area, and lots of public art installations too. The Mori Art Museum (which is open till late) is also worth a visit. And the views from the Tokyo City View observation deck (on the 54th floor of the Mori Tower) is one of the best in the city. When I visited the city, I didn’t quite know about Roppongi’s history of hostess bars (something I came to know about when I read People Who Eat Darkness). That’s not to say that I had felt unsafe while I was there, but I will admit – the vibe was certainly different from any of the other places that I had been to in Tokyo.

OTHER FUN THINGS TO DO IN TOKYO

CHECK OUT THE DEPACHIKAS

Nearly all the large department stores have massive food stores in their basement floors (known as depachika). The depachikas offer a stunning variety of food stuff (from fresh fruits and vegetables to all sorts of meats, cooked food, salads, breads, cheeses, desserts (oh, the desserts!!!!) – really, just about everything you can imagine!) and are usually positioned very close to the train stations. If you’re banking on these depachikas for your meals, please note that they usually shut by 8/8.30pm. I rarely found any of them open post 9pm.

SHOP AT ITOYA FOR ALL THINGS STATIONERY

Itoya is one of the oldest stores in Tokyo (though a revamped version was opened in the Ginza district in 2015). The Ginza store is a massive 6-storied shop, dedicated to all things stationery and if you’re anything like me, you will struggle to say no to the endless displays of cute stationery.

HAVE RAMEN FROM A VENDING MACHINE AT TOKYO RAMEN STREET

Tokyo Ramen Street - Tokyo Station | #quickguidetotokyo
This is an assortment of eight ramen stores (reportedly the best ramen shops in Japan) that were specially selected to open outlets in a dedicated area underneath the Tokyo station. It’s rather confusing to get there – you’ll need to get to the Yaesu exit and then get down to the basement level and find an area marked as First Avenue Tokyo Station and then try to find this small stretch. I wish I could give you more specific directions though. Anyway, there is a vending machine outside each shop, with an image of the dish and some extras. You punch in your choice and put the cash in the designated slot (most places charge around Â¥1,000-1,200 for a large bowl of ramen), and then hand over the tiny slip that comes out to the server. It was a bit like rolling the dice and hoping for the best. Thankfully, the one I selected was great, without any exotic meats or the like. This whole “vending machine” thing was a fun experience, though honestly, if you have dietary restrictions, it could get difficult to choose based only on images of the food.

AMBLE ALONG TAKESHITA DORI FOR COSPLAY PEOPLE WATCHING, CREPES AND STREET SHOPPING

Crepes in Tokyo | #quickguidetotokyo
Takeshita Dori is one crazy street. It’s an extremely popular spot for Japanese teenagers, with many of them wearing all sorts of costumes and makeup (referred to as “cosplay” locally). There are many small, local shops lining this pedestrian street, so if you would like to indulge in some cheap shopping thrills, this is the place for you! There is also a large Daiso store on the street which sells everything for a 100 yen (with taxes etc. it comes to about 110 yen – still super cheap!). You’ll find everything at Daiso – kitchenware, home decor, stationery, storage solutions, party supplies, garden supplies – really, everything. And then there’s the crepes. I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me, but crepe stores (trucks, really) are a thing in Tokyo. I spotted so many of them during my stay, and there are plenty at Takeshita Dori too. Many of them are decades old, and in the case of Marion Crepes, where I picked up some strawberry and crème crepes, the store was over 50 years old.

EAT AT A CONVEYOR BELT SUSHI RESTAURANT

This was the fun-est sushi experience ever. I stumbled upon Genki Sushi while I was walking around Shibuya after doing the Shibuya Scramble. It’s very moderately priced and was my first experience with conveyor belt sushi. They have menus in English and the food was delicious. What’s there to complain about cheap, good food that has the additional thrill of being delivered on a conveyor belt!!!

THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Matcha Icecream
Do not take a taxi from the airport to the city. It’s crazy expensive! Roadside vending machines in Tokyo sell just about everything – from cold drinks to cigarettes to beer. Eating while walking is not a culturally acceptable thing. Be prepared for strange looks if you end up doing this (I am talking from experience here!). The Japanese are extremely courteous and nice. Even when they didn’t know English, they went out of their way to help me get on the correct bus more than once. Tipping is not customary, and definitely not the done thing in taxis. It might even be refused in some restaurants as well.
I would love to go back to the country to visit cities beyond Tokyo and experience more of the traditional side of Japan. Also, I think it’s an incredible place to visit with friends and family. Though if you’re a vegetarian, I would say you’d need to do a lot of research as far as restaurants are concerned. Speaking of restaurants, the next time I travel to Japan, I’m definitely going to be better prepared and have some reservations at one of the many famed sushi / tempura restaurants down pat. Japan has a crazy number of Michelin starred restaurants and I would love to have a taste of that someday. I think I barely scratched the surface of all that Tokyo has to offer, and that’s probably a good thing, because I cannot wait to visit this crazy, cool, and chaotic city again! Is Tokyo / Japan on your travel bucket list? Have you been to Tokyo yet? What else would you add to this Tokyo travel guide? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!
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