Tokyo is a city like no other.
It’s incredibly massive and there’s so much to explore from cultural experiences to endless night life. The city has a unique balance between modern technology, city-vibes, and cultural traditions. It’s no wonder why Tokyo is one of the most popular destinations in the world!
If it’s going to be your first time in Tokyo, we want to help.
We’ve been living in this urban metropolis for over 3 years and while there’s still a lot we don’t know, we are excited to be able to guide you and show you what this city has to offer!
Best Time to go
The “best” time for planning a trip to Tokyo may depend on what you’re looking for.
The most popular season to travel to Tokyo is during the sakura and fall foliage season in March, April, October, and November. Big national holidays like New Years, Golden Week(early May), and Obon(mid August) are also popular travel times. During the popular season, air ticket prices peak out and Tokyo can get insanely crowded.
Any months and dates besides the ones mentioned above are considered to be the off-season and aren’t as busy in comparison (but Tokyo is always crowded). For those that would rather go for the lower cost plane tickets and don’t mind missing out on the nicer seasons, the off-season would be the best time to plan your trip.
How Long Should I Spend in Tokyo?
Most people say that 5 is the recommended number of days to spend in Tokyo, but there’s no specific number that we can recommend to everyone.
If you’re planning on traveling around the whole country with the Japan Rail Pass, then we recommend staying anywhere around 2-4 days in Tokyo, which gives you enough time to see most of the major spots of Tokyo and go off to explore the rest of Japan.
If you’re planning on seeing only the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, then 5-7 days can be enough to see and enjoy more of Tokyo.
However, Tokyo is massive and if you really want to get to know the city well, it takes much longer than a week. If you find that Tokyo was a great experience after your trip, we recommend coming back and trying different stuff and more local experiences!
How to Get to Tokyo
There are two main airports in Tokyo: Narita and Haneda.
You can fly into either one to get to Tokyo, but Haneda is slightly closer to the city so unless there’s a big incentive to fly into Narita, we recommend aiming for Haneda.
To get to Tokyo from Narita, you can take the Skyliner Express or if you have the Japan Rail Pass, you can ride on the Narita Express without paying extra. From Haneda, you can get to Tokyo by taking either the Keihin Tohoku Line or the Tokyo Monorail.
Another popular way of traveling Japan is to fly into Osaka and then make your way to Tokyo. To get to Tokyo from Osaka, you can either take the Shinkansen or the highway bus.
Transportation in Tokyo
Trains and subways are the main form of transportation in Tokyo.
Riding the train can often get confusing since there are different companies operating different lines and each require a different train ticket. what?
To make your Tokyo travels much simpler, we highly recommend downloading Google Maps and getting a Suica Card.
Google Maps is extremely useful in Japan and can easily help you find the best route to take. In our opinion, it’s even better than the local app, Navitime.
The Suica Card is the universal transportation card of Japan and can save you a lot of time and confusion. When buying individual tickets for every line, you have to know your destination beforehand and operate a ticket dispenser every time you use a different line. With the Suica Card, you just charge a certain amount and can use the automatic ticket gate to quickly make it in time for the next train.
Tip for iPhone users: If you own an iPhone, connecting the Suica with Apple Pay can be extremely useful. By doing so, you can charge your Suica Card straight from your bank account instead of exchanging money and using cash. The Suica isn’t limited to trains and can also be used for payment in lots of restaurants and convenience stores.
Quick Facts About Trains in Tokyo
- First train starts around 4:00am – 5:00am
- Last train leaves around 12:00am – 1:00am
- Peak train hours are 8:00am – 10:00am in the morning and 6:00pm-8:00pm after work.
- Trains are crowded going into the city in the morning and out of the city at night. (Most people live outside of Tokyo and work in Tokyo).
Recommended: Get a Metro Pass
Public Domain, Link
If you’re exploring Tokyo for a couple days, we highly recommend getting the Metro Pass.
The Metro Pass allows unlimited transportation with the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines, which make up most of the transportation in the central parts of Tokyo.
Even if you have decided to purchase the Japan Rail Pass, the Metro Pass can be a great add-on and a much more cost-effective deal within Tokyo.
If you’re thinking of getting the Japan Rail Pass, we have a guide about that in this post.
Best Area to Stay in Tokyo
For 90% of people traveling to Tokyo, we would recommend accommodation near Shinjuku Station. Shinjuku Station is a very convenient location and by basing yourself here, you can have an extremely easy time getting around.
We say this because there’s so many benefits of staying in Shinjuku compared to staying in other parts of Tokyo.
- Shinjuku has 12 different lines and over 200 exits from the station. Shinjuku is a HUGE transportation hub and you can easily get to any other part of Tokyo from here.
- If you plan on making day trips from Tokyo, then staying in Shinjuku is a must. There’s direct trains to famous spots like Hakone and Yokohama, direct trains to neighboring prefectures, and is home to Tokyo’s biggest bus terminal that provide bus transportation to just about anywhere such as Kusatsu, Fuji 5 Lakes, and much more.
- Lastly, Shinjuku is an area that can be enjoyed by anyone. They have various shopping centers, late night izakaya, and restaurants with just about anything.
For the other 10% of travelers that plan on using the Shinkansen to travel around Japan, we recommend staying near Tokyo Station. By staying close to this station, it lets you take the early Shinkansen and you can have more time to explore other cities.
If you have the Japan Rail Pass, it can be even more beneficial to stay in Tokyo Station and use the Shinkansen to make day trips out to further places. Here are some potential day trip destinations with the JR Pass.
One of the main reasons why we recommend Shinjuku before Tokyo is because of the neighborhood. Tokyo Station tends to cater more for the upscale tourists and businessmen while Shinjuku is more universal and has something for everyone. If you want to enjoy more of the nicer atmosphere, we recommend staying at Tokyo Station!
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Where to Stay Near Shinjuku Station
- Imano Tokyo Hostel – Affordable hostel with wifi, cafe/bar, and both dorm and private room choices.
- Book and Bed Tokyo Shinjuku – Library themed hostel with capsule-like beds hidden in the bookshelves with a cafe and library.
- E Hotel Higashi Shinjuku – Convenience option. Hotel has wifi, 24 hour convenience store, and located less than a minute from Higashi Shinjuku Station.
- APA Hotel Shinjuku Gyoenmae – Standard western style Hotel with a restaurant and a hot spring.
Mid Range Hotels
- Hotel Gracery Shinjuku – Western style hotel located in the heart of Kabukicho, behind the famous Godzilla Statue.
- Shinjuku Granbell Hotel – Hotel with clean interior design and a rooftop bar. Located a couple minutes from Seibu Shinjuku Station.
- Keio Plaza Hotel – 4 star hotel with various amenities such as an outdoor pool, shopping arcade, and a gym. Located next to the famous Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
- Park Hyatt Hotel – 5 star hotel with a clear view of Mt Fuji and an indoor pool. Famous for being the film location for the movie Lost in Translation.
- Anshin Oyado Capsule Hotel – Capsule Hotel with wifi and hot spring, located in the heart of Shinjuku.
- Nine Hours Shinjuku North – Slightly cheaper Capsule Hotel with wifi, individual showers, and great location.
- Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku – Budget/Mid Range ryokan located in the middle of Shinjuku. Great for couples.
Where to Stay Near Tokyo Station
- Nihonbashi Muromachi Bay Hotel – Simple capsule hotel that has all the essentials.
- an/other TOKYO – a more luxurious capsule hotel experience. Each capsule has more room and has a nice cafe as well.
- Wise Owl Hostels Tokyo – Budget hostel with a bar. Great place for meeting people
- Belken Hotel Tokyo – Basic, clean budget hotel in a convenient location.
- Horidome Villa Hotel – Simple hotel with a restaurant and wifi. Located a bit further from Tokyo Station.
- The Square Hotel Ginza – Clean, aesthetic, and compact 3-star hotel.
- Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyobashi – Nice 3-star hotel in a very nice location. Comes with all the necessary amenities and a great restaurant.
- Marunouchi Hotel – 4 star hotel by the Marunouchi group, located less than a minute from Tokyo Station. Offers a gym, bar, and restaurant with various dining options.
- The Tokyo Station Hotel – The station itself is also a hotel. It’s a 5-star hotel that comes with upscale rooms, spa, cafe, and restaurant.
- Hoshinoya Tokyo – Luxurious Ryokan experience, one of the few in the area. Modern design mixed with Traditional Japanese style rooms.
What to Pack
Tokyo has 4 seasons and it’s appropriate to bring the right clothes.
As commonly known, you’d need warm clothes in the winter and thin clothes in the summer. Spring tends to be colder than autumn so you may want to bring a warm jacket in spring and a light jacket in autumn.
Here’s a rough table of how the seasons are each month.
Small Compact Umbrella
Tokyo tends to have random but light rainfalls and having a small umbrella around can help. If you happen to be coming during the summer during a typhoon, you may want to invest in a bigger and stronger umbrella, but for all other cases, a small portable one can get you through during your travels.
Google Translate and Google Maps
Two of the most essential apps that we recommend you have on your phone are Google Translate and Google Maps. These are apps that I still use today, even after living in Japan for several years.
Google Translate has many functions that can help you through various situations. First, it can help translate your English expressions into Japanese. Next, it has the speech recognition which can help translate you understand what the locals are saying. The most useful function would be the image recognition where you can take a picture of Japanese text and it can translate for you. This can be really great for reading the menu at restaurants, where the kanji tends to be difficult.
Google Maps is another extremely useful app in Japan. If you input your destination, it shows you the best routes, a number of other options, and a timetable for when the trains come. The only thing Google Maps is not great at is finding your exact location and which direction you’re facing, especially when using it inside a building.
There is wifi usually in cafes, hotels, and convenience stores, but it may be a good idea to have your own data plan if possible. Although it’s free, most wifi hotspots in Tokyo require you to sign up and going through this process just to use the wifi every time can get a bit tedious. Plus, having your own data can allow you to navigate with Google Maps and look up places on the go.
If your data plan doesn’t offer international data, you can purchase a pocket wifi or SIM card that you can pick up at the airport.
Tokyo has made progression with cashless payment, but there are lots of places where you will still need cash. For example, most mom and pop stores and restaurants with the ticket dispenser require cash. Lots of other traditional places require cash as well.
If you forgot to bring cash, there are lots of places to withdraw cash. Cash can be withdrawn at any Japan Post ATM and Seven Eleven ATMs, which can be found almost anywhere in Tokyo.
If you’re traveling to Tokyo during the summer, it’s probably a good idea to bring your own deodorant. Japanese deodorant is made for Japanese people and may not work at all for some people.
Japanese outlets have the same shape as the ones in the US. If you’re coming from the US, you won’t be able to connect your three-prong outlets. If you’re coming from outside of the US, you may need to bring an electrical adapter.
Popular Things to do
Tokyo is a huge city and there are endless amounts of things to do here. Here are some places that you can check out grouped into different categories.
- Sensoji Temple
- Meiji Shrine
- Oedo Onsen
- Tokyo Imperial Palace
- Tsukiji Fish Market
- Ueno Park
- Shinjuku Gyoen
- Yoyogi Park
Exhibitions and Amusement Parks
- Shinjuku Metropolitan Building
- Tokyo Skytree
- Tokyo Tower
Food to Try
Tokyo doesn’t have its own regional specialty, but its a place where you can find lots of great restaurants and specialties from all over Japan. Here are some foods to try when visiting Tokyo.
Ramen is a classic when you come to Japan and you can find ramen literally everywhere in Tokyo. There’s all kinds of shops from famous chains like Ichiran or Ippudo to local mom and pop restaurants in each block. There’s also lots of affordable Michelin Star ramen restaurants in areas like Shinjuku and Otsuka and worth trying out!
Beef bowls are the popular cheap and fast food of Tokyo. There’s popular chains like Sukiya, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya and you often see these places fill up with businessmen during lunch or students after an event. If you don’t have any huge dinner plans, we recommend filling some of your meals with a beef bowl!
A stamina bowl is an upgraded version of a beef bowl and its one of my personal favorites in Japan.. Stamina bowls are essentially pork fried with garlic and soy sauce, over a bowl of rice with a raw egg on top. It’s one of the more filling dishes that you can eat in Japan at an affordable price.
Convenience Store Food
If you’re from outside of Asia, the convenience store foods might be something new. Convenience stores in Japan don’t limit to just chips and drinks like they do in America. They have a huge selection of full meals, school supplies, household goods, printing machines, and so much more. Shopping at a convenience store is fun and we recommend stopping by a nearby convenience store and eating in for a night!
If it’s your first time in Japan, you have to try sushi. If you mention sushi in America, people often think of rolls with lots of sauce and decoration on top, but in Japan, it’s simply raw fish on top of sushi rice. You can try the high-end omakase sushi bars, but even the cheap, conveyor belt (kaiten) sushi in Japan has decent quality.
If you want to try some of the finer foods of Tokyo, we recommend trying the Wagyu steak. Wagyu is the high end Japanese beef which is made from cows that have an even balance of fat and muscle. When you eat wagyu, the meat is extremely soft and just melts in your mouth.
Tokyo’s Different Districts
One of the best features of Tokyo is the different atmosphere of each neighborhood. Every area in Tokyo has a different vibe and there’s sure to be an area that matches yours.
- Tokyo Station
Day Trips from Tokyo
When traveling to Tokyo, day trips are half the experience. There are lots of stunning destinations close to Tokyo that are definitely worth visiting. We highly recommend adding a day trip or two into your travel itinerary as it can add a good balance to the urban settings of Tokyo!
Kamakura is one of the most simple day trips you can take from Tokyo. Kamakura is located in Kanazawa prefecture and it only takes an hour to get there by the Yokosuka line from Tokyo station. The area is famous for lots of small temples and shrines. It’s most easily recognizable by big buddha statue and is also a popular beach destination as well.
If you want to have a proper ryokan and onsen experience in Tokyo, come out to Hakone. Japan is known to have small villages that have some of the best onsen and Hakone is one of the closest ones to Tokyo. While a day trip out to Hakone is still awesome, we recommend staying for one night at a ryokan, if possible, to get the full value out of this onsen village.
Yokohama feels like the suburbs with less hustle and bustle, but still keeping a lively atmosphere. Head over to Minato Mirai, where you can enjoy a nice stroll on the harbor front with a gorgeous view. Yokohama is also home to the largest Chinatown in Japan, Motomachi Chukagai. Here, you can enjoy some of the best Chinese food you can find in Japan, like steamed buns and dim sum.
Fuji Five Lakes
Even without climbing Mt. Fuji, you can still appreciate the heart of Japan by coming up close and personal. More than just a viewpoint for Mt. Fuji, the Fuji Five Lake area makes for a perfect day trip from Tokyo, having an amusement park, stunning nature, and the nice peaceful atmosphere that exists only in the Japanese countryside.
We hope that this guide was helpful to you and that you have an awesome time in Tokyo. There is so much to see and do in Tokyo and if you’re planning a trip to Japan, Tokyo is definitely one of the places to visit.