Tokyo is a city that needs no introduction. As a nation, Japan is a country of contrasts and harmony; a technologically advanced nation that is built on centuries of tradition. It is one of the most densely populated nations in the world. In spite of this, it’s centuries of tradition have developed into a code of conduct that has allowed the Japanese to live in harmony among one another while competing for resources with limited space.
Location and how to get there
Tokyo is a major destination in Asia and is served by multiple airlines from all around the world. It takes about 7 hours to fly from Singapore direct.
Tokyo has two airports – Narita and Haneda. Edokkos (residents of Tokyo) will tell you that Narita is not in Tokyo. This is very true. Narita airport is a good two hours from Shinjuku Station in Central Tokyo by express train. You could hire a cab which will take you the better part of four hours to get into central Tokyo and about AU$200 in cab fare.
If you’re visiting Tokyo, plan to fly into Haneda. (Some low cost carriers will not offer you this option and will fly only into Narita).
View Tokyo in a larger map
The Google Map above shows the locations of several places that I recommend visiting when in Tokyo. Be prepared to do a lot of walking. Tokyo is massive, and while their train service is exceptionally efficient, attractions are far apart and require a fair bit of walking to get between. On any given day, I had averaged between 20,000 to 30,000 steps.
Best times to visit
Japan is a destination that appeals to visitors all year round, but there are two peak seasons which draw tourists more than any other time. The most popular season is in the Japanese Spring between March and April every year – the famed cherry blossom season. The other peak season is in the autumn, when the leaves turn red.
For both these seasons, book well in advance. Hotels tend to fill up quickly, and prices can jump by 5% every week as the season grows closer. Plan to have flights and hotels locked in at least three months in advance.
Recommended places to stay
Tokyo offers a range of different places to stay for a wide budget range. There are the quaint capsule hotels which are literally a series of plastic capsules stacked one on top of another specifically for sleeping, with communal facilities. There are hostels which offer clean but spartan rooms, and communal dining areas. There are which offer a full service experience with good rooms and restaurant facilities, and there are luxury hotels from international chains that offer their consistent guest experience. I recommend staying in Shinjuku, which has access to the largest train station in Tokyo, and is central to all the tourists spots. I had stayed at Hotel Sunroute Plaza in Shinjuku, which is right next to the train station, and offers clean rooms with an excellent breakfast.
Japan is well developed country and is the safest nation in the world. Visitors may need a visa to enter. Japan participates in the visa waiver program and has reciprocal arrangements with a large number of countries permitting either visa-free entry, or a visa-on-arrival arrangement.
In spite of being technologically advanced, the Japanese economy still tends to be a cash-driven economy. While credit cards are widely accepted, there are restaurants which only deal in cash. It’s a good idea to carry a decent amount of local currency with you.
Japan has four very distinct seasons. Hence, when visiting, you would pack for the season. It’s worth packing a light jacket, regardless of the season (you’ll probably use it on the plane more than anywhere else). Spring and Autumn will have warm days, and cool evenings. Summers are hot and humid. Winters are cold with snowfall.
Japan is a very ethnically homogenous society, and English is not widely spoken. Though a lot of people in Tokyo are conversant, the number of English speakers outside Tokyo are significantly fewer. It is worth loading the Japanese language translation pack onto the Google Translate app on your smart phone before you leave for Japan. Google Translate will even translate printed signs through the camera.
You will also do a fair bit of walking when visiting Japan, so it’s important that you have a comfortable pair of walking shoes with cushioning to ease your way over lots of concrete paths. Consider using gel insoles to ease your day trips.
Tokyo has an efficient train network that puts any other in the world to shame. It has multiple rail companies who have different stations along different lines. While visiting Tokyo, you could get yourself a 7, 15, or 30 day JR Tourist pass.
You can purchase the JR Rail Pass at their official website. They will deliver this to addresses in multiple countries.
The JR Tourists pass will get you access to all the Japan Rail operated train stations anywhere in Japan and the Shinkansen high speed bullet trains between cities. However, if you’re going to do fewer than 4 Shinkansen trips, you will not break even on the cost of the JR Pass. The JR Pass will also not get you into stations that are run by other companies.
Japan also offers good mobile coverage, but they use a different mobile standard to a lot of the rest of the world. Free Wi-Fi is more exception than the rule. I would recommend organising a data-only SIM card, or a mobile wireless router. If you’re travelling from Singapore, you might choose to go with a portable Wifi Router from Changi through Changi Recommends. Alternatively, you could get a data SIM card from the Japan Rail Pass site.
I had opted to get a data-only SIM from b-Mobile. They offer a 5GB data-only SIM with 21-days validity for JPY3,480 (about AU$40) which you can order online and have delivered to your hotel, pick up at 7 major airports in Japan, or have delivered to your home address prior to your departure.
If you get thirsty while walking around in Japan, there are lots of vending machines that offer a wide selection of beverages. They all generally accept coins.
Japan has a tradition where one can collect a seal for their travel journal at sites that they visit. Several tourist attractions around Japan also offer these seals. They are generally free. Sometimes, they may charge a small fee. If you’re into this sort of thing, consider having a travel journal handy with you to pick up your commemorative stamps.
Japan is very clean. It might surprise you that it is very near impossible to find a public dustbin in Japan. It is commonplace for people to collect their trash and take it with them to dispose when they return home. However, I discovered that the most likely place where one might find a trash can is near a set of vending machines which sell bottled and canned drinks.
Last but not least, carry some sunscreen, hand sanitiser, toilet paper, and a hat. Though rare, I have discovered that there are toilets in Japan which do not provide soap, and some where you have to buy toilet paper!
The itinerary below assumes that you arrive in Tokyo around 10:00am in the morning, and plan on spending three to four days there. It has also been written for individuals who are visiting Japan for the first time, and have a reasonable level of fitness.
Day 1: Shinjuku and Surrounds
If you’ve arrived in Tokyo around the middle of the day, your first stop, after checking into the hotel would depend on where you were staying. If you’re staying in Shinjuku, I would recommend a walk down to the Meiji Shrine. The closest railway station is Yoyogi. Alternatively, you could make the 20 minute walk down to the park.
The Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shōken. It sets the tone for Shrines in Japan, and is a good place to witness a traditional Japanese wedding from time to time. The shrine is impressive in its own right, and it surrounded by a traditional Japanese Garden. A visit here would take you about an hour or so.
Following your visit to the Shrine, it would be about lunch time, which makes it an ideal time to head back to Shinjuku to get a bite to eat, after which you might like to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. This is about 30 minutes on foot from the Meiji Shrine.
The building offers access to viewing decks, and are free of charge to enter. I recommend setting yourself a leisurely pace so that you can catch sunset. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Fuji. This happens about 70 to 80 days a year. A visit to this building will last one about an hour or so.
A this stage, you ought to be getting close to sunset. It’s a good time to head out to Shinjuku and take in the downtown area and the skyscraper district. Shinjuku station is the largest in Tokyo, and is surrounded by a large number of high-rises and a buzzing retail district. It also offers a lot options for places to eat. How long your spend here is completely up to you, but there’s a vibe about this place that has something for everyone.
Depending on how late it is at this stage. you might like to cap your first night in Tokyo at Shibuya – the busiest crossing in the world. Shibuya is about a 25 minutes train ride from Shinjuku. While the main drawcard of Shibuya is the crossing itself, the backstreets around the crossing offer a huge array of retail outlets, and can take one several weeks to just begin to scratch the surface. No trip to Tokyo would be complete without experiencing crossing the streets here. The best views of people crossing the street are from the upper floor of Starbucks that overlooks the crossing, the pedestrian bridge of the station, and from the top of the station.
Day 2: Asakusa and Central Tokyo
To say that Asakusa is a popular destination is quite the understatement. The Senso-ji Shrine here is one of the most popular tourist attractions, along with the Kaminarimon, the Hozomon Gate, the market at Nakamise-dōri, and the Asakusa Shrine. The great thing is that you can cover all of these locations fairly quickly – they are all a few minutes from each other.
The catch is, like all tourist attractions, after 10am, this location gets very busy – to a point where walking through Nakamise-dōri becomes a shoulder-to-shoulder, belly-to-back experience. To experience it without having to deal with overwhelming crowds, I recommend getting here before 9a.m. Getting here from Shinjuku involves catching a train to Kanda Station, and then hopping on the Ginza line to Asakusa station. You’ll walk through the Kaminarimon into Nakamise-dōri to the mouth of the Hozomon Gate before arriving at the Senso-ji Shrine. The Asakusa shrine is on it’s right hand side. A visit here should last about an hour to 90 minutes.
From here, take a 10-minute walk to Sumida Park, and hop onto a river cruise that will take you to Odaiba and the decks. The cruise lasts about an hour and s conducted in some space-age boats which will take you to the entertainment precinct in Odaiba. The Decks at Odaiba are a series of large, indoor, arcades that offer attractions that include car shows, Legoland, and a range of anime themed attractions. One can comfortably spend several hours here, while taking in a view of the Tokyo Skyline with the Rainbow Bridge in the foreground.
Odaiba is also served by the Yurikamome elevated train. This is a fully automated train that runs from Shiodome station to Toyosu. The real treat is when you get to sit at the front and watch the scene unfold in front of you. It is particularly stunning at dusk when Tokyo lights up. My recommendation is to ride the train all the way to Toyosu, and then ride it back to Shiodome. It’s also worth noting that Shiodome Station is a monorail station, and is right across the street from Shimbashi station which is served by the Tokyo Metro.
I would recommend wrapping up the day at Tokyo Tower. You’d need to catch a train back from Shimbashi to Asakusa, which is about a 25 minute trip, and then change trains to Tokyo Tower at Asakusa station. The tower offers stunning panoramic views of Tokyo and its endless skyline. Overseas tourists have the option of purchasing a standard ticket for JPY2,800 (about AUD32) or a premium ticket for JPY4,000 (about AUD46). I recommend purchasing the premium ticket which will give you access to the top-most deck, and will allow you to skip the line. Most visitors purchase the cheaper ticket which only gets them access to lower deck, which is far more crowded. The upper deck is generally empty until sundown, and even after that, it is generally quite peaceful considering how popular a tourist spot this is.
Day 3: Central Tokyo
The suggested itinerary above for Day 2 is quite a long day. It’s worth taking it easy the following day. Central Tokyo will offer a slight change in pace for this purpose. A good place to start is Tokyo Station. It is yet another fine example of the attention to detail that is unique to Japan’s culture and way of life. The central dome is very elaborate and is reminiscent of Victorian architecture that you’ll see around the world.
Tokyo Central station also has a lot of places to eat within. If you’re hungry, this is a good place to get a bite.
It is also one of the stations from which the Shinkansen bullet trains operate from. A ride on the Shinkansen is quite an experience, and while it can be described, it really needs to be experienced. The Japanese certainly have gotten high speed train travel down to an art form as well as a science. (This, of course, can be said about a lot of things in Japan).
From Tokyo Central Station, the next logical place to visit is the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. This is about a 15 minute walk from Tokyo station, and is mostly through a series of underground concourses. Again, for a first-time visitor to Japan, it might come as a surprise as to how clean their underground metro is. The Imperial Gardens are a botanic garden which offers a lot of space to walk through and take it slow on a nice day. Naturally, these gardens are at their best in spring and summer. While one can easily spend half a day here, it generally takes one about 90 minutes to an hour to get a decent tour of the gardens.
Further on from the Imperial Gardens is the Imperial Palace. The palace and the palace grounds are definitely worth visiting. About 45 minutes is sufficient to complete your visit here. It’s worth noting that it is closed to visitors on Mondays and Fridays. (I found this out the hard way!)
After spending a morning here, it is worth turning your attention to some retail therapy. Ginza is perhaps the most well known shopping district that Tokyo has to offer. It also offers a decent number of places to get a bite to eat. Further up the line at Akihabara is what is known as Electric City. It is an agglomeration of electronic retail outlets of all your favourite Japanese brands. Tourists can pick up a decent bargain here.
At the end of the day, if you have the time and energy, consider venturing into Kabukicho. It is not a neighbourhood for everyone and is dominated by bars and clubs, some of which have a reputation for being somewhat questionable, and are targetted towards tourists looking for a good time. Walking around there is generally safe, but you do need to be on your guard if you’re coerced into joining newly found friends at a bar.
Roppongi Hills is home to the Tokyo City View observation deck offering one of the best views of Tokyo. In good weather, one can enjoy the view from an open-air deck on the rooftop located at the top of Mori Tower.
Tsukiji Market is where tuna auctions are held early in the morning. They are a bit of a tourist drawcard. Fundamentally, it is just another fish market with a lot more seafood than one would normally see.
Some guides may suggest that you visit Takeshita Dori and Harajuku. It is well known for anime cosplayers and a fashion district. I personally felt that it was a bit underwhelming, and wouldn’t recommend putting it near the top of your list.
Where to next?
After a tour of Tokyo, you’re probably ready for your next destination in Japan. The logical next stops are Kyoto, and Osaka. They are both reachable via the Shinkansen bullet trains. You might also like to explore Yokohama, which is en route on the same line.
Regardless of what you like to do, Tokyo will offer you a lot to take in. I’ve really enjoyed my visits there, and it wouldn’t take a whole lot for me to be persuaded to go back again.
- Your camera and lenses. I would recommend a wide-angle lens for cityscapes, and a mid-range zoom lens (around 24-75mm) or general street photography. Occasionally, you might see a geisha or maiko. If you’re looking for close-ups, I recommend that you carry a good telephoto lens (something like a 70-200mm);
- Any ND or polarising filters that you plan to use (day-time shoots only);
- A micro-fibre wipe/cloth to keep the lens clean;
- Cable release.
- Comfortable walking shoes.
- Towel to dry yourself in case you get rained on.
- Appropriate outer gear. Consider the season at the time that you’re travelling.
- A hat.
- A small torch or flash light (for night-time shoots only).
- Water and some snacks (you will be probably get hungry and thirsty while walking around).
- Hand sanitiser,
- Mobile phone.