Your Trip To Tokyo: The Complete Guide
Japan has seen a steep increase in tourism during the past few years (close to 32 million people visited the country in 2018)1, and Tokyo is one of the top destinations for those making the trip. Home to centuries of rich history, a world-renowned food scene, and diverse collection of neighborhoods to explore, it’s no wonder this metropolis is on travelers’ radar. Use this guide to plan your ultimate trip to this bucket list destination.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit: The spring is a beautiful time to see cherry blossoms blooming around the city, which typically happens in March and April.
Currency: Yen (110 yen equals about $1)
Getting Around: Tokyo has an extensive transit network with local subways and regional trains that can take you anywhere you need to go.
Travel Tip: Many businesses in Tokyo are cash only with only 20 percent of payments being cashless.2 Not all ATMs take foreign cards, but the ones inside 7-Eleven stores do, so pop inside any location to pick up some cash. (Consider taking out large amounts each time to avoid multiple ATM trips and fees.)
Things to Do
Simply wandering around the neighborhoods of Tokyo—from the bright lights of Shinjuku to the arcades of Akihabara and the shop-lined streets of Harajuku—is one of the best things you can do to stumble upon great sights, get a sense of the people and culture, and get a lay of the land.
Experience Japan’s incredible food scene beyond meal times. Take a sushi-making class at the Tokyo Sushi Academy, attend a sake tasting to sample varieties of the brewed beverage, and visit the famous tuna auction at Toyosu Market on Odaiba Island.
Visit the temples and shrines in the city. Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most iconic and oldest temple, dates back to the seventh century and is located right in the midst of the city’s hustle and bustle, offering a stark contrast between old and new Tokyo. The Meiji Shrine offers a more peaceful atmosphere adjacent to the sprawling Yoyogi Park.
Go shopping. For all things quirky and cute (“kawaii” in Japanese), head to Takeshita Street in Harajuku; for high-end fashion, you’ll find designer stores and high-end boutiques (and world-class architecture) in Omotesando; and shop for any and all electronics in Akihabara.
Attend a sumo match, Japan’s national sport. Going to a tournament would be the best experience, but if your visit isn’t timed right for that, you can also try to watch a practice session.
Get tickets for a baseball game to cheer on the home team, the Tigers, at the Tokyo Dome in the neighborhood of Bunkyo. Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan, but it’s a different experience than you might be used to in the U.S. You might notice that cheering happens in a somewhat organized fashion, so look to the locals for when to show your spirit. And when you need a bite, head to one of the vendors for a bento box of delicious bites (quite an upgrade from a chicken bucket and a beer you might be used to).
What To Eat and Drink
Tokyo is known as one of the world’s top dining destinations, and rightfully so. While in Tokyo, you should try sushi, ramen, and other well-known Japanese dishes, but you can also experience a sampling of dishes from other regions of Japan. When ordering sushi, order “omakase” at least once, which is the chef’s hand-picked selection, something that can typically be pretty expensive to do outside of Japan. (Sushi chefs train for up to 10 years to perfect the art of this precise dish, so you know you’re getting the top quality and presentation.) And be sure to order Japanese pancakes—the dense, thick, flapjacks you’ve likely seen on Instagram—at least once on your trip, and then walk off the sugar coma while you explore.
If you’re a tea drinker, you’ll be spoiled in Tokyo—anywhere you go will have tea available, and matcha is everywhere in the form of tea and matcha-flavored sweets, such as ice cream, cookies, and more. For something a little stronger, Japan is known for sake, but the country is also making a name for itself in the whiskey scene. The country’s most famous and oldest distillery is Yamazaki.
Tip: When you’re roaming the streets of Tokyo, you’ll walk past restaurant after restaurant packed with people, but be sure to look up—many establishments are located on the second, third, or even higher floors of buildings. There are usually signs on the ground level directing you to the options above.
Where To Stay
Tokyo's neighborhoods each offer a distinct vibe for visitors, from chill and laid back to electric and lively.
Shinjuku: Mostly known for its nightlife, including the Kabuki-cho (red light district) and Memory Lane, this area is also very convenient for getting around the city. Shinjuku Station is huge, offers service to several subway lines and trains, and also has several restaurants and shops.
Ginza: If you love to shop, this is the neighborhood for you, with several high-end stores, famous department stores, and the country’s largest Uniqlo. It’s also close to Tokyo Station, another major transit hub, and the Imperial Palace, which is worth a visit.
Harajuku: For a more eclectic vibe, stay in Harajuku. Walk down Takeshita Street, a colorful pedestrian walkway lined with stores and cosplay shops and visit the Owl Cafe, and then head away from the quirkiness for a bit to visit the Meiji Shrine.
Ueno: For more relaxed and cultural surroundings, book a stay in this neighborhood, which is home to a large park (a nice break from city days) and also several museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the Museum of Western Art.
There are two main airports that international travelers use to fly into Tokyo.
Narita International Airport: This is the main international airport for those arriving or leaving from Tokyo. It’s a little further outside of Tokyo in the Chiba prefecture, but it’s easily accessible by train. The Narita Express train is one of two Japanese trains that can easily accommodate large luggage.3
Haneda Airport: Although it offers fewer long-haul international flights than Narita, the number of carriers has increased in the past few years, so it’s worth looking into, as this is the closest airport to Tokyo’s city center (about 30 minutes by train).
Tip: Many hotels in Tokyo and other Japanese cities offer a luggage transfer service. For a fee (varies by weight but usually about $20 per bag), you can have your luggage shipped from your current hotel to your next hotel or to an airport so that you don’t need to carry it around with you, which is ideal for long stays with multiple or heavier bags. It usually takes one day, so be sure to keep a smaller bag of essentials with you in the meantime.
Culture And Customs
Tipping is not customary in Tokyo, and in some cases, can actually be considered offensive.
Tokyo has a highly efficient and organized culture and way of life, which is especially evident in the transit system. Trains run seamlessly and on time; the stations are clearly marked, including directing pedestrian traffic; and if you’re traveling during rush hour, you might see professional train pushers whose job is to push commuters into the train to fit all the people inside while still keeping the trains on schedule.
The proper way to greet someone is by bowing, which can range from a slight dip of your head to bending from your waist. (The extent of your bow correlates to the person you are greeting, with the former being for casual interactions and the latter being used in more formal situations to show greater respect.)
People in Tokyo are very friendly and approachable! But if you do encounter a language barrier, the Google Translate app is very useful in facilitating conversation with locals (and also translating signs and menus in Japanese). You can download the app (and the Japanese language on the app) before your trip so that it will work while you’re offline.
When you land at Narita or Haneda, you can purchase a discounted transit ticket combo that is good for your ride from the airport to the city center and also to use on the Tokyo subway for a certain amount of time (varies by airport).
If you do purchase a Japan Rail Pass (JR) to explore the country, that is also valid on some subway lines within Tokyo. Look for “JR” to see what’s included.
Take advantage of tax refunds while shopping. When you show your passport, you can pay the tax-free price for items. They’ll seal your items (they can’t be opened until you leave Japan), and give you a receipt that you may need to show at the airport before your flight.
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