First Time in Tokyo? A Complete Guide to Tokyo, Japan

Asakusa; Nakamise Dori; best places to visit in tokyo

I was in Tokyo late in June 2018 for the Web In Travel conference. Prior to coming over, I was looking for ideas on how to maximize my stay here in Asasuka (where I’m staying with Red Planet) Hotel, and beyond.

Then I chanced upon Thirsa who was sharing a very long and in-depth post about her experiences in Japan and sharing everything from the best places to visit in Tokyo to where to go for shopping in Tokyo.

Thirsa Nijwening-Japan;; best places to visit in tokyo

Born in The Netherlands, freelance photographer Thirsa, with a passion for exploring Japan and the Japanese culture, very graciously let me share her curated tips and tricks on places of interest in Tokyo and must do things in Tokyo so you can get the best out of your trip!

Disclaimer: The content in this page is based on personal experience and these experiences can vary from person to person.

Getting to Japan

Tokyo has two airports, in which Haneda Airport and Narita Airport.

If you are starting out in Tokyo:

Try to fly to Haneda Airport as it is closest to the city. It takes about 25 minutes to get to the city.

If you are flying into Haneda, head from Haneda Airport on the Monorail to Shimbashi and board the subway from there. It’s the easiest way to get into Tokyo.

Narita Airport takes about 1.5 hours to actually get to central Tokyo. While it is the most flown to airport, after 12 hours of travelling, you probably don’t want to juggle too much with sitting in a train or bus for an hour more.

Flying into Narita? There is a Limousine Bus Service that runs to all the major hotels in the Tokyo area. Figure out which one is the closest to your accommodation, or show the staff at the counter your address. It saves you sitting on the Limited Express for quite a while. It will cost you around 3000¥/ USD27 per person per ride with luggage included and no reservation is needed. Book your Tokyo Narita Airport Limousine Bus Ticket.

Check your flights to Tokyo, Japan here!

If you don’t have to start out in Tokyo:

If you don’t care about the starting point, you might want to check your flight prices to Osaka. From Europe, Osaka is sometimes way cheaper and you can start your journey in Osaka and Kyoto instead of Tokyo.

If you are travelling through Japan:

JR Rail Pass is your best bet. It is only available outside Japan so buy it before you go there. It gives you access to most Shinkansen lines (check the exceptions though) and is the best bang for your buck when you want to travel around.

Gettng around Japan

nature temple; tokyo day trips; best places to visit in tokyo

If you do want to travel around, I also recommend checking options like buses and local trains. These can be waaaay cheaper than the Shinkansen options. While it will take a little bit longer, for budget travellers, it is the way to go!

For example, taking a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kanazawa costs ¥14,120/ USD128 and the duration is 3 hours, but I opted for an overnight bus from Bushikaku which costs about ¥2000/USD18. That’s a lot of savings there for the same route!

Hyperdia is a really handy website if you need to check the cost of trains around Japan and the duration. Unfortunately you can’t book train tickets online, or at least I haven’t found an easier way to other than going down to the station to buy it.

It is also a great experience to see some of the nature that Japan has to offer which you normally wouldn’t see.

Domestic flights are also interesting to look at with budget airlines if you don’t mind the hassle with your luggage.

Getting Around Tokyo

tokyo day trips; best places to visit in tokyo

Staying in Tokyo? I highly recommend getting a Suica or Pasmo card or a 24/ 48/ 72-hour subway pass.

It is a public transport card which you charge instead of buying separate tickets (which is a hell of a system if you’re not familiar with Japanese language). It is usable for most subway lines and train lines! You can also use this pass for purchasing drinks at stations for example!

A Pasmo/Suica pass costs 500¥/ USD 4.5 and is available on most stations. The Pasmo pass is valid for 5 years, so if you are heading back you can still use it, or give it to someone who might travel there.

Download the ‘Tokyo Metro Subway map’ app. It has offline access to the Subway map which is verrrry useful. Do keep in mind that only the ‘general’ lines are noted on this one, but still, it is a pretty useful app.

For other options: Google Maps is your best friend. Although directions-wise it might be slightly inaccurate sometimes, for public transport it has the best options available!

Click here to get your 24/ 48/ 72-hour subway pass!

Where to stay in Tokyo

Airbnb is widely used in Japan. But keep in mind that Japan doesn’t have set rules regarding Airbnb and neighbours actually can complain if you interrupt them too much and you can get kicked out. Japanese people are very aware of their surroundings.

Click to get USD33 off your first Airbnb stay!

I love using Airbnb. I booked a 2-month stay in Kanazawa through Airbnb and they offer really good rates for a comfortable one room with most of the basic facilities!

Hostels are great alternatives too. As all the hostels I’ve been in were cleaner than most hotels in Amsterdam for example.

Anne Hostel in Asakusabashi is a great one! I stayed in Bunka Hostel in Akasuka, booked through Airbnb, and I cannot recommend it enough for how clean and the great service they provide for what it costs.

Check prices here:

Anne Hostel - Booking.com | Agoda
Bunka Hostel - Booking.com | Agoda

In case you want the best hotel deals in Tokyo, I got it covered. 😉



Booking.com

Where to go in Tokyo

This section part is about some of the best places to visit in Tokyo. If you only have a couple of days in Tokyo, you can have a good idea on what to do in Tokyo in 5 days below.

Try to find the areas that are the most interesting to you. I’ve summed up some of my favourite places of interest in Tokyo and also explained a little bit about the general places to go in Tokyo!

Ginza

The place for shopping in Tokyo. Many high-end malls, food boutiques and designer brands. You have some lovely little shops but it requires some searching. If you only have a few days in Tokyo, you might want to skip this one, or give it a quick visit, but don’t plan a full day.

Roppongi

Clubbing district. Many clubs, restaurants, cafes and bars.

In the weekend, this place is PACKED with drunk people which can be fun to watch, but I wouldn’t recommend going here if you don’t want to go clubbing or anything else.

If you want to go clubbing, join the Tokyo Pub Crawl (check their Facebook page for events). It’s cheap, it’s super fun and it is a great way to meet fellow gaijins (foreigners) on their trip through Tokyo!

Akihabara

Electric town. Many maid cafes. If you are into anime, you might wanna check that out.

Big Don Quoijte (general everything-you-don’t-need-but-want-to-buy store), maaaany electronic shops, a lot of cheap (and not so good) souvenir shops but the vibe is just really nice to experience.

If you exit Akihabara station, next to the main road, you have one of the best Taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry) places in Tokyo. They sell the normal AND the Magicarp kind, and is definitely a must try!

Harajuku

Of course, Takeshita Dori, a pedestrian shopping street lined with fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants in Harajuku. Takeshita Dori is one of the most well-known places in Tokyo.

Try to avoid it on Saturday (except if you like people of course).

Try some crepes, walk into some shops and don’t forget to check out the Daiso which you will find on the start of the street on the left side.

You have next to the main road (about halfway down Takeshita Dori, left side next to ‘Santa Monica crepes’ and head on to the stairs) a beautiful little shrine which has a completely different vibe and it has a great garden for photos!

Also, try to head to the many side alleys of Takeshita Dori to explore nice small designer shops, fun little boutiques and great places to eat.

Behind Takeshita Dori, there is a Starbucks with a terrace on 8F in Tokyu Plaza. You can sit outside and view Harajuku from above. DO IT!

temple; best places to visit in tokyo

Meiji Shrine is behind the station is worth a visit if you’re in Tokyo. If you walk a little bit further you will find yourself in Yoyogi Park, which is one of my favourite parks. It is super nice to chill out and you can walk from Harajuku to Shibuya in less than 10 minutes instead of taking the subway.

Eat: Izakaya at Yukari

Use Google for this, but you actually have a great and ultra cheap izakaya next to the Takeshita Dori street. It is called ‘Yukari’.

The beer is about 180¥/ USD1.60 and it has a great vibe. Everything is in Japanese though, so make sure you know how to order.

Eat: Gyoza at Gyouzarou

You also have a greaaaaat gyoza bar named ‘Gyouzarou’ located behind Tokyu Plaza (Google is your best friend).

Gyoza goes for 250¥/USD2.30 a plate and it is one of the best Gyoza places I’ve been to! 

Shibuya (Yoyogi)

Many shops (also a lot of western shops like Forever21 and ZARA) and a loooot of places to go for food.

Just wander around Shibuya, check the scramble crossing (and cross it two or three times for the fun of it). If you want to sit down, there is a Starbucks right next to the crossing in which, if you score a seat, you can chill and watch the crossing for a little bit.

If you haven’t watched the movie, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, you need to watch it and go crazy over the statue of the dog at the entrance of the Shibuya train station. It’s an incredibly moving (and true!) story of the loyalty of a dog and so they erected a statue of him to commemorate him.

Eat: Genki Sushi

My favorite lunch spot is Genki Sushi, which is a kaiten (conveyer belt sushi) place and it is pretty good quality for around 120¥/USD1 a plate (I know, it’s insane).

Ueno

Ueno has a great park, Ueno Park, which is also home to the Zoo.

Honestly, I found the Zoo a little bit sad as the animals have very cramped cages, as with how animal cafes use the cuteness of pets for commercial purposes to lure customers and tourists to spend money in their property.

I love Ueno Park however and during the weekends you will probably encounter some sort of event.

Behind Ueno Park, you have the Tokyo Central Museum which I found very interesting with all the history lessons you can learn from.

There are more museums around the area, so have a look around and see which one catches your eye.

Next to Ueno station, you have ‘Ameya Yokocho’ which is filled with all kinds of little shops, restaurants and a lot of Thai street food places. Walk around for a bit, it is a nice experience!

Asakusa

sensoji temple asakusa tokyo
Senso-Ji Temple

One of my faaaavorite places by far. I love Asakusa due to its traditional feeling and vibe. You will find the always famous Sensoji Temple in this area which is a major tourist attraction.

The road to Sensoji Temple, also called ‘Nakamise Dori’, is filled with souvenir shops and street food. For souvenirs I’d say: Keep walking.

Asakusa; Nakamise Dori; best places to visit in tokyo
Nakamise Dori

But the street food is AMAZING. Melon pan, daifuku, rice crackers and much more. Go there with an empty stomach and just fill up on those goodies.

But remember: No walking with food!

After you’ve seen Sensoji, jump into the side streets. There is soooooo much to explore and it is such a nice place to just explore and wander around and about.

kimono rental samurai tokyo

Asakusa is my number 1 spot for kitsuke (kimono) purchases. So if you are looking for that, I’d recommend Asakusa. Rent your Kimono online here.

Ikebukuro

Ikebukuro has Sunshine City which is a huge city mall. If there’s one place to go shopping in Tokyo, Ikebukuro is the place. I personally love shopping around the Ikebukuro area in Tokyo. You will also find the Pokemon Centre in Sunshine City which is one of the major things that people want to visit in Tokyo.

Odaiba

Odaiba; ferris wheel; viewpoint; best places to visit in tokyo

Odabia is actually a ‘separate’ part of Tokyo but worth a visit. It is a good day trip from Tokyo to take. More on Tokyo day trips in the below sections.

You will find a ferris wheel as well as a lot of shops and Diver City in Odaiba. Diver City is once again a huge shopping mall but also has the huge Gundam in front of it. There is a huge food court where you will find a lot of amazing foods stalls.

Odaiba is just a nice breather if you compare it to Tokyo as Odaiba has a way more open and spacious feeling. The Rainbow bridge is also found in Odaiba and you can view some amazing sunsets around the area.

Tsukiji

Not a separate area like the ones mentioned before, Tsukiji has the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market. It is a huge market with a lot of good food so once again: come here hungry.

You will find the best quality of fish here and lots of other goodies.

morning market ebisuya donburi seafood rice bowl Hakodate & Toya - 6-Day South Hokkaido Itinerary
Jusshunen Kinen Don

Dashimaki Tamago on a stick? They’ve got it. Some good donburi with fresh fish? Uh huh! There are so many shops you won’t be able to choose!

There is the opportunity to go for a tour for the tuna auction, but you have to be there around 04:00 in the morning and only a limited number of people can get in. 

Shinjuku

Yokocho is an alley with a lot of different small, open barbecue food stalls. By small we mean tiny – only 6 seats and when the last person has to use the bathroom, the whole row needs to clear to let that person out). Food stalls shamelessly billow smoke, noise and grease over alleys that are as wide as your arms stretched out.

Omoide Yokocho Shinjuku Yakitori Narrow street alley land tokyo

Omoide Yokocho Shinjuku izakaya yakitori beer tokyo

You can find one of the most known yokocho’s at Shinjuku (East Exit), Omoide Yokocho. Apart from being a unique photo spot with the narrow street, immerse in the traditional style of eating with the great yakitori and cheap beer.

metropolitan government building roof sky view panorama tokyo

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tocho) is also a favourite of mine. You have the Skytree near Asakusa which is quite expensive and always busy, but the Metropolitan Building also has a great panoramic view from the top and is free! It goes up to the 49th floor and it also has a restaurant and souvenir section at the top floor.

kabukicho Shinjuku shopping night lights tokyo
Kabukicho, Shinjuku

I’d recommend to walk around Shinjuku at night as well, as it is a great area with all the neon lights and just small little side alleys you will find many restaurants and izakayas! 

Shimokitazawa

Personally, one of the best places to visit in Tokyo is Shimokitazawa.

Shimokitazawa is an area just outside the ‘center’ of Tokyo and is accessible through the Chiyoda Line (stay put on the Limited Express that runs to Yoyogi-Uehara) or go to Yoyogi-Uehara and board the express over there.

Shimokitazawa is the new ‘hipster’ neighbourhood with a huuuge amount of coffee shops and second-hand clothing stores.

Eat: The Usual

I recommend going to a coffee spot, The Usual, where they serve great lunch menus and even better coffee and matcha lattes. You have lovely little restaurants there and it is just such a laid back neighbourhood.

The second-hand shops are great, especially since the Japanese clothing brands run very small. You will find the ever popular Chicago (with the big flamingo) but also a lot of small, individual shops that sell you a great selection of second-hand merchandise.

This is also a good place for some kimono buys as I got my most expensive and elaborate piece here for a great price. The second-hand stores normally also have different brands so you can always find awesome stuff for good prices!

Day Trips from Tokyo 

Nikko

Shinkyo Bridge Nikko; Tokyo day trips; best places to visit in tokyo
Shinkyo Bridge, Nikko

If you want to see nature, go to this beautiful World Heritage site. Nikko has the most elaborated decorated temple and the Shinkyo Bridge which, if you cross it, will bring you luck.

Honestly, it is the most beautiful place I’ve visited in Japan so far. I went during autumn, but I’m sure it is also beautiful during any other time.

Do keep in mind that the tickets from Asakusa are quite expensive (around 5200¥/ USD47 round trip per person) and they are valid for 2 days, so you might want to consider spending the night somewhere and see more of the surroundings. It is a great day Trip to see nature in the Tokyo area.

Kawagoe

Kawagoe is nicknamed ‘Little Edo’ and not without reason.

Only 30 minutes from Ikebukuro, it is a lovely little town where you will find a lot of Edo-styled houses. It has a very comfortable vibe to it and you will find awesome street food, souvenir places and shrines.

You can get to Kawagoe by taking the Tobu line from Ikebukuro station. There is a Kawagoe discount pass available which is around 980¥/ USD9 and will give you access to all the public transport around the area.

Bonus: The discount pass is super cute.

Eat: Southyard Kitchen

I personally love the Southyard Kitchen which is available over there for lunch. Try them, the guys who run the places are lovely and even know Dutch now thanks to my ‘Dankjewel’ lesson, haha.

Kamakura

I haven’t been here, but I’ve heard from the Tokyo locals that the place is quite overrated.

It has a huge Buddha statue and a lot of nature. It seems like a very nice place, but due to the high amount of tourists it can be pretty overcrowded and busy. Decide for yourself if you want to go.

Personally I choose Kawagoe over Kamakura and I am not sorry for even a minute.

Yokohama

I found Yokohama a great city to explore for one day and it was very different from Tokyo. It is easily accessible from Tokyo and the nearest station is Minatomirai.

Cup Ramen Museum & Yokohama Landmark Tower Observation Deck are two of the most popular places to visit here. The Cup Ramen Museum can get really busy so try to go later on the day. The Landmark Tower gives you access to an amazing view of the 69th floor. On a good day, you can see Mt Fuji!

There is also a huge Chinatown which attracts a lot of people because of the vibe and the food.

Must do things in Tokyo

Eat: Ichiran Ramen

Number #1 Ramen Place and unique experience due to the ‘bar’ you are sitting at. You will get your food through a window in front of you and you have no contact with the staff whatsoever.

If they give you a form in Japanese, ask for an English one by saying ‘Eigo o-negai shimasu’ (Pronounce: Eego onegai chimas).

Eat: Izakaya

You could say that Japan has two kinds of ‘going out’. The nightlife in clubs and Izakaya.

Izakaya is a Japanese-styled pub where you can also get small bites of food to go with your drinks.

Common food to be found in izakayas are gyoza, takoyaki, fries, sushi (of some kind) and karaage (fried chicken).

If you are up for a nice time and prefer a drink, head in to an izakaya. There are many around Tokyo and there is also a difference in the language spoken, although most will be Japanese only. Google Translate can be your friend though!

I totally recommend visiting at least visiting one izakaya. I went into an izakaya one night and we met lovely people whom we still talk to today. Just random ordering stuff from a menu is also quite fun to do.

(Birru = beer = , mizu = water, shiro wain = white wine or any other common drinks like Calpis sour or Lemon sour will be widely available.)

Eat: Conveyer belt sushi (kaiten)

You will find them all over Tokyo, but just try the experience. It is weird to see how cheap the food is and it is still SO good.

Eat: McDonald’s

McDonald’s Japan has a lot of different items than anywhere else in the world. I’d recommend going in and trying whatever they have on the season at that moment.

My personal favourite is ‘Shakka Shakka Chicken’ which is around 150¥/ USD1.40 and it is basically a huge chicken nugget which you will have to spice yourself by shaking the packaging it comes with. 

Eat: Conbini food

This one might sound a little weird, but if you are on a budget or don’t feel like eating out you can easily go for the conbini (convenience store) option. 7-11, Family Mart or Lawson are widely available.

They have a lot of pre-made meals which are cheap and of surprising good quality. They can heat it up for you in case you don’t have a microwave or you do it at home. It is very tasty and very easily achieved! 

Drink: Starbucks

Same as for McDonald’s, Starbucks Japan has special drinks the whole year around – Strawberry White Chocolate Frappuccino, Sakura drinks or Pistachio during Christmas.

Just head in and try something that sounds good. It is crazy how good their drinks are (coming from someone who never drinks Starbucks or coffee).

Drink: Tokyo Pub Crawl

It is a great experience for the nightlife in Tokyo. Going out without the pub crawl can be really expensive as they charge for a lot and drink prices can get quite high.

Magical Trip organises bar-hopping events in Shinjuku and Asakusa. I’ve seen many good recommendations and it gives you the opportunity to experience Tokyo night life with a local!

Splurge on a meal

Even if you are on a budget, just for one night, spend a little bit more money on a meal. In Japan, basically every place to go for food is great (it is absurd, but true).

You can get great meals starting from 300¥/ USD2.70 but just for one day, Spend a little bit more on Japanese food!

Try more than only McDonald’s or sushi

Japan is home to one of the biggest and best food cultures. There is sooo much more on offer than only McDonald’s and sushi!

Okonomiyaki, takoyaki, tamago, taiyaki, even Italian or Mexican food is way better in Japan then I’ve ever tasted in my home country.

If you have special requests (vegan, vegetarian), try to find someone who speaks/writes Japanese and make a card in Japanese which you can show the staff. It is fairly easy to eat in Japan while having restrictions. My friend is vegan and she traveled around Japan for 6 weeks without any problems due to that handy little card.

Mario Cart through Shibuya

The description says it all. You can do it only when you have an international driver license. Book it here.

Karaoke

You are in Japan. You just have to. Many places offer a 2 hour + drinks package at varying prices. Just check out the many options.

Get lost

Asakusa; best places to visit in tokyo

It will happen. And when it happens, you will probably be like ‘How will I ever get back?’. No worries. Just ask a very friendly Japanese where the station is (Sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka?) and you will be back in no time.

Understand the Japanese culture before you go

Alright. If you are travelling to Japan for the first time, you’re probably aware that Japan is a country with a lot of unwritten rules and guides.

While they don’t expect tourists to follow them or know them all, a little idea about it would be nice. I’ve put down some general ones that I’ve heard a lot from people and that will make your stay a lot easier.

  1. You do not walk while you eat or drink. This has to do with the fact that you can walk into somebody and dirty them with whatever you have. It is also a huge respect thing. Just don’t do it.

  2. On the train/subway you don’t speak out loud, talk on the phone, eat or drink. Japanese people are very aware of how much trouble they cause other people.

  3. In restaurants you will mostly have a ‘seating charge’. This can vary between 300¥/ USD2.70 and 600¥/ USD5.40 per person. For that, you will get a small appetizer (usually a salad) to go with that.

This is very common and normal in Japan. It is just something you have to pay. Same goes for bars, but it is sometimes way higher in bars and also the reason I’d recommend to go with the Pub Crawl.

  1. Especially for girls: Don’t wear clothing that is super revealing, especially around the chest area.

  2. Always walk left, also on stairways and escalators.

  3. Being respectful is number 1: You can always check what other people are doing but do it in a non-intrusive way and do not get in their way.

  4. Most indoor places will require you to take your shoes off. You can see the difference in height of the floor. When the floor suddenly gets a lot higher it is 99% of the times the difference between the ‘inside floor’ and the ‘genkan’ (place next to the front door where you take of your shoes).

  5. English is not widely spoken. It is getting better but don’t expect people to speak English. Therefore it is very wise to at least learn some words in Japanese like:

  • Arigatou gozaimasu – thanks
  • Sumimasen – excuse me/sorry (when passing or something).

Google Translate is a great help with menus although sometimes you will have no clue what they tell you. If you have no idea what is going on just say:

  • Sumimasen, wakaranai – Sorry, I don’t understand; or
  • Nihongo wa hanasenai – I don’t speak Japanese
  1. In general I’d say: Just don’t be too loud.

  2. In any case of emergency or if you lost your belonging, look for a koban.

A koban is a police office/ police box and they will be able to help you. Kobans are widespread in Tokyo and you will find one quite frequently on each block of the street. They will probably understand that you need English support, but if they don’t provide then kindly ask for ‘Eigo’ (English) service.

Other useful tips about travelling to Japan

  1. GET A PORTABLE WI-FI. I can’t stress this enough! DO IT. It will help you out on so many occasions and you always have a back-up for Google Translate and so on.

I’ve had great service with a pocket Wi-Fi and getting the router was super easy – Pick it up on the airport and drop it off at a mailbox afterwards. Prices are also very reasonable and the coverage was good!

Rent your Wi-Fi from Singapore here!
  1. Just eat all the food. It is good. Whatever you take. Just try everything.

  2. Japan is the country of cash. Make sure to always have cash on you as cards aren’t commonly accepted. 7-11 convenience stores always have international withdrawing machines but it’s always good to have cash. Always.


Read more posts about Japan:


Get your FREE travel expense sheet and track your expenses!




Region(s) you’re most interested about?

One Reply to “First Time in Tokyo? A Complete Guide to Tokyo, Japan”

  1. Great guide! I would die for a visit in Japan! The food and culture is fascinating me!

Talk to me!