Picture a metropolis where bicycles don’t need to be locked, taxi doors automatically open and shut, and toilet seats are heated. Picture a crowded rush hour metro train in complete silence and a corner packed with busy business men and women who don’t dare jaywalk. This utopia is Tokyo, a city with a population over 13 million, living in a harmonious future world.
Are six days enough to see the city? Frankly, no. It will, however, give a good overview of the most popular neighborhoods and a feel for the culture. Each day will undoubtedly have you uttering, “Only in Tokyo”.
Dating back to 628, Senso-ji Temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo. It was completely destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1950. School children in sailor suits and kimono-clad adults gather at this sacred site to worship the Holy Buddha of Compassion.
Keep an eye out for the massive sandals called “O-Waraji” just inside the gate. They charm against the evil and symbolize the power of the temples “Ni-Ou” protectors. A new pair is donated by Maruyama City every ten years and take 800 people to make!
Outside the Kaminarimon (Thunder) Gate, the streets are packed with tourists poking around ninety food and souvenir stalls.
Tokyo Skytree Town
Travel from the oldest temple to the newest tower opened in 2012, Tokyo Skytree Tower is the world’s highest free-standing broadcasting tower. Snap photos at the bottom, or rise high in the sky to overlook Tokyo from the observation deck where you can see Mount Fuji on a clear day.
Spend the rest of the day at the base of the tower visiting over 300 shops and restaurants in Toyko Solamachi or spend time visiting the aquarium or planetarium.
Attend a Baseball Game at Tokyo Dome
For an authentic dose of Japanese culture, attend a Yomiuri Giants baseball game at Tokyo Dome. These games sell out so make sure to reserve your tickets before coming to Tokyo. Even a non-baseball fan will be entertained by the non-stop cheering, complete with cheerleaders. Energetic girls patrol the sections toting beer kegs on their backs but fans can also carry in their own food and drinks, making this an authentic, affordable and entertaining outing.
Just a short subway ride away from Tokyo Dome is Akihabara Electric Town, a mecca for video games, anime, manga and computer goods.
You might recognize the iconic Sega store. Across from it, you’ll find the multi-story Kaiyodo Hobby Lobby which is packed with muscled action figures appealing to fans of nearly every anime series.
For a cheaper souvenir visit one of many arcades lining the streets packed with gumball machines prizes and claw machines that are not just for kids.
While in Akihabara take the opportunity to visit a maid café where cute, kawaii in Japanese, costumed girls serve up food adorned with animal faces and other zany doodles. An admission fee will get you a seat where you will be entertained by an occasional song and dance act. Turn up the fun factor by ordering extras like playing a card game or taking a photo with your maid.
Ginza Shopping District
Check out Ginza shopping district on a weekend when the streets are closed to traffic and the locals are out en masse. Reminiscent of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, or 5th Avenue in New York City, the streets of Ginza are lined with high-end brands like Chanel, Gucci, Hermes, Mikimoto and Harry Winston.
Be sure to come hungry and check out the food mall at the bottom of the Mitsukoshi Department Store. Here, you will find unique and exquisite displays of food ranging from bakery and chocolates to tea, wine, sandwiches and more.
In the neighborhood is the Kabukiza Theater which is worth a pass in both senses of the word. Pass by to take pictures of the grand building but take my advice and skip the show which is both visually and theatrically dull. Even a one-act performance will have you checking your watch multiple times before the hour is up.
The lights, action and energy of Shinjuku at night are mesmerizing. Visit Kabukicho, known as the “town that never sleeps”. A night of sake, karaoke and late night ramen will have you feeling like a local.
Champion Bar is a great choice in Kabukicho as there is no door charge. The expat crowd spills outside where there is a chance of escaping the fate of coming home smelling like a smokestack. Enjoy listening to patrons belt out Journey songs after a few 300 JPY sakes.
Wander the narrow alleys to peek into the sardine-sized bars of Golden-Gai but be aware that these bars will charge a cover. Look for the bars with English signs outside to be sure you will be welcomed as a foreigner.
For a more tourist friendly alternative, look for the neon glow of the Robot Restaurant. Coupons can be found online to make the 8,000 JPY (~$72 USD) price tag slightly more palatable but that doesn’t include dinner, which is an additional 1,000 JPY (~$9 USD). You won’t know what to expect next from the robots and bikini babes that star in this flashy, high-energy show.
From Harajuku Station take a fifteen-minute stroll among a forest of over 100,000 trees planted from all over Japan to reach Meiji Jingu. This Shinto Shrine is home to the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
On the way in, you will see a display of sake barrels, kazaridaru in Japanese, offered each year from sake producers all around Japan to be used for shrine ceremonies and festivals. Directly opposite the sake barrels is a display of wine barrels, a yearly offer from producers in Burgundy, as a symbol of world peace and amity.
Rinse your hands and mouth at the cleansing station before entering the shrine. Inside the courtyard admire two of the most perfectly pruned trees on either side of the shrine. Under the tree to the right, you may write a wish on a wooden tablet called Ema that will hang under the tree. At the main shrine building, make a donation by tossing some yen into the offering box bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more.
Within walking distance of Meiji Jingu is Takeshita-Dori, a famous street in Harajuku, a neighborhood famous for its youth culture. Find a snack at one of the many crepe shops or try a different twist to two old favorites at Calbee, where ice cream is served with potato chips!
This is a great street for people watching, especially on Sunday when the teens come sporting a rainbow of wacky fashions but beware that the street is very crowded, even on a weekday.
For more souvenir shopping, pop into Daiso located at the end of Takeshita-Dori. This 100 yen store is packed with four floors of goodies to choose from. This is your chance to get a waving lucky cat, Japanese fan, or Karate Kid headband for your friends back home.
If you have a penchant for Hello Kitty, Peanuts, Disney, Transformers, or nearly any other cartoon series, then you will want to stop by Kiddyland which is filled with four floors of what seems like every licensed product ever made.
Visit a Pet Cafe
Take a load off and recharge at one of many pet cafes where you can dine with bunnies, cats, dogs, and even snakes and owls. You can find these five right in Harajuku:
- The Owl Café & Bar Owl Village
- Castle of Owls
- a.a.g.f. Rabbit and Grow Fat
- Cat Café MoCHA Harajuku Store
- Tokyo Snake Center
Unlike the name, you won’t find any cats or cat cafes on this street. Instead, take a walk along this pleasant, European-like thoroughfare toward the frenzied core of Tokyo, Shibuya. Do some window shopping along the way at one of the upcycled thrift shops or designer fashion stores.
Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble
Outside of the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station is the largest pedestrian crossing the in the world. Don’t leave Tokyo without experiencing the convergence of humanity at this iconic intersection.
After a long day rest your feet and have a drink overlooking the crossing at L’Occitane Café, or Starbucks. Please note that photography is frowned upon in these establishments. If you want to get a great photo head to the Excel Shibuya hotel where the glass elevator has a great vantage point.
While in Tokyo, don’t miss your chance to visit the only Disneysea Park in the world, easily accessible by Tokyo Metro. You won’t see as many mouse ears as you will at neighboring Disneyland because patrons at this park are crazy for the adorable Duffy the Disney Bear. Of course, you can also visit Mickey, Minnie, and friends at character greetings throughout the park. Rides include favorites from other parks like Tower of Terror and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and rides only found here, like Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Rest up and head to Tokyo’s foreign friendly nightlife district Roppongi. If it’s Friday or Saturday you can join Tokyo Pub Crawl on the second floor of Bar Propaganda. Otherwise, explore the numerous bars, clubs and restaurants on your own.
If you swoon for a great view, head to Tokyo City View on the 52nd floor of Mori Tower where there is a great open air view of the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree. Afterward, browse the 200 shops and restaurants of Roppongi Hills.
Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Fish Market (Tsukiji Market)
If you feel ambitious, wake up for the tuna auction but it’s best to get there by 3am if you want to score one of the limited spots. Alternatively, arrive by 9am to view the wholesale market in full swing. Look for the main gate and queue up about 15 minutes before 9am when small groups will be let into the building. Be very alert as this is not meant to be a tourist attraction but a place of business. Forklifts and vendors are constantly moving about. If you can’t make it by 9am, don’t arrive too late in the morning or you will miss it altogether.
Eat Conveyor Belt Sushi
After seeing the many types of fresh fish for sale in the inner market, take a leisurely walk around the outer market. Here you can sample many unique dishes at food stalls, pick up some souvenirs, and of course, have some sushi!
Sushizanmai is in the middle of the outer market and opens at 10:30am. A picture menu will help decipher what you are watching zip by. First timers will also be interested in the step by step tutorial on the menu. If you are not a sushi lover you just might be when you leave. Vegetarian options like cucumber and soybean rolls are also available for those just looking for the experience.
Finish your stay in Tokyo with a pleasant day in one of Tokyo’s most popular parks. Ueno Park is big enough to keep you entertained all day.
On a rainy day, you can visit Tokyo National Museum, National Museum of Nature and Science or Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
On a sunny day visit the spectacular peony garden or fawn over the giant pandas, Ri Ri and Shin Shin, at the zoo. Head to the lake to float around on a duck boat or lay on a blanket and listen to the street musicians. Meander the paths and visit one of the many shrines and temples and see the monument holding the flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- Keep coins to use in one of the countless street vending machines.
- When paying, place your money on the dish on the counter instead of handing directly to the cashier.
- Plan on paying in cash, credit cards are not commonly used.
- ATMs are widely available but not all will let foreign issued cards withdraw. For a sure bet, seek out ATMs at the post office and 7 Eleven.
- At the airport buy a Suica or PASMO card for transit. For a week, 5,000 JPY should be a good amount taking into consideration the 500 JPY refundable deposit for purchasing the card. If more funds are needed, you can top up the card in 1,000 JPY increments at any station.
- Google Maps provides excellent point to point transit instruction including fare information.
- Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists is an app available for iOS and Android that provides details about routing and stations and can be used offline.
- Look for signs and arrows on the staircase noting which side to stay to.
- On the escalator always stand to the left. The right is for passing.
- Metro train colors match the color of the line on the route map. Stops are well marked in the station and on the train (in English).
- On the platforms, look for the markings to show where the doors will open and queue up there. Take note that some cars are marked as women only.
- All cars are quiet, refrain from conversing and taking calls.
- Don’t drink or eat on the metro.
- Be sure your train line is listed on the sign before entering the metro. JR lines may stop at a station but use a different street entrance than Tokyo Metro.
- Be ready to climb stairs! Escalators are provided but inevitably each station will have multiple floors of stairs at the entrance/exit.
- Strong cell signal and free tourist wifi for web browsing are available while riding the metro.
- Metro is closed around midnight to 5am.
- There are very few menus posted in English outside. English menus are available inside at some restaurants on request.
- Most restaurants have picture menus or mock food dishes displayed outside to help you decide.
- When you enter the restaurant you may not understand what they are saying but you are most likely being asked how many people and if you’d like smoking or non-smoking.
- When you sit down you will be provided with a wet nap or towel which is to be retained as a napkin for the duration of the meal.
- Ladies rejoice, many restaurants have chairs with baskets underneath for your bags. Do not be surprised to see many men in Tokyo also toting a handbag.
- If the table does not have a call button call the staff over by saying “sumimasen”, meaning, “Excuse me”.
- Ask wait staff for the bill if they have not already left it on the table and look for the cashier to pay instead of paying the wait staff.