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First Time Tokyo Travel Tips

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Our Toyko travel tips are designed to help a first-time visitor plan a hassle-free week in this bustling metropolis. While there are endless sights, sounds and tastes awaiting you it can be a little overwhelming on your first visit, so we have shared what we think you need to know to get the most out of your time here.

Everything you need to know to plan a one-week itinerary for Tokyo

No matter how many pictures you see or descriptions you read, nothing can prepare you for the thrill of visiting Tokyo for the first time. This dazzling city truly beats to the sound of its own drum. Learning a little about what to expect will leave you with more time to appreciate it when you arrive.

We have pulled together our list of first-time travel tips to help you begin planning your trip to Japan and work out what to do and see in Tokyo.

At first glance, it might seem overwhelming, but take a deep breath and dive in – you’re sure to end up totally enamoured by this bustling, unforgettable Japanese city.

Introduction to Tokyo

Tokyo is not only the largest city in Japan but also the most populous city on earth. With almost 14 million people packed into a relatively condensed area, it’s a city that truly embodies the word “bustling”. No matter the time of day or night, there is always plenty happening in this concrete jungle.

While many visitors’ first impression of Tokyo is centred on the bright lights, glittering skyscrapers and never-ending flow of foot and vehicle traffic, there’s much more to Tokyo. Its population boom has not been at the expense of its soul, and you’ll find plenty to love about Tokyo.

From beautiful, peaceful green spaces and temples to hidden away foodie hotspots, Tokyo is full of surprises and unexpected charm.

Due to Tokyo’s size, it’s no surprise that it’s divided up into smaller neighbourhoods, each with their own charms and attractions.

Tokyo Tower at night

We suggest you tackle Tokyo in zones spending a day in each of 3 or 4 areas to get a good feel for the city.

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Getting around Tokyo

You may have heard about Tokyo’s legendarily efficient public transport system. Simply designing a public transport system capable of carting around more than 14 million people is impressive – but one that is always* on time? Now that’s pretty amazing.

(*Perhaps not always on time, but it is very, very close.)

The subway system is the best way to get around Tokyo as it is fast, clean and relatively affordable. If you’re riding during peak hour, do be prepared to squeeze in as the locals do! We managed to avoid peak hour, and unless you are an adventure traveller I would recommend this 😉

Buying tickets at Ginza Station

Some destinations are not serviced by the subway, in which case the best option is usually to get the above-ground train.

Taxis and Grab (like Uber) do exist, however, these are best used only for very short trips due to the Tokyo traffic problems. They are quite expensive, although one night after walking way too far that day we did take a taxi from Shinjuku to Shibuya and it was money well spent!

If the idea of trying to work out subway ticketing when you arrive seems too much, you can purchase your pass in advance.

Top things to do in Tokyo

As you’d expect from such a sprawling city, there is no end to the list of things to do in Tokyo. You could spend a lifetime exploring the city, and still never see everything that’s on offer. However, here are the ten things we felt were unmissable sights to get you started.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace is to Tokyo what Buckingham Palace is to London. It’s the home of the Emperor of Japan, as well as a hugely iconic building within the city.

Imperial Palace Japan Tokyo
The Imperial Palace

The bad news is that you are not usually allowed to go into the palace – except for two days during the year, the 2nd of January and the 23rd of December. However, the sprawling gardens which surround the palace are amazing attractions in their own right.

Within them, you’ll find various smaller sections of the garden, most of which are free to enter. They’re beautiful at any time of the year, but absolutely magical during the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cherry blossom season.

Where: 1-1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda City, Tokyo
When: The grounds are open 9:15-11:15 and 1:45-2:45pm
Cost: Free

Senso-ji Temple

Tokyo has several beautiful temples which are places of devotion for local people as well as tourist attractions. However, the most unmissable of all of the temples is Senso-ji Temple. It is beautiful, as well as hugely historic and significant to Tokyo and Japan.

Sensoji Temple Tokyo
Sensoji Temple, Asakusa

The history of the Buddist temple dates way back to the 7th century when construction is believed to have begun. Over the centuries, the temple has changed as parts were added and destroyed. Most recently, Senso-ji Temple was badly damaged in World War II; however, it was sympathetically restored to its former glory.

Temple offerings Sensoji Japan
We were both lucky enough to get good fortunes

As well as visiting the beautiful temple, there’s also Nakamise Shopping Street right at the entrance – trust Tokyo to combine a poignant shrine and a bustling shopping market!

Where: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo
When: Temple 6:00 to 17:00 – Grounds always open
Cost: Free
Nearest Subway: Ginza Subway Line- Asakusa Station

Meiji Shrine

Even in a city as huge and bustling as Tokyo, there are still places to go to get some peace and quiet to reflect – like at Meiji Shrine. This was constructed back in 1920, and dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken.

Meji Shrine Tokyo, Japan.
Meiji Shrine Tokyo, Japan.

The shrine is set within a fairly dense forested area, which makes the peaceful shrine feel a world away from downtown Tokyo. It’s a lovely place to stop, admire the traditional Japanese style of architecture and perhaps decompress after a day of sightseeing in the busy city.

Tip: Visit in the early morning, and you will find it a very peaceful place. This works well combined with Harajuku below.

Where: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya City
When: 5am-6pm
Cost: Free

Shop (or people watch) in Harajuku

There’s no shortage of quirky shopping areas in Tokyo; however, perhaps the most famous of them all is Harajuku. This area is popular with young people, and especially those with a love of the latest (and most outrageous) fashion and style.

Harajuku is always colourful

You’ll find plenty of fabulous cafes and boutiques here, but we were not really tempted to part with our money. However, it can be just as fun simply to sit and enjoy the atmosphere. Nearby Omotesando Ave did, however, provide more temptation.

Tokyu Plaza Omotesando in Harajuku is also worth a stop; the mirrors that surround the elevators is famous on Instagram and pretty cool to see. They also had clean loos and some well priced interesting shops. We spend some time resting here at a cafe on the top floor before continuing on.

Tokyu Plaza Omotesando in Harajuku

While Harajuku is not quite as outrageous as it used to be, chances are you’ll still spot plenty of people in some seriously quirky outfits. We also found some great vintage shops in this area.

Where: Takeshita Dori and Omotesando Ave
When: Weekends is best for people watching
Cost: as much or as little as you like.

Be amazed at the Shibuya Scramble Crossing

If you ever want to be reminded of what an incredibly busy and densely populated city Tokyo is, head for the “Shibuya Scramble Crossing”. This junction is the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, and you’ll hardly be able to believe your eyes at just how many people are trying to cross at any given moment.

Adding to the atmosphere is the abundance of neon signs and lit-up billboards. It’s busy all day, every day – however, if you want to be blown away by it, head here during peak hour.

You might just want to take refuge in a nearby cafe or restaurant (preferably up high, so you can look down on the crossing), to avoid getting lost in the sea of people!

Everyone heads to Starbucks so it can be impossible to actually get a decent photo from here. You might want to try MAG’s PARK, there is a 500 yen admission fee from this rooftop observatory however its open from 11am-11pm and a lot less crowded. Another option is the Shibuya Mark City Walkway. We discovered this by accident when we were trying to find a way to walk back to our hotel without getting wet. I would try all three personally 🙂

Where: There are many exits from Shibuya Station that will bring you to the Scramble.
When: It’s most fascinating at peak hour but great to photograph at night.
Cost: free

Visit a quirky restaurant or cafe

Japan is famous for its love of all things quirky, kawaii (cute) and/or super-modern. One of the best places to experience this aspect of Japanese culture is to stop by an unusual cafe or restaurant. We almost stopped into the Owl Cafe in Harajuku but I have to be honest, this is not really my thing, and we didn’t actually visit any. We walked past loads, and they are very popular.

From ultra-detailed themed restaurants devoted to Alice in Wonderland, to the spectacularly strange robot restaurant, there’s an amazing selection of cafes in Japan. They range from the slightly quirky to the downright bizarre, and you certainly don’t want to miss the experience!

One that caught our eye and we discovered is hugely popular because we missed getting a ticket is the Robot Restaurant. We have this on our list for next time. It’s a great choice if you want quirky but prefer to avoid the cafes featuring animals and the women dressed as maids and school girls.

Where: All over the city but plenty in Harajuku
When: mid-morning till late night
Cost: Average about 2000¥ per person for entry and drink/snack

Take in the views from above

Tokyo Skytree

One of the world’s tallest buildings (and the world’s tallest tower), you can’t miss the Tokyo Skytree when you’re in the city. Its needle-like pinnacle shoots up well above the skyline and is visible from all over the city.

Tokyo Skytree Japan
Tokyo Skytree is one of several great viewpoints in Japan

While it’s cool to look at, it’s even better to go up to the observation tower to take in the incredible views of Tokyo. There’s nothing like it – prepare for a (somewhat dizzying) perspective right over the rooftops of Tokyo.

It’s no secret that it’s a huge city – however, the bird’s eye view hits home with how expansive and modern Tokyo is. This might not be ideal for those with a fear of heights, but for everyone else, it’s astonishing. If you are on a short visit, it can be a good idea to buy your ticket in advance and save time queueing.

Where: 1 Chome-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida City,
When: 8am to 10pm
Cost: 2,060 ¥
Getting there: Tokyo Skytree Station” on the Tobu Skytree Line

Shibuya Sky

Another great viewpoint can be found at the brand new Shibuya Sky Observation Deck which opened in November 2019. The deck overlooks the scramble crossing and is almost 230m high. Entry will set you back 2000 yen.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Budget travels should head to Shinjuku for the best free view in town. The observation decks at the Tokyo Metro Government Building stand 202m above the city and offers view to Mount Fuji in good weather.

Breathe deep at Shinjuku Gyoen

If the constant hustle and bustle of Tokyo ever gets too much – don’t fear! There are numerous peaceful green spaces around the city, with the most famous being the Shinjuku Gyoen (Garden).

Originally belonging to a wealthy Japanese family in the 17th century, today the Shinjuku Gyoen is a favourite spot of both locals and visitors. It offers a calm oasis in the bustling city, with many different sections of the garden.

Shinjuku Gyoen Tokyo
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

They’re all beautiful, however, things are especially magical in cherry blossom season. During this time, it’s one of the best places to spot the delicate pastel flowers.

Where: 11 Naitomachi, Shinjuku City
When: 9am – 5:30pm (closed Monday)
Cost: free
Getting there: walk from New South Exit of JR Shinjuku Station

Eat sushi at the Fish Market (and then find more Japanese food)

You don’t have to be a foodie to know that Tokyo is home to some of the best food on the planet. From tiny little street food stalls to Michelin-starred luxury restaurants, it’s a real gastronomic delight. You simply can’t leave Tokyo without trying as much as you can.

A good place to start is by enjoying some sushi near the Tsukiji Outer Market (note: the famous tuna auction recently moved to Toyosu so is no longer at Tsukiji). Near the market, you’ll find some of the city’s best and freshest sushi-like at Sushi Dai, which has just 12 highly sought-after seats.

Sushi might be a good starting point, but it’s just the beginning. It seems like down every street there is a restaurant tempting you in to try sashimi, ramen, teriyaki and more – so make sure you leave plenty of opportunities to eat to your heart’s content!

Where: 4 Chome-16-2 Tsukiji, Chuo City
When: 5am-2pm
Cost: free
Getting there: Oedo Subway Line to Tsukiji Shijo Station.

Get your Anime and Manga fix

One of Japan’s most famous exports is the beloved cartoon styles anime and manga, which today has fanatics all over the world. Across ages, genders and backgrounds, anime and manga continue to delight with offerings from Pokemon to Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.

Whether you’re a lifelong fan or just interested to see what the fuss is about, it’s worth seeking out some anime while in Tokyo.

One of the most famous hotspots is Akihabara, which is famous for its electronics and commitment to geek culture. Here you’ll find a dazzling selection of anime and manga memorabilia, and so much more. There are also various museums, including the Ghibli Museum and Fujiko-F-Fujio Museum.

The main street of Akihabara, Chuo Dori, is closed to cars every Sunday from 1-6pm.

Where: 1 Chome-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, Tokyo 
When: 10am-6pm daily
Cost: Free to wander Akihabara but good luck not spending!

Do some Vintage Shopping

Japan has some excellent vintage and second-hand stores. Everything from US university sweatshirts to 90s jeans and character T-shirts to classic 1940-1970s dresses and coats. It’s a shoppers paradise.

The consignment stores in Japan are the perfect place to grab a preloved designer bag

We also discovered plenty of consignment stores with luxury handbags

One thing we had never seen before we visited Japan is the fantastic way they look after clothing that you try on in shops. Women are given face covers to wear so that their makeup does not stain the item. It’s such a good idea. You also leave your shoes just outside the changeroom which we also thought was cool.

Book a Tokyo Greeter

As you may know, I am a Sydney Greeter, so I always look for Greeter programs when I am travelling. We signed up for a greet in Tokyo and we were lucky to be matched.

Shop in suburban tokyo
We discovered this quirky shop in the back streets of Yanaka with our greeter.

We told our greeter we wanted to see a neighbourhood we were unlikely to come across alone and she suggested Yanaka neighbourhood, an area considered the little Kyoto of Tokyo. There are more than 60 Buddhist Temples, many small streets with traditional houses and shops.

We spent 4 hours exploring this part of the city before making our way on foot to Ueno Park. It was one of the best days we had in Japan and certainly our favourite in Tokyo.

Frequently asked questions for first-time visitors to Tokyo

We had a bunch of questions when we planned our visit. Luckily I had a bunch of Japanese friends who were more than happy to help out with their suggestions. I also started planning this trip one year out so a ridiculous amount of time went into making sure it went smoothly.

Do I need a pocket wi-fi?

Ok so everyone said yes, but we decided against it and bought two sim cards instead. Neither of us wanted to carry around another device, and the sim card option worked fine. We use a hotspot for our laptop from the phone and had no problems at all.

There are plenty of pocket wifi deals which can be great if you are travelling with kids or laptops and plan to use a lot of data. You can collect them at the airport or have them delivered to your hotel.

Do I need a rail pass for Tokyo?

It depends on your itinerary. We were in Japan for 13 days on this visit, and it made sense to have a pass because we visited Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo. We were able to stick with a 7-day pass because we used it to get from Tokyo to Kyoto and Hiroshima in the first week then once we arrived back in Tokyo we just used a local transport card.

I did price the tickets as singles, but there was a small benefit in buying the pass. Passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 days.

Which Tokyo airport should you fly in to?

If you have a choice, I would recommend Haneda, its only 15km from the centre of Tokyo and a straightforward 30-minute train ride to the city. In the past, only a small number of international flights landed here and it was more of a domestic terminal, but things have changed. You can see the list of airlines that have flights into Haneda here.

Narita Airport is 90 minutes from Tokyo and after a 10 hour or more flight a total hassle. There are express buses and trains which I think are the best option but if you can avoid this airport, I would. The transfers will cost more, so consider this when choosing your flight.

If you do land here consider the location of your hotel before deciding on the express train or bus. Sometimes the shared and private door to door transfers are worth it.

I would totally consider booking a shuttle if I was landing here later in the day.

Do you need to book attractions in advance

Yes and no, for some you absolutely must, places like the Ghibli Museum and Digital Art Museum teamLab Borderless both book out in advance for much of the year. We changed our dates at the last minute so missed both of these on this visit. We will be more careful next time.

Another popular activity that can get booked out is the Mario Cart experience. This was not something I wanted to do but it does look like lots of fun if you have fans in your group.

Should you tip for service in Tokyo

No, the advice we received from Japanese friends and from our greeter is that it is not customary to tip in Japan. It can be confusing if language is a barrier with the person not knowing if you understand the price and it can cause offence.

Three tips for travelling in Tokyo

  • There are a fair few English speakers in Tokyo; however, it is certainly not universal. Downloading a translation app and brushing up on a few simple phrases can help you navigate around the city.

    Try to learn at least the essential words, including:
    • Konichiwa – Hello
    • Arigato – Thank you
    • Hai – yes
    • Sumi masen – Excuse me, sorry
  • It is considered rude to eat and drink while taking the subway or walking in the street, so try to refrain or be extremely discreet when doing this.
  • Use Google Maps and HyperDia to find your way around. You will get lost, but its part of the fun.

Related: Check out our Kyoto Itinerary

Where to Stay in Tokyo

Choosing which area to stay in Tokyo was hard; we spent way too much time fussing over it in the end. This is a ridiculously expensive city, much like Sydney.

My advice is to choose a location that suits your travel style. Consider how well you handle crowds and flashing lights. I honestly found them a bit overwhelming in the end and would choose Ueno next time. The big park and vibe was relaxing in comparison to Shinjuku and Shibuya. It is also close to great museums and galleries.

We choose to stay at Shibuya for the bulk of our time in Tokyo because this was a mother-daughter trip and after no shopping at all in Kyoto and Hiroshima in Tokyo shopping was a big part of the agenda.

We had seven nights in Tokyo and stayed at two properties to avoid the Friday/Saturday night price bump.

Nest Hotel Tokyo Hanzomon

We started with Nest Hotel Tokyo Hanzomon as we arrived on a weekend and our main hotel was just too expensive. The Nest was a great property with small but very comfortable rooms, we had a twin which did feel pretty cramped with two cases, but this is Japan and rooms are pretty small. I think the double rooms feel more spacious and would try to grab one of these next time.

The lobby was beautifully styled, and the staff at check-in very friendly and helpful.

A help yourself breakfast snack is served in this welcoming foyer each morning.

There are lots of offices in the area around the hotel and on a Saturday night it seemed very quiet, which is a nice change for Tokyo. There were some excellent restaurants nearby the hotel.

Hanzomon subway station in less than a minutes walk away making exploring Toyko relatively easy.

If you are visiting for Cherry Blossom season, the hotel is a short walk from the beautiful Kitanomaru Park. The Imperial Palace is also nearby.

Check reviews on TripAdvisor and see what you think.

Excel Shibuya Stream Hotel

We booked the Excel Shibuya Stream as a special treat for my daughters 21st birthday. It’s a new property in a fantastic location, and we could not fault it at all. We were upgraded to a corner suite with an amazing view. I think because they knew it was a celebration.

The large windows went right around the room

Our room featured a sitting area, huge bathroom, twin beds and a table and chairs. The room was modern, comfortable, and a delight to spend time in.

Shibuya Stream Hotel Excel Tokyo
Our corner room at the Excel Shubya Stream – the curtains pulled back to reveal the city

On each floor are communal facilities designed to make your stay more comfortable. On our floor were a shared dining/kitchen space with Microwave oven, steam toaster, hot water heater and rice cooker. We used this a couple of times when we had found interesting options in markets we had visited.

Excel Shubya Stream Hotel Laundry

On other floors were a guest laundry, gym, shoe cleaning and vending machines. Another cute gimmick was the robot room service. We bumped into the robot in the lift a few times but never got around to requesting anything.

The property is well located on top of the Shibuya train station. It’s an enormous station so you can end up walking quite far to get to the platform you need, but its underground out of the weather, and there are lots of shops and services at your door.

It’s a 5 min walk to Shibuya Crossing and the restaurants in the Stream building are great.

We highly recommend this hotel if it fits your budget and you want to be right in the action.

Check prices and availability on booking.com

Hotel Coco Grand Ueno Shinobazu

We have booked Hotel Coco Grand Ueno Shinobazu for our next visit. We checked it out on this trip and loved the location. The hotel overlooks the Ueno Park and is only five minutes walk from Ueno Station. The station also has express trains to Narita Airport if you flight lands here.
Check the price and availability of Hotel Coco Grand Ueno on Booking.com

Check all available properties in Tokyo

If you plan on visiting in high season, particularly for Cherry Blossoms (April) or Golden Week in early May, it’s best to book as soon as you have your dates. November’s fall foliage is also very popular.

Booking.com

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