Tokyo is one of the ten largest cities in the world and without a doubt, on many bucket list destinations for travelers. Since Tokyo is such a large city, you will never run out of things to see and do. Without further ado, let’s get started on your guide to Tokyo for first timers:
Airport: There are 2 different airports you can fly in and out of to get to Tokyo, Narita and Haneda. Narita will take about over an hour to get to Tokyo and Haneda will only take half the time. Keep in mind that although Haneda is closer to Tokyo, it is more costly to fly into. Thus, the Narita airport is the most common airport travelers will fly into. It can be a little overwhelming and confusing at first because there are different options you can take for transportation from Narita to the center of Tokyo. Make sure you do a little of reading and planning for it before you take off. I was in no hurry, so I took the cheapest route possible and that was by the regular train.
Transportation: Take the trains! Make sure you buy all-day passes as needed and only buy single tickets when you do not plan on taking the trains across the city as often. Use Google Maps to plan out your routes as it tells you which lines to take and how much the fare will be. The map of the railways can seem a bit complicated but rest assured, the more you use the metro, the easier it will be.
Accommodations: Hotels can be quite costly in Tokyo and I was unwilling to cram into a capsule hotel, as it reminds me of sleeping in a morgue. The alternative was to stay at an Airbnb and what I would recommend to be the best value. My Airbnb was in the Shinjuku area and my host provided a convenient pocket Wi-Fi, which allowed me to have internet access wherever I went.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Take the elevator up to the 45th floor for a free observation deck to ogle at the great views of the city below. There are several structures with observation decks such as Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower, but those require an admission fee and can be extremely crowded. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is a great alternative for fewer crowds and easier on your wallet.
Be sure to go on a clear day to be able to see the buildings and skyscrapers as some days in Tokyo can be cloudy and smoggy.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Take a 25-minute walk from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to admire the beauty in nature and its seasons among the variety of gardens at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. If it is cherry blossom season, you’re in luck, as this is an exceptional place to capture photos. The Shinjuku Gyoen Garden has an admission fee of ¥200, which is said to be one of the best-valued parks amidst the other parks in Tokyo.
Quench your thirst and knock back a few shots with other foreigners and locals at Golden Gai. Bars signs light up the dark alleyways and dimly lit pubs. If you decide to spend your nightlife here, be aware of the cover charges and barkeepers as they could be charging you a higher price for drinks.
I only came here to take a look around but did not go in any of the bars, because I was told that it is a scam for tourists. My thoughts were justified as soon as I overheard a conversation between a Japanese and American discussing their check discrepancy after a few rounds of drinks. It is said that the bartenders will give you a discount if you are a local and will charge you more if you are clearly a tourist.
Takeshita Street / Dori
This famous pedestrian-only street located in Harajuku is best known for its Harajuku girls and for being one of the most populated places with stores, boutiques, crepe shops, and restaurants. It caters to the youth and subculture fashion in Tokyo. It is extremely crowded throughout the day so if you are planning to go shopping, expect long lines.
Takeshita Street is a charming place to window shop and get a sense for the Japanese culture, whether it be by checking out the fashion in the boutiques or by people watching. During my trek down the congested Takeshita Street, I visited stores such as Daiso, which are ¥100 stores and stumbled into the Disney store. Whichever city I am, I always happen to find myself in a Disney store and pick up a new Tsum Tsum for my friend, since he is a collector and different countries have different Tsum Tsums available.
As I became hungry, I was planning to dine at the Pompompurin Cafe located on the 3rd floor of the Cute Cube Harajuku Mall. I grew up loving Sanrio and Pompompurin was my favorite character as it had sentimental value. However, there was a waitlist for the next day and gave us time slots to come back. Unfortunately, I had other plans so I was unable to return.
The Meiji Shrine is Tokyo’s most popular shrine in Harajuku, a district in Shibuya. There is no admission fee and is opened from sunrise to sunset. You have to walk through a long path entrance surrounded by trees, as the shrine is located in the middle of the forest. Ceremonies and rituals often take place here such as traditional Shinto weddings so you might be able to catch them like I did!
Yoyogi Park is a 6-minute walk from Meiji Shrine. This park is a great place to people watch and relax next to the pond. Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the two busiest neighborhoods, Shinjuku and Shibuya, here.
You can see many different things going on here as musicians, dancers, and entertainers gather here to perform. I was able to catch the rockabilly dancers bust their dance moves as I was visiting, such a fun sight to see!
Shibuya Scramble Street
A clear depiction of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Shibuya Scramble Street is one of the busiest streets available for crossing in Tokyo. Like cockroaches scattering when the light switch flips on, pedestrians cross from all angles of the street in a sudden burst of chaos when the walk sign appears.
Aside from the Scramble Street, Shibuya is known for its fashion and shopping. This district is well-equipped to fill all your heart’s desires for shopping, restaurants, and cafes. It would be impossible to see and shop through everything Shibuya has to offer in one day. If you plan on going to Disneyland, you should head over to the Disney Store and buy your Disneyland tickets early because there will be a long line at the entrance.
For a tour around Tokyo and major areas like Shibuya, you can inquire to go on a Go Kart Tokyo Tour where you are dressed up as Mario Kart characters and drive around on the streets. While wandering around Shibuya, I saw many tourists race by dropping bananas and shells (not really). I thought this was a great way to visit Tokyo and admire the buildings and areas without having to put in the steps.
Near the Shibuya Scramble Street, loyally sits a statue of Hachikō. Hachikō was truly a man’s best friend as he faithfully came and greet his owner, Ueno, near the Shibuya station every day after work. Even after the passing of Ueno, Hachikō still continued to wait for Ueno’s return until his death. This heartwarming story of a man’s best friend is now commemorated by a statue in Shibuya.
Tokyo’s Electric Town, Akihabara, is one of the must-see districts if you are into anime, electronics, and video games. You can also find a variety of maid cafes and theme cafes here. As you explore Akihabara, you will notice the giant buildings with bursts of color from the posters that hang. Don’t be shy, step into any store or building that catches your eye. You will be welcomed by floors and floors of beeping, tapping, and clicking sounds from video games and gamers. Akihabara is certainly not a place you should visit if you are seeking tranquility as it is a town if you should see for thrills of pop culture and video games. If you are a weeaboo, Akihabara is the heaven on Earth for you.
Sensoji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest and most visited temple in Asakusa. The Nakamise Street leading up to Sensoji Temple is great to find souvenirs and filled with tourists.
Tokyo Skytree (Solamachi)
Look up in Tokyo and you will see one of the world’s tallest structures, the Tokyo Skytree. At the base of the Skytree is a huge mall and at the top is an observation deck where you can look down at the city below. The mall, of course, is free to enter but to get to the observation deck, you will need to purchase tickets starting at ¥1030 depending on which ticket type best fits your viewing needs. After your visit to the Skytree, be sure to explore the area around Skytree as there are some cool exhibits and places to eat.
Take a brisk walk around Ueno Park, especially when it is cherry blossom season. This is also another great hot spot to take photos of cherry blossoms. There is also a museum where you can take a look around for the admission price of ¥600.
Ameya-Yokocho Market (Ameyoko)
After Ueno Park, visit the nearby Ameyoko Market for food and gifts. The shopping arcade is both indoor and outdoor filled with clothing shops and supermarkets.
Nezu Shrine is another Shinto shrine added to the long list of temples and shrines in Tokyo. Here, you can find the iconic Japanese gates, torli, aligned to form a tunnel. Many people travel to Kyoto for Fushimi Inari-taisha, but they can also see a shorter trail at Nezu Shrine. After your visit to the Nezu Shrine, catch a break with taiyakis at Nezu-no-Taiyaki, a popular store that often has lines out of the door.
If shopping and high fashion are more of your forte, head over to the district of Ginza. There, you will be able to do some upscale shopping at one of the world’s largest luxury shopping districts filled with department stores, shopping complexes, and boutiques.
Take a break from all that shopping by purchasing a ticket to watch a Kabuki performance at the Kabukiza Theater.
Underground Railway Area
While you are in the Ginza district, head over to Yakitori Alley where you can eat meat skewers at the Underground Railway Area nearby while listening to the trains pass by.
Tokyo Stock Exchange
Interested in seeing the third largest stock exchange in the world? It is open to the public with free admission!
Not to be mistaken as the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower is a communications and observation tower. In fact, it actually stands taller than the Eiffel Tower and is the second tallest architecture in Japan. There is an admission fee for both the main deck and the top deck for 900 and 2,800 yen respectively.
Only a 10-minute walk from Ginza, you can find tiny izakaya, yakitori shops, and bars tucked away in Shinbashi. Surrounded by skyscrapers and business buildings, you will find the office workers and salarymen congregate here during rush hour.
Informally known as “Odaiba”, Daiba is an artificial island in Tokyo Bay that was once used as a military tactic, is now known as “Entertainment Island” filled with shops and entertainment for all visitors to enjoy.
Diver City is a shopping center where you can find souvenirs and snacks. To get to the Gundam Statue, I first walked through Diver City to shop and look for Tokyo Bananas to bring back home.
Whether you watch Gundam or not, this famous statue of a giant robot in Odaiba lights up and moves for fans and visitors. When I visited, it was the old Gundam but now it is replaced with a bigger and more badass Gundam statue as of 2017. The previous Gundam statue was shorter and smaller than how it was shown in the anime. This new Gundam clearly depicts the Japanese and their meticulous attention to detail as they built it to display how a real Gundam would look like in real life.
Standing outside of Odaiba’s DiverCity Tokyo Plaza, the Unicorn Gundam statue is free to visit and take photos of. Ever so often, you get a small show from the graceful Gundam as it transforms and makes noises to keep the onlookers entertained.
Sorry to break it to you, Pokemon lovers, it is not Pallet Town. But more like the palette for painting, as it displays one of the largest colorful Ferris wheels outside. Inside Palette Town is a building filled with shops, restaurants, and attractions. This mall has a very elegant interior design with a sky painted ceiling similar to the sophisticated Venetian and Paris hotels in Las Vegas.
This suspension bridge can be seen from Odaiba as it connects to Tamachi Station. At the edge of Daiba there is a waterfront park where can have perfect views of the Rainbow Bridge from anywhere on the beach. You can walk or drive across the bridge but is not recommended to walk since there is heaps of pollution and smog due to the constant traffic. The bridge itself illuminates and alternates colors depending on the event and season. Rainbow Bridge really reveals how much Tokyo embraces technology and made it a part of their everyday lives.
Decks’ exterior design is in a shape of a cruise ship, as it is charming and nautical themed. Inside, it is another shopping mall in Odaiba with shops, restaurants, and entertainment. If you are into virtual reality, you should visit Joypolis, the largest indoor theme park in Japan. There is also an interactive art museum called Tokyo Trick Art Museum, where you can take photos that display optical illusions. In addition, you can tour and eat your way through the Odaiba Takoyaki Museum.
The Odaiba Takoyaki Museum has a food court style layout with stalls lined up next to each other and a bounty of tables for you to enjoy your snack. This takoyaki “museum” is less of a museum and more of a food fair.
Aqua City is a five-story mall in a string of malls with American retail stores and a replica of New York City’s Statue of Liberty outside.
One of the most prestigious schools in Japan is Tokyo University and it certainly shows. Take a look around, it’s interesting to see the difference between universities across the world.
If you are a Disney fanatic or enjoy anything Disney related, you must visit Tokyo DisneySea! Similar to Disney California Adventure in Southern California, Tokyo DisneySea is different than the traditional Disneyland. Here, you will not find the castle in the middle of the park but guaranteed to find something spectacular. The meticulous detail and thought they put into creating the park is astonishing. I was in awe and filled with joy throughout my visit to Tokyo DisneySea. This is by far one of my favorite parks! Read my full post on DisneySea here.
Fun fact: Although Tokyo DisneySea uses the Disney name, it is actually not owned by the Walt Disney Company, but by The Oriental Land Company. The Walt Disney Company just licenses the characters and themes.
Tokyo Disneyland is more of the traditional Disneyland theme park you see in other countries with the different lands such as Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. I ran out of time and I was unable to visit Tokyo Disneyland but I intend to visit it in the future.
Public Onsen – Also known as a public bath. If taking baths with strangers in hot spring water is your thing, then this is a perfect way to experience a common activity amongst the Japanese. Remember your etiquette and manners!
Mount Takao – A mountain in Japan that is 50 km from the center of Tokyo. For those who want to see more of the nature side of Tokyo, you can take the JR to Mount Takao. Free admission.
Ghibli Museum – If you are familiar with the Japanese animation Studio Ghibli films such as Spirited Away, Ghibli Museum is right up your alley. Be aware that you must purchase tickets in advance and are extremely limited.
Pachinko – Japan’s way of gambling, except you don’t actually win money; you win prizes. Not to be confused with slot machines, Pachinko, a Japanese favorite past time, is a mechanical game equipped with fun, flashing lights and played with small silver balls.