A trip to Japan is like stepping through a portal into the future. You’ll find yourself zooming around on high-speed bullet trains, ordering dinner using vibrant touch screen kiosks, and weaving through an endless sea of neon lighting. Not to mention the electric toilets. There’s so much to see and do that it’s easy to fend off the jet lag.
First things first, if you’re planning on spending more than 5 days in Japan, then I HIGHLY recommend getting the Japan Rail Pass. The pass is available in 7-day, 14-day, and 21-day increments. We purchased a 7-day pass for 27,500 yen ($250). A one-way trip from the Narita airport to Tokyo is 3,000 yen. And a round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is 26,000 yen. So, if you plan on doing Tokyo & Kyoto then you’ll already be saving money. After ordering the Japan Rail (JR) pass online, the vouchers will arrive in 2-3 business days. You’ll then need to exchange these at a JR station when you’re ready to activate.
The pass is valid on almost all trains operated on the nationwide network of JR including shinkansen, limited express, express, rapid and local trains. Additionally, it’s valid for the ferry to Miyajima island near Hiroshima. The only high-speed train the pass holders cannot use is the Nozomi trains. It’s pretty much a no-brainer. Keep in mind that the validity period begins on the date the pass is first used. We chose to activate our passes on the third day of our trip (after spending the first two days exploring Tokyo using the metro).
While in Tokyo, it’s best to buy a day pass for the local metro. It saves you the hassle of having to purchase a ticket every time you want to jump on. There are three primary rail operators in the Tokyo metro area: Japan Rail (JR), Tokyo Metro, and Tokyo Metro Bureau of Transportation (Toei). So if all the places you want to go in Tokyo that day are accessed by lines controlled by one of those operators – just buy a day pass valid for that specific operator. When in doubt, GOOGLE IT. Google maps is very reliable in Tokyo. We could enter the destination and it would provide 3 or 4 different routes using various lines. and connections. This is extremely helpful if you have a day pass valid for only one rail operator.
Staying in the world’s largest city can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately, their remarkable metro system makes it possible to access almost any part of the metropolis within 45 minutes or less.
If it’s your first time in Tokyo, I recommend staying near Shibuya Station. All the major metro lines run through here and it’s in the heart of the fashion & entertainment district. The Shibuya Station is approximately 45 minutes from the Haneda Airport and 1.5 hrs from the Narita Airport. Our AirBnb was a short 10-minute walk from the station.
THINGS TO DO
Japan has a booming specialty coffee scene right now. Third-wave coffee roasters and brewers are sprouting up everywhere. These local shops prepare coffee the right way – sourcing quality beans, roasting to perfection, and brewing with proper technique. Please don’t go to Starbucks or Tully’s. Their coffee is burnt garbage and you won’t be supporting quality, hard working third-wave roasters. To start your morning, I recommend grabbing a pour-over coffee from About Life Coffee Brewers or the Roastery by Nozy Coffee.
Imperial Palace and Gardens
A short walk from Tokyo Station, the Imperial Palace is the former site of the Edo Castle and home to the Imperial Family. The palace itself is stunning, but I think the gardens are the real highlight. The gardens provide a refreshing contrast to the chaotic city. Be sure to spend some time walking around enjoying the beautiful flowers and water features. There’s also a nice 5 km walking/running trail around the outside of the gardens if you need more exercise. Also, if you visit the Imperial Palace I recommend grabbing a coffee at nearby Glitch Coffee Roasters.
Tokyo’s oldest temple. It’s a little touristy and crowded, but still worth checking out.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the largest in the world! It handles thousands of tons of marine products every day. You probably won’t be purchasing any wholesale fish, but it’s exciting to watch the scooters, trucks, and vendors speeding around and weaving through the labyrinth of tables.
Tsukiji Market is just above Tsukiji Shijo Station on the Oedo Subway Line. Alternatively, it can be reached in a five minute walk from Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya Subway Line. The closest JR station is Shimbashi, from where you can walk to the market in about 15 minutes.
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Amazing Shinto shrine surrounded by a forested park. We enjoyed walking through the park more than the shrine itself.
Pay $10 to take the elevator to the top and get an incredible view of the city.
One of the busiest intersections in the world with hundreds of people crossing the street at once. Nothing says “Welcome to Tokyo” better than this. There’s an overwhelming amount of people. Go check it out on a Friday or Saturday night to get the best experience. Maybe do some shopping or Karaoke in Shibuya while you’re there.
Always get Sushi for lunch, not dinner. You literally get the same stuff, but at half the cost. And there’s usually lunch specials.
Ramen/ Udon / Soba Noodles
Make sure to try all three types! Our favorite place was Shin Udon.
Airbnb has some great options throughout the city. Keep in mind that the apartments (and hotel rooms) will be small. You’ll adjust to the claustrophobic layout of Japanese rooms after a while, but it might be a shock at first. My advice would be to stay near Shinjuku or Shibuya where most of the night life and entertainment is.
This was our Airbnb apartment in Shibuya: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/12712178
I highly recommend staying at least one night in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn). It will be a little more expensive than a normal hotel or apartment, but it will typically include a 9-course Japanese style dinner and breakfast. You also get to wear robes and sit on the floor and experience Japan at its fullest. Usually there’s an onsen on-site (traditional Japanese hot-spring bath). We stayed at this Ryokan while visiting the Japanese Alps (Shibu-Onsen). The village has 9 natural hot spring onsens. If you stay in any of the village Ryokans you get a key that accesses all of the onsens.