First time in Tokyo? - my 5 day “stress free” guide for self directed travellers
Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world. Looking around, you realise you are also in the largest train station in the country (2 million passengers per day!). English is not the locals’ first language and you have no idea how to find your hotel. Oh dear!!
You extrapolate…If I cant find my hotel now, how will I find my way around a city of 13 million people during the next five days? You’re thinking…. “why didn’t I go with an all inclusive, guided tour where there would be a smiling face with a tour flag waiting for me at the airport?
Fear not! With a little planning you can make it all work.
Here are some tips to have a ‘stress free” few days soaking up the best sights that Tokyo has to offer without having to bookmark a bunch of websites or make copious paper print outs.
As a self directed traveller, it’s important to get connected straight off the plane. There are of course, a couple of options such as global roaming (expensive) or local phones and SIMs, however I prefer renting a pocket wifi device. There are a number of suppliers such as GAC Comms, Docomo etc. You can’t make calls but you can FaceTime or Skype on wifi to keep in touch back home. You can also order the pocket wifi device online before you leave and pick it up at the airport. By the time you are settled in your choice of airport transfer you’re connected. A wifi device can also support multiple users if you are travelling in a group so you can split the costs if you stick together.
The upside of being connected is that it makes it relatively easy to transfer from the airport to your hotel by train using Google Maps to navigate.
From Narita at least, you can take a limousine service or airport shuttle that takes 90 minutes alternatives or take the very efficient train service. The Narita Express (NEX) operates direct to Tokyo or Shinjuku stations taking an hour. If you activate your Japan Rail Pass when you arrive you can travel on the NEX without further cost.
Where to stay? Tokyo is a big town with 13 million people, 23 city wards and multiple cities. As both good bases to explore greater Tokyo, I recommend Shibuya or Shinjuku which are are also on the Yamanote rail line.
The Yamanote line is a circular route of 29 Stations taking about 90 minutes to do a circuit. The great thing is the Yamanote line can become the “backbone” of your sightseeing itinerary. Many of Tokyo’s best sights are easily accessible from the train line, the trains run regularly, so its “almost” impossible to not find your way back to the hotel. At times though it can save you time to take another line or subway. Play smart and download “Hyperdia” and you will have access to a minute by minute online timetable for Tokyo’s train system. By doing this you’ll save time and bypass the almost completely indecipherable map of Tokyo’s intertwined rail system. You just need to remember not all train lines are covered under the Japan Rail Pass. Either Google Maps of Hyperdia will let you know.
Shibuya is a fashion, entertainment and residential. Shibuya has the most walked pedestrian intersection in Japan found in front of the train station’s Hachiko Exit. At night, the intersection is an almost overwhelming barrage of neon lights.
Shinjuku is a busy district with something always happening. Lots of eateries, shopping and a relaxing park. It also has the biggest train station in Tokyo and by staying close to the station makes it easier to get around particularly if you use the Yamanote line as the basis for your Tokyo itinerary.
I recently stayed at the new Hotel Gracery in Kabukicho, Shinjuku. The upside of this location is that it is five minutes walk from Shinjuku station leaving from the east or Kabukicho exit. Whichever hotel you decide upon, just remember which train station exit is the best way to your hotel.
Whilst the Hotel Gracery is close in heart of the Kabukicho club scene don’t be too alarmed. You may have the odd hawker thrusting a paper ticket toward you to induce you into their club however in my experience they were not persistent and the area is full of people of all ages. It’s similar to walking down the strip in Las Vegas.
The Hotel Gracery’s rooms are smallish by western standards but standard for Japanese hotels and very functional. I forgot to mention the Hotel Gracery is the “Godzilla hotel” and you can greet this guy with rather large teeth in the reception’s courtyard together with taking a great view of the surrounding area. (Note: you enter the Hotel Gracery from the rear entrance and reception is on the eighth floor.)
So you want a stress free few days. It’s important to find a sightseeing cadence that fits your style. I have a friend who has to see every major building and monument in a new city. If she doesn’t, she feels she’s not made the best use of her valuable vacation time.
That approach is not really my style. My cadence is more like, pick out the two or three “must do” sights in a particular area and sort out a place to have a coffee or lunch, try the local cuisine and watch the locals. I leave the afternoon a little loose to either take in another interesting sight, a short walk or visit a park, gallery or museum.
I have provided two or three sights within walking distance from a station on the Yamanote line together with a good place for coffee or eat. If you want to do explore more or have a specific desire, access a specific Japan travel website. I have included a link below.
Day 1 — Shinjuku
My personal strategy on the first day in a new city is to get my bearings, before I venture too far afield. What better way to do that than to get a birds eye view. Take a short walk west of Shinjuku station and its almost impossible to miss the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office in West Shinjuku and a 10 minute walk from Shinjuku station. Opens at 9.30am and admission is free. There are observatories on the 45th floor on each of its twin towers. Its a great way to look over the city of Tokyo with enthusiastic English speaking guides that relish the opportunity to provide insights on the city. For future reference, ask a guide to point out the Meiji Shrine and Shinjuku Gyoen.
- Samurai Museum. A relatively recent tribute to the old Samurai way of life. The founder Tetsuro Koyano has put together a vast collection of armour, head gear, swords and guns displayed over two floors. For a few yen you can have your photo taken in a samurai costume. Allow an hour or so.
- Walk east along the shopping strip that is Shinjuku Dori (Street) for a kilometre try Bowls cafe for coffee or lunch. Nice ambience and don’t be surprised to see furry friends having their brunch there as well. Other alternatives include the myriad of food options around Shinjuku station including Ichiran Ramen near the central east exit if you want something more substantial.
- If you made it to Bowls Cafe you are a stone’s throw from Shinjuku Gyoen (Garden). This is possibly Tokyo’s best green space with French, English and Japanese gardens. A good place to shake off jet — lag and enjoy a beverage at the tea house. A great place (I’m told) in cherry blossom (sakura) season. It’s also a busy place on Sundays.
- For dinner, its worth a quick walk to Omoide Yokocho which is a labyrinth of narrow, olde world alleys just west of the station. It is full of traditional food stalls and restaurants preparing dishes such as Yakitori (barbecued chicken on a stick). Your olfactory senses will be in overload. When you eat you will most likely share a bench with office workers from the local area. One other food option is Jonetsu Horumon where you barbecue a selection of meats at your own table — great fun!
Day 2 — Shibuya
Its your second day and there is some serious culture is on offer heading to Shibuya. Hop on the JR Yamanote or the Chuo-Sobu line (run by JR) and head for Yoyogi station and the Meiji Shrine.
- The Meiji Shrine (明治神宮, Meiji Jingū) was dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor who opened Japan to the West, Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867. He united Japan thus bringing an end to its hitherto shogun dominated feudal system. This is referred to as the Meiji restoration. It was during this period that Japan westernised and modernised. The Emperor died in 1912. Various ceremonies are conducted all year around in either the Honden (main shrine building) or the shrine’s courtyard. After taking a pleasant walk amongst the gardens and ancient cypress don’t be surprised if you walk in on a ceremony as you approach the shrine.
- Hint: you’ll probably visit a number of Shinto shrines in Japan. Feel free to offer a prayer after purifying your hands and mouth at the trough. Toss a few yen in the offering box, wake the spirits or kami by banging the gong, bow your head twice, clap twice, pray to the spirits and then bow once. In my view having kind thoughts for a friend or loved one can’t be a bad thing.
- After walking around the Meiji Shrine you may like to grab a coffee and something to eat. If you put in 10 minutes walk you’ll find low key Tas Yard in Sendagaya not far from Harajuku. The menu is “kissetan-style” with curries and hayashi rice on offer and good coffee.
- Another short walk and you’ll find Takeshita Dori which has become a focal point for Harajuku’s teenage culture. Lots of fashion boutiques, vintage stores fast food outlets and crepe stands. walk up and down the side streets looking for a bargain.
- Before heading to Shibuya Station There are some other sights quite close such as the Togo Shrine, Nezu Museum which contains east asian artwork and a traditional Japanese garden or Ota Memorial Museum of Art which houses a vast collection of the late Mt. Ota Seizo.
- Take the the Yamanote line to Shibuya station from Harajuku. If you have filled your day, the sun will be starting to set as you exit Shibuya station. You will be confronted with Shibuya crossing, a huge pedestrian crossing in Hachiko Square surrounded by a mass of neon signs and video screens. Quite the sight at night.
- Try to find the statue of Hachiko, a tribute to a dog that met his master in the at the station everyday after the master had finished work. Hachiko continued to do this for over 10 years after his master passed away. Shibuya is a fashion and entertainment centre so its a good spot for shopping in any number of retail stores. Don’t forget to drop into Tower records.
- For dinner, try some ramen or Tonkatsu at Ichiran Restaurant
Hop the train back to Shinjuku. You have a had a full day’s sightseeing.
Day 3 — Tokyo (Central)
- Take the JR (Rapid) Chuo line to Tokyo station (14 mins). Take the main exit and head to the Imperial Palace. Time your journey to get there by 9.30am to join the official tour. The next tour is 11.00am. The walking tour will take you 90 mins. The pace of the tour is a little slow and you won’t be able to see all of the buildings but it would be a shame not to walk around the palace when you have travelled so far.
- Take a quick break for a coffee and cake at Dean & Deluca, Marunouchi on the way back to Tokyo station. Take the Yamanote line to Kanda Station (2 minutes) and transfer to the Ginza Subway Line for Asakusa (10 minutes, 170 yen) to get to the Sensoji Temple.
- Sensoji (aka Asakusa Kannon Temple), a Buddhist temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple. The temple dedicated to the goddess of Mercy, Kannon and completed in 645. Legend surrounds the temple whereby two brothers pulled a statue of Kannon out of the Sumida River and though they replaced the statue back into river it always returned them. After entering through the Kaminaron or Thunder Gate you are greeted by dozens of stalls selling traditional Japanese cakes, rice crackers, yukatas, folding fans, and ladies purses. The main hall is also very impressive. To get back to Shinjuku catch the Ginza line to Kanda Station then the JR Chuo line back to Shinjuku. From Asakusa station you are a stone’s throw from the river. Stroll across the road to check out the vista which includes the “flame” (Flamme d’or) on top of the Ashai Breweries Headquarters.
Day 4 — Ueno (Park)
- Catch the Yamanote line to Ueno station and walk toward the seemingly endless grounds of Ueno Park. The grounds were originally part of the very wealthy Tokugawa clan‘s “Kaneiji Temple” built during the Edo period. After being nearly destroyed in a civil war during the 19th century the temple was converted to a park. At the southern entrance there is a very impressive statue of statue of the victorious General Saigo Takamori. Ueno Park is also renowned for it’s zoo and it’s many museums. You can spend the best part of a day exploring any or all of National Museum for Western Art, Tokyo National Museum, National Science Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and of course, the Ueno zoo. If you are sightseeing in late March or early April the chances are you won’t be alone with 1000 cherry trees and their blossoms lining the central pathway.
- If you have some time at Ueno, head south — east from the station and you’ll a maze of laneways and eateries serving soba noodles, yakitori and other traditional cuisine.
- If you are up for a short walk head back to Ueno station and head for Ginza. A good option is the Ginza line to Kyobashi and 750 metre walk to Ginza. Alternatively, the Yamanote line to Yurakucho station. Ginza is an overload of high end shops, boutiques, restaurants. On most days, you can also buy tickets to Kabukiza Theatre on the day for single performances. On weekends the main street Chuo Dori is closed to traffic in the afternoon making it easier to get around.
Day 5 — Yanesen
To provide a contrast to the big “cities” just a little east of Ueno is Yanesen. It is a collective description for three neighbourhoods, namely Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. Get there on the Yamanote line to Nippori station. Yanesen is a great area to take in the ambience of “old Tokyo” or shitamachi. Before you do, grab a map from the information centre and plan your walk . This area survived the bombings of WW11 so many original buildings and temples remain. You can stroll past the mud wall of the Kannon-ji Temple (previously mentioned), walk down the charming“mini” ginza full of eateries and souvenir shops. On a Sunday, you’ll see locals on their bicycles and visitors alike line up to taste all manner of “sweet treats” at various restaurants just off the “ginza”. Behind the Yanaka Cemetery is Tennouji, a Tendai Buddhist temple. You’ll see Buddha sitting with hands clasped as you walk through the temple gates. Worth visiting is the Nezu shrine.
On the way back to Shinjuku jump off at Ikebukuro station. This is has been an underrated area of Tokyo but now provides a very interesting 20 minute walk to Kishimojindo Shrine in Zoshigaya. You’ll walk down a street of food stalls, retail shops, boutiques and galleries. Grab a coffee and homemade cake at Kiazuma, located in an 80-year-old building with a well-hole connecting the ground floor to the first storey.
Its almost impossible to see all of what Tokyo has to offer in just a few days. Despite that, I encourage you to pick fewer places to visit and savour the experience, rather than stress yourself out trying to see too much. Happy travelling.
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