Welcome to Tokyo and its maze of bright lights, restaurants, and everything else imaginative that fills in the cracks. This first-timer’s guide to Tokyo is just the start to the endless adventures in this city.
I will never forget the moment I walked out in Shinjuku Station. It was my first glimpse of the city — seas of people passing by, vendors selling an assortment of oddly-colored food — all sights and smells that I would soon grow accustomed to. The sheer vibrancy of the city is hard to soak in and even after five days in Tokyo, I could have gone back for more. Spots like small coffee shops tucked in lush corners of the city to shops specializing in hilariously cartooned characters, make Tokyo, well Tokyo. It’s the weird and the wonderful.
Anthony Bourdain said it well: “Tokyo may well be the most amazing food city in the world, with a nearly unimaginable variety of places stacked one on top of the other, tucked away on every level on densely-packed streets.” It’s hard to say where to begin.
The city is large, but a smart and efficient network of underground rail connects it all together. Daunting, but an unfamiliar orderliness makes Tokyo work the way it does. It’s clean, it’s organized, and somehow it blends beautifully. There’s no sense of urgency, as they know that each person has a task done to be done, and through the quietness and peaceful lining up at a train stop, you can spot a glimpse of this.
Tokyo is mesmerizing. It waits for those willing to step into a world that most will never understand, but can, at the very least, scratch the surface.
The First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo
What to Know Before Visiting Tokyo
- To access the city from Narita International Airport (the most recommended, as it has the best options to getting into Tokyo), is via the Narita Express or local trains. The JR Rail Pass covers a few of the lines, which is recommended as it’s around $30 a person. Expect at least an hour to hour and half to Shinjuku/Shibuya area.
- The entire city is easily traversed by foot, train, or bus.
- The Suica card is helpful for using the bus and local train. You can get one at the main stations and, with a small deposit, have access to reload this card. If you have a JR Rail Pass, this is also applicable for certain lines in Tokyo. Be sure to apply and purchase your JR Rail Pass prior to arrival in Japan.
- Japan, even though it is incredibly modern, is still a primarily cash-only country. Carry Yen on you at all times to cover meals, shopping, and transportation. The best place to withdraw cash is at a Seven Eleven ATM’s.
- For all sights, if you’re looking for those “no crowd” photos, be sure to arrive no later than 7:30/8 am. The top attractions will get incredibly busy and it is worth it to get up a bit earlier.
- The best way to handle any restaurant reservation is to have your hotel concierge call and reserve. Most restaurants need reservations far in advance. There were quite a few where we couldn’t get one almost two-three weeks in advance.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
As we rented an Airbnb with friends in a quiet area left of Yoyogi Park, I will recommend hotels I had my eye on. If you’re looking to rent an Airbnb (use this link for $40 off your first booking), the corridor between Higashi-Kitazawa Station and Yoyogi Park is really nice and quiet. It’s ideal to be in walking distance of a train station. Though Shinjuku and Shibuya are the best stations to be nearby, I would not recommend staying in those neighborhoods if you are looking for something quieter.
- Hotel Claska: This one was more south of the city but in a hip and trendy area. Its design is beautiful and I loved the style of the Japanese rooms.
- The Ritz-Carlton: A hotel prized for a luxurious location and beautiful view over the city, this is a great choice for those looking to be in a quieter area of Tokyo.
Search for more Tokyo hotels here.
Where to Eat in Tokyo
- Kotaro: Arguably the best izakaya in the city, it has a beautiful space and incredible food. Be sure to reserve a month or more in advance.
- FUKU Yakitori: This was our favorite meal in Tokyo — so good we came here twice. Small skewers and an intimate space makes this place memorable. *Reserve in advance.
- Sahsya Kanetanaka: A highlight of the trip, an elegant pre-fixed lunch in a minimalist space.
- Sakura Tei: Come here to make your own okonomiyaki!
- Kaikaya by the Sea: An incredible meal, with a mostly seafood menu (izakaya).
- Piss Alley: A lively alley filled with small restaurants.
- Maison Tonkatsu: A spot known for pork cutlet sandwiches.
- JBS Record Bar: He has thousands of records, and he pours drinks in this small space that is quite magical.
- Kanda Matsuya: A traditional soba house in a beautiful space.
- Ramen Jiro Mita: This is the legendary hole in the spot ramen, and the cue can be long so be sure to get here early!
- Aoyama Flower Market Tea House: A beautiful space that features dessert and tea.
- Ippudu, Ginza: A classic spot for ramen in the city. Be sure to get here early to grab a seat.
- Eattrip: A very hole-in-the-wall space, in a lush part of Tokyo. Come here for a beautiful meal in a quiet space.
- Totti Candy Factory: The spot for the fun and huge cotton candy in Harajuku.
- Yukamo Saryo: A stunning tea house serving sweets and lunch. *Reserve far in advance.
- Hara Donuts: These are the precious donuts that stack together, with the different faces!
Get Caffeinated At:
- L I F E S o n Coffee
- SHOZO Coffee
- Cafe Kitsune
- Little Nap Coffee
- Frankie Melbourne Espresso
- About Life Coffee Brewers
What to Do in a Tokyo
- Explore Meiji Shrine and it’s wonderful grounds.
- Walk and eat your way through Harajuku Street.
- Watch the busiest intersection at Shibuya Crossing.
- Eat your way through Tsukiji Market (fish market).
- Bar hop through Golden Gai.
- Take in the sunset from the Park Hyatt.
- Checkout the hip neighborhood of Shimokitazawa.
- Shop the most incredible Japanese paper goods at LOFT.
- Rent bikes at Tokyobike and explore the city.
- Head to FOG Linen Works for artisanal goods.
- Experience the weird and wonderful at the Robot Restaurant.