Unless you live under a rock that gets no cell reception, you know Tokyo is like, the hottest travel destination right now. It seems like every post with a Tokyo geotag is bursting with over-the-top colors that make you just want to dive in. I know that for most people, Tokyo is far af to get to. It’s also commonly considered an expensive and time-consuming commitment, but what trip isn’t, right? It’s hard for me to put into words how culturally enriching visiting Tokyo was. It was an adventurous, wild, delicious ride that I can’t recommend enough, but I’ll do my best…
My husband and I decided to take a much-anticipated (and super millennial) one-year anniversary trip across the world and decided to start our travels in none other than Tokyo, Japan. I only had three glorious days in Tokyo, so I jam-packed them and I was able to see so much of what this vibrant city has to offer. You can absolutely cram in the recommendations below, or spread them out over a solid week. The bottom line is that there’s never too much time in Tokyo.
A quick lesson on when it’s worth balling out on a swanky hotel: First, take into consideration how many nights you’ll be staying in that city and how expensive it generally is. If it’s a big city with lots to see and do, also consider how much time you’ll realistically be in that hotel room. If you have limited travel time and anticipate spending your days galavanting around nonstop, your hotel’s purpose will strictly be for getting ready and sleeping. It’s obvious when you break it down in simple terms, but most people don’t realize just how wasteful splurging on a hotel room can be. All the money you can save by booking a perfectly suitable budget hotel can go towards bougie dinners on your trip (or a shopping spree at YSL, your choice girl). Either way, be sure to consider all the factors before choosing a hotel.
Hotel Wing International Premium Tokyo Yotsuya: My husband and I stayed here and were probably here for a total of maybe 8 hours a day (including sleeping #TeamNoSleep). It was super affordable, clean, came with a queen-size bed and was only two blocks from a central Metro station.
Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo At Marunouchi: If it’s a Four Seasons, you know it’s lit. This hotel is as baller as they come and is located right across from a Metro station hub. What could po$$ibly hold you back from booking thi$?
Be warned that a common culture shock factor you’ll experience in Japan is a minimalistic mentality, especially with space. A majority of the hotel rooms in Tokyo are extremely small in comparison to the standards you’re used to, and commonly come furnished with just a twin bed. Make sure you take note of the bed size when booking your hotel and take note of how far it is to the nearest Metro station.
PSA: Your disgust for your local city transit (lookin’ at you, MTA) will reach unthinkable new heights once you ride Tokyo’s glorious Metro trains. Without exaggerating, they are absolutely f*cking spotless. I would literally eat my mother’s home-cooked lasagna off the floors of these trains and stations. It’s mind-numbing how one of the busiest cities in the world manages to keep its mass transit so clean.
Cleanliness aside, I can almost guarantee after just one day in Tokyo you’ll feel surprisingly comfortable using the Metro. The trains are very easy to navigate, and all stations and ticket machines are very English-friendly. The passengers (just like everyone else in Japan) are super polite and most stations have staff on hand to ask for assistance. Google Maps will become your BFF, making everything very easy, down to notifying you of which platform number to get on and off the train.
Tokyo takes pride in the utmost efficiency for pretty much everything, and the train system is no different. It’s extremely rare for a train to even be so much as one minute late. Could you imagine if those were the conditions of your morning commute? FML. A last important note: keep the ticket you receive upon entering the train and save it for when you exit the station. You will need to give it back on your way out in order to exit (or else you’ll have to pay the fee again).
Ubers and taxis are extremely expensive in Tokyo for reasons still unknown to me. I took an Uber just once in my time there and that was only because it was after the Metro’s operation hours (which BTW they stop running roughly around midnight). Ubers are not commonly used since the Metro is so accessible (and because the traffic in Tokyo is insane), but they are of course always an option.
Lastly, if you’re staying in the heart of Tokyo your hotel should only be about 40 minutes from the airport. It’s not a far drive, but it will still cost you anywhere from $275-$300 via Uber or taxi (absurd). Your best bet is to either take a bullet train to the metro or a bus, both of which run around $40 per person. And fret not! Because the almighty Google Maps will help you figure out the logistics of both options when you’re there. This transportation info seems dense, but it’s absolutely stuff you should know before you get there. I do a lot of research before I travel and did not come across much about this, so you’re welcome!
Kawaii Monster Cafe: During their last visit to Tokyo, The Kardashians created a lot of hype here (and the hype is very real). This place is without a doubt a tourist trap, but I absolutely loved it. It’s a well-executed, colorful, fun vibe from start to finish. Make sure you book your reservations a few weeks in advance, and insider tip: if you want to snag one of the cool booths, get there 5-10 minutes before the requested arrival time.
Teppan Baby: This place has it all: unreal food, excellent atmosphere, and reasonable prices. Sit at the hibachi-style grill for an intimate look at how your dishes are prepared and get friendly with the energetic chefs.
Kakekomi Gyoza: Enjoy dumplings galore at this no-frills Izakaya restaurant in the heart of Shinjuku. I ate eight vegan dumplings and could have eaten roughly 1,000 more.
Manten Sushi: “Sushi will never be the same after eating sushi in Japan.” —a direct quote I said to my husband during our 27-course Omakase sushi dinner at Manten Sushi. The sushi here is absolutely to die for, and the sushi chefs make your experience one to remember. Reservations are highly recommended if you’re looking to do it up Omakase style.
Mr. Farmer: Breakfast is oddly hard to come by in Japan. It’s almost as though they skip over breakfast entirely and just go right to lunch and dinner menus. Not to worry though—Mr. Farmer has a wide variety of brunch favorites you’re familiar with served in a gorgeous botanical dining room.
Robot Restaurant: It’s widely known as a “must-see”, but I have a weird love-hate relationship with this place (and mostly it’s hate). It’s a super tourist trap, but not in a good way. It’s essentially a bizarre, loud performance show that I don’t necessarily regret going to, but I don’t really recommend either. Whatever you do, absolutely do not eat here and just go strictly for the show (and prepare for things to get REAL weird, Tokyo style).
Aoyama Flower Market Tea House: Sip the tea in this tea house blooming with flowers and plants. Lines can get long here, so get here early for your breakfast tea.
Ginza District: Ginza is home to the world’s busiest intersection, so you can just imagine how crazy it is here. The skies are filled with skyscrapers and streets are filled with endless shopping. If your inner 6-year-old still has a burning love for Hello Kitty, check out Sanrio World.
Akihabara: This district is home to many video game and electronic stores, giving it the fitting nickname “electric town.” If you’re a vintage video game lover like myself, don’t forget to stop at Super Potato while you’re in the area. Arcades here are filled with colorful claw machines and Mario Kart games where they superimpose your photo onto your character as you play. (Okay I’m done being a nerd now.)
Harajuku: Takeshita Street is a whimsical shopping strip within Harajuku that feels like something straight out of Dr. Seuss. The shops are quirky and the food is colorful. The underground Purikira photo booths are a best kept secret to tourists on this strip, and will certainly give you a dose of Harajuku culture. The photo booths overly filter your face (in a fun, weird way) and the whole place bizarrely serves as a place to model your newly purchased clothes. After your Harajuku photoshoot, grab an oversized rainbow fairy floss at Totti Candy Factory (often imitated, never duplicated) and play with puppies at the Teacup Poodle Cafe. If this street isn’t what dreams are made of, then I don’t know what is.
Themed Bars in Shinjuku: The streets in this neighborhood are filled with never-ending neon signs, but the bar scene in Tokyo is generally very intimate and chill. Most are located on upper levels of buildings (which can be difficult to find at times) and consist of intimate settings where you sit and unwind as you drink (aka no dancing/raging). Having said that, the bars are all very unique and beyond enjoyable. Most bars in this area have odd themes at places like Maid Cafe, Ninja Shinjuku and Alice in Magical Land. There’s a theme for everyone here.
Definitely visit Magic Bar if mind-blowing magic is your thing and 8-Bit Cafe if you’re into video games with Japanese roots. (There I go being a low-key nerd again.)
Golden Gai District: This 70+ year-old district is made up of over 200 miniature bars that seat only 4-8 people, defining the very essence of minimalism. The intent is to encourage patrons to converse with one another, making for a very special experience.
Bar Orchard is a great place to grab a mixology cocktail. Select your favorite fruits from their beautiful display tower of real fruit and watch them craft you an out-of-this-world cocktail. What’s not to love?
Bar High Five is another wonderfully intimate bar with a great selection of Japanese whiskey.
Sensōji Temple: Tokyo’s oldest temple is a must-see site with crowds of people around the clock. It’s surrounded by hundreds of markets filled with fun souvenirs and endless sweet treats.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden: Feast your eyes on this little slice of peaceful heaven in the middle of Tokyo’s madness. The Japanese landscapes are unlike anything you’ve ever seen and the tranquility is untouchable.
Tokyo has a lot to see and do that will give you memories to cherish (and Instagram) for a lifetime. I can truly say that interacting with the amazing people of this city is something that’s changed how I think as a person. I encourage you to take a page out of their playbook and actually smile at people you encounter, engage in conversation at any chance you get, and of course, enjoy as much sushi as you can.
As I said, you can totally stretch out your time in Tokyo if you are able, but this was my itinerary if you are only there for a short trip:
Day 1: Arrival
☆Land and check into Hotel Wing International Premium Tokyo Yotsuya
☆Head right to Akihabara (“electric town”) to visit stores like Super Potato (a vintage video game store—closes at 8pm), the SEGA store (arcade games), and Tower Records
☆Head back to Shinjuku neighborhood for dinner at Teppan Baby Shinjuku and drinks at 8bit Cafe
☆Nightcap at Magic Bar for more food, drinks, and magic
Day 2: Sightseeing
☆Breakfast at Mr. Farmer
☆Take a 15-minute walk or train to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
☆Visit Sensōji Temple—make sure to arrive before it closes at 5pm. (45-minute train ride from the gardens)
☆Dinner in the Golden Gai district at the landmark Omoide Yokocho alleyway for street food dumplings
☆9:30 reservation for the show at Robot Restaurant. It’s only a 7-minute walk from dinner, but arrive by 9pm.
☆Play Mario Kart next door at GAO Kabukicho arcade
☆Head to Shibuya district for drinks at Red Bar, The Room, or Ele Tokyo
Day 3: Shopping
☆Arrive early for breakfast tea at Aoyama Flower Market Tea House
☆Take a 10-minute walk or 5-minute train for your 11:30 reservation at Kawaii Monster Cafe for drinks and dessert. Arrive 15 minutes in advance for a good seat.
☆10-min cab ride to the Harajuku district for shopping and strolling. Walk through Takeshita Street, Tokyu Plaza, and Cat Street. Shop at Alice on Wednesday, WEGO, and Honey mi Honey. Snack on takoyaki at Gindaco and fairy floss at Totti Candy Factory.
☆30-minute train ride to the Ginza district for more shopping and sights. (Check out Sanrio World and Kabuki-za Theatre.)
☆Grab a small bite at the restaurants underneath Yurakucho train station for Izakaya
☆6pm dinner reservation at Manten Sushi
☆Drinks at Bar Orchard or Bar High Five are a 15-minute walk from dinner
Images: Joana Mascioli