Japan is one of my all-time favorite countries with such diverse food, experiences, and cultures to explore! Before we get into the top things to do in Tokyo, here are some things you definitely should know before you head off on your adventure.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO TOKYO
First, Tokyo is a city that really doesn’t have great wifi access aside from most hotels, so I definitely recommend either getting an international phone plan or renting pocket wifi. We had one phone with an international plan (10 dollars/day through Verizon) and having Google Maps helped us more times than we can count! It gives you which subway stations to get off at as well as price so I definitely recommend it. The “Tokyo Metro” app is also great for navigating the subways, but you will need to know the names of the two stations you are traveling between.
Next, many places in Tokyo are also cash only, so don’t rely on your credit card. Definitely get plenty of Yen before you go, or bring cash with you to convert. We didn’t see many ATMs around the city, so be prepared!
Most people in Japan speak very limited English, even sometimes at hotels and major tourist attractions. Learning a few Japanese words before you go will do wonders in making some connections and facilitating communication. When in doubt, just point to what you want on a menu, you can’t go wrong with any food you try.
The Tokyo Metro will be the easiest way to get around the city. Uber is in Tokyo, but we found them to be a bit pricey, so if you are looking to save money definitely take the Metro. The easiest way to do this is to get a refillable Suica Card. You just put money on the card and use it at all the subway stations or JR (Japan Rail) stations. You can also pay as you go, but having the card is much easier.
The card requires a 500 Yen (approximately $5) deposit that you can get back if you return the card at the end of your trip. Pick these up at any of the large Metro stations (use the black kiosks to get a card the first time or any kiosk to recharge your card).
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN TOKYO
Now, what you are all dying to know: Here are my top 10 things to do in Tokyo (with some minor detours). Keep in mind this is just a small sampling of everything that Tokyo has to offer!
1) STAY AT A TRADITIONAL JAPANESE RYOKAN
This was by far one of the most amazing cultural experiences I have ever had. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese minimalist hotel. Upon arrival, we were shown around our property, given some delicious afternoon tea, and traditional kimonos to wear. We got fed breakfast and dinner (some delicious and some very strange food!) and then our room was converted to a bedroom with small mattresses on the floor for the night. A wonderful way to really immerse in Japanese culture and get out of the busy mindset of a tourist.
We stayed at the Gion Yoshi Ima in Kyoto, but many ryokans can be found all over Japan! A lot of Ryokans also have Onsens which are traditional baths or hot springs, so get ready to immerse and relax.
2) SHIBUYA CROSSING
This is the busiest crosswalk in the world, always crowded with tourists and business people alike. At peak times, thousands of people cross this intersection at once and it’s absolute madness! I definitely recommend partaking in the mayhem and crossing the street a few times. Plus, for an added view of the intersection from above, head to the Starbucks across the street. You will have to order a drink, but it gives a great view of the craziness unfolding below, helping you realize just how many people are in one place at one time!
3) HARAJUKU (TAKESHITA STREET)
Harajuku is known for its colorful streets, crazy themed food, and its elaborately dressed people. Despite all this, I was still impressed with how much I enjoyed the entire atmosphere there. Definitely plan to spend at least a few hours strolling Takeshita Street, and remember to look up! Most buildings have different things on every floor, so never limit yourself to just one level when in Tokyo. Obviously, food is a huge deal in Harajuku as many of its Instagram worthy snacks have made this region even more famous. For some of my favorites see #9 down below.
4) MEIJI SHRINE
This is one of the main shrines in Tokyo, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The shrine itself is in the middle of a large wooded area, full of small paths that branch off, ready to be explored and it is free to enter. Even going in the middle of the afternoon, we didn’t feel like it was overly crowded simply because there is so much space! We headed here from Harajuku as the two areas are pretty close, and it amazed me that being there immediately felt like we had left the city altogether. It was definitely very peaceful and serene, perfect for an afternoon stroll when you need a break from city life.
5) SHINJUKU – KARAOKE, OMOIDE YAKOCHO, GOLDEN GAI
Shinjuku surprised me by becoming one of my favorite areas in Tokyo. Omoide Yakocho, aka Piss Alley, is something I had seen on Instagram countless times, but it is definitely something you need to experience for yourself! The smoke and smells coming from all the small bars and restaurants there give these small alleys an ambience unlike any other.
Then, if you want a fun night out with more of the Japanese locals, check out the Golden Gai. It is a section of a few small streets and alleyways all filled with bars. Most charge a cover fee and are cash only, so be prepared with lots of Yen if this is on your itinerary. Some places welcome tourists and others do not (usually marked with English signs), but definitely a good place to get a taste of Japanese nightlife!
Karaoke at Big Echo
If the traditional bar scene isn’t your thing but you still want a night out, Shinjuku is the perfect place for karaoke night! We headed over to Big Echo without a clue what to do. You get a private room with all your friends, rented by the amount of time you want to spend there. It is relatively inexpensive, and most places have drinks or food you can purchase. We only did karaoke for a half hour and wish we had longer, so definitely go ready to belt it out and laugh a ton! Big Echo also had plenty of English songs for us, so don’t worry if you don’t read or sing in Japanese!
6) TEAM LAB BORDERLESS ART MUSEUM
Team Lab Borderless Art Museum was another thing that was a must do for me in Tokyo. This modern art museum relies on digital technology to create a truly borderless world. Each area of the museum is themed a little bit differently, and the rooms change constantly, so you never get the same experience twice.
From rooms full of flowers and lamps to interactive experiences that I could have never dreamed up, this place is one of the most unique museums you will ever visit. If you are looking for truly Instagram worthy pictures, make sure to get there early! They limit the number of people that enter the museum, so if you don’t get in right away you may be waiting outside for hours!
7) TOKYO DISNEY
This is a place that I could write for days about. I am a huge Disney fan, so seeing it in a different cultural context was amazing. If you don’t want to spend an entire day at Disney, there is an “After 6” option which allows you to see the parks at a reduced cost for the evening (6pm-close).
Tokyo Disney is a little way outside of downtown Tokyo and it will require you to get to the JR Maihaima station then take the Monorail to the parks, but it is definitely worth it in my opinion! Disney Sea is more unique and has a few more thrill rides than Disneyland, but both were amazing. You can even book at the official Disney hotels to stay right next door to the parks. For the real experience, dress in head to toe clothes as a twin with another person and try every flavor of popcorn you can find.
8) RIDE THE SHINKANSEN TO KYOTO OR MOUNT FUJI
The bullet trains in Japan make transportation between cities so efficient. We decided to spend a few days in Kyoto, which was definitely worth the travel time it took (about 2.5 hours each way from Tokyo station). We saw Mount Fuji on our way heading to Kyoto, but it was too foggy to see on our way back to Tokyo. I have heard great things about Mount Fuji, so I definitely plan on making a trip there next time I am lucky enough to find myself in Japan. If you do find yourself in Kyoto, definitely make sure you check out the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine. It’s famous for its thousands of torii gates, and it definitely did not disappoint.
9) EAT ALL THE FOOD IN TOKYO
All Asian countries I have been to have a plethora of yummy food to try, and Japan is no exception! Here are some of the best things to eat in Japan:
Sushi in Japan will arguably be some of the freshest sushi you will ever have (and some of the most affordable too!) We never had sushi we didn’t like!
A lot of people confuse Udon with Ramen, but Udon noodles are thicker, served in a broth similar to Ramen. We tried Udon in a small basement café we found hidden in Harajuku and it was absolutely delicious! I still have no idea what the name of this place was, but around lunchtime, just follow the locals in business attire. They know the best places for a yummy lunch break.
Japan doesn’t joke around with its sweets. Anywhere you go, there will be delicious things to try, even ice cream vending machines in many of the large metro stations: yum! But make sure you never eat on the Metros as that is considered very disrespectful. In Harajuku, make sure to stop at Totti Candy Factory for some rainbow cotton candy the size of your face (or bigger) as well as Santa Monica Crepes. They also have plenty of character cafes and even animal gelato at Eiswelt Gelato! Perfect for Instagram and your stomach.
This is a version of fried chicken normally served over rice and topped with a thick sauce. It can be found at many restaurants around Japan and definitely beats any fried chicken I have ever had here in the States.
Ramen was my favorite meal in Tokyo. We tried a few different places on Ramen street in Tokyo station, and they were all delicious. You order your Ramen from a vending machine which gives you a ticket. Then, they bring out your food to you! I also recommend trying gyoza from any of the ramen restaurants as well.
10) GO KARTING WITH MARICAR
This is definitely one of the most fun things I have ever done! Our tour with MariCar took us over the Rainbow Bridge and right next to Tokyo Tower. It was such a fun way to see many things in Tokyo that we hadn’t seen yet, and even more fun to dress up and look ridiculous doing it.
Pro tip: You will be driving right on the road next to cars, so if being in a tiny go-kart in traffic makes you nervous, definitely skip this one. You will also need an international driver’s permit (which for me cost about $30) and you have to get it before you go on your trip!
So there it is, the top 10 things to do in Tokyo. Tokyo is such an amazing city that holds a very special place in my heart, so I hope this short guide was helpful and that you all get the chance to visit this wonderful city in the near future! Happy travels!
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