Although Tyler and I spent a week in Tokyo, it feels like half of that time was spent underground in its vast metro system. Luckily for us, navigating the metro and bustling crowds was much more satisfying than I had anticipated. During our time above ground we wanted to see the staple tourist sites and get a taste of the local experience whenever possible. But after doing hours of research on Tokyo, I felt overwhelmed. Where do you begin? What’s really worth trekking out to? What do I need to know before I go? I wasted a lot of time on those questions, so I hope I can save you some time by answering them for you! Most importantly, the items that are in bold are things that we struggled with, which I hope will be especially helpful to first time visitors.
So here we go!
Step 1: PASMO and Metro
Buy a PASMO. This lovely little card is your golden ticket to navigating Tokyo. It can be used for almost all forms of transportation and even other things like food at the airport! It is easily refilled at the metro kiosks with the small, pink pasmo sign. The refill kiosk only accepts cash, and not all ATM’s accept foreign credit cards. Your best bet is to find an ATM called 7 bank (associated with 7/11).
Trust me when I say it’s much better to buy a single, refillable card than a ticket for each trip. The metro station should have someone working there (who I can promise won’t speak any English). They should be able to sell you a Pasmo if you can articulate what you’re looking for. Good luck!
I was able to figure out the metro system pretty well after just one day, so you shouldn’t have any problems. Remember to be mindful about which direction you are headed. If you’re unsure, ask a local and they will kindly help you. Also beware of the express metro cars. You will likely need to use the local cars because they go to every stop along the way. There is an electronic board inside the metro that will distinguish them in Japanese and in English.
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Step 2: Main Tourist Sites
Tokyo is the largest city in the world, so the FOMO (fear of missing out) on something important or cool is probably inevitable. I expect to come back to Tokyo to check out the more local spots, but in the meantime I’ve checked off some of the important tourist destinations (minus museums, sorry). The sites that were most worth visiting are italicized; I suggest prioritizing those first. I also wrote the neighborhoods in which each site is found and pinned them on the map below.
1. Senso-ji Temple (in Asakusa)
This is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, built in 645 AD for Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The beauty of the temple and the souvenirs sold at Nakamise, the nearby market, attract hoards of tourists. However, the temple is worth the hype and claustrophobia. Locals wearing traditional kimonos mix among the tourists in order to light incense, make offerings and pray. (Fun fact: Kimono means “thing to wear”. Vague, right?) Grab a photo of one in order to capture a moment from Japan’s history, but be careful not to photograph visitors praying – it’s forbidden!
Senso-ji temple is near Skytree tower (#3) and Kaemon Asakusa (a delicious vegan restaurant). I suggest visiting all three together, which should take half a day.
2. Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens (in Shinjuku)
The Shinjuku Gyoen garden dates back to 1603, when it was first constructed as a residence for a feudal lord. After being damaged and rebuilt, it finally opened to the public in 1949. This is the prettiest garden in Tokyo, and well worth a visit. I would recommend going during Spring time (March and April) when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The summer is also beautiful, but you won’t find much in the way of flowers, save a few roses. There are three styles of gardens here: a Japanese, French and English garden. You’ll find two picturesque ponds on the premises. One with a bridge and a beautiful Weeping Willow, and the other with a traditional Japanese tea house that looks out over it. These are the best spots to snap a photo. The latest you can enter the park is 4pm, so be sure to go before then. Also, it’s not free. Make sure you bring 200 yen cash to buy your ticket; credit cards aren’t accepted. Lastly, the park is closed on Monday’s. For more info, see their website here.
3. Tokyo Skytree (in Sumida)
The Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, standing 634 meters tall (or 2,080 feet). It boasts incredible views of Tokyo, and apparently on a few lucky days, a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Restaurants, shops and an aquarium are all attached to the tower, making it place where you can spend hours out of the rain if it’s a bad day outside. There are two observation decks, one on floor 350 (for 350 meters in the air) and the other on floor 450. You have to pay extra to go to floor 450, which we didn’t do. The cost for the first deck is 2,060 yen and it’s an additional 1,030 yen to go up to the second deck. If you’re a tourist and it’s a very crowded day, you can pay extra to go in the express line. That will cost 2,820 yen. The views were incredible from the tower, making it well worth a visit. If you want to bask in the views even longer, you can enjoy a meal on floor 350 at the French-Japanese fusion restaurant. As you look out the windows, you’ll see the buildings stretch on forever. It’s the best way to grasp just how large Tokyo is! The tower is also located just near the Sumida River, making it even more scenic. If you’re feeling lazy, there are rickshaw runners that will carry up to two people in a cart along the river to wherever you want to go nearby.
If you have time after your tower visit, you can take the Sumida Riverboat over to Odaiba (#4) for a different view of Tokyo.
4. Odaiba island + Rainbow bridge (in Daiba)
Note: On the interactive map, this area is called “DECKS”.
Odaiba is a man-made island built off of Tokyo. It can easily be reached by metro and ferries, and is a popular entertainment destination for both tourists and locals. This is a great place to visit if you have kids because of Joypolis, the amusement park, and a nearby ferris wheel. The beachfront mall, DECKS, has an infinite amount of shops and restaurants that can keep you entertained for the entire evening. Once you’re finished shopping, walk out onto the beach to witness one of the only unobstructed views of the city. It’s enchanting around evening time as the brightly lit party boats anchor in the river and the sun sets behind Tokyo’s tallest buildings.
You can’t miss the view of Rainbow Bridge, which unfortunately, is only lit up in color from December-January. For the best views of the infamous bridge, you can either buy a ticket to the observation deck of the Fuji TV building (see here), or you can simply walk out onto the beachside terrace attached to DECKS.
5. Akihabara (in Chiyoda)
I had trouble deciding whether this is a staple site or not. Let me explain, then you can decide for yourself.
Akihabara, or “electric town”, is famous for it’s manga influence and electronic department stores. It is definitely a tourist spot, and has a different feel from the rest of Tokyo. On the sidewalks, you’ll find scantily-clad Japanese women, dressing up as manga characters to fulfill some sort of fetish the visitors have. They will pass out fliers to maid cafes, which are cosplay restaurants where the waitresses wear maid costumes and treat you as their “master”. If you’re not there to objectify women, then maybe you came to Akihabara for the cat or owl cafes? These restaurants have you pay a fee to enter and have tea and snacks with owls flying loosely around or cats prowling between the tables. Interesting concept, but we went to one and left because of the horrible stench (also, not sure how I feel about owls spending their lives trapped in a restaurant).
Electric town is really built for the Otakus of Japan. It is worth a visit for those who need to buy camera gear or other electronics, for lovers of anime/manga, for those who are interested in making googly eyes at Japanese women, and for those who just want to see the bright lights and strange vibes of this unique street.
6. Shibuya crossing (in Shibuya)
This is a famous crosswalk in Japan, and supposedly, the largest in the world. This was our first stop in Japan, but there wasn’t much too it… just a lot of people crossing the street. I think it would be a great photo opportunity on a Friday night when there are hoards of people and tons of lights. Regardless, it’s a nice shopping area to visit, and one of our favorite places to eat, 8ablish, is only a 15 minute walk from here.
7. Shinjuku shopping (in Shinjuku)
Note: On the interactive map, this area is called “Isetan Shinjuku Store”.
Shinjuku is where the money’s at. If you’re looking to spend your hard=earned cash, head in the direction of the Isetan shopping mall. Along this road, you’ll find all the best stores. If you’re hungry later, you can hop into Isetan and eat at Chaya, a macrobiotic restaurant with vegan options. Just come with your wallet full!
8. Tokyo Tower (in Minato)
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We didn’t visit the Tokyo Tower, because the Skytree is taller and pretty much the same concept to us. Still, it’s a popular tourist spot and should be mentioned. The tower is essentially a slightly taller, red Eiffel Tower. It is currently under renovation (as of July 2017). There are usually two observation decks, like the Skytree. However, the renovation temporarily closed down the higher one (at 250m). The main deck is open (at 150m) and costs 900 yen to enter. For more info about the renovation, click here.
9. Tokyo Imperial Palace (in Chiyoda)
The palace grounds date back to the Edo period (17-19th centuries), or the age of the Samurai warriors. The original buildings were all destroyed, but the stone walls and moat remain from this period. The palace, which was built in 1888, currently houses Japan’s imperial family. The east gardens are open to the public free of charge, but you must have a reservation for a guided tour to view the area around the palace. Wikipedia says that the estimated value of the this property is equal to that of all of California’s real estate combined. Could it be true?
The palace is a short walk from the very busy Tokyo Station, in which you will find my favorite vegan ramen restaurant, T’s Tan Tan (you must go there!).
10. Meji Jingu Shrine (in Shibuya)
The Meji Shrine is located in a beautiful forested area in Shibuya. The Shinto shrine was built in 1921 to house the spirits of Emperor Meji and Empress Shoken. The original building was destroyed in WWII, and later rebuilt in 1958. It is currently being restored for the 100th anniversary, which will take place in 2020. Because of this, the majority of the building was not visible. I would definitely wait to visit the area when it’s reopened. It is free of charge to enter, but visitors are asked to kindly donate to the restoration.
11. Tsukiji Fish Market (in Chuo)
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Since Tyler and I are vegan and don’t like the smell of dead fish, we skipped this market. However, it’s on the list of many tourists for it’s fresh sushi and wholesale fish/veggies. It’s the largest fish market in the world and opens up at 3.30am! It is not always open to the public, so be sure to check the calendar here before you go. Only 120 people (two groups of 60) are allowed to view the infamous Tuna Auction here in the wee hours of the morning. Please read this post before planning your trip. It has very important information about how to get in, the proper attire and other tips.
Step 3: Night Scene
If you want to have a late night in Tokyo, remember that the metro stops running at 12am. I would suggest taking an Uber, which doesn’t charge an extra fee for night rides like the taxis do.
The night scene is spread out all over Tokyo, however, the locals most often mentioned Roppongi, Shibuya and Shinjuku districts when I asked where to go. When you think of a big nightlife scene in Tokyo, you first think of Roppongi. Here you will find a little bit of everything, so it can satisfy diverse needs. The area is more expensive than others, more touristy and a rowdier in general. For more info, see this website. Shinjuku is a bit”grittier” due to the amount of “love hotels” in the area. It’s also home to LGBT community and hidden izakayas (gastropubs). This website sums up what I was told pretty well.
Tyler and I went out to a local bar in Shinjuku called Bar Amici. The general manager was celebrating his birthday there that night and he invited us to join his party. They also had an open karaoke scene (in Japan, karaoke is really big and you usually get a private room for your party). I have never seen people sing so well! They have perfected the art of karaoke here.
Step 4: Food
If you’re vegan in Tokyo… good luck! It was not so easy to eat there. Check out my previous post in order to learn more about the best places to eat.
Here are the things I wish I knew before eating out in Tokyo.
- Restaurants often take “last order” up to an hour before they close to ensure everyone leaves on time.
- They usually give you a basket near your table to put your purse in.
- You often pay up at the front, even in nice restaurants. If you find yourself waiting for the check for a while, it’s because it’s not coming!
- Each restaurant will give you a wet hand towel to wash your hands before eating. Don’t use this to blow your nose.
- Tipping is not the norm, water is free, and there isn’t one specific waiter designated to your table.
- They give you small water glasses, which constantly need to be refilled.
- Izakayas are like tapa bars in Spain. You order a drink and small dishes to munch on. It’s really about the socializing!
- It is socially acceptable to loudly say, “Sumimasen” or excuse me, to get the waiter’s attention.
- Instead of saying you’re vegetarian, say you’re Buddhist. They will understand that this means no fish as well.
- Bowing is a common and polite sign of respect. It’s normal that the server will bow at some point, either when entering or leaving.
- They have fast service! Of course not everywhere, but there are higher expectations when it comes to speediness.
Step 5: Mount Fuji
If you plan a visit to Japan, you’ll likely plan to see Mt. Fuji as well. Please don’t get your hopes up! Mt. Fuji is only rarely visible from the tallest towers in Tokyo. Even if you travel to a closer town like we did, there’s still a chance you won’t catch a glimpse. That’s why it’s best to choose a town, like Hakone, with interesting activities to keep you busy for the rest of the day.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Mt. Fuji only has it’s iconic snow-capped peak in the months of October-April. If you’re going in the summer months like we did, the mountain is a lot less distinctive. Along with this, the best chances of visibility occur during the winter months when there shouldn’t be a veil of humidity and smog. When you’re in Japan, I suggest checking the live webcams set up in different cities. These will give you a better idea of how visible Mt. Fuji will be on that day. You can check those webcams here.
If your goal is to get a good photo of Mt. Fuji, then you will need to be at a good distance from it. A great spot is Hakone, which I talk about in detail below . For other ways to view Mt. Fuji, read this post.
If your goal is to hike Mt. Fuji, then you should plan your visit in the months of July-(mid) September. We originally planned to hike it, but did not have the proper gear for it. The mountain is 3,776 meters tall, with noticeably thinner air and colder temperatures. At the summit, the temperatures can reach below 0 celsius, so it’s important to come prepared. Altitude sickness is also a common occurrence. To avoid this, you can hike slowly and stay at a base camp along the way, giving your body more time to adjust. For more hiking specifics, please read this helpful page.
Step 6: Hakone Day Trip
Hakone is a small town about one and a half hours from Tokyo. It is a lush, mountainous area with interesting activities that can keep you busy for a day or two. Here’s why you should take a day trip there (preferably NOT during the summer because of the oppressive heat).
- Hakone boasts incredible views of Mt. Fuji and Lake Ashi, given that it’s a clear day
- You can take a cruise across Lake Ashi in a replica pirate ship
- It has an outdoor (open-air) sculpture museum with a special indoor Picasso exhibit
- You can visit Ōwakudani, an active volcano, and swim in the hot springs (Onsen) near it
- You can ride the Hakone Ropeway, a 30-minute cable car ride with views of Mt. Fuji
- You can see a traditional Shinto shrine called Hakone Shrine
- There’s also Odawara Castle, other museums and more
The great thing about Hakone is that it is really well set up for tourism. There is a transportation loop consisting of trams, buses, cablecars and ships that ultimately cover all the important spots in Hakone in just one or two days. This fits perfectly with the freepass Japan offers, which I discuss in detail below.
Getting to and around Hakone was the most challenging aspect of transportation we experienced during our stay in Japan. Please read this in detail if you plan to go; it will save you time and money!
Hakone is only an 85-minute express ride from Shinjuku Station, one of Tokyo’s largest railway stations. Plan your trip to Hakone early so that you can buy your Romancecar ticket online rather than at the station. We went to buy it the day of, and all the tickets were sold out. We had to wait two hours for an open train!
You need to buy three tickets your entire trip, two in Tokyo and one in Hakone.
1. Limited Express Romancecar to Hakone-Yumoto (buy in Shinjuku Station, Tokyo)
2. Hakone Freepass (buy in Shinjuku Station, Tokyo)
3. Limited Express Romancecar to Shinjuku Station (buy in Hakone)
The Hakone Freepass will allow you to travel using every form of public transportation in Hakone with just a single ticket. You can ride the ship, cablecar, tram and bus for two days with that pass. The Odakyu Limited Express Romancecar is the fast train running the Shinjuku – Hakone route. It is a one-way ticket, so of course you need to buy two. You have to purchase a Romancecar ticket for a specific time, so you’ll have to wait until you’re in Hakone before you buy your ticket home. Be aware that the last train to Shinjuku leaves around 7.30pm!
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Once you arrive to Shinjuku Station, you can either print your ticket if you bought it online or buy one at the Romancecar desk. Read this site or this site for details on buying your Romancecar tickets. You can buy your Hakone Freepass ticket in the Shinjuku Station as well. This will not sell out, and you can purchase it at a kiosk.
Once you have both tickets, you can pass through the gate into the train station. In order to do this you must stack your tickets and put them through the normal ticket slot. I don’t think it matters which goes on top. After, you need to know which platform your train leaves from. This site will give you more information on how to read your ticket. There are a lot of different car types, so you want to make sure to stand in line for the “Exe” car type within the correct platform.
Once you’ve arrived to Hakone-Yumoto and exit the train, you will see a tram on your right. You can take this to go to the tourist destinations around Hakone. I recommend taking it to the open air museum, then hop back on to the next stop, Gora, where you can board the ropeway car. This is what we call a cablecar in English, but be careful because they have signs for a cablecar and it’s not the same thing! Confusing, I know!
The ropeway car will take you down to Lake Ashi, where you can take the ship across the lake. The last ship leaves at 4.20pm, so be sure to board before then. From there, you will be funneled with the other tourists into a bus lot where you can board a bus that takes you to the first station you came from (Hakone-Yumoto). If you want to go to other stops along the way, then do so using the tram on the right side again.
Have a safe trip!