If you’re anything like me, (most are not actually), when I think of Japan and Tokyo, I think of Sushi. I imagined Tokyo to be a busy city with sushi bars on every corner, but didn’t really have much expectation past that. To say the city had lots of people is an understatement, and no surprise but I found there was way more to this place that Sushi bars and Geisha girls! It’s somewhere I have been wanting to visit for quite some time but when I arrived, was pretty overwhelmed with the size of the city and trying to work out what exactly I should do, so here’s my Top Tips to finding the best of Tokyo in a short space of time!
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Tokyo other than lots of sushi and Geisha girls (didn’t actually see that much of either surprisingly!) but all I can say is, from the moment I arrived, WOW. This place is insane. Tokyo is MASSIVE with so many people, so trying to navigate and decide what to do can be really overwhelming. I know I thought so. Tokyo city by population is the largest on the planet so it gives you an idea how huge it is. Where do you start when exploring and how do you go about finding things to do without missing out on anything. Hopefully, I can help. These are my impressions of Tokyo on my first visit and some things that I did that I think you wont want to miss out on.
Firstly going in winter (December/January), especially after starting my Japan trip in the snow, I was expecting the weather to be really cold, and I guess this changes every year, but every day was a balmy 15 degrees Celsius most days with gorgeous clear blue skies, perfect tourist exploring weather.
The people in Tokyo are so friendly and helpful although I must admit I was surprised more didn’t speak English being such a large city and tourist destination. Most young people were fairly fluent and they often asked if you needed help (I must have looked really confused a lot of the time). Sounds a bit arrogant doesn’t it, expecting people in a foreign country to speak my language, so please don’t think I’m saying this as a negative, just an observation. Be prepared with as much basic Japanese as you can and that you may find it difficult to get help in English. Being that Japanese is written in characters and not letters, translation tools were difficult. There are some apps, but at the end of the day, I did manage sufficiently without. I found sign language worked well! Our hotel also had all English speaking staff so they were a great help planning day trips and navigating the underground rail system as well. It all added to the adventure of being in a foreign country.
I also didn’t know that Tokyo was on the water. I’m not sure why this surprised me, but there are two main rivers flowing directly through the city of Tokyo. A cruise down these rivers is a must do and interesting to get a perspective of Tokyo from the water.
Whilst in Tokyo, I stayed at the Shangri La Hotel. Firstly because I love the Shangri La chain of hotels with their excellent standard and quality but also because it is located directly above Tokyo’s main train station, thereby being a great central location for tourists. It sits on top of an office building so the hotel starts at a high level already meaning every floor has amazing views over the city, none more than the Horizon Club Lounge on the top level of the hotel. Perfect for an afternoon cocktail. If you chose to stay here, I highly recommend upgrading to a room with access to this lounge. Well worth the additional cost. The extra level of service at the Shangri La is also second to none. As an example, on my first day, I asked the concerge which way to the train station. Not only did they walk me down there personally, they explained the ticket system, helped me buy one (really cheap by the way), and escorted me to the exact train I needed to be on. Never had this level of service at any other hotel, and really did make it easy for all future train trips.
If you’re looking for ways to fill your days in Tokyo, here are some ideas of my favorite adventures:
Things to Do:-
- Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is generally closed to the public, except on the Emperor’s birthday and New Year, however a walk around the exterior is still really interesting and the Imperial Household Agency and the East Gardens are accessible
- Ginza is one of the main shopping regions of Tokyo filled with high end stores, chains like Apple, Zara, etc, bars and luxury brands – the buildings themselves are worth the visit alone, they are stunning. The food hall under Mitsukoshi department store is insanely good. Stock up on food here. Overall Ginza is a great district and I spent 3 full days here (never mind the credit card damage!) Even if you don’t spend any money, it’s a great people watch and window shop kind of place. It’s also where Shibuya Crossing is located, this is one of the busiest crossings in Tokyo and you would have seen images of it. There are three huge television screens on the intersection flashing advertisements all day, it reminds me of Times Square in New York with the color, buildings and people – oh so many people. I sat back in one corner of the intersection one night and just watched the people and the cars for about an hour.
- Marunouchi Street is located in Tokyo city near Tokyo station and is full of high end, beautiful shops and restaurants. Great for a wander and lots of laneways with lovely quaint little restaurants.
- The Tokyo Fish markets are the worlds largest and busiest fish market. They are absolutely mind blowing. Definitely worth a trip. They are well known for their live tuna auctions, but make sure you check before you visit as these are very limited in numbers and at times are not open to the public at all. To visit the auctions, you have to be prepared to arrive early, around 4.30 am. If you can get there, I would highly recommend it, however I suggest actually just talking to your hotel concierge as they can normally arrange for you. Don’t stress though, even if you don’t make the auctions, the markets themselves are still worth a visit. They are huge and with all sorts of things on offer in surrounding streets.
- Ramen food stands are located all over the city. The interesting thing in Tokyo that I found, and not sure if I was just looking in the wrong places, but unlike Australia where restaurants are designed to cater for large numbers of people, most of the places I came across were really small only have seating for 20 or less people and once they were full, you either had to queue for a long time, or find somewhere else. I found I was often eating from one of the many ramen food stands around the city. One -because it was easy and quick food, but also cheap, really filling and really really tasty. There were also lots of great markets and stalls in alley ways to get great food. I absolutely loved the Japanese food and ate some amazing treats, no idea what any of them were, but super tasty if you’re happy to be a little adventurous.
- Shinjuku area – shopping,
- Omotesando is a really pretty avenue lined with Zelkova trees starting at Meiji Shrine all the way down to Omotesando Station. This is also where Takeshita Dori is located. If there is one place you need to go in Tokyo, this street is it. Be warned, its very narrow and probably one of the busiest locations in Tokyo. I have never seen so many people but it is lined with all the quirky Japanese youth fashion boutiques and also the home of the Harajuku teenage culture girls – you know the ones, in the crazy peculiar fashion clothes. It’s an interesting people watch and great place for souvenirs. There are also fantastic market food stalls in the area to eat some local treats – best crepes I have ever eaten filled with ice cream and the longest chips I have ever seen – yes you heard right, probably not something that Japan wants to be known for, but I thought they were really cool.
- Asakusa is well known for it’s historic neighborhoods and areas. There is also a beautiful Sensouji temple and Shrine which is the oldest Buddhist temple for ordinary people. This area also has one of the best markets I came across with great trinkets for tourists. I travelled here by train, then took the short walk across the river to the Tokyo Sky Tree. Although this is a broadcasting tower, there is also a restaurant and observation tower giving the most amazing views over Tokyo. This is currently the tallest structure in Japan so as you can imagine the views are incredible. If you can, stay for sunset and watch the city change from daylight to the beautiful twinkle of city lights from above.
- From the Asakusa region, you can also get on board the Tokyo river cruise for around AUD20 per person and take a leisurely cruise down the Sumida river to the region of Odaiba. When I was looking at reviews on this cruise, quite a few said that it was not that great, but I found it a really interesting perceptive of Tokyo and loved looking at all the houses and structures on the river. Was also a nice change from taking the subway everywhere – even though quite a bit more expensive.
- Odaiba itself is probably more a summer place to visit as it is on an island with beaches that seemed quite popular (also the location for quite a few of the 2020 Olympic Games venues including Beach Volleyball). It sells itself as an entertainment district with restuarnats, theme parks and interesting structures and it was nice to have a look around, but probably not somewhere that I would put high on the must do list, only if you have spare time. The shopping mall here is quite large and good shopping if you are interesting in that, and the boardwalk was really nice with a replica Statue of Liberty and Rainbow Bridge behind that made for great pictures that seemed popular with tourists and locals alike. I’m still not 100% sure why there is a Statue of Liberty in Japan, but it has something to do with “The French Year in Japan” and a replica was placed in this spot in Year 2000. Anyway, it did look kind of cool and made for some great pics.
- From Odaiba I travelled across the water by train to another replica monument, the Tokyo Tower. It is in the Shiba-Koe district. It’s a communications tower and is the second tallest structure in Tokyo (apart from the Sky Tree). By Day, it is red and white, but at night, all lit up, it looks exactly like the Eiffel tower. Built in 1958 it was inspired by the Eiffel tower and the colors are to comply with air safety regulations. There are two observation decks in the tower, one at 150 meters, this is the main and larger deck and then high up at 250 meters is a smaller deck. The main purpose of the tower is to act as a support structure for communications antennas but also derives a large income from tourists visiting the tower.
- Lastly, there is Tokyo Disney Land. Sadly, this was the only disappointing thing about my trip to Tokyo and it was a MAJOR one. I mention this only because I don’t want anyone to make the same mistake I did. Having been to Disneyland in America, I had certain expectations, but was bitterly let down. Firstly, and most importantly, the park is really small compared to America. And with Tokyo being such a big city, with so many people, I think Disney is a major attraction. Therefore, it is so overcrowded, that it is just not a fun experience. The minimum wait time for ANY ride was 3 hours and as far as fast passes were concerned, it was a 30 minute queue just to line up and get a ticket for one, and then the return time for the ride was 9 hours later. The queues for food were at least an hour. So this left me with a dilemma, if I didn’t want to wait 3 hours for a ride, there was a 9 hour wait to jump the queue, but there was nothing to do in that 9 hours, including trying to get something to eat. No-one spoke English, even at the help desks, they had to call someone to translate and basically they didn’t care. Service was genuinely disappointing. I think for Disney to put their name to this is a massive mistake. The simple solution would be to cap numbers into the park at any one time, and I would have thought from a fire and safety point of view this would be sensible as well, but profit seemed to override customer enjoyment. Anyway, take my advice and wait until a trip to America to experience Disney. This park isn’t big enough to cater for the huge numbers.
Oh PS just a quick note, in case you, like me, didn’t know, there are two international airports in Tokyo – Haneda or Narita and they are over an hour (80km) apart. I only found this out whilst on a bullet train on the way to the wrong airport. I was so impressed that flight information with boarding gates etc was all on screens on the train but couldn’t work out why my flight wasn’t listed. Anyway, needless to say, I ended up in a major panic, luckily with the help of the Concierge at the Shangri La (after a panicked phone call), with a driver that could collect me and got me to the right airport in record time. Perhaps I am the only stupid one that has made this mistake, but just in case, make sure you double check which actual airport you are departing from.