#LCTOKYOAGOGO : A Starter Guide to Visiting Tokyo
While many arrive in search of Jiro's dreams, the bright lights of Shinjuku, Harajuku dolls, Tokyo drifters—there is SO much more.
After copying+pasting various versions of this list to many friends over the past couple years, I finally sat down long enough to write my practical guide to Tokyo.
It's a guide that will come into best use as you've decided to visit the city, but not sure where to start. I'm not listing merely tourist staples in hopes this will be applicable and interesting even if you've been here before. The following information has been curated over a couple years of exploring the city myself as well as hosting more than two handfuls of visitors.
/ / QUICK DISCLAIMER / /
This guide is (shamelessly) based on the things I think, experienced, enjoy.
There are plenty of Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Conde Nast guides to lead you with a more general tourist in mind. So I'm sharing a piece of my own mind. I love picturesque spaces, tiny local eats, low-key bars, art museums. Definitely not in the habit of seeking out the hype spot to rage all night—though the impromptu late night karaoke session happen. Often.
Cool? Cool. Let's go.
BEFORE YOU ARRIVE
Consider the JR PASS
The Japan Rail Pass is available for visitors on a tourist visa. For a tiered flat fee, you can ride the JR trains including Shinkansen (bullet trains) and local trains as much as you like within a given period.
It's a pretty incredible deal. You can visit Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Okayama, and back to Tokyo—all for one flat fee. Separately, each ride can cost upwards of ¥13,000 each way, so it's pretty each to get your money's worth with the Pass.
If purchased ahead of time, visitors can have the JR Pass in hand to use the JR trains to get into the city. (If you’re prone to lose important things, you can also opt for airport pick-up.) With the Pass, you have access to the wide network of JR trains already included in the cost of the Pass.
QUICK TIP: If you're mostly staying in Tokyo on your trip: I'd pass on the Pass.
While JR trains are an expansive network, you'll very likely end up taking other train lines around Tokyo (ex. Tokyo Metro, Tokyu, Keio, etc.) which are not included in the Pass.
I would just pick up a Suica or Pasmo card at your local station. It makes it much, much easier to transfer between train lines.
Rent Pocket WI-FI
A few lucky friends have visited with unlimited data packages from a carriers that has a partner in Japan (T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.) Though it’s 2G data, it's certainly better than paying for data usage out-of-pocket.
Unless your carrier one of the few that actually use their global network to their customers' benefit, adding an international data package to your plan sucks. It costs a ton for an unrealistically small amount of data!
Pocket wi-fi can allows you the freedom to avoid connecting to sketchy public networks—which is a major perk if you're a paranoid human like me who thinks all Starbucks wi-fi is giant phishing scheme.
Overall, pocket wi-fi is incredible because it is the most liberating way to travel. Even with your phone on wifi-only, you can live your best life: use Maps, Google Translate, LINE, iMessage, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger.
There are many, many rental options and some even offer airport pick-up or will deliver to your hotel.
QUICK TIP: Some Airbnb owners will even include a pocket wifi with the rental. So keep an eye out in the listing descriptions!
PICK A PLACE TO STAY
OPTION 1: Stay at an Airbnb
Airbnb rentals are certainly growing in number and are often a great opportunity to get a glimpse of how locals live.
This includes rubbing elbows with little obaa-san pushing their shopping carts to the local grocery store and staying out of the way of housewives zooming down the street on their mama-chari. Friends have also really enjoyed trying out Japanese o-furo (deep soaking bathtub) and deciphering the buttons on the washlet (electronic bidet fixed on top of the toilet).
QUICK TIP: Before booking an Airbnb, quickly refer to the map to see the general location of the listing. Find the name of the nearest station and use Google Maps to see which train network (JR, Tokyo Metro, etc.) it is part of and if it is easily accessible to the places you want to visit.
If you're looking for a place to start, reach out and I'll send you my Airbnb shortlist. I've never stayed in any of these places, but curated the list based on the location, number of reviews, and general proximity to cool things.
OPTION 2: Stay at a Hotel
Staying at a hotel in Tokyo is especially helpful if you’re not so keen to tackle the language barrier on top of jet lag.
Tourist-friendly hotels are often centered in high attraction areas and close to train stations. As a bonus, most (if not all) signage will be translated to English and staff bilingual.
While it sounds like a place strictly for salarymen, business hotels are the best for many types of travelers. (Maybe not families though.) These hotels are fairly priced and conveniently located. However, they don’t offer much in terms of space (read: it’s very tight). It’s certainly not somewhere you’ll enjoy unpacking a large 50 lb.-sized luggage, but perfect if you’re just looking for a clean, safe place to rest at night. Also, amenities usually include some comfy roomwear as well as a gorgeous breakfast buffet.
My IG followers already know how I feel about Dormy Inn. Their rates are usually competitively priced, well-furnished, and they serve complimentary ramen and/or soba starting from 9:00 PM. AMAZING RIGHT?!?! The chain has several locations around the city so pick whichever area is best for you.
Japanese Guest House + Hostels
If you're looking for something in between a hotel and airbnb, Japanese guest houses and hostels can be pretty great. They are incredibly cost-efficient, ranging upwards of ¥2,000 /night (that's approx. 20 USD).
Wired Hotel Asakusa is my dream staycation spot.
The design and branding work for this boutique hotel is the same firm who did Ace Hotel. The accommodations range from a gorgeous penthouse at ¥42,000 (420 USD)/night to Standard rooms at a more realistic ¥13,000 (130 USD) /night. If you're balling-on-a-budget, they also offer stylish bunk beds from ¥3,500 (35 USD) /night.
The hotel is tucked into a shopping arcade in historic Asakusa district. A stylish cafe on the ground floor, equipped with a bar and tasty Japanese eats. It's walking distance to many traditional Japanese style eateries (suki-yaki across the way, ¥320 ramen down the street) as well as the gorgeous must-see Senso-ji temple.
Also located in Taito-ku, this little wooden guesthouse has much more of a Japanese home vibe because it's actually a Japanese family's home. It's on a tiny street a short walk from Kuramae Station and has both dorm-style bunk beds and private room options. It's renovated and the family running it is super sweet.
As the house rules are a bit strict, I wouldn't recommend for families or large groups. It's nice for a solo traveler or a few buds.
JUST A TOTAL WILD CARD
For one night, try ℃ : where Finnish sauna traditions meet Japanese capsule hotel
Pronounced "doe-see", this newly-opened capsule hotel looks clean and relaxing. While the very thought of capsule hotels induce claustrophobia for me, I think this concept is very interesting and the interior looks really nice for a one night stay.
GETTING FROM AIRPORT TO CITY
You've landed and navigated your way through immigration! Here are a few options to get you from the terminal to Tokyo.
From Narita Airport
Once you land and grab your luggage, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to get yourself into the actual city. Narita is especially far outside the city-center. A taxicab will easily run you ¥18,000+ and Uber, twice that.
N’EX: Narita Express
This express train leaves directly from the terminal and makes stops at most major stations. From Tokyo Station, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Ikebukuro, you can transfer to pretty much any train line to get to where you need to be.
For more info about fares, ticket reservations: see N’EX website.
Airport LIMOUSINE BUS
Airport limousine bus services and shuttles are a more cost-friendly option and can take you directly to a wider variety of neighborhoods in the city. From Asakusa to Kichijoiji, the limousine bus may be especially helpful for those traveling with large luggages to avoid making transfers at busy train stations. Some routes will even drop off at popular hotels, like Shinagawa Prince Hotel.
For more info about fares, locations: see Airport Limousine Bus website.
WILLER EXPRESS AIRPORT SHUTTLE BUS
Though it only has one pick-up location in Tokyo, I personally use Willer Express Shuttle Bus. The schedule is arranged so that a bus runs about every 30 minutes. It runs directly from Osaki Station to Narita, so you don’t have to worry about other passenger pick-ups along the way.
Plus, boarding at Osaki Station gives you the perfect chance to try the famous tsukemen at Rokurinsha (a favorite of David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern) without the long lines of Tokyo Station. Osaki is actually the location of the original shop.
For more info about fares, timetables, and such: see Willer Express website.
From Haneda Airport
Haneda is amazing . I truly believe everyone should try to fly into this airport as much as possible. It’s significantly closer to the city center, has an amazing Edo era-style shopping area, and is just the greatest.
The Monorail connects travelers directly from Haneda Airport to central Tokyo via Hamamatsucho Station. For more info about fares, station access: see Tokyo Monorail website.
Airport limousine bus services and shuttles are a more cost-friendly option and can take you directly to a wider variety of neighborhoods in the Tokyo area. From Asakusa to Kichijoiji, the limousine bus may be especially helpful for those traveling with large luggages to avoid making transfers at busy train stations. Some routes will even drop off at popular hotels, like Shinagawa Prince Hotel.
For more info about fares, locations: see Airport Limousine Bus website.
Okay, okay. er ignore my previous warnings about cabs from the airport when it comes to Haneda. It still will cost a bit, but the ride is a much more reasonable distance. It's especially worth it if you’re staying in the southern area of Tokyo.
You can find taxi stands curbside, outside each terminal. Have your hotel name (if applicable) and address written out in Japanese (phonetic, romanized to English is not always helpful) handy. Nearly every cab is equipped with a GPS, so even if you can’t read the address, your driver can search and get you there.
NEIGHBORHOODS OF TOKYO
Tokyo is a fashion capital, food haven (it holds the most Michelin stars of any city in the world); a city you’ll find a serene Shinto shrine adjacent to a bustling shopping district. Ride the Yamanote on a weekday morning to be engulfed in a sea of salaryman and Uniqlo propaganda. It's easy to get lost in it all.
Here are a few favorite spots to find myself.
Omote-Sando Station (Tokyo Metro: Chiyoda / Ginza / Hanzomon)
Gaeimmae Station (Tokyo Metro: Ginza)
Meiji-jinguemae Station (Tokyo Metro: Chiyoda / Fukutoshin)
Harajuku Station (JR Yamanote)
Omotesando (and neighboring Minami Aoyama) is an incredible area to ogle high-end shops. Admittedly, many of the brands are global and have stores elsewhere like Tom Dixon, Acne Studios, and Nike Lab. However, the architecture and interior designs are worth the saunter over.
For a taste of high-end Japanese designers: check out the Commes De Garçons flagship, Yohji Yamamoto, and a number of Issey Miyake concept stores.
A FEW FAVES
Koffee Mameya: a standing-only, beans-centric coffee shop quietly tucked away on the ground floor of a residential home. Order from a curated menu of beans arranged on an axis ranging from light to dark roast.
Brown Rice Cafe: a Japanese take on western healthy eating. Cute little organic restaurant for light eating featuring local ingredients.
Aoyama Flower Market: behind the exotic displays of cut flowers in the Aoyama shop, sits a little tea cafe. It's lush greenhouse vibe makes it a perfect place to catch up over tea with friends.
Cafe Kitsune: an elegant little cafe tucked in a quiet little corner of Minami Aoyama. Enjoy a well-made latte and the stunning patterned wallpaper.
Basement Bar at Freemans Sporting Club: okay, I mostly love this little spot because it's so unexpected—much like it's original spot in LES neighborhood of New York.
Visit on a weekday and you may just find me sipping (and sobbing nostalgically) into a well-made whiskey highball here at happy hour.
Okay. Harajuku is actually much less cutesy than early 2000s Gwen Stefani portrayed. Here you'll find a range of trendy street fashion, cafes, street art.
If you're looking for the pastel pink storefronts: squeeze your way down Takeshita Street to find glam shot PuriKura photo booths, crepes wrapped in pink paper, and rainbow cotton candy bigger than your face.
A FEW FAVES
Ray Beams: unique boutique shop in amid the array of distinct BEAMS shops in Harajuku. Here you'll find a collection of exclusive collaborations with local and global designers. The pieces really showcase the quality and imagination of chic Japanese trendy wear.
Kiddy Land: a 4-floor giant specialty toy shop with individual sections dedicated to different characters. You can find goods for Studio Ghibli, Gudetama, Rilakkuma, Tomika cars, Star Wars, Be@rbrick, and more.
Meiji Jingu: a short walk around the station and you'll find the immense Torii gate leading to iconic Meiji Shrine. Its natural serenity is a stark contrast to the busy shopping streets right outside. You may even catch a Japanese wedding procession through the main shrine.
JR Yamanote / Shonan-Shinjuku / Saikyo
Tokyu Den-entoshi / Toyoko
Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin / Ginza / Hanzomon
This area certainly deserves its own section. You can really feel the volume of people gathering in Tokyo from the moment you step out of the Hachiko exit of the station. Faced with the famous Scramble Crossing, you can't help but to feel like a tiny spec amid the stacked screens, department stores, pop music, bright lights.
Many, many options for food and drinks in the area. Even Taco Bell is out here.
A FEW FAVES
ØL BY OSLO BREWING CO.: another spot you can't miss if you're a design geek + craft beer fan like me. It's comfy interior has Scandinavian vibes and an interesting selection on tap.
SAKESTAND: a cute little sake bar with standing room only run by the sweetest lady. Sake, also known as nihon-shu (日本酒), is served in wine glasses. Tasty selection to sip like a glass of chilled, full-body white wines.
About Life Coffee Brewers: on the ground floor below SAKESTAND, you'll find this window counter featuring specially curated beans by the team behind of Onibus Coffee. Treat yourself to an elegantly dripped coffee or steamed latte. Standing room mostly.
Cat Cafe Mocha: a 2-storey penthouse for cats completely furnished for feline favor: floor-to-ceiling cat tree. It sits above the bustle of Shibuya and is clean and well-ket. Priced at ¥200 for every 10 minutes, I wouldn't lounge here all afternoon—but I'd certainly pop in for half an hour to chill with a flock of adorable cats.
Tokyu Toyoko Line
Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line (nakameguro only)
Picturesque area with cool shops that you won't find anywhere else in Tokyo. It's a quiet area with good eats and stunning cafes—perfect for a quiet stroll by the Meguro River. Come cherry blossom season, this entire place is completely dusted with pink.
A FEW FAVES
うれしいプリン: literally means "happy pudding". Made with fresh eggs, these custardy little treats packed into glass baby food-looking jars is everything dreams are made of.
onibus coffee: a specialty coffee roaster is both roasters and coffee kiosk with tasteful greenery, wooden benches, and a small counter. If you're looking to stay awhile, take your coffee upstairs to a small sitting room outfitted with traditional Japanese windows.
artless craft tea & coffee: dark, quiet space that also is a gallery. Interesting selection of teas and coffee—all served on a gorgeous little leather coaster that I was very tempted to pocket.
Nakameguro Koukashita: a series of stores that opened beneath the over-ground tracks of Nakameguro Station. You can find a variety of small izakaya, global brands, specialty shops— all tucked beneath the rails.
Another great place for unique boutique shopping. Smaller labels, more local designers. Clean silhouettes. It's a great area to browse, get lost, find yourself again.
A FEW FAVES
SOSO: a really lovely casual-fine dining featuring seasonal eats. Great for intimate get-togethers or solo date. Solid sake and nihon-shu selection. The menu is actually much more extensive than on the website.
Daikanyama T-site: a gorgeous bookstore designed by the architects of Klein Dytham, with communication design supplied by Kenya Hara (art director of Muji). Browse the wide selection of well-curated books. Sip on a tasty soy pistachio latte in impressive lounge on top floor.
Saturdays Surf NYC: the first overseas output for the NYC-based brand. It's a gorgeous tribute to the Crosby Street garden and one of my favorite interiors. They do carry a few Japan-only exclusives as well. The wooden patio deck in the back of the store is a nice place to relax with your thoughts and an iced coffee (or tea).
Spring Valley Brewery: large brewpub featuring a wide line up of craft beer and bites to snack on. It's actually owned by Kirin, but the selection is much more adventurous than the standard beer. Try a pint (or two) of the experimental infused beers!
Roppongi station (Tokyo Metro: hibiya / oedo)
nogizaka station (tokyo metro: chiyoda)
Okay, Roppongi doesn't technically fit in with the other two areas but I figured it's close enough and connected by the Hibiya Line from Nakameguro. A business district. Also where a lot of bars and (allegedly) sleazy expat clubs are. I personally just like the museums in the area.
A FEW FAVES
21_21 Design Sight: impressive museum brainchild of Issey Miyake, Tadao Ando, Isamu Noguchi. The exhibition in the main gallery rotates every few months, so definitely check before heading over. Closed Tuesdays. (Learned that the hard way.)
National Art Center, Tokyo: immense and well-curated art space that has several exhibitions ongoing simultaneously. I've seen Yayoi Kusama's work here as well as an extensive exhibit of Tadao Ando's architectural models and marvels.
United Arrows: While this brand can be spotted in department store buildings throughout Tokyo, its flagship store in Roppongi Hills is truly a special sight of retail design. It's absolutely luxurious and fascinating. It's yet another great place to be amazed by the detail and quality of Japanese apparel.
Toraya: Treat yourself to truly crafted Japanese confectionaries (wagashi). From the packaging to presentation, you can tell these sweets makers really care about their craft. So many gorgeous boxes, colors, flavors, and shapes to choose from!
JR YAMANOTE / CHUO / CHUO-SOBU / OME / SAIKYO / SHONAN-SHINJUKU
TOKYO METRO: MARUNOUCHI / OEDO
Home of bright neon lights of Kabuki-cho, tiny bars of Golden Gai, and Netflix's Midnight Diner. It's definitely known as a place for an eventful night out. In some ways, I almost hesitate to recommend it because I sort of dread it. Many things are shouting at you in the Midtown Manhattan kind of way.
However, I will admit there are many lovely things you can find amid the chaos of it all.
A FEW FAVES
Toraya Cafe An Stand: a heaven for azuki red bean lovers! It's a modern cafe from famous traditional Japanese sweets maker Toraya (mentioned in Roppongi section). This shop spotlights decadent red beans in an array of sweet treats and cafe bites.
NEWoman: a stunning shopping structure with a strange name (that I'm constantly mispronouncing). It's filled with global specialty shops like Aesop, Maison Kitsune, and even has a Blue Bottle on the ground floor. I often visit to stock up at the little beauty shop for products from THREE, a Japanese beauty brand that advocates for natural ingredients.
SIDE NOTE: inside this building is maybe the most gorgeous and luxurious public bathroom you may ever use. Seize the opportunity if nature calls!
ICC Museum: certainly not your typical museum visit. An awesome blend of technology, installation art, and experimental experiences. I don't want to spoil any experiences. Just simply venture over to experience something new and have your mind blown.
Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery: a small, but impressive gallery on the floor below the ICC Museum. Really lovely space to explore contemporary art. I visited when the gallery exhibited the eccentric (and at-times fuccboi-esque) collection of Wonderwall founder Masamichi Katayama. Turn the corner and you're greeted by a towering stuffed polar bear or an army of life-size KAWS figurines.
Yayoi Kusama Museum: she finally opened her own space, located down the street from the psychiatric hospital she's lived in since the 1970's. I really have a love-hate relationship with the Instagram-candy her art often becomes.
I do love that her pieces are brightly-colored, approachable, and whimsically strange. She's obviously talented, interesting, and prolific in her craft. The condition (that the repetition is a reaction to visual hallucinations) and message of her art could honestly be a great platform to have a productive discussion of mental health. I digress.
Open on weekends only. Tickets must be purchased ahead of time online two months in advance. Definitely plan ahead.
TIPS FOR EXPLORING THE CITY
SUICA / PASMO Card
First thing to do is buy a Suica or PASMO card from the kiosk at any JR station or Tokyo Metro/ Toei / Tokyu / Keio station, respectively. With this IC card, you can easily tap in and out of the ticket gates across train companies. Without it, you will have to buy individual fare tickets every ride AND pay separately for each connecting transfer between train companies.
Upon purchasing an IC card, you will pay a ¥500 deposit and be able to add a minimum of ¥1,000 balance on top of it.
When you're leaving Tokyo, just use up any remaining balance (buy snacks at the konbini, a bowl of ramen, etc.) and return it to the customer service counter at the respective station: JR will only accept SUICA. Tokyo Metro / Toei / Tokyu / Keio will only accept PASMO.
If you've opted for a JR PASS, you keep look for the nearest JR stations. Or will you pay an additional fare.
Must carry cash
Arriving from New York, where I was using credit card to buy a small iced cold brew (miss you brew boo), I wasn't used to having more than an emergency $20 bill on me. Cash is the preferred—and sometimes only—means of payment in Japan. While big electronics stores like BicCamera boost their acceptance of payment via BitCoin, most places (temples, local restaurants, local venders) will only accept cash. You will often need cash to top up your IC card, buy food, or buy bottled beverages from a vending machine.
After having to skip out on a few dank ramen shops and not being able to buy a shampoo refill at the local pharmacy, I reluctantly expanded from a tiny card wallet to keeping a pocketbook with an actual coin purse.
ATM + DEBIT CARDS
Heads up that foreign ATM or debit cards will not work at Japanese banks. You can, however, withdraw cash at convenience stores. 7-Eleven is especially great because opt times you can select English on the machines.
Things are flipped (compared to the States) over here. Ride on the left, pass on the right. Make sure your luggage is in front of you—not next to you. Often people will be hiking up the right side.
Trash cans (or lack thereof)
One thing you may notice is the general absence of public trash cans. You may find some outside of konbini or recycle bins next to vending machines. I often keep the small plastic bag from my konbini snacks to collect my trash throughout the day, or at least until I find the next appropriate bin.
In general, trash is separated between burnable (“combustible”) and non-burnable (“incombustible”). There is often separate containers for each of plastic (プラ), P.E.T. bottles (ペットボトル), cans (カン), paper (紙). You may see these signs labeled throughout the hotel or your airbnb host may ask you to separate your trash into these categories depending on the Ward.
A few helpful phrases & kanji
Okay, you don't need to be fluent to visit, but it will certainly help to know a bit. It'll be much appreciated all around.
Kanji for signage
禁止 きんし / kin-shi
北 きた / ki-ta
南 みなみ / mi-na-mi
東 ひがし / hi-ga-shi
西 にし / ni-shi
駅 えき / e-ki
魚 さかな / sa-ka-na
肉 にく / ni-ku
野菜 やさい / ya-sa-i
Phrases for daily life
LET US EAT.
(said immediately before eating.)
THANK YOU FOR THE MEAL.
(said immediately after finishing.)
EXCUSE ME.PARDON ME.
(said immediately after finishing.)
This city is many things: huge, wonderful, strange, delicious, crowded, futuristic, traditional—and I've barely scratched the surface.
Let this merely be your jumping off point to exploring the city. Keep an open mind, curious appetite and enjoy however much time you have in Tokyo. Hit me up if you need anything. Safe travels!