Tokyo. Hustle and bustle, quirky shops, an abundance of cute toys and things, and seafood and ramen at every turn. The city is massive- a sprawling metropolis. For as large as it is though, there’s an orderliness to it that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Streets are clean, sidewalks kept immaculate and everyone is polite.
Four days wasn’t nearly enough time in Tokyo, and I’m already excited to return one day and see more of the city, as well as Japan.
Schedule wise, we flew into Tokyo Saturday evening, and then spent four days in Tokyo and two days in Kyoto before flying back to Hong Kong.
Regardless of how much time you have, Tokyo is the kind of place you need to plan for. It’s truly so large that you’ll be lost unless you look things up ahead of time.
We rented TEP devices, which gave us signal throughout the trip. In most places I travel, having a TEP or cell service is a ‘nice to have’, but in Tokyo, we truly felt it was necessary to getting around and looking things up on the fly.
- Tsukiji Outer Market: Come early to experience the charms of the fish market. The outer markets, where you’ll find restaurants and shops, is open from 5-11 am. And, the inner market, where wholesale fish are for sale, opens to the public at 9 am. I’d recommend exploring the outer market for a bit, and eventually picking a place to have sushi at the inner market for an early lunch. While perusing the outer stalls, we grabbed Tamagoyaki (fried egg), and wandered for a bit before deciding on lunch at Daiwa Sushi. It was a good choice- without a doubt, the freshest sushi I’ve ever had
- Shiba Park: Post lunch, we headed to Shiba park for an afternoon stroll and to check out the Tokyo Tower. 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, it’s the world’s tallest self-supporting steel tower. The tower was finished in 1958 as a symbol of Japan’s rebirth. We didn’t go up in the tower, but there are two observatory levels if you’re interested in a bird’s eye city view
- Yokohama Chinatown: All of my favorite foodies told me to come to Chinatown without a set agenda, but to plan on trying panda buns, shaved ice, sesame balls and soup dumplings. Nothing we had disappointed. Yokohama may be a bit of a trek from central Tokyo on the subway, but it’s so worth it
- Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum: Because we didn’t eat enough in Chinatown, we decided to stop in the ramen museum on our way back to the city (ha, jokes). Shin-Yokohama is less of a museum, and more of a theme restaurant. It’s a two story recreation of 1950’s Japan with eight ramen restaurants and a courtyard bar. Before coming here, I’d never ordered ramen out- mainly because nothing ever seems to be vegetarian, so I was excited to try the veg-friendly options. The ramen was delicious
- Pro-tip: If you enjoy your ramen, slurp the noodles. In Japan, slurping is a sign you’re enjoying your meal
- Tokyo Station: Exhausted by the time we got back to the city (lots of train delays), we decided to peruse the food stalls in the basement of Tokyo Station and grabbed some snacks to take back to our hotel. Def recommend checking out the sub-level shops and market at the station- there’s a great candy shop where you can find giant Pocky, as well as a specialized Kit-Kat store
- Morning walk to see the Imperial Palace: This wasn’t initially on my list of things to do, but we decided to check it out since we were staying in Ginza and were close to the park
- Breakfast at West Aoyama Garden: I’d been told the pancakes at this tea house were the best ever, as in better than anything in the States. I’d agree- they’re fluffy, thick, and the size of a plate. Also, the level of care servers put into the meal experience is so inspiring. You’ll notice that level of precision just about everywhere in Japan
- Aoyama Flower Market Tea House: We visited Tokyo at the end of May, when it was above 85 Fahrenheit every day. After spending the previous day running around in the heat all day, I needed a slower pace on day two, so I spent a bit of time at this beautiful tea house inside of a greenhouse, relaxing in the air conditioning and reading. Highly recommend if you need a break from the hustle and bustle on your trip
- Exploring Harajuku: No question, the best place I’ve ever been for people watching. The women have such unique, fun style. Interestingly, Harajuku culture is more than seventy years old. It became popular in Japan after WWII when American soldiers and their families opened up Western-style shops. The Japanese youth were inspired by American trends, and used them to help transform Japanese style
- Takeshita Street is where all the main action happens. In addition to all of the fashion stores, you’ll notice creperies and sweet cream (soft serve) are super popular
- Shopping at Kiddyland: If you need toys to bring back for kids, this is your place. I picked up a few cute trinkets for my Disney fanatic family, but really enjoyed browsing the rest of the toys- so many cute things!
- Ice Monster: Again, it was pretty hot while we were in Tokyo, which meant soft cream and iced treats were in constant rotation. We popped in here on the recommendation from a local we’d been chatting with at tea. The fixed menu of ~5 shaved ice options ranges from fruity to sweet/savory. I opted for the coffee one, mainly because it included salted caramel (fav), and a chocolate liqueur. Pretty sure these are portioned for two people, but you better believe we each ordered one
- Reissue: Great afternoon caffeine pick-me-up, double win for the cute 3D latte art
- Daiso: A ‘do not miss’ store in Japan. They sell everything. Really enjoyed browsing the beauty, fashion and snack areas
- Totti Candy Factory: Rainbow cotton candy! I haven’t had cotton candy since my teen years, so picking out the colors and flavors for mine was such a fun experience
- Yoyogi Park: Only a few blocks from Harajuku, you’ll be surprised at how serene this park is. If you visit, walk through the giant Torii and down to the Meiji Shrine
- Sunset at Aman Tokyo: The lobby bar in this luxe hotel is stunning. We weren’t guests of the hotel, but came here to watch the sun set one evening. It was such a perfect experience- loved seeing more of Tokyo from above (helps put into perspective just how large the city really is), and it’s a beautiful place to enjoy a few glasses of sake while unwinding
- Nightcap at Bar High Five: Post-Aman, we headed here for one drink, but ended up staying for a few- really loved them. There’s no menu, you tell the bartenders what kind of spirits and flavors you like, and they create a custom cocktail based on your tastes. One thing to note, it’s a small place and usually fills up quickly most nights. We got lucky with two seats at the bar and spent the night chatting up the bartender, which turned out great since he was an American who previously lived in Kyoto and had a bunch of recos for us 🙂
- Half day at DisneySea: DisneySea is an ocean-themed park, unique to Japan. There may not be a castle in DisneySea, but it’s no less magical than Disneyland. We came here for a half day and loved every moment of our time in the park
- Robot Restaurant: Epitome of wild. Come here for the show, not dinner. The drinks are pretty standard, so we skipped them in favor of hitting up other bars later in the evening. I don’t even know how to describe this experience- it’s dancing, fighting robots and totally unlike anything you’ve seen before
- Golden Gai: Post show, we headed to one of the only parts of Tokyo that wasn’t blown up in the war. Golden Gai is filled with dozens of small bars, we chose one at random and joined the locals at the counter for sake
- Memory Lane/Omoide Yokocho: Memory Lane has roots dating back to the 1940s, when it used to be the location for street vendors and black market traders. Now, a few dozen tiny bars and restaurants occupy the narrow alleyways, just wide enough for two people to pass. We didn’t eat here because we had a reservation for a sushi restaurant later in the evening, but enjoyed wandering up and down the alley, peering into places as we walked
- Shinjuku: Comparable to Times Square in neon lights, this part of Tokyo is the downtown business area. Come at night to see everything lit up
- Sushi Bar Yasuda: Ready for dinner, we headed to the only dinner reservation we’d made in Tokyo. My friend had seen Anthony Bourdain’s profile on this eight-seat sushi restaurant and made a reservation for us weeks prior to our trip. The sushi was fantastic- the chef made us feel like we were at a personal dinner party. Every part of our experience was memorable, from choosing our own sake cups to each piece of sushi put in front of us
- Nightcap at Bar Trench: Post-dinner, we headed here on the recommendation from a friend. The cocktails were just as good as some of the top ones I had during my years in New York
- Morning walk in Shinjuku Gyoen: Beautiful patch of greenery in the city. Coming back from Tokyo, we stayed in Shinjuku, and this park was right across from our hotel- lovely way to start the day with a little wander
- Soft cream for breakfast at Daily Chico: Soft cream is practically a delicacy in Tokyo. We ate it every chance we got, and knew we couldn’t leave without trying the eight flavor cone from Daily Chico. So, so good. The flavors were amazing- soda, green tea, melon, grape, coffee milk, strawberry, chocolate, vanilla. If you’re a fan of soft serve, this place needs to be on your list
- Shibuya Crossing: We felt like it wasn’t right to leave Tokyo without visiting the world’s busiest crosswalk
- Pro-tip: Head to the second floor of the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing for a bird’s-eye view of the chaos
- Tokyo Hands for last minute souvenir shopping: Nearby Shibuya Crossing, this seven floor Japanese department store has everything you could need- I picked up a sake serving set for my sister, and some cute stationary/kitchen tools, as well as a few beauty products
- About Life Coffee Brewers: Third wave coffee culture is just beginning to catch on in Tokyo. After a week without nearly enough cold brew/flat whites, we came here on our last morning in Japan for excellent cold brew (also near Shibuya Crossing)
- Tokyo Food Show: I’d heard the basements of some department stores had epic food halls, but still couldn’t believe how great the vendors were here. Great place to pick up a meal or snacks
- Din Tai Fung for an early dinner: Before flying back to Hong Kong late night, we stopped at Din Tai Fung for super good dim sum
Extra Know Before You Go Info
- Language: Japanese. Some people spoke conversational English, but we relied heavily on Google Translate to read menus/signs
- Currency: Japanese Yen. Currently, the exchange rate is set at ~110 Yen to $1 USD
- Getting cash: The only cash-dispensing ATMs for foreign cards were in 7-Elevens. We had no problem taking cash out throughout our trip, and the ATMs let you check your balance at the same time (win!)
- Getting there: We flew into Tokyo from Hong Kong, landing at the Narita airport. The airport is pretty far from the city, and a taxi could could easily cost over $125-150. There are a few transportation options, but we decided to take the airport express train, and then transferred to a subway to get to our hotel
- Where to stay: Our time in Tokyo was split into two halves- two days in Ginza (Tokyo), then two days in Kyoto, and finally another two days in Shinjuku (Tokyo). Both Ginza and Shinjuku are central areas, near plenty of shops, restaurants, convenience stores, and public transit. I enjoyed Ginza a bit more, but would stay in either area or Shibuya on a return trip to Tokyo
- Wifi: We rented a TEP device for our trip. Some restaurants/shops had wifi connections, but not all of them
- Getting around: We took the subway to save money. Taxis may be quicker in some cases, but are expensive and will add up. Tokyo’s transport system is pretty impressive- there’s an overground, underground and bus network. We bought rechargeable travel cards, which worked on every train. There are local guides and maps in English, but because there are so many train lines, it can be a bit confusing without the help of Google Maps to plan out stop to stop. We took the subway the entire trip and only got on the wrong train twice. If we didn’t have our TEP, figuring out the subway system would’ve been a lot harder
- Tipping: Like most of Europe, tipping isn’t expected
- Public restrooms: Every place we went had a public restroom- most were Western style, however once we had to use squat toilets in a train station