History of Tokyo
The history of Tokyo’s fascinating story could fill volume after volume of encyclopedias, and since you’re not hear to read an encyclopedia, I’ll keep it brief. Tokyo is such a beautiful blend of the past, present, and future, and it’s constantly evolving, while holding onto many of Japan’s most sacred traditions. Future site of the 2019 World Rugby World Cup, and the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo is an incredible city that has everything you can imagine and then some, like Robotic cafés, more universities than anywhere else in the world, some of Japan’s largest and oldest temples, a food and drink scene that’s unlike anywhere else in the world, and one of the world’s most vibrant arts, music and fashion scenes.
Much of Tokyo that is standing today was tragically fire bombed and decimated during the second World War, but it has been rebuilt stronger than ever, and thanks to modern technology, the buildings that now stand are almost completely resistant to earthquakes as well.
Getting to Tokyo
Since Tokyo is a major international travel destination, it’s easily accessible from most international airports around the world. There are two major airports in Tokyo, Narita Airport and Haneda Airport. It’s also possible to access Tokyo from surrounding cities via Japan’s extensive, convenient train system, or to drive from other cities on this beautiful island nation.
Best Times to Visit
My personal favorite time to visit Japan is during the spring time, especially late March through April to early May, during peak cherry blossom (sakura) season. There’s nothing like walking through the streets of Kyoto, Osaka, or Tokyo as millions of cherry blossom petals swirl around you and dance on the trees in the breeze above you. It’s just incredible.
Summertime in Japan is warm, humid, and buzzing with fun festivals. Visiting from June-August means lots of rain, beautiful flowers, hotter temperatures, and lots of festival food, fireworks, and chances to embrace beautiful Japanese culture and wear yukata.
Fall in Japan, September-November, is a stunning season to visit during as well, because of the gorgeous, fiery reds, oranges, and other colors that are abundant during this time of year. Many Japanese restaurants will serve incredible fall soups, pumpkin based dishes, and unique fall sake to drink.
Winter weather varies from year to year, depending upon which part of Japan you visit. In Tokyo, it rarely snows much, and if it does, it doesn’t stick for very long. The skies tend to be more grey, however there is an abundance of fun festivals happening, like the unique way Japanese people celebrate Christmas (hint: it involves lots of Kentucky Fried Chicken, aka KFC), the first shrine visit of the New Year, snow festivals, winter foods, and more.
Check out my guide to Tokyo’s 40 neighborhoods, here. There’s so much variety in Tokyo that a person could live there their entire life and not see or experience everything the city has to offer. Seek out pop-up museums, pop-up restaurants, and free classes in whichever neighborhood you’ll be visiting, and you’re bound to find lots of incredible things to do during your stay.
My favorite neighborhoods were Roppongi, Ginza, Chiyoda, Shibuya, Aoyama, Akihabara, Ueno, Harajuku, and Shinjuku, in no particular order. There’s SO much to do in each neighborhood, and they’re all very easily accessed by the Japanese Rail System, or on foot.
Where to Stay
There are so many incredible places to stay in one of the world’s largest cities, that the first choice you’ll have to make is whether you’d like to stay in a traditional Japanese style inn, called Ryokan, or if you’d prefer a modern hotel. Of course, there are lots of AirBnb options, hostels, and short-term rentals available as well.
After you decide which type of accommodations fit your budget, travel style, and interests, next you’ll need to decide which of Tokyo’s many neighborhoods will be best for your travels. If you’re stumped on where to go, Shibuya is an amazing place to start exploring Tokyo. It’s near several train stops, which makes traveling around Tokyo and beyond a breeze, there’s lots of amazing food, cultural activities, parks, museums, and shopping, making it a fantastic, well rounded place to stay. Ueno is also a great neighborhood to stay in, especially if you’re watching your budget.
We stayed at Tokyo’s Shang-ri La hotel and absolutely adored it and their impeccable service. It’s located in Chiyoda neighborhood, and was a great place to base our travels out of, plus it was a very short train ride from Haneda Airport, where we flew into Japan.
Where to Eat
Tokyo’s food scene is unrivaled, and with 230 Michelin Starred restaurants in 2019, it has more food awards than anywhere else in the world by leaps and bounds. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hardcore meat eater, a staunch vegan, someone with food allergies, or you fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, there’s so much incredible food for everyone. Here are a few of my favorite restaurants we tried during our time in Tokyo. You can find everything from vegan, organic foods to exotic meats and vegetables that we don’t eat here in the United States.
Local Ramen Shop that usually has a long line, but it moves quickly and the food is incredible.
Cute interior, doughnuts, milkshakes, and other sweets
Hommage by Chef Arai
This Michelin Starred restaurant serves beautiful French cuisine in multiple courses on a set schedule. It’s simply delightful, and well worth the investment for a beautiful experience.
This restaurant is a nicer soba shop that has been in business for nearly 50 years. There was a line to get in that moved very quickly, and my husband absolutely raved about this place.
One of the best places to get tempura in Tokyo.
Honey Toast in Akihabara
I went here with my sister, and she and shared a Honey Toast and couldn’t finish it all. I can’t eat bread, so I can’t speak to how the toast aspect of it was, but the toppings and fruit served with it are a delight. Basically, it’s a square loaf of bread with the inside hollowed out. The inside bread that was carved out is diced and toasted, then tossed with sauces depending upon the type you order, stuffed back inside the bread cube, then covered in fruit, ice cream, more sauces, herbs, and whip cream. Even if you’re like me and not a big fan of sweets, it’s still a fun thing to share with someone else.
L’Occitane Café in Shibuya
A gorgeous café overlooking the Shibuya Crossing scramble with a second or third floor view. Their interior is gorgeous, the food is delightful, and it’s a great spot to take photos of the crossing.
A lane of street food, served festival style and very popular with locals.
One of the 50 best restaurants in the world, Ryugin has earned 3 Michelin Stars, and many other culinary awards.
Tayori Yanaka Cafe
A gorgeous café that’s perfect for a date or lunch in the city.
Tea, Various Locations
Book an appointment at the tea counter with a tea specialist, it’s inexpensive and super cute.
One of the world’s most expensive and luxurious restaurants. The food here is absolutely incredible, and well worth the cost.
This high-end restaurant is a restaurant on 6,000 square Kms of lush gardens, set up reservations at least a week in advance as seating is limited.
$7 for a bowl of ramen, Tsuta is the very first and only Ramen shop in the world to have earned a coveted a Michelin Star for excellence in dining.
Veganic To Go
Delicious Gluten Free, Vegan, Organic Food in Roppongi. This place is a joy, especially if you have allergies!
I know what you’re thinking “7/11 the convenience store? You’re recommending I go to a cheap gas station during my precious time in Tokyo?!” Hear me out. The food here is SO good, it’s nothing at all like 7/11s in the States. When my sister and I went out walking for a day, we wanted to visit as many shrines as we could in one day, and didn’t want to have to wait in line for food, or spend a long time sitting down at a restaurant (which is normally something I LOVE doing, but this day we were in a hurry). At the behest of our hotel’s concierge, we picked up snacks from 7/11 like fresh, organic fruits and gluten free granola, pre-made sandwiches, Japanese potato salad, steamed pizza buns (my sister LOVED the pork buns so much she almost cried haha), and organic fruit and vegetable smoothies, as well as squid jerky, organic mixed nuts, and a couple beverages. If you’re on a budget, or just want to pack a picnic, hit up 7/11, it’s a fun place to shop and explore Japanese convenience store culture (it’s a thing – I swear!)
What to Do in Tokyo
There is so much to do in Tokyo that it would be impossible to list it all. As one of the largest, fastest growing cities in the world, Tokyo is constantly evolving, which means there’s always something new happening in town from live performances, concerts, or new restaurants opening, to festivals, pop-shops and museums, or seasonal activities. Think of your favorite things in the world and google them along with “in tokyo” (e.g. “Classical Art Museums in Tokyo”, “Manga Shops in Tokyo”, or “Flower Arranging Classes in Tokyo”) and see what comes up. The list below are just some of my favorite things we did during our time in Tokyo, and in no way is a comprehensive list.
Art Triangle Roppongi
Asakusa Art Museum
Buy Fresh Flowers at Aoyama Flower Market & Café
Custom Blend Ink from Inkstand
East Gardens near Imperial Palace (free to visit)
Edo Castle & Tokyo Imperial Palace & Massive Moat
Explore Pop-up museums
Harajuku District (kawaii Harajuku street style, crazy desserts, unique cutesy shops, crépes, pancakes)
Hie Shrine in Chiyoda
High-End Shopping in Roppongi
Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza for a Kabuki Theatre Performance (have English headsets for translation, no photos allowed)
Mario Kart Around Tokyo Streets aka Maricar Street Kart Tour (maricar.com)
Meiji Shrine Tokyo (originally built in 1920, destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1950s)
Nakameguro River (a gorgeous place to see the cherry blossoms!)
Nakamise Street for Street Food
The National Art Centre Tokyo
National Museum of Western Art (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku aka “Piss Alley” (it’s a nice place, I swear!)
Senso-Ji Buddhist Temple with Pagoda in Asakusa (so gorgeous!)
Shinjuku Alley (really famous street with lots of cool shops), crazy neon signs at night!
Studio Ghibli Museum
Sumo Wrestling Match
Participate in a Traditional Tea Ceremony
Take a Flower Arranging Class (Ikebana in Japanese)
Tokyo Sky Tree
Tsukiji Market sushi restaurants (freshest in tokyo), 2 stops from Ginza
Yanaka Neighborhood (oldest neighborhood in Tokyo with amazing buildings)
Yayoi Kusama Museum
Trains are the most convenient way to get around Tokyo. If you intend to travel by train during your time in Tokyo, or if you plan to leave Tokyo and head anywhere else in Japan, you need a JR Rail Pass! This special ticket is only available to foreign visitors, and must be purchased before you leave your home country. They cannot be purchased anywhere within Japan. You will be given an “exchange order form” which you can trade in at the airport or at any JR train station. This rail pass will allow you to ride any JR trains, within Tokyo or anywhere in the country that JR trains run (which is almost everywhere within the country) without buying extra tickets. These tickets even include most reserved seats. During our time in Japan, the JR Rail Passes saved us more than $500 each with all the travel we did.
7 Day Pass is $272 USD
14 Day Pass is $435 USD
21 Day Pass is $557 USD
(Prices may change, so visit JRPass.com for most up to date pricing)
To give you an idea of how much you can save by investing up front in the JR Rail Pass, tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto are roughly $280 round trip per person, tickets from Tokyo to Nikko are roughly $50 round trip per person, and tickets from station to station within Tokyo average $8 per trip. It’s also convenient, because you simply show your JR Rail Pass to a gate attendant, and go about your day, without worrying about train fare or how much your ride will cost.
Suica Cards are another option, but are very different from JR Rail Passes. These cards require a ¥500 deposit (about $5 USD), and must be loaded at specific windows or ATM like machines inside the train stations, just like you would reload a gift card. You can then tap them on the pads at the entrance gates to the rail stations to pay for trains, use them to shop at convenience stores, and a number of attractions and restaurants around Tokyo and Japan. If you don’t plan to ride the trains often, then these are a convenient option since they are more of a pay-as-you-go method of getting around. At the end of your trip, you can request a refund of your unused balance, minus a ¥200 transaction fee.
Tokyo may be a sprawling city that upon first glance seems impossible to navigate, but if someone as directionally challenged as me can find my way from point A to point B with the help of just 2 free apps (Japan Rail and Japan Official Travel App), you can too! As soon as you book your ticket to Japan, download these two apps and start planning your adventure!
Japan Official Travel App
This free app is the easiest way to figure out the train system in Tokyo (and around Japan in general). Simply use your current location as a starting point, enter your destination, and it will calculate which trains, buses, or subways you need to take to get there. You can even filter the results by duration of trip and cost to find the route that works best for you (if you have the JR rail pass, and stick with JR trains, you won’t have to pay any additional fees). The app will tell you which platform to take so you choose the correct train, it shows your progress along the routes, and helps you understand when to get off, plus it displays the steps of your journey in English with Japanese underneath, so you can match the app to the signs around you (most signs are in both Japanese and English). This app is absolutely essential for navigating Tokyo, and Japan!
I also recommend downloading Google Translate and pre-loading it with Japanese, downloading Kanji Teacher app, which allows you to draw kanji you see and it will translate it for you (so you can draw kanji in front of you you don’t understand and decipher what they mean), & Japanese!, which teaches you hiragana, katakana, and basic grammar & phrases to get around. If you plan to use the subway, download AllSubway for $0.99, which you can us offline to navigate the subways of more than 200 cities around the world, including Tokyo. All of the other apps are free.
Day Trips from Tokyo
Hakone sits in the shadow of Mt. Fuji on Lake Ashi, and is surrounded by volcanic mountains. Visit this exciting mountain town, take a cable car across an active volcano, soak in hot springs fed by the tectonic activity of the area, eat the regional specialty, Owakudani Black Eggs, which are said to add seven years to one’s life, and try to spoil the lake’s nine headed dragon.
2 Hours & 15 Minutes via Shinkansen Bullet Train
The cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto is a thriving city filled with nearly 2,000 temples and shrines, authentic geisha, kimono craftsmen, incredible food and drinks, and 108 Michelin Starred restaurants, making it a Mecca of luxury, elegance, and cultural understanding.
~2 Hour via JR Railways
Visit Nagoya, Japan’s 4th largest city, and explore Nagoya Castle, Atsuta-jingu Shrine & Cypress Forest, Toganji Temple, Climb to the top of Nagoya TV Tower, or visit during July to see the Nagoya Sumo Tournament. While in Nagoya, be sure to sample the city’s unique cuisine, like Miso Udon, Tenmusu Rice Balls, and Ebi Furai (shrimp fritters).
2 Hour & 10 Minutes via Shinkansen
Famous for the former capital city’s population of tame (yet wild) deer who bow to visitors in exchange for nutritionally dense biscuits, Nara is a beautiful city to learn about nature and Japan’s various religions. Be sure to visit Nara Deer Park, Syoka Teori-Sushi Restaurant located inside a former samurai house, and Kasuga Taisha shrine, which has more than 3,000 lanterns on display.
~2 Hours via JR Rail Lines
Nikko is tied with Kyoto for my favorite city in Japan, because of how breathtaking the mountain views are, fantastically preserved Buddhist temple architecture, and the abundance of vegetarian foods. Nikko is an incredible weekend trip from Tokyo.
2 Hour & 30 Minutes via Shinkansen Bullet Train
Osaka, Japan’s 3rd largest city, is home to Universal Studios Japan, Spa World, Osaka Castle and its peach, plum, and cherry trees, Umeda Sky Building, and the Dotonburi shopping and nightlife district, which is where the famous Glico Running Man Neon Sign is located. Osaka is famous for its cuisine, like takoyaki (fried squid balls) and okonomiyaki (cabbage patties fried “as you like it” with a variety of toppings like mayo, seaweed, bacon, and more).
Tattoos are associated with Yakuza, the Japanese mafia and its members and their often violent criminal activities, and should be covered whenever possible. Some establishments may even throw out patrons with visible tattoos, or refuse to serve them. If you have small tattoos, you can easily cover them with clothing, bandages, your hair, or even makeup. This culture is changing, and many young people don’t share this belief, but it is something to be aware of and prepared for.
Onsen, or traditional Japanese baths, were one of my favorite experiences. They’re so peaceful and tranquil, and the perfect way to unwind at the end of the day. Be prepared that bathing in an onsen is done in public, separated by gender, and is completely nude. It may seem weird at first, but once you realize no one cares to look at anyone else, you’ll become comfortable and it will feel natural. We visited nearly a dozen different onsen during our six weeks in Japan and every single one refused entry to people with tattoos. You can get around this by covering up small tattoos with bandages or waterproof makeup, but obviously you can’t cover them up with clothing.
Tipping is simply not done in Japan, so never do it. Servers, bartenders, and other people in the service industry will chase you down to return your money, and if you insist on tipping they’ll see it as an insult, and that you are implying they don’t make money or are pitiable. Enjoy your meal and pay the amount stated on your bill, and nothing more.
Bowing is something Japanese people do to one another, and they don’t expect you to understand the complexities of when to bow, how many times, how low, or the timing of bows, so don’t sweat it. If people bow to you, you can return their bow by inclining your head and shoulders slightly, but don’t be surprised if they keep bowing at you over and over again.
Many people in Tokyo speak some English, and lots of signs and menus are in Japanese in English, but even more things aren’t in English. Outside of Tokyo, when we went to Osaka, Nikko, Nara, Himeji, Kyoto, Nagoya, Kurawaka Onsen, and the villages in between, almost no one spoke any English at all, and only some signs were also in English. My husband and I speak decent Japanese, so we were fine, but it would have been difficult if we didn’t. Have a basic understanding of Japanese greetings, and know how to say any allergies you may have in Japanese so if nothing else you won’t get sick (I recommend printing out “I have a severe allergy to _____” in both English and Japanese on papers the size of business cards and giving them to servers). Much of human interactions can be understood with smiles, gestures, and pointing (politely), so don’t sweat it, and don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone.
What to Wear in Tokyo
Tokyo is one of the fashion capitals of the world, so just about anything goes. That being said, be sure to dress respectfully when you visit a temple or shrine, nice restaurant, or traditional shop such as a kimono store, ink shop, or ryokan. The weather can change quickly here, so if you’re visiting outside of the summer, bring a jacket around with you.
Knowing when to remove your shoes is so complex I’m going to be writing an entire guide about how and when to do it. There are a lot of rules, but the best rule is to look at what Japanese people are doing and copy them. If you see shoes by the door at museums, restaurants, temples, shrines, stores, when entering bathrooms, or even hotels, leave your shoes with them.
Visiting Temples & Shrines
See my complete guide to temple and shrine etiquette here. I loved visiting temples and shrines in Japan, and I even had the chance to sit and chat with a shrine maiden about how guests to temples should comport themselves. This is another topic I’ll be dedicating a post to because it’s so important and so rewarding to experience temples and shrines properly. My quick tips are to respect no photography signs, remove shoes when told to do so, talk in a low voice, and follow what those around you are doing.
Trains are very unique in Japan, and this is yet another topic that deserves its own post, because it’s fascinatingly complex, and it seems that all Japanese just inherently understand how to act on the train, so any deviation from this is very noticeable (and embarrassing). Stay quiet when on trains, keep phones on silent, sit in your assigned seat, or hang onto railings, and do not eat or drink on train rides, unless you’re on Shinkansen trains, aka bullet trains that travel long distances.
Safety in Tokyo
Due to it’s geographic location in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is a nation that is very prone to earthquakes and susceptible to related tsunamis. In 2011 much of Japan and parts of Tokyo were devastated by flooding and structural damage due to earthquakes and aftershocks. Be aware of your hotel’s emergency plans, and read the safety information they give you at checkout to understand how you can best stay safe in the event of a natural disaster. Have a plan of where you’d meet your travel companions in the event of a natural disaster, and register your travels with your embassy, so they know to search for you if something happens.
Don’t let the fear of natural disasters prevent you from visiting, however. Bad things can happen anywhere, and even though Japan experiences thousands of Earthquakes each year, most can’t even be felt. While we were in Japan, we felt a few small tremors, but none caused anyone any trouble. At most, people just looked around and when they determined they were safe carried on their way. It wasn’t scary at all.
For being such a large city, Tokyo is an extremely safe place to visit when it comes to their crime rate. However, like anywhere else you’d go, always be aware of your surroundings, never leave your belongings unattended, and use your best judgment when making choices. It is rumored that Japanese police write off unsolvable murders as suicides, and downplay violent crimes and assaults in order to force their crime rates down, but it’s very difficult to prove this, so just be alert as you would in any big city. Always have a plan of where you’re going, and when you plan to return, and check in regularly with friends and family, so that in the very unlikely event that anything should happen to you, someone will notice.
That being said, there was never any point in my trip where I felt unsafe. I explored as much of Tokyo as I could during my time there, and was out form early in the morning before the sun rose, until well after dark, and I never had any trouble, even when I was traveling alone. Should you ever find yourself in danger, duck into a convenience store and ask for help, they have the resources to alert the authorities and help you in the event of an emergency, and Japanese people are extremely kind and willing to go out of their way to help, which was one of the things I admire most about their beautiful way of life.
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