Tokyo Travel Guide and Itinerary

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A megacity unlike any other, Tokyo moves ever forward while steering clear of urban homogeneity, fully embracing technology while staying rooted in its culture. 

About Tokyo 

At first glance, Tokyo can seem intimidating — an endless sprawl that can take a lifetime to explore, infinite possibilities linked together by a complex train system. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that you’ll get lost in this megacity, but then that’s part of the fun. 

A study in dualism, Tokyo surges ahead as speedily as its Shinkansen, yet offers up tranquil Zen gardens that invite stillness and silence. Sleek structures and neon lights dominate the landscape, but just around the corner you might stumble upon a lane of cozy izakaya. A weird and wonderful robot restaurant is a major attraction, but so is the age-old practice of picnicking under cherry blossom trees in riotous bloom. 

Divided into 23 special wards, each one with its own personality-packed districts and neighborhoods, Tokyo feels like cities within cities within a city. With a population of 38 million, Greater Tokyo (which includes the neighboring prefecture of Yamanashi) is the biggest metropolis in the world. You’ll feel this most acutely as you attempt to board a crowded train at Shinjuku Station or observe the crush of people on Shibuya Crossing at rush hour.  

As you roam around the various districts, you’re bound to encounter a gamut of characters, from suited salarymen to cosplayers. But as disparate as they are in appearance, Tokyoites share the common trait of being exceedingly polite, generally eager to help out a lost traveler. 

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Photos on this page via Shutterstock.com

Highlights for the Traveler 

Be sure to get a Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass) before your trip, which gives you unlimited use of the JR network of trains and buses for up to three weeks. This pass is only available to foreign travelers and is the most cost-effective way to explore Tokyo and beyond. 

Get a taste of Tokyo’s dizzying blend of culture and quirkiness in the Shibuya District, home to both the Meiji Shrine and Harajuku; the former, nestled in the midst of a forest, is one of many sacred Shinto shrines in the city, while the latter is the epicenter of wild fashion and Japanese youth culture. Also in the area is Shibuya Crossing, the multi-corner intersection famous for its mad scramble of pedestrians.  

 

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Tokyo’s technological might is on display at Akihabara, with its abundance of electronic stores and raucous arcades. It’s here that you’ll find maid cafes designed to appeal to your inner okatu. Stroll down the streets of Ginza, Tokyo’s own version of Fifth Avenue, where you’ll see rows of high-end boutiques and chi-chi restaurants. Spend an evening downing sake in a fancy watering hole at Roppongi Hills or seek out the Golden Gai, a collection of hundreds of bars crammed shoulder to shoulder in narrow alleys at the Shinjuku District.   

Everywhere you go, you can find some good-quality eats, whether it’s at a convenience store with pocket-friendly onigiri, a hole in the wall hawking steaming bowls of ramen or a Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by a superstar chef. For the quintessential Tokyo dining experience, head to Tsukiji Fish Market its famous tuna auction is no longer open to the public, but the restaurant stalls in the outer market still serve the freshest sushi and seafood. 

Art is also everywhere and comes in many forms, from centuries-old performing arts like kabuki to interactive digital exhibitions. One museum, for instance, features immersive works that change with the seasons and move and morph as visitors go through them. 

Every season offers a good excuse to visit Tokyo but it is especially popular in the spring, when the Cherry Blossom Festival takes place around March or April. Stay a little longer and you might catch the azaleas and wisteria blossoming from April to May.  

In 2021, the city is all set to welcome and dazzle visitors from around the world as it hosts the rescheduled Summer Olympics. The long-awaited event promises to be a spectacle — after all, no other city does it like Tokyo.  

 

Text by Tisha Alvarez, as of May 2020.
Photos on this page via Shutterstock.com


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