Determining which places to visit in Tokyo can give you a headache, especially if you’ve never visited Japan before. How can you possibly explore the world’s largest city in just a few days (or even a week), let alone make heads or tails of it? It’s actually rather simple.
My strategy focuses on getting to know different Tokyo neighborhoods. Tokyo, I’m fond of saying, is not so much one huge city as it is several relatively large ones that all happen to exist in the same place. The more part of Tokyo you get to know, the less intimidating the whole becomes.
As I describe each of these areas of the city, I’ll name-drop cool things to do in Tokyo you can find there, and link to additional articles I’ve written therein. You might feel stressed right now, but trust me: You’re going to love Tokyo—and Tokyo’s going to love you.
The Most Popular Tokyo Neighborhoods
Sometimes known as “Electric Town,” both for the wide range of affordable electronics sold here as well as the countless video game arcades you can find, Akihabara is one of the top Tokyo tourist places, even though it lacks a central attraction. Other reasons to visit Akihabara include shopping for manga, dining in a bizarre “maid café” or simply practicing your night photography skills. Have more than just a cursory interest in manga? Take a guided Akihabara tour that spotlights anime and gaming.
If you’ve only got one day in Tokyo, the eclectic district of Asakusa tops my list of where you should go. Here you can bear witness to Tokyo’s most striking contrasts, most notably between ancient Senso-ji temple and Tokyo Sky Tree, one of the tallest freestanding structures in the world. Asakusa is also a stone’s throw from Ueno Park, one of Tokyo’s most celebrated cherry blossom spots.
Ginza has a reputation as being upmarket, but finding the best Michelin star sushi in Tokyo isn’t the only reason to come here. Save some cash (and sanity—reservations are so overrated!) and eat Wagyu beef cooked on a Teppanyaki grill at Misono, preferably after exploring the Ginza Massif: A collection of more than 200 art galleries within this glitzy district, which is only 15 minutes’ walk from Tokyo Station, or watching a kabuki show at Kabuki-za theatre.
Walking through the so-called Shibuya Scramble has got to be one of the most popular things to do in Tokyo at night, though that’s not the only reason to come to this lively district in the western part of the city. To be sure, it’s not just about night-time either, whether you enjoy an afternoon stroll through Yoyogi Park to the Meiji Shrine, or mingle with the “Harajuku girls” along Takeshita-dori.
Speaking of Tokyo at night, there are few more iconic spots to see the city’s neon-bathed beauty than in Kabukicho, red-light sub-district of the larger Shinjuku area. Which is not to say you need to be into illicit activities to enjoy Shinjuku, or that you must come at night. In addition to offering cheap eats in the form of sushi, gyoza and beyond, Shinjuku is where you’ll find lush Shinjuku Gyoen national garden.
Alternative Tokyo Neighborhoods
Not to be confused with Asakusa, Akasaka is a neighborhood right in the middle of Tokyo that many travelers nonetheless overlook entirely. Akasaka is home to many of my favorite places to visit in Tokyo, including Hie Shrine (which evokes Kyoto‘s Fushimi Inari Taisha) and the imperial Akasaka Palace, which is admittedly closed to the public (at least for the most part).
Who says you need to go far to explore Tokyo? Arriving at Tokyo Station, either from Narita Airport or elsewhere in Japan, walk out the western exit, which bears the name of the neighborhood (Maranouchi) into which you’ll emerge. Admire the century-old facade of the station (TIP: ascend to the rooftop of KITTE mall for a panorama), then have a stroll through the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace.
Few travelers (present company included) would list Odaiba island among the best neighborhoods in Tokyo, but it has its charms. Go up in the Fuji TV Sphere to see Tokyo’s skyline behind the Rainbow Bridge, take a selfie in front of a Statue of Liberty replica or nerd-out at a monument to the robot Gundam. Odaiba is also where you’ll find teamLAB Borderless, Tokyo’s newly-famous “digital art” museum.
When it comes to unique things to do in Tokyo, few activities fit this mold better than a trip to Gotoku-ji, aka the maneki neko (lucky cat) temple. Another of my favorite ways to pass some time in Setagaya, a large neighborhood some consider to be a catch-all for Tokyo’s western suburbs, is an evening in an Izakaya pub in Shimo-Kitazawa, Tokyo’s current hipster hub.
Prefer intellectual stimulation over off-the-wall, crazy things to do in Tokyo? Ride the train to Nippori, just a few minutes’ walk from historical Yanaka. Shop for trinkets in Yanaka Ginza (no connection to the more famous, aforementioned Ginza), or cozy up to cats in Yanaka Cemetery. Whatever you do, you’ll enjoy both architecture and a vibe that evokes the era of Edo—Tokyo before it was Tokyo.
Day Trips from Tokyo
After you finish your Tokyo city tour, you’ll probably be in the mood for a day trip, at least if you have the time. A popular choice for this is Hakone, home to a staggering number of onsen day spas that you can soak in. I don’t recommend coming to Hakone to get a view Mt. Fuji, as many travelers mistakenly do, though I will share an alternative recommendation for that in a second.
Kamakura and Yokohama
Many people disregard Yokohama as part of the Tokyo suburbs—and they do so at their own peril. Even if you simply visit the unique Cup Noodles Museum or picturesque Sankei-en garden, your journey to Kanagawa prefecture is more than worth the trouble. Make it a full day away from Tokyo with a sojourn to Japan’s former capital of Kamakura, home (among attractions) to a giant, bronze Buddha.
I’ve always found it odd how often Kawagoe is left off lists of places to visit in Tokyo—or at least, nearby Tokyo. After all, the architecture you find here dates back to the period of Edo, which is what Tokyo was called when it first became the capital of Japan. While much of Kawagoe’s ancient architecture was actually re-built following an 1893, learning history if part of why you need to visit.
Though many travelers visit the aforementioned spa town of Hakone for this purpose, it’s actually not the best place to see Mt. Fuji. That honor goes to the towns of Fujiyoshida and Kawaguchiko in the Fuji Five Lakes region. Amazing views of Fujisan notwithstanding, other attractions here include a quirky kimono museum and the thrilling Fujikyu Highlands amusement park.
Many travelers consider the historical city of Nikko as the best Tokyo day trip. Although I won’t comment on this (I love all the destinations I’ve listed, for different reasons), there are few single attractions in Japan more fulfilling than the Tosho-gu Shrine, which dates back to the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Practically speaking, Nikko is corrected directly to Asakusa Station by the Tobu Nikko Line.
Hitachi Seaside Park
Famous on Instagram but somewhat elusive to most foreigners in Japan, Hitachi Seaside Park is most famous for its rolling fields of blue nemophila flowers, which appear to be a second sea along the Pacific. Whether you head here in spring or autumn (or come at another time of year—there are colors on display all 365 days), this isn’t an easy day trip due to relatively poor public transportation, but it’s definitely fulfilling, particularly if you can manage to reach the park early.
The Best Area to Stay in Tokyo
Irrespective of what I’ve written in this article, I’m sure some of you have already begun searching for where to stay in Shinjuku—and some of my favorite places to stay in Tokyo are in or near this famous district. On the other hand, I personally love to stay in more central (but arguably less happening) parts of Tokyo, from Kanda (which is halfway between Tokyo Station and Akihabara) to Akasaka, which is sort of in the middle of everything.
Notwithstanding the best hotels in Shibuya, some hidden Tokyo hotel gems include APA Hotel Kanda Ekimae and Hotel Felice Akasaka, two cost-effective yet chic and convenient properties I’ve stayed at several times each. On the slightly higher end, choices like Hotel Celestine (which has locations both in Ginza and Shiba, near Tokyo Tower) are an even better bet if you have more to spend, while The Tokyo Station Hotel (guess where that one’s located?) is my favorite ultra-luxury hotel in Tokyo.
Other FAQ About Places to Visit in Tokyo
Where should you go in Tokyo?
I recommend planning as eclectic a Tokyo itinerary as possible. Vary your time in the city between the futuristic, neon-bathed areas of Shinjuku, Shibuya and Akihabara, and the calmer, more historical districts of Asakusa and Yanaka. When you visit Ginza, focus not only on the luxury boutiques and glitzy department stores, but cultural icons such as Kabuki-za Theater and the Tsukiji Seafood Market.
How do you get around Tokyo?
Tokyo has one of the most developed urban rail networks in the world, which includes the Tokyo Metro and popular JR-operated train lines, mostly notably the circular Yamanote Line. You can also travel using private densha such as the Toei Subway and Keikyu Line, and dozens of bus routes (although these can be harder to navigate if you’re a short-term visitor).
How far is Mt. Fuji from Tokyo?
Mt. Fuji is about 100 km from Tokyo, as the crow flies. The good news, given this fact, is that it’s easy to see Fujisan from several vantage points on a clear day in Tokyo. The bad news? The mountain will look extremely small unless you view it through a zoom lens, contrary to what some (photoshopped) pictures of Fuji rising over “Tokyo” (usually, these depict cities like Shizuoka or Fujinomiya) would lead you to believe.
The Bottom Line
As you can hopefully see by now, determining which places to visit in Tokyo is a lot simpler than you previously imagined. Compare and contrast Tokyo neighborhoods to determine which one(s) interest you most, then disperse them evenly throughout your Tokyo itinerary. If you’re more flexible or will spend more than a few days in Japan’s capital, you might also be able to squeeze in some Tokyo day trips! No matter the particulars of the trip you end up taking, one thing is for certain: Tokyo Starts Here.