Tokyo – the mega-city capital of Japan. 39 million people live in the greater metropolitan area of Tokyo but don’t let that put you off. Did it feel busy? Not really no. Sure, there are busy areas of Tokyo, it has the biggest and busiest train station in the world, the busiest crossing in the world and is the most populous city in the world. Even with all these accolades, it certainly didn’t feel like there were 6,200 people per square kilometre.
There were cute, traditional streets where you could wander around without much traffic just a 20-minute train from Tokyo station. Even most of the streets in the city were quiet and with minimal traffic. So if you’re put off by the staggering population stats of Tokyo, don’t be! (Maybe avoid rush hour trains though..)
Japan, and especially Tokyo, had been on the wish list for Dan for ages and as it has the world’s only DisneySea, Gab was keen on seeing it too. With a low budget and after hearing stories on how expensive Japan is, we gave ourselves only five days to explore and fit it all in. A hard task but one we’ve taken on before (read our five days in Singapore adventure here). So if you’re tight on time and money and five days is all you’ve got, read on and find out what you must see in Tokyo.
Where to stay
Accommodation is the main contributing factor as to why Tokyo is such an expensive place. With so many people, space is expensive and therefore, hotels are expensive – this is also why we only stayed for five days! There are ways to keep the costs down such as the ‘pod hostels’, which can be found all around Tokyo. They slightly resemble a cat scan machine so we probably wouldn’t recommend them if you’re claustrophobic. But the pod hostels are another nod to Japanese efficiency and effectiveness with small spaces.
Instead of a pod, we decided to spend only slightly more and have our own private room in Higashi-Jujo. We stayed at the Flexstay Inn Higashi-Jujo which is located between two main train lines. It was absolutely perfect for our short stay and we can’t recommend it enough! There are traditional Japanese restaurants right on the doorstep or if you’re not feeling adventurous enough for that just yet, a 7-Eleven directly opposite.
When looking for your accommodation, our top tip is to check the train lines nearby and if possible, try to stay in walking distance of the Yamonote Line. This line is essentially a circle line travelling through all the main areas of Tokyo. The Flexstay Inn we stayed at was no more than 100m away from this line and only a 10-minute walk from the Saikyo Line which was a quicker way into Shinjuku City and Shibuya. Perfect.
Etiquette and Handy Tips
Before we jump straight in, there are quite a few things that are considered in bad taste in Japan, a few that you wouldn’t even think about so take note!
- It’s rude to eat and walk, you won’t ever see someone walking down the street and eating a sandwich like you would in the UK. Also don’t start tucking into a katsu curry on the train or any public transport (a common sight on the last trains out of Liverpool Street)
- Don’t tip your waiters/waitresses, taxi drivers, anyone! If you think you’re being kind by leaving change you’ll probably have someone running after you. Also, change is also rarely exchanged hand to hand – coins and change are placed in a small tray rather than from person to person
- When using chopsticks make sure not to stand them in the bowl upright – this is a ritual only left when mourning the dead. Also don’t play or point with your chopsticks, they’re for eating only
- Removing your shoes is probably the most important of them all! Remember when entering an inside space, you must remove your shoes
- Top tip – make sure you have cash. When you land at the airport, pop to an ATM and get out the cash you need for your trip. Places rarely accept card so you’ll need cash. For free withdrawals* and fee free spending abroad, check out our card recommendation Revolut.
*free withdrawals depend on which account you have but you can still withdraw £200 a month for free with the free account!
Very Basic Phrases (they’ll appreciate the effort)
Hello – Konnichiwa
Goodbye – Sayonara
Please – Onegaishimasu (tougher one to pronouce)
Thank you – Arigato gozaimasu
Yes – Hai
No – Lie
Excuse me – Sumimasen
I’m sorry – Gomennasai
As soon as we arrived in Japan, we loved it. Everything was efficient, clean and exciting. One of the main attractions to Japan, especially for Dan, was the unfamiliar culture and more challenging language barriers. That prospect didn’t disappoint. As soon as we turned up, the search for an English-written sign to help us on our way was well and truly on. Japanese writing was everywhere, neat and patiently waiting queues were formed on train platforms and the streets were clean and quaint in smaller areas.
Higashi-Jujo, where we stayed, felt traditional and Japanese which is exactly what we wanted. More often than not, expectation and reality are very different but so far, not here in Tokyo.
It quickly became one of our favourite travel destinations, we’ve compiled some of our top sights and experiences. We know there’s still heaps more to see so we’ll use that as an excuse to go back!
Exploring the city
Surprisingly for a city of this scale, it’s easy to get around and even quite walkable. We expected to be catching trains to different areas of the city but ended up walking an average of 25,000 Dan sized steps a day (27,500 on the first day). If you did want to get around via public transport, see the section at the bottom of the post for more info.
Below are some of our city highlights, take a look at the map to see where they are…
Imperial Palace and Imperial Palace East Gardens
A nice way to ease into the city and Japanese culture is to go and visit the main residence of the Imperial Family. Within easy walking distance of Tokyo Station, there’s no excuse to not go and tick this one of the list. The grounds are quite big and it took us a while (embarrassingly) to find the hoardes of tourists heading towards the main palace itself.
The palace is home to the Emperor of Japan, the head of the Imperial Family and Head of State in Japan. The Imperial House of Japan is the oldest, continuing monarchical house in the world. So it’s no wonder tourists and patriots alike flock in large numbers to see the building. You can’t get into the main area itself (not open to the public) but enjoy the surrounding gardens and buildings and take in all their heritage and history.
If you’re looking for the most instagramable place in Tokyo, look no further. This immersive, sensory art installation is fun for all ages and well worth a visit. Similar to it’s counterpart in Singapore, Teamlab Borderless Tokyo have gone one better with their lantern room – which, not surprisingly, has queues. Make sure you try and find that one first thing in the morning or leave it until later on in the afternoon.
There isn’t a map or really any rhyme or reason to the literally, ‘borderless’ 10,000 square meter gallery so make sure you leave enough time to fully explore.
After wandering around TeamLab, leave some time to enjoy the rest of the area. There are a few museums to check out or if they’re not your scene, you can walk to a beach and see a Statue of Liberty replica (weirdly).
The busiest crossing in the world. It’s impressive from every angle – we ended up going back time and time again to view it from the ground, from above and even at 4am when it was (semi) empty.
Up to 2,500 people cross at every green light! Luckily or unluckily for us, we were there in low season so we probably had a measly 1,000. Across the road, Starbucks is a popular viewing destination (check out our GIF below) – you might have to wait in line for a window seat and make sure you buy a coffee unless you want to be kicked out!
Apparently 7pm or later is the best time to go on weekdays. If you’re heading to the crossing on a weekend, think about going after 1pm for the best crowds.
To really understand the scale of Tokyo and the incredible amount of people in it, you’ve got to see it from above. Conveniently, Tokyo has the world’s tallest tower – the Tokyo Skytree – and it’s perfect for the job. Buy a ticket and head on up to get a full 360° experience from 450m above ground.
It’s not the cheapest activity to do in Tokyo but trust us, it’s worth it. Stake your claim and watch the sun go down and the lights flick on as the city comes alive.
You can enjoy a photoshoot from the dizzying heights on the glass floor platform, or enjoy a coffee or even a three-course meal from the lower deck. Whatever takes your fancy we guarantee you won’t see Tokyo in the same light again!
Price – ¥2060 (first observatory), ¥3090 (both observatories)
Height – 350m (first), 450m (second), 634m (total height)
Book Tickets – Tokyo Skytree
Looking for a more traditional iconic experience? The tower has been a renowned symbol of Tokyo for over 60 years. Finished in 1958, it was considered a sign of the rebirth of Japan as a powerful country after the war. Today, it’s a great spot to view the city and on clear days, Mount Fuji.
Price: ¥900 (main deck), ¥2800 (both viewing decks)
Height: 150m (main deck), 250m (top deck), 333m (total height)
Ticket Prices: Tokyo Tower
When you’re a tourist in a new place, as much as you want to find the ‘hidden gems’, you’ve also got to go to the popular areas to get a touristy souvenir. No? Just us?
Well if you love doing this too, the next two suggestions are the perfect place for it.
The less touristy and busy of the two, Yanaka Ginza is a quaint and traditional shopping street in the Taito City area of Tokyo. There are around 60 cute gift shops and restaurants lining the main street with other pretty streets and back-roads surrounding it waiting to be explored.
After getting a few souvenirs, the Yanaka Cemetery Park provides a different-to-your-normal sightseeing spot, giving you an insight into a less explored area of a new culture. It is also a spectacular viewing point for the cherry blossoms when in season. Please remember to be respectful if you do plan to visit the area!
Nakamise Shopping Street
One of the main tourist attractions in Tokyo which brings in the tourist numbers you’d expect. It is busy here but it’s worth going too. It’s not far from the Tokyo Skytree so if you’re planning on doing both, schedule it in for the same day.
Down the bottom of a long walking street lined with stalls is the Senso-Ji Buddhist Temple. It’s a very picturesque and impressive area that we will talk more about just below…
Temples and Shrines
At the end of the Nakamise Shopping Street in Asakusa, you find a handful of amazing buildings that make up the Senso-Ji Buddhist Temple. Walking in from the shopping street you will hear the rattling of the Omikuji Paper Fortune. Drawn in by the noise and crowds, we quickly worked out this was a form of fortune telling where you pay a small donation to pull a stick out of a tin. There’s a corresponding draw to which stick you pull out and inside the draw are the fortunes. Ours said it was a bad time to travel which was unnerving to know as we still had Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore left to go! If you receive a bad fortune, don’t fear – tie that bad luck to the nearby stands or trees, leave the negativity behind and move on with more positive thoughts!
Just to the north of Shibuya and before you get up to Shinjuku is the Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine. It’s a Shinto Shrine – Shinto is the ancient, original Japanese religion. The shrine is surrounded by forest which is a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of Shibuya. Walking through the grounds, there area a few key attractions to keep your eyes peeled for.
The wall of Japanese Sake (Japanese rice wine) Barrels is one to look out for as well as the main large temple area. Also known as kazaridaru in Japanese, these Sake Barrels are impressive and artistically beautiful. Sake barrels are offered every year to the deities and are donated by sake brewers from around Japan. While they’re not actually full of rice wine, they symbolise the bringing together of people and the gods. Rice wine would traditionally be drunk at shrine festivals making people “feel happy and closer to the gods”.
It’s quite amazing how an area this peaceful and of this size can be found just a 20-minute walk from the busiest crossing in the world. It’s definitely worth taking some time to properly explore the area and find your zen.
One of our favourite stops, it was the cutest half hour of our lives. We paid ¥3000 (£21) which may seem a little expensive but it was a highlight. Even Dan enjoyed it (and actually convinced us to go, so…).
You have half an hour to feed (extra ¥400 or £3), hold and observe the little guys and gals in their homes. You can also grab free coffee, tea or water for yourself as you watch your chosen hog have a potter about and even climb into a bathtub (convinced you want to go yet?).
They have a day in the cafe and then have a day off to rest up and enjoy over 24 hours of sleep, so they’re not constantly being watched. They also have constant heat pads switched on and trained handlers with heaps of knowledge (and great English) to teach you more.
Would any trip to Japan be complete without trying out your vocal skills in a karaoke bar? Although we can’t remember too much of our time in the booth, we do remember doing a duet of Islands in the Stream and singing a medley of Fleetwood Mac tunes. They’re open pretty late and we think we finally got kicked out at about four or five in the morning.
Yes, there are videos and no, they’re not going on the blog. Just take our word for it, go and sing your heart out and if you need a few beers beforehand, go here…
Cheap Yakitori Restaurant
This was, without a doubt, the best place to stock up on food and maybe a cheeky pint before hitting the singing. The restaurant is part of a chain and it’s called Torikizoku. We loved this place as everything was ¥298, which is roughly £2.30 (and it all tasted great). This included all the chicken and pork skewers, a tankard of beer or whisky if you’d rather, rice dishes, noodle dishes – all ¥298.
The concept that made them famous is that they offer all kinds of Yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) at only ¥298. They have a huge variety of menu items available and people generally go there for a casual dinner and night out in an izakaya (equivalent to a Japanese pub) atmosphere.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Now this was one of those things that was high up on Dan’s to-see-list but was let down by a lack of research, shame on us. We found out (too late) that the traditional Tsukiji fish market has actually moved. Well, the inside bit anyway. Luckily the outside market was still there with a huge variety of street food style stalls offering all sorts of fish, sushi, beef and other traditional Japanese foods and snacks.
Back in the day, the Tsukiji fish market was the largest wholesale fish market in the world. These days, the inside market part has moved to Toyosu Market so if you wanted to experience those early morning fish market smells, head there instead.
A slightly weird highlight to add but they’re such a part of Japanese life and great to know about for a few reasons. There are over 2,500 7-Elevens in Tokyo. To put that into perspective, there’s only 200 McDonald’s in London – so you can imagine how you’ll never be too far from one.
7-Eleven is a lifeline! Need free Wi-Fi? 7-Eleven. Need a cheap cheese toasty? 7-Eleven. Need a full blown meal and snacks and a SIM card and maybe some washing powder and an ice-latte and hey while we’re at it new underwear? Sure, 7-Eleven! Even if you just need some rest bite from the heat, take advantage of the 7-Eleven air-con.
They’re great and you can’t miss ’em.
A highlight of the trip. We had a great day at Tokyo DisneySea – being the only one in the world it was a special bucket list item for Gab (she only has the Shanghai park to do now).
We went with our friends and fellow travel bloggers Faramagan, and honestly it was a great day out (childless millennial’s can enjoy Disney too…). We’ll be posting a full run down of HK Disney and Tokyo DisneySea soon – stay tuned!
Day Trip to Mount Fuji
Be prepared for this one, plan the weather and make sure you know where you’re going! Opting not to climb the highest peak in Japan, the Chureito Pagoda was our destination to see it from afar. Whatever you decide to do, we suggest doing it as part of a tour. Doing it off our own back seemed to get us a bit lost and walking in circles. So if you’re on a budget and just want to go see the mountain and come back, here’s how we did it…
- Head to Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal
- Book a ticket (we managed to get these on the day for ¥1950 one way – so for return it cost roughly £30 p.p). You might have some waiting around as the buses get full quickly
- Catch the coach towards Kawaguchiko station. The stop for the Chureito Pagoda is on the main road a fair walk before it so keep an eye out on maps! (you can also check out our map below, you’re welcome)
- Then you can either walk – it’s quite a walk but we managed it (see map below) or catch the train into the nearby town with Lake Kawaguchi. Note that the walk takes you through graveyards and industrial estates, not cute Japanese towns but there are several 7-Eleven stores (obviously) on the way
- Explore the town and visit Lake Kawaguchi. Although you can’t see the mountain from there, much to our surprise and disappointment
- Pick up some cute souvenirs, have some tempura and then hop back on the coach back from Kawaguchiko train station to Tokyo city
For prices and more up-to-date and accurate information, check out highway-buses.jp and plan your route.
The view from the pagoda does make all the travelling worth it. It’s an impressive sight seeing the famous Mount Fuji from here. If you wanted an even more spectacular view, make sure you travel in cherry blossom season (April-May). Another tip – check the weather! You could go all that way to see cloud, cloud and more cloud.
Food to Try
Obviously, numero uno is sushi. There are fish markets dedicated to the fine art of sushi making. It’s a staple of the Japanese diet and has been for over 400 years, so guaranteed it will be a once in a lifetime experience. Now cod only knows we’re not fish experts, but be in the right plaice at the right time you’ll dolphinately be in for the best unagi or salmon skin rolls – we’re not squidding, read Time Out’s guide to sushi in Tokyo for more info.
Not a fan of the fish? No d-ramen! Try the soulful soup and traditional dish – ramen. Ramen is iconic in Japan and comes in heaps of variations – the basics don’t change, i.e. the broth, noodles, the token egg/greens on top. There are so many places to try it in the city but try and go for the smaller but packed places – they’ll always be the best.
If you’re from the UK you’re probably familiar with Wagamama. If you’re familiar with Wagas, then you’re also probably a huge fan of their katsu curry, right? Then you’ve got to try the real deal in Tokyo. It’s authentic and incredible, there’s even a chain dedicated to the katsu. If you’re looking to satisfy that fix right away, try Curry House CoCo ICHIBANYA also known as CoCoICHI – good portions and a great place to start. They’re ever growing and probably the most popular of katsu curry places. You can custom order and there’s lots of options of size, sides and toppings to choose from. Ideal.
How to Get Around
As we mentioned before, once you’re in the city it is all relatively accessible by foot, if you like walking. However, Japan can get very hot and humid so if you’d rather use the most efficient train network in the world, crack on.
Taxis and Uber in Tokyo are expensive whereas the trains and trams are reasonable. The stations can be quite confusing, and big, with lots of Japanese signs up everywhere (as you’d expect) and a quite confusing fare system. As well as all that, there are also a few different train companies that run throughout the network and generally you need separate tickets to travel on each companies trains. Thankfully, there’s a super helpful website to work it all out and tell you which tickets to buy and the cost. We used Hyperdia to budget and plan and it was great.
Hyderdia is not only great for the Tokyo but the whole of Japan. So if you’re planning on seeing more of the country, use it to plan your way around. If you are planning on using trains around Japan, it might be worth looking at the JR pass. You can find more info on that here: JR Pass.
We mentioned earlier about the highway-buses.jp website, it’s a great way to save a bit of cash as although the bullet train is a quicker way to get around the country, it is considerably more expensive.
If we had more time…
While it’s been referred to as a ‘tourist trap’ it’s still something we wish we ticked off the list. It looks like a crazy and colourful experience that was, unfortunately, out of our budget.
From various YouTube videos we’ve seen it’s an intimate yet intense show of music, lights and dance… oh yea, and robots. Check out more here.
Akihabara is the famous electronics district of Tokyo. If you want to go shopping for any electronics e.g cameras, laptops, phones etc. this is apparently where to go for a ridiculously huge amount of choice. From small stalls to massive multi-floor department stores, you’re bound to find what you’re looking for.
As well as having all the shops, there are also venues specialising in manga, anime and video games. The Radio Kaikon, for example, has 10 floors of toys, trading cards and collectibles. So it sounded like quite an interesting area to visit and immerse yourself in modern Japanese culture even if you aren’t a fan of shopping! One to go and see next time for us.
The Rest of Japan
Yep, quite frankly we want to see more of Japan. All of it and any of it. Recommendations greatly received! Drop us comments below! 🙂