I love big cities – the buzz, the excitement, the diversity – but even I started to feel overwhelmed when trying to plan my trip to Tokyo. One of the world’s largest (and most expensive) cities, I had a hard time getting my head around how far apart everything is and how to structure the few limited days we had to explore before our Dreamliner flight home.
I was surprised to find how neighborhood-y Tokyo is, and that’s actually a great way to structure a trip. Get started by familiarizing yourself with the Japan Rail (JR) Yamanote Line. It’s a train that runs in a circle around Tokyo. Most of the major sights are near a stop, and it takes an hour to do a full loop, so I would suggest staying in a location near a Yamanote line stop. From there you can work your way into most any stop on the greater Tokyo metro.
Working off of that idea of where to go in Tokyo, here are the neighborhoods of Tokyo that I liked, and what you’ll find in each.
Snacks and Temples in Asakusa
I loved Asakusa so much that I went back twice. The main attraction of Asakusa is the Senso-ji Shrine, which is just beautiful. But what will keep you coming back is the lineup of stalls in front of the shine that sell all sorts of yummy goodies, and souvenir goods as well. There’s fried balls filled with various flavors (pumpkin, sesame, sweet potato). Freshly-prepared rice crackers. Sesame sticks. Dumplings. Lots of yummy goodness.
Wander off the main street for more goodies – most shops and cafes have menus with pictures so you can get by without any Japanese skills. We stumbled into a shave ice place that had treats as big as your head – filled with a tasty, malty ice cream. Just heavenly.
JR Yamanote Stop: Keisei-ueno then Ginza Line to Asakusa.
Stay: Asakusa View Hotel
Shops and Ramen in Ikebukuro
Tucked away in northwest Tokyo, Ikebukuro feels like a city within a city – especially if you end up in the large mall here, Sunshine City, which is so big it even has a theme park and aquarium. Value luxury travelers will want to know that many say the deals on electronics are better here (I didn’t end up buying much due to the language barrier), and the department stores above the train station go on for miles. My favorite department store was Tokyu Hands, full of craft supplies and fun travel gear.
Ikebukuro is home to what is called the “ramen war zone” where the shops compete for the best bowl of deliciousness. Just head south out of the station’s east exit and you’ll find plenty of choices. For dessert, try the astrology-themed Milky Way ice cream shop, between the station and Sunshine City.
JR Yamanote Stop: Ikebukuro
Stay: Hotel Metropolitan
Tokyo Metro and JR Trains charge by the distance traveled – but often the map that shows you the price is only in Japanese. Just buy the minimum fare ticket (normally 130 Yen) and when you get to your stop, put your ticket in the Fare Adjustment Machine (all posted and available in English) and pay the fare difference.
Skyscrapers and People Watching in Shinjuku
For those of you who’ve seen the film Lost in Translation, the skyscrapers of Shinjuku need no introduction. Shinjuku is, in a way, Tokyo’s “times square,” where the bright lights and towering buildings make way for arcade shops, electronics stores, dumpling shops, and the like. It’s all a bit over the top, which is why you should take a look.
The most popular spot is the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, which has free viewing decks. The folks at the Tokyo Metro suggest the north observation tower for daytime views (if you’re lucky you’ll see Mt Fuji – this side closes at dusk), and then the south tower for night views. That’s a solid recommendation. My favorite spot in Shinjuku was actually grabbing beers at the Seven-Eleven and enjoying watching all the raucous activity from their free terrace seating. Certainly a unique contrast to the famed bar at the Park Hyatt!
JR Yamanote Stop: Shinjuku
Stay: Century Southern Tower Hotel Tokyo
Do you need constant Internet connectivity while in Japan? I went with the pocket mifi from Global Advanced Communications, which was very cost-effective and faster internet than I have at home! A must for those of you who are addicted to phone connectivity.
Bit of Everything in Aoyama and Roppongi
I took Viator’s tour of Aoyama and Roppongi, which was a great introduction to many of the little secrets of this ‘hood. There’s Tokyo Metro, one of the two big shopping malls here, which has some great food shops in the basement, from macaroons to a place that just sells lots of chicken dishes.
I suggest exploring outside of the malls, though. Aoyama has a beautiful cemetery and is a good place to decompress if the Tokyo crowds are getting to you. Behind Tokyo Midtown is an expansive garden and a design museum, both worth spending some time at. This area is also great for people watching – take a look at the diversity of fashions you’ll see walking the streets.
JR Yamanote Stop: Shibuya then subway transfer to Roppongi
Stay: Grand Hyatt
The transportation system in Tokyo can feel overwhelming, but it is very straightforward if you just take your time. The hardest part is not getting around, it’s getting out of the station – some stations have over 20 exits! Most museums, hotels, and attractions mention the closest exit, so be sure to note this town as it’ll save you time and stress in those very crowded stations.
An Oasis in Ueno
For a walk in the park, head for Ueno. Housing lots of green space, a temple, museums, and an enormous Starbucks that looks like a picnic shelter, it’s the largest park in Tokyo and is a wonderful spot to enjoy the sunshine and get some culture. Take a stroll a few blocks north of the park to take a look at the atmospheric Yanaka Cemetary, located in an interesting little neighborhood block.
JR Yamanote Stop: Ueno
Stay: Mitsui Garden Hotel
Oddities on Odaiba Island
Last, but not least, was one of the best ‘hoods in my opinion, Odaiba Island. These islands were created to house military installations but ended up not being used. Odaiba has the most fabulous views of Tokyo, especially at night, and in addition to a couple of shopping malls (of course), there are some restaurants, a beach (yes, really), a Statue of Liberty (not quite as big), and strange architecture, such as the Fuji TV Building (for a small fee, you can visit the big round sphere which is an observation deck). Odaiba is kind of out of the way, but it’s worth making the trip because of the atmosphere here – feels something like a scene out of science fiction novel.
Editorial Disclosure: Our travel was partially sponsored by All Nippon Airways and Viator. Thanks for your help in finding my way around town!