The worlds most populous city was like no other location we have ever visited. The Greater Tokyo Area has a population of 38 million people and contains cites among the city.
When we share our experiences with those who have either lived there or have visited, we get different feedback. Some say it’s ‘fantastical’, ‘amazing’, ‘unique’. Others say it’s over-crowded with loooong queues. Needless to say, we all share one common experience: Tokyo is the world’s most animated city!
This was the first stop on our Japanese tour and we were excited to delve into the sprawling metropolis. We were never going to cover the entire city in 3 days but we certainly got a lot more than expected.
Read on to get the best out the world’s craziest city – in a short period of time.
TOKYO in 3 DAYS
You don’t need a week in Tokyo like everyone recommends. Eventually, everything becomes the same.
In the following guide, we will advise on the best area to base yourself, how to get around the city and the most recommended places to visit in North, South, East and West of Tokyo without feeling you are missing out.
The best place to base yourself is in Shinjuku, home to the famous Shinjuku train station where 3 million passengers navigate this massive transport hub on a daily basis. Yes every day!
The station itself is central to all transport lines which is convenient when you visit Japan during any World Games. From traveling during the Rugby World Cup season, we had expected the rail system to be overwhelming but to be fair, it was easy enough to manage and organised with no major problems.
Shinjuku is a microcosm of Tokyo and contains everything from neon lit streets and high class hotels to skyscrapers and government buildings. In fact, this area was more alive at 3am than at 3pm. It is incredibly amusing to walk through the main streets and back alleys, absorbing Tokyo at it’s finest!
In true Tokyo style, our Hotel – the Gracery Shinjuku (highly recommended), accommodated a giant Godzilla atop the roof. The revered reptile captures the craziness of this weird and wonderful city with an occasional roar and smoking nostrils.
Tokyo’s Metro system can appear daunting but it’s relatively easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. The combined subway network comprises of 278 stations and 13 lines. With Japan hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games (now scheduled for 2021 due to the Covid 19 Pandemic), many signs are now in English.
Buy a PASMO CARD – a reusable, smart card that can be used instead of a metro/bus ticket (or cash) and even for small purchases in convenience stores or vending machines in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka. The card can be topped up the same way.
Very useful for travelling Japan.
Obey the rules in Tokyo!
No shoes allowed means no shoes allowed and queuing for a train becomes an art form. We got to experience, first hand, the Oshiya (or ‘the Pushers’) hired to literally push or guide the millions of passengers aboard the train system during rush hours. It was both daunting and hilarious to watch.
Experiencing the transport system in Tokyo and Japan as a whole is worth the trip alone. They have it perfected and you can literally set a watch by the punctuality of its service. On the rare occasion of a late train (possibly caused by a certain international traveler, delaying things with their over-sized duffel bag *ahem!*), public announcement apologies are made. This is the nature of the Japanese people.
After all, there are ten different words for sorry in Japanese. The Japanese are a humble and respectful nation and although they appear closed off and wary of the foreigner, we found those that we engaged with, very pleasant.
If you are not a fan of closed, clustered and tight spaces, our biggest recommendation is to avoid peak times at all cost. Alternatively, there are plenty of taxi’s around but expect to pay a pricey fare.
DAY 1: Ebisu and Naka-Meguro
On Tokyo’s west side lie Naka-meguro, Ebisu and Daikanyama. These three hip, yet relaxed, districts are within walking distance of each other and around the corner from Shibuya. So, you can simply stroll from one to the next for a half day.
Here you will find many fashion boutiques and upmarket restaurants and a true cosmopolitan feel that draws young locals.
Getting to the area is best done by taking the Tokyu-Toyoku line from Shibuya to Daikanyama or Naka-meguro, or alternatively the Yamanote line to Ebisu. Once at one of these stations, you will find your bearings on foot.
Get a tour guide for a half-day tour. It is a great way to get the best start in Tokyo: learn the ropes of navigating the transport system and learn things only a local would know. Many companies offer budget friendly packages.
What to do and see:
- Eat at Ebisu Yokocho: A tightly packed network of small eateries within an indoor alley. Yokocho is always loud and lively, offering a range of Japanese food for the late-night crowd. It’s popular every day of the week but you can expect to wait more for your desired eating spot at the weekend. We explored this area during a street food tour (for the best street food tour – read our review, here).
- T-Site: With award-winning architecture, the T-site building hosts Tsutaya, a bookstore heaven, upscale stores, an art gallery and a lounge area.
- Shop along Log Road: Built along the old Tokyu line tracks, Log Road has a few stylish shops, artisan cafes and the Spring Valley Brewery, where you can taste Japanese craft beers from micro-breweries from across the country.
- Meguro river : Well-known for the cherry blossom illuminations that line its banks. Take a stroll whatever time of year you visit. There are a few izakayas (Casual Japanese restaurants) that create a buzzing atmosphere in the evenings along the waterside.
- Starbucks Reserve Roastery Tokyo: Although a US chain, you will quickly notice that Starbucks is hugely popular in Japan. This is the world’s biggest branch. The design, by famed architect Kengo Kuma, features origami-like ceilings and trails of cherry blossom, intended to reference Japan’s landscape and traditional crafts.
- Tokyo Photographic Art Museum: If you are a photo enthusiast, the photographic Art Museum in Ebisu is worth a visit. It’s a short walk from Ebisu station and boasts a large permanent collection.
- Mirai Sake: A sake bar where you can sample more than 150 types of different Sake. The creators focus not on the most popular brews but ones which come with a concept and story. They scoured the country looking for breweries that could offer something unique to their range on offer in their bar. A great spot to try the national drink that is enjoying a renaissance and increased popularity among the youth of Japan.
Visit Toyosu fish market and Odaiba
On your second day in Tokyo rise early to experience the worlds largest Fish Market.
The Toyosu fish market opened its doors in October 2018 replacing the iconic Tsukiji fish market only 2km to the East. The new site on the man -made Toyosu Island is almost twice the size of its predecessor and therefore retains the title of the largest fish market in the world. Toyosu is much more tourist-friendly and has clearly marked areas as to where visitors can and cannot go.
Directions: The closest station to Toyosu fish market is Shijomae station on the Yurikamome line. The best access to the Yurikamome line is either from Shimbashi station (also on the Yamanote loop line). From Shijomae station you can directly enter the fish wholesale section.
The famed tuna auctions start at 4:30am and lasts for about an hour. Arrive on time in order to get a good spot. If such an early start is not for you, there is still plenty of market activity up until 8am but a 7:30am arrival at the latest is recommended. If you are simply looking for sushi, the surrounding stalls and restaurants are open all day and serve some of the freshest seafood you can get in Japan.
After the eventful fish auction and plenty of sushi sampling, hop over to Odaiba across the bay.
The island of Odaiba just over the Rainbow Bridge has many museums; the Miraikan, Team Lab Borderless and Oedo Onsen Monogatari – Japan’s common baths. This area is also home to the Fuji TV Tower, a former fortress against foreign invaders in olden times and now a popular date spot.
- Visit the observation deck at the Fuji TV Building: Admission 700yen and open from 10am – 6pm (closed Mondays).
- Watch Asimo (Honda’s robot) put up a daily show: Find cutting-edge technology and robots at the Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (10am – 5pm, closed most Tuesdays).
- Experience digital art at Team Lab Borderless: A popular spot, so book tickets online in advance. Tokyo has 2 digital art museums Teamlab Borderless and Teamlab Planets. We visited the least impressive of the two: Planets. In travelling you live, you learn. Borderless is located the MORI Building Digital Art Museum in Odaiba.
- Visit Oedo Onsen Monogatari: a large Onsen theme park with a communal area that resembles the Edo Period. Buy vintage souvenirs, play classic Japanese video games and soak up the festive atmosphere. Please note that they do not allow entry to visitors with tattoos.
- End with sky views across Odaiba from the Giant Ferris Wheel: A few cabins have glass floors.
Visit the Ryōgoku District, watch a sumo wrestling match and explore the infamous Shibuya’s crossing. If you have extra time, Harajuku Sensō-ji is a crowded area but worth visiting this UNESCO site. Alternatively Hie Shrine is much smaller and worth a photo stop. (Note that they are on opposite ends of each other. So go to one or the other.)
We left these areas for last as they are the most crowded and popular areas to manouvre through.
The Ryogoku Kokugikan area is synonymous with the most popular sport in Japan; sumo wrestling. There are many academies where wrestlers train and live. From your first arrival at the metro station you can spot participants coming and going.
The main wrestling tournament is during October and you are more likely to interact with wrestlers during this time.
Ryogoku Kokugikan (stadium) has a capacity of 11,000 and was built in 1985. Sumo wrestlers are highly respected in Japan and it is the national sport, here. We were fortunate enough to visit during a tournament and got to meet a few of the national icons.
Keen to get our photo taken with these athletes, our local tour guide encouraged us and asked a pair of young wrestlers for us. Always good to have a local in toe as the Japanese generally and unashamedly do not normally speak another language.
She later told us she that the wrestlers we were pictured with were victorious in their matches that morning. She further explained to us that she wouldn’t have approached a fighter either on the way to his match, or on his way home, wallowing in defeat.
We, quickly, were able to distinguish the focused facial expressions of those yet to fight and the either sullen or happy demeanour of those that had won or lost. We were fortunate to meet and have our picture moment with “two happy chappies” obviously victorious in their early morning bouts.
If you get the opportunity try and see a match. However just walking the area is a great experience. Sumo wrestling is Japans national sport and these revered sportsmen who hold celebrity status are so popular in Japanese culture that tickets are sold out way in advance.
We stumbled across the recording of a “Paddy Power” advertisement where we got to meet some Irish Sport-stars and the former champion sumo wrestler turned actor, Yoshinori Tashiro, not to mention an audience with WWE smackdown star Sheamus and superstar horse jockey, Ruby Walsh.
An experience where the worlds of Rugby, horse racing, sumo wrestling and WWE wrestling collide. Only on our travels would we get this and of course, only in Japan!
Tip: The stadium is a one-minute walk from Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu Line, or a five-minute walk from the Oedo Line exits for the same station.
Tokyo borders on the ridiculous! Robot restaurants, vending machines for everything, even used underwear, ahem.
For us nothing was more ridiculous than the phenomenon and now obligatory tourist attraction that is: Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo’s iconic intersection. This combination of numerous pedestrian crossings all active when the man turns green, has become one of Tokyo’s must see “attractions”. All intersections meet in the middle. Organised chaos happens when up to 2,500 people cross at once only for it to happen all over again a few minutes later.
Take a seat at many of the top floor cafes that have great views for this ‘extreme’ sport of people watching. The upstairs Cafe’s like L’Occitane en Provence are the best vantage points to view this unique phenomenon. We crossed it several times for the ‘craic’!
Take a trip down to Nissan crossing if watching people crossing roads is not your thing. If you have a few minutes you can marvel at the Japanese manufacturers latest sports car and even a concept model! Here, at Nissan crossing, you can get your face printed atop your mug of coffee .
Your mug on a mug! Its super KAWAII!!
Home to many of Japan’s fashion trends Takeshita Street is a narrow, roughly 400 meter long street lined by shops, boutiques, cafes and fast food outlets targeting Tokyos teenagers. It really is a very busy and overcrowded street with interesting shops and pet cafes.
Some great photo spots are found down this street, not to mention you have to try Tokyo’s best ice- cream at Angel Crepes! It is worth visiting the area just for this.
Harajuku has its own style and is home to some weird and wonderful cafes. The area, with its unique pop culture, inspired Gwen Stefani’s back up singers and entourage the “Harajuku Girls”. This is authentic Tokyo.
Head to this area to see the local girls in their “Cosplay” outfits. Embrace the craziness!
Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺 Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji)
A “must do” is a visit to Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist shrine dating from 645 AD which sits adjacent to the Asakusa Shinto Shrine. Many Japanese worship both religions, side by side with Shinto (“meaning the way of the gods”) an indigenous faith and as old as Japan itself.
The entrance gate is notable for its giant red lantern or Chōchin which hangs under the center of the gate. Weighing 700kg, it is 4 meters tall. It was donated by the Panasonic company.
We visited in the mid morning and the location was super busy which was not surprising as it is one of the busiest religious sites in the world hosting 30 million visitors, annually.
Japan is full of temples but this one holds a special place in the heart of the Japanese. So, if you visit one temple in Japan, this should be it.
The Nakamise-dōri is a shopping street leading up to the temple originating from 18th century, when neighbors of Sensō-ji were granted permission to set up shops on the approach to the temple. A place to pick up souvenirs, taste some traditional treats and buy religious items. The length of the street is approximately 250 meters and contains around 89 shops.
Again we found it a little too crowded and did not stay long. Take our advice and make this your first stop in the morning, maybe just after sunrise for the early risers .
Hie-jinja Shrine can be found in the hills close to the Government buildings of Nagatacho. It is one of Tokyo’s major shrines established in 1478.
The west entrance takes you through a vivid tunnel of red Torii, one of the most photographed scenes in Japan. Not to be missed and one of our top locations in the city.
- HIRE A TOUR GUIDE: We recommend www.exotravel.com and it really is the best way to get to know the locals and bypass the language barrier.
- THREE DAYS ARE ENOUGH: use your time wisely Japan has so much to offer.
- PASMO: The metro goes everywhere and the PASMO card is a must.
- FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD: Tokyo is a food lovers paradise and eating out is not as expensive as is widely the opinion. Sushi – Yes Please!
- Ask your hotel to make RESERVATIONS for you – Although Japan is a Tourist hot-spot, the Japanese still like dealing with each other and through Japanese.
- TIPPING is not customary or expected in Japan – All prices are inclusive of service. A gift for your tour-guide is of utmost value. So, pack a box of Irish breakfast tea or anything quintessential from your hometown and you will be remembered forever.
The sense of ordered chaos, the rules, the sheer amount of people are what makes Tokyo so unique. From the uber neon lit streets of Shinjuku, the quirky cafes of Harajuku to Ebisu’s street food, Tokyo was definitely a feast for the senses.
From the quiet hills of Meath, Ireland, to the criss crossing intersections of Shibyuku, Tokyo, this was certainly a cultural shock for this Irish couple but one we loved. Remember stop, look, listen… and enjoy your trip!
We give this city 3.5 out of 5 Irish harps
We really liked it but didn’t love it – TOKYO you were wonderful and a great short stay – “Its not you, its us”. We need culture over colour – the moon lit mountain tops over the neon lit skyscrapers.