New York, London, Tokyo. The city is regarded so highly for a reason. The cultural trend setting capital of Japan is the centre of art, entertainment and fashion in this corner of the world. It’s a city that prides itself on its incredible diversity for both its own cultures and of those abroad. Tokyo achieves a perfect harmony between it’s rich history and the ever changing future. Considered to be one of the greatest most mind-bending cities on Earth, it’s on the top of many people’s must-see lists. The sheer size of the city can be daunting to challenge, but no worries, here’s the ultimate Tokyo itinerary to make the most out of your trip.
Table of Contents
Day 1 (Asakusa & Akihabara)
You’re first step in your itinerary is a perfect example of Tokyo achieves a beautiful balance between the ancient and modern, peacefulness and chaos. The region of Asakusa retains an older feel of temples and regular festivals held within its streets. Akihabara on the other hand is as modern as it gets with its megalithic department stores and stores at the forefront of the entertainment industry.
Where better to start your journey than learning about Japan’s national sport? The museum housed in the Ryogoku Sumo Stadium serves to preserve the sport’s rich historical heritage. The museum has numerous rotating exhibitions. Such highlights include nishiki-e woodblock prints portraying ancient champions and luxurious kesho-mawashi, silk aprons worn by high-ranking wrestlers. You can also see the banzuke, the official ranking list of all sumo wrestlers in Japan.
Nakamise Shopping Street
Though Tokyo isn’t short of markets, it’s the location of Nakamise that makes it that much more special. The series of stalls decorated with red banners forms a channel of chaotic hustle and bustle that leads toward the peaceful serenity of Sensō-ji. Each stall is stocked with all the tourist trinkets you’d expect to find. Collections of hachimaki (Japanese headbands), mock samurai swords, kimonos and all the usual tourist bait.
The market begins at Kaminari-mon, a large red gate commonly known as the Thunder Gate. It gets its name from the statues of Fūjin (the god of wind) and Raijin (the god of thunder) that stand guard on either side. An enormous red lantern hangs from it’s centre, marking the beginning of the pilgrimage towards the temple.
If one temple is worth including in your itinerary, it would have to be the oldest and most visited temple in all of Tokyo. Also known as Asakusa Kannon, Sensō-ji’s courtyard is surrounded by vibrant crimson structures and thick clouds of incense smoke that rise from a central cauldron before the main hall. Along with a beautifully decorated five-story pagoda, the temple is one of the most photogenic spots the city has. A golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist god of mercy) is held within the temple’s main hall, hidden away from public gazes. Legend tells of its discovery in the nearby Sumida-gawa river by two fishermen. The nearby Asakusa-jinja shrine was built in these men’s honour.
Translated as candy store alley, the streets of Ameya-Yokochō used to exclusively sell sugary treats. Following the Second World War, Ame was thought to represent America, as they became responsible for the illegal black market that ran here. These days, Ameya-Yokochō is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill market flogging everything from fashion to food. The streets also include a handful of Pachinko and gaming halls, an equally unique and worthwhile experience.
A Tokyo itinerary would be incomplete without a few window-shopping opportunities, none better than in the manic district of Akihabara, the centre of Japan’s otaku culture. Otaku are the most die-hard fans of different sub-cultures, including some of the country’s biggest industries of anime and manga. Akihabara is equally famous for its extensive number of electronic and department stores. The most famous of which Yodobashi Multimedia Akiba, a 7-storied monster that contains anything you’d ever need. Everything from furniture and electronics to sports equipment and office supplies. However, the highlight has to be a whole level of toys and similar childish amusements.
Day 2 (Toyosu, Chiyoda, Minato-ku)
This day is of a slower pace, but needs to start much earlier than all the rest. Today will focus on of Japan’s greatest loves, visiting former icons and visiting the nation’s imperial past. Your day should start before 5:30 am in order to ensure you get the very best out of the experience.
To say that Japan is a nation of fish-lovers would be an understatement. As such, buying the right catch is vital. In Tokyo, there’s only one logical place to get your hands on the best and freshest seafood available: Toyosu Fish Market. The market was built on the man-made island of Toyosu in Tokyo Bay to replace the former city icon that was Tsukiji Market. Though an incredible amount of sea-life arrives daily, one species gathers more attention than the rest: tuna.
Here at Toyosu Market, you can watch some typical Tokyo-esque mayhem as freshly caught tuna is auctioned off to the highest bidders. The market has specially built observation decks from this purpose, though it’s an exclusive experience. Reservations are needed in advance and being chosen from a lottery format, so there is no guarantee. Even then, visitors are only able to observe for 10 minutes at a time. Another less exclusive option is viewing from the sound-proofed Observation Windows, no reservation needed. Just be sure to be there between 5:30 am and 6:30 am to catch the show.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Though visitors can sample some fresh produce at Toyosu Market, another worthy visit is the Tsukiji Outer Market. It consists of a row of alleyways located next to where the centrepiece Tsukiji Market once stood. Though it’s lost some of its former glory, it’s still one of the best places to sample some prime seafood. As soon as Toyosu Market opens, Tsukiji’s collection of fish wholesalers and restaurants both big and small begin selling and preparing some of the freshest produce on offer throughout the country.
The Imperial Palace which stands on the old site of Tokyo’s Edo Period castle is an echo of Japan’s Imperial history. Ever since the capital moved from Kyoto in 1868, it has been the official residence of Japan’s Imperial family. Visitors can view the palace’s outer moat and the bridges leading into the inner grounds, known collectively as Nijubashi. Unfortunately, the inner grounds aren’t open to the public other than through a guided tour. Even then you’re unable to enter any of the buildings. However, you can wander through the Imperial Palace East Garden freely throughout the year.
Standing beneath the shadows of Tokyo Tower, Zōjō-ji is the head temple of Jodo Buddhism for the Kanto Region. The temple houses the mausoleum of the Tokugawa shoguns, the same family that moved the temple to its current location. Sadly, only the main gates of the temple have avoided reconstruction following several fires, wars and earthquakes. The museum within one of the temple’s halls focuses on the original structures that once stood here and their significance. Movie buffs amongst you might recognise a scene from The Wolverine that was shot here.
Day 3 (Minato, Shibuya)
This would possibly be the most exciting and memorable day in your Tokyo itinerary. Starting at a slow pace yet truly significant stop, we end the day with a bang, finish up in the most iconic district in the entire city. I highly recommend arriving at Shibuya at night to best experience the madness.
Hidden away down a quiet residential street, Sengaku-ji temple has one of the most intriguing and significant histories of any temple in Japan. It’s thought to be the birthplace of Sōtō Buddhism; the main form of religion practised in Japan even to this day.
The graveyard alongside the temple has the most fascinating story of all. This is the final resting place of the 47 Ronin, one of Japan’s greatest legends. In short, a master of a group of warriors attacked an official for insulting the way of the samurai. As punishment he was ordered to commit seppuku, the Japanese form of ritual suicide. His 47-faithful samurai (now known as Ronin, as they were without a master) vowed revenge. They raided the official’s home, cut off his head, and brought it back to this very graveyard to lay on their master’s grave. The 47 were sentenced to commit seppuku which they all gladly accepted. They were all then laid to rest here next to their master.
This is a quirky little side attraction of a different nature, a truly one of a kind establishment. It’s a museum of parasites! The exhibitions include horrific displays of parasites that infect both animals, and most terrifying of all, humans. The museum has a collection of over 45,000 parasite specimens! The biggest and most disturbing is the world’s longest tapeworm at 8.8 metres long!
Probably the most iconic image of Tokyo, the Shibuya Crossing is the epitome of the city’s perfect harmony of fastidious organisation and total fucking chaos. The 4-way intersection is at the centre of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s busiest and most hectic shopping districts. The streets are home to the largest collection of enticing flashing advertisements and choruses of indistinguishable noises. The crossroad is where hordes of people wait patiently at each end of the street before the swarm of bodies fill the intersection.
Though being amongst the horde is part of the experience, any decent Tokyo itinerary should include watching the madness from a bird’s eye view. Luckily, in an area full of high-rise buildings, there are a number of options available, both free and paid, such as Mag’s Park.
Hachikō Memorial Statue
At first glance the small Hachikō Statue may not appear that impressive, however it comes with a heartbreaking story. In the 1920s an Akita dog named Hachikō would wait at Shibuya Station every evening to greet his owner at the end of his daily commute. On one fateful day, his owner never returned home after suffering a fatal cerebral haemorrhage. Despite that, Hachikō continued to wait at the station for his master every evening for 10 years until his death. This small bronze statue was put up in honour of the dog’s unwavering loyalty and has become a national symbol.
Nonbei Yokocho Alley
Although not unique to Tokyo, this is certainly your best chance to experience the culture. Tokyo and Japan in general make the most of the little space available. No greater example of this efficiency is seen than in the alleyways amongst the city’s most lively districts. One of the most notorious of which is the Nonbei Yokocho in Shibuya.
Originally running as brothels for the over-worked Japanese businessman, these days the narrow streets hold a collection of mini-sized bars, restaurants and izakayas. The latter offers a selection of small appetisers to go with your beverages, rather than a big elaborate meal. Some establishments might include a cover charge from anywhere between ¥500 to ¥1000. These aren’t for the claustrophobic amongst you! Most places might only fit 10 at a time, and often as little as 4 or 5!
Some stand out with red or white lanterns and bright neon signs, where others have a simple cloth draped over the entrance and very little to no advertisement. These places are mostly members only establishments, acting as a safe refuge for locals that want to avoid the tourist horde and keep a sense of authenticity.
Day 4 (Shinjuku & Harajuku)
The final leg of your Tokyo itinerary takes you to some of the most buzzing districts in the city. Starting amongst the high-rise buildings of Shinjuku before returning to its narrow bar filled alleyways at night. The rest of the day is for the teenage pop culture rich district of Harajuku. This leg of your journey should be done on a Sunday, only then can you get the most out of some of the attractions.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office
Every iconic city needs the perfect viewpoint to observe its expanses, though they usually come with extortionate prices for the privilege. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the solution to this problem, providing that experience for absolutely free! The 243-meter-tall building has two observation decks with a spectacular 360-degree panoramic view of the city in all its glory. One of the decks remain open until night, allowing you to enjoy both the wide-cast views and the distant Mount Fuji during the day before watching the sun set over the city and the illuminations as the sun sets; the time when Tokyo truly comes into its own.
Every Sunday, the region of Harajuku bursts into life, becoming the prime venue for Tokyo’s most eccentric and alternative crowds. Along the bridge between Harajuku station and the entrance to Meiji Jingu you’ll find a collection of various oddities that gather here to meet and display their personalities and values in mass. Groups of gothic teens, activists flashing banners and petitions, aspiring musicians and a variety of sub-cultures enjoy their once a week opportunity to express themselves. A worthy inclusion to the Tokyo itinerary.
At Yoyogi park you’re likely to see a circular herd of onlookers watching a truly unique spectacle. Sunday is when dedicated rock-a-billy dancers gather in their cliques dressed up in personalised jackets and their finest denim jeans to dance to their hearts content to some classic 50s rock.
Each group has their own time in the centre of the ring of onlookers, rocking some extraordinary dance moves. Exaggerated air guitars, jumping splits and moves Presley himself would have been proud of. Even more amazing considering that most of the dancers must be in their 50s. However, this doesn’t stop them from dancing from the early morning until the sun sets. Neither is it just a show for tourists, they simply dance for themselves as if nobody were watching. If there was a quirky interlude worth an inclusion on any Tokyo itinerary, it would be this.
Meiji Jingū Shrine
The city’s most celebrated Shintō shrine is a dedication to modern Japan’s first emperor, Emperor Meiji. His ascension to the throne marked the end of Japan’s feudal era and restored power to the emperor. He also began the nations assimilation to the rest of the world by bringing the country into much needed modernisation. Hidden in the centre of a dense forest, its peaceful oasis compared to the mayhem of Harajuku. The pilgrimage towards the temple begins at the enormous wooden torii gate.
Right at the centre of the teenage culture district of Harajuku, Takeshita street is full of independent fashion stores and boutiques, snack stalls, animal cafes and everything in-between. The street is also home to “antenna shops”, which stores use to test prototype products before putting them on the wider market.
Now you’ve already visited the alleyways of Shibuya, why explore the biggest collection of these tiny little establishments in the entire country. That’s what you find at the Golden Gai of Shinjuku, over 500 potential establishments squeezed in a succession of alleyways. You can never have too many tiny bars included on a Tokyo itinerary.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.