Tokyo: A huge bustling city where each neighbourhood has its own personality. We were recommended to plan our time in Tokyo so that each day we explored a different neighbourhood or two. This approach was great! It helped us to spread the things we wanted to see-and-do over the 4 days we had, all via the super-efficient train network.
Ultimately, if you are comfortable using the train to move about Tokyo each day, it doesn’t really matter what neighbourhood you choose to stay in. The trains are clean, efficient, safe and with the handy use of PASMO cards, they are very easy to hop on and off to make your way about the city. Just make sure you choose a hotel that is located an easy walk to a train station.
Tokyo seems to have a severe short-supply of hotels, hence prices tend to be expensive with those priced in the midrange booked up quickly. If you want to find a nice hotel that is reasonably priced then I’d recommend booking your accommodation as early as possible, or using vacation rental options such as Air Bnb or HomeAway.
We spent our 4 nights at the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel, a modern hotel right in the heart of Shinjuku which we found reasonably priced for the quality of the hotel. It is a great location: 15 minute walk from Shinjuku Station, 5 minute walk to the bars of Golden Gai, and a 10 minute walk to the famous ‘Piss Alley’ (much nicer than it sounds!).
Although the room was compact (as many in Tokyo are), it was modern and clean, and was the perfect place to crash at the end of a busy day of exploring. It also came equipped with a ‘Toto’ Japanese toilet, which made every trip to the bathroom a unique and interesting experience.
See / Do
- Our first view of Tokyo was coming up from the train station to street level at Shinjuku. It was incredible!! Everything we imagined: hundreds of people, all the neon lights, the tall buildings. Sensory overload, but in the best way possible! Make sure you take time to just stroll about during both the day & night. The buildings (and their neon-lit advertisements) along the main road make for excellent photo opportunities.
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens – a great place to visit to see the Cherry Blossoms if you are lucky enough to be in Tokyo at the right time. Take your time strolling through the gardens, a really peaceful place in the middle of bustling Shinjuku.
- Shinjuku is also home to the old red light district, an area called Kabukicho, just north of the Shinjuku station. Its perfectly safe and contains Host/Hostess clubs where the patron is doted on by a male host / female hostess. You will see the hosts out the front of the clubs in suits / mini skirts. Often the male hosts outnumber the female hosts in any establishment.
- Grab a casual dinner in ‘Piss Alley’ also known as Omoide Yokocho. A tiny alleyway right near Shinjuku train station lined with yakitori stalls. Choose a stall that you like the look of, grab a spot to sit, and soak up the lively atmosphere of tourists and locals alike socialising over Asahi and yakitori (skewered chicken cooked over a charcoal grill). We hopped between two stalls to mix up the selection of eats on offer. Most stalls will also have vegetarian options (mushroom, okra, pepper skewers) along with interesting meat cuts you may or may not recognise. A really fun experience!
- At night head out to explore Golden Gai – a collection of alleyways which house hundreds of tiny bars in the one area. Each bar is themed or decorated differently and has space to serve only about 5-10 people at a time. Again, a great place to mix with locals and soak up a really unique experience. Keep in mind some of the bars will have a cover charge, and some are for members-only (i.e. locals only).
- To experience a ‘Lost in Translation’ moment, grab a cocktail from the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Hotel. Make sure you pick a nice day to ensure the best views and preferably a week day when it tends to be a bit quieter. I recommend arriving at 5pm as you will likely be the first one seated and get the best view! There is a cover charge per person after 8pm (of £15-£20 per person) so unless you want to pay, I would recommend timing your visit for sunset as a pre-dinner drink.
See / Do
- This area is famous for ‘the Shibuya crossing’ just outside the train station. It’s a great demonstration of just how busy and populous Tokyo is, and for birdseye views of the crossing head up to the Starbucks in the Tsutaya store opposite the train station. Afterwards, check out the huge manga comic section in the store.
- We weren’t sure if we would actually visit a Cat Cafe whilst in Tokyo but decided to check one out while we were waiting for the rain to pass – and actually really enjoyed it. Though i guess you have to be a cat lover to begin with! We went to Hapineko Cat Cafe (only 6min walk from Shibuya train station) and found it to be a really relaxing place to hang out with some super cute cats for an hour or so.
- Ichiran Ramen Shibuya, was our first authentic Tokyo ramen experience, and it was an excellent choice; where you order from a vending machine! Yep! You order your ramen to your taste profile (light to dark broth, toppings, amount of noodles), put cash into the vending machine and then wait for your number to come up. Once your number is up you are taken into the ‘restaurant’ where each patron sits at their own private eating booth. When the ramen is ready – the curtain in front of you opens swiftly, a hand emerges delivering your steaming hot bowl of ramen and then vanishes, leaving you to devour your ramen in privacy. A very delicious and interesting experience.
See / Do
- Harajuku is a relatively easy walk from Shibuya via Cat Street (which has nothing to do with cats). Rather, it’s a beautiful pedestrian friendly street containing boutique clothing shops and cafes. Perfect for browsing or a spot of shopping.
- Stroll the hipster back streets of Harajuku. On the main road – Omotesando – you will see a large Ralph Lauren store. To the left of this store you will see a small street. Head down here to explore the back streets filled with cafes, vintage stores, boutiques.
- Check out the quirky teen fashion along Takeshita-dori. This makes you feel like you are on another planet; awesome for people watching…..and if you’re in the market for toe-socks.
- Escape the crowds of the streets and stroll along the peaceful paths within Yoyogi Park. Located in the middle of the park is Meiji-Jingu shrine which is also worth a look. Very relaxing, and a good place to find your Zen.
- Kyushu Jangara Ramen. One word. AMAZEBALLS! You can choose your broth (lighter or heavier), the type and amount of noodles (thin, thick or in between), and various toppings. We sampled a miso-style pork ramen, and a tonkotsu – both were absolutely delicious! Arrive early for lunch or join the queue, it’s well worth a short wait.
- Harajuku Gyoza Lou – located off Omotesando near Cat Street, there are only two types of Gyoza dumplings to choose from (fried or steamed). Tasty & affordable!
- Harajuku Taproom is a Baird Beer Brewery Taphouse in Harajuku. A cute craft beer bar tucked away behind the busy Takeshita-dori, it has a great selection of beers to choose from, and if you get peckish it offers delicious gyoza’s. We liked the chilled vibe of this bar so much that we went twice in four days!
See / Do
- Akihabara – also known as Geek Town – might possibility be the most unusual neighbourhood in Tokyo that we explored. This neighbourhood is home to Electric Town which is the district full of electronic stores.
- It is also home to SEGA world which is pretty funny to check out. Floors and floors of people gaming all day long. If you enjoy a good Photo Booth opportunity as I do, then this is your place. Known as purikura in Japan, its pretty fun to transform yourself into your J-Pop alter-ego. Be aware that some booths are female only, so please keep an eye out for the relevant signs.
- Maid Cafes – having now been to one, I’d highly recommend that this is NOT an essential visit on your Japan trip. Each to their own, but i just found it to be strange and uncomfortable. So if you’re not convinced by ‘ticking this off your travel list’ then I would utilise the time for seeing something else whilst in Tokyo.
See / Do
- Check out the flagship Uniqlo Store – at 11 floors to browse, its HUGE!
- Tsukiji Fish Market – an absolute must do experience. If you are like me and waking up for the tuna auctions at 2am is not appealing, then I highly recommend taking a tour to explore the market with a guide. We booked with Tokyo FoodDrink Tour and it was excellent. A group of 4 max, with food tastings, tour of the inner market (not open to the public), and a lunch at the nearby Standing Sushi bar to finish it off. LOVED IT. We also got to try the infamous puffer fish at the standing sushi bar. This was after ensuring the bar had the required ‘Puffer fish licence’ . We didn’t want to end up suffering like Homer Simpson once did.
- After shopping your heart out at Uniqlo, head for some much needed caffeine at The Monocle Café which is located in B1 floor of Hankyu Men’s department store. A really beautiful relaxing cafe with great coffee, and other mouth-watering snacks.
- The Standing Sushi Bar that the Fish Market tour took us to was excellent sushi. If you take the tour, and they take you to the same place (its a street or two away from the market itself), make sure you take down the name of the street it is on!! It was the freshest of sushi and very reasonably priced (for Tokyo).