An Insider’s Guide to Tokyo

by  Emily Zemler | Jun 15, 2023
Tokyo / SeanPavonePhoto/iStock

Japan has welcomed travelers back, and there’s no better place to visit right now than Tokyo: a lively destination filled with delicious food, friendly locals, and lots to do. The city can be overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors, so it’s important to plan thoughtfully — especially if you only have a few days at the beginning or end of your Japan itinerary to pack in all the sights and dishes. To make the most of your time in Tokyo, here are expert tips on how to best plan your trip.  

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What to Know Before Traveling to Tokyo

First-time visitors to Tokyo will be amazed by the city’s impressive scale and frenetic pace — and by how clean and efficient it all is. But, like any foreign destination, there are a few things that are helpful to know when planning. Those arriving by plane can take full advantage of public transportation from the two international airports, Narita and Haneda. Haneda is significantly closer to central Tokyo and accessible via the Haneda Express (which is included on the Japan Rail Pass). If you’re flying into Narita, skip the expensive taxi and hop on the Narita Express, which is significantly cheaper. Additionally, if you purchased a JR Pass online, you can pick it up at one of the airports to save time later. 

While wifi is plentiful in Tokyo, navigating becomes a lot easier if you carry your own. Before arriving in Japan, reserve a mobile wifi device, which can be picked up and dropped off at your airport terminal. The mobile wifi can be used on multiple devices, so you only need one for your family or group. 

Once in Tokyo, it’s relatively simple to use public transportation. The ticket machines for the Tokyo Metro don’t accept foreign credit or debit cards, so you’ll need cash or coins to buy a ticket. In fact, it’s best to always carry a good supply of cash and 100 yen coins with you while in Japan. Although many restaurants and shops will take cards, some don’t. There are ATMs in all of the convenience stores, including Family Mart, 7/11, and Lawson. 

Where to Stay in Tokyo

Tokyo is a vast city with neighborhoods tucked throughout. Most visitors will want to be somewhere relatively central, whether in Ginza, Roppongi Hills, Shibuya, Shinjuku, or near Tokyo Station. Your choice of area depends on where you plan to spend the most time and what sort of vibe you’re looking for. Shibuya, for instance, is lively and busy, with an abundance of nightlife, restaurants, and shopping, and a central, well-connected location. Ginza, with its high-end malls and cocktail bars, is more refined. Nakameguro and Ebisu feel more like local neighborhoods. Selecting a hotel on the JR Yamanote line is highly recommended for those buying a JR Pass, as travel is included. 

Apartment rentals or Airbnbs can be a gamble in Tokyo. For a more relaxed stay, opt for a hotel — there are literally thousands to pick from. The OneFive hotel in Shibuya offers the perfect location at a low price. Also nearby is the Trunk Hotel, which offers a more upscale boutique experience. If you’re looking to splurge, Mandarin Oriental Tokyo and Conrad Tokyo are good options. 

What to Do in Tokyo 

Let’s make one thing clear: a couple of days — even a week — is not enough time to see and do everything in Tokyo. However, with some careful planning, you can take full advantage of the time you do have. And, while it’s great to plan (pro tip: buy timed entry museum tickets in advance!), be sure to save a few hours to just wander around. 

Tokyo has many must-see museums and art experiences, including the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, with a standout collection of contemporary art in a skyscraper location. Add on the Tokyo City View experience or the Sky Deck to get a 360-degree view of the city. In Aoyama, the Nezu Museum feels like a hidden gem, housing traditional Asian works like Japanese screens and Chinese bronze. But it’s the gardens that really seal the deal; go early to experience them while they’re still quiet. In Shinjuku, the Yayoi Kusama Museum is a small but compelling glimpse at the artist’s boisterous work. 

You may already know about TeamLab, an international art collective that creates immersive, Instagram-friendly installations. Its TeamLab Planets site in Tokyo is perpetually busy, as is TeamLab Borderless (if you only have time for one, pick Planets). The Tokyo Skytree, which looks like the Eiffel Tower, is another fun spot for photo ops. 

Shopping is something of a national pastime for the Japanese, and there are plenty of opportunities to join in. Shibuya has a mix of high-end designer shops, department stores, and funky boutiques, and Omotesando is where you’ll find a lot of the global luxury brands, while Harajuku is known for its vintage and alternative fashion options. Don’t miss the flagship Muji store in Ginza for housewares, and be sure to stroll through stores like Hands and Don Quijote, which have everything from matcha Kit-Kats to Japanese face masks to small pets. Daikanyama, located not far from Shibuya, is excellent for smaller shops. There's also Daikanyama T-Site, which houses one of the best bookstores you’ll ever see. 

Where to Eat and Drink in Tokyo

Eating is nearly everyone’s favorite experience in Tokyo. Everything is delicious, and there are thousands of places to grab a bite. In Japan, most restaurants specialize in a type of dish, like ramen, tempura, or sushi, so plan to try several things. For sushi, kick things off at Tsukiji Fish Market, where endless stalls sell sushi, sashimi, skewers, and produce (don’t miss the tuna at Maguroya Kurogin). For a fuller meal of nigiri, hop in the queue at Kaiten-sushi Nemuro Hanamaru in Ginza. Since the restaurant is so popular, we recommend arriving early — though you should still be prepared to wait.

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For ramen, Ichiran and Ippudo serve classic renditions of the noodle soups with tonaktsu, breaded pork cutlet. Afuri is beloved for its yuzu shio ramen, zesty with citrus. For tempura, splurge on an omakase experience at Mikawa Zezankyo, which requires a reservation well in advance. For tonkatsu, Katsukura is a delicious favorite, while Ponchi-ken has earned accolades from Michelin for its deep-fried cutlets. For something casual, try the donburi bowls at Maguro To Shari or the soba noodles at Kanda Matsuya. In the evenings, many locals gather in izakaya bars, which serve drinks and snacks.

While Tokyo is filled with traditional dishes, many of its restaurants are known for serving the platonic ideal of many international cuisines. You'll find everything from Umami Burger to Urth Caffe to Lina Stores. There's also Bills, a popular eatery for Western dishes (especially breakfast!). If you’re looking for a more low-key start to the day, Buy Me Stand, found between Shibuya and Ebisu, serves up American breakfasts and grilled cheese alongside diner-style coffee. For California-inspired dishes prepared with local Japanese produce, snag a spot at the counter at Locale and watch chef Katy Cole work her magic. 

Coffee lovers should visit Koffee Mameya in Omotesando or head to one of the Blue Bottle outposts around town. Even Starbucks can be worth a visit for its drinks unique to Japan, like a melon frappuccino. In the evening, savor a cocktail at Bar Trench, Star Bar Ginza, Flying Bumblebee, High Five, or Bar Orchard Ginza. You can, of course, also imbibe in the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, known for its role in Lost In Translation and its splendid, sky-high views of Shinjuku and all of Tokyo. 

Emily Zemler is ShermansTravel’s European correspondent.

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