Ahhh, Tokyo! What an incredible place. When my sister and I were little kids, we made a pact that the first time we’d visit Japan, we had to go together since we’re half Japanese. This year, we made our childhood pact a reality and went to Tokyo together! Cherry blossom season came early this year, but we were lucky enough to hit full bloom. We spent just under a week there, and while I wish I had more time to visit other places in Japan (like Kyoto, Osaka, and Hakone), I will definitely be back someday to see more of this amazing country! There are so many things to do in Tokyo (here’s my custom Tokyo map with all the things on it) so if you’re planning a trip there, I hope this guide is helpful for you!
A few general things about Tokyo:
Pollution: First of all, I was so saddened to see that the pollution was absolutely awful. It may be different during different seasons, but when we were there it wasn’t very windy and the pollution just sat there. The sky was so hazy. 😕 My dad and sister both have really sensitive lungs, so they were feeling the effects of the smog very quickly. It took me a few days, but my throat definitely got pretty irritated. And we were even wearing particle masks! You’ll notice about a quarter of the people wearing particle masks as well. Everyone is used to it and no one gives you a weird look for wearing them, and they’re definitely necessary to help save your lungs.
Getting around: The subway is great and very easy to use. Uber is not really a thing there, but cabs are plentiful (and pricey). Many of the young people speak some English and are happy to chat with you so that they can practice. Occasionally we got a bit lost looking for a restaurant (for example in Shinjuku the restaurants are in buildings that are many floors high and a block wide, so an address isn’t super helpful once you’re there, and all the signs are in Japanese), so I just looked for a friendly looking local I could approach, showed them the restaurant name on my phone in Japanese, and they kindly pointed me in the right direction.
Pro tip for restaurant reservations: I’m usually much more into doing my own research and bookings myself, but in Japan enlisting the help of your hotel concierge is really important. They will have great recommendations for you for dinner, based on what you’re looking for (omakase, ramen, udon, tempura, yakitori…you name it) and they will be able to make your reservations for you. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to book out weeks in advance, so I’d recommend reaching out to your concierge via email before your trip to help get these recommendations and reserve a table for you. At the very least, talk to your concierge your first day in Tokyo, so at least you have a shot of getting into some of your top wish list restaurants later on in your trip.
Cultural norms: Tokyo’s culture is so different and unique and it was so cool to experience it. A few things I learned that were helpful to keep in mind:
- Walk on the left on sidewalks and stairs. On escalators, stand on the right.
- Tokyo is PACKED. Thirteen million people live in this city, which is why the subway is a great option to avoid traffic. While it is crazy crowded, people are also really orderly and polite. Do as others do and . No pushing or shoving (this isn’t China, people!).
- Trash cans aren’t really a thing. Many Japanese people will carry their own small plastic bags with them when they go out to put their own trash in. It’s hard to find a public trash can on the streets.
- Squatty poddys are a thing. Many of the public restrooms have squatty poddies (a porcelain hole in the ground), which I haven’t exactly gotten a hang of using (8 times out of 10 I def get a little pee on my foot). Bring a small pack of tissues with you and hand sanitizer, as not all of them will have tissue or hand soap. In some of the restrooms, they had both squatty poddy and western style toilets, so it’s worth taking a look to see if both options are available.
- You may need to take your shoes off in some places/restaurants, and you’ll want to be wearing socks that don’t look gross or have holes in them. Don’t embarrass yourself, please. 😉
Things to do in Tokyo: Day 1
- Where to stay. We stayed at the beautiful Park Hyatt Tokyo and it was absolutely one of the most incredible hotels I’ve ever stayed at. You can read my full review of the Park Hyatt Tokyo here.
- Shinjuku Gyoen Garden. Since the cherry blossoms were at full bloom when we arrived, the first thing we wanted to do was hanami. Shinjuku Gyoen Garden is one of the best places to view cherry blossoms and we spent a good couple hours just walking around and gawking at the beautiful blooms.
- Robot Show. You’ve likely seen it on Instagram, and Anthony Bourdain called it “the greatest show on earth.” The show at Robot Restaurant is known for being sensory overload and something that’s very unique to Tokyo. Best to just watch the show, but have dinner somewhere else nearby as the food isn’t terribly impressive.
- Ramen for Dinner. Gotta have ramen in Tokyo. Honestly I think it would be hard to find a bad ramen spot, so pick anywhere close to you on a “best ramen” list you can find, like this one. I mean the website is called Ramen Beast, so I feel like they know their ramen. Our concierge recommended Nagi for ramen.
Things to do in Tokyo: Day 2
- Row boats on the Chidorigafuchi moat. Another epic place to see cherry blossoms! Everyone was all smiles rowing around on their jenky little rowboats under neath the cherry blossom trees, spilling out over the water. This was my favorite sakura viewing spot that we went to. Even if it isn’t cherry blossom season, it would still be fun to come by and row boats here.
- Tonkatsu at Maisen. We definitely wanted to make sure that we tried tonkatsu one night in Tokyo, and Maisen was a great rec from our concierge. The atmosphere is no-frills, but the tonkatsu is the best I’ve ever had (besides my mama’s, of course! 😉). The menu is a tad overwhelming as you can pick the different types of pork and the different cuts, but you probably can’t go wrong here. There was a bit of a wait to get in here but it was absolutely worth it!
Things to do in Tokyo: Day 3
- Tsukiji Fish Market. This is an absolute must in Tokyo! Omg seriously if you like sushi even just a little bit, you will feel like you’ve died and gone to sushi heaven here. The Tsukiji fish market is where I realized that the fish and sushi we have in the U.S. just straight up ain’t shit compared to the real deal in Japan. Even if you go to an expensive sushi restaurant in the States, we just don’t get the same quality of fish back home because the best stuff is all bought up in Japan. At Tsukiji we wandered in to the covered part of the market, where they auction off tunas, and gawked at all of the stalls with fresh fish. It’s a bit overwhelming, but a nice Danish guy pointed to some of the toro and told my dad it was the best sashimi he’d ever had in his life. We bought a plate and holy shit you guys. We were all speechless over this tuna belly. It was unlike any toro we’d ever had before. The flavor, texture, mouth feel, everything was just…better. Amazing. It was like tuna butter that just melted in your mouth. We went back for seconds and thirds. You can spot the exact stand by looking for the blue tuna sign (in the picture above). Besides insanely delicious tuna belly, there are tons of food stalls and restaurants at Tsukiji to check out. We had lunch at one of the sushi bars there and bought snacks and desserts as we walked around. Also, if you’re really gung-ho on Tsukiji and feel like leaning into the jet lag, you can get up super early to try to get in to see them auctioning off the huge tunas. We skipped that part and opted for more sleep, but I’m sure it’d be really cool to see.
- Shopping in Ginza. Ginza is a really popular shopping area and it’s just a couple short subway stops away from the fish market. There’s a twelve (12!) story Uniqlo there, which had me pretty excited. For some reason my dad cannot stand the Uniqlo in San Francisco, so I called this monstrous one his special version of hell. 😂 I, on the other hand, love Uniqlo and always find at least one or two pieces there.
- Omakase at Kyubey. So this is when we had one of the absolute best meals of my life. You absolutely must try omakase in Tokyo, which is the style of sushi where you don’t do the ordering and the chef serves up whatever is fresh and delicious in small plates. The Omakase at Kyubey was incredible. Our sushi chef was a master and it was so cool to watch him do his work, so carefully and artistically. It was Jiro Dreams of Sushi status, you guys. Each plate is just a few bites, usually nigiri-style, and by the end of the meal I was so full, but also didn’t want it to be over because everything had been so delicious. Some of my favorite sushis we tried were seared toro, bonito, and uni (and I don’t even like uni! Well, turns out I just don’t like uni in the States). We sat at a tiny sushi bar that could only fit eight people. It sounded like there also may have been a restaurant around the back, but definitely make reservations for the sushi bar because half the fun is watching a sushi master at work.
Things to do in Tokyo: Day 4
- Akiba Fukurou Owl Cafe. So my sister and I knew that while we were in Tokyo we definitely wanted to go to some kind of weird animal cafe. There are plenty to choose from in Tokyo—cats, hedgehogs, owls, rabbits. We figured cats and bunnies were pretty mundane so really it was between the hedgehogs and the owls. We decided on the owl cafe and it did not disappoint. It was so cool to get up close to these beautiful creatures and to get to hold some of them. They had all kinds of different owls, ranging from the cutest little fluff balls to bigger owls who would probably eat the fluff balls for breakfast if you let them. And by the way, while it’s called an owl cafe, you’re not eating or drinking inside. It’s just a room full of owls that you can hold. This place requires reservations weeks in advance, which you can make via email.
- Ueno Park. After the owl cafe we went over to Ueno Park, where we strolled around and watched the cherry blossoms fall like snow. It’s a great spot for picnicking and drinking and we saw some people using the tarps and cardboard boxes that were out as picnic tables to sit at.
- Ueno Market/Ameyoko. Ueno Park is right next to Ameyoko shopping street and Ueno Market, where you can find tons of different food stalls, Japanese snacks, and souvenir shopping. I found a place with gorgeous kimonos for $35! Of course I bought one, to feel like I’m in touch with my Japanese side, and to wear around at home as a robe.
- Kisoji for shabu shabu. When we were in Tokyo we definitely wanted to make sure we tried shabu shabu, and our concierge recommended Kisoji. We loved it and had such a fun experience there, sitting shoes-off in a gorgeous little room with beautiful wooden walls and low tables.
- Shopping and Bar hopping in Shinjuku. After dinner we were right in the heart of Shinjuku and we just started walking around to explore more. Even though it was a week night, this area was absolutely hoppin and we found lots of fun bars and weird stores (like Don Quijote—don’t ask what it is, just go in) to pop into.
Things to do in Tokyo: Day 5
- Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park. Meiji Shrine sits in beautiful Yoyogi Park, and it’s definitely worth a stroll through. There’s also a gift shop with really cute souvenirs and I was able to tick a few people off my shopping list when we stopped in there. The shrine itself isn’t particularly beautiful, but it’s interesting to observe some of the customs, like washing your hands and drinking water from a fountain before entering, and how you clap twice, bow twice, and clap twice again. I’d definitely recommend going on the weekend as you have a high chance of seeing some wedding processions going through the shrine, and it was fun to see all the beautiful Japanese ladies dressed up in their kimonos, and of course the bride in all white.
- Harajuku. Harajuku is just outside of Yoyogi Park, and I wanted to be sure to check out the area since I’d heard so much about it. Takeshita Street is the most popular shopping street so we made our way over there. It was absolutely packed and just walking down the street was difficult. While I think you should definitely see Harajuku, it didn’t really live up to the hype for me. I thought it would be more about brightly-colored Tokyo street fashion, and while there was some of that, it was mostly rainbow colored crap. You do have to get a giant rainbow cotton candy, and it’s worth popping into the Claire’s there to buy something ridiculous, like my multi-color bunny phone case, complete with a fluffy tail. It’s like a regular Claire’s, but on rainbow crack.
- Shibuya crossing. After leaving the chaos of Harajuku, we went over to the Shibuya crossing, which is known for being the busiest intersection in the world. I’ve seen a few different estimates of how many people cross this intersection per day and 250,000 is one of the conservative guesses. It’s fun to walk through it with the other hundreds (or over a thousand at peak hours) pedestrians, but it’s also cool to see from up above. There’s a Starbucks with a great view of the intersection, and while you can order drinks on the bottom floor, you don’t have to in order to go up to see the view.
- Tenkane. Tempura was another thing we wanted to be sure to try in Tokyo. Tenkane was a rec from our concierge and it was definitely the best tempura I’ve ever had. It was basically a ten course meal of different tempuras with fish, shrimp, veggies, and a few weird (to me) things like skeleton/bone from a tiny fish (which actually ended up being delicious and like a crispy snack). For the price, we probably would have preferred to go back to the omakase place since it was one the best meals ever, but if you are down to try some bomb-ass tempura, this is a great place for it.
Things to do in Tokyo: Day 6
- Spa day at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. We spent an afternoon relaxing at the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s beautiful Club on the Park Spa. A few of Lost in Translation’s scenes were shot at the pool, and the Japanese bath house/spa is stunning and so tranquil. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you are), the spa is only available to hotel guests.
- MariCar. Ok, so we didn’t actually get a chance do this one, but a few followers on Instagram recommended it and I saw people in Ginza doing it. If we had more time I definitely would have! It’s basically MarioKart IRL, and you get to dress up as one of the characters while riding little go-karts around the streets of Tokyo (with a guide). How fun is that?? You know I would have been Yoshi.
- Kabukiza Theatre. The Kabuki Theatre was closed when we were in town, and we were pretty bummed to have missed out on that one. Next time I’m in Tokyo, seeing a kabuki show will be at the top of my list!
- Jojoen. We went here for yakiniku (where you BBQ your own meat), and it was delicious! It’s also really fun to grill your own meats and you get a cute, cozy booth so it feels like your own private area.
- Boba at Gong Cha. After dinner we saw a super long line and realized that it was for boba. We obviously had to get some and it did not disappoint. Although it was my dad’s first time trying boba and he didn’t really know what to make of it. 😂
- New York Bar for drinks. On our last night we got drinks at the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s famous New York Bar. There’s a cover to get in if you’re not a hotel guest, and you can expect a line most nights. A lot of Lost in Translation’s scenes were filmed here, and while the bar has been updated since they shot the movie, the views are still spectacular.
That’s everything we did in Tokyo! It was such a special trip with my family and I’m dying to come back to Japan with Omied and do Tokyo with him, plus visit some other places like Kyoto and Hakone. If you have any Japan recs I’d love to hear them!