Update: I just got back from my SECOND trip to Tokyo in March 2016. Read PART TWO of my Travel Guide to Japan here!
I had no idea how much I would fall in love with Tokyo. I know you will too, so I put together this travel guide full of tips and recommendations during my week there.
The city had actually been at the top of my mental travel top 5 for years. I actually cancelled a trip to Tokyo last summer so I could go back to California – which was great because we ended up moving here. So instead of heading back to Toronto for Christmas (which was dealing with a serious ice storm), we packed our bags and finally made my wish come true – a visit to Tokyo.
Flights – The flight from Los Angeles was around $1300 USD round-trip to Narita Airport on ANA. I recently just booked again in March 2016 for $900 USD on Singapore Airlines. It’s no wonder I never did this trip in my 20s and had to wait until I was making good money in my 30s to finally get to Japan. In the end, our tickets cost my husband and I – are you ready for this? $350 TOTAL. We cashed in every SINGLE Aeroplan point (150,000) for two economy class tickets to Asia. The extra were from the fees & taxes so that’s $175/each! I was even interviewed by the BBC about this travel hack! You might also want to do a flight search here.
So my advice to you? Start earning some serious points or keep an alert out for seat sales. Paying for the flight will probably be the most expensive part of your trip.
Eat LOTS of Ramen – You will eat the BEST ramen of your life in Japan. I promise. Don’t get caught up in where or how. ALL the ramen is good. I didn’t have a bad bowl my entire trip and I’m still dreaming of the bowl above that I had at Onomitchi near Hotel Niwa in Tokyo.
DO check out Tokyo Ramen Street located in the basement level of Tokyo Station. Just buy your ticket from a vending machine – insert cash first, look at the pictures and push the button of the ramen bowl you want. The machine will spit out a ticket and your change. Hand your ticket to your server and she’ll direct you to a free seat. I never paid more than $10 for a hearty bowl or ramen. So cheap + so good.
Getting There – We flew into Narita International Airport about an hour outside of Tokyo. Taking a cab was not option – $250 was what one driver quoted me! Instead, hop on the Keisei Skyliner, a high-speed express train that will take 36 minutes to get you into Nippori Station in Tokyo. The reserved seats are spacious, there is a restroom on-board and the fee was around $25/person one-way. I reserved my seat when I arrived at the airport before I boarded the train.
There’s also free WiFi on-board, but you have to ask for the password at the reservation desk by showing your passport. Also note, you will get dropped off at Nippori or Ueno Station – meaning you will have to change to a local train to finish getting your destination.
Where to Stay – I came across Hotel Niwa in Tokyo by way of Tripadvisor. The rooms are small, but the property is modern, new and sleek. For $130/night we had a cute little room with a double-ish bed, desk and decent-sized bathroom in our Standard Room. Book early (we didn’t) and score a larger premium room for just a bit more. Our stay also included buffet breakfast for two every morning and it was delicious! Do not miss the chance to enjoy a traditional Japanese Breakfast. I ate it almost every single day.
I can’t believe what a great deal this place was. We even made use of the coin-operated laundry, complimentary massage chairs and gym on the mezzanine level. They even left fresh-pressed pajamas on our bed everyday. The hotel is located in close proximity to two different train stations (about a 7-10 minute) walk and it was very easy to get around. I was told that Tokyo was an expensive city. It’s not. The flight is expensive – but I paid less to eat, drink and stay in Tokyo than I would have in New York City.
For those looking for something cheaper, make sure you check airbnb. I came across a bunch of furnished studio apartment rentals in Shinjuku that ranged from $65-95 USD a night and many included a free pocket WiFi rental.
Let’s Talk Sushi – With the jet lag settling in on day one, we got up at 4 in the morning and decided to make the best of it. We got dressed and headed towards the Tsukiji Fish Market. We didn’t make it inside to the tuna auction, but we did get to see all the hustle bustle outside the biggest wholesale seafood and fish market in the world – and it was crazy. Ok, BE CAREFUL because you could get run over by high-speed fish cart, keep your head up and don’t look down at your phone.
We took a bit of time to explore the local vendors in the area and settled in for the BEST SUSHI of my life at Daiwa Sushi. Which we ate at 6 AM in the morning! We pointed and picked out our favourites and ate fresh nigiri sushi for breakfast in quite possibly the smallest and most narrow sushi restaurant (it’s a bar only) that I’ve ever been in. After we paid, we were instructed to exit through the kitchen and out the back door to keep the flow going.
I’m not even sure how we found the place. Paul kept poking his head into every sushi place to see if it was busy. Daiwa Sushi was the third one he looked into and the chef motioned us to come in, so we did. What a coincidence because it is some of the best sushi closest to the market.
Go Shopping on Takeshita Dori (Harajuku) – A great place to shop and people watch is the Harajuku District. It’s full of unique Japanese shops, cheap clothes and anime-style costumes. You may even spot a Harajuku girl dressed up around town. THE street to walk down is Takeshita Dori (above), a narrow laneway packed with random things like purses, sunglasses and clothing stores that my teenaged-self probably would have fallen in love with. The crepes are also famous here and are the ‘unofficial’ street food of Harajuku.
Tokyo Sky Tree – If you do one sort of ‘touristy’ thing, make it the Tokyo Sky Tree. The view is breathtaking and the city just seems to go forever and ever. I recommend booking ahead of time – it’s always busy. It just opened last year so it’s not just tourists from around the world, but also locals from Japan all waiting to get to the top.
We just ‘showed’ up and were given a ticket to return in two hours. The visits are timed, so we were stuck killing LOTS of time inside the Tokyo Sky Tree City Mall. It’s about $20/person and a one-minute elevator ride to get to the top of the tallest tower in the world.
Do a Japanese Photo Booth Shoot – How else can you have cheesy memorable pics labelled ‘Heroine Face’? Get thee to one of the many arcades throughout Tokyo and usually on the top floor you’ll find it jam-packed with these hilarious photo booths. Just follow the teenage Japanese girls! You can even rent costumes! We chose the booth that makes your skin all clear and young-looking and blows your eyes up like an anime character. For $5 – it was SO much fun. If you don’t understand any of the Japanese instructions, pull one of the teenagers over and get them to help you to the PRINT page.
Stroll the Imperial Gardens – If you need to get your zen back in this crazy/busy city, the best way to detox your brain is a nice calm walk through the Imperial Gardens and a peek at the Imperial Palace. I walked over 10,000 steps a day while I was in Tokyo and went down 5 lbs and one belt loop during my week there. I think it’s because the food is SO healthy – fish, greens and rice + nothing is super fried and there’s not a lot of dairy or meat in the diet. It’s also because we took the subway everywhere because all the cabs were over $20/ride!
If your visit takes place over a Sunday, look into a bike rental and join the cyclists for a ride around the gardens. They close down the streets until around 3 pm and it’s the most peaceful way to get active with no cars buzzing around you. I saw a total of TWO gyms when I was in Tokyo – being active and walking is just part of the lifestyle here.
Have Afternoon Tea at The Hotel New Otani, Tokyo – After your walk, head over to The Hotel New Otani and set yourself up with some afternoon tea or their lunch buffet overlooking their gorgeous Japanese garden. If you’re visiting on the weekend, you’ll definitely spot a few weddings and pretty Japanese brides in traditional kimonos.
Shibuya Crossing – For the ultimate people scramble, head to Shibuya Crossing to watch what is Tokyo’s version of Times Square. People will cross the street with so much precision, I’m surprised no one gets knocked over! A great perch is the mezzanine-level Starbucks inside the Tower Records. While you’re in the area, make sure to check out Shibuya 109 for some amazing shopping.
Vending Machines for EVERYTHING – I love the vending machine culture in Japan. I wonder how convenience stores make money? But in a city of 13 million in Tokyo proper, these machines get a ton of use. No one really eats & drinks in the streets of Japan. The proper thing to to do is to buy your drink, and enjoy it next to your vendo and deposit the empty bottle in the recycling bin next to the machine.
You should never walk with your beverage as the Japanese have a thing against eating & drinking on the streets or in public (outside of a proper restaurant, of course). If you do take the drink with you – good luck finding a garbage can on the streets of Tokyo – there aren’t any! I once popped into a washroom to deposit my empty bottle into the trash and of course – there wasn’t one. You’ll often see businessmen, kids and regular old people just standing around a vending machine, truly enjoying their beverage and going for a ‘vendo’. Fascinating.
My Travel Guide to Tokyo just scratches the surface of what there is to do in this bustling city. We only had about four nights there and it took at least two days for us to fully adjust to the time change. I would recommend booking a week in Tokyo and taking your time if you can. Read PART TWO of my Tokyo Travel Guide here!
Loved this? Here are a couple other travel blog posts I wrote about my epic trip to Japan that might be helpful for your visit:
A Photo Diary from Kyoto, Japan
How I rented a pocket WiFi device for $10/day to stay connected for google maps, translating + social media.
My trip Into a Bamboo Forest at Arashiyama, just outside of Kyoto. Also tips in this post about taking the high-speed train to Kyoto.
A must-do. Dinner + the craziest show of your life at The Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. Featured recently by Anthony Bourdain.
How a visit to Japan is like taking a time machine to the future and how I’m Missing Japan post-trip + more photos and tips. You’ll go through the withdrawls too.
Also, if you need to fly anywhere from Tokyo to Taiwan or Hong Kong, you may want to consider booking a ticket on Hello Kitty Airlines – I’m serious. Check it out, it’s actually NOT that expensive!
Loved this post? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter and get travel guides direct to your inbox. Please share the post if you found it helpful – I truly appreciate it.
Have you been to Tokyo or Japan? Any travel recommendations you can make for my next visit? Feel free to ask me any questions about Tokyo in the comments!