The Ultimate Travel Guide to Tokyo: Things to Do, Transportation, Weather, Events, and More!
Things to do, shopping spots, events and festivals, types of accommodation, methods of transportation, and more will be introduced in this complete travel guide to Tokyo. This multifaceted metropolis is a fascinating concrete jungle, with something for every tourist. Without further ado, here's everything you need to know about this capital city in order to have the best Japan trip of your life!
May 17 2019 (Sep 09 2020)
A Basic Introduction to Tokyo
With a population of around 14 million in the city proper and 38 million in the metropolitan area, Tokyo (official name: Tokyo Metropolis) has established itself as Japan's capital and largest city, acting as the nation's political, cultural, and financial center. It is the world's most populous metropolitan area, with hundreds of companies and millions of people calling it their home.
Over the years, Tokyo has gained worldwide acclaim for its multiple achievements, such as being one of the safest cities in the world. It has also played host to international events such as the 1964 Summer Olympics, and will be the stage of the 2020 Summer Olympics and Summer Paralympics.
Furthermore, as one of the world's top tourist destinations, it is made up of a number of highly attractive areas, such as Asakusa, an area where vestiges of old Japan still remain; Shibuya, where new trends are created; Shinjuku, one of the world's busiest transport hubs; Ginza, home to a multitude of high-end brands; Ueno, a culture-rich part of Tokyo with several art museums; and Ikebukuro, an otaku paradise.
Though all the areas mentioned above refer to the urban side of Tokyo, they do not completely define this metropolis. If you look to Tokyo's west, you can find areas like Okutama and Mt. Takao, filled with so much nature that you wouldn't even think you were in Tokyo! They have proven Tokyo to be a place where one can enjoy both the busy city life and a wealth of greenery.
The History of Tokyo
Before a merger in 1943, the present-day Tokyo was separated into two entities: Tokyo City, a small fishing village that grew into what is now known as the 23 Special Wards of Tokyo, and Tokyo Prefecture, which now refers to the 26 municipalities in the western part of the prefecture, as well as the Izu and Ogasawara Islands to its south-southeast.
Furthermore, Tokyo wasn't always known by its present name. Before it became the capital of Japan, it was known as "Edo". It only became known as Tokyo when the Emperor of the time made a permanent move from the then-capital Kyoto to Edo in 1869.
Tokyo is situated in the southern region of the Kanto Plain, right in the center of the Japanese archipelago. Though considered a part of the metropolis, the Izu and Ogasawara Islands are geographically distanced from it, lying approximately 1,000km south-southeast.
Chiba Prefecture lies to its east, with Yamanashi Prefecture to its west, Kanagawa Prefecture to its south, and Saitama Prefecture bordering its north. It also opens up to the Pacific Ocean via Tokyo Bay.
Though Tokyo's summers are known for bringing about torrential rain and being especially hot and humid, tourists also need to be wary of its winters. Since Tokyo is largely covered by asphalt, when it snows in the winter, the ground gets very slippery, making it dangerous to walk about in the city. It can also occasionally snow very heavily in certain parts of Tokyo.
For these reasons, it is highly recommended to check the weather forecast before you travel to Tokyo. This is especially important if you plan to come during Japan's rainy season, which is from July to September. For a monthly guide to Tokyo's weather, check out this article: Must-See! A Monthly Guide to Tokyo Weather
Getting to Tokyo from Outside Japan
One of the most common ways to enter Tokyo is by airplane. The two closest airports to Tokyo are Tokyo International Airport (Haneda Airport) and Narita International Airport.
It is recommended to arrive at Haneda Airport if possible, as it is close to the city's central areas like Shinagawa. The U.S. claimed ownership over Tokyo's airspace shortly after World War II, and as a result, Japan was forced to build Narita Airport outside of Tokyo in the neighboring Chiba Prefecture, so it is quite distanced from the city. However, if you do end up arriving at Narita Airport, you can easily get to the city center by train. If you know Tokyo like the back of your hand, you can consider taking the highway bus instead, too.
Traveling Within Tokyo
Tokyo has a daytime population of 15.92 million people*, so as you can imagine, the trains can get quite crowded. Rush hour is from 7:00 am - 8:30 am on weekday mornings and 5:30 pm - 6:30 pm on weekday evenings. It is best to avoid taking the train during these times, but if you do, make sure to give yourself some extra time to get from place to place.
*Accurate as of Japan's October 1st, 2015 census
Most tourists will end up exploring Tokyo by train, as it's one of the best methods of travel for getting to all the main tourist spots. However, navigating through incredibly large stations like Shinjuku Station can be difficult, and the train map is also confusing. That said, if you can figure out how to transfer between train lines, you can get to your destination quickly and cheaply.
One way to solve this issue is by making use of train and bus navigation apps, which are increasingly becoming available in several languages. Alternatively, view some of the train maps in your language on the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation's website.
Many buses regularly depart from train stations. If used wisely, they can be more convenient than trains. However, it is strongly recommended for beginners to Japan to avoid using them. This is because many of the buses have their route maps, destinations, and in-bus announcements available only in Japanese.
If you will be traveling with a group of people, depending on the distance, traveling by taxi can be cheaper than train or bus. Many taxis now support credit card payments, so payments can often be settled smoothly. This also helps ensure that you won't get charged a ridiculous price.
Not many taxi drivers are multilingual, but as long as you can tell them your destination, you will be able to get to where you want to go. You can get a taxi from the taxi stand by most train stations or by waving down an empty taxi if you spot one on the road.
If you have the money, consider riding a sightseeing taxi. Not only can you choose your preferred sightseeing course, but there's also no need to carry any heavy luggage, making it an easy way to explore Tokyo! It is highly recommended for Tokyo beginners, people with disabilities, those traveling in large groups, and the elderly.
Many Japanese people don't like driving in metropolitan areas, as the roads are narrow and the traffic regulations are confusing. For this reason, it goes without question that beginners to Tokyo shouldn't attempt to do this!
However, rental cars can be extremely useful for getting to prefectures near Tokyo. Furthermore, if you go with a group of people, you can split the bill and save on transport. Just try to avoid consecutive holidays like Golden Week (late April to early May), Obon (mid-August), and New Year's, as the road can get incredibly congested.
If you won't be traveling far, consider getting a rental bicycle. You can see the sights while traveling to your destination, which is great during pleasant seasons like spring and autumn. It's also easy to stop at any spot that catches your fancy, so you can experience Japan like a local. For a list of bicycle rental services in Tokyo, check out this article: 9 Rental Bike Services in the Tokyo Area You Should Try
Another popular way to get to places like Asakusa, Hamarikyu Gardens, Odaiba, and Tokyo Big Sight is by water bus. They're a great way to experience something special, as many of them offer night cruises that let you gaze at Tokyo's nightscape, and several others run during seasonal events like the sakura (cherry blossom) blooming season and fireworks shows. For more information on Tokyo's water buses, including the departure schedules and costs, visit the Tokyo Cruise website.
Tokyo's Main Sightseeing Spots
Although Tokyo has an almost countless number of sightseeing spots, the following is a small selection of classics that everyone should spare the time to visit.
TOKYO SKYTREE: Enjoy a Sweeping View of Tokyo
TOKYO SKYTREE is a digital communications tower that stands at a whopping 634m above the ground! It was recognized in 2011 as the world's tallest tower by the Guiness World Records.
From the observatory situated 450m in the air, one can get a sweeping view of the whole city. Observe this sight in the daytime or visit at night to see the lovely twinkling night sky. Those looking for a thrill can walk through the tower's glass corridor - no doubt, it'll make you feel as if you're walking in air! There's even a restaurant on the observation deck where you can dine while gazing at the beautiful Tokyo cityscape. Finally, don't forget to bring your camera, as there are plenty of photo spots in the tower.
Asakusa: Get a Taste of Old Japan
Asakusa is an area of Tokyo that is extremely popular for its retro Japanese townscape. Its symbol is the famous Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate), from which hangs a giant red lantern. It is located at the entrance to Senso-ji Temple (official name: Asakusa Kannon Temple). This temple has 1,400 years of history and was visited by great warriors like Tokugawa Ieyasu so that they could pray for victory in battle.
The street that leads up to Senso-ji Temple from Kaminari-mon is known as Nakamise Street and is home to roughly 90 shops that sell wares and foodstuffs. Why not look around while nibbling on Asakusa delicacies such as kibi dango (soft sticky rice cakes), menchi katsu (deep-fried minced meat cutlets), and jumbo melon bread?
Shinjuku: The Best Place in Tokyo for Night Entertainment
You can find Kabuki-cho, one of Tokyo's main entertainment districts, in an area known for its neon lights flickering late into the night. Located northeast of Shinjuku Station, it is home to a plethora of eateries, a department store, a movie theater, and other entertainment facilities.
Shinjuku Golden-gai is another interesting spot in this area where you'll find many small eateries shoved into long wooden buildings. It spans just 6612 sq.m. and is a great spot for those wishing to enjoy Tokyo's nightlife. However, keep your guard up - there's a lot of unsavory people around the area as well!
For even more things to do and places to explore within the Shinjuku area: 50 Things to Do in Shinjuku
Dining in Tokyo
The one thing that sets Tokyo apart from other Japanese cities is variety in both fare and prices.
While you can definitely find high-class restaurants listed in the Michelin guide, there are also plenty of cheap and delicious restaurants that'll have people drooling, as well as many stores open late at night, found in places like Ueno's Ameyoko, Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho, and under the elevated railway tracks of Yurakucho. Furthermore, you can now find more eateries catering to various needs, with vegetarian and even halal menus.
Despite all of these great points, one of the downsides to dining in Tokyo is that you'll almost definitely need to line up for popular restaurants. To avoid this, try booking in advance through the restaurant's official website or your hotel concierge. Alternatively, you can make a booking through Savor Japan, a restaurant listing and booking website. You can search for restaurants supported by Savor Japan through this search page.
Finally, for a quick list of cheap yet amazingly delicious restaurants in Tokyo to try out, check out this article: 30 Cheap but Delicious Restaurants and Shops in Tokyo
Staying Overnight in Tokyo
According to a survey undertaken in 2017 by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs, the estimated number of tourists to Tokyo for the year was 537 million. Of that sum, the number of tourists from abroad was 13 million. With this number increasing annually, popular accommodations are quickly being booked out, so it's imperative to book your accommodation as soon as possible.
For a quick list of options, consider looking at the various articles we have on accommodations in Tokyo!
There are plenty of world-acclaimed hotels in Tokyo, with 33 hotels alone listed in the Michelin Guide Tokyo for 2019. If you have room in your budget for one of these hotels, you'll get the best that Tokyo has to offer. However, it's quite easy to find a hotel that matches your preferences and budget, so don't fret if you're looking for more affordable options. Alternatively, maybe even consider a luxury love hotel...
These hotels mainly serve as places to sleep for the night, with the bare minimum in terms of furniture, appliances, and amenities. This is what allows them to offer more competitive rates, which attracts tourists from all over. Many of them are clean, comfortable, and located in super convenient areas, so popular business hotels tend to get booked out quite early.
Here are some business hotels close to Tokyo Station that come highly recommended by the tsunagu Japan editing team: Comfortable and budget-friendly! 10 Recommended Business Hotels Around Tokyo Station
Those who want to experience as much Japanese culture as they can are recommended to stay at ryokan (traditional Japanese inns). Tourists can stay inside a retro Japanese building and enjoy dressing in yukata (traditional Japanese robes), bathing in an onsen (hot spring baths), and viewing Japanese-style gardens. On top of all that, they will get to savor delicious traditional Japanese cuisine!
Here are a couple of ryokan in Tokyo that will guarantee a wonderful trip to Japan: 10 Recommended Japanese-style Ryokan Overflowing With the Essence of Tokyo
Guest houses are popular with backpackers, as they're cheaper than regular accommodation options and allow travelers to exchange travel info with fellow wanderers and even locals in the common spaces. Nowadays, many are made extremely convenient with cafes or bars annexed to them, while others are visually appealing as they are beautifully decorated or constructed within old retro buildings.
This type of accommodation is best suited for those looking to stay somewhere unique or meet new people. If that interests you, here's a great article to start off with: 19 Budget-Friendly Hotels in Tokyo That Won't Disappoint!
These hotels originated in Japan and are worth experiencing at least once. Each capsule is furnished simply and designed to be just large enough to fit one person, but in exchange for the lack of room, it costs just a few thousand Japanese yen per night.
Capsule hotels used to be mainly frequented by salarymen who missed the last train, but recently, several of them have undergone a complete makeover, with refined designs, comfortable mattresses, a plethora of amenities, and improved common spaces that have attracted new kinds of customers to their doors.
For affordable capsule hotel options: [2018 Edition] 50 Affordable & Convenient Capsule Hotels in Tokyo
Shopping in Tokyo
Tokyo is a great shopping destination, with plenty of stores to meet whatever needs someone may have. For example, there's Ginza, the place for high-end luxury brands; Harajuku, where young people go for trendy goods; Shimokitazawa, perfect if you're looking for secondhand or vintage finds; and Akihabara, the "electric town" full of electronic stores.
Looking for souvenirs? Tokyo has you covered there as well! There are classics like Tokyo Banana and Ningyo-yaki, but if you're looking for more options, check out this beginner's guide to souvenir shopping in Tokyo: 20 Souvenirs You Should Buy in Tokyo. Alternatively, browse all the other Tokyo shopping articles that we have!
Events in Tokyo
Spring (March - May)
Spring is when Tokyo starts warming up from the cold winter and more people start to spend time outdoors. Other than the falling sakura painting the streets a beautiful pink, don't miss out on seeing the beautiful purple wisterias in bloom! You'll find Japanese people enjoying the beautiful view and warm weather at hanami spots like Ueno Park, Yoyogi Park, and Chidorigafuchi.
Summer (June - August)
Festivals, fireworks, outdoor music festivals, beer gardens... Japan's summers are so full of things to do that even locals have trouble deciding what to fit into their schedules.
Every mid-August, the Fukugawa Hachiman Festival takes place at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine (Tomioka Hachiman-gu). During this impressive festival, participants carry 120 mikoshi (portable shrines) of varying sizes around town, and spectators will throw holy water over them while yelling "Wasshoi, wasshoi!" It is a grand spectacle that can't be missed!
Autumn (September - November)
Autumn is when many food-related events occur. If you'll be in Tokyo at the time, give the Meguro Sanma Festival a try. You'll get to eat freshly cooked sanma (Pacific saury) for free! There are also plenty of events out there for art or culture enthusiasts, such as Kanda's Secondhand Book Fair and Asia's largest film festival, Tokyo International Film Festival.
If you'd rather see beautiful autumn scenery, head over to the Jingu Gaien Gingko Festival that takes place from mid-November to early December at Meiji-jingumae. Rows of trees with gorgeous gold and orange leaves await you!
Winter (December - February)
In Japan, there is a practice called "hatsumode" where people will visit shrines or temples at the beginning of a new year in order to pray for a safe year and express thanks to the year that's passed. There are plenty of places within Tokyo for you to experience your own hatsumode, such as Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu), known for having the most worshippers in all of Japan; Senso-ji Temple, situated within a retro townscape; and Kanda Shrine, which is always visited by businesspeople hoping for a successful year. Check them out if you'll be in Tokyo at this time!
Tourist Information Counters in Tokyo
If you're lost or don't know how to get to your destination, visit a tourist information counter! It is strongly recommended to visit counters with a JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization) certification.
This guide will introduce you to three different info counters. They all provide their services in English, as well as in other languages. Furthermore, since they're all located in areas popular with tourists, they're extremely easy to find!
Use them wisely to make your trip one to remember!
Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center (Asakusa)
This tourist information counter is housed inside a stunning building constructed out of wood and glass that was designed by world-famous architect Kengo Kuma. It is located in front of Asakusa's Kaminari-mon. Inside the building, you will also find a currency exchange counter, smoking rooms, and observation deck where you can get a panoramic view of the Asakusa townscape for free.
Shinjuku Tourist Information Center (Shinjuku)
This information counter is a short walk away from the East Gate of Shinjuku Station, one of Japan's busiest transport hubs. Other than offering Tokyo travel information in several languages, it has ATMs, a currency exchange service, and coin lockers.
TIC TOKYO (Nihombashi)
TIC TOKYO is only a short walk away from the Nihombashi Exit of Tokyo Station. The staff there can give you directions in several languages, as well as book accommodations for you! There's also a cafe right next to the counter, so you can take a breather here if you're tired from sightseeing.
What to Do If You Have an Emergency in Tokyo
Hospitals and Clinics
If you get sick or injured in Japan, visit the website below. It has information on roughly 900 hospitals and clinics in Japan that accept foreign travelers as patients. There's also a Guide for Using Medical Institutions (downloadable as a PDF) that will help you navigate through a visit to a Japanese medical institution. It also includes warnings for when you do and lists exactly how to tell doctors your symptoms. The website even has guides for what to do in case of natural disasters like earthquakes!
If you lose something, become lost, or run into trouble, head to the nearest police box or station. The website below should also come in useful, as it has the contact details for police boxes or stations in Japan, as well as information on the basic rules and etiquette for things like traffic. Look through the website before coming to Japan, and your trip is sure to be safe and fun!
▼For residents of Tokyo
Muslims looking for eateries and accommodations that cater to them should check out the TOKYO MUSLIM Travelers' Guide, a pamphlet published by the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau. It introduces roughly 124 different restaurants, worship facilities, accommodations, and stores that accommodate Muslims.
Getting to Other Cities from Tokyo
There are several ways to get to sightseeing locations like Hokkaido, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Okinawa from Tokyo, such as by shinkansen, airplane, or bus.
●Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
Sometimes traveling by shinkansen can take longer than airplanes, but if you consider that some airports are set quite far apart from certain destinations, it can often be faster to travel by shinkansen. If you use the Japan Rail Pass within its specified time period, you'll even get to save on your shinkansen travels! Also, traveling by shinkansen means that you can buy and eat bento while gazing at the scenery through the train windows.
This can be the fastest method of transportation when it comes to traveling long distances, though it depends on how far away the airport is from your destination. Nowadays you can find plenty of low-cost carriers, so you'll easily be able to travel to faraway cities for a cheap price.
If you don't want to spend lots of money traveling, take the highway bus! It takes significantly longer to get anywhere with one of these, but depending on the date and destination, it can cost only a few thousand yen! If you travel in the daytime, you can enjoy the scenery from the windows, and if you take the night bus instead, you'll reach your destination before you know it! What makes traveling by highway bus fun is that you'll get to sample a variety of local foods from the rest areas that the bus stops at.
Search up the options that match your budget or preferences ahead of time so that you can enjoy your Tokyo trip to the fullest!
Tokyo → Hokkaido (Hakodate)
Shinkansen: Approx. 4 hours and 30 minutes (Tokyo Station → Hokkaido Shinkansen → Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station → Hakodate Station)
Airplane: Approx. 3 hours and 30 minutes (Tokyo Station → Haneda Airport → Hakodate Airport → Hakodate Station)
Tokyo → Osaka (Shin-Osaka)
Shinkansen: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes (Tokyo Station → Shin-Osaka Station)
Airplane: Approx. 3 hours and 30 minutes (Tokyo Station → Haneda Airport → Itami Airport → Shin-Osaka Station)
Highway Bus: Approx. 8 hours (Bus terminal within Tokyo → Bus terminal within Osaka)
Tokyo → Fukuoka (Hakata)
Shinkansen: Approx. 5 hours (Tokyo Station → Hakata Station)
Airplane: Approx. 3 hours and 50 minutes (Tokyo Station → Haneda Airport → Fukuoka Airport → Hakata Station)
Tokyo → Okinawa (Naha)
Airplane: Approx. 4 hours (Tokyo Station → Haneda Airport → Naha Airport)
*All of these times are the shortest estimated times. Actual times may differ depending on the date and/or traffic conditions.
Tokyo is a metropolis that many people flock to, and it is home to a wealth of sightseeing spots. Make sure to look up information on transport and tourist spots within the city before arriving, and your trip is sure to be a blast!
Interested in coming to Tokyo, but not sure what to do once you're actually there? Begin here: 50 Things to Do in Tokyo
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.