The Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide 2021: What to Eat, See, & Do
The Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide is a large collection of things I’ve learned over the years based on personal experience. Tokyo, Japan is a marvelous city that I’ve proudly called home for the past 6 years. It’s become a popular tourist destination and with excellent reason. There’s an endless choice of things to see, eat, and experience. That’s one of the many reasons why I love this city.
Tokyo and the Greater Metropolitan Area has about 38 million people (myself included) and is the most populated metropolis in the world. This means, there is a lot to do. Even after all these years, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface. Planning a trip to Tokyo, especially for first-timers, is daunting and overwhelming.
From what to do to where to stay, it’s all stress-inducing. In our Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide, I’ll explain what you need to know to my favourite place in the world, Tokyo, Japan. Don’t forget to read our practical travel tips for Japan & best things to do in Tokyo, it’ll make your life easier, trust me.
While you’re in Japan, you may want to check out a few theme parks. I’m a theme park aficionado (if it wasn’t obvious by the other content plastered all over the site), so you’ll want to read our other travel guides covering Tokyo Disney Resort & Universal Studios Japan. Of course, you’ll want to experience all the traditional and pop culture aspects of Japan too.
Alright, that’s enough talking, let’s start planning your trip to the best city in the world, Tokyo.
Table of Contents
For most nationalities, you’re able to enter Japan visa-free (Canada, Australia, UK, US, Singapore, etc). Once you land in Japan, you’re given a 90-day tourist visa in your passport. I recommend checking the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan website to see if you qualify for the 90-day tourist visa (most people reading are).
Important: Always keep your passport on you. If you’re stopped by police you are required to show proper documents (no photocopies). You’ll also need your original passport to take advantage of the Tax-Free shopping and to pick up your JR Rail Pass.
When to Visit
This wouldn’t be the Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide if I didn’t explain when to visit, right? To put it bluntly, you can visit any time during the year and still have a wonderful time. However, there a few things to take into account such weather and events. I’ll go over your options here to help you make a decision.
My personal favourite times are April and November in terms of comfortable weather and the change of the seasons in Tokyo.
Best Times to Visit
The best times to visit are also some of the most crowded times due to the increase in tourism in the past few years. The most popular is the cherry blossom (sakura) season in the month of March & April. Seeing the cherry blossoms in full bloom is a breathtaking site. I believe everyone needs to experience this at least once in their lives.
Another excellent time to visit is in November when the fall foliage is at its best. Throughout Tokyo and the surrounding areas (Hakone, Kamakura, and Mt. Takao to name a few) see the colours change into gorgeous red, yellow, and orange.
If the cold and crowds don’t bother you, then end of December into January is a great time to visit. Celebrate the New Year and partake in Hatsumōde (first visit to a shrine in the New Year). Visiting the Meiji Shrine near Harajuku is a vastly popular spot to visit on January 1. The only downside (besides the cold weather) is most people are on holidays, which makes for a busy period.
For those planning to visit in 2020 for the Olympics, read our guide on deciding if you should or not.
Times to Avoid
Times to avoid depends on a few factors including weather, holidays, and school schedules. The summer months of July through September are hot, humid, and school children are off from school. There’s also a chance of typhoons during this time, which was particularly bad in 2018.
Major Japanese holidays include:
- March (Spring break for most schools)
- Golden Week (End of April into the first week of May)
- Obon Week (One week in the middle of August)
- New Years (December 25 until the 2nd week of January)
This is when many locals are off from work and school. This means many locals are traveling in and out of Tokyo. A lot of the major centers in the city are busy with many Japanese on holiday.
Visiting Outside Peak Seasons
With Tokyo and Japan in general, being a now popular travel destination, it’s worth considering visiting outside the peak seasons (listed above) to avoid crowds. Just keep in mind that you’ll have less than ideal weather in many cases or miss the cherry blossoms or fall foliage.
Pro Tip: Cherry blooms and fall foliage happen at different times in different parts of the year. It’s worth considering going further south or north to experience these outside the major cities in Japan.
Here are my recommendations for when to visit outside of peak tourist seasons:
- January through February
- Colder Weather
- Average Temperature: 6°C / 43°F
- After Golden Week
- Keep in mind you’ll miss cherry blossoms in the Tokyo area
- Average Temperature: 18°C / 64°F
- Rainy season (doesn’t rain every day)
- Average Temperature: 21°C / 70°F
How Long Should You Visit?
There’s so much to do that spending your entire trip to Japan in Tokyo is easy to do. With that said, there are many other excellent parts of Japan to experience too (that’ll be the sequel to the Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide). For most Explorers, a full 5-days is a good amount of time to spend in Tokyo.
This leaves you more time for other parts of the country, with the assumption you’re traveling for about 2-weeks. The minimum number of days to spend in Tokyo is 3. Anything less and you’ll feel as if you missed a lot.
While in Tokyo (and Japan) there’s a good chance you’ll take the trains as your main mode of transportation (along with millions of other people). Trains in Japan are well-known for being clean, punctual, and most infamously in Tokyo, crowded. One look at the train map and it’s anxiety-inducing, especially if you’re not used to public transportation.
Don’t worry though, as overwhelming as it looks at first, once you use the trains a couple of times it becomes second nature. Signs are in English both on and off the trains and the station staff is more than helpful (including locals).
I recommend getting familiar with the train maps before your trip to get your bearings — JR Train Maps & Tokyo Metro Maps. The lines you’ll utilise the most for a lot of attractions are the Yamanote (JR Line that goes in a complete circle), the Tokyo Metro.
It’s worth considering the JR Rail Pass if you’re planning on extensive travel throughout Japan. We have a full guide to help you decide if it’s right for you. To save on travelling within Tokyo check out the Tokyo Metro day passes.
How to Use
The best advice I can give is to get yourself a SUICA or PASMO card (also known as an IC Card). Buy them at the ticket machines at any JR Station (look for the signs). This allows you to tap in and out of the train stations without buying a ticket each time. You’ll likely get the SUICA card, as that’s the most popular.
This makes it so much easier for you and you don’t have to calculate how much your fare costs each time. To add money to your card, you can do it at any ticket machine (cash only). You’re also able to use your IC Card to pay for things at places such as 7-11, vending machines, buses, and even taxis.
Pro Tip: Avoid taking a taxi unless necessary. While taxis are ultra clean and modern, they are expensive. Trains don’t run all night (most stop between 00:00 and 01:00).
Getting from Narita or Haneda Airport
You’ll land in one of two airports: Narita or Haneda Airport. Narita Airport is not in Tokyo itself, it’s in Chiba Prefecture, so naturally, it takes a bit longer to get into the center of Tokyo. While Haneda Airport is right in Tokyo itself and is much quicker to get into the city from. Where you fly into depends on your airline.
You have a few options to get into Tokyo from Narita. The easiest is the Narita Express that takes you right into Tokyo in about 90-minutes to Shibuya Station. This does, however, come at a price at about ¥4,000 ($36 USD) for a round-trip. You’re able to buy tickets right at the airport when you land without any problems. You can also use your JR Rail Pass with this. The Tokyo Skyliner is also another option (if you’re in the north part of the city).
Another option, that I love to do, is taking the Keisei Bus to Tokyo Station. This costs ¥1,000 ($9 USD) per person and takes just over an hour to get to Tokyo Station. From there, taking the train to where I need to go. Tokyo Station is one of the major stations, so chances are the station you need to head to is accessible from there.
The easiest mode of transportation is the monorail or train directly into the city. Which one you choose depends on where you’re going. Another option is the bus, which is ideal for those with a lot of luggage. Also, check with your hotel to see if they offer a shuttle directly to the hotel.
Remember, trains from the airports don’t run all night. If you land later in the evening, it’s best to check when the last train is to where you need to go.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to deal with luggage and can live without your big suitcase for a night, then you can ship your bags from either airport directly to your hotel. You’re also able to send your bags from most hotels to the airport (check with your hotel beforehand).
For more on transportation, read our full guide to getting into Tokyo from the Airport.
Where to Stay
The hardest part of any trip is deciding where to stay while in Tokyo. Accommodations range from 5-Star Hotels to Hostels to Airbnb. While there are way too many options to list, I’ll help you steer you in the right direction to find a place to stay. You’ll find places to stay for every budget, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Let’s take a look at your options.
Stay Near Train Stations
The best advice is to choose the main station you’d like to stay near and work from there. The closer you are to a station, the more expensive the rooms become. Try and stay along either the Yamanote or Chuo Line (some of the most popular lines in Tokyo).
For booking hotels, I recommend using Agoda, Booking.com, or Airbnb.
Pro Tip: If you find hotels are too expensive around one particular train station, try going down one or two stations and checking hotels around there.
To help you decide where to stay, here are my recommendations for areas to stay near. These are based on my own personal preference, things to do, and ease of getting to other areas of Tokyo.
- Tokyo Station Area (easy access to the Shinkansen aka bullet train)
Use the map below to look for hotels in the areas I mentioned above.
Pro Tip: If you find yourself missing the last train and don’t want to pay for an expensive taxi ride back to where you’re staying. Look for a manga cafe and pay to stay for a few hours. These are clean, have showers, soft drinks, and tons of manga to read until the first train. You’ll likely have to sleep in a chair but some have small private booths so you can lay down.
The above helps you decide where to stay, but now we have the important question of when to book your hotel. This next section helps answer that question.
What to Do & Eat
The Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide isn’t complete without talking about mouth-watering food and unforgettable experiences. Tokyo has an endless choice of things to do and places to eat. From Michelin-starred restaurants to the world’s tallest tower down to fascinating aspects of daily life in Japan.
After living here for over 5 years, I’ve done my best to eat and do as much as humanly possible. While this list only scratches the surface of what to experience in Tokyo’s neighbourhoods, it’s an excellent starting point. I’ve broken down this section by area to make it easier to plan your day around. For more on what do, check out what I think are the best things to do in Tokyo.
The first image that pops into your head when you think of Tokyo, is probably Shibuya. Bright neon signs, skyscrapers, and swarms of people in the latest fashion. Shibuya is a popular shopping and entertainment district in Tokyo with a dizzying array of things to experience. While it’s busy, it’s a must on your trip to Tokyo.
I’ve been known to hang out in Shibuya to try the latest food trend and people watch at Shibuya Crossing. There’s quite a bit to do in Shibuya, so I’ve broken this down to a few of my favourite or things I believe you can’t miss.
Things to Do
- Shibuya Crossing
- Yoyogi Park
Where to Eat
Pro Tip: Want that iconic photo from the Starbucks looking over Shibuya Crossing? Get there before 08:00 to avoid the crowds. Any time after that you and hundreds of others are in search of the same photo.
The area that I know the best is Shinjuku. It’s known as the second center of Tokyo and has so much to offer, you could spend your entire trip to Japan in Shinjuku and not experience everything. There’s tons of shopping, (like most areas of the city), ample places to satisfy any appetite, and bustling energy you won’t feel anywhere else in the city.
The train station is massive and you’ll get lost the first time (you’ll be fine trust me). Follow the signs and you’ll find your way out. It’s best to know what exit you need ahead of time so you have an easier time finding it.
Things to Do
Where to Eat
- Kamakura Ramen
- Kin no Kura (Izakaya)
- Kushiya Monogatari
Pro Tip: Take cover from the elements by walking underground from Shinjuku Station to Kabukicho and other parts of Shinjuku! Take the east exit.
You’ve all heard the song by Gwen Stefani from the early 00s that’s all about Harajuku. This is where the inspiration for the song came from. Harajuku is the center of teenage fashion, although it’s not as extreme as it once was sadly, and offers fun and quirky shops to explore.
Cotton candy and jiggly pancakes aren’t the only interesting things in the area either. A short jaunt from Harajuku Station is one of the most popular shrines in Tokyo, Meiji Jingu. Also nearby is the well-known park of Yoyogi.
If Harajuku isn’t your style, you can walk on over to Omotesando for a higher-end shopping experience. It’s also home to my favourite store, Kiddy Land, with tons of character merchandise.
Things to Do
- Takeshita Dori
- Wandering Cat Street
- Meiji Jingu (Shrine)
Where to Eat
Pro Tip: Harajuku is between Shinjuku and Shibuya. If you want to save some money, you’re able to walk to Shibuya quite easily. Just follow Cat Street.
In the north-eastern part of Tokyo, you’ll find Asakusa. Home to the famous Sensoji Temple, Asakusa is where you’ll experience an older Tokyo from past decades. Temples, shrines, shopping street, and Sumida Park (excellent for Cherry Blossoms) are just a few of the things to experience here.
While it does get quite crowded, I enjoy coming here to enjoy the older architecture and explore the small alleyways and underground.
Things to Do
Where to Eat
- Asakusa Umaimon Aduma
- Food stalls in the area
Pro Tip: Asakusa is a popular area and I recommend going earlier in the day or later at night (be mindful that things close earlier).
Akihabara (known as Akiba for short) is the famous electronics district in Tokyo. Over the years it’s become well-known for its otaku culture (including manga anime, video games, etc). If there’s something you’re a fan of, there’s a good chance you’ll find it here.
My favourite thing to do in Akihabara is wandering through the streets and popping into random stores. Sundays are best when the main street is closed to traffic. Things are always changing, so it’s always a surprise what you’ll discover. Give yourself at least an hour for the overstimulating experience of walking through the gigantic Yodobashi Camera.
Things to Do
Where to Eat
Pro Tip: If you’re in search of specific merchandise (including Disney Memorbillia) I also recommend visiting Nakano Broadway.
Other Areas of Tokyo
To finish off our Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide, here’s a list of other things to do and areas to visit in Tokyo.
Things to Do
- Odeo Onsen Monogatari (Discount Tickets)
- Imperial Palace
- Kabuki Theatre (How to buy tickets)
- Character Street under Tokyo Station
Areas to Visit
- Tsukiji Outer Market (Toyosu)
For more on activities in Tokyo, recommend checking out these articles by Time Out Tokyo, Lonely Planet, and Japan Guide for more ideas.
Do you want a completely personalised tour of Tokyo? Who doesn’t! I recommend booking a tour with our friends over at MactionPlanet. They are, in my humble opinion, the best way to tour Tokyo and experience exactly what you want. When you give him a shout, tell him TDR Explorer sent you after you read the Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide and he’ll take care of you.
I did a tour with him and a few other Explorers and we had an absolute blast. The sheer amount we in a single day is worth its weight in gold. I can’t recommend him enough.
Read more about Tokyo Tours with MactionPlanet
Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide Tips
There’s quite a bit to know about Tokyo, so here’s a list of useful and practical tips to make your life easier. If you’re looking for more travel advice, then you’ll want to read our 50+ practical travel tips for Japan and the best things to do in Tokyo. The best & easiest tip is to book activities through Voyagin or Klook to save money.
In addition, I recommend buying a Tokyo printed guide book. I prefer having something physical to refer to so I’m not always on my phone. The city is massive, so I recommend downloading this map to help visualise and not become so overwhelmed.
- Most signage in Tokyo has English on it (including train stations)
- English isn’t widely spoken by the locals
- You’ll be able to travel to Tokyo (and Japan) with little to no Japanese ability
- Carry a Japanese phrase book with you, if you need help
- It’s best to learn simple phrases and words before your trip
Wi-Fi & Data
- It’s best to rent a portable Wi-Fi device or get a SIM Card for your unlocked device
- Wi-Fi isn’t as readily available as you may think
- Starbucks is one consistent place to get no-fuss free Wi-Fi
- Many major department stores & convenient stores offer free Wi-Fi (Yodobashi Camera & 7-11)
- Your hotel, hostel, or Airbnb will have Wi-Fi (in some cases a portable Wi-Fi device)
Cash & Credit Cards
- Not all stores & restaurants accept credit cards
- Always carry cash on you (exchange money before you travel to save on rates)
- ATMs at 7-11, Family Mart, LAWSON, and Japan Post Offices, allow you to pull money from your bank account (check with your bank first)
- Use cash for smaller purchases and a credit card with no foreign transaction fees to larger purchases
- Many shops offer Tax-Free shopping when spending ¥5,000 ($45 USD) or more (look for the signage on the store window or ask)
Travel Apps / Websites
- Google Maps for transportation (it’s just easier in my opinion and you already have it)
- Google Translate for simple sentence translations (works offline)
- “Japanese” is an app to help translate single words (great for studying)
- Tabelog to find restaurants in Japan
- Xe.com for currency conversion (a simple way to do a rough conversion is ¥100 is about $1 US)
Vegan & Vegetarian
Full disclosure, I am not a vegetarian or vegan myself, which means I am not well versed in that area. What I do know is that it’s not the easiest trying to eat vegan or vegetarian while in Japan — vegan being the most challenging. I recommend reading HappyCow to find suitable restaurants and this excellent blog post for general information on food.
Read our guides for both Tokyo Disneyland & Tokyo DisneySea for a list of vegan & vegetarian options.
Explorer Thoughts on the Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide
While this is the Ultimate Tokyo Travel Guide, it barely scratches the surface of what this marvelous metropolis offers. It’s impossible to mention everything in a single guide. For more excellent information on Tokyo, I highly recommend Japan Guide, Truly Tokyo, and Lonely Planet. Do you have any tips or activities you’d like to add? Let me know in the comments!
Tokyo is home and I love it dearly. There’s always something new to try or experience and is ever-changing. That’s one of the reasons why I adore it so much — the delicious food also plays a huge role. My hope is during your trip, you’re able to see what makes this city so wonderful. I truly do. Now, go out there and experience Tokyo!
Are you planning a trip to Japan?
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Although it’s (for us) several years away, I know and love that there are a lot of things that don’t change too much in Japan. So Thank You for the “updating” what we already know what we think we know, about present day Japan. I know we will be surprised yet again, when we travel there in…what? ….2025. MId-November. For the Christmas stuff in Disney. Great article!
This is a great amount of information – is it available in a PDF format (like the awesome Disney Book I bought) – Jaime
This is a great guide! I love that it is updated. We are currently planning a trip in January 2020 and this as well as your ebook has been amazing. Quick question: will you post a quick guide on the new Starbucks reserve location and the best way to get there? I saw Chris’s insta-stories about it and it is now a must see for us!