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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 27 December, 2022
Expert travel writer: Rob Goss

One of the world’s busiest and most-populated cities, Japan’s capital can be quite a culture shock for first-timers. In places, it’s overrun with crowds, concrete and high-rise, yet you’ll also find quiet neighbourhoods, sprawling parks, and traditional gardens.

There’s cutting-edge tech and ever-changing fashions, but also a fondness for the traditional ways that underpin society – you’ll see that in the way people bow. It’s become cliched to say Tokyo is where old meets new – but it’s true.

Here you can still (and must) experience the unique traditions of Japan: stay in a ryokan (a traditional inn), feast on a kaisheki-ryori dinner, partake in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony (regaled in a kimono), and perhaps, even, train to be a samurai (or a ninja).

And it’s absolutely true that Tokyo is one of the great culinary capitals – you could dine out on something different every night for a month and still have barely scratched the surface.

Orientation

The heart of Tokyo is comprised of 23 wards (called -ku) located on the eastern side of Tokyo Prefecture.

West of that are sprawling suburbs and rural areas, while there are also islands to the south that are technically within Tokyo.

Within the 23 -ku, the city’s transport hub is Tokyo Station, smack in the traditional centre of the city along with Ginza, Nihonbashi and the Imperial Palace.

The northern and eastern parts of the 23 -ku are more traditional and down-to-earth – places like Asakusa and Ueno – while high-rent western parts such as Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku are more fashionable and happening.

Culture & Customs

It can take years to fathom the intricacies of Japan’s social customs, but in the most part that’s not something a traveller needs to fret about.

Basic good manners, common sense and following the advice of the manner posters plastered everywhere will suffice.

And it’s worth remembering that while Toko can appear ultra-modern in places, it’s still quite a conservative city, where most are fairly reserved in public.

Food & Drink

Tokyo has cuisine from all over world, but local flavours still dominate.

You’ll find lots of seafood, especially sushi, sashimi and grilled fish, and rice is the traditional staple.

There are lots of noodles beyond ramen – soba and udon, both of which can come cold for dripping or in hot broth.

Many restaurants specialize in a single dish or style, while izakaya (the Japanese equivalent of a pub) are great for sampling a little of everything along with a drink.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Onsen in Japan

Japan

Geothermal Japan is home to thousands of mineral-rich and bathable hot springs known as onsen. An integral part of Japanese daily life and culture.

Best for ages: 6+ | Free | 30+mins

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Bullet Train

Japan

Reaching speeds of up to 320 km/h, Japan’s iconic bullet train revolutionised high speed train travel when it first launched in 1964, only eclipsed in 2002 by new maglev trains. For locals, it’s a fast, convenient and safe means to travel between Japan’s major cities. For everyone else, it’s a must do.

Best for ages: 4+ | £90 | 2+ hours

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Cherry blossom viewing in Tokyo

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

The blossoms of ornamental cherry trees – Japan’s national flower – beguile and dazzle, both visitor and local alike – when the spring wave turns Japan pink.

Best for ages: 8+ | Free | 2-3 hours

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Sumo wrestling

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

Drama and tradition combine in this 1,000-year-old sport. It’s a mesmerising and atmospheric spectacle – and Tokyo’s Ryogoku neighbourhood is the centre of it all.

Best for ages: 8+ | £15 | 2-3 hours

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Bonsai trees in Omiya

Saitama, Kanto, Japan

The small town of Omiya is renowned for its bonsai nurseries and bonsai museum. For a fascinating insight into the art of bonsai, and their role in traditional Japanese culture, a day trip here is an absolute must.

Best for ages: 8+ | Free | 2-3 hours

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Drinks in Golden Gai

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

This collection of ramshackle alleyways in Shinjuku is home to some of Tokyo’s tiniest, but most unique bars.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free | 2-3 hours

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Ghibli museum is a place that shows the work of Japanese animation Studio Ghibli, features of children, technology and finearts dedicated to art and animation technique
Experience

Ghibli Museum

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

A must for anime fans, this museum out west in Mitaka is dedicated to the creations of legendary animators Studio Ghibli.

Best for ages: 13+ | £4 | 2-3 hours

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Imperial Palace & Gardens
Experience

Imperial Palace & Gardens

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

The Imperial family’s current home is off-limits to visitors, but you can steal photogenic glimpses and stroll the pretty East Gardens.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free | 2-3 hours

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Nine Hours Otemachi

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

The capsule hotel gets a slick reboot at this chain, offering smart sleeping pods in Shinjuku and elsewhere. Decent accommodation at very affordable prices.

Official star rating:

Ryokan Sawanoya

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

Family-run ryokan (traditional inn), providing tradition on a budget in Tokyo’s old Yanaka neighbourhood.

Official star rating:

Hotel K5

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

Uber-hip Scandi-inspired boutique hotel with great access to Tokyo Station, Ginza, and key business districts. A chilled-out base for hipsters.

Official star rating:

Trunk Hotel

Tokyo, Kanto, Japan

Plush boutique hotel for hipsters right in the heart of the trendsetting Harajuku, Omotesando and Shibuya triangle.

Official star rating:

When to go

Weather-wise, spring (late March-May) and autumn (October/November) both have lots of warm sunny days and are the most attractive – especially with the cherry blossom at the start of spring.

June’s rainy season doesn’t have heavy rains, but it’s damp and sticky, while July and August are very hot and humid – avoid if you can.

Major holidays are Golden Week (April 29-May 5), Obon (mid-August) and New Years (Dec 29-Jan 4) – prices rise and some attractions will close, especially over New Year.

Getting there and away

International flights arrive at either Narita (NRT) or Haneda (HND) airports. The latter receives less flights but is much more convenient – it’s actually in Tokyo, while Narita is 60 kilometres east.

From Haneda, Airport Limousine buses connect to many major Tokyo stations in around 30 minutes. There are also train options, but not direct to key accommodation areas.

Airport Limousine buses also run from Narita to key accommodation areas in Tokyo (one hour minimum), while for comfort, the Narita Express and Keisei Skyliner express trains are best – though you’ll probably need to transfer onwards.

Getting around

Tokyo has an extensive public transportation network, with multiple companies running trains (JR is the main one) and subways (like Tokyo Metro and TOEI) that crisscross the city and surrounding areas.

To save fare adjustment hassle when transferring from one rail service to another, get a chargeable PASMO or SUICA card which automatically pay fares when scanned on ticket gates.

Buses are great for airport access, but within Tokyo they can be very confusing to use – give them a miss. Taxis can be found by many stations and hailed in busy areas, and are great for short trips.

Where to stay

If you want to explore Tokyo’s nightlife, opt for Shibuya – there are plenty of hip hotels aimed at millennials in the area.

For luxury international brands, look to central areas like Nihonbashi, Ginza, Otemachi and Tokyo Station – all also have great access to business districts, shopping and dining, and good transportation links to other parts of the city.

Anyone after a more everyday Tokyo location should look to northeastern areas like Ueno, Yanaka and Asakusa, where you can find friendly, inexpensive ryokan.

For simple Western-style accommodation, look for budget business hotel chains like Toyoko Inn and Super Hotel – they have properties all over.

Where to eat or drink

Skip the safe surrounds of hotel dining and venture out. But where? Ginza is the place for Michelin-starred restaurants, the best sushi and old-school cocktails, while nearby Yurakucho and Shinbashi (and further afield Ebisu) are great hunting grounds for izakaya.

For bars with character, try Golden Gai in Shinjuku. Shibuya has clubs, karaoke, izakaya and all sorts else, although Roppongi is the biggest mishmash – it has clubs, Michelin-starred restaurants, dive bars, grim pick-up joints and swanky cocktails bars.

Where to shop

Head to Ginza for glitzy boutiques and department stores or the Harajuku-Shibuya-Omotesando triangle for a mix of youth trends, street fashion and sleek contemporary styles.

Akihabara is the place for anime goods and home electronics, while Kappabashi-dori has traditional kitchenware covered.

Roppongi delivers two mega retail and leisure complexes; Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, while Shinjuku has a bit of everything.

What to buy

Crafts by traditional artisans, kitchenware, and drinks like green teas as well as sake and whisky are all standouts. There are plenty of colourful (sometimes eccentric) youth fashions and fun t-shirts to be had too.

Health & Safety

Japan has a reputation for low crime rates, and that holds true in Tokyo, but you should still take sensible precautions. There are high levels of medical care, with some medical institutions able to use English, but bring an ample supply of any medications you need – they might be hard to find.

Also, watch out for the heat and humidity in summer – it sends thousands to ER every year. And take five minutes to read up on earthquake awareness – Japan has them daily.

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