Whether you’ve got a limited amount of time in Tokyo, or want to kick off a longer stay with a taste of everything this sprawling city has to offer, this action-packed day makes the perfect intro. Follow our handy guide and you’ll get a mix of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ in one of the most multi-faceted cities in the world – plus a very important introduction to nomihodai (just Google it).
Start the day with a taste of ‘old Tokyo’ and head out to Asakusa to see the Senso-ji temple. An ancient Buddhist temple, brightly coloured and surrounded by bustling market stalls, Senso-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo and one of the most popular (the crowds get a little crazy by midday). Pro tip: the temple grounds are always open, and the main hall is only open from 6:00am to 5:00pm.
Enter the temple complex through the Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon) and start waking towards the main hall through Nakamise Dori, a busy market street that dates back several centuries. Some stalls are more traditional than others, and you’ll find everything from fans and woodblock prints to ridiculously oversized plush phone accessories and sparkly cases. Soon you’ll come to the second gate – the Hozomon – and beyond this is the temple’s main hall and the impressive five-storied pagoda. Wash your hands and mouth at the water station, called a ‘temizuya’, to purify yourself before approaching.
Take your time at Senso-ji and let yourself relax as you breathe in the smell of votive incense that hangs in the air. Wander around the temple gardens and soak up some serenity. As you leave, walk back through Nakamise Dori and try some of the traditional sweets in the markets, then grab breakfast at one of the small eateries selling customary dishes. You’ll be able to find hand-made noodles, sushi, even wasabi icecream. It’s a lot more interesting than a bowl of cereal, or plain ol’ continental breakfast back at the hotel.
From Asakusa, you can start walking towards the next stop on the itinerary: the labyrinthine streets between Ueno and Okachimachi, which make up the open-aired Ameyoko markets. This is where the locals come to buy their fresh produce – especially fish. While wandering through, take a look at the crazy variety seafood and make a mental checklist of what you’d like to sample during your time in Tokyo.
Next up, jump on a train and head to Harajuku. If you’ve already indulged in the traditional food options at Asakusa and the Ameyoko markets, now it’s time for something… a little less traditional. Kawaii Monster Café injects the flavour of Harajuku’s subcultures into food. A technicolour fairyland of oversized flower sculptures, psychedelic swirls and booths shaped like Alice in Wonderland teacups, Kawaii Monster Café looks as if a unicorn vomited on the walls to create the décor. Which is to say, it looks amazing. The restaurant serves a variety of Instagram-worthy, multi-coloured food, including rainbow pasta and towering, gaudy ice-cream sundaes. Traditional Japanese food this is not, but Kawaii Monster Café is worth visiting for the interior alone.
Once you’ve refuelled, spend the early afternoon wandering around the criss-crossing shopping streets of Harajuku: the birthplace of kawaii and Lolita fashion. The street to start at is Takeshita Dori, but try to get as lost as possible. Walk down every winding passageway where it looks like there might be something interesting to discover. Your reward: a plethora of vintage clothing stores and multi-level shops selling rainbow socks. Make a point of visiting 6% Dokidoki for the truly outrageous fashion, and Kiddyland for anime and cartoon paraphernalia.
Once you’ve blown your budget shopping in Harajuku, you’re within walking distance of Shibuya station. Here, you will find the famous Shibuya Crossing – also known as ‘The Scramble’ – and a wall of flashing neon advertisements on all sides, with pop music blaring over the suited locals that swarm across the road. Spend some time watching the hustle and bustle; you’ll appreciate how the crossing gets progressively more intense as the evening wears on. After crossing the road a few times – or as many times as it takes before you get bored – pop into the Starbucks across the road from the station to get an elevated view. Guaranteed: everyone in this café has only bought a coffee to be allowed in the upstairs seating area for the photo op.
Okay, enough dawdling! (Just kidding, you’re doing great. Just look at all the things you’ve ticked off the ‘to do’ list already.) By this time the nightlife of the city should be winding up, with glowing lights beaming from every shop window and animated billboards keeping the darkness at bay. For dinner, find an okonomiyaki place – trust me – and you’ll be delivered a variety of ingredients to make your own delicious savoury pancakes, grilled on a hot plate in the middle of your table. It’s even better if your okonomiyaki establishment of choice has nomihodai (all you can drink), as the two often go hand in hand. Remember not to get too silly – loud, public drunkenness in Japan is frowned upon – but there’s no way you want to pass up on the opportunity to have as much umeshu (plum wine) as your stomach desires.
Before you start thinking about how to get back to your hotel, you might as well work in one more stop on the itinerary. Roppongi is where the expats go to party, but if you’re after something a little more low key catch the train out to Shimokitazawa. Shimo is where the hip, indie Tokyo kids like to hang out – as evidenced by the high-density of second-hand clothing stores in the area. You’ll be able to find a number of hole-in-the-wall bars, but perhaps none quite so literally hole-in-the-wall as Mother. Stepping inside this bar, with its roughly hewn mosaic walls, feels like stepping into a Hobbit hole. Kampai!
Ready for a proper Tokyo adventure? Check out our Japan small group adventures.