Tokyo is a once-in-a-lifetime destination, but it’s also huge and sprawling, and once is not nearly enough to see everything you want to. But to help you get a sense of some fun areas to explore, and things to do—and importantly, what to eat—in a short amount of time, I’ve put together a guide to some of my tips and favorite places in Tokyo and how you can spend your time there in five days. Rain or shine!
For my home base, I chose Shinjuku. It’s a straight shot from the Narita International Airport via the Narita Express. More specifically, Hotel Gracery Shinjuku, nicknamed the Godzilla Hotel for its giant Godzilla, or Gorija, head that sits atop the hotel. Yes, you can go visit it and take all the photos, and watch it roar during certain hours.
Besides being a fun themed hotel, it’s a great option because it’s VIP Access, which means it comes with exclusive perks for Expedia Rewards members, and it sits in the heart of Kabukicho on Godzilla Road. It’s surrounded by bright lights and neon signs, restaurants and bars, shops and convenience stores, and nightlife and entertainment. And only a few minutes’ walk away from Shinjuku Station (east exit), one of the busiest stations in the world. Prepare to get lost a few times—I did!
It’s a bustling city that never seems to sleep. In fact, something to keep in mind: Most restaurants and shops in Tokyo don’t open until 11 a.m., but the good news is most of them stay open late—sometimes even 24 hours. So, plan to grab coffee and breakfast from a convenience store, or sleep in and wait for brunch!
That being said, here’s a quick rundown of where I ate and what I did in Shinjuku.
Places to Eat
Ichiran – Quick but delicious and customizable ramen. For dinner, after a long flight and feeling very jet-lagged, this was our first stop—and only steps away from our hotel. Like most ramen shops, orders are placed through a cash-only ticket machine. You can find locations throughout Tokyo, and during lunchtime, you will likely see lines out the door.
Tatsunoya – If you’re fan of tsukemen (aka dipping noodles), you must go. Full stop.
Kameya – Located in Omoide Yokocho, this small corner shop is simply row of stools where you can sit down and enjoy a bowl of noodles. They are known for their Ten-Tama Soba, which is soba topped with vegetable tempura and a hard-boiled egg. It’s only ¥420—that’s under $4 USD.
Curry House CoCo Ichibanya Halal – If you’re in the mood for some traditional Japanese curry, and a quick meal, this is the place to go. Much like Ichiran, it’s only a few steps away from Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. It’s a chain, so you can easily find them throughout Tokyo.
Eggslut – I admit, we stumbled upon this one and went in purely for the name (who wouldn’t). And it lived up to the name. It was a cozy breakfast spot for the perfect egg sandwich. Bonus: It’s attached to a bakery called Boul’ange, so you can take some yummy pastries to-go.
Mister Donut – Great choice for a Japanese donut, particularly the mochi kind!
Kakekomi Gyoza – Craving gyoza? Step into this izakaya-style restaurant with the most interesting and beautiful interior for endless plates of gyoza. The order experience is super simple as you order off an iPad, similar to the conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Be warned there will likely be a wait!
Things to Do
Shopping – Mylord and Lumine Est are both multi-level malls for shopping and dining, connected to Shinjuku Station. Perfect for a rainy day, which I experienced. You can also find pretty much any major brand store you’re looking for.
Robot Restaurant – An unforgettable (and indescribable) spectacle with stunning mechanical robots, colorful dancers, psychedelic lights and music. Tip: If you’re already booking on Expedia, you can save up to 45 percent off activity prices, and that includes Robot Restaurant tickets.
Explore the alleyways – At night, head down to Omoide Yokocho or Golden Gai for small bars and eating with the locals. Just be aware some have a cover charge and a few do not allow foreigners.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – If it’s a nice day, stroll through the beautiful park!
2. Harajuku + Shibuya
One of my absolute favorite areas of Tokyo was Harajuku and Shibuya, the two basically overlap but are very distinct in their own ways. As an avid foodie and shopper, they were my haven for all of it. To me, Shibuya is more mainstream and high-end, while I found Harajuku to be more quirky and boutique-style.
Most will associate Harajuku with Takeshita Street, which is not to be missed with its famous Harajuku fashion stores and endless crepe stands. But what really captured my attention was all of the streets behind Takeshita Street, the winding roads lined with crowded buildings filled with various stores and restaurants. They’re stacked on top of each other, or hidden between and behind buildings, like Sakura-Tei, the cook-it-yourself Okonomiyaki restaurant. (Trust me, I’m even surprised I found it.)
Places to Eat
Micasadeco & Café – A cute café situated atop of a shoe store that offers delicious fluffy pancakes and cute latte art.
Sakura-Tei – If you don’t know what Okonomiyaki is, it’s a Japanese savory pancake; and here you can literally make your own. Each of the tables have their own hot plate where you can mix together your ingredients and cook right then and there. Super fun!
Eddy’s Ice Cream – Trendy, colorful ice cream cones with adorable sweet toppings. Do it for the ‘gram.
Angel Crepes – You can’t leave Harajuku without trying one of their crepes on Takeshita Street. My crepe stand of choice was Angel Crepes, but you honestly can’t go wrong with any of them. I indulged in a special autumn crepe filled with pumpkin custard pudding.
Genki or Uobei – There is no shortage of conveyor belt sushi in Tokyo! Genki Sushi is one of the more popular choices in Shibuya, but you can also check out Uobei, which offers the same experience. Who wouldn’t want their sushi delivered on a mini train right to you and into your mouth?
Things to Do
Shopping – And I mean, shopping. There are simply too many stores to list, so here are some notable places that I enjoyed: Harajuku Cat Street, including the backstreets surrounding Takeshita Street, Alice on Wednesday, KIDDY LAND, Laforet Harajuku (look for the iconic mirrored entrance), Atmos, SHIBUYA 109, Tokyu Department Store, Disney Store, and LOFT Shibuya for some great souvenirs.
Animal Cafés – By now, you can find cat cafés in most cities in America; but in Tokyo, it’s not just cats you can visit in a café, there are owls, and even hedgehogs. For me, I chose to visit Mame-Shiba Café in Harajuku. That’s right, for thirty minutes of my afternoon, I got to sit and pet small Shiba dogs. ‘Nuff said.
Shibuya Scramble Crossing – Chances are you’ve already seen Tokyo’s most iconic intersection, but it’s another experience crossing along with hundreds of people. There’s a Starbucks located right above it that’s great for people-watching. It’s said you can see upwards of 1,000 people crossing the intersection at a time.
Tōgō Shrine – Tucked behind all of the hustle and bustle of Harajuku’s Takeshita Street, you can find a small, peaceful shrine. It’s a wonderful place to take a quiet break, and see some beautiful koi fish.
Yoyogi Park – If you have a sunny day, take a walk through Yoyogi Park and visit Meiji Shrine. Because there were a lot of rain days during my trip, I didn’t get a chance to, but it’s on my list for next time!
Odaiba surprised me, because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was where teamlab Borderless was located, and that we’d have to take a few trains to get there, but in the end, I discovered there was way more to it. Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, known for being a popular shopping and entertainment district; and with the amazingly futuristic architecture of the buildings there, it certainly shows.
I spent half the day here, but it could have easily turned into a full one. Here are some of the things I recommend.
teamlab Borderless – This interactive museum is often at the top of many recommendation lists, and for good reason. I had my doubts initially, but the hype is real! The only way to truly understand, is by experiencing it yourself. Five stars.
VenusFort – Not far from teamlab Borderless is a quirky mall decked out in European-style decor. It makes you wonder if you’re in Italy instead of Tokyo. But not to worry, once you step into the food court you’re reminded of where you are. One of my favorite things was finding a 100 yen shop, filled with affordable but quality souvenirs.
DiverCity Tokyo Plaza – Another giant mall if you’re looking for recognizable brands, lots of souvenirs, or a bite to eat.
Gundam Statue – Located outside of DiverCity is a giant Unicorn Gundam Statue, and it’s an experience all on its own. In fact, during certain times, it puts on a small show, transforming to music and lights. But the real appeal is that it’s built to scale. And it’s massive.
Tokyo Mega Web – I don’t consider myself a car person by any means, but it was still cool to see all the new Toyota models on display. Apparently you can even test drive some of them!
4. Akihabara + Ikebukuro
Akihabara and Ikebukuro are two very separate areas, but I’ve grouped them together because they’re prime spots for a particular kind of shopping—for anime goods and electronics. Akihabara is known as “Electric Town” for its vast offering of electronics, and I’m pretty sure you could find anything you could ever be searching for here. And the way it lights up at night is truly electric. There was so much to see in these two areas, I was actually somewhat overwhelmed because I simply did not have enough time to dig through all of the stores. But when I go back, they will be among the first places I return to.
But there are a few things to do I can definitely vouch for.
Yodobashi Camera – There are a lot of multi-level shopping malls I’ve referenced, but Yodabashi Camera is on a whole other level. They have every possible type of goods you can imagine, from beauty products to home appliances to games to toys to music to fashion—I can go on. It’s incredible to see everything imaginable in one space.
Don Quijote – One of the biggest discount stores in Tokyo, and similar to Yodobashi Camera, in that you can find almost anything. This is where I stocked up on Japanese snacks and candies to take home.
Arcades – The giant SEGA building is the most notable, but there are endless opportunities for multi-player games, crane games, and more. I sunk far too many ¥100 coins trying to win cute stuffed animals.
Sunshine City – Located beside the East Ikebukuro Central Park, you can find a huge indoor complex that contains shops, restaurants, an aquarium, a planetarium, museum, indoor theme parks, and the Sunshine Prince Hotel. If you’re a big Pokémon, you have to check out the Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo!
Animate Ikebukuro – Eight floors of anime and manga goodness! Nearby there is also a café that rotates themes in collaboration with popular series.
Mitaka city sits just outside of central Tokyo, and was one of the farthest areas I visited. In the beginning, I traveled here purely to visit the Ghibli Museum, a must-see for fans of the Studio Ghibli films. It’s so popular that tickets often sell out months in advance, so you have to get on them quickly. However, once I arrived, it become one of my favorite locations, as it’s less crowded and quiet and it feels much more homey than the larger-than-life essence of the bigger areas in Tokyo.
It’s around a half-hour ride on the metro from Shinjuku Station to Mitaka Station, and then around a fifteen-minute walk from the station to the museum. While a bit of trek, you can spot fun Totoro sign markers along the way, signifying how far the museum is, and you get a nice view of where the locals live.
The Ghibli Museum is as whimsical and magical as fans of the animated films might expect. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photos inside the building (you can outside and on the rooftop), but I found it allowed you to really focus on the exhibits and the overall experience, rather than desperately trying to get the perfect photo op. One of the best parts of the museum—besides the gift shop—was that with your ticket you were able to view a short, exclusive film animated by Studio Ghibli. And, of course, eating at the Straw Hat Café where you can indulge in entrees and desserts that are hat-tips to food you might recognize in the Studio Ghibli films. Note: They only allow you take pictures of the food, not the interior.
When you’re here you can also have a nice, calm stroll around Inokashira Park, which runs alongside the museum. And, if animal cafés are your thing, there is a small bird café nearby, named Kotori Cafe Kichijoji.
If walking isn’t your style, there is a bus that can easily take you from the station to the museum, and back!
Honorable Mention: Tokyo Station
While it’s not a destination per se, it’s something you could certainly spend a whole day exploring, if you wanted to. Tokyo Station is basically an underground city, filled with tunnels and tunnels of shopping and eating. There are three main “streets” to explore: Ramen Street, Character Street, and Kitchen Street. Ramen Street is exactly what it sounds like, a whole long section dedicated to every kind of ramen your heart could ever desire. Character Street is where you can find cute character goods like Pokémon, Hello Kitty, Studio Ghibli, Gudetama, Shonen Jump, Ultraman, and way more. Kitchen Street was mainly more restaurants beyond just ramen and a ton of counters selling all sorts of sweets and souvenir food. There’s also a shopping complex called Daimaru where you can find luxury goods and more food.
Tips for Tokyo
- Cash! Cash! Cash! – Make sure you have an affordable way to take out cash, because you’ll be doing it a lot. While there are some places like popular tourist spots, or major shopping outlets, that do take credit card, most times it’s cash only.
- Get a Suica card at the station – There are options for purchasing a JR Rail Pass, but if you’re only staying around Tokyo like I was, a Suica card will get you everywhere you need to go on the metro lines.
- Purchase a pocket Wi-Fi – This was a game changer. Instead of having to download offline maps, or rely on picking up Wi-Fi in random spots, this allowed me to have constant access to the Internet, and as a result, Google Maps at all times. It saved me from getting lost a few times! You can also arrange to have the pocket Wi-Fi shipped directly to your hotel and it’ll be there waiting when you arrive.
- Bring a back-up battery for your devices – Because of the wonders of a pocket Wi-Fi, and how many photo and video ops they are, you can drain your phone battery pretty quickly. It’s good to be carrying around a back-up for a quick charge, just in case.
- Have a Plan B and Plan C – Often times I found myself at a restaurant that was too crowded or we ended up on the other side of town. Or we were dealing with unexpected elements like rain that forced us to change our plans. By having a few options on my list to reference, it was easy to make a quick alternate decision that was just as good!
- Be prepared to wait – A lot of places, especially the popular ones or ones with limited seating, will have waits. But I found that lines move quickly in Tokyo, so often it was worth having a bit of patience. In many restaurants, the general etiquette is not to linger and socialize. You eat your meal and you depart, and this is what keeps lines moving fast, I’ve realized.
- Go where the locals go – My greatest tool for discovering where the locals went was researching through Instagram hashtags. I started with Tokyo-related hashtags and then quickly went down a rabbit hole of browsing through photos that caught my eye. From there I was able to go deeper into location tags and find restaurants or photo-worthy spots to save and hunt down later on Google Maps.
What’s on your itinerary for Tokyo?