Tokyo is a bucket-list destination—like Paris or Rio or Iceland—and it seems so otherworldly from our quadrant of the globe. On one hand, it’s got all these long-standing traditions. Of course you want to encounter shrines, sumo wrestlers, and geishas, but slow your roll. Don’t turn it into a check-list trip.
On the other, Japan seems so futuristic. We regard the country for its technological advancements, like the compact disc or the bullet train, and our vision of Tokyo is that of a towering, sprawling, glowing, pulsing dreamscape: LED animations march across skyscrapers; teenage girls dress up like Anime characters; you can pet owls and hedgehogs in numerous cafes across town; and it’s like your expectations are a hybrid of Lost in Translation and an alternate version of Blade Runner.
So how do you plan a trip? How do you even wrap your head around it all? In short: You won’t. You won’t even scratch the surface. But you can surrender yourself to the city in the right manner, which will give you an accurate idea of its many moving parts.
This guide won’t give you a step-by-step itinerary for that reason, but it will outline how to structure your trip, so you leave feeling satiated—and all the more informed for your next trip.
Quick note: You can’t use Google Maps’ Offline Mode in Japan (though there’s WiFi everywhere). Either get a Japanese SIM card, or designate someone with the best international plan as your navigator for the weekend. Also, pay attention to how nobody speaks on the subway, and how there are no public garbage bins. It’s as if people respect the sanctity of public spaces… novel, we know. Make sure you follow suit.
The Best Trip-Planning Services to Book in Tokyo
There are two approaches you can take to planning your trip. The first is to prioritize access, and the second is to prioritize efficiency.
For Access: InsideJapan Tours
For guided activities and unparalleled immersion, point yourself to InsideJapan Tours. They give you day, weekend, and/or week-long itineraries when you book their trips. You decide, as it’s all tailored to your tastes. This is how I went to a mesmerizing sumo wrestling practice (which included the recent top-dog Kisenosato Yutaka), meandered a fish market with a local, and took a soba-noodle-making class. InsideJapan Tours has a network of local experts who grant you access to local artisans, museums, businesses, neighborhoods, performers, and more. (It’s also how we met some geishas and maikos in a private tea ceremony in Kyoto.) You can book small group tours, private excursions, and even get self-guided itineraries. They’re the right people to go to with the question “Where the heck do I even begin?!” Together, you’ll discuss the aspects of Tokyo and Japan you want to experience.
For Ease and Efficiency: Noken
For an expandable self-guided itinerary (and to save hours on trip planning), you should book with Noken. It’s a travel service that curates your entire itinerary, from hotel to activity and transportation reservations. They take into consideration how many days you’re spending in each city, as well as your budget level, and they charge nothing off the top of any reservations. Despite this precise customization, your itinerary is entirely free; the only fee to Noken is $5 per day, per person of use. This includes in-app customer support for any hurdles you might encounter along the way. (Imagine if you only paid a travel planner $90 for two people for one week of travel, including customer support.) Because Google Maps doesn’t work offline in Japan, Noken is perfect because it works like a travel guide, directing you to the best restaurants, bars, museums, and shops. As for sightseeing, it offers history and context every step of the way, too. Their regional experts continually refresh the picks too, so it’s always up to date. (Noken is available for travel to Japan, Portugal, Iceland, and Italy. They’re soon expanding their offering to include Ireland, Australia, Peru, and more.)
Where to Stay in Tokyo
Where you stay in Tokyo matters more than in other cities. For one, if you want reservations and recommendations for the best restaurants, then your concierge knows exactly where to send you—better than any friends can suggest. This is doubly important because many restaurants are unmarked from the street, and they won’t take you without a reservation made by a local. (Some won’t take any tourists at all.) Furthermore, many top-tier hotels in Tokyo pride themselves for their A+ food and social offerings, as you’ll notice in the lineup below.
Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo
Consistently listed as one of the top luxury hotels in the world, Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, just finished renovating its 179 guestrooms, proving that it has no intentions of stepping down from the top. It’s nestled very centrally in commercial/business district Nihonbashi, which makes it easy to access every other corner of the city, but also provides you with one of the notoriously best views of the whole city, at sunrise and sunset. You can see Mt. Fuji in the distance, though you really can’t see where the city ends; it’s a humbling perspective. Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, is also regarded for having one of Tokyo’s most luxurious spas, and its dozen or more onsite dining options are worth a stay alone—or worth a reservation, if you’re staying elsewhere. My favorites are Sushi Shin by Miyakawa, the exquisite and full-course Cantonese fare at Sense, and the godsend that is The Pizza Bar on 38th, since my palate was craving brick-oven gold after weeks of eastern eats. Be sure to sneak downstairs to The Mandarin Oriental Gourmet Shop, too, and devour your treats in your room, while soaking up Tokyo from the clouds.
Tucked quietly between the bustle of Harajuku and Shibuya, TRUNK wants your stay in Tokyo to be an engaging and inspiring one. You’ll notice, upon entering, that there’s lots creative and social energy oozing through the ground floor of the 15-room boutique luxury hotel. There might be a DJ or live musician; there’s probably a business meeting or two; and small crowds gather at the bar. People make their way into and out of Kushi for a skewered dinner, and the TRUNK Kitchen bistro at all hours of the day. You’ll love the breakfast setting in the restaurant, which feels very un-hotel like. TRUNK’s many guestroom configurations fit 1-6 people in homey spaces you’ll want to replicate for your own home, including the hotel’s Living Suite, which features a master bedroom, a separate lofted sleeping space for additional guests, an L-shaped bar counter, and a ceiling projector perfect for your own movie nights.
Park Hyatt Tokyo:
You might know this as the filming location of Lost in Translation, which gives a very accurate depiction of the cinematic Park Hyatt (albeit in the early 2000s). You can ponder your existence with sprawling views from Shinjuku, be it in your luxurious room or suite (of which there are 177), in the enormous top-floor pool (with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows), or from the stately New York Grill—serving the best cuts of beef—or while savoring contemporary Japanese at Kozue. Whether you stay there or not, you need to wind down with a cocktail and live music at the New York Bar. (Check out Park Hyatt Tokyo’s many dining and drinking options.) Of all the places I’ve stayed in Tokyo, this one felt the most surreal—perhaps thanks to the film, but all expectations were exceeded.
Hoshino Resorts OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka:
It’s no secret that Tokyo is an expensive city, and your biggest hurdle to visiting Japan may be the cost of accommodations. Hoshino Resorts OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka is a way around that, with little pomp and lots of hospitality. The hotel, just 15 or 20 minutes north of Shinjuku in Otsuka, has loft-style rooms that give you a living and sleeping space in one. It’s a hotel that draws some inspiration from hostels (don’t worry; only the good parts): You might meet fellow travelers in the lobby and chat over coffee, or while doing laundry if you’re in the middle of a long trip. You can hire out one of the staff for a neighborhood tour, or book one of their pre-organized ventures around Otsuka, be it a detoxifying tea crawl, or tipsy karaoke. But all the hotel perks are still there—private rooms and bathrooms, the ease of coming and going, mature and respectful clientele, fresh-made meals from the kitchen, and a location right off a well-connected subway line. The city is still at your fingertips.
Tokyo Neighborhood Guide
- Shibuya: The “Times Square” of Tokyo. You already know it for Shibuya Crossing, which is the largest pedestrian crossing in the world—and certainly the brightest-lit one, too. But Shibuya has everything you need for your Tokyo hazing, from infinite easy dining options to photo booths packed with teenagers…and tourists like you.
Highlights: Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, Tokyu Hands department store, Cat Street (there are no cats, sadly)
- Ebisu + Daikanyama + Nakameguro: A calmer take—the Brooklyn to NY’s Manhattan, if you will—where many of Tokyo’s young creatives live, freelance, and open shop.
Highlights: Meguro River strolling, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Yebisu Garden Place commercial complex, Okura for indigo duds, Tsutaya Book Store (Go upstairs to the middle building and relax with a book and a coffee; it’s stunning.)
- Ginza: High-end shopping and cozy cocktail bars.
Highlights: Kabuki-Za theatre (for Kabuki, of course), Ginza Mitsukoshi, and Matsuya Ginza department stores
- Harajuku, Aoyama, and Omotesando: All technically part of Shibuya, these neighborhoods are perfect for a few hours of strolling and window shopping (vintage or upscale).
Highlights: Themed cafés (including, but not limited to, hedgehogs and owls), Takeshita Street, Aoyama cemetery, Nezu Museum.
- Roppongi: Another commercial center, with glossy skyscraper cities, as well as art museums and a pulsating nightlife.
- Shinjuku: Best known for Kabukicho entertainment district (think arcades, red lights, and karaoke, then magnify it times 1,000).
Highlights: Robot Restaurant (seriously, book it. It’s not really a restaurant, though…), Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Golden Gai bar hopping
Highlights: The National Art Center, Mori Art Museum, and the ginormous Roppongi Hills (often called “a city within a city”)
- Nihonbashi: Tokyo’s more traditional commercial center. Come to buy authentic paper, ceramics, dolls, knives, textiles, and more. Stay for a fancy dinner.
Highlights: Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi department store—take a stroll west to the Imperial Palace (which is technically not in Nihonbashi, but accessible from it)
- Asakusa: For authentic goods (including savory street eats) and a more traditional side of Tokyo, visit Asakusa and its residents.
Highlights: Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo Skytree
Where to Eat in Tokyo
It’s silly to even attempt to recommend restaurants to you. Besides the excellent onsite options at the hotels above, however, here are a few of our favorites, structured around the most quintessential Japanese eats:
- Ramen: AFURI and Ichiran have multiple locations in the neighborhoods you’ll be visiting
- Soba: Tamawarai in Shibuya, for some cold-soba slurping
- Sushi: Uobei Sushi for conveyor-belt delivery (with a high-speed gimmick of a twist)
- Tempura: Uchitsu has two Michelin stars for its fried fare. Two! Reserve your spot in Ebisu to try it for yourself
- Yakitori: Barbecue chicken in the round in Roppongi at Nanbantei will skewer your soul
- Tonkatsu: Maisen in Aoyama/Harajuku is great for a midday breaded pork fix. Come alone if you have to, and eat at the bar next to all the locals
- Okonomiyaki: Get your savory pancakes at Suzume no Oyado in Shibuya
- Wagyu/Kobe: Steaks aplenty at Rokkasen in Shinjuku
- Gyoza: Shibuya’s Gyoza Bar Comme a Paris will stuff you like a dumpling
- Yakiniku: You’ve never been so excited to grill your own dinner. Do it at Matsunaga in Ginza
- Udon: Shin in Shinjuku is your final noodle fill
- Yuba: Umenohana in Ginza is a tofu-lover’s dream
The Best Overnight Trip From Tokyo
After the sensory overload that is Tokyo, you might need a decompression day. That’s a great excuse to book one night at the mountainside glamping retreat that is HOSHINOYA Fuji. (You may have encountered their Tokyo urban retreat in town.)
You’ll have seen Mt. Fuji from the city, but the view pales in comparison to the front-row seat you get from HOSHINOYA Fuji. Each of their simplistic, calming, concrete cabins looks out over Lake Kawaguchi, for the most breathtaking sunrise of your life. (You can also arrange a sunrise canoe excursion to further enhance the spectacle.)
Unlike all of the logistics of Tokyo, everything is taken care of here. From afternoon whiskey tastings (and wood chopping! And s’more making!), to full-course, seasonal dutch-oven dinners, to afternoon hikes, to evening film screenings and live music… it’s a total unwind. Best of all, the minimalist lodgings are the perfect framing to savor the serenity—and that view. Better yet, soak it all in with some in-room breakfast, or on your heated outdoor balcony heating. This is the antithesis to chaotic Tokyo, in a way only Japanese hospitality can manage, and the best way to end your trip.