I originally posted this in 2017, but try to keep it updated. Last edit: August 2019.
Welcome to the highly biased, but hopefully vaguely useful letsg.ooo Tokyo Guide!
I have lived in Tokyo for years and spent a ridiculous amount of time exploring the twists and turns of its ever-beating heart. I love Tokyo like no other city on earth, because it is like no other city on earth.
Where to Stay
If you want to drop yourself in the heart of it upon arrival, where the neon is endless, I would recommend staying in Shibuya or Shinjuku. Regardless of where you stay though, it’s worth noting that Japan is in the middle of the biggest tourism boom the country has ever experienced…so hotels are running at almost full occupancy. In other words, if you see a room you want to book, grab it while you can!
Cerulean Tower (high end tower)
Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu (mid-range standard)
Hotel Granbell (lower mid-range designer)
You’ll find all the big Western chain hotel names here. Note that most of them are located on the West side of Shinjuku station, which is fine, but it’s a business district so not very exciting in its own right. You have to walk 15 minutes-ish to get to the East side of the station from most of those hotels, where things are more lively. All that said – the Park Hyatt is just as beautiful as you’d expect it to be. And, access is absolutely incredible from Shinjuku – Shinjuku station is literally the busiest train station in the world so you can go anywhere you need to.
Meguro? Not really on the tourist radar, this part of town is home to Hotel Claska. Located on a quiet street in this upscale neighborhood, this was one of the first boutique hotels built in Tokyo, and its charm has not faded. Brilliant place.
Where to Go
I’d say all of these areas are worth a visit:
Section 1: in the guidebooks, but here we go anyway:
- Shibuya: This is a must. Japan’s hub of youth (20-something and up) culture and it overflows with energy. Have you seen “Lost in Translation”? The insanely busy crosswalk that features in that film is here. You don’t really need a destination – just have a wander. There’s a great shop called “Loft” with 8 floors of things you didn’t know you needed, but definitely do.
- Shinjuku: East side of the station. It’s a blur of neon…if Shibuya didn’t overstimulate your brain, this area will. One caveat: part of this area is also Tokyo’s red light district (called Kabukicho) and Japanese people will tell you it’s “not safe.” It’s only not safe by Japanese standards, so you’ll be absolutely fine if you want to have a walk around in the evening. If you are approached by (likely foreign) touts, just brush them off and keep walking.
- Harajuku / Ometesando: There’s two main reasons this is on the tourist maps: one is a street called “Takeshita Dori” that, especially on Sundays, is full of crazy teenagers wearing insane fashion. If you ever wanted a shirt that looks like a stuffed bunny, this is the place for you. The other is “Meiji Jingu” which is a beautiful Shinto Shrine, buried in a mini-forest in the middle of the city. Well worth a visit. Walk a little further and the teenage kitsch of Takeshita Dori turns into refined Omotesando, which is where you’ll find international brand flagships, great restaurants and a popular souvenir shop (there aren’t many in Tokyo) called Oriental Bazaar.
- Asakusa: You will be surrounded by tourists here, because of Sensoji, which is a very popular and impressive Buddhist temple. The area around it is “old Tokyo” and it has a totally different feel vs. the more modern areas. Worth a look, despite the hordes of tourists. Strongly recommend wandering down the little side streets and getting intentionally lost in this area – there are some great tiny restaurants and shops waiting to be discovered.
Section 2: skipped by some guidebooks, which is a shame:
- Daikanyama & Ebisu: Both are next to Shibuya, but worlds away. These are high-end areas (especially Daikanyama) but not stuffy, and excellent to have a stroll through. Ebisu is heavy on great restaurants & bars, Daikanyama is heavy on independent boutiques and gorgeous women walking their tiny dogs. There’s also a place called “T-Site” which includes an amazing branch of Tsutaya Books (including English titles) if you’re in the mood for a break.
- Kagurazaka: I often take visitors to this area when they’re tired of the hustle and bustle that is so much of Tokyo. Sometimes called “Little Paris,” here things are slower, and it’s just a great area to walk around and soak up. I’m not a fan of “walking tours” usually, but I actually vaguely followed this one last year, and it was great.
- Nippori: One criticism I occasionally hear leveled at Tokyo is that it is too “buttoned-up” and doesn’t have any dirt around the edges. Those who think that have never been to Nippori! A great way to take in a slice of old, non-shiny Tokyo is a wander around the area, specifically the beautifully ramshackle shopping street that is “Yanaka Ginza.” There are great food vendors, interesting independent shops and down towards the end of the street, a liquor store that has plastic crates you can sit on outside and enjoy an Yebisu in the sun. Alternatively, if you’re in the mood for a local craft beer, it’s hard to beat August Yanaka Beer Hall, which also makes a great dinner spot.
Places to eat
This section could quickly become a book, so I’ll try to just hit some highlights. Maps included…if you take a taxi, I recommend printing the map out and giving it to them, since taxi drivers rarely a) speak English or b) know where anything is. Sorry…it’s true.
- Tempura: Tempura Abe. Fantastic, hidden tempura restaurant in the swanky Ginza neighborhood (oh, that’s another area worth a look!). It’s a tiny place in the basement, down a side street…might be worth a taxi to this one! Best to ask the concierge for a reservation here. Likely around US $50 a person for dinner, half that for lunch. Map.
- Japanese variety: Sacra. Reasonably priced (perhaps US $30 a person), delicious Japanese place in Ebisu – great place for dinner. Large menu that spans everything from standards like raw fish, grilled chicken skewers, etc. to more unusual, progressive dishes. All small plates, so I recommend ordering a variety of dishes and sharing. Bilingual menu. Map.
- Tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet): Tonki. Classic restaurant in Meguro. About US $20 a person, with English menu available…though there are only two things ON the menu. 1) Rosu (fatty cutlet) tonkatsu or 2) Hire (lean cutlet) tonkatsu. Both are tasty, but “hire” (pronounced “hee-leh”) is my recommendation. Fiendishly popular, and they don’t take reservations, so go early, and be prepared to wait a bit. Map.
- Ramen / tsukemen: difficult to pick one place here – there is so much good ramen and tsukemen (which is like ramen, but with usually cold noodles on a plate that you dip into a separate bowl of broth and then eat) here. For tsukemen, Yasubee is amazing and they have branches in Shibuya and Shinjuku among other places. For ramen…just pick somewhere busy and you won’t be disappointed! You may need to order from a ticket machine when you walk in, then hand the ticket to the staff (the idea is they never have to touch money this way). The vending machine is unlikely to have English explanations, but the staff should help you.
- Sushi: if you like sushi, clearly you should have some in Tokyo…but where to go depends greatly on how much you want to spend. You can spend hundreds on a single meal if you want to…and yes the quality is there to match. If you saw the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi and want to try it out, here’s the website. Note that reservations are required far in advance AND can only be made via a 5 star hotel that you have a reservation at (yes, it’s gotten totally ridiculous at this point). A solid mid-range option is Tsukiji Sushiko – they have locations in quite a few areas of the city and are consistently very good. If you want to go one level higher, I recommend heading to the old Tsukiji fish market area – it’s full of exceptional sushi places, like Sushidai Bekkan – suggest asking your hotel concierge to make a reservation for you.
Places to drink
- I strongly recommend strolling over to “Golden Gai.” It’s a maze of 200-ish tiny tiny bars, all huddled together, each big enough for about 5-10 patrons max. High end it is not, and tourists have certainly discovered it in recent years, but it’s still a very unique slice of Tokyo that always makes for a fun night out.
- Eagle. Chandelier-lit, classic cocktail bar. Don’t let the garish sign outside fool you – this is a classy place. It’s a bit like stepping back in time, actually. Descend down the stairs into this basement enclave and let the attentive bartenders do their thing. I went back and forth about putting this in the “eat” or “drink” section, since they have a very good menu as well. Reservations recommended.
- Did you have dinner at Sacra? If so, there are two great bars literally across the street from it. One is the easy to spot “恵比寿BAR” (Ebisu Bar) – they are part restaurant, part bar, and have a really nice selection of sake and shochu (sake’s delicious & evil cousin). A little harder to immediately spot but still literally across the street is a traditional, classy whiskey/cocktail bar called “Bar 五”. The sign is small and looks like this. It’s in the basement, and the tie & vest wearing bartenders will take care of you. Japanese bartenders are famous for being precise and obsessive about details – this is a good place to watch. Bring your wallet though – cheap it is not.
- Tired of the unfamiliar and just want to sip a Guinness in an Irish Pub for a bit? Fair enough. I’d recommend Dubliner’s, which is on the 2nd floor overlooking a main street and even has a little outdoor patio (rare in Tokyo).
A few random tips:
- Cash is king, and while lots of places will take credit cards, smaller shops and restaurants usually won’t. So, recommend you get some money out when you land at the airport. To make things difficult, the only ATMs that accept foreign cards are 7-Bank (their ATMs are in all 7-11 convenience stores, and free-standing at the airport) and the “Japan Post” post office ATMs. They accept most but not all foreign cards, so wise to bring a couple just in case one isn’t accepted. The largest bill is 10,000 yen, which is a lot. But, don’t worry about carrying lots of cash, or using the biggest bill to pay for an inexpensive item – it’s absolutely normal and no one will blink an eye.
- Japan is extremely safe, so if you see an interesting looking side street, go down it! Even in the middle of the night, you can walk anywhere, and many of the best things are off the main streets anyway.
- This is an odd one, but don’t forget to look up. Especially in the busiest districts, restaurants, bars and shops are piled on top of one another, on the 7th, 8th, 12th floors. So if you keep your eyes at ground level, you can miss out!
- Strongly recommend you pick up a “Suica” train card (available at any Japan Rail station) as soon as you can – Tokyo’s equivalent of London’s Oyster card. Buying individual tickets for the trains/subways etc is very confusing as a first time visitor – just load up your Suica and off you go. It requires a 500 yen deposit. The train/subway system is huge and very efficient, but also confusing at first – I recommend downloading the free “Japan Transit Planner” app (it’s in English) before you arrive, to assist.
- Trains stop running around midnight and start up again about 5am. And taxis are expensive. Uber exists but no one has ever heard of it here and it costs more than a normal taxi…so not your best option. Uber Eats (food delivery) is very useful in Tokyo though…and if you use code “eats-justinb8965ue” you can save some money on your order.
- Consider visiting a 100 yen shop ($1 store)! It’s amazing what you can get for 100 yen, and they’re full of oddities.
- Video game arcades (“game centres” as they are called here) are an experience to behold…even if you wouldn’t normally go to one in your home country. They also have photo booths in them, almost all of which will make your skin look whiter and your eyes look bigger in the photos, like it or not…because that’s just what they do. Bizarre and interesting.
I could go on, but I should probably stop – this is getting quite long. Hope you enjoyed our Tokyo Guide…have a great trip! And if you have any questions before you go, feel free to drop me a line via the “contact” link at the top of the page and I’ll do my best to help. Cheers!