The hype before my trip to Tokyo was pretty crazy. I researched and planned for about 8 months - that's part of the fun though, right? We had a blast and I hope this itinerary helps you plan your Tokyo trip too. Stay tuned for Tokyo food recommendations and recommendations for Kyoto and Osaka.
I don't know if its just me getting old or I've been spoiled by the occasional business class upgrades - I really can't handle sitting in economy seats for more than 8 hours. Our flight to Tokyo was 12.5 hours after a 6 hour layover in Chicago from Washington D.C. If you can, try flying through somewhere in Asia or anywhere mid-way so you can spend the night or at least give your bum and legs a break. The long flight was the only bad experience of the trip.
From Chicago we flew ANA...and that's when the Japanese vibes started.
As soon as we were in the air, the plane crew changed into these cute cherry blossom outfits. I was very amused.
This was our first Japanese meal. Let's just say I've had worse plane food and I usually don't go for the meals but I had to try it...
Soggy panko-crusted shrimp tempura with veggies. Cold noodles in the top right corner, edamame with sweet scrambled egg blocks (not my thing) and a cold potato fish salad. The cold noodles were not bad at all with the soy sauce.
ANA's entertainment system had a small playlist of videos for "foreigners" aka visitors lol with tips on how to behave in Japan. These videos were very informative and accurately describes acceptable Japanese mannerisms and cultural expectations. There were also video clips on key phrases that will help you get around in Japan. It was pretty hilarious too...the "white American foreigner" was depicted as this ignorant/misinformed tourist. For example, the American character wanted to buy a pocket knife as soon as he arrived in Tokyo for "safety reasons". He was told that wouldn't be necessary in Japan (and is illegal) since Japan is much safer than other parts of the world. It was refreshing
Arriving in Tokyo's Haneda Airport
There are two things that you should do as soon as you arrive at the airport.
1) Get a pocket Wifi
Pocket Wifi is a MUST. We really relied on our phones' Google Maps app and Google Translator. Even with our free T-Mobile roaming plan, the standard roaming coverage was terrible and the internet was ridiculously slow. A pocket WiFi will guarantee that you have internet connection everywhere you go. Three of us shared on pocket WiFi and it would last us for a solid 5-6 hours. We carried a battery pack so we can charge it mid-day if we didn't go back to the hotel.
2) Get some cash
Japan is surprisingly still a cash based country. Large stores and restaurants will take credit cards but the majority of places won't. ATMs are mostly accessible in 7-11s (which are literally on every other block), so if you forget to withdraw some cash at the airport, go to a 7-11.
In April 2018, 100 Japanese Yen was equal to .90 USD. I'm not a math guru so I just rounded up to 1 USD and did math in my head that way (or asked my husband to calculate for me haha)
Getting to our Hotel
We kept debating on whether to take the train, bus or taxi to our hotel. We were too exhausted after our long trip to navigate the subway, so we decided to take a taxi. Since we were 3 people and had large pieces of luggage it was worth it for us.
We stayed at the APA business hotel in Shinjuku Kabukicho Tower. Location was key for us. We wanted to have a short walk to the metro and not waste time and money using taxis to get to our destination. The Shinjuku district is almost like Japan's version of Times Square. Bright lights, clubs, restaurants, arcades, bars, and of course a lot of young people. Unliek Times Square though, it was super clean (except for Saturday at 7am when the streets were being cleaned after Friday night's madness) and VERY safe. We never felt unsafe even around 2-4am.
Warning: business hotels in Shinjuku are TINY. New York tiny...many even tinier. If you are willing to pay $200-$300 per night you may get a better sized room somewhere in the city. Most hotels will give you a nice Japanese robe and two sets of slippers (one to use in the room and one for the rest room).
The best thing about our location was having an arcade right under the hotel. We ended our day each night with a few rounds of Mario Kart and/or darts - Mario Kart was addicting and it made us feel like we were back in the 90s.
Japan's public transportation system is AMAZING. All you need is a Pasmo (metro) card and you can literally go anywhere and everywhere. You can even use the Pasmo card to buy goodies from vending machines all over the city. Google Maps is the best way to navigate. You will get detailed steps on how to get to your destination. All metro signage is in English too so it is very easy to follow. Don't be intimidated by how big the stations are.
Any metro machine with the pink Pasmo sticker means you can "recharge" your card there.
Public Transport Etiquette
The below tips are a combination of what we read online before getting to Japan and things we observed when we actually got there. Be courteous and follow the cultural norms. You don't want to be that "foreigner".
Don't touch anyone
Use your inside voice or don't talk at all
Don't talk on your phone
Don't eat or drink
Don't rush into the train or bus. Wait on the sides until all the passengers and done getting off.
Stay in line while waiting for the train or bus, don't just huddle around.
If you are listening to music, use earphones and make sure the volume isn't so loud that everyone around you can hear it.
If you are like me and you need to use the restroom every few hours then you will love Japan. I have never seen a country with such amazing public and private restrooms. They are always clean - I have not seen a single dirty restroom or found toilet paper or water on the floor. I probably used more than 50 while there for 2 weeks and each time I needed the restroom it was pretty easy to find (especially train stations) and it was always free. Most Japanese toilets have a built in bidet - I LOVE THIS. The middle east has the handheld sprays but people never know how to aim and the toilets always get wet - its pretty gross. The fancier toilets will even have a "privacy" button which will play music or waterfall sounds so that you can finish your business without disturbing others or feeling embarrassed.
Things to Do
Before making any check-list, make sure you leave plenty of time to explore. The best part about traveling is wandering the streets and soaking in the culture and atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, I am still a big planner and I don't believe in being spontaneous 100% of the time while traveling, but I always leave room for unplanned fun.
This is a very short list in comparison of what Tokyo has to offer, so definitely do your research and see what other fun things you don't want to miss!
Tsukiji Fish Market
The Fish Market was one of our favorite places. It surprisingly does not smell bad at all. Everything is extremely fresh and work stations are immaculate. There is an indoor market area where wholesalers are - look online for tour times, closed dates, rules and regulations. Tourists are not allowed to go inside before 10am and reservations are required for the famous Tuna Auction. The outdoor market is filled with street vendors and small restaurants and shops. Make sure you go hungry and be prepared to taste a little bit of everything. It's a great opportunity to taste a variety of fresh Japanese seafood and sweets. The more popular sushi placed get super packed. We decided to skip them because we didn't want to wait in lines - plus sushi is amazing all over the city, so its hard to go wrong.
Akihabara - Anime/Electronics District
Anime, Nintendo, Sega, Maga, and everything else in between that I know nothing about....lives here. Although I am not a big tech and gaming fan, my brother and husband had a blast. Endless arcades and tech shops line the streets. Definitely a district you do not want to miss, even if you are not a big anime or tech geek.
Clearly someone was really enjoying themselves here....
Asakusa Temple (Senso-Ji) Yasukuni Shrine
Out of all the temples we visited this was my favorite. The vibrant colors are breathtaking. Read your fortune inside the temple and hang it on the metal rods if its a bad fortune. The street leading to and from the temple is packed with tourist gift shops and ice cream tills. You'll also see young men offering wagon rides - a bit pricey but worth the experience. It was a pleasant ride and a neat way to explore the neighborhoods around the temple.
This shrine's tori gates are very impressive. It's a bit of a walk through the forest trail to get to the temple, but it's a great way to take a break from the city's hustle and bustle. We got lucky the day we were there and watched a traditional Japanese ceremony, and bridal party taking their family photos.
Harajuku - Cos Play Shopping District
There are tons of restaurants and shops in this neighborhood. Its a great area for browsing and nibbling on small snacks. We saw a few anime girls as well - not as many as I thought we would see but I guess that may have been because we were there on a holiday. Don't miss out on the crepe cones! They are everywhere and pretty delicious.
Shinjuku - Entertainment & Business Neighborhood
We stayed in Shinjuku while in Tokyo. It was the perfect place to be because of all the entertainment and restaurants that run late into the night. There is always something to see and do. I would recommend visiting this district once in the day and again at night for a completely different feel.
Shibuya Cross Walk
Biggest crosswalk in the world. It's fun to just stand there and observe the organized chaos. This neighborhood has tons of restaurants and shops to explore as well. Great place for night time activities.
An off the path shrine that has less tourists and more local folks. Each spring the azaleas bloom and attract locals for the yearly festival. We missed the peak bloom but still saw traces of the flowers - it was beautiful.
Financial District and Imperial Palace
The imperial grounds are massive. We didn't have enough time to schedule a tour but would definitely put it on the list for our next visit. We walked across the entrance and explored the financial district surrounding the palace. It is more grand (and cleaner) than any large American or European city). Don't miss Tokyo's oldest train station. Train stations are full of shops, restaurants and things to see.
This was such a pleasant surprise. Japan is full of animal "cafes" where you get to pet "kawai" "cute" animals. I guess its a good stress reliever for the workaholics. People in Japan are overworked and it shows. People on public transportation always look exhausted and are constantly passing out and taking power naps.
This owl cafe does not serve any food. You will learn about the owls then have the opportunity to pet them and hold them. Other cafe options include cat cafes, hedgehog cafes and rabbit cafes.
Cup of Noodles Museum
If you grew up eating cup of noodles, you definitely don't want to miss this museum. You need to take a train out of the city center to get here but it is so worth it! We had such a blast at the museum and absolutely loved learning about the process of how cup of noodles are made. We even got to customize our own cups and take them home! This is also the perfect activity for kids and families.
Tokyo Observation Deck
I was hesitant to spend money for an observation deck, but this one was SO worth it! The Tokyo Government Building Observation Room was an incredible way to see 360 views of the city.