The perfect three-day itinerary for Tokyo, Japan for first time visitors

By Martina Lucchini, an expat gone local in Tokyo, Japan, who works in the food and wine industry and loves to help travellers unravel this crazy capital.

Edited by Elodi Troskie


Tokyo is full of contradictions that work very well together. Within a 15-minute train ride, you’ll see many different sides of the city, from old neighbourhoods and shopping streets to modern architecture and post-war shops. Unlike a city like New York, Tokyo has a lot of green space. I like to think of Tokyo as a piece of time travel immersed in nature. What I love about Tokyo is that you’ll never run out of things to do. You can find some sort of social event, concert or exhibition on any given day. Japan is one of the safest countries to travel alone in the world, so solo travellers are in luck – one of the many reasons to visit Tokyo.

Day 1: An introduction to Tokyo’s diversity

Morning: A walk through the city


First things first: buy a Tokyo metro pass so you don’t need to stress about transport during your three days in Tokyo. You can buy a three-day pass for about 1500 Yen. Start your city tour at the Yasukuni Jinja, a shrine that commemorates the warriors who died in the Boshin War and the First Indochina War. This spot is especially nice during the autumn months when the park is coated with red maple leaves, and in spring, when a big variety of flowers are in bloom. Next, take a stroll to the imperial palace. Unfortunately, you can’t enter the palace, but the Eastern Garden can be visited for free, a sight the Japanese are very proud of. If you still have time, take the 10-minute walk to Tokyo Station, a 1914 building surrounded by glass skyscrapers – a perfect example of the city’s contradictory style I mentioned earlier. If you’re looking for a cool photo opportunity, climb to the 7th floor of the Marunouchi department store, where you’ll have a beautiful view of the station.

Afternoon: A real Japanese lunch


While you’re in the Marunouchi area, you can stay for lunch at one of the many restaurants in the district. Alternatively, head over to the Asakusa area in downtown Tokyo where you can try your palette at the local street food stalls in the small street, Nakamise. Or what about a more entertaining lunch – perhaps at the Cat Café where you can enjoy your meal in the company of feline friends. Visit the Tokyo Edo Museum to learn more about the city’s history and evolution from the oldest time to modern days. At only 500 Yen, entrance to the museum won’t break the bank. Next, take the train to Kiyosumi Garden, one of the nine Japanese gardens under the protection of the government. This park isn’t very well-known among tourists, making it a quiet and peaceful spot surrounded by Japanese pine trees, birds and koi fish.

Evening: A peaceful dinner followed by a beer tasting


The Ebisu area is lesser known to foreigners, so it won’t be packed with tourists. The big square is surrounded by department stores and restaurants, giving you many options for a relaxed dinner. If you’re eating on a budget, a good option is Kinnotorikara, a very affordable restaurant known for their delicious, crispy chicken. You won’t find better chicken anywhere in Tokyo. While you’re there, visit the Museum of Yebisu Beer, where you can taste all the latest products at the museum’s bar after learning about their origin. For 500 yen, you can get a guided tour of the museum with a tasting included. Unfortunately, the tour is only conducted in Japanese, but an English brochure is available to keep you up to speed. The Yebisu Premium beer is a crowd favourite!

 

Day 2: Exploring street food

Morning: breakfast in the park


Visit the Yanaka Ginza market, one of Tokyo’s best shopping streets located in a relatively quiet area with a rustic, old town vibe. This is also a popular hangout spot for locals who live in the area, so you’ll really get a feel of the everyday way of living. After this, you can walk to the Nezu Shrine. It’s interesting to pay attention to the difference between temples and shrines, since temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto. Next, head over to the large Ueno area, where you can explore the Ueno Park. The park is walking distance from the Yanaka area, so no need to worry about transport. I especially recommend this during the spring to see those beautiful cherry blossoms that come to mind when picturing Japan. If you’re interested in history and art, you’ll find a wide array of both Japanese and Western art collections here that are regularly updated. Grab breakfast at one of the many street food stalls nearby and enjoy a relaxing morning among the park’s greenery.

Afternoon: street food and shopping


Stick around the Ueno area to enjoy a budget-friendly street food lunch. This is one of the biggest street food areas in Tokyo, so it’s the perfect opportunity for an authentic cultural cuisine experience. If street food isn’t really your scene, you can opt for one of the many smaller cafes. Take the Yamanote Line, probably the most convenient way of getting around the Tokyo, to the Sunshine City department store in the Ikebukuro area. The huge Pokémon store and aquarium inside the store makes this great for those travelling with kids. Take the same line to go explore Takeshita street – a large shopping street where you’ll find fashion boutiques and an extended variety of cafes and restaurants (the latter not a surprise anymore!). The shops in this street are open daily from 11:00 until 20:00. Apart from the local traders, there are also a few international chain stores like McDonald’s and 7-Eleven.

Evening: Shabu-shabu with a side of Japanese architecture


The Omotesandō area will make for a very pleasant late afternoon and dinner. Those who enjoy art and architecture will find the Omotesandō Hills department store’s unique design very interesting. Walk down Cat Street to Shibuya where you can admire the neighbourhood’s beautiful houses while having a dinner experience at the Nabezo restaurant you won’t easily forget. Nabezo is known for having perfected Shabu-shabu, a traditional Japanese dish consisting of thin sliced meat boiled in water with vegetables. It’s not every day you see your restaurant meal being cooked right in front of you. The dining experience is very personal and the service is great. This is a very affordable meal – a bonus!

Morning: breakfast at a local hub


Take a morning stroll around Shinjuku, an area popular among the younger locals. Unless you want something to drink, however, there isn’t much to see. A cosy budget-friendly breakfast spot in this area is Doutor Coffee Shop, where you can pick up a takeaway to enjoy in the Shinjuku Gyoen Garden. This is the largest park in the district and is open every day from 09:00 to 16:00. It’s likely to stay open longer during spring months, when cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the park becomes a popular Sakura viewing spot. If you visit the park during March, April or May, you can expect big crowds for most of the day, so try to get an early start to avoid the heavy flow of flower-viewers. Of course, if you’re looking to make friends with fellow travellers, you’ll enjoy the social scene!

Afternoon: digital Tokyo


Have lunch in the neighbourhood and challenge yourself to find a place lesser known – something really Japanese. A few suggestions are Yakitori Place, Kichikoji City and Iseya Yakitori. For a cultural afternoon activity, I would suggest going to the Digital Art Museum. Trust me: this will blow your mind. This is the biggest interactive digital art institution in the world and even if you’re not really interested in the digital world, you’ll be amazed at the art that can be created with nothing more than computer data. The images are interactive with guests, for example animals made of flowers projecting on the wall and moving in reaction to touch. This museum is huge and the scenery drastically changes almost every few minutes. Tickets are limited, though, so I recommend you book at least a week in advance. A definite must-visit when in Tokyo.

Evening: ending on a high note


What’s a trip to Japan without sushi? Conclude the last day of your trip by treating yourself to a rooftop dinner at Aqua City Odaiba’s department store’s all-you-can-eat buffet sushi. This is some of the best sushi you’ll find in the city! If sushi’s not really your scene, don’t worry. There are plenty of restaurants in Aqua City Odaiba and you can find anything from ramen to pub food to Italian to grilled meat. You can expect to pay a little more than at these restaurants than you would at the street food stalls, but if you’ve been sticking to the budget recommendations so far, you can splurge a bit on your last night! For an after-dinner drink, you can head to one of the bars in the complex. With Tokyo’s skyline as your nightcap view, your last image of Tokyo will definitely be one of the coolest.

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