Tokyo In One Day - The Ultimate 24 Hour Itinerary

By Kenji Kitabayasho, who swapped the rice paddies of Akita for the bright lights of Tokyo for university, and is still here 20 years on.
Edited by Kathryn Foley

Tokyo is a city of contrasts. Between ancient and ultra-modern, natural and artificial, western and eastern, hyper- advanced technology and a human touch, contemporary and traditional. If you only have 24 hours in Tokyo, experiencing this contrast is the one thing you should focus on, it’s the only way you can see the city as it really is. No Tokyo in one day could ever include more than a few of its most famous attractions, so forget about racing all over the city to tick off every Tokyo must see in one day place from your list. Instead, spend your one day in Tokyo soaking up this intoxicating contrast; you won’t find it anywhere else in the world. Even a city of madness which never seems to slow down, there are still pockets of tranquility where you can connect with the spiritual and traditional aspects of Tokyo. Tokyo in 24 hours doesn’t need to be a manic experience, instead, revel in its opposites and know that however short your trip, you’ve experienced it authentically.

Morning

Tokyo has deceptively more green spaces than you might think. People always picture the madness of Shibuya Crossing or neon-soaked neighbourhoods like Shinjuku, but the vast Yoyogi Park will breath new life into your image of the city. So to begin your 24 hours in Tokyo, this is where you’ll start the day. To be exact, at Meiji Jingū, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the former Emperor Meiji and his Empress which is found within the wooded parkland of Yoyogi - a dense forest inside an even denser city. Coming to a shrine in the morning to pray for a good day is a Japanese custom which is still practiced by many people, and something you’ll be able to observe if you come early. But if you don’t come with a local, make sure you read the instructions on how to properly behave at the shrine; there is a way to step up to the gate, to wash your hands, to greet the holy and to pray. As you approach, you’ll be humbled by the truly vast torii gates which you pass under; this symbolises passing from the everyday to the sacred. Learn about the history of the shrine and of the Emperor, then you can explore its beautiful grounds which have wide, flat paths weaving their way around - perfect for a morning stroll.

Lunch

From a moment of tranquility straight into the madness of Takeshita-dōri; your next stop of the day is only a few minute’s walk away, but it feels centuries apart. The epicentre of Harajuku’s youth and fashion culture, Takeshita-dōri is a jungle to anyone not used to it, but it’s cool to come here just to see Tokyo’s fashionistas parading, or browse the shops which are known for their kawai (cute) style. Now it’s time for lunch; which is just a few streets away. Snake your way through the smaller Harajuku streets to Ootoya, a restaurant where they serve traditional Japanese dishes called ‘mothers’ tastes’. It might seem funny to go to such a homey restaurant where the food is what Japanese people would associate with the food their families probably cooked at home amongst the crazy fashion of Harajuku, but that’s the beauty of Tokyo in one day! I usually just eat the standard dish of one main plate like steak or fish, with a rice bowl and a miso soup, it takes you away from the hyper-modern, kawai saturated chaos of Takeshita-dōri.

Afternoon

After lunch, you could spend some more time exploring Harajuku to see Japanese fashion culture, heading towards Omotesando Hills, a huge, sleek and of course - in true Japanese style - futuristic shopping complex which was designed by the world famous Japanese architect “Ando”. Omotesando is an upmarket shopping street which runs into Takeshita-dōri at one end, but to call it a street would be an understatement. It’s a wide boulevard, known jokingly as the Champs-Élysées of Tokyo! Both the road itself and Omotesando Hills are home to countless luxury brands, but if you’re not into high end, designer shopping (window or otherwise), exploring the smaller backstreets is always fun. Now get ready for Tokyo’s biggest assault, Shibuya Crossing. This intersection is probably the most instantly recognisable place in the whole city, and without a doubt on everyone’s list of things to do in Tokyo regardless of how long you have here. Shibuya is hyper-modern Tokyo at its best. If there was ever an assault to the senses it’s this - it’s the biggest intersection in the world, and the first time you try to navigate it, you won’t be sure how to process the experience.

Afternoon

But something which most people miss when they’re here is the Myth of Tomorrow mural, which is inside Shibuya station. Pop in to the station to see the surreal painting which is splashed over a whole wall - it’s a riot of colour and a bit of a mind bender - you could say it’s just another kind of Shibuya Crossing experience! Now you’re in the station itself, hop on the subway to Ginza, it’s about a fifteen minute journey. Ginza is a neighbourhood known for its swanky bars and upmarket shopping, and it’s also where the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market was. Some of the best (and most expensive - although expensive doesn't necessarily mean best) sushi restaurants are found here. Start with the short stroll to the Kabuki-za Theatre; the building is a reconstruction, but still resembles the traditional style exactly and looks like an old Japanese castle. Kabuki is a classical type of Japanese theatre, which is an elaborate combination of singing, dancing and lavish costumes and make-up. The whole performance is very exaggerated, and if you have time to come back to see one the next day, I would recommend it! There are usually performances in the morning and evening, and each has three stages, so you can either buy a ticket for one stage or all three.

Afternoon

It’s another short stroll to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which has actually closed and moved to another location now, but you can still visit the Tsukiji Outer Market. The iconic wholesale market might have left Ginza, but the outer market is still a fascinating place to explore! The market is really more a collection of narrow lanes in the same block, where the open fronted stores have produce and retail items spilling out onto the pavement, and there is a generous sprinkling of restaurants amongst the shops. From the traditional right back to modern day madness; get back on the subway either at Ginza Station or Tsukiji Station, to Akihabara. This district is even wilder than Harajuku, and is the home of otaku culture. Otaku is used to describe people who are fans of sub-cultures which are uniquely Japanese, like manga, anime and cosplay, but it’s also been labelled in the West as “geek culture”. Akihabara is an explosion of otaku; it’s where you’ll find the famous maid cafes, cosplayers dressed in the wackiest costumes and electronics shops so huge you would have had no idea such places could even exist - until you’ve seen them for yourself!

Afternoon

You have to at least take a peak in this crazy neighbourhood even if you only have 24 hours in Tokyo. For a swift, throw-you-in-at-the-deep-end introduction to otaku, and the place to go if you’re pressed for time is the shopping complex Mandarake. It’s eight floors of absolutely everything and anything to do with anime, gaming, cosplay, dolls, vintage pop culture items, dvds, cds - the list goes on! If that doesn’t sound like your thing, check out one of the monstrous photography and electronics stores in the area instead. From here, it’s a short walk to Akihabara Station, where you’ll find dinner!

Dinner

When it comes to things to do in Tokyo at night, the first item on your agenda has got to be good food - and in Tokyo you’re literally never more than a few steps from an incredible meal. In this area, my favourite place is Tachigui Yakiniku Jiromaru Okachimachi Ten. The name is complicated, but the food is super simple, yet you could also describe it as an art form. Tachigui are restaurants where you stand and eat, which keeps the price of the food reasonable. This tachigui is one of my favourites, as the only thing they serve is Wagyu beef which you grill yourself. The beef is priced according to rank, and there are five different ranks according to the marbling of the meat. The more marble, the higher the rank. I always drink highball, which is a popular local drink of whisky and soda, and the perfect accompaniment to the melt in the mouth beef!

Night

You’ll feel energised after a few rounds of this, and ready for the ultimate Tokyo night out - karaoke! You’ll need to take the subway again, but it’s a short hop back to Roppongi, where you’ll find BAN×KARA Zone, the craziest karaoke bar in the city, where a professional band plays for you! It’s not the typical Japanese karaoke booth experience, where you have your own little room and can order drinks and snacks, and no one but your group can hear you singing, but it’s a super fun night out! If you’d prefer not to share your talent with the world just yet, there are plenty of karaoke booth bars you can choose from, as Roppongi is the city’s buzzing entertainment district and absolutely packed with things to do in Tokyo at night. You might end up not sleeping for a single one of your 24 hours in Tokyo once you get to Roppongi, but at least you know you’ll have made the most of it - but I guarantee you’ll want to stay for another two or three days!

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