Travelling from South East Asia to Japan is like entering a different world. An efficient, safe and incredibly welcoming world! Tokyo is the entry point for most travellers, and as one of the most populous cities in the world, it can be a bit overwhelming. But once you master the incredibly organized train and subway system, and get used to the crowds, Tokyo is a vibrant and amazing city to explore. Make sure to spend 3 or 4 days here taking in the ancient traditional temples along with the crazy modern themed cafes and restaurants. Try the street food, get some conveyor belt sushi, and squish into an izakaya for a drink! Embrace the organized chaos that is Toyko, Japan.
How to Get There
From the Narita Airport
Most travellers will fly into Tokyo via Narita Airport. Narita Airport is actually 80 km or so east of Tokyo, so you’ll need to hop on a train to get to the city after you land. Here are the three main options, organized by length of trip (shortest to longest):
- Keisei Skyliner – This is the fastest train taking only 41 minutes from the airport to Ueno station in Japan. It also stops at Nippori station. Both of these stations are on the JR (Japan Rail) Yamanote line, which connects you to many of the main areas of Japan, including Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo station. Foreigners can buy tickets online here for 2200 yen, otherwise a ticket costs 2470 yen. You can also pair it with a Tokyo Metro Pass, more information in our Backpacker’s Guide to the Tokyo Train and Subway System here. You have to select the date you want to use the ticket, but you can use it anytime that day. Check out HyperDia for train times. If you buy the ticket online, simply show your confirmation email at the ticket office and you’ll be issued a ticket for the next available train. There is wifi on the train, space to store your luggage, and outlets to charge phones and laptops.
*Note that that the train arrives at Keisei-Ueno, which is a separate building from Ueno station. Leaving Keisei-Ueno, turn left and cross the street; you’ll be able to see signs for JR (Japan Rail) lines. If you’re heading to the airport from Ueno, follow the signs to Keisei Skyliner. They will lead you down an underground passageway, then outside where you’ll cross the street and see the sign for Keisei-Ueno station. Give yourself 10 minutes to switch stations if it’s your first time navigating it, but it should only take 5 minutes if you don’t get turned around.
- JR Narita Express – If you have an active JR Pass, this is the fastest free option for you. The JR Narita express gets you from Narita to Tokyo Station in just under an hour for free if you have a JR Pass (make sure to activate it!) and 2820 yen without the pass. Tokyo Station is on the JR Yamanote line, which connects you to popular stations like Ueno, Shinjuku and Shibuya.
- Keisei Limited Express – This is the most cost effective option, with tickets going for 1030 yen. The train takes 75 minutes to get from Narita to Nippori station. Nippori station is on the JR Yamanote line, which connects you to the rest of Tokyo’s popular train stations including Shinjuku, Tokyo, Ueno and Shibuya.
No matter which train you take, you’ll need to go down to the airport basement (B1) to get on the train. You can purchase tickets on the first floor in both terminals for Keisei Skyliner, or on B1 for all trains.
Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Lines
Japan is very well connected with high speed trains, or bullet trains, called Shinkansen. A lot of these run through Tokyo! They are expensive, but with the JR Pass you can make the costs more manageable. Check out our post on If the JR Pass is Worth it For You! You’ll want to use HyperDia or download their app for Shinkansen schedules. Below is an outline of the Shinkansen lines you’ll most likely use when visiting Japan.
Tokaido Shinkansen Line – Tokyo, Shinagawa, Odawara, Kyoto, Shin-Osaka
- Leaving from Tokyo or Shinagawa station (both located on the JR Yamanote line) with access to Mount Fuji from Odawara, as well as Kyoto and Osaka.
- Kodama train – This is the one you’ll need to take if you’re stopping at Odawara, as the Hikari train doesn’t stop there. From there make your way to Hakone on the bus or local train for views of Mount Fuji! You can get from Tokyo to Odawara in 35 minutes.
- Hikari train – This is the one you’ll want if you’re heading to Kyoto or Osaka, as it gets there much faster! You can get from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka station in 173 minutes on the Hikari train.
- Nozomi train – This is the fastest train on the line, but can’t be used with a JR pass.
Hokuriku Shinkansen Line – Tokyo, Ueno, Nagano, Iiyama, Kanazawa
- Leaving from Tokyo or Ueno (both located on the JR Yamanote line) with access to some amazing skiing in Nagano or Iiyama, and the often passed over city of Kanazawa. Many people will do a day trip to Nagano from Tokyo to see the Snow Monkeys. Iiyama is closest to Nozawa Onsen, a great historical ski town with lots of onsens (hot springs)! Kanazawa is a great city to check out, home to one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens.
- Hakutaka train – This is the only train that stops at Iiyama, as it makes all stops along the Hokuriku line. It is also one of the trains that runs all the way from Tokyo to Kanazawa, but you’ll want to take a faster train if you’re taking it from end to end.
- Kagayaki train – This is the fastest train on this line, and goes all the way from Tokyo to Kanazawa with very few stops (one being Nagano). You can go from Tokyo to Kanazawa is 150 minutes on this train, and from Tokyo to Nagano in 82 minutes.
- Asama train – This train will also get you from Tokyo to Nagano, but makes more stops and takes 110 minutes.
Sanyo Shinkansen – Shin-Osaka, Hiroshima
- This doesn’t leave from Tokyo, but it’s useful if you’re hoping to go from Tokyo to Hiroshima. First you’ll take the Tokaido line (listed above) to Shin-Osaka, and then this Sanyo line to Hiroshima.
- Sakura train – All trains on this line stop at Hiroshima, but Sakura gets from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima the fastest out of all the JR Pass eligible trains, in only 90 minutes.
- Nozomi and Mizuho trains – Both very fast, but neither can be boarded with the JR Pass.
Those are the three lines you will most likely take during your visit to Japan! You can find more info on the JR Pass website here, but be aware there are some typos! (Osawara instead of Odawara, and Liyama instead of Iiyama etc.).
Where to Stay
The most common backpacker areas in Tokyo are Shinjuku and Shibuya. We would also recommend staying in Asakusa near Senso-ji temple, there are cheap, good quality places nearby, and it’s a great neighbourhood. We think the most important thing is to be near a subway/train station, which isn’t too hard in Tokyo.
- Shinjuku Skycapsule Hotel – This was an amazing hostel, and set us up for a perfect start to explore Tokyo and Japan. It is just outside of Shinjuku, only 3 stops or 8 minutes away on the Seibu-Shinjuku line. The trip costs 144 yen with an IC Card. It is located in a quiet, non-touristy neighbourhood, right beside Nakai station. To get to Nakai Station, you’ll need to take to Toei Oedo line from Shinjuku station, or the Seibu Shinjuku line from Seibu Shinjuku station (just across the street north of Shinjuku station). The hostel actually sends you a slideshow with directions and pictures when you book. There are lots of restaurants nearby that stay open late, and are much cheaper than restaurants in the main tourist hotspots. We got a small (standard Tokyo size) but cozy and very clean double room, with a private bathroom, a mini fridge and great wifi for 5100 yen/night and stayed for three nights. We highly recommend this hostel if you’re looking to save some yen! Most places rated the same as Shinjuku Skycapsule Hotel had two dorm beds that cost more than what we paid. You can book a room online here.
- Red Planet Asakusa – We splurged a bit on our last two nights in Tokyo and booked a room at Red Planet Asakusa. We had visited Senso-ji and loved the area, and knew it was a great place to get souvenirs at the end of our trip. Our room was super clean and comfortable, had a rain shower, a mini fridge and a TV for 7402 yen/night for two nights. It had an awesome view of the Tokyo Skytree! The wifi also worked great. This hotel is right beside the Asakusa (Tsukuba) station which gets you to Akihabara on the JR Yamanote line in 5 minutes for 210 yen, or a 7 minute walk to Asakusa station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza line, which gets you to Ueno in 5 minutes for 170 yen. (Yes, there are two Asakusa stations, but they are on different Tokyo subway lines). If you’re looking for a standard hotel feel that’s close to one of the top sights in Tokyo, we highly recommend this hotel. You can book online here.
What to Do
Broken down by area, here are the top spots to see in Tokyo. Use our makeshift map to help you plan out your days:
- Senso-ji Temple – This is the oldest temple in Tokyo, and one of the coolest. Unfortunately that means it’s also the busiest, so we recommend going in the early morning or at night, as it’s never closed. That also means it’s free to visit! The huge lanterns hanging under the entryway are amazing, and the towering pagoda in the complex are worth the visit.
- Nakamise Shopping Street – This is a great area just south of Senso-ji temple to find souvenirs and yummy street food. There’s also a Ganso Zushi restaurant where you can get conveyor belt sushi. Also worth checking out in the area is a massive discount store called Don Quijote (or DONKI) and lots of small Izakaya type pubs along the road on the west side of Senso-ji.
- Kabukicho – Also known as Tokyo’s Red Light District. This is a happening area, with lots of fun bars and restaurants. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you’re surrounded by lit up signs and video boards. It houses a lot of host/hostess bars, maid restaurants, and the famous Robot Restaurant (which is more of an expensive show than a place to eat). You can also see a Godzilla head from the main road overtop of the movie theatre!
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – We unfortunately didn’t make it to this attraction, but we’ve heard rave reviews about one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens.
- Golden Gai – A small area of more grungy Izakayas (or tiny Japanese pubs). It’s a fun place for a few drinks and some yakitori (meat skewers). Note that most places will charge a table fee of 200-500 yen (some expensive ones can be 700!), so make sure to ask about that before sitting down. If there is a table charge, they will also provide a small appetizer for free.
- Memory Lane/Piss Alley – This alley was once known as Piss Alley, as it was the preferred toilet of many drunk Japanese men. Now there’s a public bathroom available in the alley, it doesn’t smell like piss, and it’s been rebranded as Memory Lane. It’s a great place to check out some very small Izakayas, if you can find a seat! Eating and drinking here was one of Devon’s favourite experiences of Tokyo!
- Meiji Shrine – Another amazing shrine in Tokyo, hidden within a big park. This shrine sports the Emperor’s Seal, which is a big deal in Japan. It’s also huge and very cool to see.
- Takeshita Street – This is a crazy, colourful and exciting area with all kinds of shops and restaurants to explore. The area was made popular in the US after Gwen Stefani’s performances with her “Harajuku Girl” backup dancers.
- Kawaii Monster Café – Another one of Tokyo’s cafés that’s more known for it’s themed decor than it’s food. The restaurant is on the 4th floor (4F), you need to take an elevator up. From there you enter “the belly of the monster” and are immersed in a café that could only be found in Tokyo. It costs 500 yen/person to enter, and each person needs to buy a drink and food item. We spent 3800 yen between the two of us, and it was worth the experience.
- Shibuya Crossing – This is the busiest scramble crossing in the world, and is super fun to experience. Make sure to scramble across the road a few times before parking yourself in the Starbucks which overlooks the crossing for an overhead view.
- Hachiko Statue – This statue is dedicated to Hachiko, the famous loyal dog who waited for his owner, the professor, to come home everyday at Shibuya station.
- Hyakkendana district – A 5 minute walk from Shibuya station, this is area is off the main tourist path. It’s known for its hole in the wall restaurants and bars, and for it’s “love hotels”. Love hotels are hotels you rent by the hour and are generally accepted in Japan. Patrons do expect privacy, so almost all love hotels are automated, from choosing a room via a button outside, to paying for the room via a vending machine. Head here for a drink or bite to eat, and to explore the area.
- Imperial Palace – The majority of the grounds are off limits to the public as it is still the residence of the current emperor. You can walk around south of the moat, or head to the East Gardens without a tour. If you want to enter the grounds, you can book a free tour online here, or book one in person at the Kikyomon Gate. The tours leave at 10:00 am and 1:30 pm Tuesday – Saturday, and they do book up in advance.
- East Gardens of the Imperial Palace – The gardens here were nice, but nothing compared to other gardens we had seen at temples in Kyoto and Kanazawa. It was cool to see where the old Edo Castle stood, but don’t go out of your way to check this out. Entry is free, and the gardens are open 9:00 am – 4:00 pm except for Mondays and Fridays.
- Pokémon Center and Café – Take a step back into your childhood by entering the Pokémon Center in Tokyo. You can buy all kinds of Pokémon paraphernalia, and even take a picture with a giant Pokémon mascot. The Pokémon café wasn’t as enticing, the overpriced food and drinks weren’t the most appetizing, but watching everyone get excited about a mascot Pikachu dressed as a café server was amusing. If you do go, we highly recommend the Gengar smoothie! You need to make a reservation online before going to the café, or else you have to wait in a standby line. You also get added special gifts if you reserve online ahead of time.
- Ueno Park – This is a nice park to spend an hour or so, and has some cool temples to check out. Shinobazunoike Bentendo Temple can be found on the island, and Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple is worth a visit. We also stumbled across Gojo Tenjinsha, which is a beautiful shrine in the park to see.
- Ameya-Yokocho Shopping Street – A grungier shopping street than the other listed in our things to see, but probably the best spot for deals and delicious street food. Navigate the crowds and try something new!
- This is the birthplace of anime, and a crazy and exciting spot to visit even if you don’t know what that is! Lots of fun stores with collectible anime items, as well as tons of noisy chaotic arcades. We are not anime people, but thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the area looking for a present for Devon’s brother. Akihabara isn’t on many lists of Tokyo attractions, but we definitely think it’s a modern cultural area you can’t miss.
- Rainbow Bridge gives you one of the best views of the Tokyo Skyline. We recommend to go up just before sunset so that you can see it during the day and then watch the skyline light up as the sun sets. Be aware that the view is from a sidewalk the runs right beside a busy highway, so it’s very loud! To get there get to Shinbashi station on the JR Yamanote or JR Keihin-Tohoku line, and from there transfer to the Yurikamome line. Get off at Shibaura-futo station and walk along the east side of the road (left when you walk towards the bridge) towards the bridge. It’s very industrial with not much around, but don’t worry you’ll eventually see the Rainbow signs directing you to the elevator. The north side of the bridge gives you better views of the city and Tokyo Skytree, the south is where you can see the sun setting, and sometimes Mount Fuji on a clear day.
Where to Eat
- Memory Lane/Piss Alley – This is definitely our top spot to eat/have a drink in Tokyo. Yes, it’s touristy, but there’s also a good mix of locals coming by after work for a beer, and shoving everyone into these tiny Izakayas makes for an exciting place to be. Price-wise you’re looking at 300 yen/person table charge, 300-500 yen for two skewers, 500 yen for a beer or 450 yen for a Sochu Sour. It’s a short walk from Shinjuku station. The atmosphere is great, make sure to come by after dark.
- Dongara-Gassyan in Golden Gai – This area is also near Shinjuku station, and is another fun spot to eat/have a drink in an Izakaya. Golden Gai is surprisingly grungier than Piss Alley, and has more of a true back alley vibe. We ate at Dongara-Gassyan, which was right on the corner on a middle road on the west side of the area. There was no table charge, unlike most places in the area, although you are required to order one drink. It has an English menu too and the servers are friendly. A skewer runs you 100-300 yen, and comes with free cabbage and dip.
- Kawaii Monster Café – Not exactly top-notch cuisine, but the experience of going to this restaurant is the real draw. Everything is overpriced, but the fries are pretty fun as they come with 5 different sauces, all different colours! Go for the experience, order the cheaper items, then go get a light meal a the 7-Eleven nearby! Harajuku station is the nearest subway stop.
- Pokémon Café – Another themed café you go to for the experience, not the food. Although the latté and Gengar smoothie we got were quite yummy. You need to make a reservation online to get in, and order one item each when you’re inside. Make sure to stick around for the surprise Pikachu show, which is entirely in Japanese but still entertaining! There is unique Pokémon merchandise only available in the café if you’re a collector. Tokyo station is the nearest subway stop.
- Crab Soup Dumplings on Ameya-Yokocho Shopping Street – Not much to say about these except they were amazing! Look out for the dumplings when shopping for deals.
- Gansozushi – This is a restaurant chain we found a few times in Japan, in Tokyo we ate here near Asakusa. We loved these conveyor belt sushi spots, because they were so easy, and the cheapest way to try a bunch of different types of sushi. Walk in and find a seat, then start pulling plates off the belt. There are often signs that let you know what each item is, and what it costs. The plates are colour-coded and match with a certain price, usually you’ll have a sign denoting this on the table. At the end you ask a server to come over, they tally up your plates and give you a receipt, which you bring to the cashier in order to pay. We would be in and out in 10 minutes with a belly full of sushi, it was awesome.
- 7-Eleven – Considering how many meals we had here, we couldn’t not add it to the list. From sushi, to salads, to noodle bowls that can be heated up on site, 7-Eleven is how we managed to stay somewhat on budget for our trip. We always got a quick breakfast here (hard boiled eggs, ham and egg sandwich) and generally had lunch or dinner here, which meant eating here twice a day! You can get a huge heated up noodle bowl for 400 yen, which is an absolute steal in Tokyo.
- Golden Gai – We’ve talked about this area a ton, but it fits into a bunch of different areas. The Izakayas here are a great place to grab a beer.
- Memory Lane/Piss Alley – Another spot we’ve talked up a ton. Pay the table charge, get your free appetizer and toss back a few beers or Sochu Sours.
- Senso-ji Area – Not a place you’d think of going for a drink, but the road that runs along the west side of the temple complex is lined with tiny restaurants and tables line the streets. In the winter clear plastic enclosures keep in the heat so you can stay cozy while having a drink. The Sochu and beer combo was a deal, and was even cheaper if you ordered a second round.
- Backpacker’s Guide to the Tokyo Train and Subway System
- Is a Japan Rail (JR) Pass Worth it?
- Top Places to See in Japan