Ever since I got this book of Tokyo street style photos as a teenager, Japan has been on my travel wishlist – so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to tag along when Harrison had a work trip scheduled. While he worked in Tokyo, I spent a few days exploring the city before we went on to Mount Fuji and Kyoto.
For all the people and traffic, Tokyo is so wonderfully clean and quiet. I always felt safe exploring solo, and using the subway system was easier and much more pleasant than in New York – even at rush hour! From temples and tree-lined rivers to contemporary art and ridiculously good noodles, here’s how to take in the best of Tokyo in about five days.
Finding a good view is always one of my favorite things to do in any city, and Tokyo is no exception. Tokyo City View has the best ticketed view over the entire city – you can even see Mount Fuji on a clear day. From the top floor of the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center you can take in a (free) view over Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Sky Tree.
With all the temples, shrines, and palaces in the city, at least two of them need a place in your plans. To see the Imperial Palace, schedule a tour in advance, as you can’t see much without a ticket in! It’s completely free to visit the famous red pagoda at Sensoji Temple, and even the walk up to the temple from the subway station is a cultural experience in itself.
Meiji Shrine is set in a a huge park with winding paths leading from the entrance near Harajuku to the shrine itself. The park is also home to the semi-secret Inner Garden, which predates the shrine and is definitely worth the small entrance fee.
There’s no shortage of incredible contemporary art to see in Tokyo. I was so sad to miss the Yayoi Kusama Museum – reservations need to be made far in advance, and the opening days and hours are limited. 21_21 Design Sight and Mori Art Museum are each worth a visit, and much easier to plan for.
One of my favorite experiences in Tokyo was visiting an owl café in Harajuku where we enjoyed a cup of a tea before getting to pet and feed the owls that live there. But there’s also this adorable bunny café, one for hedgehogs, one for puppies, and plenty more. The daily number of visitors is capped, so it’s best to reserve a spot at least a couple hours in advance.
As Japanese food goes, I’m particularly partial to noodles. The best ramen I had was at Afuri, where there was a line (even on a Monday afternoon) to order from the machine and find a seat. Shin Udon was another favorite – such a small restaurant on such a small street that I walked by it twice! The next day, I was this close to making a return trip for more egg-topped udon.
In Harajuku, the snacks and candy are just as fun and colorful as the clothes. The rainbow cotton candy at Totti Candy Factory was my top priority, but the options are practically limitless: ice cream cones shaped like cartoon animals or topped with giant hearts, soufflé pancakes at Gram, pink crepes stuffed with strawberries. Just walk down Takeshita street and take your pick of sweets and quirky souvenirs. Then balance out the sugar with dumplings at Gyoza Lou.
Tokyo is home to a few Parisian outposts that I couldn’t resist stopping by. Rituel is by the same french baker of Du Pain et des Idees, one of my favorite bakeries in Paris. One morning when green tea simply wouldn’t cut it, I visited Café Kistuné Aoyama for a delightfully familiar cappuccino. There are also Tokyo locations of Breizh Café (my favorite crêpe in Paris) and Pierre Hermé (Blair Waldorf’s favorite macarons, which you can’t get in the US).
There’s just so much shopping in Tokyo that you’re going to want to plan ahead with some suitcase space for all your finds. The famous department stores like Takashimaya and Tokyu Plaza are perfect for not only shopping designer goods and Japanese styles, but also for some of the best people-watching in town.
Crowded as they may be, it’s worth making your way through a many-leveled Don Quijote or Tokyu Hands to stock up on Japanese snacks and quirky gifts. They have seemingly everything from matcha Kit Kats to kids’ toys to sheet masks. You might even need to make a return trip to top up your stash of treats before you leave.
Kappabashi Street is lined with shops that sell all kinds of kitchen and dining wares. There are tall stacks of rice bowls (I use mine every day), displays of plastic sushi, jade chopstick rests, and too-cute bento boxes. It’s not far from Sensoji Temple, and more than worth a little detour!
I’ve saved the best for last. In my Tokyo wandering, shopping, and eating, Naka-meguro is the neighborhood that charmed me most of all. It’s centered on the Meguro river – which is lined with cherry trees, of course. You don’t really need to plan much beyond walking along the river and turning into side streets every now and then.
But it would be a bit of a shame to miss the fantastic vintage collection at J’antiques (sadly no photos allowed), the traditional and modern handicrafts at Migratory, the miles of books at Tsutaya. Did I mention that Rituel is here, too? If I were going to live in Tokyo (don’t worry, Mom, I’m not) this would be the place.
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