Having a difficult time winding your mind around the funky names of Tokyo and head bursting from trying to plan a trip? I feel you. Having visited it quite a few times, I thought a recommended guide like this can help you nail down the top places to visit or skip. Tokyo is a huge place to cover!
Here’s quick info on places that I think first-timers can visit. For your convenience, they’re categorized by location area. This quick guide is intended to be from my personal perspective, meant for you to be taken only as a reference for trip-planning. If you see any program that you like, please research deeper for hours & stuff!
Before we start, here’s my top tip:
Have your passport with you when you go shopping!
Cos the staff will need to see it for tax rebates on the spot! Yep, you don’t need to claim those tax returns at the airport – it’s straightaway deduction. Even the drugstore chain – Matsumoto Kiyoshi – has tax-free shopping once you hit a certain amount. Second tip: Consolidate your desired loot to buy at one Matsumoto Kiyoshi instead of heading to many Matsumoto outlets. One reason is for the minimum amount to hit; the other is because they’ll seal your items in plastic bags which you’re supposed to keep seals till you leave Japan.
Ready? Let’s go!
Don’t Miss: Meiji Shrine
Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the deitified spirits of the late Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The temple is a deep walk in through gravel path, cutting through a forest of about 100,000 trees. The temple grounds has an air of serenity and tradition, and you’ll see lots of Japanese as well as foreigners visiting here.
There’s a Camphor tree within the temple grounds, and visitors sometimes buy a wooden tablet, write wishes on the back of the tablet, and hang it up. I was told that you’re supposed to write just ONE wish (because you shouldn’t be greedy).
Tip: Go on a Sunday ‘cos there’s a good chance you will come across 1 or more traditional wedding procession(s) at the temple grounds. If it’s mid-November (the Sunday closest to 15 Nov), you might even see Shichi-Go-San (meaning 7-5-3) Festival at the temple grounds. I was lucky and was at Meiji Shrine coincidentally on that particular Shichi-Go-San Sunday!
Don’t Miss: Takeshita Street, Cat Street & endless shopping!
Takeshita Street is a lively street across the road from Harajuku Station. You can grab snacks and flavorful crepes, items from 100 Yen Shop, beauty accessories, bags, everything.
The standalone shops scattered all over Harajuku are rather ‘indie‘. There’re plenty of independent brands selling everything fashion, to shops specializing in pre-loved (2nd-hand) clothing. I also enjoy admiring the quirky shop decors here. I usually start my Harajuku tour from Takeshita-Dori onwards and freely explore from here.
If no one told you, the entire Harajuku is a shopping heaven.
Tip: Takeshita Dori is a straight path down, till you come to a road. Turn right then walk further down till you’re at a big main road intersection. From there, turn left, you’re at Ometesando. (Scroll down for a map to orientate.)
Don’t Miss: Omotesando & back alleys – Shopping!
Nicknamed the ‘Champs-Elysee of Tokyo’, this tree-lined stretch called Omotesando has boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Polo Ralph Lauren. If you’re not into brands, you can still check out Kiddy Land along this stretch! (Scroll down for a map to orientate.)
Everywhere else behind the left and the right edges of the Ometesando photo above, are shopsssss.
Don’t Miss: Kiddy Land – Toy Heaven
A cuteness paradise for all ages, Kiddy Land contains 5 levels (including basement level!) of toys and character merchandise, from soft toys, display toys, household goods (utensils, towels) to school/office stationery (notebooks and post-it pads), handphone accessories, etc etc! Even when I’m not a fan of toys, I easily spend an hour here at least each time, picking goods and gifts! This store carries Sanrio, Disney, Snoopy & Friends, Star Wars, Rilakkuma, Gutedama and more.
Tip: Visit the washrooms for cute themed decors!
Don’t miss: Snack time at Gyoza Lou (Daniel Food Diary has a review), very near Kiddyland. Their dumplings are popular. I last ate here in probably 2009 or 2010, when it was all locals. When I pop by in recent years, it’s always queues. The cucumber dish is very good too – I can still remember the taste!
Area // Shibuya
Shibuya is one station away from Harajuku on the Yamanote Line. It’s famous for the Shibuya Crossing, and it’s also the location of Hachiko’s statue. Shibuya to me is where youth shopping and trends dominate. I usually exit via JR Hachiko Exit at Shibuya, and orientate myself from there.
Don’t Miss: Shibuya Crossing
The most famous landmark of Shibuya, this is the multi-lane crossing. You can watch it from various elevated spots (that Starbucks is recommended) first, then go down and cross the road a few times! It’s actually quite fun to join the hordes of people that cross the roads in all directions and yet no one will collapse into you or shove you.
Shibuya 109, and 109 Men’s – Fashion Shopping
Shibuya 109 is 10 stories tall, meant for young ladies to shop till they drop. I would take a lift to the highest floor and conquer the shops down each level till I’m at the ground floor, or you can do the opposite. You can buy clothes, accessories, bags, everything.
109 Men’s is a 9-storey building for the men to shop! It’s not beside Shibuya 109 though – a short distance away.
Lifestyle shops for all things you didn’t know you need ;P
Tokyu Hands, “Creative Life Store” specializes in lifestyle goods including craft & hobby materials, interior goods, travel products, stationery, snacks, and just about everything actually. The flagship store is at Shibuya, and is 8-stories high.
Loft is another store like Tokyu Hands that sells everything, but less of DIY products.
FrancFranc is another multi-storey lifestyle store I enjoy visiting, with its many pretty interior merchandise for the home.
Not to be confused, Asakusa is the district name, while Sensoji (but also confusedly known as Asakusa Kannon Temple) is the main temple. I must have been to Asakusa at least 3 or 4 times, and it’s forever crowded (not entirely unpleasant-crowdy, just no luck of a crowd-less selfie!).
Asakusa comes across as a rather timeless district. Here, you can see rickshaws being pulled by young and fit humans, for the tourists, of course.
When you pass through Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate 雷门, you won’t miss that gigantic red lantern at the entrance), you’re at Nakamise, a popular 200m shopping street with a history of several centuries. Grab delicious Japanese snacks here and it’s a good place to buy reasonably priced Japanese (but not necessarily made-in-Japan) souvenirs. Along the side alleys of Nakamise, you can also find restaurants.
Don’t Miss: Sensoji Temple
Sensoji, a Buddhist temple and Tokyo’s oldest temple (completed in year 645), is also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple. It is interesting to join the Japanese in cleansing your hands and mouth outside the temple, before stepping in.
Asakusa Shrine is a short distance away to the left of Sensoji.
Tip: Observe and follow the Japanese people on cleansing rituals. Don’t sip from the scoop directly. Also, don’t pour the water back into the tank.
Japan’s oldest amusement park: Hanayashiki Amusement Park
This is Japan’s oldest amusement park, converted from what was once a flower park. Although not as huge and exciting as Disneyland, this is a cheerful place, good for small kids and even young couples. This amusement park is a short walking distance from Asakusa Shrine.
(I went there for photos, you can read about it here!)
A structure built in recent years and currently tallest in Japan, you can get tickets to go up the Tokyo Skytree for splendid views of the city. There is also a shopping complex at ground level. Tokyo Skytree might look not that far from Sensoji but in fact, it’s a longggg walk if you wanna attempt. I attempted, and regretted.
Note: It doesn’t mean you can get tickets and go up the Skytree immediately. Tickets can run out ahead. I was there in the afternoon and the next available admission was 8pm, so I skipped going up. More information at Japan-Guide.com • Official website
For the train station itself, I was sooooo amazeddddd at how deep and expansive it can be, when I tried to find the correct line to get to Kamakura. Above land, Shinjuku covers a HUGEEEE area. If you stay at Shinjuku, note and remember by heart which station exit you’re supposed to get off at and head for it after you leave the train. Above land, try to note directions and streets you passed, and take that same route back if you can.
Don’t Miss: Shopping at Malls
Isetan is 10 stories high. Takashimaya is 15. Odakyu & Keio are shopping malls as well. There’s also Lumine 1 & Lumine 2 – smaller shopping malls right above & beside JR Shinjuku Station. Don Quijote is a store but is few stories high and stocked with all sorts of merchandise in a disorienting manner (watch your kids cos there’s adult merchandise randomly displayed here!) There are also many drugstores and convenience stores everywhere. Muji and Uniqlo are in this area too.
I always stay at Shinjuku area (often at Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku hotel) and shop before I go back to the hotel.
(optional) Visit Isetan as it opens
I did this few years back so I’m not sure if it’s still in practice. If you enter the Isetan store as it opens for the day, it’s an interesting (and rather overwhelming) experience as all the staff continuously do half-body bows to welcome visitors.
Ueno is famous for its huge Park and a zoo. I didn’t visit the zoo before so can’t share about it here.
(Seasonal) View cherry blossom blooms at Ueno Park
Don’t skip Ueno if it’s the cherry blossom season! There are very beautiful sights at this park, which I shared in this blogpost!
Parks and temples at Ueno Park
If it’s not the cherry blossom season, there are also a few temples at the park and also mini torii gates (if you can find the right temple). It’s a nice big park with lots of greeneries.
Komodo-Yuen mini amusement park
Located somewhere inside Ueno Park, this is a mini amusement park for small kids.
Area: Disneyland / Disney Sea
A happy place for kids and adults! I went for Disneyland years ago, before it arrived in Hong Kong (closest to my country in Singapore). Had fun anyway!
Hope this post provided help in planning your first Tokyo trip!
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