Our 5 days in and around Tokyo were the first stop on our 16 day Japan trip. We absolutely loved it! Even in the chilly February weather, I had so much fun I could have easily stayed the whole fortnight there. Here’s a day-by-day breakdown/itinerary of things to do in Tokyo!
Things to do in Tokyo
Meiji Shrine – Meiji Shrine Gardens – Yoyogi Park – Takeshita Dori – Shibuya Crossing
Hakone day trip
Narukoten Shrine – Sensō-ji Temple – Tokyo Museum
Imperial Palace Exterior – Koishikawa Korakuen – Yanaka Cemetery – Yanaka Ginza
Tokyo Met. Government Building Observation Deck – Shinjuku Gyoen – Shibuya Crossing
1. Meiji Shrine (Meiji-jingū)
More info: Official Website; Japan Guide
The Meiji Shrine is a large and historic Shinto shrine nestled in the picturesque woodland of Yoyogi Park. I enjoyed admiring the ema and learning how to pray and bow at the shrine itself, but the most interesting part for me was getting to see wedding processions! There must have been at least four or five over the hour or so we were there. I actually asked Ben if we could stay a little longer so I could try and photograph the cavalcade in their exquisite kimonos.
2. Meiji Shrine Gardens
More info: Japan Travel
A tranquil and relaxing stroll among the trees but not a great deal to see. I’m not sure if this is a regular happening, but we stumbled upon an area where people were standing with one of their palms raised waiting for tiny little birds to come and land on them. And they did! A sweet American lady saw our interest and offered me a peanut to have a go myself. I held it up and sure enough, a bird arrived and ate right from my hand! (Photo courtesy of Ben.)
3. Yoyogi Park
More info: Japan Guide (includes cherry blossom forecasts!)
Winter is the best time to see Yoyogi Park as it was lacking in greenery when we visited, but it still seemed to be a popular spot, especially with families out for a walk or picnic. We also loved seeing the man above with a giant bubble making net! Who doesn’t love huge bubbles?
4. Takeshita Dori, Harajuku
Cost: Free (unless you want to spend in the shops!)
More info: Japan Guide – Harajuku
Takeshita Dori is the hub of teenage and fashion culture in Harajuku. Unfortunately we were only passing through so I wasn’t able to spend any time shopping, but if you love Japanese fashion you won’t want to miss browsing some of the boutiques here. There are some cute cafés and fast food places too.
5. Shibuya Crossing (by night)
More info: Japan Travel
You’ve probably heard of the Shibuya crossing, or at least seen it in movies. (If not, it’s a large intersection surrounded by neon advertising that is often crowded with people. When the traffic stops, the crowds move across in multiple directions all at once, creating the ‘Shibuya Scramble’ effect!).
It’s always seemed like a quintessential Tokyo experience to me to both witness the Shibuya Crossing and join in, so naturally I wanted to tick it off on Day 1! We researched some good observation spots and decided to go for the pedestrian walkway that leads from Shibuya Station across to Mark City (at least, I think it’s Mark City it leads to – you can see the walkway here on Google Maps, though). Both Starbucks and the L’Occitane café were also recommended, but apparently they get busy and we didn’t particularly want to sit down and pay for food or drinks with our view. Fundamentally, it’s just watching crowds of people cross the road, but it was still pretty magical for me!
Costs per person*:
Hakone Free Pass: ¥5140
‘Romance Car’ Limited Express Train Surcharge: ¥1780 (¥890 each way)
More info: Odakyu Railways – Hakone / Hakone Free Pass; Japan Guide – Hakone / Hakone Free Pass
*To elaborate on these costs, the Hakone Free Pass is a discount pass for travel to and around Hakone, allowing travel on the various forms of transport mentioned below. We bought ours from Shinjuku station. The above pass includes a normal fare to Hakone, but we choose to travel via the Romance Car Limited Express. I can’t actually remember why we thought this was important to do, but I have a feeling either there are more times available, or the times were more convenient for when we wanted to arrive/depart Hakone. Note that the surcharge differs depending on the station used (it’s 890¥ each way to/from Shinjuku).
We wanted to at least glimpse Mount Fuji while in Tokyo, so Hakone was our choice for achieving that goal. We spent the day essentially following a circuit, with each stage on a different form of transport… Train to Hakone – bus to Lake Ashi – cruise across the lake on a rather extravagant looking tall ship (this was the highlight!) – a Valentine’s-themed cable car up a mountain facing Mt Fuji – replacement bus service – funicular railway back to the station where we started. Phew!
7. A smaller shrine (Narukoten)
This was actually an accidental visit, but one that we really loved finding. We stumbled upon the lovely Narutkoten shrine tucked down an alley as we made our way to our nearest metro station. It wasn’t anything extraordinary, which was kind of the point – it’s great to see shrines with a local feel, as opposed to the larger, tourist magnet affairs like Sensō-ji below! So I wouldn’t recommend this shrine in particular, but I would recommend stopping by these smaller places of worship if you find one.
8. Senso-ji Temple
The Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa is Tokyo’s oldest temple. Compared to the relatively tranquil setting of the Meiji Shrine, this site has more of that intense and busy Tokyo energy. The outer Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon) looms large with its enormous red lantern and leads you down the bustling Nakamise-dori shopping street. Lined on both sides with little storefronts selling food and wares to the crowds of tourists, the busyness here only built suspense for arriving at the inner Hozomon Gate and the rest of the temple.
Spilling out into an only slightly larger area with the crowd, we approached to explore the temple proper. The grandeur only grows as you proceed towards the Main Hall. Sadly the original was destroyed by air raids in 1945, but the reconstruction is still something wondrous to behold. Another giant lantern takes pride of place, beneath which people pass into the Main Hall to donate and pray. I was drawn away from the main building, though, to a brazier in the centre. The scene was a simple one – people lighting incense and then wafting the smoke onto themselves – but I found it so lovely to watch.
Beyond this, the nearby Five-storied Pagoda was the other main draw for me. We saw plenty of pagodas in Japan, but this one remains one of my absolute favourites.
9. Tokyo National Museum
This was a little costly compared to other choices, but we were particularly keen to visit the temporary Terracotta Army exhibition they had on at the time. The Tokyo National Museum isn’t particularly outstanding in terms of exhibits (I have a feeling we should have gone to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which is more highly regarded!). It does have an incredibly modern feel, though, and I found some of the individual displays really interesting (from ancient pottery to beautifully detailed kimonos). Some of the midcentury architecture and interior design is lovely, too.
10. Imperial Palace Exterior
The majority of the year, you can’t enter the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace independently (2nd Jan and 23rd Dec being the exceptions). There are guided tours given daily but as these are only in Japanese our visit was purely to admire it from the outside. We viewed it from the Kokyo Gaien, with the Nijubashi bridge(s) and one of the towers in the background (this is the view on Street View, for context). Sadly the large majority of the palace itself is hidden behind trees, but I still thought that the small glimpse we got was a really beautiful one.
11. Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens
More info: Japan Guide
This sweet garden was one of our favourites in Tokyo. It offered a slice of complete tranquility while still being surrounded by skyscrapers (and rollercoasters from the adjacent Tokyo Dome attractions!). As we visited during plum season, we were treated to some pretty blossom among the plum groves, but in general it was just a nice place to relax, take photos and have a break from the busyness of Tokyo’s streets.
12. Yanaka Cemetery
More info: Japan Visitor
We visited Yanaka Cemetery given its high rating on Trip Advisor and in the Top 10 Tokyo DK guide. I wonder if it’s best seen during cherry blossom season? It’s another place that serves as a quiet escape from the rush of Tokyo life, and the golden hour light on the gravestones was very pretty when we visited, but beyond that we weren’t convinced this is really a ‘must do’ (outside of spring, anyway).
13. Yanaka Ginza
We’d heard that this was a lovely old-fashioned shopping street that is often home to lots of stray cats. In fact we saw no cats at all during our visit, though I did notice a profusion of panda soft toys in the store fronts! Ultimately we didn’t feel like this street lived up to expectations. It might be worthwhile if you want to pick up souvenirs, but otherwise I would happily have skipped it. (Though some of the shops seemed pleasant, it certainly didn’t feel any more historical than other parts of Tokyo, except that the buildings weren’t skyscrapers.)
14. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Deck
More info: Tokyo Metropolitan Govt; Japan Guide
Day 5 was a day of independent exploring for me as Ben left the city to go and photograph a train in the suburbs. One of my priorities to tick off was to take in the Tokyo skyline. I made sure to do a bit of research in advance (thanks to TripAdvisor and the jaw-droppingly thorough and useful Japan Guide – their Observation Deck Guide is here). It seemed that you could get just as good a view from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku for free as you could from, say, the Skytree for ~¥2,000, the Tokyo Tower for ¥900 etc. Plus you get the Skytree and Tokyo Tower in your panorama! Our Airbnb was really close to Shinjuku anyway, so I headed out for a lovely morning walk to my destination.
You can go up either tower (I gather the view is pretty much equal from both), and take the lift directly up to the observation deck on the 45th floor. The whole floor is open plan. You stay indoors and just wander round the external wall until you get back to the lift – there are windows in all directions. Pretty much all the views were gorgeous, but my favourite was glimpsing Mt Fuji again!
15. Shinjuku Gyoen
Since I was already in Shinjuku, I took the opportunity to check out the Shinjuku Gyoen, a huge imperial garden/park. Gardens obviously seem more barren in winter months, and this was no exception. Saying that, I was lucky enough to still get to experience some cherry blossom here. I hadn’t expected to see any, so this ended up being a huge highlight of Tokyo for me. There were tons of photographers trying to capture both the blossom and the tiny green birds flitting between the branches. I enthusiastically joined them!
Bonus: Shibuya Crossing (by day)
I’ve already covered the Shibuya Crossing above, so I’ll just finish up by saying it’s definitely worth experiencing in the daytime too. For me it was a nice way to bookend my time in Tokyo. There’s also some great shopping in this area, which doesn’t hurt!
Have you been to Tokyo, or do you plan to go? Was there anything we missed that you’d recommend?
P.S. Here’s my guide for things to do in Kyoto!
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