Scheduling out every single second of a vacation is a recipe for disaster. At some point the museum will be closed, or the restaurant will be full, and inevitably you, the traveler, will quickly find yourself sleep-deprived, stressed out and not having the dream vacation you’d so carefully planned. Sleeping until 2, walking around a boring neighborhood and ending up eating at the local McDonald’s isn’t ideal either. Finding the balance somewhere in between is a careful science but easy to do with the right mindset.
Whenever I’m visiting a new place, I like to set a few specific goals for what I’d like to get out of the experience. Nothing painful or too labor-intensive, more along the lines of trying a food I’ve been dying to eat or seeing a famous site at sunset. Hammering out all the less important details gets a lot easier once you’ve come up with a few things that really matter to you. If you’ve decided at some point on your first day you’ll head to Meiji Shrine, finding a breakfast spot nearby narrows things down way more than googling “good breakfast anywhere in Tokyo”. You see my point?
On to the list! These were some of my top priorities on my last visit to Tokyo, along with some photos of my favorite spots.
Go to the top of a tall building at sunset
You’ve got a lot of options when it comes to towers in Tokyo. Check out the famous ones — Tokyo Skytree (¥3000) or Tokyo Tower (¥900 for the lower deck while the upper deck is under renovation) — for a pricier, wait-ier option. Or Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a free option. For the Metropolitan Building, the south observation tower (read: the view of the whole city) closes at 5PM, so don’t save this one for sunset. North deck is open until 10PM — good for night views! The World Trade Center Building has an observation deck that’s on the water and not too pricy at ¥620.If you want to combine views and art, check out Mori Art Museum located on the 53rd floor of Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. If you stay near Ikebukuro Station, a massive station with tons of convenient train lines and nice, affordable AirBnB’s, you should go to Sunshine60 (¥1200).
Visit a festival
This is a basic must-do while in Japan. There are festivals all the time in Japan, research what’s happening during your itinerary. If it works out that you can go to a festival at the biggest city in the world, that’s even better.
Find some quiet and sunshine at a park in the middle of the city
How many photos have you seen of a lush green space with massive skyscrapers towering in the background? How compelling is the idea of peaceful oasis in the middle of Tokyo? Don’t plan this for your first morning in Tokyo or you won’t appreciate it as much as you should. Spend a day in Harajuku or a night out in Shinjuku and then recover your inner calm at one of Tokyo’s captivating green spaces. The Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds are massive, with a perfectly designed garden and a big flat lawn in the middle for a picnic with a view. If you want to get down near the waterfront, head to the Hamarikyu Gardens. Entrance is only ¥300 and you can catch a “waterbus” for a view of Tokyo harbor.
Explore a neighborhood off the beaten path
You can’t spend long in Harajuku or Shibuya before the glow wears off and you realize you’re covered in other people’s sweat and never want to see a crowd again. Take your cue to meander around one of Tokyo’s countless neighborhoods. For a taste of the past, Yanaka Ginza, near Nippori Station, has cozy streets and kakigori, specialty shaved ice. Foodies and chefs should head to Kappabashi, the “kitchen neighborhood” that’s full of knife shops, pottery stores, shops for general cooking ware and the amazing place where restaurants buy their plastic display food. It looks insanely realistic and is also incredibly expensive! Splurge on a sushi magnet for a great souvenir. Some other options are Shimokitazawa, according to the internet “Tokyo’s Greenwich Village” and home to Bear Pond Espresso, Tomigaya, full of quiet streets, bakeries and tiny, charming shops, or the uber hip Daikanyama.
Get the best coffee ever
Tokyo’s third wave coffee scene is popping and there are more spots than I could ever make it to 😥 For an experience (if you hate coffee snobs, just don’t go), Koffee Mameya is the home of true artists. On the weekends, you can be assured a very long wait and there is no seating, just a counter where you can choose one of 16 different roasts, hot or iced, and prepare to drink one of the tastiest cups of coffee you’ll ever have. For an experience of the older style of Japanese coffee houses or kissaten, Cafe Paulista and Cafe de l’ambre are both conveniently located in Ginza. Go sit in a big leather chair and be sure to order one of their delicate little cakes to accompany your drink. Look at all the smoke stains on the walls and appreciate the recent transition to non-smoking eateries. Some other great spots are Switch Coffee, Onibus Coffee Nakameguro, Bear Pond Espresso, Streamer Coffee Company, Turret Coffee and Little Nap Coffee Stand. Read all about the Tokyo coffee scene in Drift Mag.
Check out Japan’s craft beer scene
Surprising, but definitely starting to happen. Maybe not a top priority for a temporary visitor but for those of us living out in the Japanese countryside, a locally brewed IPA and a Chicago-style pizza is a real treat. Devil Craft Kanda is the spot. Baird Tap Room in Harajuku has 15 taps in addition to Japanese style izakaya food. If you’re looking to save some cash, stop in to the nearest conbini (Lawson is your best bet) and look for a beer called Yona Yona. Less than ¥300 and seriously good. Also if you see one with a frog on the label, just say “hai!” and grab it.
Sitting outside, drinking a beer and grazing through a bunch of small plates surrounded by the hubbub of Tokyo. That is how I imagined my weekend in the city. So, the second I got off the Shinkansen, I stowed my duffel in one of the many convenient coin lockers, and met up with friends at Yakitori Alley. A sprawling system of alleyways filled of tons of tiny little pubs and restaurants, you’ll have to search to find a seat on a weekend evening, but the good vibes are definitely worth the hassle.
Do one thing you only can do in Tokyo
Get a massive cotton candy in Harajuku or a towering ice cream cone with twenty flavors. Maybe go to a robot cafe or see an anime film in Japanese. Better yet get food you can’t eat anywhere else — world-class tempura, crazy fresh sushi, or in my case coconut ice cream that I’d gone 16 long months without.
What are your absolute can’t miss experiences in Tokyo? Have you been to any of these sites? You can use the images below to keep track of your own travel goals in Tokyo! And be sure to let me know how your trip goes in the comments below.