A First-Timer’s Bucket List for Tokyo

Japan’s coolest city, Tokyo, is more than just a city – it’s more like many cities connected by one of the most sophisticated metro systems in the world (23 wards, to be exact). That means it’s easy to get around, but it would take years of living there to experience all Tokyo has to offer.

The endless possibilities are exciting, but for newbies, choosing how to spend precious days in Tokyo can be a bit overwhelming. (After all, you need to reserve some time to take the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto and Osaka.) Here are some of the must-dos if you’re visiting for the first time – but keep in mind that this list only scratches the surface and reflects our personal interests.

Shop ’til you drop in Shibuya and Shinjuku.

Located just two metro stops away from each other, Shibuya and Shinjuku are the vibrant, busy neighborhoods you imagine when you dream of Tokyo. The stations are the busiest in the world, and that bustling energy spills onto the streets outside. Both neighborhoods light up magnificently at night.

Shibuya and Shinjuku are similar in that they offer a plethora of high-rise clothing stores and eateries, but if you have enough time to visit both, you should. The Shibuya crowd tends to skew a bit younger and is especially popular with groups of women. It’s also fun to stop and watch the lights change at the famed Shibuya crossing, said to be the busiest in the world. Shinjuku, on the other hand, has something for everyone, from luxury brands to clothing for those on a budget. Western-style clothing and cosmetic stores are also more abundant in Shinjuku.

Experience the culture of Harajuku.

A morning or afternoon spent on Takeshita and Cat streets is unlike anything else in the world. The center for Japanese youth culture, these colorful, quirky side streets are chock-full of clothing stores, cheap eats and teenage girls wearing imaginative cosplay outfits.

In the morning, we saw groups of young women munching on cotton candy and sugary crepes – in the afternoon, the streets were packed with tourists who towered over groups of giggling teens. The shopping in Harajuku is fantastic if you’re into all things vintage and kawaii (the Japanese culture of cuteness). Even if those things don’t interest you, you’d be crazy not to spend an hour or two wandering Harajuku – the streets aren’t very long but there’s so much to see.

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Stroll through old town Asakusa.

Away from the gleaming lights is Asakusa, a ward that’s home to temples, classic shopping streets and plenty of history. Once the hub for the city’s gangsters, geishas and creative types, the downtown area was rebuilt and restored after being destroyed during World War II.

Spend some time souvenir shopping and eating street food on Nakamise Dori; visiting the Thunder Gate at Sensoji Temple; or taking in a performance at one of the many small theaters in the area. Asakusa has a stigma of being a rougher part of town but has become trendier in recent years. We love its traditional feeling, affordable lodging and izakayas (casual Japanese pubs); these things make it popular with the backpacker crowd. It’s also one of the few places in Tokyo where you can find ryokan (Japanese-style inns).

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See the cherry blossoms in bloom.

Like other places in the world, the cherry blossom season in Tokyo is brief and unpredictable – but if you time your trip right, you may get lucky. They came early in Spring 2018 during our most recent visit, so we got to see them from the moment they started budding until the first petals fell. The trees in Tokyo tend to bloom from late March to early April. Elsewhere in Japan, they can sometimes be seen into early May.

There are several places in Tokyo to view the blossoms – unsurprisingly, they can become quite crowded. With a little patience, though, you can still get stunning photos and see them up close. In Tokyo, we visited the cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen, a peaceful and conveniently located park that’s within walking distance of the Shinjuku metro station. Other popular places to view them in central Tokyo are Ueno Park and Chidorigafuchi, a moat that was once part of the Imperial Palace.

Belly up to a small bar.

If you’re not an Anthony Bourdain fanatic like we are, there’s a chance you’ve never heard of this somewhat secret side of Tokyo’s bar scene. These tiny taverns are plentiful but exclusive – many seat no more than 10 people. The sake and whisky are some of the best in the world, the beer is cold and the cocktails are fantastic.

This back-alley bar scene exists in a few places in Tokyo. Shinjuku Golden Gai, located in Shinjuku; Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley), located steps from the famed Shibuya crossing; and Hoppy Yokocho, located near old town Asakusa, are probably the most accessible for a first-time tourist. There are some unspoken codes of conduct to keep in mind, though: don’t shoot your sake, sit where you’re told and DO NOT tip, as it’s considered rude. If you’re sharing a bottle, serve others before yourself, and don’t sip until everyone at your table has been served their drinks. Kanpai!

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Take yourself on a noodle tour.

Sushi, tempura and noodles – oh my! Most Westerners aren’t strangers to Japanese cuisine, and it’s incredibly easy to find a delicious meal in Tokyo just by exploring. We gorged on all sorts of things, but noodle houses are, hands down, the most common type of eatery. We ordered steaming bowls of noodle soup from menus and vending machines outside restaurants, and because of the variety, we never tired of them.

Of course, there’s the classic ramen noodles, which are long and skinny, and made of wheat. For dishes with a stronger flavor, it’s good to go with soft, chewy and thick udon noodles, also made of wheat. On hot days, cold soba noodles are extra delicious – they’re made from equal parts buckwheat flour and wheat flour, and are a bit healthier. Those are just a few types, so take yourself on a wild noodle tour and enjoy the ride.

Catch a Yomiuri Giants game.

Northern Californians will especially get a kick out of this one. In Japan, baseball is one of the most popular sports – and in Tokyo, the team is none other than the Giants. (Their colors are even orange and black!) We went to a game at the Tokyo Dome during spring training and the fans were out in the full force – chanting their chants, wearing orange and black, and sipping beers in the stands. We bought our tickets online a few days beforehand here and then purchased T-shirts for $20 USD at the fan store before the game started. The game only took up a half-day, making it a fun way to spend time if you live and breathe baseball.

We first visited Tokyo Dome City in 2013 during the offseason, when the roller coaster outside the stadium was closed. So this time, we just had to ride it! The ride was short and not cheap (about $10 USD), but we lucked out and got the front row, giving us a view of the entire city.

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But there’s so much more…

If you have more than a few days in Tokyo, you should also check out the many temples and shrines, historical sites and museums the city has to offer, which require a bit more time on public transport but are still easy to access. We tend to get our fix of those things in Kyoto, but the cultural offerings in Tokyo are unlimited nonetheless. The choice is yours. Sayōnara!

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