A beginner’s guide to visiting Tokyo: Everything you need to eat, see and do

Jan 2, 2020

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There’s a reason everyone and their mother is going to visit Tokyo these days. It’s one of the most incredible destinations on Earth, and I fell head over heels in love with this city on a recent trip.

When you go, you’ll understand why.

Now, when I tell you I spent as much time planning my itinerary as I did putting together the TPG beginner’s guide, it’s not an exaggeration. I spent hours researching, calling, emailing — pretty much everything except sending a carrier pigeon to the other side of the world — to make sure I had the most incredible experience ever. And it paid off. Fortunately, I created this guide so you don’t have to do the same before your first trip to Tokyo. Just do me a solid and enjoy every second of the trip, OK?

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Where to eat in Tokyo

If you know anything about me, you know that my life revolves around where I’m eating. Considering that Tokyo is one of the culinary capitals of the world, you can imagine how excited — and overwhelmed — I was before the trip. I reviewed everything from Instagram to Tabelog (Japan’s version of Yelp), and then crosschecked online reviews to make sure these restaurants deserved to make the final cut.

Keep in mind that it can be difficult to make online restaurant reservations in Tokyo. There’s no Resy or OpenTable to speak of. So, your best bet is using some type of concierge service from either your hotel or credit card (think: the Amex Platinum Concierge).

Also, I think there’s a misconception that you have to spend a lot of money to visit Tokyo. Yes, you can absolutely splurge on omakase and Wagyu (I’ll get to that in a minute), but you can also find inexpensive street food or pop into a no-frills sushi, ramen or udon restaurant that’ll make your wallet and stomach very happy. You can do Japan on a budget, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Related: 3 ways to do Tokyo on points 

Where to get sushi in Tokyo

First thing’s first: I knew I needed to stuff my face with as much sushi as possible, and there was one restaurant I kept seeing pop up again and again: Sushi-Ya.

Sushi-Ya is an eight-seat omakase restaurant in the the Ginza district of Tokyo (right near the Conrad!) and was the most incredible sushi experience I’ve ever had. I mean, just look at this tuna:

Photo courtesy of author
Photo courtesy of author

Chef Ishiyama was warm and welcoming, and explained every piece I was going to eat during the two-hour ordeal. This was a real treat, since many sushi chefs don’t speak English; it can be intimidating if you don’t speak the language. It was far and away the most expensive meal I had in Japan, but worth every single penny yen.

That wasn’t my only sushi journey, though. I was also able to get a reservation at Isana Sushi Bar, a  slightly more casual sushi spot I kept seeing pop up during my research. Chef Junichi Onuki was another near-fluent English-speaking chef, and the fish here was high-quality without being too pricey. I ended up chatting with a family from California who was also visiting, and we got into a long conversation about — you guessed it — sushi. Chef Onuki chimed in, as well, and it made for a really memorable start to my trip.

Where to get noodles in Tokyo

Let’s talk about ramen for a second. Of course, Tokyo is full to the brim with ramen shops, similar to (but better than) Ippudo locations all over the U.S. But the real treat here is tsukemen. It’s a Japanese specialty where the cold noodles are served in a bowl separate from the warm broth. You dip the cold noodles in the broth and then you reach ramen Nirvana. It’s all part of the experience. The best tsukemen I had was at Fuunji, followed closely by Rokurinsha on Ramen Street in Tokyo Station. You’ll inevitably end up waiting in line for each for about an hour or so, but since it’s Japan, everything is efficient and moves quickly.

Oh, and did I mention that you’ll order using a vending machine?

I also knew I needed to dive into a bowl of udon, and Shin Udon seemed like the place to go (coincidentally, it was right around the corner from Fuunji). It was a few minutes away from the Park Hyatt in an unassuming little room. They even line people up on another street as to not block the tiny little entrance. If you’re staying anywhere in Shinjuku — and even if you’re not — add this to your list.

Related: Inside Tokyo’s bizarre robot restaurant

The best restaurants in Tokyo

Now, you’ll think I’ve lost my mind for what I’m about to tell you, but believe me when I say I ate the best pizza I’ve had in my life in Tokyo; I’m a native New Yorker and have traveled multiple times to various cities around Italy, but the pizza at Seirinkan blew all the other slices out of the water. It was as close to perfect as you can get. I found this place through chef David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” show on Netflix, and he said the same thing: You’ll think he’s crazy, but it really is the best pizza in the world. If you don’t believe me, go see for yourself. If you do believe me, well, bring your stretchy pants. I’d definitely recommend making a reservation, too. I got mine through the concierge at the Conrad hotel, and you can probably use a similar strategy, or call the Amex Platinum concierge.

Photo courtesy of author
Photo courtesy of author

If you thought my culinary extravaganza was over, you’d be wrong.

I kept seeing these delicious-looking wagyu beef sandwiches pop up on social media and knew I needed to taste one for myself. I ultimately landed on a shop called Wagyumafia and it did not disappoint. Granted, it was also probably the most expensive sandwich I have ever and will ever order (it cost about $30), but how can you say no to a fried wagyu sandwich? You can’t.

You know you’re in a good spot when everyone in the restaurant is Japanese. Enter: Tempura Kondo. This restaurant, tucked away on the fifth floor of a building in Ginza, turns out some of the best fried food I’ve ever had. Just follow the people getting in the elevator and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Those two Michelin stars aren’t for nothing.

Fluffy pancakes are also a must in Japan, and trust me, I had more than my fair share. In Tokyo, I went to Bills Ginza and A Happy Pancake; I inhaled my pancakes in minutes. Of the two, I would choose Bills — the quality of the food was better, and the overall vibe of the restaurant was more relaxed and fun. Safe to say I stayed pretty carbohydrated during my trip.

And if you don’t stock up on snacks (hello, matcha Kit Kats!) and a daily chicken katsu sandwich at 7/11, Lawson or FamilyMart, you’re doing it wrong.

Like I said: Tokyo is an eating extravaganza.

Related: 10 things no one tells you about Tokyo 

What to see and do in Tokyo

You could spend your entire life in Tokyo and still never run out of things to see and do. It’s just that massive. Assuming you’re just visiting for a few days, however, and not relocating there, these are the things you should prioritize.

Yes, you keep seeing it on Instagram, but there’s a reason: It’s called teamLab Borderless, and it’s cooler in real life than it is on your phone. I was skeptical about it at first, thinking it was just another “Instagram pop-up,” but this interactive light museum and installation can take hours to properly explore. The most popular exhibit (see below) had a pretty long line — about 20 minutes or so — when I was there, but it was absolutely incredible.

Photo courtesy of @ElleFlorio/Unsplash
Photo courtesy of @ElleFlorio/Unsplash

You should definitely make it a point to visit the famed Tsukiji Market when in Tokyo. While the inner market — the place where the tuna auction took place — moved to Toyosu Market, you can still visit the outer market at Tsukiji to eat all the fish your heart desires without shelling out the big bucks. I had an oyster the size of my face for about $2; a giant octopus skewer; and a tuna, salmon and sea urchin situation that was unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten. All of this cost me less than $20.

Another favorite locale was Ameyoko Ueno market. Visiting markets while you’re traveling is a great way to get a feel for the people and the culture, and at Ameyoko, you’ll find cheap shopping, authentic cuisine and approachable residents who can introduce you to Tokyo.

No trip to Tokyo is complete without a quick trip to Shibuya Crossing, the busiest intersection in the world. The surrounding area has great shopping (Tower Records), so you definitely want to take a few minutes to cross the street and feel the heartbeat of the city. I’ve also heard the Starbucks at the corner has the best aerial views, but I didn’t have time to make the trip there.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash
Photo courtesy of @jezael/Unsplash

You’ll also want to visit the Harajuku area, the center of Japanese youth culture and fashion. Take a walk down colorful Takeshita Street — just be prepared for a sensory overload in the best way possible. If you’re a cotton candy fan, stop at Totti Candy Factory.

Steps away from Harajuku, you’ll find Meiji Jingu, a beautiful Shinto shrine. It’s dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. I’m not a religious person at all, but it was a deeply spiritual experience. I really liked writing down my wishes in an envelope and putting them away in a box. It all felt very “Eat, Pray, Love.” The shrine is located in Yoyogi Park, which is a gorgeous, sprawling green park in the middle of Shibuya. I went early before the crowds, and it was the definition of Japanese Zen.

In Asakusa, you’ll find Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple and the oldest in Tokyo. Everything I’d ever dreamt about Japan came to life here. Be sure to bathe in some of the smoke from the incense, since it’s said to have healing powers.

My favorite shopping was in Shinjuku. I kept seeing the name Komehyo pop up during my research, and decided to make a trip to the store’s flagship in this neighborhood. I ended up getting a bag I’ve had my eye on for years, and it cost me less than half of what it would have cost at home. And thrift stores are a thing in Japan. They resemble actual department stores, and have enough luxury goods to make your head spin — and since it’s Japan, everything is in pristine condition.

If you’re even remotely a fan of the Grateful Dead, you need to visit Chi Chi’s. It’s a little off the beaten path in the Setagaya City neighborhood, but is a well-known destination for Deadheads. Chi Chi and Merry, the owners, were so warm and welcoming, and we ended up talking for an hour about music, travel, Japan and food. The best things in life, if you ask me. All the shirts are handmade, and you could easily spend an entire day there browsing and chatting with Chi Chi and Merry. Merry even let me take a picture with her signed copy of John Mayer’s “The Search for Everything” album that she got back when Dead & Company went to visit the shop in April.

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Where to stay in Tokyo

With so many hotels in Tokyo, it can be hard to narrow it all down. Trust me, I know the feeling.

I ended up staying in two hotels during my trip: Both the Conrad and Park Hyatt. While I’m more or less obsessed with the Conrad and can’t recommend it highly enough, the Park Hyatt definitely fell below my expectations.

(Photo by Samantha Rosen / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Samantha Rosen / The Points Guy)

These are two of the city’s most high-end points properties, but I promise there’s something for everyone and every budget here.

Take, for example, the wealth of Marriott hotels in the city. There are two Courtyard properties — one in Ginza, the other near Tokyo station — both available from 35,000 points per night. There’s also a Westin (rates start at 50,000 points per night) and, one step up from there, a Ritz-Carlton (rates start at 85,000 points per night).

And there are even more properties on the horizon as the capital prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Marriott loyalists can look forward to a forthcoming Edition property; a spring grand opening is expected for the Kimpton Shinjuku for travelers with IHG points; and if you’re more interested in earning than redeeming points, Japan’s third Four Seasons will appear in time for the games at Tokyo at Otemachi.

You’ll want to check out our guide to the best points hotels in Tokyo to find the one that works best for you.

Related: 3 of the best value points hotels in Tokyo 

How to get to Tokyo

Naturally, there are a ton of ways to get to Tokyo — it’s one of the biggest cities in the world, after all. There are two airports that serve the city: Haneda (HND) and Narita (NRT). Haneda is much closer to the city, but I ended up flying in and out of Narita because of how my flights worked out.

On the way there, I flew in Japan Airlines first class. I’ll probably never be over the fact that I can say that and yes, it really was that amazing. I found award availability on Alaska Airlines for 70,000 miles and $18 in taxes and fees.

Coming home, I flew in Air Canada business class with a short layover in Montreal (YUL) — I transferred 75,000 Amex points to Aeroplan, paid about $175 in taxes and fees and voilá! That’s how you do it, people.

The details

Getting around

I’m a big fan of walking, especially in a city I haven’t been to before so I can explore every corner.

That said, Tokyo is a massive 845 square miles. You’ll inevitably have to take the subway, which is extremely efficient and clean — people wait on lines to get in and out of it. (Take notes, New York City.) I’d definitely recommend getting either a Pasmo or Suica card ahead of time and loading it with money so you don’t have to buy individual tickets. Also, you’ll need to swipe it (or your individual ticket) as you leave the station, so be sure to keep it accessible.

I loved putting on my headphones and listening to music while Google Maps was on in the background; it told me exactly when I needed to turn, and if I was taking the subway, when the train was leaving and what platform I needed to be at. Efficiency at its finest.

While I felt safe walking around at night, I opted to take a cab home from restaurants that weren’t walking distance to my hotel — when traveling alone, I always err on the side of caution. That said, you’ll be more than fine taking the subway with a companion, or even by yourself. I just always play it safe.

Uber is available here, although the fleet is fairly small and prices are typically more expensive than taxis. Taking a taxi in Tokyo is an experience — the drivers all wear white gloves, not to mention they open and close the door for you. Beats an Uber any day of the week.

To get to Kyoto, I took the scenic Shinkasen directly from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station. I’d recommend getting to Tokyo Station early and going to Rokurinsha for ramen; you’ll thank me later. The trip took less than three hours, and yes, the bullet train is as fast as you’ve heard. Added bonus: The ticket cost about $120 each way, and counted toward my Chase Sapphire Reserve $300 travel credit.

Related: Second cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to Tokyo

Japanese currency and tipping

In Japan, $1 gets you about 108.55 Japanese yen, so don’t panic when you see astronomical numbers while scoping out prices. You’ll also want to carry a decent amount of cash on you, since many places don’t accept credit cards. Of course, when you do pay with card, you’ll want to use one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Just think of what you could be putting that money towards instead (read: food).

The service in Japan was absolutely incredible — I’d even venture to say it’s pretty much the ideal location for a solo woman traveler. People (everyone, not just those working in hospitality) go out of their way to help you and make sure you’re comfortable. Excellent service and hospitality is so ingrained in the culture that tipping is actually considered rude. Instead, just smile and say thank you.

Bottom line

In case you couldn’t tell, I had the absolute best time in Tokyo, and am already itching to go back. There is so much to see and do here that it’s difficult to even scratch the surface. But with these tips in mind, you’ll begin to understand what the hype is all about — and if my past trip here is any indication, you’re going to fall in love with this beautiful city, too.

Featured image courtesy of Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

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