I have traveled to many destinations, but no place has made me feel more familiar and foreign than Tokyo, Japan. Japan brings a unique culture that is instantly recognizable. You find clean streets and packed metros, sumo wrestlers and high-tech robots, anime and sushi. After 2 days in Tokyo, it quickly became a favorite of mine. I got to explore amazing places and exit my comfort zone, and never feeling frustrated by the travel experience. I’ve enjoyed reflecting on my time in Tokyo by preparing this 2 day Tokyo itinerary. You’ll find my Tokyo itinerary is full of things to do in Tokyo, where to stay and what to expect. Read on and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments below.
What is Tokyo like?
Tokyo is so fascinating because Japanese culture is a study in contrasts. Japan has a history of physical and cultural isolation. However, at the same time you feel echoes of East-Asian traditions and Western modernity. Together this brings a unique blend that is like no place on earth.
Who should visit Tokyo, Japan?
My trip to Japan took me to several cities for work, but I got to be a tourist in Tokyo. I loved it! Tokyo is a city that has something to offer everyone. Families can find many kid-friendly parks and amusements. Couples and friends traveling together can find a mix of adventures and attractions to fill the days and nights. Whether you are a student or a retiree, there’s a Tokyo itinerary for you. Solo travelers (like myself) will never feel alone in a metro area containing nearly 40 million people. Unlike parts of Southeast Asia, Japan is not a bargain, and prices rival those in major North American and Western European cities. But some savvy planning can reduce the financial bite of Tokyo, while those with deeper pockets can experience luxuries impossible to find anywhere else.
How to get around Tokyo
Tokyo is a physically massive city. It densely fills the largest open plain on the Japanese islands. There are many attraction to fill up a Tokyo itinerary and they’re easy to reach. You can get to every Tokyo attraction on an extensive network of metro and train lines. It’s simple to safely move around Tokyo with ease.
Here are some tips and hacks for navigating Tokyo public transport.
- Know that the metro stops at midnight, so late-night activities may require a pricy cab ride home.
- Tokyo’s various public transit lines are operated by different companies (for example the metro has two different operators). This means some transfers may not be completely straightforward.
- All stations have automated kiosks with many languages, where you can buy point-to-point tickets.
- There are several options for pre-paid and fixed-duration passes that can be used on all modes of public transit.
When is the best time to visit Tokyo?
Like any big city, Tokyo offers something in every season. I think the best time to visit Tokyo is Spring (April and May) or Fall (September). Traveling to Tokyo then means that you avoid the rainy summers and cool wet winters. I traveled in May and the weather was absolutely phenomenal. I was comfortable in shorts during the day and pants with a light jacket at night.
Where's the best place to stay in Tokyo?
With a huge expanse and strong transport networks, Tokyo has evolved into a city of neighborhoods. Many Tokyo neighborhoods feel like major cities of their own. I stayed in two famous Tokyo neighborhoods – posh Ginza and party-town Shinjuku.
Ginza is one of the best places to stay in Tokyo because it is centrally-located. Ginza is wedged between the sprawling grounds of the Imperial Palace and the Sumida river that runs into Tokyo Bay. Near the river you will find the famous Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s a popular place to walk around and belongs in any Tokyo itinerary. Ginza is filled with upscale shopping, including flagship stores for luxury brands, massive departments stores, and cute boutiques. Hide the plastic if you’ll be easily tempted over 2 days in Tokyo and the Ginza shopping opportunities.
Shinjuku is perhaps the polar opposite of Ginza. This Tokyo neighborhood is powered by neon signs and house music instead of Ginza’s luxury brands. Evening feels like midday with all the flashing signs and video boards around the neighborhood’s core. The center is anchored by the busiest railway station in the country (Shinjuku Station). Nightlife in Shinjuku includes the gay bars in Shinjuku-nichome, loads of bars offering the true national pastime (karaoke), and the classic shanty bars of Golden Gai.
I would also recommend staying in Shibuya, which is just south of Shinjuku. Shibuya offers plenty of fun restaurants and nightlife, good shopping options, and contains the famous Shibuya crossing, which is Tokyo’s version of Times Square. While I didn’t stay there, I spent time there and recommend exploring the neighborhood. I think you’ll see why it was part of my Tokyo itinerary.
What to do in Tokyo
Tokyo can fit any itinerary, whether you spend a week in the city or use it is a launching point for exploring the rest of Japan. Personally, I got to experience Tokyo bookending a week of business travel. I was only able to sample some key sights, but I carefully picked Tokyo attractions for my 2 day itinerary. Here’s how to explore Tokyo and fit in the highlights with some special attractions that I discovered along the way.
Morning Day 1
For your first day in Tokyo, I recommend skipping breakfast and heading to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Sadly, the famous seafood vendors have been moved to a new location. On the bright side, the market is still filled with stalls selling all kinds of goods and food. Wander around and window shop. It’s best to snack around the market rather than eating a single meal in one spot.
You can experience all kinds of fresh snacks, but my favorite place to eat was a sushi restaurant with a conveyor belt. It moves fresh sushi around the patrons – and you take what you want. After your meal, you just pay by the number of plates (the colors represent the different prices). So clever! Note that the market closes in the early afternoon. While most items in my Tokyo itinerary can be flipped or swapped, not the Tsukiji Fish Market. Make a point to arrive before lunch so you can experience it.
Afternoon Day 1
Walk-off a belly full of delicious fish by walking up around the Ginza neighborhood. Depending on your budget, you may be either window shopping or looking for souvenirs here. There are plenty of flagship stores for luxury name brands. Visit the flagship store for Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing company. If it’s not your store, you’ll find several other department stores worth exploring. If none of it’s your thing, you can experience the neighborhood as a part of your journey to the metro.
Evening Day 1
From Ginza Station, you can take the metro to Shibuya. One of the things that makes the metro easy for foreigners is that all the stations are numbered. That’s part of why it’s so easy to get around. To Western ears, many Japanese names sound similar to the ear – buy you can figure it out by the numbers.
Once you arrive you can experience Shibuya Crossing It’s Tokyo’s most famous cross-walk. I recommend arriving at dusk. That’s when you can best experience the electric glow from the billboards and video screens that surround the square. You can also walk around the main boulevard – a top destination for souvenir shopping.
From here take the train to Shinjuku. As soon as you get out of the station you will feel the energy of the crowds. You may likely be attacked by men handing out pamphlets for the various sex shows in the area. Don’t worry – you are extremely safe in Shinjuku. Feel free to ignore them (or don’t if that’s your thing – no judgement). Plenty of good food abounds here. Pop into a small shop selling ramen or yakitori (grilled skewered chicken).
If you’re in a party mood, you can try out the shanty bars of Golden Gai, or the gay bars in Shinjuku Ni-chome. None of the bars in this area are very large. Many bars hold no more than a dozen patrons. The Tokyo gay scene is filled with super-specific bars tailored to the various niches of gay culture, and many are not particularly open to foreigners. But there are plenty of fun bars like Dragon Bar and clubs like Arty Farty.
Morning Day 2
Assuming you are functional after a night in Shinjuku, we will start day two by experiencing some of Tokyo’s shrines. I recommend starting by traveling to Asakusa, where you can see two of the most popular shrines. Senso-ji is a Buddhist temple that anchors grounds that contain contemplative gardens, souvenir shops, and food stalls. I recommend approaching from the south through the Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, and the Hozomon, or Treasure-house Gate.
Around the shrine you can admire the amazing architecture, though this shrine was rebuilt after the original was destroyed in World War II. As you go inside, be sure to find an o-mikuji, or fortune. Typically you must give a small donation (100 yen is typical), and then shake the metal can and have one of the 100 numbered sticks fall out. This will correspond to your fortune, which you can take with you.
At the north end of the grounds you will find the pagoda of the Asakusa Shrine. This is a Shinto shrine that was built in honor of the founders of the Senso-ji, and is a great example of how intertwined the Shinto and Buddhist religions are with each other.
You can enjoy lunch from some of the small food stands and street food vendors around the grounds, or venture into the surrounding streets that have many small restaurants and cafes.
Afternoon Day 2
For the afternoon, I give you two options. If you love history museums, then I recommend heading to the Tokyo National Museum. The museum covers all of Japanese history, including ancient pottery, samurai swords and kimonos. Surrounding the museum is a neighborhood that contains cute shops and galleries, and several shrines fill the beautiful Ueno Onshi park.
Alternatively, head to Meiji Jingu, Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who lead Japan through its rapid period of opening and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The shrine was also destroyed during World War II, but the reconstruction is beautiful and memorable. From here, walk south to Yoyogi Park. In such a densely populated city, this park serves at the back yard for residents. Wander the grounds and see people picnicking, listening to music, or enjoying some cosplay. Olympic fans like myself will admire the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, and iconic building built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Evening Day 2
After a relaxing and contemplative day, experience modern Tokyo at Roppongi Hills. It’s a mega-mall filled with shops, restaurants, entertainment and attractions. Look around and you can find a great place for karaoke and a nice dinner.
How to spend more time in Japan
I packed a lot into my Tokyo itinerary and explored some other areas of Japan on day trips. Since I was traveling for work, this was a short trip to Tokyo and Japan. There are, however, other options for seeing this amazing country. In order to really explore Japan, I recommend 10 days to two weeks in the country.
Here are some options for tours that will give you a real understanding of Japanese culture and attractions – they also do it in a financially efficient way. The farther from Tokyo you explore, the higher the degree of difficulty your travel will become. For that reason, I highly recommend looking into a tour to ease your experience. Here are a few good ones.
Epic Japan: Sake and Street Food Tour
This tour begins in Tokyo and ends in Osaka with several stops over 11 days. You can use my 2 day Tokyo itinerary and then set off on this group tour designed for budget-mined young travelers. It’s restricted for travelers age 18-39 and traverses Japan by train. Stops include Takayama, Hiroshima and Kyoto as you ride from Tokyo to Osaka. The tour is about $150 USD per day and includes train travel, hotels/lodging and some activities. You also have the benefit of a Japanese guide over the entire trip. Click the button below for more details.
Discover Japan - Classic Tour
This tour begins and ends in Tokyo which makes it easy for booking flights. The itinerary takes you to Kanazawa and Takayama, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima with a stop at Mount Fuji. It does involve some hiking and light activity. There are numerous activities where you can add adventure excursions. This is a more comfortable version of the tour above – better accommodations, bullet trains and more included activities. You also have a Japanese guide throughout the tour. At time of publishing, the tour will be about $210 USD per day, so you pay a little more for those comforts. Click the button below for more details.
Iconic Japan: National Geographic Tour
This tour is the one with all the bells and whistles! It makes your Japan experience next-level and is designed by and guided by staff of National Geographic. They’re experts, and the service level of the tour reflects their extra care and attention. Like the tours above, you travel by train around the country. The itinerary is similar, it begins in Tokyo and ends in Kyoto. Your lodging is upgraded, it includes more tours and activities in each stop and some meals. For this luxury tour you’ll pay about $300 USD per day. Click the button below to review the tour details.
Check out other tour options
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