The Best Guide to Tokyo: For the First-Timer
By: Michelle Rizzi
When it came to planning my annual weeklong winter getaway, my list of priorities included beach, tan, swim. But that all changed when my warm weather research hit a dead end, thanks to offensively expensive travel options ($3,500 roundtrip economy seats to Mexico — with a layover? Insanity!), or sold-out hotels.
And that’s when my boyfriend suggested we go to Tokyo, promising me I would have the time of my life (spoiler: I did.) Problem solved.
Check out my list of must-dos when visiting Tokyo, below!
I was expecting late December/early Japan to be miserably cold, colder than New York City, but I was wrong! Skies were blue and sunny, without a cloud in sight. During the day, temperatures were high-40s to low-50s, with nighttime dipping down to the high-30s, low-40s. Not exactly toasty, but warmer than the current conditions I was in.
Plan Your Trip
Tokyo is definitely a city where I wouldn’t wing it. Plan your trip by visiting a different neighborhood each day. There’s so much to do, so much to see!
The subway in Tokyo is incredibly efficient, affordable, and easy to navigate. All stops have an English translation, as well as a number that corresponds to a map. Trains arrive on time, and are clean and comfortable — the antithesis of the New York City subway. It’s important to note that the subway system is comprised of the privately owned Tokyo Metro and the government-run Toei Subway. You can buy an integrated subway card, making transfers seamless, or individual tickets for each. There are also plenty of taxis in Tokyo, but they’re pricey.
I’ll leave the details to the pros, but the following are worth seeing: Meiji Shrine, Tsujiki Fish Market, Mori Art Museum, Imperial Palace, Tokyo Metropolitan Arts Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Sensoji Temple, Shibuya Crossing, and Takeshita Street.
Vintage shopping in Tokyo is comparable to NYC or LA, pricewise, but they’re all hyper-curated and themed to perfection, making each one unique. The shops that really stood out to me are located in Shibuya and easily walkable from one another:
- Locals Only: Old-school surf and skate brands
- BerBerJin: Concert t-shirts, leather jackets, Levi’s, punky army jackets, Berlin-vibes
- Pigsty: Classic American brands like Wrangler, Champion, Converse, Ralph Lauren, etc.
- Chicago: This one is a bit more thrifty, but the racks are tightly edited and more trend-driven
Other stores worth the visit
- Kapital: If you’re looking for that special piece that you can say, “Oh, this? Yeah, I bought it in Japan,” then Kapital is your spot. Note that they have three stores in Ebisu: Kapital, which carries their current collection; Kapital Legs, featuring the denim line; and Kapital Archive, boasting items from the brand’s past collections. All three are worth the visit, and about a five minute walk from each other.
- Tsutaya Books at Daikanyama T-Site: The most beautiful bookstore that is worth visiting, even though you may not buy anything. The neighborhood in which T-Site is located is also generally cool.
Bars and Restaurants
- Kaikaya: Make a reservation on Opentable at this seafood spot, and order the omakase tasting menu. The price and atmosphere were on point.
- Itamae Sushi: Checking your morals at the door, sit down, and feast on the blue fin tuna special.
- Grandfather’s: A dimly lit basement level bar that likely hasn’t changed since it opened 40 years ago. The 80-ish-year-old DJ pulls records from the bar’s floor-to-ceiling rock and R&B collection, and then promptly displays his selection so you know what you’re listening to.
- New York Bar: The Lost in Translation bar at the Park Hyatt offers stunning views, great music, and finely crafted (pricey) drinks. If you get there before 8PM, you won’t have to pay the $25 cover fee.
- Golden Gai: A maze of alleys that are filled with bars. Each one is different, and has about 8-12 seats, forcing you to become BFFs with the others there. I wouldn’t miss this if I were you.
- Get a pocket wifi at the airport, which costs about $11 a day, and totally helped in getting around the city.
- Due to the time change, you’ll likely wake up at 4AM. Just roll with it and go to Tsukiji Market before it gets crowded and have sushi for breakfast.
- Make sure you do the Tokyo City View for an unparalleled look of the city, then take in the museum’s exhibit.
- Many businesses are closed the first week of January, due to the New Year. If you go around that time, like I did, make sure the bars, restaurants, shops and sites you wish to visit are open.
- Make dinner reservations at the city’s most coveted restaurants a couple days, or even weeks, in advance. If you’re adventurous, then don’t make dinner reservations for every night you’re there. Wandering into restaurants and discovering the menu — be it translated by your waiter, subtitled in English, or pictured — was the best part.
- There are. So. Many. Malls. in Tokyo. Just go check them out. You’ll understand why once you’re there.
- Hit up the Purikura photo booths in Harajuku for the most kawaii souvenir ever.
On my list for next time
Pick a seasonal fruit from the bar and husband-and-wife team Takuo and Sumire Miyanohara will create a bespoke cocktail just for you. Expect modern mixology, from liquid nitrogen and foams, combined with old school technique.
Gen Yamamoto offers a cocktail tasting menu which is created from. carefully selected and seasonal local fresh produce and fine liquors. The cocktail tasting menu reflects “shiki”, Japanese seasonality. Natural flavors come together in harmony for each cocktail. The cocktail tasting menu is a progression of flavors.
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that has existed since the eighth century A.D. ... Such inns also served travelers along Japan's highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner.