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This Backpack and Snorkel Travel Guide (Tokyo Purple Guide) provides information about the best things to do in Tokyo and ensures that you will be Making Memorable Moments on a relaxing vacation in Tokyo.
Once you have gone through immigration and claimed your luggage, there are two things that you will likely do:
To get your Japan Rail Pass, you have to go to the JR East office. The link below shows you the Narita airport terminal maps and the location of the JR East office: https://www.narita-airport.jp/en/map/official_guide/
Don’t worry, people speak English at the counter.
The N’EX fares are included in the Japan Rail Pass. Because the start date of our 7 day JR Pass was a few days later, we had to pay for the N’EX. You can find detailed information including fare and time tables here: https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/nex/
As I mentioned before, Ginza is most Tokyo’s most popular upmarket shopping, dining and entertainment district. You will find many internationally renowned department stores and boutiques, restaurants and coffeehouses, art galleries here and its main street, Chuo Dori, is considered to be one of the most expensive, elegant and luxurious shopping streets in the world.
On weekend afternoons, central Chuo Dori is closed to car traffic from noon to 5pm (6pm April through September) and becomes a pedestrian zone with lots of vendors, street performances and artists converting the street to a family friendly "pedestrian heaven".
After we arrived at the hotel, my wife was exhausted and tired. I was exhausted too, but all fired up and super excited from the little bits and pieces we had seen of Japan in the last few hours and I figured that going to bed was the worst thing I could do. So, we agreed that I will explore Ginza on foot while she would be hitting the hay. My goal was to explore Chuo Dori and the restaurants built into the arches under the elevated tracks north and south of the Yūrakuchō Station. Orientation was and walking in Tokyo at night, together with thousands of other people is fun and safe. I even had time to go in a supermarket and buy some food and drinks for our jam-packed schedule of the next days. After about 2h of walking and taking in all of the beautiful and bombastic neon and LED lights, I suddenly felt immensely tired and exhausted and that’s when I decided to go to the hotel. I got there shortly before 11pm and slipped into my bed and fell asleep immediately.
With 14 million inhabitants, Tokyo is the most populous city in Japan; the metropolitan area has 38 million people. Tokyo is the capital and the political, cultural and economic center of Japan.
Originally a small fishing village named Edo (E=”cove or inlet” and to=”door, entrance, gate”), the city became a political center in 1603 when shogun Tokugawa leyasu made Edo castle his military headquarters. In 1869, Tokyo which had a population of more than 1 million people, took over as the imperial capital from Kyoto when emperor Meiji moved here and Edo was renamed to Tokyo (To=”East” and kyo=”capital”). Today, Tokyo is an economic powerhouse. It hosts 36 of the Global Fortune 500 companies and is ranked third on the Global Finance Centers index.
The climate that you can expect when you visit Tokyo is shown here:
Upon popular request, pinterest users, please repin these images:
Ginza is Tokyo’s most popular upmarket shopping, dining and entertainment district.
We figured that it would be good to stay in the midst of the action, especially considering that Ginza is close to many of the destinations of our Tokyo Self-Guided Walking Tour 1.
As in other capitals of this world, lodging in Tokyo can be expensive. We were lucky to find Tsukiji Business Hotel Ban (map) which has good reviews, is located close to restaurants, shopping and the Tsukiji Station of then Tokyo Metro.
We stayed in this hotel for 4 nights. The hotel is fairly narrow and you may accidentally walk by it without noticing. We chose it as it was less than $100 per night, it is only 1 block from a subway station (Tsukiji on the Hibiya line), very close to the Tsukiji fish market and within extended walking distance to Ginza. Room 203, a non-smoking room, is a surprisingly large room with 2 beds, each with 1 thin pillow, a TV with Japanese TV channels only, a small fridge, a desk, a hair dryer and a comparably large bathroom and it was very quiet. The room comes with an air freshener, an efficient and quiet room A/C and a tea maker. Shampoo, body wash and conditioner were supplied in large multi-use dispensers. Slippers, hair brushes, tooth brushes with tooth paste and razors were provided complimentary. The room does not have a closet; your clothes stay in your suitcases or you hang them on a wardrobe.
Even though the entrance door for the room is only 6ft tall, the door that connects to the bathroom is normal size and the ceiling in both rooms is at normal height.
Breakfast was included in the room rate. You can choose between a Japanese and a Western breakfast. The chef prepares the breakfast at the bar that you sit at. It is a fairly slow process and I can imagine that it may take some time if many guests come at the same time. The Western breakfast (see photo) consists of a slice of toast, strawberry marmalade, margarine, yogurt with a drop of marmalade, lettuce, a boiled egg (sometimes warm, sometimes cold), 1 small slice of red pepper and one slice of cucumber or yellow pepper and a single drink (coffee or tea) and as much ice water as you like. The Japanese breakfast has some salmon slice, miso soup, and some other dishes (see photo) plus the a.m. drink. There is no refill except for the water and the portion size is small for someone from the US who is used gigantic portions.
When we checked in, we were told that the room is not cleaned daily but, if we gave permission, they would enter the room and make the bed and change the towels daily.
Included in the room rate was a daily alcoholic drink. One could choose from 4 or 5 options, including Sake, wine and beer. The receptionist and the chef/bar tender spoke a little English.
Directly near the hotel are several small restaurants (bring cash!) a Lawson convenience store and a temple.
The hotel had free and fast wifi and a quiet and efficient A/C.
Long story short: This hotel is great value, considering the much more expensive alternatives in this part of town. Its proximity to the subway, the fish market, Ginza and Tokyo station with the JR line and Shinkansen access make this hotel a very convenient place to stay. For less than $100 per night, it will be difficult to beat the value it provides. We would definitely stay here again.
The next day started with the yummy but small breakfast in the hotel that I described earlier. Good thing I had the snacks I bought from the supermarket the prior night.
We then started our first full day in Tokyo.
Here is what you need to know:
We went to the Tsukiji Fish Market’s original location before it was closed on October 6, 2018 and located to its current location, the Toyosu Market, just a few hundred feet away from our hotel.
At its original location, which was opened on February 11, 1935, it was one of the world’s largest wholesale food markets.
It is and was the place where fresh seafood is sold and distributed to super markets and restaurants where you will eat it later that day. The fish market is a busy place with forklifts and small transporters rushing all over the place in a chaotic but somewhat orderly manner. To avoid accidents and slow-downs from visitors, some areas are off-limits to tourists before 9am.
My recommendation is: Go there at around 9am when it is still busy and make sure to go all the way through the halls to the end. Near the fish market is a maze of small streets with hundreds of small stores and restaurants. Go there before or after you visit the fish market.
Long story short: If you want to see the hustle and bustle of a busy Asian wholesale fish market then this is the place for you. Don't forget to go into the maze of small streets near the fish market to shop for souvenirs or eat seafood.
We then walked to the Hama Rikyu Gardens where we arrived 20min before they opened at 9am sharp. Admission was 300 Yen per person.
The garden is located at the mouth of the Sumida River where it enters Tokyo Bay. It was opened in 1946 and is about 250,000 square meters in size. At its center are Shio-iri Pond and a teahouse that can be reached by three bridges.
Hama Rikyu Garden is supposedly the nicest garden in Tokyo. You will see nicely manicured grass, trees, sculptured shrubs and ponds with koi and other fish and a traditional tea house. We did not take the ferry to Asakusa that docks in the park, as we had a jam packed itinerary and preferred the Metro. Generally, this is a beautiful garden. However, the skyscrapers and some street noise disturb the tranquility.
Long story short: If you are in the area (e.g. for the Tsukiji Fish Market), Hama Rikyu Garden could be worthwhile 1h of your time.
We then walked to the next Metro station and took the train to the Asakusa station. On the way to our next destination, the Sensoji Temple, we decided to take it slow and enjoy the busy shopping street Nakamise Dori starting at Kaminarimon Gate and ending at Hōzōmon Gate at the entrance of Sensoji Temple and the shopping arcades that branch off to either side of Nakamise Dori.
At the end of Nakamise Dori is Sensoji Temple. This was the first orange-white temple we saw and this wonderful color combination immediately got me hooked making me want to see more and more of those beautifully colored temples. Even to this day, I am deeply in love with this color combination.
When you walk the same way we did, then you will first go through Kaminarimon Gate.
The Kaminarimon Gate or "Thunder Gate" is 11.7m tall, 11.4m wide and was built in 941, but destroyed numerous times. The current gate was built in 1960.
In its center hangs a giant red lantern which is 3.9 meters tall and 3.3 meters wide and weighs about 700kg (1,500lbs). The current lantern is from 2013.
Above the lantern, painted in golden letters on a green sign, stand the characters 金龍山 (Kinryū-zan) as a short form of “金龍山浅草寺" = Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji.
There are two statues, depicting the Shinto gods Fūjin and Raijin, in front the Kaminarimon and two in the back. Fūjin is the god of wind and located on the right (east), while Raijin, the god of thunder, is located on the left (west).
The statues on the backside are the Buddhist god Tenryū (east) and the goddess Kinryū (west).
Before you enter the Sensoji Temple, you will pass the Hōzōmon Gate.
The Hōzōmon Gate or "Treasure-House Gate" is a two-story gate and 22.7m tall, 21m wide and 8m deep. It was originally built in 942, but destroyed several times; the current gate is from 1964. It was constructed using flame retardant materials and that is why, today, the second story houses many of Sensoji's valuable artifacts.
The gate has two 5.45m tall Niō (guardian deities of the Buddha standing at the entrance of many Buddhist temples today) statues on its south facing side.
There are three large lanterns with the tallest being 3.75m tall, 2.7m in diameter, weighing of 400 kg and dating back to 2003.
Sensoji temple itself is super crowded, but clean and beautiful. Interestingly, we saw many Japanese women dressed in colorful traditional Japanese kimonos in the temple and on Nakamise Dori.
Sensoji is ancient Buddhist temple dedicated to the Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of compassion. With over 30 million visitors annually, Sensoji is the most visited spiritual site in the world. Besides being one of Tokyo’s most significant temples, it is also Tokyo's oldest.
According to legend, two fishermen found a statue of the Kannon in the Sumida River while fishing in 628 BC. The chief of their village realized what the statue was and enshrined it by converting his house into a temple and devoted the rest of his life to worship and holding memorial services for this Kannon.
In 645, a Buddhist priest built a hall for the Kannon which is recognized as the first temple on this site.
The temple was destroyed during the firebombing of Tokyo by the US Air Force during the night of March 9/10 1945 and later rebuilt.
Inside the temple are o-mikuji stalls where you may consult the oracle for 100 Yen and get “divine answers” in Japanese to your questions. We did not do that.
The Edo Tokyo Museum is near Ryogoku Station, which is on the Toei Metro Line which means that we now had to use the other subway line in Tokyo and, of course, the respective entrance to the Toei Metro station in Asakusa which is different than the entrance to the Tokyo Metro Line. Walking around and asking people, we were finally able to locate it. And guess what, we had walked by it several times without noticing it.
Opened in 1993, the Edo Tokyo Museum’s focus on 30,000 square meters is on giving people a feel for what life was like in Edo (Tokyo) from 1590 to 1964. There are several replicas of old buildings and displays that can be touched. The museum has some artifacts (paintings, ceramics, sculptures, clothes, armors, swords etc.) on display, but they do not come close to what e.g. the Tokyo National Museum offers.
Long story short: This museum gives a good feel for what life was in historic Tokyo. It is a family oriented museum and many displays can be touched. It complements well with the Tokyo National Museum. I would spend 1-2 hours here.
After all the exploration during this busy day, we decided to slow things down and do some high end window shopping and eat in one of the legendary Japanese department stores where shopping experience and customer service are taken to incredible highs.
We decided on the Isetan Shinjuku Store, which is connected to the Shinjuku Sanchome subway station. On 10 floors, this department store has everything you can think of buying. The only problem is: everything is real expensive. If you are not planning to spend tons of money, you may want to do your shopping elsewhere. You should, however, definitely come here as a visit is an incredible experience.
The store has one entire floor with food items, one with restaurants, several floors with women's clothes and accessories, another floor with nothing but household goods, etc. There is even a smaller store behind the main building that has only men's clothes. Other department stores like Tobu, Seibu, and Mitsukoshi have similar layouts. They may not sell all the same luxury brands and thus tend to have lower prices.
If you like to window shop for food, I encourage you to go to the ground floor of Isetan or any of the above department stores and you will be overwhelmed by their selection. Unfortunately, you can only buy the food but not consume it there. Be aware that some of the foods need to be steamed, microwaved or otherwise heated before they can be consumed. The friendly sales people told us in Japanese and, luckily, had a laminated sign handy that told us that in English.
Long story short: This is a very expensive department store which sells top brands. Window shopping may be the only activity there for most. We did our shopping in other department stores and regular stores and enjoyed our time here.
Our first destination on Sunday was Meiji Jingu Shrine. The entrance to the shrine is close to several metro stations. Please be advised that the shrine is located in a 170 acre (70 hectares) forested area and there is another 10-15min slightly uphill walk through from the entrance. The forest is said to contain 120,000 tress from 365 tree species.
If you go in summer then you may want to bring mosquito repellant. You may also want to use GPS or get a map of the area as you will not immediately see signs pointing to the walkway to the temple.
When we were there, we saw many people in colorful costumes and armed with flags and musical instruments starting to gather. And on our way back, we saw a music festival that was in full swing. More on that later.
Meiji Jingu Shrine is a Shinto shrine which is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shōken. The emperor is buried near Kyoto, however. The original shrine was completed in 1921, about 9 years after the emperor’s death and destroyed in World War II. The current building is from 1958. Notable foreign visitors were US President George W. Bush and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
We were there on a Sunday and witnessed part of a traditional wedding. Some parts of the temple were off limits and I don't know if this was due to the wedding.
Long story short: It is a nice but not spectacular temple but worth a visit.
After we went back through the forest from the Meiji Jingu Shrine, we saw the wonderful Shibuya Summer Festival in full swing with dancing and music performances on various stages in different locations in the forest and in the city. We did not know anything about this festival and, luckily, we even encountered a fantastic parade in downtown Shibuya. Watching several of the shows and the parade obviously messed up our time plan, but it did not bother us as we truly enjoyed this wonderful experience of seeing normally conservatively dressed and fairly unemotional Japanese people becoming polar opposites when partying.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is a short walk from the Tochomae Station. The main building, which was opened in 1990, splits on the 33rd floor into two towers which are 48 stories tall. Each tower has a panoramic observation deck on its floor 45 at an elevation of 663ft (202m) with a beautiful view of Tokyo. Access to the observation decks is free of charge and the opening times are from 9:30am until 11pm.
Before 2007, when Tokyo’s Midtown Tower opened, it was the tallest structure in Tokyo at a height of 797ft (243m).
The Omotesando Hills shopping complex was built in 2005 and it contains a little over 130 upscale stores and restaurants on a stretch of about 250m along Omotesando Street between the Meiji-Jingumae Metro Station and the Omote-Sando Metro Station.
There are many more affordable stores in this general area.
This large department store can be accessed directly from the Ginza Subway station. It was founded in 1673 to sell kimonos and merged with Isetan, another major Japanese department store, in 2008. Today, Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. Manages stores in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Italy, Taiwan and the USA. Like the Isetan Shinjuku Store, this is an upscale department store where you can pretty much buy anything, if you have the money. There are entire floors for food items, women's clothes and accessories, household goods, men’s clothes, etc. And, yes, here you can spend 5,400 Yen on a pound of grapes.
The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. It was built on the site of the old Edo Castle and the total area including the gardens is 0.44 square miles (1.2 square km).
The palace is only accessible to the public twice a year on New Year (January 2) and the Emperor’s birthday (currently February 23) and for guided tours from Tuesday to Saturday. Guided tours must be reserved way in advance on the palace website (see above).
The 2.3mio square foot (210,000 square meter) East Gardens are accessible without a reservation and are a nicely laid out piece of land with a small pond near the Imperial Palace. Besides beautifully manicured nature, you will see impressive massive stone walls and a few guard houses that are still standing. When we visited in late August, everything was green and very few flowers were blooming. Walking around and seeing the sites (especially Ninomaru Garden) takes about 60-90min. The view of the Imperial Palace from the Nijubashi Bridge is disappointing.
Long story short: Considering the importance of the Imperial Palace, I would recommend visiting the East Gardens. We liked our visit in late August, but it will probably be much more impressive when flowers are blooming or during cherry blossom or when the fall foliage is at its peak.
The Tokyo National Museum is the oldest national museum in Japan, the largest art museum in Japan, and one of the largest art museums in the world. It holds over 110,000 artifacts that focus on ancient and medieval Japanese art and art along the Silk Road, and Greco-Buddhist art.
The museum traces its roots back to 1872 when the first exhibition was held here.
As we had spent much time at the Shibuya Summer Festival, we had limited time and only visited the Japanese History building. The antique collections that this building houses on 2 floors are absolutely amazing. And the best is, you are allowed to take photos of most exhibits. Displayed are wonderful paintings, ceramics, sculptures, clothes, armors, swords etc. of Japan's long history. My suggestion is to plan at least 2 hours just for the Japanese History building and, if you have, additional time for the other parts of the museum.
The museum is within a 5-10min walk from Ueno station. Don't get confused as there is a Tokyo National Museum for Science and Technology and a Tokyo National Museum for Art nearby.
Bring cash as credit cards are not accepted at the ticket booth.
I would definitely rate this museum a must-see for everyone who is interested in Japanese history and consider this one of the highlights of our Japan vacation!
Tokyo Tower is a communications and observation tower which was built in 1958 and is painted with 28,000 liters 7,400 gallons (28,000l) of white and international orange paint. The orange is needed to comply with air safety regulations. At 1,092ft (332.9m), it is the 2nd tallest structure in Japan. It is easy to see that the inspiration of the Tokyo Tower comes from the French Eiffel Tower.
Like its French pendant, Tokyo Tower is a major tourist attraction with more than 150 million visitors. There are 2 observation decks – the Main Deck is at 90ft (150m) and the Top Deck at 819ft (249.6m). There is an admission fee to get to the observation decks; please see the opening times and admission on the Tokyo Tower website.
If you go there from dusk to midnight, then you will see the tower beautifully illuminated.
Please click on the images below to kearn more about the other destinations we visited in Japan.