Last updated December, 2018
We've had the pleasure of visiting Tokyo on two occasions and it's among our very favorite spots. We have a lot of recommendations, but let's be honest — it would take months or even years to become an expert on a city like Tokyo. So consider our advice and recommendations as being from Tokyo novices. 😊
We've curated a custom Google Map with all of the places we've visited and enjoyed on our trips. You can add it straight to your Google Maps account and easily access these destinations during your trip. Enjoy!
Sights to See
Tsukiji Fish Market
Being the foodies that we are, the Tsukiji Fish Market is pretty much paradise. The highest quality fish, fruits and vegetables from all over the world are sold in this market. It does $14m in fish, $4m in fruits and vagetables every single day. Our favorite thing to buy is the fresh strawberries. I've never tasted anything like them. Since it's a big place, we recommend starting your day with a walking tour. We took this one, but feel free to browse others on TripAdvisor.
Four places worth visiting while at Tsukiji Market:
- Kitsuneya - a small stall that sells the best bowl of meat and rice I've ever tasted. For $10, it's one of my favorite Tokyo meals.
- Sushidai - world class, fresh sushi for a reasonable price. Just be ready to wait in a long line, or head over to Sushizanmai if you are short on time.
- Yazawa Coffee - best pourover coffee I could find in Tokyo.
- Hamarikyu Gardens - with your coffee and strawberries in hand, walk over to this gorgeous park to recharge. Make your way to Nakajima No Ochaya for afternoon tea when ready.
It's hard to put this experience into words, so I'm not going to try. But the Robot Restaurant is worth seeing. The performance will leave a smile on your face for over an hour.
Typically the most affordable tickets are on their website. Also, I don't recommend wasting a meal there. Attend the show and enjoy the atmosphere! I thought Anthony Bourdain had a particularly great reaction to the show:
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
This beautiful park is worth spending an afternoon walking through on your trip. It's so beautiful, peaceful and perfect on a nice fall day. It even has an indoor greenhouse with all sorts of flowers and plants worth checking out.
Meiji Jingū Ōtorii
Our favorite neighborhood of Harajuku has this wonderful treasure, and a couple of shrines as well. The whole park is wonderful, great for a morning run, or a casual stroll.
Eat & Drink
Japan is known for all sorts of culinary marvels. When in Tokyo, I think the only way to experience some of them is with a local guide. Almost every time we visit a big city, we try to do a food tour. The Aka chochin food tour was a wonderful sampling of 5-6 dishes that were casual, pub-type food. We had ramen, sushi, ice cream and a few things I don't even remember. We also had a couple sake drinks at every stop, so the night got blurry fast.
The highlight was the fresh sushi, served in a way I've never experienced. The chef fished a mackeral of of the tank, sliced it up right in front of us and he (we named him Freddie, RIP) was still moving as we enjoyed the meat.
When planning your trip, it's important to note that the nice restaurants do book out weeks or even months in advance. On our first trip, this was a bit of a shock. So you have two options: (1) stick with ramen and more affordable street food, which we did for one of our trips and enjoyed it just as much, or (2) use a reservation service like Voyagin to get help booking reservations in advance.
You have to use an intermediary because reservations require a phone call and very few folks at the restaurants speak English. In some cases, it's just about having someone that knows their way around the high-end restaurants, which is worth the price.
We've had a bunch of sushi experiences in Tokyo (you should too!), but I'll keep the commentary to two highlights. The first is Sushidai. It's arguably the freshest, highest quality sushi you can get for your money in Tokyo. Located in Tsukiji Market, they are open early and have a line out the door the entire day. For roughly $80 US, the meal was absolutely amazing.
The one downside is that you'll be waiting in line to enjoy this wallet-friendly meal. We decided to be there when it opened at 5am, and joined the queue around 4am because we were a bit jetlagged anyway. We got in shortly after they opened with that strategy, but it's common for folks to wait a couple of hours to get in. Just bring a book and a patient attitude and you'll be fine!
The second sushi experience we had was on the high-end, as we made a visit to the Michelin two-star Sushi Masuda restaurant. The chef is Rei Masuda, who opened the restaurant in 2014. Before that, he spent 9 years working in the world famous Sukiyabashi Jiro, of "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" fame. Chef Masuda is most well-known for his care and preparation of the rice, which I think has a hint of vinegar.
As you'd expect, the entire experience was unforgettable — so much so that it would have been disrespectful to take photos, so we didn't. As a five-star dining experience, you should expect to pay a very high premium. As of the last update to this post, a meal costs about $315 per person. But if you are visiting Tokyo for some of the world's best, this place is sure to please.
Kaiseki was on the wish list when we arrived. It's a traditional multi-course meal that has a specific rhythm in terms of the ingredients and flavors.
As you can see in the menu photo below, it's personalized with your name when you arrive. Service-wise, it's the best experience I've ever had. We spent 15 minutes talking with the chef at the end of the night and he informed us that he received his third Michelin star that very day. He deserves it, the food and service was a work of art.
The exclamation point here is intentional and well-deserved. We fell in love with Japanese ramen on our trips. It's affordable, it's quick, and it's almost always world class in Tokyo. I was surprised to only find a couple of ramen photos when looking through our camera. The only explanation I have is that the food must have been so good, so appetizing, that we actually forgot to take photos. We've probably had a dozen ramen meals in Tokyo, and these few places really stood out:
- Ichiran Ramen - our favorite of the lot, and there are a couple of locations in the map on the top of this post. You may wait in a line for 30-60 minutes, but holy cow is it worth it. And the ordering/eating experience is quite fun/unique with the little stalls.
- Afuri - fantastic ramen, and I believe there are 2-3 locations in Tokyo. They have a vending machine in the front for ordering, and your food is delivered shortly after. Great experience.
- Fūunji - A fun, diner-like experience for ramen. Very tasty!
Some other food worth having in Tokyo? Udon (try this place), Shabu Shabu, and Tonkatsu. Bottom line is that if you see a crowded restaurant, it might just be worth trying a meal. We've enjoyed just about everything we tried.
Tokyo is somewhat like New York City, in that you could eat at three new restaurants every day and always have tons of options available to you. Our advice is to keep an open mind, try food in all price ranges, and come hungry.
First off, you'll want to rent a pocket wifi so that you have access to internet service while in Tokyo. We had a great experience with this Wi-Fi rental store. Order a couple weeks in advance and they will have the unit delivered to your hotel. Pocket wifi is great because everyone on your trip can share it instead of paying for separate data packages.
Next, if you are doing any travel outside of Tokyo — to Kyoto, for instance — you'll want to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. It will cover the cost of your longer trips and offer complimentary rides on some of the local public transportation trains. It's expensive, but you'll save a lot more money by purchasing this pass instead of going a la carte. Make sure to purchase your pass about a month in advance to make sure everything is in order before you leave. I'll be honest — it's a pain in the butt. But the pass is worth it.
Lastly, do bear in mind that taxis are very expensive, and Uber/Lyft don't have a presence there (as of 2018). We tried a couple other ride-sharing apps with poor results. Walking and public transportation will be your best bet in most cases. Google Maps does a great job offering public transportation options, and even tells you what the fare should be for various trains. We leaned on that heavily to get around, as most signs aren't in English.