A First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo

Since Tokyo is such a large city, you could spend years there and hardly scratch the surface. There are two distinct sides of the expansive city: the bright lights of Shinjuki and Shibuya, and the cozy side, nestled in back allies and hidden nooks throughout the city. What I love most about Tokyo is the people, and how they tend to master each craft to perfection, whether it be making coffee, sushi or glass blowing–everything is done with such precision and care.

Below I’ve rounded up some tips and recommendations for those traveling to this vibrant city for the first time.

Before you go…

1. Familiarize yourself with Japanese customs.

2. Learn some language basics in Japanese: yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank you, please, directions, common phrases and questions.

3. Contact your hotel concierge and make dinner reservations before your arrival.

4. Reserve a pocket WiFi so you can stay connected. You can arrange to pick up and drop off your pocket WiFi upon arrival and departure.

Where to Stay…

If you are not fluent in Japanese, I recommend staying in a hotel. Although some people do speak English here, it is the exception and not the rule. A concierge service can be very helpful in answering any questions or simply making reservations for you. Tokyo is a huge sprawl, so it’s best to stay somewhere both central and close to a subway line. Some great options are:

1. Park Hyatt Tokyo is located in the Shinjuku district. The rooftop bar, New York Bar, offers sweeping views of the city and Mt. Fuji on a clear day.

2. Park Hotel Tokyo is located in the Shiodome, close to Ginza and the Tsukiji Market. The hotel starts on the 25th floor of a high-rise building. There are several unique rooms that each feature the work of a different local artist. Although it’s in the business district (not a quaint neighborhood, albeit clean and safe), it’s close to several subway lines where you can most anywhere in the city in about 20 minutes.

3. Mitsui Garden Hotel is in the central business district (Ginza) also close to the Tsukiji Market. The neighborhood is quiet on the weekends but the location is central. The hotel is nice, clean and reasonably priced.

4. The Prince Gallery Tokyo is located in Chiyoda. It’s a beautiful, trendy hotel and is centrally located.

5. Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel is located right in the middle of Shibuya. The hotel is clean and modern and offers beautiful views of the city.

Where to Dine…

Unless you plan to eat at izakayas or casual restaurants for the duration of your trip, it’s essential to make reservations in advance (I’ve noted the restaurants that do not require reservations below). Before you arrive in Japan, contact your concierge and ask them to make reservations at your desired restaurants.

1. Sushi Iwase is a tiny sushi restaurant that only seats twelve people. It’s a true gem and the best sushi I’ve ever had. There is no sign on the door and it’s located on a small side street just outside of busy Shinjuku. It is essential to make reservations here ahead of time (the staff does not speak English so have your hotel call). The meal is a set course of sushi (they keep serving you until you are full!); it’s pricey but worth a one-time splurge. Probably my favorite dinner in Japan.

2. Shirosaka is another small restaurant, located in Akasaka, that seats about 15 people. They do speak minimal English here (the chef worked in New York and Los Angeles before opening Shirosaka). Have your hotel make reservations in advance. Nine or twelve course set meal.

3. Yanmo Minami-Aoyama is a hidden gem near the Omote-Sando Station. Go for a good lunch or dinner (more pricey). The entrance is down a flight of stares and can be hard to miss. One of my favorite restaurants. Reservations for dinner; not necessary for lunch. {casual, reservations not necessary}

4. Shin Udon is by far the best udon I had in Tokyo. You can watch them make the noodles by hand as you wait in line outside. The space is small and there is usually a line no longer than 45 minutes and worth the wait. They have a great sake inventory and are very friendly, but speak little to no English.

5. Shirube is a lively and fun izakaya located in Shimo-Kitazawa . Opt to sit inside, remove your shoes and take in the lively atmosphere.

6. Sushi Midori is located in Ginza and there is always a wait (usually between 30-45 minutes). For good reason though, the sushi is delicious and reasonably priced.

7. Gogyo Ramen is located in the Roppongi; the best ramen I had in Tokyo.
Namiki Yabusoba is a great soba noodle place located in Asakusa.
Omoide Yokocho is an area in Shinjuku with has various food vendors and bars crammed together between the railway tracks and the Ome Kaido. Find a place that looks good–grab a bite before heading to Golden Gai for drinks.

8. Commune 2nd is essentially a food truck yard–a group of vendors located in a single area. It’s a great place to go if you are with a group of people and you feel like eating different things. There’s a bit of everything here–coffee, beer, vegan options, curry and more. I wouldn’t go for a uniquely Japanese experience, but it’s a good place to stop for a bite if you’re hungry and in the neighborhood.

*Note: There are tons and tons of great restaurants in Tokyo, these are just a few places that I went to and enjoyed.

But First, Coffee…

Tokyo has some of the best coffee in the world (and I say that with full confidence). It’s a craft that Japanese aficionados take seriously. And it’s seriously good. Here are my favorite spots:

1. Fuglen is located near Yoyogi Park in the Shibuya-ku district, the coffee is delicious and the ambiance is hipster with Norwegian mid-century modern decor. At night, enjoy craft cocktails here. They spin some pretty cool tunes here as well…

2. Little Nap is near Fuglen, an adorable little coffee shop on a quiet street near the park. One of my favorite spots.

3. Koffee Mameya is in the Harajuku area. There is no sign, you just have to look for the address. The baristas wear lab coats and they mostly sell beans but also offer hand drip coffee.

4. Onibus Coffee is a small coffee vendor with an outdoor space near the river in Naka-Meguro. Very cute. Very good hand drip coffee.

5. Cafe de l’Ambre is located on a small street off the main shopping drag in Ginza. It looks like an old pre-WWII bar. Another example of coffee made with great care. They serve some of their drinks in fancy cocktail glasses too! Enjoy a late afternoon pick me up as they don’t open before noon.

6. Kayaba Coffee opened in 1938 and was about to be demolished a few years ago until it was rescued from the wrecking ball. They offer some food and snacks and good coffee. The ambiance is fantastic. Located in Yanaka.

7. Be a Good Neighbor Coffee has a few different locations–all are cute and have great coffee.

For Nights On the Town…

1. Golden Gai is an area in Shinjuku with hundreds of tiny bars clustered together. A truly unique experience. There is an intimate library bar located on a tiny residential street in the Roppongi District. You would never stumble upon this gem but should definitely pay a visit.

2. Zoetrope is located in Shinjuku, go here if you like Japanese whiskey.

3. New York Bar is located at the top of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. It has sweeping views of the city. After 8:00p you have to pay a cover charge for some mediocre jazz.

4. Never Never Land located in Shimo-Kitazawa.

5. Trouble Peach located in Shimo-Kitazawa.

Neighborhoods To Explore…

1. Shimo-Kitazawa is outside of the city center, not too far from Shibuya, but seemingly worlds away. Old world Tokyo vibe.

2. Naka-Megura, Daikanyama, Ebisu. Great shopping with a hipster vibe, these three little neighborhoods are close to each other.

3. Yanaka has lots of cute little shops with old Tokyo charm.

4. Tomigaya is a quiet little neighborhood adjacent to Shibuya and just northwest of Shibuya. Get lost and wander the small streets.

Worthwhile Experiences…

1. Tsukiji Market was probably one of my favorite experiences in Tokyo. It’s not only a fish market, but also sells other specialty food and kitchen items. Go on the earlier side as most places close around 1:00pm. Enjoy some fresh black bean pies and fluffy eggs on a stick–top if all off with some sushi of course! There are a few re-known places here that have huge long lines. In my opinion, it’s not worth the wait as there are so many options for fresh sushi in the market. We ended up going to this hidden sushi bar in this tiny hallway that dissected the market. When in doubt, look for a small place with non-tourists, that has a full house but without a long line.

2. Yoyogi Park is a great place to stroll and see the cherry blossoms (if they are blooming) or just to take a stroll on a nice day. On the weekends you’ll find Tokyoites relaxing from their busy work week. Stop by the Meijui Jingu Shrine while you’re there!

3. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is another great park to enjoy an afternoon stroll or see the cherry blossoms.

4. Department Store Food Halls are worth a visit. As someone who doesn’t like malls or crowds, I resisted going to the department store food halls, or depachika, for the first part of our trip. However, I’m glad I finally caved. The food halls are located in the basement level of most department stores. The vendors are grouped by category, such as confectionery (my favorite area), prepared food, groceries, spirits, etc. You can literally get EVERYTHING here. It’s hard to explain, but well worth a visit! It’s also a great place to go to get snacks for a long train or plane ride. Most department stores are similar so pick a location based on what is convenient for you. I liked Takashimaya, and Ginza Mitsukoshi.

5. Golden Gai is an area within seven tiny streets of Shinjuku that has hundreds of miniature-sized bars. It gives you an idea of what Tokyo looked like before World War II. Go for a post-dinner drink.

6. Takeshita-dōri is the famous teen fashion bazaar in Harajuku. While this is not my favorite street in Harajuku, it’s worth it to stroll through and then explore the less trodden Ura-Hara, the small streets on either side of Omote-Sandō Boulevard.

photo credit: Galen Crout