10 things to do on your first trip to Tokyo!
Updated: Aug 3
Japan is easily one of my favorite places I've traveled to. A last-minute add-on to my Asia travels, it ended up being a place I find myself wanting to go back to almost daily. Most people include Tokyo in their Japan itinerary and for good reason. Tokyo is both the capital of Japan and the world's largest city, which means that there is no shortage of things to see and do there. There are activities for all budgets and options that suit people of all ages. While I didn't have the chance to explore all that Tokyo has to offer, here are some suggestions to help you make the most of your trip!
Check out the views at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Although it might sound like a weird thing to put on your Tokyo bucket list, trust me, this is one of the best things to do in Tokyo! It's free, and there is a cafe at the top that gives panoramic views of the city, and the best part is that it's free! Although the sunset is beautiful and a great time to visit, you'll enjoy it any time of day. Personally, I truly enjoy seeing cities from above, and this is the best way to see Tokyo in my opinion.
Cost: free! (plus any shopping and food costs)
Harajuku is the 'kawaii', or cute, capital of Tokyo. It's a very different experience from the more traditional parts of the city and one that should not be missed. Harajuku's many thrift stores and clothing shops are popular destinations among tourists and Japanese alike. You can also visit one of the famous animal cafes, where you can cuddle a cat or a hedgehog while you sip your latte. On the streets of Harajuku, you can also find lots of instagrammable foods, from rainbow cotton candy to the many kinds of sweet and savory crepes. In my mind, Harajuku reminds me of a Japanese version of London's Camden Market - something to buy and eat for everyone, and a bit touristy, but also a must-do in Tokyo. For some reason, I didn't take any pictures in Harajuku, so give it a Google, or just go and check it out for yourself!
Shibuya Crossing is one of the craziest and busiest street crossings in the world. It's been featured in so many movies and TV shows and it's definitely something you need to experience for yourself. Approximately 3,000 people cross the intersection at every green light, which happens every two minutes. After crossing the intersection for yourself, grab a drink at the Starbucks, which has the perfect viewpoint for watching all the action!
Eat some ramen at Ichiran Ramen
Cost: approximately ¥980/$9.80
Ichiran Ramen is one of the most famous places to get tonkatsu ramen in Tokyo. I know these types of places are usually overpriced and you can find better food elsewhere, but let me be the first to tell you that Ichiran Ramen lives up to the hype. Not only is it the best ramen I've ever had, but the experience of eating in the separate cubicles (for minimum distraction and maximum ramen enjoyment) was great, especially for a solo traveler. I went several times during my stay in Tokyo because it was just THAT good. You buy your tickets from the vending machine at the entrance for your ramen as well as any add-ons that you would like (boiled eggs, extra pork, etc.). Once you're seated, you fill out a little paper where you can customize your ramen, including the level of spice, amount of garlic, and noodle texture. I wish I could bottle up the smell of the ramen when they bring it to you. Heaven in a bowl, I swear. I also loved that for about ¥200 extra, you could buy an additional portion of noodles to add to your broth. That makes it almost like two bowls of ramen for a little more than the price of one!
Ichiran Ramen has several locations throughout Tokyo and further afield in Japan - as well as several abroad in New York City, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Have a magical day at Tokyo Disneyland or DisneySea
Cost: around $75 for a ticket, plus food and souvenirs
If you have kids with you, or you're just a lover of all things Disney, you can't miss the Japanese Disney parks. I am a Disney Park lover - I've been to 7 of the 12 Disney parks around the world, and DisneySea is for sure one of my favorites! Both of the Japanese Disney parks are known for their cute and yummy snacks, and their love of Duffy the bear. Tokyo Disneyland has the castle and all the traditional Disney rides - great for families with young kids or Disney purists. DisneySea is a bit more adventure-themed with rides that adults and older kids alike will love. DisneySea also has a Little Mermaid-themed land that is great for younger kids and lovers of Ariel.
Tokyo Disney is definitely more affordable than the US Disney parks - single park day tickets cost around $75. I bought quite a few snacks that were on the list of foods to try, plus had one quick service meal, and I only spent about ¥/$ on food for the whole day I was there. The parks are also small enough that a day is sufficient in each. Adding a day or two at Disney is a great addition to your Tokyo trip, and it isn't going to break the bank.
This was easily one of my favorite things I did in Tokyo, and it was free! The Meiji Shrine is set in a beautiful woodland park near Harajuku. It's a great way to walk around and enjoy some fresh air and the outdoors without even leaving the city. The shrine itself is also beautiful and a great backdrop for some photos. Definitely check it out for some time of peaceful reflection in Tokyo.
Senso-ji Temple is Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple and it's definitely worth a stop. Besides the Senso-ji Temple itself, there are several other shrines and pagodas. As soon as you step inside the complex, you're surrounded by the smell of burning incense which is quite the experience. Even if you're not religious at all, the temple is worth visiting for the architecture alone. The temple and pagodas are surrounded by shops and small food stalls. It's definitely a bit touristy, but you shouldn't let that stop you from visiting.
Get lost wandering the streets
Tokyo is a great mix of old and new, traditional and modern. One of my favorite things that I did was just wandering the streets admiring the architecture. I love doing this in any city - it's a great way to stumble upon places you might not have known about or seen otherwise. Bring a camera or a sketchbook to capture all these sights and memories!
teamLab Borderless is a digital art museum and was recommended to me by my friend Geoff. He has traveled to over 50 countries (if I'm remembering correctly!), so I definitely trust his advice. While it is a bit more expensive, especially for budget travelers, this isn't your typical museum experience. The whole exhibit is so immersive and makes use of all of your senses. This place is great for kids of all ages. The highlights for me were the room with all of the lights, the room with all the giant colored balloons, and walking through the water room with the digital fish swimming around my feet. The whole experience is so calming, and I left feeling very relaxed. Now I know I've just done a terrible job describing this place, but trust me, it is worth the visit! While it wasn't the easiest to take pictures inside, hopefully, these videos help convince you that you should check it out, or you can visit their website here.
Get outside the city!
While Tokyo is an amazing city, I think it's always good to see something outside of the capital/big cities in any country you visit. I took two trips outside of Tokyo while I was there - they were completely different, but I'm so glad I did them both.
The first was a day trip to Yokohama because I really wanted to visit the Cup Noodles Museum. Cup noodles were a staple in my house growing up so I knew I couldn't leave Japan without checking out the museum. It definitely lived up to my expectations! You learn all about the history of the cup noodle, and even get to make your own to take home. The top floor has a 'food bazaar' where you can try small portions of different types of noodle dishes from around the world. The food isn't the best you'll ever taste, but I did like being able to choose from noodle dishes from 9 different countries! Plus it's decorated to feel like you're actually at a night market in Asia, which was also a cool feature!
Yokohama is about 45 minutes from Tokyo on the cheaper trains - a round trip ticket is around ¥1000/$10. Entrance to the museum is ¥500/$5, and each of the other activities has a small additional charge. It cost ¥400 to make your own cup noodle, and the portions of noodles in the Food Bazaar are ¥400 each. Overall, it's a pretty affordable day trip from Tokyo. There are plenty of other cool things to do in Yokohama, so check some of those out while you're there!
There is also a Cup Noodles Museum location in Osaka, so by all means, visit that one instead if you're already planning on spending some time in Osaka.
The other trip I did was spending two days in the mountain town of Hakone. I knew I wanted to spend some time in a smaller town with a more outdoorsy feel. Hakone, located south of Tokyo near Mt. Fuji, is home to plenty of onsens, or hot springs, and is a big weekend trip destination for Japanese and foreign tourists alike. Hakone is about an hour and a half from Tokyo, so you could easily make this a day trip. To make the most of your visit, I would highly recommend visiting for two or three days. There is so much to see and do in Hakone, and it's such a change from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. For more ideas on what to do in Hakone, check out this post.
As you can see, this list only begins to scratch the surface of what there is to see and do in Tokyo. There is something for everyone and every budget. I focused a lot on the free things to do while I was there, with a couple of splurge days sprinkled here and there.
Have you been to Tokyo? What was your favorite thing to do while you were there?