If you are used to the orderly avenues of European capitals or the familiar drives of North American cities, the busy streets of Tokyo will blow you away with their wonderfully chaotic, colourful and quirky nature.
And when you get tired of people watching, there is an abundance of art galleries and museums to keep you entertained, as well as eateries and bars to keep you full and world-class shopping options when you want to update your wardrobe.
Choosing where to go and what to see is the hardest part of a trip to Japan’s buzzing capital so take your cue from 48 hours well spent.
Breakfast & Exploration
Start your day with a traditional Japanese breakfast. Almost no matter which part of the city you stay in you will find outlets serving this traditional feast. If you’re a light eater in the morning you might think that you’ll have a hard time stomaching the likes of natto (fermented soy beans), nori (dried seaweed), tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) served with a piece of broiled fish, steamed rice and miso soup. Despite its size, however, you will feel surprisingly light afterwards due to the use of fresh, healthy ingredients.
With enough fuel to last you at least until early afternoon, head to the Hibiya, which is one of Tokyo’s many business districts. This is also the centre of the old “Edo” where you will find important historical sites including the Imperial Palace, which was built on the ruins of Edo Castle, home to samurai warriors from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Today, the Japanese emperor and empress reside there. Join one of the guided tours of the palace grounds and explore the surrounding parks, such as the East Garden where you will find the Sannomaru-Shozo-kan or The Museum of the Imperial Collections, exhibiting old kimonos, painting and pottery.
North of the palace grounds, in Kita-no-maru-koen Park is The National Museum of National Art, which was Japan’s first national art museum. The museum is known for its collection of 20th century masterpieces by notable Japanese artists from the Meiji period.
Scene Shifting Afternoon
In the afternoon head to Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district for some great traditional sushi and a side of retail therapy. When Japan ended its self-imposed seclusion in the 1860s, Ginza was the first area to display western imports and western architecture. Today, the streets of Ginza are filled with expensive shops, massive shopping malls, as well as restaurants, cafes and bars. If you go on a Sunday, the main thoroughfare, Chou-Dori, is closed for cars and the street adopts a festival-like atmosphere.
When you reach your retail limit, head up to Keyakizaka Dori in the city’s famous Roppongi district and take in the magnificent views of the Tokyo skyline with Tokyo Tower peaking up high above the rest. Then for dinner, head to the Ikina Sushidokoro Abe, an excellent sushi restaurant not far from the Roppingi metro station.
Early Morning Marvels
It may be only 4am, but stifle your urge to stay in bed and think instead of all the fresh, yummy seafood that awaits at the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world. The thought of fish at that hour may seem intimidating to even the most hardened of foodies, but once there, it’s worth it.
The reason you have to go at this hour is to be able to experience the tuna auctions that start the day’s trading. This institution often draws headlines in local and international newspapers when a tuna is sold at record prices, often in the hundreds of thousands of US dollars. It’s an incredible sight to see the predators lined up on the concrete floor, tales cut off so that traders can analyse the meat for grade, freshness and, some say, even the origin of the fish.
After all the fishy goings on, stay on the fish trail at one of the many nearby restaurants and enjoy a traditional breakfast with freshly caught fish, rice and home picked vegetables.
Green and Intriguing
After an action-packed dawn, you have plenty of time to head to the Ueno neighbourhood on the northern edge of the Yamanote metro Line loop. The area is famous for Ueno Park, a huge green space that’s home to a zoo, a concert hall, a temple, a shrine and, the Tokyo National Museum. The museum houses permanent and visiting collections of art and antiques from Japan as well as other Asian nations and also hosts events such as lectures, concerts, talks and workshops.
After a nature and culture feast, head to a local Ueno institution, Santomo for a more physical feed. The restaurant was established almost 90 years ago and serves traditional, seasonal dishes.
Relax & Reboot
Spend the afternoon at one of Tokyo’s many onsen spas. There are several to choose from but we really loved Take no Yu for its mineral rich onsen water, which is so popular that customers pay an extra 20 yen to take a litre back home. The spa has two different pools with varying temperatures.
If you’re a kid of the 80s or 90s most of your gadgets and technology toys came from Japan. While other countries have taken over in the manufacturing of electronics goods since then, Japan still has a tradition, and a love, for high-tech gadgets and for a full display of what’s new and cool, head to Akihabara, two stops with the Yamanote loop from Tokyo Station in the evening. This is also where you will find Yodobashi Camera, Japan’s largest appliance store.
Flavours to Savour
In 2013, Narisawa was voted the best restaurant in Asia by “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants”, which is sponsored by San Pellegrino & Acqua Panna. Although the restaurant dropped to 2nd spot in 2014, it is still well worth a visit for Chef Narisawa’s blend of classic French cooking techniques and fresh local ingredients – make sure you book well in advance.
Finally, if you still have the energy, you can end two days in bustling Tokyo attractions with a few glasses of sake at Sasagin in Shibuya-ku. The sommelier speaks English and can make personal recommendations for those not familiar with the drink.
Plan ahead for your Tokyo Experience
Tokyo is an endless playground of memorable sensations and the sprawling urban metropolis can be a little confusing to the uninitiated visitor. It’s always best to do a little advanced research online before you arrive to make sure you fit in all the sights, sounds and, of course, tastes. Follow the links below to plan the ultimate Tokyo experience.
- Sannomaru-Shozo-kan/The Museum of the Imperial Collections: http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/e-event/sannomaru02.html
- The National Museum of National Art: http://www.momat.go.jp/english/index.html
- Tsukiji Fish Market: http://www.tsukiji-market.or.jp/tukiji_e.htm
- Tokyo National Museum: http://www.tnm.jp/?lang=en
- Narisawa: http://www.narisawa-yoshihiro.com