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How to See Tokyo Like a Local

Japan’s biggest city’s sprawl can make it difficult to experience through a resident lens. Here’s where to go.

How to See Tokyo Like a Local

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Japan

This itinerary is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips and inspired itineraries on the Travel Tales home page. Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

With towering, neon-lit buildings and nearly 200 subway stations, buzzing Tokyo can be hard to get a handle on. But as with any city, knowing the right neighborhoods and picking up some insider tips can be your ticket to a truly authentic experience.

The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo, Japan

The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo, Japan

Day 1
You’ll feel like you’ve unearthed a secret at The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo—a boutique hotel that’s an Autograph Collection member. It’s ideally situated close to busy Shinagawa Station, but feels more like a private enclave, thanks in part to a relaxing Japanese garden with more than 200 cherry trees. Don’t miss the 17th-century temple bell, which you can ring (at prescribed times) while making a wish.

Then head to Kōenji, one of Tokyo’s hippest neighborhoods. Fuel up with an animal-shaped doughnut at popular Floresta before flipping through old albums at EAD Record Shop. Need some fashion refreshing? Drop by Hayatochiri, which sells new clothing made from vintage fabric.

Begin your all-important local food exploration at Tensuke, where you can enjoy treats like tempura soft-boiled eggs. Or slurp noodles with the locals as you experience “dipping ramen” at Menya Hayashimaru. Then pick up some local home goods (which double as excellent souvenirs) at Great White Wonder.

Wind down with an inventive cocktail at the standing-room-only Bar Tico and enjoy some izakaya-style snacks at Disco Dai-zou; stay late on the weekends to hear a DJ.

Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Landon Nordeman

Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Landon Nordeman

Landon Nordeman

Day 2
Begin today—early—at Tsukiji Market, where the locals get their seafood from among the 400 shops. Sample the eats at Kimagureya sandwich shop, as well as the onigiri (stuffed rice balls) at Marutoyo.

To find hyper-local food products and items from around Japan, hit up an antenna shop, like Nihonbashi, in the historic merchants’ district. Then drop by a depachika—a food floor in the basement of department stores that’s an important part of the city dining culture. Nihonbashi Takashimaya has a depachika as well as a lovely rooftop garden picnic area.

After all that eating, you’ll need to walk it off—take in some contemporary Japanese architecture as you do. Omotesando Avenue in the Harajuku area boasts more than 10 buildings designed by Pritzker-winners, like the Spiral by Fumihiko Maki and the Tod’s building by Toyo Ito.

For dinner, head to a kokashita—a small restaurant underneath train tracks; just pull open the curtain and you’ll be greeted with a warm welcome. Don’t know what to order? Ask the staff for their osusume (recommendation).

Day 3
What’s more Japanese than a soak in an onsen hot spring? Plan to spend at least half of today at Oedo Monogatari Onsen, on Odaiba island in Tokyo Bay—it’s a “super onsen,” with indoor and outdoor soaking tubs. In between soaks, pick and choose from food stalls offering yakitori, sushi, ramen, and udon. Indulge in a massage before your long flight home. Or you can just do like the locals: Stretch out on a lounge chair and take a nap.

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