How to Make the Most of 4 Days in Tokyo

Fuel up on coffee at artist Takashi Murakami’s retro cafe, immerse yourself in a new digital art museum, and take a meditative walk in the heart of a forest.

Chidorigafuchi Park in Tokyo

The cherry tree-fringed Chidorigafuchi Park is just a short walk from Kudanshita Station in Tokyo.

Photo by Geoff Haggray

Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis with 37.4 million people, presents a dynamic contrast of historical and contemporary. I offer market tours here and many of my clients say how much they love the city. It’s hard not to love. People are polite. The streets are clean. The cuisine is outstanding, from high-end sushi shops to a simple egg salad sando at the convenience store. My tip: Have a rough itinerary but allow time to wander and explore the quiet side streets.

It’s best seen on foot. Paul McInnes, editor in chief and creative director of Voyapon, a site about Japan and Japanese culture, says of the city: “Many people don’t realize that Tokyo is very much a walkable city. One of the best books about this very subject is Laura Elkin’s fantastic Flâneuse, which focuses on exploring various cities, including Tokyo. You really get to know more about how Tokyo works and you find various nooks and crannies that you hadn’t realized existed. So, invest in some comfortable walking shoes and explore this great modern city.” (McInnes himself captures the details on Japan in his psychogeography writings of walking through Tokyo and Kyoto.) Here’s how to best spend four days in Tokyo.

Crowds in the Asakusa district of Tokyo

Tokyo’s Asakusa district is home to a number of historic monuments including the 7th century Sensoji temple.

Photo by Geoff Haggray

Day 1: Explore the historic East Side

The Asakusa district is a must-see, even for the Japanese when they visit Tokyo. Start with a traditional Japanese breakfast of onigiri rice balls and miso soup at Misojyu, then walk up the Nakamise Dori pedestrian street lined with shops up to Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. Its history can be traced back 1,300 years. Walk over to the Kappabashi kitchenware district and peruse the shops; don’t miss the sleek Kama-Asa for knives and kitchenware (but be sure to carry knives in your checked luggage when you head home).

Take the Ginza subway line a few stops to the Ueno train station, home to several museums, a large park, and an open air market. Grab lunch (soba and tempura) at Yabu Soba, a historic shop dating back 130 years. On the first-floor atelier, buckwheat noodles are made from scratch. Ueno Park has six museums, including the Tokyo National Museum—the largest and oldest art museum in Japan. If you’re traveling with kids, spend some time in the nearby Akihabara district (a 15-minute walk away) for electronics and shops for anime and manga character shops.

Continue on the Ginza subway line to the Ginza district itself and spend the late afternoon perusing the shops. I’m not a big shopper myself, but it’s such a joy in Japan with boutiques like Natsuno for chopsticks, Ito-ya for stationery, and Issey Miyake for my favorite travel wear, Pleats Please. Ginza Six department store is the newest addition to the Ginza main street, complete with a rooftop garden and basement food hall, mostly with sweets. Check out the free art galleries at fashion labels like Issey Miyake Cube or Maison Hermes.

Have sushi for dinner at Ginza Kyubey, the restaurant that created gunkan sushi, nori wrapped around rice to hold soft toppings like uni (sea urchin), followed by cocktails at Bar Orchard. For more local eats, check out the nearby Tsukishima area, which is famous for monjayaki, the Tokyo version of okonomiyaki savory pancakes.

Crowds walk up Takeshita Dori street in Tokyo

A first-time visit to Tokyo ought to include an hour or two on the pedestrian Takeshita Dori street, which is home to all manner of pop culture and clothing shops.

Photo by KenSoftTH/Shutterstock

Day 2: Dive into new Tokyo

The west side of Tokyo is the younger side of the city. Start at Harajuku Station and begin with a meditative walk through the luscious green forest surrounding Meiji Jingu Shrine next door, which was established in 1920 to commemorate Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It opens at sunrise.

Next, snake your way through neighboring Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori, ground zero for Japanese pop culture. The narrow pedestrian street is lined with boutiques for all things kawaii cute, cosplay costumes, and teen fashion. It also offers plenty of street food. Continue the walk along upscale Omotesando Street and down to see the Prada building, one of Tokyo’s most famous architectural designs. Visit the Nezu Museum for its impressive collection of Japanese and Asian artworks, including paintings and ceramics—and don’t miss the surrounding gardens.

Rub elbows with locals at lunch at Yanmo. Seasonal seafood comes directly from the fishing boats each morning to the restaurant, is charcoal grilled and served with set lunches with rice, miso soup, and vegetables. It’s about a 30-minute walk to the hipster and fashionable Daikanyama area, which is known for Japanese denim boutiques. I love the colorful tenugui cotton cloths at Kamawanu that make great gifts for friends. Allow time to get lost in the Tsutaya T-Site bookstore.

An excellent guide to what makes Tokyo so special is the book People Make Places by Charles Spreckley, the founder of the bespoke travel company of the same name. It introduces the people behind the restaurants, boutiques, and museums in Tokyo. “Roku is one of the shops that is included in People Make Places, a really fantastic vintage store that specializes in denim,” Spreckley says. “Kapital is a brand originally from Okayama, the capital of Japan’s denim industry, which is known for its high-quality products and with a shop in Ebisu.”

Wind down the evening at Pizza Marumo in Ebisu—voted number 10 in the world by the Best Chef Awards. Chef Motokura is a former Japanese cuisine chef. Marumo has a full menu of appetizers and an extensive list of pizzas. The dough has a high amount of water so the crust is crispy and the dough is chewy.

A dish at Tokyo's Katsukichi restaurant

Katsukichi restaurant is renowned for its fried pork cutlets, cooked in a blend of oils and freshly made breadcrumbs.

Courtesy of Katsukichi

Day 3: Visit local neighborhoods

Start the day by stepping back in time at old-school kissaten coffee shop L’ambre in Shinjuku, one of the newer parts of the city and a mix of high-rise buildings and spacious green parks; expect toast and coffee with classical music playing in the background. From here, it’s a short walk to one of Tokyo’s spectacular depachika food halls at Isetan. The department store basement has a colorful collection of prepared foods, high-end fruits, seasonal seafood, and exquisitely packaged sweets.

Then venture West on the Chuo train line and hit up a few local stops. North of Nakano Station is Nakano Broadway, a mall that offers a fascinating insight to the anime otaku subculture. Visitors come to shop for vintage watches, peruse manga magazines and anime figurines, or enjoy the rainbow soft serve in the food hall basement. Hidden in the back is Zingaro coffee shop by Murakami. This stop is about pop culture.

There are a few other local stops continuing west on the Chuo line, including Koenji for vintage shops, Ogikubo to visit the Otaguro Gardens and for ramen, Nishi-Ogikubo for antiques, or Asagaya for the Pearl Center shotengai shopping arcade to see how locals shop. If you’re a planner, then be on top of booking tickets to the Ghibli Museum in Kichijoji. Inokashira Koen Park, near the Ghibli Museum, is stunning in spring during sakura season.

From Kichijoji take the Inokashira line train to Shimokitazawa. This sprawling area has curry shops, cafés, and shops for practically everything, but notably vintage clothes. Rest your feet at Balloon d’Essai for a latte, or if it’s summertime for a kakigori shaved ice with sweetened condensed milk and espresso. Continue on the Inokashira line to the terminal Shibuya Station. Check out the popular Shibuya Crossing with up to 3,000 people crossing at one time. If you’re up for a cocktail, mixologist Shingo Gokan has a big following with several bars, including at SG Club. Dinner is tonkatsu, breaded and fried pork cutlets, at Katsukichi. In wintertime I am addicted to the fried oysters.

Digital art at teamLab Borderless

Augmented and virtual realities collide at teamLab Borderless’s art installation.

Photo by KenSoftTH/Shutterstock

Day 4: Step into the future

Start the morning at Hamarikyu Gardens on the waterway leading to Tokyo Bay. A former imperial detached palace, it strikes a peaceful contrast to the nearby high-rise buildings. Do not miss the 300-year-old pine tree. For early sustenance, creamy chicken ramen at Ginza Kagari is my favorite bowl in the city.

Head over to Azabudai Hills to see the newest complex to open in Tokyo with about 150 shops, cafés, restaurants, and the digital art museum teamLab Borderless. The flowing modern architecture connects several buildings. Then soak in culture at one or more of the Roppongi museums: the Mori Art Museum with an observatory; the 21_21 Design Sight; or the National Art Center, Tokyo. For your final night in Tokyo, explore sake and sake-friendly dishes at the friendly Eureka!. If you’re traveling with children, then head to a kaitenzushi shop like Sushiro. Kids will have fun ordering sushi on an iPad and having it delivered by a conveyor belt.

Where to stay

There’s no shortage of great hotels in Tokyo. The Tokyo Station Hotel, in the heart of the city, is the classic hotel with omotenashi hospitality and service. As the name suggests, it’s conveniently located at Tokyo Station, which also helps if you have an early shinkansen bullet train to areas beyond the capital. If dining is a priority, the Aman has some of the best concierges in Tokyo for getting reservations at sought-after restaurants. The spa, pool, and luxurious rooms are ideal for relaxing and unwinding after a day on your feet exploring the city.

Yukari Sakamoto immersed herself in the food and beverage world in Tokyo working at Takashimaya department store’s sake section and at the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Grill and Bar as a sommelier. She is the author of Food Sake Tokyo and offers tours to markets in Tokyo.
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