This 2-day Tokyo itinerary provides our touring plan for visitors to Japan to visit the city’s best districts, museums, parks, temples, and other things to do, all in a time-saving manner. In so doing, this veritable ‘best of’ Tokyo plan of attack provides an efficient framework for seeing as much as possible, while also not overwhelming you with an unrealistically ambitious schedule.
Creating an itinerary for Tokyo is difficult, and we’ll be the first to concede that you don’t need a step-by-step touring plan for your time in Tokyo. First, because experiencing Tokyo is more about exploring and letting the unique energy of the city envelope you. Spontaneity is something we’ve stressed in other itineraries, but nowhere is it more true than for Tokyo.
Tokyo is the ultimate SQUIRREL! city, with distraction after distraction that will slowly consume your day. It’s as if Tokyo is a boa constrictor, and you’re a mouse. That analogy might be a tad bit morbid, but you’ll certainly feel like a mouse in this megacity. This should be construed as good news: these time-consuming distractions are the best moments you’ll experience in Tokyo.
Whether that means petting a giant Saint Bernard near a train station, watching “robots” on hoverboards and pink gorillas promoting a restaurant, or stopping to marvel at the exquisite design of a Zen garden in a hotel lobby (all real examples, by the way), you will have no shortage of wow! and what?! moments in Tokyo. Stop to savor these, as they are what you’ll remember, and they define the Tokyo experience.
Second, an ideal visit to Tokyo is a ‘choose your own adventure’ kinda deal. As we note in our Top 10 Things to Do in Tokyo, there’s a museum for seemingly every conceivable topic. In a nutshell, that’s Tokyo. There is no specific thing with which Tokyo is associated from a visitor perspective–it’s something different to everyone. Rather than relying upon ‘off the shelf’ guidebook itineraries, you should find the elements and experiences in Tokyo that appeal to you.
Given all of this, the best approach is a ‘skeleton itinerary.’ This provides ample room for deviations from the plan and for adding in specific things that interest you. It may not seem ambitious enough if you only have 2 days in Tokyo and want to see it all; trust us, if anything, it’s overzealous. If you’re just racing around trying to do as many temples and museums as possible to accomplish a checklist of goals for Tokyo, you’re going to miss the heart and soul of the city.
Early Bird Catches the…Fish – You’re first day in Tokyo is likely your first day in Japan. If you’re anything like us, you’ll wake up around 4 a.m. owing to a mixture of excitement and jet leag…but mostly jet lag. You could just pace around in your hotel room or watch Japanese game shows, cursing your luck that you’re awake so early with nothing to do.
Or, you could take full advantage by starting the day at Tsukiji Fish Market. Note that on October 6, 2018, Tsukiji Market will close and be replaced by Toyosu Fish Market, which will open on October 11, 2018. The move doesn’t change the itinerary, just where you’ll be starting out the morning.
Starting at the Fish Market is not just a savvy move because you’re up early and there isn’t much else to do. This is also when the bulk of the commercial activity occurs, and when there are the fewest tourists. It’s an exciting time, and a really cool experience.
After that, we’d recommend stopping at one of the many seafood and sushi restaurants on the outer perimeter for an excellent meal to start your day. Here’s Savor Japan’s list of the best restaurants at Tsukiji Market.
Old Tokyo – Head north to Asakusa, where you can experience the Tokyo of a bygone era. It’s not truly “Old Tokyo” but it does feel like something of a time capsule, and life seems to move a little slower here. In terms of logistics, we’d recommend starting with the Edo-Tokyo Museum, getting off at Ryogoku Station. There, you can learn about Old Tokyo in the more academic way. After closing for an extended refurbishment late last year into early 2018, this excellent museum is once again open.
The reason most tourists head to Asakusa is Sensoji Temple. Having spent extensive time in Kyoto, Sensoji doesn’t do a ton for us, but if you aren’t visiting Kyoto, it’s a must-visit. Even if you are continuing on to Kyoto, it’s something of a “might as well” since you’re already in the area type of thing.
Kitchen Calamity – After exploring Asakusa, wander over to Kappabashi Street. This is a shopping street between Ueno and Asakusa that is aimed at restauranteurs. Why, as an international tourist, would you be in the market for industrial kitchen supplies? Well, Tokyo is a wild place and you never know when you might find yourself in the midst of a spontaneous cooking session.
Actually, Kappabashi Street is a cool place to visit not because you’ll purchase anything (although there are a couple of shops that specialize in tanuki statues!) but because it’s really fascinating to see. If you’ve ever wondered where all of those plastic food displays that every restaurant in Japan seems to have come from, this is your answer. Just trust us on this one, it’s a lot cooler than it might sound.
Ueno Park – Famous as Tokyo’s museum district, this is where several of the highest profile and largest museums in the city are located. The most notable (and our favorite) of these is Tokyo National Museum, but you’ll also find the National Museum for Western Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and National Museum of Nature and Science (another of our favorites and a must-do for dinosaur enthusiasts).
While there might be the temptation to museum-hop in Ueno Park, we’d recommend choosing one or two, and doing a brief survey of them. Time is limited, and you could spend days engrossed in these wonderful museums.
Ueno Park is also a lovely public space that houses a scattering of temples and shrines, and the Ueno Zoo. It’s a great spot for people-watching; performers and musicians can also be spotted regularly in Ueno Park, and there’s also street food vendors and live entertainment at various times of the year here. You could really spend the rest of the afternoon and evening at Ueno Park…but you shouldn’t!
Tokyo SkyTree – Report live from the tallest building in Tokyo at the SkyTree’s observatory, which offers a bird’s eye view of the city. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Fuji. On a less clear day, you might struggle to see Tokyo Disney Resort.
Our recommendation would be to time your visit so you’re arrive at the SkyTree just before sunset. Stay at the top for 45 minutes or so, watching Tokyo transition from day to night. Afterwards, you can dine at one of the many restaurants in the shopping complex below, or head off to Akihabara.
Electrikihabara – From the SkyTree, Akihabara Station is about 14 minutes away. Head there to end your night, basically just to wander and marvel at the neon signs and vibrance of the area. Akihabara is famed as Tokyo’s electronics district, but you probably will not want to purchase electronics in Japan, given that there’s a significant mark-up.
Instead, check out stores like Don Quijote for random souvenirs, Mandarake for collectibles, or Akihabara Gamers for video games (and other stuff). These are just a few of the many stores, arcades, maid cafes, cat cafes, etc. that you can check out in Akihabara. It’s not a hip or luxe district, so those of you who want “normal” shopping will feel more at home here, too.
After you’re done in Akihabara, you can either continue on for a nightcap or (more likely) head back to your hotel to crash. It’s been a long day!
This might not seem like much on the agenda, but we think you’ll be surprised at how long it takes to accomplish all of this, especially given the many SQUIRREL! moments you’re likely to have along the way. And, if you’re reading this before leaving for Japan, don’t forget about that pesky jet lag. You’ll be lucky if you last until 8 p.m. on your first night in Japan. (Don’t worry, you’ll get your “second wind” promptly at 2 a.m. after only a couple hours of sleep!)
Shopping in Shibuya – I don’t like to shop. I feel uncomfortable in high-end stores. I’ve actually never entered a single one of the flagship stores in Shibuya, Ginza, or Roppongi. Yet I really enjoy walking the zelkova tree-lined boulevard of Omotesando, which is basically the Champs Élysées: Tokyo Edition.
In typical Tokyo fashion, takes that concept and improves upon it. Omotesando is clean, pretty, and features some of the most striking modern architecture in all of Tokyo (here’s a walking tour with more photos of the buildings–my favorite is Prada). And that is why we recommend walking this boulevard. Along the side-streets, you’ll find smaller upstart boutiques and excellent restaurants, so don’t be shy to stray from the path.
The easiest approach here is starting at Omotesando Station, but we recommend beginning at Roppongi Station, as this gives you a chance to pass by Roppongi Hills and see more of that district before continuing up Omotesando and arriving in Harajuku. Starting anywhere else is going to entail some backtracking if you want to see the architectural highlights along Omotesando.
Harajuku – Even if you’ve never heard of it, chances are you’re at least tangentially familiar with Harajuku. It’s the district of Tokyo famous for its street styles–kawaii, wamono, loligoth, futuristic cyberpunk–and subculture of youth rebellion to conformity. If none of that rings any bells…think Katy Perry in a number of her music videos. That’s in the same ballpark.
I think Harajuku is passé. Now, whether you should trust my opinion on fashion and trends given that I just admitted to disliking shopping and high-fashion brands. Since we started visiting Tokyo, I’ve noticed a definite shift in the vibe of Harajuku (and I’m not the only one who has noticed this). You’ll still see some of the vibrant, elaborate outfits, but more often than not, they’re now being worn as “costumes” by Instagram models or YouTubers with tens of thousands of followers. Not exactly the epitome of rebelling against conformity.
The point of all of this is that we now don’t recommend much time in Harajuku. What we recommend is turning up the side street directly across from Kiddy Land (a cool store we recommend checking out) and strolling up that until you arrive at Takeshita Dori. Walk that street to get a feel for Harajuku on your way to Meiji Jingu Shrine. Along the way, make sure to grab a crepe from Angel’s Heart, Marion Crepes, or Santa Monica Crepes. We’ve done some extensive, highly scientific testing, and we haven’t noticed a difference in quality among the three–they’re all great.
Jog Through Yoyogi – After a while in the concrete jungle, a stroll through this park should be a welcome reprieve from Tokyo’s hustle and bustle. The highlight of Yoyogi Park is Meiji Jingu, and while we’ve emphasized that temples and shrines are best saved for Kyoto, this is another but you’re already there situation.
Spend a few minutes exploring Meiji Jingu Shrine, take your photos, and move on. It has a lovely wooded setting that gives it a lot of appeal, and it’s free. Plus, you’ll have to walk past this shrine on your way to Yoyogi Park’s northern entrance on your way to Shinjuku Gyoen’s Sendagaya Gate (ignore Google Maps, which will want you to walk all the way around to the Shinjuku Gate).
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – Another large park, Shinjuku Gyoen is a great spot for cherry blossoms in spring or fall colors in autumn. This sprawling garden is a great spot to grab some matcha and a snack, and just enjoy the scenery from the lawn.
What we most enjoy about Shinjuku Gyoen is that it offers Japanese takes on formal French and English landscape gardens, as well as a Japanese landscape garden with international influences. There are a number of wonderful gardens we recommend in Kyoto, but Shinjuku Gyoen is distinct from all of them, so there’s no redundancy.
Niche Interests – This area of Tokyo is the most open-ended, with a variety of different faces, restaurants, and things to do. The bulk of our time is usually just wandering around, but we are also big fans of the many corporate or niche interest museums. (Timeout Tokyo has this list of 101 things to do in Shinjuku if you need ideas.)
These museums cover pretty much anything you can imagine: samurai, coffee, paper, costumes, sumo, beer, firefighting, swords, cameras, and so on…indefinitely. (GaijinPot has a list that begins to scratch the surface, but there are dozens–if not hundreds–more scattered throughout Tokyo.) In this area, our favorite is the Fire Museum, which is educational and engaging–and free!
Robot Restaurant – Follow up your afternoon in Shinjuku with an early seating at Robot Restaurant. This bizarre show is everything you’ve heard and so much more.
We have multiple posts about Robot Restaurant, including our original (and regularly-updated) Robot Restaurant Review, so we’re not going to rehash all of the praises we’ve sang for it here. Suffice to say, we do Robot Restaurant at least once per year, and absolutely love it.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – Depending upon the time and season when you’re done with Robot Restaurant, it might be time for either dinner (Robot Restaurant is not an actual restaurant) or you might still be able to catch sunset transition to dusk at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gov’t Building’s observation deck.
This observation area is free, and its location in the heart of Shinjuku offers some really interesting views. From here, you’re in the midst of skyscrapers, rather than towering above the city. It’s a very different perspective than the Tokyo SkyTree, so we’d recommend doing both if you have the time.
Dinner – We’ve mostly steered clear of dining recommendations in this itinerary, as we don’t know where you’ll be around mealtime, and think it makes more sense to just let you figure that out on your own by consulting other resources.
However, we’re making an exception here because my favorite ramen spot in Tokyo, Fuunji Ramen, is in this area, and you can pretty easily weave it into your schedule before or after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
Gettin’ Rowdy in Roppongi – Okay, so you’re not actually going to get rowdy, but I thought that had a catchy ring to it. Roppongi is one of Tokyo’s most popular areas for nightlife (and also, expats).
That’s not really our scene, but if you still have the energy after two full days of exploring Tokyo, go for it. If not, that’s the end of this itinerary–hope you it helped enable you to have a satisfying visit to Tokyo, and give you a true sense of the city!
Have you visited Tokyo? How many days did you spend in the city? Did you visit any of these districts or do these things? Any additional tips or thoughts from your visit to add? If you haven’t been to Tokyo, what interests you most about the city? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!