We tried to do Tokyo in a few days.. half day for getting off the plane and hitting up the fish market, and 2 days on the back end before we left. Let’s just say, it’s impossible to see all of Tokyo and have all the experiences that the city makes available to you in this short time… From our experiences, here’s our 5 tips, including lessons we learned.
Make reservations at any “must eat” restaurants ahead of time!
Reservations at restaurants in Tokyo, if they are offered, are basically a must. I’m not sure if it’s all of Japan, but in most big cities we visited from Hiroshima to Tokyo, if the restaurant offers reservations, make them. If you’re staying at a hotel, the concierege will often be able to assist in making reservations using your credit card as a deposit. We emailed months in advance with a few restaurants we were looking at for both lunch and dinner, and the hotel promptly replied with what was available and requesting our credit card.
If the restaurant is popular, and does not take reservations, eat during an off hour. We went to some amazing restaurants, which had an extremely long wait (~2 hours) during the typical dining hours (lunch from noon- 1; dinner from 6-8). To cut down on our wait, we went during off hours. For instance, we went to Gyukatsu Motomura in Shinjuku, around 345pm, and ate around 430pm. When we walked out, there was already at least a 1.5 hour wait. Additionally, if you’re looking at dining options in Harajuku, expect a line. During our visit, we saw lines at Gong Cha (a boba tea chain), Garretts Popcorn (a popcorn chain from Chicago), Luke’s Lobster (lobster rolls from Maine), and Dominque Ansel Bakery (famous bakery from NYC), just to name a handful.
Tokyo is large and it takes time to go from one place to another. When you zoom out on a map, Tokyo can look kind of compact, but while the subway system is amazing and can really get you around, it does take a while to get to places. We stayed in Minato (near Shinagawa JR station). It took around 40 minutes to Senso-Ji (Temple) and 30 minutes to Shinjuku. When you’re trying to hit up spots all over the city, just keep in mind the transportation time, including time it takes to find the correct exit upon leaving the station. If you’re not from an urban area, or do not ride public transportation often, it can be quite daunting. Extra Tip! Use a combination of Google Maps and Exit #s to point you in the right direction.
Trains (especially the fast ones) can be expensive.
We used Hyperdia to price out our trains well in advance, but did not fully understand all the fees associated. For instance, a train from Tokyo to Osaka includes a ticket fare on a Shinkansen Nozomi (fastest method), and a seat fare, either a non reserved or a reserved seat. Add it all up, and you get the total price for a one way train ticket. Because we were on a tight schedule and also traveling to non major cities (Yudanaka), we decided not to purchase a JR Pass and spend a little more on Shinkansen Nozomis. However, hindsight 20/20, next time, we plan to purchase a JR pass and make our trip accommodate it due to the costs associated with the Shinkansen Nozomi trains.
Subway rides can also add up. Which means, if you’re trying to keep your costs down, this is one more item to plan for. Since the subways are privately owned in many of the large cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto, we researched where we would be going and what subway rail we would be taking, prior to purchasing the respective day passes. There are 3 day passes offered including one for just the Local JR routes, one for the Tokyo subway only, and one for the Tokyo subway + Local JR routes. Additionally, the Tokyo subway only offers a 2 and 3 day pass as well. However, depending upon where you are staying and where you are going, it may be worth while to buy one of the passes and an a la carte ticket, or just one pass, or no pass.
At the end of the day, Tokyo is an amazing city and hard to see in just a few days, so take what we learned, add it to what you learn, and when you return, you’ll be a pro!