Japan is one of the most sophisticated, clean, cultural and beautiful Asian countries I have been to. Although a lot of people do not speak English and it might be difficult for you to find your way around, the one thing that stands out about the country is its lovely people! My guide to visiting Japan will be covered in 5 different articles and this one focuses on how to spend 5 days in the capital city - Tokyo.
I visited Japan during the spring season however, I was a couple of weeks too late to enjoy the beautiful Sakura (cherry blossom) time. Nevertheless, the country was blanketed with pink, purple and white flowers and it is one of the greenest countries you'll visit - with its numerous gardens, rivers, hills and parks.
Tokyo is also one of the liveliest cities and the streets are lit up like New York's Times Square, with skyscrapers and bright LED screens lining the streets. It is also one of the few cities in Japan that has amazing nightlife and shopping options. There's a chaotic vibe which gives character to the city and despite the heavy crowds, which you will encounter pretty much in every corner, there is method in the madness!
Recommended to stay: The best areas to stay in Tokyo are Ginza, Shinjuku & Akasaka. We stayed in Centurion Hotel Grand Akasaka, a decent hotel with a brilliant location, right in the middle of restaurants, bars and nightlife. Also, the hotel was hardly a 2-minute walk from the metro station (Akasaka-mitsuke) which made it very well connected to the locations we needed to visit. The hotel was a 9-minute subway ride to Tokyo Station, Ginza, Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Recommended for travel within the city: If you're spending a good amount of time in Tokyo, I would recommend you to get a SUICA card (a pre-paid card that can be used on all the subway trains, buses, and even some supermarkets). This card can be bought at the Tokyo Airport and all other subway stations and can be recharged at any point from the machines installed at the subway stations. It is very convenient, efficient and the cheapest way to travel.
SUICA is also valid in Kyoto and Osaka. Once you're done with the card, you can get a refund of the pending amount. Although there are other pre-paid options available, SUICA is the one I recommend you to take.
I would advise you to download an app called 'Tokyo Subway Map and Route Planner' which is very helpful in navigating the subway route. Also, google maps is very helpful in providing real-time information about the trains.
Suggested read: What you need to know BEFORE your trip to Japan
Recommended to do: This post is a guide to spending 5 days in Tokyo, covering everything related to culture, landscape, shopping, local food and nightlife. Here are the Top 20 things to do:
#20 Ryogoku Kokugikan (Sumo Stadium)
Perhaps a little off-beat, Sumo Wrestling is considered as one of the most authentic Japanese experiences, apart from Kabuki theater and Miyako Odori (geisha dances), and also the most entertaining and full of energy! Fights are held at particular times, so it is always advisable to check before you go if there's any scheduled.
The Ryogoku district itself is truly reflective of the sumo culture, with many restaurants serving chank o- nabe hotpot, the meal of the sumo wrestlers. You can also visit the Sumo museum, which is located in the same complex as the wrestling stadium, featuring sumo-related artifacts. It is not uncommon to see Sumo wrestlers roaming around their area, dressed in their cotton kimonos.
#19 Tokyo Disneyland
Although I decided to give this one a skip on my trip, having visited almost every other Disney park that exists, for those who may not have visited the Disney Parks in California and Orlando, this place is definitely worth spending a day at. However, what is unique to Japan is the Tokyo DisneySea. This park has 7 themed areas, each based on different ports - such as the Arabian Coast, Mediterranean Harbour and others.
For more information on Tokyo DisneySea, click here.
#18 Tokyo Tower
Standing red and tall, the Tokyo Tower is visible from various parts of the city. Unfortunately, when I visited, the Observation Deck was closed due to renovations. You can find more information about the admission fee and timings here.
The Tower, like most other buildings in Tokyo, lights up beautifully at night, adding to the lovely skyline of the city.
#17 Roppongi / Akasaka District
One of the areas in Tokyo which have amazing nightlife, Roppongi is filled with numerous bars, cafes and restaurants that are foreigner-friendly because of the English menus and the food options available. This area is also a good one to live in, with a number of decent hotels in the area.
One of the restaurants serving amazing food is Jomon Roppongi. For meat lovers, this is a great place to try Wagyu Beef. For vegetarians, the sesame tofu is a great option. The experience is traditionally Japanese, with a small cozy little floor to sit on, and shoes off before entering. Although the place might get a little smoky, the food is finger-licking good!
#16 Golden Gai
Right in the middle of Shinjuku, which is perhaps the most lively area in the entire city, Golden Gai takes you into an entirely different world. Tucked away amidst the nightlife hub of Tokyo, this area has a bunch of narrow lanes lined with cozy pubs and bars. Home to almost 200 such bars, walking in these narrow streets, where no cars can enter (and there isn't any space for them either), you feel as if you have been transported into the old ages. The alleys are dimly lit and in any other country, you might have felt that you could get mugged any time. However, Japan is completely safe and you're highly unlikely to be a victim of any crime here.
Most of the bars are so small that they can hardly accommodate 5-6 people at a time. The area is artistic and fascinating, especially to explore at night when it comes alive.
This is probably one of the most crowded areas I have seen in Tokyo! Shibuya crossing has hundreds of people that will be seen scrambling across from all directions when the lights turn green. I have never seen people walking as fast as the Japanese - it literally seems like they're always in a hurry to get somewhere! This sight is definitely worth watching if you can stand back and observe from one corner, far away from these spilling crowds.
Shibuya is a good place to shop. Of specific interest is Shibuya 109, a mall which numerous boutique shops, offering stylish and chic clothes, shoes, bags and accessories. Most of the shops have tax-free shopping for foreign passport holders, so remember to carry your passport along if you plan to shop. Any shopping more than ¥ 5,000 (on one bill) can be tax-free if you have your foreign passport with you.
#14 Kameido Tenjin Shrine
This is a beautiful shrine, famous for the Wisteria Festival that usually takes place during early May. I, unfortunately, missed the festival and could only see the withering flowers, almost at the end of their season. Nevertheless, the green pond, the red bridge and the Tokyo Tower in the backdrop add to the beauty of this lovely shrine.
A district famous for its numerous electronic shops, Akihabara is a must visit for gizmo-enthusiasts. Also known as the Electric Town, the craziest gadgets and innovative devices can be found here. However, make sure you have enough time in hand as the market is colossal and due to language problems, you might have to spend a lot of time in understanding what you're looking at!
One of the most interesting and exciting stores to visit here is Yodobashi. A multi-storied mall which features everything from home appliances, PCs, mobile phones and tablets as well as accessories, this mall itself requires a number of hours to explore.
The stores here begin to close between 8 - 9 pm, with some massive shops like Yodobashi closing by 10 pm as well. Another interesting place to visit here is a Maid Cafe, which you will see with women dressed as maids or anime characters standing outside and handing out the menus. The entire area has an insane amount of energy and is extremely vibrant.
#12 Shinjuku Gyoen Garden
One of the prettiest Japenese Zen gardens I have seen, you cannot miss Shinjuku Gyoen garden. Hardly a 5-min walking distance from the station, the entrance is not free but inexpensive. The sprawling greens with walking paths, bridges, ponds and perfectly manicured bushes and trees. This place is also considered one of the best places to experience the Sakura Festival. However, even if you miss the cherry blossoms, the park is absolutely stunning with its landscaped gardens. Enjoy a peaceful morning walk here and choose from the Japanese Landscape Gardens, French Gardens and English Gardens.
The lovely little street market that leads to Senso-ji temple is the perfect place for buying souvenirs and authentic Japanese accessories such as colorful socks, shoes, umbrellas and local snacks and sweets. The market closes at 6 pm, which is at the same time as the closing of Senso-ji temple. This is also where the Tokyo Skytree is located, a tower which is taller than the Tokyo Tower and also has an observation deck from where you can enjoy enigmatic views of the city's skyline.
#10 Imperial Palace
The residence of the Emperor of Japan, you cannot enter the Palace of course but you can view it from a distance or take a stroll in the sprawling royal gardens that surround the palace. The East Gardens are extremely pretty, perfectly landscaped and a great place to spend your early morning. The palace itself is visible from the road. If you're lucky, you might even get to see the Royal Family in their carriage, like I did!
#9 Takeshita Street
This is one of my favorite street markets in Tokyo. A part of Harajuku and located right next to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, this street is lined with fashion boutiques, trendy shops, numerous (very attractive looking and superbly tasting) crepe stalls and accessories stores. This street is the hub of teenage Japanese culture and you will be amazed at the colorful dresses which are not only sold here but also seen worn by many young girls. A very lively street with fascinating sights all around, you cannot miss this one while in Tokyo!
#8 Meiji Jingu Shrine
Located in Harajuku, right in between Shinjuku and Shibuya, this shrine is dedicated to Japanese Emperor Meiji and his Empress. You will walk through a huge park before you reach the actual shrine. Make sure you're at the shrine well before 6 pm as they shut the doors at that time. The Torii gate at the approach to the shrine (which is a significant and common feature of all shrines) is a lovely one and it separates the busy and noisy streets from the tranquil large forested area. The shrine itself was under renovation when I visited, nevertheless, a walk through the forested area was totally worth it!
#7 Nezu Shrine
Personally, I liked this shrine better than Meiji Jingu. This shrine is also famous for enjoying the Azalea Festival, which also happens during the spring season, around late April to early May. Once again, I was little unlucky to miss it and I could catch only the withering flowers. Yet, I loved the numerous red tori gates that formed a little path to walk along in. The shrine is beautiful and elegant, located between lush green bushes and trees.
Another massive shopping and nightlife district, Ginza is buzzing in the evenings! Rows and rows of brightly lit streets are home to upscale fashion brands, wine bars and restaurants. Ginza is certainly more upscale than the lively Shibuya and Shinjuku but definitely worth a visit. Most shops here close by 8 pm and restaurants by 11 pm. Every leading brand in clothing, accessories and cosmetics can be found here.
#5 Sensō-ji Temple
Although it is a beautiful temple to visit even during the day, I found it particularly lovely at night. The temple itself shuts at 6 pm, however, you can roam about in the vicinity and inside the gate any time. Only the main prayer hall closes at 6 pm. The beautiful and tall red gate which is the entrance to the temple has large lamps hanging from it and the figure lights up beautifully at night.
The temple is located in Asakusa, at the end of the street market.
#4 Shinjuku (Kabukicho)
This is my favorite place in the entire city! It is the heart of the nightlife and this is the place where you will find the maximum vibrancy, liveliness, and craziness as well! From the famous Robot Restaurant to the quirkiest bars and pubs imaginable, Shinjuku has it all!
Kabukicho is the part of Shinjuku where you will find the strip clubs, cabarets, pornographic DVD outlets and the so-called 'love hotels'. An amazing contrast to the 'proper' Japanese lifestyle that you get to see in every other part of the city, Kabukicho is where the city comes to life! Personally, I could not help but be in awe of the district not only because of the loud and brightly lit skyscrapers, the sleazy openness and the chaotic and fast-paced exuberance but also because of how different this area is from any other in Japan and the rest of Tokyo as well.
#3 Day trip to Kamakura
Although Tokyo itself has a lot to do and can take up most of your time in the city, I would recommend three day-trips which are worth taking and easily accessible from the capital city. One of these is a 45-minute train ride from the Tokyo Station to Kamakura.
Kamakura is a city of temples. I visited the two most famous ones and they did not disappoint. As you alight at the Kamakura JR Station, you can transfer to the local tram or 'enoden' and take the 10-minute journey to Hase Dera. From the Hase Dera enoden station, it is hardly a 7-minute walk to the Hase-Dera Temple and you will cross many interesting little shops on the way, offering wonderful souvenirs.
Hase Dera Temple is beautiful! Not only because of the monumental Buddha statue inside but the beauty actually lies in the lovely gardens that lead to it. There is a little bit of climbing required, not a lot so make sure to be in comfortable shoes. Little ponds with fishes, pathways and stairways surrounding by green bushes and pink flowers will lead you to the temple. Hundreds of little Buddha statues will greet you on the way before you enter the main hall where the huge statue is.
This temple is also famous for the Hydrangeas during June-July when they're in full bloom. However, in the month I visited (May), they had not yet started to bloom.
The Great Buddha or Kōtoku-in Temple
This iconic temple of Kamakura is very popular and for the right reasons. It is renowned for its humungous-sized bronze statue of Buddha and has been written about by famous poets in the past. The temple is yet another 5-minute walk ahead of Hase Dera and another one worth visiting in Kamakura.
#2 Day trip to Mt Fuji
This is number 2 on my list as Mt Fuji is one of the most iconic places to visit in Japan. Many people actually climb the (still active) volcano whose peak is covered with snow almost until the end of June. On very clear days (of which I had none, unfortunately), the mountain is visible from Tokyo as well. Else, the best way to experience the views is with a trip to the Fuji Five Lakes (of which Lake Kawaguchiko and Lake Yamanakako offer the best views) in the Yamanashi Prefecture.
If you travel in the months of May / June, you might be lucky to catch the Fuji Shibazakura Festival (also known as the pink floss festival). During this time, be sure to travel as early during the day as possible as the place tends to get crowded during the afternoons. Also, the best time to capture the clearest views of the peak, not surrounded by clouds, is during the early hours of the day.
Here is how you can get from Tokyo to Mt Fuji, especially for those using the Japan Rail Pass - From Shinjuku, catch a Ltd. Exp train to Otsuki. At Otsuki, transfer to the Fujikyu line towards Kawaguchiko Lake (Fujisan View Express, takes about 45 min). This is a privately held railway and the JR Pass is can’t be used on this line.
Once you arrive at the Kawaguchiko Lake Station, you are only 800m away from the lake itself. You can choose to stroll towards the lake and enjoy a boat ride or relax in one of the cafes nearby. However, to get great views of Mt Fuji, you would have to take a boat ride or hire a bicycle to ride around the lake.
If you are visiting the Shibazakura Festival, you can catch the Shibazakura Liner from Kawaguchiko station itself. The drive to the festival takes about 50 min - 1 hour, depending on the traffic and the wait in the queue for the bus can last up to 90 minutes, depending on the time of day.
Alternatively, if you are not visiting the Shibazakura Festival, you may take the Red Line or Green Line sightseeing bus tour, which will take your around the area and you have a chance to explore the town. You can also take (recommended) the Fujikyu bus to visit Lake Yamanakako, another lake that provides breathtaking views of Mt Fuji or Oshino Hakkai, a cute little village which is about 20-minutes away.
Note: Some people spend the night here at Yamanashi. However, if you plan to return to Tokyo on the same day, make sure you keep an eye out for the last Fujikyu Express that leaves Kawaguchiko, which is around sunset hours.
#1 Day trip to the Japanese Alps (Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route)
This was the highlight of my trip to Japan! As a landscape lover, city life does not excite me as much as mountains, lakes, and snow. Fortunately, during the month of May, The Japanese Alps have just the right amount of snow to allow visitors to enjoy a trip through the Murodo Snow Wall.
This can be visited both from Tokyo as well as Kyoto, although I would recommend you to take this trip from Tokyo due to the convenience and time involved. From the Tokyo Station, take a bullet train (Shinkansen) to Nagano (1.5 hours). This is where your tour of the Alps begins.
Allow yourself 6-7 hours for the entire tour, which starts from Nagano and ends at Toyama. At the end of the tour, you can take a bullet train back from Toyama to Tokyo (2.3 hours). The tour from Nagano to Toyama is completed via various modes of transportation which include a bus ride, ropeway, mountain train and cable car.
For more details on what is included in this tour, click here.
Here's what you need to keep in mind while taking this tour:
- Start very early from Tokyo / Kyoto, if you plan to complete this tour in a single day (which is possible, though it'll be a long and tiring day!)
- Make sure to reach Nagano (from Tokyo) or Toyama (from Kyoto) before 11 am as the whole tour can take up to 7 hours to complete
- The tour can be done from either of the two locations, starting from one and ending at the other (i.e Toyama and Nagano)
- It is definitely more crowded if done from Nagano towards Toyama, however, it is also more advisable as this is a more convenient option from Tokyo
- Foreigners, on showing their passports, can purchase the Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket at a discounted price (¥ 9,000) from either Nagano or Toyama.
- The Alpine Route is open from mid-April until the end of November. However, the highlight of this tour, which is the Murodo Snow Wall, lasts only for a couple of months before the snow melts. The best time to visit this place is mid-April until mid-June.
If you have anything to add to the list of things to do in Tokyo in 5 days, please feel free to leave your comments below!