There are international cities, and then there’s Tokyo. There are titans of industry, and then there’s Tokyo. There’s avant-garde food, fashion, and art, and then there’s… well, you know, Tokyo. Experiencing this place is daunting in the best way possible; it’s like gaining a sixth sense or suddenly being able to see colors once undetectable to the naked eye.
Japan’s capital is huge, home to nearly 13 million people, and spread across nearly 850 square miles. From ancient neighborhoods with narrow streets to hip new ‘hoods where luxury stores abound, from casual pubs to haute cuisine, and from traditional crafts to manga and anime, there’s a slice of Tokyo for everyone.
A trip to Tokyo will change you for the better, from the flavors you’ll dare to eat to the connection you’ll feel to the world around you. There’s simply no overstating its power of persuasion, and there’s no one on Earth immune to its charms. If you’re thinking of making the trek, consider this your cue.
Group getaways, foodies, folks looking to get outside their comfort zones (in the best way possible), anyone whose motto is “I’ll try anything once”
You may think that a city as cutting-edge as Tokyo would cost a pretty penny to vacation in, but it doesn’t have to. Hotel rooms are tiny—but you won’t be spending much time there, anyway, and what you lose in square footage, you’ll make up for in saved dollars. Budget $50-$80/night for basic accommodations, and up to $200 for something more unique or stylish. As for food, you can eat super cheap from 7-11s and other convenience stores which sell things like egg salad sandwiches, instant ramen, and onigiri (fried rice balls) for around $1. Truly excellent izakaya staples like ramen can be had for $10, and turning that into an all-out feast shouldn’t cost more than $25. If it’s sushi you’re craving, that’s another story, and eating at an exquisite sushi dinner will run you more like $75/person sans alcohol.
More good news: Tokyo is an exceedingly safe place to visit. Both violent and petty crime rates are consistently low, and the city poses little to no threat to solo women, LGBTQIA+, or BIPOC travelers. That said, Tokyo experiences relatively frequent earthquakes, which can feel unsafe for anyone not used to it (the city’s buildings are all designed to naturally sway with earthquakes, which actually makes them safer, but it may seem scary initially). Also, while Tokyo is a queer-friendly place, public displays of affection in general are considered taboo, so regardless of orientation, overt romance is well, a turn-off in Japan.
Tokyo has a humid subtropical climate that results in hot, wet summers and mild winters. Summer average highs can soar to the high 80s, particularly in August, and the humidity can make it feel even hotter.
On the other hand, winter temps tend to hove in the 50s most days, dropping to the high 30s on the coldest nights. Snow in Tokyo is very rare, but typhoons can drop quite a bit of rain. Typhoon season runs from May to October with most storms passing in August and September.
The most popular times to visit Tokyo are during the spring cherry blossom season in March and April and during fall foliage season in October and November. Of course, this means longer lines and typically higher prices for accommodation. December-February is an underrated time to go. Temps are never that cold (particularly for those coming from the northern part of the US) and major attractions can feel almost empty. Bonus: it’s a great time to head north for skiing.
Try some convenience store dining. Convenience stores in Japan are nothing like what we have in the US. Stores like 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson’s are stocked with tasty ready-to-eat means like onigiri (fried rice balls), katsu, bento boxes, and more, all for a buck or two.
Skip the taxi. Traffic in Tokyo can be terrible and taxi rates are high. Whenever possible, take the train, which can whisk you across the massive city in about 30-40 minutes for just a few dollars.
Take in the free view. Instead of paying money to go up to one of the many observation decks around the city, head over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It has two observatories and both offer free admission.
The only downside to Tokyo’s culinary scene is that after experiencing it, for the rest of your life you’ll be comparing every bowl of ramen or cut of sashimi to whatever meal knocked your socks off here (and there will be multiple). Of course, there’s more than just Japanese food on offer, and the bar scene is a legend unto itself. The best thing a person can do for themselves when they come to Tokyo is to do so with an open mind and palate. Whatever’s on offer, just taste it!
As in most major metropolises, hotels in Tokyo run the gamut in terms of price, size, and quality. You can stay in a capsule hotel, in which you sleep in a small space that contains not much more space than you need to lie down flat, for around $30, or splash out on a dreamy luxury suite with a private terrace for $300 or more. If you’re on a budget but still want enough room to spread out a little, expect to spend about $80-$100 per night for a solid hotel room or apartment rental.
The subway is your friend in Tokyo, so make sure it’s easy to spend time together by staying somewhere that’s close to the Tokyo loop line (or Yamanote). Shibuya and Shinjuku are both excellent options, thanks to their extensive collections of shops, bars, and restaurants, plus easy access to the loop line. Setagaya is another great choice, as it’s conveniently located, full of places to eat and drink, and also has more of a local feel and green spaces than what you’ll find elsewhere; if you go that route, check out the hip yet old-school Shimokitazawa area of Setagaya.
Something Tokyo has in common with Los Angeles is that the city is more or less a collection of small cities that are all clustered together and referred to broadly as a part of the megacity. Where LA and Tokyo differ, however, is that in Tokyo, getting from area to area is a cinch, thanks to a peerless transit system comprising subways, trains, and buses.
The subway is extensive, efficient, and accessible, though it can be daunting for the uninitiated (mostly because of the crowds). First-time visitors may also be intimidated by taking the bus here, and it isn’t common among tourists to do so. Taxis and Ubers are also a good option when traffic is relatively light—just be careful, because the costs add up quickly from multiple taxi trips.
There are two airports serving Tokyo. The largest is Narita International Airport (NRT), about 37 miles from the city. It’s Japan’s busiest airport for both international travelers and international cargo. Narita is a hub for Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Jetstar Japan, and Peach Aviation, and a focus city for Singapore Airlines.
Tokyo International Airport (HND), most often called Haneda Airport, is less than 10 miles from the city. It was once Tokyo’s main international airport, and remains among the busiest airports in Asia. Haneda is a hub for Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air Do, Skymark Airlines, Solaseed Air, and StarFlyer.
Two train lines connect Narita to Tokyo: East Japan Railway Company (JR East) and Keisei Electric Railway. Travel times range from 55-80 minutes, depending on the number of stops en route, with ticket prices for the shorter trips starting at 2,800 JPY. There are also many limousine bus services, though travel times vary considerably because of traffic.
There are several options for getting into Tokyo from Haneda Airport. The Tokyo Monorail takes just over a half-hour to reach Tokyo Station (with one transfer) and costs about 552 JPY. The Keikyu rail line only takes a few more minutes (also with one transfer) at a cost of about 380 JPY. A long list of limousine bus lines make the trip, too, with travel times (and ticket prices) ranging widely depending on traffic and your destination.
Take a 2-hour train to Mount Fuji via the Gotemba line. Once you’re there, explore the Fuji Five Lakes, great for hiking, camping, and fishing, or hop on the Inokashira line to make the 2-hour journey to Hakone, home to a number of hot springs on the shores of Lake Ashi (this is a good option in the colder months).
Take a 3-hour train ride to the mountainous Nikko, filled with temples and shrines; it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Go 1.75 hours south of the city to reach Enoshima, a lovely island that can easily be explored in a day (swim season here is brief, but there are a number of temples to check out).
Venture 2 hours out to the Izu Peninsula, where you’ll find Atami, a sweet little city on the water where you’ll find a number of hot springs and the MOA Museum of Art.
Go 2.75 hours west to the surprisingly great Katsunuma wine region.
Take a 3-hour train ride or 1-hour flight to get to Kyoto, the vibrant, beautiful cultural heart of Japan. Like much of the country, it’s especially lovely in the spring during cherry blossom season.
Opt for a 3.25-hour train ride or 1-hour flight to Osaka, the country’s financial capital that’s also somehow a quirky hub for a thriving, energetic nightlife scene (and it’s a great option for where to be for the annual Toka Ebisu festival in January).
Go for a 4-hour train ride or 1-hour flight to Kanazawa, home to some of the most authentically Japanese experiences you can find today (think geishas, sushi, preserved former samurai districts).
Take a 3-hour train ride to Nozawa Onsen, a ski village in Nagano that’s full of the hot springs for which it’s named. If you’ve never skied or want to hone your skills, this is a great mountain to take a lesson.
From Lost in Translation to Godzilla, there have been hundreds of movies set in Tokyo. For a deeper look at the city’s food traditions, check out the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the Michelin-starred master sushi maker, or watch the 2008 rom-com The Ramen Girl, in which Brittany Murphy learns the secrets of making ramen—along with some other life lessons.
If you prefer the page to the screen, check out The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata about life in the city in 1930, or read Geisha in Rivalry: A Tale of Life, Love and Intrigue in the Shimbashi Geisha Quarter, about some of Japan’s most fascinating people.
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