Tokyo is a city of superlatives. It’s the largest, most populated city in the world, and a whopping 38 million people call Tokyo home. That means there are more people living in Tokyo than there are in the entire nation of Canada!
Tokyo is also a city of contrasts, where you’ll find futuristic skyscrapers towering over ancient shrines. Walking around Tokyo, you’ll spot women wearing traditional kimonos around Sensoji Temple.
You’ll also see young girls rocking a gothic or punk look in the fashionable area of Harajuku. Japanese salary-men, while all business during the day, loosen their ties and themselves over several beers after work.
In reality, Tokyo is several cities rolled into one. There are 23 different wards that all combine to make this mega-city, each with its own unique vibe. If you thought the five boroughs of New York were different, wait until you explore the different wards of Tokyo.
Tokyo is a city that you could spend your entire life exploring without seeing it all. The city is home to a wealth of historical and cultural attractions, tranquil parks and gardens, bustling markets, and some of the world’s best culinary and nightlife scenes.
In this Tokyo travel guide, we’ll dive into all that the Japanese capital has to offer. You’ll get an idea of how much it costs to travel to Tokyo, figure out the best areas to stay in, and get an awesome 3-day itinerary. This is probably my favourite city I’ve ever visited, and I’m stoked to share it with you.
1. Visit shrines and temples
Before you dive into the neon-lit madness of your Tokyo itinerary, it’s best to start off with the traditional side of the Japanese capital. That means visiting some of the city’s famous shrines and temples. There are quite a few, but if your time is limited you’ll have to pick and choose.
Be sure to head to the Asakusa area to check out the Sensoji Temple. This is the oldest religious site in the city, dating all the way back to 628. It’s also the most visited, drawing in about 30 million people annually.
Another must-see is the Meiji Shrine. Surrounded by forest, this beautiful shrine was built to honour the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
2. Eat all the foods
Without a doubt, one of the best things to do in Tokyo is to sample the amazing Japanese cuisine that is around every corner. From a sushi breakfast at the fish market, to a crowded noodle joint for lunch, and even to the rice balls and other snacks at 7-11, there’s so much good to try in Tokyo.
3. Museum hopping
Tokyo is home to countless museums covering everything from history, to art, to science, and much more. It being Japan, there are museums dedicated to topics such as anime and samurai as well.
You could spend weeks on end visiting Tokyo museums and still not hit them all. Assuming you only have a few days in the city, you’ll probably only be able to visit one or two museums. A great place to start is the Tokyo National Museum, which is an excellent place to learn about the culture and history of Japan.
4. Dinner and a show at a Robot Restaurant
If you’re the kind of person who would rather be at an acid test than a stale dinner party, then the Robot Restaurant is the place for you!
This psychedelic, mind-fuck of a dinner show just might be the coolest dining experience in the world. It ain’t cheap (about $75 a head), but it’s definitely worth it.
Check availability here.
5. See sumo or baseball
Sumo is the national sport of Japan, and seeing it live is a pretty incredible experience. There are three big sumo tournaments in Tokyo each year in January, May, and September. Each one lasts for just over two weeks, meaning there are 45 days a year where it’s possible to see sumo live.
If you can’t catch a sumo tournament, perhaps you can attend a baseball game. Baseball – it’s not just for Americans! The Yomiuri Giants play at the Tokyo Dome. The games are a lot of fun and with the season lasting from March to September, there are plenty of chances to catch one. No matter which Japanese city you stay in, there will 2 big fat blokes scrapping somewhere.
6. Go for a walk in the park
While Tokyo is most definitely a concrete jungle, there are still plenty of scenic green spaces in the city. In between all the sightseeing, it’s nice to just go for a walk in the park and chill out a bit.
Some of the best places to go include the gardens around the Imperial Palace and Yoyogi Park, which is especially lively on the weekends.
7. Explore funky neighborhoods
As I mentioned in the intro to this Tokyo travel guide, this massive city is really several cities combined into one. Each ward is unique and offers something special. When you travel to Tokyo, you should make it a point to explore as many of the different ‘hoods as you can.
Some areas that you can’t miss include Akihabara (anime, arcades, go-karts!), Harajuku (fashion, youth culture), Asakusa (history, culture), and Shinjuku (nightlife).
8. Experience the Shibuya crossing
In New York, you have to visit Central Park. In London, you’ve got to see Big Ben. Well, in Tokyo you need to walk across the Shibuya crossing.
Rumoured to be the busiest crossing in the world, it’s absolute chaos once the light turns green and people surge into the intersection from all sides.
9. Real life Mario Kart
There’s no denying that Mario Kart is one of the greatest video games ever created. I mean, there’s a reason they’re still coming out with new versions decades later. Get ready to have your minds blown, my friends, because in Tokyo you can play real life Mario Kart!
Seriously – you can dress up as fucking Yoshi and ride a go-kart through the streets. They even have cameras and Bluetooth speakers in the go-karts, so you can capture all the action and blast your own tunes. Just don’t go throwing any banana peels off to the side! Alos big point to note is that you will need a valid driver’s license to participate in gocarting.
Buy your tickets here before you go.
10. Party hard in Tokyo
While there are plenty of awesome things to do in Tokyo to keep you busy during the day, you’ll want to make sure you have some gas left in the tank to sample some of the city’s nightlife. The options for a big night out really are endless here, from informal Japanese pubs known as izakaya to rowdy nightclubs that go until sunrise. Check out this post to see the best places to visit in Tokyo!
Best Free Things to do in Tokyo
Just because Tokyo is an expensive city doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing free (or close to it) things to do in Tokyo. Just check out this list of 101 free and cheap things to do in Tokyo!
With a little bit of careful planning, it’s totally feasible to spend a few days in Tokyo where you only spend money on accommodation, transportation, and food. There are enough free things to do in Tokyo to keep you busy for several days without getting bored.
Some of the many free things to do in Tokyo include: going on a guided tour of the Imperial Palace, taking in the views from atop the Metropolitan Government Building, walking around the Tsukiji Fish Market, and visiting the Sensoji Temple.
Tokyo off the beaten track
One great thing about travelling to Tokyo is that you’re almost always immersed in the local culture. There really isn’t a tourist zoo here like Times Square in New York or Khao San Road in Bangkok. Aside from a few expat enclaves, you’ll generally find yourself surrounded by Japanese people and culture.
Even in popular areas such as Shinjuku, all you need to do is walk down some random side streets and you’ll find yourself in the lively Golden Gai bar district. This area is home to some 200 tiny bars and dining establishments that can only hold a handful of people. Pop into one and you’ll soon be lost in translation, just like Bill Murray in the famous movie.
Just a stone’s throw away from the bustling Shibuya, you’ll find the bohemian ‘hood of Shimokitazawa. This place is full of hipster cafes, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and an abundance of vintage and second-hand shops. While much of the rest of Tokyo fills up with chain stores, at least this area remains unique.
One great way to get off the beaten track here is by connecting with and maybe even staying with locals. Even if you can’t find a host on Couchsurfing, you might find a meet-up that’s going on while you’re in town, or a local who would like to meet for coffee and show you around.
Getting Around Tokyo
I’ll never forget the first time I went to Tokyo and got my first glance of the city’s metro map. I must have looked like the most confused gaijin (foreigner) ever because a good Samaritan quickly asked me where I needed to go and pointed me in the right direction.
Seriously, just take one look at the Tokyo metro map. It looks like an alien with a few dozen different coloured tentacles. Actually, that sounds about right for Japan! In all seriousness though, it’s pretty fucking confusing trying to navigate. I’ll try to explain it in simple terms for you…
The Tokyo metro network consists of lines managed by several different companies. That means you can’t just buy one ticket and ride the metro wherever you want. There are the JR lines, the two subway networks, and then several private lines as well. Sound confusing? That’s because it is.
The good news is that Japanese people are super friendly and helpful, and will step in to save your dazed & confused ass. There’s also this handy dandy Tokyo metro guide that will do a much better job of explaining things than I can.
Even though it’s a bit tricky to navigate, the Tokyo metro system is pretty awesome and will get you everywhere you need to go in the city.
There are plenty of bus lines as well, but those are even more difficult for the uninitiated to figure out. You can read this guide if you’re looking for more info on Tokyo buses.
Cabs are readily available in Tokyo, but they ain’t cheap. Drivers here aren’t known to be con artists like they are in so many cities, but don’t expect them to speak any English. If you’re trying to do Tokyo on the cheap, you’re going to need to stay out of cabs and walk your ass to the nearest metro station.
I’ve been to the city twice now and haven’t taken a single bus or cab. My strategy is always to figure out which metro station to go to and then spend all day exploring that area. I might take the metro again to try a different part of town if time allows, and then try to get on the last one home before it shuts down.
Getting in and out of Tokyo
Tokyo is served by two different airports. If you’re travelling to the city internationally, you’ll arrive at Narita Airport (NRT). The thing about this airport is that it’s not actually in Tokyo at all. As the name suggests, it’s actually in Narita, which is 70 km northeast of the capital.
For getting to and from Narita, you have several options. The cheapest option is taking the Keisei Limited Express to Nippori Station for about $10 one way. From there, you can hop on the metro to get to where you’re staying.
If you purchase a a Japan Rail Pass for your trip, you should hop on the Narita Express train, as it’s covered by the pass. Even if you don’t have the rail pass, it’s not a bad deal if you need a round-trip ticket. Foreigners get a discounted price of about $35 for round-trip tickets to be used within two weeks.
Haneda Airport (HND) is used mostly for domestic flights, but a new international terminal is coming next year. It’s much closer to the city than Narita – only about half an hour south of central Tokyo. Your best bet travelling to the city is catching the Tokyo Monorail for about $5.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Japan’s amazing high-speed trains by now. Japan definitely has one of the most impressive rail networks in the world, so travelling to and from Tokyo by train is a great option. Trains here are fast, comfortable, and incredibly punctual.
That being said, train travel here can be a bit complicated. I always look to Seat 61 for detailed and up-to-date information on travelling by train. Check out their guide on train travel in Japan to get all the info you’ll need.
Of course, bus travel is always an option to get to and from Tokyo as well. Since it’s the capital city and all, you can catch buses heading in all directions out of Tokyo. One bus company that comes recommended by several travellers is Willer Express.
FYI – If you are really short on time, then note that there are Tokyo transit tours operating from the airport which last around 5 hours.
Visiting Japan? Trains are the way to get around but they can be expensive.
We don’t want you to miss out on any part of this stunning country, which is why we recommend purchasing a Rail Pass. This is the best, and cheapest, way to explore Japan using the well-connected transit system.
Enjoy unlimited train and bus rides on Japan’s largest transportation network. Available for 7, 14, or 21 days of travel.
Before we dive into the average costs of travelling in Tokyo, let’s just get this out of the way – Japan is fucking expensive. If you come to Tokyo expecting to pay similar prices to other Asian capital cities like Bangkok, Jakarta, or Seoul, you’re in for a shock. Prices in Tokyo are more in line with places like London or New York.
That being said, there are always ways for Broke Backpackers to travel in even the most expensive of cities.
You can survive on a budget of $30-40 a day in Tokyo if you’re very resourceful. You’ll need to find a Couchsurfing host for one. You’ll also be eating a lot of 7-11 meals and burning up the soles in your shoes by walking so much.
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If you up that budget to $60-70, you can get a dorm bed in a decent hostel, afford a few rides on the metro, and swap those instant noodles for some conveyor belt sushi. You might even have some money left over at the end of the day to have a beer or two! From a 7-11, of course. As I said, this city is expensive.
Below is a breakdown of how much things cost in Tokyo.
Daily Costs in Tokyo
|Accommodation||Food||Transport||Activities||Average Daily Cost|
|Frugal Traveler||$40 – $70||$15||$10||$16||$81 – £111|
|Creature of Comfort||$150||$30||$25||$25||$230|
In this absolutely massive, sprawling capital city, figuring out where to stay can be overwhelming. I remember the first time I travelled to Tokyo, I spent so much time looking at the map trying to figure out where the hell everything was.
Thankfully for you, we’ve already done the grunt work and put together an excellent guide on where to stay in Tokyo.
Here is a quick version for you guys:
- Where to stay in Tokyo first time – Shinjuku
- Where to stay in Tokyo on a budget – Asakusa
- Best area to stay in Tokyo for nightlife – Roppongi
- Coolest place to stay in Tokyo – Shibuya
- Best neighborhood in Tokyo for families – Tokyo Bay
There are so many hostels in Tokyo that you could spend hours just scrolling through Hostel World trying to find the right one. There’s no need to do that, though, as we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to 20 of the best hostels in Tokyo.
For this Tokyo travel guide, we’ve narrowed down our 3 favorite hostels below: best overall, best for solo travellers, and best party hostel.
Overall Best Hostel in Tokyo – UNPLAN Shinjuku
UNPLAN Shinjuku is not only the best hostel in the Shinjuku area, but it’s the best hostel in Tokyo as a whole! It isn’t strictly the cheapest hostel in Tokyo, however, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck here.
Flashy, modern, and decked with trimmings, UNPLAN is both excellently located in Shinjuku and has excellent staff. You get friendly vibes, kickass feeds, and cozy beds to rest your head after a long day of exploring Tokyo’s eccentricities.
Best Hostel for Solo Travellers in Tokyo – Backpackers Hostel K’s House Tokyo
This excellent Tokyo hostel operates under the mantra of “your home away from home,” and that’s exactly what they provide. It’s a great place to meet fellow travellers thanks to their cozy common room and social events. They offer up free snacks and drinks on Wednesdays, which makes for an awesome chance to socialize.
Best Party Hostel in Tokyo – Kaisu Hostel
Tokyo doesn’t really do party hostels, but this is about as close as it gets. Kaisu Hostel used to be a traditional Japanese restaurant with performing geishas and everything. They converted the space into an awesome hostel with a cafe and bar on site.
This makes for a great spot to pre-game and meet fellow travellers. When you’re ready to party, the popular nightlife area of Roppongi is just a short walk away.
Best Airbnb in Tokyo – Stylish Apartment in Roppongi
Take an apartment in Roppongi! Why?
It’s the best neighborhood to stay in Tokyo for nightlife! Go out, wreck yourself, and go home to sleep it off. If you’re lucky enough to bring someone home, you got a sexy pad to sleep it off together.
Tokyo Accommodation Travel Hacks
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Tokyo is an expensive city to visit. Even hostels in less than ideal locations in the city charge $20-25 a night for a space in a 12-person dorm. Ouch.
You know those capsule hotels that Japan is famous for? The ones where you kind of sleep in a coffin? Even those can cost upwards of $50 a night or even more.
My best accommodation travel hack for you in this Tokyo travel guide is to get on Couchsurfing and send a bunch of requests. When we last travelled to Tokyo, we must have messaged well over 20 hosts.
Finally, a super nice local guy took us in and let us crash for a few nights on his tatami mat. That saved us at least $100 on hostel dorm beds, so it was worth the effort!
If you do end up booking a hostel, at least try to find one that offers free breakfast and/or a communal kitchen. Unless you want to eat a majority of your meals at 7-11, it’s hard to do Tokyo on a budget without at least having a free breky or the space to make your own.
Best Time of the Year to Visit Tokyo
The best time to visit Tokyo is either between March-May or September-November. Spring and fall temperatures are nice and pleasant, and the crowds aren’t too bad. The one exception is when cherry blossoms begin to bloom, which brings an influx of tourists all across the country.
Summer in Tokyo can get very hot and humid. As with many places around the globe, this is also the peak tourist season.
That being said, you might want to start planning your trip to Tokyo for next summer, when the city will host the 2020 Olympics. I’m actually hoping to make it there myself!
While winter isn’t terrible in Tokyo, the cold weather definitely limits your ability to really experience all that the city has to offer. Tokyo’s parks and gardens are a highlight, and they are just not that nice in the dead of winter.
Staying Safe in Tokyo
Tokyo is one of the safest cities on the planet. Honestly, you have very little to be concerned with when you travel to Tokyo. Even petty crimes like pick-pocketing aren’t really an issue in the Japanese capital. That being said, you should still exercise the same common sense you would anywhere else. You can read our specific tips in our Tokyo Safety Guide.
For female travellers, one thing to be wary of in Tokyo is men with curious hands on the packed trains. While this is more of a problem for local women, it’s still something you want to be aware of. There are even women-only train cars for this very reason.
Now, for the men out there, you might be wandering down a bar street in Roppongi one night piss drunk on sake when you hear someone mention a “happy ending.”
I hate to burst your bubble, but these are definitely scams. There are many stories of dudes going into these bars, getting drugged, and waking up to exorbitant credit card bills. That’s not a happy ending at all!
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Travel Insurance for Tokyo
Traveling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional and relatively affordable. They may also let you buy or extend a policy once you’ve started your trip and are already abroad which is super handy.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. To find out why I use World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple – just click the button or image below, fill out the necessary info, and you’re on your way!
Food and Drink in Tokyo
Wow… where do I even begin here? There are literally thousands of places to eat and drink in Tokyo. If all you did on your trip to Tokyo was sample Japanese food and drink, I would say it’s a smashing success.
That being said, I’ll give you a few must-does when it comes to eating and drinking in Tokyo.
Early in the morning, be sure to head to the Tsukiji Fish Market for a sushi breakfast. If you want to see the auction, you’ll have to get there at a very unreasonable hour of 3:30-4:30. For those who prefer sleep to watching people buy fish, you can show up later, poke around the market a bit, and sit down at a restaurant for a massive sushi breakfast.
Speaking of sushi, you’ll surely notice that many restaurants serve up this Japanese classic on conveyor belts. These places are great for a quick, easy, and relatively affordable meal. The plates are colour-coded by price, so be sure to look carefully before loading up on the most expensive ones!
One of the most fun things about eating in Tokyo is ordering your lunch from vending machines. Many restaurants have vending machines with pictures, so you can place your order, hand the receipt to the cook, and not worry about fumbling through your awful Japanese. Take that, language barriers!
For those doing Tokyo on the cheap, you’ll surely get acquainted with convenience store food. Hey, at least it’s pretty good here! Grab a few rice balls and maybe a bento box, and you’ll be good for a few hours.
If you enjoy both coffee and cats, you might want to visit one of Tokyo’s approximately 60 cat cafes. “What is a cat cafe?” you may wonder. Due to small living quarters and strict rental agreements, it’s really hard to have pets in Tokyo. Cue the cat cafes, where people can come grab a drink and enjoy the company of furry felines at the same time.
Seeing as how you’re in East Asia and all, you’ll definitely want to try some tea while you’re in Tokyo. There are plenty of tea houses in the Japanese capital, and you’ll often be served some green tea with your meal in restaurants.
When it comes to the hard stuff, it’s not hard to find an adult beverage in Tokyo. You can even get local beers like Asahi from vending machines, although these are becoming increasingly rare.
If you can’t find one, you can always just grab a drink from the 7-11 that is probably right in front of you. Street beers FTW!
Of course, you didn’t come all the way to Tokyo to not get some sake. You can’t throw a dead cat without hitting a sake bar. Hey, wait a second – where did you get that dead cat! Not from the cat cafe?! Dead cat jokes aside, don’t miss out on getting sake drunk when you travel to Tokyo.
Nightlife in Tokyo
If you like to party, then you’re in for a real treat in Tokyo. While the city and its people may seem a bit conservative at first glance, once the sun goes down it’s a whole different ballgame.
The old adage of work hard, play hard sure rings true in Tokyo. As soon as 5 o’clock hits, you’ll see businessmen start to trickle in to the tachinomi standing bars, where you literally just stand and drink. Many of these guys will pound a bunch of beers, crash in a capsule hotel, and get right back to the office the next morning. Party on, Wayne!
For another fun and local experience, check out some of the city’s many izakaya. These are informal bars that typically serve a variety of small dishes along with drinks. Look for them around busy train stations and sit down for a classic Tokyo experience.
We haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to the nightlife in Tokyo. You can also find classy cocktail bars, craft beer bars, live music venues, raucous nightclubs, and of course, the ubiquitous karaoke joints. For a more detailed look at the nightlife in Tokyo, check out this massive guide.
One thing about partying in Tokyo is that it can definitely wreck your budget. Be sure to read this helpful and hilarious broke-ass guide to drinking in Tokyo before heading out for a big night there.
Books to Read on Tokyo
Below are some of my favorite books set in Tokyo, Japan:
Lonely Planet Discover Tokyo – Grab this brand spanking new 2019 edition that’s full of up to date information on the Japanese capital.
Tokyo on Foot – Graphic artist Florent Chavouet spent six months exploring the many neighborhoods of Tokyo, and this awesome illustrated book is the result.
Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens – Michael Pronko shares 48 different essays on Tokyo, compiled over 15 years.
Strange Weather in Tokyo – For those who enjoy reading novels more than guidebooks, this is a great book set in Tokyo.
Tokyo Maze – This guide details 42 different walks in the Japanese capital.
Final Thoughts – Be Good To Tokyo
Backpacking in Tokyo will bring you ample opportunities to participate in debauchery, and it is very important to have fun, let loose, and get a bit wild at times. Most backpacking trips I have been on across the world have included at least a few mornings where I wake up knowing I went too far.
There are some things that will put you in the category of a straight up jackass if you do them. Being super loud and obnoxious in a tiny hostel at 3 AM is a classic rookie backpacker mistake.
Everyone in the hostel will hate you when you wake them up. Show your fellow travelers respect whilst backpacking in Tokyo and anywhere else for that matter!
Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in a landfill or in the ocean.
Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
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