Hollywood’s got it all wrong. If extraterrestrials ever invaded Earth, New York City or Washington wouldn’t be the target. Not when almost 5,000 miles away lies Tokyo, whose blinding neon pierces into space nightly with unrivalled ferocity.
Things to do in Tokyo are nearly endless. And despite the sprawl, Tokyo is at your disposal—even on a short layover.
Want to experience the most in your first 24 hours in Tokyo? Search out these Tokyo attractions for culture lovers:
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Tsukiji Fish Market
You’ll need to drag your jet-lagged butt out of bed during the wee hours of the morning if you want to catch a glimpse of one of Tokyo’s most interesting places: Tsukiji Fish Market.
Experiencing the famous daily tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market takes serious commitment. You’ll need to set your alarms as early as 3am.
Public transportation won’t be running yet, so stay within short walking distance at a hotel like Tokyu Stay Ginza to nab a few extra minutes of shut-eye. Plan on arriving at Tsukiji Fish Market before 4am to secure one of the 120 spots available for the public. (Line-ups get surprisingly long considering the ungodly hour!)
Even if the extreme early morning wake up call for the tuna auction doesn’t work for you, still shoot to start your day at the Tsukiji Inner and Outer Markets. Although the official opening time is 9am, I arrived at about 8:30am. The markets were already in full-swing.
Nearly any type of fish or seafood you’ve ever seen on a Japanese menu you’ll find hanging to dry or flopped on ice in the shops of the Tsukiji Inner Market. Tuna, sea urchins, salmon eggs, squid—they’re all there with all the colours and (depending on your outlook) interesting smells you’d expect. Throw in the fragrant scents of fresh herbs and ear-piercing metal clinking as expert knife sharpeners perfect their tools, and you’ll have an idea of what awaits you at the Inner Market of Tsukiji.
After working up an appetite walking around the inner market and watching merchants peddle their catches-of-the-day, snag an ultra-fresh sushi breakfast at a restaurant along the outer market concourse. It might well be the most filling (and memorable) morning snack of your entire trip to Asia!
From Tsukiji Fish Market, walk to nearby Higashi-ginza Station and gave your Tokyo Metro pass a workout by taking the Toei Subway Asakusa Line to Asakusa Station.
Whereas Tokyo neighbourhoods like Shibuya and Shinjuku conjure images of the ultra-modern, Asakusa gives us just the opposite: a glimpse of Tokyo at its most traditional.
Not far from Asakusa Station, you’ll spot Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate), the gateway to Asakusa’s most popular attractions, including Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple that has become a symbol of Tokyo’s ancient past.
With Nakamise-dōri, the shopping street leading from Kaminarimon to Sensō-ji, as your anchor, browse around Asakusa to uncover Tokyo’s best preserved traditional Japanese wooden architecture, Shinto shrines, and Buddhist pagodas.
Nothing will give you a perspective of Tokyo’s sheer size like viewing the city from above. After walking about Asakusa, cross the Sumida River to the Tokyo Skytree where you can zip up to lay eyes on one of the best panoramas in Tokyo.
At ¥2,060 ($20) for the Tembo Deck at 350 metres (1,148 feet), the Tokyo Skytree isn’t exactly budget-friendly. But, hey, you only have 24 hours in Tokyo. Splurge. (Or save your money an take in the free view atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building or choose the similarly-priced observation deck at Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills.)
Tokyo Imperial Palace
From Oshiage Station at the Tokyo Skytree, it’s a short subway hop on the Tokyo Metro (Hanzomon Line) to Otemachi Station for another slice of traditional Japanese design: Tokyo Imperial Palace.
Amid waterways, stone walls and bridges, cultivated bonsais and cherry blossoms (if you’re lucky enough to be in Tokyo in the spring), you’ll glimpse some of the buildings of the Imperial Palace grounds, rebuilt after World War II in classic Japanese architectural styles.
Relax in the East Garden before heading towards Sakuradamon Station, stopping by Nijubashi Bridge to join dozens of Japanese and Chinese tourists as they marvel at one of the classic views of Tokyo Imperial Palace.
When you dream of Tokyo—the neon lights, the chaos, the glass buildings splitting the clouds—what you’re imagining is Shinjuku.
Shinjuku is face of Tokyo to the outside world, representing the modernity and dynamism that we now associate with Japan. And, truthfully, Shinjuku’s one hell of an experience. (In a good way.)
From Sakuradamon Station on the Yurakucho Line, navigate the Tokyo Metro to Shinjuku Station where your real Tokyo adventure begins. By now, you’ll notice the streets flooding with a never-ending stream of pedestrians and cars, a far cry from the quiet early morning hours near Tsukiji. This is what the rest of your day will look like.
Getting lost is the best advice I can give for experiencing Shinjuku. Walking down a set path without distraction in Shinjuku is wholly impossible with the overwhelming visual stimulation peeking around every corner. While exploring Tokyo’s most famous ward, look out for:
- Kabukichō: Tokyo’s most notorious district, northeast of Shinjuku Station, full of restaurants, bars, and—ahem—”pleasure palaces”. Mind your surroundings as some of the bars and clientele here are, well, a bit unsavoury.
- Ōkubo: Tokyo’s historic Korean district—full of Korean-owned shops and restaurants—is your best bet for a little taste of Seoul in Japan.
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden: One of the most pleasant parks in Tokyo and a great escape from the insanity of Shinjuku. Visit during cherry blossom season, if you can, for the full effect.
- Nishi-Shinjuku: Shinjuku’s “Skyscraper City.” Climb up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for incredible panoramas of Tokyo and even as far as Mount Fuji on a clear day. Admission to the observation deck is free.
- Omoide Yokocho: Tokyo’s fondly-nicknamed “Piss Alley,” famous for its wide array of eateries serving up ramen, soba, and yakitori. Most restaurants on Omoide Yokocho open around 5pm.
If you ever happen to find yourself in Harajuku on a Sunday, you’ll finally understand what Gwen Stefani meant when she sang: “You Harajuku girls: damn, you’ve got some wicked style.”
Even if you don’t catch the edgy Japanese youth culture in action near the entrance of Yoyogi Park (unfortunately, I missed it), Harajuku is still a worthwhile stop on a walking tour between Shinjuku (25 minutes by foot) and Shibuya (15 minutes by foot).
Start by unwinding from Shinjuku’s madness in the shade of Yoyogi Park, home of the Meiji Shrine. You could wander here for hours among towering evergreens, ponds and streams, but if you only have 24 hours in Tokyo, keep your visit short and march into Harajuku proper.
For souvenirs or cutting-edge fashion, you can’t beat Harajuku. Going through retail withdrawal? Treat it by scoping out Takeshita-dōri, Omotesando Hills or the tourist-trap Oriental Bazaar before walking down to Shibuya.
Feeling the adrenaline rush of dodging passerbys while crossing the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing is an experience that you can’t leave Tokyo without. Like Shinjuku, Shibuya is modern Japanese culture in action and everything you’d expect from Japan’s capital.
Whether the boutiques and shopping malls of Shibuya interest you or not, in wandering around Shibuya you’re bound to run into something that catches your eye—or your tastebuds.
Restaurants around Shibuya are plentiful, ranging from presidentially-priced to budget-backpacker cheap. Although it’s a chain, Ichiran at the Iwamoto Building serves up huge portions of delicious Tonkotsu ramen at reasonable prices. For the experience of a self-serve ramen restaurant alone, I’d recommend stopping in for an afternoon ramen snack at Ichiran.
If you’ve got any time (or energy) left from your long day exploring Tokyo, hop on the Tokyo Metro at Shibuya Station to Roppongi Hills to gape at some of the city’s coolest modern architecture.
Although the area around Roppongi Hills is one of Tokyo’s most popular nightlife spots, the real drawcard as the evening suns sinks below the Tokyo skyline is the observation deck at Mori Tower. At ¥2000 ($20) the full Mori Tower experience including the Sky Deck is a little expensive, but offers fantastic panoramas of the Tokyo skyline.