Hollywood’s got it all wrong. If extraterrestrials invaded Earth, they’d never New York City or Washington. Not when almost 5,000 miles away lies Tokyo, whose impossible-to-miss neon glow pierces into space with ferocity.
Things to do in Tokyo are nearly endless. And despite the massive sprawl—and I do mean enormous—Tokyo is at your disposal. Even on a short layover. To be sure, spending just 24 hours in Tokyo isn’t enough to get to know the city well. But it’s enough time to sweep through many of the features that make Japan’s capital so compelling for visitors.
Experience more in less time and supercharge your Tokyo itinerary with these ideas…
Table of Contents
- Want to maximize your first 24 hours in Tokyo, Japan? Follow along with this complete 1-day Tokyo itinerary…
- Experience the tuna auction (and eat breakfast) at Tsukiji Fish Market
- Deep dive into traditional Tokyo at Asakusa
- Breathe in the massive city panorama at Tokyo Skytree
- Wear out your camera shutter with the classic views Tokyo Imperial Palace
- Feel the electricity of Shinjuku
- Live on the edge in Harajuku
- Dodge traffic in Shibuya
- Take in evening views over Tokyo at Roppongi Hills
- Eat yakitori in Yurakucho
- Want to see more of Tokyo in 24 hours? Apply these 1-day Tokyo itinerary tweaks.
Want to maximize your first 24 hours in Tokyo, Japan? Follow along with this complete 1-day Tokyo itinerary…
You’ll be surprised with how much of the city opens up even with only one day in Tokyo. Before heading out, I’d suggest grabbing a Tokyo Metro 1-Day Open Ticket.
Even if you prefer walking (much like me), the distances between some of these stops is sizeable. It would be impractical to stick to walking for the whole itinerary—you just won’t be able to fit it all in.
Let’s see what Tokyo has in store for you…
Experience the tuna auction (and eat breakfast) at 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!)
Want to stay close to Tsukiji? Check out these recommendations for the best hotels in Ginza!
Tsukiji Inner and Outer Markets
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 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!
Deep dive into traditional Tokyo at Asakusa
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.
Breathe in the massive city panorama at Tokyo Skytree
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.)
Wear out your camera shutter with the classic views 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.
Feel the electricity of Shinjuku
When you dream of Tokyo—the neon lights, the chaos, the glass buildings splitting the clouds—what you’re imagining is Shinjuku.
Shinjuku is the 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, of course.)
From Sakuradamon Station on the Yurakucho Line, navigate the Tokyo Metro to Shinjuku Station where your modern 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.
What to Do in Shinjuku
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, here are a few of the best things to do in Shinjuku:
- 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.
- Shin-Ōkubo: Tokyo’s historic Korean district is your best bet for a little taste of Seoul in Japan. Grab a snack at one of the Korean eateries or get your fill of K-pop in one of the weird and wonderful Korean-owned shops.
- 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.
Want to stay close to all the action in Shinjuku? Check out these recommendations for the best hotels near Shinjuku Station!
Live on the edge in Harajuku
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 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.
Dodge traffic in 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, one of my personal favourite Japanese foods, at reasonable prices, proving budget travel in Japan is possible.
For the experience of a self-serve ramen restaurant alone, I’d recommend stopping in for an afternoon ramen snack at Ichiran.
Take in evening views over Tokyo at Roppongi Hills
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!
Eat yakitori in Yurakucho
While most of Tokyo modernized heavily in the post-war period, the neighbourhood of Yurakucho somehow managed to retain some of its old-world charms. The big drawcard is below the railway lines near Yurakucho Station where some of Tokyo’s most interesting traditional izakaya lie.
Yurakucho is popular among Japanese salarymen, who pound down biiru to unwind after a long, stressful day. Far more exciting than watching businessmen slip into varying depths of intoxication though is the chance to eat a traditional yakitori joint.
It’s not a fancy sushi dinner, to be sure. But yakitori, essentially skewers of grilled meat, are one of the simplest Tokyo food pleasures. The area’s izakaya and restaurants also serve other Japanese favourites like ramen if that’s more to your style.
Tokyo Travel Essentials
Where to Stay
There’s no surprise: choosing where to stay in Tokyo isn’t easy. Besides sorting through thousands of options in an ever-sprawling city, hotels in Tokyo peak among the world’s most expensive. What you’ll get in Tokyo is probably far smaller than you’re used to at similar prices elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom! With some smart searching you can find some good deals for your Tokyo accommodations. Get started with these top picks:
- Khaosan World Asakusa: This love hotel turned ryokan is an excellent choice for private budget accommodations in Asakusa. All the rooms are colourful with a ton of character. Both Japanese (tatami) and Western-style rooms are available. Senso-ji Temple is a quick 10-minute walk away.
- Hotel Rose Garden Shinjuku: A simple no-frills hotel in the heart of Shinjuku. Rooms are cozy, but spacious by Tokyo standards. Top attractions like Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building are a short walk away.
- Hilton Tokyo Hotel: The best value for a 5-star luxury hotel in Tokyo. Elegant rooms offer incredible views of Shinjuku. Also includes free access to the indoor pool, sauna, and gym.
Read reviews and check prices for more Tokyo hotels on Booking.com.
By air: Tokyo is serviced by two airports, Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND). Most international flights originating outside of Asia, fly into Narita about 70 kilometres from the city centre. Search for cheap flights to Tokyo on Skyscanner.
By train: The best way to travel around Japan is with the Japan Rail Pass. From Kyoto, the shinkansen (bullet train) takes between 2h20 and 2h40 with fares starting at ¥13,080 for travellers without a pass. Trains from Osaka to Tokyo are only slightly longer, covering the route in 2h30m to 3h. Fares start at ¥13,620.
Want to see more of Tokyo in 24 hours? Apply these 1-day Tokyo itinerary tweaks.
Need more ideas for your first 24 hours in Tokyo? Try out some of these ideas…
- Want to find all the latest gadgets? End your evening in Yurakucho early and head to Akihabara, Tokyo’s hi-tech shopping nirvana.
- Need more classic views of Tokyo? Spend the evening in Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo that supply epic views of the Tokyo skyline framed by Rainbow Bridge.
- Craving more culture? Carve out time in your Tokyo itinerary to hit up some of Tokyo’s best museums including Edo-Tokyo Museum, National Museum of Modern Art or Ghibli Museum.