In September I went to Tokyo for 8 days and it was nothing short of INCREDIBLE. As mentioned numerous times, Japan had been on my bucket-list for ages and after visiting, I can honestly say that it’s such a magical place. I feel like it would take a lifetime to fully scratch the surface of the country, but I’m so glad I got to finally experience a small part of it in Tokyo and the nearby surrounds. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about when I can go back! This is what we got up to during our time there…
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Sunroute Plaza Hotel right in the heart of Shinjuku and the location seriously could not have been better. Our hotel was a 3 minute walk from Shinjuku Station (busiest station in the world, no big deal) which has all the train lines you need to get basically anywhere. We used the JR Yamanote Line pretty much everyday, a circular line which connects Tokyo’s major city centers.
We booked the hotel about a month in advance and got a really good rate on Booking.com. The hotel itself was modern, comfortable and super clean. Our room was tiny, but that’s to be expected in Tokyo (unless you want to pay $$$ for the luxury hotels like the Park Hyatt or Mandarin Oriental). I would 100% stay in this hotel again if I returned to Tokyo!
Our basic game plan
Tokyo is HUGE with the population being more than the whole of Australia, so we figured we’d need a basic game plan to make the most of each day. We decided to split up our time by suburb and tried to cover different areas every couple of days. We stuck loosely to this and it worked out pretty well. We used the Lonely Planet ‘Guides’ App and the Hello Sandwich Tokyo Guide, a small zine-like guide (easy to carry in my bag) with loads of awesome recommendations for food, sight-seeing and shopping for the areas we’d be tackling each day.
Below are the areas we hit up over the course of the 8 days and what we did in each…
Shinjuku is an awesome area to stay in and/or explore if you’ve never visited Tokyo before, it’s exactly how I imagined Tokyo to be — busy and bustling with neon lights, music, tall buildings and people in all directions.
- Golden Gai: Golden Gai is a grid of streets in Shinjuku with more than 270 tiny drinking dens crammed into seven narrow alleyways. Each bar is tiny, with space for 5 to 10 people at the most. On our first night in Tokyo, we shuffled ourselves into a 6 seater bar called Ace and the Japanese barman immediately poured us tequila shots on the house and started chatting to us. An awesome welcome to Tokyo indeed :)
- New York Bar at the Park Hyatt: If you’re familiar with the film Lost in Translation, then you’ll know that this place is pretty iconic — it’s the bar where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson met! It also just so happens to be on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel with INSANE panoramic views of Tokyo. We arrived at 6pm just in time for sun-downers and were seated on some sofas right beside the floor to ceiling windows. I ordered a very gingery gin cocktail which was delish. There’s live jazz that begins at 8pm which is also when the cover charge starts (around AUD$30). A bit of a splurge, but totally worth it.
- Robot Restaurant: I don’t have words for this place. First of all, don’t go expecting a meal because it’s not a restaurant. It’s more like a cabaret show… on crack. Without giving too much away, it’s like you have entered another dimension, nothing makes sense, it’s complete madness. Touristy yes, but a hilarious experience nonetheless. Just do it :)
- Shake Shack Japan: I know, I know, who travels all the way to Japan to eat burgers, but lets be honest, Shake Shack is the exception. This place was 100 meters away from our hotel, we saw it by chance walking home one night and ended up going back 3 times for burgers and shakes, it’s so damn good.
Much like Shinjuku, Shibuya is another buzzing area with countless department and high-street stores, arcades, karaoke bars and izakayas. It’s also most famous for the Hachikō dog statue and Shibuya Scramble Crossing.
- Shibuya Scramble Crossing: Another Tokyo landmark I was dying to see thanks to the film Lost In Translation. The famous Shibuya Scramble is a the world’s largest intersection and as many as 2500 people cross the street every time the lights change. You can get a good vantage point of this from the Starbucks near the crossing, it’s incredible to watch (and take the clichéd timelapse like every other tourist does, ha).
- Tokyu Food Show: This place is AMAZING, literal foodie heaven. Initially we thought it was just a supermarket, but once we made our way through, we came across the main area which has dozens and dozens of food stalls selling every type of food you can think of. We spent ages wondering around, admiring all the jaw dropping food displays. The Japanese know how to do so many things well and food is no exception. Go here hungry and try a bit of everything.
- Loft and Tokyu Hands: Spanning seven floors, Loft is definitely one of the best stores I have ever been into. From stationery to beauty and homewares, I spent hours making my way to the top, I even returned on my final night to do one more sweep of the place to ensure I didn’t miss anything, haha. Tokyu Hands, on the other hand, is another story… so many people recommended I check it out and I really didn’t understand the appeal. While large, it was old, a bit run down and more like a big knick knack junk shop. Go to Loft instead ;)
Harajuku / Omotesando
Walking distance from Shibuya is one of the areas I really loved the most, Harajuku. From the people watching to the food, coffee and back-street shopping, the vibe in this area was amazing.
- Cat Street
This was definitely my favourite shopping area in the whole of Tokyo, Cat Street is packed to the brim with independent Japanese boutiques and vintage stores, retail therapy heaven. Highly recommend popping into Ragtag for an amazing range of designer vintage and Opening Ceremony to see — what I deem as — the worlds most aesthetically pleasing clothing store, haha – seriously, it is so beautiful inside, it can’t be missed.
- Harry Hedgehog Cafe
Japan is very much into animal themed cafes (cats, dogs, owls, rabbits, the list goes on) and this is definitely as ridiculous as it sounds. You pay a cover charge (around AUD$16) and receive a 40 minute time slot to order a drink and hold, feed and play with hedgehogs! Having never seen a hedgehog in real life, this was a pretty adorable experience. The staff spoke good English and were super helpful with questions, they explained that the hedgehogs have a schedule where they are placed in a time-out rest area throughout the day and are rotated around so they don’t get tired and irritated. It genuinely looked like they were very well taken care of. So cute!
- Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku
An architecturally stunning shopping mall (designed by Hiroshi Nakamura in 2012) with the most amazing mirrored entrance. While the mall itself is more geared at teen/women’s clothing, it’s worth getting the escalator up to the top where you’ll find Aussie cafe Bills, along with an amazing rooftop terrace with sprawling views of Harajuku.
- Harajuku Gyoza Lou
Insanely delicious melt-in-your-mouth gyoza and very affordable. There will be a queue, but it moves pretty quickly and if you love gyoza as much as I do, it’s worth lining up for.
- Takeshita Street
Super touristy and chaotic street in Harajuku known for wacky, kawaii-driven shops selling crazy clothes and accessories, fun to look at, but insanely crowded. Order a vending machine crepe just to say you did.
- Meiji Shrine
Right beside Harajuku station is the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, a Shinto Shrine in a forest that covers an area of 70 hectares (170 acres). The wide path to the shrine is lined with trees and even with quite a few people around, it still felt empty and silent, it completely blew my mind that a place this peaceful existed right in the middle of the city. No noise of traffic and city life, just total silence. It was like an oasis. We spent about an hour taking a slow walk through to the other side where the temple was. So insanely beautiful and definitely one of my favourite places in Tokyo.
Couldn’t visit Japan without getting some culture in, so one morning we took the train to Asakusa, a more historic and traditional district in Tokyo most well known for the Sensō-ji Temple.
- Sensō-ji Temple
Steps away from Asakusa station you’ll find Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, Sensō-ji. Leading up to the temple grounds is Nakamise Dori, a street lined with stalls, small shops and vendors selling traditional wares and snacks — super touristy, but interesting to explore. The temple itself is architecturally stunning and the whole area really gives you a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture, their beliefs & values.
Ginza is the upmarket district of Tokyo — think Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue or the Champs-Élysées — you will find every high-end store imaginable here. Fun fact: One square meter of land in the Ginza is worth over ten million yen, making it one of the most expensive areas in Japan. We spent the afternoon here window shopping and taking snaps of all the stunning buildings, it’s a beautiful part of town.
- Chuo Dori
Chuo Dori is the main shopping strip in Ginza, with the streets lined by high-end department stores and boutiques. After window shopping for a bit, we stopped at a totally out of place, but amusing looking Japanese/Bavarian Beer Hall for a beer before hitting Dover Street Market.
- Dover Street Market
Kinda the main reason we landed up in Ginza was because I wanted to check out Dover Street Market. An incredibly curated 7 floor high-end clothing store owned by Comme des Garçons founder, Rei Kawabuko. Again, Japan absolutely killing it with the visual merchandising, it felt more like an art exhibition than a store, with stunning installations on every floor. The only thing I bought was a coffee from the cafe on the top floor, ha, but glad we had a wonder around nonetheless.
- Ginza Six
Ducked into the newly opened Ginza Six mall on the way back to the station to take a quick look. The building itself is beautiful and absolutely massive, but we were way too tired to tackle the entire thing, although the champagne rooftop bar was very tempting ;)
Day trip out of Tokyo
Because we spent so much time exploring Tokyo, we ran out of time and weren’t able to take the bullet train to Kyoto, a bit of a shame — but all the more reason to go back I say! We did want to venture out of Tokyo at some point though and a couple days before leaving, we decided to do a day trip to Kamakura, a small seaside town about 50km south-west of Tokyo with dozens of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. We spent the day visiting some incredibly beautiful temples and exploring Kamakura town centre, such a chilled little town and definitely a stark contrast from busy Tokyo! This post is already pretty long so I will save the Kamakura photos for a separate post, stay tuned :)
Check out my Tokyo Travel Tips post here!