Visiting Tokyo for the first time is absolutely exhilarating. There’s so much to do, see, and eat in the city that it can sometimes border on overwhelming. Here are my tips and itinerary so you can plan your perfect first trip to Tokyo.
How Many Days to Spend in Tokyo
We spent 5 days in Tokyo during our first trip to Japan, which was enough for us to scratch the surface of the things we wanted to see and eat. However, there’s really no perfect answer to the question of how many days to spend in Tokyo because it’s so personal. Below are the factors to weigh in order to determine how many days you should spend in Tokyo.
Activities: What do you want to do, see, and eat during your trip? Do you want to wake up early in the morning to eat fresh sushi at Tsukiji? Are you an anime lover who simply has to make the pilgrimage to the Pokemon center? Have you curated a list of the top 10 places to eat ramen in Japan?
Budget: What’s your total budget for the trip? Is there anything you’re planning to do that is especially expensive, such as a Michelin dinner? Do you intend to stay in a luxury hotel, a moderately priced Airbnb, or a cheap hostel?
Time: How many full days are you spending in Japan (subtracting travel time)? How many other cities are you planning on visiting besides Tokyo?
Pace: How fast or slow-paced do you like to travel? Are you interested in going from spot to spot or do you want to spend the day exploring 1 neighborhood per day? Keep in mind that Tokyo is massive so it can easily take 30-60 minutes to get from one side of the prefecture to the other.
Probability: What’s the likelihood you’ll come back in the future? If you do plan on coming back, what are the chances that you’ll be in a similar phase of life?
Where to Stay in Tokyo
Contrary to popular belief, Tokyo is not actually a city but one of Japan’s 47 prefectures. The large metropolitan area is more similar to a state that’s comprised of 1000 neighborhoods divided across 23 city wards. Keep this in mind as you decide where to stay in Tokyo. For example, if you see a hotel that says “located in Central Tokyo,” know that Central Tokyo is made up of 5 of the 23 city wards in the prefecture.
Though some names are shared between city and neighborhood, generally Tokyo neighborhoods are identified by the nearest train station. I’d recommend finding a place to stay in Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Ginza, in that order. All of these neighborhoods have lots to explore within walking distance and are close to big train hubs along the Yamanote Line, which is the main subway line connecting most major areas of the city without having to transfer (also why it’s called the beating heart of Tokyo).
Best Place to Stay in Tokyo
- Shinjuku is the best play to stay in Tokyo for first-time visitors. There’s great sightseeing during the day (like Shinjuku Gyoen Park) and bustling nightlife. The city is filled with countless restaurants, endless shopping, and seemingly infinite neon signs. Shinjuku Station is also the busiest train station, perfect for making stops in Tokyo or taking day trips to other areas of Japan.
- Shibuya has similar conveniences to Tokyo – it’s also centrally located with lots of shopping, restaurants, and nightlife. Shinjuku is slightly more convenient if you’re interested in making day trips whereas Shibuya has more popular sightseeing spots such as Shibuya Crossing, Meiji Jingu Shrine, and Harajuku shopping area.
- Ginza is located near Tokyo Station (also a major transportation hub of the city) and is the best destination if you’re planning on taking the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. Though the neighborhood isn’t as lively as Shinjuku or Shibuya, Ginza is where you’ll find luxury shopping.
Japan Talk provides short summaries describing the vibe of other popular neighborhoods in Tokyo. Asia Travel Bug does a great job comparing other popular locations in Tokyo if you’re interested in staying somewhere other than Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Ginza.
5 Days in Tokyo Itinerary (Day 1)
- Visit Tsukiji & Toyosu Fish Market
- Find serenity at Meiji Jingu Shrine
- Explore Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Visit Tsukiji & Toyosu Fish Market
If you appreciate sushi and are interested in the business of seafood, I’d highly recommend visiting the fish markets in Tokyo. Though you’ll find high-quality and affordable sushi anywhere in Japan, you won’t want to miss the buzzing atmosphere at the fish market where fishermen come as early as 5:00 in the morning to bid on the best catch of the day. You can taste the quality of the fish firsthand by eating at any one of the many sushi stalls inside Toyosu Market or outside at Tsukiji Outer Market.
The fish markets are one of the best places to visit at the beginning of your trip as your jet lag will work in favor so you can see the tuna auction or grab a seat at the famous Sushi Dai.
TIME SPENT: 4-5 hours
Toyosu Fish Market Hours
Toyosu is open from 5:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on most days of the week except for Sundays and national holidays. If you plan to view the tuna auction, the starting bell will ring sometime between 5:55 and 6:25 a.m. and can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.
Fish Market Tips
- Where is the tuna auction in Tokyo? Between 1935-2018, the Tsukiji Fish Market was home to the famous tuna auction (specifically the “inner market” at Tsukiji). The auction has since relocated to the new Toyosu Market.
- How can I see the tuna auction at Toyosu Market? It is no longer possible to be an arm’s length away from the tuna like at Tsukiji. Instead, you can observe the auction from 2 deck areas inside the market.
- The Lower-Floor observation deck provides the best view of the tuna auction. However, you need to apply for one of the 27 spots to view the tuna auction from the lower deck. Applications open during the first week of the month for the following month and are approved on a lottery system. If seeing the tuna auction is a must-see for you in Tokyo, I’d recommend following this guide on how to make sure you get a spot at the lower deck.
- The Upper-Floor observation deck provides a top-down view of the tuna auction. The upper deck is open to the public and doesn’t require an application. However, it can get crowded so get there early if you want a spot right at the observation windows.
- Is Tsukiji Fish Market still open? Yes and no. The Tsukiji Inner Market which housed the tuna auction and some of the most popular sushi restaurants closed and relocated to Toyosu in 2018. However, the Tsukiji Outer Market still remains open where you’ll find plenty of food stalls still serving the locals.
- Toyosu Fish Market vs. Tsukiji Fish Market With Toyosu open, is it still worth visiting Tsukiji? Toyosu was made with tourists in mind so if you’re just interested in seeing the top sites that used to be at Tsukiji like the tuna auction or Sushi Dai then you won’t feel compelled to go to Tsukiji. However, the surroundings of Toyosu feel sterile and lack the traditional fish market charm and cultural history that you can still find at Tsukiji Outer Market.
Eating at Toyosu Fish Market
Restaurants inside the market have varying hours with doors opening around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. Japan Wonder Travel has aggregated a list of restaurants inside Toyosu, including their locations and store hours.
If dining at Sushi Dai is at the top of the list, you’ll have to skip out on the tuna auction and queue up as soon as the market opens. Originally located at Tsukiji Inner Market, Sushi Dai remains one of the most visited sushi restaurants with one of the longest wait times (4-5 hours). Having read reviews of Sushi Dai and gone in 2022, I can confirm it remains one of the best omakase sushi experiences due to its quality, pacing, personalization, and affordability.
If you’re like me and can’t stomach the wait at Sushi Dai, then Sushi Daiwa is a great alternative for high-quality sushi with less wait time. Since Sushi Daiwa is almost double the capacity of Sushi Dai, you’re likely to wait no more than 1-2 hours. There’s also no option to order more sushi after you’ve finished your set meal so customers spend less time dining at Sushi Daiwa versus Sushi Dai.
Sushi Dai vs. Sushi Daiwa
It’s hard to say whether it’s worth waiting 3, 4, or 5 hours for Sushi Dai, and really depends on how much you enjoy and value the actual omakase experience. Most visitors who have been to both restaurants indicate that the fish quality is the same (myself included). And, though there are minor differences in the set menu price between the two restaurants, you’ll be hard-pressed to find similar quality omakase at such an affordable price point.
The difference seems to lie in the omakase experience. At Sushi Dai, you’ll have a few more pieces in your omakase set and have the option to choose your last bite or add-on to your set meal. These small touches and a more relaxed pace between dishes make a customer feel welcome to stay and savor their dining experience.
Find serenity at Meiji Jingu Shrine
Established in 1920, Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine that commemorates the divine souls (“kami”) of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken for modernizing Japan during the Meiji Restoration era. The shrine is a testament to how deeply rooted Shinto is in the Japanese way of life, having been completed with the support of volunteers and the donation of 100,000 trees from all over Japan. Politicians and tourists alike have come from all over the world to witness Japanese culture at the shrine.
TIME SPENT: 2 hours
Tips for Visiting Meiji Jingu
- Map: Meiji Jingu is located in Shibuya and is close to Harajuku Station (1 min. walk) and Yoyogi Station (5 min. walk) on the JR Yamanote Line.
- Hours: The shrine is open every day from sunrise until sunset (check the shrine’s website if you’re interested in specific times).
- Admission Fee: Visiting the shrine is free but some facilities such as the museum and gardens charge a small fee.
- Things to do: During your visit, you can participate in a number of Shinto rituals including ceremonial water purification (Temizu & Sampai), writing wishes (Ema & Goshuin), drawing oracles (Omijuki), and buying amulets (Ofuda). We spent most of our time in the sanctuary complex but there are also other areas you can explore based on the map of the shrine, including the man-made forest and garden. If you visit on the weekend around 10 a.m., you might even see a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony taking place.
Explore Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
If you’re visiting Japan during cherry blossom season or want to wander away from the hubbub of the city during fall, spend a few hours strolling through Shinjuku Gyoen. Formerly an imperial garden (“gyoen”), Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a massive public park located in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
You can easily spend 2-3 hours exploring the vast park grounds, especially if you visit when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. There are 3 main areas of the park: a traditional Japanese landscape garden, a formal French garden, and an English landscape garden.
Shinjuku Gyoen is a 5-10 minute walk depending on where you exit from Shinjuku Station. Admission into the garden is 500 yen and is open from 9-4om from spring through fall. The park is closed on Mondays, government holidays, and around New Year so check the government website to make sure it’s open during your time in Tokyo.
TIME SPENT: 1-3 hours
So that’s Day 1 of my 5-day Tokyo itinerary. Stay tuned for Days 2-5 so you can plan the best first trip to Tokyo ever! As usual, feel free to leave comments if you have any questions & I will always reply 😊