Your Tokyo Itinerary
The Japanese capital is one of the world biggest and busiest cities in the world. The city perfectly blends history with modernism. From grand temples, Zen gardens to the busy Shibuya crossing to futuristic skyscraper, Tokyo has it all.
Tokyo is a huge city and obviously, you cannot see all at once. So how to spend 7 days in Tokyo? The museums, parks and different neighbourhoods will give you plenty of activities to do. Planning your trip can feel a little overwhelming, here is a 7-day Tokyo itinerary with 3 day trips to explore beyond the capital. This guide is perfect whether it's your first time or you are a returning visitor. If this is your first time, Japan can be very addictive and you will be wanting to go back again and again!
Things to do in Tokyo
Tsukiji fish market
Famous for its 4am tuna auction, the market offers plenty to see beyond the auction if you are not an early bird. From seaweed to octopus to globefish, the Tsukiji market has everything from the sea. The market is also full of small restaurants offering all different kind of seafood and traditional Japanese dishes. The breakfast there was amazing! I tried a 3-course meal with chirashi sushi and rice soup.
As of October 6, 2018, the inner market of the famous Tsukiji Market as moved to a new site in Toyosu where it reopened under the name of Toyosu Market. The outside of the market still remains at the Tsukiji Market.
In Asakusa, you will find a different vibe, a more calm and traditional atmosphere. The old entertainment district is home to the famous Sensoji temple, a Buddhist temple from the 7th century. This buzzing area was almost completely destructed by the WWII bombings and much of its infrastructure was lost forever. The district is sort of a tourist trap filled with souvenirs shops. However, the temples are worth the visit!
The Edo period, the middle ages of Japanese history, was the longest historical period on the archipelago. It extends from 1603 and 1868 and shaped very strongly the culture of Japan, a lot of the traditions are a direct heritage of this feudal reign.
The museum recreates historical moments and scenes of daily lives with miniature figures and live size maquettes. The work done is extremely detailed and beautiful. The museum not only showcases scenes from the Edo period but also has a section about Tokyo history from the first buildings to the metropolis that it is today. You travel through the emperors, the wars to the crazy Harajuku fashion style from the late ’90s.
A lot of the explanations are in English and in other languages which is great to fully understand the Japanese culture. Most of the expositions are interactive so you can fully be immersed in history.
The city also features several world-class museums like the Tokyo National Museum and some quirky museums as well as the Snoopy museum.
Imperial Palace & Tokyo station
To our surprise, we were not able to go inside the Tokyo imperial palace as it is only open to the public 2 days per year as it is still the residence of the emperor and his family. The palace is located in a former Edo Castle with a large park surrounded by moats and stone walls. However, you can visit the Imperial Palace East gardens.
A few minutes away from the palace, you will find Tokyo Station. The station is a city on itself. The main facade is one of the few brick-built infrastructures in the city, it has also survived several earthquakes, fires and WWII bombing. Opened in 1914, the station has more than 400,000 passengers per day. You will find everything from bakeries with cute Hello Kitty doughnuts, to clothes stores.
This is any otaku (diehard fan) anime and manga heaven. The electronic district is filled with stores selling anything from cables to TV. Known for the manga & maid cafes, you will see girls dressed like maids giving you promotions for the different themes cafes on the busy streets.
In this district, you will find complexes of several floors dedicated to karaoke, Pachinko (slots machines), & video games, such as the Sega building.
I was extremely deceived by the famous Takeshita Dori. Being a 90’s girl, I grew up with this extravagant vision of Japanese teens with cosplay costumes and weird clothes. Sadly, I did not see any of this! As I later found out, this teen subculture is now passé. The once hipped neighbourhood is now living off its reputation with some kawaii stores and cafes remaining.
Meiji Shrine & Yoyogi Park
Yoyogi Park is beautiful, located in the middle of the busy metropolis, the park is one of the lungs of the city. In the garden, you will find a temple, Meiji Jingu, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken. He is remembered as the founding father of progress to the country. He took Japan out of the Edo Period and modernize it. Under his reign, Japan saw an industrial and cultural shift. They started to adopt a lot of western ideas and traditions. Thanks to this era, you will find AMAZING french pastries in Japan! Seriously, French pastries in Japan are a thing, definitely a must try!
To enter the shrine you need to pass by a huge torii gate. In the complex you can also find the Treasure House and the Museum Annex Building which displays personal belongings of the imperial couple and other expositions.
During our 7 day trip in Tokyo, we decided to rent an apartment in Ebisu through Aibnb. The neighbourhood is renowned for the high concentration of bars, restaurants and tachinomi ("stand and drink") bars. This was perfect for us since when we came back from our travels we could enjoy the neighbourhood nightlife. On the first night, we befriended with the owner of Buri an Iranian immigrant that has been living in Tokyo for the past 20 years. The bar is a typical east meets west as it has the perfect mix of foreigners and locals. It specializes in one-cup sake from around Japan. The tachinomi also offers cheap eats to enjoy your drink.
The laid-back neighbourhood also has the Yebisu Garden Place. This “city within a city” is a complex that was built in the former Yebisu beer factory of the same name. Here you can taste the Yebisu beer and learn about the brewing techniques.
In the heart of the modern neighbourhood of Shinjuku, you will find Golden Gai. Just a couple of blocks, these tiny streets will feel like a blast from the past, the architecture reflects the prewar era and the Showa era. These old-school alleyways, or Yokocho, are covered with graffiti and dim lighting, they count more than 250 bars on top of each other. Each bar has its own vibe and style, you can enter in a bar decorated from the ’60s with rock bands posters and old vinyl to high-end cocktails bar. The spaces are very small, in some case, you will not be able to sit more than 10 guests. Most of the bars have a cover fee but the drinks & the food is not that expensive once you are inside.
In Tokyo, you have 17 Yokocho to visit and taste.
In search for Totoro cream puffs
I have to say that not being able to go to the Studio Ghibli Museum is one of the things I regret the most! Working in animation and being a Studio Ghibli fan, I was so sad that all the tickets were sold out for the time of our visit. To visit the museum you need to buy the tickets a few months in advance.
To quench my kawaii desire and sadden by not being able to visit the museum, we went on a mission to find Totoro cream puffs. Located in a residential area, Shirohige's Cream Puff Factory, is a cafe is located in a house fully refurbished for it. The first floor has the kitchen and the take-out counter while on the upper floor you can sit and enjoy the food. The entrance is decorated with a poster and several memorabilia from the popular movie.
I could not wait to try the Totoro shaped cream puffs. Luckily they lived up to my expectation. We tried the Custard and Chocolate flavours. There are other things on the menu as well as salads and pasta.
The Sumo Experience
If you are looking for a sumo experience, then you should head to the Ryogoku district. The district is home to the famous Kokugikan Sumo stadium, sumo stables and chanko restaurants.
Sumo tournament is not at all of what you would expect!
The centenary sport which is inherent directly from the Edo period, put forward men wrestling. The iconic sport is known worldwide. Each match only lasts a few seconds and before each match, the wrestlers do a ceremonial opening - which sometimes is longer than the actual match. The tournament only happens 6 times per year and last for around 15 days for more than 8 hours each day.
The atmosphere is very calm, if you are thinking about loud fans and cheerful ambiance, you might be chocked. Each round calls for the utmost silence so the wrestlers don’t get distracted. The Kimonos and the celebratory attire elaborated and have rich patterns and embroidery.
The image that I had of the wrestlers were huge persons but in reality, they are not that big when compared to the build of some men in North America.
After or before heading to the arena, go for a traditional sumo food, Chankonabe. This Japanese stew comes with full proteins, veggies and rice. Don’t worry the portions are not gigantic! You will find a lot of restaurants serving the dishes around the arena.
Where to shop?
You might find that shopping for clothes in Japan will be extremely difficult as most of the clothing is one size fits all.
The chain department LOFT has countless stores across the country. There you might find cute souvenirs that you might actually wear or use. Ginza district is the most well-known shopping district with its exclusive and expensive brands and boutiques. However, it also has the largest Uniqlo and several budget-friendly stores.
Where to eat?
If you follow my adventures, you know that I always highlight places to eat. However, in Japan as well as in Tokyo, I found it difficult to pinpoint a particular restaurant since EVERYTHING is good! From the food on the train stations to the high-end Michelin starred restaurant to your corner street sushi, everything was delicious!
A Japanese couple recommended us to eat at 7-eleven to save money as the prices in the archipelago can be quite high. I know what you are thinking, I thought the same thing, there is no way that I could eat sushi at 7-eleven! However, they were good, surprisingly. The food is freshly made everyday and is significantly cheaper compared to other places.
The best way to discover a city is to walk around, however, the distances can be a little treacherous. Luckily, the public transport system is one of the best and most efficient in the world. If you are holding a Japan Rail Pass (JR pass), this allows you to get into the Yamanote line from there you can either walk to your destination or get into the subway system. Be careful, there are different subway companies and you cannot use the same ticket within the different companies. It might be a good idea to buy a Suica Card for your public transportation. The metro system might be a little confusing but there is always people there to help you!
From and to the airport, you can take the Narita express, this efficient bullet train takes you from the Narita airport to the Shinjuku station in a 1 hour. This train is included in your JR Pass.
I would highly recommend not to rent a car. The public transport works very well and you can easily get in and out of the city and move within the city without any problems.
Kamakura is a coastal town located one hour south of Tokyo by train. Known for the giant Buddha sculpture, the beach town offers a laid-back atmosphere and a deeper dive into traditional Japanese culture. This was one of my favourite places we visited in Japan.
Once the capital of Japan, Kamakura has numerous temples, shrines and other historical monuments. One of the temples we visited was the Hase-dera temple with its many Buddha (cute) sculptures. In the temples, do try elegant Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Of course, the main attraction is The Great Buddha of Kamakura with is 11.4 meters high, the bronze sculpture is the second tallest Buddha statue in Japan, surpassed only by the statue in Nara.
If you are visiting during the summer, be sure to enjoy the sandy beaches. Here you can also surf on the ocean. The town also has many hiking trails through the mountains for you to enjoy with towering bamboo groves.
Renowned for its numerous Onsen, beautiful mountains views and parks, this little mountain resort town feels very touristy the moment you step in, especially with the pirate boat in the middle of the lake. Great for a relaxing weekend getaway, it offers outdoor and artsy activities.
The iconic red torii gates across the Ashi Lake with Mount Fuji at the back is the highlight attraction. Other activities include a panoramic ropeway. Unfortunately, we got caught up on a heavy storm so the walk in the forest and the viewpoint wasn't very pleasant. And the ropeways was out of reach due to security reasons.
There are plenty of Onsen scattered through the mountain, perfect to relax after all the walking. They even have different spa thematics, Onsen Ramen, anyone?
Pro tip: if you have large tattoos, don’t even try to get in an Onsen. There is a strict Japanese etiquette rule where tattoos are forbidden in the Onsens, even if you are non-Japanese. If you have small tattoos, you will need to cover them, with a bandage that you can buy on sight (we saw them available at two places). This tradition dates back from the Edo period and it a stand against Yakuzas, the Japanese mafia.
You can buy a Free Pass (not really free, as the name says). The town is accessible by railway and bus. The JR station is Odawara and from there you can take a bus. While you are in Odawara, you can visit the medieval castle.
Kawagoe is a historic town known for its Edo era architecture. Often called “Little Edo" for its lined with Kurazukuri (clay-walled warehouse-styled) buildings, the town has a sense of nostalgia to the old days. Don’t forget to visit Candy Alley for its lined stores selling traditional Japanese sweets and cakes. The town is only 30 min away by train from central Tokyo and it can be a good half-day trip. On my part, I was a little disappointed by this little medieval town.
Probably one of the most well-known mountains in the world and a Japanese symbol throughout the centuries. The imposing giant can be admired from several viewpoints from the train. In the Tokaido Shinkansen you will be able to see the volcano, the train goes from Tokyo to Osaka but you can go down before the final destination. We decided to go down at Shin-Fuji stop. However it was a little disappointing as it is an industrial sector and there’s nothing to do there, the view of the volcano is not more beautiful than the one from the train.
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