I have three days in Tokyo, what are the must-see things?
November 24, 2004 6:35 AM   Subscribe

TokyoFilter: I'm spending three days in Tokyo just before Christmas. I've never been before and I doubt I'll ever get there again, so I want to see what's important and skip the tourist traps. Any tips (including pre-trip reading)? I'll be solo so I can do what I like.
posted by grahamwell to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a person living in Tokyo, it's really tough. Tokyo strikes me as a fun place to live, but not to visit. For tourist traps to avoid, I can recommend Tokyo Tower. For a tourist trap that is to be avoided if you have visited other parts of Japan, I'd say Asakusa Temple, but if you've never seen a temple in Japan, it is the easiest to get to.

One often overlooked an potentially very nice place is Meiji Shrine, behind Harajuku station. AFAIK, neither Asakusa or Meiji Shrine actually cost any money to see, which is also cool.

The Imperial Palace can't be entered, so all you can see are the outside of the grounds. Not really worth seeing.

Other than that, I think the most interesting bits of Tokyo are just seeing the functional parts of town. Go to Akihabara to see the most electronics and porn you'll see for a while. It doesn't have many neat gadgets, despite what you've been led to believe, but if you're from a Western country, the whole aspect of a section of town being all about electronics and porn is kinda neat.

Skip Ginza. Nothing really to see there. Same with Shinjuku.

It might be worth swinging by Shibuya (where I live, coincidentally), to see the scummy side of youth culture.

Oh, and if it's a weekend, and you visit Meji shrine, the entrance area next to the station is a real treat, as it's where all the goths hang out. Few goths can beat Japanese goths for sheer impact. However, it being winter, they may not be all out in full force.

My mind fails me, but if I think of anything else, I'll post.
posted by Bugbread at 6:59 AM on November 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

How much money do you want to spend?
posted by dydecker at 7:01 AM on November 24, 2004

If you don't have accomodation set up, I'd suggest looking into staying at a ryokan, which is sort of a Japanese bed and breakfast place. They were more affordable than a western style hotel room when I visited Japan a couple of years ago.

When we were in tokyo, we stayed at Sakura Ryokan in Ueno and liked it just fine. Ueno's an interesting neighborhood too. You'll be near a large park and also not far from one of the main train stations in Tokyo. It's one of the more working class parts of the city and I enjoyed wandering around there.

You'll also be within walking distance to Asakusa, which is worth a visit in the context bugbread mentioned above. I was visiting during the new years celebrations, so Asakusa had quite the festival atmosphere then. It might not be quite so much fun other times of the year.

You'd also be close to Kappabashi, aka Kitchen Town, another place I really enjoyed wandering around in for a good while. It's also a great place to pick up some presents for friends and family.

Tokyo Tower was a waste of time, definitely.

If you're into anime or are a vegetarian I can give you some other suggestions.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:18 AM on November 24, 2004

I second the Meiji and Shibuya recommendations. I was in Tokyo for a week once and those two places are the ones that first come to mind (specially the shrine and the gorgeous park around it). Plus, they are sort of connected, right? I got off at Harajuku station, visited the shrine and then wandered around for a long time in what I think was the Shibuya "district"(?).
posted by magullo at 7:20 AM on November 24, 2004

Magullo: Correcto.

Meji Shrine is next to Harajuku station, which is north of Shibuya. Harajuku is known as the "weird fashion" district, but the last few years (since the economy went sour) have shown a marked decrease in cool clothes, so I don't recommend Harajuku as much as I might have otherwise. Still, the goths are neverchanging, so I'd recommend going to Harajuku station, checking out the goths, going to Meiji shrine, then walking down the street running west between Yoyogi park and the old Olympic stadium, turning south at the end of the stadium, and then walking down that street to the adjacent Shibuya. It's maybe a 15, 20 minute walk at most, and a nice walk, for Tokyo.

I also second Kappabashi, because, if memory serves me, there's a street that is pretty much all stores selling plastic food displays. Any dish you can think of, they probably have a plastic version. Good for gifts.

Oh, and in case you really haven't read up at all about Tokyo - If you're flying in to Narita airport, it's about an hour and a quarter by train to Tokyo itself. Keep that in mind. If you're lucky enough to be flying into Haneda, it's much closer.
posted by Bugbread at 7:32 AM on November 24, 2004

I agree with bugbread's suggestions. Although the goth kids are only in Harajuku on Sundays so be careful.

There really aren't that many must-see attractions in Tokyo, but there are no tourist hordes either. On the plus side, there are lots of little strange things to look at and notice if you've never been here before.

My suggestions:

-Take the bus in from the airport. That way you get to see the city
-Go to the art gallery and observation deck on the top floor of Roppongi Hills at sunset for an overview of the city. If you have lots of money, you can stay at the Grand Hyatt here (where Lost in Translation was filmed)
-The food court in the basement of Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku is a must-see if you're interested in food
-Eat Yakitori and drink beers with Salarymen at the food stands under the Shinkansen line in Yurakucho
-Go and do sleazy things in Kabukicho at night. Or at least look!
-Check out the bento.com and go to a fantastic restaurant. It's not at all odd to dine alone here
-Go out to a great bar or a club. Check Metropolis for somewhere that would suit you.

The weather is going to be cold, so I can't recommend parks. The best way to really chill is to stay at a Ryokan and go to a hot spring, but there aren't any real ryokan in Tokyo unfortunately.

If you would like somewhere cheap but traditional, I have heard nice things about Tama Ryokan, which is run by an English speaker.
posted by dydecker at 7:42 AM on November 24, 2004

Response by poster: I've already booked the Ryumeikan Ryokan in Ochanomizu. Budget, yes I have one, but I can afford to splash out a little. I do expect it to be cold, hostile and tough, but I expect to be fascinated nonetheless, by things like advertising graphics and fast food bars. Yes, I'm into anime, so suggestions on that, and indeed anything related to Japanese graphic and commercial design would be of interest.
posted by grahamwell at 7:51 AM on November 24, 2004

A fellow translator acquaintance runs Tama Ryokan in Waseda, which is right on the Yamanote line, and therefore gives good access to the rest of town.

Harajuku and Shibuya are my favorite hanging-out and people-watching neighborhoods in Tokyo. The interesting thing about Tokyo is that it has so many different neighborhoods seemingly devoted to a single activity. In addition to Kappabashi for cookware and Akihabara for electronics, you've got

Nippori: textiles (but pretty boring)
Jinbocho: books (fascinating -- multilevel used-bookstore malls, antiquities, many Western books, etc)
Kabukicho: sex clubs (also some good restaurants)
And so on. There's a paper neighborhood (forget where), and so on.

If you're there on a Sunday, you can take in Yoyogi Park (which is a major scene on Sundays), the cosplayers outside Meiji Jingu (Sunday is their big day to congregate), and Harajuku/Omotesando. Stop by the Ota Museum, improbably tucked behind La Foret, for a retreat into the quiet, traditional Japan that the surroundings suggest never existed. That night, go to Shibuya. If you find a futuristic black teardop-shaped cop-shop, you're right next door to a fun Indian restaurant, Raj Mahal, on the 7th (?) floor of the building next to it.
posted by adamrice at 7:53 AM on November 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Shibuya. If possible, stay away from Shinjuku (which is a stop or two away from Shibuya, if I recall correctly) during rush hour. For me, even as someone quite used to commuter crowds, it was a nightmare mass of people. Find one of the small noodle bars in Shibuja, and have a bowl of 'red' or 'white'. I've been hooked ever since.

The Tokyo Bay area is also good, if a little quiet, and has a nice "up in the air" train service. I'm not sure if it's a monorail.

Something that I'd suggest is to plan your journey between the airport and where you're staying, before you arrive. If you're flying in, Narita airport is quite a distance from Tokyo, and once in Tokyo, the train system can be a little confusing. Taxis can be very expensive.

The Japanese are generally very courteous. A basic guide book should give you some pointers on polite behaviour. For example, in shops it's polite to use a tray on the counter for placing money on, and receiving change, when paying for things.

Learn to say 'please', 'thank you', 'excuse me', and 'sorry', in Japanese. Just a few simple phrases like that go a long way to showing that you're making an effort. Not everybody can speak English in Tokyo, but it's not too difficult to find someone to help, at a push.
posted by veedubya at 7:57 AM on November 24, 2004

For anime, Mandarake's store in Shibuya is where you want to go. The J-Pop Cafe on the top floor of this building is currently very fashionable among Shibuya types.

The book district in Jinbocho is right next to your hotel. There are numerous bookshops devoted to design. Worth an mid-morning explore perhaps.

If you like design, why not stay at the Claska?
posted by dydecker at 8:15 AM on November 24, 2004

Also check out these people whose trip to Tokyo was very well organised, documented, and slapped up on the Internet to be copied (with photos).
posted by dydecker at 8:23 AM on November 24, 2004

since no one has recommended it so far, I'll add:

if that sort of thing interests you, go to the Tsukiji Fish Market. You have to get up really early (like 4am or so) to see all the trading action but it's quite fun. And if you like sushi (which i don't), i'm told some of the best, freshest sushi is served right next to the market.

I also really enjoyed Hamarikyu Garden but it's not as exciting as Shibuya or Akihabra but it's really beautiful. I second skipping Ginza, it's pretty but there's nothing to do except for fancy shopping. As everyone already said: Shibuya is definitely worth checking out.

I lived in Tokyo for six months and thought it was a wonderful place to live and also had many friends visit who loved visiting, I hope you have a ton of fun. It's a shame you won't be there during the cherry blossom season but Christmas is a lot of fun there, too.

posted by karen at 9:20 AM on November 24, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments. Dydecker, would you advise me to try and get in to the Claska? It does look fun, but I was rather looking forward to the Ryokan experience.
posted by grahamwell at 9:31 AM on November 24, 2004

Sushi at the fish market was great. No better way to wake up in Tokyo, IMO.

Check out some Kabuki theatre when you're there. They sell tickets for each individual act -- so you don't have to sit through the whole thing. But a really interesting (and affordable) opportunity to observe a completely different theatre going experience.

Also, I'd recommend visiting a bath or an onsen (sp?). I didn't visit one in Tokyo, but I had an amazing experience in Kyoto (imagine going to a spa for 5-7 bucks). Many westerners have some bugaboos about going to them, but they're well worth it.
posted by herc at 9:38 AM on November 24, 2004

Grahamwell, if you have a month up your sleeve, they may well have vacancies. You can always fill your traditional quotient at a restaurant, especially at lunchtime when it's a bit cheaper.

The only downside is the location is slightly out of the way, but nothing that can't be cured with a five min. taxi ride.

Some more snaps at Modern Contemporary Design run by Jean Snow, whose blog is packed with info about Tokyo contemporary design.

The interior of the J-pop Cafe mentioned above.
posted by dydecker at 10:11 AM on November 24, 2004

Ooops, Jean Snow's blog is here.
posted by dydecker at 10:15 AM on November 24, 2004

A very quick tip: go somewhere high up (needn't be Tokyo Tower!!) and look for Mt Fuji.....normally clearly visible from Tokyo on a nice bright winter's day.

3 days though.....not much time......how about spend one day devoted to the "inaka" (countryside) surrounding Tokyo (Saitama/Chiba etc).....and see some beautiful scenery far away from the city......then get back in the evening and see some nightlife of Tokyo.....to me it's nice to get that contrast......you'll see some of this scenery on the way into Tokyo from Narita airport anyway to give you a feel for it.

By the way.....just for your info, it gets dark about 4.30pm-ish at that time of year (if my memory serves me right)
posted by SpaceCadet at 11:22 AM on November 24, 2004

Wow, so much love for my stompinggrounds of Shibuya, yet I'm moving out to another part of town next week. I feel I'm going to regret it.

General stuff:

Train service and subway service is excellent. There is little to no need to take taxis, which is good, as they're pricey. As I see you're from Somerset, let me advise that, unlike trains in the UK, trains in Japan are on time. As in, they count being one minute late as "being late" and manage to keep a higher than 98% rate of trains being "on time". So trains and subways are the way to go. That said, trains don't run all night. In Tokyo, they end at about midnight, and start up again about 5:30. Also, as SpaceCadet mentioned, it gets dark early (17:00ish).

And on the side discussion of "specialized parts of town":

Nippori: textiles
Jinbocho: books, used and new
Kabukicho: sleaze
Akihabara: Electronics, manga porn
Kappabashi: Kitchen stuff
North Kanda: Sporting goods
Ochanomizu: Musical instruments
Between Asakusabashi and Asakusa: Seasonal decorations (Christmas stuff, Halloween stuff, etc.), wholesale candy and cheapo toys, plastic models (not mixed, but in that order as you walk north)
East Ueno: Motorcycle stuff

I can't recall anything else offhand, and I dunno if it holds any interest for you, but I do think it's one of the odder, cooler aspects of Tokyo.
posted by Bugbread at 8:13 PM on November 24, 2004

I was just there in October, so I don't know how bad the weather would be for these places: If you want to get out of the city for a day, Kamakura is quick and easy to get to, has some pleasant walks and about a bazillion temples and shrines. I also hear Nikko is similarly close and temple-filled and nice as a day-trip, but I didn't make it there myself. Also, only a fifteen-minute shinkansen ride away, in Yokohama, near Shin-Yokohama station is the Ramen Museum, combination ramen shop-amusement park. That is a good rainy day place.
posted by greasepig at 8:43 PM on November 24, 2004

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