Where to Stay for the Tokyo Olympics
For the majority of events it’s best to stay somewhere in central Tokyo. Click on each area name to search it on Hotels Combined:
All things considered, Shinjuku is probably the best call, though if you’re planning multiple day trips to places like Hakone or Nikko it might be better to stay near Tokyo Station, Shinagawa, or Ueno for easy shinkansen access. You can also consider Shibuya, Roppongi, Ikebukuro, or pretty much anywhere around & within the Yamanote loop line. Asakusa is also good for more of an old town atmosphere.
Airbnb is also a great option in Tokyo, in fact in Japan it seems to work particularly well – most hosts arrange self-checkin & checkout systems, allowing you to arrive & leave flexibly without needing to meet someone for the keys (the key’s often left in a lockbox for you). The wifi is always super-fast, and I’ve never had an Airbnb nightmare in Japan (have had a few elsewhere)
Transportation in Greater Tokyo
If you have a JR Pass you can use it on the JR lines in the city, most significantly the Yamanote Line (the main loop line) and Chuo Line (which bisects the Yamanote east/west and more directly connects Tokyo Station to Shinjuku). However a high percentage of your travel in Tokyo is likely to involve non-JR trains, e.g. the Keio Line you need to use if you’re going to Ajinomoto Stadium. If you don’t have a JR Pass it’s easiest to get an IC card, and even if you do have a pass you’ll still want an IC card for the non-JR trains. For more on IC cards see here
The transport system for Tokyo is a mind-boggling mess, the Tokyo Metro map alone looks like a multi-coloured octopus tying itself in knots, but when you overlay both subway systems – Tokyo Metro (9 lines) and Toei Subway (4 lines) – plus all the JR lines and the plethora of private railway lines run by various other companies, you get this:
…so, good luck with that!
The way to deal with this is to use Google Maps or check Hyperdia for train route details and just follow the suggested route (see here for an explanation on using Hyperdia); as long as you’re using an IC card it’ll just work out the transfer fees automatically (and of course if you have a JR Pass you can ride the JR trains at will).
Things to Do in Tokyo
It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into this 100% exhaustively, but here’s a list of highlights. For more on Tokyo see my other posts here
Temples & shrines: there’s a huge number of these of course, but the two generally considered as musts on a Tokyo itinerary are Sensoji temple in Asakusa and the Meiji Shrine between Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Districts: one of the best ways to tackle Tokyo is district by district. There’s no single ‘downtown’ in Tokyo, no obvious single focal point, the central part of the conurbation instead consisting of a series of major transportation hubs around and within the JR Yamanote Line (which does a loop hitting most of them), each of those stations in turn forming a focal point for its surrounding district. Each district has its own vibe and certain things it’s specifically known for, but something they all have in common is food & drink, shopping, office towers, and (usually) an overdose of neon. You should aim to stay in one of them, and for your exploration of the city you can pick one and spend the day or an evening exploring it before checking another out the next day. Of course you can also visit several in a day, but then you’ll wind up feeling like you’ve spent an awful lot of time rattling around on the trains.
Shinjuku: home to the busiest train station in the world, Shinjuku is probably the closest thing to being Tokyo’s focal point. The west side of the station is a major business district with a cluster of skyscrapers including the monolithic Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (with free-of-charge viewing decks on the upper floors of its twin towers), while the east side is one of the city’s main nightlife & entertainment areas including the Kabukicho red light district and the charmingly old school Memory Alley (aka Piss Alley) and Golden Gai alleyways. The whole district is full of great food & shopping, and there are several massive department stores right on top of the station; it’s a great place for random wanderings, for a suggested walking route hitting the main spots see here. See below for more on the nightlife in Shinjuku.
Shibuya: you know that crazy ‘Scramble Crossing’ intersection you’ve seen in the movies with all the animated neon billboards around it? This one – that’s right outside Shibuya Station, specifically if you come out of the station’s ‘Hachiko’ exit you’ll be at the crossing, looking across at the giant screens. Just outside the exit also stands the statue of Hachiko, a loyal dog who waited there every day for his owner to return from work and continued to do so after the guy suddenly passed away; it’s a famous meeting point and a good area for a spot of people-watching. Diagonally across from there you can dive into Centre Gai, a busy walking street of shops and restaurants; looking straight west from the crossing you see the prominent Shibuya 109 Building (a focal point for Japanese fashion kids, and a useful navigation landmark), and tucked away in the backstreets on the hill behind 109 is a huge number of love hotels – the hill’s called Dogenzaka but is often referred to by English-speakers as Hotel Hill. Several big dance clubs are located on the far side of Dogenzaka from Shibuya 109 – see the nightlife section below. Also within the Shibuya district but located further north (between Shibuya & Shinjuku stations) are Harajuku, Yoyogi Park, and the Meiji Shrine. Harajuku is ground zero for Japanese youth fashion, especially Takeshita Street (opposite Harajuku Station); nearby Yoyogi Park is a gathering place on Sundays for cosplayers and also the Tokyo rockabillies, and Meiji Shrine immediately north of the park is an island of forested tranquility in the middle of Tokyo’s neon and concrete sprawl.
Marunouchi & Ginza: the area centred on Tokyo Station is the main transportation hub and business district on the east side of the Yamanote Line, opposite its western counterpart Shinjuku (the Chuo Line – ‘Central Line’ – links the two directly across the middle). Although Marunouchi is primarily a business district, it has a fair bit to see and do; the Imperial Palace is a 15-minute walk west of Tokyo Station, and between the two there are various skyscrapers and department stores you can visit. The most interesting are the Shin-Marunouchi Building which has a good set of bar & restaurant floors (5th to 7th) featuring an open-air veranda with views of the old side of Tokyo Station, and Tokyo International Forum which is a pretty spectacular piece of architecture. It’s designed like the hull of a ship, with a vast space station-like interior you can freely wander through:
Tokyo Station itself is also worth visiting, with the beautiful old pre-war redbrick building having been renovated recently and still forming the western facade of this massive station. There are tons of eateries and shops inside, a couple of attached skyscrapers and department stores (good restaurant floors are located at the top of the Daimaru Building), and the underground passageways connect to the Shin-Marunouchi Building and others in the area. To the south of Tokyo Station (on the east side of the elevated JR tracks) lies the Ginza district, one of Tokyo’s prime fashion areas with designer shopping galore; the national department stores all have major branches in Ginza, and if you have the budget you can indulge in some of the city’s most upmarket food & drink. For a cheaper, rowdier scene head for the joints tucked away under & alongside the JR tracks (on the west side) between Yurakucho and Shimbashi stations – this is ‘salaryman’ country where all the stressed out Marunouchi office workers go to let off steam and maybe pass out in the gutter, great food & drink can be enjoyed at very reasonable prices, and the Friday night post-work scenes are something else.
Asakusa: one of Tokyo’s more traditional corners, Asakusa is home to the city’s most famous temple Senso-ji and should definitely be the cornerstone for one of your days in the capital. The streets leading from the station to the temple and in the surrounding area are full of restaurants & cafes, and a mixture of tatty tourist shops but also old-school businesses producing and selling traditional goods of genuine quality. The riverside Sumida Park has good views of Tokyo Skytree, and you can cross the Sumida and walk to the Skytree in 20 minutes or so (or make a quick hop to it on the Tobu Skytree Line, one stop from Asakusa Station); the Sumida River also has cruise boats running to Hamarikyu Garden and Odaiba Island from the pier near the station. Kappabashi Kitchen Street (see shopping section below) is a 15-minute walk away in the other direction towards Ueno; it’s another 20 minutes on foot from Kappabashi to Ueno, so if you’re a keen walker you can cover Ueno-Kappabashi-Asakusa-Skytree in one day on foot (if you don’t want to walk that far or the weather sucks you can use the Ginza Line between Ueno and Asakusa).
Ueno: the massive Ueno Park is home to a cluster of national museums, and is situated to the west of Ueno Station. To the south you can visit Ameyoko (short for Ameya Yokocho, ‘Candy Alley’), an old market street tucked alongside the elevated JR tracks which is good for wandering, people watching, shopping, and eating. Ameyoko runs from Ueno Station down to Okachimachi Station, from where it’s one Yamanote station or a further 15-minute walk to Akihabara. To the east of Ueno you can either walk or jump on the Ginza Line to Kappabashi Kitchen Street and Asakusa (see above).
Akihabara: famous as the place to go for electronics and otaku anime/manga geek culture, Akiba is a slice of neon-drenched madness and well-worth a visit even if you’re not interested in comic books or anime figurines. It’s also the main place to go for maid cafes, basically just cafes where the staff are girls dressed in French maid outfits who play games with you or do J-pop dance routines while you drink your coffee. These places attract great curiosity from tourists and are an interesting experience, but just a couple of things you should note – firstly, they’re absolutely not sexual in any way (though you may seriously wonder about the motives of some of the middle-aged otaku who frequent them), and secondly, they’re not actually very fun to visit for a group of foreign tourists. I’ve been three times, twice with visiting international friends when it just felt kinda awkward, and once with a mixed group of foreigners & Japanese which changed the dynamic and was actually pretty good fun. If you want to try one out, there are loads of maids on the street touting for customers and handing out flyers so just go and talk to them – it’s best to ask around if English is ok, to make sure you get an English-speaking maid in the store who can explain what’s going on and give you instructions for the games and whatnot (otherwise the whole thing will just end up being confusing and uncomfortable). Trust me on this though – if you’re a group of lads out for a good time, you’re not going to find it at a maid cafe!
Akihabara’s also known as a good place for buying electronics, but to be honest it’s easiest just to go to your nearest Yodabashi Camera or Bic Camera (the ones in Shinjuku are best for being able to get assistance in English; there is a big Yodabashi in Akihabara too). For something entirely different, cross the Manseibashi Bridge over the Kanda River immediately south of Akihabara and visit the Manseibashi shopping centre – it was a grand old train station which was bombed out during the war and only recently renovated to put back into use as a boutiquey arts & crafts centre complete with a small craft beer brewery and some serious coffee (more on Manseibashi here).
Ikebukuro: although not home to any particularly famous sites or cultural attractions, Ikebukuro is a major shopping district at the northwestern corner of the Yamanote Line with good transportation links and myriad food options – it’s actually a decent alternative for accommodation if you can’t find anything in your budget in the Shinjuku/Shibuya/Tokyo Station areas. The station’s flanked by massive department stores, and the Sunshine City complex (a 10-minute walk northeast of the station) features Tokyo’s former tallest building Sunshine 60; while it’s long since lost that mantle, the observation deck up top is still a good place to get bird’s eye views of the city as no other buildings in the vicinity are anywhere near as tall.
Roppongi: known as Tokyo’s ‘foreigner district’ due to both the large number of embassies in the area, and the more ‘western-style’ nightlife on offer when the sun goes down. It’s certainly the easiest place to go for a night out in Tokyo when you’re new to the city – see nightlife section below. The Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown developments are two of the city’s tallest skyscrapers, their bases surrounded by fancy department stores and landscaped architecture; the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills has a good viewing deck at the top as well as the Mori Art Museum, one of three art galleries making up the Roppongi Art Triangle (see museums, below). Roppongi offers a fairly weird mix of trashy nightlife on one side of the station, and classy restaurants, galleries, and designer stores on the other side; some people will love it, others will hate it. If you don’t like boozy carnage, avoid this area at night!
Odaiba & Tokyo Bay: it’s quite easy to visit Tokyo and end up never going anywhere near the water, but there’s some fairly interesting stuff out in the bay. Most obviously there’s Tokyo Disneyland, the Tsukiji and Toyosu fish markets (see below), and the artificial island Odaiba (which is set to be the focal point for much of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics). The Rainbow Bridge connects Odaiba to the city proper, crossed on the Yurikamome train or even on foot if you fancy doing something a bit different (see here); Odaiba’s home to various random things to see & do including an artificial beach, several shopping malls, and the popular Gundam Statue (see here). It really isn’t the most exciting area in Tokyo, but if you’re feeling the need for a break from the busy city streets and the usual sightseeing spots, Odaiba could be a decent call for half a day.
Tokyo Disney: I’ve never been, but many visitors obviously do. If you’re planning on going you can save time & money by booking tickets here
Imperial Palace: the huge green space right in the middle of Tokyo is the Imperial Palace and its grounds. While it is an obvious thing to go and see, the Imperial Family still lives there and you can’t usually go inside or see all that much – there are a couple of days per year when the public can enter the grounds proper, but not during the Olympics. There are also daily guided walks you can join round some of the grounds (advance reservation required, see here). Apart form that, only the East Palace Garden is usually open to the public; it’s definitely more like a landscape garden visit than a palace visit, but within the garden you can also see the old foundations of long-gone Edo Castle (half of the photos on this post about Tokyo’s autumn colours are from the East Palace Garden). If all that sounds too involved or not really your cup of tea, just visit the southeast corner of the palace grounds where the famous Seimon Bridge (aka Meganebashi, ‘glasses bridge’) crosses the moat:
It’s about a 15-minute stroll over from Tokyo Station. After having a look and taking a few pics you can go back and explore the Marunouchi and Ginza districts (see above) on either side of the station.
Shopping: it’s everywhere of course, but of the above districts the ones which are particularly famous for shopping are Shinjuku (fashion, massive electronics stores), Shibuya (fashion, often of the crazy variety), Harajuku (youth fashion), Ikebukuro (department store galore), Ginza (upmarket, designer stuff), Akihabara (electronics and anime stuff), and Asakusa (for traditional crafts and tourist souvenir type stuff). Another interesting thing to check out is the handful of highly specialised niche shopping districts like Kappabashi Kitchen Street (if you want to buy plastic display sushi, this is the place), see here for more details.
Nightlife: local-style nightlife is found all over the city, consisting of neighbourhood izakayas and drinking holes, but for ‘big night out’ type nightlife Tokyo has 3 main districts – Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Roppongi.
Roppongi: the easiest place to go if you just want to walk around and find a bunch of bars and clubs within short stumbling distance of each other. There are loads of classy restaurants (with all kinds of cuisine available) and bars in the Midtown and Roppongi Hills developments to the north and west of the station respectively, but the main nightlife strip is the road stretching from the station southeast towards Tokyo Tower (there are good Tokyo Tower views from various spots around Roppongi). This main drag is totally packed on weekend nights, when it gets very drunk and trashy. It’s a good place to watch live sport, the Hub (a ‘British’ pub) is the most obvious place for that. A word of warning re Roppongi – absolutely do not go anywhere with the touts who approach you. Kabukicho (see below) is the worst place for this, but they’re pretty active in Roppongi too. If you go with them, best case scenario is you get ripped off with an inflated bill (sometimes massively inflated, with a crew of massively inflated blokes materialising to make sure you pay it), worst case is you get drugged and wake up in an alleyway with your cash and phone missing and your credit cards maxed. They’re persistent, but you really just have to ignore them.
Shibuya: most of the clubs are in Shibuya, so if you want to dance the night away this is the place. A cluster of Tokyo’s most famous clubs are located on the far side of Dogenzaka ‘Hotel Hill’ from the main station area, including Womb, Atom, and Club Asia (these places usually have some description of EDM, often with big name international DJs playing anything from minimal techno to drum & bass depending on the night); for more of a cheesy party tunes night look for Camelot, which is in a slightly different area a 10-minute walk north of the station. Again, for live sport on TV the Hub is probably your best bet (there’s one just off Centre Gai, just northwest from the Scramble Crossing).
Shinjuku: the nightlife options in Shinjuku are aimed at a more mature crowd than Shibuya, with bars being the focus rather than clubs. The Kabukicho red light district (the blocks to the north of Yasukuni-dori on the east side of the station) is an interesting place for a wander, but several things to note – first, it’s actually quite touristy these days since the Hotel Gracery development (the one with Godzilla on the roof) and Robot Restaurant opened. Second, the red light stuff (hostess clubs and whatnot) is mostly Japanese only so if that’s what you’re after just understand that you’re quite likely to be turned away, and finally (but most importantly) absolutely do not ever go anywhere with the touts who approach you. Visiting Olympics fans are likely to be targeted by the gangs of African (mostly Nigerian) touts (there are also plenty of Japanese touts going for the locals and Chinese guys going for the Chinese tourists) who’ll approach you with some friendly English banter, a cheesy grin and an outstretched hand. Don’t be fooled – they’re out to screw you over. Many a tourist has a Kabukicho story to tell of following these guys to a strip club or whatever and then being presented with a ridiculous bill and the threat of a beating from the crew of bouncers who’ll suddenly appear if they refuse to cough up, or worse simply waking up in an alleyway with phone gone, wallet empty, credit cards maxed, and the mother of all headaches. Do not trust any tout who approaches you in Kabukicho (same goes for Roppongi). For visiting sport fans looking for a big night out Shinjuku doesn’t really fit the bill to be honest, but it can be a good place to kick a night off with izakaya food & beers (again in Kabukicho just make sure you’re choosing your own place, not following a tout), and if you’re looking for a quieter drinking area the atmospheric alleyways of Golden Gai (see here) are tucked away just east of Kabukicho. Once again, the Hub should be good for sports on TV (there are several in the Shinjuku area, easily found on Google Maps).
Tokyo Tower & Tokyo Skytree: Tokyo’s two main broadcast towers, Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree are the city’s most distinctive landmarks. Eiffel-lookalike Tokyo Tower was opened in the 50s and at 333m was the tallest structure in Japan at the time, however the sprouting of so many tall buildings around it in the years since eventually necessitated the construction of a taller one – enter the Skytree, which opened in 2012 and stands almost twice as tall. Both also double as major tourist attractions with observation decks you can go up to for the city views; the Skytree in particular was designed with tourism in mind, with a massive shopping complex surrounding it including a neighbouring tower building with good restaurants on the 30th & 31st floors (pretty high in its own right, but dwarfed by the Skytree). Of the two, the Skytree obviously gets you much higher and has a more interesting immediate surrounding environment (plus it can easily be visited before or after Asakusa); however, it’s located quite far out whereas Tokyo Tower’s location right in the middle of the city gives you a good look at central Tokyo on all sides. If you just pick one, most people will probably be happier with the Skytree, however there’s still merit in visiting Tokyo Tower.
Tsukiji & Toyosu fish markets: if you’ve heard stories of people going to watch the tuna auction at the big fish market in Tokyo, it was probably Tsukiji they told you about. However, in late 2018 the Tsukiji ‘inner market’ operations – the wholesale and auction parts – were moved to an enormous new purpose-built site on nearby Toyosu (an artificial island in Tokyo Bay). The old Tsukiji ‘outer market’ has remained where it was and is still an atmospheric place to go for an amazing sushi breakfast or lunch (see here), but if you want to watch the tuna auction you need to head to Toyosu (bright & early at 5:30am).
The new Toyosu site is predictably lacking the charm & atmosphere of the original, but is much bigger & better organised; at Tsukiji they were having trouble with visitor numbers and tourists wandering around getting in the way, so they had to introduce a registration system, designated watching areas and so on. At the new site there’s a large upstairs viewing gallery which means you can go without registering and watch through the windows – however, this means watching through glass, preventing you from hearing anything. There’s a smaller observation deck which also keeps you separated from the action behind windows but is open overhead so you get the cold air and the sounds of the auction. The latter option has limited capacity and time slots so you still have to register for a spot; you do this online and it’s a lottery system, so you put in a few dates in order of preference and then they email to let you know if you were successful and which time slot you’ve been allotted. The place to do this is here (scroll to the bottom for the English option), and see here for English guidance. A number of the famous restaurants from Tsukiji also made the move over to Toyosu, so after the auction you can go upstairs for a breakfast of the best sushi you’ll possibly ever eat (at least without blowing hundreds of dollars per head, anyway). However, Toyosu’s all a little sterile & boring so Tsukiji remains the place to go if you’re just keen to eat some awesome sushi and experience a lively old-school fish market – the outer market has a nice homepage here.
If you’re confused after reading this and wondering which to go to, well of course you could visit both but if one’s enough simply base your choice on whether or not you want to watch the tuna auction. If so, go to Toyosu; if not, head to Tsukiji.
Another good food mission you could go on (as long as you’re okay with the long waiting times) is to try Michelin Star ramen at Nakiryu or Tsuta (Nakiryu gets the nod in my book).
Parks: Tokyo’s a very dense urban environment, but it does do a pretty good job of providing large green spaces right in the heart of the city. In addition to the Imperial Palace East Gardens there’s Ueno Park (where most of Tokyo’s main museums are also located), Shinjuku Gyoen (actually considered a garden, with a 200 yen entry fee, but large enough to list here as a park), Yoyogi Park (Harajuku), and the forested grounds of Meiji Shrine (also Harajuku). For Classical Japanese landscaped gardens (these have paid entry in the 200-300 yen range) try Korakuen (next to Tokyo Dome but accessed from Iidabashi Station rather than Korakuen Station), Rikugien (Komagome Station), or Hamarikyu on the waterfront (Shimbashi or Shiodome stations, and also accessible by river cruise from Asakusa).
Museums: there are so many museums in Tokyo I’m not going to attempt to list them all, but if you fancy a museum day there are two obvious clusters – the museums in Ueno Park, and the Roppongi ‘art triangle’. The following museums all have paid entry anywhere from 300 yen (Shitamachi) to 2000 yen (Mori).
Ueno Park’s home to Tokyo National Museum and the National Science Museum, the National Museum of Western Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, a zoo, and the Shitamachi Museum (a local history museum, Shitamachi being the old name for the local area).
Hiking: Tokyo has some very decent hiking within easy reach for day hikes. The most popular is Mt Takao due to the ease of access from Shinjuku, and there are many more options a little further out (see here for a few more ideas)
Skiing: although the resorts of Nagano & Niigata are physically quite far from Tokyo, they’re within easy reach thanks to the bullet train. Gala Yuzawa (details here) actually has a shinkansen station built into the resort, you literally walk through the ticket gates directly into the main reception & ticket counters. Super convenient
Side Trips Near Tokyo
There’s a whole bunch of nice side trips you can make from Tokyo, either as 1-day jobs or staying for a night (or more). The top suggestions would be Hakone, Fuji 5 Lakes, and Nikko; see here for more info on those.
Any questions about Tokyo? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
Useful Links for the Tokyo Olympics
Click the banner to pre-order your JR Pass and save 40 dollars, or see my guide to the JR Pass here:
Quick guide to Sapporo (for marathon events & football matches)
Search Hotels Combined for hotel deals in Tokyo
How to get online in Japan