Tokyo is vast beyond explanation. As the most populated metropolitan area in the world, wrapping your head around what to even consider doing in Tokyo can be an exercise in (the best kind of) frustration, as you will never be at a loss of things to do.
As such, this guide offers a general outline for exploring three of Tokyo's most popular neighborhoods (Shinjuku, Harajuku, and Shibuya), along with the less touristy but beautiful Naka-Meguro neighborood. All achievable by foot in a single day. So, let's go!
Depending upon where you are staying in Tokyo, Shinjuku may be one of the easiest destinations for you to reach. A major transit hub, complete with a cozy bar scene (Golden Gai and Piss Alley, anyone?), Shinjuku is a good, though touristy, base destination.
While in Shinjuku, start off your day by visiting the Hanazono Shrine. Small and compact, the shrine is tucked across the street from Golden Gai among restaurants and a bike share. While not necessarily famous, the shrine is still beautifully tranquil and feels miles removed from the rest of Tokyo, even though it's only 100 feet away from the street.
On Sundays, the shrine also hosts a market in the morning selling various knick knacks.
Wait, hold up. Did we forget breakfast? If you can't function without food in your system, be sure to start the day with either rice porridge, traditional Japanese fried fish, or the reliable 7-11's on every corner to pick up some rice balls.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
If you're a photo opp hunter, make a quick stop over at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, whose exterior looks straight out of Gotham City and whose interior boasts incredible views of Tokyo on their free observation deck. Be sure to check their hours here.
Meiji Jingu Shrine
After you've had your earlier fill of a small local shrine, make your way over to the Meiji Jingu shrine, one of the largest and most popular shrines in all of Japan. A little over a twenty minute walk south from Shinjuku, and technically in Shibuya, Meiji Jingu feels as removed from Tokyo as Central Park does from Manhattan.
Square in the middle of the city, Meiji Jingu sprawls over 170 acres of evergreen forest. There are 365 species of trees donated by Japanese all over the country, starting from 1916. 🌲 It's believed that deities come down to earth from the tops of trees, so these shrine forests pay them respect. In the center of the forest, the shrine itself stands beautifully and humbly.
The shrine is dedicated to the former Japanese Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken, who oversaw the Meiji Restoration in which Japan modernized itself in the late 1800s. Today, it is the most popular shrine in Tokyo despite it only being a little over a hundred years old.
Beside the temple complex, the imperial gardens (which cost a fee to enter) are beautiful and feature carpets of blooming irises in June. Also just outside of the temple grounds are stacks of sake barrels, which demonstrate donations from every sake brewery in Japan. Alongside the sake barrels are donated wine barrels from around the world as diplomatic gifts.
If you're feeling too relaxed after Meiji Jingu and want to have an immediate sensory overload, exit the park and cross the street to the Harajuku neighborhood.
First stop, check out the adorable Neko Cafe Mocha. A cat cafe overlooking Meiji Jingu, Neko Cafe Mocha is home to many of the most pampered and happy cats you'll ever meet. The cafe offers basic drinks, and charges by the hour for you to recline overlooking the park with your new best feline friend. Not to mention the cat ears you were able to wear, which I was too lame to put on (according to Jen).
Need a quick lunch break? Stop by Uoshin Shibuya, an izakaya (Japanese gastropub) that serves all kinds of seafood, from beautiful sashimi platters to fish bones and hairy crab.
Up until now, Tokyo may have seemed fairly uncrowded for the most populated metropolitan area in the world. Well, a walk down Takeshita Street will change your view.
A fully pedestrianized street, Takeshita is thronged — totally thronged — with people, and for good reason. The street is completely lined with independent boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and chain stores. Literally everything you could want to buy, from shoes with giant pom poms, cat-themed clothing to your heart's content, to a shirt saying "Dear Stalker," is there for the taking.
Jen's favorite stops were at Daiso (where you'll find the cutest trinkets your heart did ever set eyes on, all for 100 Yen; get your souvenirs here), and literally all of the cute little boutiques (she scored these cat overalls). And if you ever get hungry, there's a ton of places to get Japanese crepes.
It's overwhelming, but truly an experience.
Along with Shinjuku, Shibuya is a major transit hub that is also known for its fashion and night life (karaoke, anyone?!). However, during the day, Shibuya is best known for one thing ...
The Shibuya Crossing, known as one of the busiest crossings in the world, is a massive scramble crossing. Somehow, in some way, the crossing is actually fun to cross (although it is probably less fun for the locals having to deal with all the obnoxious tourists standing the in the middle of the crossing taking photos - aka us).
For the best photos of the crossing, go to the Starbucks on the northern side of the crossing. Additionally, the Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu offers perfect views from the 25th floor, although you "technically" have to be a guest to use the hotel for this purpose and they're on the look out for tourists with cameras, trying to gain access. We chickened out ourselves.
Further south from Shibuya, reachable by train or by a 40 minute walk, is the tranquil and artsy neighborhood of Naka-Meguro. Situated along the Meguro river, the neighborhood is home to a number of unique restaurants, bars, and cafes.
Meguro River & Cherry Blossoms
In cherry blossom season, the Meguro riverfront becomes a major tourist attraction as it becomes blanketed in blossoms (which we unfortunately missed by three days).
Even without cherry blossoms, the riverfront is still a charming area to walk around, especially when lit-up by lanterns come nightfall. After the crowds in Shibuya, the neighborhood offers a unique look into a more residential and laid back Tokyo neighborhood. The river front also is home to numerous uniquely hip Japanese bars and cafes, as well as some great street food.
While walking along the river, absolutely stop by Happy Pudding. A small order-out cafe, it specializes in all types of pudding. Flavors include custard, green tea, red bean, and oh God they are all so delicious. This is without a doubt some of the creamiest and most satisfying jars of happiness you'll ever eat.
Niwakaya Chosuke Nakameguro (二○加屋長介 中目黒店)
You know when a meal is too delicious (and when you're too hungry) to take photos before each dish, hence why the only photo we have of our experience at Niwakaya Chosuke is the end result.
We met up with an old co-worker who had just recently moved to Japan and, fortunately for us, her boyfriend was a native who ordered all of our dishes in Japanese, saving us from awkwardly trying to order in English (I mean, come on, look at this menu).
From their famous high-piled serving of shredded cabbage, to bowls and bowls of savory udon, to crispy fried chicken, to succulent fried ham, to gallons of drool coming out of our mouths, this was hands down one of our favorite meals in Tokyo.
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