Visit Tokyo on your way to the Pacific : my ultimate guide

After living in Tokyo for 4 months, it is now time for me to give you all my best tips to explore the lively Japanese capital. End of 2017, on my way to Hawaii via Tokyo, I realised how an incredible hub Tokyo could on the way to scuba dive some of the best diving destinations of the Pacific Ocean. This is how I thought writing a guide about places to visit in Tokyo on your way to the Pacific would make complete sense. Whether you have only a 6-hour layover in Narita or fancy a couple of days, visit Tokyo and immerse yourself for a little while in the Japanese culture.

If you are a citizen of the 68 countries and regions that are exempted of visa to visit Japan, doing a stopover in Japan is completely hassle-free. Countries like The US, Canada, France, Australia can stay up to 90 days in Japan without any visa for tourism purpose. Check if your country is included in the list on the official website of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On the other hand, don’t be afraid of not speaking Japanese. While it can still be complicated in rural areas of Japan, Tokyo is seriously gearing up for the Olympics in 2020. Since my first trip to Japan in 2010, the availability of services in English has dramatically improved. By the way, don’t bother buying a SIM card on your arrival, there are so many free wifi hotspots in Tokyo that it should be more than enough for the length of your stay.

Where in the Pacific can you fly from Tokyo?

scuba diver in Tokyo

In 8 trips to Japan, I had already the opportunity to explore 4 incredible scuba diving destinations from or on my way to Tokyo:

  • Okinawa: It is the closest tropical scuba diving destination from Tokyo. If you want to spend an entire holiday in Japan, a 2-week combo of Tokyo with day trips and scuba diving in Okinawa works very well. From Haneda Airport, you can fly directly to Okinawa Honto (Okinawa main island), Miyako and Ishigaki in only 2 to 3 hours. Read more about scuba diving in Okinawa.
  • Hawaii: Coming from Europe, it might be a little bit longer to go east instead of doing a layover in California, but if you already visited the USA, doing a stopover in Japan is an exotic option to consider. You will also understand better how much Japanese culture has influenced the Hawaiian way of life. From both Haneda or Narita Airports, you can fly directly to Honolulu, Oahu Island and Kona, Big Island, in 8 to 9 hours. Read more about scuba diving in Hawaii.
  • New Caledonia: In the case of New Caledonia, it is the absolute shortest way from Europe to fly via Tokyo-Narita with Aircalin. I loved so much doing a long stopover in Japan before boarding my flight to Noumea-La Tontouta, it helped me fighting back jetlag, and it divided travel time (12 hours to Japan, 9 hours to New Caledonia). Read more about scuba diving in New Caledonia.
  • Tahiti: Like for Hawaii, it is not the shortest way to go to French Polynesia via Japan. However, you have the opportunity to make an efficient round-the-world trip by flying from Europe to Tahiti via Los Angeles, California, and then return home via Tokyo, for little additional cost thanks to the flights of Air Tahiti Nui. Read more about diving in Tahiti.

How to travel from Tokyo airports to Tokyo city centre?

Shibuya Crossing Tokyo Japan

Tokyo has 2 international airports: Narita and Haneda. Haneda is the closest airport from Tokyo city centre. If you visit Tokyo on a short stopover, it is the most comfortable choice. If you are heading to the south area of Tokyo, it can take you less than 30 minutes thank to the Haneda monorail line.

Narita Airport is much further away, in the Chiba Prefecture. Minimum travelling time to Narita Airport is about 1 hour, but it can easily stretch to 2 hours depending on the transportation you take. Make sure you allow enough time to get to the airport. As a rule of thumb, plan to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight.

For information, getting around in Tokyo is easy and efficient thanks to its subway and train lines. Don’t worry about not being able to read Japanese, all the signage and announces are available in English. If you take the subway more than 3 or 4 times a day, it can be interesting to buy a Tokyo Metro 24-hour ticket at 600¥ (about £4/5€). Be careful they are different subway and train companies in Tokyo, you can use this pass only on the lines of Tokyo Metro, but coverage is good enough. For information single ticket prices are usually between 170¥ and 400¥ depending on the number of stations you travel.

Here are below my best tips to travel between Tokyo city centre and the airport efficiently :

  • Tokyo Metro / Toei Subway / JR trains: It is the cheapest option with a total price about 1,500¥ (about £10/12€) with the Asakusa line of Toei Subway to Narita but be prepared for a long 2-hour trip including train changes. In the case you are travelling to Haneda, then you connect to the Haneda monorail at Hamamatsucho station via the Yamanote line of JR trains. It only takes 13 minutes to go from Hamamatsucho to Haneda Airport, and the ticket costs only 490¥ (about £3/4€); you need to add the cost of your ticket to get to Hamamatsucho Station (between 200¥ to 400¥).
  • Narita Express: It is the fastest and most comfortable option if you travel to the east and the south of Tokyo from Narita Airport, for instance, Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station. It takes about 60 minutes between Tokyo Station and Narita Airport. The cost of the single way ticket to/from Tokyo Station is 3,020¥ (about £21/24€), but you can get a special return pass at 4,000¥ (about £28/32€).
  • Keisei Skyliner: It is the fastest and most comfortable option if you travel to the north and the west of Tokyo from Narita Airport, for instance, Ueno Station or Shinjuku Station. The cost of the single way ticket to/from Ueno or Nippori Station is 2,470¥ (about £17/20€) if you take the express train, but if you are not in a rush you can get a limited express at only 1,030¥ (about £7/8€)! The express train only takes 36 minutes from Nippori Station, and it takes about 50 minutes with the limited express. The Skyliner is now my favourite way to travel to Narita Airport.

Note: I don’t recommend limousine buses, I took them once and got stuck in traffic for more than 2 hours.

How much time do you need to visit Tokyo?

Tokyo Tower view at sunset from WTC Hamamatsucho Tokyo Japan

You can have time for a layover or a stopover as part of your connecting flight or by booking separate flight tickets. Don’t forget to ask if the airline you are flying with offers free stopover. This is the case of Aircalin on the way to New Caledonia for instance. Here is a general guideline of what to do depending on the time you can, or you want to spend in Tokyo:

  • Less than 6 hours: If you land in Narita, considering the time and distance to Tokyo, I would recommend reviewing the free layover program offered by Narita Airport. If your airport is Haneda, you can venture into the city by staying around Hammatsucho station where you can climb to the observatory of the World Trade Center building for one of the best views in Tokyo. If time allows, you can head to the Hamarikyu Gardens which are 10 minutes walking away.
  • less than 24 hours: Explore 1 of my favourite districts, choose between a viewpoint or a park to visit
  • 2 days/ 1 night: Explore 2 of my favourite districts, pick a viewpoint and a park to visit, eat some of the best Japanese food in Shibuya or Shinjuku
  • 3 days / 2 night: Explore 3 of my favourite districts, choose a viewpoint and a park to visit, eat some of the best Japanese food in Shibuya and Shinjuku

If you want to stay longer, it is, of course, possible, but it will mostly depend on much days of vacation you have in total. There are plenty of day trips options from Tokyo including tours to the majestuous Mount Fuji, allowing to easily extend your stay to 1 week without spending too much. The high-speed train Shinkansen allows to even hop to places like Kyoto in 2 hours for a day or two, but have in mind that a return ticket costs 27,420¥ (about £191 / 218€). Staying a week in Tokyo would even allow you to scuba dive in the Izu Peninsula if you are visiting during the summer season.

Visit Tokyo: my favourite districts

I explored 18 districts in Tokyo so far, but some have a more touristic interest than others to immerse yourself in the local culture. There are other districts I love, but for a first visit to Tokyo, I narrowed it down to the list below. Regarding Shibuya and Shinjuku, they are famous places to visit in Tokyo, but mostly for shopping, eating and going out.

Akihabara

The mecca of all the otaku and gamers used to be my favourite district in Tokyo. I loved the neon lights and the energy the electrical town of Tokyo has. Although I think all first-timers in Tokyo should visit it, I got a bit disappointed recently, especially after spending 48 hours there to find a solution after smashing my laptop and realising it wasn’t what it used to be about shopping for electronics.

My favourite addresses in Akibara:

  • Mandarake Complex: Channel your inner otaku and dive into the world of manga collectors. Personally, this is where I could complete my special collection of the final edition of my favourite manga.
  • Sofmap: Buying electronics for cheap in Akibara is something that now belongs to the past with e-commerce websites. So the one thing that remains interesting in Akihabara is buying second-hand. Due to a quite clever recycling scheme in Japan, it is cheaper to give away your old electronics to these shops than disposing of them. Knowing Japanese people do renew a lot their electronics, this is an excellent opportunity to find an almost new smartphone or camera for an incredibly low price!
  • @Home Café: This famous maid café of Akibara changed my mind from creepy to genuinely adorable. Even as a girl I enjoy the atmosphere and cute themed desserts and drinks. Be careful of the cost though, each of my visits cost me up to 2,000¥ (about £14/16€).

Asakusa

Asakusa is the historical district of Tokyo and the number 1 touristy spot. If you want to enjoy the fabulous surroundings of the Senso-Ji Temple, I recommend to get up early and head there shortly after sunrise. But even the low-quality souvenir shops of Nakamise Lane do not stop me from coming back at every opportunity. Don’t miss walking along Sumida River banks. From sunrise to sunset, the view of the Skytree Tower is stunning.

My favourite addresses in Asakusa:

  • Kagetsudon: If you crave for a sweet snack, I recommend tasting their delicious melonpan filled with matcha ice cream and a hot matcha latte. It’s big, it’s rich, it’s better to share it with someone else! The gallery where the shop is located is cute, and there are many interesting shops to buy tasteful souvenirs.
  • Benitsuru: The address in Asakusa to taste the delightful Japanese soufflé pancakes. Be careful, bookings can only be made in person in the morning at 8 o’clock.
  • Kappabashi street: If you are a passionate cook or just addicted to Japanese kitchenware like sushi knives or tea bowls, this where all the restaurants of Tokyo buy what they need at a discounted price. I avoid going there now as I feel like buying everything every time I go. Prices on traditional ceramics or bamboo bento boxes can’t be beaten.

Yanaka

Yanaka is a residential area that kept the feeling of the old Tokyo. Its low rise buildings resisted to both earthquakes and bombing during WWII. Enjoying homemade food on a tatami floor of an old traditional Japanese house is priceless. Yanaka gives me the ability to experience what I love the most in rural areas of Japan while staying in the heart of the city.

My favourite addresses in Yanaka:

  • Yanaka Beer Hall: Don’t rely on the name as I did. It is nothing like a European style beer garden but a very traditional Japanese house with a tatami second floor where you can taste their very own craft beer with a bowl of udon, or just enjoy a cup of tea or coffee. Perfect stop after exploring Yanaka Cemetary.
  • Café Nombiriya: I think this is the closest experience of a traditional Japanese home you can get at a café. The owners are sweethearts, make their own umeshu (plum wine) and even speak a little English. I want to come back again and again. In wintertime, try to be the lucky one who can enjoy their kotatsu (Japanese coffee table with heating cover).
  • Café Nekoemon: An adorable café where everything is cat-related from the cat chestnut mont-blanc cake, cat cheesecake or pawn madeleine.
  • Kinjiyoshien tea store: They sell some Japanese green tea from all the best areas in Japan and exquisite Japanese ceramics, with cup pricing from 200¥ to 2000¥ each. Staff can speak English.

Harajuku

If you need some “kawaii” (cuteness) in your life, this is where you need to go. I thought I would get bored with the extreme kawaii vibe of Harajuku at some point, but it never happened. It remains my go-to place every time I want to go for a walk or sit in a cute café to write or study my Japanese lessons.

My favourite addresses in Harajuku:

  • Reissue Café: The master of Latte Art in Shinjuku! Want a cute cat, a Totoro or why not your favourite nudibranch over your cafe latte? You just need to ask. Although it is pricey, 1000¥ (about £7/8€) for the customised cafe latte order, during weekdays, the café itself is a very chilled place to relax or study your Japanese lessons.
  • Gram café & pancakes: Fluffy Japanese pancakes are just the best breakfast I ever had! Those at Gram Café are only available at 3 timeslots every day: 11h, 15h and 18h. You need to come an hour before to get a ticket as they only do 20 servings at each time slot! 950¥ for the pancake, about 500¥ for the coffee, you won’t regret a single yen!
  • Madosh! Café: If you are an avocado addict, you are going to fall for this 100% avocado café! Everything is made with avocado: smoothie, main dishes and dessert! Delicious and not too expensive, lunch menus start at 1,800¥ (about £13/14€).
  • Laforet shopping mall: Forget about Takeshita street, this is the place to shop for all the best kawaii fashion in Harajuku. Even if you don’t buy anything, by exploring the different floors, you will get a good understanding of Japanese fashion trends. The most interesting level is the basement with lolita and steampunk styles.

Odaiba

I’m not a huge fan of the artificial island district of Odaiba, but this exhibition blew my mind. Somewhere between an artistic experience and a new generation amusement park, the Teamlab Borderless exhibition takes you to a new dimension where you can play digitally with art. Make sure to plan to arrive at least 15 minutes before the opening time in the morning for a more enjoyable experience. You can spend the entire day inside if you want to experience everything fully.

The most beautiful parks and gardens of Tokyo

Koishikawa Garden Tokyo Japan

It took me some time to get to know the best parks and gardens in Tokyo. I insisted for quite a long time at exploring Ueno Park at different times thinking maybe I hadn’t seen it properly. But no, generally speaking, Ueno is rather uninteresting. It mainly serves as a ground for events and is the home of Tokyo Zoo (a no go for me) and Tokyo National Museums. So after doing more researches about places to visit in Tokyo, I finally ended visiting parks and garden that were exactly what I was looking for:

  • Koishikawa Gardens: My favourite garden in Tokyo. This garden aims at recreating famous natural sceneries all around Japan. A must visit during the Momiji season. If you come to visit this garden take the opportunity to enjoy the view from the Bunkyo Civic Center observatory which is just around the corner (see below).
  • Hamarikyu Imperial Gardens: If you stay in the south of Tokyo, then it would be my favourite choice. Good to know, boats are cruising the river between the gardens and Asakusa, such a great way to travel across Tokyo and continue your visit without too much effort. Except for the good view of the Rainbow bridge, I have to say the view from the boat isn’t incredible since the Sumida river banks are not the prettiest part of Tokyo, but I still find it to be a nice option.
  • Shinjuku Gyoen: This 58 ha park has 4 distinctive parts with a Japanese garden, an English garden that looked like a mini-Greenwich, a French garden that looked like a mini-Versailles and a tropical Greenhouse. You can visit it anytime during the year, and there will always be some flowers blooming, yes even in the middle of the winter! The collection of orchids in the Greenhouse is also splendid. The view of the skyscrapers of Shinjuku through the “Momiji” red maple leaves at Fall or the “Sakura” cherry blossoms at Spring is stunning.
  • Meiji Jingu: Visit one of the most important Shinto shrines in Tokyo in the heart of Yoyogi Park. The 10-15 minute walk through the park is a relaxing shot of nature in the middle of the bustling city of Tokyo, and this is where you have the best chances to see a traditional ceremony or a wedding.

The best viewpoints of Tokyo’s skyline

Inside Tokyo Tower Japan

Visiting one of the many Tokyo observatories should be on your list of places to visit in Tokyo even if you have only a short stopover. Considering the number of free options, I don’t recommend Roppongi Hills (1800¥/2300¥) & Tokyo Sky Tree (2060¥/3090¥). I find their entrance cost outrageous. I went to the observatory of Roppongi Hills during my very first trip to Japan. I don’t think the view was that much incredible compared to the other options.

  • Bunkyo Civic Center (Free!): At the 25th floor of the administrative building of Bunkyo-Ku, one of the 23 districts of Tokyo, there is a fantastic observatory with a window at a particular angle, so you don’t end up with reflections on your pictures. Best view in town of the Tokyo SkyTree, preferably in the afternoon. If you are lucky to go on a clear day, preferably at the opening time at 9.00 am, you can see Mount Fuji through the skyscrapers of Shinjuku. There is a nice café with a view above Tokyo Dome and Koishikawa Gardens with reasonable prices.
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Building, Shinjuku (Free!): On the 45th floor of the main City Hall building, there are 2 observation decks as there are 2 towers! At the time of my visit, the south one was in refurbishment. This is the best view in town to see Mount Fuji on a clear day, preferably at the opening time at 9.30 am. From a comfort point of view, I thought the space around the windows was limited due to an enormous souvenir shop in the middle, besides the best view of Shinjuku is actually in an expensive café taking half of the view of this free observatory.
  • 109 Magnet shopping mall, Shibuya (Free!): At the 8th floor of the Magnet 109 shopping mall, this is where you can get the best view of the mesmerising Shibuya Crossing, the busiest crossing in the world! On the 7th floor just below, there is a trendy food court which can be perfect for a quick lunch or a coffee break.
  • World Trade Center, Hamamatsucho (620¥ – about £4/5€): At the 40th floor of the World Trade Center building, the Seaside Top observatory is my favourite viewpoint in Tokyo. This is the best view in town to see the Tokyo Tower in the middle of the skyline of Tokyo. The observation deck is stylish and comfortable. Unfortunately, the straight windows make a lot of reflection, but an important to point to be noted, this is the only place where tripods are allowed.
  • Tokyo Tower (900¥ – about £6/7€): I prefer to see the Tokyo Tower from the viewpoint I’m visiting, which won’t be the case if you are in the Tower Tower. This being said, I enjoyed my visit to one of my favourite monuments in Tokyo, and the price was still ok.

Taste the best of Japanese cuisine in Tokyo

Yuzu Shuyu ramen Afuri Tokyo

Consider your meals in Tokyo as fully part of the experience of Japan. Don’t hesitate to invest some of your time to taste all the delicious flavours and high quality even on a budget the Japanese cuisine offers.

Here is a time-saving piece of advice. Even if I list below my favourite addresses, quality is so good in most restaurants in Tokyo, tiny or big, that you can just type “Ramen restaurant near me” or “Soba restaurant near me” in Google Maps, and you will be likely to uncover another secret address in Tokyo without wasting time on transportation.

Don’t worry about not speaking Japanese, menus often display pictures, or there might even be a tablet with English option on your table! In the case of the old-style restaurants, you will often see plastic replicas in their window giving another opportunity to point out what you want to eat. People in restaurants in Japan are kind and patient and will do their best to serve you even if they don’t speak English.

  • It’s all about “ramen“: The famous noodle soup works for most occasions, like grabbing something quick and warm on your way back home or after partying like crazy to help the hangover! My favourite is by far Afuri for their firm noodles and yuzu/soy sauce soup. They have several addresses including Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ebisu and Roppongi – average price 1000¥ (about £7/8€).
  • Cheer with the salarymen while eating “yakitori” skewers: Head to the “yokocho” side alleys, especially the famous “Omoide Yokocho” in Shinjuku, also called Memory Lane in English – average price 250¥ for 2 skewers, every time I went to Omoide Yokocho I spent with drinks about 2500¥ (about £17/20€).
  • Try high-quality sushi on a budget: Thanks to the “kaiten” sushi restaurants, the budget traveller can enjoy great quality sushi while having a unique experience My favourite addresses: Genki Sushi, 24-8 Udagawachō, Shibuya & Hamazushi, 2 Chome−13, Takadanobaba – Average price: 150¥ for 2 nigiri sushi, I usually end with a bill of about 800¥ (about £6/7€).
  • Discover “soba” buckwheat noodles: A set menu of soba noodles and vegetable tempura is my favourite Japanese traditional meal. You can choose hot “atatakai” or cold “tsumetai” noodles, but I prefer cold soba summer like winter. I haven’t eaten bad soba yet in Tokyo every time I type “soba restaurant” in my Google Map app, but I do have an address I love more than the others: Nagomi Soba dining, 3 Chome−2−31, Kagurazaka – Average price for a set menu of soba noodle and vegetable tempura 1300¥ (about £9/10€).
  • Taste all the Japanese sweets you can: You will find the best selection of “mochi”, “odango“, “daifuku” and “wagashi” (mostly sweet rice dumplings) at the gourmet basement level of any department store of Shibuya or Shinjuku for instance. Make sure you also try “taiyaki“, a waffle in shape of fish filled with “azuki” sweet red bean and “matcha” green tea ice cream. Asakusa is a great place to try all sorts of street food but you can go to any of the “a particular” convenient stores, and you’ll find many reasonably priced snacks – average price for a mochi 100¥, for a taiyaki: 160¥ (about £1/1.20€).

When is the best season to visit Tokyo?

Momiji Koishikawa Garden Tokyo Japan

Tokyo is an incredible city that can be enjoyed year-long. However, typhoon season, mostly July and September, is better to be avoided if possible. Winter, mostly the end of December to the beginning of February, was much colder than I expected. Temperatures were around 0°C (it’s rare, but it sometimes snows in Tokyo). There are also fewer people and it doesn’t change anything about the neon lights and all the incredible food you can taste.

I would say my favourite season is Fall, especially the “Momiji” season (mid-November to the beginning of December) when the maple leaves turn bright red and the ginkgo leaves turn bright yellow. I spent days and days of photographing the Autumn leaves at any given opportunity as I found it incredibly beautiful.

However, after spending a full week in Tokyo during the full bloom of the cherry trees, I understand now why everyone gets crazy about Sakura. This year, the full bloom was from the 30th of March until the 7th of April. It is indeed beautiful but it is also the peak touristic season in Tokyo. So if you want to enjoy it peacefully you will have to get up early. If you don”t mind the crowds too much, then also make sure to check the cherry blossoms at night since the lightning of the cherry trees in bloom is enchanting. The top spots to see the sakura in Tokyo are Nakameguro River and Chidorigafuchi Green Way near the Imperial Palace.

Where to stay in Tokyo?

I travelled to Tokyo 3 times on business trips by staying in nice hotels, 3 times as a backpacker by trying all the possible capsule hotels and boutique hostels and I have even lived in Tokyo as a Japanese student for 4 months in a share house.

Believe it or not, my budget to stay in Tokyo is maximum 35€ a night. You can find cheaper but I decided to go for the best value for money as a solo traveller blogging along the way.

After many trials, some successful and some not, I came to the conclusion that when you visit Tokyo for a few days, the best districts to stay are Asakusa and Hamamatsusho thanks to their direct connection to Tokyo Airports.

Here are my favourites addresses to stay in Tokyo:

  • Capsule Hotels: If you are looking for budget options to stay in Tokyo for a short time then capsule hotels are great solutions and an experience to try at least once. There are so many of them in Tokyo that you can find theme one now. On my arrival in Tokyo last June, I needed to spend one night in Ebisu before joining the DiveZoneTokyo team on a scuba diving weekend. I stayed at Doc-C sauna+sleep, which is a capsule hotel with a sauna. There are two floors for men, and two floors for ladies. As you usually to check out every day at 10 am, it’s good only for an overnight stay. Before flying to Okinawa, I also try for one night the Book and Bed of Ikebukuro. I loved the concept of sleeping in a bookshelf. The comfort was limited, but the atmosphere incredibly relaxing.
    • Prices from 2,900¥ /night (about £20/23€).
  • Hostels: This is my favourite short term accommodation in Tokyo. While you can find cheaper hostels in Tokyo that look like any hostel in the world, the fancier versions available in Tokyo offer a comfy cabin with usually locked storage inside for your valuable, shared bathrooms which look like 4-star hotels and a trendy café. My absolute favourite address was Unplan in the charming district of Kagurazaka. However, it is hard to beat the value for money of K’s House in Asakusa. The bed was very comfy and the kitchen-living room was a great meet-up place to socialise with other travellers. 
    • Prices from 3,800¥ /night (about £26/30€).
  • Hotels: If you need a relaxing private room to cure your jetlag and spend a bit more on accommodation, there are superb hotels all over the city. However, the price range can significantly vary. I found these hotels to be the best value for money. In the heart of Ginza, I recommend the Millenium Mitsui Garden, and in the quiet neighbourhood of Kiyosumi on the banks of the Sumida River, the Lyuro Hotel.  I tried several business hotels in Hamamatsucho, and only MyStay was worth my money especially with a last-minute deal.
    • Prices from 11,300¥ /night (about £79/90€).

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