Tokyo in 3 Days
Tokyo is a metropolis that confounds with its complexity: 35 million people occupy a greater metropolitan area that includes soaring towers of glass and steel, rolling expressways, numerous temples, parks, and mile and after mile of concrete housing blocks. Since the end of World War II, the city has constantly reinvented itself. Few things have remained static other than Tokyo’s preeminence as Japan’s economic center.
Day 1: Tsukiji and Ginza
Start very early (around 5 am) with a visit to the Fish Market in the Tsukiji district to catch the lively tuna auctions and then have the finest, freshest sushi for breakfast at Daiwa Sushi. Take a morning stroll through Ginza to explore its fabled shops and depato (department stores). Then hit a chic restaurant or café for lunch (more reasonably priced ones are found on the upper floors of most department stores). The skyscrapers of Shiodome are just down the street, in the direction of Shimbashi. Take a peek on the first floor of the Shiodome Media Tower; aerial photographs show Ginza as it was roughly 100 years ago—a network of canals. In the skyscrapers’ shadows are the charming Hama Rikyu Tei-en Gardens, whose pathways and ponds are ideal for a late-afternoon stroll. In the evening, head back up toward Ginza and enjoy yakitori (grilled chicken) at one of the many small restaurants under the elevated railway lines in Yurakucho.
Day 2: Asakusa and Ueno
Spend the morning at Senso-ji and adjacent Asakusa Jinja in Asakusa. If you're looking for souvenir gifts—sacred or secular—allow time and tote space for the abundant selection the local vendors at the Nakamise Shopping Arcade have to offer. A 10-minute walk west is Kappabashi, a street dedicated to outfitting restaurants and bars with dishes, cups, chopsticks, and even plastic food models. From there go to Ueno for an afternoon of museums, vistas, and historic sites, and take a break at Ueno Park. Keep in mind that in the evening the crowds in Asakusa are not as intrusive as during the day, and many of the major attractions, including the five-tier pagoda of Senso-ji, are brightly lighted. It's worth it to loop back to get a different view of the area and end the evening with dinner at one of Asakusa’s izakaya (basically, a drinking den that serves food).
Day 3: Shibuya and Shinjuku
Start off at Shibuya’s Hachiko Square and the famous “Scramble Crossing” intersection and hit nearby stores like Shibuya 109, which is crammed with teen fashion boutiques. Inside the station building is the once-lost masterpiece by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, Myth of Tomorrow. In the afternoon see the Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu, and walk through the nearby Harajuku and Omotesando fashion districts. Spend the rest of the afternoon on the west side of Shinjuku, Tokyo's 21st-century model city; and savor the view from the observation deck of architect Kenzo Tange's monumental Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office; cap off the day visiting Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden. For those seeking a bit of excitement, the red-light district of Kabuki-cho, just to the east of JR Shinjuku Station, comes alive once the sun goes down; Kabuki-cho and neighboring Golden Gai are full of good places to eat and drink.
Tokyo in 5 Days
Add these two days onto the three-day itinerary.
Day 4: Akihabara and Imperial Palace
Spend the morning browsing in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics quarter, and see the nearby Shinto shrine Kanda Myojin. In the afternoon, tour of the Imperial Palace and environs. The Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery has a wonderful park and a boat-rental facility—both great for unwinding. If the Yomiuri Giants are in town, catch a game at Tokyo Dome in the evening. If not, try a traditional hot spring bath or ride the roller coaster at LaQua amusement park next to Tokyo Dome.
Day 5: Various Sites
Fill in the missing pieces: see the Buddhist temple, Sengaku-ji, in Shinagawa; the remarkable Edo-Tokyo Hakubutsukan in Ryogoku; a tea ceremony; a Kabuki play; or a sumo tournament, if one is in town. Or head to Odaiba in Tokyo Bay for attractions that include the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Palette Town's malls and Ferris wheel, and the Oedo Onsen baths.
When to Go
Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Sakura (cherry blossoms) begin blooming in Tokyo by early April, while fall has clear blue skies, albeit punctuated by the occasional typhoon. June brings humidity and rain that can linger into early July. July and August bring heat, mostly blue skies, and stifling humidity. Winter can be gray and chilly some days, mild and sunny others, with Tokyo and other areas along the coast receiving very little snow. Japanese vacation during three holiday periods: the few days before and after New Year's; Golden Week in early May; and the mid-August week for Obon. Travel's not advised during these times as plane and train tickets book up fast.
If You Have More Time
With a week or more, you can make Tokyo your base for side trips. After getting your fill of Tokyo, take a train out to Yokohama, with its scenic port and Chinatown. A bit farther away but still easily accessible by train is Kamakura, the 13th-century military capital of Japan. The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) of the Kotoku-in Temple in nearby Hase is but one of the National Treasures of art and architecture in and around Kamakura. For both Yokohama and Kamakura, an early start will allow you to see most of the important sights in a full day and make it back to Tokyo by late evening. As Kamakura is one of the most popular of excursions from Tokyo, avoid the worst of the crowds by going on a weekday, but time it to avoid rush-hour commuting that peaks roughly at 8 am and just after 6 pm.
Still farther off, but again an easy train trip, is Nikko, where the founder of the Tokugawa Shogun dynasty is enshrined. The decadently designed Tosho-gu shrine complex is a monument unlike any other in Japan, and the picturesque Lake Chuzenji is in forests nearby. Two full days, with an overnight stay, would allow you an ideal, leisurely exploration of both. Another option would be a trip to Hakone, where you can soak in a traditional onsen or climb to the summit of Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji).