Finding the best area to stay during your trip to Tokyo depends on what you want to get out of your stay, how much you have to spend, and the level of convenience you require (or inconvenience you’re willing to put up with).
Tokyo is big
A lot of what is referred to as “Tokyo”, is not even technically in Tokyo. For example, both Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Narita Airport are located in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. Combined with the surrounding prefectures, the greater Tokyo area holds a staggering 25 million people. Thousands of train stations and numerous railway lines collect this together in a mind boggling transportation network. As a result, different neighborhoods often cater for quite different needs and interests.
Best areas for food
While top-class eateries are spread throughout the metropolis, Tokyo’s top food districts are Ginza and Shinjuku.
Ginza is famed for high-end ryotei and sushi restaurants—such as the famed Sukiyabashi Jiro. The reason for this is the proximity of (the now-much-dimished) Tsukiji Market, which was famed for having the freshest seafood in the world.
Shinjuku has more of a range than Ginza—from high-end restaurants like New York Grill (as seen in the film Lost in Translation) to cheap yakitori bars and ramen restaurants.
Coolest areas to stay
So what are the hipster hangouts of Tokyo? Unfortunately, hipsters and hotels don’t often converge. The absence of hotels and the luxury brand shops that trail along, is one of the very things that makes an area hip. That said, there are boutique hotels and Airbnb/vacation rentals available, so if you’re looking to stay in a hip neighborhood, our recommendations are Shimokitazawa, Nakameguro or Kagurazaka. All are quite handy for transport to the transport hubs such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Shinagawa.
For somewhere slightly cheaper but less convenient, the Fukagawa neighborhood is full of hipster coffee houses, galleries and quirky shops.
Traditional places to stay
For a taste of ye olde Edo, you’ll need to get away from the major stations and the big commercial districts like Shibuya and Shinjuku. Near the northeastern corner of the circular Yamanote Line are the neighborhoods of Yanaka and Asakusa. That area is known as Shitamachi, the lower town. While the samurai hobnobbed it in the Yamanote area of old Edo (Tokyo’s name prior to the modernization of Japan), regular townsfolk lived in Shitamachi.
Yanaka is a district that is stuffed full of temples, cats and traditional ryokan lodging. Buddhist temples go together with cemeteries, which given the Japanese dislike of living near the dead, is possibly one of the reasons that Yanaka has seen less development than the rest of the capital.
While Asakusa was a bustling neighborhood in the late 19th century and early 20th, it didn’t fare well after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and was considered to be a bit downmarket. As a result, lots of cheap lodging sprung up, much of which has now been converted for the international visitor market. At the same time, Asakusa is packed with temples and shrines and the locals have a friendly Shitamachi sensibility not found in the more modern parts of Tokyo.
Hyper-modern places to stay
If you’re after that slightly surreal sensory overload experience, then Odaiba, Shibuya, or Shinjuku are the places for you.
Odaiba is a mostly reclaimed island in Tokyo Bay full of late bubble era construction follies—such as a museum in the shape of a cruise ship, a convention center resembling a spaceship, the Fuji TV building (with a giant globe in it) and a completely enclosed shopping center that’s supposed to be a reproduction of Venice. There’s even a station in the area called Tokyo Teleport, which is appropriate as you’re staying in an area that was the vision of the future circa 1990. Also in Odaiba is the genuinely cutting-edge Mori Digital Art Museum, home to the popular TeamLab Borderless exhibition.
Shibuya is the over-the-top, in-your-face milieu that you were expecting in Tokyo. If giant TV screens, ad noise from a hundred different sound systems and lots of neon is your idea of the future, then prepare to be astonished.
The skyscraper district near the west exit of Shinjuku Station was famously the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner movie. Not much has changed since the 1980s, but it’s still impressive—if you can get up high among the buildings (try the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a free view). From ground level, there’s not much to see.
Most-convenient areas to stay
Most neighborhoods in Tokyo are pretty convenient. No matter where you are, it’s unusual to be more than a 10-minute walk from a subway or train station. However, if you really must locate yourself near a major transport hub, the best places to stay are the Tokyo Station/Marunouchi area, Shinjuku, Shinagawa and Ueno.
Tokyo Station is the starting point for four different Shinkansen lines: the Tohoku Shinkansen, the Tokaido Shinkansen, the Joetsu Shinkansen and the Hokuriku Shinkansen. It’s also the first stop (or the last stop if you’re leaving) for the Narita Express from Narita Airport.
Shinjuku is also a Narita Express stop and a major long-distance bus hub. Overnight buses leave for locations throughout Japan while the Odakyu Line and highway buses connect the capital with the Hakone and Mt. Fuji area.
Ueno is the terminus of the Keisei Skyliner—a cheaper and faster alternative to the Narita Express—that runs to and from Narita International Airport. Ueno is also a stop on all the Shinkansen lines that head to the north and northwest, giving quick access to towns and cities such as Karuizawa, Niigata, Kanazawa and Sendai.
What areas to avoid
There are very few neighborhoods that would be considered unsafe and not suitable for visitors. Even Kabukicho—Tokyo’s most famous red light district—is relatively safe and contains some popular hotels. That said, if you’re traveling with children you may want to avoid some of the boozier or less wholesome areas, such as Kabukicho, Roppongi or Akihabara.
If your objective is to see the sites in central Tokyo, you probably shouldn’t stay in one of the surrounding prefectures. Chiba Prefecture and Saitama Prefecture are particularly sleepy and will require long daily trips into the city on possibly crowded trains. Parts of Yokohama (neighboring Tokyo to the south) can be quite far from the heart of Tokyo, but Yokohama is an attraction in itself, so there are definite positives to staying there. Chiba too is home to the aforementioned Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, so there are legitimate reasons to stay there too.
For more on places to stay in Tokyo, see our guide to Tokyo hotels.