Check off five of Tokyo’s top sightseeing spots in one day, without spending a fortune. You’ll be sampling fresh sushi, strolling around a traditional Japanese garden, stopping by a famous temple, buzzing around the city’s anime and electronics hub, and doing a spot of shopping too. Whether it’s your first time in the capital or you’re a long-time resident with family or friends visiting, this cheapo self-guided Tsukiji, Asakusa, Akihabara tour won’t disappoint.
This version kicks off with a twirl around Japan’s most famous fish market, then takes you to a traditional Japanese garden, on to Asakusa Kannon Temple, then the colourful, crazy area of Akihabara and finally Shinjuku for scenic sundowners.
1. Breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
You’re going to start the day with a sushi breakfast (yes, that is possible) at this world-famous fish market. If you want to see the tuna auction, which is free, you’ll need to get there by 4am (yes, you read that right). If you’re not staying nearby, you’ll need to spend the night somewhere – here is one option for doing that. The closest train stations to the market are Tsukijishijo on the Oedo Line and Tsukiji on the Hibiya Line.
If you’re not set on seeing the legendary tuna auction, roll by when you wake up and grab some of the freshest sashimi in Tokyo at Sushidai or Daiwa Sushi, in the market. You can find noodles and rice dishes at Tsukiji too, if you’re not up for raw fish quite so early in the day. Keep your eyes peeled for the taiyaki at Sanuki-ya too – it’s traditional “grilled fish” – sweet fish-shaped cakes, that is!
While you’re there, look for Namiyoke Inari Jinja, a shrine at the back of the outer market (there are inner and outer zones). It’s said to be a sort of guardian shrine for the fish market. You can also drop by Honganji Temple near the Hibiya Line train station.
Tsukiji literally means “Constructed Land” – the reason being that it was built on land reclaimed from the ocean. The fish market began its operations in 1935 and has been going strong since, but sadly will be relocating sometime in 2016 – so check this version out while you still can!
We recommend reading 10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Tsukiji (one of which being that you can’t wear sandals) before setting out. It has a handy calendar showing exactly when the fish market is open, too. The place is closed on Sundays and certain other days.
2. Hama Rikyu Garden
Next, you’re heading to one of Tokyo’s most well-known and well-preserved traditional Japanese gardens. It’s a 7-10 minute walk from Tsukijishijo or Shiodome station, both of which are on the Oedo Line. If you have the time, just meander over from the fish market and save yourself a couple of hundred yen on train fare.
Hama Rikyu is a splash of green at the mouth of the Sumida River – an oasis in the built-up city. The carefully landscaped garden has a lot of history, dating all the way back to the Edo Period, when it was part of the Tokugawa Shogun’s residences. Depending on what time of year you go, you might see hydrangeas in bloom, azaleas, weeping cherry blossoms, fiery maple trees or some other quintessential floral markers of the seasons in Japan.
While you’re ambling around, look out for the 300-year-old pine tree, as well as the tea house. You’ll find the latter on Nakajima – the island in the middle of the pond (which, incidentally, is a tidal sea water pond – and the only one in the whole of Tokyo). The cedar bridge leading to the island has 300 years of history too, which you can learn about on one of the free garden tours (in English), or by using the voice guide devices available at the garden entrance. You can experience a simple tea ceremony for about 500 yen. You’ll be given a bowl of mattcha – strong green tea, and a tea sweet to offset its bitterness.
The garden is open from 9-5pm and costs 300 yen (unless you go on Greenery Day in May, when it’s free).
3. Asakusa via Water Bus
When you’re finished at Hama Rikyu, you’re going to hop onto one of Tokyo’s water buses (suijo basu) and head to Asakusa via the Sumida River. It’s a novel and scenic way to travel, and far less crowded than the trains! The dock is a five-minute walk from Hama Rikyu’s Oteman gate. Get a ticket for 740 yen and board an Asakusa-bound “bus” – they start running at 10.35am, leaving every 30 minutes.
On your way up the river you’ll pass under 10 or so bridges and you’ll see Tokyo Skytree – the city’s tallest tourist trap (see our cheapo tips for saving money at the tower). Snap some photos and sip on a cup of the specially brewed beer you can buy on the boat.
When you see the “golden flame” (aka “turd”) of Asahi Breweries, you’ve arrived in Asakusa. Disembark at the Asakusa Nitenmon Terminal and head over to Sensoji, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple.
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Find the main Kaminarimon Gate and take the obligatory photo under its huge lantern. Then enter and have a look around. This is one of Tokyo’s biggest, oldest and most popular temples, home to the rather rough and rowdy Sanja Festival in May.
You’ll pass through 200m of stalls selling everything from yukata to traditional fans, pins, clothes emblazoned with samurai logos and more – this is the best place in the city to get souvenirs. Be sure to sample some of the many rice crackers. You can actually put together a decent lunch from all the snacks on sale.
Make your way up to the big incense pot at the end of the path leading to the temple, and watch as visitors waft the smoke around their bodies. The idea is that it purifies you – go ahead and try it if you feel like it.
4. Anime-Crazy Akihabara
Your next destination is Japan’s centre of otaku culture (a kind of holy land for anime, manga, figure and game fans). Take the train to JR Akihabara Station and brace yourself for an onslaught of maid cafes, anime goods, multi-storey game arcades with Dance Dance Revolution dance-offs and hundreds of UFO catchers, as well as any computer part you can imagine.
Here are five fun ideas for things to do while wandering around this wacky world of sub-cultures. Oh, and – a word of caution before you buy any electronics – the voltage might not be compatible with that of your home country, so check before you shell out any yen.
5. Sundowners in Shinjuku
Hop back onto the train and head to JR Shinjuku, where we’ll leave you to a well-deserved drink at Ku Kon during the bar’s happy hour, and a jaunt up to the observation floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which is right next door. This is a great place to get free views of the cityscape.
You can splash out on a semi-fancy dinner at one of the restaurants in the building, or head down into the streets of Shinjuku for cheap Japanese-style “gorilla” curry (don’t worry, it doesn’t contain gorillas), more sushi (some people just can’t get enough) or anything else you might fancy. Our Shinjuku area guide has lots of reasonable restaurant listings.
Breakfast and lunch: 1,000 yen x 2 (can get for less!)
Water bus and Hama Rikyu tickets: 1,040 yen
Trainfare: Depends where your accommodation is, but probably 500 – 1,000 for the day’s touring.
Dinner: 1,500 yen (can get for much less!)
Snacks: 500 – 1,500 yen
4,500 – 6,000 yen (or less, depending on how much of a cheapo you are)
You can check your train routes and fares on Hyperdia.com