The Explorer’s Itinerary (For People Who Hate Itineraries)

Lily Crossley-Baxter

Perfect for people who hate being told what to do; experience Tokyo with less planning and more adventuring: the Tokyo Explorer Itinerary.

tokyo explorer itinerary
Photo by B Lucava

There’s a fine balance between spontaneity and planning when traveling the world… and especially in Tokyo. While you definitely need time to wander off down that alley or follow that group of people dressed as foxes, it sucks when you find out about something amazing you were 5 minutes away from, two weeks after your trip. We hate lifelong regret, so we have come up with a the perfect 3-day itinerary for people who need to go and explore. We’ve combined the top sights with the best neighborhoods and given you a few starting points—the rest is up to you!


Day 1 of fun for the Tokyo explorer

During the day: Hightail it to Harajuku and Omotesando

There’s no better place to see the contrasts of Tokyo, and Japan as a whole for that matter—than the busy streets of Harajuku. The famous Takeshita Street is a great stop for the typical Harajuku kind of crazy and the famous Meiji Jingu Shrine is right next door.

tokyo explorer itinerary
Meiji shrine torii | Photo by Selena Hoy

Behind the station, the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu is surrounded by a forest made of 10,000 trees from across Japan and the world, donated to commemorate the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, to whom the shrine is dedicated. The blanketing effect of the forest keeps you a million miles away from the bustling streets, but in actual fact is only a 5-minute stroll. If you like, you can explore the Meiji Jingu inner gardens which have an iris garden and ponds, or visit the Treasure Museum towards Yoyogi and Sangubashi.

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Heading out into the well-selfied street of Takeshita, you’ll find costumed locals and great shops along with a hell of a lot of people, but that’s part of the charm. Duck into the boutiques or down into the purikura (photo booths) basements to get your snapshots and take a breather before surfacing into the crowds once more. Try out some unusual snacks like fresh Calbee chips, rainbow cotton candy and of course, the famous crêpesstuffed with everything from cheesecake to tuna.

tokyo explorer itinerary
Photo by Jordy Meow used under CC

Once you’ve reached the end of the street, however, your explorations have only just begun. Take any side street, alley or follow Takeshita for all the back alleys and unique shops and cafes that make the area so great for exploring. The Monster Cafe is round the corner for all things kawaii/hallucinatory, as are the clothing malls with labyrinths of trendy clothing stores inside. If you explore the area to the general right of Takeshita, you’ll be crossing into the up-market area of Omotesando with trendy boutiques and cute garden cafes like the Aoyama Teahouse.  If you want to duck into the Ota Memorial Museum of Art there are unusual exhibitions of ukiyo-e art, a Buddhist concept of “pictures of the floating world”, often wood-block printing and painting.

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In the evening: See the bright lights of Shibuya

Once you’re done exploring, head to the busiest place in town: Shibuya. You can either catch the JR Yamanote for a few minutes or walk down from Harajuku. For all the bright lights and neon you need, the area has everything for a great night out in Tokyo. Head for the Hachiko Exit (number 8) and meet someone (be it a planned arrangement, a new friend or a local cat—it is the most famous meeting spot in Tokyo after all).

tokyo explorer itinerary

From there you can gaze and and cross the in/famous Shibuya crossing along with the hundreds of others. This spot looks way better in the evening, so ideally save it for later or be sure to head back before you leave.

For a typical sushi dinner, the Genki Sushi is right across and delivers up good-quality and cheapo-friendly sushi on a speedy conveyor belt. There are countless restaurants nearby though, with izakaya, ramen and everything under the sun to choose from. It’s the perfect place to explore for dinner and drinks if you’re undecided, and even has themed cafes like the Alice in Wonderland cafe.



tokyo explorer itinerary
Photo by Dat' used under CC

Along the streets and alleys directly across the crossing, or under the bridge to your right, are plenty of bars and izakaya to explore. Some good places to start are Tasuichi, a cheap standing bar beyond the crossing, FightClub 428 or dj bar The Bridge, with 10th-floor views of the streets below from the small balcony. You can make friends drinking in the streets and there are of course karaoke joints left right and center, as well as some of the biggest clubs in Tokyo. Womb is 5 minutes away, along with Trump Room, Gas Panic and Club Asia. You can also make use of the free shuttle bus that runs to AgeHa (Tokyo’s biggest superclub) if you’re in need of something bigger.


Day 2 of adventure:

During the day: Explore the east of Tokyo

If you’re jetlagged, coming in from a night out or just naturally an early bird, Tsukiji Fish Market should be on your list. The famous fish market has a tuna auction as well as wholesale areas and food stands, so you can taste some of the best sushi in the world. We have the tips on how to get into the auction as well as ideas on where to eat—so take some waterproof shoes and start your day the fish-based way.

tokyo explorer itinerary
Photo by Stewart Butterfield used under CC

A few train stops away is Tsukishima—the home of owl cafes (if you are so inclined) with queues starting at 10am for Fukuro no Mise. For the foodies, around the corner from the station is Monjya Street—the best place in Tokyo for monjayaki and okonomiyaki. Cooked by your own fair hand on your in-built griddle, the dishes known as Japan’s pizza can come with any number of ingredients, from bacon to mochi to cheese.

Nearby Ginza is ideal for high-end shopping (or window shopping), and as well as with some free and cheap things to do. Alternatively, you can head to the Imperial Palace for a stroll in the gardens – with free bike rental if you happen to go on a Sunday. The National Museum of Modern Art is around the corner, as is the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.  The joys of Tokyo Station are ripe for exploration, with Toyko Ramen Street hosting eight of the best ramen spots in Tokyo, as well as character street—with everything from Pokémon to Moomins to Ghibli.



In the evening: Soak it off or power through

If you’ve filled up on ramen and your early morning has left you needing an early night, you could try a traditional onsen to soak off the muscles before sleep.

Depending on where you’re staying there will be plenty to choose from, but Kotobuki-yu is good for those with tattoos. Despite government advice that all establishments relax the strict rules, few do, so if you cannot hide them well, this is somewhere you won’t have to. Alternatively, you could head to Onsen Oedo Monogatari with a free (occasional) shuttle bus from Tokyo Station. Here you can enjoy onsen, an Edo-period hall, plenty of food and outdoor footbaths, with reduced entry prices after 6pm (no tattoos).

If you skipped Tsukiji or had an afternoon nap (or you just like powering through) you can explore nearby Yurakucho which has plenty of bars and yokocho to hunt out for a night of elbow-knocking and beer.


Last day in Tokyo

During the day: Mix it up with old and new

To combine the geek culture and beautiful traditions, the North area of Tokyo has some great spots. Akihabara has more manga, anime and electronic stores than you can shake a stick at as well as maid cafes and idol cafes. From the well known to the sketchy, you can get your hands on pretty much anything here, and is particularly good on a Sunday when it is known as Hokosha Tengoku (Pedestrian’s Heaven).

tokyo explorer itinerary
Photo by Agustin Rafael Reyes used under CC

Only 10 minutes by train, Asakusa is home to Tokyo’s oldest Temple: Sensoji. With the giant Kaminarimon Gate, the massive chochin lantern and the biggest souvenir market in Tokyo, this is too big to miss. You can wander the aisles and backstreets that surround the temple to find the best melon pan in Tokyo, stock up on gifts and find somewhere tucked away for lunch or a coffee.

If you feel like heading further north, to the obaasan-Harajuku of town, suburban Sugamo is full of giant duck charms, busy markets, red underwear and beautiful temples and shrines, not to mention Michelin-star ramen.

In the evening: Sample Shinjuku’s nightlife

For a night on the town Shinjuku has a great combination of tiny bars, alleyway food stalls, robots and izakaya, and is great for wandering.

Kabukicho

If you’re skipping Tokyo Tower and the Skytree but still want the views, head to the Tokyo Government Metropolitan Building for their free 202m observatory with views stretching out to Fuji. It’s open until 10pm so you can slot it into your evening easily!

If you’re keen to see the famous Robot Restaurant you can find it deep in Kabuki-cho, and if not, this is a great spot for wandering. The red-light district has plenty of bars and clubs, as well as hostess bars and love hotelsso if that part of Tokyo’s nightlife is on your list, this is the place to check it off. You can see the giant Godzilla as well as maid cafes and plenty of NSFW sights, without venturing far at all.

The yokocho of Shinjuku run below the train lines and are either called Piss Alley or Memory Lane, depending on your experience (but stick with Omoide Yokocho in Japanese). Here you can find yourself a seat squeezed in with more-than-likely-drunk salarymen with plenty of beers and skewered meats, eaten elbow-to-elbow in the narrow backstreets.

golden gai
Photo by Shiranai used under CC

For a night of miniature barhopping, head to Golden Gai—a cluster of streets filled with drinking dens in every style. Often with only single-digit seating, each bar has a distinct style, ranging from Halloween to rock music to Victorian. Some do not accept foreigners, and some have cover fees, but this is well-signposted, so peer up staircases and peek through windows to find your next drink.

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