Tokyo Travel Guide for First-timers

Akihabara and Sega building

Tokyo has that vibrant air where millenary traditions, technology, fashion, Zen gardens, and neon lights converge. The city is huge and every corner makes you feel like you are in a completely different place. That is why I decided to create this guide to show you what you should consider if visiting Tokyo for the first time.

Japan had been on my bucket list of top places to go, for a long time! However, the first time I traveled to Asia I didn’t get a chance to go there.

I’ve always felt an attraction for Asia. Both times visiting that region I felt like in my second home. Could it be that maybe in another life I was Asian or something like that?

I researched a lot before my trip. Therefore, it seemed like a good idea to put together a small guide, because Tokyo can become overwhelming for the first time visit.

For me the most important points always are:

  • Choose the places I want to see
  • Review transportation
  • Costs
  • Weather
  • Lodging
  • Places to eat (vegan food, of course!)
  • Money exchange
  • How to get to and from the airport
  • Basic phrases in the local language

This is how I organize a little, at least the most important points. And the rest is as it comes out.

Essential Guide for Vegan Travelers

Without further ado, these are some of the things I recommend doing when visiting Tokyo for the first time!

 When to Visit

Japan has 4 completely contrasting seasons.

The Japanese experience each season in a very special way. There are festivals and events that make you be able to enjoy each of them in a unique way.

Spring

During spring you can enjoy the cherry blossoms. Hundreds of people go to parks, rivers, and temples to view the Sakura flowers. They enjoy picnics and share all day with their friends and family.

I was able to visit during this season as it was one of my dreams. I absolutely loved it!

The temperature is nice and the views of the pink-colored trees are spectacular. There are, in addition, many other festivals with other types of flowers.

To see cherry blossoms it is ideal to visit between March and April, but every year it changes so you must be aware of the forecasts.  Spring is a great time to visit Tokyo and experience the cherry blossom season.

Summer

In summer the temperatures increase and there is a lot of rain and humidity. The Matsuri or Japanese festivals are carried out in different parts of the country.

Fall

Autumn is another of my favorite seasons. Along with spring, I recommend it as one of the best seasons to visit Tokyo for the first time.

The activity of seeing the leaves change of color is called Koyo. It’s just as popular as spring’s hanami (flower watching). 

The best months to visit are October and November.

Winter

If you like snow and winter sports, then the months between December and February are ideal for you.

Japan has mountain centers where you can ski, snowboard, among other things. Also, it is an excellent time to stay in a ryokan.

Ryokans are a type of traditional Japanese inns. While there, you can enjoy the onsen (hot springs) of some mountain village. 

Some ryokans include dinner or breakfast. Check with the lodge beforehand to verify that they have vegan options.

Transport

When I saw the train/subway map of Tokyo I felt I was seeing a maze.

I understood absolutely nothing! There were colored lines everywhere and it was too much information to take in so soon.

Tokyo has an exhaustive transport network and different companies that handle them. Therefore, I suggest you read a little more about it so that you become familiar with the system and the options you have.

One of the most important train lines running through Tokyo is the JR Yamanote Line. It has stations in the main tourist points of the city such as Asakusa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, etc.

If you have the  JR pass you can use this line in Tokyo or other cities as many times as you want without any additional charge.

Click on the photo link so you can see the enlarged image.

The time I stayed in Tokyo I used the bus, subway and also the JR line. I bought the PASMO card and after activating my rail pass I also used it where it applied.

Transport cards

To get around Tokyo or other cities in Japan you can get rechargeable cards. They can be used to pay the train, subway or bus tickets. But also can be used to pay at certain shops such as convenience stores.

The most popular ones are the SUICA and PASMO cards. They allow you to use different means of transport and offer reduced rates per trip. 

It’s a good idea to get some kind of transport card the first time you arrive in Tokyo, it would easier to move around that way.

The point to consider is that they cannot be recharged by credit card. So, you must have Japanese yens on hand.

There are also transport passes with different types of duration. You can use them on your trip depending on the time you are going to stay and if you consider it a better option.

My suggestion

Download the Hyperdia app. It allows you to search for train routes from point A to point B and also provides schedules and fares. 

In addition, it shows the train track number in the station, and whether any transfer is needed.

If you use Google maps you will also be able to navigate the transport options. I used it during my entire trip to Japan.

I found it very useful, especially when there were places that I was going to move through buses.

How Much Money Do You Need?

Something people always ask me is how much money is necessary to go to Japan (or anywhere else for that matter).

My answer is that it depends on several factors, which is true.

When are you going to travel? 

The season influences a lot. The prices you find in November will not be the same you find in April or August. 

Usually, the high season is during spring for the time of hanami and autumn for the time of Koyo. During that time it will be more difficult to find accommodation if you don’t book on time and you can find higher prices

Additionally, the dates that coincide with Japanese holidays or festivals are a high season and you should look into that.

What type of accommodation are you looking for? 

Hotels, hostels, private rooms in shared houses? Do you dare to do Couchsurfing? Or do you already have friends with whom you can stay?

Food 

Would you always eat outside or do you think it’s a good idea to stay in places with a kitchen included to always reduce your costs of eating out?

What kind of activities are you going to do? 

Are you going to take tours or are you going to do everything on your own? Will you visit museums or do you prefer to walk and see monuments?

How are you going to move? 

Are you going to rent a car, or take public transportation or taxi, internal plane etc.?

Are you going out to the surroundings of Tokyo? 

There are places near Tokyo for day tours, but you have to take them into account for the budget.


All these points to consider will make your budget change. The important thing is to first analyze and based on that we put together our estimated expenses plan.

Things to consider

  • What do we want to do?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • What are the best areas to stay?
  • How do you get to that place?
  • What kind of lodgings are there?
  • How much does it cost to get to that place?
  • What are the prices?
  • Do we have to pay to see that place? How much is it?
  • What are the average food prices in restaurants?

We usually believe that Japan is expensive. But the truth is that you can find options for all types of budgets. In addition, there are many attractions that are totally free.

It is true that prices are a little higher than Southeast Asia for example. But, it’s possible to travel comfortably in Japan without spending so much. 

And if you only stay in Tokyo, your transportation costs (which are one of the most expensive) will be greatly reduced.

My budget for Japan

My trip lasted 15 days. I was in 3 cities in Japan and in one in South Korea. My expenses (without taking into account lodging and airfare) were approximately USD625.00. 

This includes some transportation costs, food, souvenirs, tickets to temples, museums and miscellaneous (such as buying band-aids, umbrellas … etc.)

I decided to bring enough cash for any emergency, but also a credit card.

Here I give you more detail about what I spent for 10 days in Japan.

  • Tokyo: 4 Nights
  • Osaka/Kyoto: 6 nights
DetailUSD 
Accommodation Tokyo     176.264 nights in private room- shared residence with the host (AIRBNB)
Accommodation Osaka     208.626 nights in private studio.
Transportation (Tokyo)       30.00Approx. USD 4-5 per day, plus airport transfer.
Food     200.00Approx. USD 20-25 a day. It can be less or more depending on your preferences.
Miscellaneous     212.56Tickets, various purchases, souvenirs, some meals I did not pay with credit card, etc.
Total    827.44  

This breakdown does not include the cost of the airline ticket from Panama to Japan, the visa, the cost of the JR Pass or my expenses in South Korea.

If you are going to visit other cities other than Tokyo you should take that into account and add it to your budget.

Japanese Culture

As is my recommendation every time we visit a new place, I suggest you learn a little about Japanese culture, its history, customs, and some basic phrases.

In Tokyo, especially in the tourist areas, you will most likely always find someone who can speak English. But it’s also nice to learn a few basic phrases in Japanese so you can reply back with a thank you or good day. This gesture is highly appreciated. 

The kindness and respect are attitudes that the Japanese highly value. Always consider other people, do not try to get smart or create a scandal in. It looks very bad and makes us look disrespectful.

In Japan, there are many  Buddhist temples. If you visit any, the same rules of respect apply.

Tokyo is a fairly safe city. One day during hanami, I saw a Japanese man quite drunk lying on the ground of Ueno Park. He was holding his iPhone in full view.

I don’t know how long he had been like this. But, I began to think, if that had been in Latin America … would the iPhone remained in his hand? Probably not.

 WHAT TO SEE IN TOKYO IF YOU VISIT FOR THE FIRST TIME

The city of Tokyo is huge! The simplest thing not to go crazy is to divide it into sections and from there plan what we are going to do. Getting around several areas that are not close to each other can be too tiring to include in a single day.

To give you a general idea of how we can divide the city, I will break down the main attractions by area. In this way, you can plan your daily itineraries in nearby districts. 

For example, dedicate yourself to the northern zone one day and the western zone another, so to speak.

NORTH AREA

ASAKUSA

Asakusa District is characterized by an atmosphere that will make you feel like you traveled back in time to another era.

This was the first place I went to visit in Tokyo, but the time you go is important. I suggest you go as early as possible.

While walking around the streets, I found many picturesque shops and restaurants that preserve that air of the past.

One of the main attractions of the area is the Senso-ji temple. It dates from the 7th century and is the oldest in Tokyo, as well as one of the most important.

What to see:

  • Senso-ji Temple
  • Asakusa Shrine
  • Hōzōmon Gate
  • Kaminarimon
  • Nakamise
  • Sumida Park

TOKYO SKYTREE

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree is considered an icon of Tokyo. It’s located in Sumida, which is very close to the Sumida River and Asakusa.

It is the highest artificial structure in Japan and the second-highest in the world after Burj Khalifa.

Tokyo Skytree

Inside Tokyo Skytree there is a viewpoint where you can see incredible views of the city. There are also restaurants, shops, an aquarium, and a planetarium.

Ueno

The area of Ueno is located relatively close to Asakusa. So it’s a good idea to put them together to visit the same day.

Ueno Park is ideal if you want to spend quiet time. This is unless you go during hanami season where is so crowded!

You can also visit some of the nearby attractions such as museums or temples.

During the spring the park is filled with people who enjoy their picnics under the cherry trees.

What to see:

  • Ueno Park
  • National Museum of Metropolitan Art
  • Tokyo National Museum
  • National Science Museum
  • Kiyomizu Kannon Temple
  • Shinobazunoike Pond
  • Ueno Toshogu Shrine

 WEST ZONE

Shibuya

One of the most iconic and recognized places in Tokyo due to the famous Shibuya crossing which wins the mention of being the busiest street crossing on the planet.

For shopping lovers, it is the ideal place to go shopping. There are several options such as different department stores, shopping centers or boutiques.

At night everything is flooded with colored lights. These lights converge with the television screens that present all kinds of ads while hundreds of people walk at a thousand per hour. Tokyo in all its splendor.

You can walk through their alleys and visit some cozy cafes while you enjoy observing the sea of people walking incessantly.

You can’t miss Shibuya, it’s one of the top attractions for Tokyo first-time visitors!

Shibuya, Tokyo

What to see:

  • Statue of Hachiko (if you don’t know the story I suggest you read it!)
  • Shibuya Crossing
  • Shibuya 109
  • Cost of Spain
  • Shibuya Hikarie
  • Some very cool coffee

Shinjuku

It is one of the largest neighborhoods in Tokyo and it’s also where most of the commercial and administrative activity is concentrated.

At night it is a popular entertainment center. Therefore, you can explore several of the famous sectors for their bars, karaokes, and small street food establishments.

What to see:

  • Shinjuku Gyo-en
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
  • Shinjuku Golden Gai

 Harajuku

It could be considered the Mecca of the young Japanese culture and fashion.

Harajuku is a fairly busy area where you can find many attractions of the Japanese pop fashion culture. 

There are modern and very original themed coffee shops. Showy shops and boutiques. And it is best to simply observe people. 

In addition, just a few steps away you can find a completely different environment. Harajuku it’s very close to Yoyogi Park and also the Meiji Jingu Temple. They are ideal places to take a walk, rest and disconnect a little from the chaos of Tokyo.

What to see:

  • Takeshita Dori
  • Omotesando
  • Kawaii Monster Cafe
  • Yoyogi Park
  • Tokyu Plaza
  • Cat Street
  • Meiji-Jingu Shrine

SOUTH ZONE

Tokyo Tower

The Tokyo Tower is another emblematic point of the city, with its architecture that reminds us of the Eiffel tower.

You can go up to the lookout to have a 360 degrees view of Tokyo.

Roppongi

Roppongi is a very popular place for nightlife due to its wide offer of bars, clubs, and restaurants.

Additional its urban environment is a great attraction with the different options of shops, boutiques, and luxury hotels.

Odaiba

Odaiba is an artificial island located in Tokyo Bay.

It has a futuristic vibe and excellent views of the city, Tokyo Tower and the Rainbow Bridge.

What to see:

  • National Museum of Emerging Science and innovation
  • DiverCity Tokyo Plaza
  • VenusFort
  • Palette Town
  • Megaweb Toyota City Showcase
  • AQUA CiTY ODAIBA
  • Odaiba Statue of Liberty
  • Fuji Television

CENTRAL AREA

Ginza

The district of Ginza is characterized by its elegance and luxury shops.

It has extensive options for cafes, restaurants, boutiques, and bars. Therefore, it is a good option to visit at night, go to dinner and relax a little after a long day walking around Tokyo.

Akihabara

Akihabara is an electronic center with a large number of shops that offer all kinds of articles such as cameras, computers, TV, etc.

It has also become a very popular place for otaku culture (mega fans of comics/manga/anime/Technology etc.)

On Sundays, the main road is closed for the exclusive use of pedestrians.

Visit some Cosplay cafe or gallery, buy some manga or action figure.

Imperial Palace

If you are in Tokyo Station you can visit the Imperial Palace which is very close.

The palace has gardens, canals, and walled walls. It is free to visit, but the buildings are not open to the public, only the outdoors.

Other attractions in or around Tokyo

I do not know how long you will stay in Tokyo, but if you have a chance you can make a half-day or a full-day trip to some other place nearby or perhaps a theme park.

These are other activities or attractions you can add for your first time in Tokyo:

  • Visit one of the many museums in Tokyo
  • Witness a sumo wrestling
  • Go to Tokyo Disneyland
  • Make a day trip to Mount Fuji, Yokohama, Nikko or Kamakura (but if you have time to stay for the night much better!)
  • Go to the Studio Ghibli Museum If you like their productions (you have to book in advance)

What else to consider for your first time in Tokyo?

This information is to give you a general idea of the things you can see and do in Tokyo if you visit for the first time. The city is very large and there are attractions for all tastes. Honestly, to include everything that Tokyo has to offer I would need to write a book.

There are always new places to discover. It depends on your tastes, the amount of time you have and if you want to take the trip at a slow pace or not.

I recommend that you read and research as much as you can because you may be able to find many more things you would like to do.

Important links

Below I leave you some pages that can help you organize your budget.

  • Hyperdia: Not only can you see the itineraries of the trains, but you can also know the costs and different options.
  • JR Pass: If you are going to other cities far from Tokyo you should consider getting the JR pass or some other regional pass- unless you want to take a night bus to go to Kyoto, for example. In this page you can understand better how it works, what are the prices and conditions; In addition to finding information about the other types of passes available.
  • Booking.com: Find hotel options with very good offers.
  • Agoda: Similar to Booking
  • Airbnb: For lodgings in local houses, either shared or private.
  • Hostelworld: To review hostel options and their prices.
  • Visit Japan: The official website of the Japan Tourist office where you will find lots of useful information.
  • Tokyo Metro: for routes, schedules, and prices.
  • Japan Ryokan and Hotel Association: You can see a list of Ryokans available throughout Japan, information, and prices.

I hope I have at least been able to refer you to some of Tokyo’s main attractions and that you can plan your trip more easily. For any additional questions do not hesitate to write me.

Have you visited Tokyo or have you planned to do so in the future?

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