Visiting a city like Tokyo for the first time can be daunting. There is so much to do, see and experience. And these days with people planning their trips around what they see on instagram, it can be hard to reconcile all those ideas into a cohesive travel experience. So, as a resident of Tokyo for the past 18 years, here are my five things to do in Tokyo on your very first day.
This is a mini-tour I personally went on when I was in Japan for a week back in 2001. It gave me a great overview of the city, one that I have never forgotten. And, when I moved here permanently in 2003 I did it again to help get me oriented and settled. From personal experience, I can highly recommend this to anyone who is over here on a flying visit or even anything longer. In fact, I still take visitors on a similar tour whenever I am lucky enough to host friends and family from home.
Purpose of this mini-tour
Get an overview of the city, literally, by bookending the day with aerial views from high vantage points.
Experience both the modern and the traditional in equal measure, and with a bit of luck, see Mount Fuji!
NB: Feel free to access and save our Google My Maps of this tour for your visit to Japan:
First - Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Shinjuku
This relatively new building in Sky Scraper district will give a great first impression the city and help you find your bearings as you prepare for he day(s) ahead. Built in 1995, the whole complex consists of three buildings which house the Tokyo Metropolitan Government which is responsible for all 23 wards (districts) of Tokyo.
The building we are interested in is the tallest of the three, a 48 floor skyscraper that splits into two towers from the 33rd floor. On the 45 floor of each tower, named North Tower and South Tower, there is a panoramic observation deck that is free of charge to the public with gift shops and cafes.
From the observation deck you will get a sense for how dense the city is, and even pick out some of the other famous locations, such as Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Sky Tree, Roppongi Hills, Meiji Shrine, and of course, weather permitting, Mt. Fuji.
They are open from 09:30 until 23:00, however please note, North and South towers of the Metropolitan Government Building are open on alternating days.
Second - Meiji Shrine, Harajuku
If this is your first day in Japan, this will be your first truly Japanese experience. Get in touch with old Japan by visiting the emperor's shrine, Meiji Jingu. It is located just three stops from Shinjuku on the Yamanote Line.
After walking through the gigantic tori gate you will soon forget that you are in the heart of one of the biggest metropolises in the world. The walk along the path through the man-made forest is supposed to cleanse and prepare the mind to be in inner sanctum of the shrine. Despite its appearances, it is merely 100 years old.
Next to Harajuku station, it is an incredibly beautiful example of Shinto Architecture and was dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife Shouken. Following the emperor's death in 1912 the government of the time wanted to do something to honor his role in the Meiji restoration, which saw the end of the shogunate and a full restoration of political power to the emperor of Japan.
The shrine sits in the heart of a large evergreen forest complex that covers an area of 70 hectares. The trees of the forest, some 120,000, were donated by people from all over Japan when the shrine was constructed. This perhaps indicates the high regard that the people of the time held for Emperor Meiji and his wife.
Once you enter Torii gates and make your way through the forest you will start to see why even today, many Japanese like to come here for a bit of respite from the modern world.
Third - Omotesando, Oriental Bazaar
After you come out of Meiji Shrine (the same way you went in), you will be almost rudely awakened by the throngs of people going about their daily business. Walk through the crowds, an experience in itself, along Omotesando Avenue towards the oriental Bazaar.
The mission of Oriental Bazaar is to "introduce Japanese culture to the world,” and they do a great job. It is very popular with tourists, and a few locals, for good reason: the goods are of high quality, yet at a very reasonable (some might even say cheap) price, making Japanese culture more accessible than it otherwise might be. The shop sits on three floors, two above ground and one below, and they sell, among other things, the following:
Basement - Kimonos, Yukitas, T-shirts, Fancy Goods, chinaware, books
1st Floor - Japanese porcelain, washi paper, fabric bags and teddy bears, Japanese prints of the ukiyo-e style
2nd Floor - antiques, furniture, antique kimonos, screens, ornaments, vases, lamps
Get your souvenirs on the first day otherwise you may never get a chance! Alternatively, if you are organized, take stock of where it is for a later visit. Just note, it is closed on Thursdays - you have been warned!
When you come out of the Oriental Bazaar, continue up Omotesando in the same direction. You are looking for the Ginza subway line, to take you across town to the next stop of this tour.
Editor's note: the operation of the shop has been scaled back somewhat in response to COVID. Please check the website before venturing out.
Fourth - Sensou-ji, Asakusa
This beautiful temple shows yet another side to Japan, quite different from anything else you will have seen this day. While the Mieji Shrine pays homage to shinto, this temple pays homage to buddhism; the religion of Asia in general.
Sensou-ji is the oldest temple in Japan, making it one of the most significant. Legend has it that a statue of the Kannon was found in the Sumida River by two fishermen. They then took the statue to the village chief who, upon recognizing its significance, converted his house to a temple, so the villagers could worship the Kannon. The first true temple was built on these grounds soon after, in 645; making this the oldest temple in Japan.
Perhaps the most iconic part for he temple is the huge paper lantern that hangs from Kaminarimon - "thunder gate". This also represents a great photo-opportunity and is pretty much crowded all day!
Once you get through the gates you enter Nakamise-dori, a 250m long shop lined street, with 89 separate boutiques leading up to the temple. Here you will find all manner of goods, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Fifth - Tokyo Sky Tree
This was not part of the original tour I went on in 2001. (Simply because it wasn’t built until 2012!) However, given its location in relation to Sensou-ji, it would make a great ending to the day. Plus, if the whether and timing is right, you might just see a stunning sunset over this great city.
The sun sets behind the mountain range that includes Mt. Fuji, perfectly silhouetting the conical marvel against the bright setting sun. Then, after sunset, stay just a little longer to witness the twinkling lights of the city, which is equally mesmerizing.
This is the only sight today that requires an entrance fee. However, you can get your tickets in advance, and skip to the front of the line on arrival. To purchase your Skytree tickets with an 18% discount, click here!