Asakusa, Tokyo
Now is the time to visit Japan's ancient-meets-modern metropolis. | Go Tokyo
Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan | Juan Broullon/Unsplash

Everything to See, Eat, and Do on Your Big Trip to Tokyo

Ancient temples, smoky izakayas, and neon-lit streets.

Welcome to Thrillist 50, your guide to fun and adventure in 2023. Think of it as your comprehensive roadmap for checking out exciting events and new attractions coming over the next 12 months, going on bucket-list trips, reconnecting with yourself and your community, expanding your mind, and of course, experiencing the flavors we're most excited about this year. There are so many reasons to live like there's no tomorrow. Start here.

They say good things come to those who wait. This might not be true in all cases, but the saying can certainly be applied to Japan, one of the last countries to reopen to tourists after imposing pandemic-related entry bans. And of all Japan's attractions that are well worth months of anticipation, Tokyo is a neon-lit crown jewel, its pulsating streets, kaleidoscopic fashion, and historic temples providing equal doses of culture shock and amazement for incoming travelers. This clash of colors, cuisines, and even costumes (this is the land of anime and Harajuku, after all) is what gives Tokyo such a distinct character that continues to captivate visitors from around the world.

In the mind-bogglingly large megatropolis, strolls behind skyscrapers reveal quiet shrines, distant backstreets sport Michelin-star ramen joints, and world-famous bullet trains serve traditional bento lunch boxes. The city is loud and ultra-modern, but still maintains its quiet neighborhoods, hidden oases, and smoky, bar-studded drinking alleys. Tokyo is many cities in one, a multi-faceted place where the remnants of its history seemingly live alongside the trappings of both its present and future.

If you need a little guidance, here’s a 10-day itinerary for Tokyo and beyond, packed with the best parts of the city to visit, the food you'll want to eat, and even a couple day trip ideas.

Ningyocho, Tokyo
Neighborhoods like Ningyocho have more of a downtown feel (and a food scene to go with it). | Go Tokyo

Where to stay and how to get around

On the practical front, base yourself close to the city’s hubs—pick neighboring stations for the perfect combination of lower prices, well-connected transport, and relief from the city crowds. Naka-Meguro, Sangenjaya, and Koenji are great for the local neighborhood feel in the west, while in the east the Ningyocho, Okachimachi, and Nihonbashi neighborhoods have a more downtown vibe to them (and the food scenes to go with it). Grab yourself a travelcard (Suica or Pasmo) and get familiar with the trains—they’re your new best friend for getting around and offer the perfect snapshot of a hectically busy but meticulously ordered city.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo
For fresh air and a break from the hectic city, head to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden | Unsplash/Arol Viñolas

Day 1: Shinjuku, Harajuku, and Shibuya Crossing

Kick off with a stroll through the autumn leaves of Shinjuku’s expansive park, Shinjuku Gyoen, which features Japanese, French, and English gardens. For a bird’s-eye view of the city, head to the nearby Metropolitan Government Building, two imposing office towers with 200-meter-high observation decks that are open to the public for free. Get your bearings with panoramic city views and spot Fuji in the distance (if you’re lucky).

Hectic fashion district Harajuku is the testing ground for new trends, with countless independent and department stores offering the unique and unusual, with crowds of young customers often sporting more of the same. Try out a new look, taste the rainbow cotton candy, and snap your own souvenir shots in the kawaii purikura photo booths—it's a Harajuku right of passage.

Just across the street but a world away, the tranquil, forested gardens of Meiji Shrine are cedar-shaded and perfect for a breather. Once you’re ready to face the crowds, board the metro and see the Shibuya Crossing in all its rush hour glory before grabbing dinner and drinks in Udagawacho’s alleys. Quite literally stacked with restaurant upon restaurant, this is the dining hub of Shibuya. Don’t be concerned about heading up to the seventh floor for food, as space is at a premium in these narrow streets. With the added bonus of drinking in public being legal, the crowded streets are as much of a hangout spot as the bars and ramen joints that line them.

colorful signs in Akihabara
Lost in translation doesn’t even begin to describe the neon-lit electronics district of Akihabara. | Go Tokyo

Day 2: Yanaka, Ueno, and Akihabara

For a taste of Tokyo’s downtown shitamachi atmosphere, spend the morning exploring the quiet streets of Yanaka, complete with cats, ancient cedar trees, and surprisingly contemporary cafes. Bathed in nostalgia, the district is a window into old Tokyo, known for its traditional shopping street and vast cemetery, as well as its relaxing atmosphere.

Stroll on through Ueno Park and up to Kappabashi, the kitchenware hub and shopping spot for high-end chefs and amateur cooks alike. Pick up a hand-forged Japanese knife and admire the endless shelves of unerringly realistic plastic "sample foods" on offer before heading to Ameya-Yokocho market, a stretch of stalls and hawkers offering everything from ancient tech to new shoes. Stallholders are there to be bargained with, so strike a deal for your dream souvenirs.

Then make your way to the neon-bright streets of Akihabara, the city's buzzing gaming and electronics district, where you can go retro at game centers like Super Potato and even visit a maid cafe.

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park
A quick train from Tokyo places you in the heart of nature in Nikko National Park. | Flickr/inucara

Day 3: Day trip to Nikko National Park

Trade in the neon for the temples and golden haze of Nikko National Park, a direct, two-hour Limited Express train ride away from Tokyo's central Asakusa Station. Hit up the lavish temple-and-shrine triad of Toshogu, Rinnoji, and Futarasan. While you're there, sample the mild-flavored yuba tofu and soak up that autumn atmosphere.

Make the most of the local bus pass and choose from the impressive Kegon Falls at Chuzenji Lake or the traditional wooden-boat cruise of Kinugawa Onsen—or squeeze in both and spend a night in one of the area’s traditional ryokan inns.

Sensoji temple
Stroll through the grounds of Sensoji, Tokyo’s most impressive (and busiest) temple. | Flickr/harquail

Day 4: Asakusa and Ryogoku

Back in the city’s east side, wake up with a stroll through the grounds of Sensoji—Tokyo’s most impressive (and busiest) temple. Grab street food from the stalls of the 200-meter-long Nakamise shopping stretch, and be sure to try Kagetudo bakery’s freshly baked melon pan just around the corner (no melon involved, but the sweet bread is delicious nonetheless). If you’re in town at the right time, swing by the Kokugikan sumo hall for a day at the September sumo tournament (if not, catch an early morning training session instead).

You can pop out for breaks during this full-day schedule, so head out to the nearby Sumida Hokusai Museum or take a refreshing soak at the Fuji-adorned baths of the Edoyu sento. Feast on the sumo special of chanko-nabe (a protein-filled stew) and catch a late-night view of the modern entertainment district of Odaiba if you’re still fighting that jet lag (it’s also home to the building-sized Gundam robot, for anime fans).

Great Buddha, Kamakura
Arriving into Kamakura proper, you’ll be greeted by the Great Buddha of the Kotoku-in and Hasedera temples. | Unsplash/charlesdeluvio

Day 5: Day trip to Kamakura

De-facto capital of Japan for over a century, Kamakura is a small, temple-strewn city with plenty of charm. Less than an hour from Tokyo Station, start your day in Kita-Kamakura by catching your somen noodles as they flow down a wide bamboo shoot—a summer treat served until October at popular restaurant Chayakado. Walk it off along the Daibutsu trail, smashing dishes to ward off bad luck (and any stress you might have) at Kuzuharaokashrine and washing money for good luck at Zeniarai Benten’s cave-trailed shrine along the way. Arriving into Kamakura proper, you’ll be greeted by the Great Buddha of the Kotoku-in and Hasedera temples—and you can use the Kamakura bus pass or the retro tram to visit the bamboo gardens of Hokokuji and the grand Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine.

food alley with izakaya restaurants and bars
Take your pick of izakayas and bars in Yurakucho’s tunnels. | Unsplash/ayumi kubo

Day 6: Tsukiji, Ginza, and Yurakucho

No longer home to the official fish market but still host to the loyal family businesses and restaurants that surrounded it, Tsukiji remains the best spot for an early morning sashimi breakfast. Grab a coffee at tiny, tatami-seated Turret Coffee when you arrive, and seek out your breakfast from the outer-market stalls. If you’re keen to see the famous tuna auction in its new home, you’ll need to head to Toyosu—the massive, modern complex where the Tsukiji Fish Market relocated—for the opening at 5 am; general entry is open, but a lottery is used for the better viewing deck below and requires advance registration.

Hamarikyu Gardens offer a lovely hit of koyo (aka autumn leaves) before you circle back to Ginza, the high-end, glitzy shopping district. Enjoy a lunch-set deal from one of the high-end dinner spots and stroll to the Imperial Palace for a glimpse of royal life (albeit from afar). Neighboring district Yurakucho’s railway tunnels are the perfect rowdy dinner spot with izakayas and bars galore, so join the salarymen and order a nama-biru to get things started.

Shinjuku street
Head back to the bustling Shinjuku ward for a night on the town. | Go Tokyo

Day 7: Mount Takao and Shinjuku

Technically still in Tokyo but far more scenic than the skyscrapers, the sacred Mount Takao has a web of hiking trails as well as a cable car. Take a glance at the creepy tengu statues guarding Yakuoin Temple and see if you can spot Fuji from the summit. A bowl of tororo soba (noodles topped with yam) was a strength-building favorite of the mountain’s pilgrims in the past, while the largely vegetarian Buddhist dish shojin ryori is a fancier option. When you’re all hiked out, head back to the bustling Shinjuku ward for a night on the town. Instagram-favorite Omoide Yokocho (aka "Piss Alley") will place you in a labyrinth of tiny, stacked-up restaurants serving up plenty of questionable yakitori skewers, and Golden Gai alley's smashed-together, tiny bars are the perfect place to get lost in late at night.

Japan cityscape in Higashiyama historic district
Wander the winding streets of the historic Higashiyama district. | Unsplash/Jay

Days 8-9: Kyoto

With more than 2,000 shrines and temples to choose from, spend a day in the east part of the ancient capital visiting Nishiki Market, strolling up past Yasaka Shrine, and crossing over to the Higashiyama district's Kodaijitemple before finding yourself in the winding streets of the Higashiyama district and onward to the wooden balconies of Kiyomizu-dera temple. Mountain shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha's ancient and iconic red gates are a short train ride away, and the gentle uphill hike to the top is the perfect way to finish the day.

Spend the night in Kyoto. In the morning, grab a city bus pass, and head north for the golden Kinkakuji temple and the zen gardens of Ryoanji before making your way by train to the world-famous Arashiyama district for its iconic bamboo forests. When you’re back in Kyoto, head to the historic Gion district for geisha-spotting and dinner, or risk Menbakaichidai’s infamous fire ramen, if you’re feeling brave.

shopping street at Dotonbori
If you’re up for a moveable feast, Osaka is the city for you. | Unsplash/Juliana Barquero

Day 10: Nara and Osaka

If you can’t get enough of the temples, catch a train to neighboring Nara. Another former capital, it’s a quieter spot known for resident deer and imposing temples. In the ancient Todaiji temple, try climbing through the legendary Buddha's Nostril— a tiny hole in a pillar—if you can; you’ll trade your public humiliation and bruises for longevity (probably worth it).

When you’re done, spend the night in Osaka, "Japan’s kitchen" and a city with a rep for kuidaore—literally bankrupting yourself for food. Take in the modern Dotonbori district's neon lights and larger-than-life signs and set off a DIY food tour to try squid-filled takoyaki, deep-fried kushikatsu, and the ultra-chewy horumon skewers before crashing at the city’s much-loved capsule hotel, Asahi Plaza.

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Lily Crossley-Baxter is a Tokyo-based writer and world-traveler who finds equal joy in cycling around her neighborhood as she does exploring the depths of Borneo's jungles. Bylines include the BBCThe Independent, and The Daily Beast. Follow her delicate balance of mis/adventures on Instagram.