The ultimate guide to Tokyo

Tamara Hinson

Tokyo, a city so brimming with culture and wonder that it can be hard to know where to start. Here's our ultimate guide with all the must-sees, must-eats and must-dos in the capital

A sprawling, Bladerunner-esque metropolis, Tokyo has some of the world's finest hotels. Our advice? Seek out the properties which offer an insight into Japan's capital.

Hoshinoya Tokyo is a fantastic example—a five-star ryokan-style hotel in the heart of the city's central business district, just a short walk from Tokyo’s main station. Booking a room here isn't just about having somewhere to sleep. For example, the artistic display of boxes in the lobby aren't just for show, they're shoe boxes, and guests are invited to slip off their footwear upon entering the hotel. Rooms are beautiful and traditional, with ornate sliding screens replacing curtains, and enormous onsen-style bath tubs. You'll sleep Japanese-style, on (wonderfully comfortable) raised platforms, and you'll be encouraged to wear a kimono inside the hotel. Don't forget to check out the nightly traditional juggling performances in the lobby, where you'll be able to sign up for sake-tasting sessions too. Kampai!

Hoshinoya Tokyo

 

See and Explore

Full disclosure: Tokyo is huge, so don't expect to cover the whole city in one trip. Or even two or three, for that matter. To put it into perspective, it's home to 13 million people and covers a whopping 2,188 km². If it's your first visit, take the time to prioritise what you want to see and do, and don't be afraid to take the metro—it's fast, cheap and surprisingly easy to navigate, with station names clearly listed in English. Top of your list should be some of the city's temples, such as the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple in Asakusa. It's Tokyo's oldest temple (believed to date back to 645) and comprises a stunning five-storey pagoda and main hall. Equally spectacular is the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. You'll find it in a beautiful park near the famously colourful neighbourhood of Harajuku, known for its quirky boutiques and colourfully-dressed locals.

Asakusa shrine

For an unbeatable insight into Tokyo's history, visit the Tokyo National Museum, one of the oldest and largest in Japan. Allow plenty of time as the 110,000 exhibits are housed in six buildings. Must-sees include the collections of priceless Buddhist sculptures and the galleries dedicated to Japanese art, where you'll find everything from lacquer ware to ceramics.

For something totally different, don't forget to check out the famous Shibuya crossing, the world's busiest intersection. At peak times, 3,000 people cross when the lights turn red. The best view is from Mag's Park, an observation gallery atop the Magnet by Shibuya10 shopping centre.

Shibuya

If you start to crave some time out, head to one of the city's gardens. The most famous is Rikugien Gardens, created in 1700 for the fifth Tokugawa Shogun. It's a typical Edo-period garden, perfectly suited for easy strolls, with manmade gentle hills, a large central pond and a winding network of walking paths.

Tokyo gardens

 

Eat and drink

One thing is for sure, you'll never go hungry in Tokyo. The city's street food is a good place to start. One of the most well known street foods is takoyaki—ball-shaped snacks containing a range of fillings, most commonly octopus. Yakitori—skewered meat—is also incredibly popular. You'll find it everywhere, from street food stalls to fresh food counters in depachikas (basement food halls in department stores). Speaking of which, don't leave Tokyo without checking out a depachika or two. Some of the best can be found in branches of Daimaru—an upmarket department store found throughout Japan. The one at Tokyo’s main station is enormous, and has a counter dedicated to the weird and wonderful varieties of KitKats available in Japan. Splash out on a few bars and they'll be placed inside an insulated freezer bag, complete with a miniature ice pack, making Tesco's carrier bags look rather boring.

When it comes to dining out, the upmarket neighbourhood of Ginza has some of Tokyo's best fine dining restaurants (including Gyuan for Kobe beef, the Michelin-starred Bulgari Tokyo for Italian cuisine and Bird Land for award-winning yakitori) while Harajuku is great for cheap eats, whether it's crepes, ice cream or rainbow-hued cakes at the day-glo Kawaii Monster Café . For traditional food which doesn't cost the earth, head to one of Tokyo's oldest neighbourhoods, such as Yanaka, where you'll find everything from daifuku (Japanese rice cakes stuffed with sweet fillings like bean paste) to Japanese korokke, similar to croquettes.

Tokyo depachikas

 

Travel hints and tips 

If you're planning on exploring beyond Tokyo, consider investing in a JR Rail Pass—the most economical way to travel around Japan. You'll be able to use it on the vast majority of the Tokyo metro lines as well as Shinkansen (bullet train) services (barring the Nozumi and Mizuho trains). It's available as a seven-day, 14-day or 21-day pass, with a seven-day pass starting at £200. However, if you're planning on staying in Tokyo, your best option is a Pasmo card (similar to Oyster), which can be topped up with amounts of 1,000 Yen (£7) and over.

Ginza credit

And, speaking of money, Japanese cash machines can appear somewhat daunting to the uninitiated. For starters, a large number of them resemble photocopiers, and not all of them accept foreign bank cards or have English language modes. If you're struggling, look for a 7-11 store—most have ATMs which do both of the mentioned. If possible, take out smaller denominations as many ATMs don't allow you to take out less than 10,000 JPY (£69). Smaller denominations are often available, but not obviously so, which is why it's worth taking the time to check all the options listed on the screen.

Finally, some etiquette-related tips. You're less likely to see Japanese folks eating or drinking on the go—they'll generally consume food and drink where they purchased it. Avoid chowing down while out and about if possible, especially on public transport. As for the tricky issue of tipping, generally it's not expected in Japan. Another money-related tip? When paying for items in stores, always place the money in the plastic tray which you'll usually find on the counter, rather than handing it directly to the shop assistant.

 

British Airways offers returns from London to Tokyo from £776 return.

Rooms at HOSHINOYA Tokyo start from £494 per night. Visit hoshinoya.com/tokyo/en for more information.