Should you find yourself with just 24 hours in Tokyo, there are innumerable different ways to spend your time. One thing that’s for sure is you certainly won’t be bored.
How you choose to fill one day in Tokyo will depend on both your interests and your style of travel. Are you a history buff or a foodie? Do you like to rush from one sight to the next, or do you prefer to slow down and take it all in? Whatever your preferences, it is best to plan in advance. Wandering around the city and stumbling upon great finds can be fantastic when you have a longer stay, but for just 24 hours you’ll find yourself wasting precious time if you take this laissez-faire approach.
For the purposes of this article, I’ve drawn up an itinerary that covers a little bit of everything. Be aware that this is designed for people who want to tick off the maximum amount of sights possible on a short layover – there’s no shame in cutting this down and choosing just a handful of stops so that you can stop and smell the roses (or street food as the case may be). This is also designed with a first time visitor in mind – if you’re a serial offender you’ll likely want to venture a bit further off the beaten track.
So I’d recommend you get an early rise – and I’m not talking 9 am. Head towards Toyosu Market to catch a tuna auction, which kicks off at 5 am. You’ll want to be there a little bit in advance to guarantee a good position – suck it up and bring a good book. These auctions previously took place in the much less visitor-friendly (but ever so fabulous) Tsukiji market, and queues began at 1 am during peak season! Don’t be caught out by public transport – trains to Toyosu don’t run until after 5 am, so you’ll need to walk or book a taxi.
Stick around for a seafood breakfast, with many stalls opening just after the auction. Even if fish in the morning isn’t usually your thing, you’ll have been awake for so long at this stage your belly will think that it’s lunchtime.
Alternatively, you could choose to skip the auction and go to the old Tsukiji outer market which has a more relaxed buzz. Arrive here later (8-9 am) and enjoy a sushi breakfast after a little bit of a lie-in. Win win!
My breakfast recommendation
Daiwa Sushi in Toyosu Market gave me a breakfast I’ll never forget. I’m a sushi fanatic, and this is the best offering I’ve ever tasted. If you don’t have any dietary requirements, just sit back and trust the chef – they can do absolutely no wrong here. You might just find yourself having fish for breakfast at home, too!
Hop on the train to Ryogoku to see some sumo action. Sumo wrestlers practice from 7 am to 10 pm daily, and you can watch a session through the stable window. Check-in advance that this is definitely running during your trip – the wrestlers do take time off at various points in the training season.
After this, head on towards Akihabara, where you can your otaku on big style. Check out a themed café for a caffeine boost, play in an old school arcade, and pick up some kawaii souvenirs – but not too many, because you still have a long day ahead. You’re definitely owed a second breakfast at this point, so be sure to check out one of the fantastic street food options.
My second breakfast recommendation
If you’re missing your Western-style breakfast carbs it’s hard to go wrong with Honey Toast. In this casual eatery, you can justify your early morning toast cravings by telling yourself you’re eating Japanese food. You can top your sweet toast with many weird and wonderful options – from chocolate to tuna. While it might not be a place you’ll go back to again, it’s a memorable one.
Head towards historical Asakusa and take a quick rickshaw tour to give you an idea of the scenery. Then make a stop at the famous Buddhist temple Senso-ji to pay your respects and admire its beauty. The historical shitimachi will leave you feeling like you stepped into the Tokyo of a bygone era, providing a wild contrast with your morning jaunt to Akihabara.
Make your way towards the Tokyo Skytree for jaw-dropping views of the city as a whole, and a much-needed chance to catch your breath – because your next stop is going to be busy.
Catch the train to Shibuya, and try your hand at getting across the Shibuya Crossing – also known as the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. If that wasn’t enough sensory overload for you, check out the high-end fashion outlet Shibuya 109 for a quick window shop.
Fancy a snack?
Tokyo can be sticky work, and you’ll want to cool yourself down with all the walking you’re doing. At least, that’s the excuse I give myself when I make my daily ice-cream stop. Shiroichi (located in Shibuya) serves up raw milk ice-cream that has a distinctive look and taste. It’s taller than your head and very photogenic, and comes with distinctly Japanese toppings, such as matcha and red bean paste. Scrumptious!
You’ll have surely worked up an appetite by now, so head over to nearby Shinjuku for a bite to eat. Options are plentiful – if it’s after 3 pm on a weekend day, you could even book into the world-famous Robot Restaurant for a futuristic show with your grub.
Then dunk away from the crowds into the Samurai Museum, where you can learn about history in an interactive way. Send home photos of yourself dressed in full Samurai gear and have your friends scratching their heads about what you’re up to!
A quick stroll around Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens will provide you with a much appreciated moment of zen and an insight into the famous Japanese style of the outdoor garden before you embrace the hustle and bustle of your next stop.
My lunch recommendation
Try out okonomiyaki, which is a Japanese savory pancake. The name literally translates to “cooked as you like it”, and that’s exactly what happens at Kyochabana in Shinjuku. As much of a show as a lunch, you will watch the chefs deftly mixing and flipping your tasty treat. Pick your favorite veggie, meat, and cheese toppings and then tuck in.
Head towards Harajuku for a jaw-dropping experience. The fashion you’ll see will be beyond your wildest dreams – the Harajuku girls are world-famous for being completely extra about every component of their outfit. The street art is almost as colorful as the people – but never quite.
Browse the quirky shops and pick up an accessory or two so that you can bring a piece of Harajuku style back to your hometown. If you ever went through a goth phase (and let’s face it, what 90s kid didn’t) be sure to check out Takeshita Street for Harajuku’s take on all things goth, and just about every other obscure fashion niche that you can think of.
For me, Harajuku is all about embracing your inner child – and what better way to do that than to snack your way around the district. You can get just about any color candy floss or iced drink that your heart desires on these streets, and food shaped like characters from your favorite anime. If you’re into foodie Instagramming, you’ll be in heaven.
My top snack
Those who have been in Seoul may have already sampled Le Shiner’s famous rainbow toastie, but if you hadn’t then this has to be your stop. I’ll be honest, it’s not particularly delicious – but pulling your sandwich apart to reveal strings of multi-colored cheese is just the most Harajuku thing that’s ever happened.
Okay, time to dial the energy down a notch (but not too much) and head towards the very upscale Roppongi for the evening portion of our entertainment. Race your way to the Roppongi Hills in time for sunset for one of the most romantic views of Tokyo imaginable – even if you’re traveling solo, you deserve it.
If you haven’t overstuffed yourself on Harajuku’s goodies, you’ll likely be wanting something more substantial for your dinner. If you’re on a higher budget or just fancy splashing out on your one dinner in the city, Roppongi has plenty of high-end options where you can sample the fancier side of Japanese dining. And hey, you’ve been rushing around since the wee hours – as far as I’m concerned, it would be rude not to treat yourself.
Roppongi is famed for nightlife – it attracts a lot of expats who want upscale cocktail bars and Western-style nightclubs. By all means, stop in for a quick one – but I doubt you’ve come all the way to Tokyo to experience nightlife the same as home. If you can muster up the energy, hop on the train to one final stop.
My dinner recommendation
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a high-end Japanese restaurant located in the Roppongi Hills district. It’s not cheap, but the service and quality of food is first class. If you want a meal you’ll never forget, book in advance and savor every moment. Then take a big gulp of sake when you see your bill.
Double back on yourself and head towards the Shinjuku direction to an area called Kabukicho. This is the notorious red-light district of Tokyo – and like that of Amsterdam, you have to see it once. While you might have strolled through earlier on our tour, this place seems very different at night. Have fun, but have your wits about you – don’t follow nightclub promoters (this is a common scam) and always keep an eye on your drink.
Wander through the quaint streets of the Golden Gai and hop from pub to pub – but be careful not to overdo it. Being drunk and disorderly is not looked upon kindly by the Japanese police, and consequences for anti-social behavior can be harsh.
Host and hostess clubs, though you may be eager to try them for the experience, come at a premium. If you do go in, do so with a healthy bank balance as you may be charged for privileges such as music and sitting.
My pick of the pubs
Bar Darling is a beautiful spot, particularly if you’re a solo female. It has a safe atmosphere and a wide selection of drinks to choose from, as well as very accommodating staff. Plenty of non-alcoholic options too if you need to take a bit of a breather!
So there you have it – the itinerary for what will surely be one of the busiest days of your life in Tokyo, and yet you will not have even scraped the surface of all the city has to offer. Would you plan your day differently? Let me know in the comments what your perfect 24 hours in Tokyo would look like.