The Tokyo Layover: 48 Hours to See it All

Alex and I are overjoyed that just a few months after moving to Japan we already have a line of guests coming to stay. But with these visits, come responsibilities. Sure, we need to clean the house and change the bed linens. But beyond that, we have an obligation to make sure that our friends and family see as much as they can during their short stays.

Therefore, I created a 48-hour tour of Tokyo. It encompasses much (though certainly not all) of what this diverse city has to offer. From the ancient to the new age, it has something for everyone. And like Tokyo itself, it just keeps going and going and going!

So buckle up! This experience is not for the faint of heart – or for those who can’t handle sleep deprivation. A march to the finish, this is how to make the most of your time in a truly remarkable city.

Without further ado, I offer “The Tokyo Layover: 48 Hours To See It All.”

To begin:

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The early bird gets the worm, so get going early. Take the train to northern Tokyo – Ueno Station – and start with the Ameyoko Market, the largest bazaar in Tokyo. Here you can find every fruit and vegetable imaginable. Or perhaps you’d prefer fresh fish for breakfast. (None for me, thanks!) Personally, I suggest one of the calorific crepes that are so popular here. Filled with brownie or cheesecake (or both) and topped with fresh fruit, chocolate sauce and whipped crème; they are sensational and not to be missed. Add a latte from one of the Turkish coffee houses, and you’re ready to go! Walk through the market, peek in all the stalls, buy something strange you’ve never seen before. It’s all part of the experience, and a great way to meet Tokyo for the very first time.

Next, continue your walk through Ueno park, taking time to tour the numerous shrines and temples along your route. Some are a climb up steep hills, while others are tucked into small alleyways. Just be sure to find the Toshogu Shrine with its golden facade.

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At the far edge of the park, you’ll spot the Shitamachi Museum: a small, two-story building nearly hidden from view. You only need twenty minutes to walk back in time and fully explore what life was like during the Taisho Era (1910s and 20s) as you tour traditional homes and nineteenth-century shops. Its exacting replicas are interactive and great for kids (of all ages!). This hidden treasure provides excellent insight into turn-of-the-century Japan as it struggles to overcome its feudal past and embrace the modern era. (Bonus: they offer guided tours in English for free.)

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From the museum walk or catch a train to the Sensoji Temple, the oldest in Tokyo. Its beautiful façade and bustling marketplace make this a must-see. Grab a quick bite to eat from one of the hundreds of vendors selling local delicacies and be sure to get your fortune. For a small donation, you can roll the dice and receive a random strip of paper – called omikuji – that will divine your luck. Options range from “great blessing” to “great curse.” If you wish, fold it up and leave it behind in the temple, like a penny thrown into the wishing well. (I recommend tossing “great curse” directly into the trash!)

After you’ve had your fill of temples and shrines, walk a bit further to the ultra-modern Tokyo Sky Tree – the tallest structure in Japan. It’s similar to our Empire State Building, offering beautiful views of Tokyo and many, many, many photo opportunities. Warning: it’s very expensive – about $50. So if you’re traveling on a budget, this is probably something you can live without.

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Now for something completely different: Akihabara. Known as the technology district and famous for its abundance of electronic stores, it is alight with neon. The entire area emits a glow, day or night. Perhaps more interestingly, it is also the center of Japan’s otaku (diehard fan) culture, with numerous shops devoted to anime and manga. Even if you know nothing about the medium, it’s fun to peruse the sheer amount of literature, spanning the full range (wink, wink) of genres.

While here, you might choose to visit a maid or “hostess” café. Waitresses dress up and act like manga characters or Victorian maids. While there’s nothing untoward going on, it’s not for kids (and really, not for women). The girls are paid to make men feel special through conversation and innocent flirting. They provide “yashi,” meaning “to be soothed,” intending to quell a man’s Victorian maid fantasies. But it’s not sexual, just intimate. Depending on the café you visit, you can wait hours in line or pay through the nose. And for those who don’t speak conversational Japanese, it might be a quick stop. They generally don’t break decorum and only speak when spoken to…

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Now it’s time for dinner. I know, you’re starving! I suggest Memory Lane, just west of Shinjuku Station. Here, you can escape the modern world and step back in time for a traditional Japanese meal at one of many miniscule bars, each seating no more than 10. They serve Yakitori (or cooked meat on a stick) and lots of alcohol. Choose any bar – you can’t go wrong – and order a wide selection as Japanese food is generally served family-style. Be sure to try a chu-hi (or sour). It’s a fruit-flavored concoction mixed with Sochu (Korean alcohol). Delicious, and potent!

On to the main event: Robot Restaurant. Made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s televised visit, it is NOT a restaurant. Eat before you go if you want anything better than a cheap bento box. But the drinks are reasonably priced. And trust me, you’ll need a few. The show is, well, out of this world. Women scantily clad in warrior bikinis, huge floats of bright colors and exotic creatures, Japanese traditional drums mixed with techno music, and epic battles between aliens and exotic islanders. It’s… well… just do it!

Now, you have a decision to make: to sleep or not to sleep. That is the question. If you wish for a few hours of shuteye, go to a capsule hotel. I suggest you find one near the Ginza or Tsukiji districts for an easier morning. You can rent them by the hour during the day for a catnap, but at night it’s roughly ¥3000 per person ($25.00). This includes pajamas, a robe, a communal shower and bathroom, and a tube-like bed with a TV and phone-charging station. For all my Greek friends, it’s something like a cold dorm with amenities. Alex says it feels (and smells) like Navy berthing. But they are famous throughout Japan and will certainly add to the authenticity of your visit.

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If you are cooler or perhaps just younger than I, go out! Karaoke! Make a complete night of it and peruse the many establishments around Shinjuku. The Japanese love American classics, so you’ll have plenty of songs from which to choose.

2am WAKE UP!! (or, for my party animals, stop drinking and grab some sobering coffee from a vending machine). Make your way to the Tsukiji Fish Market. The trains don’t run at this hour, so you must either walk or taxi there. The advantage of a cab is they know where the entrance is; we really struggled to find it – thanks a lot Google maps! But be sure to get in line by 3am (or even earlier if it’s a busy tourist season).

Enjoy two to three hours of “rest” while waiting. Form massage chains or sleep in a heap on the floor. (We brought games and books). But don’t worry. It’s worth the wait to watch hundred thousand dollar tuna auctioned off in a matter of minutes. It’s difficult to describe; the auctioneers have a language all their own. Ours even sang a tune while taking bids. Warning: bring warm clothes. It’s cold in that freezer!

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After you’ve watched them buy the fish, go try some at one of the 24-hour sushi restaurants near the market. I’ll admit I struggled to eat raw fish at 6am, but my compatriots thoroughly enjoyed it, and you won’t find fresher anywhere else in Japan!

At this point, you’ll be knackered. Nearly 24-hours in, I needed to return to the capsule hotel for a couple hours of sleep. But if you’re still going strong (crazy person!), 6am is the perfect time to roam the streets and explore the city before it is crowded and chaotic. There is something superbly special about having the world’s largest city all to yourself. I suggest walking through Ginza to see Tokyo’s traditional Kabuki Theatre. Or simply amble your way to central Tokyo, taking time to appreciate the little details you can’t see during the daily rush.

No matter what, don’t sleep the day away. Grab a second (or fifth) cup of coffee at the Shibuya Starbucks, and take advantage of its perfect view of the Shibuya Crossing, where all of Tokyo collides. During the morning commute, it’s a blur, a sea of little ants scampering to and fro.

While in Shibuya, it’s time for shopping! The new fashion capital, Tokyo has everything you could ever want, and many things you never thought you’d need! From American and European brands to Japanese department stores, it offers the latest trends. This area is also filled with interesting housewares boutiques and great restaurants if you’re not keen on clothes.

Next, head to Harajuku, just one train station away, where the weird converge. Known as the place to see and be seen, every style of street fashion congregates here to show of their “looks.” You can see it all. From bunny costumes with wings to girls dressed like baby dolls to men who are pierced in the oddest places. Supposedly Sunday is the best day for people watching – just a hint 😉

It’s also a great place to pick up some socks – yes, socks! Japan’s favorite accessory – there are stores upon stores that sell only socks. In fact, they are separated by gender. Men have sock stores and women have sock stores. I seriously had no idea there were this many types of socks.

When you’ve exhausted your bank account and bought at least one new pair of socks, head across the street to the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. It’s a serene sanctuary in the middle of outrageous Tokyo. Follow the winding path to the temple and enjoy the peace and quiet. If you have the energy, continue along that path to the small museum at the far side of the estate. Though mostly in Japanese, it contains beautiful artifacts of the Imperial couple, and includes a number of paintings and photographs that document the Meiji revolution and its aftermath, which forever changed the landscape of Japan.

So there you have it. From the ancient to the wacky and back again. You may now fall into a heap on the bed. (This is a totally viable option, and many of you will take it.) But, for an encore, I suggest powering through and ordering traditional ramen from a vending machine. Or maybe stop by a second theme restaurant, such as sumo, ninja, monsters, Alice in Wonderland, and even prison. The world (or rather, Tokyo) is your oyster. If you’re a baseball fan, try to catch a night game. Instead of hot dogs, partake in sushi and tempura as you experience America’s favorite pastime in a whole new way.

I hope you enjoyed your frenzied tour of Tokyo. This is but an outline, merely breaking the surface. I am still finding new places to go, weird things to see – it is endless. So, obviously, you’ll have to come back another time for Tokyo Tour: Take II.

Oh, sorry. Now, you may collapse. G’night! (And please don’t forget to brush your teeth! Exhaustion is no excuse for bad personal hygiene.)

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