You’ve purchased your ticket to Tokyo, and you’re ready for the trip of a lifetime. You won’t be disappointed -- Tokyo is a welcoming city for tourists, and it is home to some of the world’s greatest cultural landmarks (and some of the best food -- Tokyo is currently the city with the most Michelin stars).
However, before you start exploring, you’ll have to choose your accommodations. The good news: As long as you’re in Tokyo proper, you can visit any part of the city easily thanks to the excellent public transportation. That being said, Tokyo’s neighborhoods are quite distinct, and some are better suited to certain types of travelers than others.
If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time, here’s what you need to know.
Shinjuku: Best Tokyo Neighborhood For Night Owls
The largest neighborhood in Tokyo, Shinjuku technically consists of a number of smaller neighborhoods; we stayed in East Shinjuku, known for its bars, restaurants, and clubs. Other sub-neighborhoods include Okubo, an ethnic Korean neighborhood, and Nishi-Shinjuku, a business district with several of the city’s largest skyscrapers.
Shinjuku offers excellent access to the rest of Tokyo, since it’s within walking distance of Ginza, Harajuku, and Shibuya, among other neighborhoods. At night, it’s a great place to unwind. Visit the bars of Golden Gai or stop by the upscale Yotsuya neighborhood for shopping and fine dining.
Shinjuku can be loud, at least compared to some of the other neighborhoods on this list. If you’re a light sleeper, you might want to steer clear. Also, while there are some exceptions, Shinjuku hotels don’t offer the luxury amenities you might find in, say, Odaiba or Ginza.
Most tourists will want to avoid Shinjuku’s Kabukicho neighborhood at night, since it’s Tokyo’s most famous red-light district. While it’s a safe place to walk, tourists will be regularly approached by insistent club promoters, which can be annoying.
Shibuya: Best Tokyo Neighborhood For Exploring
Some travelers find East Shinjuku slightly intimidating, and for those people, Shibuya offers a nice alternative. It’s what you think of when you picture Tokyo: busy streets packed with pedestrians, vivid artwork and advertisements, and a wide variety of restaurants and bars.
It features a huge shopping area centered on Shibuya Station, one of the city’s busiest subway stations, and the large intersection in front of the Hachiko Exit has been featured in a number of major films.
Shibuya also offers access to Yoyogi Park, one of Tokyo’s best green spaces, and Meiji Shrine, a must-see Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
There’s no serious downside, but Shibuya can be a bit expensive, depending on where you stay.
Ginza: Best Tokyo Neighborhood For Shopping
A refined neighborhood with an abundance of elegant restaurants and upscale department stores, Ginza offers a luxurious experience for foreign travelers. Be ready to pay for the privilege; accommodations here will be fairly expensive.
The neighborhood’s main street, Chuo Dori, closes to vehicular traffic every weekend. That means you can explore on foot to your heart’s content, enjoying performances by street performers while browsing for souvenirs. No wonder the pedestrian hours are known as hokosha tengoku (literally, "pedestrian heaven").
Ginza also features the Tsukiji Market, a must-see for sushi aficionados. It’s the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, and even if you’re not buying anything (hey, you can’t exactly pack a tuna into your checked baggage for the trip back home), it’s a fascinating place to spend a morning. Speaking of which, you might want to plan a visit during the first few days of your trip, since the market is most alive in the early morning -- it’s one way to use your inevitable jet lag to your advantage.
As we mentioned, Ginza is quite expensive. That’s not a reason to stay away, but it certainly limits the area’s appeal.
Harajuku: Best Tokyo Neighborhood For Fashionistas
There’s no getting around it: Harajuku is … well, weird, especially for Westerners. A youthful district, it’s the best place to see (sometimes shocking) fashion, and it boasts some of the most unusual shops in all of Tokyo.
However, it’s also home to luxury stores and high-end restaurants. While you’ll see plenty of young people in neon outfits and punk-inspired jackets, you’ll also find refined shops catering to more traditional tastes.
That’s especially clear on Omotesando, a small tree-lined avenue with incredible architecture and a number of high-end restaurants. Many major international brands have a presence there, and attractions like the Kiddyland toy store will give you plenty of souvenir opportunities. If you’re on a budget, there are also inexpensive food options in the area, including Heiroku Sushi; it's a chain, but in Japan, visiting a chain restaurant doesn’t mean that you’re sacrificing quality (particularly when you’re grabbing a quick sushi order).
Harajuku also offers access to the aforementioned Yoyogi Park, so when you’re through exploring, you can rest while enjoying one of the city’s most beloved natural attractions. Ultimately, Harajuku makes a great home base, though you’ll eventually want to explore the other neighborhoods to get a true sense of the city.
Harajuku can be expensive, particularly in terms of accommodations. If you’re traveling on a budget, plan on visiting this neighborhood, but don’t plan on staying there.
Harajuku is a popular area for youth, so keep that in mind; at night, the busy streets can be somewhat loud, but your experience will vary depending on your hotel.
Odaiba: Best Tokyo Neighborhood For Views Of The City
Located on a man-made island on Tokyo Bay, Odaiba is a spectacular development project that offers some of the most breathtaking views of the Tokyo skyline. An elevated train line provides easy access to the rest of the city, and over the last few decades, the neighborhood has developed impressive shopping and entertainment districts.
Odaiba is relatively expensive, but it feels futuristic and upscale -- in short, it feels like Tokyo. Stop by the Decks shopping mall to see a Madame Tussauds wax museum, or take in views of the Rainbow Bridge that connects Odaiba with the rest of the city. There’s plenty of green space and plenty to do, even if you never leave the island (but, of course, you’ll want to take a few trips to the other neighborhoods on this list).
Once again, Odaiba is great if it’s within your budget; hotels are expensive there. Also, if you’re exploring the city while staying there, you’ll probably spend a lot of time on the subway.
Asakusa: Best Tokyo Neighborhood For A Quiet Visit
Tokyo can be intimidating, particularly if you’re not used to big cities. Asakusa is highly populated, but it retains a certain old-world charm, and it’s considerably quieter than Shinjuku or Shibuya. It’s an enchanting neighborhood that’s perfectly suited to older travelers and history buffs.
Rickshaws occasionally run through the busy streets, and traditional snack shops provide plenty of interesting opportunities for foodies. Asakusa’s Shinto and Buddhist shrines are certainly worth a visit (Kaminarimon and Sensoji Temple offer great photo opportunities), and the subway allows easy access to other parts of the city.
If you visit during one of Asakusa’s many festivals, your visit won’t be quiet, but that’s not necessarily a downside if you’re looking for a rich cultural experience. Hotels can be somewhat expensive in the neighborhood, but not prohibitively so.
Another note: In some Tokyo neighborhoods, you can easily get by without using any Japanese whatsoever; Shinjuku restaurants, for instance, often feature English menus, and most residents are used to dealing with tourists. That’s not necessarily the case in Asakusa.
To be clear, you won’t feel unwelcome -- in fact, Asakusa’s kind shop owners and restaurateurs will make you feel like you’ve found a new home -- but you’ll probably want to learn a few basic phrases in order to get by.
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