Planning the trip to Japan, I quite often felt like going mad from the amounts of information to process and organize. The only reason I’m still sane and writing this post is japan-guide.com which is my example of the perfect travel guide (I wish there was the same for all other countries…).
So here they are, the results of my research. Note that this itinerary was highly affected by the season – we usually try to travel during Swiss public holidays which meant that this year we arrived to Tokyo just a tiny bit out of the cherry blossom full bloom. You will most probably want to adjust this plan if you travel at a different time.
Day 1: Akihabara and Ueno Park
After a visit to Akihabara I feel like I understand Japanese commercials a bit better 😀 Visit pachinko gambling machines and a maid cafe – and you will get what I mean.
The best time to visit Akihabara is a weekend as there is more going on here and they even block the roads to let the crowd flow freely on the street.
Once the sun starts to decline, it’s time to move towards the Ueno park to catch beautiful sakura in the daylight as well as illuminated by lanterns.
Read more about both Akihabara and the park here.
Day 2: a bit of history
There is always more to the crazy modern Tokyo. To not overdose ourselves with its bizarre culture, let’s take a break and turn to the historical sites of the city.
A traditional Japanese performance in the Kabukiza theatre will for sure wake you up. Tickets are available online for the entire show (which takes a few hours) or at the entrance for single acts. To me, a single act was more than enough, so I recommend this option for first time visits. Just make sure to be in the queue around 40-50 minutes before the start.
After the show, continue sakura hunting at Aoyama cemetery. It is split in half by a long alley with lots of cherry trees, so it is possible to admire the flowers even without actually entering the graveyard. The place is peaceful, quiet, and competely devoid of tourists as it doesn’t appear in any travel guides. I hope it’s needless to say that one should behave appropriately here: don’t walk among the graves, don’t run and generally keep quiet.
History experience could not be complete without a visit to the Imperial Palace. The only way to get in is to book a guided tour which is run twice every day. Sadly, I am not able to tell anything except that it is recommended to book the tour at least a month in advance…
Well well. After the tour, it’s time to return to the present time. Set your way to the Ginza district – a heaven for all kinds of shopping, budget and luxury alike. End the day with a dinner in one of the tiny restaurants under the train tracks around Yurakucho station.
Day 3: Shinjuku
There is a lot to tell about Shinjuku, the most touristic district of Tokyo. Absolute must-dos are:
1) A free observation deck in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building;
2) Awesome landscape park Shinjuku Gyoen;
3) Kabukicho – the red light district.
Decide early if you want to visit the famous Robot Restaurant in Kabukicho and book tickets a week or two before your chosen date.
Day 4: Kamakura and Enoshima
If you are a little bit like me, by day four you will be slightly sick of Tokyo. Good news that there’s a little coastal town of Kamakura happy to provide you with a retreat from the big city.
Don’t miss out on the incredibly beautiful Enoshima island and its lighthouse equipped with an open air observation platform.
Check out my tips on how to visit Kamakura and Enoshima.
Day 5: back to the future
It is common to describe Tokyo as “the city of the future”, but to me all the “futuristic” places looked rather vintage and reminded of how people thought of the future 30, 50, 70 years ago.
See, for example, the artificial island of Odaiba.
Spend the day exploring Odaiba’s over-engineered streets and shopping malls. As for the evening, you are going to have a lot of fun in Shibuya, the other “futuristic” district: many high end restaurants and bars are located here. Try to not get lost in its endless multi-level bridges and roads.
For the full cyberpunk experience spend the night in one of the capsule hotels in Shibuya.
Day 6: Tokyo, old and new
Towards the end of a trip, it’s nice to oversee the entire city from a view point. Congratulations, here you’re in luck! Tokyo happens to host the tallest tower in the world aka Tokyo Skytree.
Not far from it – just across the river – finds itself squeezed between scyscrapers Sensoji, the biggest buddhist temple of Tokyo.
Some details about both places are here.
You should be done with Sensoji by lunch which is convenient if you have an evening flight or a restaurant booking. In other case, this day can be easily combined with Akihabara and Ueno park to free up another day for a side trip.
Day 7: Takao, the holy mountain
This side trip would be the most interesting for those late for the cherry blossom season in Tokyo. The best time to view the blossoms is around two weeks after the full bloom in the city (this picture was made with a delay of one week, and you can see that many flowers are not open yet).
Apart from sakura, Takao also offers a very relaxed forest walk with observation points towards Tokyo and Mount Fuji. See details and directions.
The hike is not super rich with impressions, but could introduce some healthy diversity into the usual sightseeing rush =)
In general, I think this itinerary maintains a nice balance of different sides of Japanese culture: from nature and traditional culture to modern curiosities and metropolitan nightlife.
That said, I must mention that some of the items on this plan I have not experienced myself so I cannot tell whether they are a good investment of time and money. To be precise, this includes the Imperial Palace, Ginza district, the Robot Restaurant, and capsule hotels. It happened partially due to personal reasons, partially due to lack of planning (book the Palace and the Robots in advance!).
Finally, as I said above, the plan is heavily targeting sakura watching. At different seasons, it might make sense to consider other parks of Tokyo (for example) as well as alternative side trip options.