Explore the many faces of the Japanese capital in a single day – from frenetic fish markets and dazzling emporiums to hip, hidden neighbourhoods with quiet lanes.
The most populous metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo is divided into 23 wards and a multitude of small neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct character and heritage, from the dazzling electronics emporiums of Akihabara and the crazy crossing at Shibuya to the quiet streets of Yanaka, where artisans practise time-honoured crafts. First-time visitors may feel overwhelmed by the grid of high-rises in central Marunouchi but at street level the city is one of the easiest to navigate, with a superb network of metro and district trains, most signage in English and friendly locals eager to offer directions. Tokyo ranks first in the Safe Cities Index but it’s never boring: the city stimulates the senses with its layers of worlds, from the exquisite to the hilariously kooky. Invest in a ¥1000 (about $12.60; children half price) one-day pass for the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines – the fastest way to get around if you want to cram a lot of diverse experiences into one day.
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Catch the morning tuna trade
07:00: Nothing much opens in Tokyo until 10 or 11am so you could sleep in. Alternatively, now is your chance to visit the famous 80-year-old Tsukiji fish market (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chūō). In November, the market will move to a more modern location across Tokyo Bay to make way for new infrastructure for the 2020 Olympics. But for now the hardcore will be up at 3am to score online tickets to the live auctions of tuna; others will try to slip past the guards and onto the market floor before 9am, when tourists are officially admitted. Or you could skip all that, take the metro to Tsukiji and grab breakfast at the small restaurants lining the outer market, which is fabulous for buying kitchen goods.
Wander the royal gardens
09:00: Take the metro four stops to Ōtemachi and stroll through the East Garden of the Imperial Palace, the only part of the palace that’s open to the public. The Emperor and Empress officially live here but you’re unlikely to catch a glimpse. The Edo-period watchtower is a favourite for snaps – on a clear day you can see Mount Fuji. If you’re feeling energetic, join Tokyo’s fitness fanatics for a jog around the moat.
Shop till you drop
10:00: It’s two metro stops to Ginza and its three Ms: the Matsuya, Mitsukoshi and Matsuzakaya department stores. Time your arrival for exactly 10am to be greeted by multitudes of bowing sales assistants when the stores open. Head for the subterranean food halls, which offer mind-blowing selections of packaged and portable foods. It’s worth a detour to Daimaru, at nearby Tokyo Station, with its two floors of remarkable food. If you purchase any of the prettily packaged items, there’s a good chance you won’t want to unwrap these little works of art.
Meet a stationery sommelier
11:00: In Ginza, do a spin around Ginza Hands (Marronnier Gate Building, 5-9F, 2-2-14 Ginza, Chūō), a branch of the Tokyu Hands chain of DIY stores that sell everything from kitchen knives to floral toilet-seat warmers. Some stores even have a “stationery sommelier”. It’s a cultural journey as much as a shopping excursion. If you’re in the mood to dress up as Little Bo Peep, Shibuya 109 (2-29-1 Dogenzaka) at Shibuya Crossing (six metro stops) is the shopping mecca for Japanese kawaii (cuteness).
Check out the local labels
12:00: Still in shopping mode, take the metro to Omotesandō (five stops from Ginza) and walk along Omotesandō Street to Aoyama, where local fashion labels Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto have flagship stores. The Prada building is an architectural gem. The parallel lanes are the most interesting to explore, with vintage and consignment stores alongside chic cafés. As a rule, it’s wise to get away from Tokyo’s bustling boulevards and explore the narrower streets.
Escape the hustle and bustle
13:30: Have lunch at one of the small downstairs restaurants in Aoyama’s side streets (warning: smoking is far from banned; it seems to be encouraged) or the café at the tranquil Nezu Museum of Japanese and East Asian art (6-5-1 Minami-Aoyama, Minato). This former private residence of art collector Nezu Kaichirō is now a striking Kengo Kuma-designed building within a magnificent walled garden.
Go beyond the tourist trail
14:30: For a change of pace, take the Chiyoda Line from Omotesandō to Sendagi (11 stops) and emerge in the quiet Yanaka neighbourhood. Visitors often head for the pedestrian shopping street with its saké shops and tofu stalls but take time to wander beyond that and discover artisans selling beautiful papers and bespoke woven shoes, as well as ancient coffee shops and Shinto and Buddhist shrines tucked among the houses. Hire a bike from Tokyobike Gallery (4-2-39 Yanaka, Taito), housed in an 80-year-old former saké brewery, and cycle around the gentle hills of the district.
Meander down the Meguro
18:00: Cocktail hour. Hop back on the metro and ride it to Nakameguro (12 stops), Tokyo’s hippest little neighbourhood bursting with cafés, bars, galleries, vintage shops, hairdressers and designer boutiques – all flanking a beautiful canal of the Meguro River. (In cherry blossom season – early spring – the sakura trees bloom magnificently.) Take a stroll then drop into one of the bars, which seem to serve not-very-alcoholic drinks. Dine in a cosy izakaya (gastropub) or nabe (hotpot restaurant).
Sip saké in style
21:00: Nakameguro is three metro stops from the epicentre of Tokyo’s nightlife, Roppongi. But if you wish to finish the evening in style, eschew this often-tacky district and take the metro four stops further to Ōtemachi, where you’ll emerge in the basement of the tower that houses Aman Tokyo (The Ōtemachi Tower, 1-5-6 Ōtemachi, Chiyoda). The Kerry Hill-designed lounge on the 33rd floor is arguably the most beautiful in Tokyo with its double-storey floor-to-ceiling windows. It serves exquisite cocktails and specialist sakés and, while not necessary, booking is wise. ￼