You’ve got 2 weeks’ holiday and you’re looking for somewhere a bit different. You love visiting Asia and have decided to spend a week on the beach in Bali - but you’d like a city stopover as well. You’ve been to Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore but always wanted to visit Japan. That wouldn’t work would it? I can’t combine those destinations can I? Think again…
Japan. An amazing country in its own right, but often overlooked as a short stop destination. With fantastic flight connections across Asia and the rest of the world, it’s a great option to include in your next holiday. For my last getaway, I managed to squeeze in four days in Tokyo on the way to Bali and Hong Kong. With plenty of multi-stop flight itineraries featuring Japan, it's a really interesting stopover possibility.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of the world’s great cities, but something about Tokyo just fascinated me. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve ever been as excited about visiting somewhere before. I’d heard fantastic stories from friends, seen unbelievable TV footage and read about all manner of weird and wonderful people, places and concepts. It was never going to be a dull visit.
Everything you’ve ever heard about Japan is true, but there is so much more to Tokyo than a metropolis of neon lights, technology, skyscrapers and mass transport systems. The people are ultra-friendly, polite and everything has an order.
It’s slightly bonkers, but this place runs like clockwork. It’s efficiency personified. Tokyo is crazy, quirky and futuristic. Take your time to really explore the city and you’ll also find pockets of calmness and serenity. Pristine oriental gardens, temples and hidden back street teahouses. You may have to look a little bit harder, but Old Edo still exists and offers a fascinating view of a far simpler time.
Arriving into Narita airport, it’s easy to get yourself into central Tokyo. Picking up a Narita Express return train ticket and prepaid travel card for our time in Japan (think London’s oyster card) in the terminal was easy. If you’re worried about the language barrier, don’t be.
The train journey takes 90 minutes to get into Tokyo and gave me a first glimpse of the famed public transport system. Departing on time to the second and really comfortable, even after a long flight, it’s a stress free way to get to your accommodation. Having stood crammed in like sardines on many a UK train journey, we can learn a lot from the Japanese!
We based ourselves in the Shinjuku area. Central and with a good selection of hotels and entertainment, it’s the perfect base for exploring the city. It’s also home to Shinjuku station – the world’s largest railway station. I’m not even going to try and explain this place fully. A simply jaw-dropping experience at rush hour. Cavernous, multi levelled and jammed full of people doesn’t even come close. Ominous at first, you’ll travel through here many times in your travels across the city and it’s remarkably easy to navigate your way. Overland or underground it will all make sense after a few goes.
Believe me, your eyes and mouth will be wide open when you arrive in Tokyo. My recommendation is to take it easy first day. Shinjuku is overflowing with shops, bars, restaurants and entertainment – it’s a good introduction.
Western brands sit snuggly alongside Japanese vending machines (selling just about anything you can imagine), 7 floor electronic superstores, small noodle bars and traditional Izayaka’s (pubs). Maybe you’ll end up eating in one of the city’s themed restaurants and bars. Try out a Cat Cafe (think Starbucks filled with loads of wandering cats to pet) or gobble down a meal surrounded by 8ft tall robot dancers.
Get out and about and just see where you end up. (You’ll probably also spend quite a bit of time getting used to Japanese toilets. With a button for just about anything it’s like sitting at the controls of the Star Trek Enterprise!).
Be warned, you might struggle to sleep on your first night. There’s definitely the potential for wandering around like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. If you can get through to around 4 am, salvation is in sight – Tsukiji fish market is a weary traveller’s favourite. It’s renowned for its live tuna auctions and admission is on first come, first service basis. No visit is complete without a sushi breakfast. Get stuck in!
For a panoramic view of the city, make your way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The 45th floor observation decks offer stunning views across the city. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji on the horizon. Even better – it’s completely free!
A few minutes along the track from Shinjuku are the Harajuku and Shibuya districts. These are well worth a day of anybody’s time. Harajuku is a young and trendy part of town. Feeling like a small village, its jam packed full of teenagers wearing outrageous and unorthodox fashions.
Shibuya is home to the world famous “scramble crossing”. Up to 100,000 people pass through per hour. For a bird’s eye view, get yourself up into the Starbucks on the crossing and snap away with your camera. People watching at its best!
For a different view of the city, make your way across to the Takeshiba area around Tokyo Port. From here, you can catch a boat trip up the Sumida river towards some of the older parts of the city. Passing by fascinating buildings like the national Sumo stadium at Ryoguku - it’s a really pleasant way to get around.
Hop off at Asakusa and you are transported back in time. Amble through small streets, dodge tourists in rickshaws, sit down and help yourself to some Gyozo (pork dumplings) and you’ll eventually end up at Tokyo’s famous Sensoji Temple. With the imposing Skytree tower looming on the other side of the river, this area is more popular than ever and a full day out in its own right.
If the crowds start to become a bit too much, then get your map out and head to the closest park. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a 10 minute walk but a world away from the train station and hustle and bustle. Beautiful ponds, trees and manicured lawns offer a welcome retreat. Visit one of the traditional tea houses and take a moment to catch your breath with a cup of frothing green tea. Do expect lots of company during cherry blossom season though (springtime).
4 days in Tokyo allows you to simply scratch the surface of this fascinating megatropolis; however you can certainly get a real taste for the city and Japanese culture. Whilst I’m sure you could spend a fortune if you tried; it really doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. There are loads of things to do for free or minimal cost and with even just one more day, you could cram a load more in. For example, we didn’t manage to get out to Mount Fuji - a short bullet train journey out of the city. That’s a definite for next time.
I guarantee that you’ll leave Tokyo yearning to come straight back and explore this fascinating country in far more depth. Next time you are planning a stopover in Asia, give Tokyo a go and you won’t be disappointed!
If you’d like help to include Tokyo as a stopover on a multi-stop ticket, we can build a Japan itinerary that suits you perfectly. Our tailor-made trip packages can be daisy chained together to make the most of your visit. We can also book your Japan Railpass tickets for the famous bullet train. Call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email to discuss your trip.