Here’s a quick Tokyo itinerary for 3 days. To be honest, I’d recommend more than 3 days in Tokyo if you really want to explore Japan’s buzzing, bustling capital. But if you’re on a time limit, there’s plenty you can cram in. I’ve been visiting friends in Tokyo for several years now and feel like I know the city quite well – until I go back the next time and Tokyo’s madness takes over. Every time, I find more new things going on that I’d never discovered before.
I’ve written this on request, believe it or not. People really want to know about how to do Tokyo in a limited time. To be honest, if you’ve not been before you may spend your first day just wandering around gawping at everything…
I’ve discovered that you can’t ever get to grips with Tokyo and won’t scratch the surface in 3 days, 5 days or even 2 weeks. It’s a city to be loved but never fully understood and I’m fine with that. So I’ve written this 3-day itinerary, which doesn’t cover even a fraction of what there is to do but has a decent balance of exploring, culture, fun and food. It goes off the beaten track a bit but still includes plenty of the big hits.
So settle down with a glass of sake and get planning your 3-day Tokyo itinerary…
Tokyo itinerary 3 days
Prep yourself before you wreck yourself (day – 1)
- I’m going to assume you’re landing in Tokyo on er, day -1 (bear with me!). You’re going to need a good night’s sleep to recover from the jet lag enough to fully launch yourself into this 3-day itinerary.
- If you’re coming into Tokyo from Narita Airport, you can get the Narita Express, which takes about an hour.
- When you’re reading this, if you’re still planning your Tokyo accommodation, my new favourite hipster hotel in Tokyo (complete with bakery on site) is The Knot Tokyo Shinjuku. It’s only about £90 a night at the time of writing – an absolute bargain for how gorgeous it is. My second choice would be Hotel Mets Kōenji by Koenji station. You might also find my absolutely massive Japan trip planning post helpful because there’s so much to think about beyond where you’ll be sleeping.
Anyway, on with the proper Tokyo itinerary…
Tokyo itinerary 3 days: Day 1 – taking in Tokyo
- Head to Shinjuku for a literal overview of Tokyo from the top floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It has two free observation decks on the 45th floors of both of its towers. It’s a spectacular view and considering it’s all free, definitely a good place to start. You can see the city spread before you, bafflingly large and probably alien to you if this is your first time in Tokyo. Oh and the north tower is open late so if you don’t want to do this first thing, you can save it for the twinkly lights or dusk later on – something I recommend in my post about unique things to do in Tokyo. You’ll also find a shop on the same floor selling all kinds of food and bits from every prefecture in Japan. They really love their prefectures in Japan. Each one is famous for some random thing, from saké to udon to bamboo shoots.
- Just a word of warning for your journey to the view: Shinjuku station is the busiest in the world. Millions of people use it every day and you’ll probably feel like every single one of them is there when you are. Oh god and there are over 200 exits so brace yourself. This bad boy is quite the experience. But it’s so incredibly Tokyo that you’ll have to do it.
- After you’ve had your fill of staring at the skyline, head for a calming stroll around the Meiji Jingu gardens in Harajuku followed up by some lunch and a coffee/tea on Omotesando.
- Get a full-on dose of Tokyo by throwing yourself into the insanity of the infamous Shibuya crossing. Over 2,500 people cross it at any one time, but all in the most orderly of fashions. Welcome to Japan…
- Oh and when you get off at Shibuya station, don’t forget to take a photo with the statue of Hachiko the doggy. Much like Edinburgh‘s famous Greyfrair’s Bobby, he’s another loyal fluffer who waited for his owner long after he’d died. This kind of loyal doggy story is too much for me. I’m welling up as I type. Send help.
- There’s loads of shopping to be had round Shibuya, but you can also head to Harajuku (a few minutes on the Yamanote line). Find Takeshita-dori, opposite Harajuki station. It’s a very elaborate gateway to absolute madness. If you want to buy something with Hello Kitty on it, you’ll find it here.
- Don’t forget to walk through a Japanese food hall (depachika), which is one of the most intense experiences you can have in Tokyo. Food halls tend to be on the bottom floor of department stores. You have to walk for a good 10 minutes to get from one end to the other and it’s a challenge not to want to eat EVERYTHING.
- Head to a novelty cafe of your choosing for your evening meal. Proceed with caution if you want to do an animal one. Personally, I avoid them all because you can never tell how well looked after the animals are. If you’re going to do it, avoid any that use non-domestic animals for obvious ethical reasons. Owls do not want to be harassed by humans; dogs generally do. If you don’t want to do animal-themed entertainment at all, there are humans in the form of maids, robots or ninjas to choose from. Obviously.
- If you’re not too tired, you could end your first day in Tokyo with a truly Japanese experience (lots of alcohol required). Karaoke is a big deal in Japan. Like everything there, it’s intense. It’s not a half-hearted drunken warble at 3am into a tinny microphone. Oh no. It’s a serious business. I recommend Rainbow Karaoke in Shibuya, which isn’t just a karaoke booth but a karaoke experience. You get a drum set, keyboard, guitar, microphone: the works. Yep, a full-on band for you to murder any number of your chosen songs with. The karaoke rooms are connected to reception with phones and you can order food and drink this way, which magically appears within minutes. Welcome to Tokyo.
Tokyo itinerary 3 days: Day 2 – culture and chill
- Day 1 was pretty hectic so day 2 is more of a museum day, which should be a bit more relaxing.
- Head to Ueno Park, where you’ll find five museums. Pick your favourites, but I’d suggest the Tokyo National Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum as a nice duo. One of the best things is that a lot of museums in Tokyo (and Japan in general) are free, which the latter is. The former is 620 YEN to get in. You can spend most of the morning having a leisurely wander around these.
- Head to Ameyoko Street for some inexpensive street food and some serious shopping and/or people watching. This shopping mecca runs from Ueno to Okachimachi Station along the train tracks of the JR Yamanote Line.
- You don’t have to actually buy anything, because it’s enough to just wander around gawping at all the sights and sounds. It is, however, a good place to get bags/fridge magnets/unusual KitKats/general tat to take home. What do you mean all your friends at home don’t want a sweet potato KitKat?!
- If the weather’s not good for browsing the shopping, venture into an arcade and attempt to play something without looking a) lost or b) generally incompetent. A Japanese arcade is, obviously, about a million times more intense than an arcade at home in the UK. They’re usually massive and packed to the rafters with those grabby claw games and all kinds of video games, along with all the beeping and dinging noises you’ve ever heard in your life all being played at once and back-to-front. I really like Mario Kart – if this is your thing too, you can usually find it in a Namco Arcade.
- Trip to Kagurazaka (Iidabashi Station) in the evening to continue the day of culture in Tokyo’s ‘mini Kyoto‘. During the Edo Period (which is a big deal in Japan), Kagurazaka was just outside the moat of the Edo Castle and was full of geisha houses. There are still some tucked away down alleyways, but it’s very rare you’ll see one compared with in Kyoto.
- It’s a good area to get some traditional Japanese grub to round off your day. But if you don’t fancy that, it’s also a French-influenced area, so you can get some French food that will (knowing Japanese chefs!) be better than anything in France. Standard.
Tokyo itinerary 3 days: Day 3 – sumo then say hello to suburbia
- It’s time to head out of the Yamanote line and into the suburbs. Namely Kichijoji.
- Kichijoji is close to the world-famous Ghibli Museum (you know, the little grey creature of anime fame). You can walk there in about 15 mins from Kichijoji Station, taking in the cute cafés and beautiful park along the way.
- If Studio Ghibli stuff isn’t your bag, I’d recommend going to watch a sumo morning training session, unless of course you’re in Tokyo during proper sumo season so that you can watch the real deal. In which case, head to Ryōgoku. You will not regret it. I have a full post detailing how to watch sumo in Tokyo. I can’t emphasise how much you HAVE to go if you’re there at the right time of year – it’s the most Japanese experience ever and absolutely amazing. Go and read that post for the full lowdown.
- If you’ve not done the sumo thing (which does take up most of the day), head for lunch in the Marunouchi area near Tokyo station. There’s a great view of the station and the city from the terrace of the Shin-Marunouchi building, with the Imperial Palace gardens in the distance. There are so many restaurants to choose from inside and lots have English menus, which is a huge help when you don’t have anyone to translate and you’re very tired.
- Pop into Tokyo Station and find Character Street. This is an indoor shopping area where you’ll find Hello Kitty, Pokemon and all that kind of thing. My personal favourite is ‘Kapibara-san’, an adorable capybara (everyone knows what a capybara is, don’t they? Putting that link in just in case). I have purchased two sweaters, a flannel for removing makeup, a keyring, a notepad, and a lanyard for my work pass. I really do wear it round the office as a grown 30-something woman. Take it from me, there really are no limits to the amount of cute crap you can spend your money on here.
- Then it’s time for a trip to Akihabara for electric madness. Simply rock down to Electric Avenue (kill me now for making that pun). Akihabara is known as Tokyo’s ‘electric town’ because it’s completely buzzing off its tits for electronic gadgets.
- Spend your evening out in suburbia, namely the wonderful Koenji/Asagaya area. This is far from the tourist crowds but absolutely packed with tiny little bars, shops and cafés as far as the eye can see. You can read more about this off-the-beaten-track area of Tokyo in my full post on it.
- Eat at this indoor food market thing called Uoichiba. It’s hard to describe, but if you can find it, GO. It’s one of those places you feel so totally lost, in a good way. There are all kinds of restaurants inside and it’s really bustling and incredibly Japanese. I really enjoy the delicious Vietnamese in Binh Minh restaurant.
- Finish the night with a craft beer or three at Stone Asagaya, on the second floor of a building near to the train line, El Pato in Kōenji and Masa Tonik bar, Asagaya. Although Japan’s ‘thing’ is sake, craft beer is really popular and bars serving it are full of locals.
And if you want to swap one of your 3 days in Tokyo for a day trip out of the city…
I would try and get out of the big smoke for at least one day of the 3 to be honest. Although it’s hard to get tired of Tokyo, it’s good for the soul to be away from a city for a bit and see somewhere more rural.
You can do very easy day trips to different areas nearby, including Nikko, Kamakura or Hakone.
Further reading on Tokyo and Japan in general
This dedicated Tokyo guide can be done as part of some of the itineraries in my 2 weeks in Japan itinerary post. Have a read of that if you’re after more about a whole trip to Japan.
I’ve also got an absolutely bloody HUGE post about everything you need to know if you’re planning a trip to Japan for the first time. You’ll probably need an entire pot of green tea if you’re going to read that one. Or something stronger.
You may also like my other Japan blog posts:
- Himeji Castle
- 10 things to do in Okayama
- Naoshima art island
- Kobe – one day in the floral city
- Tokyo – train-themed things to do
- Tokyo – how to watch sumo
- Nara – home of the tame deer.
Tokyo itinerary – useful information for your trip
Where to stay
Western-style hotels in Japan are often either not great or really expensive. Obviously I’m writing from a UK perspective on what’s expensive: we’re lucky here to be able to book Premier Inns and the like for <£80 a night for a clean, decent room in most UK cities (not including stupid London). This kind of budget-but-nice hotel isn’t really a thing in Japan. Read more about the ins and outs of Japanese hotels here. Anyway, there are SO many places to stay in Tokyo. I’ve stayed at a fair few of them now and my top choices would be either Hotel Mets Kōenji or my new favourite hipster hotel complete with bakery on site, The Knot Tokyo Shinjuku (only about £90 a night at the time of writing – an absolute bargain for how gorgeous it was).
How to get around
Tokyo’s public transport is unbeatable. Having said that, don’t miss a ride in a taxi at some point. Find out why here. There’s so much info out there already about transport in Tokyo, so I won’t regurgitate it all. Basically, unless you’re going very long distances, you’ll be doing trains for most of your travel within Japan. It’s all very efficient and of course the shinkansen (bullet train) is incredible and you must go on one. The Lonely Planet guide to getting around by train will help you sort out what you need to do. Side note: if you really enjoy trains (and if you don’t, you will in Japan), there are loads of train-based geeky things to do in Japan. I even have a blog post about them here. Enjoy.
When to go
Spring in Tokyo is very popular because the cherry blossom is a big deal and the weather is mostly beautiful. But everyone else knows this too, so it can be very busy and more expensive due to this, coupled with the fact it’s Golden Week in Japan (when everyone gets time off work). So do weigh up how much cherry blossom and flawless Instagram shots matter to you. My favourite time to go to Tokyo is actually January of all things. Don’t be afraid of the winter months. The weather is bright and crisp but there are far fewer tourists than other months. Our friends who live in Tokyo say autumn is also lovely but we’ve not done that ourselves… yet. Basically, avoid summer if you can, because HUMIDITY.
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