Here’s your ultimate Tokyo itinerary

Three days in Japan’s crazy cool capital reveals secret sushi, sumo masters, and a robot uprising.

Day 1

2:47 a.m. I arrive early at Tsukiji Market, the largest wholesale fish market in the world [now relocated to nearby Toyosu in 2018]. For the high-stakes tuna auction, bidding begins at 5.30 a.m., and only 120 visitors are allowed to watch. Tsukiji (pronounced skee-gee) attracts 40,000 shoppers daily but wasn’t designed to be a tourist attraction; forklifts whiz by in tight alleyways, and one of the fishmongers actually gives us the middle finger—the Japanese equivalent of “I’m walkin’ here!” A buyer tells me about the most expensive tuna ever sold: a $1.76 million bluefin auctioned in 2013. At 5.20 a.m. we are ushered into a hangar where licenced buyers examine the fish. The whole thing feels like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; a bell rings and men start shouting numbers and barking into cell phones. What jet lag?

6:12 a.m. Compact sushi counters surround Tsukiji. While I wait 30 minutes for a seat at Daiwa Sushi, I get the skinny on Tsukiji’s long-delayed move to a modern facility, a transition mired in corruption accusations. Once seated, I ask the chef about the impending move as he serves me pieces of sea urchin and skipjack. “Next year,” he grunts. “Really?” I say. The safest bet: definitely before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

7:53 a.m. Full and happy, I check in to Hoshinoya, a modern ryokan, or Japanese inn, in the center of Tokyo. I change into a kimono, then make my way to the hot spring–fed baths on the 17th floor. This is a retreat like no other—a dimly lit pool with an open-air skylight, where you can get naked and soak to the soundtrack of the city.

11:32 a.m. The Tokyo train system is a marvel of efficiency and affordability in a city where taxis are stupid-expensive. I take the Chiyoda line to the Meiji-jingumae stop—admiring a businessman with his Samsonite luggage and Hello Kitty cell phone case on the way—and walk over to the Harajuku neighborhood, once the epicenter of forward-thinking fashion co-opted by Gwen Stefani and others, now the best place for people-watching. Teenagers eat rainbow-colored clouds of cotton candy, and women carry umbrellas to avoid getting a tan. Harajuku’s newish trend: cat cafés. For about a $10 entrance fee, you get a cup of coffee and 30 minutes playing with adorable kittens that tussle with each other and nap on your lap.

3:13 p.m. It’s off-season for sumo wrestling, but I luck out: There’s an all-day exhibition tournament of the yokozuna—the grand champions—in an arena in the center of the city, including an appearance by Hakuho Sho, a 32-year-old Mongolian superhero who holds the record for most career wins. When Hakuho first arrived in Tokyo, at age 15, he was so small no sumo “stable,” or training facility, would take him in; now he’s the Greatest of All Time. The main rule of sumo seems to be: Push your competitor out of the ring. The men square off, pulling the tassels around their waists to the side, and then slap their thighs. Actually I have no idea what’s going on. The last match of the day is a nail-biter: As his winning move, Hakuho somehow lifts up his 293-pound opponent and drops him outside the ring like a rag doll.

5:23 p.m. I follow the Japanese salarymen to Omoide Yokocho, nicknamed Piss Alley, a series of narrow, winding alleyways lined with yakitori joints beside the train tracks in Shinjuku. I pick a spot that looks the most fun, sliding open a glass door to Ucchan, which has 15 seats and as many people smoking. The bartender flips the menu over to the English side, which promises—for 1,650 yen (or about $15)—“6 kinds of Japanese skewered pork and beer set,” featuring “giblets, innards & organ meat etc.” I’m alarmed by the use of “etc.” But each stick is spiced to perfection.

Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

10:30 p.m. Kampai! That’s Japanese for “cheers!” Here’s another phrase I learned: nomikai. Which is a uniquely Japanese phrase that basically translates to “forced fun.” Or team drinking. If the boss takes the office out for drinks, you can’t go home until he does. For nomikai, there’s no better experience than the Golden Gai, a series of six snug Shinjuku alleyways packed with more than 200 Barbie-size bars—four-stool watering holes, including maybe the world’s smallest karaoke bar. From an architectural standpoint, it’s a time capsule view of old Tokyo. It’s also bonkers fun. At a locals-only place called Oku Tei, the bartender charges me a $10 cover. I don’t blame her. Everyone is trying to keep the Golden Gai real.

Day 2

8:23 a.m. As I’m exiting the train station, an elderly Japanese man carrying a large satchel shuffles by, smiles at me, and says loudly: “I love you.” He lets out a belly laugh and shuffles away. I have to pause to catch my breath. I flew to Tokyo from my home in L.A. on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. On paper my dad and I didn’t have much in common. He was a gym teacher who liked routine; he ate pasta practically every night for dinner; he hated traveling. I’m a gay travel writer who just ate raw fish for breakfast, again. Whenever I was away on assignment, I’d call to tell him about some surprising thing I’d seen. All I wanted this morning—every morning—was to be able to call him. I’m not saying this old Japanese guy was some celestial incarnation of my dad or anything. Probably he spotted a hopeless white guy and decided to practice the only three words he knew in English. But still.

9:55 a.m. The Japanese word otaku means “fanatic,” or rather “obsession,” to the point that you can’t see how it’s ruining your social skills. Everyone in Tokyo seems to be video game-otaku. In Akihabara, or Electric Town—with its seven-story arcades and used-electronics stores—I visit Club Sega to play a virtual reality game called Mortal Blitz, which is the best $15 I’ve ever spent. You put on a backpack and VR gloves and walk to your starting position on the arcade floor. Pick up your rifle, put on the VR goggles, and—bam!—you’re standing on a spaceship battling winged aliens. How real does it feel? At one point, staring down into a digital abyss, I had to take the glasses off so I didn’t puke.

10:46 a.m. Beneath every building seems to be a shopping mall and food court.

11:12 a.m. When I was 12, we had a garage sale where—against my father’s wishes—I sold my favorite toy for $15. It was a hefty metal robot called Voltron that starred in a Japanese cartoon I watched dubbed in English. I spend an hour roaming Akihabara’s manga toy stores looking for my Voltron in his birthplace. “Very rare,” one shopkeeper tells me, directing me to multistory vintage-toy shop Mandarake, where, between rows of ancient Godzilla toys and Hot Wheels, I find an original Voltron set from the ’80s, still sealed in its box, for $400. My dad was pissed that I’d sold Voltron, but he’d turn over in his grave if I paid $400 to get it back. Not when I could meet a real robot at …

3:13 p.m.Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, where Honda’s ASIMO demonstrates its talents four times daily. The four-foot-three robot runs into the pavilion at full speed. He waves to the crowd, which is frankly the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen—until he flat-out kicks a soccer ball. “Robots may change your life,” says the announcer. Which is what I’m afraid of. I ask one of the museum’s resident nerds, Matt Escobar, Ph.D.: “When will the robots take over?” He doesn’t laugh. “Hopefully never. But I think in 20 or 30 years they will be very smart.”

6:32 p.m. Star Bar and High Five are both killer temples of mixology, but I’m partial to Gen Yamamoto—which is the name for both the bartender and his eight-seat, one-room space, where he mixes up sake and soju cocktails with seasonal ingredients picked daily at the market. For one drink, muddled fresh tomatoes mix with Japanese Nikka Coffey gin, local citrus, and peppercorns. It’s maybe the most delightful summer sip I’ve ever had.

Midnight Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a perfect movie about a special kind of loneliness one experiences in Tokyo, a gorgeous anonymity in a city where people are stacked on top of each other. In the film, Scarlett Johansson follows her photographer husband to Tokyo, and while he’s busy working, she wanders around town, ultimately meeting Bill Murray at the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, which is where I go tonight. Looking out the window at the insane views of Tokyo’s endless skyscape, I also spy a dozen tourists glued to their iPhones—which makes the film even more of a perfect time capsule. Would Scarlett’s character have met Bill if she’d soothed her loneliness with an iPhone?

Day 3

10:30 a.m. Brian MacDuckston left his Bay Area tech job to teach English in Tokyo. But 10 years later his one-year adventure threatens to become something more permanent now that his blog, Ramen Adventures, has turned into a local institution. “Real ramen nerds eat 600 bowls a year,” he tells me. He eats 300. But the dude’s legit. He once hosted his own local TV show where he and the women of AKB48 (basically Japan’s Spice Girls) would go around town tasting ramen. The concierge at the Palace Hotel (a contemporary retreat with impressive views of the Imperial Palace gardens) arranges a tour for me with Brian, and we set out to hunt ramen. We hit Ginza Noodles for the triple ramen (which refers to three broths—dashi, chicken, and clam, plus some aromatic oils). With good ramen, Brian explains, you should experience “salt right off the bat, then a smooth, umami aftertaste.” At Kikanbo (recommended by Noma chef René Redzepi), droplets of pork-back fat float in a spicy broth. A woman next to me orders the Devil Spice ramen—made with Trinidadian scorpion peppers and served in a black bowl—but barely breaks a sweat.

12:58 p.m. Entering Meiji Shrine is like walking into Tokyo’s natural air-conditioning; the city is steamy in the summer, but a canopy of camphor trees covers the park-like entrance, offering cool shade. A girl sells prayer charms, and they’re very specific. “A charm for traffic safety.” “A charm for passing an entrance examination,” which would have made my dad laugh. I may have run away from memories, but I see him everywhere.

4:11 p.m. Overstimulation can be a problem in Tokyo. So I spend most of today being quiet, trying to listen to my own heartbeat. Tokyo may be a concrete jungle, but there’s still some tropical scenery—if you know where to look. Next to Meiji Shrine is Yoyogi Park. Even more peaceful is the garden at Nezu Museum, designed by Kengo Kuma, the architect behind Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium. Nezu Museum has premodern Japanese and East Asian art (including priceless Buddhist statues), but the garden’s the thing. It’s like you fell asleep next to a bonsai tree and woke up in an enchanted forest. I inhale deeply and smell something sweet. “A mosquito coil,” my guide says, laughing. “To kill bugs.” Everything is beautiful.

6:13 p.m. English isn’t widely spoken in Tokyo, and I don’t speak Japanese, so I’ve made do with sign language—which connects you to people in a deeper, often hilarious way. I’m dripping in sweat while riding the train back to the hotel when I notice a woman, probably in her mid-50s, wiping her brow with a handkerchief before handing the rag to her daughter. The mother and I make eye contact, and I mime dabbing my forehead, as if to say, “Me next?” She laughs.

8:29 p.m. For a decade, Chef Harutaka Takahashi apprenticed under famed sushi chef Jiro Ono (of the acclaimed documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi) before opening his own Michelin-starred spot, Harutaka, in Ginza. Like so many of the best things in Tokyo, you have to know where to look. Harutaka hides on the sixth floor of a nondescript office building. The elevator doors open on a brightly lit sushi bar with 10 seats. Guests are instructed not to wear perfume. Plates start arriving almost immediately after diners are seated: conger eel, otoro (superfatty tuna), tobiko (roe). We watch the chef’s number two slice a delicate fish with a sword. I ask Chef Takahashi what the secret is to his sushi. He hunts for the fish himself, he explains, emphasizing the need for the highest quality from Tsukiji Market. But the real secret, he says, is the “vinegar in the rice.”

11:32 p.m. Running out of steam but not wanting to go to bed, I hop a cab to hip Ebisu. As the streetlights pass by, I think of Haruki Murakami’s novel After Dark and this great line about Tokyo at night: “Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.” I visit a different kind of shrine, Bar Martha, one of a string of vinyl-music bars popping up in Tokyo. The joint is easy to miss; a blank cinder block wall and a sign marked BAR are the only indications something is happening here. But step inside, and you’ll find thousands of LPs beautifully shelved and a chill DJ spinning records on a serious stereo system. No photos, no requests. And no worries. Just top-shelf Japanese whiskey and Joni Mitchell reminding me that, yes, “California, I’m coming home.” We can escape from the everyday for only so long.

Don’t-Miss Spots

Ultimate View
At 2,080 feet, Tokyo Skytree is the tallest freestanding tower in the world, and—on a clear day—you can see all the way to Mount Fuji from the observation deck on the 350th floor. (A high-speed elevator climbs a staggering 1,150 feet in just 50 seconds.) Feeling more daring? Take a second elevator up to the Tembo Galleria on the 450th floor. When you’re back on Earth, hop on the Japan Rail train one stop to the renowned Asakusa Shrine, where you can thank god—or rather, its three Shinto gods—for your safe return.

Cool-Kid Neighborhood
is a quick train ride from Shibuya and a much needed respite from the madness of central Tokyo. You’ll notice the narrow streets and alleyways here are lined with dogwood trees; in 1912 the mayor of Tokyo gave Washington, D.C., a gift of cherry blossom trees, and D.C. sent dogwoods in return. Here you’ll browse an eclectic mix of vintage stores, shop for tea at Shimokita Chaen Oyama, and enjoy a cake doughnut made with soy milk at Ikkyu Donut before sipping a cocktail at Flower Bar Gardena (a flower shop that doubles as a watering hole).

Best Bespoke Goods
At Kakimori—a chic, local stationery store that’s walking distance from Asakusa Station—customers queue at opening to make their own bespoke notebooks. Choose the cover, the paper insert, and binding, and watch a master craftsman put it all together before your eyes. K.Itoya, a branch of Tokyo’s more-than-100-year-old stationery store Itoya, offers a similar service in Ginza.

Most Beautiful Bookstore
At Daikanyama T-site, in Shibuya, shop a deep selection of Japanese car magazines and T-shirts from Tacoma Fuji Records; then browse a vintage-magazine library upstairs while enjoying an adult beverage.

Where to Dine

Shibuya Crossing at sundown is a juiced-up, neon party. But nearby, on the second floor of a residential building in Jingumae, lies Ichirin, a kaiseki ryori (or Japanese fine dining) restaurant, where Chef Mikizo Hashimoto changes the seasonal menu every 10 days. Chef Hashimoto was raised in Kyoto, the birthplace of kaiseki. The meal involves a parade of nine or 10 small plates, which always include a simmered fish, a sashimi dish, hassun (an expression of the season), and a grilled course. Here at Ichirin, the chef follows tradition but also breaks the rules. Yuzu shrimp is followed by a zucchini spiral, then squid and edible shiso flower and eel soup and a plate of bite-size morsels (eggplant, crab, fish eggs, jellyfish, squash), all chased with the most delicious mochi dessert (a gelatinous rice cake). The chef’s father was an art director, which makes sense—each dish is Instagram ready. The chef also hand-paints the drinks menu on a washi paper scroll, which you should take home and frame.

Zaiyu Hasegawa is the Michelin-starred chef behind the modern kaiseki fusion spot DEN, which was named one of the top 50 restaurants in the coveted Asia’s 50 Best list, thanks to standout dishes like a whole freshwater smelt deep-fried in tempura batter and balanced on its back fins so it looks like it’s walking across the plate. When I asked Chef Hasegawa where he likes to eat in Tokyo when he isn’t working, he doesn’t hesitate: “Shake Shack in Aoyama, as it is close to our restaurant. I order a triple burger, and I can go with my dog, Puchi, Jr., as he can eat his dog biscuits too!” He isn’t joking. In 2017 he collaborated with Shake Shack in New York’s Madison Square Park on a one-day-only signature burger, the DEN Shack, which featured miso Shack sauce, sansho peppers, and house-pickled cucumbers.

There are a whopping 227 Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo alone. But Tsuta was the first ever ramen shop to earn that honor. Up early? Head over and take a number. In response to five-hour wait times and an avalanche of foot traffic (upsetting the previously discreet “love hotel” operating across the street), Tsuta now hands out tickets beginning at 7 a.m. Simply return at the appointed time for the best nine-dollar lunch you’ll ever have.

Where to Sleep

Palace Hotel
Overlooking the Imperial Palace, this contemporary luxe hotel (reopened in 2012) offers 290 rooms, stellar city views, and a Michelin-starred sushi chef.

This upscale ryokan schedules a daily tea ceremony at 10.30 a.m. Each floor houses six rooms plus an ochanoma (the Japanese word for “tearoom within a living room”), where you can eat rice crackers and meet your neighbors.

Mickey Rapkin is the author of the book Pitch Perfect, which inspired the film franchise. He lives in Los Angeles. James Whitlow Delano is an award-winning photographer based in Tokyo for more than two decades.
This story was originally published in the February/March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

Read This Next

How to eat in 6 of the world’s most stunning places
Cliff art reveals the majesty of the Amazon’s aquatic realm

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet