In this Tokyo travel guide we'll show you the best things to see and do during different seasons to enjoy a new appreciation of the city each time! With 14 flights per day departing from Singapore to Tokyo, it's becoming easier and more affordable to visit Japan. Ask anyone who's been there and they'll often tell you that it's a country where they would love to go back to sometime. Why? For one, the dynamism in the country is undeniable – the contrast between tradition and modernity, the hospitality and friendliness of the Japanese and the fact that there's literally something interesting happening at the turn of every corner.
While the country is definitely not one of the cheapest to travel to in Asia, the fact is that the falling yen has made it much more accessible for Singaporeans financially. In this Tokyo Travel Guide we at GET.com will also show you some budget tricks to ensure you have a fun and comfortable trip without splurging too much in Japan. Here's a look at some of the top things to see, eat and do while visiting Tokyo.
Top Things To See In Tokyo
If you need to choose a season to visit Tokyo, please go during the cherry blossom season (late March-April). I've been to Japan twice and I made a second trip to Tokyo just to see the cherry blossoms and I can tell you it was one of the most memorable trips I have had in my life.
Seeing a whole park filled with blooming cherry blossoms just makes one feel so close to nature. You can literally sit in the park for hours marvelling at the wonders of nature. Indeed, the Japanese call it the Hanami, which means "watching blossoms".
Cherry blossoms are a symbolic flower of the spring, signifying a time of renewal and a reflection of the fleeting nature of life.
Their lifespan is very short though, so make sure you do your research online to find out the period of bloom (they change slightly every year) before you book your tickets.
The best place to see the cherry blossoms is no doubt at Ueno Park. During the season, you'll find it crowded with people having picnics and bustling with activity from the nearby markets.
Buy some hot food and sit down under a Sakura tree or by the pond to admire the works of Mother Nature.
Around Ueno Park, there are a number of temples and shrines to visit, including Kiyomizu Kannon Temple, Bentendo and the Toshogu Shrine.
There are also a number of museums around, as well as the Ueno Zoo, the oldest zoo in Japan. Do stop by the cute restaurant at the zoo selling panda-themed cuisine.
The other place to see the pretty blooms is at Shinjuku Gyoen Park. Even if you go during other seasons, the park is still worth a visit for it's beautiful flowers and themed gardens.
Mount Fuji, standing at 3,776 metres, is Japan's highest mountain. Many visitors to Tokyo might skip this wondrous site because of its inaccessibility from downtown Tokyo.
However, I would highly recommend that you climb it, it's less scary than you think!
Go during the official climbing season between early July to mid September. During this time, the mountain is usually free of snow with mild weather; there's easy access by public transportation and the mountain huts are open.
Mount Fuji is divided into ten stations but climbers usually take a bus up to the 5th station to start their climb. You do not need climbing skills but expect some steep and rocky terrain along the way. If the elderly Japanese can do it, I'm sure you can too!
An easier way to enjoy Mount Fuji is to head to the Fuji Five Lake (Fujigoko) region at the northern foot of the mountain, or to Hakone at a hot spring resort.
For lovers of animation from Studio Ghibli, a visit to the Ghibli Museum might be worth the while, although it can be a frustrating process.
First up, tickets are only available in certain countries at designated travel agency counters or in Japan. Unfortunately, we don't have one in Singapore so we went online to search for forums to get someone in Japan to buy our tickets for us.
The museum is located in Inokashira Park in Mitaka, a western city of Tokyo. The museum is dedicated to the art and technique of animation and presents a nice afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Top Things To Do In Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market
Lovers of fresh seafood and sashimi should never leave out visiting the famed Tsukiji market in Tokyo.
While many travel sites advise to go to the market at 5 a.m. for the live tuna auctions, you can safely visit the market at 8 a.m. and still see a lot of action around the market.
Tsukiji market consists of an inner market where most of the wholesale business and the famous tuna auctions take place, and an outer market with retail shops, restaurants and food booths.
If all that fishy business is getting to you, just walking around the outer market is great enough, but do try some seafood please!
Disneyland Tokyo is the first Disney Park to be built outside of the United States. While the park is more than 30 years old, fans of Disney will still find much joy and fun visiting it.
Hardcore fans might want to stay over at the Disney Resort and take 2 full days to cover both Disneyland and Disney Sea.
The Robot restaurant ranks as one of my top recommendations for friends visiting Tokyo. This is the most unique and unusual experience you can have in Tokyo.
Located at the red-light district of Kabuki-cho, the robot restaurant has nothing sleazy about it, well, except bikini-clad girls. But before you judge, give me a chance to explain the concept.
Expect everything in the restaurant to be over-the-top: think neon lights, loud music, chrome robots, mirrors and video screens all switched on at the same time and screaming in your face.
At the 90-minute show, you'll get a seat with your bento dinner, some flashlights and you'll get to enjoy a spectacle of robots and bikini-clad girls staging mock battles with each other.
While all these may sound ridiculous to you, it is precisely this kitsch aspect that makes it so wonderfully enjoyable.
Visit A Cat Cafe/Maid Cafe
While in recent years Singapore has seen a number of cat cafes popping up, it doesn't beat going to one where it all started.
I went to the Calico Cat Cafe as I happened to walk past it and had an hour of fun time with well-kept cats, enjoying a small cup of coffee.
Alternatively, you can visit one of the many maid cafes – a type of cosplay restaurant where waitresses dressed in maid costumes act as servants and treat customers as masters.
It's fun to take a look at something so unique to Japan, although you may find that the waitresses could be limited in their knowledge of the English language. Both types of cafes typically charge by the hour and any food/drinks orders are billed additionally.
What To Eat In Tokyo
Singaporeans are obvious lovers of Japanese cuisine; you only need to take a look at the number and variety of Japanese restaurants we have here to understand this.
From casual Japanese take-aways, fast food outlets to fine-dining restaurants, there's always at least one Japanese food place in every mall here.
While you can find food everywhere in and around Tokyo, these are some of the places I've visited and loved the most.
You can't leave Japan without having ramen! There are few main flavours of ramen, such as miso, shio, shoyu and the famous tonkotsu ramen.
In Tokyo, a famous ramen chain is Ichiran Ramen, widely accepted as one of the best spots for tonkotsu ramen.
Do not be put off by the fact that it's a chain restaurant, because the quality of the ramen is definitely one of the best around, and may I add that the price per bowl at around $10 also makes it a very affordable and fulfilling meal.
Ichiran ramen is also known for its concept where the staff would pass the ramen through a small hole at the counter booth.
This is so that diners can enjoy the privacy of eating in their individual booth and increase staff efficiency so that they can serve the hot ramen straight up without the risk of bumping into customers.
Another ramen place that's highly recommended is Ramen Jiro at Mita. I didn't know of this till a Japanese friend of mine told me to try it while I was in Tokyo.
Just keep in mind that queues can get pretty long during the peak lunch hours, stretching up to more than an hour's wait.
I remember going at around 2 p.m. with no queue and a few seats available. Jiro ramen is not for the faint-hearted; its smallest serving is around the normal ramen size you can find in Singapore.
The bowl of soup noodles is very sinful as well – oily, salty and as it comes with unlimited and free pork fat, you can be sure it isn't going to be the healthiest meal you will have in Japan. Perhaps the only redeeming factor is the mountain of bean sprouts sitting on top of all that sin.
The Omoide Yokocho is a network of alleys full of little restaurants offering a variety of dishes, but mostly yakitori.
It's proximity to Shinjuku means it makes for a good place to visit for dinner after a day of shopping.
It's not going to be the most comfortable place to eat because most of the shops here are very tiny with around 6 to 10 seats each, and the smell and heat coming from the grill might be a little overwhelming.
However, the atmosphere is amazing and there's something really authentic and charming there.
You may not find an English menu in most of the restaurants here so what we decided to take look at what was on the grill, and then pointed at it to order.
Do try the Tsukune if you have a chance – a Japanese chicken meatball cooked yakitori style drenched in a sweet soy sauce.
If you are a sashimi lover, you'll be in blissland in Japan. A good place to start is at the Tsukiji market. While I'm not a sashimi lover (I find it too fishy), the sashimi at the Tsukiji market is fresh enough for me to eat.
At the market, you will get your fill of gigantic palm-sized oysters, sea urchin (check out the charcoal sea-urchin bun!), scallops and all kinds of sashimi.
If you like sushi, two of the most popular restaurants around Tsukiji are Sushi-Dai and Daiwa Sushi. Be ready to queue though!
What To Buy In Tokyo
Japan is probably one of those countries where I bought the least, in terms of shopping. Well for a start, things are not really cheap, but for the fashion-conscious, you will find gems from local designers along the famed fashion streets of Harajuku and Shinjuku.
If you are into sports apparel, you will find unique collaborations between designer brands and international sports brands such as Nike and Adidas here, so stock up on those unique pieces!
Otherwise, you can contend yourself with buying pretty Japanese confectionery, so delightful that you can't bear to eat it. One of these is the Tokyo Banana – a light yellow sponge cake filled with banana cream.
You can also buy Japanese brand name cosmetics such as those from Shiseido in pharmacies and toiletries stores that resemble our Watson's and Guardian. Oh, and do go crazy with the large variety of cute contact lenses!
Money Tips For Your Visit To Tokyo
As mentioned, Japan isn't a really cheap place to travel to, but if you can save on your two biggest expenses – food and accommodation, there shouldn't be a problem with having a great time there.
Western-styled hotels in Tokyo are expensive and very very tiny, so my advice is to stay a little away from the city in traditional ryokans.
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn, typically featuring tatami-matted rooms and shared toilets. Don't be fooled by the description as I found these ryokans a perfect lodging solution in Japan.
Rooms are typically bigger, the tatami mats make for very comfortable sleep, hosts are very hospitable and you really get to experience a very cosy environment that's almost home-like.
The shared bathrooms are always very clean as well, and most offer a yukata (summer kimono) for guests, which makes for a great picture souvenir for foreigners.
The problem is most of these ryokans are not listed in your typical hotel portals, so check out Lonely Planet guides or search on travel forums to find one in the area.
If you do stay in a hotel, make sure to check out the cheapest hotel rates in Tokyo here.
A typical meal in Japan, even if it's a takeaway bento box usually costs around $10 to $15. While it isn't exorbitant, it's a far cry from our typical hawker centre or foodcourt meals that usually cost us less than $10.
What I did was eat light for lunch – usually a small takeaway from Lawson (the Japanese version of 7-11 stores) which offers lots of cheap food options such as sushi, oden or bento boxes at less than $10, and eat them at a nearby park for a small picnic.
Visit the basement of large department stores such as Takashimaya or Isetan after 8 p.m. for food that's going at discounts of 20% to 50%. You can find lots of delicious bread from bakeries, salads and cooked food.
Another way to save money is by using a travel credit card to book your trip. Travel credit cards usually let your earn miles or cashback when you use them to pay for your plane tickets, hotel stays and other purchases.
You can then use these rewards towards your next trip, to get a discount, or even to get a free trip (if you've accumulated enough cashback or miles).
Some travel cards also offer other benefits like travel discounts or special deals and promotions. Some even offer free travel insurance when you book your trip and pay for it with your card.
To save even more money, take a look at our 5 money-saving tips for a great holiday.