Japan is a country that if you have an interest in it and think you’ll like it, you’ll probably love it. For the longest time it wasn’t high on my list of places to travel, but slowly inched its way up – then promptly smashed my expectations. Our 2016 trip was short; it was the first time we left our young kids for more than a week (nine days to be exact) – so we focused on seeing the highlights of Tokyo and Kyoto. This post details the eight most amazing things we did in our 4 days in Tokyo.
The first three words that come to mind when I think of Tokyo are: safe, efficient, and delicious. I don’t mean the city itself is delicious (well, in some ways it is), but the food there is some of the best I’ve ever had. And when it’s time to walk off all that ramen, you’ll find many interesting sights in this diverse city. We covered a ton in four days, because we had a list of exciting places to conquer, and my husband went into Energizer bunny mode, which he has a habit of doing.
In 2019, we ended up back in Tokyo on a 36-hour layover with our kids when they were six and four. I’ve included the highlight from that stay too, which will be pretty obvious once you see it.
I researched the crap out of what to do for 4 days in Tokyo. Although I was overwhelmed by options, I can honestly say we did everything we wanted to. I’ve listed the top eight in the order they impressed me, so if your pace is slow and relaxing, start at the top and eliminate from the bottom. Or choose based on your interests or travel companions. These highlights include important historical and religious monuments, trendy areas, natural sights, what to do with kids, fabulous foodie ideas, and our favourite place to down a beverage, complete with the area of Tokyo that each is in.
Sidenote: Japan has the best toilets. Period. They are all fancy. Don’t be scared of them.
1. Go on a Tokyo food tour and eat ALL the things (EBISU)
I was so swept away by the food in Japan that I wrote about all the exotic items we ate in one of my first blog posts. Nick and I tried to not eat anything but Japanese food our whole time in Japan. It made for some interesting breakfasts, although we cheated a few times with coffee and pastries.
Part of our foodie frenzy was our tour with Oishii Food Tours, which was the most memorable activity we did on our 4 days in Tokyo. There are countless food tour companies to choose from.
The food tour took us to five different restaurants in Tokyo’s Ebisu area. We tried five types of Japanese food, each paired with a different type of Japanese booze. I have no idea what the restaurants were called, as the signs were only in Japanese. Our guide was fantastic though and we were stuffed by the end after eating:
- Yakitori and Yebisu beer
- Sashimi, fish fins, and sake (including a surprise, see video below)
- Okonomiyaki/Japanese pub food and shochu liquor
- Udon and your drink of choice
- Japanese ice cream with flavours like cherry blossom and green tea
Check out my video about the “freshest” sashimi I’ve ever had, which had me contemplating becoming a vegan on the spot:
2. Visit Asakusa and Tokyo’s most famous temple (ASAKUSA)
No 4 days in Tokyo is complete without a visit to Asakusa. Although crazy busy (good luck trying to get a photo with no one in it), you won’t want to miss Tokyo’s oldest temple. Opened in 645 AD, Sensō-ji (pictured below, right) is an ancient Buddhist temple and one of Tokyo’s most significant.
Sensō-ji is dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of compassion. It’s the most widely visited spiritual site in the world, with a whopping 30 million visitors annually. Adjacent to the temple is an impressive, towering five-story pagoda called the Asakusa Shinto Shrine (pictured below, left). Nakamise-dōri Street leads up to the temple and shrine, and is a souvenir haven chock-full of kitschy, fun, and traditional Japanese goodies to buy.
As the smell of incense fills your nose, enjoy the people watching, chaos, and important cultural significance of this area.
3. Go Izakaya hopping (bar hopping) in Golden Gai (SHINJUKU)
Golden Gai is the sneakiest, coolest, pedestrian-only little maze of narrow streets lined with wall-to-wall tiny izakayas (bars) that only hold about 10 people. You can peek in each one as you walk by to find one you like, or pick a random steep staircase to walk up into one and surprise yourself.
These funky little streets and izakayas are perfect for an evening stroll and a few (or more) beverages. You could have an izakaya to yourself, or choose one with a few others in it. I didn’t think I liked sake until I visited Golden Gai.
4. Shop, people watch, and visit a shrine in Harajuku (SHIBUYA)
If you’re like me, the word Harajuku conjures up images of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls from the early 2000s. Maybe you’re even busting out Hollaback Girl as you read this. Harajuku is a must for shopping and people watching. Don’t miss Takeshita street, a pedestrian shopping street lined with fashion boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. Naturally you’re now laughing at the name of this street in English like we did, right? We’re so mature.
The popular Meiji Shrine is also in Harajuku. Although not as visually-stunning as many of Japan’s other shrines and temples, it’s worth a stop.
5. Visit the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world – Shibuya Crossing (SHIBUYA)
Around 2500 pedestrians cross Shibuya Crossing at a time, coming from all different directions. It’s especially busy during rush hour in the morning and evening. We were there around 11 a.m. so it wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be, but certainly still busy. I’d imagine people from smaller towns and quiet, rural areas would find Shibuya Crossing comically entertaining. Just don’t lose your travel companion in the chaos.
While strolling in Shibuya, consider stopping for delicious and efficient vending machine ramen!
6. Stroll the beautiful Japanese gardens in Tokyo’s plentiful parks (CHUO; SHINJUKU)
If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan during Hanami (cherry blossom season), this is a must. We caught the tail end of the season on our April trip. Even if you miss it, the multiple sprawling, beautifully manicured Japanese gardens in Tokyo are worth exploring during your 4 days in Tokyo. They are tranquil retreats and a stark contrast from Tokyo’s crazy busy areas. You may walk through the chaos of Shinjuku station with thousands of people around you, then minutes later be in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden with no one around, wondering if you’re still in the same country.
Another beautiful garden we visited was the Hama-rikyu Gardens in Chuo. It’s perfect for a peaceful stroll and a stop at the lovely tea house there, Nakajima-no-Ochaya.
7. Visit Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo DisneaSea (URAYASU)
If you’re travelling with children or just want to feel like a kid again, this is a must-do on your 4 days in Tokyo. It was the highlight of our 36-hour layover in Tokyo in early 2019 with our kids. We chose Tokyo DisneySea because it’s unique to Tokyo, knowing we’d visit Disneyland in California shortly after.
If you’ve been to any Disney park around the world, expect no less from Tokyo DisneySea. It’s a beautiful park with different themed areas or “ports of call” (Mediterranean Harbor, Arabian Coast, etc.). Rides range from mild ones for toddlers to thrill rides like Raging Spirits and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But like other Disney parks, it’s essential to plan ahead. Get the Disney app and familiarize yourself with it, figure out how to use fast passes, and decide which rides to prioritize.
There are multiple nice hotels near the Disney parks (we stayed at the Hotel Okura Tokyo Bay), and a monorail providing connections between the two parks and hotels.
8. Visit the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (SHINJUKU)
This is a unique and expensive endeavour. But the swank factor of the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo is off the charts, and it’s worth the money to feel like a fancy pants for a couple of hours.
You may recognize this bar from the film Lost in Translation, where Bob and Charlotte (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) meet. It features live jazz music, epic views of Tokyo, and possibly the most expensive drinks you’ll ever swallow. A martini will run you about $29 Canadian. More of a scotch lover? A shot of Bowmore 25 will cost you a whopping $120. For us it was worth it to have a date in this iconic bar, and experience some of the best views of the city.
4 days in Tokyo: final thoughts
A few other things we did on our 4 days in Tokyo that are worthwhile are: immersing yourself in the techie weirdness of Akihabara, Tokyo’s famed electronics shopping district, complete with “maid cafes” and old school video game joints; upmarket shopping in Ginza; and wandering in charming, ancient Yanaka, one of Toyko’s oldest neighbourhoods.
With the 2020 summer Olympics being held in Tokyo, this massive, diverse city full of sincere and genuine people will only get better. Practice your “Arigato gozaimasu!” and take it on in all its glory.
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