One day in Tokyo will never be enough time. But if you’re on a stopover and 24 hours in Tokyo is all you have for a taste of Japan’s delectable capital we strongly recommend taking a bite of the city that many of the world’s best chefs believe is the world’s best food destination.
One day in Tokyo was all we had on our first trip many years ago that took us from Sydney via Tokyo to Mexico City. It was a stopover that couldn’t be avoided and while we could have stayed at a Narita airport hotel we decided to make the most of the very short time we had for a nibble at Tokyo. Best decision ever.
It was a challenging one day in Tokyo in the days before the internet, without Google and online translators, when few Japanese people spoke English, but we created some enduring memories and the strongest memories were food-related. We recommend you do the same.
Follow our flavour-packed one day in Tokyo itinerary and experience the city the way we like to experience it, and we guarantee you a memorable stay – especially if you’re a food lover.
One Day in Tokyo Itinerary for Foodies – Where to Eat, Snack, Shop, Drink
Getting to Tokyo
If you only have one day in Tokyo you must be on a stopover, so plan your arrival and departure well to give you a full day and night. There are daily flights from most major destinations to Tokyo. For instance, JAL (Japan Airlines) has 21 flights per week from Bangkok to Tokyo’s excellent Narita International Airport. Don’t forget to check visa requirements. From Narita International Airport train terminal take the Narita Sky Access Line, Keisei Railway or the JR Line into the centre of Tokyo. Buses and taxis leave from outside Arrivals but avoid taking taxis if you can, as they are outrageously expensive. The Airport Limousine Bus is reasonably priced, comfortable, and service is excellent with porters taking care of your luggage. The Narita International Airport website has information about train and bus services with links to timetables.
Getting Around Tokyo
Tokyo’s metro train systems – yes, there are several – are superb. For convenience, buy a plastic PASMO card from the ticket machines at your nearest Metro, put a few thousand yen on it, and simply swipe it as you go through the gates leading to the platforms (you see the balance every time) and swipe it on the way out again. You get Y500 deposit back when you hand in the card before leaving.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
Shinjuku is quintessential Tokyo and fantastic for a short stay, especially if you’re going to follow our one day in Tokyo itinerary. If money is no object, the Park Hyatt Tokyo is unbeatable and the best choice for this itinerary as you can dump your shopping before heading to the New York Bar and as a guest avoid the cover charge. Next best is the mid-range Hotel Gracery, slap bang in the nightlife district and super-handy to our recommended dinner and drinking options. Shibuya is close to Shinjuku and Trunk Hotel is a stylish boutique that’s representative of Tokyo’s new breed of hotels. The more affordable 3.5-star Shibuya Granbell Hotel is a perfectly comfortable design hotel and has a sister hotel, the Shinjuku Granbell. See our guide to Tokyo’s best hotels for first time visitors and Tokyo’s best neighbourhoods for more suggestions.
Coffee in Tokyo
Kickstart your one day in Tokyo with an espresso at Turret Coffee (1F SK Higashi-Ginza Building 2-12-6 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, 7am-6pm Mon-Sat, noon-6pm Sun; Station: Tsukiji), tucked down a laneway across the road from Tsukiji market. Taking its name from the delivery vehicles that shift fish around the markets – there’s one in the café with a tatami mat on it that serves as a seat – the café is an ideal pre- or post-market fuel stop. Owner Kiyoshi Kawasaki is serious about his coffee, sourcing his beans from Hiroshi Sawada, Japan’s first barista champion turned coffee roaster. While you can order classic coffees (Australians and Europeans be warned: American sizes served), there are some more creative drinks on offer, too, from the local favourite, a sea salt caramel latte, to monthly specials that have included the likes of a Rocky Jelly latte comprised of bitter coffee jelly. Order a Japanese snack such as dorayaki, a bean paste sandwiched between two sweet pancakes.
Morning in Tokyo
There’s no better way to kick off one day in Tokyo that with a visit to Tsukiji Fish Market and Tsukiji Outer Market with a knowledgeable food guide. We dug deep with Tokyo food and sake expert Etsuko Nakamura. Unless you’re a chef or restaurateur, skip the tuna auction and jump straight into Tsukiji Fish Market (pronounced su-ki-jee) around 9am when the wholesalers are more relaxed. You’ll be able to identify those who have made good sales by the big smiles on their faces as they break down the fish to send off to the restaurants. Visit with a respected local guide and you could find yourself being offered just-cut tuna to try. Don’t dare decline – it could just be the most sublime thing you taste in Tokyo. Exploring the foodie paradise of Tsukiji Outer Market is just as compelling an experience with its scores of specialised shops selling everything from kitchen supplies, handmade knives and ceramics to Japanese snacks and ingredients, such as nori (seaweed), unagi (dried fish), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), furikake (rice seasoning), tarako (spiced cod roe) and karasumi (bottarga). If you’re here in summer, look for the colossal luscious rock oysters from Ivakaki. Order and you can slurp them down as they’re freshly shucked in front of you.
If you’re visiting independently, note that the fish market is closed on Wednesday and Sunday. Take Tokyo Oedo subway line to Tsukiji Ichiba Station and use exit A1. Walk through the parking/loading area to the fish market; if you think you’re lost, ask for ‘Tsukiji Ichiba’. Plan to arrive at the fish market at 10am, when they officially let visitors in, then hit the outer market once you’re done. Take care: this is a working market, not a tourist attraction; vehicles are continually shifting boxes of seafood around and the floor is very wet and very slippery.
Early Lunch in Tokyo
To lunch like the locals, aim to hit one of the no-frills teishoku (set menu) eateries on the outside of the Tsukiji Outer Market around 11am, as you won’t find a seat any closer to twelve. Filling set menus include a daily special – when we went, I opted for a sublime sea urchin, while Terence went for the fresh local fish of the day – plus vegetables, sauces, pickles, miso, and rice for around US$10. Our guide Etsuko advised skipping the sushi joints at Tsukiji, which she called “very average” and overpriced: “You can pay anything from ¥5000 (US$65) to ¥30,000 (US$390) for sushi in a top place, but locals would never pay that much unless it was a very special occasion or a business meal,” she confided. “All the sushi is fresh and good in Tokyo. Just go to the places locals go.”
Midday in Tokyo
A one day in Tokyo itinerary for foodies visiting for the first time has to include a foodhall at a Tokyo department store or two and there are three nearby in Tokyo’s must-do shopping destination, Ginza, a ten-minute walk from Tsukiji Outer Market. First stop should be the furthest away, Matsuya (12 minutes from the market), then on the next block Mitsukoshi (which has two basement floors of food!), and then Matsuzakaya, another block away. Foodies will want to head directly down to the subterranean food halls – called depachika; ‘depa’ is a Japanese shortcut for department store, and ‘chika’ means ‘underground mall’ – where you’ll be overwhelmed by a gobsmacking selection of exquisitely packaged edible souvenirs, Japanese snacks such as shrimp crackers and salted plums, traditional Japanese confectionary (wagashi) tins of matcha and sencha tea, Japanese whiskeys, and more. They are very generous with the offering of tastings – don’t decline, it’s impolite! Expect to salivate over the sushi, fresh produce, including insanely expensive fruit, and cakes from some of Europe’s finest pastry-makers. If you’re still hungry buy a bento box and when you need to catch your breath, resurface and stroll down to Hamarikyu Gardens. Note: if you’re here in summer, we don’t recommend this 25-minute walk in the searing heat, when you’re best taking a taxi the short distance. Also note that if you spent too long at Tsukiji Outer Market, Asakusa, your next stop also has a Matsuya.
Afternoon in Tokyo
A one day in Tokyo itinerary for foodies would be remiss if it didn’t include some time in Asakusa, so after working up an appetite with an amble around the lovely, leafy Hamarikyu Gardens (1-1, Hama-Rikyu-teien, Chuo-ku), hop on a Tokyo water bus for the 40-minute cruise on the Sumida River to Asakusa (10am-5pm, every 30 minutes, $7 at time of research; take care to get on the right boat). Asakusa is home to a tiny shitamachi neighbourhood with laneways peppered with retro houses that are home to traditional restaurants and specialty shops. Dating to the Edo period, most of it was rebuilt after the war, but it nevertheless has remnants of the old world and is a must for food-lovers. A warning: Asakusa teems with people – Japanese and foreign visitors – here to see the ancient red lacquered Buddhist Sensō-ji Temple, dating to 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple. Also known as the Kannon Temple, it’s dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Kannon. Beside the temple is a five-storey pagoda known as the Shinto Shrine or Asakusa Shrine, but before you enter you’ll pass under the massive Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, with an enormous central lantern and statues of two guardians, Fujin, the god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder.
Snacking in Tokyo
Snack lovers will want to take things slowly down the Asakusa’s snack shopping street of Nakamise Dori, which leads to Sensoji Temple. Established in 1685, during the Edo period, it’s Tokyo’s oldest shopping street and it’s a custom for locals to buy traditional snacks here, such as red bean buns and rice crackers. Shops not to miss: Tokiwado, by the gate, dating to 1892, which specialises in kaminari-okoshi, a sweet snack made from rice and sugar; Bairindo, established in 1876, which sells snacks made from beans and nuts, such as roasted soy beans, fried broad beans, roasted green-peas, and coated peanuts; Kameya, for high quality traditional rice crackers; Kinryuzan Asakusa-mochi Honpo, dating to 1675, for rice dumplings flavoured with Japanese pepper and sweet bean paste-filled buns in a tempura-style; Kimuraya Honten, opened in 1868, the oldest cake shop specialising in ningyo-yaki, baked doll-shaped cakes made from wheat flour, egg and sugar, filled with a sweet bean-paste; Isekan, dating to 1717, for its dried seaweed nori, famous for its Asakusa-nori during the Edo period, when Tokyo was the largest nori producing prefecture until 1939; and Yagenbori, established in 1625, the inventor of shichimi-togarashi, the traditional Japanese blend of seven spices – Japanese pepper, red chili pepper, poppy seeds, black sesame, citrus peel, hemp seeds, and nori – typically added to soba, udon and yakitori. Ask and staff will prepare a special blend for you.
Your last snack stop, Funawa, opened in 1902 and the oldest of the many shops here specialising in sweet potato snacks, is the spot to sit down and try mitsumame, the original ‘dessert glass’ of agar jelly, red beans, dried apricot, and a gummy rice cake, that was revolutionary when first served in 1903. It now includes vanilla ice cream and you can choose your own syrup to pour on top.
Shopping in Tokyo
Denpoin Dori offers a different kind of shopping with stores specialising in traditional fans, origami washi paper, handmade hairbrushes, lacquered chopsticks, tea-pots and tea cups, and tenugui, pretty cotton cloths typically used as hand towels. Kururi is a lovely little shop behind Nakamise-dori near Sensoji Temple specialising in tenugui, as well as furoshiki, square cloths used as gift-wrapping. Kurodaya right by Kaminarimon Gate sells exquisite washi and other Japanese paper products, including pretty stationery and woodblock prints. And if you haven’t bought enough sweets yet, Mannendo on Denpoin specialises in kinkato, Japanese sugar craft dating to the Edo period, and confectionary made with just sugar and water. Buy small bags of konpeito, colourful spiky sugar candy balls, and sweet, edible maneki-neko, the red and white beckoning cats.
Late Lunch in Tokyo
From Denpoin Dori you can take a right into Hoppy Street (pictured above) and stroll in the direction of Hanayashiki Amusement Park (Tokyo’s oldest). Lined with dozens of cheap izakayas with outdoor seating beneath strings of big red lanterns, the street is named after Hoppy, an old fashioned Japanese drink dating to the 1940s that consists of a low alcohol beer (less than 1% alcohol) and a mug of Shochu, the Japanese distilled spirit, which you add to the beer according to your taste. If you get ask if you want ‘white’ or ‘black’ hoppy, ‘white’ is milder with less alcohol, and ‘black’ is stronger. On weekends, the places get packed with locals who are in the area for the off-track betting – which is why most eateries have a television with the horse-racing on. You won’t see many English language menus nor find many staff who speak English so just smile and point to whatever looks good in that “I’ll have what they’re having way”. The specialty is a delicious spicy beef stew, which explains the other nickname, Stew Street. The most popular stew spots are Tonpei, Suzuyoshi and Okamoto-Asakusa-Honten. Alternatively, nearby Daikokuya Tempura, established in 1887, is the place to order tendon, a big filling bowl of rice with generous portions of crispy-fried seafood and vegetable tempura.
More Shopping in Tokyo
A short stroll away, Kappabashi-dogu-gai is Tokyo’s kitchenware street, with some 150 shops lining a kilometre stretch of road established over a hundred years ago to service the restaurant and catering industry. These days the shops get almost as many culinary travellers as they do pro chefs here to buy top quality Japanese knives, ceramics, kitchen utensils, and the like. Don’t miss: Kama-Asa, which opened in 1908 and is still ran by the fourth generation of knife vendors, for knives, as well as pots and pans that will last a life-time and handcrafted wooden utensils and more; artisanal cutlery store Kamata, which opened in 1923, for top quality knives, which you can not only have sharpened before you leave, but also have your name engraved in Japanese; and Maizuru (also referenced as Maiduru) for plastic food replicas of ramen bowls and tempura plates and the like that are displayed in shop windows. The miniature magnets and keychains make fun souvenirs and gifts for foodies. (If you’re keen to learn how to make your own, on your next trip, book a class at Yamato Sample studio.) Ready for a drink? From Maiduru you can either backtrack to Asakusa Station and take the Tsukuba Express to Shin-Okachimachi Station or you can do the 10-minute walk directly to Shin-Okachimachi Station and take the Oedo Line for the Tochomae Station from where it’s a 10-minute walk to the Park Hyatt.
Drinks in Tokyo
If you only have one day in Tokyo, you’re going to want to sip sundowners with sweeping panoramic city views. If you’re a fan of Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation, iconic bars and breathtaking views, then plan for sunset drinks at the Park Hyatt’s New York Bar & Grill on the 52nd floor. Arrive soon after the 5pm opening to avoid the cover charge that applies from 8pm Mon-Sat; from 7pm Sundays; 2,500 JPY cover charge at the time of research. If there’s a long line, an alternative is the Peak Bar, off the hotel lobby on the 41st floor, which offers free flowing cocktails and canapés from 5-8pm for 4,800 JY. No reservations at either bar unfortunately. If you’re in the mood for a meander, it’s a 20-minute (max) mosey to dinner or you can take a taxi in ten minutes.
Dinner in Tokyo
There’s only one way to end one day in Tokyo for foodies and that’s tucking into plates of skewers at the smoke-filled yakitori bars on the atmospheric alleys of Omoide Yokocho or Memory Lane. This endearingly-retro and a little rowdy eating and drinking quarter beside Shinjuku railway line is popular with salarymen who seem to either be slurping a quick bowl of noodles on their way home or settling in for the night at a counter with friends, washing down grilled meats with glasses of chūhai (shōchū with soda and lemon). If you’re up for more and consider yourself something of a culinary adventurer then head to one of our all-time favourite Tokyo eating spots, Nihon Saisei Sakaba, a tachinomiya or stand-up eating bar (they also have some counter space) that specialises in sublime motsuyaki (charcoal-grilled offal) or horumon ryori (pork and beef offal cuisine) – Japan’s take on nose-to-tail eating. Order a few of the tapas-size plates: follow the advice of the friendly waiters or your closest dining companions, otherwise order the grilled vegetables, small intestines, shoulder or tongue, then work your way to the raw liver and raw heart. Trust us when we say it’s all incredibly tasty.
Post-Dinner Drinks in Tokyo
Up for final drink? It’s just a few minutes’ stroll to the Golden Gai, our favourite drinking quarter, where the narrow neon-lit alleys are lined with over two hundred teensy atmospheric nomiya – miniscule themed bars that squeeze in no more than a dozen drinkers at any one time. Our favourite bar is La Jetée (open 7pm-late Wed-Sat and occasionally shuts for holidays), as much for owner Tomoyo’s hospitality and brilliant music collection (flip through the CDs and Tomoyo will play what takes your fancy), the atmosphere and backstory – I adore the Chris Marker film about time travel and memory after which Tomoyo named her bar, and the fact that she told us how Wim Wenders used to drop in for a drink when he was filming the sublime Tokyo-Ga (about Ozu and Tokyo). Tell Tomoyo we sent you for a drink and, once your confidence has been boosted, go and pick your own bar. Amble up and down the alleyways, peeking into the petite bars, until you hear a song you like or are called in by a friendly owner… it’s those personal connections that make drinking in the Golden Gai so memorable, and that’s what you want to end your one day in Tokyo itinerary. Kampai!
Do let us know if you use our one day in Tokyo itinerary for foodies and what you think of what we’ve planned for you. We’d love to hear of any tips you have, too.