Most travelers reserve four or five days to explore Tokyo, and they still leave feeling many stones were left unturned. So if 24 hours is all you’ve got, it’s best not to set the insurmountable task of ticking every box. Rather, aim to scratch the surface of the primary pillars of Japanese culture: spiritual underpinnings, advanced consumer technology, and one of the world’s greatest culinary scenes.
For breakfast in Tokyo, most travelers opt for hotel buffets, which usually come decked out with Japanese staples: grilled salmon, miso soup, tamagoyaki (sweetened rolled egg), seasonal fruits, and natto (fermented soy beans). If you’re set on eating out, the best breakfast spots are congregated in the Shinjuku and Shibuya Wards.
Blu Jam Cafe in Daikanyama and Sarabeth’s in Shinjuku Station are great options for grilled sandwiches and fluffy pancakes, respectively. For food on the go, bakery chains, such as The City Bakery, serve a raft of buttery, over-indulgent pastries. If you want to break your fast like the Japanese do, check out Shinpachi Shokudo in Shinjuku for a fresh repast of salted fish, boiled rice, and tsukemono (pickle vegetables). And there are several Blue Bottle and Sarutahiko cafes located around downtown Tokyo for a morning cup of craft coffee.
Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine
If you’re already in downtown Tokyo, exploring Yoyogi Park and its centerpiece, Meiji Shrine, is a nice activity to start your adventures in the capital. Planted in the heart of Shibuya, the park was hand-crafted for a morning stroll with its placid lakes, water features, and tree-lined avenues. The main path from Yoyogi Station, indicated by the world’s largest wooden torii (arch-like gates marking the entrance of Japanese spiritual complexes), funnels toward the shrine under the brooding presence of giant oaks and cryptomeria cedars.
The Meiji Shrine at its end is an important cultural property. Built in 1920, it’s dedicated to Emperor Meiji (the first emperor in Japan’s modern era after power was regained from the Tokugawa military dictatorship in the late 1800s) and his consort, Empress Shoken. The shrine is built in the traditional Japanese style with deep-toned wood and sloping tile roofs, and it feels lightyears away from the park’s high-rise surroundings. It’s inspired by the Shinto religion — one of Japan’s predominant spiritual belief systems — in which people of great distinction often ascend to godlike status in the afterlife.
Shifting tone from Japan’s imperial past to the tech-crazed present, head over to Akihabara on the east side of the city — direct trains go from Shinjuku Station. Before you delve into the neighborhood consumed by pop culture, hit up one of the ramen shops nearby. Kikanbo is a modern take on ramen with pungent spices and pork belly infusing a broth that packs a punch. For something more traditional, slurp an umami-filled bowl of tonkotsu (pork bone ramen) at Hakata Furyu.
To some, parts of Tokyo can seem like a fantastical realm of anime characters and video game protagonists brought to life. Akihabara fits that stereotype. Walking down the main avenue, Chuo Dori, the colorful buildings, titular icons flashing across screens, and women addressing the public in suggestive maid outfits will create a tug of war for your haphazard attention. For respite from the chaotic streets, dip into the even more chaotic Hirose Entertainment Yard Taito Game Station for a blast on arcade machines that look like props from the Starship Enterprise. If you’re in the mood for a nostalgia-fueled treasure hunt, the shelves of Super Potato Retro Kan and Retro Game Camp are stacked high with the video games and consoles of yesteryear.
For a quick thirst-quench before dinner, there’s a Hitachino Nest Brewing Lab overlooking the bridge at the end of Chuo Dori. If the weather permits, take a seat on the outdoor deck with one of the brewery’s award-winning ales or lagers in view of Akihabara’s rainbow-dappled highstreet.
Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku
Finish up the day in Shinjuku, home to old red-light districts, a roaring Godzilla statue, restaurant-filled skyscrapers, speakeasies, themed bars, and the ridiculous Robot Restaurant. The last of these is kitschy, over-the-top, and, frankly, the food leaves much to be desired. The performances are singular, however, which is enough to attract curious visitors.
Hanbey, a fifth-floor izakaya (gastro pub) styled in the retro mold of mid-1900s Japan, is a better option, with cheap sharing plates of grilled meat and veg skewers and steins of draft beer. After you’ve lined your stomach with Japanese soul food, walk over to Golden Gai, the famous warren of alleyways that’s home to around 250 tiny bars. The tipple options are aplenty, and the merriments are guaranteed to continue long into the night. Just beware that not all of Golden Gai’s proprietors embrace Tokyo’s increasing multiculturalism. Just remember that if there’s English out front, you’re likely to be welcomed with open arms — not to mention Japan’s famous omotenashi (hospitality).