The sprawling megacity of Tokyo, with its varied, distinct hubs of culture and activity, merits a lifetime of exploration, but sometimes you have 48 hours to spare. If you’re a savvy traveler, it’s possible to make those two days really count. From modern art to sushi trains to luxury shopping promenades, Tokyo is bursting with things to do for every kind of touristic personality. This 48-hour itinerary is a great way to immerse yourself in Japan’s largest and most exciting city.
Day 1: Morning
9 a.m.: Hit the ground running with a proper Japanese breakfast. From Shinagawa station, make your way to Odashi Tokyo. You might be familiar with dashi—the word for soup stock in Japanese. This restaurant differs from the classic Japanese breakfast with its special emphasis on soups and porridges that glimmer with the natural flavors of dashi done right—broth made from seaweed, dried fish (typically bonito flakes), shiitake mushrooms, and the like. The set menu here is ridiculously cheap for the quality (you can order an elegant “winter melon and sea bass in ginger broth” for only 980 yen). Portions are delicate, but you’ll want to save room for the snacks you’ll be devouring later in the day.
If you find yourself craving caffeine, try to avoid the temptation of the Shinagawa Starbucks and take the subway to Ningyocho neighborhood, a non-touristy part of the city that has some old concrete and wooden buildings with pre-war charm (it was spared a lot of bombing during World War II). Head to Morinoen, a small tea store with a quaint selection of quality, Japanese, loose leaf tea. You can also satisfy your sweet tooth here with a matcha parfait or a delicate scoop of hojicha ice cream.
10:30 a.m.: From Ningyocho station, make your way north to Asakusa, a neighborhood in the northeastern corner of the city. (If you hear your belly rumbling along the way, make a pit stop for a bowl of soba noodles at Yamura, a local spot with a very local vibe). Asakusa is home to one of the most famous temples in all of Japan, Senso-ji. The area marks one of the centers of “traditional” Tokyo, although you’re more likely to find plastic fans and geisha keychains than antique goods here.
Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. It’s a requisite stop on any Japan itinerary, and especially important if you only have two days for sightseeing. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see Kaminari-mon, or Thunder Gate—a gate with a gigantic red-paper lantern that measures 13 feet tall and 11 feet wide, and weighs around 1,500 pounds.
There’s a lot to explore here. Around 10 or 11a.m. the shops at Nakamise-dori start to open. This is the area on your way to the temple proper, a street packed with food stalls and small stores. Nakamise-dori is where the snacks are. This is where you can try local street food, including baked senbei crackers and imo yokan (balls of sweet potato jelly), ningyo yaki, small sponge cakes filled with red bean paste, and “thunder crackers,” puffed rice crackers made of rice, millet, sugar, and beans.
Day 1: Afternoon
1 p.m.: Time to make your way to the neighborhood of Ueno, a short train ride (or leisurely walk) from Asakusa. If you do walk, stop by Kappabashi, Tokyo’s kitchen district, to browse chef-quality knives and other culinary tools. For affordable ceramics, it’s beyond imperative that you visit Dengama, an unmissable storefront on Asakusa-dori street.
For lunch, chow down on a big bowl of eel and rice at Izuei Honten, a casual-but-classy restaurant with clear, stunning views of Ueno park. After your meal, it's time to tackle the Tokyo National Museum, an easily-digestible collection of ancient to modern art and artifacts.
For mid-afternoon coffee, try out one of Japan’s old-style cafes, called kissaten, by visiting Coffee Shop Galant, next to a bustling market just outside Ueno station.
If you’re visiting Japan during cherry blossom season, maybe skip the museum and spend the afternoon under the blossoms at Ueno park. Sakura season is a national holiday in almost every sense of the word; local salarymen and women even camp out under the trees for the best viewing spots.
Day 1: Evening
6 p.m.: It’s dinner time, and you’re probably lusting for sushi. For solid sushi that’s not too pretentious, try Midori Sushi. Located in the sleek streets of Ginza, it’s a dinner that won’t break the bank—plus, you don’t need reservations.
Take advantage of your time in Ginza and visit some of the many famous department stores (depato in Japanese) before they close for the night. Matsuya is a good one to start with, if only to check out its great basement food hall. For drinks, sip some nostalgia at Bar Lupin, a hidden treasure amidst the concrete and metal depato. This discreet basement bar was once frequented by Japan’s literary elite. A moscow mule in a copper mug is Lupin’s signature drink, and the bartenders also make cocktails with names like Charlie Chaplin (apricot brandy, sloe gin) and Golden Fizz (gin, lemon, egg yolk).
11 p.m.: You’re likely exhausted by now, so it’s time to head back to your hotel. Considering what precious time you have, you might want to opt for inexpensive Tokyo lodgings. But if you want to fall asleep with the classic Tokyo skyline, try booking a room at Asakusa View Hotel.
Day 2: Morning & Afternoon
11 a.m.: Allow yourself to sleep in a little bit before heading to Harajuku. It’s best to try to arrive at the famous Takeshita-dori street before the crowds make it impossible to enjoy. If you skipped breakfast, munch on one of the way-too-sweet crepes from the stalls that line the street’s pink-tinged promenade. It’s likely you’ll be slightly underwhelmed by the stores that Takeshita has to offer, but if you keep walking, you’ll hit Cat Street, an area with plenty of vintage and used clothing shops. If shopping doesn’t appeal to you, check out the collection of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art.
Recover from your crepe-induced sugar rush by strolling to Tas Yard, a farm-to-table restaurant that sells a handful of organic foods and products from both Japan and abroad. If that sounds too close to what you can get in your home country, get in line a big bowl of ramen at Afuri, a place that cherishes the “power of the ingredients” by refusing to use artificial preservatives, coloring agents, and chemical seasonings.
3 p.m.: Once you’ve had your fill of ramen (and Harajuku), it’s time to depart for Daikanyama, a sleek Tokyo neighborhood with upscale shops and restaurants. Here, you’ll find Daikanyama T-Site, a flagship store for the nationwide chain Tsutaya Books. Spend the afternoon browsing their books on Japanese design, or enjoy a coffee or two surrounded by vintage magazines at the Anjin Library & Lounge on the second floor. If you feel the need to squeeze in a history lesson, visit Kyu Asakura House, a well-preserved private residence from the Taisho Era.
Day 2: Evening
7 p.m.: Before heading uptown to Shinjuku, stop by Shibuya station. Make sure to get there in the thick of rush hour to experience the infamous scramble crossing in its most vigorous form.
For dinner, it’s time to see a seedier side of the city. Exit on the east side of Shinjuku station to get to Tokyo’s Memory Lane, an area of dimly-lit restaurants and food stalls that recalls a post-war area marked by crime and subpar bathroom hygiene. Rest assured, the food here—grilled meat on sticks, savory small plates, big mugs of draft beer—is safe, cheap, and delicious.
Continue this flow by walking to another collection of small establishments called Shinjuku’s Golden Gai which are small bars with room for only a handful of patrons. (Be wary of the fact that some of the places have cover charges.) After a few strong drinks, you’re ready to conclude your second full day of Tokyo adventures.