If you are travelling in Japan, a city trip to Tokyo has to be part of the itinerary. It is an enormous city, but you need at least 3 days in Tokyo to discover the top visitor attractions. This Tokyo itinerary shows you what to do in Tokyo in 3 days.
Tokyo in short
Tokyo is one of the prefectures (similar to district) of Japan.
Tokyo City has a population of nearly 9 million people, and is divided into 23 Special Wards. Since 1943, these wards act as independent cities. It is impossible of course to see all these wards during your 3 days in Tokyo, but it is recommended to explore the city by ward.
Tokyo once was a small fishing village. The new shogun, who belonged to the local Tokugawa family, made the area the centre of his ruling in 1603, changing it from Kyoto to Edo (as Tokyo was called at the time). Kyoto remained the capital as this is where the emperor lives, but the shogun was the one with the real power.
In 1868, Emperor Meiji rose to power. The Edo name disappeared, and Tokyo became the capital of Japan. The 1st of May 2019 marked the end of the Heisei period, and the start of the Reiwa period in Japan.
Japan has known many disasters. In 1923, the country was hit by a major earthquake and it destroyed most of Tokyo. Many Japanese people were killed in the Second World War, and the whole world is familiar with the images of the nuclear bombs destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Tokyo was the host of the 1964 Olympic Games. It marked the end of a dark period, and the start of major prosperity. But this growth caused a lot of pollution. In 1970, it was nearly impossible see Mount Fuji because of the smog. Tokyo implemented a lot of strict environmental regulations that have fortunately made a big difference.
Hotels in Tokyo
When you are planning to travel to Japan, you will soon notice that hotels are expensive. There are lots of hotels in Tokyo, in all price categories, but luxury 5-star hotels are incredibly expensive. You’ll easily spend between 200 and 700 euro per night.
If you want to stay somewhere that it a bit more budget-friendly, consider a Ryokan. These Japanese hotels often offer an onsen (a Japanese bath with water from a hot spring), and you don’t sleep on a bed, but on a futon (a flat mattress) that lies on a tatami (mat). They often roll up the futon during the day to make more space. You should really spend at least one night in such a Ryokan during your 3 days in Tokyo.
As Tokyo is so enormous in size, you need to carefully consider where you want to stay. Shinjuku is a crowded area, and the business centre of the city. The busiest station of Tokyo is also in this ward. In short, if you are planning some day trips during your 3 days in Tokyo, it is a good idea to stay near Shinjuku station.
As we will go on to do a Princess Cruise after our 3-day stay in Tokyo, we stayed at the Keio Plaza Hotel . The cruise company has an office in this hotel, which meant we got a good deal here in combination with the cruise.
Keio Plaza is a good 5-star hotel, but it is gigantic in size. The lobby is frantic! The rooms are large and supplied with all comforts, although not very stylish. But the location is great, and the view is fantastic. The view from our room included Mount Fuji and Tokyo’s iconic city hall. Another benefit is that every Japanese taxi driver knows the hotel. During our whole stay in Japan, this also seemed to be the only thing they understood immediately.
The hotel has many restaurants for breakfast, and you can choose between a European or a Japanese breakfast. Of course we chose the Japanese breakfast, and received a tray with different dishes. We’re still not quite sure what we ate, as the taste of some things were completely unfamiliar.
EXTRA: There is a Japanese smartphone in the room which you can use, free of charge, for the duration of your stay. Making calls, using Google Maps, useful pre-programmed overviews of restaurants and what to do in Tokyo in 3 days… very useful in a country like Japan.
If you are looking for a real luxury hotel in Shinjuku, consider the Park Hyatt Tokyo. It will also provide a view of Mount Fuji. Shinjuku station and the Shinjuku Gyo-en park are at 15- and 20-minutes’ walk from the hotel respectively.
3 days in Tokyo itinerary
DAY 1: Tokyo Itinerary: Tokyo highlights with a private guide
As we had heard that finding your way in Japan is not very straightforward initially, and as we only had 3 days in Tokyo, we decided to book a tour. The driver (who had a little more English than just three words) picked us up from the hotel, and brought us to the first visitor attraction in Tokyo.
The Meiji Shrine, in Shinbuya ward, is one of the best-known shrines, and one of the top visitor attractions in Tokyo.
A Shinto shrine can be translated as “place of the Gods” and is a building in which sacred objects are housed. It is not a place of worship, like a church or a temple. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan.
On the way to the main building you pass a so-called “Torii”. These torii mark the entry to a sacred space.
The Meiji shrine is surrounded by 700,000 m2 parks and gardens, and it is said that the trees bring good fortune. The trees, over 100,000, were gifts from the citizens to protect the soul of Emperor Meiji and his wife. Many Japanese people come to the park to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
The shrine was only built in 1920, in honour of the first modern emperor of Japan, Emperor Meiji. He was responsible for introducing drastic changes: Japan opened its borders after 250 years, he reformed the military and the government, and the country started modernising. Since that time, Japan has been catching up and it is now one of the most automated countries in the world. The so-call Meiji Restoration also meant the end of the shoguns.
Just before you get to the main building, you pass by a long row of wooden wine barrels on the right-hand side, and barrels of sake on the left-hand side. Great spot for a photo!
The next stop was the Tokyo Skytree. This broadcasting tower is the second-highest building in the world at a height of 634m, and can be seen from nearly everywhere in Tokyo. You can’t miss it during your 3 days in Tokyo.
It took four years to build, and cost a fortune. However, it is built to withstand the many earthquakes that shake Japan regularly.
There are observation platforms at 350m and 450m. You can look over the skyscrapers from the top platform, and you can see up to 50 kilometres in the distance.
You can get tickets from 20 euro. A bargain when you compare it to the tickets to visit the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Buy your tickets in advance, as it is often very busy.
Shibuya crossing is known among tourists for being the busiest crossroads in the world. When the light turns green, an average of 2500 people cross the road. If you watched the films “Lost in Translation” or “The Fast and the Furious, Tokyo Drift”, then you have certainly noticed this crossing.
For a good view of the crossroads, have a coffee at Starbucks.
There are enormous neon advertisements around the crossroads, which remind you of Times Square in New York. Try and visit here at night time.
You have a good view of the Tokyo Skytree from the crossing.
The Sensō-ji or Asakusa Kannon Temple in Asakusa was built in 628 or 645. It is the oldest temple in Tokyo, and one of the most famous. The original temple was nearly completely destroyed in the Second World War. The current temple is a re-build from 1958, and it draws many pilgrims who worship the god Kannon.
Legend tells about two brothers who fished a statue of Kannon from a nearby river. They immediately threw the statue back into the river, but for some reason, the statue kept coming back to them. This is why the Sensō-ji temple was built here.
As soon as you pass through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), you enter Nakamise-dori. That street is full of souvenir stands, and the only access route to the temple.
The complex consists of a temple, a shrine, and a pagoda that is 5 stories high. All orange-red in colour.
If you travel in April, you can enjoy the wonderful cherry blossoms here.
Similar to many other temples, you can pray for good fortune here. For 100 yen you can buy an o-mikuji or “paper of fortune”. You shake a box with wooden sticks, and make a wish. Then you pick one stick from the box. The stick belongs to a little drawer with your fortune. If you received a positive fortune, you can keep the paper, or tie it to the rack. If you draw an unfortunate one, then don’t panic. Throw it away immediately, and the bad luck stays behind. In many temples they only have Japanese notes, but here they have English translations included too.
Our three days in Tokyo fell in the middle of the cherry blossom season. The cherry blossoms are one of the top visitor attractions of Tokyo, and the blossoms along the banks of the Meguro river are some of the most beautiful in the city.
Over a stretch of 4 kilometres, no less than 800 cherry blossoms were planted. You simply have to visit the river during your city trip in Tokyo. Before you leave, find out when the annual Cherry Blossom festival is organised. It means that there will be lots of stalls with snacks and drinks. The trees are beautifully lit up in the evening, making them even more spectacular.
At the end of the season the blossoms drop and the river turns pink!
DAY 2 Tokyo Itinerary: Arcades, cafes, restaurants and the famous Robot Show
What to do in Tokyo in 3 days? If you like games, you’re in the right place in Tokyo. Although gambling is illegal in Japan, there are arcades on every street corner. Pachinko is the most popular game. The arcades feature row after row of the machines, and most of the chairs are taken. Walk through the arcade and wonder about the enthusiastic and very focused Japanese (mainly adults) who are playing. If you want to play yourself, be sure to bring ear plugs as the noise can be overwhelming.
There are also arcades you cannot pass by if you are traveling with kids. Just like we have at the fair, there are enormous glass cases with a claw to try and fish out your prize. My son wanted to have a go, and won himself a Japanese souvenir after his first try.
Every Tokyo itinerary should contain a walk through Kabukichō Sakura-dori street. It is the centre of the “sleepless town”. Flashing neon advertisement, karaoke bars, restaurants, and arcades everywhere. Kabukichō is known as the largest amusement district of Tokyo. The famous Robot Restaurant is also in this area.
- Harry Hadgehog Cafe, the first hedgehog café in the world.
- Ra.a.g.f rabbit Café, yes, full of rabbits. If you go on holiday, you can leave your rabbit here for its own break away.
Akiba Fukurou Owl Cafe is the place where you can sit at the bar beside an owl.
- There are cat cafés everywhere, including in Tokyo: Cat Café Calico.
If you are traveling to Tokyo with kids, they will love these places. Another great idea when traveling with kids is visiting Tokyo Disneyland.
Taste the local cuisine
Your city trip to Tokyo has to include a taste of some of the local cuisine. I think Japan is the only country in the world where a menu with pictures does not indicate anything about the quality of the food. I always recommend to not eat at restaurants that post pictures of the dishes at the door, but this does not hold up in Japan. The menus are often only in Japanese, and they all have pictures of the dishes. A good thing, as at least you have some idea of what you can expect.
For a quick, cheap lunch, go to Izakaya. The concept is somewhere between a café and a restaurant. They serve small dishes, so it is an ideal opportunity to try some of the different specialities (sashimi, sushi, tempura, ...).
One of my favourite dishes is ramen. Ramen are noodles in a fish, meat, or vegetable stock. It is the perfect lunch, as it is light and easy to digest. We know this dish in Belgium mostly through the packets of “Aiki noodles”, but they are nothing like the original.
It is easy to spot ramen restaurants, as they have “ramen” on the front, in our alphabet.
And of course you have to try the sushi. The downside is that the one you get at home will never taste as nice.
Also don't forget to taste the Japanese street food in Tokyo.
And last but not least, get some food from the wall. Tokyo is full of vending machines with the most flashy-looking drinks, weird sweets, and even ice creams.
When you google what to do in Tokyo in 3 days, the Robot Restaurant is the first thing that comes up. You don’t need to be a fan, but it is so typically over-the-top Japanese that it cannot be missed on your any Tokyo itinerary, and it is a must-do if you are travelling with children.
Dear husband was sick, it was 4 degrees outside, and the rain was pouring down. The ideal circumstances for a visit to the Robot Restaurant.
And although it is called a restaurant, you should not have food here! Do not book a show during dinner time, as there are so many better and cheaper options.
Ensure you book tickets beforehand, as the show is usually sold out. And you often pay a little less online than at the venue. My son and I did not have a ticket, and the show was sold out. However, you can wait on the other side of the street to see if there were free seats as people did not show up, and we were lucky. We got in!
As soon as you walk in, it is a full sensory overload. Loud music, fluorescent colours, and flashing lights. You immediately come into some type of “waiting room”. A robot plays the piano while you wait in one of the large chairs for the show to start. The chairs could be straight from a Roberto Cavalli showroom by the looks of them.
Eventually you are let into the main hall, and you pass another crazy, flashing stairwell. The hall features collapsible chairs on the left and the right. Everyone sits down, the lights go down, and the spectacle starts.
Enormous drums are rolled in. Dancers with flashy costumes enter, and laser beams shoot through the hall. You don’t know where to look first. Deafening music blasts from the speakers all the time. I couldn’t really discover a story line, but that wasn’t really necessary. After a good half hour, there is a short break. If you ordered food, it is served now. You can also get popcorn, or a drink. Besides soda you can get wine in a glass-shaped bottle, and a cocktail-like drink in a light bulb.
Eventually you are let into the main hall, and you pass another crazy, flashing stairwell. The hall features collapsible chairs on the left and the right. Everyone sits down, the lights go down, and the spectacle starts. Enormous drums are rolled in. Dancers with flashy costumes enter, and laser beams shoot through the hall. You don’t know where you look first. And deafening music blasts from the speakers all the time. I couldn’t really discover a story line, but that wasn’t really necessary. After a good half hour, there is a short break. If you ordered food, it is served now. You can also get popcorn, or a drink. Besides soda you can get wine in a glass-shaped bottle, and a cocktail-like drink in a light bulb.
After the break, the show intensifies even more, if that’s possible.
If the show doesn’t cause you to go into an epileptic fit, you can be fairly sure you’ll never have one.
So do you need to see the Robot Show? Yes! Even though it is very kitsch, I think it is one of the top visitor attractions in Tokyo.
And the cost? You pay 8000 yen at the venue (about 65 euro pp; April 2019) for a ticket without food. There are cheaper tickets available online.
DAY 3 Tokyo Itinerary: daytrip to Kyoto with the bullet train
As 3 days in Tokyo is not enough to see all the city has to offer, we decided to take a day trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the third day. Our cruise would not pass by Kyoto, and we really wanted to see this city. As well as that, it was a good opportunity to try out the shinkansen, or bullet train. Japan is known for its extensive, punctual, and well-appointed trains.
Here's all about our Kyoto 1 day itinerary.
Of course you can consider other day trips from Tokyo.
How about a day to Mount Fuji, the iconic Japanese mountain and UNESCO World Heritage Site? A 10-hour day trip leaves from Shinjuku station, and you travel by shinkansen to Yamanashi. You visit the Kawaguchiko Oishi Park, where you can take beautiful photos of the lake with Mount Fuji, a volcano, in the background.
From May to November it is possible to make a stop in Fujisan Gogome, halfway up Mount Fuji. You have a great view of the area from here. From December to April it is possible to stop at the Arakura Senghen Shrine. This is the only place where you can take a photo of the 5-story high pagoda with Mount Fuji in the background.
In the afternoon you visit the eight lakes in Ashino Hakkai. Here you can taste the water that comes from Mount Fuji, and on the way back you stop in Gotemba, one of the largest premium outlets of Japan.
Is it worth to stay 3 days in Tokyo?
Tokyo speaks to our imagination and it's a city you have to visit at least once. 3 days in Tokyo is way too short, but it's a good start. With the above Tokyo itinerary, you have a practical on what to do in Tokyo in 3 days. It could be the first of many journeys to Japan.
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