36 Hours in Tokyo

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I’ve been to Tokyo three times and still feel like I’ve barely plumbed its cultural depths. My first visit was nearly nine years ago, and while I checked off a lot of tourist attractions, I was an inexperienced traveler and didn’t have the same appreciation for the region I do now. My second visit was two years ago, in the dead of winter. We were there mainly to see friends and spent the majority of our time sitting on the heated floor of our rental apartment playing board games and eating Japanese junk food.

We made our most recent foray this past summer, though were limited to just 36 hours. I was determined to squeeze as much into that short time as possible! My first order of business was, of course, to eat. A lot. My love of ramen is well-documented and our friends had the perfect little spot lined up: Koumen, a local chain. This inexpensive but satisfying eatery was just the place to fuel up for our adventures.



After stuffing ourselves full of porky noodle-and-dumpling goodness, we set off to explore the city. First up was the restaurant supply market, a delightful street lined with stores selling everything from rice bowls and sushi knives to steamer baskets and sake cups. My favorite items, however, were the fake food. Restaurants all over Japan use these plastic sushi pieces and bowls of noodles to advertise dishes on their menu, often in a glass case near the entrance. I’m not sure how this practice started, but it’s highly useful for foreign diners who might not be able to decipher a Japanese menu. I wanted to buy a few pieces as a souvenir but they were surprisingly pricey.




These fake cans of beer cost US$24. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to use real ones?

I had enjoyed the temple district of Asakusa on my first visit to Tokyo and was keen to see it again. We were joined by thousands of tourists and Buddhist faithful who come to pray to the Goddess of Mercy at Sensō-ji, the colorful temple erected in her honor. Though all the original buildings were destroyed during World War II, the district remains one of the oldest in the city. A bustling shopping street leads away from the temple’s main gate, which is hung with immense red paper lanterns.





On a clear day, the views from the top of the Tokyo Skytree can’t be beat! The Skytree is the tallest building in Japan as well as the tallest free-standing broadcasting tower in the world. It was built in 2011 to replace Tokyo Tower, a smaller, red Eiffel-Tower knockoff which was no longer tall enough to broadcast signals over the surrounding skyscrapers. After taking a numbered card and waiting around an hour inside the tower’s quirky shopping mall, we reached the 35th-floor observation deck at dusk, just in time to watch the lights turn on all across the city. (Tickets cost about US$20.)





We ate dinner at an izakaya, the Japanese version of a pub with the welcome addition of barbecue. Seated on cushions on the floor around a low table, we drank frosty mugs of Asahi beer and enjoyed skewers of freshly grilled foods. Sundry parts of a chicken were consumed, from the thighs to the cartilage, along with the kidneys and tongue of a cow. Vegetables, like asparagus and cherry tomatoes, came wrapped in juicy pieces of bacon. This meal was a carnivore’s delight!



After putting on a few unhealthy pounds, the only thing left to do was to sing it off! Karaoke is incredibly popular in Japan, as in much of Asia, though quite different from the West where the experience tends toward public spectacle. We rented a private room which came stocked with a decent selection of English songs and tambourines for the backup singers. Liquid encouragement was ordered by phone and delivered by a discreet and efficient staff who have probably seen and heard it all. We called it a night after belting out our fill of the greatest hits of the 80s and 90s.


The next day we were in need of a long walk and some sushi, to counteract the excesses of the night before. After stashing our bags in a locker at Tokyo Station, we made our way to Sushi Zanmai, a famous chain whose main branch resides at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tuna, salmon and amberjack are my fish of choice, and I may have ordered second helpings of each. Thankfully this didn’t count against my baggage limit at the airport!





Have you been to Tokyo?

How would you spend 36 hours in the city?


35 thoughts on “36 Hours in Tokyo

  1. Great guide! You can really see a lot and experience a lot in Tokyo even in 35 hours, it’s insane! I was there just for the weekend, but it was crazy and intense! I managed to visit the main temples and get to the top for a night view. Sushi was amazing as well.
    Agness recently posted…How To Hitchhike in New ZealandMy Profile

    • Thanks, Agness! It really is amazing how much of Tokyo you can see in such a short time. The train system there is incredible!

  2. Sounds like a great way to spend a short visit to this amazing city, especially all the food stops! I was there 10 years ago and had a similarly short time, but was with a group, so had my itinerary sorted out for me.
    Sam recently posted…Guide to Buenos Aires NeighbourhoodsMy Profile

    • Not shown in this post is the food we ate at the airport 🙂 It’s always challenging when you’re traveling with a group. My friends didn’t really want to go to touristy and crowded Asakusa, but were good sports about it. The promise of karaoke is a good motivator!

    • I didn’t know there were fake food-making classes! I was with three Japanese speakers so we could have gotten in for sure. Next time!

      And Patsy Cline is from the town next to where I grew up in Virginia. Somehow I always end up singing country music when I do karaoke in Japan LOL!

    • Japan really does have the best vending machines. I can remember my own amazement when I first laid eyes on them so I can only imagine what it would be like for an 8-year-old. I hope you get to go back! 🙂

    • I know exactly what you mean. When I was in Shanghai, Taiwan wasn’t exactly calling me. But now I REALLY wish I’d gone! I have faith that we’ll both make it back to the places we missed in Asia one of these days 🙂

    • I do hope you make it! After living in Shanghai for two years, the cleanliness and order of Japan was always a welcome treat. And thanks to the superb train system, it’s easy to see a lot of Tokyo in a short time.

    • Japan is a special place – very unique! I’ll admit to not loving the food on my first visit, but once I knew what to order it was love at first bite! 🙂

  3. I’ve never been to Japan but hopefully will do so one day.

    It seems that you crammed a lot into your trip. Food seems to be a big appeal to many visiting Japan and you’ve been no exception. Although it is quite pricey and the price of that beer was frightening.

    After spending time living in the Middle East I’m not sure I’d like to sit on the floor again to eat my food.
    The Guy recently posted…No More Long Distance Relationships For MeMy Profile

    • Japan’s great, I really hope you get to visit! The train system makes it easy to see a lot in a short time.

      Taking off your shoes and sitting on the floor isn’t super fun, but it’s a small price to pay for all that delicious food! And not everything there is crazy expensive. Cans of real beer are much cheaper than those expensive fake ones made for display. I actually thought Singapore was more expensive than Japan.

  4. We spent 5 days in Tokyo and I think we barely did much more than you managed to cram into 36 hours, so well done! This was our very first stop on our “RTW” trip and I know we definitely didn’t make the most of it as we had no idea what we were doing. I’d love to go back one day and take advantage of the amazing food scene, now that we’re old pros at dealing with menus we can’t read and all of that fun stuff… One day when we’re rich we’ll go back to Japan and have a do over!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Feeling Blah about the Batu CavesMy Profile

    • I know exactly what you mean! My first trip to Tokyo nine years ago was my first time in Asia and I wasn’t into the food at all. I remember going to McDonald’s just because it was a known quantity and being disappointed to find soy sauce and mayo on my hamburger. And now here I am eating cow tongue! It was great to get that do over in Japan and I’m looking forward to similar ones in France and Italy, where the teen-aged me was less than thrilled with the food offerings 🙂

  5. This is great! I went a few summers ago and did a lot of the things on this list (love the plastic food, so cool!) Riding the subway was very cool for us, and we enjoyed seeing how they had pink “women only” cars! And of course, karaoke is a must in Japan!:-)
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted…UYC Style: Winter BluesMy Profile

    • I was living in NYC when I first went to Japan, and I remember thinking that I’d landed in this bizarre alternate universe where the sidewalks were spotless and the trains were eerily quiet. Now it’s one of my favorite countries. I’m glad you got to visit!

    • That’s an excellent question – for some reason I’ve never thought to investigate high tea options in Tokyo. You’ll have to go and let me know! 🙂

    • Thanks, Silvia! What were you doing on the tiny island for so long? Before moving to Tokyo, the friends I was visiting lived in more rural towns and exploring those areas was also fun. There’s still so much of the country I want to see! The Sapporo ice festival is high on my list. Have you been?

      • I was teaching English with the JET Program (and saving money to fund my current travels). I did go to the Sapporo ice festival and it was amazing! Highly highly recommended. Hokkaido is beautiful, and there was a crazy amount of snow!
        Silvia recently posted…Relaxing Riverside, Laos StyleMy Profile

  6. Thank You For Sharing
    I Suport You
    I Lkie Tokyo
    Love Tokyo! And everything Japanese for that matter

  7. Wow, wow, wow, Tokyo looks just amazingly beautiful and HUGE. Haven’t been there, yet, but it’s definitely on my list.

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