3 Days in Tokyo—Where to Eat, Stay, and Explore

If you’re lucky enough to travel to Tokyo at some point, it’s likely that you’ll leave with a different feeling than you’d expect. Little did I know the largest metro city in the world would teach me to slow down, savor the moment, and live with less. I boarded the plane home with a deep reverence for the Japanese culture and way of life. Their ability to balance tradition and modernity, a respect for and a wish to live in harmony with nature, and an emphasis on politeness and moderation. Any time I’ve had the chance to travel to one of the world’s major cities like New York City or Paris, I’ve witnessed the hustle and living life at full throttle. I found that I returned to Austin with a distinct sense of peace and rejuvenation.

Tokyo Travel Guide: 3 Days to Savor and Explore

Despite being the most densely populated city in the world, Tokyo marches to the beat of its own drum. (When you see pork cutlets paired with a yogurt parfait, you’ll know what I mean.) In terms of technology, transportation, and trends, Japan feels leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world.

Little did I know the largest metro city in the world would teach me to slow down, savor the moment, and live with less.

I left knowing I’d barely scratched the surface of this massive city. It’s hard to do Tokyo justice in a single travel guide, but ahead, I’m sharing the sights, eats, and activities we enjoyed plus recommendations from trusted friends that we are saving for next time.

Tips for Visiting Tokyo for the First Time

As beginners, we were surprised to find that Tokyo was fairly easy to navigate. While very few people outside the hotel spoke English, many of the signs and menus had English translations. The neighborhoods are also easy to remember because they all have their own distinct ethos.

Here are a few tips for success if you’re headed to Tokyo for the first time.

  1. Download Google Translate. While there was plenty of English signage and we were able to navigate the city fairly easily, Google Translate came in handy when we outside the hotel. Especially the ability to upload photos of menus, signs, etc.
  2. Bring cash for cabs, restaurants, etc. Credit cards are not accepted in a lot of places. It can be difficult to find ATMs, but most 7-Elevens and CitiBanks have them.
  3. Avoid eating and drinking on the go. It’s considered impolite to consume food or drinks while walking the streets. Plus, there are no trashcans on the streets so you’ll need to hold onto any trash.
  4. Leave time in your itinerary to wander. We stumbled across our favorite spots when we had time to just explore and discover. Pick a cool neighborhood to check out and see where the wind takes you.
  5. Tipping is not customary in Japan. Some restaurants will include a service charge on the bill.
  6. The taxi door will close automatically when you get out. You do not need to shut the door yourself. I had a hard time breaking this habit.

When to Visit Tokyo

  1. Spring (March to May). This is the most popular time to visit Tokyo when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the weather is mild and sunny.
  2. Summer (June to August). Summer is hot and humid in Tokyo, but if you’re not afraid of the heat this is a great time to enjoy the city outside the busy season.
  3. Fall (September to November). While September is still pretty hot and humid, the weather begins to dip at the end of the month and the leaves will begin to turn.
  4. Winter (December to February). Winter in Tokyo can be cold, but I would love to go back to soak up the holiday season and hit up a nearby ski mountain.

Getting to Tokyo

Tokyo has two major airports: Narita International Airport (NRT) and Haneda Airport (HND). While Narita is the main international airport in the city, Haneda is closer to the city center. Both airports are well-connected to downtown Tokyo by train, bus, and taxi.

Coming from Austin, we decided to fly in and out of LAX, and then fly directly to Tokyo. Once we got to LA, we took the direct overnight flight to Haneda. Our flight took off at 12:50 am PST (which was almost 3 in the morning Austin time), but our best bet was to stay up until we could pass out on the plane. This was difficult but worth it because once we landed, it was easier to adjust to the time zone.

Where to Stay: Best Tokyo Hotels

Just like any major city, there is no shortage of amazing hotels in Tokyo. Depending on your budget and preferences, you may want to start by figuring out what neighborhood you want to be your home base and research hotels around there. If you’re looking for a more luxurious experience, consider staying in the Ginza or Shinjuku districts. If you’re looking for something on the more hipster/trendy side, the Shibuya and Asakusa districts have great hotel options.

Peninsula Hotel Tokyo

Centrally located and only a five-minute taxi ride from the Tokyo Central Train Station, the Peninsula Hotel was the ideal home base for our stay. The staff was incredibly warm and friendly, and the 23-story hotel boasts incredible views of Ginza and the imperial palace. The rooms are decorated in a mix of traditional Japanese and modern styles mirroring the old-meets-new vibe of Tokyo itself.

Highlights of our stay included the expansive indoor swimming pool, fitness center, and luxurious spa, and the daily breakfast is a can’t-miss. We were grateful to spend our first trip to the city at such an iconic Tokyo institution.

Trunk Hotel

This hotel came highly recommended by so many friends, and when we stopped by for a coffee we could see why. The lobby is trendy and buzzing with people working and hanging out. It’s located conveniently in Shibuya so you’re steps away from some of the most amazing restaurants and shopping in all of Tokyo.

Aman Hotel Tokyo

If you’re able to splurge, this hotel was quite impressive. Friends of ours who had stayed there said it was an over-the-top experience. We stopped by for afternoon tea and were blown away by the sleek, modern interiors and incredible service. It’s located in the Otemachi district and near all major metro lines.

Where to Eat in Tokyo

Tokyo is a foodie’s paradise, and it’s tough to narrow down the restaurant options when you have hundreds of thousands of world-class restaurants to choose from. Definitely try to plan ahead and make reservations when you can, because a lot of the best restaurants are small and can only accommodate a few tables. If you have access to a hotel concierge, they’re a great resource for recommending spots and helping navigate reservations.


Seirinkan and Savoy. Didn’t expect to find the best pizza of your life in Japan? Neither did we. These two pizza restaurants are world-renowned and for good reason.

Eatrip. This place can be tricky to find but serves fresh farm-to-table dishes in an inventive way. The menu changes regularly based on what’s in season.

Ol by Oslo Brewing Company. When you’ve had enough Japanese food and your taco cravings hit, this tiny brewery in the heart of Shibuya has an incredible taco truck outside that even we Austinites were impressed with. Plus, the beers on draft are refreshing after a day of walking around in the sun.

Narukiyo. If you’re looking for fun, hilarious vibes, and great Japanese food, this is your spot. There is no menu at this restaurant and the food is served Omakase style, so they’ll keep bringing it out until you tell them you’re done. The best thing we ate was the grilled Wagyu beef.

Yakumo Saryo. When we asked a friend who’s traveled to Tokyo many times what her favorite restaurant was, this was her answer. Previously a private club, this restaurant was reservation-only and Omakase style. Many of the dishes are prepared right next to the table and the interiors are beautiful.

Sushi Ginza Onodera. We didn’t get a chance to eat here but we heard this is a great spot for some of the highest-quality sushi in all of Ginza. It’s open for both lunch and dinner but reservations are required.

Tsukiji Fish Market. A global hub for seafood, this is where all of the sushi chefs and five-star hotels come to source their fish. It’s one of the largest and busiest fish markets in the world and the outdoor area is said to be a great place to buy fresh seafood, produce and other Japanese goods.

Fuku. Located in Shibuya, this Michelin-starred restaurant is consistently ranked as one of the best in Tokyo. We didn’t get to eat here but I’ve heard great things about their innovative dishes like the foie gras and wagyu beef tataki.

Kondo. Another Michelin-star restaurant serving some of the best sushi and tempura around. The restaurant only has 10 seats and every guest is served by the head chef himself.

Yakumo. This restaurant in the Aoyama district is a great option if you’re looking to enjoy traditional Japanese food including sushi and kaiseki cuisine.

Maisen Aoyama. This restaurant was recommended for its high-quality tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets).

Cafés and Treats

Banana Juice. After plenty of Japanese food, I was craving a smoothie—and banana juice was the closest thing. Stop by this tiny shop tucked into an alleyway in Ginza and order one of their banana-based blended concoctions for a healthy milkshake-like treat.

Path. A French café that serves coffee and pastries during the day and delicious European-inspired cuisine at night. Camille loved the croissants at this little café and the woman knows her croissants.

Chatei Hatou. A cozy café with coffee and pastries that gives off an old-world vibe. Come here for the slow-drip coffee and nostalgia.

Camelback. Tiny take-out café with Brooklyn vibes and the MOST incredible sandwiches and coffee.

7-Eleven. Trust us. The 7-Elevens in Japan are impressive. You can find some amazing steals when you peruse the aisles.

What to Do in Tokyo: The Sights

Art Galleries

Mori Art Museum. A contemporary art museum with rotating exhibitions. This is a good one to dip your toes into the modern art scene in Tokyo and can be explored in 1-2 hours.

National Museum of Modern Art. Founded in 1952, this museum holds an impressive 100,000+ works of contemporary art. If you’re an art lover this is a must-stop.

TeamLab Planets. If you’re looking for a more immersive art experience, TeamLab Planets is a digital art museum that’s fun for any age. My husband and I got to experience art in a whole new way at this museum. Try walking through the rainbow water barefoot or wading your way through a room completely made of foam.

Temples and Shrines

Meiji Shrine: While Tokyo is a modern metropolis, it’s still filled with rich history and historical sites. The Meiji Shrine is one of the most popular and lies in a forest in the heart of the city. It was completed in 1920 and the grounds cover over 170 acres with beautiful walking trails. It’s the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Go to a Sumo Tournament

One of my biggest regrets from the trip was not attending the Sumo national championship tournament that was going on while we were in Tokyo. I’ve heard from friends that this is an unforgettable experience and I plan on attending one next time.

Visit Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing is one of the busiest intersections in the world and lies in the middle of one of the most popular shopping districts. At any point, you can see thousands of people crossing the crosswalks at once. It’s a bit chaotic at times but a great way to experience the energy and excitement of the city.


Daikanyama T-Site. This is a shop to get lost in. It’s also an architectural gem with stunning design, a gorgeous café, and rooms lined with books, stationery, kitchenware, and more. I could have spent hours in this store.

Beams. This Japanese clothing store is filled with stunning men’s and women’s options. Camille and Adam both found great pieces here.

Ginza. This neighborhood is known for high-end shopping and luxury goods. You can find everything from designer clothes and handbags to fine art and jewelry.

Harajuku and Shimokitazawa. Stumble upon vintage shopping, streetwear, and trendy cafés and restaurants.

3 Days in Kyoto—Here’s Where to Eat, Stay, and Shop

As the bullet train began to slow, the automated voice over the speaker announced (first in Japanese and then in English) that we should be ready to deboard—the train would be stopped for 1 minute, and only 1 minute. We quickly gathered our things, scurried out of the train station and stepped into Kyoto, a city that’s been on my bucket list for a decade. As expected, it turned out to be an experience unlike any other.

Kyoto’s character is impossible to sum up in a paragraph, but here are a few things that make it such a special place. First, as the old capital of Japan, Kyoto was the center of arts, so today it’s brimming with the country’s richest cultural traditions, from the Japanese tea ceremony to the art of flower arranging. The city’s history spans more than 1,200 years, and its cuisine, craftsmanship, and many UNESCO World Heritage Sites have greatly influenced the country as a whole.

Yet this feeling of ancient history is balanced by a modernity—not only is Kyoto an incredibly creative city, it possesses an orderliness that feels light years ahead of the US. Exhibit A: the train station toilets’ high-tech functionality that kept them sparkling clean—and even played nature sound effects if I so desired.

I’ve only scratched the surface of experiencing Kyoto’s many layers, and I have no doubt that each time I return, I’ll understand it in a deeper way. But through the months of planning our trip, I dove headfirst into research and came away with so many recommendations from trusted friends, I wanted to share the travel guide that I created for our group to experience Kyoto for the first time. Read on for what to do to experience Kyoto to its fullest.

What to know about Kyoto

If you’re dreaming of a journey to Japan that’s steeped in history, culture, and natural beauty, then Kyoto should be at the top of your list. Think ancient temples, stunning gardens, and rich traditions around every corner. Here are a few basics you should know if you’re planning a trip:

  1. Respect Local Customs: Kyoto is deeply rooted in tradition, so it’s essential to be respectful. Bowing is a common greeting, and remember to take off your shoes before entering someone’s home or a temple.
  2. Dress Modestly: When visiting temples and shrines, dress modestly by covering your shoulders and knees. This shows respect for the sacred places you’re exploring.
  3. Cash is King: While credit cards are accepted at major hotels and some restaurants, it’s wise to carry cash, as many smaller shops and traditional establishments prefer it.
  4. Plan in Advance: Kyoto has incredible restaurants and great hotels, from traditional ryokans to modern hotels. However, especially during peak season, it’s essential to make reservations well in advance. There were a handful of restaurants I wanted to try that we weren’t able to get into due to limited seating.
  5. Don’t Rush: Take your time to soak in the culture and tranquility of Kyoto. Rushing from one attraction to another can lead to missing the true essence of this captivating city, and many of our best experiences came from just wandering around and discovering shops and cafés as we explored.

When to visit Kyoto

  1. Spring (March to May): This is the iconic cherry blossom season in Kyoto. Just be aware that this is a busy time for tourists, so book your accommodation well in advance.
  2. Summer (June to August): Summers in Kyoto are can be hot and humid. While it’s the off-peak season for tourists, there is a higher possibility of rain during this time.
  3. Autumn (September to November): Arguably the most beautiful time to visit Kyoto, autumn brings breathtaking foliage that creates a stunning backdrop for photos.
  4. Winter (December to February): Winters in Kyoto are relatively mild, and you can enjoy fewer crowds and lower prices. I would love to experience the light displays during the holiday season!

How to get to Kyoto

To get to Kyoto, the closest airport to fly into is Kansai International Airport (KIX). KIX is well-connected to major international destinations and is just a train ride away from Kyoto. Another option is Osaka International Airport (ITM), which is closer to Kyoto but serves mostly domestic flights.

Since we were flying in from the US, we decided to take a direct flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Haneda International Airport in Tokyo (HND), then we hopped on the bullet train and went straight to Kyoto.

Once you land, the Haruka Express from KIX, the Limited Express from ITM or the Bullet Train from Tokyo will conveniently transport you to Kyoto Station. The train ride is an amazing part of the journey, offering scenic views of Japan’s countryside.

Where to stay: Best Kyoto Hotels

Kyoto has great options when it comes to hotels, from traditional ryokans to modern hotels. However, especially during peak season, it’s essential to make reservations well in advance as they get booked up quickly.

This was our home base for the first leg of our stay, and I can’t imagine a more warm and welcoming place to experience Kyoto for the first time. Its sleek and modern interior is juxtaposed by the beautiful nature surrounding you, thanks to the floor to ceiling windows that bring the outdoors in. The 800-year-old Shakusui-en pond garden is arguably the focal point of the hotel—walking across it surrounded by cherry blossoms, Japanese maples, and weeping willows was the cortisol-lowering experience I needed to sink into the Kyoto experience. Don’t miss the incredible breakfast served in the restaurant each morning. The only hard part is deciding between the Japanese breakfast or the incredibly delicious pastries.

For the final two days of our trip, we relocated to Hoshinoya, in Arashiyama which is on the western outskirts of Kyoto. You access the hotel via a boat that takes you along the Oi River—and the 15-minute ride truly transports you to another, more soothing and peaceful world. Surrounded by forest-covered hills, you’re taken to a wood guest pavilions designed in an elegant and traditional Japanese style. Fresh slippers and a linen lounge set await you, and as you step onto the freshly laid tatami matting, you know you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. During our two days at Hoshinoya, we participated in the most inspiring incense ceremony, dined on traditional Japanese cuisine, relaxed and ate breakfast overlooking the river, and explored the nearby temple and bamboo forests. The entire experience reawakened my senses to the beauty of nature and slowing down.

On the complete other end of the spectrum is the new Ace Hotel. It’s buzzy, it’s modern, and it’s a good value in a city where it’s a little more challenging to find a decently priced room that still boasts comfort and luxury. It also offers a break from Japanese food, in case taco cravings strike (guilty!) With 3 restaurants, a rooftop bar, and a Stumptown coffee, the Ace feels like a taste of Brooklyn set right in the center of Kyoto.

Where to eat: Best Kyoto Restaurants

Kyoto is widely known to be an incredibly food city. However, I didn’t fully understand the food scene until I experienced it firsthand, so I think that on a return trip, I’ll feel much more confident in knowing where to go. My biggest tip is to book reservations as far in advance as possible! Many of the restaurants are small, and they book up well in advance. Below are the best restaurants where we ate in Kyoto, plus a few that came highly recommended that I didn’t get to experience on this trip.

Tempura Matsu: This celebrated tempura restaurant is located in the Arashiyama district in west Kyoto. It serves traditional Japanese cuisine in courses and is widely thought to serve the best tempura in Kyoto.

OMEN: Our first stop when we got to Kyoto, OMEN is a tiny spot with the best udon noodles of my life.

Monk: My biggest regret was not scoring a reservation at Monk, which is incredibly popular ever since the chef, Yoshihiro Imai’s appearance on Chef’s Table. Monk is a fourteen-seat, omakase-style menu restaurant set on the Philosopher’s Path that focuses on pizza. Next time.

Hitomi: a popular yakitori spot with delicious food and fun vibes—book ahead.

Sushi Matsumoto: We wanted to experience a traditional omakase sushi meal on our first night, and Sushi Matsumoto certainly delivered. Every bite was delicious, and I actually lost track of how many courses had been served. Next time, I might schedule this when we weren’t hit so hard by jetlag to fully appreciate the beauty of each course.

Censi: A Japanese menu with Italian influence, this is a warm and welcoming spot that made it on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Mama Arashiyama: Adam and I spent our last night in Kyoto at this beautiful Italian restaurant in Arashiyama. We loved the way they blended a Japanese approach into our pasta and pizza-filled dinner. A great spot to go if you want elevated food in relaxed, casual surroundings.

Stardust: a vegan café that I heard SO many raves about, but that happened to be closed while we were there.

Tan: I really wanted to go to this farm-to-table restaurant, but sadly they were booked up. Highly recommended from trusted friends.

Cafés and coffeeshops

Bread & Espresso & Arashiyama: the perfect spot to stop for coffee and a pastry or sandwich if you’re in Arashiyama.

Tsujiri Tea House: a green tea store that’s also famous for their matcha ice cream and desserts.

Kishin Kissa – the most aesthetic coffee shop with a small but delicious menu of snacks, sweets, and matcha.

Me Me Me Coffee House: Go for breakfast, try the donuts.

What to do in Kyoto: the sights

Explore historic Kyoto

Ninnenzaka and Sannenzaka Streets are full of quaint shops to explore. Put on your most comfortable shoes and go up the hills of the Higashiyama District. Along the way, see the Kiyomizu Temple at top of hill, and the Kodaiji Temple with beautiful architecture and zen gardens

Visit the temples

Rokuon-Ji Temple (Golden Pavillion): This breathtaking golden pavilion is a must see.

Daitokuji Temple: There are 22 sub-temples within this monastery complex but only 4 sub-temples are visible to the public.

Ryoanji Temple: This temple has the most famous rock garden in Kyoto.


Our time in Arashiyama was definitely one of my favorite parts of our entire trip. If you’re not staying here, dedicate a full day to see some amazing fall foliage (or cherry blossoming) and see the following:

  • Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
  • The Iwatayama Monkey Park on the slopes of Arashiyama. Over 170 monkeys live at the park. While the monkeys are wild, they have become accustomed to humans. The park is on a small mountain not far from the Saga-Arashiyama rail station. Visitors can approach and photograph the monkeys. At the summit is a fenced enclosure where visitors can feed the monkeys.
  • The “Moon Crossing Bridge” (Togetsukyo, notable for its views of cherry blossoms and autumn colors on the slopes of Arashiyama.

Shopping in Kyoto

Kyoto is famous for its craftsmanship, so take some time to peruse Chawanzaka Street (aka teapot lane) full of traditional pottery shops sloping down from the Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

POJ Studio is my favorite shop in Kyoto. From the ceramics to the incense to the DIY Kintsugi kits, I wanted to bring everything home with me. Thankfully, they ship to the US (and I ordered one of their woven tapestries for our living room wall.)

Go to Nishiki Market

The most famous food market in Kyoto, Nishiki Market is definitely worth a visit. Stroll through the seemingly endless stalls to see and taste things you’ve never seen before. Look for Green tea mochi, sashimi skewers, and a few things that might make your stomach turn (ie the grilled sparrow.) We loved the soft serve with manuka honey.

Stroll down Philosopher’s Path

This is a gorgeous stone path along a canal, lined with trees and cute shops and restaurants. The path takes its name from the 20th century philosophy professor Nishida Kitaro, who walked along the path daily while meditating on the problems involved in reconciling Japanese and Western schools of thought. On a future trip, I would spend even more time strolling here, soaking up the beauty and visiting spots along the way.

Get dinner or drinks in Pontocho Alley

Historic and lively at night, lined with great hole-in-the-wall bars. Take a stroll across the banks of Kamogawa River around sunset on your way.