Tokyo for First-Timers - United Hub

Tokyo for first-timers

By Nick Harper

With a population of more than 9 million people, Tokyo is the most populous city on the planet. A vast, sometimes chaotic, neon-soaked playground that never sleeps, the city can feel daunting to the first-time visitor. Yet Tokyo is surprisingly manageable, as its 23 'wards' are easy to navigate via the city's world-class transportation system.

With so many options, knowing where to go and what to see on your first visit isn't easy. To help guide your trip, consider the following tips — enough to fill a few days in the city.

Getting into the city

Most international flights arrive into Narita International Airport (NRT) located just 37 miles outside Tokyo, but we also have international flights arriving arriving into Haneda International Airport (HND) from San Francisco, and starting March 28, 2020, new nonstop service will operate from Chicago, Los Angeles, NewYork/Newark, and Washington D.C. (subject to Government approval). From Narita, the city center can be easily reached by bus, train or taxi. The quickest option is the JR Narita Express (NEX), which takes about 60 minutes and departs twice every hour. From Haneda, Tokyo is located less than 30 minutes from this airport and can easily be reached by bus, train or taxi

Some international flights arrive into Haneda Airport, also located outside the city center and easily connected through public transportation.

Tokyo U-Bahn

Where to stay

In a city so vast, you'll need to check in somewhere close to the main attractions or close to Tokyo's subway stations — the quickest and cheapest way to navigate the center. (Note: Taxis are the only form of transportation that runs all night but can be expensive.) Shinjuku, Ginza, Shibuya, Roppongi and Tokyo Station are excellent areas to stay with multiple hotel options and subway stops.

While it's possible to find accommodation to suit even the tightest of budgets, Tokyo does glitz very well. If your budget allows it, book at least one night in luxury — The Ritz Carlton, The Peninsula Tokyo and Aman Tokyo are just three opulent options among many. For added kudos, live like a movie star and check in at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the hotel featured in the movie, Lost In Translation.

What to see and do

Seeing everything Tokyo has to offer requires more than a few days, but if you only have a few days, the following should be toward the top of your must-see list. To get your bearings and appreciate the size and scale of the city, visit one of Tokyo's many observation decks. At 2,080 ft tall, the Tokyo Skytree is currently the highest in the city, but Tokyo Tower and Toranomon Hills are also impressive. For the full neon-lit effect, head up at night.

Embrace your jet lag, rise crazy early and head for Tsukiji Market, not for the fruit, vegetables or flowers on sale there, but for the seafood. The world's biggest seafood market is an experience not to be missed, particularly its live tuna auctions that begin at 5 a.m. You'll have to visit soon though: beginning in November of 2018, the iconic market will reopen slightly further east as Toyosu Fish Market.

Shibuya Crossing from top view in Tokyo

In Tokyo, all roads seemingly lead to Shibuya Crossing — possibly the busiest intersection in the world. When the lights turn red, hundreds and often thousands set off in all directions. Walking, dodging and even taking selfies is an art form in itself.

For a sense of the city's history, add Tokyo's largest and most famous shinto shrine to your itinerary. Meiji Jingu is surrounded by 175 acres of forest in central Tokyo and reached via a long forest path marked by towering gates (torii). The city's oldest and most photographed temple is Sensoji Temple, accessed through the massive Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate).

If you're limited on time, you'll need to choose museums wisely. The best of a broad bunch is the Tokyo National Museum. It houses the world's largest collection of Japanese art, including Buddhist statues, vibrant kimonos and samurai swords. Visit the Tokyo National Museum and you're on the doorstep of one of Tokyo's best green spaces. Ueno Park is also home to Ueno Zoo, which opened in 1882 and allows you to get up close with its giant panda bears.

Sensoji Temple around Asakusa area in Japan


To experience Kabuki-classical Japanese dance-drama, head to the grand Kabukiza Theater in Ginza. It offers three performances a day or, if you just want to stop by, one-act tickets. Alternatively, you might prefer to witness the national sport of Sumo Wrestling in all its glory. Ryoguku Kokugikan (Sumo Hall) hosts Grand Tournaments in January, May and September, each spread across 15 days. If you visit outside of these tournament times, it's possible to take a tour of a sumo 'stable' and watch the athletes in action.

If you came to shop, you're in luck. Nakamise Dori and Omotesando Avenue are shopping musts for different things, the former for souvenirs, the latter for boutique stores along Tokyo's version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Follow Omotesando until you reach Harajuku, where Tokyo's trailblazing tribes ferment their new and ever more daring fashion statements.

Despite being so densely populated, Tokyo is a city of many green spaces. Visit in spring and you'll see the city (and country) covered in pink blossoms —hanami season. Many of the city's parks and green spaces are in full color as winter gives way to spring. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Chidorigafuchi and Ueno Park are three jaw-dropping options.

Mt. Fuji with fall colors in Japan.

Last but not least is Mount Fuji, Japan's highest and most prominent mountain. While it's tempting to make the journey out to Mount Fuji, 60 miles southwest of the city, you really need a full day to scale its 12,388-foot-high summit to experience it properly. If time is tight, but you really want to experience that view, the solution is easy. An hour north of Tokyo is Fujimi Terrace in the Kanto region. It's not the only place affording views of the iconic mountain, but it's considered the best and worth the journey.

Where to eat

While Tokyo proudly boasts more Michelin stars than any other city, that's not what makes eating here such a life-affirming experience. More important than the fact you can eat the best sushi in your life made by one of the city's most celebrated chefs is that the greatest ramen noodles or yakitori (grilled chicken) you'll ever eat can be served by a street vendor in the middle of nowhere.

Sushi on a wooden set.

For the highest of the high end, try three-Michelin-starred Kanda, if you can reserve one of the eight seats along its wooden counter. For surely the cheapest Michelin-starred food you'll ever taste, try ramen restaurant Tsuta — but expect long, long lines.

Alternatively, but every bit as good, look for a neighborhood izakaya — a cross between a tapas bar and an English pub — to eat and drink like (and with) the locals. Kushirokuya, Kagaya and Gonpachi are excellent options — the latter reputedly an inspiration for the movie Kill Bill's iconic fight scene.

Wherever and whatever you eat, be aware that in almost all restaurants, tipping is not expected.

When to visit

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, with the city in full color. Plus, during both seasons, rainfall is low and temperatures are mild. It's best to avoid mid-June to mid-July during the city's rainy season.

Getting there

United Airlines offers customers more nonstop fights to Tokyo than any US carrier, flying into both Haneda and Narita airports. For details and to book your tip, visit united.com or use the United app. Don't forget to share your story on social media with the #MyUnitedJourney hashtag once you arrive.

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