Updated: Oct 10, 2019
After a three-week stay in Asia and two nights at a resort in Bali, my friend Cathy and I were bronzed, buddha-bellied, and breezy. We headed to the Jakarta airport with the windows down taking in the last of warm January air we could. Although we were sad to be leaving our favorite stop on our trip, we were excited that the next day we would be flying back to the US to be back with our friends and family. But, when we arrived at the airport we found out our tickets back to Bangkok to catch our flight home had been cancelled months ago because of an unapproved price increase (thank you kiwi.com).
A few clicks through some travel sites and a conversation with one of the airport workers later, we realized there was no way for us to arrive to Bangkok before our 7:10am flight back to Washington, D.C. the next morning. Panicked, but determined we finally found a flight to Tokyo that could get us to Japan in time to catch the second leg of our flight which left at 4:55pm. We quickly called United and begged for them to let us skip the first leg of our flight. After trying to get us to pay $1,322 to cancel our old ticket from Bangkok to Washington, D.C. and purchase a new ticket from Tokyo to Washington, D.C., we finally convinced (3 phone calls and a few tears later) a higher-up to let us miss our first leg without penalty.
So off we jetted from Bali to Tokyo where we ended up with a 6 hour layover. So, if you find yourself with a layover between 6 and 12 hours in Tokyo (hopefully, you’ve arrived in a much less stressful fashion) here is a guide to one way you could spend it.
Welcome to Tokyo! Well, sort of. Narita International Airport is located 60-120 minutes outside of Tokyo depending on how to decide to get into the city and where you’re headed. Our first piece of advice would be to check out the line at customs. It should only take you 30-60 minutes (we were out in 20!) to clear customs, but definitely be careful that customs doesn’t eat up too much of your time when you have such a short day in this cool city. Once you’ve cleared customs head to the baggage drop so you’re not lugging all of your stuff throughout Tokyo. At 520 Yen (around $5), you can leave a medium-sized bag in the luggage drop room to be guarded while you explore the city.
The easiest way to get to Tokyo from Narita is the JR Narita express which takes 60 minutes. You can also look into the JR Sobu Line (90 minutes) and the Keisei Skyliner (55 minutes, but you have to transfer trains).
Once you’re heading towards the city we suggest either going to Asakusa (where you can see the famous Senso-ji temple, do a little shopping and get some good Japanese food), Tokyo’s Central Station (where you’ll find the Imperial Palace and lots of cool nearby neighborhoods like Marunouchi or Ginza for shopping/restaurants) or Shibuya (where you’ll see one of the busiest crosswalks in the world along with a lot of good shopping including the first ever Tokyu Hands store).
Take your time looking up which neighborhoods suit your tastes and time frame (Asakusa is about 15 minutes closer to the airport than Shibuya) and do a little extra research if you want to do something a little outside of the box. Cathy and I decided to take on Shibuya as we’d seen the Shibuya crossing in movies and on the internet and wanted to experience Tokyo’s more modern side through Shibuya’s big shopping district. This guide will take you through some of our suggestions for Shibuya, but remember this is really a tiny look into what a day in Tokyo can look like and just a glimpse into the rich Japanese culture in general.
What to Eat (my first stop on any journey)
SNACKS - I’m a huge snack girl. Give me a meal of snacks/appetizers and I’m happy. Japan has so many amazing and unique snacks. Try Pocky, flavored Kit-Kats (green tea is my favorite!), Tokyo Bananas (my mouth is watering just thinking about these), Wagashi, Mochi, Taiyaki, or Onigiri. You'll find crazy flavored chips and crunchy wasabi peas. Honestly, just walk into one of the many 7-Eleven's and go wild.
Sushi - Obviously when you go to Japan you want to eat sushi. It's so fresh (tourists line up outside of the Toyosu Fish Market really early in the morning to see all of the fish be sold). The Japanese take their sushi very seriously. It takes around 10 years of training to be sushi chef and 2-3 of those years can just be learning to make the sushi rice correctly! It's insane, but as a sushi lover I was not complaining.
Ramen - If you’re visiting Japan in the winter I would definitely suggest ramen. It is so filling and warming and is for carnivores and vegetarians alike. These days ramen bars are everywhere, but there's nothing like eating Ramen in it's home country.
Gyoza - If you like dumplings, you’ll love Gyoza. While you’ll find dumplings all over Asia, the Japanese do a particularly good job with Gyoza, especially the fried ones! They're traditionally filled with pork, but you can find them filled with anything from chicken to veggies!
Where to Eat
Starbucks/L'Occitane - Although not typically Japanese, you'll find a few Japan-specific menu items at these two coffee shops. But, I'm mostly suggesting going here because they both have two of the best views over the Shibuya crossing
7-11/Lawson/FamilyMart - Don’t underestimate convenience store food in Japan. They have lots of amazing snacks and it’s a quick and easy place to stop in for an energy refresh. And did I mention the snacks?
Genki Sushi - This place is similar to conveyor belt sushi (which you can also find) except for instead of pre-made sushi going around the conveyor belt you place your order on an touch screen tablet and your order comes flying out on the conveyor belt right to your table. Uobei and Sushi Katsu Midori are also good options.
Ichiran, Ippodu Ramen Ebisu or Kiraku - These are all really well regarded for having some of the best Ramen in Shibuya.
Try Harajuku Gyoza Lou or Shibuya Gyoza for good Gyoza.
Where to Shop
Tokyu Hands - This place is heaven for anyone who likes anything, really. There are 8 floors, but each floor is broken into 3 different levels (A, B, C) so you can spend hours getting lost in 24 floors of stationary, Japanese skin care products, decorations and a lot of other unique products you can only find in Japan! It was definitely one of my favorite shops in Shibuya.
LoFT - This store is super similar to Tokyu hands. They have a lot of the same products, but some sections might be bigger in one store than in the other. For example, the loFT in Shibuya has a way bigger book section than the one in Tokyu Hands. Depending on your time, it might just be best to visit the one closest to you/your other destinations.
Shibuya 109 - This is another huge shopping complex with 10 floors and over 100 boutiques. It is a very trendy stop for young women so if you want to take a peak into Japanese fashion this is great place to start.
100 Yen Shops - Similar to dollar stores in the US or 99 pence stores in the UK, except for they have way more options and the goods are higher quality. One of the most popular ones is Can Do, but there are many around Tokyo
Hachiko statue - This is a statue of a Akita dog which is right near the train station. The statue is inspired by a story of a loyalty. The dog, Hachiko, would wait every day for his master at the train station when he returned home from work until his master sadly passed away. The dog waited at the station every day for 9 years until his own death.
Shibuya Crossing - I briefly touched on this in the beginning of the piece, but definitely walk across the huge pedestrian crossway in Shibuya. It has appeared in the movies "Lost in Translation" and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift." At peak hours upwards of 3000 people cross at a time coming from all directions. It’s definitely a sight worth seeing from above and at ground level.
Mandarake - this is one of Japan’s biggest manga and anime stores
I hope you enjoyed this read and for anyone with a layover in Tokyo, good luck!