Getting Lost in: Tokyo on a Layover

When traveling through Asia, you’ll find yourself more often than not stopping through hip Tokyo, except the furthest you’ll get to tasting the sushi and seeing the uberfashionable is at Narita Airport, which isn’t even in Tokyo. It’s at least an hour train ride from the thriving metropolis, and Narita Airport is no Heathrow, which makes layovers somewhat dull.

However, should you ever find yourself flying into Tokyo with some extra time to spare, which I have done any number of times, here’s a guide to enjoying your layover, no matter how brief.

3 hours or less.

Narita does serve up some quick bowls of udon noodles. Warm soupy carbohydrates when you’re tired from flying several hours hits the spot. Make sure to pick up some giant Pocky, just for posterity.

left: Jon balancing two bowls of hot udon at Narita Airport.

3-6 hours.

This time is best spent wandering through the town of Narita, a better alternative than trying to rush into Tokyo and back. Check your bags all the way through, or put them in storage in the main hallway after going through customs. Get a tourist map and directions to the train from the tourist information desk, also in the main hallway, then pick up some yen for the train ticket, lunch and other spending you might do during your short stay.  Narita has two terminals, so make sure you remember which one your bags are being held at. Hop on the train for one stop to Narita and check out the Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple and Park.

Some more Narita-on-a-layover ideas can be found here.

7-24 hours.

Here you can chance a trip into Tokyo. Following the directions above (with luggage, customs, etc.) pick up some yen and buy a train ticket into Tokyo (cash only) and head downstairs towards the train. It takes an hour to get to Tokyo Station, which is situated near the Ginza shopping district and an office-y part of town. From here, you can venture to the following:

  • Tsukiji Fish Market, if you can get into the city by 5:30-6:30am. Here you can watch the action of the fish auctions and the madness of obtaining the best sushi.
  • Imperial Palace, where the Diet legislates, gardens flourish and moats carry swans and geese around.
  • Asakusa, which has a long market pedestrian street of fun little Japanese treasures and souvenirs leading to the popular Sensoji Temple.

Check out Frommer’s suggested one-day itinerary for other options. If followed strategically, you can get most of the itinerary in during your layover.

The Shortlist Time Out Guide to Tokyo fits in your pocket and comes with great little summaries of the highlights and maps. Make sure you don’t leave it on the plane or at customs, because you won’t get it back. (We tried)

For sale at Asakusa: the Obama mask. Even the Japanese believe that Yes, Obama Can.


1 Comment

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One response to “Getting Lost in: Tokyo on a Layover

  1. Josh

    Here’s two more things to do during that quick stay in Tokyo, both located not too far from Tokyo Station.

    Ginza is definitely worth spending some time on your visit to see what’s on offer in the wild and zany world of Japanese consumerism. Japan is still a couple of years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to consumer electronics, so if you’re into gadgets, TVs or robots, you’ll be in paradise. Definitely hit one of the large department stores for a look around. My favorite thing to do was to go to the food marketplace that’s inevitably on the bottom level. I remember thinking that the Japanese must really prize perfectly shaped fruit, because why anyone would buy a velvet wrapped orange for $150 is beyond me.

    If you’re hungry, not in the mood for fish and want to eat on the go, head back to Tokyo Station by walking on the streets next to the elevated rail tracks. You’ll find dozens of yakitori bars where you can eat all kinds of chicken and beef parts served on skewers. This is the salaryman’s Big Mac– fast, tasty and inexpensive. If you go around rush hour, just follow the crowds near the tracks.

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