Tokyo can bewilder first-timers with its crowded mishmash of the modern and futuristic, but take a deep breath and dive beneath the neon-tinged surface, because Japan’s ever-evolving capital has so much variety that can be experienced quite easily. The culinary traditions here—whether humble street eats or fine dining—have made Tokyo one of the great food cities. Contrasting with the high rises and high tech is a legacy of shrines, temples and traditional gardens. There’s chic, minimalist design next to vibrant youth fashion. Just be ready to say arigatou (thank you) and sumimasen (excuse me), and you’ll be good to go.
Begin with the early morning tuna auctions at Tsukiji Market before a sushi breakfast at Ryuzushi in the market’s outer sprawl. For lunch, indulge in Japan’s noodle obsession in the city’s northern neighborhoods at Tsuta, the world’s first Michelin-starred ramen restaurant. Dinner? Try a no-frills Tokyo classic in Tsukishima, a neighborhood specializing in monjayaki, a runny cabbage batter that can contain all sorts of items—cheese, corn, dried shrimp, cod roe—that you grill into a supremely comforting, sticky mess.
Visit some of the half dozen museums around Ueno Park. The biggest, Tokyo National Museum, has an unrivaled collection of Japanese art and antiquities that runs from samurai gear and tea ceremony paraphernalia to ancient scrolls and priceless Buddhist artwork. For something modern, head to the Roppongi area for the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower’s stunning views and its 53rd-floor Mori Art Museum, home to some of Tokyo’s most dynamic contemporary art.
Despite its built-up, concrete image, Tokyo has plenty of green spaces where you can unwind. In eastern Tokyo, Kiyosumi Teien is a traditional Japanese garden that features a large central pond accented by pine-clad islands and idling herons. The Kiyosumi-Shirakawa area is also the center of Tokyo’s artisanal coffee boom, with dozens of hip cafés and roasters—such as Iki Espresso and The Cream of the Crop Coffee—having popped up in recent years.
Head to the neighboring Harajuku and Omotesando areas to experience two different faces of modern Tokyo. Omotesando, the main avenue, is all cutting-edge architecture and plush boutiques—centered around Tadao Ando’s Omotesando Hills mall. Meanwhile, in Harajuku hangouts such as the Laforet shopping center and the cramped Takeshita-dori shopping street, colorful youth trends and street fashion take over.