Since moving to Japan seven years ago I’ve shown around 10 friends around Tokyo (before I even moved to Tokyo) across 3 different trips. Based on my experience as an impromptu tour guide and long-term Japan expat, please allow me to create your itinerary for what you should do your first night in Tokyo
A bit about me, and why you should listen to me when planning your trip to Tokyo
Hi, my name is Evan, and I moved to Japan in early 2015. Since I have studied at a Japanese language school, studied at Japanese university, went through the insane job hunting process for new graduates in Japan, moved to Tokyo from Osaka for work, and have now been living here for a few years. I have shown multiple people around Japan, while I have also lived here for around 7 years, so I understand life here, and also know how people feel when they first get off the plane and arrive at Tokyo Haneda airport. I believe it is very important to respect the Japanese culture, but that it’s also important to have fun. Let me guide you through my tips (based on three different times I showed friends around in Tokyo) on how to spend your first night in Tokyo.
For just your first night, splurge on a taxi to your hotel
So this is an interesting one, and only applicable if you’re flying into Haneda airport and not Narita airport. I have had the experience of picking up 3 different groups of friends from Haneda airport, and becoming their unofficial bilingual tour-guide. The first time I was pretty against wasting money on a taxi into the city, because Tokyo Haneda airport is pretty close to the actual city part of Tokyo (Tokyo as a prefecture is really, really wide). It takes roughly less than 30 minutes to ride the train of Tokyo Haneda to Shinjuku station, which is what I would consider to be the heart of Tokyo. A taxi, on the other hand, will take around 15 minutes, and costs around 9000 yen, or around 80 US dollars.
I know…I know… it’s a lot
And I used to think that way too. But here’s the thing; You only get one first impression of Tokyo. Your first night you’re going to be jet-lagged, starved, in a fever dream…on a different planet really after what is likely a 10+ hour-long flight.
Where should you go first in Tokyo?
Basically, Shinjuku is the best place to head to first to really feel like you’re in Japan. It’s close to the airport, has a ton to do, and is aesthetically culture-shock-inducing. What more could you ask for?
So yeah, after you check into your hotel and drop off your luggage, head out to Shinjuku station (Shinjuku station, NOT Nishi-Shinjuku or Nishi-Shinjuku Gochome.)
Why head to Shinjuku first?
Have you ever seen Lost in Translation? You know, that movie where Bill Murray poses for glamour shots in a bath robe…or something like that? Well, the first shot of that movie when he’s looking around at the surrounding lights from his taxi; most of that scene was shot around the shinjuku area. Shinjuku is probably aesthetically the most similar to what you are imagining when you think of Tokyo. Neon lights, neon lights…and more neon lights. A veritable metropolis of lights and izakaya Japanese-style pubs just waiting to be explored! Really, the real reason to head to Shinjuku first is so that you can take in the atmosphere. Take a few group photos, and get some good food. You can do that in most areas in Tokyo, but nowhere else is quite so iconic.
Plus, I know how you reall feel…You rode the flight, you made it through security, YOU EARNED THIS! Now throw your arms into the air ala Shawshank Redemption. Scream into the heavens to assert your dominance to the local population!
“ULULULULU!!!! Tokyo, Tokyo, now i’m here! Now it’s time…for some beer!” or something like that. You get the idea.
Okay, you don’t need to do that. Yeah…please don’t do that. But your mind will…deep down inside where no one can here you.
Shinjuku practically represents nightlife as a whole for Tokyoites, being famous for not only it’s plethora of great restaurants, bars, and shops, but also for having Japan’s most famous nightlife district. Although I’m not suggesting you go there.
Something to keep in mind: Avoid Kabukicho
The entire Kabukicho area is a really famous red-light district in Japan. The area isn’t… dangerous, but this place is like a spider’s web for new foreigners in Japan. If you don’t know what you’re doing, and can’t read Japanese, a lot of people wander into Kabukicho without even knowing it. While the area is sleazy for obvious reasons, that’s not why i’m telling you to avoid it. Many of the shops and restaurants in Kabukicho are very often scams or, at the very least, rip-offs designed to target desperate Japanese men and foreigners who don’t know any better.
In fact, the only bad food experience I’ve ever had at a Japanese restaurant was near Kabukicho. The area in general (for obvious reasons, again) attracts some of the weirder people in Japan.
I would just avoid it. There’s plenty of other stuff to do in Shinjuku. Let me give you some suggestions!
Visit an izakaya
I get a lot of questions from people on what they should eat when they come to Japan, and I always answer to “head to an izakaya”.
What is an izakaya?
Izakaya are often called ‘Japanese-style pubs’, but I think that emphasis is more on food than drinking. Izakaya are an integral part of the social experience in Japan, as they are restaurants that are designed to supply large amounts of varied foods and drinks to large groups of people.
This is a huge part of the Japanese nomikai (飲み会) also known as drinking party culture. To read more about that, please feel free to read my article here What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”
Can you visit an izakaya with kids?
While I am catering this article to people who can drink and enter more adult places. You can still enter izakaya with kids. The drinking laws and regulations are actually pretty relaxed in Japan. By the way, the drinking age in Japan is 20 years old, but I have never seen anybody actually get asked to show their ID here. If you’re with family, I recommend visiting an Izakaya, and then visiting the Hanazono-jinja Shrine and calling it a day.
What kind of food can you get at an izakaya?
While it can vary greatly depending on the restaurant, you can expect a huge variety of foods ranging from yakitori, sashimi, nankotsu, different types of salad and tofu, motsunabe, edamame and sukiyaki, the list could go on and on. The focus at an izakaya is on ordering many different side dishes.
There are usually well over 100 things on each izakay amenu, so it’s a bit difficult to pin-point a few staple foods. While you probably can’t imagine exactly what you are going to get at an izakaya, I guarantee you can find something that you will like. Most izakaya serve things like french fries as well, so even if you’re really picky you can probably still find something. So where to start? Let me give you a few recommendations!
How much does it cost to eat at an izakaya?
Generally speaking, izakaya meals will cost anywhere from 3000 yen (around 30USD) to 5000 yen (around 50USD.) Tabehoudai or “all you can eat” will usually cost you around 3000 yen (30USD), while many places will charge 5000 yen (50USD) for Tabenomihoudai “all you can eat and drink”. There is also nomihoudai “all you can drink” which is typically 2000 yen (20USD). You can also order by item, but especially nomihoudai “all you can drink” can save you some money if you plan on having more than 2 drinks.
A tip regarding paying in Japan
Most places in Japan still don’t accept credit cards. Thus, you will need to split the bill between everyone in your group with cash. To make this process easier I recommend making sure everyone has at least 4 1000 yen bills. This will just make things easier over the course of the night. Trust me. I typically do this by withdrawing 9000 yen from an atm. This will force the ATM to give you 1 5000 yen bill, and 4 1000 yen bills (if you withdraw 10000 you will get 1 10000 (equivalent of 100 USD note, which is why I withdraw 9000 yen).
Where to head to: Izakaya recommendations
So I don’t have any favorite Izakaya’s bookmarked, but I did look up some Japanese reviews for you and picked up the best-looking one’s. You should be good to pick one of these for dinner.
Izakaya Recommendation # 1; Banya 番屋 新宿東口店
When searching for izakaya to add to this list, I evaluation spots based on a few different criteria. First, I want to recommend an izakaya that feels authentically Japanese. Second, I looked at the menu. Third, I looked at the reviews from Japanese locals. Banya performed well on all fronts. Plus, Banya being very close to Shinjuku station makes it a great choice.
Izakaya recommendation #2; Kitakyushu Sakaba 北九州酒場
For something a little bit different, i’m going to include a recommendation for kitakyushu sakaba. Kitakyushu is a region of Japan that is famous for having a strong influence from Okinawan culture, as well as surrounding asian countries. Most of all, it is famous for noodles. Like ramen and udon! The biggest city in this area is Fukuoka, which is one of my personal favorite cities in all of Japan. I have visited 3 times already! I really love Kyushu food, so if you’re looking to try something a bit off the beaten path I think this would be a good choice. One of the Japanese reviews was from someone who is from the Kyushu area, and they said that the food is really authentic.
Visit Golden Gai
If you’re up for drinking a bit more, you should head down to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai (lit. means golden street.) Golden gai is a tiny alley with 100’s of tiny, tiny…really tiny theme bars. And they really are small. Most bars in golden gai can fit maybe…5 people? It is also famous for being somewhat exclusive. Some places will turn you away if you’re a foreigner, especially if you can’t speak Japanese, but if you have some courage and are polite you should get in somewhere. Despite the reputation, many owners I have met down here are happy to talk with foreigners and practice their English. That being said, I do speak Japanese however, so that may have helped them warm up to me? Anyways, it’s worth giving it a shot! It’s a very Japanese experience, and a fun way to get some more drinks in on your first night. Go talk with the locals, dive into the deep end, and see some pretty ridiculous décor. It’s a great time!
Visit the nearby Hanazono-jinja Shrine
The Hanozono-jinja shrine is literally a 2 minute walk from golden gai, so you might as well go see your first shrine in Japan, right? Head over, and take a breather. You’ll probably need it after being in 6 x 6 rooms for so long.
Head back to the station, and visit the Toho cinemas with the giant Godzilla head
Take a walk back to station and go find the toho cinemas with the giant Godzilla head on top. This is one of those things that isn’t really worth going out of your way for, but is the perfect small goal you need to enjoy a slow walk back through Shinjuku . Enjoy the sights…
Until you go find the ultimate site!
So that’s what I got! That should get you around… 5 or 6 hours of fun on your first night? If you still have time left over you can hit a nearby karaoke parlor (actually, you can see in the picture above that the blue sign on the left is for a karaoke parlor), or you could just walk around and explore some of the surrounding areas. Also, if you’re interested in trying ramen while you’re in Japan, feel free to check out the below article, where I go over some key differences in the way you should order ramen in Japan, vs. what you may be used to in your own country. One of these key differences is in NOODLE HARDNESS!!! Check it out haha.