First time to Tokyo? 5 locals give their advice

CNN  — 

With 13.5 million residents – 37.8 million if you count the entire metro area – and densely packed skyscrapers, it’s fair to say that Tokyo can feel overwhelming for visitors.

Even the most experienced travelers struggle to decipher the cryptic metro maps and navigate the busy streets. It would take a lifetime to explore every little lane – and even then, it could all change overnight in the fast-paced city of Tokyo.

But navigating the world’s most populous metropolitan area doesn’t have to be a blur of neon and noise. CNN Travel asked five Tokyo insiders to offer local perspectives on how best to spend time and navigate this sprawling megalopolis.

They’ve offered a slew of helpful tips and a shortlist of favorite neighborhoods, cafes, restaurants and shops to help first-timers make the most of their first trip to Tokyo.

1. Miki Yamato, photographer

The famous Shibuya intersection lit up with neon at night.

Tokyo born and bred, Miki Yamato spends her days shooting fashion and portrait photography, everything from kimono shoots to artisanal jewelry, documentaries and music videos.

“Tokyo has so many different faces,” says Yamato. “It’s modern: If you come to Tokyo a week later, it might look different. The city changes so quickly. Then there’s the traditional: If you come 10 years later, the building will be there waiting for you, just the same.”

Her love of culture and fashion led her to set up a home base in the ever-evolving Shibuya District, where she finds inspiration around every corner.

“It’s such an easy place – you can stop by an art exhibition after getting your hair done,” she says. “It’s great for cafes and business meetings, or spending time alone to walk and think.”

Yamoto’s all-time favorite cafe is Ningen Kankei (150-0042 Tokyo, Shibuya, 16-12; +81 3 3496 5001) which she’s been frequenting since high school.

“It’s quiet, and it’s casual – it’s a cafe but feels like a pub,” she says. “I go there when I want to work alone and think about something creative, and enjoy my own time.”

While most travelers might head to the traditional Tsukiji fish market (104-0045 Tokyo, Chuo, Tsukiji, 5 Chome-2-1) for sushi, Yamato also suggests checking out the bars in the neighborhood, which stay open late.

Her favorite? Shubiduba (Tsukiji 4-14-18 Myokenji Building 1F 1040045 Chuo-ku, Tokyo), a tiny bar serving organic wine and sake.

“They know about good sake and where it’s coming from and who made it,” she says. “The details and stories make it more fun.”

As for photography, she says Tsukiji is also her favorite neighborhood for capturing her subjects.

“There’s something about Tsukiji. It’s always changing yet never changes,” she says. “You can feel the energy.”

Yamato’s travel tips

  • Don’t use guide books too much. Just duck into local restaurants!
  • Explore both sides of Japan: old shrines and streets, as well as newer districts such as Ginza and Omotesando.
  • Visit Yoyogi Park in the springtime to see the cherry blossoms.

2. Paul Christie, Walk Japan

Shimbashi station is full of izakaya.

Having spent nearly 30 years working and living in Tokyo, Paul Christie has come to consider Tokyo a second home. The CEO of local tour company Walk Japan says Tokyo has everything: friendly faces, clean air, quiet corners and a sense of discovery.

“Do not be put off by Tokyo’s image as a megalopolis,” Christie tells CNN. “The city is relatively easy to navigate using its fabulous public transport system. And the residents are welcoming, always ready to help out if you look lost.”

The easiest way to feel overwhelmed, he says, is to bite off too much at one time.

“Instead of trying to visit all the ‘must see’ sights, I suggest selecting a few areas and exploring them in depth,” says Christie. “Trying to see it all only makes for a breakneck pace, one that will reinforce the image of Tokyo as hyperkinetic and keep you from really appreciating what the city has to offer.”

At the top of his list is the famed Senso-ji temple, in Asakusa, in eastern Tokyo.

Tokyo market
Ameya Yokocho: Tokyo's open-air street market
01:12 - Source: CNN

“The area is so rich in Tokyo’s history and so central to its culture up until World War II that going here really allows us to catch a sense of Tokyo’s past,” he says.

Of course, knowing what you’re looking at will help you appreciate the scenes and buildings.

“Travelers should arm themselves with at least a rudimentary knowledge of Tokyo’s history before arriving,” says Christie. “Knowing something about its samurai past, when it was known as Edo, and then its development as the nation’s capital, will allow a much greater enjoyment of the city.”

After the temple, he suggests stopping into Kamiya Bar (Asakusa 1-1-1, Taito-ku +81 (0)3 3841 5400), a historic address that serves a unique local brew “Denki Bran” – a brown liquor reminiscent of an herby brandy.

And to get a feel for the afterwork crowd? Surrounding Shimbashi station, in southern Tokyo, the neighborhood is full of restaurants and bars where sarariman (business professionals) let loose after work.

“I find that contrary to the oft held image of Tokyo as a huge, emotionless metropolis, many visitors are surprised to find that it is really a city of neighborhoods, each with its own character and charm,” says Christie.

Christie’s travel tips

  • Don’t try to see as much as you can. Tokyo is better experienced in smaller chunks at a slower pace.
  • Eating or drinking while walking or when riding on trains and buses is a big social faux pas. Duck into a cafe if you’re hungry!
  • Wander into a local izakaya dining pub. These can be found in many places but almost always in clusters around local train stations.
  • For very reasonably priced breakfasts, almost any kissaten coffee shop will have a very reasonably priced “morning set,” often a hot sandwich or pastry and a drink.

3. Mika Nomura, MYSH Sake

The courtyard of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is most peaceful in the early morning.

After living in Sydney for a decade, Mika Nomura returned to Japan four years ago.

“When I decided to move back to Japan after being away for a long time, Tokyo was the only place I wanted to be,” Nomura tells CNN. “I wanted to see what the fuss is all about, and I now understand why everyone is going on about this exciting city.”

The entrepreneur runs two businesses – an ethical fashion company and a sake business, MYSH, which aims to spread the love of sake among a younger set.

MYSH holds Meiji Shrine and Sake experiences, which include a semi-private tour of the shrine, followed by a visit to a bar in Shibuya where guests taste a sampling of selected sakes and learn a bit more about liquor’s role in Japanese Shintoism.

And when she’s not thinking about sake? The culture enthusiast recommends visiting the Azabujuban neighborhood in southern Tokyo for a peek into local life.

Sake in Tokyo.

“I love this area for its combination of old and new generations with its old Japanese shotengai (outdoor shopping mall) feel to it,” says Nomura.

“People who have never been here have the impression that Azabu [2-8-1, Azabujuban, Minatoku, Tokyo] is super fancy, but it is so down to earth with a bunch of old businesses still going strong and the younger generation opening up new interesting businesses.”

Nomura particularly loves a dessert shop there called Shiroi Kuro, which is located inside an old Japanese house and specializes in Japanese sweets called daifuku, mochi stuffed sweet bean paste.

“They use gorgeous black beans from Japan’s Tanba region (near Kyoto) and their mamedaifuku (black bean daifuku) are the best I have ever tried in Japan,” she says. “The store makes sweets all day then converts into an espresso and cocktail bar at night.”

But her main piece of advice? Just walk.

“This city is made for walking,” says Nomura. “There are so many hidden tiny cafes and bars, little shops and hidden gems everywhere you can only find when you are on foot.”

Nomura’s travel tips

  • Trains and buses are great in Tokyo, but I cannot stress enough how much fun it is to just walk around.
  • Tokyo is safe at night – take a nighttime stroll around the neighborhoods to see another side of the city.
  • The city is extremely clean, but there are few trash cans on the streets. You can usually find a place to toss trash in a metro station.

4. Brad Bennett, Freewheeling

Summer biking in Tokyo.

The founder of Freewheeling Japan, which hosts bike tours around Tokyo, Brad Bennett moved to Japan in 1990. Originally from the United States, the entrepreneur has lived in Tokyo for 25 years and works as a tour guide year-round, offering snowboarding, mountain climbing, camping and bike tours depending on the season.

He started Freewheeling to help travelers delve into Tokyo and see the city from a local perspective.

“First time travelers to Japan often plan or book too much in advance,” Bennett tells CNN. “There are so many cool things to do and see, you need to leave some extra time for whatever happens.

“You might stumble on a beautiful park like Shinjuku Gyoen (famous for its cherry blossoms) or meet some locals in a bar and have to say goodbye because you have reservations at the Robot Restaurant, which is overpriced.”

Bennett recommends cycling through the Yanaka neighborhood, on the northeast side of the city.

Yanaka is the city’s most traditional district, still home to low-rise buildings, quiet lanes, boutique artisan shops, and many temples.

“It’s considered the Little Kyoto of Tokyo – it’s like stepping back in time,” he says.

Aside from exploring on two wheels, Bennett also suggests adding a cultural experience to your itinerary. Tokyo has lots of classes to sign up for, from cooking to tea ceremonies, flower arrangement and martial arts.

“Try to connect with a local group while you’re here,” he says. “My friend who practices martial arts was able to arrange practice sessions at some of the world’s finest dojos just by sending a few postcards before arriving.”

Bennett’s travel tips

  • If biking, stay on the left side of the road and be careful of pedestrians.
  • Leave extra time to get places if you have a reservation, as it often takes longer than you expect to get around.
  • Avoid taking the train during morning rush hour, especially if you’re carting luggage.
  • Bars, clubs and restaurants often have a cover charge, simply for sitting at the table. This can be expensive, so ask before ordering.

5. Mariko Maeda, chef

Tokyo is a surprisingly green city.

Born and raised in Tokyo, Mari Maeda is a food stylist and vegan chef who helms Marideli catering company, which provides homemade bread, Buddha bowls and healthy muffins to restaurants around town.

“Tokyo’s vegan dining scene is better than before but I still find it difficult – it is not something that’s rooted in our day-to-day life,” says Maeda.

Though it’s slim-pickings, she does have a few favorite healthy cafes, including Oriental Diner IGAO (1-11-2 AIOS Hiroo Building 1F, 150-0012 Shibuya-ku) in Ebisu, which is a restaurant by day and a bar at night.

At this cozy spot, travelers can taste her vegan lunches and admire art and fashion exhibits from the city’s young creatives.

“Another vegetarian place I love is called 8ablish [1-7-11 1F Takaban, Meguro, Tokyo] in Omotesando (a tree-lined area of Shibuya) – the coffee is delicious, and so is the vegan food, like the tofu New York-style cheesecake,” she says.

“I feel really relaxed and refreshed every time I go there.”

A lover of all things green, Maeda suggests a day trip to Mount Takao – about 90 minutes by train from Tokyo. With a choice of trails at various difficulty levels, the climb rewards travelers with panoramic views from its multiple lookout spots.

But if a low-key day out sounds more appealing, she recommends exploring Tokyo’s peaceful parks – such as Setagaya Park in Gohongi, where families and couples spend weekends relaxing and sunbathing.

“Tokyo is actually a very natural place, even though we don’t have forests,” says Maeda. “You see lots of greens and flowers in residential area and homes, and there are parks everywhere.”

After a visit to the park, Maeda stops into CRAFT Chocolate Works, a stylish shop serving scrumptious cakes and sweets, as well as R Burger – for gastropub snacks in an atmospheric converted warehouse space.

“Tokyo offers the ultimate freedom and flexibility – if you want to know something, you can go out there and get involved,” says Maeda.

“If not, you can simply relax and watch local life happen.”

Maeda’s travel tips

  • Japanese people can be shy and insecure about their English abilities. Try to talk to them with a couple of Japanese words to warm them up.
  • Go see a baseball game at night!

Kate Springer is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist who covers food, travel, culture, architecture and innovation for CNN, Conde Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, Forbes Travel Guide, Fodor’s, Munchies and more. Follow along on Instagram and read more of her work here.