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<