Planning for 36 Hours in Tokyo, Japan

About the series: Welcome to our ongoing travel series. These are all posts written by planning students and professionals about what to do in a given city when looking for Brunch, Brews, or a good idea on a Budget. To cap it all off, we include a fun planning fact!  

By Siobhan Nelson

As the days grow darker and temperatures colder, I dream about summers in Tokyo. It’s true that Japanese summers can be oppressively hot and humid, but trust me when I say that it’s worth it. The heat, the lights, and sounds of the city meld together for an exhilarating experience.

You could spend years exploring the nooks and crannies of the vast metropolis, but here are some quick tips to maximize a 36-hour summer visit.  

Budget: Fortunately, Tokyo is a city of options. It can be as expensive or as affordable as you need it to be, and you can still enjoy it on a budget.

Tokyo is a massive, sprawling city. It’s hard to grasp just how large and densely built it is, but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building can give you a glimpse. The government building is centrally located and allows free visits to its observation deck. From the 45th floor, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city, and on a clear day, even see Mount Fuji.

View from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Photo Credit: Siobhan Nelson

It bears repeating that summers in Tokyo are the best. Matsuri festivals fill the streets in neighborhoods across the city – bringing music, dancing, games, and food. Everything is amplified as the sun sets, the lanterns turn on, and the drinks flow. If exploring Tokyo on foot, you’re sure to come across a festival or two.

Matsuri dancing. Photo credit: Siobhan Nelson

The one downside to humid Tokyo summers is the accompanying rain. Nevertheless, if your visit happens to fall on a rainy day, don’t worry. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is not only a great way to hide out from the weather, but it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn about Tokyo. The museum covers the history and changing urban form of the city and will be of particular interest to planners.

Exhibition at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Photo Credit: Grigoris Miliaresis via Tokyo Cheapo

No post on Tokyo would be complete without mentioning the transit system. Tokyo is often cited as having one of the best train systems in the world. Local trains will take you anywhere in the city, express trains to the outskirts, and bullet trains will have you on the other side of the country in a matter of hours. Riding the train is an experience in and of itself, but ticket buying can be a confusing experience.

To ensure that you never overpay, purchase a transit card. Operating like a debit card, you simply swipe it at each station and the machines do the rest. Beyond transit, the card can be used at vending machines and grocery stores.

Tokyo’s subway system. Photo Credit:

Speaking of vending machines, you can find them everywhere. A staple in the hustle and bustle culture, they offer a fast way to sample some of the more interesting drink options. In the summer, you can find choices like cherry blossom Pepsi and in the winter, hot corn soup.  

Cherry Blossom Pepsi. Photo Credit: Siobhan Nelson

Convenience stores are also all over and a must for visitors of all budgets. The bento meals are an affordable way to try traditional Japanese food, but the snack and sandwich selections are also delightful. If you need additional guidance in picking out a quick lunch, the egg sandwiches were a favorite of chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain.

Brunch (or any meal): When in Japan, eat sushi! It might seem cliché, but you really should. If you are a sushi enthusiast, invest in an omakase (chef’s choice) dinner at a nice restaurant. If you’re not sold but want to give it a try, visit a rotating sushi place. Plates of everything from salmon to hamburger sushi circle you on a conveyor belt, and you can grab whatever catches your eye. Plates are color coded by price.

Rotating sushi. Photo Credit: Siobhan Nelson

Brew: Tokyo is a very caffeinated city, and in addition to the vending machines, you can find nice kissaten coffee shops all over. You really can’t go wrong with any of the local establishments. If you’re craving the familiar taste of Starbucks, make sure to go the Nakameguro location. It’s not only one of the largest Starbucks roasteries in the world, but it was designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

The Nakameguro Starbucks Roastery. Photo Credit: Matthew Glac via dezeen

Fun Japanese Planning Fact: There are only 12 different land use zones, which are determined at the federal level. Unlike the traditional American approach that outlines what is allowed in each zone, the Japanese system focuses more on distinguishing functions that are not allowed. This is considered to be a more liberal approach to zoning and results in a unique urban form. Read more about their system here.

Cover Image: Tokyo from above. Photo Credit: Siobhan Nelson

Siobhan is a second-year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She is specializing in transportation planning and is interested in public transportation as a way to promote equity and improve community vibrancy. She received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College, with a major in the Growth and Structure of Cities and a minor in Environmental Studies. In her free time, she enjoys listening to 80s music.