Updated: January 4, 2017
Where Should I Stay in Tokyo?
Greater Tokyo, with more than 37 million people, is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. Most tourists, however, spend the majority of their time within the city’s 23 wards, which with 13 million residents might seem intimidating enough. It’s useful, therefore, to think of the sprawling capital as nothing more than a network of villages, most with origins dating to the Edo Period (1603-1868) and each with its own charm.
Tokyo owes its layout to the days of the shogun, when Edo Castle dominated the center of the city surrounded by a whirl of moats. Even today, a swath of greenery and moats mark where the castle once stood, now home to the imperial family and East Garden. Feudal lords, merchants and townspeople were all assigned their own neighborhoods. Chuo-ku (Central Ward), for example, was established as the commercial heart of the city and remains so with its swanky Ginza shopping mecca and Nihombashi business district. Taito-ku, where commoners settled, still exhibits a lively shitamachi (old downtown) atmosphere in the neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ueno.
Despite its size, getting around Tokyo is much easier than you might think. Forming a circular loop through Tokyo’s most well-known wards and neighborhoods is the very useful Japan Railways Yamanote Line, which passes through Tokyo Station on its way to Akihabara, Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa and many other stations. Most of Tokyo’s major attractions are near or within this Yamanote Line loop. There are also 13 subway lines, each assigned its own color and letter (the Gina Line is orange and is identified by G). Furthermore, each station along each line is numbered in chronological order, so if you board the Ginza Line in Omotesando (G 02), it’s easy to keep track of how many stations you’ll pass before reaching Asakusa (G 19).
In any case, because Tokyo’s attractions are so spread out and public transportation is so efficient, no one neighborhood stands out when it comes to a place to stay. Neighborhoods do, however, have their own personalities and advantages, so make your choice based on preference or lifestyle.
The Best Places To Stay in Tokyo
- Most Historic Neighborhood: Asakusa
Hands down, Asakusa imparts the atmosphere of old Edo better than anywhere else. Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple, in fact, predates Tokyo by more than 1,300 years, and there are many souvenir shops and traditional restaurants in the quaint surrounding side streets that have been passed down from generation to generation. For an even more authentic immersion into old Tokyo, stay in one of many traditional Japanese inns in Asakusa or nearby Ueno.
- Most Romantic Neighborhood: Ebisu
You don’t want to be fighting crowds on a romantic rendezvous, making overlooked Ebisu a convenient (it’s on the Yamanote and Hibiya lines, among others) and quiet choice. Although there are plenty of wining and dining choices along Ebisu’s side streets, Tokyoites often choose Yebisu Garden Place as one of the city’s top date spots. A city-within-a-city, its offerings include restaurants with dreamy views on the 38th and 39th floors of a skyscraper, a beer hall, Mitsukoshi department store, a weekly outdoor farmer’s market and a Westin hotel.
- Best Neighborhood for Nightlife: Roppongi & Shinjuku
If you’re a night owl who likes staying close to the action, Roppongi offers Tokyo’s most cosmopolitan yet condensed nightlife, packed with bars, izakaya and restaurants offering everything from yakitori and sushi to pizza and ethnic fare. Shinjuku is larger and crazier, with strip shows, hostess bars, izakaya, karaoke bars, dance clubs and live music venues, concentrated mostly in a nightlife district called Kabukicho. Nearby is Golden Gai, a maze of narrow streets lined with tiny bars, while farther afield is Shinjuku 2-chome, Asia’s largest gay nightlife district.
- Best Neighborhood for Food & Restaurants: Ginza
Ginza is famous for not only high-end shopping but also for its restaurants. That’s saying a lot for a country renowned for cuisine, but foodies will find restaurants ranging from deluxe venues offering haute French fare to those specializing in fusion dishes. There are also cubby-hole-size izakaya (Japanese-style pubs), sophisticated cocktail lounges and everything in between. Ginza is also the place to go for famous shops offering Japanese desserts, sake and other items, not to mention department stores with must-see basement food emporiums.
- Best Neighborhood for Short Visits: Near Tokyo Station
If you have only a day or two to spare, you don’t want to waste time dragging your luggage across town. Convenient to Narita airport and the Shinkansen bullet train, Tokyo Station contains shops, restaurants and even a hotel, but it’s also within walking distance of the Imperial Palace, East Garden, the Ginza, hotels and more. Access to the rest of the city is via Tokyo Station’s Yamanote and Marunouchi lines and four additional subway lines from nearby Otemachi Station.
- Best Neighborhood for Sightseeing: Akasaka-Mitsuke
Akasaka, home to many corporate headquarters, has few attractions of its own other than Hie Shrine, the National Diet (with free weekday tours), the Akasaka Sacas shopping and dining complex, and a small but lively nightlife scene. However, its central location and combined stations of Akasaka-Mitsuke and Nagatacho with five subway lines provide direct access to Asakusa, Ueno, Shibuya, Omotesando, Ginza, Shinjuku and other iconic spots without having to change trains. Hotels are pricey, but many offer great views of the city.
- Best Neighborhood for a Local Vibe: Meguro
If Tokyo’s density gives you pause, consider staying in Meguro. Lying just outside the Yamanote Line’s demarcation of inner Tokyo but with quick access to Shibuya and Ebisu, Meguro is a mostly residential area with breathing space and a decidedly hipster vibe. Stylish cafes, organic restaurants, vintage clothing stores and well-known bars lure Tokyoites seeking respite from the urban jungle, especially around Nakameguro Station with its one-of-a-kind boutiques, trendy restaurants, laid-back atmosphere and tree-lined Meguro River, famous for its cherry blossoms in spring.
- Best Neighborhood for Families: Odaiba
No district has more to offer families than Odaiba, a reclaimed island in Tokyo Bay with plenty of space to roam. Its diversions include the free Toyota Mega Web with racing simulators and other diversions for kids of all ages; Miraikan—National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation with hands-on displays relating to the future of technology; huge entertainment complexes like Leisureland and Joypolis; and both a Legoland and Madam Tussauds wax museum. There are also many shopping malls packed with restaurants. On the downside, hotels and access to the rest of Tokyo are limited.
- Best Neighborhood for Fashionistas: Omotesando
This is one of Tokyo’s most popular weekend hangouts. Omotesando is the name of a subway station and tree-shaded street lined with zelkova trees and designer boutiques that connects two distinct neighborhoods: Harajuku with its youth-centered shops and cheap eateries and more upscale Aoyama filled with designer stores and innovative restaurants. Hotels are few and far between, but Shibuya, connected to Harajuku via pedestrian Cat Street and public transportation, has many.