Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who’s ever been like, “Tokyo? Nahhh, never going there.”
Fact of the matter is, Tokyo is on everybody’s travel hit list, no matter if they’re going for several days or several months. So as far as where to stay in Tokyo, I make similar recommendations with a few modifications based on the purpose of your stay and what you like (or plan) to do.
It’s About Saving Money…in Transportation Costs
The first thing I tell everyone is that deciding where to stay in Tokyo is overwhelming, but the good thing is that it’s also very, very convenient to get around. Even in more faraway places, such as in Kawaguchi-ku, Adachi-ku, and Setagaya-ku (-ku signifies the special ward in Tokyo) you can easily zip to and from the central happening parts of Tokyo like Shinjuku and Shibuya between 20-40 minutes.
What it comes down to is not thinking about where to stay in terms of convenience or the “cool factor”. Because almost every place is convenient and cool.
Instead, your goal with choosing where to stay in Tokyo should be to minimize transportation costs and transfers between subway companies.
Japan has an incredibly complex rail system, especially in Tokyo, and is comprised of several separate conglomerates. The most well-known are JR and Tokyo Metro. Depending on where you’re going, you might need to do a lot of transfers, oftentimes needing to pay extra to leave one subway company to enter another, and then do the same on the return trip. Those costs are going to add up, so if you try to save money on your hotel or for AirBnb and stay too far from where you need to go consistently, those costs are going to bite you back in the ass in the form of daily travel expenses.
So my recommendation: Using Hyperdia.com, you can figure out where you want to go most days you are in Tokyo and pony up the extra cash to stay at a more central location that will easily reach all of those places. All of my experience has been staying via AirBnb or with friends. For hotels recommendations, check out AsiaTravelBug. Below I share my experiences and insight to hopefully help you narrow down your choices.
Quick Hit Recommendations
Here’s the quick and dirty rundown of centrally located areas in Tokyo that I think are cool, based on whether you’re a first-timer, with family, or looking to stay a while. After that, I go into a bit more detail about each of the major neighborhoods in Tokyo.
Where to Stay in Tokyo for First-Timers
No one comes to Tokyo “to relax.”
Whether you’re a solo traveler who craves Tokyo’s eclectic energy or a group of friends that wants to immerse yourselves in the city, most neighborhoods in Tokyo are prime for drinking, partying, non-stop shopping, and night life. The best neighborhoods with the greatest density of bars, restaurants, and “things to do” for first-timers are the ever popular Shinjuku and Shibuya.
- Shibuya: Basically, think of Shibuya as the nightclub district for teenagers. Famous for Shibuya Crossing and the Hachiko statue (dog statue outside the JR station). Huge Tokyu Hands and Loft stores. Shibuya 109 has many floors of chic boutiques. Of course, you have to visit Tokyu Food Show in the JR station basement and bask in the glory of all the food.
- Harajuku: Harajuku is famous for its quirkiness and very “Japanese fashion”. It’s within walking distance to Shibuya, Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine, and Omotesando–all of which are prime tourist destinations you should visit at least briefly. In fact, I’d actually recommend you stay in Harajuku over Shibuya. I explain a bit more in the analysis further below.
- Shinjuku: Most people come here for Golden Gai and Kabukicho, both of which offer you a more raunchy feel of Japan’s drinking culture. Shinjuku itself is more business, but it’s got a great mix of touristy and local things. If you’ve only got a couple of days, Shinjuku would be an ideal area to stay in Tokyo because it’s a prime transportation hub. You get in and out easily and can minimize your transportation expenses a fair bit.
Notice I’ve suggested only three neighborhoods for first-timers. If you are staying for a couple of days and want a very “Tokyo” experience that also provides convenience, these places will do just that.
Where to Stay in Tokyo for a More “Quiet” Tokyo Experience
Tokyo is far from a quiet city, but certain neighborhoods lend themselves to be a bit slower pace and let you actually hear yourself think a little bit, while still plunging you deep into the 100 mph life of Tokyoites. If you’re traveling with family (either with kids or parents), these places would be a bit more enjoyable than putting up with the maddening crowds of Shibuya and Shinjuku.
- Daikanyama: Trendy, modern, and hipster make up the vibe of Daikanyama. While it’s a sweet and more low-profile area to be in, with the high-end Ebisu neighborhood and happening Shibuya within walking distance, it burns a hole in your wallet and can get costly going outside central parts of Tokyo from Daikanyama. It’s a stop away from a few major Tokyo transportation hubs so if you don’t feel like wandering far it’ll be okay.
- Ebisu: Ebisu doesn’t carry the fame and glamor of its neighboring areas, Shibuya and Daikanyama, but Ebisu feels more like an older person’s Daikanyama. You have nice restaurants as well as plenty of chic and upscale boutiques and stores. And best of all? There’s a Shake Shack here.
- Roppongi: Roppongi is where Westerners and foreigners go to live, party, drink, and just mingle for a very artificial Japanese-International experience. It’s great for modern art and museums though.
- Ginza: I put Ginza here as an option, but I actually don’t recommend staying here unless you’re ready to throw down some serious cash and are really into brand-name shopping all of the time. Staying in Ginza means you’ll have easier access to Roppongi and a couple of other high-profile tourist spots, including Tsukiji fish market. (Unfortunately, the famous fish market will be relocating to Toyosu in late 2016.)
Where to Stay in Tokyo for Cheap But Is Still Convenient:
If you’re on a tighter budget but still want to be close to the action, these are good options.
- Takadonobaba: This is a university town, so it’s cheaper. It sits on the JR Yamanote line (a VERY central subway line) so transportation wouldn’t be a hassle nor more expensive than it needs to be.
- Ueno: Like Takadonobaba, Ueno is on the JR Yamanote line, but can still be full of tourists because of Ueno Park and Ueno Zoo. It’s a stone’s throw away from Akihabara.
Where to Stay in Tokyo for Long-Term Stays
This list is heavily biased. I got to stay at these places for long periods of time myself, so I can tell you that these neighborhoods are geared toward daily living, with slightly cheaper groceries than the rest of Tokyo.
- Ikejiri-Ohashi: This small neighborhood is about a 15-minute walk to Shibuya, Nakameguro, Ebisu, or Daikanyama–all great places for food, coffee shops, subways, and affordable grocery stores. It also borders Sangen-jaya, which is super cool for low-key nightlife stuff.
- Higashi-Jujo: Higashi-Jujo has what I would describe a very My Neighbor Totoro feel. It has a more intimate, neighborhood feel from the days of yore, while still being densely packed with local Japanese stores and things you need for day-to-day stuff. All the food and groceries are very reasonably priced.
- Shimokitazawa: Shimokitazawa is hipster central. It shares the same energy as Harajuku, but doesn’t quite draw the pretentious crowds that Harajuku does. I actually never lived here, but this place comes highly recommended if you like artsy-fartsy stuff and want to be close to organized chaos and a trendy neighborhood.
A Closer Look at the Recommended Neighborhoods
Honestly, pretty much anything on the main Yamanote (green-colored) line on the JR subway station will be a decent choice for a place to stay in Tokyo, but here are my thoughts on the following:
- Average Airbnb prices: $90/night
- Good for: Nightlife, shopping, young people
- Nearby destinations: Hachiko statue, Shibuya 109, Harajuku, Shibuya Crossing
I’ve seen places go as low as $30 per night, but on average you can depend on paying at least $60 per person, even if you’re staying really close to the main crossing area. When staying in Shibuya, you’ll be in the heart of the “Youth Capital of Tokyo” and tourists up the wazoo. Lots of bars, shopping, things to see and do, and food to eat, natch.
In reality though, the food is only okay in this neighborhood. No doubt you’ll find a number of great places to eat, but for the bustling tourist epicenter that it is, the number of amazing restaurants per capita in Shibuya is a little disappointing. As a matter of fact, if you want to get good food with a more local feel, I recommend walking in the southwest direction, past Tokyu Hands, and basically outside of the main Shibuya area.
If you stay in Shibuya, you’ll have to consider the crapton amount of people–both tourists and locals–that flow in and out of the neighborhood. This means feeling like a shaken up bag of Oreos during rush hour on a regular basis, which impacts the freedom of trying to leave and go back to your place. I usually tell my friends to avoid Shibuya if they can help it. There are much better options. In fact, if you just want to be a skip and a hop away from Shibuya, Harajuku is way better for living.
- Average Airbnb prices: $100/night
- Good for: Coffee shops, young people, fashionistas, crepe- and pancake lovers
- Nearby destinations: Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yoyogi Park, Shibuya, Omotesando
Harajuku is in a unique spot. It’s crammed in this triple-decker sandwich of hot tourist spots: Shibuya, Omotesando, and Yoyogi. You probably know Harajuku as the place to see and discover fringe and sometimes questionable Japanese fashion. Seriously, you can probably wear a hat made out of aluminum foil and strands of horse hair and people in Harajuku would think it’s totally normal and take selfies with you.
I would actually stay in Harajuku, not Shibuya, even for a long-term stay (though it would no doubt be pricey). The main reason is that, outside of the Takeshita-dori (main street in Harajuku), Harajuku is quite calm. Plus, if you do end up partying the night away in Shibuya, you can drunkenly stumble back to Harajuku, or hail a cab which won’t cost that much. All of the places you’d want to go to as a tourist are within walking distance anyway, or at least an easy JR ride away.
As a long-term solution, Harajuku is close to two Gold’s Gym, or if you follow my guide on gyms in Japan, it’s still a reasonable distance to the public gym in Sendagaya. Food and coffee shops are a non-issue, and if you dig American style brunch, you’ll find plenty of places in Harajuku.
- Average Airbnb prices: $70/night
- Good for: Bars, food, nerdy cafes, day trips around Tokyo
- Nearby destinations: Shinjuku Gyoen, Park Hyatt Hotel (from Lost in Translation), Kabukicho (red light district), Nakano Broadway
The neighborhood of Shinjuku is like a mullet: It’s business in the front (by day) and then party in the back (by night). It runs the gamut of having business buildings, tons of shopping in boutiques and giant department stores, bars upon bars upon bars, the infamous Kabukicho (Tokyo’s red light district), and tons of cool cafes for nerds (the Final Fantasy cafe, Capcom cafe, and 8-bit barcade are here).
The Shinjuku JR station is also the busiest station in Tokyo, even more so than the actual Tokyo JR station. Because of that, your voyage to any place in Japan can originate in Shinjuku station. It also means, like Shibuya, you can expect difficulties on the train during rush hour. (Then again, anything on the green Yamanote JR line will have insane number of people.)
Shinjuku is a place to hole up if you finish off your night at a bar on a regular basis. I’d say Shinjuku is a bit more “upscale” than Shibuya, since the clientele at many places are a combination of business folks, salarymen, and tourists.
- Average Airbnb prices: $90/night
- Good for: Upscale shopping, amazing restaurants
- Nearby destinations: Hibiya Park, Imperial Palace, Tokyo Station
Ginza is the more upscale, red-carpet type shopping and bar neighborhood. No doubt you’ll find amazing restaurants here.
Other than extravagant shop ’til you drop sort of affair, Ginza has a ton of bars. I seem to say that about every neighborhood so far, but as far as I know, there’s no other neighborhood that can match the sheer number of small bars and restaurants that Ginza has. Whiskey bars, dive bars, karaoke bars, or whatever–you name it, you’ll probably find it. And you do have to search high and low for specific places, but if you’re feeling adventurous you can duck into literally any bar and probably have a good time. (You just need alcohol, right?) Just keep in mind that many bars have a sitting fee here. Also, they’re smaller without the kind of boisterous crowd you might find at a similar establishment in Shibuya.
- Average Airbnb prices: $100/night
- Good for: Clubbing, drinking, Western food, foreigners
- Nearby destinations: Mori Art Museum, National Art Center
Roppongi is great if your focus in Tokyo is partying all night with an international crowd, overpaying for food and drinks, and rubbing elbows with big business moguls. You can probably tell that Roppongi is my least favorite of the popular tourist neighborhoods. The ritziness of Roppongi Hills is too pretentious, but it just feels like it also gives the least authentic experience of Tokyo. But Roppongi does offer up cool art exhibits (which switch out often) and is a hub for any internationally-facing art things.
Daikanyama / Ebisu / Nakameguro
- Average Airbnb prices: $80/night
- Good for: Cute and open-air cafes, hipsters
- Nearby destinations: Shibuya, Yoyogi, Harajuku
I lumped Daikanyama, Ebisu, and Nakameguro together because they sort of form a triangle. As far as energy, all of these places are much more tranquil, but most people come here for the fashion boutiques, the modern, open-air cafes, bakeries, and hair salons. The Meguro River runs through Nakameguro, and it’s one of the coolest places to take a stroll, especially at night.
- Average Airbnb prices: $50/night, monthly rate: ~$1000
- Good for: Long-term stays, hipsters
- Nearby destinations: Sanjen-gaya, Tokyo Skytree (just a straight shot)
I lived in Ikejiri-Ohashi and loved it. In fact, I stayed at this Airbnb. There is one other room that may be available. The host, Eric, is great!
The great thing about this particular location is that it’s super close to the Tokyo metro station, convenience stores all around, a 100 yen shop, and grocery stores with reasonable prices and amazing hot food sections. The feel of the neighborhood is low-key but still fairly hip. And there’s a really nice Starbucks (as well as plenty of other coffee shops) a few minutes away. Of course, Daikanyama, Nakameguro, Ebisu, Shibuya, and Sanjen-gaya are all close enough to walk to.
- Average Airbnb prices: $50/night, monthly rate: ~900
- Good for: Quiet Tokyo life
- Nearby destinations: Akabane, Akihabara, Ueno
Higashi-Jujo is a neighborhood for locals–there’s really no other way to describe it. Permanent foreign residents stay here, too, because it’s one of the few places that they can easily rent apartments. There’s nothing spectacular about it, other than the fact that it’s affordable and has everything you need, including plenty of mom ‘n’ pops shops, cheap groceries, good food, and even 100 yen shops. There’s also a neat rock climbing gym here.
Despite all of this, you’ll probably still have a lot of “But what if…” doubts in your head. You’re overanalyzing it! Just choose from any of the neighborhoods I suggested and focus on getting a place that’s physically located within walking distance to a metro station entrance. You can always check Google map and make sure you’re close to the subway icons which look like this:
All photos taken by Karen Hong Photography.
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