Seeing the top sights of Tokyo in a single day requires a very early start, discipline, and a bit of stamina. This "greatest hits" tour begins with an early morning spin through Japan's largest fish market and a sushi breakfast, and includes a garden tour, a cruise, a museum stop, swanky shopping, and a great meal.
Start: Subway to Tsukijijo or Tsukiji.
1. Tsukiji Fish Market
You'll need a very early start here, but if you've just flown in from the other side of the globe, you'll be suffering from jet lag anyway, so you should be wide awake by 5am. Head to Japan's largest wholesale fish market for an action-packed morning. After boats unload their catches from around the world in the wee hours of the morning, seafood auctions are held for wholesalers (only a small area of the tuna auctions is open to the public, 5-6:15am). Wholesalers then set up stalls, hawking about 450 different kinds of seafood; it's a great education simply walking through the aisles. The market is closed Sundays, holidays, and some Wednesdays. (Important Editor's Note: The Tsukiji Fish Market was supposed to leave its longtime market and move to the suburbs in 2017. But as we go to press, that move has been delayed again. Before heading to the market, check to see where its current location is.)
2. Sushi Dai
For the freshest sushi breakfast you'll ever have, head to one of the tiny sushi bars on the market grounds.
Take a taxi from Tsukiji Fish Market to Hama Rikyu Garden, or walk for 12 minutes.
3. Hama Rikyu Garden
There are better, more famous gardens elsewhere in Japan, but Hama Rikyu Garden is convenient for a quick tour. Created more than 300 years ago, today it features a traditional Japanese garden complete with moon-viewing pavilions, teahouses, and other vestiges of its Edo-era origins, as well as a bird refuge. The garden opens at 9am daily.
4. Sumida River Boat Cruise
Inside Hama Rikyu Garden is a pier where you can board a sightseeing boat for a 40-minute cruise up the Sumida River to Asakusa. In the days of old Edo (present-day Tokyo), taking a boat was the most popular way to reach Asakusa and its famous temple, and though the scenery has changed, it's still the most relaxing and interesting way to reach this destination. Boats depart Hama Rikyu at 10:35 and 11:15am, with subsequent departures every half-hour or hour.
5. Nakamise Dori
Asakusa is one of Tokyo's oldest neighborhoods, filled with narrow lanes, traditional Japanese homes, and shops selling handmade crafts and souvenirs. At the heart of Asakusa is Nakamise Dori, a narrow pedestrian lane lined on both sides with booths selling a wide variety of Japanese souvenirs — a good place to stock up on inexpensive gifts for the folks back home. On side streets radiating from Nakamise Dori are also shops offering traditional crafts.
6. Sensoji Temple
Nakamise Dori leads straight to Tokyo's oldest and most popular temple, founded in A.D. 628 to house the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness. Destroyed during World War II and lovingly rebuilt with donations from the Japanese people, it attracts 20 million worshippers a year, giving it a festive atmosphere virtually every day.
This traditional house offers reasonably priced obento box lunches. Try to time your visit to coincide with a free performance of the shamisen or other Japanese musical instrument, given daily at 12:15 and 1:30pm.
Take the Tokyo Shitamachi bus from Kaminarimon Dori (in front of Nakamise Dori) two stops to Ueno; or take the Ginza subway line three stops to Ueno.
8. Tokyo National Museum
This is the most important museum to see in Tokyo, if not all of Japan. It houses the country's largest collection of historic treasures, including swords, samurai gear, lacquerware, ceramics, Buddhist sculptures, calligraphy, woodblock prints, and much, much more. Its most priceless treasures are Buddhist statues, masks, and other religious works of art from Horyuji Temple in Nara, founded in 607. Closed Monday.
Take the Ginza Line from Ueno Station to Ginza Station.
9. The Ginza
The Ginza is Japan's most fashionable — and expensive — shopping address, home to international designer boutiques, art galleries, and huge department stores. My favorite department store is Matsuya on Chuo Dori, with everything from Japanese folk crafts to designer togs for sale, plus an art gallery, restaurants, and a huge food emporium in its basement. There are dozens of excellent restaurants in this neighborhood; pick one that appeals to you for your evening meal.
10. Shinbashi Enbujo Theater
If you've managed to stay awake this long, about a 10-minute walk from the Ginza is the Shinbashi Enbujo Theater, where you can see performances of Kabuki with its gorgeous costumes; plots that revolve around love, loyalty, revenge, and other easy-to-understand themes; and great stage presentations. (Keep in mind that performances end by 9pm.)