Tokyo is a massive city, and if you only have 48 hours to explore, you aren’t going to see all of it. The urban sprawl can be more than overwhelming with its sky-high buildings, intimidating language, and maze-like streets. My best advice? Instead of trying to crisscross the city like a pinball, stick to one or two neighboring areas and dig in.
On my first trip to Tokyo, I didn’t follow my own advice. When I boarded my return flight to California, I carried mental snapshots of the city’s standout locations (Asakusa, the top of the Park Hyatt, Shibuya Crossing), but I had trekked across the metropolis in my limited time to get to them, which meant that my most prominent memory was navigating the metro system.
On my second trip, I made sure to do things right. I spent the majority of my time exploring Harajuku and Omotesando — two of Tokyo’s most iconic neighborhoods that seem to be the pulse of the city’s modern culture.
If you only have two days in the Japanese capital, follow the lead of my second trip. You’ll have time to wander the neighborhoods’ pedestrian-friendly streets, check out the areas’ notable hotspots, do a bit of shopping, eat your heart out, snap a few photos, and maybe even pet a cat or two.
Day One: Harajuku
Harajuku is synonymous with the wild, often cartoonish, street fashions of Tokyo, and Takeshita Street is the epicenter of it all. In this bright, bubblegum pink hub of the city people-watching alone makes for a worthwhile visit. Wander through the neighborhood’s quirky shops and pick up some unique gifts for your friends back home.
Forgo the more gimmicky crepe and rainbow-colored ice cream shops and indulge in the latest Japanese food trend: pancakes. Bear in mind that these aren’t just any pancakes — they come in every shape, size, color, and flavor imaginable. See for yourself and head to Gram, located on a side street just off of Takeshita. But don’t expect to sit right away — they only serve 20 pancakes at specific intervals throughout the day: 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. When you arrive, you’ll most likely have to make a reservation for a later time.
While on Takeshita Street, you can also experience yet another famous Japanese trend: cat cafés. Cat Cafe MoCHA is one of the highest-rated, with extremely clean facilities and cared-for kitties. When you enter the café, leave your bags and shoes in lockers at the front (but feel free to keep your camera with you). The whimsical decor looks like it’s straight out of Wonderland, but I was too distracted by the orange, grey, brown, and black fluffy patrons sauntering by. The cats here are used to people and aren’t very interested in being petted, unless you catch them while they’re sleeping. But if you have treats, they’ll instantly become your best friends. The café charges by 15-minute intervals, so be sure to check your watch every now and then.
Since pancakes will be today’s dessert, plan to have a solid lunch. I opted for the Great Burger, a vintage Americana-style burger joint located on a winding street between Harajuku and Omotesando. Their homemade milkshakes are simple and just right, while their extensive burger menu definitely makes ordering difficult. They have plenty of other options, though, including vegetarian-friendly dishes, but if you eat meat, do yourself a favor and get one of their perfectly crafted patties.
Once you’re finished eating, head back to Gram for your dessert reservation. But note: these signature pancakes are not what you’d expect. ”Original” pancakes are served in threes and have a thick, almost souffle-like quality. Topped with a mound of butter and sidled with a carafe of maple syrup and a healthy helping of whipped cream, these delicious treats are sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Keep in mind that shops in this area stay open late, so work off your food-filled day with a bit of retail therapy. Personally, I found Kiddy Land to be fun — it’s a unique Tokyo spot that’s perfect for gifts for the little ones in your life. Each of their five floors is dedicated to different Japanese characters and popular animated figures — so don’t miss the Hello Kitty and Star Wars sections.
For a comfortable stay, head to Keio Plaza, a large hotel located near the Shinjuku metro station, just a few stops from Harajuku. The views from the upper-level rooms are jaw-dropping, and the many restaurants inside are quite impressive.
Day Two: Omotesando
If you’re taking the metro, hop off at Omotesando for breakfast at Bills Pancakes. This Australian eatery is located many floors up in the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando. Though very popular, it’s worth the wait for the fresh green juice, melt-in-your-mouth omelets, and caramelized banana pancakes. Actually, every single thing on the menu looks too good, so don’t worry about what you order. For a kick, their flat whites are a must.
After you’re done, head over to Cat Street, where you won’t actually find any cats but will find plenty of trendy boutiques. Its alleys twist and turn, but don’t worry — plan on getting lost. There are artisanal mom-and-pop shops and high-end clothing stores on every corner. While you’re there, grab an iconic bubble tea at Gong Cha. Schoolchildren and fashionable elite alike congregate here for cups of sweet, caffeinated beverages. Each drink is completely customizable, down to the amount of ice, type of milk, and level of sweetness.
From there, venture to nearby Mmmozza for a delicious mozzarella and prosciutto sandwich on freshly made bread. Certainly a different flavor profile than most Japanese cuisine, the menu at this tiny Italian panini shop is a tasty change, which will fuel you for your day of continued exploration.
If you’re in the mood for a sweet treat, Dominique Ansel Bakery is just a few twisty turns away! Their chocolate chip cookies and legendary cronuts are sure to put a smile on your face.
Once you’re finished perusing the streets of Omotesando, head back to your hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation before grabbing dinner and heading out on the town.
For a fun night, head to Fuerza Bruta Wa! Though not in Harajuku or Omotesando, this artistic spectacle and interactive play is an event that should not be missed. You’re sure to get drawn into the festivities, and you won’t be bored for a second of this non-stop performance.
Though Tokyo is an ever-expanding city, its beauty is in the details. From that first fluffy bite of pancake to that still-warm chocolate cookie, that grateful purr of a cat, and that Instagram-worthy snap of Harajuku, embrace it one moment at a time.
Header photo by Clay Banks.