I always enjoy receiving your emails about upcoming Japan trips as often it leads me to subjects I never thought to write about. That’s the case with a recent enquiry asking for suggestions for a 12 hour layover in Tokyo. I thought this would be useful for others too, plus I finally get to use this photo of a panda plane we saw at Narita!
Leaving the airport during a layover is always a bit risky but Japan is probably one of the least risky countries to do it as transport is so reliable and fast. Do make sure you research everything well in advance including travel timings and the location of luggage lockers, train ticket counters and your airline’s check-in desks. That means you won’t waste any of your precious Tokyo time and if there are delays with your flight or immigration, you’ll know whether you can still make the trip. I’ll also include some ideas for nearer the airport if you’re more pressed for time.
How to get into Tokyo from Narita Airport
For all my suggestions, I recommend getting the Keisei Skyliner train, which takes a mere 41 minutes from Narita to Ueno. You can even book in advance including a subway ticket. Print off the full timetable and you can then highlight the best train to get you back in time comfortably for your next flight. While you’re waiting in immigration or for your luggage, you can check the timetable and see when the next trains are.
Getting Around Tokyo
Once you arrive at Ueno you can hop on a JR Yamanote Line train or Tokyo Metro subway to visit one (or more!) of these areas. My top suggestions are quite a few stops from Ueno but the trains run very regularly and are rarely late so you’ll never have to wait more than a few minutes. All the lines are colour-coded with English signs at stations and inside trains so are easy to navigate.
If it’s your first time in Tokyo, just head to the ticket machines, choose the English option and buy the cheapest ticket. If the ticket gate alerts you at the other end, look for the Fare Adjustment machine and it will help you upgrade to the correct fare, with no penalty!
Harajuku (JR Yamanote line)
This would be my top pick for anyone with an interest in kawaii or who wants to get a quick overview of what a visit to Japan is like. You can see the latest trends in Takeshita Dori, shop at kawaii mecca Kiddyland, grab some fun food, visit Meiji Shrine and take in some traditional woodblock prints, all within a small area. With a little more time, you can visit a character or cat cafe, hang out in Yoyogi Park or hop back on the train one stop to see Shibuya too. Read my area guide to Harajuku »
Shibuya (JR Yamanote line or Ginza subway line)
Things are a bit more spread out in Shibuya but if shopping is top of your list then you can visit a lot of my favourite shops here. You can also stop by Hachiko’s statue and watch the famous Shibuya Crossing. Food-wise, most of Japan’s fast food outlets have a branch here and they’re well worth trying. Read my area guide to Shibuya »
Akihabara (JR Yamanote line or Hibiya subway line)
If gaming, anime or the weirder side of Japan is most of interest, Akihabara is only two stops from Ueno. There’s loads of big arcades to play in, cute maid, butler and animal cafes to eat in and plenty of shopping. The whole area is buzzing with energy and neon and fun to explore. If your layover is overnight, you can even kill a few hours in a private manga cafe room with books and internet. Read my area guide to Akihabara »
Fabric and sewing fans on a tight schedule should just get off the Skyliner a stop early at Nippori. It’s famous for Fabric Street where all the fabric and sewing supply shops are situated close together. You’ll find the biggest choice at Tomato or wander the side streets for hidden gems. Read my guide to Nippori Fabric Town »
If you’re worried about missing your train back if you go too far, Ueno has plenty to see too with a large park, vibrant market area and some great shops. Yamashiroya is a really good toy shop full of kawaii and surrounded by gashapon machines with more around the corner at Yodobashi Camera. There’s some good eating options inside the station too. Read my area guide to Ueno »
Areas to avoid
Unless it’s the only way to visit something that is your life’s dream, first-time visitors should avoid Shinjuku, Tokyo and Ikebukuro. They’re all big confusing stations with multiple exits covering unconnected areas. Take a wrong turning and you could waste a lot of time wandering through underground passages and business districts.
If you can’t make it into Tokyo
If delays mean you don’t have time to go into Tokyo after all, there’s still things to see nearby.
Narita City can be reached in just ten minutes by train and will give you a little taste of Japan with temples, shrines, museums and shopping. The Aeon mall has Sanrio Gift Gate, Daiso, Village Vanguard, Pandora House (fabric & crafts), Book Off (secondhand books, CDs & DVDs), and lots of cafes and restaurants including Mister Donut.
The airport itself has plenty to offer so don’t be too upset if you miss your chance at Tokyo. Just hop on a shuttle to explore the three terminals. Look out for Itoya (stationery & washi), Hello Kitty Japan, Pokemon Center, Muji, Hakuhinkan Toy Park, Tsutaya (books & magazines) plus stores for traditional Japanese snacks and souvenirs including airport exclusive KitKats! There’s also the opportunity to experience some culture with the Origami Museum and regular exhibitions and events including bonsai, paper crafts and dressing in kimono.