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12-Hour Layover In Tokyo: What To Do

Updated on June 28, 2014
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Part-time farmer, part-time traveler, Viet Doan lives in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii with his partner and a lazy old cat.

Clockwise from top left: Sensoji Temple, Tokyo Skytree, Ueno Park, samurai in Asakusa, Japanese cuisine, lotus blossom.
Clockwise from top left: Sensoji Temple, Tokyo Skytree, Ueno Park, samurai in Asakusa, Japanese cuisine, lotus blossom. | Source

You just landed at Narita International Airport and it’s 9:00AM local time. Your next flight is not until 9:00PM. What are your options? You can stay put in the airport and browse the duty-free shops over and over for the next 12 hours. Or you can skip out of the airport and go for an impromptu excursion. Thanks to Tokyo’s modern, fast and super convenient metro systems, you can easily explore the city on your own. In this itinerary, from Narita International Airport you will hop on the train to go visit Asakusa and Ueno – two of the most popular attractions in central Tokyo – then return to the airport, also by train, and still have plenty of time to catch your connecting flight.

Tokyo Metro Guide subway map
Tokyo Metro Guide subway map | Source

NARITA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

Fresh off the plane, you go directly to a Visitors Information booth where you are greeted by a cadre of Japanese hostesses who speak multiple languages and are eager to assist you. The helpful young ladies give you all the information you need for your excursion, including the Tokyo Metro Guide map, along with train/subway fares, schedules and directions. They also suggest you store your carryon luggage in an airport locker and you gladly agree. “Good idea! I don’t need to lug my stuff all over Tokyo!” Next, you head over to the Currency Exchange office to get some Japanese yen. You exchange $100US and get about 10,000 yen in return in both paper and coin currency.

The coin-operated lockers are easy to use. A good size locker costs 300 yen (about $3US) for the whole day. You deposit the coins and get a voucher with a pin code to open your locker. You put your computer bag, backpack, jacket inside, and take only your wallet, passport, and camera with you. And of course the locker voucher. “Oh yeah, I need the pin code to open the locker later!”

Then you head downstairs to the subway level to catch the train. “Tokyo here I come!”

Five-story high pagoda of Sensoji Temple
Five-story high pagoda of Sensoji Temple | Source

ASAKUSA

The Keisei Sky Access train from Narita International Airport takes you directly to Asakusa. Travel time is approximately 1 hour, costs 1280 yen (about $13US) per passenger. You get off at Asakusa Station.

Asakusa is a famous historic district in central Tokyo where the Sensoji Temple is located. Built in the 7th century, it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. As you come up the subway station, you immediately spot the iconic grand entrance to the temple across the street: the massive Kaminarimon Gate (Thunder Gate). Passing the gate, you slowly push your way through the throng of visitors on Nakamise Street, which leads you to the main temple. This street is lined with shops selling traditional Japanese arts & crafts, toys, clothes, souvenirs, foods and snacks. You enter through a second gate, called Hozomon Gate, then suddenly you find yourself inside a huge courtyard and at its center stands the majestic Sensoji Temple.

The air is filled with smoke from burning incense inside several large urns in front of the temple. You take your time exploring the temple’s grand hall and the 5-story pagoda, other nearby shrines and gardens, and enjoy the serene beauty surrounding you.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Kaminarimon Gate or "Thunder Gate" with its giant paper lanternHozomon Gate or "Treasure House Gate"Entrance to Sensoji Temple's main hallTemple couryardTokyo Skytree - 20 minute walk from Sensoji TempleDempoin Dori Street in historic Asakusa neighborhoodGuided tour of historic Asakusa on rickshawShops selling traditional snacks along Nakamise Street
Kaminarimon Gate or "Thunder Gate" with its giant paper lantern
Kaminarimon Gate or "Thunder Gate" with its giant paper lantern | Source
Hozomon Gate or "Treasure House Gate"
Hozomon Gate or "Treasure House Gate" | Source
Entrance to Sensoji Temple's main hall
Entrance to Sensoji Temple's main hall | Source
Temple couryard
Temple couryard | Source
Tokyo Skytree - 20 minute walk from Sensoji Temple
Tokyo Skytree - 20 minute walk from Sensoji Temple | Source
Dempoin Dori Street in historic Asakusa neighborhood
Dempoin Dori Street in historic Asakusa neighborhood | Source
Guided tour of historic Asakusa on rickshaw
Guided tour of historic Asakusa on rickshaw | Source
Shops selling traditional snacks along Nakamise Street
Shops selling traditional snacks along Nakamise Street | Source

It’s almost lunch time and you feel a little hungry. Leaving the temple behind, you walk back toward Thunder Gate. Following your nose, you discover a number of restaurants in the narrow alleys crisscrossing Nakamise Street. Most of them offer Japanese cuisine which you’re quite fond of. After looking at the colorful plastic food displays in the windows “Yum!” and the prices on the menu “Yikes!” you decide to wait. You walk back to Asakusa Station and head down to the subway to catch the next train to Ueno.

Wired Café in Ueno subway
Wired Café in Ueno subway | Source
Chicken salad with fried egg
Chicken salad with fried egg | Source

While strolling through the subway corridor, you spot Wired Café and decide to check it out. “Wow, I’ve never eaten in an underground subway restaurant before!” It’s a chic glass-and-stainless-steel place, packed with stylish office workers on lunch break (everyone’s busy texting away!) and a few tourists like yourself. You order a ginger ale and the chicken mushroom salad (sautéed ground chicken with shiitake mushroom, on a bed of greens, with tomato, red onion, and one fried egg). The salad is refreshing, interesting combo of ingredients and flavors “Wow, first time I had a fried egg on my salad!” but you find it tasty and satisfying. Cheery, friendly wait staff. A waitress helps you keying in the password on your iPhone so you can access the free wifi. Lunch costs 3005 yen (about $30US with tips). “No one ever said Tokyo was cheap!”

A busy waitress at Wired Café
A busy waitress at Wired Café | Source
Verdant heaven at Ueno Park
Verdant heaven at Ueno Park | Source

UENO

From Asakusa, you take the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line subway train to Ueno. Travel time 5 minutes, costs 160 yen (about $1.50US) per passenger. You get off at Ueno JR Station (G16). Exiting the subway station, you turn right on the sidewalk and cross the street to enter Ueno Park.

You’re at the MOST popular public park in Japan – yes, with ten million visitors a year! Established in 1873, this 135-acre urban oasis is famous for its cherry trees (over 1000 of them!), along with a network of walking path and trails, lake and pond. It’s also home to Japan’s first zoological garden – Ueno Zoo – and a number of museums, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Museum of Western Art. There are several beautiful temples located inside the park, most breathtaking is the Bentendo Shrine built on an island in the middle of a lotus pond. Every year, in early April, the cherry trees burst into blooms and Ueno Park becomes the host for many lively cherry blossom picnic parties (with plenty of sake!) – a local tradition that has been carried on for decades.

It’s easy to lose yourself among the lush landscape and tranquil scenery. You pause to listen to the birds, take a deep breath of the fresh cool air, meditate by the lotus pond, and relax on a park bench under the shade of an old cherry tree. “I’m having a perfect zen time!” You wish you have more time to spend in this wonderful park.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Lotus blossoms in Shinobazu PondKiyomizu Kannon Temple in Ueno ParkCarps and turtles in lotus pondTokyo skyline over Ueno ParkUeno JR subway stationInside Ueno subway stationModern and busy Ueno subway stationOn subway train
Lotus blossoms in Shinobazu Pond
Lotus blossoms in Shinobazu Pond | Source
Kiyomizu Kannon Temple in Ueno Park
Kiyomizu Kannon Temple in Ueno Park | Source
Carps and turtles in lotus pond
Carps and turtles in lotus pond | Source
Tokyo skyline over Ueno Park
Tokyo skyline over Ueno Park | Source
Ueno JR subway station
Ueno JR subway station | Source
Inside Ueno subway station
Inside Ueno subway station | Source
Modern and busy Ueno subway station
Modern and busy Ueno subway station | Source
On subway train
On subway train | Source

Reluctantly, you leave Ueno Park, dash across the busy street and enter Ameyoko Market. This open-air market is one of the oldest flea markets in Tokyo. It’s crammed with hundreds of shops selling everything from fresh seafood “Is that a giant squid?!?” to sweet mochi, from silk kimonos to fake Rolexes. This place is not for the fainthearted: aggressive vendors, competing with one another, shouting and hawking their goods at you left and right! “Is this guy trying to sell me a golf club!?!” You do your best by smiling politely and keep walking. Next, you decide to do some window shopping along the upscale Chuo-Dori Street and check out the multi-level department stores. Feeling adventurous, you go inside an 8-story building that sells all sort of electronic gadgets. By the time you get to the 5th floor you start to feel dizzy and claustrophobic because of all the high-tech stuff (plus the shopping-frenzy crowd everywhere you go!), so you beeline for the nearest elevator and escape down into the street below. “Phew!”

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Chuo-Dori Street across from Ueno subway stationAmeyoko Market on the left of this buildingGood luck kitties, geisha dolls and Godzilla toysTraditional and modern men's wigs for saleShops and restaurants along Chuo-Dori StreetBargain hunters at street marketPlastic food on display in front of a restaurantWestern food choices (No, they're not real, it's plastic!)
Chuo-Dori Street across from Ueno subway station
Chuo-Dori Street across from Ueno subway station | Source
Ameyoko Market on the left of this building
Ameyoko Market on the left of this building | Source
Good luck kitties, geisha dolls and Godzilla toys
Good luck kitties, geisha dolls and Godzilla toys | Source
Traditional and modern men's wigs for sale
Traditional and modern men's wigs for sale | Source
Shops and restaurants along Chuo-Dori Street
Shops and restaurants along Chuo-Dori Street | Source
Bargain hunters at street market
Bargain hunters at street market | Source
Plastic food on display in front of a restaurant
Plastic food on display in front of a restaurant | Source
Western food choices (No, they're not real, it's plastic!)
Western food choices (No, they're not real, it's plastic!) | Source
Subway map and train tickets
Subway map and train tickets | Source

Have you used the train/subway while visiting Tokyo?

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It’s time to head back to the airport. Walking back to the Keisei Ueno Station (adjacent to Ueno Park), you take the Skyliner Express train to return to Narita International Airport. Travel time is 36 minutes, costs 2500 yen (about $25US). The ticket is a little pricey, but you hear the Skyliner is Tokyo Metro’s newest train so you want to give it a try. And you’re glad you did! Ultra-modern, sleek cabin interior, luxurious seats (your seat automatically turns 180o around in unison with all other seats in the cabin when the train changes direction for departure), extremely quiet and steady at 100mph, so comfortable that you couldn’t help but doze off almost immediately!

The train arrives at Narita International Airport exactly at 4:45PM. Leaving the subway, you ride up the escalator into the main airport check-in area, breeze through the passport/security formalities, and find yourself back inside Terminal 1. You locate your airport locker, use the pin code to open it and grab all your belongings. Desperately in need of a freshen up after running around all day, you head upstairs to the 3rd level and rent a shower cubicle for 1030 yen (about $10US). You take a long shower then change into fresh clothes. After that, you realize you still have another 2 hours or so before your next flight. So off you go in search of a fine Japanese restaurant in the airport – with a leisurely dinner in mind. Sushi of course. And maybe a sake or two!

ABOUT THIS HUB

The author had a long airport layover in Tokyo in 2012. This is what he did during those 12 hours. He still has nightmares about getting trapped inside the giant electronic gadgets store!

All photos were taken by the author with a SamsungPL120 DualView 14.2MP Digital Camera.

All Rights Reserved

Copyright © 2014 Viet Doan (punacoast)

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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK

      This, I think, is a great idea for a hub. Many long haul flights involve brief stopovers at airports, but in the absence of a very efficient guide to places which can be visited quickly, most people will just spend a few boring hours at the airport. They'll miss out on the chance to sample a different culture and new sights.

      This is probably especially true of Tokyo where the alien language will make many people wary of venturing out unescorted. I am sure that a simple guide such as this - based on personal experience - would be a great help to encourage travellers to get much more from their temporary stay in a new country. Voted up, Alun.

    • punacoast profile image
      Author

      Viet Doan 2 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Thanks Greensleeves Hubs! Your comments are greatly appreciated. I had a lot of fun during my Tokyo layover excursion. I also met many interesting people - an extra bonus from seeing the beautiful Sensoji temple and Ueno park. Aloha!

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 19 months ago from Shimla, India

      Majority of your hubs are on travel and i am a huge fan of visiting new places. Looking forward to read a lot more of your posts.

      Keep writing :)

    • punacoast profile image
      Author

      Viet Doan 19 months ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Thanks Akriti Mattu! I'm glad you enjoy my travel hubs. Keep on travelling and visiting new places, it's a great way to learn and appreciate other cultures and fellow human beings on Earth. Aloha!

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 19 months ago from Shimla, India

      Hey have you ever been to India ?

    • Alexis Cogwell profile image

      Ashley Cogdill 11 months ago from Indiana/Chicagoland

      I don't fly, but sightseeing is a great idea for extended layovers. Interesting hub, beautiful pictures of Tokyo! :)

    • punacoast profile image
      Author

      Viet Doan 11 months ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Thanks Alexis! My goal in writing these travel hubs is to inspire readers who don't or can't travel, and give them a fun experience to "travel" the world through my photos. I'm so happy you enjoyed this hub. Aloha!

    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 10 months ago from Singapore

      Nice summary of the Ueno/Asakusa area, which is perfect for a layover. Probably the best of retro Tokyo too in one spot.

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