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12-Hour Layover in Tokyo: What to Do

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The author lives in a quiet seaside community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.

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.

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

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

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.

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

Chicken salad with fried egg

Chicken salad with fried egg

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

Verdant heaven at Ueno Park

Verdant heaven at Ueno Park

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.

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!”

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!

Subway map and train tickets

Subway map and train tickets

About This Article

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.

© 2014 Viet Doan

Comments

Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on August 16, 2018:

Thanks Jordan! Glad you had a fantastic mini vacation during your Tokyo layover. I bought a selfie stick with remote control to take photos and videos at one of those electronic gadgets stores across from Ueno station. It still works perfectly after 4 years!

Jordan on August 15, 2018:

I really appreciate the guide. I did a 17 hour layover on purpouse. To me its like a free vacation. I did asakusa and ueno, then went to Akhibahara for the geek culture , arcades and some wagyu beef.

Justin Dang on January 20, 2018:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5xYKS7Rnvs&t=...

I kind of followed your instructions here and it turned out great man.

elise on January 20, 2018:

this is utterly fantastic. i have a similar layover next month and cant WAIT to follow your plan! i am SO excited to see Tokyo on my way to Cambodia!

Sharon on April 25, 2017:

Great description of the process and spot on! I had 11 hours and wouldn't have realized just how easy it was to stow carry on luggage (was really thankful for that tip) or get the train. Thanks to your article I didn't waste any time figuring out how to do it, but just got out and enjoyed Tokyo.

Scribbling Geek from Singapore on March 17, 2016:

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

Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on February 17, 2016:

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!

Ashley Cogdill from Indiana/Chicagoland on February 15, 2016:

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

Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on June 08, 2015:

Hey have you ever been to India ?

Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on June 08, 2015:

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 from Shimla, India on June 07, 2015:

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 :)

Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on August 04, 2014:

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!

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on August 01, 2014:

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.