A Small Taste of Tokyo – What To Do On An 8-Hour Layover

with 93 Comments


So you’re transiting through Narita International Airport in Japan and have an 8-hour layover; this makes you instantly roll your eyes, let out a hefty sigh and start to wonder what to do with all that time deemed wasted. But fret not, Tokyo is one of the best cities to fill up those hours! On our way back from Vietnam, we had an 8-hour layover with just enough time to experience a small taste of Tokyo.

Naturally, we decided to put this time to good use by catching the next random train from Narita International Airport. After a swift and trouble-free check at customs, we headed straight to the information counter to find out the quickest way to get to Tokyo. Japan has an impressive public transit system but the most efficient way to get to Tokyo was via the super fast and super modern Skyliner train. The price of about ¥5000 (two-way) per ticket was quite expensive but we wanted to assure a quick return back to the airport. We hopped on the squeaky clean train and in well under an hour we arrived in Ueno – a district in Tokyo’s Taitō Ward.

Most nationals don’t require a transit visa when visiting Japan for a short period of time making it very easy to exit the airport for a few hours. If you have luggage, there are a few baggage storage counters at Terminals 1 and 2 (prices vary according to baggage size).



Without the added pressure of running around checking things off a must-see list in just a few hours, Ueno was a perfect place (close enough to the airport) to take in the urban vibe and to explore the city without feeling overwhelmed or rushed. Following are a few (free) things to do during your layover in this mega-city!



At first sight, this area of Tokyo seemed much quieter than I had expected from the bustling metropolis but it was still very early in the morning. Slowly the day started to rise from its lazy slumber with businessmen smartly dressed in their black two-piece suits heading to work and students in their freshly-pressed uniforms going to school crowding the streets. Shop owners opened their screeching corrugated sliding doors and vendors hurriedly displayed their products.









Like in many Japanese cities, Ueno has its very own pedestrian street named Ameyayokocho. The area is filled to the brim with shops and markets. Here you can find anything from expensive fresh produce to a variety of fish on display to deeply-discounted clothing and shoes. Prices were very reasonable for Japan but the quality of most of the products wasn’t the best.

I did, however, notice that many of the higher-quality shops were geared towards men. If you’re a male fashion fiend then you’ll likely find the latest (and quirkiest) Japanese clothing trends in this area. As for women, I only came across two decent shops but the clothing resembled ones found in North America so nothing piqued my interest. Nonetheless, the energy was vibrant and the street scenes just begged to be photographed!







An izakaya is a typical Japanese-style eatery. Ueno has its fair share of izakayas – just walk around and you’re bound to find one. Make sure the place is filled with local patrons assuring good turn around and even better food. Soon the air was filled with all sorts of tantalizing smells coming from the many micro restaurants lining the narrow streets.

Despite the number of izakayas in Ueno, none of them accepted credit cards and, much to our dismay, the only ATM we found didn’t accept foreign credit/debit cards either. We didn’t have any cash on us but we finally did find a restaurant with a sympathetic host willing to accept our foreign credit card though with much hesitation. To avoid being stuck without any money, make sure to either withdraw or exchange money directly at the airport before stepping out.

With our stomachs demanding we feed them, we hastily browsed the glossy menu written in Japanese but accompanied by pictures making our selection much easier. We settled on some fried chicken, fresh fish, miso soup, rice and complimentary green tea. Both our growling stomachs and eager taste buds thanked us for the deliciously flavorful meal. The total bill for all that scrumptious food came out to about ¥2000 for both of us – much cheaper than I expected in Tokyo!





When we travel, we always make sure to go to a local grocery store. This is where you can turn an otherwise mundane activity into a cultural experience. Strolling through the alleys allows you to discover the strange (and sometimes unidentifiable) array of local products and to exchange a few laughs (and grimaces) with fellow shoppers.

If you like taking home local food items then a grocery store is the best place to make your purchases. Prices are much cheaper than at the airport, you’ll find a much better variety and the experience is guaranteed to be much more fun!

Fun tip:  Save on eating out by buying a few items and having a picnic at the park (just make sure you have some cash)!




When I travel I enjoy browsing in book shops whenever I get the chance so I was happy to come across a small, lackluster shop in Ueno. There was a huge variety of books and magazines most of which were in Japanese but that didn’t stop me from buying a few. Japan is widely known for its innovative designs ranging from quirky fashion to weird technological inventions; flipping through a book or magazine offers you a window into the local pop culture and latest trends. Make sure to buy a uniquely designed book to dress up your coffee table – it’ll make for a great conversation piece! Surprisingly, prices for locally-printed books and magazines were very reasonable.

Fun fact:  Japanese literature is read from right to left and from back to front.




Hanami is the art of flower viewing – a yearly activity involving outdoor ‘parties’ and picnics cherished by millions of Japanese. If you’re in Japan during Springtime then head to Ueno Park, one of the most popular places to participate in hanami when the sakura flowers are in full bloom. Unfortunately, the pretty flowers had long fallen and the trees were barren when we were there but hanami is an excellent way to spend an otherwise uneventful layover. In just a few hours you can soak in a truly Japanese tradition and, best of all, it’s free! The Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) usually takes place from late March to early April.


Photo credit: Japan Travel


Tokyo is notoriously known for being excessively expensive but simply wandering around with no fixed agenda is absolutely free and can be just as rewarding as visiting tourist attractions. We only spent a few hours exploring a small speck of Tokyo but it was enough to leave us longing for more. We’ll definitely go back one day to explore this fascinating city (and maybe even get the chance to ride on one of those funky buses)!


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  • Lyn – A Hole in my Shoe

    We’re in Tokyo for 8hrs in June so this is perfect timing to stumble across this post. Shared and saved for reference. Thank you

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Lyn! So glad you found my post useful. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Pete

    Very brave! I always take forever to work out Japanese trains. The subway system in Tokyo is overwhelming, and that’s just the map.

    Tokyo is a bit like walking around in a science fiction movie. Always something new and interesting. Lots to look at and photograph. And hard to go past a meal in a genuine restaurant.

    Yes, I’ve had the ATM problem as well. Get some money out at the airport and check the exchange rate so you have a good idea of how much the numbers mean.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      We asked at the counter for the trains and the clerk clearly told us which route to take so it was quite simple. But I can see how someone could easily get lost!

      It really does feel like being part of a science fiction movie but I really didn’t get enough of Tokyo in such a short time – gotta go back!

      I was really surprised that the ATM’s didn’t accept foreign cards. I guess I just assumed everything in Tokyo was way ahead of us (Westerners) but not in this case.

  • I had a short layover in Istanbul once and did the same thing. I just took a metro into the city center and walked around. It was cool but definitely felt like it was not enough time. I’m sure I’d feel the same way in Tokyo.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      That’s great! Istanbul is on my wish list!!

  • Frank Thomae

    We spent a week in that area and it’s actually our favorite part of Tokyo. A 15 minute walk away is the Sensoji Temple and it’s a shame you missed that as its the most interesting temple in Tokyo. But yeah, Ueno/Asakusa a great area.
    You still managed to do a lot considering you only had 8 hours between flights.

    Frank (bbqboy)

  • Nicholas Danis Bertrand

    So convenient to have a skyliner train taking you directly from the airport to Ueno.This part of Tokyo looks gorgeous.It seems like the best way to spend a long layover and get a taste of the city.Japan has been on my bucket list for a while now and this year I will finally get the chance to see it.I’ll make sure to visit Ueno!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I think it was the fastest train I’ve ever been on! Hope you make it to Japan soon!

  • Layovers can be a great way of getting a small taste of a new city. Helps us see if it’s a place we want to explore further. Looks like you made the most of your time in Tokyo.

  • Nastja

    Nice article! Just few days i was reading about Hanami. i didn’t even know what this is before. I would probably do the same thing with layover as you did.

  • Just what I would have done – get my fill of Japanese food! 🙂
    I was lucky enough to spend a week in Tokyo on a business trip a few years back. Good to hear that they have since added a train into town (or maybe I didn’t find it back then ;-)), sound much more convenient.

    Happy continued travels!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      The train was definitely very convenient! I was so happy to try some local Japanese food. We tried to find a sushi place but strangely there weren’t any in that area. :

  • Mango Lady Diaries

    That’s great! I am sure you had a great time out there. That’s very helpful information on what to see and where to check out during the few hours of a layover. Thanks 🙂

  • Super cool! I would have been terrified to leave the airport for just an 8 hour layover, but it looks like you really can make a full day of it! So beautiful and tasty.. I would love to check out Ameyayokocho Street. Japan has been on my bucket list for a long time, so hopefully when I finally get there I can make it a longer stay.. but even if not, you have inspired me to try to see as much as I can!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Judson! I guess we put all our trust in the superfast SkyTrain…..lol! I’m glad I inspired you to venture out of the airport on a long(ish) layover. Hope you make it to Japan soon!

  • Sandy & Vyjay

    I can’t wait to have a layover in Tokyo now. You made the best use of your layover. I just loved the izakaya. Moreover, wondering in a new city can be quite amazing as well.

  • Pack Your Baguios

    I so want to go to Japan!!! I love these layover ideas. The tip about stopping in a local grocery store is one we try to do. It’s a combo of cheap food and a cultural experience.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Grocery stores are underrated! 😉

  • I’m glad you had a good time on your layover. Indeed, Tokyo is gorgeous during cherry blossom season, so you should definitely go then if you have the chance. But I am surprised you found anyone to take your credit card! Plastic is not widely accepted in Japan, outside of hotels.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hoping to see Cherry Blossom season one day! It actually took a lot of convincing for the guy a the restaurant to accept our credit card!

  • Laura Nalin

    Super awesome that you got to do a bit of exploration during your layover. I haven’t been to Tokyo yet, but I do love Japan! I’ll stop there when I return 😀

  • Veronica

    My first thought was … visa. And then you wrote that most nationalities don’t need a transit visa. This is so inspiring because usually it is so hard to get it (for us).
    For that reason, I never considered taking a transit flight through Tokyo. Now I will!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I’m sure there are restrictions (it doesn’t apply to all nationals) so best to look it up first.

  • christopher mitchell

    I feel like you must have been exhausted after an 8 hour sprint in Tokyo. I’ve been to Tokyo, and I really adored it, I must say. Though, as someone who lived in Seoul, I must admit that I might be partial to the latter!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      We were exhausted even before going to Tokyo but we just couldn’t pass up a chance to visit! 🙂

      I haven’t been to Seoul – now I’m curious to compare the two!

  • Great tips! I’ve been dreaming to go to Japan for ages! An izakaya, a trip to a book store to browse the manga (yup, total geek), and definitely some time spent in Akihabara are definitely at the top of my list. So is a convenience store and possibly, if the stars align, I can time it so that I can experience the cherry blossoms 😀

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Bruce! You definitely need to get on that! 😉

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Sometimes just wondering around taking in the surroundings is better than any tourist attraction. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Ashlyn! Actually, we weren’t there during Cherry Blossom season…lol! That’s one reason I’d like to go back. Enjoy Tokyo – I’m sure you’re going to have a great time!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    You’re right……we probably would not have ventured so far if the train wasn’t so fast. Yay – another bookshop aficionado! I could spend hours in a bookshop. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    How cool that you know Ueno so well! I had never heard of it before going. Very surprising about the cash only policy. We were so grateful that guy at the izakaya accepted our credit card.

  • Paige Brown

    So cool! I’ve not actually been to Japan. I had a 7-hour layover in Tokyo, but I was so wiped that, unlike you, I didn’t jump on the opportunity, but seeing your post makes me inspired to really get out during layovers! I could’ve seen and tasted so much!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Oh no…..you definitely would’ve had enough time for a small taste of Tokyo! Next time! 😉

  • Jennifer Morrow

    The food stalls and markets are amazing! You have the right idea, stay close and enjoy some great local food. I always try to visit a local grocery store to better experience the culture, away from tourists.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Grocery stores when traveling abroad are so much fun which is strange to say because the faster I get my groceries done at home the better….lol!

  • Blair Villanueva

    Soon I’ll be in Tokyo and I can’t wait to enjoy my vacation 🙂 They say that being in Narita alone is like being in a different city. I would love to discover more.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Yay – enjoy Tokyo! I was mesmerized the whole time (all of 8 hours) I was there!

  • Adventurous Travels

    It’s amazing how much you can see during a stopover – I always do that, it’s way better that staying at the airport and count down the minutes which feels like eternity… Great photos, I love those Asian markets and now I’m planning the trip to Japan so thank you 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Getting out of the airport on a long(ish) layover is like having a mini-vacation! Asian markets are just so interesting and lively – love them also! Have fun in Japan!

  • Katharine O’Malley

    Love the narration of your 8 hours stay. Greater news that all the places you’ve visited and shared are free, other than what you’ve paid for your meals. Extra thanks for the info of bringing cash instead of plastic money, as well. That is definitely helpful for me so I can bring enough cash to cover things such as food. The sakura trees are the main draw for me if ever I happen to go to Japan.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thank you! I would also love to go back to see the sakura trees – they’re just so pretty! We were very surprised that no one accepted credit cards – I didn’t expect that in such a huge metropolis!

  • Erica Coffman

    It has been TOO long since I’ve been to Tokyo! Thanks for taking me back. Now I’m hungry and want to eat everything haha.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      haha….grab some sushi! 😉

  • That’s cool! I’ve never had that long a layover anywhere! Its good to know that you don’t transit visa as well. The price of that ticket is high though!!! But at that time its indeed necessary when you can’t risk missing a flight!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      After having been in Vietnam where everything was inexpensive, the price of the train tickets did take us aback but it was well worth it!

  • If I have a layover in Tokyo I will definitely apply these. All of them really useful. I d love to travel soon to Japan!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Would also love to go back to Japan to explore more!

  • Natalie Tanner

    I love this post! We always travel with the kids and they would find this all fascinating. I have never thought to stop in a book store, but showing the kids how a book is read differently in Japanese would be such a cool experience! Layovers are tricky and you certainly made the best use of your time! Thanks for sharing!!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thanks Natalie – glad you enjoyed the post and found it useful for your kids! I’m sure they would find Japanese books quite interesting. 🙂

  • Swati

    I love ticking off few places while layover. We visited Srilanka like that. Nice to see a quieter side of the city and would love to visit book shop and Hanami for sure.

    Nice to get a sneak peek of the country before planning a vacation and not wasting time at airport and money buying duty free stuff 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Love Sri Lanka!! Luckily we spent 10 days there but would’ve gladly stayed longer.

  • Gareth Thompson

    Some really great suggestions here and even more so because they’re free! Certainly, lengthy layovers can be a pain and I’ve always found, visas permitting, that it’s much better to leave the airport and try and take in a little of the local area. I’m surprised by how you said Tokyo is quiet in the morning, I, like you, had imagined a forever buzzing metropolis but the pictures look quite pleasant. And now, with the cherry blossoms beginning to appear, it would be all the more idyllic

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Free is always a good thing! I was excited just to walk around and witness Tokyo waking up. It was quite early but we were surprised that shops opened so late especially after coming from Vietnam where everything is always ‘lit’!

  • That’s good to know that they have baggage counters in the airport. I’m never sure if the airline transfers the bags through to the next flight anyway on an 8 hour layover. I guess they can be used for any hand luggage if you brought a lot of it and as a backup in case they don’t check your baggage through. You got to see a few interesting sites in the city for free on this layover, I understand why you definitely will go back!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Our backpacks were automatically transferred to our next flight so we only had a small duffle bag but the baggage storage area is definitely handy!

  • travelwithtarah

    I never know what to do with 8 hour layovers!! They always seem to be just long enough to want to leave the airport but just shor enough that you’re not sure what exactly to do…this seems like a great itinerary though and if I have a layover in Tokyo I will definitely be coming back to this! Also, very interesting that they read from right to left and back to front!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I often have the same dilemma but we chose Ueno because it was close enough to the airport but still gave us a glimpse of Tokyo. Eight hours can be tricky but I think if you can get somewhere interesting quickly then it leaves plenty of time to explore. 🙂

  • megan_claire

    Sounds like you managed to fit a lot into your layover – nice! We’re going to try and start visiting cities during layovers too – we often have more than 8 hours, though because we generally have lounge access it’s tempting to set up and bunker down, catch up on emails etc! But you’ve proved you really can experience a little bit of a city in that time. Thankyou!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I can see how access to the lounge can be tempting….lol! Layovers are always tricky especially if they’re overnight but if you have a long(ish) layover during the day and there’s something to see close by then it’s definitely worth it. We also visited London and Amsterdam on 8-hour (or so) layovers without spending much money (we didn’t visit any tourist attractions).

  • Jean Bean

    Tokyo is one of my favourite cities in the world. I’m glad you got to get out of the airport, which is rather bland, and explore the city. Such great low cost options for the budget conscious traveller. I love the idea of visiting the bookshops. They can be so much fun. The city can be expensive if you stay in hotels and eat out a lot.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Jean! The layover gave us an idea of Japan and we’d love to explore more but I know it can be very expensive traveling there so I’m hesitant to go. :

  • Getting on the next random train sounds like my kind of thing! I suppose the way you did it you definitely got a much more authentic experience than if you’d rushed around the main sites or on an organised tour. Looking in book shops is one of my favourite things to do wherever I go 🙂 A combination of being a professional translator and huge lover of literature means that foreign book stores are my happy place, regardless of whether or not I understand a word of what is written! Had never thought of buying a unique coffee table style before, but now you’ve got me thinking it’d be a fantastically subtle souvenir!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      We basically just asked where the closest city center was and it turned out to be Ueno so we just took the train in that direction not knowing what to expect (if anything). So glad to meet a fellow bookshop aficionado! As a designer, I could spend hours in book shops browsing through interior design books (and picking up a few to read). I also have a university degree in translation/languages but never really worked in the field.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    You’re very welcome – glad you found it useful! I regularly go to bookshops just to browse so when I travel I enjoy doing the same thing. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We were getting a little desperate and we actually begged the host to accept our credit card….lol! I’m grateful each time I travel that my passport allows me to travel worry-free. 🙂

  • Sophie

    It is just like a mini vacation! Haha! I have been to Tokyo, and I must say that it is place worth staying for more than a week! the food is amazing! but visiting all these places in 8 hours remarkable! I would also like to tell you that . I have not traveled to 35 countries across 5 continents but I know how to whistle. Hahah! 😀 Love.Laugh :*

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I’m sure I could stay in Tokyo for weeks on end just wandering around gawky-eyed at everything! Hahaha…..funny girl! 😉

  • I love when people can make the most of even short layovers! So much better than spending 8 hours in the airport! And I love that you got to explore a lesser-known area of Tokyo that many people never see. I had no idea they read backwards (from us) in Japan either!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Eight hours was plenty of time to explore a bit of Tokyo and it was well worth it! I was also fascinated by the fact that Japanese literature is read completely different from us. 🙂

  • What fantastic tips! We’ve been saving articles for when we begin our Japan plans, so this is definitely being saved/pinned away for later! Thanks!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      So happy I could help with your Japan travel plans! Have a wonderful time in this fascinating country!

  • Mags

    I had a 9 hour layover in Tokyo recently, but yours looks more successful. I didn’t take your train advice and ended up with $250 cab ride back to the airport. Where was this post a few months ago?! lol

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Oh no!!! And I thought the train was expensive….lol!!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Our backpacks were checked and automatically transferred to our next flight so we didn’t need to use the luggage storage area but it really is a practical option.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I hope we make it to Japan one day to explore the whole country not just a small piece of Tokyo. We had just spent 3 weeks in Vietnam and the differences were astonishing including the cleanliness!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Exactly – it’s like a mini-vacation!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Our layover was just a teaser but I would love to visit Japan! I’ve heard really good things about Kyoto – enjoy!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We were really surprised also that they didn’t accept credit cards anywhere (not even at the grocery store). We thought the technological capital of the world would be more user-friendly….lol! Thanks for the ‘free comment’ – much appreciated! 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We really just wanted to walk around and see the city instead of visiting tourist attractions and it turned out great!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Thanks! Hope you make it to Tokyo one day! We only really saw a snippet of the city but it was enough to make us want to go back.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I wish I would’ve seen more but from what I saw I would love to go back!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We really enjoyed it! I don’t mind layovers that give me just enough time to get a feel of a city, I just wish it was during sakura season. :

  • Joseph Humphreys

    Nice! You really packed in a lot here, and made the most of a layover time that is sort of an awkward in-between sort of time, namely not very long, but not very short too. And all for free too! Impressive work 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thanks! I actually had a hard time choosing a title for my blog post – is 8 hours a short or long layover?? lol
      Nonetheless, it was plenty of time to just wander around taking in the city.

  • Layovers in middle east is commonly talked about but in Tokyo is new to me. I think it is good thing too. Wonderful opportunity to explore around. I mean simply wandering around for free in that expensive city!!! Loved your experience.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I was really excited to get a chance to visit Tokyo even if for only a few hours!

  • Coleman Concierge

    We were just in Narita on our way to Thailand last December and were wondering exactly this. How would we spend a layover in Tokyo. They had to bump our flights to a different airline and we were going to spend 12 hours in Japan. I was excited. My daughter is a big Nippofile so she would have loved the pictures. At the last minute, they “fixed” our connection and we were able to book through with only a brief layover. Our bullet train tour through Tokyo will have to wait till next time. Thanks for putting this list together. It will come in handy then.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I hope you get to experience just a small taste of Tokyo on another layover – it’s such a fascinating city! 🙂

  • I love the way you made the most of your layover, and really got a chance to experience a bit of the area. We are terrible for staying in the airport during layovers – this has given us the inspiration to venture out. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Any time I have an extended amount of time on a layover I like to step out of the airport and the few hours we had in Tokyo were perfect!

  • Awesome post, I love Ueno and the park there, I also love the outdoor farmers/flea market which is a perfect way to enjoy the local foods grown and prepared for sale in those little food booths

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Ueno was quite a pleasant surprise! I was happy to have randomly chosen this area. 🙂