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48 Hours In: Tokyo

Visit Tokyo in the springtime and enjoy the city's colourful festivals, buzzing markets and impressive temples, says Emma Love

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

Tokyo's weather is perfect for sightseeing in April and May, but avoid the city during “Golden Week” (first week of May) when the main tourist draws become very crowded. Better to wait for one of the matsuri (festivals) that are part of city life here. The three-day Sanja Matsuri, which takes place in the Asakusa neighbourhood from 17-19 May, is one of the largest. Around 100 mikoshi (portable shrines) are carried through the streets, leaving the Asakusa Shrine (1) (adjacent to the Senso-ji temple) at 6am and returning at 8pm daily. There is also a parade at lunchtime on 17 May with floats carrying musicians, and performances of traditional dances.

Touch down

ANA (020-8762 8977; ana.co.jp), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Japan Airlines (0844 856 9700; uk.jal.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop between Heathrow and Tokyo's Narita airport, 66km east of the city.

The Narita Express train to Tokyo station (2) takes 85 minutes. A single ticket is Y3,100 (£21). Taxis cost about Y24,000 (£170) for the same journey. If you're planning to use the metro, subway or railway to explore Tokyo, buy a combination N'Ex & Suica ticket, a pay-as-you-go travel card, from the JR East Travel Service Centre at the airport. It's Y5,500 (£36) for a round trip from the airport, which includes Y1,500 (£10) on your travel card.

BA also flies to the much more convenient Haneda airport, which is 15km south of the city.  From here, take the Tokyo monorail (Y470/£3.30) to Hamamatsucho station (3), where you can connect to the metro. A taxi from Haneda to central Tokyo will cost about Y7,000 (£50).

Get your bearings

Tokyo is composed of a series of distinct neighbourhoods. Some of the main areas of attraction are: Asakusa and Ueno to the north east, which are a contrasting mix of old-world, tiny backstreets and futuristic skyscrapers; the smart shopping area of Ginza and Tsukiji's well-known fish market (4) to the south east; and Harajuku, with its teenage shopping culture, and buzzing Shibuya and Shinjuku to the south west, both of which are packed with bars and restaurants. Despite its size, the city can be easily explored by metro. (All signs are in English.)

The main tourist information centre is in the Shin Tokyo Building (5) at 3-3-1 Marunouchi (00 81 3 3201 3331; www.jnto.go.jp); open 9am–5.30pm daily. The English-speaking staff can advise on finding your way around.

Check in

The Palace Hotel Tokyo (6) opened last year at 1-1-1 Marunouchi (00 81 3 3211 5211; en.palacehotel tokyo.com). Vast rooms overlook the Imperial Palace grounds. It has an Evian spa and numerous restaurants and bars. Doubles start at Y44,090 (£310), room only.

Gate Hotel (7) at 2-16-11 Kaminarimon (00 81 3 5826 3877; gate-hotel.jp/english) in Asakusa has views of the Tokyo Skytree, the world's tallest free-standing broadcast tower. Doubles Y22,000 (£154), room only.

Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku (8) at 2-3-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku (00 81 3 3375 3211; hotelsunrouteplazashinjuku.jp) is seven minutes' walk from Shinjuku station. There are two restaurants, a café and a spa linked to the hotel. Doubles from Y14,200 (£94), room only.

Day One

Take a hike

Begin at Tsukiji fish market (4) on the eastern side of the city. The inner market, with 330 stalls, opens at 9am. Walk through and then along Namiyoke-dori, the main street of the outer market, turning right and then left on to Hammi-dori, which becomes the main street of the smart shopping neighbourhood of Ginza. Chuo-dori is lined with shops but go straight on and you'll reach the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace. Ahead of you is the Nijubashi Bridge (9) from where you can catch a glimpse of the home of the emperor and his family.

Lunch on the run

Hop on the Chiyoda metro line from Tokyo station (2), the nearest station to Nijubashi Bridge and go six stops to Omotesando. Here you'll need to get in the queue with the locals at Rainbow Pancake (10) (00 81 3 6434 0466; rainbowpancake.net), which is hidden away at 4‑28-4 Ares Garden, Omotesando, a few minutes' walk from the station. The restaurant specialises in pancakes – try the BLT (Y1,300/£9.10). Open daily, except Tuesday.

Window shopping

Stroll along Omotesando-dori with its upmarket brands such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Dior, and explore the backstreets running off it, which lead to Takeshita-dori. This street is known for its mix of teenage street fashion stores and quirky independent boutiques such as Wonder Rocket (11) at 1-8-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku (wonderrocket.com).

Walk in the park

A five-minute walk away is the entrance to Yoyogi park, home to the Meiji Jingu shrine (12) at 1-1 Yoyogi-Kamizono-cho (00 81 3 3379 5511; meijijingu.or.jp/english). It's Tokyo's grandest Shinto shrine, built in 1920 and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

Tourists and locals alike can enter through the wooden torii (gate), purify themselves by pouring water over their hands with one of the wooden ladles at the font and making an offering to the deities. Open dawn until dusk. The park itself is one of the largest in the city, with wide lawns, ponds and forested areas.

An aperitif

Neighbouring Shibuya buzzes at night. Try a Japanese craft beer at Goodbeer Faucets (13) at 1-29-1 Crossroads 2F Shoto in Shibuya (00 81 3 3770 5544; goodbeerfaucets.jp). There are about 40 brews on tap – a pint of Yuzu Dream costs Y1,000 (£7).

Dining with the locals

Charcoal-grilled yakitori, where chicken and vegetables are cooked and served on skewers, is a tasty option. Fuku (14) at 3-23-4 Nishihara (00 81 3 3485 3234) in Yoyogi Uehara, a short taxi ride away is excellent. Call ahead to reserve your place around the counter and enjoy skewers such as pepper and chicken, tomatoes wrapped in bacon or shiitake mushrooms for Y250 (£1.75) each.

For a real treat book at the Michelin-starred Sushi-ichi (15) at 3-4-4 Ginza (00 81 3 3567 0014; 3567-0014.com). Seats are arranged around an intimate sushi counter where you can watch the chefs prepare sushi in front of you. There are five set menus: the "Mini Nigiri" consists of an appetiser, 15 pieces of sushi, soup and dessert and costs Y12,600 (£88).

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

Right next to Asakusa station, the Senso-ji temple (16) at 2-3-1 Asakusa is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. It was built in the eighth century, making it the city's oldest temple, but was destroyed by an air raid during the Second World War and reconstructed in 1955. The Kaminarimon Gate (Thunder Gate) leads down a narrow street of shops to the temple itself where you can join worshippers throwing coins into a grate as they pray. Open dawn to dusk.

Take a ride

Asakusa's tiny backstreets are perfect for exploring by bicycle. The Rin Project (17) 4-6-17-1F Moto Asakusa Taito-ku (00 81 3 3842 2889; rinproject.com) charges Y1,575 (£10.50) per day for an adult bicycle, which includes insurance.

Out to brunch

Tea is served in a large glass pot at the Park Side Cafe (18) (00 81 3 5815 8251) in Ueno park, right next to Ueno station. There's everything from freshly baked cakes for a mid-morning snack, to pasta and salads for lunch. A large chicken and avocado salad with a green tea costs Y1,500 (£10). If the weather's good, try to grab one of the wooden tables outside.

Cultural afternoon

Ueno park is home to several museums, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Science Museum and the National Museum of Western Art.

The pick of the bunch is the Tokyo National Museum (19) (00 81 3 5405 8686; www.tnm.jp), which has an impressive collection of Japanese art, archeological objects and artefacts, such as 19th-century Edo period paintings and 15th-century armour. The "Highlights of Japanese Art" in the main Honkan building features everything from kimonos to calligraphy. Open daily except Monday, admission Y600 (£4.20).

Icing on the cake

At 634m tall, the Tokyo Skytree (20) (00 81 4 3299 1190; tokyo-skytree.jp/en) which opened last year at 1-1-2 Oshiage, is the world's tallest free-standing broadcast tower (basic admission Y2,000/£14).

On a clear day the views of Mount Fuji are breathtaking. A lift will whizz you up to the Tembo deck, then you can pay an extra Y1,000 (£7) to take a second lift to the higher Tembo Galleria and Sorakara Point, which has several glass-floor sections for you to peer through. Be warned: at weekends the queues are very lengthy.