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Tokyo is one of my favorite cities in the world. Japan is also my favorite country in the world. After visiting Japan last year during the heat wave that was busy killing off old people, I’ve wanted to return ever since. And I definitely will when I’m in that part of the world again.
I know that Japan is a common bucket list country, with Tokyo being a major stop on any Japan trip. So I’m going to tell you what most travel guides won’t tell you.
Many of these tips will also apply to the rest of Japan.
Understanding the Japanese People
Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, so you’re going to be seeing hundreds of thousands of Japanese people over the course of your stay (no, I’m not exaggerating).
So what do you need to know about the Japanese?
They’re humble, extremely helpful, and incredibly repressed.
What I mean is that they’ll go out of their way to help you, even if they don’t speak a word of English. But the big thing you’ll notice is how the average Japanese worker changes from day to night.
In the day they’ll all wear the exact same attire and everything is work, work, work. Yet by night, they’re some of the loudest party people you’ll encounter. The long, hard work hours mean that they smoke like troopers and drink like sailors.
It often goes against the stereotypes we have about the Japanese. So bear in mind that there are two sides to the people of Tokyo.
Landing in Tokyo
Unless you’re flying from a nearby country like South Korea, the chances are you’ll land at Narita Airport in Tokyo. As you would expect, it’s clean, modern, and a delight to be in. Luckily, there are signs in English and the information desks do have English speakers.
Your first task will be to get into the city.
There are a few options. The limousine bus is probably the easiest way to get to into the city. It covers all major hotels in the center but be aware that it can take around two hours to get through the Tokyo traffic. It can take even longer at rush hour! Do also remember that you’ll be sharing the ride with other passengers.
My favorite option is the Narita Express to Tokyo Central. This is a train that comes with free Wi-Fi, luxurious seating, and efficiency. That’s one thing Japan has: everything works!
It costs 2,400 yen for a one-way ticket. Or if you have the Japan Rail Pass for an extended trip it’s also valid for this train. From Tokyo Central, you can connect to the subway system there.
Your other option is the taxi. You’ll notice that in Japan taxi drivers wear suits, fancy hats, and white driving gloves. But taxis are only for the rich here. A flat-fare cab will cost you around 19,000 yen.
Now, remember that one American dollar is worth 110 yen and do the math. Taxis are not viable unless you’re rich. Most Japanese people never take taxis unless their employer is paying.
Getting Around Tokyo
There’s only one way to get around Tokyo and that’s with the subway system. Unfortunately, there are two companies that run the main subway lines in Tokyo. These are Toei and Tokyo Metro. Tickets bought on one are usually not valid on the other, which can be confusing for first-time visitors.
Tokyo Metro operates nine lines and Toei four lines. JR Yamanote is not a subway line but is often included on maps, so be aware of this.
You can buy tickets at the station as most machines now have an ‘English’ option. For simplicity, though, I recommend buying the Suica card. This is not just a card you can use for the mass transit system in Tokyo but one you can use in other major cities as well.
As always, the Japan Rail Pass allows you to use the mass transit system in Tokyo for free.
Bear in mind that Tokyo’s subway systems can be confusing and require long walks to get to the right exit or transfer point.
From personal experience, I will warn you that Tokyo Central, Shibuya, and Shinjuku stations are the worst in terms of complexity. I asked and even locals don’t know with great certainty what the correct exits are.
My advice if you turn up at these stations is to just get out of the nearest exit and navigate at ground level. At least you’ll have some reference points!
Conducting Yourself in Tokyo
So you’re walking around Tokyo and you’re wondering how to avoid sticking out as the loudmouth tourist nobody likes.
That’s easy because Japan is a strange mix between the modern and the traditional. It can be quite difficult for people to understand.
The first order of business is that you can dress how you like. There are no restrictions on style here, and you’ll run into your fair share of odd people.
Here are my top rules to remember:
- Stay quiet. The Japanese value quietness, especially on public transport.
- Always obey road crossings. Japanese people are sticklers for rules.
- Be careful of where you smoke and drink. These rules are enforced strictly.
- Never tip! Tipping is not only not done in Japan but it’s considered highly offensive.
Other than those points, you don’t have to worry about offending people in Tokyo. They’re very open.
Where Should You Stay in Tokyo?
Tokyo isn’t as expensive as it used to be. It’s now on par with big cities like London, Paris, and New York. But it remains the fifth most expensive city in the world.
So hotel prices are sky high, with private rooms easily commanding $100 USD per night.
I personally stayed in an interesting hostel called Train Hostel Hokutosei. This interesting concept hostel reuses the train carriages from a beloved public train. It was endorsed by the government as a way to preserve part of the heritage.
All the beds are the originals from the train, with the same décor in place.
Another type of hotel I’d recommend is a capsule hotel.
These capsules are like coffins and can be claustrophobic, but it’s all part of the cultural experience in Japan. You have a number of capsule hotels to choose from, and they’re all extremely similar.
Here’s a short list:
Where to Go in Tokyo
Tokyo is so vast that I couldn’t hope to list everything here. You don’t go to see the attractions in Tokyo you go to see districts. Now I would need months in Tokyo to truly discover everything, or perhaps even years to explore the outer suburbs.
But here’s where a first-timer should look to visit.
Chiyoda is where you’ll likely find yourself first as this is where Tokyo Central is. Most travellers will come here on the Narita Express.
It’s the seat of Japanese power. Here you’ll find everything from major corporate headquarters to the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor of Japan still sits today.
It’s a concrete jungle and mainly just designed for workers. Surprisingly, it’s much quieter than in other districts. I recommend you check out some of the vast green spaces near the palace.
On a side note, it’s strange to see an old imperial palace surrounded almost entirely by modern skyscrapers!
Akihabara is technically part of the Chiyoda district, but I think it deserves a section of its own.
If you want to see anime and manga crazy Japan, this is where you go. Even if you don’t care, it’s amazing to see these huge seven-floor comic book stores. It’s truly one of the wonders of Tokyo and is what makes Tokyo Tokyo.
I will say that if you have children take care. In most of these big stores, there is a floor dedicated to pornography. Mainly labelled as “Men’s” the products are pretty graphic and you should take care. And there are no warning signs.
Although the locals don’t seem to mind their kids running around it!
Welcome to Tokyo Bay!
The Chuo district borders the sea and it’s here that you’ll find the famous department stores of Ginza. It’s the most expensive place you’ll find in Japan. Even if you can’t afford it, it’s fun to walk around the big department stores there.
It’s also where you used to be able to find the Tsukiji fish market. Sadly, it’s no longer there in the old building and has been moved.
But on a hot day, it’s still fun to walk along the water. And there are some interesting gardens there for you to relax in.
Minato isn’t a district I explored much when I was in Tokyo. I briefly found myself in the business centre of Shinbashi, which should be avoided around rush hour.
It was a nice way to be able to see ordinary Japanese people, and it’s an insight into life beyond the main tourist districts.
This is also where Roppongi is. It’s an area famous for both its port and being the most fashionable nightclub district in Tokyo.
Shibuya is one of the main districts of Tokyo. You’ve likely seen it before in pictures because of the chaotic Shibuya Crossing. It’s just outside the subway station, so you won’t miss it.
This is where you’ll find a lot of bars and shopping districts. You’ll also find the quite frankly crazy area of Harajuku. It’s the heart of alternative culture in Tokyo and is worth a visit just to get a look at some of the characters there.
Now it’s time to visit the most confusing metro station in Tokyo. Shinjuku station is just plain difficult and even the locals had no idea which exit was which, so this will test your patience to the max.
Shinjuku is where you’ll find nightlife, the red-light area of Tokyo, and the giant futuristic skyscrapers that dominate the skyline of the city.
You should take the time to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Take the elevator to the top floor for free and get an incredible bird’s eye view of Tokyo. It’s by far the best place to see Tokyo from the sky.
You can spot aspects of traditional Japan everywhere in Tokyo. Where I would go for something specific is Asakusa. This is part of the Taito district in downtown Tokyo. It has a lot of temples here, but the crowning glory is the Sensoji temple.
It’s a huge temple where incense burns throughout the day. With traditional market stalls and classic architecture, this is the best way to look into Japan’s past without going to the old capital of Kyoto.
5 Awesome Money Saving Tips for Visiting Tokyo on a Budget
Tokyo is expensive, but it doesn’t have to cause you to take out a second mortgage on your house. Here are five quick tips for saving money in Tokyo.
Seven Eleven is Your Friend for Cheap Food
Fancy a snack but don’t want to pay a lot for it?
Then Seven Eleven is your friend. The much-loved convenience store chain is EVERYWHERE in Japan. What makes it stand out from the rest of the world is the quality of the hot food. The fried chicken is divine and the sandwiches are clearly freshly made.
It’s the cheapest way to eat in Tokyo.
Don’t Be Afraid to Stay Outside the Main Tourist Districts
In most places, you want to stay in the heart of the action. You don’t want to have to travel from miles around to see what you want to see.
Within the confines of Tokyo, it really doesn’t matter. The subway system is so extensive that it’s like New York. Stay wherever you want and get anywhere in minutes.
You can save a lot of money simply by staying in the quieter areas of places like Chuo, or even in the more suburban areas.
Shokudo Restaurants are Great for Cheap Eats
Afraid to spend a lot of money on a sit down restaurant but want to try the local dishes?
Then the shokudo restaurant is your friend. You’ll find these everywhere and they’re characterised by the vast windows filled with plastic representations of the main dishes.
Many shokudo restaurants require you to go to an electronic screen to pay before you eat, then you just sit down and they take your ticket.
Travel in Winter
Winter is the cheapest time to hit Tokyo, and Japan is gorgeous in the snow, so I’ve heard. I personally travelled in June/July, which is one of the most expensive times to visit.
Outside of summer, you should avoid the time when the cherry blossoms are in bloom in April and Golden Week in May.
Ordinary prices don’t change, but accommodation and flights can double in the peak periods of the year.
Shop in the 100-Yen Stores
These are the equivalent of the dollar stores back home. Except here you can find high-quality products that are both quirky and practical.
Characterised by the red and gold lights, these are the cheapest places to get both everyday items and souvenirs.
Tax-free stores are great options if you want to pick up pricier items, like electronics.
Last Word – Are You Ready to Visit Tokyo?
Tokyo is something of a utopia because this is a big city where everything works. The trains run on time and the people are respectful. It’s a bit of a paradise but an expensive paradise.
I could write a book on the things to see in Tokyo and it’s a city I want to return to soon.
Is Tokyo on your bucket list?