Tokyo has got to be one of my favourite cities in the world. It has everything you want in a destination; it’s ultra modern but peppered with pockets of old Edo, the food is amazing, it’s easy to get around and the city is one of the safest in the world!
If you’re heading to Japan and not really sure what to expect, here’s a couple of tips to get the ball rolling!
Tokyo has an excellent rail system and should definitely be your first choice in getting around, so make sure your accommodation has a station within walking distance.
One thing that is a bit confusing when you first arrive in the city is the trains and this confusion is mainly caused by the fact that there are separate rail companies, each with their own network. (If you intend to travel around Japan and have a JR Pass, you can use this for JR’s local stations but you can’t use it on the other networks.)
But once you’ve used the train there a few times it all becomes very easy to navigate. All station signs have an English version underneath the Japanese writing along with English announcements, which is handy. Also, try and avoid using them during the peak period in the morning. Apparently, the crowd pushers are only at certain stations which can be an experience, but if you’re claustrophobic, avoid this time!
Travelling with Luggage
A handy tip to know when arriving at a station with bulky luggage; every stop will have a station map on the platform when you get off, look out for them to find out where the escalators and lifts are for that platform. Most have escalators but for the few that don’t, the lifts are sometimes out of sight.
You can also use luggage transport services such as Yamato Transport that will take your luggage to your next destination’s hotel. Many hotels can accept your luggage and have the forms to fill out, otherwise, look out for the black cat with kitten logo outside convenience stores. This is the Yamato Transport logo and indicates the store can accept luggage for transport.
On the Narita Express train from Narita Airport you will find luggage storage areas when you get on. The NEX train’s luggage area is quite large and even has locks. On the Shinkansen you’ll find an area behind the seats at the back of each car where you can put your luggage but as of April 2020 you will need to reserve a seat in the last row in order to use this space – or hope you can snag that last row in the non-reserved section. Just make sure the wheels are facing forward to they don’t roll out, or fold down the little table thing next to it. More info on the Shinkansen luggage row.
If you have a medium or small-sized suitcase/backpack, you can place them in the overhead luggage rack, without any special luggage reservation.
Shinkansen – The Bullet Train
Japan is also home to the bullet train and riding it is an experience in itself so try and fit in a trip to Kyoto or Osaka on the Shinkansen which only takes 2.5 hours on the express Nozomi train. The train is actually quicker than flying, considering you have to fly to Osaka and then catch a bus or train back to Kyoto.
If you’re travelling on the JR Pass, you won’t be able to use the Nozomi or Mizuho trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, but you can use the Hikari, Sakura, Kodama and Tsubame trains.
While at the airport train station, grab a Pasmo or Suica pass, which is tap-on/tap-off card and usable on both the JR and Tokyo Metro/Toei Railways. Or try a Klook Subway Pass. This means you won’t have to buy individual tickets (which is a pain as the machines are very confusing.) Instead, you just swipe the pass and top up as needed.
With the upcoming Olympics, Suica and Pasmo have brought out tourist-specific passes to encourage people to go cashless in Japan. The passes are valid for up to 28 days and like the normal passes, can be used at vending machines, convenience stores and some shops and restaurants. They also include benefits of gifts and discounts at certain stores.
Before arriving in Japan, make sure you know which system to use to get to the station nearest your accommodation. On your phone screenshot a map of the network you have to use, the directions if you need to change stations and also screenshot Google Maps to show you how to get to the accommodation from the station. While you might have data roaming on your phone, you don’t want to risk it not working when you first arrive in a sleep-deprived state, late at night! Also, you can get Japanese SIMS and wifi modems at the airport if you intend to use a lot of data.
Be aware that it is illegal for visitors in Japan to walk around WITHOUT their passport on them. This is something I don’t like to do while travelling for fear of losing it or having it stolen. Fortunately, Japan is super safe and many lost items are handed in. While I’ve never been asked to show my passport on the street, it does happen and can result in you being taken to the police station.
If you do leave something on a train, in a taxi or anywhere in public, be sure to contact the police, taxi company or train station as items (even wallets full of money or expensive cameras) are often handed in. I’ve heard many stories of people being reunited with their missing, and often expensive, items.
It is illegal for tourists to not have their passport on them and word is that Police are cracking down on this. So as much as I prefer to leave my passport at my hotel for safe-keeping, it’s time to start bringing it along as you never know if you’ll be asked.
On the plus side, having your passport on you means you can get 10% discounts at certain stores as part of a tax-free tourist scheme. Look out for this logo!
Food in Tokyo
Japanese cuisine is so much more than sashimi and sushi!
If seafood puts you off, try menu items like katsu (crumbed and fried meat), gyoza (dumplings), karaage chicken (fried chicken), yakitori (grilled meat on a stick), tempura (light batter & fried) or okonomiyaki (savoury pancake with fillings). You’ll find lots of street food items, my favourites were custard daifuku (mochi with custard and a strawberry on top, Sensoji has some good ones!), Menchi Katsu (mince and onion, crumbed and fried. Also a good one at Sensoji – google map search Menchi), Taiyaki (a fish-shaped pastry usually filled with red bean paste, sweet potato or custard.) Takoyaki (gooey octopus balls – delicious!), Senbei (rice crackers) or Dango (grilled mochi balls dipped in sauce).
Head to one of the big Izakaya restaurants like Watami which is sort of like Japanese tapas with lots of share dishes. The massive menus here are sure to satisfy the fussiest eaters and there’s always chips (fries) as a last resort. There are also small hole-in-the-wall Izakaya’s which are like a mini-pub and usually specialise in just a few dishes, mainly yakitori. Piss Alley in Shinjuku (official name is Omoide Yokocho), Hoppy Street in Asakusa or Ameyoko in Ueno are great spots to try a few of these smaller places.
Tokyo Food Markets
If you are a fan of sashimi and sushi, head to the Tsukiji Fish Markets for the freshest in Japan. They no longer hold the famous tuna auctions there but you can still find plenty of packed stalls selling interesting street food, with most focused on seafood. To see the tuna auctions you need to go to Toyosu Fish Market, although the experience is now a bit more sterile.
Ameyoko Market opposite Ueno Station is another great spot for street food, expensive fruit and unusual sights!
If you order sake, they’ll ask if you want it hot or cold. My own personal preference is cold.
Green tea is always a great way to finish off a meal as well. It is also used as a flavouring in many desserts and candy, I particularly like the matcha soft-serve ice creams or matcha Kit-Kats!
Vending machines are everywhere, literally everywhere. There’s estimated to be around 3.8 million of them across Japan. You’ll be walking down some random street and one will be plonked haphazardly in your way. They are pretty great though and along with cold drinks, they also have hot coffee, tea, hot chocolate and soup, which never fails to amaze me! I’ve had many a vending machine breakfast of hot chocolate and corn soup. In warmer seasons the Peach Water is my go-to.
In some places, particularly at train stations or petrol stations, there are hot food vending machines where you can get meals like chips, croquettes, pizza out of a machine! At some of the bigger stations, there are shops selling pre-packaged bento meals and a few of the bigger stations also have restaurants.
Conbinis and Department Stores
Another surprisingly good spot for food is the convenience store (usually 7/11 or Lawson’s) which always have a range of high quality, pre-packaged meals. Japanese snack food is also pretty amazing, if not a little over-processed, but always entertaining. The egg sandwiches here are in a league of their own and definitely worth a try. Other favourites include onigiri (rice and filling wrapped in crunchy, roasted seaweed), chicken karaage (fried chicken, usually at the counter), and the sponge slices with cream in the middle (best sponge I’ve ever had!)
The big department stores in Japan are always a foodie paradise if you head down to the basement level, there are usually all sorts of goodies down there!
Weird Restaurants & Cafes in Tokyo
Tokyo also has some kookie themed restaurants and cafes, check out the Shinjuku Robot Restaurant, Ninja Restaurant,
Alcatraz ER (permanently closed now), Sengoku Buyuden Samurai Restaurant, Yurei Izakaya Ghost Bar, The Lockup Prison Restaurant, Vampire Restaurant, or one of the Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurants, for something different. There are also a number of animal cafe’s but do your research to see if they are ethical, some serve as places to rehome abandoned pets, which is good. Some have their animals living in small places with limited breaks, which is bad.
Cafe’s have really become trendy in the last few years and you can find some interesting themed ones, like the Pokemon Cafe, Final Fantasy Cafe, Maidreamin Maid Cafe, Christon Church Cafe, Pom Pom Purin Cafe, or the One Piece Cafe. Harajuku’s Kawaii Monster Cafe is one of the most popular and an explosion of colour and crazy. Fluffy pancakes are also enjoying some insta-fame, A Happy Pancake has a number of cafes in Ikebukuro, Omotesando, Shibuya & Ginza. Flippers is another fluffy pancake cafe located in Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and Jiyugaoka. Get there early as there is often a line. Check their website for info as some only offer a certain number of fluffy pancakes a day.
If there’s a festival going on there’s probably going to be stalls of yummy street food to dig into. Salted fish may not be high on your list but the grilled squid, takoyaki (octopus balls), teriyaki sticks, bao buns and matcha green tea ice cream are always nommy.
One thing I’ve noticed in Japan is everything is of high quality, even down to the ‘cheap’ souvenirs. My favourite place for souvenirs is the walk up to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, where you can find a great range in a compact area.
Here you can get beautiful, giant, Japanese parasols for ¥1000 (about AUD$11), cute purses and wallets in traditional Japanese print fabric, woodblock prints, kimonos, tea sets, traditional bronze tea kettles, 1000’s of mobile phone accessories, lanterns, geisha dolls, chopsticks, pet kimonos, washi paper, ninja stuff and all sorts of things!
For the latest in cool head to Takeshita Street (yes, that’s the name, it’s pronounced Takeshta) in Harajuku. Here you’ll find all the pop culture trends, lolita and cosplay items you could ever wish for. Be aware that Japanese sizes do tend to run on the small side for clothes and shoes. The area is also known for its crazy desserts like rainbow fairy-floss (cotton candy) and crepes. Try the creme brulee crepe from Com Crepe, it’s amazing!
See if you can find the mirrored escalator at Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku, it makes for a great photo!
For electronics, you can’t beat Akihabara for nerd gear and that includes anime stuff. If you’re looking for something in particular, do some research beforehand as a lot of the shops are hidden in buildings above street level.
Yodabashi is a huge outlet for cameras, phone and computers, check out the batting centre on the 9th floor!
Akihabara’s Otaku (Geek) Scene
Mandarake (man-da-ra-kei) is 8 floors of anime, TV superheroes, characters, mascots and manga comics, new and used. Start at the top and work your way down.
There are some great Obitsu shops if you’re into the realistic giant barbie’s, or if like me you reaaaally wanted one but didn’t want to fork out for the big doll, you can get a 20cm tall one instead.
You’ll also find some french maids standing on the corners around here, they’ll point you in the direction of their cafe where lots of dressed up waitresses will take care of your every (food related) need.
For another experience, check out M’s, a 5 storey sex store near one of the station exits (see green building above). Five storeys sound like a lot, but the depth of the shop is only a few metres. The shop gives an interesting view into the sex lives of the Japanese, so it’s mostly love pillows, flesh-cans and costumes. But a Hello Kitty vibrator really makes a great, novelty present!
For luxury brands, head to Ginza where all the major international labels are.
Daiso and Don Quijote are bargain stores where you can pick up a huge range of Japanese items on the cheap, including souvenirs. The Don Quijote’s in Shibuya and Asakusa are huge!
While I don’t think Japan is as expensive as people make it out to be, accommodation is one area where it can be pricey. If you’re looking to save some money, hostels are the way to go. I’ve stayed in a lot of Japanese hostels and these would have to be the nicest I’ve seen around the world!
They’re usually bright and airy, very clean and most have the magic Japanese toilets! (Seriously you’ll never want to use a normal toilet again after using these!)
The mattresses and pillows do tend to run on the thin side but the doonas/duvets are fluffy and warm.
Many hostels have changed dorm layouts into pods, in the past few years, capturing the capsule hotel craze favoured by budget-conscious tourists.
The first thing you need to decide when choosing a location is which area to stay in. I’m personally a fan of Asakusa with its traditional, laid-back vibe. It’s also a lot quieter. There’s plenty of restaurants and shops around, the Senso-ji temple is on your doorstep and there are a few different train stations around the place which means you don’t have to walk far to find one.
The neighbourhood is situated on the Sumida River so you can always pop down there or head across the bridge to the Asahi Brewery and Sky Tower.
If you’re after a more traditional experience, look into staying at a Ryokan, preferably one with their own onsens (hot baths)!
If you intend on going out partying every night you probably want to stay over in the Shinjuku/Shibuya/Roppongi area. Trains stop at 12-1am and taxis can be pricey if you need to trek halfway across the city.
It’s mostly capsule hotels on this side of town, although Shinjuku has a number of hotels, but recently they’ve introduced premium capsule hotels, which usually include more bed space, comfier mattresses, TV’s, luggage drawers and some offer free breakfast and beer!
Check out The Millenials Hotel in Shibuya or the First Cabin hotels, dotted around Japan. For hotels, check out, Shinjuku Hotel Gracery, Shinjuku Prince Hotel, APA Hotel Kabukicho or Citadines Central.
Because Tokyo has so much to offer, everyone will have their own favourites to see, whether you’re into anime or traditional temples, your interests will guide where you visit, but if you’re looking for a quick overview, here are some of the most popular places to visit.
I’ve already mentioned Senso-ji temple in Asakusa a couple of times, but it’s for good reason. It’s like walking through layers. First, you have the giant Kaminarimon thunder gate at the main road which house protective Shinto gods. In the middle of the gate is a huge 4m tall, red chōchin lantern. Behind the gate is Nakamise-dori, the pedestrian street lined with market stalls that lead to the second gate, Hōzōmon, flanked by a large pagoda. In front are some incense cauldrons and temple fountains before you finally reach the actual shrine.
You’ll notice people lighting incense in the cauldrons and then sweeping the smoke over their body which is believed to heal ailments.
How to get your fortune at a shrine
To the side of the cauldrons and inside the shrine are some fortune-telling sticks. You pop ¥100 in the container, shake the metal canister filled with sticks, tip it upside down until a stick falls out. A kanji symbol marks the top and you search for this in the rows of little draws, when you find your symbol, open the drawer and take out one of the papers, on the back is an English translation. If you get ‘bad luck’ you then tie the paper to wires you’ll see nearby. Keep it if it’s good luck!
Asakusa is also one of the best places in Tokyo to hire a kimono/yukata/furisode to walk around in and get photos. You’ll see a LOT of visitors doing this around Sensoji. Check out Vasara, Yumenoya, Yae, Kimomo or Kitsuke Studio. Most include the dressing and hair setting free of charge. Plus and tall sizes are available at most, in limited quantity. If your hip measurement is over 120cm or height over 180cm, contact the shop first to see if they’ll have your size. Yae have a limited selection for a 130cm hip (4L) and can even dress men 200cm tall. Kimomo have 5L available. Men’s and children’s sizes and patterns are well stocked. If you go in summer, go early! There are many layers to wear and it’s not comfortable in the heat. Go as early as possible and get your photos taken straight away before the heat kicks in!
Now, if you happen to see women dressed in kimono at night time, around Asakusa. They may actually be a real geisha. Asakusa is one of the few areas in Tokyo with a geisha district and while not as active as the ones in Kyoto, they’re still around! I was so lucky to see two walking through the back streets of Asakusa one night!
You’ve probably watched the scene in Lost in Translation of the street intersection flooded with people while a dinosaur wanders across the face of a building in the background.
This is just outside of Shibuya station (Hachikō-guchi exit) and considered one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world. Find the overpass that overlooks the crossing where you can watch it or try Starbucks across the road, underneath the giant advertising screen, also overlooks it. The newly opened Magnet 109 mall and Scramble Square Mall also offers a birds-eye, open-air view of the crossing.
Outside Shibuya station is a statue of Hachikō (the exit is named after him), an Akita dog who used to follow his master to work every day and meet him at the station at night. After his owner died and never came home, Hachikō continued to go to the station every day for 9 years until his own death. He’s since become a symbol of loyalty, so highly valued in Japan, and is a common meeting point.
Neon Town as I like to call it. This is where you’ll find the quintessential Japanese image filled with bright lights and neon signs. Lots of Pachinko dens and gaming centres abound. North-east of the station you’ll find the red light and entertainment area of Kabuki-cho, where if you look hard enough you might find the legendary panty vending machine, although they’re no longer sold ‘used’.
Shinjuku station is also the busiest in the world, handling 2 million passengers every day, being a hub for a number of train lines. Long-distance buses also leave from here.
To the west of the station is the skyscraper area with lots of premium hotels and government buildings, many of which have free viewing areas over the city, like the Park Hyatt, also from Lost in Translation (if you haven’t seen this movie, it’s a must-see!)
The pop culture epicentre of Tokyo is where you go to see all the kids dressed up in cosplay or shop for the latest in youth fashion. Sunday is the best day to see everyone dressed up. It’s also the best day to head to the giant Meiji Shrine. When you come out of Harajuku station, you can either walk downhill to Takeshita Street or uphill to the bridge where a lot of the cos-play kids are. But keep walking and you’ll come to a large, wooden Torii gate that guards the entrance to Yoyogi Park, though this section of it is more like a forest. It’s a lengthy, but nice walk to the Shrine and on Sundays or any festival day, you’ll be more likely to see traditional Japanese weddings taking place.
If you’re a fan of movies like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery service, amongst many more, take a trip out to Mitaka-shi, where an orange cat bus will pick you up and take you to the Studio Ghibli Museum. Only 200 people are allowed in a day, so it’s best to book in advance through a travel agent. You can buy them from Lawson’s convenience store while in Japan. The museum is creatively laid out and even if you’re not really into anime, it’s still pretty interesting.
The new Teamlab Borderless MORI Building Digital Art Museum here is amazing! The lines will probably be long but they do move quickly or just get there at opening for less crowds. Check the website on the day to see if tickets have sold out, or pre-purchase them, which lets you skip the ticket-buying line.
While you’re there, check out the nearby Gundam statue, which looks like a giant Transformer robot. There’s also plenty of shopping malls and restaurants in this area.
If you’re a big kid at heart, then this is the place for you. Join in the fun and dress up a little, everyone else will, even if it’s just a pair of mickey mouse ears. If you plan on going on a lot of rides, get here very early as the lines can be ridiculously long. Even better, buy the Fast-Pass to skip the long lines!
If you’ve read this far, then good on you! I hope I’ve been able to pass on some great Tokyo trips and convinced you of the amazingness that is Japan.
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