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.)
While at the airport train station, grab a Pasmo or Suica pass, which is like a Mi-key or Oyster card and usable on both the JR and Tokyo Metro/Toei Railways. Or try a Klook Subway Pass. 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.
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!
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.
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 fastest, Nozomi train (can’t use JR Pass for Nozomi). It’s actually quicker than flying, considering you have to fly to Osaka and then catch a bus or train back to Kyoto.
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), is a great place to try a few of these smaller places.
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 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.
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 (usually at the counter), and the sponge slices with cream in the middle (best sponge I’ve ever had!)
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.
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!
Tokyo also has some kookie theme restaurants, check out the Shinjuku Robot restaurant, ninja restaurant, Alcatraz ER or 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.
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 a 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, washi paper, ninja stuff and all sorts of things!
For the latest in cool head to Takeshita Street (yes, that’s the name) in Harajuku. Here you’ll find all the pop culture trends, lolita and cos-play items you could ever wish for. Be aware that Japanese sizes do tend to run on the small side for clothes and shoes.
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!
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 sounds 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, pussy’s-in-a-can 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.
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.
For a more traditional experience, look into staying at a Ryokan, preferably one with their own 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 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!
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 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.
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!
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 mall also offers an open-air view of the crossing.
Outside this 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, 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 cos-play 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 Team Borderless 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.
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!
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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