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. Before you arrive make sure you know which system to use to get to the station near 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 at the airport if you intend to use a lot of data.
Once you’ve used the train there once or twice it all becomes very easy to use. All station signs have an English version underneath the Japanese 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!
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 on the Shinkansen which only takes just over 2 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), yakitori (grilled meat on a stick), tempura (light batter & fried) or okonomiyaki (savoury pancake with fillings). 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.
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.
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, 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 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.
If you are a fan of sashimi and sushi, head to the Tsukiji Fish Markets for the freshest in Japan. Get here early, like 4-5am if on a day tour to see the auctioning of giant tuna and grab some fresh sushi, otherwise tourists going solo can only enter certain areas after 9am. Lines can be long but usually move quickly. There are some rules to the markets so do some research before going.
The number of visitors to the tuna auction is limited to 120 per day, the maximum number that the market’s infrastructure can accommodate. Tourists, who wish to see the auction, have to apply at the Osakana Fukyu Center (Fish Information Center) at the Kachidoki Gate, starting from 5:00am (or earlier on busy days) on a first-come, first-serve basis. The first group of 60 visitors will be admitted to the auction between 5:25 and 5:50, while a second group of 60 visitors will be admitted between 5:50 and 6:15.
Note that the market is due to move to a new site in Toyosu in November 2016.
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!
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, octopus balls, teriyaki sticks and 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, really nice, traditional metal 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 photo 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 along with the Sony Building which has all the latest Sony technology on display.
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 do tend to run on the thin side but the pillows and doonas 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 hostels, I recommend the Khaosan Kabuki or K’s House Oasis Hostel. For a hotel, check out The Gate.
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.
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 see.
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 till 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. There’s a 2nd storey window at the station (seen below) where you can watch it and Starbucks across the road, underneath the giant advertising screen, also overlooks it.
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.
Fluro town as I like to call it. This is where you’ll find the quintessential Japanese image filled with 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 and is one of the Tokyo stops for the high-speed Shinkansen. 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.
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!