Andre's Travel Guide to Tokyo
This is a work in progress, so updates will happen over time. Please note that Tokyo is a highly dynamic city with changes all the time. Verify any information presented below before making any plans.
General Guidance and Tips
- Do some research ahead of time before traveling to Tokyo and try to make some general plans before departing
- Develop a daily budget based on food, lodging, transport and shopping
- Spring is the high point of the tourist season and is the most expensive time to visit
- Summer tends to be brutally hot and humid. Not for the faint of heart or those who don't handle extreme weather well
- Fall is more affordable than Spring and still has good weather, but be prepared for occasional rain storms and heat waves
- Winter is extremely cold, with snow in Tokyo happening occasionally. This is my personal favorite time to travel to Japan as it is cheaper and I don't mind the cold
- Cash is still king in Japan. Credit Cards are becoming more common, but many places including a significant percentage of restaurants are still Cash Only. Carry a good amount of money on you and be prepared to pay for your meal with cash
- Verify with your bank that your ATM card is enabled or permitted to be used overseas.
- Cash is best procured from ATMs due to the superior exchange rates and smaller exchange fees. Post Offices and 7-11s have English language ATMs. Take out larger amounts to minimize your fees
- Check to see if your credit card has Foreign Transaction Fees. If it does not, use your credit card as much as possible to take advantage of the superior bank exchange rates
- If you're given an option for choosing your credit card transaction currency, always choose local (meaning Yen)
- Japan is well above average for safety, but exercise common sense. If you're approached by strangers you should always be cautious
- It may cost some money, but look into either a data-only SIM or a pocket WiFi hotspot. Both are available for rentals and pickup at both airports or delivery to your hotel. Having Internet access will make navigation and research much easier
- If you'll be leaving Tokyo, look into getting a JR Rail Pass. The cost of a JR Rail pass costs less than a round trip ticket to Kyoto and it lasts at least 7 days
- Try to learn a little Japanese ahead of time, specific how to ask for things, how to say please, thank you and excuse me. A little Nihongo goes a long way
- Recognize that Japan is its own country with its own history, language and culture. Accept that the Japanese do things differently (within reason) and go with the flow
- If you have access to a concierge use them! They are a wonderful resource
Getting Into Tokyo
Unless you're coming from another city within Japan, you'll be flying into either Narita or Haneda Airport.
- Haneda is very close to Tokyo itself, and has several options for getting to central Tokyo. There is the Tokyo Monorail which can take you to Hamamatsucho Station, or the Keikyu line which can take you to Shinagawa.
- Narita is very far from Tokyo, so it takes much longer to get to Tokyo. The main choices are Keisei Skyliner which gets you to Nippori or Ueno Station in less than 45 minutes, or Narita Express (NEX) which gets you to Tokyo or Shinjuku. NEX is slower than the Skyliner, but can get you to eastern Tokyo without having to change lines.
- There are also the Airport Limousine Buses from both Airports to several locations, including specific hotels. These can take longer, but can be the most convenient if you're staying at one of the hotels with a direct stop.
- Narita does have local trains that go all the way to Tokyo, but be aware they can take more than 2 hours. This is the cheapest and slowest way to travel to/from Narita.
Hotels in Japan are tend towards being small, and have are broken up broadly into two groups: Western and Traditional.
- Western style have the kinds of beds we're used to, and usually have in-room bathrooms. Most of the time this makes them cramped unless you're staying at a nicer hotel. Service is like being at western hotels, but better.
- Traditional style places have a wide variety of setups, but usually involve a roll-out futon you put onto the tatami floor. Shared toilets and showers/bathtubs are the norm but there are exceptions than typically cost more. If you're outside of the big cities, the traditional places get much nicer and have more space.
General Advice for Lodging
- If in Tokyo, stay close to the Yamanote Line, or near a JR Rail station off one of the main lines. This will save you time and money
- Think about how much time you spend in hotels and do a $/hour calculation. A little more money can mean a lot more comfort. If you're relaxing and plan to stay in the hotel more, spend more as you'll be getting more for your money
- Shop around through direct hotel websites and travel/booking
- Youth Hostels or Shared rooms are an option, but do your research. Not recommended for most people after age 25 unless you're really comfortable sharing with strangers
- Cyber Cafes are a low cost option, but not as comfortable. Major stations have options with showers and private room options
- There are many hotels now offering Women only floors or entire hotels. Same with Cyber Cafes. Investigate ahead of time
- Gaijin House rentals (e.g. Sakura House) for longer term stays
- AirBnB is very risky due to the laws in Tokyo, you could be denied or kicked out without any recourse
- Check with your employer if they have any employee discounts at hotel chains
Hotels I've stayed at
Dormy Inn Akihabara
Their direct website is in Japanese, so I recommend booking via Expedia or some other intermediary website.
I really like this hotel. It's less than 10 minutes walk from Akihabara Station, and right next to Suehirocho station. Small rooms, suitable for 1-2 people.
What really makes me love this place is that it has a hot bath on the top floor, half of it inside and the other outside. Super hot water, and it's open most of the day except for 10am-3pm for cleaning. There are high walls on the outside, so while you're in the open, you can't be spied on. Really something special when it rains, you can sit in the hot bath and let the cold rain fall on you. Has separate baths for male/female guests, and women are given a special code by the front desk to ensure no one else enters.
Decent hotel located right next to Akihabara Station. Western style with small rooms. Offers location and basic comfort, but not much else.
This is a chain that is geared towards travelers and younger people. Western style with private room and shared hostel style rooms. If you're the kind of person who likes to talk and meet strangers this might be right up your alley. Has several locations.
Hyatt Regency Shinjuku
Nice Western Style hotel located next to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. 10-15 minute walk from Shinjuku Station, but has a regular shuttle to/from the station to the hotel. Direct booking can be expensive but deals can be found via travel websites. Rooms tend to be larger than average for Japan. Has a 7-11 next to it in the basement. Lobby decor can be a little dated (check out the chandeliers) but the rooms have been undergoing refresh for several years. Refreshed rooms are modern and comfortable.
Grand Hyatt Roppongi
Expensive Western Style hotel in Roppongi. Rooms tend towards being on the smaller side of Japan. Not on or near JR line, instead off the Metro. Located in the Mori complex, it has direct access to lots of shopping, dining and nightlife.
Park Hyatt Tokyo
Very expensive Western Style hotel in Shinjuku, but service top notch. Very comfortable rooms. Made famous by Lost in Translation. My favorite hotel in the world.
Getting Around Tokyo
The rail and subway systems in Tokyo are second to none in the entire world. They are almost always on time, and if they aren't they'll give you a note to give to your boss to explain why you're late.
In Tokyo there are three main transit systems:
- Tokyo Metro
- Toei Subway
- JR runs the Yamanote Line, which runs in a circle around Tokyo, and the Chuo line which cuts across the circle in the middle (hence Chuo, or "Middle"). The Yamanote Line can get you to most of the major places. It takes about 30 minutes to get from one side of the loop to another, and an hour to do a round trip.
Try to avoid changing between systems as the tickets aren't interchangeable and you'll have to buy a new fare each time you switch.
All three of those systems take PASMO and SUICA cards, which are rechargeable transit and commerce cards. You can save a small amount of money by using these cards as their fares are slightly cheaper than paper ticket fares. The card works from inside most wallets and cases, so you just press and go through the turnstile. When you press it will tell you your current balance. If you don't have enough, it will deny you entry and you'll need to go to a fare adjustment machine to reload your card.
Most stations have english options and maps for getting around. The map will list the price getting to a specific station, so you can buy that price ticket at the machine. The machines have an English option as many stations have staff to help you. Alternatively, you can buy the cheapest ticket to get past the gateway, then find the fare adjustment machine once you get to your destination and pay the difference.
There are lots of Apps, as well as Google and Apple transit. The following is an excellent site for figuring out the best way to get from point to point in Tokyo. If you can, bookmark it on your smart phone: http://www.jorudan.co.jp/english/norikae/
Things to do and see in Tokyo
No list or site could possibly hope to cover everything. Below is a list of things I've done, seen and enjoyed over the years
This gets its own section. It developed as a black market area after WW2 and evolved into an electronics district and later became a nexus for Anime and Gaming. While it's title of main Anime Nexus is debatable by Nakano, it's still a good place for getting merchandise. Among locals and more seasoned shoppers, Akihabara is known as being overpriced but has more selection than almost anywhere else.
Akihabara is home to several arcades, including Hirose Entertainment Yard, or Taito Station HEY. Residing in floors 2-4F with small front and rear entrances, HEY has divided its floors into specific groups. 2F is all Shmups, side scrollers, beat-em-ups and music games. 3F is all about fighting games, new and old. 4F is larger machines, including card based games and pod based games. There is also a manga/anime/doujinshi store in the basement.
For more information on arcades, I recommend visiting MadMan's Cafe Arcade Guide.
Akihabara is a good resource for older electronics and games. Super Potato is well known as a place to purchase Retro games, but be aware it tends to be on the expensive side when compared to other stores in Akihabara. You need to shop around and see what the costs are across a few stores to know what's reasonable.
Akihabara is within walking distance of Ueno. You can follow the JR train tracks north to Ueno. There are some interesting shops along that route.
Other Parts of Tokyo
- The Imperial Palace - Behold the last remaining seat of an Emperor in the modern world. The palace is only open to the public on two days, January 2nd and December 23rd. The rest of the time it is closed, but there are free tours you can sign up for. They are only given in Japanese, but they have english recordings that you can use. I highly recommend this. Info here: http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/guide/koukyo.html
- Sensouji Temple (Asakusa) - One of the most photographed temples in Japan. Has a shipping street leading up to it.
- Meiji Shrine - This is a massive temple that is located right next to Harajuku and Yoyogi Park. Lots to things to see.
- If you like to go up to high places for photos, there are two very good places:
- Tokyo Metropolitan Building - In Shinjuku, has twin towers that both have free observation decks.
- Roppongi Hills - This one costs money to get into, but has wonderful views. Also has a modern art museum. You can get a ticket to the museum that includes admission to their observation deck. A few years ago they opened up the actual top level where the heliport is, and it is opened when weather permits. A really different experience.
- Shibuya has probably the most famous street crossing in Japan. Lots of shopping and food. If you can, visit the Starbucks and go to the second floor. There are seats where you can watch the crossing. These seats are very rare, and you must have a purchased drink to sit.
- Shinjuku is the heart of the skyscraper area, and is home to the above mentioned Tokyo Metropolitan building. It has lots of shopping and food options. It's also the home of Kabukicho, one of Tokyo's Red Light districts.
- Ueno is the home of Ueno park, which is very pretty and has the Tokyo National Museum as well as Ameyoko Shopping Area.
- Kappabashi is between Ueno and Asakusa and is known as "Kitchen-town". This is the place to buy all kinds of restaurant supplies, including plastic food. You can also get very expensive, but very nice kitchen knives if you know where to look. They're made by the same people who used to (and in come cases, still do) make Katanas. I bought a fancy forged knife here for about $160, it's really nice. They also sell whetstones, so you can learn how to sharpen your knifes in the most badass way possible. Some knife shops will carve your name into the knife, usually take a few hours.
- Roppongi is the foreigner nexus and has a somewhat deserved reputation for being seedy. There is a Tsutaya bookstore in the area with lots of books, a Starbucks, partial wood interior and a DVD and music CD store upstairs. I can spend hours here.
- Ginza is home to some of the most expensive real estate on Earth. Lots of shopping here, including stores dedicated to paper. You might think a shop all about paper would be boring, but you'd be wrong.
- Ikebukuro has lots going for it, including shopping and eating. Has become somewhat of a nexus for ramen chefs wanting to make it big.
- Nakano is home of Nakano Boulevard, which is arguably better than Akihabara for purchasing Anime goods.
- Cat Cafes
- There are so many of these, I can't even begin to list them. Odds are good that wherever you're staying, there is probably one nearby. Most of them work in the same method: when you arrive, you're asked to wash your hands thoroughly and change into slippers. If you don't have huge feet like I do, you'll be fine. You'll enter the cafe area, your time will be marked down, and you'll be free to wander around and sit where you like. You're charged a fee for the first hour automatically, and then charged every 15-30 minutes additional you stay. You can order drinks, food and cat treats. Depending on where you are and how the cats are feeling on any given day, the cats may flat out ignore you unless you have treats. Some places have older cats, some have teenagers that will want to play. There are usually lots of toys that you can try to get the cats to play with.
- Common rules: don't approach the cats, let them choose to you. Don't bother cats that are sleeping. Don't pick up the cats.
- There is lot of information on Cat Cafes, and most have a website you can visit to see pictures of their cats.
- RAMEN MUSEUM - Do I have your attention? This place is out in Yokohama, which is about a 45+ min ride outside of Tokyo, depending on where you are in Tokyo. This place has a small museum about the history of Ramen noodles, including the development of instant noodles after WW2. The real appeal of this place though, is a re-creation of 1958 Tokyo that has around 8 different ramen places to eat. I've spent little time in Yokohama aside from this place so you may want to find something else in addition to the museum to help justify the trip to Yokohama.
Tokyo is a town unlike any other for food. More Michelin stars than any other city. Budgets of all sorts are viable in Tokyo.
- Sushi is in general still expensive outside of non-Kaiten restaurants. You can get a small amount of sushi for decent prices, but you might still be hungry
- Sushi Kaiten have a conveyor belt that has sushi available for grabbing and eating. If you don't see something you want, you can call out your order for something specific. Some have electronic menus for ordering from the kitchen directly
- Ramen places vary from being 100% Japanese language only to having English menus and ordering machines. Either look around for a place that has signs in English or look online. Two common chains, Jiro's Ramen and Ichiran, both have English menus. Don't be afraid to ask.
- Japanese Curry is comfort food, frequently paired with breaded and fried cutlets (Katsu). The GoGo Curry chain is my personal favorite. CoCo Curry is another well known chain
- Non-Japanese food is common and varies wildly in terms of quality. If you're nervous, find a restaurant with a plastic food display and point at what you want
- Smoking is still very common inside restaurants, so be prepared to deal with second-hand smoke
- Tempura is available from chains and from smaller places. Tends towards good but not overly filling
- Tokyo is a coffee drinking town, with all sorts of chains and smaller shops. Give them a try
- If you're looking for budget options, Convenience stores (ConBini) like 7-11, FamilyMart and Lawson's have packaged food prepared such as bento and pasta dishes that they can heat up for you. Often these places will have seating as well, so you can buy, heat and eat right there in the store
- Visit discount stores and 100 yen stores for beverages you can carry around and keep in your hotel room. This is cheaper than buying from machines
- If you want to go somewhere nicer, ask your hotel's concierge to call and make a reservation for you
- Some places have a button for calling your server over instead of having to wave them over
Food I recommend
- Ichiran Ramen - This chain is all over and lets you customize your bowl of Ramen, from the cooking of the noodles to the amount of garlic and green onions. Buy tickets from the machine in the entry, sit down at a stool, push the button and ask them for an English menu
- GoGo Curry - My favorite chain curry restaurant. Several locations. Affordable for getting large amounts of food. Get your ticket from the vending machine at the front, then sit at a stool and give them your ticket
- Meat Man - Located in Roppongi, this place is all about beef. BEEF BEEF BEEF. Have your hotel call and make you a reservation. Worth saving some extra money for this place, as they offer wonderful dishes
- Kasugatei - They have a few locations, including one in Akihabara. Excellent option for Ramen, including their Oil based Ramen. Super fatty and delicious
- Moses Kebab - Two locations in Akihabara; one near the station, the other in the back streets. Good street food with options for spice level of sauce. Also Halal
- Lauderdale - Located in Roppongi next to the Grand Hyatt, this small french-style bistro has excellent breakfast and brunch options
- Max Brenner Chocolate Bar - If you like sweets and chocolate, prepare to get diabetes here. With locations in Harajuku (take out or eat at nearby tables only) and Hiroo, this is worth visiting if you really like chocolate
- Pandora - In Shinjuku, this Teppanyaki (Iron Grill) restaurant belongs to an older style. Can be smoke filled, but wonderful food. On the more expensive side, they will cook your order in front of you, but without the theatrics of Benihana's. Worth it to experience steak with wasabi
- Red Rock - Get your beef bowl on in Takadanobaba. Wait outside in line, then buy your ticket from the machine and wait for a place inside. Beefy goodness
- Espero Ginza - This Spanish restaurant in Ginza does a decent job producing Spanish food. Menu only in Japanese and Spanish
- In general, you can drink almost anywhere, with beer and sake being the most common drinks. Whisky Highballs are very common and responsible for the majority of the whisky consumption in Japan
- Most bars charge you a seat charge, which is essentially a cover fee. Usually $5-8 per person and gets you a small number of snacks. Don't get angry about it, just accept it
- Bar Zoetrope - Considered THE bar for Japanese Whisky in Japan, it is the place to go and drink whisky that no longer exists anywhere else. The owner is a true whisky connoisseur and knows his stuff. He has an English menu with some basic information, including the seat charge. He can do some tasting sets as per his menu, and while his English is limited he can provide some information and advice. The bar is usually showing silent movies on one of the walls. Most visitors these days are foreigners
- Nikka Blender's Bar - This bar is run by Nikka, one of the two major producers of Whisky in Japan. You can get tasting flights, as well as individual servings of almost everything Nikka has to offer. Limited food options, but they can get some items from the restaurant next door. Located in Omotesando
- Hibiya Bar Whisky-S - While not run by Suntory, it is a Suntory Whisky bar. They offer a wide range of whiskies, including one specifically blended for this bar by Suntory for use in highballs. They even have their own sparkling water for highballs. Tends to be smoke filled, as this is a bar where some businessmen still go to drink and smoke a full pack before going home