For me going to Japan was like having a part of my childhood come to life. I grew up reading mangas where I learned about eating taoyaki, going to onsen, and sitting around kotatsu before I knew there was a “Japan” beyond these stories, if you know what I mean. So when I was walking through Akihabara, a Tokyo neighborhood known for its anime stores, and seeing a lot of characters I grew up with… man, I got nostalgic. “Nobita, you haven’t changed at all! *sniffles*”
This was my first time in Japan and I was really excited to finally be able to see this country which culture (albeit a small part of it) not only was a part of my childhood, but also has always been a source of fascination to me.
So what’s it like to travel in Tokyo? As a Tokyo first-timer I found Tokyo to be an easy city to travel. It has a lot of things to do for everyone. The foodies will be in heaven and the nerds will feel at home. Those who love the weird and the quirky? Tokyo has plenty to keep you busy. Everything is clean, highly ordered and organized, and the city feels extremely safe. It’s such a low-stress destination and I highly recommend Tokyo for first time travelers to Asia.
On Tokyo Subway System
Tokyo’s Subway can be overwhelmingly convoluted. I know I just said that Tokyo is an easy city to travel, but its subway system does take some getting used to. Don’t worry, after a couple of days you’ll be switching platforms, navigating stations, and topping up your SUICO card like a pro.
Tokyo’s subway’s is only the world’s 3rd in terms of complexity, but I’ve been to New York and Paris (no 1 and 2 on the list) and I’d never managed to get myself lost as often as I did in Tokyo.
I think it’s because of 2 reasons: Tokyo has multiple private lines running their railway network, the main ones being JR and Tokyo Metro. But there are others as well: Toei, Keikyu, Kensei, etc. Each has its own price structures and often its own terminals. A transfer between 2 different lines could mean walking up to 400 m, aboveground. The first time I did this, it threw me off so much I retraced my steps to see if I missed a sign somewhere.
In big terminals like Shinjuku or Shibuya, these different lines come together and during rush hour it’s plain chaos. Chaos! Forget Shibuya Crossing, come to Shinjuku and be part of the currents of rush hour crowds weaving in and out of each other.
The second reason is that there just are too many options. Too many ways to get from Point A to Point B. Too many passes to choose from. Tokyo is like the Walmart of public transportations. Just to give you an example, going from Narita airport to Tokyo you’ll have a smorgasbord of 4 trains and 3 different buses to choose from, each with its own discount packages and passes.
My tip is to get yourself a PASMO or SUICO card as soon as possible.
Having a PASMO or SUICO card makes things easier because you can use these pre-paid cards for the different train lines. Plus you don’t need to worry about buying single used ticket! *shivers*
(Buying a one-way ticket is hugely complicated for visitors. First you need to know which company runs the train you’re trying to get on. Then you have to figure out how much your ride is going to cost based on Japanese-only fare maps. Then find the machine that sells tickets for that company among a dozen of similar-looking machines. Which sounds difficult enough in theory, and downright impossible in practice in big, busy stations.)
But as overwhelming as Tokyo can be, you can let your guards down This is not common. I’ve always associated feeling overwhelmed while traveling with risks of being a target. In Tokyo, I felt that I can look lost and instead of being targeted, people would come and help.
Unfortunately, English is not very common. I heard that English is taught in school but I was surprised to discover that even Tokyo youths know limited English. Whenever I get lost, I managed to get un-lost with the help of my finger. I point at my map, and they point where I need to go. Repeat until destination is reached. This seemed to work!
Be prepared to be amazed when going potty
How can one talk about Tokyo, or Japan, without mentioned their toilets?
The Japanese has outdone the rest of the world in the toilet department. They come with seat warmers and built in bidets. You can control the water direction and temperature from a control panel. Some would have soundtracks to serenade you with while you do your business.
But my favorite part about these futuristic toilets? The washing basin that’s installed on top of the cistern. As you wash your hands, the grey water will refill the cistern ready for the next flush. Genius! Why don’t all toilets have this installed is a big mystery to me.
Tokyo isn’t as expensive as I thought it would be, unless you try to leave.
I think at one point in time, Tokyo was one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. Even though that might still be true for some categories, I thought that as far as travelers are concerned, Tokyo was cheaper than San Francisco.
So, how expensive is Tokyo?
(For simplicity sake, think of 1 USD = 100 Yen)
A bowl of udon: 450 Yen.
A piece of shrimp tempura: 250 Yen.
An Airbnb apartment for two (in Ryogoku): $50/night
A glass of craft beer: 800 Yen.
A glass of draft beer: 350 Yen.
A bowl of ramen: 650-850 Yen.
A subway ride: 170-270 Yen.
Having said that, getting out of Tokyo can be expensive.
Sample prices of one way train tickets from Tokyo:
Tokyo – Kyoto: 13200 Yen
Tokyo – Nagano (to see Yamanouchi’s Snow Monkeys): 8000 Yen
This was the reason why I didn’t get to as many day trips out of Tokyo as I’d wanted. It’s too expensive! If you’re planning to do at least 2 day trips out of Tokyo, you will want to look into getting a JR Pass.
Also, in Tokyo cash is still king, which was surprising to me (you have singing toilets, and yet you don’t take credit cards?). Even though convenience stores and department stores take credit cards, smaller restaurants, cafes, and even train ticket booths still take cash only.
You can see Mt. Fuji from Tokyo
Hakone was often touted as the best spot to see Mt. Fuji, but do you know that on a clear winter day you can see Mt. Fuji all the way from Tokyo? After learning this I checked the weather forecast daily. On a particularly clear day, I took the elevator to the observatory floor on the 46th floor of Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. And there it is.
I highly recommend a visit to this observatory with or without a view of Mt. Fuji. It’s free and the view is incredible. (A better but not-so-free alternative is the observatory of World Trade Center Building. JPY 620)
In Tokyo, you’ll never get thirsty
There are so many vending machines that I often feels that they’re stalking me. You’re never far from one. I love, LOVE, these vending machines because not only do they sell cold drinks, they have hot drinks as well!
In winter, they are like hand warmer vending machine. I’d get something just to hold on cold mornings and I’d get to drink it afterwards. I love winning at life!
In Tokyo, trash is complicated and you end up with pockets full of trash
Tokyo is very strict about separating their trash. Our Airbnb came with a booklet called TRASH 101. There’s burnable and there’s recyclable. The latter is separated into further categories like bottles (labels and caps removed), cans, or newspapers. There are different pick up days for different categories that require a separate calendar.
This is all nice and dandy but I can’t help wanter… why don’t they put more trash cans on the streets? Usually there are bottles/cans trash bins close to the vending machine, but what if you have food wrappers? Well, you just have to stick that somewhere in your pocket and wait until you get home.
There’s more to Japanese food than ramen and sushi
When my Japanophile friends learned that I was going to Tokyo, they gave me one list after another of great ramen and sushi spots to go. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that as a picky pescaterian, I don’t do raw fish and I can’t eat ramen. But that’s alright, there’s more to Japanese food than ramen and sushi.
Udon doesn’t evoke the same level of fanatiscm in Tokyo or abroad. But in Tokyo I discovered that I love udon so much I could eat it everyday (and I did). The fish and seaweed based broth is much lighter than the pork or chicken ramen broth.
My favorite is kitsune udon – chewy noodles in light broth, with marinated tofu skin slices and heapful of green onions. I’ll eat it with a side of shrimp tempuras. The best part is at the end when I get to slurp the starchy, salty, and slightly greasy broth. It’s so filling and warm, it makes me feel like everything is all right with the world.
Bento boxes are a delight!! I love, love bento boxes. Lots of side dishes, each in little bite-sized portion: marinated seaweed, pickled carrots and daikons, rice balls, fish cakes. Each bite is dense in umami. I would move to Japan so that I can eat bento boxes every day.
And there’s the snacks and street food. In Tokyo I filled up on red-bean filled taoyaki, rice-cake soups, and fried sweet potatoes covered in honey and black sesames.
Talking about food, you can’t go to Tokyo and not visit a depachika. Tokyo’s depachikas are high-end food halls often found on the basement of big department stores. It’s often referred to as “food wonderland” and can take up 2 floors. A Tokyo depachika is something that needs to be seen to believe. Who knew that Japanese are really into French pastries and mochis?
A depachika is also where you’d find Japan’s more absurd food oddities, like the $100 cantaloupe or $50 albino strawberries.
Tokyo is ugly
Someone once wrote, “Tokyo is ugly but filled with beautiful things” (paraphrased somewhat) and I can’t agree more.
Tokyo’s skyline isn’t that impressive and honestly all Tokyo neighborhoods start to look the same after awhile. And does Asahi building remind anyone of giant golden snot? Maybe it’s just me. But having said that, you encounter a lot of very beautiful things in Tokyo.
Step inside an old-school izakaya and you’ll feel warm and cozy immediately, surrounded by smells of thousands of grilled meat of years past.
Observe a busy ramen place and admire the perfectly timed ballet of father and son in preparing bowls after bowls of delicious ramen.
The Japanese has perfected the art of packaging design, making things look a lot more beautiful than they need to be. Just step foot into a depachika and you’ll see many examples of these.
I was looking at a box of potato chips that would’ve set me back $6. The packaging, not the price, stopped me on my tracks. The box of chips comes in a bigger box wrapped in a silver embossed, cream satiny paper, tastefully tied with a cerulean bow that matches the shade of the inner box. It looks so smooth and creamy I just want to touch it. It was the most beautiful box of chips I’ve ever seen in my life.
My Top Things To Do in Tokyo
In no particular order:
The outer market of Tsukiji Fish Market. Tourists are not not allowed to into the fish market until 10am. But by this time the morning is pretty much over and all the fish mongers are packing things up. If you’re disappointed at the lack of action at the fish market like me, head outside the complex to the outer market. The outer market has stalls selling kitchenwares, dried fish, and all sorts of random stuff. There’s also plenty of food stands including fresh sushi, grilled tuna kebab, and sweet tamago (egg omelette).
If you’re looking into buying used camera gear, MapCamera in Shinjuku is awesome. I bought my 45mm prime lens at a bargain there. Yodobashi is a chain of massive electronic stores (think of Fry’s on steroids) and has a few locations throughout Tokyo. I spend a few blissful hours just gawking at computer and camera gadgets. (Looking for pre-paid SIM card in Tokyo? Yodobashi also has them.)
I met up with Jess and Hai from Notesofnomads.com and they took me to Yanaka (Nippori station), a part of Tokyo that’s known for it old-world charm and stray cat population. I really liked this neighborhood since it’s so different than the rest Tokyo.
The best depachika store I went to was in Shinjuku Takashimaya department store. 2700 sq foot of beautifully packaged rice cake sets, mochis, French pastries, and other delectables. More art than food, to be honest, but if you like to look at pretty stuff, especially pretty stuff that you can eat – you won’t be disappointed. Stock up on food then head to the roof garden for a picnic with a nice view over Tokyo.
If you’re in Tokyo during a grand sumo tournament (there are 3 each year: January, May, and September), go check it out. I highly recommend it. I wrote about my sumo in Tokyo experience here.
I honestly didn’t care so much about Tokyo’s famous, over-the-top neighborhoods: Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara, etc. Too many people, and too many gimmicky cafes and kitschy shops. But that’s just me. Then again, these neighborhoods is such a classic image of Tokyo you just have to experience it. I even entertained the idea of going to a maid cafe, but I backed out. The price and the whole selling of innocence-meet-cute thing didn’t sit well with me. Go see these neighborhoods at night. The billboards near Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara can make Times Square look downright provincial. These Tokyo neighborhoods look impressive enough during the day, but to see them at night is something else.
Go to an onsen, a public hot-spring bath. If you have a full day or two, make your way to Hakone famous for its onsens and ryokans. But Tokyo also has onsens you can go to. The most known one is Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba. – a theme park type of onsen or a “super onsen” with many pools and an Edo-era themed food court. I chose a local onsen near Akihabara for convenience reason (Odaiba is so hard to get to). Kanda Aqua House EDOYU is nothing fancy – but it’s clean and at JPY 400, a bargain. I stopped by for a soak on my way to the airport. I could feel all the aches melt away.
Walk. Walk a lot. Tokyo is filled with wonderful and mysterious things for visitors to look and eat. It’s a wonderful city to explore on foot. If you get bored, jump into the train, and pick a new station.
Before you go
Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo – Hilarious accounts of a foodie family navigating Tokyo and its food scene. Very enjoyable read.
Not One Shrine: Two Food Writers Devour Tokyo – From the same writer as above. I love this book because it seems to fit my own style: less shrines, more food.