Travelling in Tokyo is exciting, overwhelming and a continual mesmerizing surprise and here are a few of my travel tips to this wonderful city.
- Pinterest is a great way to create a visual scrapbook of holiday tips and ideas. I created a pinterest board for the trip, view it here.
- Buy a map. You will be wonderfully lost at times.
- Buy a phrase book or jot down some phrases that will help. I used Lonely Planet’s pocket Japanese phrase book.
- Jot down a bucket list of experiences
- Screenshot a few maps on your iPad or tablet for reference. This helped us a fair bit when we cycled around Tokyo.
- Print a subway and JR East map to carry around in your bag.
- Take a note of the nearest station to your accommodation and the train lines that leave from there.
- If your trip is brief, list down the attractions you plan to visit and the disembarking train station.
Accommodation to some, is a large portion of the budget and in Japan there are many choices available from ryokans, business hotels to apartments. Each area of Tokyo is uniquely different and it helps to pick a few areas as a preference to narrow down the search. My first trip back in 2008, I stayed in The New Park Hotel in the futuristic area of Shiodome which also happened to be a 5 minute walk from the Tsukiji Markets. One of the experiences on my Tokyo bucket list. The hotel starts on the 15th level and I had used a good deal, okay, maybe all of my job savings for the Futurmaesque experience. A once in a life experience.
The recent trip I used the Airbnb website and booked a practical apartment in a town by the train tracks called Shimokitazawa, quite a mouthful! The apartment was close to cafés and a supermarket which made it very cheap to eat out and have the morning espresso. It was also a few stops from areas we were interested in this time round. Plus the neighbourhood was entrenched in a cool bicycle culture and we cycled around to Shibuya and Harajuku.
Trains are the ultimate way to move around in Tokyo, like no other in the world they are fast and the network of connections dizzily efficient. Rail passes are offered to foreigner visitors but be sure to assess whether it is worth the cost. For us, as a travelling couple, $1200.00 for 6 days in Tokyo, we thought was rather expensive and looking closely into the terms of the rail pass it was not going to suit our itinerary as we were spending time outside of Tokyo in the middle of the trip and the rail pass must be used in consecutive days. Rail passes though, do offer unlimited travel and the convenience of not having to purchase the ticket each time to ride the train. Simply show the pass to the attendant and proceed through the gate. Even with our planning we still managed to purchase a wrong zone ticket but once you work out the ticket machines are different for the subway and JR East trains, this barely happens again!
HyperDia is a fantastic website for ticket prices and rail connection references throughout Japan.
A few train travel tips
- The ticket machines have an English option. Select this first, then the number of tickets, the zone which you can work out on the map above and make payment.
- Be sure to keep your train ticket to insert into the ticket machine when exiting the station.
- On the platform, check to see the direction. There will be an electronic sign or a printed map on one of the pillars
- JR East and Tokyo Subway are two different companies servicing Tokyo. Quite often the two train stations connect via an underpass.
The main train stations are likened to mini cities, they can be connected to hotels and shopping malls. Tunnel networks of cafes, one room restaurants and izakayas can be found underneath the main hub train stations and the food is undeniably delicious. My recommendation is to eat at the train station. The Michelin star restaurant Jiro can be found under a subway in an ordinary looking passage. One can easily spend hours eating and shopping, especially in Tokyo Station where Tokyo Character street is located. We found ourselves lost countless times, however, in an efficient city like Tokyo, there is always help nearby.
Tokyo is very bicycle friendly and the cheapest way to get around is on two wheels. We cycled from our accommodation in Shimokitazawa to Harajuku, Yoyogi Park and Shibya easily. Although the train itself is super quick, navigating the train station and ticket system takes some time to adjusting.
There are not many free wi-fi spots that you can jump on without a password. Some places like Starbucks request to action a confirmation email which is impossible when you are sitting down at the cafe. There are places where you can rent a phone with internet or a pocket wireless, one company is called Rent a Fone. Some airbnb hosts provide their guests with a portable wireless device, a wonderful idea and no extra cost.
Culture and food
A diverse range of experiences from sushi at the train station to seven course meals at a Michelin star restaurant makes Tokyo in essence, a foodies paradise. I feel we only scratched the surface of this incredible metropolis and there were many places we walked past intending to return but in earnest we ran out of time. Lesson learnt, seize the moment and stop at the place that catches your curiosity!
Aside from the enjoyment of food, the way in which you eat can also be an experience in itself in Tokyo. Sitting at a counter in front of a sushi master in a 5 person restaurant or purchasing freshly cooked meals from a vending machine to having a refreshing beverage at the Cat Cafe. Watching your selected patisserie cake packed ever so carefully into a package with ice packs for the journey home is a process that has to be admired. To my smoking is fairly common in Tokyo and allowed in some restaurants, MacDonalds have a level for smoking patrons to ‘eat and smoke’.
The Japanese will politely refuse tips and when making payment there is a small tray to place the payment on. Try not to hand the money to the attendant, it becomes a little awkward and they may point to the tray. To place an order at a restaurant you may have to call the attendant, the words ‘sumimasen’ usually work.
If you are really interested in sushi or simply love to eat it a lot, watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It will excite!
- The delectable Ekiben Matsuri (bento boxes) on a Shinkasen train, they differ with each region.
- Kaiseki – Japanese multi course meal
- The Japanese make beautiful sponge cakes that are thick and dense in texture and pretty in every facet that a cake can be.
- Small onigiri packs from 7-11 store, delicious rice balls
- A large sushi breakfast at the bustling and chaotic Tsukiji Markets
- Yakitori from Izakaya (Japanese pub – look for the red lanterns) under the JR rail tracks
Food souvenirs definitely warrants a separate section in this post. You’ll find food souvenirs everywhere in Tokyo, colourful and cute packages perfectly suited for the flight back home and if you forget to buy a box of goodies, your in luck, the airport shops have them all. Including, the shops after you check in. On our Air Asia flight back to Kuala Lumpur I witnessed shelves emptied in minutes of the Tokyo Banana! We too, took back a couple of the boxes for friends and family members.
Here are a couple of suggestions for food souvenir shopping.
- Matcha KitKat Supersize pack
- Locally made Sake
- Wagashi, also known as sweets and easily recognisable from the delicate and pretty packaging
- Tokyo Banana, a banana shaped, giraffe patterned cake sponge filled with banana flavoured custard. The Tokyo Banana is unique to Tokyo and it is divinely delicious and decadent.
Useful websites and books
Food Sake Tokyo by Yukari Sakamoto – book on food and sake in Tokyo, a must for foodies
Hyperdia website – train reference website
Toyoko Inn Midnight Shuttle – this hotel offers a free shuttle service from Haneda Airport
Haneda Airport – Air Asia lands at Haneda Airport
Tokyo Monorail – train from the airport into Tokyo
Airport Limo Bus – bus from the airport into Tokyo
Keihin kyuko Bus – Late night and early morning bus service from Haneda airport into Tokyo
Keisei Bus – airport express bus timetables from Narita and Haneda
Destination Japan – Adam Liaw’s television series traveling through Japan with a focus on food and culture
Rent a Fone – rent a phone or portable wi-fi device
- Arriving late at night on the Air Asia flight, consider sleeping at the airport and wait for the trains to start again at 5am.
- Instead of taking two trains to one destination. Take a look at your map and you may be able to walk to a nearby station that bypasses the need for two trains. You will be surprised at how the journey becomes shorter.
- The depachikas (shopping malls) house the best of the best and therefore can be rather expensive to eat and drink. The food floors are an amazing experience and worth buying a patisserie cake of which costs around $10.00 AUD.
- Supermarkets stock everything from fruit to beer to ready-made sushi and karage packs.
- Disney land offer discounted tickets after 6pm.
- Arriving at Haneda Airport, there is a 7-11 across from the entrance to the Tokyo Monorail platform.
- Have some small change on hand for the monorail ticket
Excuse me – sumimasen
Please – kudasai
Thank you very much – arigato gozaimas
I’d like – okudasai
That was delicious – oyshikata
It was a real feast – gochisosama
Black coffee – burakku
Honest opinions and budget tips I find to come from fellow bloggers who have used their own dollar to travel. A few websites I found useful: