Conquering Tokyo: Travel Planning Guide

Tokyo is the worlds most populous metropolis.   The dynamic city may go down as the most interesting in the world.  Tokyo is cute, crowded, friendly, exotic and much more.  It has a certain quality to it that is practically indescribable.  You simply have to visit to understand its allure and understand why people keep coming back.

Get to Know Tokyo

Tokyo began as a small fishing village and was known as Edo.  After a period of massive growth the emperor moved from Kyoto to Edo and renamed it Tokyo or Eastern Capital.  Since 1868, Tokyo has been the center of Japanese economic and political power.

Tokyo had a tumultuous 20th Century.  A massive earthquake killed an estimated 140,000 people in 1923.  Most died from the fires that erupted after the earthquake.  Fire consumed the city once again as World War II fire bombs ravaged the city.  Rising from the ashes, Post war Tokyo became known as an electronics and gadget hub.  Many of the top electronics firms call Tokyo home.

The greater metropolitan area has a population of over 35 million.  The city is divided into 23 wards or mini city governments that make governing Tokyo more manageable.  Looking towards the future, the city was selected to host the summer Olympic games in 2020.  It is part of the plan to show off the city and the country of Japan to the world.  While so well known, Tokyo and Japan fall behind other major tourist destinations in numbers.  They are hoping the Olympics helps change the image and brings more visitors to the the city and the country as a whole.

When to Go

Spring and fall are the best times to visit.  The spring brings cherry blossoms and the fall brings fall foliage.  Winter’s are cold with the possibility of snow.  Summer’s are hot and humid.  Typhoons can hit all summer and into early fall with August and September being considered the peak season.

How Long to Stay

Tokyo is a massive metropolis with so much to see and do.  4-5 days will only scratch the surface of this immense city.  Unless you plan on spending a large amount of time, it is best to prioritize your must sees and give yourself an excuse to return.

Language Barrier

While improving, most people in Japan do not speak English.  Popular tourist spots and train stations are your best chance of finding an English speaker.  Japanese are known for their customer service and many go well out of their way to help even if there is a language barrier.  Signs in heavily traveled areas will have English translations.

Getting To Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the major travel hubs in Asia.  It should be easy to find a flight from just about anywhere.  The city can be used as a stopover to or from other Asian cities.  There are two major airports in the greater Tokyo area.  

By Plane

  • Narita International (NRT) is located approximately 40 miles east of Tokyo.  It is the main international airport for the city.  Most international flights will fly into Narita.  The most popular way to get from the airport to central Tokyo is the Narita Express.  It takes roughly an hour and stops and major stations in Tokyo including Tokyo Station.  The Japan Rail pass is also covered on the Narita Express for those using the popular pass.  The Keisei Skyliner  is a bit fast train but drops you off at Nippori Station which is not central as Tokyo Station.  A bus ride is about 1.5 hours into Tokyo and maybe the best option if they drop off at or near your hotel.  
  • Haneda Airport (HND) is located near the Tokyo city center.  It handles most of the domestic traffic, but has started to slowly add international flights.  If given a choice between Haneda and Narita, choose Haneda due to its closer location.  From the airport you can take the monorail to Hamamatsucho Station where you can transfer to the metro system of Tokyo.  You can also use the Keikyu Railways to connect to Shinagawa Station.  A bus is also available.   

By Train    

Train is a popular way to get around Japan.  The city is the transit hub for the country and rail lines fan out from Tokyo Station in all directions.  By Shinkansen or bullet train you can travel to and from Kyoto and Osaka in a little over 2.5 hours.  Hiroshima is about 4 hours away and Sapporo is 4.5 hours away.  The Japan Rail Pass is exclusively for foreigners.  While expensive it will pay for itself if you plan on plan on visiting at least one other major city like Kyoto.     

Getting Around Tokyo

Tokyo is made up of 23 wards and in many cases the ward radiates out from a central hub which happens to be the transit station.  Tokyo is truly a place where the train station is the center of each neighborhood. This makes getting around this sprawling city much more manageable.  While there are many different modes of transit the easiest by far is by train or subway.

The best way to pay is by a prepaid Suica or Pasmo cards.  You may also purchase one time use tickets as well as one day transit passes.  Your Japan Rail Pass is also valid at any Japan Rail (JR) station.  Be sure to check if your ticket will work on the desired form of transit.  JR passes do not work on the subway for instance.

Train – The dominant way to get around is by local train.  Run by JR, you can get almost anywhere on the city by local train.  The JR Yamanote Line is a circular line that will take you to most of the biggest stations in Tokyo including Tokyo Station and Shinjuku Station.

Subway – The subway is an excellent option to get to a place like Roppongi that is not available by train.  When combined with the trains you can almost get anywhere in the city.  

Bus – The bus can get you to some of the few places that are not easily accessible by train.  It can be difficult to figure out the best stop however if you aren’t familiar with the city.  If possible use the train or subway.    

Taxi – Taxi’s are a quick way to get around especially if you want to avoid walking.  They are also a good option for late nights after the train and subway system close .  They are expensive though and should be avoided for anyone on a budget.   

What to See

Tokyo is full of places to see.  Everything from ancient places of worship, to fun and exciting nightlife.  There is something for almost any taste.  Some of the highlights are:    

  • Sensō-ji TempleThe Buddhist anchors the popular Asakusa district.  It is Tokyo’s oldest temple.
  • Meiji Shrine – The popular shrine is an oasis of thousands of trees in the middle of the city.
  • Imperial Palace – The home of the emperor is right outside Tokyo Station.  The palace is off limits, but the east gardens are free to enter.
  • Ueno Park – A large public park home to multiple museums and a zoo.
  • Ghibli Museum – Tour one of Japan’s most famous animation studios.  An absolute must for fans of Anime.
  • Tokyo Disney Resort – The undisputed champion of theme park resorts.  Home to two theme parks, a shopping mall and multiple hotels overlooking Tokyo Bay.
  • Tokyo Sky Tree – See Tokyo from above from one of the tallest man made structures in the world.  It also has shopping, dining, and an aquarium.
  • Edo-Tokyo Museum – There are many worthwhile museums in Tokyo, but this examines the city itself.

What to Do

  • Wander through Akihabara – The trendy district is full of electronics stores chic diners, and themed cafe’s.
  • Walk Across the Shibuya Crossing – Watch thousands cross an intersection at the same time in the Times Square of Tokyo.  Full of upscale shopping and dining.
  • Take in a baseball game – America’s favorite past time is just as popular or maybe more so in Japan.
  • Explore Shinjuku – The financial center of Japan is also full of shopping, dining, and a red light district.  Shinjuku is the place for work and play.
  • Visit Harajuku – Hang out on Takeshita Dori where the teenagers do.  It’s also home to Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park.
  • Take in a Unique Cafe – It all started with Maid cafe’s where waitresses dress up as french maids.  Now there all kind of different types of cafe’s including a cat cafe where you get to spend some time in the company of a room full of cats.

Money

Tokyo uses the Japanese Yen.  While credit cards are widely accepted cash is still king and the preferred method of payment.  There are cash exchanges in major train stations and banks, the best option is to withdraw cash from an ATM.  They are everywhere and offer the best exchange rate.

Budget Tips

Tokyo is a known as an expensive city.  The fact is that is not nearly as expensive as is used to be.  You can certainly spend big bucks on meals and shopping, but there are plenty of budget options to be had if you look around.  One thing to keep in mind is that space is at a premium and you will pay if you want a big hotel room.   

Accommodations

  • Stay outside the high season.  Avoid the summer and holidays as prices skyrocket.
  • Eat the hotel breakfast.  Many Tokyo hotels will include breakfast at no additional charge.  Take them up on it and avoid paying extra for one of your meals.
  • Stay in a hostel or budget hotel.  Business hotels are great options.  Designed for businessmen, they offer the basics at a competitive rate.  Something to remember is that Japan is very clean.  Even one star hotels will be clean, which is something you can’t always count on in other parts of the world.   
  • Use Airbnb.  There are a lot of options in and around the city on a variety of budgets.
  • Use hotel reward points.  There are many chains with wonderful locations in Tokyo.  

Attractions and Food

  • Many top attractions are free including temples and shrines.
  • Hang out in one of Tokyo’s many parks.  There are so many green spaces throughout Tokyo to relax in.
  • Tokyo has a full calendar of free events.  Be sure to check out what is going on when you are in town.
  • Observation decks at Tokyo Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower are expensive.  Instead head to the Metropolitan Government Office and take in a great view for free.
  • Window Shop.  Tokyo has legendary shopping from department stores to toy stores as well as electronic stores.  It’s always fun to take a look at what the latest gadget is without having to buy it.
  • Eat street food.  There are great options all over the city to buy street food.
  • Convenience Stores.  There is one on every corner and offer good food at a cheap price.  Also be sure to grab something to eat at a train station.  Yes, even the sushi is safe from a train station.

Transportation

  • Get a Suica or Pasmo cards.  It saves valuable time in those crowded train stations. 
  • Don’t take a taxi.  They are very expensive.  Use the tube, bus, or rail system.
  • Walk around.  Each ward offers plenty to see and do.  Most of all it’s free to use your own two feet.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip

Things to know

  • Japan uses a 100 volt two prong plug.  Most electronics that use a two prong plug are dual voltage and will work.  Be sure to check though because some appliances such as hair dryers will short out.
  • Japan is known for fish and rice, but you can find a wide variety of food around the city.
  • Do not tip.  Japanese actually consider it rude.
  • They drive on the left.  Even if you aren’t driving be careful when crossing the street. 
  • Japan is famous for its manners.  Foreigners are given some leeway, but it is highly recommended to look at a Japanese etiquette guide
  • The Japanese is very consciousness of germs.  You will see many people around wearing masks to avoid giving away or getting germs that cause others to become sick.  Also you will find a dish next to cashiers.  Put your money in the dish to avoid coming in direct contact with another person’s hands.

Things to avoid

  • Don’t do too much.  Tokyo has so much to do.  Know you won’t see it all and give yourself a reason to come back.  Don’t rush your trip.
  • Don’t ask for food substitutions.  They will look at you strangely and often say no.
  • Watch where you take pictures.  Many places including temples and shrines prohibit photos.
  • Wearing shoes inside most places is considered rude.

Time Saving Tips

  • Buy tickets to attractions online in advance.  Long lines are the norm.  Avoid them when you can.  
  • Make a rough itinerary.  A little planning will allow you to be more efficient with your time.
  • Book accommodations in advance.


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