Moni’s Tokyo Travel Tips!
NB – I copied this section from my Tokyo 2013 post and updated it with 2016 in mind. This is not a definitive guide to travelling to Tokyo as other websites offer far better, comprehensive information than I can. I’m just including personal tips for additional consideration. As at today, the exchange rate is a horribly depressing 77 JPY to 1 AUD.
Accommodation options in Tokyo are happily getting more and more varied these days. Thanks to Airbnb and the like, you no longer have to limit yourself to staying in hotels, budget ryokans, or pricy serviced apartments. It’s possible to stay in larger homes and apartments that can sleep up to six people. This is great for families and groups travelling together. No more crowded triple shares! If you do prefer hotels though, you can still find great value rooms in popular areas of Tokyo which are only a short walk away from major train lines and shopping areas.
Choosing your accommodation
If you are travelling with small children or have physical limitations, I recommend finding a hotel in Tokyo that has easy access (within 5 minutes by foot) to a station of a major aboveground rail system such as JR’s Yamanote Line. Subways are wonderfully efficient and most lines will take you to where you need to go but their relative lack of flexibility may eventually drive you mad. For example, my hotel (Hotel Century Souther Tower) is close to an O-Edo Line metro station but it requires transfers to most tourist destinations (except Tsukiji Market, happily).
If you’re travelling solo or with other fit and able bodies, then being close to a station may not matter so much but I still suggest finding a hotel that is closer to the parts of Japan that interest you the most. If you enjoy the older parts of north eastern Tokyo (Asakusa, Nihonbashi, Ueno) or Akihabara (Electric Town and a haven for anime fans), then please keep in mind that it’ll take at least 30 minutes to get to those places from Shinjuku/Shibuya which is more to the west and south.
To be honest, I wouldn’t worry so much about finding accommodation that is super close to tourist attractions as much as areas that offer good dining options. It’s fun to venture out to places but after a big day of sightseeing, the last thing you want to do is walk far or take a train to find good food. Many hotels do offer room service (Hotel Century Souther Tower doesn’t as it has its own restaurants and then the rest of Shinjuku to feed guests…) but it may not be the most economical option for a hungry family. I’ll talk about dining options in another post.
Where specifically in Tokyo should one stay?
People who have stayed a significant amount of time in Tokyo will have their favourite areas to stay and play. My former work colleague is obsessed with Ginza, whereas I am more comfortable staying in Shinjuku which is close to my old haunts. Other people enjoy staying in Ikebukuro or the older parts of Tokyo such as Ueno and Asakusa. If you don’t mind commuting 15 t0 30 minutes into Tokyo ‘proper’, then it’s worth looking at staying in the smaller cities in the Greater Tokyo Area such as Musashino (Kichijoji is regularly voted the area most Tokyoites want to live in), Tama or Mitaka. These areas will give you the residential Tokyo vibe which is largely lacking in the bigger, shinier parts of Tokyo and accommodation should be much cheaper.
Very few parts of Tokyo are wrong, boring or bad to hang out at so choosing where to base yourself will come down to what brings you to Tokyo in the first place and how long you are staying. If it’s purely for tourism and for under a week, then I do personally recommend Shinjuku as most places are easily accessible and within 30 minutes by train. Keep in mind that the further out you go from the city centre, the less tourist friendly it is and more complex the train system gets. I visited friends who live in the outskirts, encroaching on the border of Chiba Prefecture, and even I (with my near native Japanese) really had to pay attention to the signs and notices to make sure I got on the right train. Lots of fun for the adventurous, but for the more nervous first-timer, I recommend picking a central location where bilingual signs are the norm and taking one or two trains is as taxing as a day of sightseeing gets.
If you are planning to stay for longer than two weeks then I feel that hotels would no longer be economical and it’s therefore worth seeing what Airbnb has to offer (unless you have friends to stay with of course). With two weeks or more to spare, I don’t think the commute is worth worrying about as I doubt you’ll feel the time constraint to get between A and B as rapidly as possible. Staying in areas such as Nakano Ward and Setagaya Ward may be good options. Naturally, if you have plenty of coins to spare, then stay wherever you like!
Transport and Walking
I can’t stress the importance of spending some time on fitness before visiting Tokyo. Most Australians in particular are very car reliant and take for granted how much walking we don’t do every day. Of course, if you are content to just see one or two sightseeing areas and attractions each day, then you won’t necessarily feel the burn. If you want to cram as much into your day, then be prepared for a lot of stair climbing and walking, een between train platforms. A train or subway transfer may involve a half kilometre walk in some instances. On a particularly tiring afternoon, I ended up taking two subway trains to the metro exit closest to my hotel as a train I took dumped me at a section of Shinjuku Station that was too far away for my feet’s liking. Also, if you travel during rush hour, you’ll be lucky to get a seat for the journey so be prepared to stand and burn more calories!
Find Comfortable Shoes
You may think you own comfortable shoes but until you’ve walked up and down stairs all day, and for up to 20 minutes between destinations, you don’t really know for sure. Trust me. Take your favourite pair out for a long walk and see how your feet hold up. Make sure you have a good supply of socks if travelling in cooler weather. Unless you have many glamorous dinners planned, I’d save the high-heels for home and bring along some dressy flats or low-heels. I invested in a pair of Arcopedico shoes and they were pretty much all I wore. If you are travelling to Japan during the rainy season (May and June) then please be mindful of taking shoes that dry out easily or are waterproof.
Buses and Trains (and Taxis too)
Most places of interest in Tokyo can be accessed easily by train (aboveground and/or underground). Some less popular destinations and residential addresses may require a bus trip or a fairly lengthy walk on top of a train trip. If you know where you wish to go, it’s worth checking with Google or Hyperdia to work out the best route to take. If you are staying in Tokyo for longer than a few days and plan to use the train a lot, I recommend getting a Suica or Pasmo, or other type of reloadable card.
The ticket dispensing machines are not hard to use (most have English instructions) but using a pass card saves you a lot of time. If you start to run low, you can load or ‘charge’ the card up at a ticket machine. Suica and Pasmo (metro cards can be used at many outlets and vending machines to buy drinks and sundries also. Reloadable cards are also less likely to be misplaced than those tiny train tickets! While in Tokyo, you will probably use the national JR line the most but keep in mind that if you use a private railway line, you will need to buy a separate ticket unless they are part of the Pasmo system.
When to go to Tokyo?
Spring and Autumn are wonderful times of the year to travel to Japan as the temperature is pretty mild in most parts. Tokyo is mostly sunny mid/late April and a long sleeve shirt is usually enough though a lightweight jacket or cardigan should be packed too, especially for evenings. You’ll feel more ‘put together’ too since Japanese people observe seasonal trends rigidly and fashion is no exception. You’re not going to offend anyone by wearing shorts and T-shirts outside of summer but you will indeed look like a gaijin (foreigner) tourist! Be prepared for sudden changes too however; we got treated to some winter weather on the last few days of our trip.
The Japanese summer is an amazing experience with its many festivals but those who can’t deal with humid heat should avoid July and August. May going into June is typically the wet season so while not cold, you’ll be holding an umbrella most days. Winter is usually bitterly cold so even if you’re not planning to visit the snow fields, pack your thermals, gloves and other warm apparel! Spring is indeed glorious during the cherry blossom month (mid-March to late April depending on region) but be prepared for an abundance of other tourists. In my opinion, the beautiful colours of autumn leaves are just as beguiling so I’d consider September/October over April. Heck, what am I saying? I would go to Japan any time!!
Getting Yen and Getting Online
Two practicalities that people consider when travelling to Japan is how to exchange their foreign currency into yen and how to get online while in Tokyo (and make calls too if you’re still into that…).
Firstly, you should look at getting some yen before leaving your country. Credit cards are widely accepted in Japan, especially Tokyo, but things like train ticket machines and taxi drivers won’t appreciate you flashing the plastic. You only need about 20,000 JPY to start you off but if you can get more, then please do so before embarking on your journey. The exchange rate for converting AUD (especially cash) into JPY is dreadful. You may also find that only your hotel and currency converters will deal with foreign cash. Many banks won’t take AUD cash although other currencies may be welcomed.
I usually use my credit card to pay for accommodation and purchases at larger department stores and restaurants. Many convenience stores (Lawson, 7 Eleven etc.) will also accept credit cards. It’s really only small ‘Ma ‘n Pa’ shops in the suburbs and rural areas of Japan that will only take cash. Small bakeries and food outlets will probably also decline card usage, depending on where you are.
Finally, ATMs have also become very convenient and widespread in recent years and dispense cash like a boss. If your bank’s savings account keycard has the Maestro and/or Cirrus symbol on the back, you can use it to withdraw cash from your savings account. The rate isn’t great but much better than trying to change foreign cash into yen.
Although I was only staying in Tokyo for six days on my last visit, I still worried about access to the Internet. It’s not that I am addicted to Facebook and feel the need to share, but being online is convenient when it comes to using Google Maps and confirming addresses of places you want to visit. It also does help pass the time during commuting on trains. Fortunately, my hotel has free WiFi so the bulk of my photo sharing was done at night when back in the room. Knowing this, I chose to take out a 7-day ‘Travel Pass‘ offered by Telstra for 70 AUD. This offered 500MB of data and unlimited free calls and text. I’m sure most Telcos have similar deals for travellers. If you aren’t sure what I mean about data roaming or international roaming, then please, please refer to your Telco’s website before you go overseas. You could rack up significant charges which will really add to your post-holiday blues.
Ultimately, I found that Tokyo had more free WiFi spots than ever before so I didn’t need to use my Travel Pass allowance that much. I ended up using 89% of my quota but only because on the last day I left data roaming on and uploaded photos as much as I wanted. Most JR stations seem to have free WiFi so if you use the Yamanote Line, you can just about check things online every time you arrive at a station. If you prefer not to use data roaming at all but don’t want to rely on free WiFi, then you can look into hiring portable WiFi dongles. This option is great for groups as multiple devices can be connected and it is more economical for longer stays in Japan. Just search online for the best deals.
What can you do in Tokyo?
I don’t know how to answer that question other than to counter it with, what can’t you do in Tokyo? For me, Tokyo is the ultimate Mecca of eating and shopping but the city also offers more than consumer entertainment. Tokyo is always hosting international and domestic exhibitions, and there is virtually a museum for everything. Car enthusiasts will find Toyota Mega Web a treat, and those with children in tow can offer a great compromise and take them to the giant indoor amusement park nearby. Other than reading the Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo, I recommend checking out the following websites to give you an idea of things you can do around the time you plan to visit.
Time Out Tokyo – Time Out guides have been around for ages and is a fantastic resource for many international cities. The Tokyo guide (English or Japanese) is no exception.
Tokyo Weekender – Great resource of things to do in Tokyo to suit all tastes.
Tokyo Cheapo – Fantastic guide for people travelling to Tokyo on a budget.
Is it really safe in Tokyo?
I often get asked this by nervous first time visitors to Japan who have heard one story of Japan’s well regarded reputation as a safe city, but then another of dead bodies of foreigners appearing in rivers. Having returned from Tokyo recently, I can still state categorically that I feel far more comfortable walking the streets of Shinjuku at night than many parts of Perth’s suburbia. At the end of the day, Tokyo has a massive population. You’re hard pressed to find areas that are devoid of people which makes it hard for opportunistic crimes to occur. Having said that, if you go searching for trouble, then you can bet you can find it in Tokyo too. Just be sensible! In terms of safety, there’s nothing I would advise you do in Tokyo that I wouldn’t advise you to do anywhere else in the world.
I’m sure I have more things to add to my Tokyo Travel Tips post so I’ll update as I think of them. Please visit again :)