In July of 2014 I went to Tokyo. Before I went I asked friends and did lots of research online. My goals were to meet Japanese people, eat Japanese food (not only sushi), and explore the city. This post contains the answers from my friends and the results of my online research. The next post has pictures and stories from my trip.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Rachel talks about what NOT to do in Japan.
Tokyo Free Guide — You can sign up in advance for a free tour guide. I recommend you do this before you get to Japan. It takes some time for them to prepare. You tell them what you’re interested in doing and they match you with an English-speaking Japanese person who will show you around. I was matched with Kenichi Watanabe. He helped me get to the places I wanted to go. I recommend using Tokyo Free Guide!
Most people in Japan know written English, but aren’t able to understand spoken English. The best advice we got in Japan was to write our questions in English to present to people. It worked 90% of the time.
You want to get the Suica and N’EX deal at the airport when you land. The Suica & N’EX package is available only to foreign passport holders, and is a great deal to get you started with public transportation. Adults are 5,500 Yen and children 2,400 Yen for a round trip package that includes round trip transportation on the Narita Express to/from the airport, and some money on your Suica card.
Then we went to the station and he showed us how to purchase a Suica card, an invaluable smart card that can be used on the vast rail system and at convenience stores. Then he showed us how to understand the train timetables. English is not widely spoken in Japan so this was invaluable.
From: Discovering Tokyo with a Volunteer Tour Guide
In Tokyo, very few streets have names, which means addresses are indicated using the district (chōme), block number (ban) and building number… which does not necessarily depend on the house’s geographical location, but sometimes on its date of construction. Think of it this way: instead of following a line of numbers, you need to think in 3D.
From: 10 awesome things to do in Tokyo
You can use hotels.com to find place to stay in Toyko. Airbnb and Couchsurfing aren’t used in Tokyo. The home is viewed as a sacred place where only family and close friends are invited.
Look for 7-11, Japan Post, or Citibank ATMs if you want to withdraw cash.
Are there any must-do/see things there?: In Tokyo, every district has a purpose. Check out what districts are relevant to your interests, go there, and wander.
Osaka is less a city and more a city-sized mall.
It’s easy to get lost on the subway.
Izakayas are drinking establishments which also serve food. Usually people go here after work. The atmosphere is always happy and welcoming.
Izakaya book: Oshinbo
Remember the word “teishoku” which is like the daily special or set meal. It is often includes rice, miso soup, pickles, a main dish and a side dish or two.
Fresh supermarket food gets discounted after 7 PM (sometimes up to 50%).
Eat Bentos from the supermarket for dinner to save money.
Look for lunch specials. Make lunch your main meal as it’s usually cheaper than dinner.
WHAT TO DO AND WHERE TO GO
Find a cat bar (or an owl bar), just because…unless you’re allergic to cats. Shibuya and Shijuku-eki (stations) are hotspots for sure. Tsukiji fish market is a must-see. Go there at 4am and get on line to see the tuna auction. They only allow 120 tourists in and it fills up fast (3:30 is a safe bet). Golden Gai is great for bars. The Edo Museum is fabulous. It’s a little north of Ginza and Harajuku, two fashion hotspots that are a lot of fun to check out.
Go to the Harajuku district on a Sunday. You’ll see crazy fashion and find some good eats. Go to the Jingu Bridge next to the train station in Shibuya.
My absolute favourite place to go shopping is in the little laneways of Harajuku and despite the worldwide perception of the crazy fashion there, you can find some boutique-y gems.
From: My petite travel guide to Tokyo
Go to the Asakusa district for a very old Tokyo feel.
Asakusa neighborhood, Sumida River boat ride to Odaiba, Shibuya, and Edo-Tokyo Museum.
From: 8 things to do on your first trip to Tokyo
The best view over the city is easy to reach, and completely free: head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku (which, by the way, was designed as a futuristic version of… Notre-Dame de Paris) and take the lift to the 52th Floor.
Tripadvisor: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
View of Tokyo from the Mori Tower Skyscraper
Tripadvisor: Mori Tower
View at night from the Tokyo Skytree
Tokyo is the easiest place in Japan to navigate, since most people speak at least a little English. Also, the transport system is amazing, cheap, and conveniently easy (and bilingual). You will be able to find local maps of the major districts in Tokyo at tourist centres or your hotel.
Some of my favorite districts were:
* Shibuya (shopping & party) famous for the busy intersection just outside the station
* Odaiba (museums, halls, malls and a nice island to the chill on)
* Asakusa (old town)
* Akihabara (nerd/tech area) cool lit up at night and cheap technology
* Harajuku (cutesy shopping area) famous for maid cafes and dessert shops
* Roppongi (rich area) expensive but some nice things to see, and f
* Imperial Palace (the big island in the middle of the city)
* Mount Fuji (seen from Yokohama Tower)
Nakano station is just 18 minutes from Tokyo station on the JR express train, and there’s also a subway line running from that station, although it can be complicated trying to find out which track it runs on. Nakano itself is a lively neighborhood with a lot of fun spots (mostly izakaya and bars) but also the manga and anime-oriented shopping plaza called Nakano Broadway, just a few minutes north of the station.
TimeOut Tokyo: Nakano Broadway
Kitchen Town, Kappabashi Street
Japan Guide: Kitchen Town
Electronics shopping, arcades, and anime at Akihabara
WHAT AND WHERE TO EAT
Try any of these:
* Takoyaki (octopus in batter balls)
* Okonomiyaki (fish pancakes)
* Ramen (my favorite noodle soup)
* Sushi/sashimi (obviously)
* Izakaya (a type of restaurant where you order many small portions of food)
* Yakiniku (they serve raw meat and you have your own BBQ grill)
In terms of restaurants, I recommend going around Shinjuku Golden Gai area and popping into one of the local small places around there. Either that or wander around Takadanobaba. There are many cheap, delicious restaurants there.
Under Tokyo Station – First Avenue
Shinatatsu Ramen at the Shinagawa Station – (access it from outside the train station)
Dinner at the Pink Cow. The funkiest, coolest restaurant in Tokyo. I’m a fan since its Shibuya days (now in Roppongi).
My favorite snacks are Onigiris, the Japanese version of a sandwich. They come as triangles, circles or as a roll. Onigiri are made of rice with fish or other fillings, wrapped in seaweed. These cost roughly 100 – 150 Yen ($1 – 1.50 USD).
Coins Bar in Shibuya (all drinks and dishes cost just 315 Yen).
My favorite non-smoking restaurant is Gonpachi, in Ginza, in a building at the edge of it called The G-Zone. It’s a lot of fun and the food is great. It’s small plates so order a lot of different things to try.
2 places to eat sushi near Tsukiji Market (the lines can be very long!):
About $35 USD gets you a set menu of sushi that was simply amazing. I do believe it was a cash-only joint, so plan accordingly.
My favorite Japanese Tonkatsu restaurant is Tonki at Meguro which is close to Meguro station.
Uobei (conveyor belt-free sushi)
Popeye (craft brewery)
Seirinkan (steampunk themed pizza restaurant)