Tokyo, with a population of roughly 35 million, can be a dizzying, daunting experience for the first time – but with a few tips you can get the best from your trip.
It’s a city where you can find the traditional mixed with the hyper-neon metropolis of your dreams – and with the Olympics coming up it’s been working hard to make it a tourist paradise.
But, it can still feel like it's all a bit much, especially if it’s your first visit – so here are some tips to get the most out of your Tokyo experience.
“Chikaku ni ATM wa arimasu ka?”
The above phrase is going to be very useful. Despite its reputation as a technological wonderland (some of it well-earned) you’ll find that Japan is largely a cash society. That means you’ll be hitting an ATM more often than you think.
There’s no need to worry though, as most convenience stores have an ATM inside with English prompts – and there are often two convenience stores on the same block.
Onigiri is bae
Because of that concentration of conbini (think 7/11, Family Mart and Lawson), you’ll find that the food within is unlike any convenience store you’ve ever had – in the sense that it’s edible and even downright tasty. Fresh salads, cute sandwiches and delicious treats can be bought on a shoestring budget.
Make sure you try lots of things, but special mention goes to onigiri – which is a rice ball filled with various fillings, all wrapped in a crunchy seaweed exterior. They’ll change your life, and given they're about ¥100, there should always be a couple in your backpack before you head out on a days’ adventure.
Vending machines are (virtually) everywhere
You may have heard that vending machines are everywhere, but they are everywhere. They deal in hot drinks, cold drinks and snacks – often from the same machine. A hot Boss coffee can be a lifesaver on a cold morning (if not a touch sweet), and they’re personally endorsed by Tommy-Lee Jones and he hasn’t steered me wrong yet.
They’re also very useful for getting rid of the ridiculous amount of coins you’ll be accumulating, as there’s no note denomination below ¥1000.
Google Maps is going to be your friend
There are lot of apps available for download to help plan your way around Japan and navigate the complex (it’s actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it) Metro system.
But, stick with Google Maps. It will give you great directions (even underground!) and train timetables are updated in real-time. If you’re looking for something in particular, Google Maps is also great at translating complex Japanese addresses into a place you can find easily.
You’ll learn why the streets are so clean
The first thing you should do when you roll into Tokyo Station is go outside – and then first thing you’ll notice is that the streets are extremely clean.
You’ll learn that there are two main reasons for this:
The first is that people don’t eat or drink while walking. If you get something from a vending machine or a convenience store and you must eat immediately, the polite thing to do is prop yourself next to the machine or store and eat there.
Secondly, the Japanese have recycling down. It’s a source of pride. But it means that there are very few general trash bins around, so you’ll need to carry your trash with you and sort it into plastic, trash, and glass when you get back to base.
Robot Restaurant is a tourist trap, but...
Robot Restaurant is designed to wring every dollar out of tourists, and you just need to go. For all the flashy gimmickry, there is genuinely nothing like Robot Restaurant on the planet. You’re encouraged to scream, shout, take all the photos you want and generally go crazy.
And even the most cynical of people can’t help but buy into the crazy cavalcade of hypercolour and dazzling beats – so you will generally go a bit nuts. You won’t need to go again after you go the first time, but you do need to go at least once.
The JR pass is handy in Tokyo too!
The JR pass and whether it’s worth it is often discussed when it comes to the Shinkansen system, but what goes under-appreciated is that it’s useful in Tokyo and other big cities as well. JR has several big lines which will take you around cities to most of the tourist spots you’ll want to get to during your first trip to Japan.
When you enter the JR section of train stations, there’ll be a window to the side of the gates. Show the attendant at this window your JR pass and they’ll wave you through. Do the same on the other side, and (and long as you've stuck to JR lines) you’ve just got a free trip.
Know your exits
Speaking of train stations, they can be huge – and I mean huge. They can extend into underground shopping malls, which is great, but it means you’ll need the right exit. Because they’re so big, if you get out at the wrong exit it can take you a 10-15 minute walk to get to the right one.
Luckily, a lot of train stations will have signs up indicating nearby landmarks and attractions and which exit to take to get to them. This can be a bit confusing the first day you’re in Tokyo, but you’ll quickly click into the system.
Get to temples early, and I mean early
Most people think of Japanese temples and associated gardens as serene and altogether Zen experiences.
They are – if you get there early enough. While some smaller temples can be quite serene at most times of days, by 10am most major temples can be overrun by tourists just like you. So, if you’re thinking of hitting up Meiji Shrine and the nearby gardens, grab a coffee and get an early start.
You’ll learn about the Ghibli Museum booking system
A lot of people are inspired to visit Tokyo to visit the Ghibli Museum, and it’s totally worth it. The little details, such as a recreation of Hayao Miyazaki’s study make the experience great.
But the museum only releases a select number of tickets to avoid overcrowding. They don’t allow you to take photos inside either, so it’s all about curating a great experience for visitors.
You’ll need to book three months in advance, such is the demand for tickets. There’s no rolling up on the day and getting a golden ticket. I used JTB Travel to book my ticket, but let your magical Google machine aid you in your quest.
So, did you find these tips useful? If you’re a seasoned traveler, do you have any tips to help others? Let us know in the comment section below.