There is no place on earth like Tokyo. It’s at once homely and terrifying, fun and tiring, brilliant but oh so strange. It has every version of every type of Japanese food you can imagine: bowls of steaming ramen, deep fried pork cutlets, and the freshest sushi in the country. You can find anything to suit your needs here – from love hotels to gadgets that solve problems you didn’t know you had.
It’s a concrete jungle densely packed with people, but it’s also got little green pockets of nature if you ever wish to hide away from urbanisation. Like New York City, people say that you can live in Tokyo forever and still miss out on things. But whatever you do in your time there, it will always be worthwhile.
#1 Where To Stay
#2 How To Get Around
#3 What To Pack
#4 The City
#5 The Suburbs
#6 Take A Day Trip Here
#7 Go Here For A Breathtaking View
#8 Take A Hike
#9 Parks And Rec
#10 Where To Eat/Drink At 2AM
#11 Where To Shop For Bargains
#12 Locals Go Here For Breakfast
#13 Where To Have An Indulgent Night Out
#14 Worth The Hype
#15 Avoid It
#16 Don’t Leave Here Without…
Where To Stay
Where you stay in Tokyo depends very much on what you’re interested in. Budget options are available in most areas so think about what you’d like to do and see: Shinjuku and Shibuya are convenient for transportation around the city, Ueno is good for historic sights, Asakusa is traditional and unpretentious, and Ginza is nice if you’ve got a little extra cashola.
CHEAP AS CHIPS
If you’re after cheap accommodation and a very real Japanese experience, look no further than Khaosan Tokyo Ninja (2-5-1 Nihonbashi Bakurocho, Chuo). Khaosan owns a bunch of hostels scattered throughout Japan but this one has capsule-style beds. Climb into bed, slide your door closed and say sayonara to the outside world. Plus it has “Ninja” in the title. What more could you want?
Prices from: $27/night
WON’T BREAK THE BANK
Ryokan Sawanoya (2-3-11,Yanaka, Taito-Ku) is, by most people’s standards, fairly cheap for what you get. Live in a yukata and chat with other ryokan guests at the shared baths. Staff will wait on you hand and foot and can give you endless information about sights in Tokyo – if you ever want to go outside!
Prices from: $52/night
If you’re keen to seriously pamper yourself, Super Hotel Ueno (5-23-12 Ueno Taitou-ku) is the way to go. The staff provide excellent and attentive service – like everywhere else in Japan. Also there to fulfil all your needs are the hotel amenities, which include air purifiers and “healthy ion slippers”.
Prices from: $100/night
How To Get Around
You’ve probably already heard of Japan’s spectacularly convenient train system. Signs and ticket machines are in English and one-way tickets rarely cost more than ¥200 (around $2AUD). And if you’ve selected the wrong station by mistake, simply pay the difference at a Fare Adjustment machine when you get off.
Trains can be very confusing sometimes, with stations having multiple exits and certain train lines belonging to competing companies (forcing you to buy different tickets or do awkward transfers). The last service runs just before midnight and if you miss it you’ll have to wait until as late as 5:30am. It gets beyond crowded during peak hour. But you haven’t been to Tokyo if you haven’t had your face in someone’s armpit on the train!
There are a bunch of free shuttle services that can be handy if you’re low on coin. The Metro Link Nihonbashi links a bunch of shopping strips and malls together, while the Tokyo Bay Shuttle covers Odaiba. However, tourists don’t tend to enjoy the bus system as it can be confusing and it’s hard to find signs for it in English.
What To Pack
To be honest, there’s no must-haves to travel to Tokyo. If you’ve forgotten anything, you can buy it – in a newer cooler version with crazy patterns on it. But, of course, in order to buy things, you’ll need money. Most places in Tokyo will take credit cards but an ATM is never far away if you do need one.
You might want to carry a travel guide with some phrases if you don’t speak Japanese – not many locals do. This will also come in handy when you’re not sure about customs in certain areas or situations (for example, always remember to hand things like cash to service people with two hands).
If you plan on going to a few temples, bring shoes that you can slip on. Temples require you to leave your shoes at the entrance so it’s best not to spend too much time taking them off!
Also be warned that Tokyo can occasionally snow during winter (November – January). Bring a snow jacket and a beanie if you plan on going in the colder months and you should be sweet.
Tokyo’s sprawling city has a population of more than 13 million. It’s huge. There’s no one city “centre”, as such, but the Shibuya “scramble” gives you a pretty good idea of what most of Tokyo is like: bustling, exciting, filled with bright lights and loud noises. Watch it from the top floor of the Starbucks – it’s amazing. Plus it’s from Lost In Translation so you know you already want to go there.
Across the city there’s Asakusa, home of Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s most prominent temple. The Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre is a hub for information about Tokyo. It’s also a grand piece of architecture, and its top floor grants you beautiful views of the city.
For nightlife, head out to Shibuya, Shinjuku or – if you’re in the mood for something more hardcore – Roppongi.
Tip: Most food places in the city close between 2pm and 5pm after lunch, while the kitchen prepares for dinner. If you’re peckish during these hours, hit up the bento section at your local konbini.
Situated on a man-made island south of the city, Odaiba is like Tokyo but in a parallel universe. Architectural oddities housing technological works (such as the Fuji TV Building and the Telecom Centre) are reminisce of central Tokyo. But the vibe is much slower and the people are sparse (well, as sparse as they can be). It’s a fun trip on the Yurikamome monorail, which drives itself in between skyscrapers before heading over the water.
Yokohama is not so much a suburb as a city within the Greater Tokyo area. It’s similar to Odaiba in that the people traffic isn’t as intense and it’s on the water. But it also has gems of its own, including the !!! CUPNOODLES MUSEUM (believe it) and the Tattoo Museum – which provides an insight into tattoo culture in Japan and the reasons for its taboo.
Take A Day Trip Here
Thanks to the wonders of the shinkansen, you can take day trips to most other places in Japan. Hakone is a great day trip if you’re eager to get out of the concrete jungle. Here you’ll find peace in the bucolic scenery and wide array of onsen. You can buy and eat eggs cooked in onsen water. There are also shops selling Japanese antiques, volcanoes with funny smells, and hiking trails a-plenty. Oh, and cable cars serve as public transport. Cable cars! Avoid it on weekends as it can get super crowded with locals.
Go Here For A Breathtaking View
Eiffel Tower loyals might find it garish, but the Tokyo Tower offers supreme views of the city, especially at night. Modelled on its Parisian counterpart, the building was established in 1958 and remained the tallest tower in Tokyo for 50 years after that, when Tokyo Skytree opened. Tokyo Tower is much shorter in comparison but is in a more central location, offering better views all around. It’s also a bonus for people who think it’s ugly – if you’re on it you can’t see it!
Take A Hike
When you’re spending a lot of time in Tokyo, you want to take time out to see nature. Fuji Five Lakes is ideal for this. You can hike around the base of Mt Fuji, and (weather permitting) you may even see Fuji in all its snow-topped glory. Restaurants in the area serve hōtō, hand-cut noodles served in miso soup – a local specialty.
Parks And Rec
Todoroki Valley is about as green as you can get without leaving the city. The walking trail going through it is about one kilometre long and filled with a range of Japanese flora. Yoyogi Kōen is a beauty year-round, with pink from the cherry trees in spring and gold from the ginko trees in autumn. Shinjuku Gyoen is popular for any outdoor activity: jogging, picnicking, or just taking a stroll. In spring it can get busy as people crowd to see the cherry blossoms.
Where To Eat/Drink At 2am
Among the seedy bars and love hotels of Kabukicho, Nagi offers steaming hot ramen made to order all night long. Just select your desired ramen from the vending machine, grab your ticket and join the perpetual queue. Harajuku Gyoza Ro makes the best gyoza dumplings you’ll ever try – in any flavour combination, at any time before 4:30am. Marzac is a great izakaya place to grab some nibbles as late as 4am. The food is simple and delicious, and the wine list extensive.
Stay upright as you drink at Moto, a standing bar with a full cellar of sake and a wall of famous sumo wrestlers’ pictures and autographs. If you’re after a very ~weird~ Japanese experience, head to Kagaya, where you’ll be waited on by singing and dancing hand puppets. When you’re ready to go clubbing, look no further than Gas Panic (not to be confused with the Roppongi Gas Panic, which you might want to avoid). Free entry, happy hour every day from 6pm to 10pm. Plus you can rent a locker for ¥100 to keep your coats while you party until the wee hours of the morn.
#1 Nagi (1-1-10 Kabukicho, Shinjuku)
#2 Harajuku Gyoza Ro (6-2-4 Jinguumae, Shibuya-ku)
#3 Marzac (2F Luca Building, 2-2-3, Shibuya)
#4 Moto (Hakuho Bldg. B1F, 5-17-11 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku)
#5 Kagaya (Hanasada Building B1, 2-15-12 Shinbashi, Minato-ku)
#6 Gas Panic (B1F, 21-7 Udagawacho, Shibuya)
Where To Shop For Bargains
Flea markets take place most weekends in various parks throughout Tokyo, including the ever-popular Oi Racetrack Flea Market. If you’re after cheap books in English, Book Off is for you. There’s a few dotted around Tokyo but one of the best ones is in Itabashi. Don Quijote is your one stop shop for anything cheap and weird (think two dollar stores on a sugar high). Grab a discounted dinner to go at a depachika (department store basement), where prices at cut after 5pm. Isetan and Mistukoshi are fab depachika.
#1 Oi Racetrack Flea Market (Oi Racetrack, Shinagawa)
#2 Book Off Itabashi (1 Chome−22−2, Akatsukashinmachi, Itabashi)
#3 Don Quijote Shinjuku (1-16-5 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku)
#4 Isetan (3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku)
#5 Mistukoshi (4-6-16 Ginza)
Locals Go Here For Breakfast
It can be extremely hard to find breakfast in Japan as it’s common for locals to rush to work having eaten very little, or not at all.
If you’re staying at a ryokan they’ll probably serve a traditional Japanese breakfast, which is a feast of little dishes such as miso soup, tofu, rice, pickles, tamagoyaki (Japanese-style omelette), and broiled salmon. Try it at Sawanoya or Wakana, but they’re all good.
If you’re up early, try going to Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world. Here, it’s sushi for breakfast erryday: deliciously fresh raw fish with a side of miso soup. If you get there before 5am you might be lucky enough to see the tuna auction, where people bid for fish – but it’s a long wait. Keep in mind: the Japanese government plans to close the market and move it in 2016.
#1 Sawanoya (2-3-11,Yanaka, Taito-Ku)
#2 Wakana (4-7 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku)
#3 Tsukiji Fish Market (5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo)
#4 Yoshinoya Yurakucho (2-9-18, Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku)
#5 Mister Donut Shinjuku (1 Chome-2-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku)
Where To Have An Indulgent Night Out
Get your Japan glam on by shopping at Roppongi Hills – a mini shopping town in the heart of this otherwise grungy neighbourhood. Nearby pay a visit to Kenji Suzuki to get your hair done. Kenji speaks fluent English, and he’s been in the biz for more than 20 years in Japan and abroad. Whatever you ask for, he can do it!
If fancy cocktail bars are what you’re after, then Ginza is your best friend. It’s the more ritzy part of town, filled with boutique shops and fine dining.
Star Bar’s exclusivity starts before you get in – no one is allowed in until a seat is vacated, and there aren’t many to begin with. If you can’t be bothered waiting there, about 10 minutes’ walk away is Bar High Five, owned by Star Bar’s former head bartender. There’s no menu, but tell the staff what flavours you like and they’ll whip something amazing up for you. If you want to see award-winning bartending choreography in action, check out Bar Tender, where “magician of colour” Kazuo Uyeda has invented the “hard shake” technique for mixing cocktails with flair.
#1 Kenji Suzuki (4F, 1-8-13, Azabujuban, Minato-ku)
#2 Star Bar (1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo)
#3 Bar High Five (No.26 Polestar Building, 4F, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo)
#4 Bar Tender (Ginza Noh Theatre Bldg. 5F, 6-5-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku)
Worth The Hype
Here in Australia, we think of karaoke as the random thing you do at 2am when you’ve built up enough confidence to belt out some good ‘80s ballads. In Japan (as in many other Asian countries), it’s an enjoyable hobby for all ages, with karaoke parlours opening as early as 11am.
At various karaoke joints you can pay by the hour, with plans including all-you-can-eat/drink too. Gobble down mouthfuls of sushi in between verses of ‘I Will Always Love You’ at Festa Iikura, which serves platters with every three-hour karaoke session. They give you free costumes to play with too – in case the singing isn’t enough. If you want to go even wackier, Lovenet has 25 karaoke rooms, all with a different theme. Its most outlandish is the Aqua Suite, where you can sing while sitting in a giant jacuzzi (don’t worry – they’ll lend you the swimmers). Karaoke Kan is another gem from Lost In Translation. It’s more low-key, but the fun is ordering drinks via an intercom system.
If anyone told you there was an all-you-can-drink place you’d probably make a beeline for it, right? Nomihodai are just that. It can be a good deal with lots of savings, but most places are keen to take advantage of foreigners – unless your Japanese is sugoi! Prices can change multiple times in the night – they also tend to differ between the genders. If you do end up at a nomidhodai, I’d suggest you keep an eye on the prices of what you’re drinking – but that’s not always appealing when you’re trying to have a fun night out!
Don’t Leave Here Without…
Picking up some sort of gadget or food that doesn’t exist back home. Spend a bit of time in Bic Camera (stores all over Tokyo) finding cool headphones, a new hair curler, or unnecessary SD card holders – all from the biggest range of colours and sizes you’ll ever see. Grab a bunch of sweet (or savoury or some other flavour) treats from a konbini.
(Lead image: Luke Ma/Flickr)