Tokyo 101: The beginner's guide for first-time tourists to Japan's megalopolis.
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INTRODUCTION: If you’re heading to Japan chances are you are heading to Tokyo (or will end up there). Tokyo is Japan’s soul and pulse. Nothing in the country quite compares except for maybe Kyoto, but Kyoto might come off as too small, conservative, and provincial despite its wealth of shrines, temples, and culture. Back to Tokyo: It’s Japan’s capital and it's the largest by fathoms. There is no beginning and no end. It can overwhelm the first time foreign visitor, or gaijin. A couple things about Tokyo that might surprise you: there is no downtown. Tokyo is a collection of various wards and sub-wards grafted together each with their unique qualities and character. Secondly, there is little sense of history in the city mostly because its been scorched by fires, leveled by earthquakes, scorched again by fires resulting from earthquakes, and finally flattened by air raids during World War II. Few buildings that exist can be deemed as historical. What was burned or bombed was left to the land developer. The culture, however, is everywhere.
GETTING-ORIENTED. If you fly into Narita Airport, the country’s busiest international hub, you’ll need to get transportation to Tokyo some thirty miles away. Before you do that, you’ll have to get out of Narita, which is an intrinsically confusing and disorganized mess. The reason for this is that it was built in the 1960s and built to handle 13 million annual passengers. Today it handles well over 30 million annually. You’ll see early on that it is a cut and paste job, much like JFK, with patches of construction and planning to offset constantly expanding needs. The consolation is that there are plenty of information kiosks and booths to help guide the way. Signs are also in English. Head for the trains or city buses, not the taxis, which can be exorbitant in Japan. The buses and trains will get you to Tokyo for about 20 USD. Haneda Airport: Much closer to Tokyo, Haneda actually falls inside the city limits of Tokyo unlike Narita. If you are on charter flight or a domestic flight from somewhere else in Japan, chances are you’ll arrive here. That’s a good thing. Transportation by train is very convenient and much closer to central Tokyo.
Apartment rental: This might be a good option if you plan to stay a while. Many are advertised by travel agencies or found by doing websearches. Fully furnished you’ll need to clean up after yourself. The Japanese are clean, tidy, and neat. Anything less is unacceptable.
Japanese-style lodging: Ryokan are family run Japanese style inns. You will sleep on tatami mats, but they are comfortable. Minshukus are Japanese style bed and breakfasts. These inns are low to moderate in price.
Capsule hotels: a great way to experience Japan at its most quirky. These coffin-like sleeping chambers are more comfortable than you would think if you can handle the claustrophobia.
Budget: Hostels and dormitories for budget travelers. Youth hostels can be very comfortable so don’t hesitate if you need a place to crash and don’t want to splurge. They will be crowded so plan ahead.
Buddhist Monasteries: You’ll probably find these farther out, closer to the edges of Tokyo, if at all, but Buddhist monasteries can cook up a unique place to stay for cheap. It’s a great cultural experience too and the monks are a friendly bunch.
Love hotels: Discretion is what these places are all about. If you can tolerate the tawdry and gaudy these places are a cheap option.
Business: All the amenities you would expect but prices are moderate to high, running 150 USD per night at the low end.
Western: Tokyo is well represented by almost all major western deluxe and luxurious hotel chains. You’ll pay premium.
On-the-go: If you are out of luck and travelling between major cities, lets say Tokyo and Osaka, many bus companies depart at 10 pm or later and arrive at 6 am in Osaka. They are very comfortable for sleeping. Shinjuku has a big bus depot whose lines serves cities to the southwest (Osaka, Nagoya). If you can't find reasonable lodging and you are going to travel anyway doing it at night will save you in expense and time.
Park bench: Not recommended, but if you have to do it, chances are you’ll wake up completely intact and won’t be any less poor.
Akihabara. Located in Tokyo’s Chiyoda-ku, Akihabara is well known for its electronics, anime, manga, video games and its maid cafes, a somewhat kinky invention of having waitresses serve you in full regalia. You won’t get a “server” to wait on you in on of these places. Only in Japan, yet the trend has already spread to other countries including some in Europe.
Asakusa. Pronounced AH-SEX-AH in case you were wondering. Known for its temple complex and shopping, Asakusa also sits on the Sumida River and is a good place to catch a river cruise. Traditionally it’s the city’s geisha district too with more than 40 still working at the time of writing. Festivals are also part of the AH-SEX-AH scene.
Ginza. Ginza is in the Chuo-ku of Tokyo and about the closest thing the city has to a downtown. It’s part business district, but mostly high end shopping, coffee houses as well as the home of the city’s Kabuki theater.
Nihonbashi: One of the city's financial districts which grew up around a bridge in place since the 17th century. This is where you might find some of the city's older buildings, dating from the early twentieth century. That's old for Tokyo. It is also home to the city's kilometer zero marker.
Roppongi. Roppongi is located in the Minato-ku section of Tokyo and is interesting clash of nightclubs and foreign embassies one of which is that of the United States. It’s here you come to party and then report lost and stolen passports at the same time.
Ryogoku/Sumidi-ku. If you want to watch Japan’s national sport live, sumo wrestling, you can do this in Sumida-ku. You’ll probably have to wait in line for tickets which can be costly depending upon where you want to sit. Definitely not recommended for the budget traveler. Of the six yearly national tournaments, three are held here. Sumo central.
Shibuya. More shopping, more transportation hubs, more skyscrapers. What more can be said? Check out the insane Shibuya Crossing and the statue of the loyal dog outside the station, Hachiko, and the Meiji Shrine. Shibuya is in Tokyo but technically an independent ward with its own city council.
Shinjuku. This is Tokyo’s Manhattan, or financial section with tall buildings, or at least the most prominent. Here you’ll find a collection of the tallest buildings in the city intermingled with its famous electronic shops. It might be a good price to look for bargain cameras. The Tokyo city hall, designed after Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is located here too. There is a sleaze factor here too because of the red-light districts that serves the business men.
Tokyo Dome. If you are a baseball fan this is the place and the home stadium of the Yomuri Giants. The dome, located in the Bunkyo-ward, also hosts the country’s baseball hall of fame. Seating capacity is 55,000.
Tokyo Imperial Palace. While you are not allowed to go into the palace, you can walk the expanse of gardens around it and get good views of Ginza and Japan’s National Diet. The cherry blossoms are also nice in season. The walled moats surrounding the palace grounds are an interesting reminder of the city’s history, which is surprisingly absent in this much made-over national capital. It is still the official working residence of the Emperor of Japan, the country’s head of state. The National Diet, the country's head of government headquarters, sits nearby and looks down into the Palace grounds.
Tokyo Skytree. Tokyo and Japan’s tallest building since 2010 and slightly better taste than the older Tokyo Tower, the Tokyo Skytree is 634 meters tall (2,080 feet) and the world’s second tallest structure. Rising above Sumida-ku, the Skytree’s top floor can take visitor’s 451 meters (1,480 feet) above street level.
Tokyo Tower. This monolithic eye soar was completed in 1958 and stands 333 meters (1,093’) in its red and white candy-cane splendor. Although taller than the tower it’s meant to mimic, Paris’ Eiffel, it’s a poor attempt to reinvent the wheel. Views are good however if the weather permits.
Tuskiji fish market. Now with more limited access and hours, the famous fish market might not be as high on the list but it is the world’s largest fish and seafood market and wholesaler.
Ueno Park. The collection of national museums and the city zoo makes this a good place to visit if you have a little more time and want to explore a deeper layer of the city. Historically it’s the city’s first public park founded in 1873 and modeled after those in the west to provide an oasis in an urban environment. It’s also a great place to view cherry blossoms in season.
Yoyogi Park. Site of the 1964 Summer Olympics, Yoyogi is another one of Tokyo’s nice park spaces built on the site of a former U.S. Army training base. Tokyo is also set to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games once again.
Kamakura. Famous for it’s great Daibutsu, Kamakura is known for its temples and it’s a nice getaway. It sits on the Pacific Ocean and has a decent sandy beach if you like the shore. Try some surfing too.
Mount Fuji. If you visit Tokyo in winter you might see this near perfect cone on the city’s southern horizon. Winter weather is the clearest but it’s only open for hiking in July and August when the weather is the haziest and cloudiest. You can hike it from different approaches and the mountain is so overdeveloped with people that if you reach the summit you’ll wonder if you’ve just arrived at a high elevation tourist bazaar.
Nikko. This is the best place in greater Tokyo if you want to see a nice collections of shrines and temples. It’s up in the mountains so there are waterfalls too. You may even spot the Japanese macaque along the roadsides.
Tokyo Disneyland. Simply put, it’s a concrete oasis. Horrendously crowded, the world’s most crowded and heavily visited theme park and not even in Tokyo proper. Not even in Tokyo prefecture. Go at your own risk of riding something once or twice. It’s just not worth it unless you have a lot of time and money to needlessly waste.
Yokohama. This is Japan’s second largest city by population and just southwest of Tokyo and easily accessed by train or subway line. Check out the waterfront and Chinatown, Japan’s largest.
DANGERS-AND-SAFETY-CONCERNS. Tokyo is a very safe city for its size and that is a reflection of Japan in general. There are a few concerns; ladies – watch your ass - perverts who like to grope on crowded subways – especially western or foreign women. The biggest hazard on the street is trying to walk amongst millions of other elbows – Tokyo is crowded! Drunken salarymen can get obnoxious but usually rowdiness is not an issue. Japanese aren’t that good at English in general, but many like to practice. If some Japanese appear too shy to speak, cold or hostile, especially an occasional older male, just move on to the next person if you require help. Many like to practice English and can be very helpful. Finally, stay away from train tracks during crowd surges while in the Metro.
EATING. Local ramen shops are a good place to experience the three Japanese noodle staples: ramen, soba, and udon. The convenience stores know as konbeni have cheap things to eat such as sushi wraps for just over 100 yen. One-hundred yens stores, the Japanese equivalent of dollar stores, have proliferated since the great Japanese recession began in the early 1990s. They are also a good place to look for cheap snacks. McDonalds also have 100 yen menus, again like their US counterpart’s dollar menus, and it’s not uncommon to see locals ordering 5 or more hambagas to eat on the cheap. Don’t forget to try miso soup in any local restaurant – a national favorite.
METRO TRANSPORT: The Tokyo Metro/subway is extremely comprehensive. The Metro, a mix of underground and above ground, can get you within striking distance of just about anywhere you want to go in the city. Trains and subways stop running at midnight and don’t resume until after 5 am. Plan accordingly, especially if you plan to do the bar-club scene. It’s wise to get a daily pass to save money as subway fare can add up fast. If you are staying longer, you can get passes for longer durations. Keep quiet on trains or buses – that’s what they do. Loud-mouth gaijins give all foreigners a bad impression. Finally, stay away from the train tracks, especially during crowd surges.
MONEY. Japan’s official currency is the Yen. Coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 Yen symbolized by ¥. Bills come in denominations of 1000, 2000 (uncommon), 5000 and 10,000. There are approximately 100 yen to one US dollar depending upon how it’s trading. Japan is a cash culture. If you are on a budget you can get by on 5000 yen per day (about 50 USD) not factoring your transportation and lodging costs.
SHOPPING. Japan has a reputation for being expensive and it is, but stores typically have great markdowns and sales. Bring cash as credit and debit cards aren’t typically used in Japan. It’s a cash-based culture with the exception of major international hotel chains. Asakusa, Ginza, Roppongi, and Shinkuku are all known for shopping and specialize in different merchandise. Any chain department store in Tokyo is a good place to start especially Justco and Tobu. Many are accessed from entrances to the train and subway stations. Need something on the cheap? Try the 100 Yen stores which popped up during the 1990s recession.
WHEN-TO-GO (WEATHER & CLIMATE). Avoid Tokyo in the summer if possible. It’s not taboo but the climate can be excessively hot and humid. The off season is the best: either spring or fall. Winters aren’t a bad time to go for these reasons: the weather is clearest and it’s not especially freezing. Tokyo is tempered by its proximity to the Pacific, so the winter climate is similar to that of Seattle’s. Fall can have an occasional typhoon or the remnant of a tropical storm blowing through, so try to go in the spring if you have the flexibility. The cherry blossoms, if timed right, are a bonus this time of year. Trying to avoid the crowds? Won’t happen in Tokyo so if that’s a consideration it’s better to consider your preference for weather.
EARTHQUAKES & TYPHOONS. These occur with regularity in Tokyo except only the latter are forecasted. Typhoons are at least seasonal and occur in late summer and as late as November. If you feel everything moving, get under something sturdy if you can. Then start praying.
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