Tokyo Travel Tips: What to See, Bring and Experience
I always see tons of posts on blogs and Pinterest, and Tumblr about Japan travel tips or specifically Kyoto or Osaka, or they're specifically for Tokyo's various districts (Akihabara, Shibuya, etc.) but it's tough finding some that are focused on Tokyo!
My first trip to Tokyo in 2014 was just that; we only stayed in Tokyo. You need about two full weeks to explore the city, and even then you'll still feel a little empty cause you can't just stay there forever!!! My husband and I went for six full days, and we didn't want to leave. So here are some tips from things I learned before, during and after our trip to Tokyo, especially now that I'm planning another trip for this year!!!
If you're mostly staying in Tokyo with day trips to Yokohama or Chiba, no more than an hour or so away, the JR Pass really isn't worth your while. A 7-day JR Pass is $250, but when I did the math for our one week trip, our train trips would only cost us about $60 OUR WHOLE STAY if we stuck to our plan. We ended up only needing to add about ¥1000 ($10), to our train passes for our extra trips to Harajuku and Shibuya.
See? ONE train ride is 140¥ (roughly $1.50)
We got Suica passes instead, which are $5 and reloadable at any train station. Plus you can get your names printed on them as fun souvenirs OR return them and get your $5 deposit back! LUCKILY, Google maps can configure your destinations AND cost for you! Google maps was my life saver!!
ALSO, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND, you stay at a hotel that is near a station on the Yamanote Line. The Yamanote line connects Shibuya, Harajuku, Ikebukuro, Hamamatsucho, Shinjuku, Meguro, pretty much ANY place you'd want to visit in Tokyo. It's a loop line, meaning it goes in a huge circle all around Tokyo and easily connects to other lines as well. My husband and I stayed right near Meguro Station, which is a calm, easy station that helped me learn a lot without getting too overwhelmed my first time learning the train system.
See? You'll want to stay somewhere near this green line! This train ride is 200¥.
ALSO, FOR DIRE EMERGENCIES, write down all your suspected routes THERE AND BACK TO YOUR HOTEL in a tiny notebook! JUST IN CASE you're lost, wifi is out and your phone dies, you have a written version of where you need to go. Sounds like an ordeal but I ended up needing it TWICE while I was there and it saved me many could be panicked moments AND a few moments where I didn't need it at all cause I remembered from writing it down. I highly suggest at minimum, especially for longer trips like Odaiba, Tokyo Disney and Yokohama, since you'll be so far away from the city center or trips where you're getting on and off at two or more different stations.
I used many things to figure out what I wanted to do, everything from Pinterest to Instagram to Tumblr and many many Japan guide sites. The easiest way I organized everything was I assigned activities to the neighborhood/district. For example, if I wanted to go to the Tokyo Skytree and Sensoji Temple, I'd list them under Asakusa district.
Then closer to my leaving date, I'd go through every store and activity I wanted to go to or visit and see when things are open or closed, store times and busy days. For example, most of the museums in Ueno Park are closed on Monday and busy on weekends so I would put Ueno on a Wednesday. Tokyo Disney is open till midnight, but the last train to Tokyo is 11:30 PM, so make sure to double check EVERYTHING.
I also would leave a list aside for extra things just in case we had a little downtime. That included food or snacks I wanted to try, parks and gardens, and shrines. Things you can squeeze into your day while you're there! Make sure to note what area it's in so you don't go to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo even though you're all the way in Nakano! You'll turn a 25-30 minute adventure into more than an hour treck!
Since I planned most of the trip, I made my husband in charge of the language part. My husband and I have been big anime fans, so we have a good understanding of fluctuations and gestures that we winged it for the most part. We also had the basics down, which I suggest you learn as the bare minimum. In Tokyo, most people speak at least a little English. If you try and communicate in Japanese even a little bit, they'll be polite to you!
We had such a good experience with everyone we spoke to! One BIG help: One Piece. If you don't know it or haven't heard of it, you will when you go. One Piece is THE most popular anime in Japan. I cannot TELL YOU how many people would start talking to me about One Piece once I pulled out my One Piece wallet to pay.
I bought a few shirts at ListenFlavor, and while the shop girl didn't speak much English, she was able to judge my size and helped me find what I was looking for. We were somehow laughing together trying to find this shirt and running around the shop. Once we found it, she started to ring up my purchase and saw my wallet and got SO excited and even in broken English told me Chopper is her favorite character. I told her mine was Zoro! Even if you aren't usually interested in anime, I highly recommend watching a few episodes so you can get a feel for what a majority of the culture is interested in. Who knows, you may even become a die hard fan. I had many other great interactions while I was there, and I'm not even fluent in the language. But the main rule is, if you're nice and you try, you will get the same respect in return.
WORDS I RECOMMEND AT THE BARE MINIMUM:
Sumimasen (Sue-Me-Mah-Sen) Excuse Me.
We used this on repeat while on crowded trains. It's basically a very light apology.
We used this a lot too. There are often crowded trains.
Use this ALL THE TIME. If they gave me information or helped with something I even did a small bow, nothing extreme just a quick show of respect. It might be a little much, but I'd rather be overly respectful than disrespectful!!
Hai and Ie (h-eye and ee-eh)
Yes and No!
Might as well know these two, just in case to need some good affirming words.
1-10 - NUMBERS
learn AT LEAST 1 though 10! I didn't use more than 3 as there was only 2 of us and you CAN use your fingers.
A lot of other guides recommended words like toilet but honestly we didn't have a single problem finding a bathroom. Worst comes to worst, there's ALWAYS bathrooms in the train stations. So you might have to backtrack but how bad do you have to pee?!
YOU MUST GO HERE:
Go to fucking Shibuya!!!
Shibuya is my husband and I's favorite place on the whole planet. I got the coordinates for Shibuya Station tattooed on my ankle. It's beautiful, it's busy, it's fantastic, we love it. You have to at least try out the giant street crossing AND go to Hoshino Coffee and get coffee and a high rise pancake and watch the street crossing scramble.
Inokashira Park/Studio Ghibli Museum!!
Inokashira Park is a beautiful, huge park that looks like it's from right out of a Ghibli movie. We walked through the whole park where there's a lake with boats, beautiful trees and luckily when we went there was an art festival. And I was at the Ghibli Museum for all of 10 minutes before it totally changed my life. AND get the banana ice cream at the cafe!!
Go to ANY Shrine, it's truly a beautiful experience. We went to Zojo-Ji Shrine near Tokyo Tower and it was absolutely mesmerizing. There's such a light, wonderful feeling even just walking by them. Just make sure to be respectful, don't take too many photos and be mindful that you're in a spiritual place.
TAKE WITH YOU:
EConnect - make sure to get portable wifi or SIM card. Look up and see which device or service works best for you. I used EConnect's wifi devices as a way to text my friends using the Line app and keep everyone updated on Facebook and more importantly use Google Maps when I got lost.
Backpack - I had a crossbody purse and after day three it was a nightmare I wish I had brought a small backpack instead. I learned my lesson.
Shoes with grip - I made a grave error wearing my Toms flat shoes most of the time. They have NO grip and in Omotesando (near Harajuku) there's a shopping street that's a polished stone, and it was raining, and I'll be real, I almost died.
Large Coin Purse - so all of their money 500¥ ($5) and smaller is in coins. Luckily my wallet essentially was a giant coin purse because at one point I probably had about two pounds of coins I swear. Also luckily, my husband played a lot of arcade games.
Portable Phone Charger - DO IT. Don't be a dumb-dumb!! And bring the charger for your wifi connect too!!
PHEW, I read this to my husband, and he said "goddamn." I don't know if that's good or bad. I'll be adding to this series as I'm currently planning my trip for this year and have TONS more tips for more specific things like Tokyo Disney and the Ghibli Museum!!