Later this year I’ll be visiting Tokyo for the first time. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan and finally I’ve lined things up for it to happen. Yay.

In doing research and reading up on the city I find, for the first time, I’m overwhelmed. I’m very well traveled, love cities and public transportation, but I’m struggling to figure out what neighborhood to stay in, as well as what to expect in terms of getting around without speaking any Japanese. I’m considering hiring a guide for the first day to accelerate getting over the basics of getting around and how things work.

I don’t need to stay in the center of nightlife, but do love being able to walk to interesting neighborhoods, streets, and restaurants.

If you’re a local or you’ve been there recently, any advice welcome.  Thanks.

  • This site is powered with the magic of space age email to send my best posts to you each month. No hassle, no spam, no fuss. (privacy policy enforced by my Rotweiller)

You Will Like These:

24 Responses to “Advice on visiting Tokyo for first time?”

  1. Len |

    Scott, I’ve been out to Tokyo a few times. Always for work – unfortunately was never able to tack on more than a weekend to explore the city.

    I used the subway and while it was a bit intimidating at first I found I could get around – in the busier stations I found there was staff who could speak some English.

    Actually my experience in Tokyo made me say that I knew what it was like to be functionally illiterate. I knew how to get around but I could not actually read anything (apart from the exit symbol – looks like an Atari race car from the 1980′s).

    Hiring a guide sounds like a good idea – especially if you have specific items on your agenda. Ask them to take you to an authentic yakitori bar. That and a good place for sushi (obviously).

    I always stayed in Ebisu – but this was because that is where my work was. It’s not in the heart of the city but I liked the location.

    Carry a camera and watch out for the electric lavatories…

    enjoy!

    Reply
  2. Kris Morgan |

    Scott, glad you’re getting to go! Going to Tokyo was a lifelong dream of mine, and I finally got to make the trek last year. Stayed in Tokyo about 6 weeks. I echo what Len said about the change in perspective, so many good cultural insights to be gained just from walking around.

    I initially tried to find cool stuff via the web, but honestly there is so much to see just from walking around.

    Unless you love crowds, don’t stay in largely populated areas like Shibuya. It can be overwhelming. My wife and I stayed in a suburb called Sangen-jaya, a 10-minute subway ride from Shibuya. Wonderful little neighborhood and close to the excitement, but being able to escape it was a nice option.

    Ueno is great, too, and extremely close to the train that connects with Narita International airport. This is the older part of Tokyo, so architecture feels less modern and more classic Japan.

    Kappabashi is one of my favorite spots — a neighborhood that is solely focused on the culinary trade. The shops sell everything from cookware to plastic food models, really fun to take a stroll through.

    This site is a lifesaver for plotting your day by train. This works pretty much everywhere.
    http://www.jorudan.co.jp/english/

    Credit cards are not popular in Japan, but it’s safe to carry cash.

    Make sure to get a PASMO re-loadable card the first time you get into the subway or train station. It’s way easier than trying to buy tickets for the correct amount (works like an ORCA card — swipe before getting on, swipe after getting off). It calculates the cheapest fare as it assumes you traveled smart across train lines.

    If you have time, Hiroshima and Osaka are two of the coolest cities I’ve ever visited. A ride on the Shinkansen is great reflection time and just plain awesome.

    I know very little Japanese, but knowing the katakana alphabet and number system were hugely helpful. Katakana is an alphabet used phonetically write out foreign words, mostly English (so lots of menu items are written in it). Prices are sometimes listed in Japanese numbers in more traditional restaurants, so it helps to know those, too.

    All things considered, the Japanese will usually try their best to help you, if you’re willing to muscle through an awkward exchange. It takes time to figure things like the subway out, so a guide might be a helpful option, depending on your level of comfort or amount of time.

    Feel free to hit me up with questions via email, always happy to assist.

    Kris

    Reply
    • priti |

      we visit lot at south east asia and India. we want to go only for one week Tokyo. what we should see? our son has milk allergy so should we carry Almond milk or it is there? How are hotels( we visit Thailand lot so I am comparing with is)? we are India so is there any vegetarian food will be available?

      Reply
  3. Andy Hayes |

    Was just in Tokyo late last year and loved it – it wasn’t as overwhelming as I was expecting.

    I think the best experiences are in the neighborhoods, which are easy to do with a bit of advance planning (e.g. studying the train map). Some of my faves:
    http://www.plumdeluxe.com/where-to-go-in-tokyo

    Also, food definitely ranks up as one of my best memories of Tokyo. The street food, in particular. Some snacks I liked:
    http://www.plumdeluxe.com/japanese-snacks

    Echoing the other comments, we found the Japanese very friendly and very accommodating for our limited (non-existent) language skills. Many of the shops and attractions either have English speakers or little photo books where you both can point, as well as calculators for prices.

    I didn’t find the crowds a problem except rush hour on the subway; weekday mornings we used the time to grab a coffee and relax, and then made sure to stay out in the neighborhoods exploring until early evening, skipping the rush.

    Bon voyage, you’ll love it.

    Reply
  4. Christopher Doll |

    On my short list of things to do once I go to Tokyo – there’s a huge fish market that’s open to the public, and I’ll have to track down the name/info. A former co-worker visited the market early in the AM on one of his trips. Partially to help chase away jet lag, as I understand it. Aside from being an amazing sight to see, the food there is exquisite.

    Enjoy the trip!

    Reply
  5. Polyphemus Winks |

    From my lived-there-for-years friend David Schlesinger (http://shugendo.org/)::

    Okay, feel free to pass any or all of this along.

    1) Learn to read hiragana and katakana. It’s not hard, James Heisig has a book that’ll teach you in a few hours using easy mnemonics.

    2) GET A GOOD CITY MAP WITH A SUBWAY GUIDE! This is essential to get around. The only reason to ever take a taxi in Tokyo is because you’re being forced to at gunpoint. Kodansha’s “Tokyo City Guide” is really the only choice here, but it’s a good one. (Side note: The way to have a conversation with a Japanese person any time you like is to stand on the street and look at a map. Within thirty seconds, someone will offer to help you. In fact, they can’t actually help you, it’s just polite to offer. They’ll listen to you, look at the map with a thoughtful expression, then point in a random direction and advise you that they think it might be that way, perhaps you should walk a couple of blocks and ask somebody else.)

    2a) Expect to get badly lost at least once while you’re in Tokyo. Be especially careful to notice which exit you use when leaving large subways stations. I personally got into the habit of carrying a compass. (I Swear I Am Not Making This Up.)

    3) “Bijinesu hoteru” (“business hotels”) and “konbini” (“convenience stores”) are your friends, if you want to live cheaply in Tokyo. Learn to use a Japanese bath house.
    3a) Tokyo is not “expensive”, per se; Tokyo is a place where you can pay any amount of money for anything at all.

    4) Must-visit neighborhoods: Shinjuku (Sin City, Tokyo), Harajuku (Fashion), Shibuya (Music), Ginza (High-end shopping). Get a good tourist guide and make notes, there’s endless things to see and do.

    Reply
  6. John Hambacher |

    It’s the Tsukiji Fish Market: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukiji_fish_market. Apparently a great sight to see, and sashimi fresh off the boat for breakfast. On my trips I’ve been too tired to go but definitely want to do it someday.

    My first trip to Tokyo I brought along a map book. Each page had a high detail map of a section of the city. It was invaluable. I didn’t keep it else I’d offer to loan it. Looking at Amazon I believe it might have been this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/4770028091/scottberkunco-20/

    The detail was amazing – including layout of the large train stations that showed which numbered exit went to which surface street. Using this I spent a weekend wandering the city (subway/walking) and felt totally comfortable.

    Agree with the other posts that walking/exploring is key. Pick a few neighborhoods, take the subway to the center of the neighborhood, and explore. A few highlights:

    - Harajuku – like Tokyo’s version of Fremont/Ballard on steriods. People go to see and be seen on the weekends, lots of little shops of all kinds. Look up “cosplay” on Wikipedia. You’ll see lots of folks doing that on a Sunday afternoon.
    Shinjuku – one of the world’s largest train stations. Lively neighborhood around the station, including a concentration of consumer electronic shops.
    - Shibuya – restaurants, nightlife, etc.

    Have a great trip!

    Reply
  7. John Collins |

    I’ve been to Tokyo twice on business, and I loved it. (First time outside of North America.)

    I stayed in the Shibuya and Shinjuku neighborhoods, and I thought they were great. There were crowds, but nothing that bothered me.

    A few of my opinions:
    – Bus from Narita to hotels is nice and stress-free.
    – Subway system isn’t too bad to navigate (at least in non-rush times)
    – Restaurants? Don’t obsess. They’re everywhere, and I never hit a dud. Personally, I love the yakitori places (like the ones in Shinjuku’s Yakitori Alley) and ramen places. But there were plenty of other nice options elsewhere. (One of the best hamburgers I’ve had in my life was at Zip Zap in Harajuku.)
    – Try out the various soft drinks in the ever-present vending machines. Found a gelatinous cola that was quite the experience!
    – Imperial Palace is a neat visit in Tokyo, as is the temple in Asakusa, and the Meiji-Jingu shrine near Harajuku. River cruise was also nice, but not exceptional, IMHO.
    – I really appreciated staying at a hotel in the town of Narita the night before my flight back to the U.S. Made for less stress than coming to airport from Tokyo, and the town of Narita was a fun evening exploration outside of the hustle of Tokyo.

    Enjoy the trip!

    Reply
  8. Matthew Smith |

    There are excellent Tokyo subway guides/route finders for the iPhone — my wife and I used them extensively to figure out where we were going during our weeklong stay. Google Maps and a data plan were also our friends. We used the Google Translator app to help us decipher the occasional label.

    +1 for getting the refillable PASMO card accepted on both subway and light rail. Made commuting so much easier.

    Many restaurants have English versions of their menu; you often just need to ask.

    While English isn’t commonly spoken, there was usually someone nearby who did when questions arose. Tokyo is also a graphics-heavy city; all else failing, there were many pictures to reference.

    Much signage, especially municipal signage, has just enough English to be understandable. Subways display the next/upcoming stops in multiple languages, including English.

    We were *thrilled* with the service and quality our small hotel, the Claska (www.claska.com). It’s set off in Meguro-Ku, a suburban/light industrial area away from downtown, but just a ~10 minute walk to the local train station. The shopping district surrounding the train station provided all our daily needs — groceries, sundries, gifts, etc — and provided a fascinating glimpse into everyday Tokyo life.

    Reply
  9. Bruce |

    Scott, I lived in Tokyo for about a year and I’ve been there 50+ times as a visitor.

    1. Getting around areas of town will be a piece of cake for you in Tokyo. Tokyo subways have bilingual maps/signs both in stations and on-board trains. Most announcements are also bilingual (English/Japanese) as well.

    2. Getting to specific locations in Tokyo is a little trickier. The addressing system in Tokyo (and other parts of Japan) is about as counter-intuitive as you can get. Even native Tokyoites get lost a lot — the primary method for finding things is landmarks, wandering around, and playing Marco Polo via cellphone with the destination where you’re headed.

    There are two options: one old-school and one modern. The old-school version is to buy a copy of Tokyo City Atlas (bilingual) — a nearly exhaustive collection of local Tokyo maps in English and Japanese (so you can ask a foreigner for directions, too). It’s especially useful as it shows where all the subway exits come out on the streets — at a subway station like Ginza where multiple lines intersect, there are 30+ exits and they come up all over — it’s much easier to find a location if you choose the correct exit.

    The modern way is to use an iPhone with Google Maps. That introduces the issue of cellphone data (you will need it, and you DON’T want to roam). If you have an unlocked iPhone (4 or 5 — any current Verizon iPhone 5 is unlocked), you can rent a SIM for about $15/day including unlimited data. If you have another phone, even unlocked, you will probably be out of luck — recent Japanese law does not allow them to rent you a SIM unless your phone is certified by the Japanese Ministry of Telecommunications (and the rental companies DO check). BUT, all is not lost, you can rent a MiFi unit from the same companies for about $15/day including unlimited data. Upside — laptop connectivity is easy (SIM rental prohibits tethering and it will cost a fortune if you do), downside — one more thing to carry/keep charged.

    As to where to stay, I would probably recommend Shinjuku (e-mail me for specific hotel rec). Super-simple to get to by train/bus to/from airport, major train/bus hub, so you can get anywhere in Tokyo simply, almost every major department store, lots of restaurants/bars, a beautiful public garden, and even some cool neighborhoods if you walk just a couple of minutes. Only exception to my recommendation would be if you’re planning to be in a specific area LATE at night (trains stop running between midnight and 1am or so) — then, you may want to optimize for taxi fares since late-night taxis can be quite costly.

    Re: Suica/Pasmo cards. I love them (most people know them as Suica cards since that’s the JR version — they used to be separate, but now they’re merged into one system and are completely interchangeable). PLUS, you can use them outside of trains and even pay some taxis and convenience stores and other stores using them. If you’re looking to save money, though, depending on your day’s itinerary, you can get a day pass for all subways within Tokyo city limits and if you’re hopping on/off all day, that will be cheaper.

    Also, if you’re staying a week in Japan, I’d seriously consider a Japan Rail Pass (you have to buy one here and get it validated when you arrive). It’s an awesome deal for foreigners (Japanese can’t buy them) that lets you ride all JR trains (including Narita Express, JR trains in Tokyo, and intercity trains including Shinkansen) for a very attractive price. It lets you do crazy things like travel to Kyoto or Osaka to stay overnight, and then take a quick side trip to Hiroshima on the way back — that would be cost-prohibitive without a rail pass.

    I’ve got lots of other thoughts/tips, too. Feel free to e-mail me if you’d like more advice.

    Reply
    • Jan |

      Hi Bruce, I saw your post which is full of great information. I’m taking my first trip alone (aged 54) to Tokyo this May, I’ve decided to stay in Shinjuku mainly due to easy connections to the airport and transport links. Can you please recommend a hotel in that area? I’m on a limited budget. I want to stay there for three nights then go to Kyoto for six and back to Tokyo for the last two. Any advice gratefully received, the more information I read on the internet the harder it gets to make a decision! Kindest regards, Jan

      Reply
    • April |

      Hi Bruce, I’m also looking for a good place to stay in Tokyo for four nights on June. Hoping you could recommend a budget hotel for me and my mom. Any advice will be greatly appreciated! Best regards, April

      Reply
    • Hayls |

      Hello, I was actually reading a post you wrote about shinjuku. I am visiting there in June with my mother (26 and 60). I was wondering if you could give me some recommendations for hotels. Thanks a lot.

      Reply
  10. Mike Nitabach |

    All good advice so far!

    I second Shinjuku as a great neighborhood to stay in. Good hotels, bars, restaurants, and subway/train access.

    My experience is that as a visitor, Osaka was much more fun and interesting than Tokyo. I have lived in NYC for decades, and to me Tokyo felt just like New York except for the language. Speaking of which, in big cities, you will have no trouble communicating with people in English. Although it does make a big difference if you learn a handful of phrases that enable you to be courteous in Japanese: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, etc.

    One thing you absolutely must do is go to the big department stores and check out their food basements. There is nothing like it I have ever seen anywhere in the world.

    Reply
  11. Steve Portigal |

    So excited you are going to Tokyo; a place I loved to visit (and chose for my 40th birthday trip a few years ago). There’s so much wonder to be discovered in whatever random weird thing you stumble upon. Take TONS of pictures; you are entering a parallel universe and you will normalize to it quickly; your day 1 pictures will be different than your day 3 pictures.

    I’ve been partial to staying in Shibuya, but not in the heart of Shibuya crossing; I know a couple of places a little further out that are peaceful. But others have probably made better suggestions. Definitely go wander the “rabbit warren” streets of Shibuya. Fantastic and fascinating (more the latter) shopping for just about everything for your home/life at Tokyu Hands. Get a hot can of hot chocolate from a vending machine. Get the packaged onigiri at a Lawson convenience store and marvel at the magic unwrapping where the seaweed remains separated from the rice until you pull the corners.

    Enjoy the kawaii (cute) in everything imaginable. Find the latest trending character who is now appearing in every store and advertisement and so on. Try to figure out what the heck they are about. Have a Japanese breakfast (natto = teh gross). Go to an izakaya and have fried crispy things and beers. Look at the street art. Walk into fast food places you recognize and see what they are like there. Stroll Akihabara to see the density of technology retailing (and the maid cafes if you like)….a visual smorgasboard from my last visit – http://www.flickr.com/photos/steveportigal/sets/72157603837542628/

    Reply
  12. Christen |

    Must-see destinations for you as a product and experience designer…

    Tokyu Hands, the Fred Meyer of Japan. You’ll want to spend hours investigating the individually wrapped cat treats, plus the umpteen varieties of kitchen sponges, matchboxes, bicycles, architectural model making supplies, etc. etc. etc! Really my favorite stop in the city, and a fun place to find gifts and souvenirs. Go to the biggest one you can find.

    Also: Mori Art Museum and Tokyo City View observation deck at Roppongi Hills, a newer high rise in the Roppongi neighborhood, where you might find yourself on business. Great examples of good exhibition design there.

    Reply
  13. Miles Archer |

    Getting around in Tokyo without knowing Japanese is not that hard. It’s harder than most European countries due to the language/alphabet. I was able to find people to help me get around on the subway.

    Reply
  14. Kevin |

    Tokyo is a massive city and like all travel advice really depends on your interests and what you would like out of the trip. Hopefully you have someone that speaks the language as my experience was hardly anyone in Tokyo spoke English.

    I enjoyed the large temple in Asakusa as well as wandering around Ueno.

    I am a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan and visited a girls school he designed which is tucked away in a neighborhood. Not a particularly impressive building but fun to find.
    http://www.jiyu.jp/tatemono/index-e.html

    If you are a fan of any of Hayao Miyazaki’s works (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, to name a few) I would highly recommend the Ghibli Museum. It is in a quiet family neighborhood called Mitaka and can be reached by a short train ride.
    http://www.ghibli-museum.jp/en/

    Also, if you get tired of the city, Hakone is a great day trip!

    Have fun!

    Reply
  15. Brian Engel |

    Make sure you get in some traditional culture while you are there. The best one is probably Kamakura which is south of Tokyo near Yokohama. The other one, north of Tokyo is Nikko. Both would take most of a day to get to, enjoy, and return. Enjoy!

    Reply

Leave a Reply