When you’re in Tokyo, it feels a bit like the center of the world with each subway train leading towards the middle but never quite taking you there. Although you’re probably not going to find the universe’s secrets hidden in this maze of city, it’s hard not to feel spiritual and connected while passing through. Tokyo is a very special place.
In Tokyo, you’re going to get a clash between new and old and that’s a good share of the fun! The various neighborhoods in Tokyo will leave you baffled in the diversity of the city, where monks pass through Kawaii culture (“cute” culture) havens on the way to temple. And you should follow. The stroll through the streets of Tokyo, blanketed in people, will leave you humbled with your place in the world. It’s hard not to feel small in a place like Tokyo, but that’s okay. You’re a part of something grand, efficient, and inspiring.
In: Because Japan is an island, or more a series of Islands with Honshu being the largest and the beacon for tourists, it makes sense that most people are going to arrive at the nation’s capital of Tokyo via plane. And with that, you’ll find not just one, but two major airports that handle the traffic into this city. Tokyo Narita is more likely the airport you’ll fly into if you’re coming from out of the country, however that’s been changing in recent years. Tokyo Haneda, formerly mostly for domestic flights, is beginning to handle some of that traffic and with one of the most beautiful terminals I’ve ever seen, it’s a great place to fly into. Luckily, in Japan, the train networks are very extensive and of course, run to both of the major airports with frequent service. Haneda and Narita are located a ways out from the city, so a train might be your best bet, and most convenient method of getting to and from the airports.
Narita is well connected to the center of Tokyo with quick service provided by the Narita Express, and the The Skyliner private railways. Luckily for those of you with a Japan Rail Pass, the Narita express is included if you choose to activate it the second you land in Tokyo (provided the office is open) and there is a JR rail pass station in terminal 1. Keep in mid that due to the limited amount of time the passes are valid for, if you are staying in the city for a few days, activating right from the get go might not be the best way to get value from your pass. Tickets to the trains and buses are easy to find
From Haneda, I’ll can personally recommend the Tokyo Monorail, as it’s a pleasant ride, and will lead you straight to the center. Haneda also has a JR Rail Office and the monorail is included with an activated pass. As said above, make sure this make sense money wise before activating straight away. The Keikyu train also services here and is a good option if you’ve already ordered your Suica/Pasmo card in advance.
There is one issue that I experienced that goes for both airports — If you are on a late night flight like I was, the train service is going to become limited. Not necessarily from the airport to the city center, but more the onward connections that you’ll have to make. For that there are limousine buses. If you arrive/depart late night, or early morning, these might be the most convenient option. You can purchase tickets late night tickets at the airport when you arrive costing ¥1,640 or roughly $15 USD. Sure, this seems expensive, but it’s a small price to pay in comparison to taking a cab, roughly $90-120 USD to the center. Hopefully your flight gets in when the trains are frequent and you can avoid this all together.
Around: Toyko has the most incredible mass transportation experience. It also can be incredibly confusing. Here’s why. There are many different lines that connect every possibly place that you would want to be, but there are also many different companies that own each line. Some are private, some are owned by the Japanese government. Either way, you’ll often find yourself transferring between them frequently. Here’s where a card from Pasmo/Suica I mentioned above comes in handy. These are loadable cards that function as a way to access Tokyo’s (and other places too) public transportation. The majority of the lines take these cards and they are easy to find. For a full list of what Pasmo covers — go here. The difference between Pasmo and Suica? Not much, except that they are owned by different companies. If you purchase a JR Rail Pass (which I highly recommend if you’re visiting more of Japan) your pass will come with a rail map, with a Tokyo bit as well. You can also purchase rail maps around the city, and I’m pretty sure I saw free ones around as well. If you decide not to purchase a card, or need to purchase a single ticket you can buy from either the person operating the gates or from automated kiosks. The kiosks are nice because they have an English section, but you’ll need to know the name of the station you are going to. Overall, when going around Tokyo, you’ll probably use a combination of the Tokyo Metro, and a few private lines so the tap in cards are by far the best way to do it. Also, most of the buses take these cards, just look for the cards logo on the outside before you enter. If you ever find yourself lost, and not sure where to go, try politely asking a local for help. Even if there is a language barrier, it usually works well to have the map and point where you want to go. People in Japan are very helpful and polite, though some may be shy about their English, regardless of how much they know.
Stay: Tokyo is a massive city, one of the largest in the world in fact. As per usual I would recommend staying in the city center and very close to a stop on the Tokyo metro or other major line, if possible. Shibuya, Shinjuku, have a decent offering, and are close to some of the major attractions, but I stayed in Chuo which was very central in the city. You can find a decent amount of hostels, or if you’re brave, the pod hotels could be exciting as long as you’re not claustrophobic. There are also a decent amount of hotels that aren’t out of the budget of even most backpackers. If you’re traveling with someone, it’s not a bad idea to split a room (keep in mind Japanese rooms are small).
WHAT TO DO?
For those of you looking to be “temple-treckers”, Tokyo has quite a few spots to see and the best part — most of them are free with only a few that require paying a supplement for access to certain sections. Meanwhile, there are so many more things to see in Tokyo than just the religious sites. Here are a few of my favorite — a little of both:
Right in the heart of the Asakusa District in the north part of Tokyo’s center is Sensoji Temple. Of all of Tokyo’s temples, this was my personal favorite as it was a large bit of culture right in the heart of the city. The temple had a maintained ambience about it, despite being swarmed by tourists. The area right outside is filled with some local flavor and LOTS of souvenir shops. The prices on these seemed quite high, but the vibes all around were great. To get there, it’s a not far from Asakusa station. Exit the station and follow signs.
Tokyo might not have a true cultural center, but for Kawaii Culture, there is one place that sets everything else down gently and gives it a kiss on the cheek. Harajuku is a place that will leave any Tokyo trip without it, very, very empty. There is of course the main strip, lined with Hello Kitty (mostly for tourists now days or so I’ve been told) and every shade of pink, yellow, blue, purple and more pink. If you go: yes, there will be girls in the over the top dresses that look like Mary Poppins just fell out of a 90’s cereal commercial. Yes, you can find more manga here. I’d recommend Kiddy Land as an excellent toy / anime store, with souvenirs galore. Try the crepes too! Access Harajuku (and the Menji Shrine) from Harajuku Station.
Tokyo National Museum:
Maybe it’s just because this was my first ever trip to Asia, but this museum really stood out to me. The sheer amount of art was incredible and the extent of art from around the world, with an emphasis on Japan and the rest of Asia was astounding. If you’ve never been to an art museum outside of the Europe or the States, going to this museum is a must. Actually, this museum is a must do, even if you’ve been there before! Expect to spend a half day here, so I suggest arriving early. Ueno park is right next door so an afterward stroll + lunch would compliment it well. The museum itself is an easy 10-15 minute walk from Ueno Station. Note: If you’re in town during cherry blossom season, Ueno is one of the spots to be.
When most of us think of modern Japan, this is what we picture. Electronic lights, Arcades, and Manga culture all over. This is where you’re going to find a ridiculous amount of electronics shops and other stores that will make your mind go wild. It can feel a bit overwhelming but it’s definitely something you should see before you leave Tokyo. If you’re into Anime / Manga, the Tokyo Anime center is here and Mandrake boasts itself as the largest Manga shop in the world. Of course, Akihabara Station is the main station to use for here, however Suehirocho Station can be used alternatively.
If you’re looking to understand Japan and Tokyo and how the country turned into an empire centered around this city, look no further than the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The building itself, although awkward yet artsy on the outside, is incredible on the inside. Everything has a very logical flow that transitions between eras and the changes in Japanese lifestyles. Tokyo may not have always been the head of the empire, but as you get to the end of the museum, you’ll realize that the city itself is a bi-product of all that Japan has experienced culturally. Ryugoku Station is the stop for this one, and it’s not too far away.
For the Beer — Yona Yona Beer Works (Yo-Ho Brewing)
My favorite brewery in Tokyo, and Japan as well is Yona Yona Beer Works. They can be found in most convenience stores and both their porter and IPA were great! If you’re in Harajuku, their little “beer hall” is great to visit for a pint. The place is very small and intimate and definitely a brew pub with a local feel and an artsy vibe.
Shibuya (or Ginza):
For those of you that like to shop, I’d recommend either the Ginza (more high end) or Shibuya (also high end, but a little more humble). Shibuya is also where you’ll see that famous intersection that every movie shows to highlight the big cities of the world. It defines the city like no other. A miss-mash of hard working and interesting people going every which way. But these people are not going every which way for no reason. Apart from Shibuya being filled with department stores (a must-experience in Japan) and places of work, it’s also next to one of the cities largest rail stations (and craziest too!). I feel like this place is on pretty much everyone’s radar, but it must be felt in person to really get it. Alternatively, for shopping, head to Ginza which has some incredible department stores and luxury brands. Shibuya station is your stop (or Ginza and Yurakucho Stations for Ginza).
Very close to the center of Harajuku, the Menji shrine offers an alternate must-see temple to the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. By contrast, I mean that this place is in the middle of a park/forest and is a lot more quiet (despite the large crowds) in comparison. It’s a very pleasant walk to and from the shrine and there are a few cool things to see along the way. To reach here, get off the train at Harajuku Station.
Lots of people also want to visit the Imperial Palace. Just make sure to get reservations in advance if you want to go inside the palace gardens. The majority of people simply take a look outside, and to be honest, there isn’t that much to see and I would personally skip it, unless you’re going inside. Just outside Tokyo, are Japan’s Disney parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. These are both incredibly fun and not that difficult to reach. However if you’re going to choose between the two, I would recommend Tokyo DisneySea as it’s a completely unique park and quite a spectacle. Also, keep in mind: although all Disney Parks are expensive, the two in Tokyo are actually cheaper than most and offer a great bargain for Disney nerds like myself. I plan on doing a follow up guide to Tokyo Disney soon!
THINGS TO KNOW:
- Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world and therefore, the population is huge. Although people are mostly of Japanese ancestry, there are people from all over Asia and the rest of the world occasionally mixed in. Comes from being a commerce capital.
- As with the rest of Japan, drinking in public is completely legal and it’s not very uncommon to see people drinking a can of beer on the street, or having wine during festivals and such. It’s really easy to get said beer as convenience stores are a way of life in Japan.
- 7-11, Family Mart and others are convenience stores that are really easy to find. These stores are way more extensive that what you would find in the US or elsewhere offering many more pre-made meals, and a much better set-up. Visiting these stores are a great way to save money.
- As said above, the Suica and Pasmo cards are very valuable to you while in Tokyo. As a great way to hit the ground running, I would recommend buying at the same time as you get your Japan Rail Pass. It should be an option to add it on at checkout.
- Plan on visiting at least one Department store. The shopping is good, but the basement levels have massive food courts that you have to try! There are free samples of all kinds of things and can be great for budget travelers.
- Planning in this massive city can be quite an undertaking. It’s best to do your best beforehand to kind of map out which locations are close to each other and try to minimize the commuting distance on a daily basis. That will save money on the transiting between rail lines.
- Most of the rail lines in Tokyo are a tap in tap out ticket. With the ticket, you insert and it spits out on the other side. The Pasmo and Sucia card are scanned and the distance you traveled is read between where you entered and where you left. Adding money onto the cards is easy as the electronic kiosks are usually on both sides of the turnstiles.
Let me know what you think in the comments! Was this helpful? Any other questions about visiting Tokyo?