Travelers love, love, love visiting Tokyo, Japan: home of renowned intersections, sparkling skyscrapers, dream cuisine, and so much more. However, before you go explore this city in the “Land of the Rising Sun,” it’s important to arm yourself with some local know-how. Read the following list and prepare to have the ultimate experience if you plan on visiting Tokyo:
1. There’s more to Tokyo than the weird stuff.
Visitors (and newbie expats… I’m guilty too) love to discover “weird Tokyo,” i.e. a cluster of go-to favorites that have been hyped up thanks to social media. Many of these places— despite their liveliness and Instagram potential— often play up to incorrect stereotypes, all the while charging travelers exorbitant prices. This includes the Robot Show and Kawaii Monster Cafe, as well as other themed restaurants. Instead of following the lemmings clustering around Harajuku and Shibuya, explore other neighborhoods in search of #authentic. Shimokitazawa is a trendy neighborhood famous for its quaint coffee shops and vintage clothing stores. Nakano is a great place to experience the night life, if only for its small izakaya (gastropubs). Or try Shin-Okubo for some killer Korean food.
2. Scour local resources for off-the-beaten path ideas.
Tokyo has a sizable expat population— think half a million— lending to several traveler-friendly English websites and publications to help you in your planning. A good place to start is Metropolis and Tokyo Weekender, both magazines featuring local events and restaurant guides. Another favorite is Tokyo Cheapo, obviously featuring tips for tackling the city on a budget.
3. You have to buy Ghibli museum tickets way in advance.
For travelers with an affinity for all things anime and manga, the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is the bucket list item. It’s adorable. And entertaining. And oh so popular. Like sold out months in advance popular (especially during the summer). If Ghibli is your deal breaker, make sure you nab tickets online ahead of time. However, if you find yourself out of luck, do not fear. There are other anime-themed museums in the Tokyo area.
One such is the tiny Suginami Anime Museum, located on two floors. It’s not crazy huge or impressive but it certainly appeals to fans of the genres. The museum is free and explains the process behind the art in English. Short anime films are played throughout the day and museum-goers can try their hand at using light boxes and dubbing. Centrally located in Akihabara, the free Tokyo Animation Center is a third option, offering limited-time exhibits and souvenirs.
4. You don’t need a rail pass.
“If you are so keen on leaving Tokyo, take advantage of travel deals that are much cheaper than the rail pass…”
If you are using Tokyo as a base to see other parts of Japan, do yourself a favor and pocket the cash you would normally spend on a JR rail pass. There’s plenty to see within a day’s trip of Tokyo to keep you occupied. Escape to a spectacular beach by quickly jetting to one of the isolated Izu islands. Enjoy the autumn leaves or winter ice hiking in Nikko. Or seek out that perfect shot of Mt. Fuji from one of the many hiking trails skirting the city.
If you are so keen on leaving Tokyo, take advantage of travel deals that are much cheaper than the rail pass. Low-cost carriers like Vanilla Air or Peach can whisk you to another major city for as little as ¥3,000 one way. Another alternative is the Seishun 18. This ticket allows five days of unlimited travel on local and rapid trains, and can be split up between travelers.
5. Pack to impress.
Tokyoites love to dress up. As a general rule, women tend to wear lots of layers and favor dresses and skirts. Men are equally as fashion-conscious. A few caveats though. You’ll definitely see more skin in the summertime in terms of legs, but cleavage is a big no no. Prepare for stares whether or not you’re intentionally showing some. Also, unless you are accustomed to heels, pack sensible shoes. Prepare to do a whole lot of walking, with lots of stairs for that extra cardio.
Despite all these generalities, Tokyo is also a great place to experiment. Maybe you’re gawked at for your gothic or lolita fashion style at home, but Tokyo will embrace it. Sure, you’ll still attract curious eyes, but it’s perfectly natural to ride a train in sumo garb, Halloween costumes, or in skin-tight pink spandex.
6. Bring omiyage.
Omiyage or gift-giving is the norm in Japan. This goes for most formal meetings as well as casual homestays. If you expect to meet a local, it is recommended to bring a small gift from your home country. Candy, postcards, magnets, and stuffed animals all go over well. I tend to bring omiyage no matter what. There’s been so many times in which a stranger has helped me out, or I hitchhiked, or went to an elementary school; showing my thanks was the least I could do. While you’re visiting Tokyo, better bring home some omiyage for your cohort at home. Flavored Kit-Kats are a popular and confusing choice, given the number of unique flavors.
7. Budget accordingly but don’t be worried.
A lot of travelers gripe about the cost of Tokyo. Yes, as compared to select parts of the world, visiting Tokyo can add up. Especially when you are eating in the touristy areas and blowing your money on gundam figures. But there’s always a workaround. For basic needs, head to 100 yen mecca Daiso or bizare Don Quixote. Whether you forgot something or desire an impromptu costume for a night out, these are the cheap places to hit up.
Need to eat cheap? Budget restaurant choices include 100 yen kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi places like Sushiro and the omnipresent conbini (convenience stores). If you miss your last train and are stuck far from your accommodation, a last minute “bed” can be secured at Internet cafe or karaoke booth. Tokyo, in particular, also has a number of capsule hotels that make for a budget and quirky experiment in sleeping. The Poor Traveler has some excellent ideas for how to stretch out your yen. There’s always the salaryman method too…
8. Don’t be a stereotype.
“You will remain largely ignored as a foreigner… until you do something that singles you out…”
Despite being Japan’s largest city, Tokyo is incredibly homogenous. And for the most part, you will remain largely ignored as a foreigner (hey, people are busy here). That is, until you do something that singles you out. Most of the time this is due to a breach in cultural conduct. Therefore, before you go, read up on basic Japanese cultural etiquette.
Most of it is unnecessary to master if you’re visiting Tokyo for a short trip— like the various forms of bowing and pouring other people’s drinks— but there are essentials. This includes not talking on the phone on trains, not sticking your chopsticks in rice, and always washing before you enter an onsen (hot spring). It also helps to learn a wee bit of Japanese, if only basic greetings and travel phrases. Inevitably, no matter your level, someone will compliment your Japanese language ability.
9. You’ll need a Suica card upon arrival.
To get around the city, you will most definitely be using the JR train system and Tokyo metro. It gets rather annoying having to buy a one-time use train pass each time you need to go somewhere. Between the lines to buy them and the likelihood of losing this small piece of paper, there’s a better way.
Do as the locals do and get a Suica (or a Pasmo) pass, a rechargeable train card. You can get one at the same ticket stands you buy your standard train pass. It just takes a 500 yen deposit (which you can get back when you are preparing to leave Japan) and then you charge as much yen on the card as necessary. If you plan on visiting Tokyo for a longer period of time, you can even have your name printed on your Suica and phone number embedded, just in case you misplace it.
10. Prepare for the lack of Wi-fi.
As technology-savvy as the city may seem, visiting Tokyo is not all it’s cracked up to be. Most businesses still use fax machines— no really— and Wi-fi is not a guarantee. If you are addicted to your phone and simply must document your every move, come prepared with a Wi-fi hotspot or secure one at Narita or Haneda airport. Or check out this article from Japan Times for actual places that have it in the city.