Tokyo — A Short Primer
As an Australian I am lucky to have one of the world’s niftiest travel destinations a surprisingly short (and often crazy cheap) flight away. As a result, a lot of my friends post “Going to Japan, tickets booked!” messages on Facebook. As someone writing this in anticipation of his fourth trip and having lived there for six months, I thought I’d make a note of some useful things I learned. Some of it is attractions that are easy to miss. Some of it is just handy advice.
For the most part this is just intended as an info dump for friends of mine who are planning to travel there soon. It shouldn’t be taken as formal recommendations, nor should it be acted on without double checking stuff. A trip to Tokyo doesn’t need to be super formal, but you really should check maps and know where you want to be.
Tokyo is an amazing destination, and if you ignore all of this or don’t read it you’ll absolutely still have a killer time. But maybe there’s just one thing in here that makes you go “hey, that sounds like exactly my sort of thing”.
Specific destinations and areas
Akihabara is also known as Akiba, and is the “geek centre”. You really don’t want to miss it. It’s pretty much amazing. It’s the area with the maid cafes and comic shops and anime figures. So many anime figures. There are also two or three excellent adult shops, three or more stories high. There is also the famous SuperPotato store, which is mostly retro gaming consoles, often difficult to find outside Japan.
SuperPotato: 1 Chome , 1–11–2 Sotokanda, 千代田区 Chiyoda-ku, Tōkyō-to 101–0021, Japan
Of particular interest is Kotobukiya Akihabara. The Kotobukiya brand are some of the better quality anime figures, and a lot of the big names (DC, Marvel, etc) are licensed to them. The Akiba store is amazing, but it’s not just their stuff, it’s also weird shit that’s only popular in Japan or with irredeemable weaboos, and an excellent range of popular stuff (Evangelion, Ghibli, etc). Well worth a look.
Kotobukiya: Okashima Bldg., 1–8–8, Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Roppongi is a shithole made to give American fratboys a place to hit on Japanese girls without infecting better suburbs. But Roppongi Hills is beautiful. The highlight is Mori Tower, the tenth tallest building in Japan, and a residential and commercial estate. The top floors are a modern museum and lookout. The bar there is fantastic, and weirdly enough the giftshop for the museum is a highlight. Lots of fascinating things.
Mori Tower: 6 Chome-11–1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tōkyō-to 106–6108, Japan
Located in southern Shinjuku, Yoyogi Park is about 130 acres of green shit. It’s a popular destination for cherry blossoms, and has a number of beautiful shrines, Japanese gardens, a clear and cold natural spring, etc. Yoyogi Park runs right from near Shinjuku all the way down to Harajuku, and on Sundays that edge is the meeting place for the lolita girls. Oddly enough, Yoyogi station is nowhere near Yoyogi Park. I made that mistake. Shinjuku or Harajuku stations are better choices. The Meiji shrine is particularly beautiful.
Meiji Jingu: 1–1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo 151–8557, Japan
Shibuya is a very trendy suburb. It’s not as upmarket as Shinjuku, or posh as the Ginza, but it’s definitely the place for street fashions and nightlife, clubs particularly. Womb is one of the top clubs in the world. At the station there is a statue to honour the dog Hachiko. Read that and cry on your own time. Seeing him is worth it, and it’s just outside the station. Right next to that is the famous Shibuya Crossing, the single largest pedestrian crossing in the world. When it’s busy, it’s amazing. I don’t have specific places to go there, it’s just fun to walk around.
Ginza is the most upmarket area. I saw a TV travel show that referred the main street there as the most expensive street in in the most expensive suburb in the most expensive city in the most expensive country in the world. It has two Tiffany’s. I’m genuinely not sure how to punctuate that word. Tiffany’s’? Tiffany’s? Tiffanys’? Tiffanies’? Anyway, a Bulgari and a Cartier. Chanel, Dior, Gucci, etc, all have their flagship stores here, and so do high-end electronics companies like Sony. There is an especially well respected department store called Mitsukoshi. The bottom floor of it, the basement, has amazing food and treats in a market style. (This arrangement is pretty common to a number of large Japanese department stores.)
Mitsukoshi Ginza: 4 Chome-4–6–16 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104–8212, Japan
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons the main street, Chuo Dori, is shut down and the whole place becomes a really upmarket… market. Running parallel to that street (south east) is a smaller one that has amazing shops for less fancy stuff. Fossils and antiques, cafes, pancakes and chocolates. It is particularly pretty in the early evening when the lights turn on. Despite the upscale nature of the Ginza in general, one of the highlights is not expensive — Hakuhinkan Toy Park. It’s a four (I think) story toy store, with lots of surprisingly awesome things. It really is a must-see.
Hakuhinkan Toy Park: 8 Chome-8–8–11 Ginza, Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 104–8132, Japan
Shinjuku is full of things to do. The centre is the world’s largest train station, with a number of shopping centres, restaurants, etc. The northern tip of Shinjuku Station is particularly cool. There is a massive crossing, surrounded by restaurants and shops, video games arcades, etc. This specific area is my favourite place in the world. It’s… amazing. There is a huge street (Yasukuni dori) with Shinjuku proper on one side.
The other side is the entrance to Kabukicho. Kabukicho is named for traditional Kabuki theatre, and one was going to be built here but they didn’t ever build it and the name stuck anyway. Now it’s a red light district, most owned by completely legitimate Japanese businessmen. The main area of it is gloriously sleazy but the outer edge, the southern edge is fantastic. It’s here you see places like the Shinjuku Robot Restaurant. There is a CAPCOM bar. Along Yasukunidori you will see ads for themed restaurants. Dungeons, vampires, zombies, Alice in Wonderland. On the Kabukicho side of the street there is a huge and understated building with a shop called Don Quixote. I don’t know why. It’s a multi-floor department store, specialising in random Japanese shit. It’s a must-visit. Kabukicho is sleazy, but safe. Nigerian touts will try a little pushily to encourage you to come visit them, especially as a single dude or a group of dudes. Worth pointing out that almost none of the “action” is open to westerners. The touts can be shooed off easily enough and typically speak decent English.
As a personal aside, PSY Bar, an excellent and super friendly metal bar was one of my favourite locations.
Robot Restaurant: 新宿ロボットビル, 1 Chome-１-７-１ Kabukichō, 新宿区 Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160–0021, Japan
Don Quixote: 1 Chome-16–5 Kabukichō, 歌舞伎町 Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160–0021, Japan
BAR PSY: Japan, 〒160–0021 Tōkyō-to, Shinjuku-ku, Kabukichō, 1 Chome−13−7, (2F)
Note the miss-spelling, it’s not wrong, that’s what it’s called. Located at the south end of Shinjuku station, it’s actually a chain, but that’s one of the biggest ones. They’re a kind of homewares store. Lots of things, knicknacks, clever things. Everything from art supplies to leather goods to pillows. It’s oddly fascinating.
Tokyu Hands: Takashimaya Times Square, タイムズスクエアビル, 5 Chome-５-２４-２ Sendagaya, 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 151–8580, Japan
A very high-end men’s clothing and accessories store. If you’re looking for a four thousand dollar light, or a three thousand dollar pen, this is the place to go. Some of their stuff is stunning, and some brands (Hideo Kikuchi is my favourite) are more reasonably priced, nicely made, and interesting.
Isetan Men: 3 Chome-14–1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160–0022, Japan
It’s two stations south of Shinjuku, and is full of fashion, mostly for women. In particular, by contrast to areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku, it’s very much counter-culture fashion. It’s the world centre for Gothic Lolita fashions, and on Sundays the Lolita girls can be seen (and photographed) doing their thing. They’re usually shop girls, and work Saturdays, so Sunday is their day to get out. They often hang out for photo ops at the edge of Yoyogi park. I should note that this isn’t all the time, and in fact I’ve never successfully seen them. Your best chances are nice cool days, etc. Saturdays and Sundays, the main street (Takeshita Street) is completely packed. Like… difficult-to-move packed. That’s when it’s at full force. At other times it’s much more reasonable.
Takeshita Street: 1 Chome-19 Jingūmae, 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 150–0001, Japan
Pokemon Centre. Pokemon Centres are giant Pokemon themed stores. We went to the first one, and we went on the Saturday of a public holiday. Don’t do that. Ikebukuro is nice enough, though it was recommended to me in terms way too glowing for it. There are lots of statues of owls there, for reasons I’m not clear on. This isn’t a must-do, by any means. But it’s a nice thing to post about on Facebook to eat up all the jelly.
Pokemon Centre: Sunshine City Alpa, サンシャインシティ, 3 Chome-3–1–2 Higashiikebukuro, 豊島区 Toshima-ku, Tōkyō-to 170–0013, Japan
Rules and guides and some random things
Most of these are guidelines rather than fixed and formal things. Different people in different places will have different expectations. This is largely stream of consciousness, and not in any fixed order.
Japan is super friendly and easy, so any rules you violate will be met with at worst a “silly gaijin” smile. They’re not especially formal, at least not in the sort of situations you’ll find yourself in. You’re not going to a job interview or meeting your wife’s grandmother.
Don’t tip. Ever. It’s considered rude. Bars are the exception, but only if they have a tip jar.
Don’t give people money directly, in general there is a tray on the counter, put the money there and take the money off.
Speaking of money, nowhere uses credit cards/eftpos. (Hotels, major department stores, etc, are the exception.) You must have cash only. It’s perfectly safe to carry significant amounts. If you need more, no Japanese ATM will work for you except ones in a 7–11. For some reason those do.
The tap water is perfectly safe to drink.
Don’t eat while walking around. It’s considered rude. Drinking is fine.
There are three rubbish bins in the whole of Tokyo. How the place is so tidy is a mystery to many guests.
Japan is terrible at dairy and bread, barely adequate at coffee, and amazing at candy, pastries and chocolate.
Vending machines and convenience stores are sources of endless wonder. So are grocery stores. Yes, really.
Tokyo is less tall than I expected, but it’s consistently 7–10 storeys. And the things that you’re looking for, the restaurant or shop or whatever, are just as likely to be on level 4 as the bottom floor. It’s entirely common to be going up elevators for hidden retail stores. This is a stark contrast to Australia, which is usually retail and business at the bottom floors, and then the upper for commercial offices. I went to restaurants that could only be accessed by walking through the back-of-house of another restaurant.
Japanese addresses are a weird format. They’re a series of three numbers. The first is the suburb, the second is the block, the third is which house on the block. The numbers are assigned arbitrarily (even the block is assigned in order of the house being built, rather than circularly) so there’s no way to remember this stuff. You’ll notice a bunch of boards around. These are maps that help you figure out the last two numbers once you’re in the right area.
Thankfully Google Maps is super effective at Japanese addresses now. It used to be shit, but now it’s tops. Apple maps is still shit. Knowing in advance is half the battle.
Japan is totally safe. You’d have to be very stupid or very unlucky to have any issues. Roppongi has had issues with people getting roofied and robbed. But nothing violent. Tourists are not targeted in any way by anything. There is no theft. People leave bags, bicycles, or even shop stock just lying around. All of the advice people give — carry a money belt with minimal cash, keep your passport safe in a special pouch sewn into your flesh, etc — you can ignore all that. Just take a wallet.
Japanese money is a little bigger than Australian, and won’t fit in many Australian wallets. You may want to buy one there.
If you’re changing money, do it long before you go. Banks will give you a good rate, but currency exchanges at the airport (either end) will shaft you without lube. Some banks will charge very high fees to take out yen… $4 + x% of the transaction. Find out what your bank will do and possibly make another arrangement.
Don’t use the word gaijin in polite company. It’s actually considered quite rude. Even though you are a gaijin it’s just awkward. You become that black dude saying “nigger” and making everyone uncomfortable. Gaikokujin is fine. It’s basically the same word, but it’s like the difference between Paki and Pakistani.
Eat Tokyo Banana. They’re most available at Tokyo station, and they’re delicious. Also, buy/eat Japanese KitKats. They’re amazing, cheap, and make super-best gift treats for people. “Kitto-Katto” happens to mean “Good luck” in Japanese, and they’ve manipulated that to become a popular souvenir candy. Every region has its own, and there are lots of random ones — strawberry yogurt, white chocolate and cinnamon, green tea, etc.
Japanese don’t do “souvenirs” like we do, they have regional snacks and foods. They’re usually weird. Eat them.
Words and Phrases
I’m writing these fo-net-ik-lee so that they’re easier to get right. Some very basic info you probably already know: Japanese is entirely syllabic — they have no (with one exception) single letters. They all follow the same pattern: a — i — u — e — o. Ma — mi — mu — me — mo. Pronunciation of them is the same as the first syllable of the following words and names.
ramen, mitsubishi, subaru, extra, odd
Combinations don’t change pronunciation like in English. For example, in English, adding an E makes fin become fine. Lot becomes loot, again different. In Japanese this does NOT happen. Each syllable is spoken the same regardless of context. “too” doesn’t become “tuu” in Japanese, it is “toe-o”. Try to avoid the Westerner tendency to make them change depending on context. If you get the a i u e o sounds right, you’re totes there. Ra, ri, ru, re, ro, ma, mi, mu, me, mo. There are a few exceptions, there’s no si, it’s shi, and the t’s get screwed up as ta, chi, tsu, te, to. There’s also ya, yu, and yo, but ye and yi are completely missing. And there’s wa. For no reason. The only other character is n. Just on its own after another character. Ie, nihon for japan.
ikura desu ka (ickoora deska) — how much is it?
[thingy] ga hoshii desu (thingy ga hoshee des) — I want the thingy.
sumimasen (soomeemasen) — excuse me
wakarimasu ka (wakareemaska) — do you understand?
eigo dekimasu ka (eygo deckimaska) — do you speak english? can you english?
nihongo dekimasen/nihongo wakarimasen — I don’t speak/understand japanese
[place/thing] wa doko desu ka — (thing wa dohkoh deska) — where is thing
[thing] ga arimasu ka — (thing ga arimaska) — do you have thing? (Do you sell, etc)
[place] ni ikimasu (place nee ickymass) — going to place (useful for taxis, trains, etc)
eki (ecky) — train station (shinjuku-eki, yotsuya-eki, etc)
toire (toy-rey) — toilet
futari (foo-tarry) — two people
kekko desu (kecko des) — I’m fine, it’s fine. (Dismissive of an attempt to offer you something)
The “ka” is a question, but much like English, in fact exactly like English, a rising tone makes something a question. “Two people” as a statement, and “two people?” as a question are clearly different. It’s identical in Japanese.
One of the most useful techniques for being understood feels like outright racism. Seriously. If you can’t get people to understand, say it in English with mockingly over-the-top Japanese-ness. I’ve lost track of the number of times I struggled to be understood saying what I thought correct (even in Japanese) only to say something like “buraku shoozu” for black shoes, and have them immediately understand with a kind of “well why didn’t you say so” tone.
Tokyo Train System
Tokyo is probably not as big as you think. I think my impressions were formed on the basis of pictures of places like Hong Kong, or Shanghai, which are very tall. Tokyo doesn’t have massive buildings. It has medium sized buildings, but they’re horizon to horizon. In fact, everything there is smaller than you think. Someone I went there with pointed out that it feels like it’s at 85% scale. That’s pretty much spot on. Doors and seats and things are just that little bit smaller than you expect. A six foot tall person needs to watch their head a bit more than they’re used to.
Tokyo doesn’t have a “city centre” like most towns. Rather it has a ring around the outside, a large train line called the Yamanote line. The Yamanote is a major part of Tokyo life, and goes through all the big destinations. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Ginza, Akihabara, Ueno, etc. Roppongi and Yotsuya are in the middle there. It’s not a circle, really, it’s kind of deformed. I think of it like a melty Salvador Dali clock. It’s long at the bottom, and flat on top. But taking it as a clock like that, Shinjuku is at around 10 o’clock, Akihabara at 5, Harajuku at 7, Ueno at 2, etc. The Chuo line is also useful — it runs directly from the awesomeness of Akihabara and the Ginza to the awesomeness of Shinjuku, passing through a bunch of lovely places. And Roppongi. If you stay on it it also goes out to Nakano where Nakano Broadway is, and then to Mitaka, where the Ghibli museum is. Useful!
If you’re taking long trips, such as to Osaka or Kyoto, you may well find that you’re better off with a JR Rail Pass. The rail pass covers all JR line travel except the very fastest class of bullet train. They’re for 7 or 14 days. They’re quite expensive (a few hundred dollars) but so is travel by long distance rail in Japan.
Trains in Japan are pretty crazy. The map of Tokyo stations and lines is utterly insane. But you can simplify it a lot down to major lines. Train lines are often privately run there. Some of the major departments stores, such as Odakyu have their own train lines and train company. The majority of big lines are run by JR, Japan Rail. It’s named in English for reasons. Yamanote and Chuo are both JR lines, as are the ones to the airport, and other cities. Sticking to the JR system might mean a slightly longer walk in some cases, but a shitload less confusion trying to change from system to system. There may be exceptions, I used to take the subway to my house, for example, because the nearest JR station was a fairly long way, and there slightly more convenient subway stations in the Ginza than the JR one.
Ticketing is relatively easy. You have two options. One is paper tickets. This means that you pay for a ticket, and stick it in the machine. Then you put it in at the other end and it either lets you through because your ticket was right, or spits it back out and you have to pay the difference between what you bought and what you actually travelled. The better and easier option is to buy a Suica card. These are the equivalent of a go-card, and you can just top them up with Yennies and off you go. Beep beep. They’re about $5 for the card, I think, then you have to put money on them. The machines have a button for English.
A third option is the JR Rail Pass mentioned above, which does work for local trains as well. But it would not be cost-effective to get one just for local trains.
Trains in Japan are much cheaper than Australia, but when you’re a tourist you use them a lot, so you’ll burn through it. You can also use Suica cards at trains to major destinations and lines go extremely regularly. Five minutes max. I’ve seen trains pull up literally as another one is leaving. They’re… regular.
Trains are also very much on time. If they say 3:23 they’ll be there at 3:23. They have a margin for error of less than 28 seconds.
Peak hour in Tokyo isn’t the same as ours, it’s closer to 7:30–8pm, because people work back too late. Avoid travelling then if you don’t want to be a sardine. Some trips, like Shibuya on a Friday Night, sardinity is inevitable. Just go with it.
It helps to learn the Kanji for major lines, such as Yamanote and Chuo. 山手 is the Yamanote. The first character is mountain, and quite distinctive and easy to find. Though most train stations have English signage in abundance, the Japanese ones are both larger and more common, and Japanese train stations can be confusing mazes.
Trains are super easy to catch. Buses are very not. Avoid them. They have no English support, don’t use the Suica system, require exact change, and are intended for very local transport. They’re more common in Kyoto than Tokyo for some reason.
GETTING TO AND FROM THE AIRPORT
You want to take the N’EX train. Narita Express. I don’t know what time you get in, so I don’t know if that’s an option, but if it is, it’s your best one. This is a reserved seat train, i.e., you need a ticket. This can be bought at the airport, for a cost of around $70 per person, each way. You can get a “round trip” ticket for your return for about $45 each. The trip is about an hour, and stops at a few major stops, including Kanda (where you can change to the Chuo line, and Shinjuku. Note that if you have a JR Rail Pass that will cover the N'EX as well.
The other option, if you are too late, is to get the “limousine bus”. The bus is a much longer trip (nearly two hours) but has the advantage of going directly to many hotels.
At the same time, the cost is around half the train. $35 or so each.
Given a nice early and rested trip, your best option is a train to Shinjuku or Tokyo, then either a taxi or another train to your hotel. If you need to get a bus, then so be it. It’s easy and you don’t have to think about it.
Better (and worse) than I expected
Better than I expected
Ghibli Museum: You have to book this around three months in advance. They go on sale three months out and start to get immediately snapped up. The sooner you book, the better. Especially if you need to go on a weekend or peak season. Tickets can only be bought through JTB travel, and they’re mailed to you.
Tokyo Robot Restaurant: You can book online now, or in person for later in the evening. Get the Bento Box, it’s good. This is absolutely mandatory.
Akihabara. All of it. It’s amazing. Especially the cube shops. So many things.
Shinjuku. Shinjuku is literally my favourite place in the world. Go there a lot.
Shibuya crossing. Staggering numbers of people.
Harajuku main street
Ginza toy store, and the parallel side street
Tsukuji fish market: Though a bullshit early morning this is a legit commercial fish market. It is staggering in scale. No pun intended. Pun a little bit intended.
Games arcades: I don’t know what is happening, but I like it
Nakano Broadway: Though similar in theme to Akihabara with its many anime figures, Nakano Broadway also has a lot of more vintage and classic collectibles. It is well worth a look.
Worse than I expected
Sega Joypolis: Sounds amazing, but waits are absurd. Three hour waits for 10 minutes of ride. There are better things to do with your precious Tokyo time.
Maid Cafe: Sounds like cute fun, but they’re stupid and tacky, horribly overpriced and the food is terrible. We spent about $75 on what I believe was two omelettes and a coke.
Gaming: Usually means gambling, which usually means pachinko, which makes no sense.
Ikebukuro: This was recommended to me in such terms that I thought a choir of angels would sing when the door opened. It’s just another mixed-residential commercial suburb.
Gashapon (or gachapon) is a brand, but also the generic term for all the capsule vending machines. There are major caches of these through Akihabara, but really they’re common all over the place. For the most part they dispense useless crap — like phone danglies with pictures of pretty boys from some random anime. But they also have some bizarrely awesome stuff… oddly large numbers of natural world stuff. Insects of Japan, Fish of Japan, Frogs, Mushrooms, etc.
Also some unspeakably strange things. Cats. So many cats. Cats that hang on your glass. Cats that are also a dessert. Cats that have a poop for a head. Natural world figures. Natural world figures after they’ve been dipped in panko crumbs and deep fried.. Like… a whole shark.
It’s very weird and I love it. Keep an eye out and you’ll find some fun souvenirs for prices less than $5.