It has literally been a year since we went to Japan. A whole year!! I usually try and have these posts out soon after getting back from a trip and although I did a lot of the writing for these posts, I never actually put them out for friends, blog readers and family to see. So here is the first post in my Japan series. Tokyo.
Japan is one of the coolest and weirdest places I have ever been. Weird, not in a harsh way, just in a Japan way. I think in the 13 days or so that we were there, we got a really good feel for the place, we did a lot, we saw a lot and we sweat… a LOT. Japan in summer is a whole other ball game.
I really hope that in the not too far future, we are able to travel again and I can use my own travel guides and posts to remind myself of a few things.
What to do in Tokyo
Tokyo is the definition of a sprawling city. It is so spread out that it’s impossible to see everything. In the 2 and a bit weeks we were in Japan, we could have easily spent the whole time just in Tokyo and for that reason we can’t wait to be able to go back and explore some more.
Akihabara (Electric Town) – If you are looking for Electronics, Anime Stores, Maid Cafe’s and Otaku Culture, Akihabara is the place to be. Where we stayed was only a short walk from this fascinating part of the city and as far as first impressions go, it did not disappoint.
If you do get the chance, get involved in a Gaming & Amime tour, race like Super Mario around the streets in go karts, visit the shrines and eat delicious ramen. This was probably one of my favourite places in Tokyo, mainly because when you are there you feel like you are inside of a Studio Ghibli film.
Explore all the little side streets – Walking around all of the side streets in Tokyo was my favourite thing to do. You would always come across beautiful little houses, hidden away stores and bars, and loads of vending machines. The best thing to do is find a little restaurant that seats maybe six people and order Yakitori, Soba Noodles and a cheap beer as you watch the side walk by.
Visit the gardens & temples – This is not a hard or expensive activity to do in Tokyo. You are basically falling over temples and beautiful gardens no matter where you go. Some of them you will need to pay a small amount to enter or have a walking tour but definitely worth it. My favourite ones were Sensoji Temple, Nezu Shrine, Yasukuni Shrine (Also host to the Mitama Matsuri festival which we were able to attend whilst in Tokyo), Zojoji Temple and Shinjuku National Garden.
Go to an Izakaya & a hole in the wall bar – We went to a few of these little traditional bars/restaurants whilst in Japan, our favourite being Baird Beer in Harajuku. With a great selection of Craft Beer and Yakitori Skewers, it’s a place you shouldn’t miss. The food and beer is good but mostly the staff and other patrons were incredibly friendly and welcoming. What began as an escape from the weather became a 3hr experience well worth the stop.
The famous Shibuya Crossing – You can not go to Tokyo without visiting the famous Shibuya Crossing. It is really quite fascinating. After a first hand experience of crossing the crossing, we made our way to The Starbucks Roastery overlooking this area not only for the view (and good iced coffee) but to people watch and see the action happen. I would suggest doing something similar. Shibuya itself is also just a great part of the city to wander around, eat great food and go shopping!
Team Lab Borderless – There are some places you go in life that you will just never forget. teamLab Borderless was one of those places. Apart from the hour long lines and hundreds of people, the ‘artwork without boundaries’ is a must have experience for every one, every age, even if you don’t like or care for art, just go and experience this incredible place. There are a number of teamLab artwork experiences around the world and I really hope to visit more of them in the future.
Shinjuku – This is one of the main hubs of Tokyo. Shopping, entertainment and general business district. When you think of a Japanese city that you see on TV, this is what you are seeing and what you think Tokyo will be like. It has the biggest and most impressive train station I have ever seen (and gotten lost in) as well as skyscrapers all around. Its has some of the best food places we found in Tokyo, a beautiful park and many many department stores.
Harajuku – If you are looking for Kawaii, Harajuku is for you. Takeshita Street is one of those places in Japan that just blows your mind. It is so incredibly busy almost all of the time, even in the pouring rain, however its really worth a look if you can handle the crowds. On every inch of the street there are colourful shops with cute clothing and random items, crepe stores, animal cafes & Cat Street, the most hipster street in Tokyo. It’s really a cool place to go.
Find a festival – Tokyo and Japan in general tends to have festivals all year round. Festivals for basically everything. We were lucky enough to go during summer and came across a few Summer Festivals without trying to. A highlight of our trip was going to the Mitama Matsuri which is quite famous for the 30,000ish lanterns which are hung around the grounds of the shrine. There were so many food options and activities going on, it was a cool experience for sure.
Where to stay
When choosing where to stay in Tokyo, these are the criteria I would look for, especially if it is your first time.
– Try and be near or on the Yamanote Train Line
– Good restaurants, bars and attractions near by
– It’s fun and/or attractive
Shibuya, Ginza or Shinjuku – If you want super convenient, these areas are the place for you. They are all on the Yamanote Train Line which makes it very easy to get around. There is a big range of places to stay for all budgets so it really just depends what you are after.
Asakusabashi – We chose to stay in Asakusabashi for the first part of our Tokyo trip because it was on a convenient train line close to the main city and it was really reasonably priced (we even had to book an extra night last minute and it was not a problem or any more expensive). We stayed at the ICI Hotel Asakusabashi and would stay again. Word of warning for those of you who haven’t stayed in Tokyo before – our hotel room wasn’t even large enough to fold open a suitcase, so pack lightly!
Roppongi – We stayed here at the end of our Japan trip at the Sotetsu Fresa Inn only a short walk from Roppongi Hills and main train lines. Roppongi Hills is like a city, within a city with offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and a museum. Roppongi is well known for its nightclubs, foreign embassies and controversial past. Its well worth a visit even if you don’t stay here.
How to get around
Although incredibly intimidating if you have never experienced it, Tokyo’s public transport system is one of the best in the world. With Subways, Trains and busses running constantly, it’s hard to ever not have a way to get somewhere, you just need to know how.
SUICA/ Pasmo Card – A Prepaid stored value card – This is the best way to pay for public transport. You can buy them online before your trip or grab one at the airport. You can not only use them to pay for public transport but they can also be used at convenience stores and other places.
Trains & Subways – By far the best way to get around Tokyo. There are two main subway systems in tokyo, the Metro and the Toei Subways. They are pretty much interlinked however there are some passes which only work on the Metro (AKA the JR pass) I would suggest a Suica card to pay for both lines so that you don’t need to worry.
Walk – Tokyo is a very walkable city if you are prepared for it and have the appropriate footwear. Because the city is so big you will always need to train to a particular part however once there, if you can walk around, just walk. You will see so much more and bump into so many things and places you would have otherwise. Another word of warning – make sure you know what stop you are getting off, as each time you board a train you are charged a fee, even if you mistakenly hopped off on a station before your final stop.
Bus & Taxi – I would only use these two forms of transport of you really have to or there is no other option. Buses are efficient and extensive but not great for tourists. Taxis are a great way to get around (not during peak hours) but are expensive!
To and From the Airport – There are two airports in Tokyo, Haneda and Narita. We flew into one and out of the other so got to know them both.
– Haneda is closer and more convenient to Tokyo but has fewer international connections. We only flew into here because of flight changes however it was so easy to get into the city. We jumped on the Tokyo Monorail and used our Suica cards to pay for it. It took us all the way into Tokyo Station – convenient.
– The best way between Narita and Tokyo is JR Narita Express. It is a lot further from the city so is about an hour away. Make sure you sort out tickets for this beforehand as you don’t want to be like us and nearly miss your flight because you didn’t!
What to eat
Everything, is the simple answer. Tokyo has food everywhere and it’s hard to know what to have and what to miss out on. The choices are endless and there are so many options. I have listed a few of my favourites below.
Ramen – You can not go to Tokyo without going to Ichiran & Afuri. Noodles, egg and pork in a delicious broth is to die for. As people who never really ate ramen before japan, we ate SO much ramen. We went back to Ichiran twice because it is just that good.
Yakitori – Meat and vegetables on a stick brushed with a glaze and grilled over charcoal. You cant get much better than this. The best place to eat Yakitori are in one of the many Izakayas you will find around the city.
Japanese Curry – Curry is another one of those dishes in Japan where we ate so many we could barely roll onto the plane. They are delicious and the ultimate comfort food. Our favourite was Hinoya Curry in Shinjuku, a must visit if you are in the area.
Soba – Handmade Soba Noodles are a really common meal to have. They are best served cold with a dipping sauce or in a hot dashi broth as a soup. You will find them everywhere around Japan and in Tokyo.
Buns – Go into any convenience store and you will be blown away with the selection of buns. hot and cold. Filled with anything and everything they are the perfect on the go breakfast or snack food. We would head into 7/11 nearly every morning and pick something up. A bad but delicious habit.
Sushi – Tokyo is the capital of Sushi. The skills learned over many many years as as well as the abundance of fresh seafood means that you can’t leave without having it at some point. Conveyor Belt Sushi is probably the best bet if you aren’t wanting to break the bank however there are very upmarket choices too if you are wanting to indulge.
Udon – Japan is all about a good noodle. Udon noodles are thicker, chewy, slippery and smooth. Generally served in a hot broth with tempura its another dish not to miss in Tokyo.
Top Coffee Spots
If you know me, you know I love a good coffee. I was unsure about how this would be in Japan but I wasn’t disappointed, there are a few places I would recommend visiting however no matter where you are in Tokyo, chances are you will walk by somewhere with great coffee.
Duct Coffee Lab
Tokyo Travel Tips
Language – A lot of people in Tokyo only have limited English, so learn a few phrases in Japanese before you go. Also, download Google Translate.
WiFi – Get a pocket Wifi set up for when you land – most places don’t have internet access and if they do it’s limited and bad. You will also be really reliant on google maps to get around and use the train system so it really is essential.
Know the etiquettes – Do some basic googling and you will know why I have put this in as a tip. Don’t walk and eat, don’t tip, use the money trays, take off your shoes, sit properly… these are just a few things to keep in mind.
Buy tickets to Museums, Temples and other touristy things way in advance or chances are you will miss out.
Travel & Transport – Learn the etiquette. Don’t have your phone on loud or speak on the phone whilst on the train or subway, give your seat up for the elderly, pregnant women, the disabled and children.
Get a JR Pass if you are planning on leaving Tokyo (If you aren’t, stick with a Suica or Pasmo card). Do your research and figure out how many days you will need it for (before you go). These passes are made for foreigners, are expensive but are really convenient.
Cash & Cards – Many places, more than you think don’t yet accept card so when in doubt always have cash. 7- Eleven is the best place to find an ATM to get cash out.
Convenience stores are really convenient – If there was one thing I wish I could bring back to Melbourne from Japan, it would be a Japanese 7/11. Honestly these places are the best. Snacks and on the go food are incredible cheap, ATMs are easy to use, staff were pretty much always friendly and helpful, pretty good iced coffee.. I really loved it.
Bring a plastic bag for your rubbish & hand sanitiser everywhere – soap dispensers and rubbish bins aren’t really a thing. A pack of tissues will also come in handy.
Smoking is still allowed indoors – This was a hard one to get used to. As people who are very much used to it not being commonplace anymore, sitting in a cafe and being smoked out is not very pleasant. Some places only allow it outside or in specific areas however it is good to note where these are before going inside.
Know how to order your food from a vending ticket machine – The first time we used one of these it was really intimidating mainly because it wasn’t in english however you soon realise these are very much common place. Here’s what to do if you come across them:
1. Put in money
2. Select what you want (the machines typically feature photos of each dish on offer)
3. Collect your ticket and change
4. Take a seat and give the food ticket to the kitchen staff.
Note: At some machines, you put in the bill AFTER you select your order. If you’re lucky, some machines even have English menu!
Enjoy the incredible wonder that is Japanese electronic toilets. You will know once you see one why this has its own point.
(Aussies) Open up a Citibank everyday account – Citibank don’t charge currency conversion fees or other bank ATM fees, so after a two week holiday you are likely to have saved a good amount! Perfect to cover a few more delicious curries
Avoid the summer months! – If you can avoid going to Japan in Summer I would highly recommend you do so. The heat, humidity and rain was probably the worst part of the trip. It made a few days fairly miserable and unproductive with a bit of wasted time. I would say Spring and Autumn are probably your best bet (unless you want winter for snow!)
If you made it to the end of this post, thank you! This was a biggie but there is so much to share about Tokyo that I couldn’t leave things out. There are more Japan posts to come as we did also head to Hakone, Kyoto, Nara and we also hired a car for a day so I will be doing seperate posts on these places and things as well 🙂
Please leave a comment letting me know your favourite thing about Tokyo or Japan in general as well as any tips you might have for fellow readers!