Tokyo has to be up there in the top 3 cities that I’ve visited and fallen for big time. I first went to Tokyo a few years ago for a writing project I was working on. Nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of everything that is Tokyo. The culture, the high-tech toilets, the anxiety-inducing interchange at Shinjuku subway station, the human wall coming straight towards you while you attempt to cross at the scramble crossing, the mind-blowing cuisine you can get everywhere. Everywhere. And of course, the people. They are the best feature of Tokyo. Polite, considerate, quirky, ridiculously cool, creative.
Yes. Everyone has to go to Tokyo at least once in their lives. Before you start booking, here are eight things to know to help you plan, and prepare you for the awesomeness of a visit to Tokyo.
1. get pocket Wifi
If your mobile operator roaming charges are likely to be astronomical when you’re in Japan, it is worthwhile renting pocket wifi for the duration of your stay so you’ll have it everywhere you go. You can pick them up from dedicated desks at the airport when you arrive in Tokyo.
The main reason I recommend this is that the Tokyo address system is bonkers – it’s all based on when the building was built. You really will need Google Maps in order to get around easily.
Google Translate also has a function where you can take a photograph of Japanese writing and it will translate it into English. Very handy when it comes to reading menus in Japanese…
2. Eating Out can be a Challenge
Tokyo’s dining scene can be a little tricky as English is not as widely spoken as in other places. Some restaurants don’t have menus in English (see my tip about Google Translate above).
Don’t let it deter you, however, because the food in Tokyo generally is of exceptionally good quality. And the staff usually tackle the language divide with good humour.
I live by the rule that I don’t eat in restaurants that have photos of the food outside. If you have the same dietary requirement, then do be prepared to break that rule in Tokyo. It’s perfectly normal for very good restaurants to have photos or even plastic models of the food out the front. Don’t let it put you off.
3. It’s Easy to Get Around
Once you’ve got your Google Maps in hand, it is so easy to get around on Tokyo’s public transport. The subway system is clean, efficient and easy to use. Most signs are in English as are the ticket machines.
To get around on the subway, buy a PASMO card at the train station and top it up as and when you need to on the automated machines at all stations.
If you plan to travel outside Tokyo, get a Japan Rail Pass. You can only buy it outside of Japan, and have it delivered to your home address. They cost about £200 (approx. USD255) which is much cheaper than buying intercity train tickets once you’re in Japan. The Japan Rail pass allows you to take any JR train in Japan (that’s the main rail company) to pretty much anywhere (including the bullet train) for a set period of days. But do check the website as there are some exceptions to which lines you can use it on.
4. Most ATMs won’t accept your card
If you’re used to the ease of international banking and withdrawing cash from ATMs on foreign holidays, you’ll need to adapt slightly in Japan. The only ATMs that will accept your bank card to withdraw cash are at large international banks like HSBC or from ATMs at 7-Elevens.
5. It’s Safe
Tokyo has one of the lowest petty crime rates in the world. Children take the subway home at night after music lessons unaccompanied. You never feel like you’ve wandered into a dodgy neighbourhood, as there simply doesn’t seem to be any dodgy neighbourhoods. If you drop your wallet, chances are it would be handed in somewhere for you to collect.
6. The Toilets are High Tech
I love Japanese toilets. Yes, they are hard to work. Yes, you might end up covered in toilet water if you push the wrong button. But the functionality is beyond your wildest toilet-related dreams. Heated seats, front and back bidet style functions (with variable water pressure) and air drying are just the beginning.
The public toilets are (generally) pretty clean as far as public toilets go. My favourite public toilets were the ones located just before you get to the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Yoyogi Park. They automatically sense when they are actually “in use” and play a waterfall sound to disguise any other noises.
It is useful to know what the “flush” symbol is though (流す), or its a case of trial and error in choosing which button to push.
7. Earthquakes Happen
Little earthquakes are not at all unusual. The first time you experience it, it is unsettling. Buildings shake and everything vibrates to a low rumbling sound.
Generally it only lasts a few seconds, and the locals barely register any reaction to it at all. Generally, there’s no need to freak out.
8. tokyo is exceptionally clean
For the first day or so when I arrived Tokyo, I had this sense that there was something “not quite right”. And then it hit me, there is hardly any litter or rubbish anywhere. Tokyo is one very clean city. But the weird thing is that there’s not that many rubbish bins on the street either. So you might end up wandering around for a very long time holding an empty coffee cup before you can dispose of it properly.
9. Tokyo is Bonkers (in the best possible way)
There really is something for every possible interest in Tokyo. Cat cafes, owl cafes, hedgehog cafes. Robot restaurants, vending machines selling pretty much everything, Harajuku boys and girls, an obsession with all things cute and fluffy, rockabilly dancers at Yoyogi Park – Tokyo is pretty incredible.