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Tokyo, Japan Travel Guide

Tokyo Summary

Pros

  • Massive and buzzing mega-city with plenty to see and do
  • Convenient subway system takes you all over the city
  • A haven for foodies -- delicious sushi, ramen, and Western restaurants are never too far away 
  • Unique cafes and themed restaurants (yes -- cat cafes are a thing)
  • Great for shopping, namely technology and gadgets
  • Green parks and historic temples are nestled between city skyscrapers
  • Vending machines and convenience stores are on every corner
  • Iconic fashion and style scene plus trendy neighborhoods like Harajuku
  • A transport hub -- easy to get around Japan by train, Shinkansen, plane, or night bus
  • Excellent infrastructure, with a reliable train service that’s almost never disrupted
  • The entire city is super-clean, from restaurants to sidewalks
  • Tipping is not customary, and will likely be refused

Cons

  • The city is extremely busy and overcrowded, including the subways
  • Transportation and hotels are expensive -- hotel rooms are tiny
  • There are no trains after midnight until the morning
  • Hotels get booked up quickly, especially during public holidays
  • Eating out can be tricky for those with special dietary requirements
  • English is not widely spoken

What It's Like:

On the surface, Tokyo is a blinding mix of bright lights, skyscrapers, and busy sidewalks. But dig deeper, and you’ll find a city that’s drenched in centuries-old culture -- and it’s this interesting mix that makes Tokyo one of the the most captivating city’s in the world. The energy here has inspired many a superlative-filled tale -- and all of them are (most likely) true. 

There are almost limitless wards to explore in this city of nearly 14 million people, and while Tokyo is mostly known as a chronically bustling metropolis, there are plenty of places for quiet and reflection packed within it's teeming skyscrapers. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s liveliest districts, and it’s a wonderful place to start exploring, offering tourists a real taste of modern Japanese life. It’s busy, loud, and can be overwhelming at times, but it’s organized chaos and locals are always polite -- even on overcrowded subway trains during rush hour. At night, Kabukicho (the red-light district) is a hive of activity, illuminated by neon lights, karaoke bars, and themed-cafes like the Robot Restaurant. It’s not unusual to see groups of salarymen stumbling around clutching their briefcases, usually after one too many cups of sake. 

During the day, Shinjuku is a thriving shopping and dining destination, with numerous restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. Conveyor-belt sushi is a common sight, and there are plenty of places to grab a bowl of ramen or sample a delicious Japanese savory pancake, known as okonomiyake. Vegetarians, and those with specific dietary requirements, should be aware that translation can be difficult in restaurants, so it’s best to come prepared (and perhaps download a translation app). Shibuya is another great area for shopping and dining, made famous by its hectic central crossing. The colorful Akihabara prefecture is dedicated to up-to-date technology and gadgets, making it a go-to for gamers.

The city’s green parks and historic temples are ideal spots to escape the madness, and are a fascinating way to explore Japan's diverse cultural bedrock. Yoyogi Park is a lovely place to take a break, where Rockabilly dancers can be spotted every Sunday dancing to 1950s rock music. Ueno Park is a popular for cherry blossoms in spring, while Asakusa offers a taste of traditional Japan. The main attraction here is the Sensoji Temple, a striking Buddhist structure built in the seventh century. Narrow streets surround the area, filled with quaint souvenir shops, cozy izakayas (informal Japanese drinking-holes), and numerous street-food stalls selling sweet snacks like taiyaki, senbei, and chocolate crepes. Meiju-Jingu is a great introduction to Japan’s Shinto shrines, and it’s conveniently located behind Harajuku station. Harajuku is the place to go for anything and everything kawaii (meaning "cute" in English), including numerous cat cafes where you can sip drinks alongside playful felines.

Renamed Tokyo in 1868, at the end of the Edo Period, the city has now become one of the most modern in the world, but that’s not to say it doesn’t maintain plenty of traditional customs and distinctive cultural differences. Making a scene is generally avoided, so it’s worth being mindful of talking loudly on the phone, eating on the go, and blowing your nose in public. On the other hand, slurping a bowl of hot ramen is considered polite, so go ahead and make a bit of noise over your next steaming hot bowl of soup.

Where To Stay:

With over 20 wards, Tokyo is a big city. Hotels are generally expensive, although there are some cheaper options for those on a budget, such as capsule hotels, hostels, or Ibis chain hotels. As taxi fares are high, it's cheaper and more convenient to stay within walking distance of a subway station. Pick up a free subway map from a station upon arrival, as it can be tricky to find your way around, as most signs aren’t written in English.

The JR Yamanote line passes through many popular tourist areas like Shinjuku, Harajuku, and Ginza, which are great bases for exploring the city. It’s worth noting that the JR Yamanote line can be used with a Japan Rail Pass, an unlimited-use season ticket for tourists. This pass is only available to foreign travelers, and must be purchased outside the country before arrival. It’s a great money-saver and worth looking into, especially for those taking multiple trips during a long stay.

Travelers on a budget may want to consider the Shinjuku Kuyakushomae Capsule Hotel, which consists of several enclosed bunks with a bed, TV, and alarm clock. Though slightly claustrophobic, these modern hotel’s are ideal for solo, short-stay travelers. The Shinjuku Granbell Hotel is a chic, upscale option for business travelers and families, while the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo offers quirky Hello Kitty-themed rooms, traditional ryokan-style dining, and a karaoke bar. 

Ginza is another prime location for tourists, as it’s only a short subway ride to Ueno Park and Asakusa. The Mercure Tokyo Ginza is a nice mid-range option, and it’s within walking distance to the Kabuki Theatre, Tokyo Station, and the famous Tsukiji Fish Market. The Asakusa View Hotel is also well-located, offering great views of Sensoji Temple, and -- on a good day -- Mount Fuji in the distance. Travelers should be aware that hotels in Tokyo fill up pretty quickly, especially during public holidays and cherry blossom season, so try to book at least three months ahead if possible.

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