Tokyo is the capital of Japan and is one of the 47 prefectures. It is renowned for being the biggest metropolitan area in the world. The Japanese Royal Family also lives here which just goes to show how important Tokyo is. Indeed, Tokyo is classed as one of the three giants in the world economy, with London and New York City.Interestingly, Tokyo used to be just a small fishing village, with its original name Edo meaning ‘estuary’, so it is obviously on the water.
The surrounding area is quite flat. It is situated on the island of Honshu and the name changed to Tokyo in the mid nineteenth century since this word stands for ‘capital’. These days though, Tokyo is probably best known for its dense population, and everywhere seems to be extremely crowded.
Tokyo (東京 Tōkyō) is the enormous and wealthy capital of Japan, and also its main city, overflowing with culture, commerce, and most of all, people. As the most densely populated urban area in the world, Tokyo is a fascinating and dynamic metropolis that mixes foreign influences, consumer culture and global business along with remnants of the capital of old Japan. From modern electronics and gleaming skyscrapers to cherry blossoms and the Imper
Architecture here is mostly modern because most of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1923, or by the fire bombing in the Second World War. However, this does not detract from it because the contemporary architecture makes the place look more spacious than it really is.
Best time to go
Tokyo enjoys hot and humid summers and mild winters. There are some cool spells but none of which are too cold. August is the warmest month with temperatures averaging 27C. The coolest time to visit is in January where temperatures can drop to 6C. Rainfall tends to be more in the summer than winter and snow will fall now and then in the winter. Typhoons occur as well, but these are usually not strong enough to cause problems.
There is a vast network of trains, subways and buses that service Tokyo. It is the train and subways which are the best way to move around the city.
Although special tickets do not have discounts as such, by purchasing them, the traveler can move around quicker.
There are different offers so check these out. This is also the home of the famous bullet train, the shinkansen, which takes people from Tokyo to Osaka in just three hours.
Car rental is possible but given the congestion, it may well be better to take a taxi, or take public transport which is relatively clean and safe.
Major Attractions and Sights
When arriving in Tokyo, many visitors find that it takes some days to get their body clock in sync. When this happens, the first visit must be to the busiest fish market in the world. For reservations to visit, try looking out for the fish information center at Kachidoki Gate on Harumi Street. Visitors are allowed in only on certain days and in two groups of sixty. The whole thing starts at around five in the morning so fits in well with jet lagged people! Be in time to experience the live tuna auctions in full swing. After this, go for a sushi breakfast in Tsukiji. Although raw fish for breakfast is only for the brave, it is worth a try at least. There are many different stalls selling sushi, but the best ones are off the wholesale fruit and vegetable market. Look for long lines to find the best sushi shops around.
There is also a general market in Tsukiji where specialty foods are on offer, but the best buys are the sashimi knives and bowls.
No-one can visit Tokyo without witnessing a ubiquitous sumo wrestling match. These huge athletes are revered for their skills, and none of them are without their attendant sumo groupies. There are three big tournaments throughout the year and they each last for fifteen days. They occur in January, May and September. A tip here is to visit in the morning or midday sessions as it is less crowded then. If visiting outside the competition seasons, try visiting the training sessions at a sumo stable, as it is called.
A visit to Japan cannot be complete without a visit to a shrine and one of the famous shrines here is the Shinto shrine. The demeanor of the place is serenity, so it is not really a tourist trap. There is a forty foot high gate, the torii, at the opening to the park, and there are two hundred acres to roam around in. Visitors who want to pray must first cleanse their hands and mouth at the communal water tank. Look for the huge taiko drum to offer up some offering and say a prayer here. Bow the head twice, clap once and then bow again. On Sundays, many wedding processions parade here with Shinto priests in attendance. It is a wonderful sight to behold and, if lucky, more than one procession will occur on this day.
Yoyogi Park in Shibuya-ku is well worth the visit. After spending some quiet time at the shrine, this place is a little manic to say the least. Since space is at a premium, many performers come here to practice. This could be anything from a run through for a play to hip hop singers and dancers. The American pop culture of the fifties is very popular, so expect to see poodle skirts and beehive hairstyles here.
The park is also a great place to cycle and they are available to hire. Go to the area to the northwest of the central field and check out the tandems and bikes. Snacks are available along with beer and other light refreshments, so this is a great place to stop for lunch.
For garden lovers, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a must. They have decked this place out in different styles. There is the English Landscape, the Formal, the Japanese Traditional with its own teahouse etc. To get a better overall view, go to the second floor of the Taiwan Pavilion and take some memorable photos. If possible, aim for the February /March time so that the beauty of the Cherry Blossoms can be experienced.
The free way to see the city at its best is to go up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. This has two towers with two observation decks on the forth fifth floor. Find the towers to the west of Shinjuku skyscraper area. This is a wonderful way to get photos of the skyline, and many tourists come here just for this purpose.
Perhaps the most famous of all entertainment spots in Tokyo is Disneyland. As one would expect from Disney, the park is run like clockwork, and has all the famous characters for the children to interact with. The rides are phenomenal, the parades exceptional and the layout perfect. Book tickets in advance on the website to avoid queues. DisneySea is also in Tokyo, so expect some spectacular ocean based fun. Oddly enough, the website is not that charming or interesting, but those of us who have been to Disneyland in other countries will know what to expect.
Outside Tokyo Station, at the Yaesu entrance, is the Daimaru department store. On the tenth floor is the kimono shop which the locals frequent. Tourists love this place but for the prices of these exquisite garments. For extra special souvenirs of the city, take home some hair combs, thong sandals or fans. Try out the lightweight cotton robes that most local hotels have in their rooms, the yukata, with delightful decorations in the form of geometric patterns for men and bamboo prints for women. Magnificent Samurai swords are on display nearby so the men will have something to take their minds off all that shopping!
For a real tourist experience, try the Oriental Bazaar on Omotesando Street which has even more yukata on offer. This place is cheaper than Daimaru’s but it can get really crowded on the weekend. The store closes on Thursdays.
Sushi has already been mentioned and everyone should give this delicacy a try while in Tokyo. It is not for everyone, but here is where they make it best.
Food in the city is not always cheap, but those in the know can get by on a tight budget. This is done by going where the locals go to eat in a bar or within neighborhoods that cater to the working man. Ebisu, in Shibuya-ku, is full of little bars and eateries with some specializing in roasted meats and vegetables.
Try out the sashimi served on small plates, and then choose from the extensive drink menus. Look for chalkboard menus outside these establishments not far from the main railways station. Gyi miso is a wonderful stew of elephant yam and tripe with some deep fried ginger root. There are western style food joints too, like KFC or Choco-croco so kids don’t have to suffer. Buri is also a posh place to visit, and has a great sake menu just a few blocks away.
Visitors from Western countries may be surprised to find that despite its justified reputation for being an expensive city, eating out in Tokyo can be surprisingly affordable. While fine dining establishments in Tokyo can be some of the most expensive in the world, at the budget end of the spectrum, it is fairly easy to find a basic rice or noodle joint serving up meals starting from ¥300; a price that is unmatched even by McDonald’s or other fast food chains in the West.
Tokyo has a large quantity and variety of food. Department stores have food halls, typically in the basement, with food which is comparable to top delicatessans in other world cities (though mostly Japanese and Japanized foreign food). Some basements of train stations have supermarkets with free taste testers. It’s a great way to sample some of the strange dishes they have for free. Tokyo has a large number of restaurants, so see the main Japan guide for the types of food you will encounter and some popular chains. Menus are often posted outside, so you can check the prices. Some shops have the famous plastic food in their front windows. Don’t hesitate to drag the waiting staff out to the front to point at what you want. Always carry cash. Many restaurants will not accept credit cards.
Tokyo has tens of thousands of restaurants representing many cuisines in the world, though sometimes adjusted for local tastes, but it also offers a few unique local specialties. Within Japan, Tokyo cuisine is best known for 3 dishes: sushi, tempura, and unagi (freshwater eel). Nigirizushi (fish pressed onto rice), known around the world around simply as “sushi,” in fact originates from Tokyo, and within Japan is known as Edo-mae zushi (Edo-style sushi). Another is monjayaki (もんじゃ焼き), a gooey, cabbage-filled version of okonomiyaki that uses a very thin batter to achieve a sticky, caramelized consistency. It is originally from the Tsukishima area of Chuo and today there are many restaurants near Asakusa offering monjayaki.
- Hot Pepper Available in various editions, by region, around Tokyo, this free magazine offers a guide to local restaurants in Japanese but provides pictures and maps to the restaurants. Some restaurants even offer coupons. Most restaurants within this magazine are on the mid-range to high end scale.
Nightlife in Tokyo
The Japanese are renowned for their love of karaoke and Tokyo is no exception. In the Hiroo neighborhood, find a bar called Smash Hits, and while away a few enjoyable hours giving forth to a very rowdy audience. There are plenty of English songs in their extensive catalog. There is a forty dollar cover charge to get in but this includes two drinks. To get here on local transport, take the Hibiya line and get off at Exit 2. From there it is only a couple of minutes walk. Expats tend to take over on some nights so, if this is not what is required, try Jan Ken Pon instead.
Jan Ken Pon (rock paper scissors is the literal translation) is a club that offers live music which covers the fifties to the eighties eras, so this is a great place for nostalgia. Be aware though that hostesses that chat to customers in the early part of the evening are paid by the customer. For those on public transport, go on the Hibiya Metro line or JR Yamanote line to Ebisu.
Another musical experience must be at the Gigabar in the Minami-Aoyama which is the real center of nightlife in Tokyo. Here visitors can sing, play drums or guitar along with the band. It costs to join in, and there is a cover charge as well, but the experience is not to be missed.
The party never stops in Tokyo (at least in the karaoke bars), and you will find good little bars and restaurants everywhere.
The most Japanese way to spend a night out as an individual or in a small group would be at Japanese-style watering holes called izakaya (居酒屋), which offer food and drink in a convivial, pub-like atmosphere (see Japan for details). Cheaper chain izakaya like Tsubohachi (つぼ八) and Shirokiya (白木屋) usually have picture menus, so ordering is simple, even if you don’t know Japanese – but don’t be surprised if some places have Japanese only touchscreen ordering systems.
Another common option, which is often unbelievable to non-Japanese ears, is “all you can drink” (nomihōdai, 飲み放題), where you can drink all you want from a fixed menu for 90 minutes or 120 minutes. This is aimed at group parties, and is generally paired with a meal, often “all you can eat” (tabehōdai, 食べ放題), often in a private room. Receiving the items ordered will depend on how often your servers decide to bring out these items, which means you may be “throttled” to an extent, and may feel less than a true “all you can drink/eat” experience. This depends on the establishment. There are also a number of cheap bars where you can get a drink for ¥300 or even cheaper.
Tokyo’s most distinctive drink is Hoppy (hoppi, ホッピー), a virtually non-alcoholic beer-flavored drink (0.8% alcohol), which is drunk by mixing with shōchū (at 25%) at a 5:1 ratio, yielding an about 5% alcohol drink, essentially a substitute beer. This is available in older izakaya and has experienced a retro revival of late, though it is not particularly tasty. Another distinctively Tokyo drink is Denki Bran (電気ブラン, “electric brandy”), a herb-flavored brandy available (to drink in or in bottles) at the Kamiya bar (神谷バー) in Asakusa, right at the main intersection by the metro station.
The major brands of beer are widely available, typically ¥500–¥800 per glass or bottle, but microbrews and foreign beer are only rarely available and often very expensive. You’re generally better off getting bottles of microbrews at speciality stores. Popeye in Ryōgoku is a rare exception, with 70 beers on tap! Another popular choice is Beer Station at Ebisu, serving a variety of Yebisu beers and matching German food.
For a splurge on a beverage or two, Western Shinjuku’s Park Hyatt Tokyo houses the New York Bar on level 52. Providing stunning views day and night across Tokyo, it was also the setting for the movie Lost in Translation. Cocktails here start around ¥1400 – single malt whiskies are upwards of ¥2000. Amazing cocktails, served in “tasting flights” of 4 or 6 drinks, are made by Gen Yamamoto at his bar in Azabu-Jūban, at about ¥6000 for 6 drinks (a la carte cocktails are available in larger pours for ¥1600–¥1800).
Visiting clubs and western-style night spots can get expensive, with clubs and live houses enforcing weekend cover charges in the ¥2000–5000 bracket (usually including a drink coupon or two).
If you’re new in town, Roppongi has establishments which specialize in serving foreigners – but it’s also overflowing with foreigners, hostesses, and ‘patrons’ who will continually hassle you to visit their gentlemen’s clubs, where drinks cost ¥5000 and up. Many Japanese and foreigners avoid this area, preferring the clubs and bars in Shibuya instead, or trendy Ginza, Ebisu, or Shinjuku.
The Hub, a chain of British-style pubs, has branches in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Roppongi (as well as near most major stations) and is reasonably priced and popular among foreigners and Japanese alike. Other British/Irish pubs can be found in Roppongi, Shinjuku and Shibuya. Expect to pay around ¥1000 a pint, although happy hours can reduce this by a few hundred yen.
In Shibuya, the bar area behind 109 (not 109-2) and next to Dogenzaka (“Love Hotel Hill”) has a large number of clubs. Unlike those in Roppongi and Shibuya’s Gas Panic, these clubs have entrance fees, but clubs without entrance fees often hassle you all night to buy drinks which ends up just as expensive and without people who are actually there to enjoy the music. Shinjuku is home to Kabukichō, Japan’s largest red-light district. Also in Shinjuku is the gay bar district of Shinjuku-nichome. A little further from the city center are Shimokitazawa, Koenji and Nakano, full of good bars, restaurants and “live houses” offering underground/indie music popular with students and 20/30-somethings.
Anything of local interest
Although not peculiar to Tokyo alone, bath houses are frequented by most Japanese. The one thing that a novice should know is that these baths are not for washing in! Scrub down well before entering the baths for a long soak so that no one looks askance! Also note, tattoos are not allowed, not even for women.
Capsule hotels are peculiar to Tokyo because of the lack of space. People actually sleep in something that looks like a capsule or small chamber. These tiny spaces with a curtain for a door don’t even have room for the man, and these tend to be men only, to stand up straight.
Some capsule hotels have gone a little up-market and include saunas and the like, and there are also those that cater for women and tourists too. It is a cheaper way to stay in the city but it is meant as a stopover rather than a long stay. Luggage has to be left at the desk since there is no storage space in the capsules.
For those people who just have to smoke in a restaurant, they are in luck. Tokyo still has sections for smoking and non-smoking. However, they will seat visitors in the non- smoking section unless they are told differently.
Lastly, there is such a thing as train etiquette in Tokyo. For example, it is safe to sleep without fear of being robbed etc, but don’t spread legs all over the place as this is perceived to be extremely rude. Locals will not ask for the offending leg to be removed because they are too polite.
Lastly, there are a lot of stairs in railway stations in Tokyo, but it is very rude to help someone up the stairs when they are carrying large suitcases. It is perceived as an insult for some reason although it goes against the grain for many westerners.
History of Tokyo
Over 500 years old, the city of Tokyo was once the modest fishing village of Edo (江戸 – literally Gate of the River) due to its location at the mouth of Sumida-gawa. The city only truly began to grow when it became the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, who decided to set up a new seat of power far away from the intrigues of the imperial court in Kyoto. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, during which the Tokugawa family lost its influence, the emperor and the imperial family moved here from Kyoto, and the city was renamed to its current name, Tokyo, literally the “Eastern Capital”. The metropolitan center of the country, Tokyo is the destination for business, education, modern culture, and government. (That’s not to say that rivals such as Osaka won’t dispute those claims.)
Culture & Tradition of Tokyo
Tokyo is vast: it’s best thought of not as a single city, but a constellation of cities that have grown together. Tokyo’s districts vary wildly by character, from the electronic blare of Akihabara to the Imperial gardens and shrines of Chiyoda, from the hyperactive youth culture mecca of Shibuya to the pottery shops and temple markets of Asakusa. If you don’t like what you see, hop on the train and head to the next station, and you will find something entirely different.
The sheer size and frenetic pace of Tokyo can intimidate the first-time visitor. Much of the city is a jungle of concrete and wires, with a mass of neon and blaring loudspeakers. At rush hour, crowds jostle in packed trains and masses of humanity sweep through enormous and bewilderingly complex stations. Don’t get too hung up on ticking tourist sights off your list: for most visitors, the biggest part of the Tokyo experience is just wandering around at random and absorbing the vibe, poking your head into shops selling weird and wonderful things, sampling restaurants where you can’t recognize a single thing on the menu (or on your plate), and finding unexpected oases of calm in the tranquil grounds of a neighbourhood Shinto shrine. It’s all perfectly safe, and the locals will go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to help you if you just ask.
Climate of Tokyo
Tokyo is classified as lying in the humid subtropical climate zone and has five distinct seasons.
- Spring kicks off with plum blossoms in late February, followed by the famous cherry blossoms (sakura) in March–April. Parks, most famously Ueno, fill up with blue tarps and sozzled salarymen.
- Rainy season (baiu or tsuyu) in late May to June means a month of overcast skies and drizzle punctuated with downpours, with temperatures in the twenties.
- Summer really kicks off in July, with clear skies but temperatures peaking into the high thirties and brutal steam bath humidity. Even a short walk outside will leave you drenched in sweat, so this is probably the worst time of year to visit, and is best avoided if you have a choice. The one bright spot is the plethora of fireworks, most notably the epic pyrotechnic extravaganza of the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival on the fourth Saturday in July.
- Fall from September onwards means cooler temperatures and fall colors. While southern Japan is regularly battered by typhoons this time of year, they mostly (but not always) veer clear of Tokyo.
- Winter is usually mild, with temperatures generally ranging from 0-10 °C, though occasional cold spells can send temperatures plummeting below zero at night, and indoor heating can leave much to be desired. Snow is rare, but on those rare occasions once every few years when Tokyo is hit by a snowstorm, much of the train network grinds to a halt.
Getting around in Tokyo
By train and subway
Tokyo has one of the most extensive mass transit systems in the world and is the most used subway system in the world in terms of annual passenger rides. It is clean, safe and efficient – and confusing.
The confusion arises from the fact that several distinct railway systems operate within Tokyo – the JR East network, the two subway networks, and various private lines – and different route maps show different systems. Avoid rush hours if possible; trains get overcrowded very easily.
The defining rail line in Tokyo is the JR Yamanote Line (山手線 Yamanote-sen), which runs in a loop around central Tokyo; being inside the Yamanote loop is synonymous with being in the core of Tokyo.
Almost all inter-regional JR lines and private lines start at a station on the Yamanote. JR’s lines are color-coded, and the Yamanote is light green. The JR Chuo Line (orange, 中央線 Chūō-sen) and Chuo-Sobu Line (yellow, 中央・総武線 Chūō-Sōbu-sen) run side-by-side, bisecting the Yamanote loop from Shinjuku on the west to Tokyo on the east.
JR’s other commuter lines, the Saikyo and Keihin-Tohoku, run off the rim of the Yamanote loop to the north and south. JR East has a good English information line, 050-2016-1603 or 03-3423-0111.
Tokyo has an extensive subway network with frequent trains, and these are primarily useful for getting around within the Yamanote loop. The Tokyo Metro runs nine lines: Ginza, Marunouchi, Hibiya, Tozai, Chiyoda, Yurakucho, Hanzomon, Namboku and Fukutoshin lines. Toei operates the Asakusa, Mita, Shinjuku, and Oedo lines. While the JR Yamanote Line is not a subway line, due to its importance as a major transportation artery in downtown Tokyo, it is usually featured on subway maps. In addition, there is a largely underground Rinkai Line, a private line which is operated by Tokyo Waterfront Area Rapid Transit (TWR), that passes through the island of Tokyo/Odaiba.
Announcements and signs are usually bilingual in Japanese and English, though in some areas frequented by tourists, signs in Korean and Chinese can also be seen. That said, staff working at the stations rarely speak much, if any English.
A number of private commuter lines radiate from the Yamanote loop out into the outlying wards and suburbs, and almost all connect through directly to subway lines within the loop. The private lines are useful for day trips outside the city, and are slightly cheaper than JR. Among these, the most important to visitors is arguably the Yurikamome which offers great views on the way to the island of Tokyo/Odaiba.
Keep in mind that it is rude to talk on the phone while in the train; you should send text messages instead. When using the escalators, make sure you stand on the left so people in a hurry can pass you on the right.
Fares and hours
Most tickets and passes are sold from automated vending machines. These machines are cash only but do give change. JR trains are free with a Japan Railway Pass.
Prepaid fare cards are convenient and highly recommended because they allow you to ride trains without having to read the sometimes Japanese-only fare maps to determine your fare. There are two brands of prepaid fare cards, JR East’s Suica, and PASMO, offered by private (non-JR) lines. Functionally they are completely interchangeable and can be used on just about every subway, train and bus line in Tokyo (with the exception of Shinkansen and limited express trains). However, Suica cards can only be refunded by JR East, while PASMO cards can only be refunded by non-JR operators should you wish to return them at the end of your visit. They remain valid for 10 years from the last transaction, so you may also opt to keep them for your next trip.
The fare cards are rechargeable “smart cards”: you simply tap your card on the touch pad next to the turnstile as you go in, and do the same when going through to exit. There is an initial ¥500 deposit that you must pay when purchasing a fare card, but up to ¥20,000 in value can be stored on each card. (The term “fare card” is somewhat of a misnomer; Suica and PASMO are generic stored-value debit cards, which are accepted as payment by other services, from vending machines to some shops. Should you still have leftover balance on your card by the time you’re leaving Japan, you can easily spend it at a restaurant or duty-free shop at the airport.) If you are coming from elsewhere in Japan, the smart cards of most other regions, such as Kansai’s ICOCA or Hokkaido’s Kitaca can be used interchangeably with Suica and PASMO. However, these cannot be refunded in Tokyo, so you will have to go back to their respective regions if you want to get your money back.
The older Passnet cards are not accepted anymore. If you still own some of these, you can exchange them for a PASMO or Suica card.
There are also some special tickets that allow unlimited travel, but most are unlikely to be useful to tourists unless you’re planning to spend half your day on the train.
- The Tokunai Pass (都区内パス) is a one-day pass good for travel on JR lines anywhere in the 23 wards of Tokyo (including the entire Yamanote Line and many stations surrounding it). It costs ¥730, making it economical if you plan to make five or more train hops in one day. A variant is the Tokunai Free Kippu (都区内フリーきっぷ), which also includes a round-trip into Tokyo from stations in the surrounding prefectures. The Monorail And Tokunai Free Kippu, which is good for two days and includes a round-trip from Haneda Airport to central Tokyo, is also sold for ¥2,000.
- The Tokyo Free Kippu (東京フリーきっぷ) covers all JR, subway and city bus lines within the 23 wards. It costs ¥1,580 for one day, and covers a number of areas that are not served by JR, such as Roppongi and Odaiba.
- The Holiday Pass (ホリデーパス) covers the entire JR network in the Tokyo metropolitan area, including Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama and west Tokyo. It costs ¥2,300 for one day, and is only available on weekends, national holidays and during summer vacation (July 20 through August 31).
If you’re paying à la carte, subway and train fares are based on distance, ranging from ¥110 to ¥310 for hops within central Tokyo. As a general rule of thumb, Tokyo Metro lines are cheapest, Toei lines are most expensive, and JR lines fall somewhere in the middle (but are usually cheaper than Metro for short trips, i.e. no more than 4 stations). Many of the private lines interoperate with the subways, which can occasionally make a single ride seem unreasonably expensive as you are in essence transferring to another line and fare system, even though you’re still on the same train. E.g. changing between Metro subway line and Tokyu private line amounts to paying the sum of each fare: minimum fare Metro ¥160 + minimum fare Tokyu ¥120 = ¥280. In addition, several patterns of transfer are listed as “Transfer Discount”, and the most famous one is ¥70 discount, that applies to a transfer between Tokyo Metro and Toei subway lines. When using Suica or PASMO, you can get all transfer discounts automatically. At some transfer stations, you may need to pass through a special transfer gate (both for paper tickets and PASMO/Suica) which is coloured orange – passing through the regular blue gate will not get you your transfer discount and if you have a paper ticket, you won’t get it back. At some transfer points (e.g. Asakusa station) you may actually need to transfer on street level as the two stations (Metro Ginza Line and Toei Asakusa Line) are not physically connected and are about one block apart.
It pays to check your route beforehand. The Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists by the Tokyo Metro, is a mobile app that allows you to plan subway and train travel from point A to point B, based on time, cost, and transfers. This app provides information for Tokyo only. For other apps or sites which cover the whole country, see the Japan page.
If you can’t figure out how much it is to the destination, you can buy the cheapest ticket and pay the difference at the Fare Adjustment Machine (norikoshi) at the end. Most vending machines will let you buy a single ticket that covers a transfer between JR, subway and private lines, all the way to your destination, but working out how to do this may be a challenge if you are not familiar with the system. When transferring between systems, whether paying with tickets or smart cards, use the orange transfer gates to exit. Otherwise, you’ll be charged full fare for both separate parts of your trip, instead of the cheaper transfer fare.
Most train lines in Tokyo run from around 05:00 to 01:00. During peak hours they run about once every three minutes; even during off-peak hours it’s less than ten minutes between trains. The only night when regular passenger services run overnight is for the New Year’s Holiday on select lines.
Taxis are very pricey, but may be a value for groups of three or more. Also, if you miss your last train, you may not have another choice.
Fares were revised in 2017 in an effort to make taxis more attractive for short-distance trips, though longer trips are still very expensive. The fare for the standard taxis starts at ¥410 for the first kilometer, and goes up ¥80 every 237 meters and for every 90 seconds in stopped or slow traffic. A 20% night surcharge is tacked on from 22:00-05:00, and tolls are added for any trips using the expressway.
Here are some daytime fare examples based on Nihon Kotsu’s taxi fare estimates (actual fares may vary):
- Tokyo Station to Akihabara Station – 2.5 km – ¥1130
- Tokyo Station to Shinjuku Station – 8 km – ¥3300
- Tokyo Station to Haneda Airport – 16 km – ¥7000 including expressway fare
Taxi rear left passenger doors are operated by the driver and open and close automatically. Don’t open or close them yourself.
Do not count on your taxi driver speaking English—or knowing more than the best-known locations, though most taxis have GPS “car navi” systems installed. The best and easiest thing to do is to prepare a map marked with where you want to go, and point it out on the map to the taxi driver. If you are staying at a hotel, they will provide a map. If possible, get a business card, or print out the address in Japanese of any specific places you wish to go. However, because in Japan streets are often unmarked, if the taxi driver does not have GPS he may not be able to do more than take you to the general vicinity of where you want to go. Also, taxis can get caught in traffic jams. No tips are expected or given.
Nihon Kotsu has a 24-hour English telephone number, 03-5755-2336, to call for a Nihon Kotsu taxi within Tokyo. There is a booking fee payable to the driver at the end of the trip: ¥410 for an immediate hail or ¥820 for an advance booking. If you already have a destination (or a few) in mind, the receptionist will electronically transmit the information to the driver so that you don’t have to tell the driver yourself. If you are hailing a taxi right away, the English receptionist will inform you about your assigned taxi by color, company name and taxi number.
A growing number of companies in Tokyo also offer taxi hails and ride requests by mobile app. Your hotel’s front desk can also call a taxi for you, subject to the same booking fees.
Tokyo is a gigantic warren of narrow streets with no names, with slow-moving traffic and extremely limited and expensive parking. In this city with such an excellent mass transit system, you would need a good reason to want to drive around instead. While renting a car can make sense in Japan in some contexts (e.g., visiting a rural onsen resort), in general it is neither convenient nor economical to rent a car to get around metro Tokyo. Taxis are much more convenient if your budget allows it; walking or public transportation is much less expensive and given the difficulties of navigation and finding parking in popular areas, probably easier too.
If you do decide to plunge in and drive around by car, the main expressway serving Tokyo is the Shuto Expressway, abbreviated to Shutoko (首都高). The C1 Loop Line forms a circle around central Tokyo, similar in fashion to how the Yamanote Line does it by rail. But whereas the Yamanote Line charges ¥130-250 for a single trip, driving a car onto the Shutoko in Tokyo entitles you to pay a nominal entry fee of ¥700 every time you enter the system, with additional tolls (¥300 or ¥500) collected at various other locations.
Driving on the Tokyo Expressway at night can be a pleasant and beautiful experience as you whiz through and around the Tokyo nightlife. When driving at night you should exercise caution and obey speed limits: Street racing over the Shutoko at night became popular in the 80s and 90s and still happens today, albeit on a less frequent basis. Street racers often concentrate their driving on the C1 Loop Line and the Bayshore (more popularly known as the Wangan) Line. “Competitors” sometimes hang out at parking and service areas on the Shutoko, especially the large Daikoku Parking Area at the intersection of the Bayshore Line and the K5 Daikoku Line in Yokohama.
Toei buses like this operate most of Tokyo’s local bus routes
The few areas within Tokyo that aren’t easily accessible by train are served by various bus companies. Buses operating within 23 wards of Tokyo have a fixed fare regardless of distance (¥210 on Toei buses and ¥220 on other private bus companies), which is paid upon boarding from the front door. The fares are not transferable; however most buses do accept Suica or PASMO fare cards (see above). If you use a “Suica” or “PASMO” card to board a Toei Bus, you will receive a ¥100 discount on your next Toei Bus ride as long as it is within 90 minutes of the previous ride. Compared to the trains, the buses run much less frequently, carry fewer passengers, and are much slower. This makes them amenable to the elderly residents of Tokyo, but rather inconvenient for travelers, who will also have to deal with lack of information in English and sometimes very well hidden bus stops. Bus routes can be fairly complicated and are often not listed in detail at the bus stops; signs on the buses themselves often list only two or three main stops in addition to the origin and destination. Inside the bus the next stop is usually announced several times, sometimes by a taped voice and sometimes by a mumbling driver. Taped announcements in English are used on some lines, but are still rare. Nevertheless, north-south routes are useful in the western side of the city since train lines (Odakyu, Keio, Chuo, and Seibu) tend to run east-west.
In an attempt to provide some information about their buses to foreign visitors/residents, Toei Bus now has a web site that shows some of the main bus routes used to go to certain destinations in Tokyo. This information is provided in English and several other languages.
Sky Hop Bus
Willer Express operates a hop-on, hop-off bus service called the Sky Hop Bus, which bills itself as “the first open-top double decker bus in Japan.” At a charge of ¥1800 for a 24-hour pass and ¥2500 for a 48-hour pass (children half price), you can ride these buses and hop on and off as often as you wish. There are three bus routes that operate, all from the Marunouchi Building next to Tokyo Station: One route serves Asakusa and Tokyo SkyTree, the second runs to Roppongi and Tokyo Tower, and the third runs to Odaiba. Service only runs hourly, with departures from the Marunouchi Building between 10:20 and 18:30.
The Tokyo Cruise Ship Company operates a series of Water Bus ferries along the Sumida River and in Tokyo Bay, connecting Asakusa, Hinode, Harumi and Odaiba. The ferries feature a recorded tour announced in English as well as Japanese and a trip on one makes for a relaxing, leisurely way to see the waterfront areas of Tokyo. The super-futuristic Himiko ferry, designed by anime and manga creator Leiji Matsumoto, runs on the Asakusa-Odaiba Direct Line. You might want to arrive well before the departure time just in case tickets on the Himiko sell out!
Bicycles are very commonly used for local transport, but amenities like bicycle lanes are rare, drivers pay little heed to bikes and traffic can be very heavy on weekdays, so if you use a bicycle, do not be afraid to cycle on the sidewalk (everyone does). Parts of Tokyo are surprisingly hilly, and it’s a sweaty job pedaling around in the summer heat. Central Tokyo can still be covered fairly comfortably by bike on the weekends. Tokyo Great Cycling Tour offers a one day guided tour for biking around major tourist spots in Tokyo, like Marunouchi, Nihonbashi, Tsukiji, Odaiba, Tokyo tower, Imperial palace and so on.
Renting a bike is possible from some youth hostels, particularly around Asakusa, although it’s not common. However, buying a simple single-speed roadster is fairly cheap, and comes complete with a built-in bicycle wheel lock system (this is what most Tokyoites use). An imported multiple-geared bike will be much more expensive so get a good lock, as bike theft is a common threat, although the problem is nowhere near as serious as in other countries.
In this large city with such an efficient public transportation system, walking to get from point A to point B would seem a bit stupid at first glance. However, as the city is extremely safe even at night, walking in Tokyo can be a very pleasant experience. In some areas, walking can be much shorter than taking the subway and walking the transit (the whole Akasaka/Nagatacho/Roppongi area in the center is for instance very easily covered on foot). If you have the time, Shinjuku to Shibuya via Omotesando takes around one hour, Tokyo Station to Shinjuku would be a half a day walk, and the whole Yamanote line Grand Tour takes a long day.
It’s possible for English speakers to navigate their way around Tokyo without speaking any Japanese. Signs at subway and train stations include the station names in romaji (Romanized characters), and larger stations often have signs in Chinese and Korean as well. Though most people under the age of 40 have learned English in school, proficiency is generally poor, and most locals would not know more than a few basic words and phrases. Some restaurants may have English menus, but it does not necessarily mean that the staff will speak much English. Reading and writing comes much better though, and many people can understand a great deal of written English without actually knowing how to speak it. That being said, staff at the main hotels and tourist attractions generally speak an acceptable level of English. While it is possible to get by with only English, it will nevertheless make your trip much smoother if you can learn some basic Japanese.
Tokyo has a vast array of sights, but the first items on the agenda of most visitors are the temples of Asakusa, the gardens of the Imperial Palace (in Chiyoda) and the Meiji Shrine (明治神宮 Meiji-jingū, in Harajuku).
Tokyo has many commercial centres for shopping, eating and simply wandering around for experiencing the modern Japanese urban phenomenon. Each of these areas have unique characteristics, such as dazzling Tokyo/Shinjuku, youthful Tokyo/Shibuya and upmarket Tokyo/Ginza. These areas are bustling throughout the day, but they really come into life in the evenings.
If you’re looking for a viewing platform, Tokyo has plenty of options:
- The Tokyo SkyTree (¥2,060-3,090) is Tokyo’s latest attraction, not to mention it’s also the second-tallest structure in the world, soaring to more than 2000 feet above the ground. However, its location away from downtown means the view is a distant jumble of buildings.
- The more familiar Tokyo Tower is still around. At ¥820-1,420, it’s not as expensive as its newest rival, but neither is the view as good as some alternatives.
- For a view that’s light on your wallet, head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings (in effect, Tokyo’s City Hall) in Shinjuku. Its twin towers have viewing platforms that are absolutely free, and offer a great view over Tokyo and beyond.
- The World Trade Center Building (10:00-20:00, or 21:00 in July and August, ¥620) at JR Hamamatsucho station offers stunning views of Tokyo Tower and the waterfront due to its excellent location, especially at dusk.
- Tokyo City View has an observation deck with great views of Tokyo Bay and downtown Tokyo including the nearby Tokyo Tower – admission is a steep ¥1,800-2,300, but includes admission to the Mori Art Museum.
- The Rainbow Bridge linking Tokyo to Odaiba is another good option, if you don’t mind traffic noise and smell. The bridge’s pedestrian walkways (open until 20:00 at night) are free, and the night-time view across Tokyo Bay is impressive.
- The Bunkyo Civic Center next to the Tokyo Dome, dubbed by one newspaper as a “colossal Pez candy dispenser”, has a free observation deck on the 25th floor offering an iconic view of Shinjuku against Mt. Fuji on a clear day.
The city is dotted with museums, large and small, which center on every possible interest from pens to antique clocks to traditional and modern arts. Many of the largest museums are clustered around Ueno. At ¥500 to ¥1,000 or more, entrance fees can add up quickly.
Riding Sky Bus Tokyo, an open-top double-decker operated by Hinomaru Limousine (every hour between 10:00 and 18:00), is a good option to take a quick tour around the city center. The 45 minutes bus ride on the “T-01 course” will take you around the Imperial Palace via Ginza and Marunouchi district, showing the highlight of Tokyo’s shopping and business center. The fare is ¥1,500 for adults of 12 years old and over, and ¥700 for children between 4 and 11 years old. You can borrow a multi-language voice guide system free of charge upon purchasing a ticket, subject to stock availability. Four other bus courses are offered, including a night trip to Odaiba, but those trips are conducted in Japanese with no foreign language guidance.
Other tour companies catering to foreign tourists offer bus tours with English guidance – JTB is an excellent example.
What to do
- See the tuna auction at the Toyosu Market and eat a sushi breakfast at the former Tsukiji Fish Market.
- Take a boat ride on the Sumida River from Asakusa.
- Lose yourself in the dazzling neon jungle outside major train stations in the evenings. Shibuya and east Shinjuku at night can make Times Square or Piccadilly Circus look rural in comparison — it has to be seen to be believed.
- Enjoy a soak in a local “sento” or public bath. Or one of the onsen theme parks such as LaQua at the Tokyo Dome (Bunkyo) or Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba.
- Go to an amusement park such as Tokyo Disney Resort, which consists of Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea which are Asia’s most visited and second most visited theme parks respectively, or the more Japanese Sanrio Puroland (in Tama), home to more Hello Kitties than you can imagine.
- Join and bar hop or pub crawl along with events groups in Tokyo/Roppongi,
- Check out the hip and young crowd at Harajuku’s Takeshita-Dori (Takeshita Street) or the more grown up Omotesando.
- In the spring, take a boatride in Kichijoji’s lovely Inokashira Park, and afterwards visit the Ghibli Studios Museum (well known for their amazing movies, like Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke), but you will need to buy tickets for these in advance at a Lawson convenience store.
- Take the Yurikamome elevated train across the bay bridge from Shimbashi station to the bayside Odaiba district, and go on the giant ferris wheel — at one time the largest in the world.
- Watch a baseball game, namely the Yomiuri Giants at the Tokyo Dome, or the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium. Nearby Chiba hosts the Chiba Lotte Marines.
- Take a stroll through the Imperial Palace’s East Gardens (open to the public daily at 09:00, except Fridays and Mondays).
- Have a picnic in a park during the cherry blossom (Sakura). Unfortunately Sakura only lasts for about a week in Spring. But be warned, parks are usually very crowded during this time.
- Join a local for a short lunch or dinner homestay with Nagomi Visit’s home visit program or participate in their cooking classes.
- Raising a glass in this colourful nightlife at Shinjuku district.
- Joining the Harajuku’s eccentric fashion tribes as they shop.
- Losing yourself in the vestiges of the old city Yanesen.
- Akihabara — Venturing into the belly of pop culture beast.
- Sanja Matsuri (三社祭), third weekend in May. Tokyo’s largest festival, held near Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, this three-day extravaganza sees up to 2 million people turn out to watch the parade of portable shrines (mikoshi) with live music, dancing and geisha performances.
- Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival (隅田川花火大会 Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai), fourth Saturday in July. Huge fireworks competition that sees up to a million people line the banks of the Sumida River.
Muslim Friendly Hotels in Tokyo
- Akihabara Washington Hotel Tokyo
- Ana Intercontinental Hotel Tokyo
- Annex Katsutaro Ryokan Tokyo
- Art Ohmori Hotel Tokyo
- Avanshell Akasaka Hotel Tokyo
- Bakpak Tokyo Hostel
- Best Western Shinjuku Astina Hotel Tokyo
- Blue Wave Inn Asakusa
- Candeo Hotel Ueno-Park Tokyo
- Celestine Hotel Tokyo
- Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel
- Chisun Hamamatsucho Hotel Tokyo
- Chisun Hotel Ueno Tokyo
- Chisun Inn Asakusa Tokyo
- Citadines Shinjuku Tokyo
- Conrad Tokyo
- Dai-Ichi Hotel Annex Tokyo
- Dai-Ichi Hotel Tokyo
- E Hotel Higashi Shinjuku
- Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo At Marunouchi
- Garden Palace Tokyo Hotel
- Grand Hyatt Tokyo
- Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa Tokyo
- Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa Tokyo
- Green Korakuen Hotel Tokyo
- Hachioji Plaza Hotel Tokyo
- Hearton Hotel Higashi Shinagawa Tokyo
- Hilton Hotel Tokyo
- Hilton Tokyo Bay Hotel
- Hotel Asia Center Of Japan Tokyo
- Hotel Azur Takeshiba Tokyo
- Hotel Com’s Ginza Tokyo
- Hotel Continental Fuchu Tokyo
- Hotel Dormy Inn Suidobashi Tokyo
- Hotel Dormy Inn Tokyo Hatchobori
- Hotel First Inn Kamata Tokyo
- Hotel Grand Fresa Akasaka
- Hotel Ibis Roppongi Tokyo
- Hotel Metropolitan Edmont Tokyo
- Hotel Metropolitan Marunouchi Tokyo
- Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo
- Hotel Monterey Akasaka Tokyo
- Hotel Monterey Ginza Tokyo
- Hotel Monterey Hanzomon Tokyo
- Hotel Monterey La Soeur Ginza Tokyo
- Hotel MyStays Maihama Tokyo Bay
- Hotel Mystays Ochanomizu Tokyo
- Hotel Nikko Tokyo
- Hotel Niwa Tokyo
- Hotel Pulitzer Jiyugaoka Tokyo
- Hotel Rembrandt Nishikasai Tokyo
- Hotel Rose Garden Shinjuku Tokyo
- Hotel Sunroute Akasaka Tokyo
- Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku Tokyo
- Hotel Sunroute Plaza Tokyo
- Hotel Sunroute Shinagawa Seaside Tokyo
- Hotel Unizo Shibuya
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Hamamatsucho Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Jimbocho Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Kayabacho Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Kudanshita Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Nihombashi Hakozaki Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Nihombashi Mitsukoshimae Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Otemachi Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Roppongi Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Shinjuku Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Shiodome Tokyo
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Tamachi
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Tokyo Hatchobori
- Hotel Villa Fontaine Ueno Tokyo
- Hotel Yanagibashi Tokyo
- Hundred Stay Tokyo Shinjuku Hotel
- Hyatt Regency Hotel Tokyo
- InterContinental Tokyo Bay Hotel
- Jal City Yotsuya Hotel Tokyo
- Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo
- Kikuya Ryokan Tokyo
- Kurumi Weekly Mansion Tokyo
- Mercure Ginza Tokyo
- Mitsui Garden Hotel Shiodome Italia-gai
- Mystays Inn Asakusabashi Tokyo
- Mystays Inn Kamata Tokyo
- New Otani Hotel Tokyo
- New Otani Inn Tokyo
- Nihonbashi Saibo Hotel Tokyo
- Oak Hotel Tokyo
- Okura Hotel Tokyo
- Park Hotel Tokyo
- Park Hyatt Hotel Tokyo
- Royal Park Hotel Tokyo
- Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu Tokyo
- Ryokan Fuji Tokyo
- Ryokan Katsutaro Tokyo
- Sakura Hotel Hatagaya Tokyo
- Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro Tokyo
- Serviced Apartment Elite Inn Shimizuzaka Tokyo
- Serviced Apartment Elite Inn Tokyo
- Serviced Apartment Elite Inn Tsunashima Tokyo
- Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo
- Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo
- Shiba Park Hotel Tokyo
- Shinagawa Prince Hotel Annex Tower
- Shinagawa Prince Hotel East Tower
- Shinagawa Prince Hotel Main Tower Tokyo
- Shinagawa Prince Hotel N Tower
- Shinjuku Washington Hotel Tokyo
- Somerset Azabu East Tokyo
- Somerset Roppongi Tokyo
- Sunshine City Prince Hotel Ikebukuro Area
- the b Akasaka Hotel Tokyo
- the b ikebukuro Hotel Tokyo
- the b ochanomizu Hotel Tokyo
- the b roppongi Hotel Tokyo
- the b sangenjaya Tokyo
- The Capitol Hotel Tokyu
- The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo
- The Prince Park Tower Hotel Tokyo
- The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo Hotel
- The Ritz Carlton Tokyo
- The Strings by InterContinental Tokyo
- The Tokyo Station Hotel
- Tokyo Bay Ariake Washington Hotel
- Tokyo Prince Hotel Tokyo
- Tokyu Inn Hotel Shibuya Tokyo
- Ueno Terminal Hotel Tokyo
- Vista Hotel Kamata Tokyo
- WEEKLY dormy inn Meguro Aobadai
- Weekly Mansion Ekoda Tokyo Apartment
- Weekly Mansion Fukagawa Tokyo Apartment
- Weekly Mansion Higashi-jujo Tokyo
- Weekly Mansion Iidabashi Tokyo
- Weekly Mansion Nakanobu Tokyo
- Weekly Mansion Shinagawa Tokyo
- Weekly Mansion Sugamo Tokyo
- Westin Hotel Tokyo
- Yaesu Fujiya Hotel Tokyo
- Yaesu Terminal Hotel Tokyo
The curious can study traditional culture such as tea ceremony, calligraphy, or martial arts such as Karate, Judo, Aikido and Kendo. There are also many language schools to help you work on your Japanese. Several universities in Tokyo cater to international students at the undergraduate or graduate level.
- Keio University (慶應義塾大学 Keiō Gijuku Daigaku) – Japan’s top private university (unless you ask a Waseda student). Established in the samurai days of yore and has a stuffier rep than Waseda, with alumni including former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. Main campus in Mita.
- Sophia University (上智大学 Jōchi Daigaku) – A prestigious private, Jesuit university well known for its foreign language curriculae and large foreign student population. Main campus in Yotsuya.
- Tokyo Institute of Technology (東京工業大学 Tōkyō Kōgyo Daigaku) – Tokyo’s top technical university. Main campus in Ookayama.
- University of Tokyo (東京大学 Tōkyō Daigaku) – Japan’s uncontested number one university, especially strong in law, medicine and literature. For locals, passing the entrance exams is fiendishly difficult, but exchange students can enter much more easily. Five campuses are scattered around the city, but the main campus is in Hongo.
- Waseda University (早稲田大学 Waseda Daigaku) – Japan’s top private university (unless you ask a Keio student), famous as a den of artists and partiers. Former prime minister Yasuo Fukuda is an alum. Main campus in Waseda.
Teaching English (or to a lesser extent, other foreign languages) is still the easiest way to work in Tokyo, but the city also offers more work options than other areas of the country: everything from restaurant work to IT. Certain nationalities are eligible for working holiday visas: for others, work permits can be very hard to come by without a job offer from a Japanese company. Consult your local Japanese consulate/embassy as far in advance as possible.
Tokyo is one of the fashion and cosmetic centers in the Eastern world. Items to look for include electronics, funky fashions, antique furniture and kimono, as well as specialty items like Hello Kitty goods, anime and comics and their associated paraphernalia. Tokyo has some of the largest electronic industries in the world, such as Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba etc.
Cash payment is the norm. Most Japanese ATMs do not accept foreign cards, but post office, 7-Eleven and ones from large banks do and usually have English menus as well (Mitsubishi-UFJ ATMs accept UnionPay and Discover card users, while Mitsui-Sumitomo allows the use of UnionPay cards for a ¥75 surcharge regardless of time of day). Most ATMs only give ¥10,000 notes (such as 711 and convenience stores). However, some ATMs do give ¥1,000 notes (at the airport and large banks). Although credit cards are more and more widely accepted, they are far less widespread than in most other developed countries. The crime rate is very low, so don’t be afraid of carrying around wads of cash as the Japanese do. The average Japanese citizen will carry a month’s worth of expenses on them (around ¥40,000 give or take). See Buy under Japan. for general caveats regarding electronics and media compatibility.
There are numerous convenience stores throughout Tokyo (such as Seven-eleven, Lawsons, and Family-Mart), which are open around the clock and sell not only food and magazines, but also daily necessities such as underwear and toiletries. Supermarkets are usually open until 22:00, while drugstores and department stores usually close at 21:00.
Anime and manga
Akihabara, Tokyo’s Electric Town, is now also the unquestioned center of its otaku community, and the stores along Chuo-dori are packed to the rafters with anime (animation) and manga (comics). Another popular district for all things manga/anime is the Nakano ward and its Broadway Shopping arkade. Check out the mandarake shop for loads of used and rare mangas.
There has been an “otaku boom” in Akihabara. A lot of attention in particular was paid to the town thanks to the popular Japanese drama “Densha Otoko”, a (true) love story about an otaku who saves a woman from a molester on a train and their subsequent courtship.
Akihabara was previously known for its many live performances and cosplayers, some of which had drawn negative attention due to extremist performers. These have become increasingly scarce following the Akihabara massacre in 2008, although girls in various maid costumes can still be seen standing along the streets handing out advertisement fliers to passers by for Maid Cafes.
Serious collectors should head for the Antique Mall in Ginza or the Antique Market in Omotesando, which despite the rustic names are collections of small very specialist shops (samurai armor, ukiyo-e prints, etc.) with head-spinning prices. Mere mortals can venture over to Nishi-Ogikubo, where you can pick up scrolls of calligraphy and such for a few thousand yen.
The Antique Festival (全国古民具骨董祭り) is held over the weekend about 5-6 times a year at the Tokyo Ryutsu Center, on the Tokyo Monorail line, and is well worth a visit.
Jinbocho is to used books what Akihabara is to electronics. It’s clustered around the Jinbocho subway stop. The Blue Parrot is another shop at Takadanobaba on the Yamanote line, just two stops north of Shinjuku.
Cameras and electronics
Ever since Sony and Nikon became synonymous with high-tech quality, Tokyo has been a favored place for buying electronics and cameras. Though the lines have blurred since the PC revolution, each has its traditional territory and stores: Akihabara has the electronics stores, including a large number of duty-free shops specializing in export models, and Shinjuku has the camera stores. Unfortunately, local model electronics are not cheap, but the export models are similar to what you’ll pay back home. you can sometimes find cheap local models if you avoid big shops and check smaller retailers. It’s also surprisingly difficult to find certain things e.g. games machines.
Shibuya and neighboring Harajuku are the best-known shopping areas for funky, youthful clothes and accessories. Almost without exception, clothes are sized for the petite Japanese frame.
Department stores and exclusive boutiques stock every fashion label imaginable, but for global labels prices in Tokyo are typically higher than anywhere else in the world. The famous Ginza and Ikebukuro’s giant Seibu and Tobu department stores (the largest in the world) are good hunting grounds. Roppongi Hills has emerged as a popular area for high-end shopping, with many major global brands. Other department stores in Tokyo are Mitsukoshi, Sogo, Marui (OIOI), Matsuzakaya, Isetan, Matsuya and Takashimaya. Mitsukoshi is Japan’s biggest department store chain. Its anchor store is in Nihonbashi. Marui Men store in Tokyo/Shinjuku has eight floors of high-end fashion for men only.
The district for this is Kappabashi Street near Asakusa, also known as “Kitchen Town.” The street is lined with stores selling all kinds of kitchen wares — this is where the restaurants of Tokyo get their supplies. It’s also a great place to find cheap Japanese ceramics, not to mention plastic food!
Ochanomizu is to the guitar what Jinbocho is to used books. There, you’ll find what must be the world’s densest collection of guitar shops. Plenty of other musical instruments (though not traditional Japanese ones) are also available.
For touristy Japanese knickknacks, the best places to shop are Nakamise in Asakusa and the Oriental Bazaar in Omotesando, which stock all the kitschy things like kanji-emblazoned T-shirts, foreigner-sized kimonos, ninja outfits for kids and ersatz samurai swords that can be surprisingly difficult to find elsewhere. Both also have a selection of serious antiques for the connoisseur, but see also Antiques above.
Bustling open-air bazaars in the Asian style are rare in Tokyo, except for Ueno’s Ameyoko, a legacy of the postwar occupation. Yanaka Ginza in the Shitamachi Taito district, a very nice example of a neighborhood shopping street, makes for an interesting afternoon browse.
There are often small flea and antique markets in operation on the weekend at major (and minor) shrines in and around Tokyo.
Stay safe in Tokyo
Tokyo is probably one of the safest big cities you will ever visit, and Japan in general is one of the safest places to visit in the world. Most people, including single female travellers, would not encounter any problems walking along the streets alone at night. Street crime is extremely rare, even late at night, and continues to decrease. However, “little crime” does not mean “no crime”, and common sense should still be applied as anywhere in the world. Often the biggest risk is travellers taking Japan’s visibly apparent lack of crime too close to heart and doing things they would never do back home.
The most common crime is sexual harassment on crowded trains, pressed up against each other, hands wander. This is more of a local problem as westerners are considered more aggressive and would stick up for themselves. The best way to deal with any wandering hands is to yell “Chikan!” which is the Japanese term for “pervert”.
Small police stations, or kōban (交番), can be found every few blocks. If you get lost or need assistance, by all means go to them; it’s their job to help you! They have great maps of the surrounding area, and are happy to give directions. They may, however, have difficulties with English, so some knowledge of the Japanese language helps.
Take the usual precautions against pickpockets in crowded areas and trains. Also, theft is more likely to occur in hangouts and bars popular with travellers and non-residents.
The red-light and nightlife districts can be a bit seedy, but are rarely dangerous. Some small, back-street drinking establishments in red-light districts have been known to charge extortionate prices. Similar problems exist in the seedier upscale clubs in Roppongi, where it may be wise to check cover charges and drink prices in advance.
In September 2014, a dengue epidemic outbreak infected several hundred people in Tokyo, and led the authorities to close down several parks in the Tokyo/Shinjuku district.
Still in a jam? Call Tokyo English Life Line, tel. 03-5774-0992, daily 09:00-23:00.
If you make it as far out as the Izu Islands, visitors to Miyakejima Island are required to carry a gas mask, due to volcanic gases. Those in poor health are advised against travelling to the island. In addition, Tokyo, like the rest of Japan is at risk for earthquakes.