A promised land
Japan is like a promised land for many types of travelers. Whether you grew up watching anime, you are fond of its spectacular cuisine, you adore its ultramodern pop lifestyle, or if you are into samurais, kimonos and their deep and unique history, I bet many of us promised ourselves to visit Japan one day. Truth be told, the influence of Japanese culture has become ubiquitous worldwide, and most of it is fairly represented in its capital city.
Tokyo (東京, meaning The Eastern Capital), Japan’s busiest city, mixes the futuristic and the traditional, from neon-lit skyscrapers to historic shrines, from modern avenues to traditional dreamy alleys. The most populated metropolis in the world, with an impressive 38 million people living in it (more than six times the population of my home country, El Salvador, living in just one city), gives tourism a whole new meaning, and it might be the closest thing to a cyberpunk city.
Touristic interests here are vast, and many of them are acclaimed internationally. Like the public safety, namely, the confidence to walk through the streets at any time of the day (or night), or the clockwork-like technification of the working culture that has shaped modern Japanese city life. Other more obvious and iconic interests are no less worthy of admiration, such as the carefully cultivated aesthetics of public spaces, sparkling pop culture, vending machines of many sorts, and city views that look like straight out of a manga (because after all, places like this are where all that inspiration comes from).
It is no wonder that visiting the land of the rising sun for the first time might be an experience for which one is never prepared, especially if you come from the west side of the world. But after visiting Tokyo, I keep thinking that, in every aspect, this world capital surpassed all my expectations.
Being the largest metropolitan area in the whole world, writing a travel guide for Tokyo might be a daunting task, with so many options for many tastes. Hence, what you will find below can be considered a “starter guide” that might be helpful to get the best out of your time in Tokyo.
How to get there
Tokyo is conveniently located at the center of the Japanese archipelago, which easily makes it a “must” in any travel plan to this island nation. Additionally, since it is a world-class financial and business center, finding directs flights from any other major Asian cities is quite common (Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, just to name a few), with a good number of foreign airlines offering direct routes as well (for example, flights from Dubai, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles).
The two major international airports are Haneda Airport (HND), and Narita International Airport (NRT). The first is widely used by LCC (Low Cost Carrier) airlines, with a growing number of bigger airlines taking advantage of the close distance to the city. It is conveniently located within the metro system of the city (Keikyu Airport Line and Tokyo Monorail), making it possible to commute from and to most places in Tokyo in less than one hour.
On the other hand, NRT currently handles the largest number of international flights, but on the downside, is farther away from the city. About 60 Km to the east, to be more precise. If you happen to arrive at this airport, there are several ways to get to the city, ranging from a 200-dollar taxi, to a 10-dollar bus, and at least four different train options in between. But since this blog is made thinking on budget travelers, I recommend the “Tokyo Shuttle” and the “Access Narita” bus services, which are about USD 10 per ride (and USD 20 for late-night and early-morning departures), and takes 90 minutes to Tokyo Station (pretty much the “downtown” area). On top of that, unlike the rigid train schedule, there are several buses departing every hour.
If you plan to get to Tokyo from another city, there are several transportation options to consider, including the famous Shinkansen (bullet train), regular trains, and buses. If you are short on time and the trip is not so budget-sensitive, domestic flights are always an option.
Bus wise, here is a useful link for booking bus seats in advance. I used the sleeper bus service a couple of times to move between cities, and although the comfort of the economy class cannot be compared with that of the sleeper buses in many Southeast Asian countries (surprise surprise!), it was good enough to get some sleep thanks to the excellent road condition of Japanese highways.
At the time of planning my trip to Japan, I also considered getting the Japan Rail Pass, to witness firsthand the technological marvel of the bullet trains, and also to save precious commuting time. However, considering its high price (the cheapest pass costing about USD 300), this commuting option might not exactly be the budget-friendly option we are all looking for. It is more suitable for longer trips, with a bigger budget. Nevertheless, here is the link for the official site of the JRP, in case you want to explore this option.
The living expenses in Tokyo are comparable to those of western Europe or the US, but there are always options for the budget backpacker. The following daily expenses can be considered for a budget-friendly planning:
- Meals: A meal in an inexpensive restaurant in Tokyo could cost around USD 10. A combo meal in an international fast-food chain costs around USD 7. If you put together two meals per day and a few stops to the nearest convenience store for snacks and drinks in between, that makes about USD 20 per day.
- Accommodation: a night at a budget hostel ranges from USD 12 to USD 16.
- Mobile data: Aside from the traditional mobile carriers, there are MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators), which take advantage of the network infrastructure of the traditional providers to offer deals tailored for visitors. Thus, Mobal, Simcard Geek, and U Mobile are the brands to look for. Being that said, the first way to get a SIM card is to buy it at the airport. It is even possible to buy it online and pick it up upon arrival. The second way to get a SIM card is within the city. Find the nearest BIC Camera or Yodobashi Camera store and take some time to evaluate the available plans. My choice was the second one. These stores usually have English-speaking staff who can advise according to your needs. To give an idea, the prices range between USD 18 to USD 35 for 2.2Gb/7 days and 8Gb/8 days data-only service, respectively.
- Transportation: In Tokyo, the main must-see landmarks are scattered throughout the city. This means that you will need to be more strategic, and plan your day by regions or areas, in order to reduce commuting expenses as much as possible. With that in mind, consider about USD 10-15 per day. Walk as much as you can. In Tokyo, after food expenses, commuting within the city is the most significant expense to consider.
- Where to get cash: convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, Daily Yamazaki are ubiquitous in Tokyo (and in the rest of the country). Most of them have an ATM machine inside. Make sure to enable your debit/credit card for international withdrawals before you travel.
- The language barrier in Tokyo can be considered strong for visitors, although young locals have a fair proficiency in English, and many public signs are also translated. This, however, is compensated with the high level of automation of many services. You might find yourself interacting with touch screens that “speak your own language” (or English at least) more than interacting with actual people.
I believe there is always something awesome to do in Tokyo regardless of the season. However, there are two particular seasons in the year that are fervently awaited by visitors. Namely, the spring, bringing an overflow of white and pink cherry and plum blossoms, and then, the autumn, painting the trees with multi-toned yellow, red and orange. In any case, be aware that Tokyo is a city that experiences the four seasons fully, and you should pack accordingly for a hot summer, or for a properly cold winter.
Japan is a visa-free country for many passports, but you better do your homework and check the requirements for your particular travel document using this link.
As an additional tip, before your arrival to Japan, make sure to have your accommodation address at hand when going through the customs. Even better, the contact information of your family or friend living in Japan, if available. The customs officer might ask you to provide this information before putting that pretty stamp on your passport.
Where to go
Honestly, where not to go? Tokyo is a huge city with incredible sights at every corner. Hence, what follows is a suggested list of my personal points of interest.
1. Tokyo Imperial Palace
Right at the heart of the city, these large palace grounds are the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, and only a relatively small area is accessible to tourists. During the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657, the main building was consumed, but the walls, guardhouses, entrance gates, and other elements still remain. What you can do at this place is quite straightforward: a great place to walk, contemplate nature and relax. During spring, though, the beauty of this place is uplifted by the several tones of pink of the many cherry trees bursting with flowers, especially in the East Garden area. It is truly a spectacle, and it is no wonder why so many visitors come here since the entrance is free. Be sure to visit this place during daylight, for it is open from 9 AM to 4 PM. Make sure to double check the closing hours once you are in Tokyo since they vary according to the season and special events held in it. On the palace surroundings, there is the Chidorigafuchi Park (more on this place below) and Kitanomaru Park, famous due to its magical atmosphere during Autumn. Alight at Tokyo Station and walk for about 15 minutes west, towards the palace.
2. Senso Ji
Some say this temple in the northeast side of Tokyo is the most visited spiritual site…in the world. Well, it would not be difficult to understand that, since it is indeed quite well-preserved and Tokyo’s most ancient Buddhist temple as well. Taking the metro and alighting at Asakusa Station will get you right at this attraction. The first thing that pops out to the eyes is the immense red lantern hanging from Kaminarimon Gate, the main entrance to this site. Cross this gate to take a look at Nakamise Shopping Street (also known as Orange Street), where it is possible to find traditional souvenirs and snacks. This connecting shopping ends up at Hozomon Gate. Inside Senso Ji, it is hard to miss the iconic five-story pagoda of the temple. Take some time to appreciate the atmosphere of this place, as well as the fine craftsmanship of the statues, roofs and any other element in this temple. As a curious fact, the original roof of the main hall of Senso Ji was changed for one made out of titanium in order to reduce weight (therefore, much more likely to withstand an earthquake) and prolong the durability. The entrance is completely free, and it is open 24 hours a day, excluding the main hall which opens from 6 AM to 5 PM.
3. Ginza Shopping District
Tokyo would not be a proper world capital if it did not have an area dedicated exclusively to global brands hosted in department stores with impressive architecture. It only takes some window shopping time to get into the mood of this district. Ginza Mitsukoshi and Matsuya Ginza are the two department stores with the longest history, 80 and 90 years, respectively. Another remarkable commercial facility is Ginza Six, which not only displays some of the finest Japanese artworks one can buy, but also a rooftop garden that provides a superb view of some popular Tokyo landmarks such as Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree. There is no cozier place for a dinner than the lovely Yurakucho’s restaurant district built up under the brick arches of the elevated train tracks of the railways. For me, it was love at first sight. Ginza district is just a short walk from Tokyo Station.
4. Shibuya District
There may be enough attractions only in these two districts to make a trip to Tokyo worthwhile. If Tokyo is the most populated metropolis in the whole world, then Shibuya is at the core of that fact, with one of the world’s busiest train stations, Shibuya Station. The sense of awe when going through the Shibuya crossing is definitely one of a kind, especially the first time. As a quick tip, after having that moment of awe crossing at Shibuya, head to the upper floors of the Shibuya Tsutaya department store to get a bird’s perspective of the massive waves of people flooding the streets, especially during peak hours. Other relevant landmarks in the area are the Hachiko Memorial Statue, Omotesando Avenue (make sure to check out the cool kaleidoscope-like Tokyu Plaza Omotesando stairs, and Harajuku rooftop for an extra city view. You’re welcome), and the avant-garde Takeshita Street.
5. Hamarikyu Gardens
After a few days of experiencing the fast life of the city, these gardens are the ideal place to have a break, and have a view of Tokyo bay far from the crowds. The sharp contrast of the traditional styled structures stands in sharp contrast with the modern buildings of the neighboring Shiodome district in the background. The tea house in the center of its main pond makes it perfect for a themed photo. The place is also suitable to admire the autumn colors and the blossoms in spring. Alight at Daimon Station or Shiodome Station and walk east for about 5 to 10 minutes. The entrance is approximately USD 3.
6. Tsukiji Market
Just east of the Hamarikyu Gardens, it is said that this fish market was once the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale markets of any type, until it was replaced by the more modern Toyosu Market. Nowadays, it consists of blocks of restaurants, and retail and wholesale shops (yes, one can still get to see the enormous tuna fillets being cut and pampered by the masters). Needless to say, eating seafood in Tsukiji Market is a must. When all the fresh seafood is coming straight from Toyosu Market, this is probably one of the best places in (the world) to enjoy fresh seafood. The market is just southeast from Ginza district, and the closest metro exits are Tsukiji Station or Tsukijishijo Station.
Ok, if you were waiting to get to the part where I talk about electronics, video games, manga, and all those sorts of cool geek stuff, well, this is it. There would not be a proper trip to Tokyo without it anyway! Akihabara is by far the most popular shopping hub for electronic retailers of all sizes. After pinching yourself to make sure you are not dreaming, make sure to pay a visit to some of the coolest stores in this district, namely Super Potato for retro video game titles, Tokyo Anime Center for exhibitions, and Radio Kaikan for toys and collectibles. This area might also be the ideal place to get the coolest of souvenirs for your friends back home, who will envy you forever. Alight at Akihabara Station and walk north for about 10 minutes.
If you are looking for a spot to take that awesome cityscape photo
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Located west in the city, its north and south observatories offer a panoramic view of the city from 202 meters high. With good weather, many city icons such as Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree, even Mount Fuji. It is also a great place for those night shots, since it remains open until late at night (10:30 PM). The entrance is free (yes, free!). Take the metro and alight at Shinjuku Station.
- Tokyo tower. It is located south-center of the city, it has two decks, the Main Deck at 150 meters above the ground, and the Top Deck at 250 meters. This tower might not be the tallest in the world, but it is certainly beautiful, and it is probably one of the dearest icons of the city, and even Japan. For access to both decks, the admission fee is USD 27. Booking the ticket online might help you to save a few bucks. It is open until 11 PM (admissions until 10:30 PM). Onarimon Station and Akabanebashi Station are the closest to this attraction.
- Tokyo Skytree. Located east of the city, this massive 634-meter tall structure is the world’s tallest broadcasting tower that happens to have two observation decks, one at 350 and another at 450 meters above the ground. Getting up there might be the best way to get a bird’s view of Tokyo (without using a drone, that is). The combo ticket for both observation decks is USD 28, while the price of the ticket for the 350-meter and 450-meter decks is USD 19 and 9, respectively. These prices are for regular weekdays. During weekends and holidays, the price is a bit higher. It is open until 10:00 PM. Alight at Tokyo Skytree Station or Oshiage Station to get there.
- Roppongi Hills (Tokyo City View And Sky Deck). This complex of offices and restaurants is just a couple of kilometers west of Tokyo Tower. The skyscraper within the complex (Mori Tower) has an indoor (229 meters) and a rooftop (238 meters) observation deck making it a perfect spot to make an incredible postal picture of the city. The ticket to accessing the indoor deck is USD 17, and with an additional fee of USD 5 one can visit the rooftop deck. From Sunday to Thursday, it is open until 11:00 PM (admissions until 10:30 PM), while on Fridays and Saturdays it is open until midnight (admissions until midnight). In order to get here, alight at Roppongi Station.
If you have cherry blossom fever and happen to be in Tokyo at the right time during spring
In Tokyo, some popular places (meaning A LOT of people) to enjoy the iconic sakura season and snap some good pictures are:
- Nakamageruo River: great place to walk along the river and it gets more photogenic when the night falls, since the flowers are illuminated in pink. Do not forget to bring your tripod for those night shots!
- Shibuya: a famous narrow, one-way road located right next to Shibuya Station. For good or bad, all you have to do is follow the crowds with cameras and find your space among them to get your perfect shot.
- Chidorigafuchi Park: if you are a fitness enthusiast who likes rowing a boat. The cherry blossom charm is stronger here with both sides of the river bursting in pink.
- Shinjuku Park: the earlier the better. The lineups to get inside the park can be wild and quite epic.
- Aoyama Cementery: a quiet place to admire the beauty of the cherry blossoms, since this is a cemetery. For the same reason, wander around with respect and find the perfect moment to photograph those symmetrical roads with flowers bursting on every side.
- Sumida Park. East of Tokyo, this riverside park offers a great view of the Tokyo Skytree in the background with no less than 700 cherry trees to enjoy.
Adventures beyond Tokyo
For those with a great appetite for discovery and some extra time and spare bucks, there are still some other great things to experience out of Tokyo. Here are some of the most popular:
- Mount Fuji. Located 112 Km to the southwest of Tokyo (about two hours by bus), this might be the most good-looking and spoiled active volcano in Japan. No wonder why it is in many Japanese postcards in every souvenir shop. Depending on the season, people come here to hike all the way to the top, enjoy the magnificent view of the snow-caped 3776-meter tall mountain, take a pleasant walk around its pristine lakes, or all of them. Highway buses operate between Tokyo, Shibuya, and Shinjuku station to Fuji area for about USD 20, one-way trip. The train options take slightly the same commuting time, but they are twice as expensive.
- Yokohama. Just 30 minutes south of Tokyo, the second biggest city in Japan is worth the time for at least a day trip. Many trains depart from Tokyo, Shibuya, and Shinjuku station every hour. This port city is an ideal place to experience the differences between the Japanese and Chinese cultures. When visiting Chinatown, remember to grab some Chinese delicacies and ramen. Finally, as the sun goes down, find your place either on Osanbashi Bridge, or in Daikokufuto Central Park for an unforgettable scene of Yokohama cityscape and Mount Fuji in the background.
There are just so many unbelievable places to discover in Tokyo, but adding each one of them would make this guide impractical. Places such as the lantern-lit Kabukicho, the outdoor Ameya Yokocho Market, Kappabashi Utensils Street (great view of Tokyo Skytree), Mount Kumotori with the highest point in Tokyo, and, of course, any Sumo stable where one can witness these formidable wrestlers’ lives and training, are all worth considering when planning.