As someone who lived in Japan for a year I share your fascination with arguably the world’s most intriguing mega-city, which is why I’ve returned several times since. A visit here is usually a mesmerizing immersion – so long as you don’t spend all your time blinking at bizarre game shows on your hotel TV.
Luckily, there’s no reason to stay in and scoff room-service sashimi, according to Tim Hornyak, co-author of Lonely Planet’s Tokyo guidebook. The first issue, he says, is figuring out how to get around.
“If you’re going to do any travel outside Tokyo – for instance, to Kyoto – be sure to buy a Japan Rail Pass through your travel agent before leaving Canada,” says Hornyak, who divides his time between Tokyo and Montreal and blogs about Japan. “Part of the pass can also be used for getting around Tokyo.”
For Tokyo-only visits, he recommends buying a Suica or Pasmo card from machines at subway entrances – look for the machines’ English-language buttons. “Look over the maps beforehand and avoid rush-hour crowds. And use the station number codes to navigate if you have trouble remembering names like Takadanobaba.”
Since sleeping on trains is only for those who’ve had a few too many after-work Sapporos, you’ll also need a base. Hornyak recommends accommodation in lower-priced neighbourhoods such as the Sumida River area. “One of the better deals in town is also the compact Tokyo Ryokan in Asakusa. It’s about $78 per night for a two-person room with shared bathroom.”
Despite its pricey reputation, the city is also stuffed with good-value dining – just follow the locals into their favourite back street noodle, izakaya and curry-rice joints. “Slurping a hearty, delish bowl of ramen will fill your belly for less than 1,000 yen [$11],” says Hornyak. “Grab a teishoku [set meal] of grilled fish, miso soup and rice at a chain like Ootoya for not much more.” He also suggests checking out tokyocheapo.com for more money-saving tips. As for where first-timers should go: “Tsukiji fish market – be aware that early-morning admission is first-come, first served – for its spectacular marine cornucopia; Senso-ji temple in Asakusa for its medieval atmosphere; and Shinjuku’s Golden Gai bars for their postwar grittiness. If you’re on a budget, avoid the new Tokyo Skytree – stratospheric city views can be had elsewhere for less. And try to get outside Tokyo for a stay in a traditional ryokan with a hot spring.”
I’d also add freebie Tokyo attractions such as the Imperial Palace East Garden, a park inside the emperor’s historical residence, and Mega Web, a giant Toyota technology showcase with driving simulators, a vintage car museum and prototype robots. Strolls around Ueno’s street market (radiating from the train station) and Yanaka Ginza Street also deliver adventurous al fresco grub – I enjoyed skewered scallops and sake from a street-side barrel at the latter and picked-up bags of savoury senbei rice snacks for the road at the former.
A final word about getting lost: in a sprawling, multidistrict metropolis of more than 13 million people – who all seem to be brushing past you at once – it’s inevitable. But although Tokyo is one of the world’s safest visitor cities, not everyone enjoys feeling confused about their bearings. “Keep in mind your proximity to the nearest train or subway station,” advises Hornyak. “Use printed maps, GPS apps and the many sidewalk neighbourhood maps showing your location. And don’t hesitate to ask for directions at a police box – although their English will be limited.”
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Send John your travel questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. He won’t plan your trips, but as a guidebook writer and long-time traveller, he’s got a lot to share.