Tokyo is so out there (one visiting friend compared it to another planet), I never know what might greet me around the corner or down the next alley. Will it be a teenage girl dressed up like Little Bo Peek? A woman dressed in a gorgeous kimono? Godzilla menacing the neighborhood? Sidewalk bonsai that would have been lifted long ago in other countries? A high-end designer shop housed in what looks like a giant plastic bubble? Or how about the middle-aged housewife I saw sitting demurely in the subway wearing a T-shirt that read “Butch wax for your stick”?
I figure I’ve spent about 15 months of my life roaming the streets of Tokyo while updating Frommer’s guides over the past 30-some years, checking out museums and attractions, trying new restaurants and bars, and inspecting more hotel rooms than anyone should have to see. And yet, each and every new day that I hit the streets, I feel a thrill of excitement, the anticipation of discovery both weird and wonderful.
The world’s largest metropolitan area, with a combined population of 37 million (Tokyo itself has 13 million residents), this is a city always on the go, with a crazy jumble of buildings both towering and tiny, a crush of humanity on its streets and subway, and mind-bending mazes of overhead highways, all seemingly stretching as far as the eye can see. I always suggest visitors begin their Tokyo experience some place high, like Tokyo Tower or the TMG Observatory, where they can appreciate the city’s immense sprawl and pick out major landmarks like the moat-encircled Imperial Palace and ever sprouting skyscrapers.
Tokyo is mostly modern, capital only since 1868 and virtually destroyed twice in the 20th century, first in 1923 when an earthquake claimed 100,000 lives and leveled as much as 30 percent of the city, and again in 1945 when Allied bombing raids laid half the city to waste and killed another 100,000. In addition, as the mover and shaker of Japan, Tokyo has never been afraid to tear down what’s old and replace it with a highrise (much to the chagrin of preservationists). With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Tokyo is sure to do everything in its power to present itself as as a model for the 21st century.
That being said, there are vestiges of Tokyo’s feudal past, even during the Edo Period (1603-1868) when it was called Edo, served as the shogun’s headquarters and was home to the largest castle in the land (now the site of the Imperial Palace and adjoining East Garden). Gardens that were once the private domains of feudal lords still exist, including including Hama Rikyu Garden and Rikugien Garden.
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In fact, many of Tokyo’s neighborhoods are rooted in their feudal past, like Asakusa with its old “downtown” atmosphere and ma-and-pa shops, not to mention Sensoji Temple, dating back to the 7th century. Even glittering Ginza, home to majestic department stores and upscale designer shops, owes its name to a silver mint founded there in the early 1600s. It’s these neighborhoods that make Tokyo a great place to be. When I’m wandering the back streets of Harajuku, I’m a world away from the skyscrapers on Shinjuku.
First-timers, of course, will want to visit Tokyo’s iconic sights and museums, including the Tokyo National Museum with the world’s largest collection of Japanese art and antiquities and the Edo-Tokyo Museum outlining the city’s fascinating history, but other great experiences include a soak in a hot spring spa designed like it’s from the Edo era, a boat ride up the Sumida river, watching Kabuki and shopping in one of Japan’s most famous department stores.
Visitors with more time should also take advantage of Tokyo’s excellent special-interest museums, like the Shitamachi museum in Ueno that documents the lifestyles of those living in the old “downtown,” the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art with its changing exhibitions of woodblock prints, or, one of my favorites, the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum with buildings ranging from thatched farmhouses to a soy-sauce shop.
There’s also plenty for families to see and do, including amusement parks, a zoo, an aquarium and museums geared just toward kids. There are even free attractions for travelers on a budget, including a 48th-story observatory in a city government high-rise, a garden that contains towers, moats, stone walls, and other remnants of the shogun’s expansive castle fortifications, and showrooms of famous Japanese companies like Panasonic.
And who can resist shopping, whether it’s for quirky gag gifts at Kiddyland, a maid costume at Don Quijote, antiques at Tokyo’s largest antique flea market or bathroom slippers at Tokyu Hands? Of course, dining is also huge in the city that has garnered more Michelin stars than anywhere else, from ramen that is out of this world to French fare that’s as good as in Paris.
There’s never a shortage of things to do in Tokyo. In fact, just walking down the street could be considered a cultural experience. For me, encountering the unexpected—and the unexplainable—makes me feel like a kid all over again whenever I roam the streets of Tokyo.
Tokyo’s tourist season runs all year, though summer is when most international visits occur. The best times to visit in terms of weather is spring (April to mid-June) and autumn (September to November). Mid June to mid-July is the rainy season, during which umbrellas are a must, after which the capital becomes very hot and humid.Winters can be cold, though Tokyo doesn’t get much snow.
Whereas other cities fill quickly when there are major festivals or during the cherry blossom or fall foliage seasons, Tokyo doesn’t generally suffer a shortage of hotel rooms.
Japan’s national holidays are January 1 (New Year’s Day), second Monday in January (Coming-of-Age Day), February 11 (National Foundation Day), March 20 (Vernal Equinox Day), April 29 (Showa Day, after the late Emperor Showa), May 3 (Constitution Memorial Day), May 4 (Greenery Day), May 5 (Children’s Day), third Monday in July (Maritime Day), August 11 (Mountain Day, new holiday beginning in 2016); third Monday in September (Respect-for-the-Aged Day), September 23 (Autumn Equinox Day), second Monday in October (Health Sports Day), November 3 (Culture Day; many municipal museums are free), November 23 (Labor Thanksgiving Day), and December 23 (Emperor’s Birthday).
When a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday becomes a holiday.
Most visitors, eager to see other iconic cities like Kyoto, stay in Tokyo only a couple of days. While you can sample quite a bit of what the city offers in only two days, there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a week or more. If you’ve just arrived from North America, consider adding a day in Tokyo to adjust to jet lag.
All of Japan is in the same time zone, 9 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, 14 hours ahead of New York, 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles and one hour behind Sydney. Japan doesn’t go on daylight savings time, so adjust the time differences given here accordingly.
Tokyo is expensive; there’s no getting around it. However, a favorable exchange rate for most visitors makes it less expensive than it was only a few years ago, and more affordable accommodations–often with bathrooms down the hall–are opening all the time. You can also save money by eating your biggest meal at lunch, when many restaurants offer a daily special (called a teishoku in a Japanese restaurant, or a seto or coursu in Western-style restaurants) that’s much cheaper than dinner.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in Japanese Yen.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than ¥600 per person
$$ => Tickets ¥600-¥1,500 per person
$$$ => Tickets more than ¥1,500 per person
$ => Rooms less than ¥15,000 for a double
$$ => Rooms ¥15,000-¥35,000 for a double
$$$ => Rooms more than ¥35,000 for a double
$ => Up to ¥1,200 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$=> ¥1,200-¥5,000 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => ¥¥¥5,000 and more per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than ¥2,000 per person
$$ => Tickets ¥2,000-¥6,000 per person
$$$ => Tickets ¥6,000 and more per person
N/A => Not applicable
Your major expenses in Japan—hotels, meals in tourist-oriented restaurants, train tickets, purchases in department stores and many other shops—can be made using a credit card. Although just a few decades ago Japan was largely a cash society, the weaker yen, more international visitors and the upcoming Olympic games translate into an increase in places that accept credit cards. That being said, many ma- and-pa-owned shops, inexpensive Japanese inns and hostels, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bars and other inexpensive establishments often do not accept credit cards. Be sure to have plenty of cash with you, therefore, if you are traveling to more rural areas or are traveling on a budget.
You can use credit cards to withdraw money from ATMs, but only those located at Japanese post offices and 7-Eleven convenience stores. Frustratingly, Japanese bank ATMs accept cards only issued by Japanese banks; maybe this, too, will change by the 2020 Olympics, but it’s useful to keep in mind that only 25 years ago, there were virtually no ATMs in Japan that accepted any foreign credit cards whatsoever.
There are some 26,000 Japan Post Bank ATMs that give money for overseas bank cards, including in major post offices located near train stations with long hours (usually 7am-11pm weekdays and 9am-7pm
weekends but some open almost 24 hours). Rural or neighborhood post offices have more limited hours. A better bet for finding an ATM is at the ubiquitous 7-Elevens, most open 24 hours. You’ll need to know your 4-digit PIN and withdrawal limit.
Although I generally don’t bother with traveler’s checks when traveling abroad, for Japan I find it useful because cash is still widely used and continual money withdrawals from ATMs is be expensive due to fees. Banks that display a foreign exchange decal can cash traveler’s checks, but quicker are Travelex and World Currency Shop kiosks. Hotels and department stores also exchange money and traveler’s checks. Note
that you may need to show your passport, and banks in small towns may not be able to cash traveler’s checks.
One of the joys of being in Japan is that there is no tipping, whether it’s bellhops, taxi drivers or waitresses. Note, however, that a service charge of 11%-20% is added to bills in fancier restaurants and in higher-priced hotels. Cheaper establishments do not add service charge, simply because service is thought to be minimal.
An 8% consumption tax, however, will be added to goods and services, including restaurant meals and hotel stays. International visitors, however, can receive a refund on the consumption tax on purchases, mostly at department stores and other shops that cater to foreigners. Restrictions apply (you must spend a given amount on the same day at the same store) and most will charge a small handling fee. Best is to ask the store whether they give refunds, and if they do, you’ll be given the refund right away.
In addition to the above, Tokyo hotels also levy a separate accommodations tax of ¥100 to ¥200 per person per night.
Tokyo’s size–and the fact that most of its streets are not named–can give even seasoned travelers pause when it comes to navigating the megalopolis. Fortunately, Tokyo has one of the most user-friendly subway systems in the world, and getting into town from Narita or Haneda airports is a snap.
Most international flights arrive at Narita International Airport, located about 66km (41 miles)east of Tokyo. A Tourist Information Center in the arrival lobby dispenses free maps and pamphlet. There are several options for reaching central Tokyo. The JR Narita Express travels from the airport to Tokyo Station in about 51 minutes, with continued service to Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations. If your destination is Ueno, it’s quicker to take the Keisei Skyliner. Slower, but a good option if you have lots of luggage, is the Airport Limousine Bus, which delivers passengers to about 40 downtown hotels and to Tokyo and Shinjuku stations (if the bus doesn’t serve your hotel, take it to the nearest stop and then take a taxi from there). Note that buses depart only once an hour or so and it can take 2 hours to reach Shinjuku.
Tokyo’s other international airport is Haneda (officially called Tokyo International Airport), which is much more centrally located. The Airport Limousine Bus makes runs to Shinjuku and Tokyo Stations and to select hotels. Another option is to take a monorail to Hamamatsucho Station or the Keikyu Line to Shinagawa Station, both connected to the very useful Yamanote Line loop.
Tokyo has 13 subway lines, all color coded and each assigned a letter (usually the line’s name, such “G” for the Ginza line). There is plenty of English signage in and around stations, including station names, exits and maps of the surrounding neighborhood. In addition, the East Japan Railway Company (JR) operates above-ground commuter trains, including the Yamanote Line that loops around central Tokyo. Buses are harder to navigate but can be useful for shorter routes, like between Aoyama and Roppongi.
Each mode of transportation in Tokyo–subway, JR train, bus– requires its own ticket. Because it can be difficult and time consuming to figure out the fare, you’re much better off purchasing the JR Suica contactless pre-paid card, which can be used on virtually all modes of transportation and saves having to purchase a new ticket with each ride. The Suica can even be used for purchases from certain vending machines, convenience stores, coin lockers at JR stations and for snacks on long-distance JR trains. While you can’t use the Suica for transportation on long-distance trains (you’ll have to buy a regular ticket for that or use the Japan Rail Pass), you can use it within certain areas outside Tokyo, including certain transportation systems in Hokkaido, Kyoto and Kyushu. Suica cards can be purchased at vending machines in JR stations for a minimum ¥1,000, which includes a ¥500 deposit and can be recharged.
Maps of Tokyo’s transportation system can be picked up at designated stations. For the subway, there are Metro Information desks at Ginza, Shinjuku, Omotesando and other stations. JR maintains JR Information Centers at Ueno, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa and Akihabara station.