Top Five Tips: Tokyo for First Time Visitors / by Dan Zambonini

Tokyo Metro Sign

By Dan Zambonini

There are a handful of cities that live up to the expectations you place on them prior to your first trip.

New York has splendour and the hustle. Paris has art-deco cafes with impatient waiters. Tokyo… probably has the most difficult image to satisfy. Can it really be that crazy? That busy? And at the same time be utterly organized, polite and downright nice? Yes, it can, and then some.

Tokyo is a sensory overload that can’t help but cause culture shock for first time western tourists. Actually, I say ‘first time’, but I’ve visited Tokyo five times and I still expect to be bewildered and confused when I head back in October for three months.

Shinjuku, Tokyo, at night
Shinjuku, Tokyo, at night

I like to think of the shock and disorientation as part of the experience, but even so, there are a few things you should know that won’t lessen your awe but might help you to make the most of your trip.

Take a Compass

I’m absolutely serious. Finding places in Tokyo is difficult, even for locals. Not only do you have to deal with road signs in a foreign language (when you can find them), a population that doesn’t really speak English, and the size of the city, but you have to consider the third dimension too: many buildings can be 12 or 15 floors of restaurants and bars.

So, you need to at least have the basics covered: know which direction you’re walking on your map. Some Metro stations have a North pointer on the floor at the top of the stairwells, too.

Get to Grips with the Transport

There are two main rail transports that you’ll want to use to get around Tokyo.

The Yamanote Line is a railway loop around the various cities that make up the metropolis of ‘Tokyo’, including some of the major stops: Ginza, Shibuya and Shinjuku.

The Tokyo Metro is the subway that connects nearly everywhere you’ll need to travel in Tokyo. There are a number of subway lines, each of which is assigned a colour, name and letter, such as the red Marunouchi Line (M). The lines are well sign-posted within the stations.

Fares are based on distance. When you get into your nearest metro station, find the English list of destination stations on the wall and remember the price of your chosen station. Head on over to one of the electronic ticket machines and select the relevant fare. If you can’t find an English list to calculate the fare, don’t worry too much – just buy the cheapest ticket, and use the Fare Adjustment machines at the other end of your journey to pay any extra.

Next, follow the signs to the line that you need, put your ticket into the gate, grab it back again as it pops out at the top of the gate, and walk through.

When you get down to the platform, you’ll see white lines painted on the ground. These are for orderly queuing; don’t be a rude tourist and jump in front of everyone else.

When you get on the train, first make sure that you haven’t boarded a women-only carriage during the rush hour (these are usually fairly obvious from their pink decoration on the outside), unless you’re in an all-female group. If it’s not rush-hour, feel free to jump in. These carriages are designed to protect women from the wandering hands of the few dodgy gropers in the crush of the morning commute.

On the train, don’t talk loudly, don’t use your phone for calls, and don’t eat or drink. The Japanese have a great deal of respect for the personal space of others, and you should too.

When you get to the other end, keep an eye out for maps on the wall that will help you to choose an exit. Stations can have up to 60 exits, so it really does matter which one you take.

Tokyo Fish Market
Tokyo Fish Market

Buy a JR Pass Before You Go

While we’re on the subject of transport, if you’re going to take the beautiful Shinkansen bullet trains for a trip away from Tokyo, it’s almost certainly worth purchasing a Japan Rail Pass before you go. You can only buy these outside of Japan, so you need to arrange it in advance of your trip.

These will give you unlimited access to JR trains – which include most Shinkansen, local train services and the Yamanote loop line in Tokyo – for a specified number of weeks. They’re almost always better value than buying tickets when you get there.

Pick Up a Business Card from Your Hotel

I’m assuming your Japanese is as poor as mine, and that most taxi drivers won’t understand your attempts to pronounce your hotel name. It’s easier to give them a card with the address on.

On a related note, don’t open or close the taxi doors. The driver has a long stick-like lever that he uses to open and close the back doors, and he feels like you’re not letting him do his job if you open the door yourself.

A Tokyo Restaurant
A Tokyo Restaurant

Avoid Gaijin (Foreigner) Venues

It can be tempting to look for restaurants with English menus or a drinking establishment with a familiar looking barman.

Don’t give in.

Be bold, be courageous, and try the weirdest, most awkward places you can find. Maybe somewhere on the seventh floor that you’re not even sure is a restaurant, or a dank basement with steam rising up from it.

My fondest memories of Tokyo, by far, are the random encounters, meals and friendships found in poky hidden restaurants and bars. Sure, you may not know what you’re going to be eating (we’ve resorted to hand gestures on many occasions), but this is what it’s all about. If you take one thing from this list, let it be this one. Don’t read the guidebook suggestions. Take a risk every night.

One word of warning: you may, rarely, get (very politely) refused entry to a bar, possibly on the notion of it being a “members bar”. This is especially true if you find yourself in a down-and-dirty part of town, like Shinjuku’s incredible Golden Gai area. The probable reason for refusal is that you’re a Gaijin, and the bar is Japanese-only.

Take it on the chin and try somewhere else. Japan is very safe, but you don’t want to start an argument with bar owners in some districts, as they may be owned by the seedier elements of Tokyo.

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There is so much I want to say about Tokyo, but I don’t want to take away too much of the mystery that is so special for new visitors.

So I suppose I’ll finish with this: if you’re one of the many people who always talk about going, but never do, then find a way. Make it happen somehow.

I promise you won’t regret it.