Tokyo Travel Guide
Kon'nichiwa intrepid explorers and welcome to our Tokyo travel guide – the ONLY place to find out everything you need to know before you travel to Japan.
When it comes to travelling Tokyo, rest assured that we've been there, done that and we've bought that proverbial tee-shirt. Now we're back, we're ready to share everything we learnt from our travels in Japan, including the vital stuff about food, money, transport PLUS a whole more about things to do in Tokyo.
Here's what to expect from this Tokyo travel guide:
Some facts about Tokyo
Tokyo is in the Kanto region of Japan, on the south coast of the main island and is the country's capital city. It's a foodie's paradise, haven of pop culture, and has the highest urban population in the world with nearly 38 million living in Tokyo.
A better start with Holiday Extras
Any start to a trip with Holiday Extras is going to be off to a good one, which was exaclty the case when we went to Japan.
The crew travelled to Heathrow the day before our flight. Our plane was scheduled REALLY early, and since we're not morning people we couldn't face being up earlier than absolutely necessary. That and no one wants to be stuck on the M25 before they've had a coffee. Arriving at our leisure, we parked our car at a nearby car park and made our way to the swanky Hilton T4 for an overnight stay.
Breakfast included, we scoffed up and made the short stroll to the terminal without even a whiff of delays on the M25. Of course, travelling in style is something we love to do at any given opportunity and booking the Plaza Premium to chill out for a couple of hours was an absolute no-brainer.
Sufficiently relaxed and as ready as one can be for an epic flight, we boarded the plane and flew east towards Japan. Tokyo is a 13 hour, 6,000 mile flight from London and you'll land at one of its two international airports, which is where our guide starts…
Travelling to Tokyo from the UK
The first airport is Haneda, which lies about 13 miles south of central Tokyo and is considerably closer than the second, Narita, which is almost 50 miles to the east.
Fortunately, getting into the city from each airport is straightforward. So here are your best options, starting with…
There are three main ways to get out of Haneda airport.
- The monorail, which takes you to Hamamatsucho station in 13 mins. From here you can hop onto the Tokyo metro. Tickets cost ¥490 per adult and ¥250 per child. If you plan on getting the monorail from Haneda airport, it's worth bearing in mind that the service only runs between 9am and 7pm on weekdays and from 9am to 5pm on weekends and public holidays.
- The Airport Limousine is a bus that takes between 30 minutes to an hour to reach Tokyo. It stops at most of the city's major hotels and a single fare for an adult costs ¥1200 and ¥600 for a child… just remember that prices increase to ¥2000 (adult) and ¥1000 (child) for the night service that runs between midnight and 5am.
- A taxi should take about half an hour depending on traffic. It goes without saying that prices vary depending on your drop-off (but something between ¥5000-¥11,000 would be quite reasonable). Also, remember that there's a 20% extra charge between 10pm and 5am.
Now, here's the stuff you need to know for Tokyo's other airport…
As with the previous, there are three main ways to get out of Narita airport.
- The JR Narita Express will have you in central Tokyo in an hour, and if you're flying home from Narita then make sure to ask at the ticket desk in arrivals for the discounted Round Trip ticket, which costs ¥4000 per adult and ¥2000 per child. Trains run on reduced schedules on Sundays, so if you're planning to fly home on this day, check your train departure and allow plenty of time to get to the airport.
- A taxi will take over an hour even in good traffic. There are fixed fares for 6 different zones of Tokyo, with prices ranging from ¥16,000 to ¥26,000.
- And the Airport Limousine bus runs from Narita as well, taking between 90 mins and 2 hours, stopping at most major hotels in the centre of town. There are discounted tourist vouchers available at the ticket desk in arrivals and they cost ¥4500 per adult and ¥2250 per child.
Travelling around Tokyo
Tokyo is genuinely huge.
With a metropolitan area of 13,572 km² you could quite comfortably fit the Greater Tokyo area smack-bang in the middle of the UK and it would compromise pretty much the whole of the midlands.
With this in mind, you'll want to seriously rethink getting about the city if you were planning to do most of your sightseeing on foot; without using the metro it'll be pretty impossible.
The metro can be pretty daunting at first glance.
For starters, just looking at the map alone could prove a little overwhelming to even the most seasoned traveller. Then, to go and make things really complicated, it's run by two separate companies – Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Finally, another complication to potentially contend with is that both providers can require separate fares depending on which lines you use.
Don't panic though because it's not all bad and we found simple solutions to making travel on the metro a doddle.
Best public transport apps for Tokyo
It's no exaggeration when we say that some of the subway stations are HUGE. Not to mention, some have multiple entrances and exits onto different streets around the station making it very easy to get lost.
The Tokyo Metro Subway Map and Route Planner app is really helpful for navigating Tokyo's underground system. Of course, good ol' Google Maps and CityMapper proved to be as reliable as ever. Any of these apps will be invaluable to your trip.
Tickets for Tokyo's metro system
As for tickets, the best option is to go with tourist travel cards, which are available for 24, 48 and 72-hr unlimited travel on all Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines.
They're available at the Tokyo Metro information desks in Ueno, Ginza, Shinjuku and Omotesando stations, and you can pick them up at both airports and some hotels. You'll need proof that you're a tourist so make sure you have your passport with you.
Otherwise, single tickets are available at vending machines at every metro station. They have an English language option and you can search by station to make sure you purchase the appropriate ticket. They only accept credit cards when buying day passes, so make sure you have enough cash if you're buying a single.
As well as making sure you have the right ticket type, there are a few things you need to know before venturing onto the Tokyo Metro.
Tips for surviving the Tokyo Metro
No smoking on the subway and giving up your seat for the elderly and pregnant women is a given, but did you know that talking on the phone while on the train is a massive faux pas in Tokyo? Texting is fine, but ideally, phones should be on silent.
It can get very crowded so many services provide women only carriages during rush hour.
Try to avoid using the metro during rush hour, that's between 8 – 9 in the morning and 5 – 6 in the evening, when it's at its busiest.
It's also worth noting that personal hygiene is very important due to overcrowding, so be generous when spraying that deodorant.
And finally, while on the subject of preventing bad smells, eating and drinking on the train is big no-no. Don't be confused by the ample vending machines or food courts, which serve local businessmen; this is not an invitation to eat on the go. Either eat at the machine and use the bins provided, or save your snacks for later.
Getting a taxi in Tokyo
Taxis are everywhere in Tokyo. You need to know that the meter starts at ¥710, and that there are surcharges after 10pm, which you'll want to watch out for.
Taxi doors are automatic and will open and close by themselves, which can be really surprising the first time you use a taxi here in Tokyo. It's also worth mentioning that your driver is unlikely to speak English, so try to have addresses printed in Japanese for them.
Overview of Tokyo
We've already established that Tokyo is BIG. How big? Well, nearly 38 million people live here (which is more than the entire population of Canada and a whopping 11 times the population of Iceland), so it's got to be pretty sizeable to fit all those bodies. The city itself is made up of 23 wards, each of which is split into many smaller districts that are all entirely different. Here's a look at some of Tokyo's most well-known central districts.
Chiyoda City is a special ward in Tokyo and home to the Imperial Palace, which is the Emperor of Japan's official residence, and the nearby Hibiya Park. You'll also find National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and the impressive Yasukuni Shrine. Chiyoda is and it's also home to Akihabara.
Akihabara is a hotspot for otaku, a Japanese word that describes anyone obsessed with anime, manga and videogames. This district is the place to go if you want to stock up on collectables and merchandise not to mention is full of weird and wonderful things, like maid cafés, plenty of cosplay and some of the strangest department stores we've ever seen. It's a real eye-opener and definitely something that needs to be seen on any trip to Tokyo.
The word Chuo literally means 'central ward' and is the city's old commercial centre, with a huge concentration of commercial businesses, offices and retail. The Chuo ward is home to Ginza & the Tsukiji Fish market.
Ginza is the place to go if you have some serious cash to burn – with up-market shopping malls and flagship department stores, not to mention boutiques, art galleries and high-end restaurants, you'll have no problem spending a small fortune very quickly.
Tsukiji Fish market
No foodie's trip to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to Tsukiji fish market, which sells not only fish, but fruits, vegetables and flowers too.
A big draw to the market is the famous daily tuna auction, where people start queuing to watch from as early as 5am. The auction is limited to 120 guests a day and is really popular, so make sure to allow plenty of time to get there and claim your spot.
Top tip: Due to the increasing numbers of guests and age of the structure, the market is due to be relocated mid-2018 to a new site in order to accommodate more and more tourists.
Shibuya is home of the iconic Shibuya Crossing (funny that?!). Think of Tokyo and we guarantee this is exactly what springs to mind. Think hustle and bustle of thousands of people, think neon lights and that ultra-modern, futuristic city in pretty much every Sci-fi film you've ever watched, minus the flying cars… for now.
Harajuku is a district of Shibuya and extreme cultural Mecca, not only to the youngest and trendiest of Japan's residents, but the rest of the world, having famously inspired the styles of Will.I.Am, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani.
Everything here is about fashion and being on-trend, which has a major influence on everything in this area – expect exclusive boutiques, gourmet street food and generally anything that anybody who's anybody just needs.
Shinjuku is in central Tokyo and the largest of the wards that make up the city proper. The immediate area around the train station includes a large concentration of businesses, entertainment and shopping and is home to the city's tallest skyscrapers, including the Metropolitan Government Office. Kabukicho is Japan's largest red light district and can also be found in Shinjuku.
Oh, and there's also a giant lizard who lives on Godzilla Street.
Fun fact: In Japanese, it's pronounced GOJ-IRRA
The ward of Taito is one of Tokyo's smallest, both in terms of area and population of people. It's also home to many temples such as Sensoji, which happens to be Tokyo's oldest and Asakusa Shrine, which was one of the only buildings in the area that survived World War II.
What's the food like in Tokyo?
It's no exaggeration that the food scene in Tokyo surpasses all other cities.
In 2017, Tokyo remained the city with most Michelin Stars for the 10th year running with over 200 preferred establishments, beating the number of stars held by Paris, New York and London combined.
Japanese dining etiquette
You need to know that table manners differ from Western traditions, like slurping your ramen for example. Doing so is deemed a sign of great appreciation and therefore the more gusto, the more grateful you are.
Also, who doesn't love the opportunity to kick their shoes off and sit on the floor? Some restaurants in Tokyo have lowered tables and the soft flooring called Tatami, which allows you to do just that when you eat.
To make it easier, remember these important notes on Japanese etiquette when dining out in Tokyo:
- Shoes and slippers off
- Wet towels are for your hands, not your face
- It's polite to wait for all dishes to arrive before tucking in
- Pick up small bowls and lean into bigger ones
- When finished, leave dishes how they arrived (lids on etc)
- Finally, it's polite to serve each other alcohol, rather than yourself and always sip before a refill
How to use chopsticks
- Never leave chopsticks upright in your food
- Never cross your chopsticks
- Never spear your food or use one at a time
- Never pass food from one person to another, chopstick to chopstick
- Always use a matching pair
- If you are supplied with hashioki (chopstick rests), use them
Vending machines in Tokyo
If you want food on the go, vending machines selling all sorts of snacks and drinks are everywhere, but they only accept cash, which is something we'll cover in more detail in the next section.
It's worth noting that despite their being vending machines pretty everywhere you turn, you won't see many people eating on the go, unless it's at the vending machine itself. Food and dining in Japan is a big deal, so mealtimes and snacks expect your full attention. Eating in public is fine, but find a park bench to sit and enjoy.
Spending money in Tokyo
The currency in Japan is the yen (sometimes written as JP¥) and at the time of our trip, £1 bought somewhere between 140 and 150.
Credit cards or cash in Tokyo?
Despite the country's technological advances and love of all things futuristic, rather surprisingly, Japan is still a predominantly cash reliant society, favouring notes and coins over credit and debit cards. Take it from us, this can be a bit of a pain if you're unprepared.
Where are the ATMs in Tokyo?
Just in case you need an ATM, you should know that they can be found at post offices, 7-Eleven stores and JP Post Banks, though they generally close at 9pm or earlier and may not be available at weekends or national holidays – so plan ahead.
Fortunately, some convenience stores and shopping centres are available 24/7.
Is it safe to carry cash in Tokyo?
One of the great things about Tokyo is its distinct lack of street crime. It's totally normal to carry around large amounts of cash in Japan, so don't worry about taking your spending money around with you. Obviously don't do anything stupid with it, and we can't account for general human error, like losing your wallet, but being mugged or pickpocketed in Tokyo is one less thing to worry about.
Tipping in Tokyo
Tipping in Tokyo, in fact tipping in any of Japan's bars and restaurants, is a massive faux pas so don't do it, which is incredibly refreshing.
Culturally, the Japanese hold good manners and hospitality in very high regard, meaning that you should always expect a stellar service. What's more, they also believe in making sure that service workers are paid fairly. To tip your server is seen as a massive insult, because you're seen as being charitable rather than generous.
Top tip: Bars run on tabs and are paid before you leave.
What are the trays by the till for in Tokyo?
It's quite common for a small tray to be near tills. These are for depositing your cash rather than handing directly to the cashier. Hygiene is a big deal in Tokyo and the rest of Japan, so it's deemed poor etiquette to ignore this custom.
How much Japanese do I need to know?
English isn't widely spoken throughout Japan, even in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, although you will find some translations on signs at some of the more central areas.
Learning a little Japanese can go a long way in Tokyo, and the locals will certainly appreciate the effort, if not for the comedy value alone. To help with some useful Japanese phrases we met with local tour guide Aya for a quick tutorial.
Helpful Japanese phrases for your trip
- Hello – Kon'nichiwa
- Thank you – Arigatō
- Thank you very much | Arigatō gozaimasu
- Can I have the Bill please – Okaikei
- Excuse me – Sumimasen
- Yes – Hai
- No – Īe
- Goodbye – Sayōnara
Tokyo City Guide Summary
That's it for our time in Tokyo! To wrap up our Tokyo city guide, we've got to talk about the awesome people, the awesome food and the generally awesome atmosphere of the entire city. It's friendly, it's clean and it's safe, which is incredibly refreshing for a major city pretty much anywhere in the world.
If you're reading this and think we have missed out a top tip then let us know and leave a comment to share with other travellers!
Don't forget to subscribe to our Youtube channel for a ton more travel guides in places like Vancouver, Mexico, and Sri Lanka! Plus you can check us out on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for loads more travel tips and guides to help you make the most of your free time and having better trips.
That's it from us, Sayōnara!
Exchange rates accurate at time of writing.