Tokyo: My tips for travellers visiting!

Grand Palace Hotel Tokyo Room 1716 July 2008

View of Tokyo from Grand Palace Hotel Tokyo Room 1716

This is my review of Tokyo travel tips, and things to do and how to make the most of Tokyo, Japan.

I had, until my recent trip, only ever been a transit passenger through Tokyo Narita airport. And had been wishing for a long time that I would get to Tokyo one day soon, as it all sounded so exciting. So I guess that it was almost inevitable that I was going to be disappointed when I finally got there.

One of the world’s worst airports?

Tokyo Narita airport, even according the Tokyo Tourist booklet that we were given on the Virgin Atlantic flight I was on, is regularly voted one of the top 2 worst airports in the world by travellers apparently. The reason it gets this “honour” is because it is very far from Tokyo, and can be very expensive to get from into town. My driver told me when I got into the cab that it was about 80km from the airport to the hotel, which was in the financial area of the city. I went back to the airport on a shuttle bus from the hotel, which seems the popular way to do it as it is the most cost effective and very regular from all the major hotels.

The process to get through immigration was very slow as they only had 2 people and very large queues of people as all the flights from Europe were arriving. There is a relatively new process where, like the USA, they take your fingerprints and photograph.

Complex to get around?

As we headed into the city on the long drive, it did strike me just how complex the roads and signage seemed to be, especially once we got into the city. I realized that this was possibly partly as the motorways and roads have been built fairly high up off the ground directly above canals and river that weaves through the city. This is not a city that I think you can drive in without knowing it, and speaking Japanese!

Massive population, and much of history was destroyed

This huge city has 34 million people living in the Greater Tokyo area. That is like taking all the people who live in California and put them onto Hawaii – so very crowded!

Tokyo, like many other cities bombed and wrecked during World War II, suffers from a post-war rebuild that makes it all a bit beige and uninspiring overall. There are some old buildings dotted among the mostly uninspiring blocks. They are all quite functional and ordinary. Of course while the city may not look great, it is one of the power house and modern economies.

With the damage during the war, it also seems to make the tour options and sight-seeing of historical areas a bit redundant and the main sights listed and tours seem to focus mostly on visiting shopping areas. More about what the tour options are a bit later in the travel tips. But overall other than soaking up the Japanese experience there is not a lot of history to be able to explore. There is though a lot of shopping and entertainment, with Karaoke being a hot favorite of course.

English language friendly, but not mobile phone friendly

One thing that did surprise me was how much English was spoken and understood. At first I thought that this was because I was mostly interacting in a business/ tourist part of town but then was told that in schools English is a compulsory language for a time and again at college.

So this helps English speaking travellers feel a bit more comfortable you do feel a bit isolated as the mobile phone system, like in Korea, is very different and not compatible with the system in Europe and the Americas and so Blackberry’s do not work either. In the many brochures in the hotel lobby and at most hotels they do rent out mobile phones.

If you are travelling from Europe (8 hours behind Japan) and USA (at least 12 hours), you are likely to be fairly jet lagged. I do not usually suffer much from jet lag but did struggle this trip, and I guess it is fairly known as the award winning “Lost in Translation” was about people connecting suffering from jet lag.

My overall impression of Tokyo was not as my expectation had been, and the jet lag may have added to that. This may have been influenced by staying more in the business part of town but there was a lot I learnt from this trip.

So, here are my tips for travellers visiting Tokyo:

(1) Getting there and around
Very few countries seem to need a visa to go to Japan, though I did notice in immigration they also required visitors from some countries to undergo a health check a bit like used going into China.

As mentioned earlier, Tokyo Narita airport is a long way from the city and so it is best to make arrangements to get into town before you arrive. The most cost effective and easiest seems to be the “limo busses” that go to certain hotels and costs around 3000 Yen (which is about US$30 per person). I suggest contacting the hotel you are staying at before you go. There is also a train service called the Narita Express which only runs about every hour or something every 30 minutes. But if you don’t speak the language and have just arrived from Europe or USA you are likely to be jet lagged due to the time difference and so best to have transfers arranged, even if a pick-up.

Once settled, it is worth working out how the metro system works as it is very efficient and comprehensive. If you do use taxis they are quite expensive and ensure that you get a card from the hotel with their address in Japanese, and get them to write your destination in Japanese as not all taxi drivers will understand you. Though overall the level and extend of English is fairly high as mentioned earlier.

(2) Keeping in touch
We are all so used to being able to use our mobile wherever we are and knowing that friends and family can reach us in case of any issues. Therefore, it was quite strange that mobiles and Blackberry’s do not work with the Japanese system. It is a good idea to hire one if that troubles you, which it did me, as the time difference is odd and you don’t want people calling you at odd hours. It is fairly expensive though calls are charged at the same rate for domestic and international calls.

(3) Electrical and other stuff
For visitors from the USA this is very simple as they have the same 2 pin plugs and voltage as in the States. Travelers from other regions need to make sure they have USA style plugs and if from the UK/ Europe as the voltage is lower things like hairdryers will not work at full force.

Of course the other famous, or is it infamous, part of Japan is the toilets. The Japanese have quite complex toilets with bottom washing facilities as standard. Luckily for the less technical among us they also tend to just work as normal toilets if you avoid the buttons and control panel next to the toilet. Some of them also have warmed seats.

(4) Do a tour
It is a good idea to do one of the organized tours to get a feel for the layout of the city and then explore alone afterwards.

Many of the tours are run by “The Gray Line”. There are 2 main tours which each last 4 hours each taking in sights including temples, Imperial Palace and shopping areas. There are pick-ups at most of the main hotels.

There are a number of key areas of the city to visit, and the most recommend for tourists are:

  • Roppongi. This is the area where the embassies and big shopping centres are. At night it is known for being a very buzzing part of town for entertainment. In this area is Tokyo’s equivalent of Paris’s Eiffel Tower called the Tokyo Tower with great views from the top.
  • Harajuku. This is the trendy part of town where things like the remarkable Prada Building is, the Rock and Roll Museum and the Jingu Stadium which is home to the Swallows Baseball team.
  • Shibuya. This is the part of town that many will recognize from films and travel shows as this is where all the neon lights are. It is known as being the center for youth culture and there are huge screens playing ads and pop videos. This is also where massive Starbucks, Tower Records and other stores are.
  • Ginza. This area is best known for the many and varied restaurants and the famous Sony Store where you can try out all the latest gadgets.
  • Yokohama. This is where the old Chinatown dating back to 1859 is, a large amusement park and Japan’s tallest building which has amazing views at night

(5) Day Trip to Mount Fuji
This is a full day trip that leaves about 9am and gets back at about 7.30pm. It involves a train ride, lunch and a cable car ride. It is well worth a visit to the dramatic mountain.

Kitanomaru National Garden, Tokyo, Japan

Kitanomaru National Garden, Tokyo, Japan

Kitanomaru National Garden, Tokyo, Japan

Kitanomaru National Garden, Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, Japan


Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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