Having just returned from my fifth trip to Tokyo, I think I’m finally comfortable offering some tips, tricks and a short-list of fun sights to see. This is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s just enough to facilitate your basic mobility needs and your curiosity. I’ll start with the airport.
Terminal One at Narita International Airport is part airport, part train station, and part shopping mall. Your other international hubs have cute stores and all, but how many choices of kitch and foodstuffs and ramen shops can you find? Chances are you won’t find half as many as you do at Narita. The trick is that you have to hit both sides of T1 if you want to catch ‘em all. Unfortunately you’ll be locked into one or the other, depending on your airline. Worry not, wayward traveler, you win on either side.
I’m still searching for the best way to get to downtown Tokyo from the airport. Right now I’m getting a full-fare ticket on the Narita Express (NEX) on the JR East railway. Unfortunately you have to pay cash, about 3,000 yen, if you want to use the automated machines. Your western credit cards won’t work in them. If all you’ve got is your Visa, you’ll have to wait in line and get it from an agent. If it’s your first time in JP, you might want to do that anyway. Some of the machine jibber jabber can be a bit confusing for a non-native, even when you set the language to English.
Getting a ticket to Shibuya will put you into one of the central transit hubs in Tokyo. Almost all the commuter trains run though the big station. If you’ve packed light you might consider popping your head above ground to check out the famous Shibuya crossing. You know that big 3-way intersection that they show in movie clips, the one where masses of Japanese humanity all cross the street at once? That’s Shibuya. Go grab a Starbucks and head to the second floor of the cafe for the best view.
From Shibuya you can grab a train to your hotel. Google maps is your friend and will tell you which line and stop. The commuter train stops are not only named in English, they also have numbers. Just be sure you’re heading in the right direction.
A note about rush hour – it’s as packed as you’ve heard and often times there are agents squeezing every last passenger onto the trains. Be mindful of the big pink stickers on train car windows. They indicate that those cars are for women only during rush hour. Japanese commuter trains, with their squeezy-tight manifests, can leave ample opportunity for the rare, gross gropy man to cop a feel. It’s a problem. There’s the solution – pink cars.
Japanese tend to the left. What I mean is that if you approach a person head-on while walking on the sidewalk, they will generally pitch to the left to make way. And they expect you to do the same. This runs contrast to what we do in the US. We tend to the right. The tendency makes sense when you realize that they also drive on the left. With the hyper-organized nature of the Japanese, however, this cultural phenomenon shows up, visually, everywhere. When you walk around train stations there are often arrows on the ground indicating how traffic should flow. In rare cases there are even passing lanes on pedestrian paths. Of course, you pass slower traffic by cruising around to the right.
The left-ness also appears on escalators where you’re encouraged to stand on the left, so that climbers can move past you on the right. After spending enough time in Japan you might find yourself tending left in the US. We have far fewer pedestrian instructions guiding our walkers so you’ll have to remind yourself from time to time to tend right.
Even at the dinner table, there might be smoking. Be ready for that. In many American cities and states you can’t smoke in public places anymore. Heck, you can’t even smoke in the parks in L.A. In Japan they’re still working toward that. Some places restrict it, others don’t.
The Yen ¥
One Yen in Japanese currency is roughly equivalent to on US Penny. This makes for an easy mental process when calculating the price of whatever fun trinket or plate of sushi you’re picking out. Just add a decimal point in the appropriate place and you’ve got dollars and cents. Of course, they won’t accept US dollars. They do take plastic at most places, however, even if they may not often be familiar with our antiquated print & sign routine. Be sure to ask to sign if your merchant forgets. You’re doing them a big favor when they forget. The Japanese don’t like failing in matters of protocol.
Of course I have a few favorite places in Tokyo. It’s a massive International city, so I won’t have a comprehensive list of sights, but I think I’ve got a good set of fun destinations.
It’s more than just a giant crosswalk. Beyond the excellent people-watching, it’s an amazing shopping destination with wonderful stores in every direction. From an over-priced, Bathing Ape t-shirt shop, to a tiny, hole-in-the-wall sushi bar, you can find nearly anything there.
- Starbucks – As I stated above, having an espresso or latté here is a treat because you get the best view of the Shibuya crossing.
- Cigar Bar – This place doesn’t have an English name, so far as I can tell. You’ll just have to search for “cigar bar” on google maps and find, ル・コネスール 渋谷店 It’s a great place to enjoy a little smoke and a nice sip of whisky or beer.
- Kiddy Land toy store – Multiple floors of odd little toys from all over Japan are collected here. You’ll also get popular, hard-to-find toys from the Star Wars universe.
- Tower Records – A dinosaur by Western standards, this music store still shines with 5 floors of music from Japan and around the world. The prices are a bit steep so you might opt to browse and discover, but not buy.
- Meiji Shrine – With a little walk you can make your way through Harijuku to find the Meiji Shrine. The expansive grounds offer a taste of the outdoors in the midst of city. It’s a favorite spot for wedding photos as well.
The very top attraction in Shinjuku, in my opinion, is Robot Restaurant. It’s an awesome, tongue-in-cheek showcase of Japanese culture. Giant indoor floats parade around the center of an intimate theater. Highly choreographed robots, dragons, drums, guitars, dancers and acrobats flit or slog around to loosely scripted stories straight out of manga comics. It’s the Tokyo equivalent to Chicago’s Blue Man Group. My advice – grab a meal before or after the show. All reports indicate that the food is not the main attraction here.
Be advised, Shinjuku is also the red-light district of the city. While a robot show most certainly is family friendly, some of the other attractions in the area might not be. That being said, there are still mostly G and PG rated sites to see. The district is also home to a quaint Samurai museum, wonderful temples, more shopping, more ramen, and more sushi than you can shake a sword at.
The Fish Market (Tsukiji)
Perched on the docks is the Tokyo Fish Market. If you show up early, and I mean before sunrise early, you can watch the throwers. Seattle’s tossers look like tossers when you consider the mass of fish they move every morning from ship to shore in Tokyo. Here you can get the freshest sushi you’ll ever have, for breakfast! You won’t regret it.
You can also pick up some of the finest kitchen knives in the world at one of several shops within the market. Pick your steel, pick your size, and get them engraved if you can. Reminder – you’ll need to check those blades at the airport. Plan accordingly.
Update – Tsukiji fish market will be closing on October 6th, 2018. A new market will open to replace it in Toyosu on October 11th.
Tokyo’s higher, high-end of town is Roppongi. Here your beer will maybe cost an extra Yen and you might actually catch them detailing the sidewalks with a toothbrush… no, not really. All of Tokyo sidewalks are impeccably cleaned, with toothbrushes. One of my favorite sites near Roppongi is the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Technically it’s in the Chiyoda province… but close enough! If you’re a runner, it’s a great distraction to include in your jog. You can run all the way around it on a path, which keeps you away from traffic.
In addition to the fortifications, Roppongi also offers world-class fine dining from chefs like Joel Robuchon and many more. Just be ready for the prices. I didn’t actually jump at Joel’s place, I’m more than fulfilled on sushi delivered by conveyor belt or little boat on the lazy sushi river.
Smile, because they’ll smile. Be nice, because they’ll be nice. If there’s one thing about the people of Japan it’s that they are incredibly nice. Smiling is in their nature when they interact with you, and each other. Follow the rules. They may not remind you to follow them, but follow them. They all follow the rules. In a city with millions and millions, the rules are there so things run smoothly, so people don’t annoy each other and everyone can just get along.