My trip to Tokyo wouldn’t have been successful if I hadn’t planned the entire itinerary carefully. Tokyo is one of the most difficult cities in the world to travel to, with the following top 3 problems foreigners most often encounter when heading for Tokyo:
1. Lack of ATM machines that accept foreign-issued ATM cards
2. Tokyo’s train system is extremely hard to navigate compared to other Asian countries
3. Very few locals speak English and therefore hard to get clear directions
Having known these things, I knew that going to Tokyo for the first time ever is going to be a challenge. I had little word-of-mouth tales relayed to me, only knowing that a taxi fare in Tokyo would go as far as $200 from Narita to Tokyo due to heavy traffic. But I was extremely determined to learn how to navigate around the city. My research to Tokyo was extremely essential to my trip and I was thankful for it the entire time.
I’d like to impart some of my learnings to you and I hope you’ll find it helpful in planning your trip to Tokyo.
Top 5 Things to Do Before Going to Tokyo
1. PLAN YOUR ITINERARY IN ADVANCE (And know the essence or purpose of your trip, too.)
Is it a vacation? Are you heading for Tokyo the first time? Do you like to go on a food tour? Do you want to shop in department stores? Knowing the purpose of your trip to Tokyo is as crucial as ever. If you have booked a flight to Tokyo a couple of months before, then a reservation at Tokyo’s Michelin Star restaurants or Sukiyabashi Jiro would be possible. Don’t expect to book a table at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon a week before your intended dinner as you won’t be able to secure a seat then. Likewise, be mindful of the opening and closing hours as well as their holidays as some of the establishments you will be visiting could be closed during your stay.
For those going to Tokyo the first time, I would recommend you to sample a bit of Tokyo’s temples such as Meiji Jingu and Senso-ji. Shopping at well-known shopping malls such as Takashimaya and it’s depachika is a must-to-do in Tokyo and don’t miss out their food. A week’s stay should give you ample time, too. For those traveling with family, two nights stay at Tokyo Disneyland Resort is inevitable ~ Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea are unique theme park personalities that are unlike you’ve ever visited and isn’t present in other countries.
Once you have listed down the places you want to go, plot them on Google Maps. Essentially, that’s where you plot the shortest distance of travel from point A to point B and you could save some yen by skipping train rides too. During my stay, I’ve seen countless of tourists boring over paper maps that won’t really get you anywhere else! Don’t rely on paper maps especially those given to you by your hotel concierge. That’s a code for getting lost.
It’s best also if you choose a hotel or place to stay in a “ward” that is nearest to the sightseeing you want to explore to save travel time between train stops. Looking for a hotel in Tokyo? Booking.com can help you.
If you’re booking via Airbnb which is popular nowadays (but I should discourage you if you intend to have reservations at Michelin star restaurants), make sure you’re staying in a Ward where you want to explore the most. I loved the Shibuya crossing as well as shopping in Shibuya Hikarie, Tokyu Plaza and Shibuya 109, therefore my first choice was in the Shibuya, the second being Shinjuku. It’s best to know each of the personalities of the cities. Ginza, for example, is lined up with high end brands. Unless you want to splurge on designer bags, Ginza is the right place to stay in. And depending on your itinerary, such as the tourist spots you intend to go, and the sightseeing you’ll be doing, it will really save you some yen if you’re choosing to stay where majority or the nearest spots are located.
And remember, if you’re going to take a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, you’ll need to call your hotel concierge and have them do it for you, even though you know how to speak in their language. That means you need to have a confirmed booking at the hotel before they can do it for you, otherwise they won’t entertain you.
2. RENT A MOBILE HOTSPOT
One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was renting a mobile hotspot a week before my trip to Tokyo. Tokyo has selected wifi hotspots, usually in coffee shops, but not all shops have wifi. And you will be needing wifi access to check out the places you have plotted on Google Maps.
Forget renting a local SIM card. There are a number of hotspot rental providers that are available over the internet such as Japan Mobile Rental, Telecom Square or Global Advanced Communications that have 4G and LTE networks provided by NTT Docomo. I rented at Global Advanced Communications, a week for around 6000yen, but I paid more because I preferred high device specifications especially battery life. You can browse their catalogue of products and compare each of their prices, but bottom-line is, it’s imperative to get a mobile hotspot.
You can have the mobile hotspot delivered to your hotel, but I suggest you have it sent to your destination airport, because you will need wifi access when navigating from airport to your hotel or the place you’re staying. At airports, you can pick it up from postal office and drop it off when you’re flying out of Tokyo. It’s that simple.
3. STUDY THE TOKYO TRAIN SYSTEM
This is without a doubt, the most crucial tip I will give you. Study Tokyo’s train system and you won’t regret it. I know its going to be quite a headache but the reason for its many interconnections is that it all caters to efficiency and shortest routes. Before heading for Tokyo, I suggest you also download the Tokyo Metro Subway navigation app as well as the trains.jp app as they can help you in transferring trains. These apps can operate even without internet access so you won’t worry about getting lost.
The thing about Tokyo’s train system is that they’re owned by different privatized train companies such as JR East, Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. And this means, a single ride pass purchased for JR East will never work on Tokyo Metro and vice versa. With this, I recommend you to purchase the Suica IC card which is like the Octopus of Hong Kong’s MTR system. The Suica card costs 2000 yen on your first purchase, 500 yen for the cost of the card and 1500yen for the credits of the card. (And the Suica card can be used in some buses and in several smaller establishments such as Family Mart too.) A trip between trains costs roughly around 290-350 yen per ride and fares will vary especially when you interchange between Tokyo’s train companies. The Suica card will really help you save time in thinking which card applies and is usually more practical versus single ride passes. The PASMO card is also another IC card that works the same way, but I prefer the Suica. Suica is owned by JR East while PASMO is owned by Tokyo Metro. Together they have shared agreements that allow passengers to ride efficiently and without hassles.
A few tips before heading for Tokyo: Tokyo’s train stations are very confusing. You can get lost easily especially in finding the exits, and also for finding the line where you must ride the train. Follow the arrows where example, Marunouchi (Red) line, is located, but don’t stop walking to that direction if you don’t find the line, because they don’t repeatedly indicate where Marunouchi Line is. An arrow that looks like you should get up, doesn’t always mean heading upstairs, but to walk on the side of the platform to get to the line you need to ride on.
It’s best to also use the JR Yamanote loop as a reference line, where all the major stations such as Shinjuku are accessible from. One of my favorites is the Ginza line (Orange) operated by the Tokyo Metro line and it runs from Shibuya to Roppongi, and where you can transfer going to Tsukijishijo for Tsukiji market.
In some stations, different trains arrive on a single platform (example, Keisei, Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway in Hibiya line going towards Asakusa operate in a single platform). Best to check the trains that will be arriving from the prompt and always keep your ears open.
Another tip before braving the Tokyo trains? During rush hour, large crowds of salarymen and all kinds of locals will push you in the direction of the exit. This is a surefire way to get yourself LOST. If you are not sure yet where to exit, stay put, let the crowds go first and DON’T follow them. Stay calm and recompose yourself and check your Google Maps app on which direction you need to go.
4. PLAN HOW TO GET OUT OF NARITA AIRPORT (And go back to Narita Airport when you’re on your way home)
If your plane lands at Haneda airport then you’re lucky. Haneda is roughly 30-40 minutes away from the centre of Tokyo, but most airlines land at Narita International Airport. Nevertheless, both airports have the same mode of transportations available when heading out to the city. I had about three choices how to get out Narita Airport:
1. NEX (Narita Express) – 1500 yen from Narita to Tokyo; 3020 yen on the way back to Narita Airport
2. Keisei Skyliner One Way with 1 Day Unlimited Pass on Tokyo Metro line – 2600 yen
3. Limousine Bus with 1 Day Unlimited Pass on Tokyo Metro Line – 3200 yen
I was going to ride the Narita Express but changed my mind at the last minute. Because I was carrying my baggage with me, I don’t want to carry my luggage as I change trains. And at peak hours, I could be having difficulty catching the next train and save time. It was the easiest and fastest way to get out of Narita Express at only an hour, but not the most convenient. Besides I don’t want my luggage depreciating. I could end up buying a new one if I don’t take care of it.
Keisei Skyliner was the cheapest choice, and I almost took this option because it had a 2 Day Unlimited Tokyo Metro Pass that I could avail. Keisei Skyliner stops at Ueno and I could take a train through the JR Yamanote Line towards Shibuya where my hotel was located. But Ueno is too far and if I was staying somewhere near Asakusa then Keisei Skyliner would have been the best choice.
I finally settled for Limousine Bus because I paid for comfort in travelling. Depending on the traffic, the Limousine Bus should take you to the heart of Tokyo in about an hour and 30 minutes. It was quite a good option. I ended up heading back to Narita Airport via Limousine Bus as well since I had triple the amount of luggages I brought compared to when I arrived in Tokyo.
Weigh your options and be smart about your priorities. Know what works for you. If you’re saving money then opt for the Keisei Skyliner, but if you want efficiency, then Narita Express is your best option. For families, I wouldn’t recommend riding the train especially when you have kids with you. It’s hard to manage kids and luggages at the same time.
And oh, when I purchased my Limousine Bus, I also purchased the special bundle which included the unlimited Common Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway pass. It costs only 300 yen in additional charges and I saved around 1200yen in train rides the day I used it.
5. BRING EXTRA CASH WITH YOU
Foreigners often complain how they are unable to withdraw cash from ATM machines that are in Tokyo. Take note that you can only withdraw cash in 7-Eleven (Seven Bank) shops or at Citibank and they usually have additional fees or charges if you withdraw in Yen. It’s best to bring enough cash with you, as you can never be too sure what things you may want to buy.
I also found few Forex shops that exchange foreign currency into Yen. The fluctuating rates could cost you more. As with any other trip, I always exchange money before going to Tokyo.
International credit cards such as Mastercard and Visa are accepted also, but during my trip to Tokyo there were roughly 2 establishments I encountered that didn’t accept my credit card. So make sure to bring enough cash with you. Some restaurants, especially Michelin star sushi restaurants such as Sushi Mizutani do not accept credit cards. Best to note which ones accept and which ones don’t.
6. BONUS: STUDY FEW JAPANESE PHRASES (So you can understand them, too)
When I was at Omoide Yokocho or memory lane in Shinjuku having my yakitori and sake, I was having a problem how to ask for my bill because the shabby izakaya didn’t have the usual “leaving your receipt at your table” type of system like the other restaurants. I wanted to get my check and pay but they couldn’t understand me. Helpless, I launched my last weapon.
Oganjo wo onegaishimasu?
Bingo, they all understood me. And in no time, I was out of the restaurant and went on to enjoy the rest of my day.
You should know that there are very few people in Tokyo who know how to speak in English, save for those who know that the place is going to be flooded with tourists such as hotels and department stores. It’s best if you study a few key phrases that will help you in case of need and hopefully not, in case you get completely lost. There are a lot of apps in the Appstore and Google Play that can help you learn one phrase a day, so it shouldn’t be so hard.
Well, these are my top 5 +1 things that you need to do before going to Tokyo. My trip to Tokyo was quite a success, not getting lost in a city where it was my first time to be in and it’s all because I studied the city very very early and know what I wanted to do. It can be overwhelming especially if it’s your first time and there are so many places you wanted to see to make the most out of your trip. But accept the fact that you will get lost in Tokyo, especially in train stations so have allowance in your itinerary for getting lost. The mobile hotspot should help you and knowing the fact the city is a very organised city should make you think well and put yourself in their shoes. After all, they also get lost in their own city and it’s comforting to know that.
Traveling to Tokyo? Here are some recommended articles for you:
How to Get a Suica Card in Tokyo
From Hanami to Watering Holes, Here’s How to Spend 24 Hours in Shinjuku
Ultimate Guide to the Best Pocket Wifi Rental in Japan
Spend 7 Days of Summer in Tokyo
Things to Do Before Going to Tokyo (And Avoid Getting Lost)
15 Practical Tips Before Going to Tokyo
Where to Eat at Narita International Airport