“Edo”, “Town for Otaku”, “Tō (east) and Kyō (capital)”, “The East Capital”
It’s been almost 5 years since the first and only only time I’ve been to Japan. It was October 2012 when we found great tickets on an odd open-jaw combination. London-Rome–Moscow-Tokyo, and the return Tokyo-Moscow-London. Fun times back then, but a great joy in the overall trip. It was 8 of us, the very first time I was travelling with a greater group than 6 friends, but we survived and returned with the best experience possibly in our lives back in the days; and still, 5 years after and having visited 87 countries so far in the world, Japan ranks among the best top 5 in the list, no hesitation. In this occasion, 4 of us travelling, my family. My brother repeating with me, and my parents. We had spoken for a long now about when to go to Japan together, switched destinations all over many times; been to France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, China, South Korea… and finally Japan, including a stop-over in Doha to enjoy an entire day there and break the long journey; for me a returning place but for my family the first time in the Middle East.
Let’s start from the first experience: landing in Japan is landing in another world. Don’t expect the technology difference with the rest of the world is that big anymore, as contrary, they seem to be more old dated and fashioned in many ways. But their superb mentality, cleanliness, education and politeness will shock anyone. Not to mention the attention to detail and the perfect functionality of everything, like their transit systems, the busiest in the world, where everything just work without failures, on time, to the precision.
Tokyo will be for majority of the tourists coming to Japan, their main port of entry in the country, and so, the first place they will get to see. It is without any doubt, one of the most impressive and fascinating cities in the world, but not the place where to see the traditional and old Japan. For that, you will need to include in your tour some of the historical cities such as Nikko, Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara, Horyu-Ji, Himeji-Jo, Osaka and Hiroshima to name a few. All of these were in my plan, together with a visit to nearby Yokohama which you can treat as a “district” of massive Tokyo, although it is an entire different city.
WWII and earthquakes destroyed most of the Imperial Tokyo. The thousands of “skinny buildings” everywhere in the city are not worth architecturally speaking, but rather ugly. The most traditional areas in Tokyo are the Golden Gai and of course Asakusa, and the Imperial Palace and gardens. These will give you an initial idea on what’s yet to come if you are on a tour across other cities and places in Japan. But what makes this city unique is the vast amount of neon lights and adverts actually covering these buildings. Specially at night, Tokyo is completely another city, another world, a must see. Of course, new areas are ever growing with state of the art skyscrapers and striking architecture. Tokyo does not have a centre itself, it has many downtowns, separate cities melting into a huge one.
Walking through some of the most famous districts such as Shinjuku, Akihabara, Shibuya or Ginza is all about the senses. Colours, lights, sounds, music, smells, people. You will feel transported to another world, where the adverts do even speak, the street lights have music, huge screens are everywhere, millions of people cross the busiest crossing in the world at precision. Karaoke capsules can be seen from the street every few hundred meters, and pachinko can be found literally on every corner. Whenever you change the district, you are in a totally different world, and the fact that there are so many to go, and how big they are, means you need to give this city enough time. Back in 2012 we stayed for 3 days, while in this trip we spent 5 in total. That was the perfect calculation. No rush and enough for enjoying every bit, every sight; whenever needed resting, plenty of time for food and to just simply watching the life pass by and repeat some favorite spots.
As one of the most expensive city in the world, have in mind everything cost high. On the opposite side of the story, it does not really apply to food; or better said, to street food or noodle restaurants, where prices are normal and much lower than you could think and you get great food and a good amount!. How this all works is a little bit (well, too much), different to anything you have seen before. In the majority of the places you need to use the vending machines within the restaurant and pay for it prior you hand the receipt to the waiter. Each button in the machine has the name (in Japanese of course) and the picture of the dish. Either ask anyone if they can help with translation, or have a play and risk for the outcome. It feels more like a gamble than anything else but was a great fun every time!. Anything with udon noodles is great, and so it is the pork and chicken. Remember their cuisine is based on noodles, rice, soups, sushi and Japanese curry sauce.
The country that gave birth to Sushi is, in the other hand, super expensive. Honestly, you can get the same almost anywhere else in the world for a fraction of the price you pay in Tokyo. Still, if you are up for at least giving a try one day, after all, you are in Japan! go for it, try some of the places around Shinjuku, this is a famous area for Sushi but if you don’t want to really blow the budget, keep it as a one time visit only. For Japanese, Sushi is an art, and the same way you will enjoy this delicacies, you will enjoy to see the chefs preparing this fresh and directly into your plate.
For more information about Tokyo check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Japan’s currency is the Yen (JPY). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Tokyo:
The best way to plan any visit of the city is by dividing it on it’s respective neighbours, and grouping the sights within each area. Distances can be vast between the districts, hence why having a good organisation and planning beforehand is almost imperative in order to maximise your time. The most important for a 3 to 4 days visit are:
- Shinjuku One of the most representative areas, it’s world renown for the millions of neon lights. If you have seen the movie “Lost in Translation” you will easily recognise this area (when Bill Murray takes the taxi from the airport to the hotel and passes along the main street). It is also one of the major financial districts and major transport hub.
-Golden Gai Next to Kabukicho streets, with more than 100 tiny shacks selling food and snacks. During the day the place is all closed, but very lively at night.
-Hanazono Shrine Right across the road east from the Golden Gai, almost hidden in between the buildings. From the 17th century constructed in the Edo period dedicated to Inari.
-Kabukicho A district within the district. Just towards the north and east from the Shinjuku train/metro station. East exit from the station. It’s specially great at night with all neon lights and adverts, and the giant Gozilla head at the top of a hotel overlooking the entire street below.
-Omoide Yokocho Nostalgic area how once it was Tokyo. Next to the train station to the north west, with plenty of tiny great restaurants.
-Cocoon Tower A shiny new skyscraper which has become a landmark for its design.
-Metropolitan Government building It’s the City Hall and has a free viewing platform from one of the towers. Open from 9:30am until 23:00pm at night.
- Harajuku South from Shinjuku and right before Shibuya. This district is characterised for containing one of the largest urban parks in the city and high-fashion stores. Yogogi and Harajuku metro/train station serve the area.
-NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building The third tallest in Tokyo, modelled after the Empire State Building of New York City. Located right outside Yogogi metro station, easy to see then from the parks.
-Yogogi Park Along the western side of the metro station, together with Meji Jingu forms one of the largest park in the city.
-Meji Jungu Shrine Just north from Yogogi is this large and beautiful shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife the Empress Shoken after their death in 1912 and 1914.
-Takeshita Street The main artery full of shops and restaurants cutting through the district from west at the metro station towards the east. A must visit when in Tokyo!.
-Tōgō Shrine Towards the eastern end of Takeshita, by the northern side, is this 1940s temple dedicated to Gensui (Marshal-Admiral) the Marquis Tōgō Heihachirō.
- Shibuya Another major transport hub with the confluence of few JR lines and Tokyo Metro lines (Shibuya station). There is not a movie filmed in Tokyo which do not use this area as one of the spots. A must visit when in the city, and not just the main intersection but the streets surrounding it with plenty of shops, restaurants and entertainment.
-The scramble crossing Just outside Shibuya metro station, Hachiko exit. Stay for a while and see the vast amount of people crossing at one time. The busiest crossing in the world, specially Monday to Friday during the rush hour. It’s in fact one of the mandatory sights while in the city, becoming specially beautiful at night with the many lights and adverts surrounding the square. The best view you can get is from the first floor of the Starbucks Coffee. Go up and enjoy the show.
–Hachikō The little statue of the dog. Take Hachikō exit from the metro station. As you will be curious on why a statue of this dog, the best is if you read this remarkable article in Wikipedia.
–Karaokekan It’s one of the largest karaoke places in Tokyo, made famous in the movie “Lost in Translation”. Located in Udagawachō Street, few meters from the crossing in the middle of a frenetic shopping area worth to walk through.
- Nagatacho and Hibiya (Chiyoda) Around the southern edges of the Imperial Palace and gardens, it is home to many ministries and government buildings, some of which the finest examples of how the city used to look before WWII.
-Ministry of Justice Located by the southern gate of the Imperial Palace (Sakurada Gate), is one of the few early 20th century buildings in traditional red brick of how the city used to look before WWII when almost everything got destroyed.
-National Diet Building In the quadrant west from the Ministry of Justice, perfectly aligned with the avenue heading to the Sakurada Gate of the Imperial Palace. Another of the architectural masterpieces of the past.
-Hie Shrine Old temple with a nice row of Torii (traditional Japanese gate multiplied many times creating a passage). The views of Akasaka from this temple are nice since it’s located on a hill. It’s few meters behind the National Diet.
- Ginza (Chiyoda) The area within the district of Chiyoda, south of Tokyo Station and literally east from the Hibiya Park. Yurakucho or Shimbashi stations on the JR Circle Line (Yamanote). It is the up-scale shopping district and one of the most exclusive and expensive places to live. Every high street boutique shop has its flagship here.
-Harumi-dori The main thoroughfare in the district with the countless boutique flagships occupying entire buildings, some of which in incredible architectural design. Armani, Dior, Nissan, Wako and Mitsukoshi department stores and more.
-Sukiyabashi Crossroad The westernmost end of Harumi-dori.
-Sony Building The showroom of one of the world’s most famous companies. Unfortunately recently closed for demolition and soon build of the new structure due for opening 2022.
-Intersection of Chuo-dori and Harumi-dori With the glass cylinder of the San-ai Building. Every postcard or image of Tokyo depicts this place, a must see at night too when fully illuminated by neon lights everywhere.
–Kyukyodo Landmark clock tower and Wako shopping centres.
–Nakagin Capsule Tower South of Ginza (by metro Shimbashi). This landmark construction appears in many movies, nowadays listed as a protected building.
- Tokyo Station (Chiyoda) JR Yamanote (Circle Line) to Tokyo station. It’s another major financial centre and transport hub. The old train station recently refurbished is a landmark on its own. Notice the hundreds of Japanese people taking pictures of it!
-Tokyo Station Built in 1914 in red bricks, in between the Imperial Palace by its main facade along the west and Ginza towards the south, it looks nowadays as a theme park building surrounded by all the new skyscrapers mushrooming all over.
-Imperial Palace The primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. You must book tickets in advance which are completely free but finish quick. The maximum advance you can guarantee them are 2 months; this is the official and only website to do this. The palace and gardens are completely surrounded by a moat, offering nice views of the walls and the many gates, among them, the most famous, the Kiyo Gate.
-Imperial Palace East Garden Closed Monday and Friday. Free entrance. A great place to enjoy the architecture of the old structures among the rock gardens so traditional from Japan (zen gardens). The remains of the highest and largest castle tower ever built in Japan Edo Castle) are visible towards the northeastern edge of the park.
- Akihabara (Chiyoda) JR Yamanote (Circle Line) to Akihabara station. The next district north from Tokyo Station, it is also known as the Electric Town. This is where you will find any impossible gadget you could imagine, collectables, manga, games and thousands of neon lights everywhere.
- Asakusa (Taito) Northeast from Chiyoda district, contains the unmissable sight number one in Tokyo, the Asakusa Temple. The nearest JR stations are Okachimachi or Ueno, however you can get next to the temple if using the Tokyo Metro to Asakusa station.
-Edo Dori Street Famous for being home to the Bandai Headquarters. Right outside the building there are all of the statues of their manga cartoons heroes, like Doraemon.
-Asakusa Temple The most famous and most visited temple in Tokyo, packed with thousands of visitors constantly. The entrance gates are just only a fraction of what is yet to come. Walk along the market and you will reach the temples at the end.
-Tokyo Sky Tree Right across the Sumida River, opposite the Asakusa Temple compounds. Is the latest addition in the Tokyo skyline. The world’s tallest freestanding broadcasting tower. A 360 degrees viewing platform is on the top, but beware, this is not free and quite expensive. I recommend you take the chance of going up to the free towers mentioned above in the guide instead.
- Bunkyo Civic Center In the district of Bunkyo which is the next north of Chiyoda. One of the buildings where you can take the chance of going up to the viewing platform for free. Perhaps this is the one offering the best views. Take JR metro yellow line to Suidobashi or Tokyo Metro to Kōrakuen station, pass the Tokyo Dome famous for the indoor amusement park and you get to see the building itself ahead.
Photo album from the most recent trip in 2017:
Photo album from the 2012 trip:
The city has 2 international airports, Haneda the closest one to the city, but the smallest, and Narita, the main gateway in the country.
If landing or taking off from Narita, the faster and most direct option is the Narita Express Train. It is included with a JR pass. You will need to go to the train office in Narita, swap your ticket receipts for the final JR Pass if you have not done this before, and ask them to get you tickets for the Narita Express (all trains must have reservation). Frequency is rather limited, but while you clear immigration and find your way to the station, the chances a train is waiting and ready are high. This train stops at various station within Tokyo: Tokyo Station, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Musashi-Kosugi and Ikebukuro, all of which are the most likely stations where your accommodation will be or from where you can transfer into the metro or JR lines to your final destination. Remember that if you hold a JR pass, then you can take any of the JR lines using this pass, but you cannot use the pass on the Tokyo Metro system lines, for that you will need to pay the ticket.
If Haneda is your port of entry or departure, then you have two rail options, super fast, to reach both of the airport terminals. One is the Tokyo Monorail from/to Hamamatsucho station in the JR Yamanote circle line with various intermediary stops on the way; and the other the Keikyu Line also departing from the JR circle line where it connects at Shinagawa, with 3 stops in between, for ¥410 per way and a journey time of 12 minutes. There are plenty of buses as the next option, including the really late night and very early hours. With so many routes possible, the best is to get to the information desk upon arrivals and check to your desired destination what’s the best option. Get the ticket in advance before boarding, as there is no other way to buy it. For the Haneda Express Bus, the cost of the buses vary depending on distance, with single tickets to Shinagawa costing ¥1030 and to Shimbashi/Ginza ¥1400. Taxis do have a flat rate (the Keikyu Taxi) of ¥5900 to Chiyoda area, and increasing the farther the district you go, with a night/early morning supplement of ¥1200. If you are more than 4 people, this will be your best option especially if with luggage and tired after a long flight, or when taking off or landing at inconvenient hours. Here is the Haneda transport website with all of this and more information.
The largest transit system in the world is here, in Tokyo. It’s twin subway system is the busiest in the world too. And it’s just that, as the word says, two independent subway systems from two different companies, and many other lines of other companies. It’s for this reason you rarely see a map with all the lines at once, otherwise you will totally freak out on the outcome. Instead, make sure you have or get a separate map for each of the companies: JR Lines and Tokyo Metro. But as confusing it might look at first, you get used to it quickly. The most important will be the circle JR line, known as the Yamanote Line. Rarely you will be using any other line, this one passes through absolutely every district worth for sightseeing, or at least have stations at walking distance to everything you need to see.
As for buses, they are everywhere. How to find your destination, well, try asking of figuring it out yourself. People is very helpful and will try their best to assist you. A common sense is to guess the direction you need to go, and check on the bus stop the maps for the best route.
Any hotel in Tokyo can be seriously expensive, and most important, do not expect space. Everything in this huge city is pretty limited in space, unless you are willing to pay the prime and I am not even talking on the high standard either. Very good 4* properties do not mean at all space, and at the time you will be running your searches, you will come across something unique to this country, the term “semi double” room. Well, what can I say about this! It’s not a double and not a single, just something in between which I would never consider for any westerner to be honest. Asian people are usually smaller than westerners. The difference in prices rise dramatically the bigger the bed and bedroom.
As usual, a good and reasonable point to start your search would be checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. It will take you longer than expected, be patience, and over all, make sure to know where the hotel you are intending to book is. Make yourself an “easy life” and avoid long commutes. If your hotel lies within the Yamanote metro line (the circle line) then it’s the best you can do.
In our recent trip, we stayed for a week at the Hotel Villa Fontaine Tokyo-Ueno Okachimachi, 2-4-4 Kojima, Taito-ku. Yes don’t get scared or confused on the address and name, it is all way more simple that it looks. Located at walking distance from Akihabara district, and not far from Asakusa, it worked great for us. First of all, it’s just 10 minutes walk to Okachimachi or Ueno JR metro stations in the circle line, hence access to every district and sight within Tokyo could not be any easier. Then the property itself, nice 4* with “larger” standards than other hotels under the same category. The staff was extremely polite and friendly, and caring at all times, anyone across every department. The breakfast was in the other hand, the only poor thing, very simple to the western standards, was great to the Asian point of view. The bedroom, although small, was having proper single beds very comfortable, nicely cared and decorated and very quiet at night. For a long stay as was ours, this was very important to have a place were we can truly rest and enjoy, and this property did fulfil our needs.
For the last night in our tour, we stayed at the APA Hotel Shinagawa Sengakuji-Ekimae, in 2-16-30 Takanawa Minato-ku. Once again, don’t worry about the name. Just remember the brand APA, it is one of the top Japanese hotel chains therefore their standards are very high all across their properties. In fact, elsewhere in this trip through Japan we did only stayed at Japanese chain hotels. I selected this place on purpose for being almost next door to Shinagawa metro station with direct link to Haneda Airport as this was the point of departure for our flights back to London. Once again, a great choice, from the nice and friendly staff, to the great medium size bedroom, comfortable beds and very quiet even though the metro lines were passing very near the front of building. The breakfast was one of the best we had in this trip altogether, and so was the room size the largest of any hotel.
Back in October 2012 we stayed at the Hotel Listel Shinjuku, 5-3-20 Shinjuku. A basic hotel which turned to be really nice but simple, with great friendly staff and continental breakfast. Not to mention the location! Walking distance to Shinjuku, one of the main places to be in the city, specially at night. And very, very quiet, as it’s some streets behind the main avenue.