What to know before you go
Population: 20 million people
Money: Japanese Yen // 100 Yen=1 USD
Climate: Subtropical climate zone with hot humid summers and generally mild winters
Visa: Passport holders of 67 countries who intend to visit Japan for 90 days or less are not required to obtain a visa, including the U.S., Canada, the EU and Australia.
Language: Japanese; English is more widely spoken in Tokyo than other parts of Japan, but don’t expect it on every street corner you visit. Despite the lack of English, there are many English signs and menus. Other than that, grab some patience and good humor and you’ll be fine. Here are a few phrases you can learn to make life a little bit easier:
Thank You: Arigato
Excuse Me: Sumimasen
Sorry: Gomen nasai
Where is the bathroom: Toire wa doko desu?
Toiletry: This is a Japanese toilet, a machine very different from a western-style toilet. Look at all the buttons! This toilet of the future has features such as a heated seat, a built-in shower and dryer, automatic lid opener, and yes ladies and gentlemen, it plays music. I’m not even going to get into the other advanced features at this time…
Cat Cafe – What do you mean you’ve never heard of a cat cafe? They’re completely normal institutions, right?
Hahahahahardly. I don’t know many countries where these “cafes” are the norm. Quite a few exist around Tokyo, and it’s absolutely the most ridiculous concept since you literally just sit in a cafe and hang out with cats. The cafe concept comes into play because you’re made to order a beverage, and I actually don’t even know if there is a morsel of food anywhere. Look. I’m not a cat person, and this experience certainly didn’t turn me into one. Don’t let this face fool you…
It does not want to play.
Like, at all.
Even though I gave it a valiant effort.
In the end, we were both bored to tears.
I tell you this not to discourage you from going. It was a hilarious 30 minutes, but WOW a dog cafe would’ve been a better route to take. Out of 17 cats, not one wanted to play. That being said, I still highly suggest it.
Tokyo Tower – This is Japan’s version of the Eiffel Tower. It has an observation deck up top where you can see a great view of the city as it’s the second tallest building in all of Tokyo. You’ll notice its flashy colors from miles away – it’s painted white and international orange to comply with air safety regulations.
Tokyo Skytree – If you were wondering what the tallest structure is in all of Tokyo, it’s right here. It also claims bragging rights as the second tallest tower in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Shopping in Harajuku – In the alleyway next to the Laforet shopping mall, the most incredible area exists. Tell me. In what country did you have the biggest shopping spree? I’m talking such a big shopping spree that you could’ve filled another suitcase? Well, mine was Japan, specifically in Tokyo (but I had some help from Kyoto and Osaka). For everyone who asks about my white sunglasses or rompers/jumpers, they came from here!
Visit a Japanese spa (aka Onsen) – Oedo Onsen Monogatari near Tokyo Bay takes the cake for the weirdest experience of my life. Hands down. It’s a Japanese spa/carnival/camp. Intrigued yet? Good. Let me paint you a little picture. You walk in, get a wristband and choose a yukata (robe).
[Note to all my tatted-up readers: there is a no tattoo policy. This stems from various reasons, but many Japanese locals don’t have them while many foreigners do – which is where things get problematic. It’s a bit complex, but with Japan tourism rising, it is becoming harder and harder for businesses to turn away inked visitors, especially when a third of them come to experience hot springs or onsens. This, though, poses a problem for the locals whose reasoning for not enjoying ink stems anywhere from believing its a symbol of organized crime to that it’s disrespectful to their parents. In the end, I think it’s safe to say that Japanese art in general is very influential when it comes to tattoos, which is funny to then think that such iconic Japanese figures or phrases will actually prevent people from entering Japanese hot springs and spa. Okay, okay, I digress.]
Back to the weird/awesome/naked onsen party. It’s like a spa…
meets delectable food court…
And it’s the best damn thing I’ve ever been a part of. I highly recommend going into the women and men spas as well. Just to prep you a bit: You can’t even take a towel into the spa as you must leave everything in lockers. If that wasn’t clear enough, you can’t take a thread of clothing with you. Even on your body. It’s actually a beautiful experience, and my friend and I were the only westerners in sight! Heyyyy, authenticity.
Sumo wrestling match – Only around four sumo wresting matches happen per year, so you gotta get lucky with timing. I did not, but we tried our hardest to even see a practice match, but they weren’t practicing during the few days we were visiting. Waawaaa. May the odds be ever in your favor.
Shibuya Center, Times Square of Tokyo – If you’re looking for that “Holy crap I’m in Tokyo!” moment, come here. It’s vibrant, it’s busy and it’s beyond energetic. Rumored to be the world’s busiest intersection, it’s incredible to see people coming from all different directions yet still manage to dodge each other with a sense of practiced agility (except that one man who was super drunk and fell 5 times trying to cross the street. Ugh. Get it together, man). Think karaoke, 100 Yen shops (which translates to $1 shops) strip clubs and many, many solicitors. All in all, a pretty good replica of the real Times Square!
Shinjuku Gyoen Garden – As Tokyo’s most renowned park, Shinjuku provides a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle. It’s not all concrete jungle here. In the spring, this is where you want to be for Cherry Blossom viewing!
I’m not kidding when I say I got fat in Japan. Between the rice, the noodles and more rice, I blew up like a balloon. Now you know the real reason I did so much shopping. New weight, new clothes. I’m kidding. It wasn’t that bad. I just couldn’t resist the sugar. Whatever you do, get the Croquant Chou Zakuzaku. Say that five times fast. I caught this woman stuffing said zakuzaku with some sort of cream-like filling. I didn’t ask questions, and neither should you.
Immediately after I devoured the zakuzaku, I went for a crepe. Don’t you dare judge me. You are SO judging me right now I know it. Oh well. I didn’t know if I’d ever make it back to Harajuku, and what if all the rest of the world’s crepes suddenly disappeared in an instant? I didn’t want to live a crepe-less life.
Robot Dinner – This was the most ridiculous experience of my life, and I’m fully aware that I just said the same statement only a few activities above. That’s Tokyo for you – always giving you something new to marvel at. I don’t know how to adequately describe it other than it’s not really a dinner. You can order a sushi bento box (I wouldn’t), but I’d stick with the beer or canned moscow mules and popcorn. Get ready for lights…
Weird furry animal humans…
And dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs.
Sushi Bar Yasuda – Thanks to Anthony Bourdain‘s expensive taste and Chef Yasuda’s talent, this popular sushi bar came to life. Bourdain learned all his sushi knowledge from the Master Chef himself. Anyways, the sushi here is unreal. Just go and spend the money.
Alice in Wonderland Cafe – Someone please tell me they saw my snaps of this place. I was in real-life Wonderland, and if you missed it, that’s on you. There are a few all over the city, but we went here. There are so many of these character cafes to try.
Vending Machine Ramen – Do not be alarmed! This is totally normal. It’s not like the machine pops out noodles for you, either. You choose your bowl, the machine prints a ticket, and you give it to the people at the counter.
Tsukiji Fish market – To the early risers of the world: this one is for you as things start happening around 5am. Even if you aren’t an early riser, still go, but it shuts down around noon-ish. This is where 3,000 tons of the world’s best seafood arrives every day. Walk around sampling all kinds of weird creatures. I made an impromptu purchase of a sushi knife…as if I actually make sushi or something. I have no idea what I was thinking with that one. One day…
Park Hotel Tokyo was my base for three lovely nights. I highly recommend their views, their concierge and their location as it’s super close to the Tokyo Tower, the fish market, the Skytree, notable gardens and parks.
There are two main airports in Tokyo:
Narita is the main airport for international flights and Haneda mostly serves domestic flights. Narita is about an hour’s drive into the city (maybe even 2 with horrid traffic), with limousine bus being the most direct mode of transportation for a pretty penny. Many people go for the Skyliner train for ¥2,400 per person, one way. The high-speed express train connects Narita Airport and downtown Tokyo. Haneda is much closer at about a 30 minute drive. Take the monorail, costing ¥490 per person, one way.
Taxis are great but rather expensive, so may I suggest the subway. Don’t get overwhelmed as it’s actually simple once you get the hang of things. Life is an adventure, especially life in Tokyo.
The Tokyo Metro system (which uses a symbol “M”) is efficient, clean, and easy to use. Altogether, there are 13 underground subway lines crisscrossing the city. Each line is color-coded. Vending machines at all subway stations sell tickets, which begin at ¥160 for the shortest distance and increase according to the distance you travel.
As an alternative to subways, electric commuter trains operated by the East Japan Railway Company (JR) run aboveground. These trains are also color-coded, with fares beginning at ¥130. Buy your ticket from vending machines the same as you would for the subway.
Over to you! Been to Tokyo? Give me your thoughts and suggestions below!!