The entire country is slightly smaller than California, but just in the capital there are 38 million people currently living there. Tokyo is a unique city – possibly even the world’s best, according to many.
The city of Tokyo is actually comprised of 23 inner-city communities. Together they form the actual capital and house a total of 9 million inhabitants. What we call Tokyo also includes many outlying areas which join together to create the world’s largest metropolitan area, with 38 million inhabitants.
In Tokyo you find the world’s busiest transportation hub, Shinjuku Station, with 3.64 million passengers daily. The pedestrian crossing in Shibuya has 90,000 people cross every hour. At the fish market, 269kg of tuna is sold daily for an total of £500,000. And, of coarse, the toilets speak to you! Tokyo, despite its size and despite all its residents, is a delight to stay in.
Is it expensive? Yes and no. Everything is what you make of it. Through some smart choices you can live significantly cheaper in Tokyo than London if you wish, but you can also live significantly more expensive. Read further down in the guide for some affordable hotels and tips for cutting the restaurant bill.
100 yen = about 60p.
5000 yen = about £29.
A beer = 450 yen = about £2.60.
Remember that cash is king in most restaurants and many ATMs unfortunately do not accept English cards. The safest way is to find a Seven Eleven as their ATMs are fairly reliable.
A look at Tokyo’s subway map can give you a fright. Some areas in the stations have only Japanese signs, but looking around you will soon come across a sign in English. In any case, there are staff all around available to ask. Often you are not standing still for long before someone asks if you need help. They are usually not great at speaking English, but are incredibly helpful!
Tokyo has two subway systems – the Tokyo Metro and Toei. They are under different ownership and in some cases operate at different stations that have the same name. If you choose to purchase a ‘Suica’ or ‘Pasmo’ card, then these will work with both of the two systems. They are cards you top-up. The Tokyo Metro also provides a 1 or 2 day pass, allowing unlimited travel within the time period. This costs 600 and 980 yen. These cards will not work on the Toei system.
In addition to the subway system, there is the ‘Yamanote’ line, which goes in a big circle around Tokyo and connects the city. Should you travel from one end of the city to the other, the Yamanote line is faster than the subway, but it is located primarily in the suburbs. In addition, there is a large number of other trains that take people in and out of downtown. There is plenty of information available about these services and most companies have clear “find us” instructions on their website.
There are two airports in the city. The biggest and most common for foreign airlines is Narita, which is located approximately 49 miles east of Tokyo. Haneda is much more central, just 18 miles from the most central parts of the city, which in other words means it is practically in the middle. From Haneda you can easily catch either a train or limousine bus into the city centre, both take about 30 minutes.
From Narita there are several train and bus routes. Among other services, the Kensei Bus runs between JR Tokyo station and Narita Airport. It costs 900 yen from Tokyo to Narita and 1000 yen the other way. The bus runs every hour and takes about 70 minutes. A convenient and affordable option for those who live near Tokyo Station.
If you are instead living in the northeast of Tokyo, then the Kensei Skyliner goes to Ueno, from there you can switch to the subway and the JR Yamanote Line. If you are in one of the more central parts, the Narita Express is the most convenient. The journey takes 53 minutes from Tokyo Station and also goes through Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Omiya, Yokohama and Ofuna. A regular ticket is quite expensive (3000 yen), but bought along with a Suica card (which works on the subway), the price is discounted. 5,500 yen for a round trip on the Narita Express, 3500 yen for a one-way ticket and then a metro card loaded with 2,000 yen. Similar combination discounts are available for 1 and 2 day cards as well as the Kensei Skyliner.
The nine inner-city municipalities may be neighbours with each other, but the difference between them is huge. Each neighbourhood has its own charm, whether it is the shopping in Ginza, the atmosphere in Shibuya, the skyscrapers of Shinjuku, or the market stalls in Ueno. At first glance, the charm seems concentrated to a few blocks, but you soon discover that there is plenty of life behind the main streets. Often times you can find better restaurants, nicer people and lower prices just by taking a side street.
Odaiba is a group of artificial islands along the coast, connected with the central parts via a metro line and monorail. The islands were first designed as defensive positions to protect the city from attacks from the sea. During the 80s, the plan was for a self-sufficient neighbourhood to be developed, but because of the economic downturn this never happened. Now it is a rather fun neighbourhood which houses the world’s largest Ferris wheel.
Unsurprisingly, Tokyo is teeming with hotels of all price ranges, but you are looking at £100 per night for a good standard of hotel in a good location. One tip is to book well in advance as there are often generous discounts offered of 25-30%. The advantage of the hotels in Tokyo is that they are almost always fresh and clean, even if the price is somewhat low.
Rooms are usually small and a larger room will cost much more, yet they do manage to pack the rooms with most of your elementary needs.
Park Hyatt Hotel – the place where the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ was filmed, has, in classic Park Hyatt-style, an extremely high standard. Worth a visit even if you do not live there, although you will want to avoid the fee of 2000 yen to sit at the top floor bar, the bar five floors down is nearly as good.
The Ritz Carlton is located at the top of a skyscraper in Tokyo Midtown and offers, as always, exemplary service. The same applies to the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills.
The New Otani features an exclusive Zen department, which is very good.
A step down the scale and we find the Hotel Unizo, which is five minutes walk from the very busy Shibuya crossing. The newly built hotel (opened in 2010) is fresh, has friendly staff and affordable rooms. Do not forget to stroll into the small alleys behind the hotel and find both bars and small, pleasant restaurants.
In Shinjuku, there is the Hotel Sunrute Paza Shinjuku, which offers great prices as well as location. Also in the area you find the Century Southern Tower, which often offers promotional discounts. Built in the mid 90’s, the hotel is not quite as fresh, but is still a pleasant place to stay. Barely ten minutes walk from Shinjuku is the Citadines Shinjuku, where rooms cost under a £100 and are both fresh and equipped with “everything”, including a small kitchen.
In Shinagawa (which is also a major train stop), the new Grand Prince Takanawa is located, which also has reasonable rooms for a reasonable price.
Closer to Tokyo station is the Hotel Niwa, which is new and fresh, also with reasonable prices. Near Akihabara is the Hotel Edoya, another affordable option.
In nearby Meguro, you find the impeccably designed Hotel Claska. The lobby is very 50’s/60’s inspired with teak furniture. There are small details everywhere, like the old Electrolux fridge in the lobby. The area between the hotel and the Gakugei-daigaku station is full of small furnishing stores where classic Scandinavian furniture and other items are sold at extortionate prices. A Japanese flea market full of Swedish products, though expensive, is well worth a visit!
Many Japanese hotels offer semi-double rooms for two people. The price may be low, but the bed is 120-140 centimeters wide. Make sure to check your room before booking!
Things to do
To tell you exactly what to do in Tokyo is pointless as there is so much. The best tip I can offer is to use your feet as it is often a shorter walking distance than you first think. Walk around, observe and be curious. Challenge yourself to drink as many unknown drinks as possible as there are thousands of drinks machines along the streets (and you can pay by Metro Card).
Shinjuku is a treat at night. It is lit by strong neon signs and the atmosphere is electric. Also nearby is Golden Gai, simply described as six parallel alleyways in a sort of shanty town. Here you find many small bars, some have only two seats, while others are slightly larger. Many do charge a so-called ‘seating charge’ for amounts between 500 and 1500 yen. This charge usually includes snacks as well as a sort of entrance fee and in return, the beer is a little cheaper.
In Shinjuku there is also the Metropolitan Government Building, which on the 45th floor of one of the towers, has a nice vantage point, as well as free admission.
Ginza offers every conceivable shopping experience and the area around Tokyo Station is full of magnificent office towers and the mighty Imperial Palace. Parts of the associated park are open to the public and admission is free. A pleasant oasis in the big city.
Shibuya is chock-full of small intimate bars, usually a few floors up in a modest house. There are several nice restaurants in the area, especially if you get away from the main streets. In Shibuya there are also many of the well known ‘love hotels’, where many young Japanese people rent rooms by the hour in order to spend time together without their parents’ watchful eyes.
Ueno, in the north, has market-like streets along and under the Metro track. They sell everything in a wonderful mix. A must-see place for those who are looking for Japanese jeans. Ask for Americaya and Hinoya. Clerks may not speak much English but are, on the other hand, extremely helpful. There is also a nice park in Ueno with many cherry trees. The picture below however, is not from Ueno.
Roppongi Hills is a nightclub area, but there is also the Mori Tower with its pleasant views from the 52nd floor. It is cheaper than both the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree (which is indeed higher). Skytree is Japan’s tallest building and the world’s second highest, standing at 650 meters. The observation deck is 450 meters high.
At the top of the Mori Tower is a museum, this means the admission price is higher, but if you let them know at the entrance that you do not want to go to the museum, you will save yourself some money. On floor 54 there is a helipad that is sometimes open to the public. The general observation deck opens at 10am, and the helicopter pad at 11am.
The area around Harajuku is full of trendy coffee bars and small restaurants. Perfect for a nice walk between Shinjuku and Shibuya. Also in Harajuku is Yoyogoi Park, Tokyo’s largest park which is very enjoyable to stroll through. If you are lucky, you will be there when the area is cluttered with costumed Japanese.
The Akihabara neighborhood is known for its all electronics and games shops. Forum user Minatoku, advises to visit Yodobashi Camera, which is a few steps east of the station. An electronics Bazaar sits adjacent to the station, on the west side, and is also well worth a visit if only to see electronic components being sold like pick’n’mix. A business dedicated to computer components, and a popular one at that, is Tsukumo, located on the main street.
In Asakusa you find one of the few remaining Buddhist temples. An impressive building that is worth a visit, but the area around is very busy with both non-Japanese and Japanese tourists. From Asakusa, boats go directly to the artificial island of Odaiba. Once on Odaiba you should walk along the boardwalk during the sunset and see the Tokyo skyline beautifully lit up from across the water.
Anyone who has ever heard of Hayao Miyazaki and his animation films should definitely visit the Ghibli Museum. It is a kind of fairy world, but unfortunately nearly all the signs are in Japanese and westerners tend to feel a bit excluded. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth a visit. Tickets should be purchased outside Japan in advance as there are only a limited number of tickets sold each day. My advice is to go through JTB UK, who are licensed vendors.
Amusement parks? Oh yes, there are plenty in Tokyo. Within an hour’s travel time from central Tokyo there is Tobu Zoo, which has several worth while roller coasters made from both wood and steel. The Tokyo Dome City is partially closed due to an accident, but some attractions should remain open. If not there is a spa, La Qua, in the area that is open 22 hours a day.
The park, Fuji-Q Highland, is certainly a great place for many reasons, including a wonderful view of Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, visits are often slowed down due to the seamlessly endless queues, slow processes and the fact that the park closes when it rains.
Fittingly, Disney has two parks in Tokyo. The first, Disneyland, is more for younger audiences, but the other, DisneySea, has bigger, better and more rides. Not the most extreme rides, but many unique ones that are worth a visit. To get the most out of your day ticket, get there at opening time, hurry to ‘Journey’ and get a ‘fastpass’ ticket. It is the only way to ride it twice in one day without queuing for hours. Next, run to ‘ToT’. On the rides ‘Indiana’ and ‘Raging’, it helps if you go in the special single queue. I went on both of them five or six times in 90 minutes, even though it was 60-90 minute queue.
Just as with the hotels in Tokyo, most restaurants are high class and rarely disappoint. A tip to save money is to eat a late lunch, or early dinner. The times for lunch are generous and often extend to 4o’clock in the afternoon. The menus at the finer restaurants are usually almost the same as the lunch menu and the price is around half of what you would pay in the evening. Furthermore, it is often enough to come at 3.45pm and still get lunch prices.
Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin restaurants in the world, so why not visit one of them when you are there? In Ginza you find the sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, which has three stars. It is hard to get a table and is fairly expensive, but the food is divine. Another three-star restaurant is Esaki, unfortunately there is a six month wait for a dinner table, but they do serve lunch, for around £45, which you can queue up for. Up in the Skytree there is also Musashi, a restaurant with a fantastic view. The restaurant, Kaikaya by the Sea, is located in the district behind Shibyua. A very nice fish restaurant in a lovely Japanese environment. Ask for a table in the old part and let the chef decide your meal. A guaranteed success.
The area around the fish market in Tsjukii is, naturally, chock-full of fish restaurants. Here the sushi is at its absolute freshest and best. Editor, Jonas C, recommends his favourite place, Chiyoda Sushi, next to the subway exit H10 on the Hibiya Line.
The sushi restaurant, Kyubey, has several branches in the city as well as high quality sushi. An Omakase menu, which means the chef decides, costs about £100. Sushi Saito also has a good reputation and three Michelin stars.
Right by the railroad tracks in Shinjuku, is the area Omoide Yokocho. It is a small neighbourhood with little wooden houses that contain several good yakitori restaurants and bars. A nice atmosphere and almost always great food in a spartan manner.
Roy’s Aoyama Bar & Grill is a nice place for both lunch and dinner, but be sure to book a table in advance. The restaurant is available at two locations in the city (Azabu and Ginza) and serves teppanyaki with a French twist. All food is cooked on large steak plates in front of the guests and they have very good meat!
If you instead fancy a burger, then Blacows in Ebisu is where you should go. They make their own patties of minced wagyu beef and also offer free delivery.
You can also look into one of the maid cafes, where the staff are dressed in various outfits and uniforms. However, avoid Maid Dreaming as it looks more like a tourist trap. If instead you are missing your cat back home, then sneak into a so-called cat cafe. Grab a cup of coffee and pet some furry felines. A good place is Hapineko.
Those who are more thirsty than hungry need not go long with a dry throat. A nice bar is the Two Tooms Bar, located just next to Omotesando station, with good drinks and a nice roof terrace. In the area around Ginza there is the Peter bar, at the Peninsula Hotel. This is an excellent place for good drinks, tasty snacks and a nice view. Happy Hour, on weekdays, is between 17.00-20.00 and the drinks cost no more than about £6 during these hours.
Anyone who likes whiskey should go to Zoetrope, in Shinjuki, which has over 300 different varieties in custom barrels received directly from distilleries. It is located somewhat out the way, a few floors up and in a back street, but worth looking for. Tender Bar, in Ginza, is better suited for those who want to drink high-end cocktails and it is home of the legendary Kazuo Uyeda.
The best club in town, if you like House / Techno, is Eleven and is located one block up from Gonpachi (Kill Bill restaurant), between Roppongi Hills and Shibuya
Then, there is of course, the alcohol buffets which Dr. Miles advised us about earlier. You can read more about these in this thread. There are also several restaurants offering a free a flow of alcoholic beverages. Among others there are Baracoa and Bvlgari, in Ginza, that have a free flow of champagne during Sunday brunch.
The most important tip of all is that you should dare to go inside some of the modest multi-storey houses. The best bars are often crammed into a room, at the far back and a few stories up. Although it can feel a bit strange to knock on what looks more like an apartment building, you will not regret it. Once there, a whole new world opens up and Tokyo suddenly becomes the world’s best city.
Photo: Yasufumi Nishi/JNTO