1. Mostly orderly and non-chaotic crowd you will meet
The city of Tokyo has a population of over 13 million people; the Greater Tokyo Area's population is over 35 million making it the largest metropolis in the world. It may sound like Tokyo-ites live a frantic life but in fact it is far from that. At rush hour, train stations and streets are filled with hundreds of people everyday but at all times the society is extremely courteous, orderly, and incredibly honest. There is no need to worry being amidst the crowd and the city is very safe. There is a longstanding joke that if you accidentally left your bag on the train and returned to retrieve it, chances are your bag will still be there. The entire city has an unspoken system that is respected by everyone. Always walk to your right when going up and down the stairs at train stations. Be considerate and always keep to your right if you are standing on the escalator. These apply even during crazy rush hour. Note that it is a little different in the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka) where you keep to your left instead on the stairs/escalator.
2. Understand the train systems
Tokyo's network of trains is very complex and also the most sophisticated in the world. The trains are extremely reliable, on-time, and efficient. Understand how the system works and once you do, it is very navigable. After all, this is what keeps the world-class metropolis running so efficiently everyday. In the words of T, "Japan is a well-oiled machine." The network coverage is incredible and will take you to almost anywhere in the city. Even visitors and tourists seldom find themselves needing to ride a taxi (and taxi rides are expensive in Tokyo). Don't worry if you don't speak Japanese as every train station has excellent English signage for directions.
|JR Yamanote Line|
3. GPS and data coverage
When visiting Tokyo (or anywhere in Japan for that matter), it is highly recommended to get data coverage (prepaid data sim card) on your smartphone or iPad. You can order the prepaid sim online and it will be delivered to your hotel; just collect it at time of check-in (we used b-mobile and found it reliable). Most of the streets in Tokyo are not named. The address system in Tokyo has 3 numbers; each street, block, and building is assigned its own number. The building is numbered according to how old it is which means that Building No.5 may not necessarily be next to Building No.6. The easiest way to locate an address is to type it into Google Maps and let the GPS from your smartphone or iPad take you there. Data coverage comes in very handy especially when you are trying to get to a particular restaurant with the address in hand. This brings me to the next point...
At many corners of the street, there is a koban (police box). If you have difficulty locating a particular address (locals get confused too, even taxi drivers at times!), go up to the blue police box and ask for directions. Locals frequently approach the koban for directions too. Thanks to our friend Keiko-san in Chicago who provided us this invaluable tip when we first told her that we were going to visit Japan.
5. Getting from NRT to Tokyo
Perhaps the most frequently asked question is how to get from the airport to central Tokyo. If flying into Narita (NRT), the Narita Express (NEX) train is the most efficient, reliable, convenient, and quick way to get from NRT to central Tokyo. The Keisei Skyliner train also connects you from NRT to central Tokyo though we've only taken the NEX. Trains leave the airport frequently and you will be in central Tokyo in ~50 mins. The Limo Bus runs from the airport to different hotels in central Tokyo and takes up to 60-90 mins depending on traffic and where your hotel is located. Avoid taking a taxi as it will cost ~US$200 from NRT to central Tokyo-- you will also very likely be sitting in traffic.
|Narita Express (NEX)|
5. Where to stay in Tokyo
This is probably the second most frequently asked question. There is more than one "downtown" in Tokyo and each area/district has its own "downtown". Regardless of where you end up staying, you will eventually have to take the train to get to different places which you will very likely visit as a tourist (per Tip #2, Tokyo is very well accessible by the train network). Therefore, there isn't really one "main" or "best" area to stay in Tokyo since each area is an attraction in itself. Where you end up staying will end up being a matter of personal preference, budget, etc. Some popular areas to visit and stay include Shinjuku (entertainment, financial district), Shibuya (younger vibe), and Ginza (upscale shopping, dining).
5. Learn useful Japanese phrases
Considering Tokyo as a major metropolis, it is surprising that not many people here speak much English. However, the Japanese are always helpful and will try their best to understand and help you. That said, learning some useful Japanese phrases will help you go a long way-- it did for us. Knowing how to speak some useful/practical Japanese phrases also shows that you care about learning about their culture when visiting their country.
6. Eating and drinking are not done while walking and on trains
Eating and drinking while walking the streets are not considered good etiquette in the Japanese culture. Vending machines are everywhere and be sure to finish up your drink before walking away. Otherwise, you will not find a trashcan to dispose your bottle or can. Don't drink and eat on the train.
With the exception of the shinkansen (bullet train), passengers can and often eat on the train during the long distance journey e.g. from Tokyo to Kyoto. Bento boxes are sold at train stations and on the platforms. There will be someone pushing a food cart on the train as well. Food sold on the train can actually taste good. Only in Japan, perhaps. Besides bento boxes, another popular snack is katsu sando (fried breaded pork cutlet sandwich).
10. Riding the shinkansen (bullet train) and the JR Pass
Riding the shinkansen is one of those must-do things unique to Japan. The trains travel at tremendous speed and is the fastest and most convenient way to travel between different cities in Japan. The long distance trains depart every few minutes, giving it a frequency of commuter-style trains. They're quiet, reliable, and fast. It is extremely accurate to say that the shinkansen is very much on-time. If you have a ticket for the 9:01am train, get on the 9:01am train and not the 8:57am nor the 9:05am train. There are two types of class: Green car and Ordinary car. Think of Green car as the "business class" seats of the shinkansen. For most people, the Ordinary car is more than good enough. In fact, seats and leg space in the Ordinary car are much better than United Airlines' Economy Plus! Only available to non-residents of Japan, the JR Pass is a good and economical way for unlimited travel on the shinkansen between cities and JR-operated trains within Tokyo. The general rule of thumb is that tickets for a return journey between Tokyo and Kyoto cost as much as the 7-day JR Pass so if that is part of your itinerary, consider getting the JR Pass. The pass can be used on the Narita Express as well (see Tip #5).
|Front of the shinkansen|
12. Skyline view
Another popular question is where can one view the Tokyo skyline. There are several buildings with observatory decks, such as the popular Tokyo Skytree, and they all require an admission fee. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is another popular spot and the best thing going for it is that it is free to go up to the observation deck on the 45th floor. On a clear day, you will be able to view Mt Fuji. Best time of visit is at sunset. We literally saw the sun gradually going down behind Mt Fuji and it was incredible.
|View from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building|
Food halls at the Japanese departmental stores are nothing like those you've seen in other countries. A visit to a depachika will easily impress any visitor with the wide range of foods including onigiri (triangular rice snacks with filling), fish cakes, meat buns, grilled fish, tonkatsu (fried breaded pork cutlet), cakes, pastries, bread, and many more. The depachika is where you can see what the Japanese eat everyday. The food quality is very good and this is where housewives visit everyday to buy food for their homes. Evening times at the depachika get especially busy. Buy some food and enjoy them at a nearby park or at the hotel. The depachika at Mitsukoshi in Ginza, Takashimaya and Isetan in Shinjuku are the more popular ones.
|Onigiri (rice snacks)|
14. No tipping
Tipping is not practised in Japan and is not part of the culture. Visitors from the U.S. especially are so used to tipping but in Japan, you just don't. No tipping the taxi driver (rounding up to the nearest yen is fine), server, or porter.
15. Tokyo is expensive: Myth or not?
Tokyo has the reputation for being the most expensive city in the world but truth be told, we find that it is very comparable to other major cities in the world such as London and New York in terms of food and hotel costs. In fact, we find that traveling in Melbourne and Sydney are more expensive. It is possible to eat cheap in Tokyo and still get very good food for the price. It is not uncommon to find a piping hot bowl of delicious udon at 600yen (~US$6). Michelin-rated restaurants in Tokyo are on the higher end of pricing but again, the price is nothing that you would not expect from London and New York.
Most importantly, take in what this world class city in a world class country has to offer-- the graciousness of the people, the level of care and detail that is put into the food, the beautiful temples and shrines, etc. Modern skyscrapers and historic temples, modern world-class restaurants and traditional hole-in-the-wall restaurants co-exist with each other. This is Tokyo.
Note: This list is by no means a complete guide and if there's any other suggested practical tips, please add to the list.