Tokyo is such a packed, fast-paced city that it can feel intimidating at first. But this guide will help you navigate the crowds and find the best places to hang out.
Tokyo was the first international city that I ever called home, and it's one of my all-time favorite places to visit. It’s massively overwhelming to first-time visitors, but if you follow these six tips, you'll know your way around the Japanese capital in no time.
Embrace Organized Chaos
Before getting to the highlights, there are a couple of things to remember before exploring Tokyo. After arriving at your hotel, it will become abundantly clear that this city is intense. It’s full of people, but there’s a method to the madness that is Tokyo. Tokyo can be defined as organized chaos, where people stand patiently in line and keep to the left when walking or standing on escalators. Fit in by following along and don’t get mad if someone cuts you off. Everyone’s in a hurry and will probably utter a polite “sumimasen” (excuse me, sorry, and many more meanings) if necessary.
Bonus Tip: Keep your backpack in front of you when riding trains or buses, because passersby will need those extra inches behind your back for maneuvering through the vehicle.
Get Familiar with Railways Galore
If you’re a train nerd like me, then Tokyo is the perfect city. Japan prides itself on having a prompt train system and after years of experience, I wholeheartedly agree. Grab a free metro map at any station or tourist information kiosk and don’t worry about memorizing all the lines. Remember the striped Yamanote line that circles its way around the city and connects to the private lines running through it. Pick up a SUICA or PASMO card (small deposit required) to save yourself from buying a ticket at every station.
Bonus Tip: Some stations won’t have line or station names in English, but most passersby will help a tourist in need, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Discover Tokyo’s Quieter Side
After battling the enthusiastic crowds in Shinjuku or Shibuya, it’s easy to think that Tokyo is meant only for adrenaline junkies. A quieter side of the city still exists and one way to discover it is through Jimbocho’s famed bookshops. Visit the Imperial Palace’s East Gardens on any day except Monday or Friday and enjoy the spacious walkways. Though it gets a bit crowded on weekends, Yoyogi Park and the adjacent Meiji Jingu are great places to walk off all the crepes and snacks that can be found in nearby Harajuku. Clear one day off your itinerary for relaxation at one of these places and bring a blanket along for a nice picnic.
Bonus Tip: Temples and shrines are hidden throughout the city, so if you want to find some quiet, follow any empty-looking street and prepare to stumble onto relaxation.
Eat via Conveyors or Standing Up
All that walking will work up a heavy appetite, and many places will have plastic recreations of dishes outside for prospective customers to inspect. The easiest way to eat is at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where you can grab dishes as they come or put in special orders. Another good option is to visit a good don buri (rice bowl) restaurant, like Yoshinoya or Sukiya. However, you can’t visit Tokyo without having a hearty bowl of ramen. Some restaurants keep a customer’s busy schedule in mind and offer "standing room only," but there are quite a few sit-down shops in the city.
Bonus tips: Eat yakitori and drink sake at an izakaya. Also, if you get lost and need directions, get someone’s attention by shouting “Sumimasen!” and don’t be shy. Your voice will have to rise above the crowd.
See It All from a Government Building
The best way to really get your head around Tokyo is from high above. Many people see the city from Tokyo Tower or Skytree, and those offer excellent views. However, the best value for panoramas starts at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It was once the city’s tallest skyscraper, but still offers the best views of Tokyo and even Mount Fuji on clear days.
Bonus tip: Grab a coffee at the Starbucks in Shibuya and watch the world’s busiest crosswalk in action. You might be able to snap a photo or two, but it’s not allowed and staff is always looming. Sit back and enjoy one of the world’s best spectacles.
Sing! Oh, and Watch baseball!
You might think that karaoke is the best way to sing your heart out in Tokyo, but that's actually not the case. Japanese baseball is by far the best entertainment in the country, thanks to high-quality games mixed with a rock-concert atmosphere that erupts when the home team comes up to bat. The fan groups have a song for every player, so try to keep up between gulps of beer and bites of yakitori. The Yomiuri Giants play their games at the iconic Tokyo Dome and if you’re looking for a more personal setting, head to Jingu Stadium (JR Shinanomachi or Sendagaya Stations) for a Yakult Swallows game.
Bonus tip: Store snacks and drinks in your backpack before the game and you’ll save money. Keep in mind that glass is not permitted into the stadium.
Choose Your Visit Wisely
The best time to visit Tokyo starts in September, after the peak tourist season and summer heat have passed. Many people come for the cool weather and cherry blossoms in early spring but that’s also risky, as crowds will be eager to get out and see the emerging colors. If visiting Tokyo during a national holiday, keep in mind that many government buildings and business will be closed. Train lines will be especially crowded during this time if you’re planning a trip away from the city during this time.
Bonus Tip: Visit Tokyo in October to enjoy the colorful foliage and milder weather. The heat and humidity are borderline unbearable during summer, and the crowds don’t help matters.
So are you ready to explore Tokyo like a local? Enjoy your trip and take tons of pictures along the way!
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