Aug 19, 2009

Twelve tiny Tokyo tips

If you want to know, like, what to do in Tokyo, there's a whole big internet out there. Browse my archives, check out the Nihon Sun, the Japan Travel page of, the Tokyo Agenda listings at Metropolis, and Japan-i, for starters.

I figure you already have the big stuff in place - you know where to stay and have a few ideas about the main things you want to see. This is just a few tips to give you a little tiny edge as you're getting from place to place.
Shall we?

1. Get Tokyo City Atlas: A bilingual guide. I never left the house without this book for the first few months I was here. If we're friends, you can borrow one of mine. We have two.

2. Get a Pasmo card. Buy and load cash onto it at a machine at any train station. Even if you don't remember to get your $5 deposit back, it will be worth it in time and hassle saved calculating route prices and fiddling with tickets. And you'll get to see what the future feels like as you tap your wallet against the turnstile to get in and out of the train and subway system.

3. Walk on the left. This isn't a law or a rule or anything, but it took me a while to figure out why people were constantly bumping into me. Turns out, Japanese people are not necessarily clumsier than everyone else on earth, I was just wandering on the wrong side of the street. It seems obvious now, but it took kind of a while to figure out what was going on. Of course, you may be quicker than me.

4. Stand on the left. On escalators in the Tokyo area, stand to the left, walk on the right. (They say it's the opposite around Osaka.)

5. Watch your money. Pickpockets aren't a problem except maybe - maybe - if you're stumbling around Roppongi or Kabukicho late at night; running out of cash could be. The place is lousy with ATM's, but you will be surprised - and not in a good way - by how many of them won't take your non-Japanese ATM card. Or won't be open after a certain hour. Your best bet is often to use a Post Office ATM, but, even though the cash machines are often in a separate lobby that is partitioned from the main building, they usually shut by early evening. Any given convenience store chain's machine might or might not work with your particular card. They're all different, so if you find one that works for you, remember where it was.

6. Get an early start. If you must. Tsukiji market is not my favorite place, but people love it. The main tuna-auction action is over - already finished - before 6 am. It gets bright incredibly early and the trains are empty, so it feels like the city is extra supportive of your virtuous, seize-the-day zeal. Go get 'em. This will also make you feel better later when you...

7. Take a nap. Or a rest. Stop into a mom and pop coffee shop or a Starbucks or do like the salarymen and put your feet up in a massage chair for free at a big electronics store like Bic Camera or Yodobashi. Hang out on the grass at Yoyogi Park or on a bench at Koishikawa Kourakuen. The point is, just chill. You're not going to see everything anyway. You'll enjoy what you get to much more if you're rested. And I know that you could fly home first class if you had a dime for every time you were reminded of that, but it's one of those things that I know I need to hear again once in a while. So. Relax. Japandra's orders.

8. Get a late start. I am becoming more crowd-averse by the day. Bad luck, that, living in, you know, Tokyo. I hate popping out of the house at 8 on a Saturday morning to beat the crowds to wherever and finding out that 7 million other people had the same idea and they are all on my train. Where are they going? Why? Get to the famous museum or shop just as it's opening and enjoy a nice long line of fellow worm-getters. For the birds! Plan right, and hit the tail end of the lunch crowd, get to the museum an hour and a half before it closes, check out rooftop views at night. Get to the beach after the hottest part of the day and get the good spot that the sunburned family is already vacating. Go to a hot spring when people are at dinner and enjoy some quiet. Lots of karaoke places are open all day. Kill a few afternoon hours singing your head off at cheaper prices, then blink out into the evening just as lines are starting to form.

9. Don't miss the last train. They have "last trains," mostly somewhere around midnight. The theater of it can make it fun to ride the last train - the station staff wave and shout into megaphones and riders sprint and stumble for the gates as the warning bells ring - but it's no fun to miss it. Times are posted at the entrances of all the stations - glance at the sign as you're heading out for the evening. After that, you're looking at an expensive ride home, a long walk, or a lot of coffee and lousy pancakes at Royal Host. (This is not the worst thing in the world.) If you are into staying out all night at clubs or karaoke or a manga cafe, the last train is not a problem. You'll find the times the trains start up again on the same station signs.

10. Don't count on websites. I got into the habit in New York of jotting down just names to find out full details on places or items later. This isn't working so well here. A lot of really cool stores have functionless websites that are hard to find. If you like a place, be sure to grab a business card or catalog.

11. Talk to people. Ever had strangers share their cab with you, drop you off at your hotel, and refuse to take money for the fare just because you got yourself stranded at a rural train station after the buses stopped running? You won't believe how friendly and helpful people can be. You might not know a word besides "beer-u" and "arigatou" (you do know "arigatou," right?), but a good attitude and a little patience will probably get you anything you need. That, and maybe a little comical gesturing.

Bonus: Buy some stuff. You'll be glad when you got home. Try RanKing RanQueen for a little bit of everything, Don Quixote for a ton of everything, or, seriously, any convenience store. (See how that website had lots of useful English on the sidebar buttons, but then nary a word of it once you clicked through? Yeah. Key point: RanKing RanQueen is in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro Stations.) Buy some goofy candy or black q-tips or t-shirts for your friends. Then, go back to that shop, spend a little extra, and get yourself that amazing thing you saw that will last a long time and remind you of your trip. When are you going to be back this way again?


Holly said...

i noticed that left-sided walking really quickly. it's funny though. do people in england (or any other left-side driving country) also walk on the left?

Holly said...

also... the comical gesturing sometimes doesn't work for "bathroom" unless that one guy was just having fun with me.

he might have been.

Rich Chestmat said...

In London you will get unpopular real quick if you stand on the left on the escalators - especially on the tube. So generally left-side walking is a good idea.
London also has had contactless payment such as suica cards for some years now.

Also Tsukiji's auction is now closed to tourists.

Is there a digital version of that atlas suitable for windows mobiles and the like?

Finally relaxing in Tokyo is certainly the way to do things!

Shane said...

This is really a good list of tips & not just for Tokyo - anywhere in Japan really!

I recently went to Tsukiji for the the auctions and would only recommend the trip to someone who was very interested rather that someone who just wanted to say they did it....

However, I found the morning market outside the gates to be quite interesting.

takaaki said...

You need a passport. Cops love to check your passport.

wrightak said...

Great list. Will forward to friends that visit.

I didn't notice the walking on the left thing. But then again, I am British!...

Billy said...

Good advice! I'm sure these tips will come in handy to a newbie at some point :)

DenisEvents said...

I like your tips. They feel right, sound balanced. Breathing is a good idea! Some tips are for the new comers (welcome and get organized), some are for anybody wishing to flow smoothly, some are even for local Japanese, some are for those who just need a sense of good sense. Whatever the reason, thanks for sharing.

Cailin Coilleach said...

> also... the comical gesturing sometimes doesn't work
> for "bathroom" unless that one guy was just having fun
> with me.

Sumimasen. Toire wa doko desu ka?

That should get you where you want to go :)

Sandra Barron said...

Thanks a lot, all of you. Holly, I knew you were a quick study.

Tsukiji seems to be off and on with their tourist tuna policy.

Anonymous said...

" do people in england (or any other left-side driving country) also walk on the left?"

No - in the UK what people do is look where they are going, I'm back in the UK now and it is a joy to walk down the street without being constantly bumped into by people who will look in almost any direction except the one they are walking in.
I went to Thailand for the first time in January and was deeply impressed with their ability to look in the same direction they walk. On arrival back in Japan, as soon as I got off the plane in the airport,I saw three Japanese people bump into each other and another man who launched himself off the 5th step of a staircase onto the train platform as the train doors were closing. He landed face first on the platform and looked surprised. I'm seriously thinking on doing my phd on the walking habits of Japan. My theory is that they do not look where they are going because in the past if you made eye contact with a samurai you could have your head chopped off and they have somehow retained this habit.

Sandra Barron said...

Anonymous! We miss you! Hurry back.

Dekooning said...

Thanks for the advice. In Osaka they do walk on the other side--first thing I noticed when I got out of the train station. It's very true about taking a rest. Wanting to pack everything I could each day I walked so much that I had blisters on both feet despite the fact that I was wearing my well-worn, comfy shoes and socks. The 7/11s now take your American ATM cards which is a real plus since they're everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I have been to Tokyo twice now, and there is absoloutely NO generally accepted rule such as walking on the left. Everyone goes in every direction on both sides of the sidewalk. Bike riders weave in and out of crowds on both sides (usually without even braking). The only constant i was able to discern was standing on the left of the escalator vs running up/down on the right. Even on stairs where it is labled which side to go up or down, everyone simply ignores the signs and takes whatever route is currently free of other people.

Anonymous said...


Travel to Tokyo 6 times a year for the last 10 years, and have never been stopped by a cop to check my passport.

Since Japan is a conformist society, just remember to try to blend in as much as possible and try not to draw attention to yourself.

Alex said...

Awesome post there Japandra. Some good ideas there. As for walking on the left, I've found it to be true...almost. But I'd have to say that it is pretty mad out there for people not looking where they are going.

I have discovered however that making eye contact puts the onus on you to get out the way.

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