Recently, two friends asked for a list of recommendations for their four days trip to Tokyo, Japan. Being their first time, I started to inject a few tips on getting around and saving time and money. I figured why not share some of them here as well.
Airport: Getting Out and Back
This is only applies to Narita Airport. We usually take the JR Narita Express to the city, one way is about ¥3000 and takes about one hour, since we usually arrive so late. Check Japan Guide for a list of options; use the drop-down menu to find your desired stations.
As for getting back, some hotels provide free bus shuttle to the airport in the morning; Hyatt Regency provided one during our 2012 trip. On the second trip, I took the Sobu Line (Rapid) from Tokyo Station to Narita, about ¥1300 via IC card. I would do the Sobu Line route again, personally. My friends used the JR Narita Express.
If you are staying at a AirBnB, make sure have a map of the location, just in case. Our driver did not know where our place was but my friend was able to guide him there. Major hotels and spots will not be a problem for them.
Trains & Subways
Trains and subways will likely be your main methods of getting around. As such, you should download the metro PDF on your phone: Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. These were the ones I used, not too much clutter but enough detail.
The Tokyo map does not show the JR Yamanote Loop and Chou Line in detail. You can see the outline of the Yamanote Loop, black and white line, and Chou Line, faint gray thin line, on the PDF map from above.
The Yamanote Loop is your bread and butter. You can use this line exclusively during a short stay; most of the popular spots are located around this line and most subways are only a few stops away.
Use the Chou Line to cut through the Yamanote Line, especially if you’re in Shinjuku and want to head to Akihabara or Tokyo Station or vice versa. This line will save you a lot of time.
For example, getting to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa from Shinjuku Station: Take the Chou Line (Rapid) to Kanda Station. Once in Kanda Station, connect on the Ginza Line (Orange-Yellow) to Asakusa Station.
Or alternatively, from Shinjuku, take the Shinjuku Line (light green) to Bakuro-yokoyama, then transfer over to the Asakusa Line to Asakusa Station.
Do not be afraid to wait for the next train if you are not sure which side to hop on to. The next train will arrive in a few minutes. Knowing a few of the next stations towards your destination will help.
Eating and drinking is not allowed on trains and subways.
Grab a IC card, Suica in Tokyo and Icoca in Osaka, if you’re staying in Japan longer than a few days; this will save you time. Obtained at the ticket kiosk area at any station. A new card will cost about ¥2000 but includes ¥500 “free” credits.
Plus, they are interchangeable, I used Succia in Kyoto and Osaka. If anything, the IC card can be kept as a souvenir until the next visit to Japan. My friend’s 4 years old card still works, and with remaining credits.
Do not put too much credit, just recharge it as you go since they are not refundable. Start with a few thousand yens and go from there. However, your IC card can be used to purchase from most vending machines, shops in the station, and some shops around the station so there is a benefit for loading up your IC card.
Credits are removed upon leaving a station gate and will cost about ¥75 to ¥200.
JR Rail Pass
I feel this is a must for those on long stays or looking to explore Japan. The JR Rail Pass lets you ride the bullet trains an unlimited number of times during the active days.
You can purchase it at the JR website for $260 but I bought mine from a vendor in a Japanese market for about $250. This pass can only be purchased outside of Japan. To put it in perspective, a one way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is about $130, so a round trip will break even. There is a 1st class option for about $70 to $80 extra
You decide when to activate the pass. You have to find a JR ticket office at the airport or train station. We exchanged our vouchers at the airport but activated the passes at the train station days later. You will need your passport for activating and traveling with the JR Rail Pass.
To use your JR Rail Pass, find the train station that has a Shinkansen line. In Tokyo, the Shinkansen is located at Tokyo Station. In Osaka, the Shinkansen is located at Shin-Osaka, north of the city.
Once inside the station, follow the Shinkansen icons to the ticket office. The attendants do speak English if you need help. After presenting your passport and JR Rail Pass, tell the attendant where you want to go and what time, I usually just tell them earliest one. That’s pretty much it. Hold on to the ticket they give you as you need to show this ticket to the train inspector once the train leaves the station. Great time to bring a few beers and relax; it’s a two hour ride from Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka.
In addition, you can ride JR lines, not subways, for free during the active days. To use your JR Rail Pass for local lines, you must show your JR Rail Pass to the attendants at the ticket gates; they are usually to the far right or left. They will let you pass through a separate gate. Do not scan your IC card to pass the gate. When you are exiting the station, show your pass again to the attendants manning the ticket gates. Definitely, use the JR Rail Pass to get yourself to the nearest Shinkansen station.
Japan is still a cash society so you going to need cash. From my experience, Narita airport had pretty good rates. While in the city, Mizuho Bank had the best rates but not every Mizuho branch offers foreign exchange. Here are two branches that do in Tokyo: Shinjuku and Shibuya.
I found a ticket scalper across the street from Shinjuku Station that offered good rates, only slightly worse than Mizuho but open on weekends. Lastly, exchange machines in the mall at Shinjuku Station does offer decent rates, good in a pinch.
Avoid Travelex and other exchange booths. They’re generally bad, especially when there are many better options available to you.
Place money on designated trays. Hand-to-hand transactions are uncommon and seems to throw cashier off their routine.
For example, when eating at Ichiran, I asked for extra noodles. The server came by, started her courtesy routine, and brought out a collection tray. However, I placed the coins on the table ahead of time, thinking I was courteous. After a few seconds of awkwardness, she eventually took the coins, placed them in the tray herself, and finished her routine. Do not be like me.
If you staying in the Shinjuku area, you might want to stop by YaMaYa for your alcohol. Better prices and huge selection than convenience stores when you want to relax in your room, I wished I found this place earlier.
Although public drinking is not illegal, the common norm is that you do not. Nobody will stop or say anything, especially to a foreigner; just do not drink on the trains and subways. My friends and I did drink a few beers in front of a convenience store in Kyoto and he has been known to walk around with a can of beer in his hand. Nevertheless, public drinking is normally preserved for parks.
Cannot say for the rest of Japan, but Tokyo is not a morning city. Most establishments do not open until 10-11 am. In fact, finding breakfast can be a hassle, I learnt this the hard way during my first visit. Best to sleep in, in my opinion.
If you must venture out, jet lag or catching the morning train, bakeries are open if you’re in a mood for coffee and pastries; they are located at the train stations. There are Western-style breakfast joints scattered around Tokyo, like Eggs N Things in Harajuku.
There are some of 24-hours joints; some of my favorites are Ichiran and Iwamoto Q. Convenience stores, like 7-Eleven, are great for picking up a quick breakfast, like oden, and snacks to bring on a bullet train.
Street Level Navigating
A major concern for many travelers is getting around at the street level. I’m fortunate enough to have unlimited international data on my mobile service, enabling Google Maps and Yelp to guide me. I was even luckier to have a friend that knows the city. Google Maps does offer offline download and there is free WiFi at all train stations.
You can screen capture parts of the map ahead of time, like my friend, if you do not have data on your phone. The problem with using static maps is that you, for me at least, tend to lose sense of direction once you exit the station after all the twists and turns. Get a detailed map, if you’re using a static map, to help you hone in on the location. I have walked in circles a few times using a map meant for train and subway lines.