Having lived almost a decade in Tokyo, the best phrase I’ve heard so far for describing this vast city is, “A Disney remake of Blade Runner.”
When you arrive you’ll see what I mean – over 35 million people, skyscrapers towering over small wooden houses, spaghetti junction freeways running above and deep below the city, trains weaving in and out of the ground and through department stores, all with friendly animated characters guiding you at every turn.
It’s uniquely safe for such a large metropolis, spotlessly clean despite an abject lack of trash cans, everything works and is on time. As a newcomer you’ll find it deliciously confusing with the massive cultural differences, language barrier – it’s guaranteed to be unlike any city you’ve ever seen before.
Closed Borders – Covid Disclaimer – Visas
At the time of writing, the borders to Japan are closed to almost all non-residents. There’s progress towards the borders reopening, with domestic restrictions and re-entry requirements easing, plus the influential business lobby working the government to open up again. But there’s no clear timeline for opening up yet – so keep checking for updates and always be prepared for disruption when planning any international travel.
Pre-pandemic, most westerners and many other countries could just turn up and receive a 90-day tourist visa under the visa waiver program – here’s a full list of countries. Some nationalities (Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the UK) can apply to have the 90-day visa extended for up to 6 months after arrival. This requires a trip to the immigration bureau, filling out a form and waiting in a queue for a few hours.
Again, at time of writing the borders are closed and the visa waiver program is suspended, so check your local government’s travel advice for Japan (or brave the confusion of Japan’s Ministry of Foregin Affairs website).
Getting Connected Sim Cards, WiFi, Roaming
You might find your mobile provider’s roaming charges to be prohibitively expensive in Japan, but there are a few exceptions in the US/UK/EU and South East Asia. Either way you’ll probably find it cheaper to pick up a data SIM card, or rent a mobile wifi router for the duration of your stay.
Prepaid Sim Cards in Japan
As long as you have an unlocked smartphone, you’ll be able to order a prepaid SIM, pop it in your phone and get online. The most cost effective and sensible option is to pre-order a SIM card to your hotel/accommodation for when you arrive. Alternatively if you’re not so price sensitive there are kiosks and vending machines at the airport where you can buy a SIM just after you land.
There’s quite a few providers offering different plans, ranging from ¥2,880 – ¥7,490 (about $25 – $70 USD) a month for 10GB – unlimited data. Check out the Tokyo Cheapo comparison article on buying prepaid SIM cards in Japan for the latest prices and recommendations.
If you’re a super cheapo, you’ll know the old phrase, “Nothing is cheaper than free… wifi”, and the good news is that free wifi is now abundant in Japan.
You can reliably connect to the internet at almost all convenience stores, many cafes, most train and subway stations, most department stores, many shops, many public buildings like museums, galleries, and sightseeing spots… the list goes on.
For a more exhaustive list, check the Tokyo Cheapo article on getting connected.
The other option worth a mention is renting a pocket wifi/mobile wifi router for the duration of your stay. This is a great option if you’re travelling as a group/family and want to share a connection between multiple laptops and phones. Prices are similar to SIM cards and are typically from ¥900/day to ¥7,000/month, with discounted longer term monthly plans available too. Once again check out our article for the best deals and some discount codes on pocket wifi in Japan.
First up buy a suica (or pasmo – which works exactly the same) card at the train station at the airport as soon as you arrive. This is a credit card-sized IC card that you can easily top up with credit, buy the cheapest one and just top up 1000yen every time it runs out. Don’t bother fiddling with point-to-point tickets, it’s not worth the hassle. Buy a Suica card and simply tap to enter and leave at the train station barrier.
The metro system in Tokyo is the biggest and most efficient in the world. You’ll barely be waiting on the platform more than 2 mins for your next train, which is almost always on time, accurate to a few seconds.
Use this English website to plan your journeys through the city. Unfortunately none of the English language train apps are as comprehensive, but some like trains.jp give you train routes without having internet access.
Beware of the last train, don’t have your carriage turn into a pumpkin. Trains stop early, often before midnight after which you’ll be stranded at the mercy of cabs whose fare’s increase dramatically at night as trains stop running. (see notes below about where to stay in Tokyo).
Best Neighborhoods To Stay In
The best area of Tokyo by far is the southwest central part of central Tokyo, roughly centred around Shibuya. A good rule of thumb would be anywhere within 2 to 3 train stops from Shibuya. Most of the interesting events, nightlife, people and culture are usually found in this zone, plus it’s still easy to get to all the various sight-seeing spots on Tokyo’s excellent transport system. Unfortunately it’s also one of the more expensive areas and it can be difficult to find places to stay.
Because there’s no public transport except for taxis after about 23:30 you’ll want to be based near where the nightlife is. Otherwise if you miss your train you have the wonderful choice of a 3 hour trudge home, $100 taxi or pulling an all-nighter. So it makes sense to be based somewhere southwest central.
There are other pleasant neighborhoods in Tokyo a little bit further out, so if you don’t mind getting your carriage before midnight also consider:
- Shimokitazawa – just outside of Shibuya, hip and friendly hood
- Hatsudai, Nakano, Sasaka – fairly close to Shinjuku and quite cheap
- Yotsuya, Kagurazaka, Jimbocho – still fairly central and not too pricey
- Asakusa – lots of budget and foreigner friendly accommodation
- Anywhere on the south side of the Yamanote line
Airbnb, Agoda, Booking – all the usual international booking sites have Tokyo pretty well covered. One thing to know if you’re booking hotels from a Japanese website or hotel directly, the charge is sometimes per person, and not per room.
What To Do In Tokyo
If it’s your first time, then I always say just simply being anywhere in Tokyo is half the sightseeing done. With all the many differences, from the subtle (bizarre background music in super markets) to the conspicuous (train staff pushing commuters into an already full train carriage in order to close the doors), there’s so many sights to see without even visiting a tourist spot.
That being said, here’s a list of 101 cheap and free things to do in Tokyo. Highlights include
- A free view from the top floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Skyscraper in Shinjuku.
- A taste of the old at Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, in Koganei park.
- Checking out some contemporary art at The National Art Center, in Nogizaka.
- Enjoy one of Tokyo’s oldest and most beautiful parks, Koishikawa Korakuen – especially good in Autumn.
- See the vanguard of Japanese girls’ fashion at culture by exploring the 109 department store in Shibuya
- Cower before the Gundam Statue in Odaiba
- Escape from the crowds of Harajuku, walk through forest and visit an oasis of calm at Meiji Shrine
- Drink with the locals at one of the many old-fashioned miniature bars at a “Yokocho check” – Nonbei Yokocho in Shibuya, Sankaku Chitai in Sangenjaya, Sanchoku Yokocho in Yurakucho, Ebisu Yokocho, Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku etc.
- Eat all the things – the food is so good in Tokyo eat as much of it as possible!
Gyms and Fitness
Surprisingly there are lots of cheap community gyms around the city, typically with entrance fees of 200 – 400yen per pop.
Here’s one in Shinjuku with a squat rack – website
And in Shibuya – website
And yet more options here
If you want to go a bit more high end, Gold’s Gym (of international fame) has visitor passes, a single month membership for around 18000yen, and ongoing monthly plans from about 8000yen.
There’s also a surprising amount of chin up bars in small parks dotted throughout the city, if you can make do with body weight exercise.
The Emperor’s Palace is a popular spot for jogging, one lap is about 5km – NOTE: everyone usually runs round counterclockwise, but you won’t be arrested for going against the grain (I’ve battle tested that). There’s a nice public bath (sento) just here to shower off and soak in afterwards.
Also at the edge of the city you’ll find mountains with numerous hiking trails for all abilities.
Cheap Eats In Tokyo
You can’t really go wrong with food in Tokyo, so don’t be afraid to try places without any recommendations. English menus are fairly common now-a-days, but even without, you’ll find many menus come with pictures of almost every dish. The only specific recommendation I need to give is to avoid places that have touts – if they have staff out and about trying to pull in customers then that’s not a good sign!
You can literally eat sushi anywhere – even from 7-Eleven and it’ll be good. For the best cost performance, go to a standing sushi bar, you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with busy salarymen and women – true professional Tokyo cheapos. NOTE: Don’t bother trying to get a reservation at Jiro or stand in line for hours at one of the “best” Tsukiji Market sushi restaurants, there are countless restaurants that are really good that get overlooked from tourist guidebooks, just check the price suits your budget and enjoy – no need to queue.
Ramen, Soba, Udon
Student prices don’t necessarily mean student food, but you’ll usually find any of the ubiquitous noodle eateries – Ramen, Soba or Udon – filled with students. Look for restaurants that have you pay at a vending machine (you then give the ticket to the chef), that’s a clue that is good and cheap.
Izakaya – The Japanese Pub
Somewhere between a tapas bar and a pub, an Izakaya is about drinking as much as it is about eating. Still they are usually a great place to sample a wide variety of Japanese cuisine. Normally they will have a speciality – Yakitori (chicken BBQ skewers), Nabe (hot pot), Seafood etc. but likely the menu will have a little bit of everything. Which is how you should order – try as many different dishes as you can, and share just like tapas.
For a good Tokyo foodie website, have a look at https://bento.com/
Hopefully you’ll have at least a few words of spoken Japanese ready to put to the test when you arrive, but If not then Nihongo Master can get you up to speed. You’ll find the majority of people in Tokyo won’t be comfortable with speaking English, so they’ll be very pleased to hear you (at least try to) speak Japanese. Also most people will have studied English for several years at school, so by hook or by crook you should be able to get by.
Lots of words in modern Japanese are borrowed from English (or French, German etc). Unfortunately they may be tricky to recognise as they are pronounced with a Japanese accent, and often vowel sounds get lost in translation. So a handy trick is that if you don’t know a word in Japanese, you can try saying the English word with a Japanese accent – like meeting -> meeting, suitcase -> suitcase, beer -> beeru. But be warned, if you have a very good Japanese accent, people might then assume you are fully fluent and will talk to you at full speed!
You’ll find a lot of spoken Japanese in Tokyo is either Keigo (the super polite and honorific speech), or informal Japanese. This can be quite confusing for new-comers, as you may not have advanced enough to branch into learning the very polite or informal speech. On the other hand, spoken Japanese is often very abbreviated and unnecessary words are often dropped from sentences. So less is more when trying to communicate – if you’re not sure of all the grammar yet and just want to be understood, try leaving it out and keep sentences short and simple.
Finally, Tokyo after dark is a great place to improve your language skills – in contrast to the day when most people seem quite introverted, everyone opens up after a few drinks. If you’re out and about in bars and izakayas it probably won’t be too long before you end up in conversation of some sort.