Travel Tips for Tokyo

General Tips for Visiting Tokyo

Best time to visit:

  • April – If you’re going for the Cherry blossoms.
  • October and November – For the foliage season.
  • May and September – To get the best weather.

Electricity:

100 volts. 2 non-polarized pins similar to North American plugs. Most North American equipment will work in Japanese power outlets without an adapter – though they might be  a little underpowered. 3-pronged appliances will not work at all.

Maps:

  • There are street maps of the surrounding area posted around every subway station. These maps indicate the different exits from the station and each exit is represented by a number. Find your number and follow the signs out of the station to your desired exit. This move will save you time and hassle as taking the nearest or easiest exit usually means sorting out where you are once you get to street level and “then” finding out where you want to be.
  • Have a subway map with you all the time. Hotels have them by the bucketful so grab one or two and keep them with you. Even the best guidebooks supply maps that don’t have all the subway lines on them – there are too many – and pulling out a folded map from your pocket is a lot easier than flipping through your guide book. You might think you’ll just walk to the nearest subway, look at a map, and then plan your route. But the subway enters into all matters of planning so it’s good to have the map with you. As well, you’ll sometimes have a choice of 2 or 3 or even 4 subways stops within walking distance and determining which one is best for you requires a map.
  • The convention of putting north at the top of a map is not something strictly followed in Japan. There are maps all over the place – in the subway, on street billboards, the one in your hands – and they might all be rotated differently. Many times I’ve looked at a map I’ve encountered on a walk and all of sudden seemed horribly lost, only to figure out the map is rotated to have north at the bottom or off to left or up in the right hand corner.

Money, Phones & Etiquette:

  • Credit cards aren’t as widely used in Tokyo, have cash with you at all times.
  • Japanese people generally don’t walk and eat – certainly not to the extent of Americans – if you need to eat on foot do so as subtly and politely as possible.
  • Tipping is not expected and might even be considered a little offensive.
  • Many phones from western countries don’t work. Most 3G do. If you have an iPhone be sure to phone AT&T before leaving home to enable roaming. Generally texting is the cheapest way to communicate with home from your phone. You can also rent a phone while in Japan for pretty reasonable rates.

Best blogs about Tokyo:

Narita Airport


Narita International Airport – located 65KM (40 miles) east of Tokyo – is one of the largest airport in Japan and has direct flights to most large airport hubs in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.

The airport has wi-fi but you need to set up an account with a local provider making it impractical for the average traveler. Free wi-fi is reportedly coming soon to some airport cafes – stay tuned.

Dayrooms are available and paid for by the hour. Rooms contain a bed, sink and shower. The first hour is Y1000 (Y1600 for the twin room) and every hour after Y500 (Y800).

A shower cubicle is also available for 30 minutes at Y500 for  a bathroom and shower.

Getting to and from Narita Airport:

There are 2 railway companies that serve the Narita to Tokyo route – Keisei and JR East.

JR runs the Narita Express (NEX) trains to and from Narita. The trains run go to Tokyo station (1 hour), Shinjuku station (1 hour 30 minutes), Ikebukuro station (1 hour 40 minutes) and Yokohama station (1 hour 30 minutes).

The NEX trains are the quickest way to get to Ikebukuro station if you get one that stops there – not all trains do – so check before you buy a ticket. If you purchased a JR Japan rail pass before leaving home, you can validate it at the airport and use the NEX train for free.

JR has began offering a very convenient “combo” ticket for NEX trains. The ticket comes with a pre-loaded Y1500 Suica card (see below for an explanation of the Suica card). If you’re considering taking the NEX train and planning to spend some time in Tokyo this is a very convenient option with a very good discount. The ticket can only be purchased at Narita Airport – terminals 1 or 2.

The Keisei Skyliner goes to Ueno and Nippori in just under an hour. The Keisei tokkyu (Limited Express) are more frequent than the Skyliner but take 15 minutes longer. The Limited Express is the cheapest way into the city and costs just Y1000. It stops at Ueno station (67 minutes) and Nippori station (71 minutes). If money and budget are important the Limited Express wins hands down.

Keisei is starting a new superfast Narita to Tokyo Station service on July 17, 2010. The New Skyliner will run between Narita and Tokyo Station in 36 minutes for Y2400. The old Skyliner will maintain the same route from Nippori Station to Narita but be called the Cityliner.

Taxis to or from Narita coast about ¥25,000.

If you have many bags, or  don’t feel like lugging them on and off trains and buses, then the Takuhaibin luggage delivery service is something to consider. The service takes your bags between the airport and your hotel. Enquire or look for signs as you exit immigration. Your hotel should be able to arrange the service for you on your return to the airport. For a rough estimate of costs a 80 cm x 40 cm x 30cm suitcase, weighing less than 25 kg (55 pounds) would be about Y1800.

Final tip and piece of advice: The most important element in deciding which train or bus to take from the airport is destination. If a certain route gets you directly to your station without but takes 15 minutes longer then this is the one to take as it will save you a change of trains, the purchase of another ticket and the hassle of hauling your luggage about.

As I said above, if an inexpensive route is your priority then the Keisei tokkyu Limited Express is your train. Haneda Airport is located south of the city and serves mostly domestic flights.

Allow lots of time between flights if you arrive at one but depart from the other.

If you’re near to a bus stop the Airport Limousine to Haneda is the best way to get from central Tokyo to Haneda. And yes, there are Starbucks in both terminals at both airports (Haneda and Narita).

Subway and Commuter Trains within Tokyo


The subway system in Tokyo is phenomenal and can usually get you within a few 100 metres of your destination in central Tokyo.

There are 2 subway systems (Tokyo Metro and Toei) and 1 train route (JR East) that run within Tokyo and to the surrounding region. It’s best to think of them as 3 separate systems each requiring a different ticket.

Tokyo Metro has 9 different lines: Ginza, Marunouchi, Hibiya, Tozai, Chiyoda, Yurakucho, Hanzomon, Namboku, Fukutoshin. The Toei has 4: Asakusa, Mita, Shinjuku and Oedo.

The JR system has many different lines but the three of interest to travelers are the Yamanote line, the Chuo line and the Sobu line.

The Yamanote line does a loop of the city, with trains running in both directions around the circle. It makes a great way to get between the major subway stops of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Ueno, Shinagawa and Tokyo stations.

How The Subway Works:

In a nutshell the subway system works like this: Tickets are scanned through the turnstiles at the beginning – as you enter the subway system – and end of your trip – as you exit.

Before you enter a station you look at a map by the electronic ticket dispensers and find your destination station. It will have a price listed beside the stop. You then purchase a ticket for that amount – not for any specific station.

If you buy the wrong ticket – or change your mind and get off at a different more distant station – then you’ll need to add money to the ticket before you exit the station. You insert your ticket in a special “Fare Supplement” machine. It will show the supplement needed.

If you really can’t figure out what priced ticket to purchase, a simple trick is to buy the minimum price ticket (Y160), ride to your destination, and then let the Fare Supplement machine figure out how much more you have to add.

There are day tickets available, which can save you a bit if you take more than 4 or 5 rides in a day. The Tokyo Metro One-day Open Ticket for Y710 (children Y360) is good on just the TRTA lines. The Common One-day Ticket for Tokyo Metro & Toei Subway for Y1000 (children Y500) is good on both the TRTA and Toei lines – but not the JR Lines. There is also the Tokyo Metro 1-Day for Tourists Ticket for Y600 (children Y300) that can be purchased at Narita Airport.

If you’ll be in Tokyo for more than a few days you might want to buy either a Suica or Pasmo prepaid card that enables you to enter and move between the different lines. The cards are simply scanned as you enter and exit a station and the correct fare is deducted from your account.

The Pasmo card works only on the 2 Tokyo subways systems. The Suica card works on the subways and the JR lines.

Both cards require a Y500 deposit – most of which is returned when you stop using the card and return it for your deposit. Additionally the cards can be used on some buses, but few tourists take the bus at all, so unless you know you’ll be taking one this shouldn’t be a big selling point.

Check out the Tokyo Transfer Guide for station to station routes on the Tokyo subway system and take a look at the map of the Tokyo subway lines.

Tokyo Tours


If you’re pressed for time a one day or half day sightseeing tour is a good option to take in the city’s sites and attractions. There’s no need to book a package through a travel agent – good quality bus and walking tours are easy to arrange on your own or through your hotel’s concierge.

Hato Bus Tours and JTB’s Sunrise Tours both get raves from travelers.

Free – yes, free! – walking tours of the city are available from  Tokyo Free Guide. You tell them what you’re interested in, your schedule, your preferred neighborhood(s), and you get a tour of Tokyo by a local. They get to practice their English. Win-win. You are expected to pay for any tickets or drinks or food along the tour but that’s pretty minor.

Packing Tips

  • It’s a mantra of the packing tips experts: pack light. But in Japan and definitely Tokyo it will you serve you well. Japanese people don’t carry a lot of baggage. The trains, buses and even lockers are not designed for a large about of luggage.
  • Additionally at some point on your trip you’ll probably have to take your bags on board a couple subways or commuter trains which are often a tight squeeze if you have anything more than a toothbrush with you.
  • If you are traveling with a lot of luggage then The Narita Airport Limousine Bus might be a good option as you won’t have to deal with turnstiles and gates and if you’re staying at a major hotel might stop right at your door. If not take the short taxi ride from the dropoff hotel to your accommodations.
  • Anything you think you might need – converter, umbrella, toothpaste – buy it at home. Time can evaporate trying to purchase everyday items in Tokyo. If you’re on a tight schedule you don’t want to burn through time searching a department store for shampoo.

What To Take:

  • Electrical converter so your devices will work like they do at home.
  • A small umbrella for rainy season.
  • Laptop or Netbook. Many people leave these at home thinking they won’t want to spend time on their computer while traveling. A good sentiment, but having a means of looking things up on the internet while in Japan is invaluable. Many companies, hotels and institutions you’ll want to contact don’t have many employees that speak English. By emailing them you ensure you’ll gain contact with someone who does. And many Japanese write English better than they speak it. Most Japanese related web sites – be it a museum, hotel, or amusement park – have the most important pages (or the entire site) translated into English, so having access to this information can be really helpful while on the road. I had no troubles accessing the internet or using local Wi-Fi while traveling around Japan with my highly recommended Macbook.
  • Wear and pack nice socks so you’re not embarrassed if you need to slip your shoes off – a common occurrence in Japanese culture.
  • Not a walker? You will be in Tokyo. Have a good pair of comfortable shoes with you.
  • If you’re traveling with kids be sure to read what to take when traveling with kids.

Tokyo Hotels and Accomodations


Here’s a short list of the most popular hotels in Tokyo for tourists.

For more hotel info read: Family-Friendly Hotels In Tokyo

Park Hyatt – The definitive 5 Star luxury hotel in Tokyo. Located in Nishi -Shinjuku.

Hilton Hotel Tokyo – Amenities include a swimming pool, health spa, sauna and fitness center. Locate in Nishi Shinjuku.

Prince Hotel Shinagawa – A popular budget choice close to the Shinkansen Shinagawa station. The Prince Hotel chain has a handful of hotels spread around the Tokyo area.

Park Hotel Tokyo – Reception is on the 25th floor in this hotel with amazing views. Located close to the Tsukiji Fish Market.

Imperial Hotel Tokyo – Elegant hotel in the heart of Ginza. Good online discounts available.

New Otani Hotel Tokyo – Well regarded hotel with a collection of 5 star restaurants. Fantastic online discounts available at certain times of the year.

Grand Palace Hotel Tokyo – A good budget choice if you can find an online deal. Located in Iidabashi.

Hotel Okura Tokyo – Luxury hotel at moderate prices. Located in the government district and convenient to many embassies – if you’re applying for any travel visas.

Keio Plaza Hotel – Free shuttle bus to Disneyland and a location in the center of Shinjuku make this hotel very popular.

Four Seasons Hotel at Marunouchi – Steps from Tokyo Station – staff will meet incoming trains from Narita and guide you back to the hotel – this is a luxury hotel standout. A short walk from Ginza and the Imperial Palace. Highly recommend for first time visitors to Tokyo.

Hotel Nikko Tokyo – A little removed from central Tokyo this is a good choice for those looking for a reprieve from the Tokyo buzz and busyness. The five star facilities make it a little oasis of luxury on the island of Odaiba.

Disneyland

  • The Disney Resort is really 2 different theme parks: Disneyland Park and DisneySea Park. Disneyland is what you’d expect: very similar to the American Disneyland with similar rides, themes and attractions. DisneySea is different – almost all the rides are unique with no American equivalents. Very generally Disneyland is targeted towards kids – DisneySea towards adults. For some great tips on visiting Disney go to Chris’s Tokyo Disney Resort Fan Site.
  • Many people feel they have to stay in Maihama (where Disneyland is located) to really enjoy the amusement park. But staying in Tokyo is a very doable option. Almost all subway stations are less than 40 minutes from Disneyland. Asakusa and Ginza are both great neighborhoods that are each less than 25 minutes from Disneyland.
  • Avoid Disneyland on weekends – it’s absurdly busy. Sunday being worse than Saturday.
  • Arrive early – about a half-hour before opening – to get your tickets and fastpasses for the most popular rides.
  • Food is very expensive and often involves a lot of waiting – even the line for popcorn can be over 20 minutes – take snacks and a lunch if you want to save some time and money.

6 questions and comments

  1. Jennifer Kum

    Tq for your clear and informative website. Telling us that the older Skyliner is now called Cityliner cleared the ambiguity in many other websites. Your packing tips are really useful and reassuring to me but alas we still have to travel with 2 backpacks (regular size) and 2 twenty-inch carry-on trolley bags for 3 adults. Is this too much on the Keisei Ltd Exp ( crowd factor) or should we take the Cityliner? Also any probability of getting a seat on the Ltd Exp after 9pm? Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

    Fyi, the luggage mentioned is for 12 days of traveling in Japan and with no check-in luggage.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      It all depends on the crowds and what time of day you’ll be traveling. It can get very busy on the Limited Express. At Narita there’s a luggage delivery service that you can use. Bags will arrive at your hotel the next morning. (info here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2278.html) It doesn’t cost much but could easily override the savings of the Limited Express. Though it’s easy and convenient.

      Reply
      1. Jennifer Kum

        Thks so much for your quick reply. Hope we won’t be inconveniencing all other commuters with luggage in a crowded train; would dread feeling out of place. Seems like foreigners are mostly directed to take the JR Exp or Skyliner. Cheers and keep up with your travels. :=))

        Reply
  2. Caroline

    We are taking our 3 kids to Japan and I am curious what type of shoes you found most useful for your kids (slipping on and off and walking a lot) and if you can recommend backpacks for the kids. Also is it possible to travel with a backpack on the buses and trains?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      I remember on our first night there it was raining and the boys were wearing crocs and slipping continually as they walked on the sidewalks. But after that it was never a problem – maybe because it didn’t rain much more. Take what’s comfortable and what they like to wear. Don’t go out of your way to find the perfect solution because it won’t be. For a backpack I would go to REI or some similar quality store and get your kids properly fitted packs. It’s worth it. No problem taking backpacks on trains and buses.

      Reply

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