Japan is an incredibly special place and, if it isn’t already, a visit really should be on your travel bucket list. Matt and I absolutely love the local culture, food and people as well as the incredible landscape of places like Hokkaido and the cityscapes of spots like Osaka and Tokyo. Our first visit to Tokyo was pretty overwhelming as it was unlike any other Asian city we’d visited before, a unique blend of old and new, traditional and modern. We learned a lot on that first trip and, on our recent second trip, learned even more! Today, I wanted to share with you a few of the absolutely essential, must-know tips we’ve picked up on our two visits, that make our Tokyo trips a cinch. Here are 7 useful tips to make Tokyo travel easier!
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1. Always have cash
Make sure you always have cash on you when travelling to Tokyo. Many places, including restaurants and even your hotel, will not accept a credit or debit card for payment. We’ve been caught out quite a few times and now always try to have some cash on us. If you do find yourself without any, don’t worry, there’s usually a convenience store nearby. We save money when we travel by having an account with a bank that never charges transaction fees at home or abroad. It has saved us so much money and if you travel regularly, I recommend you do the same! I also recommend you download the XE Currency (or similar) app so you can check the price of things as you go and know exactly how much you’re paying for something.
2. Use Google Maps to navigate the train
The train system in Tokyo is notoriously tricky to understand. We’ve visited twice now and still get stumped by it as there are multiple companies operating train lines and you often have to buy different tickets and switch lines, which can be confusing. On our last visit, I found Google Maps was really helpful in navigating Tokyo’s train system. I use the Google Maps app to find the train station I want to start from and ‘get directions’ via train to the station I want to arrive at.
The app is very detailed in the information it provides, giving you the cost of the ticket(s) you’ll need to buy, the symbols and names of stations, the number and names of all the stops in-between, live maps of where you’ll walk to change lines and, of course, times. It’s so detailed, it takes the guesswork out of it! Just be sure to pre-load google maps before you leave the wifi. Also, when it comes time to buy a ticket, I recommend asking the lovely staff who work at the train station to help you the first few times. They’ll take you through it and you’ll quickly get the hang of it, especially as all the electronic ticket booths we used had multiple display languages, including English. But don’t be shy to ask for help, having them help/show you is the best way to learn and the staff are always so patient, understanding and helpful.
3. Find free wifi
Speaking of wifi, you’re going to need it as you explore Tokyo to help you navigate your way around and stay connected. I spotted a free wifi pamphlet in our hotel lobby and downloaded the ‘Travel Japan Wifi’ app, thinking it was worth a try! Turns out, it’s actually useful! It provides tourists with free wifi throughout Japan, not just Tokyo and best of all it’s totally free. There’s a ‘wifi hotspots’ map so you can find wifi when you desperately need to, it connects automatically and there’s a ‘tour guide’ feature which recommends cafes, restaurants and shops near you. Gotta love a good freebie like this one when you travel! We also found there to be great free wifi in the train systems too, so you can always dip in there to look something up if you need to. If you’ve got the budget and need your wifi, I’ve heard of people hiring pocket wifi devices to take around town with them. I’ve not used one so can’t vouch for it or comment on the price but, if it sounds like a good option for you, it could be worth looking into.
4. Hire a bike
We did a LOT of walking on both our trips to Tokyo and found our legs and bodies were exhausted and aching just after the first two days. That’s when we decided to hire bikes and, you guys, it was a real game-changer. Bikes are a fantastic way to get around Tokyo! There are a few different ways to do it but by far the cheapest is a place we found in Ueno where you can hire a bike at ¥300 per day, ¥600 for 3 days or ¥1,200 for 7 days. There are a few Taito-ku branches around Tokyo but we went to the one in Ueno which wasn’t easy to find at first because their website is only in Japanese but once you know what you’re looking for, it’s much better!
The hire place is right near the Shin-Okachimachi train station on Kasuga Dori. If you’re looking at Google Maps, you’ll see two 7-11’s diagonal across the street from each other. That’s the exact block where you’ll find Taito-ku! All you need to do is walk along that block and keep your eyes out for the bright yellow flag (you can see it on Google Maps street view) and the bike carved into a concrete wall. Taito-ku is underground, so you’ll need to walk down the place near the yellow flag that looks sort of like a subway station. Now, technically, you aren’t supposed to take the bikes too far from the area… just something to keep in mind. You’ll need cash (of course) and your passport/hotel details to provide for hire.
We found Tokyo easy and safe to navigate by bike and were able to see, do and explore so much more! It’s also cheaper than catching the train everywhere, provided you hire through Taito-ku as other places are around ¥2,500 per day.
5. Catch the Airport Limousine Bus
Another great tip we picked up this time is to catch the Airport Limousine Bus into Tokyo if you’re arriving at Haneda airport. You know how these types of things are usually really annoying, poorly organised and unreliable? Well, this one is the opposite of ALL those things – I was genuinely shocked by how easy it was. We arrived into Haneda airport, found the Airport Limousine Bus ticket counter very easily, bought our tickets in under a minute then made our way out the doors to the bus pick-up spot, 30 seconds from the ticket counter! The bus comes every 15 minutes so we got on right away and it only takes 30 minutes to get to Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal. The bus was so comfortable and it had wifi – it was just shockingly good and reliable. From Shinjuku, you could either catch a train to your final destination or simply walk, like we did.
This bus service does, of course, also run from Tokyo to Haneda Airport and it also runs to/from Narita Airport but we didn’t do those routes so I can’t personally vouch for them. But, if I had to wager a guess, I’d say it’s great based on our experience from the airport into town. It’s also important to note there are multiple routes and drop off points from the airports to different spots around Tokyo so if you’re trying to figure out the best/easiest way to get from the airport to your hotel in Tokyo, it’s worth at least looking into the Airport Limousine Bus service. It cost us ¥1,300 per person, one way from Haneda Airport to Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal.
6. Wear comfortable shoes that are easy to slip on and off
When you’re packing for your trip to Tokyo, I’d encourage you to choose very comfortable footwear that is easy to take on and off. You may or may not know that in Japanese culture, it’s common to remove your shoes before entering a home, some stores or rooms. Examples of places we had to take ours off were certain temples, a cat cafe, hotel rooms, changing rooms at stores and a few restaurants. We were always provided with slippers to put on so we weren’t walking around in our socks or barefoot but, trust me, on the days I made the mistake of wearing lace-up boots, I wished I had different shoes!
7. Get Google Translate and Waygo
If you don’t speak or read Japanese, I strongly advise you to download both Google Translate and Waygo. There were so many times we relied on Google Translate to help us communicate with locals, check street/restaurant signs and read menus. We didn’t have Waygo, but I’ve recently found out about it and apparently, it’s meant to be way better than Google Translate at reading characters on things like restaurant menus.
Of course, it’s always a great idea to learn a few key local phrases like, ‘excuse me, thank you,’ and, ‘hello.’ It’s also important to observe the local culture by bowing to people you meet, acknowledging them and treating them with the utmost respect. I also advise travellers to observe how the locals behave in social situations and do the same. For instance, if everyone else on the train is quiet and not talking on their phone, do the same! If everyone is standing to the left of the escalator, do the same!
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