There’s no other place quite like Tokyo. The largest city in the world, Tokyo is a place where the ancient clashes with the future. It’s at once quiet, reserved, polite, riotous, electric, and wild. It’s a city you could spend a lifetime in, and still find hidden corners you’ve never found every day of your life. A visit to Tokyo is a non-negotiable must-do for any world traveler, but with the language gap, and vastly different culture, the planning can be daunting. My travel guide for Tokyo has all the critical bits of info that’ll help you plan your trip to this absolutely astounding city.
Getting to Tokyo
Tokyo is home to two international airports, Narita and Haneda. Narita, the larger international hub, sits about 37 Miles (66 Km) west of the city. Haneda sits about 11 Miles (20 Km), and serves as the more domestic airport.
The easiest and fastest way into town is to hop on the JR Rail Narita Express (N’EX), which is super convenient for accessing the other major JR Lines like the Yamanote Line, and takes about 55 minutes. General tickets to all major hubs will run you about ¥3,000 ($30), give or take depending on the exchange rate, and you can buy them ahead of time, or at the station.
For budget options, you can take the JR Sobu Rapid Express. It costs about ¥1,250($12), takes roughly 90 minutes, and can definitely get crowded during rush hour, so take that into account. You can also take the Keisei Skyliner which runs about ¥1,950 ($18), and takes about 56 minutes. You’ll want to purchase reserved seats for this option.
If a Taxi is more your style, be forewarned that a regular taxi ride into the center of Tokyo is extremely expensive. You won’t get out of that cab for under ¥30,000 ($275). Between the high price and the potential to get stuck in traffic, so I’d advise against this if you can avoid it. If you must take a taxi, see the information desk and inquire about a flat-fare cab to Tokyo. It’s still expensive, but should come in under ¥20,000 ($185).
The best way to get into town is via the Tokyo Monorail. It departs every 5 minutes, and will get you to the Hamamatschuo Station on the JR Yamanote Line. The ride takes about 20 minute, and will run you ¥490 ($4.50). Do note that the line runs only between 5:20 AM and 11:15, so make alternate plans if you have a very early or late departure.
You can also take the Keikyu Line from between terminals 1 and 2, for about ¥450 ($4.25), or hop on a Limousine Bus for about ¥900 ($8.25), or a taxi into central tokyo ¥6,000 to ¥9,000 ($55 to $82).
Exchanging currency and Spending in Tokyo
Accessing your money and paying for things in Tokyo is surprisingly simple. While many things in Tokyo can be paid for with major credit cards, there are still many smaller shops and restaurants that only take cash (especially if you’re traveling to more rural areas).
Exchanging Currency in Tokyo
Exchange your currency has become very easy in Tokyo. If you’d like to exchange, plan to do it at the airport. The airport exchanges have the same rate as banks, and once you leave the airport, it simply becomes much less convenient. Yes, you can exchange at banks, but the process can be lengthy, and you’re at the mercy of bank hours. You can also exchange at most major hotels, but the rates aren’t as good.
Using ATMs in Tokyo
Using ATMs is easy and convenient, and actually gets a better rate of exchange than banks and the airport money exchanges. You may still incur fees from your bank, so be sure to check with your bank so you can know what to expect in terms of foreign transaction fees. You can find reliable ATMs at 7-11 stores (Sevens Bank) and Japan Post office (Japan Post ATMs), and in the city of Tokyo, you’ll never be far from one or the other. As always, contact your bank in advance to let them know you’re traveling, so you don’t risk your card getting frozen.
Transportation in Tokyo
One thing you won’t need in Tokyo is a rental car. No travel guide for Tokyo is complete without mentioning the massive public transit system. The city is unimaginably enormous, and it boasts the most robust and punctual rail system on the planet. The trains are clean and well-designed, people are polite, and although the first time you see the map you might have a bit of a panic attack, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate (Pro-tip: use Google Maps, and select the “train” option. It’ll tell you which lines to take and which stations to get off at).
In the city, there are a total of nine rail systems with three major rail systems dominating the network: Japan Railways, Tokyo Metro, and Toei Subway. For most visitors, you should be able to get anywhere you need to go using a combination of these three. There are a handful of other, privately-owned rail lines such as the Odakyu, Keisei, and Tobu lines, that might get you closer to your destination.
Be sure to remember that rail lines do not run all night, so if you’re venturing out for the evening, make note of what time your lines stop running, so you’re not stuck finding a capsule hotel for the evening or an expensive taxi.
Japan Railways (JR)
JR is the largest rail network, covering many of the main arteries in many of the main cities of Japan. If you’re planning a lot of intercity travel, you can get a pretty great bang for your buck out of a JR Pass. It’s significantly cheaper to purchase a JR Pass ahead of time than it is to purchase it in Japan, so be sure to set that up before you go!
The JR Yamanote Line runs a loop around the center of Tokyo, and connects almost all of the major stations, such as Akihabara, Ueno, Tokyo Station, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinagawa. Think of the Yamanote line like a highway that’ll get you quickly to the general area you’re looking to go to, where you take an exit and connect to the more local lines to get you to your final destination.
The Shinkansen is the system that runs the famous bullet trains. Zipping from city to city at speeds up to 320 KM (200 mph). Taking a ride on the Shinkansen is an experience in and of itself, and one not to be missed. Be sure to grab a bento box at the station to really do it right. Do note that, even if you have a JR Pass, you still need to stop at a ticket office before your trip to reserve your seats on a Shinkansen line.
Other Notable JR Lines: Chuo Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line, Shonan Shinjuku Line, and the Sobu Line. These and other regional lines connect outlying areas of Tokyo to the city center.
Tokyo Metro System and the Toei Subway
The other two main systems, the Tokyo Metro System and the Toei Subway form a network of lines that should be able to get you wherever you need to go, anywhere in the City of Tokyo.
Suica and Pasmo IC Top-up Cards
I strongly recommend, if you’re going to be exploring Tokyo for a few days, to pick up a Suica or Pasmo card. These are both prepaid cards that can be used across systems to get you, more or less, anywhere you want to go in Tokyo without having to deal with purchasing separate, individual tickets. Suica cards can be purchased at JR East stations, and Pasmo can be purchased at Tokyo Subway stations, and both can be used on most of the local rail lines and even at 7-11 stores. Between your JR pass, and Suica or Passmo card, you’ve got your passport to all corners of Tokyo!
Since IC cards are regional in Japan, you won’t be able to use one to get from one city to the other, but you still may be able to use the card on the local rail lines in the city you’re traveling to, so be sure to research ahead if you’re traveling around Japan.
Accommodations in Tokyo
Staying in Tokyo can range from the inexpensive and spartan to the budget busters. From the famed capsule hotels to the ryokans, you’ve got options!
(¥2000-5000/person): This is probably the most famous kind of hotel in Tokyo. Generally found close to train stations – handy as the train lines stop running at somewhere between 11 PM and 1 AM, the capsule hotels provide an inexpensive place to crash. Catering mostly to men, there are more and more women-only capsule hotels popping up, and hotels with gender-separated floors.
Accommodations are, of course, capsules instead of rooms, and are often stacked two high. Many contain a bed, light, power source, and television, and some include temperature controls. Shared toilets and showers let you take care of business, and you’ll store your personal belongings and valuables in lockers. This isn’t something I’d recommend for an extended stay, but for a night or in a pinch, they do the trick!
Ryokan, Pensions, and Minshuku
(¥4000-10000/person): For a more authentic experience, these options provide traditional Japanese-style accommodations. Minshuku, essentially a Japanese-style BnB, and Ryokan, Japanese-style inns, offer traditional accommodations and often one or two meals. Pensions are similar to Minshuku and Ryokan, except they offer western-style accommodations.
(¥1,500 – 3,000/person)- What you’re essentially doing is renting time at a computer either by the hour or for the night, BUT, while some Manga cafes are only long tables of computers and chairs, many offer snacks and drinks, showers, game rooms, or private booths that may come with sofas or futons. Some require you to be a member, so you may incur a small fee for that, but if you find one with good facilities, it can be a great, inexpensive spot to stay the night.
(¥5000-8000 single room, ¥8000-12000 double room): Business Hotels are the pared-down version of what you can expect in a regular large hotel. Compact, western-style accommodations that generally offer a bed, desk, tv, and private bathroom and toilet.
(¥5000 yen/night and up) – These can be great, inexpensive options, especially if you’re traveling in a group. Amenities and types of facilities run the gamut from basic to bizarre to luxurious, and from Western to Eastern style.
(¥10,000/night and up) – These are the hotels you are likely most familiar with. Global Chains and local boutique hotels are everywhere in the tourist areas. Clean rooms with comfortable beds, private bathrooms and toilets, television, a desk or table, and closet space.
Electricity/Voltage in Tokyo
The voltage in Japan is 100 volts. While this is different than most of the world (North America at 120 volts, and the majority of the rest of the world at 220 – 230 volts). Plugs resemble North American Plugs (Grounded 3-pin, and 2 pin). If you’re from North America, most of your devices will run just fine in Japanese outlets without an adapter or converter, but those from regions with 220 voltage will want to use a converter and adapter.
Items with heating elements, of course, are the potential exception. I, personally, didn’t have an issue using my American curling iron in a Japanese plug, but it was one I would not have missed if it got fried. If you’re staying in the country for an extended time, consider purchasing devices locally for use there.
Packing/What to Bring to Tokyo
Tokyo seasons run similarly to the southeast United States or Southern Europe. Warm and humid summers and mild winters. It is a coastal city, though, so you’ll want to be prepared for rain with either an umbrella or rain jacket during all seasons.
No matter what season you go, you’ll want to make sure you have warmer layers to put on at night, and very comfortable shoes. Pack for hot weather in the summer, and cold weather in the winter, warm to cool in the spring and fall. Check out our in-depth dive into what to pack for Japan here.
Comfortable shoes are a must, as you’ll likely be seeing Japan by rail and foot.
Wi-fi and Cellular Service in Tokyo
Having access to data will make your visit to Tokyo immeasurably easier. If you plug your destination into Google Maps, it will tell you which rail lines to take, which transfers to take and which stops to get off on. It takes a LOT of the confusion out of understanding all of the rail systems, and how they work together. Not to mention getting around the city, finding restaurants, etc. You’re not going to want to be without Wi-Fi while you’re out and about.
If you don’t have an international phone plan, you can get a Pocket Wi-Fi unit – essentially a mobile hot spot. This is an excellent option, especially if you have multiple travelers that will want to connect to the internet. Many Airbnbs provide a Pocket Wi-Fi unit as part of the amenities, but if not, you can reserve them ahead of time online and either pick them up at the airport, or have them delivered to your accommodations.
Cultural Do’s and Don’ts in Tokyo
Japan is a country well known for its polite culture, and this topic warrants it’s own deep dive, but there are a few quick things to know to be able get through Tokyo without offending the people. The motivation for most dos and don’ts comes from consideration for other people. If something you do could, in any way, inconvenience someone else, it’s considered rude, so if you operate with that mindset, you should be good. Otherwise, brush up, and join in! Check out our in-depth list of 10 Cultural Dos and Don’ts in Japan. Honestly, it’s a really nice change of pace from many cities where consideration for others is not exactly on the top of people’s lists.
- Try the convenience store food! Lawson’s and 7-11s are everywhere in Tokyo, and they’re excellent for a quick bite. Hot foods at the counter, excellent sweets, delicious oden, onigiri. All made fresh, with high quality ingredients.
- Go to the longest line. If you’re wandering looking for food, look for the restaurant with the longest line. That guarantees that you’re finding a local’s favorite. This might not be the best idea for someone with serious dietary restrictions, as you often land at places with no English menus, but if you’re a little adventurous, go for it!
- When in doubt, head to a park. Parks in Japan are an EVENT. Gardening is obviously serious business to the Japanese, so at the very least, you’ll find a stunning landscape and a brief pause of the hustle and bustle of the city streets. On many days, you’ll find a festival happening with street food, music and activities. They’re a great opportunity to get a real glimpse of daily life in Tokyo.
- Eat a Crepe. Crepes are not just filled with Nutella in Tokyo. Keep your eyes out on main streets and before long, you’ll see a crepe shop where you can get crepes stuffed with a dizzying selection of foods from savory lunch items to sweet dessert and fruit options.
- Experience a ‘drinking alley” – Drinking alleys, or “yokocho” are a part of the daily life of many local salary men. A place to go for cheap, cold drinks and fresh, hot yakitori (skewered meats) in teeny restaurants, some only offering seating to 5 people. The rule in the land is that you come in, you eat, and you move on. It doesn’t mean that you can’t hop around to a few different locations. Go, eat, meet the people – it’s one of the quintessential Tokyo experiences.
- Stay away from the trains at rush hour. Just a quick search on Youtube will show you just how crowded the trains get during the morning and evening rush hours. Do yourself a favor and plan your travels to exclude those times.
- Check out the flea markets and antique markets – Want a truly unique souvenir? Keep your eyes out for flea markets. Most happen on weekend mornings, and feature booths with both antiques and crafts. This is my go-to for any foreign city, and Tokyo’s large flea markets do not disappoint!
- Wear shoes that are easy to put on and take off. Going in and out of temples, restaurants, etc. you may need to take off your shoes, so having a comfortable pair that is easy to get on and off is ideal.
- Want a great view of Tokyo, but don’t want to pay the fee to go up in Tokyo Tower, or the Skytree? Head over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and take the elevator up to the top floor observation area. It’s just a short walk from Shinjuku station, and it’s totally free!
- If you’re interested in Japanese street style, Harajuku is where to go – just not where you think in Harajuku. Takeshita Dori is the famed street where you’ll see the “Harajuku Girls”, all dressed up. It’s worth a stroll down, but if you want the real scene, when you get to the large intersection with Meiji-dori Avenue at the end of Takeshita Dori, go across the street continue deeper into the neighborhood. You’ll find a fantastic array of up-and-coming designers and vintage shops in the maze of alleys.
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