During my few days in Tokyo earlier this year, I stayed at the beautiful Park Hyatt Tokyo and did my best to not let the 14 hour time difference and jet-lag overpower me. I think I did pretty good at pushing through and making the most of my limited time there, but there is no doubt I was a little bit like a fish out of water. This was my first trip to Japan, and I really had very little clue as to what I was doing. The good news though is I still survived, and only had one real incident where I was just totally confused. Here are a few notes from my experience.

Many people don’t speak English:

I know this is shocking information, but don’t expect everyone you encounter to know English, because they won’t. The staff at the Park Hyatt knew English, as did a few others I encountered, but once you step out of the very tourist centric areas, your ability to communicate in English drops off quickly. For me, Japanese isn’t like Spanish. I can fake my way with Spanish enough to at least order a hamburger and ask where the bathroom is, but I know about as much Japanese as a rock.

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There are some signs in English, but a couple of times with cab drivers I had to show them a map on my iPhone with where I wanted to go. Having the destination (or at least your hotel address) in Japanese would also be a smart idea.  When leaving the Park Hyatt I would have the staff there tell the cabs where to take me. One time when trying to get out of a subway station my card wouldn’t work and myself and the attendant got pretty flustered trying to communicate a problem and solution. I eventually just started trying to hand him more yen hoping he could just help me get a new ticket, but that didn’t work either. I honestly can’t remember how we eventually resolved whatever issue there was, but I do remember it being kind of stressful having no clue what I was supposed to do.

But…that is part of the fun, I think. I think it is okay every now and then to put yourself in a situation where you have to rely on more than your words to get you around. I had to use all of my senses to try to figure out where to go and what to do sometimes. Luckily, I had timed my trip with a Flyertalk JapanDo (and there is another in 2014), so for some of the trip I was around others that either spoke Japanese, or at least had been there before. That was a huge blessing as it limited the time I had to totally winging it by myself.

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The trains are great, but subways/trains are not all operated by the same group and can be confusing:

You want to get the Suica nad N’EX deal at the airport when you land. The Suica & N’EX package is available only to foreign passport holders, and is a great deal to get you started with public transportation. Adults are 5,500 Yen and children 2,400 Yen for a round trip package that includes round trip transportation on the Narita Express to/from the airport, and some money on your Suica card. The N’EX (Narita Express) train was a very clean and very efficient way to get to/from Narita into Tokyo and the Shinjuku Station near the Park Hyatt. You are given an assigned seat, which was strange as there were many open seats but yet someone was seated next to me almost the whole time. In the US, someone would have likely just moved seats to an open one and said to heck with the assigned seats, but in Japan everyone sits where they are supposed to. Here is a little more info on that process.

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Boarding the Narita Express Train from the airport

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Very clean and maintained seats on the N’Ex

The Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro are two seperate entities that run some of the subway lines in Tokyo. I won’t even pretend to know much more about this other than to say it is a bit confusing at first. In fact, I might still be a bit confused, so Tokyo experts feel free to weigh in.  However, I do know that having the Suica card makes life much easier as you can easily use it to pay for the subways as well as things like snacks and drinks! The subway system was very good, but just start small with little easy trips first and then you will gain your confidence after a day or two.  It also helps to know what exit to look for in the subway station as the wrong exit can let you out far from where you want to be.

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Just Another Points Traveler and me on the subway

Just Another Points Traveler and me on the subway

Go to the Tsukiji Market for the tuna auction and sushi:

Your internal time clock is going to be royally messed up no matter what you do, so take advantage of that situation and on your first morning or so, get up insanely early and go to the Tsukiji Market to watch the tuna auction. Only the first 120 people can get in for the auctions, and while registration starts at 5AM, the line-up to be one of the first 120 starts well before that. I got there at 3:45AM and was way too late. However, it was during cherry blossom season and I think 4:15AM would sometimes do the trick to get in. Since I didn’t make the cut, I can’t comment on the auction itself but we did stay in the market and make the most of it.

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No more space for the tuna auction!

That early in the morning, it is pitch black, but there are fork-lifts and trucks driving all over the market during their work. You need to be very careful to not get run over. If you do bring small children here, then you need to hold them or at least hold their hand the entire time. It is really pretty dangerous in that sense.

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We headed over to line up to get breakfast eating the freshest sushi I have ever had. The famed Sushi Dai line was already hours long by 4:30AM, but we ate nearby at Yamato where the line was not yet as long (though it got long in a hurry after we lined up).

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About 35USD got you a set menu of sushi that was simply amazing. I do believe it was a cash-only joint, so plan accordingly.

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After breakfast the sun was up and we went through some of the shops and I bought some beautiful bowls and kid-friendly chopsticks to bring home to Little C! I highly recommend verifying that the auction is happening the day you want to visit before getting up at such an unholy hour as it does not operate 7 days a week.

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See the cherry blossoms:

If you can plan your trip around cherry blossom season, it is a sight to see. I just kind of dumb-lucked into those dates, but it is easy to see why it is such a big draw.  It happened earlier than expected for Tokyo in 2013, but typically occurs sometime from late March to mid April.  I saw many local families having picnics in parks all over the place under the cherry blossoms!  Here is a site with much better shots of the cherry blossoms than I have.

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Look for 7-11, Japan Post, or Citibank ATMs:

I brought some yen from home thanks to my local bank, but otherwise you need to be aware that not every ATM will work with your US debit card.  I’m really glad I brought some cash with me, as I saw some others had to really work hard to find an ATM that worked with their cards.  There was one or two in the Narita Airport that many had success with, but around town it got a bit tougher.  Credit cards are accepted in Japan, but not as widely as in the United States, so having some local currency on you is the best bet.

 Get “Lost in Translation”:

I mentioned this earlier, but seriously don’t stress if you don’t know what is going on or where you are 100% of the time.  I’m not saying put yourself in a dangerous situation, but it is okay to feel like you are a foreigner in a foreign land for a while.  Allow yourself time to explore and experience just being in Tokyo without always having a scheduled tour or exact destination in mind.  Then after your adventure, go back to the Park Hyatt and enjoy an amazing massage.

Those were some things that stood out to me after my first trip to Tokyo, but I would love to hear some more tips for Tokyo newbies from those who have been before!

Posted by mommypoints | 32 Comments

32 Responses to “Tips For a First Trip to Tokyo”

  1. Michael says:

    I’m staying at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and it’s a fabulous hotel — especially if you are a Diamond. Spent the day biking the city and loved it. Tomorrow I’m at the Park Hyatt for 22K and can’t wait to experience the NY Bar.

    Thanks for your comments!

  2. Maury says:

    While I read this a smile comes to my face cause not too long ago in July I went to Japan for the first time also by myself. I don’t know the language and didn’t know what to expect. Unlike you I did not have anyone there to guide me like you. I found myself in several situations that no one understood me from the trains to the Ueno Zoo. I managed to somehow go all over Tokyo and summit Mt Fuji.

  3. ffi says:

    As a foreigner, Tokyo is among the safest places on earth to visit.
    The trip is well worth the effort and we would go back in a heartbeat.

  4. smitty06 says:

    Most people in Japan know written English, but aren’t able to understand spoken English. The best advice we got in Japan was to write our questions in English to present to people. It worked 90% of the time.

  5. VG says:

    The Suica card is really useful. It also works on the JR trains in Tokyo metropolitan area. In fact, I did not once ride one of the subways in a one week visit, JR trains went everywhere in Tokyo that I wanted to go.

    Not everyone speaks English, the advance to try written English is good, but there are enough people with some English skills that someone is likely to walk over and help you just for a chance to practice real spoken English.

    We decided to take a bus from Narita instead of the N’Ex as there are that buses go to the door of most major hotels rather than leaving you in a large train station.

  6. Bails says:

    You don’t have to tip anywhere in Japan (might even be awkward if you do tip), you can drink alcohol in virtually anywhere in public including the subway, and be sure to walk to on the left side of traffic.

  7. jason says:

    just remember that their nuclear crisis is still on going . Even though Toyko may be safe to stay, their food is not.

  8. Rom says:

    Another tip: Learn basic Japanese. We can’t always expect other countries to cater to us. Ask someone by at least saying, “sumimasen” (excuse me). Japanese are extra friendly if you at least try some Japanese.

  9. Bostonwalker says:

    I happen just came back from Tokyo. I have relatives living there so it’s not hard for me to travel. Some interesting facts about Japan:
    Don’t be surprised to see men peeing on the street at night, especially when they just walked out of a bar. It’s their culture. Actually, some public men restrooms have no fence at all!
    Anyone tried onsen? It’s so unique and relaxing, but seldom western people are seen. Cultural difference again, since you have to be naked. Also, forget about it if you have tattoo. Tattoo is considered criminal related, and ar banned from public onsen.

  10. Woo says:

    It’s good review but I don’t think it’s safe to travel to Japan yet.

  11. Jason says:

    I highly suggest everyone download the google translate apple on the andriods or iphones, its a huge help.

  12. Rick b says:

    I just did a Japan trip for 15 days. I really recommend going there for at least that long, get the Japan rail pass and see kyoto, Hiroshima and several small towns as well.

    Japan-guide.com will be the most useful website, most info is up to date and correct.

  13. Joey says:

    Great timing for this article since Tokyo will be site of the Olympics in 2020!

    Best tip I can give is to make your own guidebook (thanks to google maps and google translate.) When I went to China, Egypt, and Japan, I made a list of all the sites I planned to visit and made sure I knew where on the map they were. Google maps is neat because it can give you directions via walking or public transportation or car!

  14. mommypoints says:

    Thanks to everyone for sharing such fantastic tips! I am so excited about the 2020 Olympics announcement and very much hope to go then and bring my daughter!

  15. Karen says:

    We used points to stay at the Westin Toyko and Westin Kyoto several years ago. Fish market was awesome, hotels were amazing and the bullet train to Kyoto makes this Houstonian envious of such fast train travel.

  16. Charlie says:

    Good tip on the ATM! I was there for a day on a MR a couple of years ago and ran out of cash to get back to the airport. I ended up walking around to 5 banks and for an hour to find one that I could get money out of. Fortunately, no ridiculous fees! Just reminded me of how spoiled I am to be able to use credit cards all over the US!

  17. Ryan E says:

    The folks who claim it’s “not safe” to visit Japan due to Fukushima are ignorant and ill-informed. We visited Toky & other places about 6 weeks after the earthquake and it was, and still is, perfectly fine.

    I’m surprised you found it difficult with the rail and public transport, I always find it fairly intuitive if you just read a head slightly

    We found the signage just fine – some English, some romaji, and enough picture signs. But do take time to learn some basic Japanese (or any language you’re visiting) words and etiquette. Carry a bilingual map.

    The Japanese people are some of the most helpful I’ve ever encountered…people will do what they can if you’re lost, even with any language barriers. Some will want to speak English with you purposely to practice.

    And yes, Japan is a great country to lose yourself in a little bit anyway. We’ve had some fun experiences just wandering around and seeing what we run into.

    I’d also highly recommend staying in a non-Western chain (or non-chain altogether) hotel, as my family did. You’ll find less, or no, English spoken at, say a business hotel, but that’s part of the fun – I can stay at a Hyatt anywhere. And their prices can be quite reasonable.

  18. Donnie Law says:

    Really interesting post. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where so few people speak English. I’m guessing Japan is pretty high on the list of lease % of english speakers.

  19. Steven says:

    The Narita limousine bus is another way to get to and from the airport. Depending on the time of day, the trip can take up to 2 hours, but it drops off and picks up at the Park Hyatt and the Hilton. I took it this summer and was very happy with the service. The cost is about $30 and the staff at the Park Hyatt will not only make reservations for you but will also charge it to your room if you like.

  20. Vicki says:

    We went 8 years ago with school age children and going to a baseball game was a highlight. Yes, no one will speak English but you will muddle through. A game in Japan is so passionate! And the Winnie the Pooh ride at Disney was unbelievable and incredibly unique.

  21. AKTCHI says:

    We have several close friends in Tokyo area and that has meant two things: We have visited several times (first time in 1993), and never had time to step beyond Narita-Tokyo-Yokohama. :) The language problem used to be worse, most facilities are quite manageable with English now. Agree about ATMs, safety, and the amazing courtesy the Japanese show to strangers. Rule of thumb regarding trains: get a Suica or Passmo (same functionality), use Tokyo Metro instead of another line whenever that is a choice. I am mostly good with street food or less expensive options, but everyone should visit New York Grill at Park Hyatt at least once. Another amusing memory from a few years ago: Nor sure how I heard of it, but I eagerly went to a restaurant for an “all you can eat” tempura; turned out that tempura was superb but only rice was “all you can eat”. :)

  22. mangoMan says:

    My wife and I went for the first time this past March. We utilized tokyofreeguide.com and got guides for our first two days. It was a great experience and for the price of lunch got to meet and know some Tokyo locals who showed us around.

  23. Randy says:

    The N’EX+Suica is a terrific deal. You can get a refund on the card deposit and remaining balance when you leave (at a JR Rail station) but there is a fee. Best value is to drain the card by buying snacks on your last day.

  24. Randy says:

    There are many other ways to get into Tokyo besides the N’EX, including the Skyliner (which is faster I think), and the busses (personally I hate busses but many people like them). But I think the N’EX+Suica is such a good deal, and the N’EX is an excellent way to get to/from Tokyo.

  25. Randy says:

    Note that the fish market is a working market, not a tourist attraction (like Fisherman’s Wharf) so you need to be super careful not to get in people’s way who are trying to do their jobs.

  26. Randy says:

    If you are sensitive to tobacco smoke, Japan presents extra challenges. Most restaurants allow smoking. There are a few that don’t, such as some family-style sushi places, some coffee shops, and some nice restaurants. My favorite non-smoking restaurant is Gonpachi, in Ginza, in a building at the edge of it called The G-Zone. It’s a lot of fun and the food is great. It’s small plates so order a lot of different things to try.

  27. Randy says:

    I’ve had great two-days trips. For such short stays, I use a hotel in Narita (such as the Hilton) and visit Tokyo one day and Narita the second. Narita has a terrific temple and lovely Japanese garden, and it’s fun to walk around the streets. There is also a large mall to explore Japanese fashions and trends.

    If you go on a weekend, try and visit Tokyo on a Sunday and go to Ginza, because they close the main street to traffic and it is much more pleasant. Also, you can use the Suica card at some of the places in Narita.

  28. AKTCHI says:

    Last time I looked at NEX, it was quite a bit more expensive than the Kesei option I ended up choosing. The latter also happened to be more convenient for my destination, but that would vary from person to person. I go to Japan regularly enough, once or twice every year, so I just keep my Suica card and any leftover yens. I have, however, learned to pick up a new subway map each time from the visitors information desk at NRT. Tokyo subway scene is dynamic and new lines pop up every now and then; besides, it is nice to have a fresh map instead of one ripping at every fold. :) I agree that the town of Narita often gets overlooked, but has a pleasant market area and a beautiful temple with a very large garden. Now I always include one night in Narita.

  29. Randy says:

    Aktchi, is there a deal to get Kesei + Suica for less than Kesei alone? The point in this blog is that the N’EX + Suica is a good deal because it is less expensive than just N’EX and you also get a Suica card with money on it, enough to ride around Tokyo subways for a few days and buy some treats too.

  30. AKTCHI says:

    Randy, I don’t know if Keisei offers any packages with Suica/Passmo. I haven’t heard of that, but as I already have a Suica, I haven’t looked for it either.

    Let me admit to a personal quirk why I prefer the cheaper train (the ~Y1000 Keisei due to convenient connections, but could also be the ~Y1200 JR if my destination was different). When traveling, I like to adapt to the new place ASAP, even more so for a short trip. An obvious example is to switch to the new time zone and live accordingly, but moving on to the new transportation rhythm is similar to me. NEX and Skyliner would be an extension of the air travel: comfortable and assigned seats, fast travel with few stops, all fun but that’s not what I would be facing during my few days in Tokyo the city. By using an ordinary train with ordinary tickets and maps, I start getting acclimated to Tokyo and start my visit there right away. Not a big deal, but that’s how I feel.

    However, your point about NEX + Suica package being a good financial deal is well taken. If someone wishes to do this, there is a VERY IMPORTANT CAVEAT. When you buy the package, they give you paper tickets for NEX and a Suica card (with Y1500 spending money plus the Y500 deposit on it). It is extremely important to use the paper tickets for the NEX journey. You will see others using their Suicas at the turnstyle, but they didn’t get the same package you did, :) and if you use your Suica to enter NEX you just ruined the deal you got! It would have been so much better if JR had coded the NEX journey on the Suica itself, instead of leaving this loophole for confusion, especially as this package is aimed at non-Japanese.

  31. Randy says:

    Hi Aktchi,

    It never occurred to me that someone might get confused and use the Suica for the N’EX, since they have paper N’EX tickets with train number, car number, and seat number shown. Of course if someone did so they’d ruin the deal!

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