Tokyo is the capital of Japan and the center of the world’s largest metropolitan area, with a population of over 35 million people. In the past few years, it has been named the world’s most expensive city, the third most livable city, the most livable megalopolis and it has far more Michelin stars than any other city on earth.
Visitors to Tokyo will be awed and amazed by technological innovations, they will eat better than they ever have before and they will spend money—but nowhere near as much as you might expect. If you know what you’re doing, you will spend less in Tokyo than in most European or American cities, especially when it comes to food. I lived in Tokyo for a year and it was easily my favorite among the places I’ve called home.
Best Time to Go
Not the summer. Yes, the summer months bring festivals, but they also bring the month-long rainy season (mid June to mid July) with its overcast skies (but not really all that much rain) and high humidity; following that, the humidity stays and temperatures soar, making even just breathing uncomfortable.
Winters are generally pretty mild and a good time to visit, but spring and autumn are easily the best. The cherry blossom season (around March and April) is probably the most popular, but the fall colors in autumn are just as impressive, in my opinion. Late summer to early autumn is typhoon season, but Tokyo does not generally get hit too hard—it usually just ends up raining a lot.
Getting to Tokyo
Tokyo has two airports, Narita and Haneda. Narita Airport is located about 70 km from the city and handles most international flights. You can take a taxi to the city, but it will run you about US $300. The easiest option for getting downtown is a limousine bus for 3500 Yen and taking around 2 hours, but trains are easier and faster.
The Skyline costs ¥2,400 and takes about 45 minutes to Nippori or Ueno Stations; the Narita Express takes 55 minutes to get to Tokyo Station and costs ¥2,940, but you can take this train all the way to Shibuya or Shinjuku in the west or as far as Yokohama in the south; the Keisei Limited Express takes just over an hour to Nippori and Ueno stations and costs just over ¥1,000. This is the cheapest option, along with the “Super Shuttle Bus” to Ueno or Asakusa, which also costs 1000 Yen.
Domestic flights (and some international ones) arrive at Haneda Airport, which is located much closer to downtown. A taxi from here will cost 4000 to 10,000 Yen, but there are much better options. The Tokyo Monorail to Hamamatsucho is probably your best bet, as it only costs ¥470 and takes 15 or 20 minutes.
The private Keikyu Line is a good choice for those heading south (just under 500 Yen and around 30 minutes to Yokohama) or farther north to Nihombashi (around 35 min, just under ¥600) or Asakusa (40-45 min, just over ¥600), as some of these trains continue on as a subway once reaching Shinagawa Station. This is also a good choice if you are connecting to the high speed Shinkansen network heading west, as these trains leave from Shinagawa Station.
The Keikyu Line is also the cheapest way to get between the two airports. It costs ¥1,740 and takes 90 minutes. Limousine Buses run more frequently than the trains, but cost more at ¥3,000. They take around 90 minutes as well.
If arriving in Tokyo by high speed Shinkansen, you will end up at Tokyo Station (but you can get off earlier at Ueno) if coming from the north or Shinagawa Station if coming up from the south or from Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Fukuoka and anywhere else in western Japan. Regular trains can arrive anywhere and no matter where you find yourself, you will be connected to the city’s rail and subway network.
Similarly, those arriving by highway bus could end up at any number of bus stations, depending on the company, but all will have access to the city’s public transport system.
Tokyo has one of the best public transport systems on earth. The ridiculous number of lines can seem a little daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, there are few places the trains and subways can’t take you. Tokyo metro has a great subway map on their site in eight different languages. For a map showing all the rail lines in the greater Tokyo area (in English), head here.
The circle line you see on both of those maps is the most important train in Tokyo: the JR Yamanote Line. It connects all of Tokyo’s major neighborhoods. Everything begins or ends along the Yamanote Line.
The government-run Japan Railways is the largest transportation company in the city, but a number of private operators also run trains and subways. To save money on fares, try to stick to one operator as much as possible for any given journey.
Buses round out the system, but these will not be signed in English and might be a little difficult, although someone will always be willing to help you out. Taxis are safe and convenient, but also expensive.
Tokyo has a ridiculous number of accommodation options scattered all over the city, but in general, you will find the cheapest ones in the Taito district in the northeast. Asakusa and Ueno are good bets, but the “slum” in the area around Minami-Senjuu Station offers the cheapest places to stay in all of Japan, outside a similar district in Osaka. It’s considered a slum in Japan, but it’s really not and is nicer and safer than just about anywhere in the US.
Here you can find tiny single rooms for under $20 a night, but as most of them are geared toward laborers and not tourists, they generally have curfews and not much English ability. A few have switched to catering to tourists though, so you shouldn’t have any problems finding something here. The main drawback is that the area is not centrally located and can be quite inconvenient for those looking to enjoy Tokyo’s nightlife.
Most of the hotels in this area do not have an online presence, but both the Juyoh Hotel and the Hotel Meigetsu do. They’re a bit more expensive than some of the other places here, but still quite cheap.
The First Cabin Akihabara Hotel is another great option and located a bit closer to everything, right in the middle of Akihabara, the city’s famous electronic district. Naturally, it’s a bit more expensive, too, with rooms starting at just under $40.
If you’d rather be on the west side of Tokyo, where most of the nightlife is located, the Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro is a great choice, with rooms for just over $20. Ikebukuro is one of my favorite areas in the city, but it’s not really somewhere tourists usually go and it’s still pretty far from the major nightlife areas.
The Shin-Okubo International Hotel in Shin-Okubo is much closer, located just two stops north of Shibuya on the Yamanote Circle Line. Rooms cost more, though, starting at around $50.
Hostels are another budget option, but dorm beds in Japan usually cost more than the cheapest hotels. Expect to pay $20 to $45. Khaosan World Asakusa Hostel and Nui Tokyo Central Hostel are the two best options. Both are located in Asakusa.
The people who run the Khaosan World Hostel also have the Khaosan World Ryokan, which is one of the coolest places in the city. As would be expected from a traditional Japanese Inn, rooms are expensive, but this ryokan offers dorm rooms with beds for under $30. This is a great opportunity to try out a ryokan on the cheap.
You’ve probably heard of the infamous Japanese capsule hotels, but I wouldn’t recommend most of them. A capsule costs just as much as a dorm bed and more than the cheapest single rooms. The only time it would make sense to stay in one, is if it is located in an area that would otherwise be much too expensive. The Shinjuku Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel, right in the middle of Kabukicho, is one such place.
If you’re looking for a place near the airport, try the Narita Tobu Hotel.
If you are staying for a month or more, consider renting an apartment. You can save quite a bit this way. Sakura House and Oak House are the two biggest short-term rental companies in Tokyo and both have a ton of choices all over the city in all price ranges.
Eating & Drinking
The number of restaurants in Tokyo is staggering and you can find anything you want at pretty much any budget. If you can’t find a place to eat in Tokyo, I’m not going to be able to help you either, so I’m just going to tell you where to find the cheapest meals: basically, Bento boxes are your friend. You’ll find a large selection of them in any convenience store or supermarket as well as department store basements. Most are quite good and cost under 500 Yen.
You’ll also find several chains, like Hokka Hokka Tei, that make bento boxes to order. Most will still be under (or just around) 500 Yen, but they taste even better than the reheated ones. If you have access to a rice cooker (as many accommodation options in Japan do), you can get your bento without rice and knock another 150 yen or so off the price. You can live quite well and quite cheaply on just bento.
Restaurants that dispense order tickets through vending machines (it is Japan, after all) are also very good deals, with many set meals going for 500 Yen or less. Meshiadon is one of the best known, but there are way too many to list.
Most visitors will want to try sushi and you’ll find the best in the world at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Prices can be very low, too, at some of the standing-room-only countertop places just outside the actual market.
One of my favorite foods is ramen and you’ll find all varieties in Tokyo, but if you’re heading to other cities, most notably Fukuoka or Sapporo, you might want to wait. The same goes for okonomiyaki—you’ll get great stuff in Tokyo, but Hiroshima and Osaka are famous for okonomiyaki and can’t be beat.
For a night out, Shibuya is the place to go for large expensive clubs and Roppongi is the main foreign nightlife district, but you’ll find places to drink absolutely everywhere. Tokyo is one of the best places on earth to go clubbing, but the scene is constantly changing, so you’ll want to ask around to find out where to go on a given night.
It doesn’t get much safer than Tokyo. Take the normal precautions, but even if you leave your wallet laying somewhere, you’re almost certain to get it back. One exception is the Roppongi area at night. Some of the Nigerian owned bars have been known to slip something into patron’s drinks, but other than that, the biggest danger you’ll face are earthquakes.
Things to Do
Tokyo has a staggering amount of things to do for visitors, but not that many important sites and, to be honest, most of them can be skipped. The appeal of Tokyo lies in the energy of the city and its various, diverse neighborhoods. I’ll detail the major neighborhoods below and include the more famous sights. Everything can be reached by train and/or subway.
Asakusa is home to many temples including Sensoji, Tokyo’s most famous. Sumida River Cruises start from here as well. You’ll also find many souvenir shops and two of Tokyo’s largest festivals in Asakusa. The Sanja Matsuri (third weekend of May) is the largest festival in the city, with up to 2 million visitors and the Asakusa Samba Carnival (last Saturday of August) attracts Japan’s large Brazilian population.
A traditional neighborhood without the usual modern buildings, Ueno is home to Japan’s best museums, starting with the Tokyo National Museum as well as Ueno Zoo and Ueno Park, the city’s most popular spot for Cherry Blossom Viewing. South of Ueno Station, running along the Yamanote Line tracks, you’ll find Ameyoko, a packed shopping bazaar more reminiscent of the rest of Asia than Japan.
Tokyo’s “Electric Town” with thousands of shops selling any type of electronic gadget you could possibly imagine, as well as all the materials needed to make those gadgets yourself. Recently, this area has also become the epicenter of Anime and Manga culture and this is where you’ll find most of the infamous “Maid Cafes“.
Chiyoda is home to the Imperial Palace and the surrounding gardens as well as the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Both the shrine and the Palace Gardens are another popular cherry and plum blossom viewing area.
This area is home to Ginza, Tokyo’s most prestigious shopping district and the most expensive real estate on earth (you don’t want to stay here, if you’re on a budget) as well as the Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s largest, where you can eat the best sushi of your life. To save money, avoid the touristy sushi places and go just outside the market where the area’s workers eat—you’ll find counter-space-only places where you can get an excellent piece of sushi for under $1.
Roppongi is one of Tokyo’s major nightlife districts, catering mainly to foreigners. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the best places in the city to get foreign food. Roppongi Hills is a giant shopping and entertainment area that includes the Mori Tower with its overpriced observation deck, costing ¥1500 (which does include admission to the Mori Art Museum). You will get a great view for your money, but there are better options (see below).
Tokyo’s best nightlife area and the center of youth culture. The famous “scramble crossing” just outside Shibuya Station is the world’s busiest crosswalk.
Harajuku, one stop north of Shubuya on the Yamanote Line (walking this stretch is much more interesting than riding the train) is where you’ll find the alternative fashions made famous in so many songs and movies (locals will be posing on the bridge over the train tracks, especially on weekends). On Sundays, the local youth will be posing and hanging out all over Yoyogi Park. Takeshita-Dori in Harajuku is the main street for buying or browsing unusual fashions.
Just north of Yoyogi Park is Meiji Shrine,Tokyo’s largest and most famous.
A huge business and commercial district known as Tokyo’s second center, built around Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest railway station and an absolute maze where you will almost certainly get lost.
West of the station are the skyscrapers, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings, two towers that both have a free observation deck (North Observatory: 9:30 AM to 11:00 PM and South Observatory: 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM).
East of the station you’ll find Tokyo’s largest red-light district Kabukicho, its gay nightlife area Shinjuku ni-chōme, and the gigantic Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which includes an English, a French and a Japanese garden, a Taiwanese tea-house and a botanical conservatory. The park is another popular cherry blossom viewing spot and the entrance fee is 200 Yen.
On the east edge of Kabukicho is “Golden Gai“, a few small alleys lined with tiny bars that you’ve probably seen featured in every single travel show or article on Tokyo.
Takadanobaba to the north (two stops on the Yamanote Line) is a student area with tons of great, cheap restaurants, including Indian, Turkish and other cuisines.
Ikebukuro is one of the major stops along the Yamanote Line. It is a somewhat gritty area with tons of cheap places to eat, including numerous ramen shops. There’s not much here in the way of tourist attractions, but this was one of my favorite areas of Tokyo to just hang out.
You’ll find a number of observation decks scattered around Tokyo. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Towers in Shinjuku have my favorites, since they’re free. The North Observatory is open from 9:30 AM to 11:00 PM and the South Observatory is open from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM.
The most famous observation deck is probably at the Tokyo Tower, but you can safely skip this one.
Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills offers great views, but it costs 1500 Yen, which does include a ticket to the Mori Art Museum.
The World Trade Center Building at JR Hamamatsucho Station is probably the best value for your money, with amazing views of the waterfront for ¥620 (10:00 – 21:00 in July and August, 20:00 the rest of the year).
Nighttime views from the Rainbow Bridge are free and quite impressive as well (note: the walkway closes at 8pm).
I have not been to Japan since the opening of the Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower and its second tallest structure, but I imagine it has some pretty great views. Located in Sumida Ward at the Tokyo Skytree Station, tickets to the lower deck cost 2000 Yen and tickets to the upper deck will run an additional 1000.
Tokyo has countless parks, with Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen being the largest and most famous. Yoyogi Park, just to the west of Harajuku Station, is great for people watching and Shinjuku Gyoen, to the east of Shinjuku station, is very much worth a visit, but for Japanese style gardens, you’ll want to go elsewhere.
My favorite is Rikugien, a classic Japanese garden from the Edo Period that is beautiful in every season. Located near Komagome Station, it costs 300 Yen.
Not far from Rikugien, you’ll find Koshikawa Korakuen, near Iidabashi Station. This park recreates famous Japanese and Chinese scenes in miniature and admission costs 300 Yen.
Another great Japanese garden is Hamarikyu, located along Tokyo Bay and backed by the skyscrapers of Shiodome, making for a wonderful contrast with the ancient garden. Admission costs 300 Yen and the best way to get there is from Shinbashi Station.
Mount Takao: numerous hiking trails through some beautiful scenery located within the Tokyo Metropolitan Area; on a clear day, you’ll get great views of Mount Fuji, Tokyo and even Yokohama; a cable car and a chairlift can take you halfway up the mountain, if you prefer not to walk too much and another 45 minutes gets you to the top from there; to get to Mount Takao, take the Keio Railway from the underground Keio Shinjuku Station to Takaosanguchi Station for 370 Yen, taking 50 minutes
Nikko: elaborate shrine and burial site of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu
Kamakura: seaside town with dozens of temples and a large Buddha
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport; take one of the trains instead
- similarly, take public transit to get around town and try to stick to trains and subways run by the same company for any given journey (i.e. use only trains run by JR or only ones run by Nishitetsu, etc.)
- avoid touristy restaurants and eat at small, local places; eating bento boxes can save you a ton of money
- especially avoid the touristy sushi restaurants in the Tsukiji Fish Market and head just outside the market where the local workers eat
- take care if going out at night in Roppongi—never follow someone you don’t know to a new place
- stay in the “slums” around Minami Senjuu Station or get a short-term apartment, like a gaijin house; hostels aren’t generally too expensive either
- avoid buying or doing western things, as these will always cost much more
john huxham says
So true the story about Shinjuku station, read and have the shit scared out of you . I have been getting off the train 1 stop after so much easier to find your way out and more importantly back to you platform.
Daniel McBane says
Good point. Depending on where in Shinjuku you’re going, one of the 5 or 6 or so surrounding stations might actually be more convenient.
Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Snacking on Scorpions in Beijing