Making the Most of Your Trip to Tokyo

Tokyo has to rank up there with New York, London and Paris as one of the world's great cities, or should that be mega cities? However, it is not as cosmopolitan as the other three, at least in terms of population, which may be one of the reasons why it doesn't quite enter the consciousness of the city break circuit for most “gaijin” (that means foreigner by the way). Whilst you are more likely to bump into an American rather than a Frenchman at the Eiffel tower or a German instead of an Athenian on the Acropolis, non-Japanese seem rather thin on the ground in much of Tokyo. Perhaps it is the language barrier, the expense or the culture shock that puts some people off? In some ways this is a pity because Tokyo is probably the ultimate city experience, and makes even New York seem sedate at times. But it is the lack of tourists that also makes this one of the most genuine of cities to visit – don't expect to find “I love Tokyo” t-shirt sellers in the center. Speaking of which, although there is a center to Tokyo, it would be more accurate to say that Tokyo is so big that in effect it is a collection of cities which have merged into one urban sprawl that contains multiple centers. There is Tokyo proper, but also Shinjuki, Ginza, Akihibara, Ikebukuro… Each one of these has its own character and merits at least a few hours of exploration. The key is to just get out there and explore various areas of the metropolis.

Tips and advice (in no particular order of importance)

  • Get a good map and know how to use it! The Tokyo City Atlas (it is a book rather than a map), which even has subway and train station exits mapped out, is highly recommended. A map in Tokyo is absolutely essential, especially since it is actually hard to find streets with names.
  • Read up on Japanese culture and etiquette before you go. Japanese conduct and manners differ from western practices in many respects, but don't be too paranoid about faux pas. It is unlikely that anyone would embarrass you by pointing out a mistake anyway, since the Japanese have a reputation for reservedness which sometimes borders on shyness.
  • Don't expect your mobile phone to work in Japan.
  • Learn a few basic greetings in Japanese. It may be a cliche, but in the case of Japan people really do appreciate it if you have at least made an effort to say thank you in Japanese. Unless you are a master linguist however, don't expect to master the language anytime soon. The bad news is that the number of people who speak good English is relatively low, but this is part of the fun. If you are really apprehensive, carry a small phrasebook (the ones by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are both good) in case of linguistic emergencies.
  • Plan your sightseeing carefully, and pick a hotel that is within walking distance of a metro or train station.
  • Unless you are a certified urbanite, set aside at least one trip out of town, if only to see that Japan isn't all concrete, but actually has some stunningly beautiful countryside. Three easy day trips that are worthwhile are Mount Fuji, Kamakura and Nikko. Of the three, Kamakura can be done in half a day.
  • Try Sweat (it's a canned drink!)

What to see and expect

If you want to say you've seen most of the major “sights” and also had a day trip or two, you have to stay a minimum of a week. However, don't feel you have to religiously tick off the “Top 10” list – Tokyo isn't like that, it is more about the experience rather than the sights. Even so, all of these are worth checking out:

  • Ginza – a shoppers paradise and excellent for people watching.
  • Akasuka – famous for its temples and marketplace.
  • The kitchen goods district (close to the motorcycle district). The perfect place to buy some plastic sushi for that special someone.
  • Shinjuku station and the surrounding neon – just make sure you don't get lost in the station (which is pretty big!)
  • The Imperial Palace Gardens – about the only spot of greenery for miles around.
  • The replica Eiffel tower – aka the Tokyo Tower. This is most atmospheric at night (just like the real thing, but actually a little taller).
  • The replica Golden Gate Bridge – aka the Rainbow Bridge. The train trip over it is very impressive, and takes you out to…
  • Odaiba, where you will also find the replica Statue of Liberty – aka …. well, the Statue of Liberty, but this time slightly shorter than the NY icon. Is this replica thing getting repetitive? Odaiba is also the place for some futuristic architecture such as the Fuji building and offers nice views of the harbour, especially at night when the restaurant boats are lit up.
  • Times Square (in Tokyo of course!)

What to eat

For the novice, Japanese food is a revelation and is one of the highlights of a trip to Tokyo. And no, it isn't all sushi! Before my trip I was rather apprehensive, since I had only tried sushi the once and had not liked it. In fact, raw fish is called sashimi, and is tastier than you might imagine (although the raw octopus takes some getting used to). Of course, the Japanese also cook food, and you would be a fool not to try out the vast array of cooking styles on offer, such as tempura and tepanyaki, while Bento boxes are a good takeaway option. The quality of the food in general is excellent, and for the unadventurous there are plenty of non-Japanese options. One note of caution is Japanese desserts, which do not follow western traditions of sweet food, but emphasize texture instead.

In short

Tokyo deserves at least a week of your life. For those who have not been outside Europe or North America, it is a good start to exploring Asia because the hardware is westernized, but the software is definitely oriental. If you go you'll find out what this means.

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