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January 04, 2017

Tokyo Travel Tips - What We Wish We Knew

We hope that this list helps all you fellow adventurers who plan on making a trip out to Tokyo!

View of Tokyo from the Tokyo Tower

This post is also on [Niume] where it's currently featured as a Staff Pick!

To kick off the blog’s new direction to focus on travel for Dan & I, we’ll start out by giving our fellow travelers, readers, and those just interested in a future trip to Tokyo with a list of what we learned on our first trip to Asia together. Most of the tips listed below were learned through our own trial & error - tips that TripAdvisor, travel blogs, Google searches, travel apps, and the Travel Channel simply did not warn us of before stepping off of the plane into this crazy world of Japan. We both arrived wide-eyed and naïve to the vastly different culture in front of us. Sure, I grew up in several military bases around Japan, but it’s a completely different experience this time around visiting as an adult, away from the familiarity of these said military bases.


Dan made the mistake of assuming that since Tokyo was such a major city - with most signs including an English translation - that one can get by without knowledge of speaking any Japanese. False. Luckily, I had familiarity with a few terms used in my childhood that proved to be of value.

Come armed with a few easy-to-learn phrases:
  • Arigato - Thank you
  • Oishi - Delicious (say this to the chef, they light up with happiness)
  • Ikura desu ka? - How Much?
  • Doko desu ka? - Where?
  • Konnichiwa - Good Afternoon
  • Sumimasen - Excuse me
  • Gomennasai - I'm sorry
There are also free apps that you can download to learn basic Japanese. Here are some that we used along the way:

  • Tokyo Is Affordable, Despite The Reputation – We bought direct flights via American Airlines departing from LAX for around $420/each (which were paid for by our Chase Sapphire Preferred points – contact us for a referral code!), and found our tourist-friendly Airbnb condo for $81/night, in the heart of Koreatown in Shinjuku, a block off of the subway. Local food is dirt cheap, as we found out several times that two of us can eat out under $10, with the beauty of no tips or taxes added-on.
  • Arrive At Night – Tokyo is on JST time, which is 14hrs ahead of EST, and 17hrs ahead of PST – which can really screw up your time clock. Luckily, our flight landed in Japan around 5pm JST, so we simply just went to sleep around 10pm JST (tired from our 13hr flight), so our sleep schedule was all set for the week!
  • NRT Is Not Close To The City Center - When we arrived at the Tokyo Airport, aka NRT, we had to board a train to the city. 40mins (and roughly $40/each for one-way) for the fancy Express Train. The alternative is double the time (80mins) and half the cost ($20/each) for the normal subway. Go ahead and splurge on the fancy Express train here to store your luggage, stretch out with plenty of legroom in your assigned seats, and use those outlets while you can. This will also help maximize your time (Dan, being as cheap as he is even agrees the Express is the way to go). You will spend more than enough time on the cheap & cramped subway throughout your time in Tokyo.

  • Portable Charger - Outlets are like finding gold in Japan outside of your home, so bring a portable charger for navigating on your phone and taking photos as you will be out exploring all day. This was crucial!
  • Portable WiFi Hotspot - Our AirBnB happened to include a portable WiFi hotspot (limited to 500MB/per day), which was much needed to navigate the best routes on the subway, and helped us find the most unique cafes and restaurants in our vicinity. Make sure your place of stay has this as an option, or figure out how to rent one upon your arrival.
  • Cash & Travel-Friendly Credit Card – Bring plenty of USD to exchange at the airport upon arrival (we brought $700 USD for 5 days, which was more than enough). The local currency, Yen, has a positive exchange rate for USD as well, so your money will actualyl stretch farther out in Japan. Every local business seems to prefer cash for food, drinks, snacks, etc. Credit Card payment systems seem to be pretty new (and slow) there to prepare for the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics. It felt like being the old lady breaking out the checkbook at the grocery store. We did use our travel credit card, Chase Sapphire Preferred, that has no foreign transaction fees and 2% cash back on everything travel-related for our higher dollar items with fancy sushi, Robot Show tickets, and our guided tour to Mt. Fuji.

  • Hot Green Tea, Not Water, Is Presented With Each Meal - Learn to enjoy hot green tea instead of cold water with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Hot green tea and miso soup to end the sushi meal

  • TOILETS ARE CRAZY! - Most toilet seats, no matter where you are, come standard with a heated seat, and an abundance of buttons on each toilet. Very confusing, but at the same time luxurious. Thankfully, our Airbnb had stickers above each button with an English translation providing us a frame of reference for the overwhelming toilet situation. Buttons for music, 4 levels of bidet-type spray pressure in 3 different areas, heat levels, and an emergency button (I accidently pressed this one at SkyTree, leading to a worker running in to rescue me....). There are also two additional, less-common, types of toilets in Japan that you will find in various places - the traditional western style, and the hole-in-the-ground (yikes!). When restrooms offered more than one style, they differentiate each by icons on the door, so look out for this. The NRT airport had all 3 styles if you want to see for yourself!
modern japanese toilet with sanitizing wipes, buttons to wash and control heat, pressure.  Also buttons to play music to drown out bathroom sounds. Super cool.

  • People Wearing Masks Are Normal - Don’t be frightened of a virus or outbreak when you see hundreds of people walking around in masks in one concentrated area. We thought maybe this was smog, a virus outbreak, or something to be actually concerned with, leading us to research this frantically. We learned that the masks are actually a $200M+ industry in Japan, and about 20% of Japanese people wear these masks out in public. They do so as a courtesy to others when they are feeling sick to limit contamination. 
Photo of me surrounded by locals wearing surgical masks to prevent spreading of germs. You get used to seeing it after a while

  • Select and Prepay For Food Outside Restaurants - Local, small restaurants in Tokyo are setup with vending machine look-a-likes placed right out in front. This is where you insert your Yen, select the menu item you want by pressing a button on the said machine, and it prints out a ticket that you then hand to the hostess to get seated. The host/hostess takes your ticket to the kitchen to start the food prep process.
Vending machines found outside of smaller restaurants where you order and pay for the food you want.

  • Hot Drinks In Vending Machines - I knew this from my childhood in Japan, but you just don’t see this often in the US. Any drink indicated with a red label in a vending machine comes out hot (coffee, tea, corn soup - as pictured below). This was a treat carrying around a hot cup of coffee or a hot can of soup on those brisk, windy Tokyo mornings. You can also find alcohol and cigarette vending machines out on the streets. 
You can buy warm beverages and even corn soup from vending machines. The corn soup is my favorite

  • Don’t Tip – Being the unprepared tourists that we were, we left a few dollars in coins on the table the first night for our ramen server & chef, not knowing the common courtesy of tipping in Japan. After deciding we should Google this before day 2 commenced, we discovered it’s potentially offensive to leave a tip. Oops! 
  • Don’t Eat/Drink Out In Public - It’s disrespectful in the Japanese culture to eat or drink outside of any eating establishment (restaurant, hotel, or home). This includes the subway system as well (sorry Tokyo). I think we learned this on the last day (cringe), hence why there are few trashcans out in public - see below for more on this.
  • Trash Cans Are Rare - We thought California was tough on trash until we went to Tokyo. When we would purchase those hot vending machine drinks, snacks, and treats, we would walk with our food. When it came time to dispose of those empty cans + wrappers, we had serious trouble locating an actual trash can - not even found in bathrooms (pro tip: small trashcans in women’s stalls). It’s disrespectful for people to eat portable food and drinks in public - hence also why the city and subway system are spotless. You won’t see people carrying around Starbucks to-go cups here.
  • No Hand Soap - Strange discovery here - hand soap is very rare in bathrooms, and also hard to find in stores (why??). Sinks are plentiful, but no soap in sight...they have hand dryers with Sanitizing UV Light, and provide cleaning hand wipes at every restaurant to use before you eat, but luckily I happened to pack hand sanitizer as backup, so make sure to bring this on your travels as well.
  • Look Out For Public Baskets - Each restaurant & cafe hands you a basket or provides a stack of baskets to choose from upon arrival to place underneath your seat and fill with your purse, jacket, and belongings to keep off of the floor. I loved this little touch.
  • Avoid Rush Hour - The subway system will be overcrowded no matter what time you hop on, but during work hours (8am-9am & 5pm-6pm), it is especially hard to board/unboard the train, and you will be packed in like sardines on the ride. The bright side is there is very little road traffic!
  • Keep To The Left - People walk at high speeds (think NYC) here, so stay to the left on escalators and steps so the people in a hurry can pass by you on the right.
  • How To Spot A Tourist - Sunglasses! We noticed no locals wear sunglasses (or squint) even in the bright sunlight...strange indeed. We still rocked them, as Dan doesn’t exactly blend in as a local anyways :)
Would love to hear from our readers on any tips that you think would be helpful to include as well!

Happy traveling,


1 comment:

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