We love Tokyo. It is arguably our favorite city in the world to visit. This sprawling metropolis of 14 million residents may not have the rich history of Kyoto or the beautiful architecture of international cities like Paris. However, what Tokyo lacks in beauty and heritage, it more than makes up for with sheer sensory overload.
Every corner of this city is filled with world class shopping and culinary destinations. It's no surprise that Tokyo has 226 Michelin-starred restaurants, nearly 3 times as many as its closest rival, Paris. Of course, it's not all about Michelin stars. Who can afford that? Instead, Tokyo is the perfect example of how the Japanese have learned to elevate everything. Even the most mundane things in life like public transportation and toilets (more on that later) have been perfected to an art.
Of course, Tokyo may not be everyone's cup of tea. There are glaring cultural nuances and language barriers that give the city a steeper learning curve than its Western counterparts in Europe and North America. However, that's all part of the fun for visitors! We don't travel in search of homogenized experience. We travel in search of something completely different and unique from our day-to-day. With that in mind, there are few places in the world that can give you that experience in such a modernized, welcoming and safe environment.
There's so much to share from our recent trip to Japan. To kick things off, I thought we'd start with a few simple pointers on how to survive Tokyo!
1. Embrace the long haul:
If you're planning a flight to Japan, consider ditching the traditional US airlines. Instead, opt for JAL, ANA (Japan's 2 flagship international carriers) or another premiere Asian carrier like Singapore Airlines. All of them offer best-in-class cabins, service and food.
The experience starts well before the flight. We spent an hour at JAL's flagship lounge in Narita Airport before our return leg. Guests are treated to complimentary spa treatments, a fresh sushi bar and a curry buffet.
On board, the service was extremely professional and friendly. Flight attendants were constantly passing through the cabin with cold drinks, soups and snacks. To make things sweeter, try scheduling a flight on a Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) aircraft for even more leg room and spacious interiors.
2. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Despite a pretty obvious language barrier, you will immediately notice how welcoming and friendly everyone is in Tokyo. A sales clerk may not speak a word of English, but he/she will do everything in their power to help you. What we quickly realized is that you can make your way around the city pretty effectively with the help of some naive pointing and a few simple words: "thank you" and "sorry".
It's hard to keep track of the varying levels of gratitude one can express in Japanese:
Thanks a lot
Thank you (even more polite)
Doumo arigatou gozaimasu
Thank you very much
*Source: Living Language Blog
As quick as the Japnaese are to show thanks, they're even faster when it comes to apologies. Therefore, perhaps the single most important phrase you have to remember is すみません (sumimasen). This can be used to say "sorry" or "excuse me".
3. Do your research
Tokyo is not that easy to navigate for first-timers. The city has no clear central point, and the skyline goes on as far as the eye can see. Therefore, if you're limited on time, I'd suggest picking a few neighborhoods to focus on rather than attempting to see everything.
We bought a copy of Monocle Magazine's guide to Tokyo a few days before departing London. The guide isn't extremely exhaustive. It doesn't have the breadth that your standard Lonely Planet guides offer. However, that's not what it intends to accomplish. Instead, the book is beautifully curated and showcases carefully selected restaurants, museums, retailers, coffee shops and lesser-known attractions throughout Tokyo. We particularly appreciated the guide's neighborhood walking routes.
4. Get the inside scoop
No matter how good travel guides may be, they can't replace the expertise of locals. Thankfully, we had two of the best and most gracious Tokyo "insiders" there to guide us through the chaos.
I couldn't imagine 2 more experienced and well-fed foodies than Jonas and Jen. I mean that as a total compliment. Jonas and Jen helped us navigate Tokyo's vibrant food scene, taking us to some of the city's most delicious restaurants and best kept secrets. Pointing at menus only took us so far. Having a fluent Japanese speaker on hand made a huge difference.
5. Travel with PASMO
Tokyo is massive. Thankfully, the city has one of the world's most comprehensive and efficient public transportation networks in the world. Before you travel, consider picking up a PASMO card. The top-up card works across all of Tokyo's local trains, subways, buses, etc. It also happens to work in select cities across Japan. The last thing you want to do while rushing through underground mazes to catch the metro is ruffle through a pile of coins and try to figure out the self-service kiosks. You can also use your PASMO to instantly pay for goods at vending machines, convenience stores and other local services.
6. Prepare to Queue
Everyone in Japan loves waiting in line. It's basically a national past-time. There's no delicious meal or new "fad" that isn't worth an hour (or two) wait. If you plan on visiting some of Tokyo's most popular restaurants, be prepared to queue.
This may be a tough pill to swallow, particularly for us Americans who've grown accustomed to a culture of immediate satisfaction. In Tokyo, many people arrive an hour before opening just to get into their favorite lunch spots. Don't be deterred if you see lines winding around the block. The food is almost always worth the wait!
8. Poop in peace
Electronic toilets in Japan are a perfect example of the country's ingenuity and oddball innovation. At first glance, they look extremely over orchestrated. Why does a toilet need so many settings and functions? After a few meat-induced #2's (TMI?), you won't be able to fathom life without one.
All the crazy icons are a bit intimidating at first (just ask Homer). You don't know if pressing that red button will flush the toilet or spray your ass with water. Thankfully, there are some handy guides online to decipher the control panels!
9. The smaller the better
Few of Tokyo's top shopping destinations, restaurants and cafes are found on the high street and main thoroughfares. Instead, you'll have to look a bit harder to desicover the city's best attractions. Don't be afraid of getting lost. Wandering around neighborhoods like Daikanyama, Aoyama and Nakameguro by foot is all part of the fun. You can spend countless hours exploring narrow alleyways and tiny courtyards in search of Tokyo's best kept secrets!
10. Get away
At the end of the day, Tokyo can be a pretty overwhelming city. Make sure to set aside a few days in your trip to get out of the city. Japan's rail network is so fast and efficient, you can pretty much get to any part of the country within hours. Whether you take 2 days to explore Japan's historic capital, Kyoto, or catch some R&R at a rural ryokan, the options are endless!