Just the thought of doing up a Tokyo guide scares me. There are just so many activities, so many sights and attractions, so many cafés and restaurants, so many day trips that you can possibly do in the Japanese capital that any guide would seem woefully inadequate and the research would have been more stressful than fun.
Chances are once you get into the city, you can simply walk around for days in the vicinity of your hotel and still manage to have some fun. But I headed to Tokyo for a short family trip, and since I was the unofficial guide and in charge of doing up the itinerary, I shall share that here and attempt to do up a primer for first-time travellers to the city. As usual, this is and will remain a work-in-progress guide. Suggestions and recommendations are always, always welcome!
Updated 14/Sep 2015. Other Good Things.
Updated 16/Jul 2015. New entry on Sky Duck Tokyo
Updated 24/Apr 2015. A blurb on Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku Hotel
Updated 15/Apr 2015. New entry on places to eat at in Tokyo
Updated 16/Mar 2015. Getting Connected
Updated 11/Mar 2015. Added TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) to some sections
Our blog entries about Tokyo
Flying Into Japan
I like SQ, but their flight timings are terrible and tickets can be rather pricey. Most of their flights are red-eye flights and they get in too early*. You won’t be able to check in at the hotel, you will be tired and sleepy, and no one wants to look less than their best for their first day in Tokyo. Despite their reputation, Delta/United Airlines flights to Japan are decent. The flights depart Changi early morning at around 6am and arrive in Narita slightly past 1pm. Factor in travelling time to Tokyo (around 2 hours) and you will arrive just in time for a 3pm hotel check-in.
Airline promotions aside, you can also get good deals when you book on Zuji. This time, I paid about S$1k for five nights’ accommodation and a Delta flight (for min 2 pax).
Sometimes, you can get a return flight to Tokyo on the budget airlines for under S$600, but honestly, I would fork out a little more for a full-service flight.
Updated 8 Jan 2015: SQ now operates 5 flights to Tokyo daily; three of those depart to Haneda (HND), while the other two fly to Narita airport (NRT). The timings are also much better, with two red-eye flights as well as three day flights. I would recommend taking the morning flights (SQ 632 and SQ 12 depart 8 to HND and 925am to NRT respectively), which will land in Tokyo around evening time (4/530pm). You won’t have to wake at some ungodly hour, and you’ll probably be too rested after your flight so you can enjoy a nice evening out! As you probably have realised, these flights go quickly during peak periods (i.e. Hanami, public holiday weekends in Singapore).
Getting Into Tokyo
TL;DR Take a train if you’re coming to Tokyo for the first time. Take a bus if you have more than 2 bags, and if you’ve already done the train route.
Arriving in Narita?
Unless you are super flush with ¥¥¥, your options for getting into Tokyo from Narita airport are by train or the airport limousine bus.
If you should be staying at a hotel where the Airport Limousine bus stops at, take it. It will save you the madness of navigating Tokyo’s subway. You can always do that later, without the luggage. The seats are comfortable, your luggage is safely stowed away, and you get a chance for a quick nap. Win, win, win.
There are three ticket counters in Narita Terminal 1 and two in Terminal 2, and they are located usually right outside the arrival gate. Fares are ¥4,500 for adult and ¥2,250 for children. There is also a package deal which includes a Tokyo Subway pass.
If you only need a one-way ticket to the airport from your hotel, do purchase your ticket from your hotel early as seats do get sold out.
Another bus option if you are staying in the Tokyo or Ginza area is the Access Narita bus. The buses stop at the Ginza Sukiyabashi and Tokyo (Yaesu South Entrance) stations. Tickets are ¥1,000 and can be purchased on the bus. Journeys take approximately 70 minutes.
The Tokyo Shuttle, operated by the Keisei Bus Company, runs from Narita Airport to the following stations: Tokyo (Yaesu exit), Ginza Yurakucho, Shinonomeshako and Ooedo Onsen Monogatari. Tickets are ¥900 if purchased in advance: you can purchase them online here (Japanese only). Otherwise, they are ¥1,000. Bus services run throughout the day, but if you’re taking the bus between 1-5am, the ticket price would be ¥2,000 (still much, much cheaper than a taxi!).
Until the last trip, I was all for taking the Narita Express. I adore travelling on trains and have always thought that cruising through the Narita and Tokyo area on a train is quite the best way to experience the country for the first time. And I would still recommend this, but only if you’re not travelling with plenty of luggage and family. The train ride is great, the guiding-family-through-Shinjuku station is not. We bought the return pass, but forfeited the return ticket and took the limousine bus to the airport because there was no way we could have walked the 20 minutes from the hotel to the station. (Okay, it depends on your hotel location too)
The Narita Express costs around ¥3,000 (-¥4,600, depending on destination) and ¥4,500 (-¥6,100) for first class, which is also known as the Green cars. The train stops at Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Yokohama, Omiya and Ofuna. The journey takes under an hour to Tokyo. Alight at Tokyo to change trains to Shinjuku, Shibuya etc. If you can’t fit your luggage at your seats, you can stow them away at the front and back of each train car. If you’re using one of those slots with a pin/password lock, don’t forget your pin combination. If you do and can’t get your luggage out in time, you won’t be able to get your luggage until the terminal station.
If you’re staying in the Ueno or Nippori area, you can take the Keisei Skyliner which will take you to Narita in 45 minutes. Fares are ¥2,400 return for Ueno and Nippori, and ¥2,550 for Tokyo. Discounted ticket packages are also available.
For more information about getting from Narita to Tokyo, please see here.
Arriving in Haneda?
Due to its proximity to central Tokyo, fares from Haneda are significantly cheaper than those from Narita. Keihin Kyuko Bus runs the Haneda Airport Express. Check the website for full routes and fares. Tickets have to be purchased at the bus ticket sales counter at the airport prior to boarding.
The Airport Limousine Bus also travels from Haneda into Tokyo. Again, please see the website for routes and fares. Do note that different routes would have different stops (pretty duh, but it warrants a just-in-case mention), and do make sure that you pick the right route for your destination.
For rail, you can take the Tokyo Monorail and drop at the JR Hamamatsucho train (20 min, ¥470) to transfer trains to other parts of central Tokyo, or the Keikyu Main/Airport Line Rapid Limited Express to Shinagawa station (16 min, ¥400).
For more information about getting from Haneda to Tokyo, please see here.
Arriving in Kansai?
If you’re flying into Kansai (KIX) first, take the Shinkansen after you get into Osaka if you have the budget. It’s fast, convenient and you get to eat a nice bento. Other options include taking a long distance overnight bus (cheap but it takes a while) or flying into Narita or Haneda on a domestic flight. Also remember to factor in commute cost from the airport to Tokyo if you’re flying in from Kansai.
Orientation and Getting Around
TL;DR Download a map app (The Tokyo Rail Map mobile app by informa v), and buy a SUICA card. Passes can save you money, but only if you are really making a lot of trips in a day. For out of Tokyo travel, use the incomparable Hyperdia website. And remember, Japanese trains are always, always on time.
Tokyo is huge, especially so when you come from Singapore, where “town” is just one not-very-long shopping strip. Addresses are sometimes impossible to find, even though by the most elementary numerical progressions (1-2-3-4), it should be right next door. It was indeed so, in a Tokyo many many many years ago and since then, there have been rebuilds after the 1923 fire and WWII, and/or buildings have popped up in the space between buildings #2 and #3.
It’s mostly about trains in Tokyo. There are buses, but unless you’re travelling further out into the suburbs, it is quite unlikely that you will be required to travel by one. The Tokyo subway system is made up of many, many, many train routes owned and managed by different train operators. Of the train operators, Japan Rail (JR) is by far the most known, and the JR Yamanote (山手線) and Chūo lines (中央線) are likely to be integral for your travel around the city.
The Yamanote line loops the imagined perimeter of the city with major stops Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa and Tokyo being key stations for travel in and beyond the city. The Chūo line runs through the centre of the capital and provides access to Yōtsuya, Ochanomizu and Mitaka (where the Studio Ghibli Museum is) among others.
Tokyo Metro runs an extensive network throughout the city. Each of the 9 Tokyo Metro lines has a distinct colour branding, which is a very helpful visual cue when it comes to figuring out transfers and exits.
The last major operator Toei owns the Asakusa, Shinjuku, Ōedo and Mita subway lines and the Toei bus services.
Should you ever have to transfer between lines (of course you will), take note of the signs leading from the platforms and they should lead you to the right trains. Some transfers will require you to exit a station, so make sure that you tap your card or insert your ticket at the right transfer (乗り換え) gates. In the event that you didn’t manage to, just bring your ticket to the station staff and they should get you sorted.
It is hard to find the perfect train route map for Tokyo that includes the metro, JR and all the miscellaneous lines but I think this does a pretty darn decent job. There is an online version, an iOS iPhone and iPad app (fully functional lite versions are available; the paid version comes without ads) and a printed version. What is particularly helpful is that the station names are in both English and Japanese.
Hyperdia and Jorudan (iOS/Android app available) are terrific journey planning resources. We decided to head to Jiyugaoka a day earlier and from Tokyo station instead of Shinjuku as we previously planned, and with the app, we were able to figure out the best and shortest route within 5 minutes (actually less).
The maps and the apps will not grant you instant success with navigating the chaotic organised tangle of the Tokyo train routes, but they will be invaluable to figuring out transport routes from one place to another. That said, these tools can be too convenient and it is sometimes more fun and rewarding to take some time to pore over maps, search frantically for a station map and then bask in the satisfaction of landing at the correct platform and making the right transfer.
Take the cab for short, intolerable journeys. They do cost a bit, but if you’re lost, burdened with bags, need the john urgently… I once had to hail one because the last trains had gone. We paid S$20 for a 10-min journey? Expensive, but it sure beat walking an hour or more (and it was okay because we split it four ways, haha).
Tickets & Passes
Suica and PASMO prepaid cards work like our friendly ez-Link cards. If you’re not on a JR pass or any other passes, get one of these. This will save you a lot of time staring at the fare boards (the difficulty lies in locating the station on the map) and you can keep your loose change for the vending machines. Suica is good for travel in Tokyo and some other prefectures in the country, but PASMO can only be used within the greater Tokyo area. For more information, see here.
And thankfully, by 23 March 2013, 9 of the country’s most popular cards will become compatible with one another. If you’re planning a cross-country trip, this should come as excellent news and you no longer have to purchase different IC cards for different areas.
– Day Passes
See japan-guide’s writeup on the day passes available in Tokyo
Unless you’re covering a lot of ground within a day, these tickets won’t save you much.
– Seishun 18
The Seishun 18 ticket allows you 5 non-consecutive transferable days of nationwide travel on local and rapid JR trains, which means that you need not be constantly travelling between places and that you can share the ticket with your travel companion(s). Sadly, they are only available during certain periods of the year. Great savings to be had if your travel period coincides with their valid dates, and you’re okay to take a slightly longer and slower route. The JR website has route information and some sample itineraries.
– JR Passes (japan-guide)
There are 3 types of JR passes: 7-, 14- and 21-day that cost ¥28,300, ¥45,100 and ¥57,700 respectively. They won’t make much economical sense if you’re just staying in Tokyo, but as long as you have a trip to Kyoto or Osaka planned, you should certainly get a JR pass. The JR passes aren’t cheap, but they get you unlimited rides on the Shinkansen (sans the Nozomi trains) and other JR lines. Given that a return trip to Kyoto alone on the Shinkansen will set you back ¥26,000 with a pass, it is definitely more worthwhile to get a 7-day JR pass as it will be able to send you to Kyoto as well as Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima and other lovely prefectures (please plan to return to Tokyo within 7 days).
You must purchase the JR pass exchange order before you arrive in Japan. And if you’re planning to start using your JR pass on an early 7am train, do remember to turn in your exchange order for the pass at least a day earlier since most JR offices don’t open until 9am. Since you can specify a start date for your pass, you can exchange for it once you get into Tokyo; you just can’t use it until your indicated date.
There are also more area-specific JR passes such as the JR Kanto Rail Pass, JR Hokkaido Rail Pass and JR East Rail Pass. For a comprehensive look at the different types of rail passes, see this japan-guide page.
Tokyo is a beautiful, vibrant city. You must have heard that a million times before, but it truly is. There has been no other city in the world that has charmed me like Tokyo has.
– Tsukiji Fish Market 築地市場 (official site / japan-guide)
Access Take the Hibiya Subway line from Ginza and alight at Tsukiji station, or the Ōedo-Shinjuku line from Shinjuku and alight at Tsukiji Shijo.
The country’s biggest wholesale fish market will be moving from its current location in 2016, and you should certainly plan to visit this soon-to-be-original Tsukiji market. Yes, you will get run over by turret trucks driven by stern-looking Japanese men. It is wet and slippery. But also yes, it is a magnificent market. You find giant octopi and weird shellfish whose contents wiggle a bit too suggestively, and you will squirm at previously mentioned Japanese dudes chopping up still-lively fish.
The tuna auction is fun to watch, for all of 5 minutes. So wake up a little later, catch an early train and go roam the market. Then when you’re done getting freaked out by googly-eyed fishes and seafood, head into the outer market Jogai Ichiba and have some of those fishy goodness. It may seem unwise to have sushi early in the morning, but this meal will prove you wrong.
– Asakusa 浅草 (japan-guide / Wikitravel)
Access Take the Ginza subway line and alight at Asakusa.Visit the Kaminarimon/Kaminari Gate and the Sensoji Temple. Browse the Asakusa Nakamise Shopping Street where traditional market stalls line the street from the gate to the temple (and beyond). The area is also home to Japan’s oldest amusement park Hanayashiki.
When the weather is good, take a boat ride. Several river cruises run from the Asakusa pier along the Sumida River. You can move on from Asakusa to Odaiba on the Asakusa-Odaiba Direct Line, or take the Tokyo Water Bus to Hama Rikyu, which is a landscaped park in the Shiodome area. Visitors to the park (admission fee required) can also enjoy a tea ceremony at the teahouse located within the grounds.
If you have the time and interest, head to the Kappabashi-dori (Tawaramachi on Ginza line) for all your plastic food and kitchen needs.
– Tokyo Sky Tree
Access Take a 20-30 minute walk from Asakusa, or use the Tobu SKYTREE line from Asakusa
Do reserve your tickets in advance if you’re planning to head up the observatories. We saw a horrifying queue and weren’t quite sure if the line was for tickets or for entry. The Solamachi is a huge shopping mall, but we got spooked by the crowds and left within the hour. The whole trip was rather blah, actually. I think we should have headed to Ryogoku, or Sumo Town instead.
– Ueno / Ameyoko 上野 / アメ横
Access Take the JR Yamamote Line and alight at Ueno. Take the helpfully named Park Exit.
The Ueno Park is a really nice park for a stroll, people-watching, picnicking and if you need to see some museums, there are quite a couple here. Tokyo National Museum, National Science Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Museum of Western Art are all here. The first one will suck you dry (we finally emerged after 2-3 hours, feeling rather dazed and overwhelmed), so pace yourself or pick just one.
Access Ameyoko is a short walk away from the Central Exit of the Ueno station. My visit to Ameyoko took place in December, a few days before the New Year so maybe that is why I’ve always felt that Ameyoko is Tokyo’s Chinatown. Not so much that the fare being hawked reminds me of Chinatown (it’s very Japanese), but the atmosphere has a rather Chinese New Year vibe. The Ameyoko market street runs from Ueno station to Okachimachi station, and is lined with stalls selling seafood (fresh and cooked), yatai (roadside food stalls), cheap clothing and bags, and sports attire.
Ueno Underground Food Street (アメ横地下食品街) has a wet market, and that was quite fun to walk through and gawk (politely).
Complete your Ameyoko experience by dining in a dodgy Chinese restaurant.
– Yanaka Ginza 谷中銀座
Access Alight at the Nippori station on the JR Yamanote line (East exit, 5 min) or Sendagi Station (3 min) on the Chiyoda Line.Yanaka Ginza is a traditional shopping street in the Yanasen “Shimatachi” area. We saw fresh vegetable stalls (and exclaimed that those were very big daikon), zakka shops and even a pop-up tea appreciation / ceramics stall. Naturalitea has a nice blog entry.
We also had a particularly nice walk getting there from Nippori; we saw lots of traditional Japanese houses, a temple, and even passed by a spot where you could get a glimpse of Mt. Fuji if you were (very, very) lucky. This slope in Nippori is the only remaining “Fujimi-Zaka” in central Tokyo where Fuji-san can be seen from ground level. Unfortunately, a condominium project is set to change that permanently; currently, the residents are petitioning to the developer to reduce the height of the property so that the view can be preserved.
Say hello to Hachikō, cross the famous Shibuya Crossing. Shop at Center Gai (main shopping street), and spend all your money at Loft and the a-maz-ing Tokyu Hands (there is now a café on the 9th floor). Not much else to do besides wearing your legs down by walking and walking and shopping. There is not much to say because there is too much to do.
For kicks, walk to Harajuku which is just a train station away.
– Harajuku & Omotesando
If you really like crowds, try heading to Takeshita Street on a Sunday. This is the street to be eating a crepe. I don’t really have much love for Takeshita Street, but I haven’t really walked through it without feeling that I need to get out of there immediately. The rest of Harajuku (Killer Street, Cat Street, excluding the Omotesando strip) is thankfully less of an insane blur and I did like walking into quieter lanes and exploring the hip/quaint/indie shops littered around the area.
I don’t particularly fancy malls, but if there’s one you should visit in the Omotesando area, it should be GYRE building (right beside Kitty Land). There’s the MoMA shop and there’s the Good Design Shop (a D&Department Project with COMME des GARÇONS) where you will spend money (look at this).
If you can’t make it to Design Festa, you can maybe make a visit to the Design Festa Gallery. The gallery comprises 21 exhibition spaces, which artists or exhibitions can rent to show their works. Like Design Festa, the stuff you will see here is often diverse and a refreshing departure from the stuff you see in other galleries.
– Shinjuku / Kabuki-cho
Access All lines lead to Shinjuku. At least, it certainly feels like it.
Plan your trip to Ginza on a weekend because the main road (Chuo-dori) running through Ginza is closed to road traffic from 2-6pm on Saturdays and 12-5pm on Sundays. Sit around with a cuppa on chairs placed out on the road and do some people-watching.
Ginza is full of high-end fashion boutiques, so have fun shopping. Or if you’re a stationery nut or need to buy some souvenirs for stationery fiends, head to Itoya and spend a lot of money. There’s a notebook for everyone! Access: Alight at Tokyo Metro Ginza station and take exit A13 (Matsuya-exit) and walk 2 minutes in the direction of Kyobashi. Or just look for that giant red paperclip.
Pay a visit to one of the country’s oldest toy shops: Hakuhinkan 博品館. Compared to Kiddy Land, this shop has fewer character goods but has a more diverse range of toys.
Also, leech wi-fi from the Apple Store.
– Shimokitazawa 下北沢
Access Take the Keio Inokashira Line from Shibuya. Zakka, vintage, thrift, craft, art, music, cafés. If you like them all, you will really enjoy Shimokitazawa. I go a little amnesiac when there are too many interesting things, so here’s Hello Sandwich’s helpful guide to the area.
– Jiyugaoka 自由が丘
Access Take the Tokyu Toyoko Line from Shibuya or the Tokyu Oimachi line from Futagotamagawa.Like Shimokita, this is a lovely neighbourhood to spend an afternoon in. Plenty of cafes, small zakka and craft places and clothing shops. We visited on the afternoon of a spillover public holiday and the crowd was manageable. I would really like to spend more time exploring this area, so we are definitely going back here the next time we’re in Tokyo. Jollygoo has a terrific guide of cafes and shops in Tokyo, and there are some listed for Jiyugaoka.
If you like sweets/cakes/desserts, then maybe you would like to pay a visit to Sweets Forest. The reviews are so-so, but the soufflé from Le Soufflé does look pretty good. Cuoca, a baking supplies shop, sits below the forest.
– Naka-Meguro / Daikanyama
– Studio Ghibli Museum
Access Take the JR Chuo Line to Mitaka and use the station’s South Exit. Train ride takes approximately 20 minutes.Any fan of the Studio Ghibli animated films would love a visit to this museum. See the lovely zoetropes, preliminary sketches (they are glorious), frame by frame colour renderings, etc. Go crazy in the memorabilia shop, if you can bear the crowds. Tickets must be purchased prior to your visit. Check the site for ticket availability and buy your tickets at Lawson’s as soon as you get into Tokyo. Or, find a friend who lives here and likes you enough.
The park surrounding the museum is known as the Inokashira park; it is a great place for a quiet stroll (spot those squirrels).
To get to the museum, hop on the shuttle bus (¥200 one-way, ¥300 return) or take a 15-min walk. I recommend that you take the bus to the museum and take a nice walk back to the station.
Day Trips from Tokyo
Hakone is terrific for a brief getaway from Tokyo. A friend and I took the Hakone Round Course with the Hakone Free Pass as recommended by japan-guide and stayed a night in the area. It was an enjoyable course and a good way to see Hakone.
– Kamakura/Enoshima 鎌倉/江の島
– Sendai 仙台
– Yokohama 横浜
If you’re travelling to another area altogether, another option besides the trains is to take a highway bus. This is usually much cheaper than travelling by train without a JR rail pass. If you take a red-eye bus, you get to save on accommodation too! Your arse will inevitably start to hurt 2-3 hours into the trip, but I once had a very nice reclining seat which mitigated the problem quite a bit. Always pay for a better seat where possible.
Willer Express has a Japan Bus Pass. The pass is valid for either 2/3/4 non-consecutive days of travel within 2 months of purchase. There is a maximum of two journeys each day. Prices are ¥10,000 (2-day), ¥12,000 (3-day) and ¥14,000 (4-day). Purchase and bus reservations can be made online.
TL;DR Japan has great hostels. If you’re travelling on a budget, those should suit you well. Hostels are mostly located in the Asakusa/Taito. For a mid-range hotel, take Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku. It is pretty darn near to Shinjuku station (take the Southern Terrace Exit from JR Shinjuku station, or the A1 exit from Shinjuku Ōedo Line station). If you have a nice and plump budget, let’s be friends.
Book early, if you can. I recommend using Rakuten Travel site, especially the Japanese version if you can understand a little of the language. Business hotels in the Ueno area can be had for as low as ¥3,000 a night, but if you’re okay to spring for a bit more, you can get great deals for hotels in more central areas.
I’ve stayed in Sakura Hotel in Jimbocho and Kangaroo Hotel in the Taito area. Both boast comfortable, clean but tiny rooms and offer dormitory rooms as well as single private rooms. Sakura has an advantage on location and that is reflected in its room rates (small single from ¥6,090). The latter is much cheaper – offering single rooms at ¥3,300 and twin room at ¥5,000 with shared bathroom access – but requires at least 2 transfers on the subway (usually). That said, both lodgings are in interesting locales – Jimbocho is Tokyo’s used books district and Taito, being part of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, is a fascinating area to walk around and see another side of Tokyo.
– Kangaroo Hotel (Minamisenju, Taito)
– Sakura Hostel (Asakusa)
– K’s House (Asakusa)
– Anne Hostel (Asakusabashi)
– Hotel City N.U.T.S New Urban Time and Space (Shinjuku)
– Nui. Hostel and Bar Lounge (Kuramae, Taito-ku)
– Retrometro Backpackers (Asakusa)
– toco. (Taito-ku)
– Tokyo Hutte (Asakusa)
– First Cabin (Akihabara, Tsukiji – good if you’re planning an early morning trip to the fish market, Shinbashi, Haneda)
I really liked this hotel. Big comfortable room! Clean! But, no wi-fi. While the nearest station is not on the Yamanote line, it is on the JR Chuo line which is pretty convenient too (one stop from Shinjuku on the express train).
The hotel is conveniently located at the New South Exit of the JR Shibuya station. Very nice rooms (and bathroom) though the rates are a little high. Includes hotel breakfast.
Okay, if you ever find yourself having booked a stay at Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku and landing at Haneda at way past 4pm because your flight was delayed, please run, don’t walk to get your airport limousine bus ticket. In our case, running couldn’t had done us any good because our flight landed a good 40 minutes late and by the time we cleared immigration and customs, it was way after 5pm. The Friendly Airport Limousine (it’s the name of the bus company, and not my attempt at sarcasm) has a scheduled departure from the International Terminal at 5.10pm. The next departure was two hours later. My bad, I forgot to take into consideration that Singapore is one hour behind (I thought we were landing at 3pm and there was no way we would miss two buses… right?), and didn’t plan an alternative route to the hotel from the airport. In the end, we bought tickets from another bus company and decided that we would stop at the Shinjuku West Exit. Tip: once you alight at the West Exit bus stop, turn back and walk straight across a big junction. The hotel would be 200-300 metres from the junction. Of course, we didn’t know that. It took us a good half hour to finally figure the right way to our hotel. Navigating the mess at Shinjuku station on a Friday evening isn’t good for our health and our suitcases.
But hey, we love this hotel. The location is fantastic. The nearest train station would be the Shinjuku Oedo line station (take exit A1), but the JR station, once you get your bearings right, is just a 5 minute walk (nearest exit would be Southern Terrace). It is near to fantastic restaurants, as well as shopping (Takashimaya Times Square, Lumine, Keio, Yodobashi, BIC Camera). We also had four konbini stores near us, which inevitably led to much snacking.
We had a King Tatami room, and it was a great size. Since it was a tatami-style room, shoes have to be taken off in the room’s genkan (entryway), but we don’t wear shoes indoors anyway. Room was kept spotless throughout our week-long stay. The reception staff was impeccable and very helpful.
The hotel used to only have wi-fi in the lobby area, but you can get wi-fi anywhere in the hotel now. Yay.
I stayed here for the family trip. Would I stay here again? The answer is no. Even by Tokyo standards, the rooms are pretty darn small – there was very little space for luggage and general human flexibility. There are plenty of rooms, which translates to a 5-10 minute waiting time for the elevators in the mornings. Location-wise, there is indeed a covered route from Shinjuku South Exit to the hotel, but it is a long, long walk even without luggage. If the weather permits, walking aboveground is a much better and scenic option.
The saving grace was that there is a Family Mart (but it was one without oden!) and some other restaurants on the first floor. If you must stay near Shinjuku station, go for Sunroute Plaza or Keio Plaza (both are also much nearer to the station).
I stayed in their Jimbocho property on my first trip to Japan (way back in 2007!). The hostel is a little hard to find for first-timers, since you have to take the subway and figuring out the rail network takes a while. Clean and comfortable rooms with shared facilities. Budget-friendly.
The chain also has locations in Ikebukuro, Hatagaya and Asakusa.
– Hotel Graphy Nezu (Taito-ku)
Hotel Graphy Nezu offers three different types of accommodation plans: short-stay (single night to 3 months), residential and cloud (variable number of nights within a specific time period). Daily rates start from ¥6,300 and weekly rates from ¥4,400 (per night). Very modern and pretty décor.
If you’re travelling with young family, you may want to take a look at this list by My Little Nomads for family-friendly hotels.
Here’s a list of the top 10 unusual hotels in Tokyo.
Timeout Tokyo has come up with a pretty extensive list of affordable accommodations in Tokyo.
Tokyo Cheapo has a great list of affordable hotels.
TL;DR Getting online can be a pricey affair. We stick to getting a mobile wi-fi from Global Advanced Communications. We arrange for the device to be sent to our accommodation, and returning it is just as convenient – just put the device in the envelope (provided) and drop it off at a mailbox. Or if you’re residing in Singapore, you can get a mobile wi-fi device from Changi Airport ($10/day, prior registration required) before you fly off.
– SIM card
It is much harder to get a SIM card for your mobile phone in Japan, unlike other countries like Taiwan and Hong Kong.
b-mobile does now offer some prepaid SIM card services specially catered for tourists. This should be quite an optimal option if you’re carrying a smartphone and don’t need to share your connection (I guess you can turn on the personal hotspot if you need to, but from experience, that is pretty troublesome and drains your battery).
The ¥9,980 PAYG SIM package comes with either a standard, micro or nano SIM card, includes both data and voice calls, and is valid for 7 days. You get 3gb of 3G/4G data and 60 minutes of international/local talk time. The application process is rather tedious though. You will first to subscribe and provide a Japan-only mailing address where they will send your confirmation notice (and if your confirmation notice gets returned to sender due to an invalid address/or whatever, they will suspend the account). On your stated day of activation, provided you have the SIM card at hand already, you will need to set your APN settings (first, you have to download the APN profile) and upload an image of your entry stamp.
You can probably set the address of the hotel as your address, but please do liaise with the hotel management first. Or, you can use a forwarding company. But, aren’t you tired of reading already?
The cheaper ¥4,990 PAYG Data SIM plan also comes with 3gb of data, but no voice calls. Unlike the PAYG SIM, this is valid for 14 days. However, the SIM plan is only available to purchase at hotels, or rather to be very, very specific, this is only available at the Kyoto Royal Hotel & SPA in Kyoto.
Lastly, b-mobile also provides a ¥3,980 Visitor SIM plan which is splintered into two offerings: a 7-day 1gb plan, or a 14-day unlimited plan. The catch with the latter is that the maximum data speed is a grand 300kbps. With the 7-day 1gb plan, the data speed is “best effort theoretical maximum speed”. These SIM cards are available online (their website, Yodobashi and Amazon JP) and at retail shops. Thankfully, these are much much easier to activate. Pop SIM card into phone and set APN settings (ugh).
So-net provides prepaid LTE SIM cards for loan (though there isn’t information on how to return them after use). You can pick up their prepaid cards at the Narita International Airport and various other locations and they come in 100mb and 500mb, though you can top up the data quota when you run out. A single gigabyte of data top-up costs ¥2,838.
– Wi-Fi Services
The country is not especially known for easily accessible Wi-Fi. There are several free Wi-Fi services such as Freespot but these services will most likely require pre-registration and are generally less reliable (think Wireless@SG). Paid services like Wi2 and BB Mobilepoint also require user registration but signups are generally more painless. I’ve tried Wi2 and it worked great. To sign up, just visit the Wi2 signup site (in English!) on your device and select a package.
docomo Wi-Fi for visitor is a new paid Wi-Fi service for visitors to the country. The service costs ¥900 for a week or ¥1,300 for three weeks, and has 150,000 hotspots throughout Japan. To apply for the service, you have to sign up via the site and use the service within 150 days of application. Application deadline is 31 March 2015.
FLETS has a free 14-day Wi-Fi service for East Japan (Tokyo, Nagano, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamanashi). For Tokyo, you will need to pick the free Wi-Fi cards at Narita Airport (International Arrival Hall at both Terminals 1 & 2. For more information on pick-up points: click here). The card will include the user ID and password that you need to log on to the FLETS network (over 17,000 locations in East Japan). This service is for foreign tourists only and you will need to show your passport when picking up the Wi-Fi cards.
– Pocket Wi-Fi
You can also rent a mobile Wi-Fi device. So far, short of finding and connecting to an open network, I’ve found this to be the best option. It is great if you’ve more than one device or are travelling with someone who may also need a connection. This is a slightly pricier option, but nothing beats getting internet access on a long six-hour train ride when you’ve all but nature-d out and need to show off on Instagram. Battery life is an issue – a full charge only yields 3-4 hours tops (better now, it seems! Will update this when we try it out in April), but if you have a portable battery charger, that shouldn’t be a problem. We used Global Advanced Communications; they delivered the device to the hotel where we picked it up when we checked in, and we returned it by enclosing the device in a postage-paid envelope that came with the device and dropping that at the mailbox at the airport. Fuss-free. Other companies offering the service are Exseli, Rentafont Japan and PuPuRu.
16/Mar 2015: Flying from Changi Airport? You can rent an overseas wi-fi router for $10 (promo till end March 2015; usual price is $12) per day. Unlimited data, and your first day is waived too. Not a bad deal, and I heard that the coverage is excellent. Reserve the device online at least three days before your trip (though on the website, it says reservations will be confirmed within 4 working days…), and pick it up at the Changi Recommends booths at the airport.
7/Aug 2014: Newcomer eConnect Japan provides prepaid data SIM cards and mobile wi-fi devices. You can arrange for them to be sent to your hotel, airport or residence; return them by placing them in the return package provided and drop them in a mailing box. Do note though that the SIM cards are data only; you cannot make voice calls on them, but you can use apps such as Skype or Viber to make calls. Also, the unlimited data SIM card allows only for low speed access (max: 300kbps) and does not have a nano SIM option. Pricing for the mobile wi-fi devices vary and depend on connection speed and length of rental.
Most quaint coffee places do also provide complimentary Wi-Fi access. We usually take this caffeinated route when the juice on the mobile device runs low.
Of course, you can also try internet cafés and manga cafés/manga kissa. Fees are reasonable and you normally pay for a 1/3/5-hour package that sometimes also includes a buffet of drinks and snacks. But if you just need a moment to look up a location / map, try finding an internet café and checking if they have an open connection. I’ve been the grateful freeloader plenty of times standing outside / under / above an internet café.
If you have a Kindle Keyboard, you can access the Internet via the device’s experimental browser. Yes, the display is monochrome and in text only and the keyboard is incredibly hard to “type” on, but access is free and we could check Twitter even where there was no signal on our pocket wi-fi.
Other Good Places
Jollygoo’s Recommended Cafés and Shops in Tokyo
Claska is a boutique hotel and a gallery+shop.
Only Free Paper
SCAI The Bathhouse is a contemporary art gallery in a 200 year-old bathhouse
Mori Art Museum
Meguro Parasitical Museum
Japanese Food Museums and Theme Parks
Caffeinated Adventures: Exploring Tokyo One Café at a Time
Other Good Activities
– Eat ramen at Ichiran
I know there is plenty of excellent ramen in Tokyo, but I really liked Ichiran.
– Eat at Matsuya, Yoshinoya, or any of those vending machine eateries
– Allow yourself a nice dessert every night.
The food basement halls of every major departmental store (SOGO, Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi) should help you with this. My dessert of choice is the pudding.
– Sleep at a manga kissa
The question here is why? Why sleep at a manga kissa? I have no good answers for this. The only time I did this was because we got into Nagoya late without a hotel reservation, our train was leaving early the next day and the question then was why not? Plus it was cheap. We paid around ¥2,500. We paid for a 8-hour package and had a booth/cubicle to ourselves. It was private enough, if you don’t count the fact that the “walls” were at most 6 ft and if you stood on the sofa in the neighbouring cubicle, you could be staring at us while we slept. But we had a desktop computer with internet! And a television + DVD set. You can pick whatever you wanted to watch from the library outside, or whatever manga/books you wished to read. There was even a shower room! And a free flow of drinks and snacks (charges apply). That was in 2007 by the way.
This was rather a rather fun experience and I guess we did it so we could get thinking-about-it out of the way.
Other Good Things
Japan-Guide.com is one of the best, if not the best place to research for your Japan trip. Once you’ve fallen in love with the country, you will read this site to placate your intermittent wanderlust. Sometimes it fuels the lust instead. Adjust dosage accordingly.
Wikitravel: Tokyo is an excellent starting point for planning a trip to Tokyo.
Hyperdia. If you’re planning at all to travel outside Tokyo, Hyperdia will be an invaluable resource for route-planning. Check train stops, frequency and timings, ticket fares etc. Best for if you’re trying to milk the most out of your JR pass. It stops short of enlightening you on station bentos ,but this site will tell you which platforms to turn up, how much time you have between trains and if you’ve enough time for a leisure walk to your next platform, which trains to take if you’re crossing from Honshu to Hokkaido. Another good route planning resource is Jorudan and its mobile app Norikae-annai (search for Jorudan in the App Store).
Tokyo Art Beat is a good (and bilingual!) guide for all things arty in the capital. iOS and Android app available. TAB also publishes a monthly Art Map – a listing of the most popular 50 events; you can either download it here or pick it up at one of the 600 distribution locations in Tokyo.
For upcoming gigs and concerts big and small, popular and indie in Tokyo, check the Tokyo Gig Guide.
Timeout Tokyo claims to have “Tokyo’s best restaurants, films, gigs, clubs, things to do and places to see”. If you like lists, they have dozens of lists. A selection: 101 Things to do in Shibuya, Tokyo’s Best Craft Beer Bars, 88 Unmissable Things to do in Tokyo, Tokyo’s Best Coffee Shops. You’re going to click away from this site now, aren’t you?
Design Festa is held twice every year over one weekend in the months of May and November. Design and art lovers as well as crafters should not miss this. Held at Tokyo Big Sight on Odaiba, the festival spans two huge floors with each holding hundreds of art stalls. Plenty of art performances and live music too. You can easily spend an entire day here. The event is also open to international applicants too! Definitely an experience. Also see the Design Festa Gallery under Harajuku.
True to its moniker, TokyoCheapo has some great tips on having fun in Tokyo without burning a hole in your pocket.
For 91 Days in Tokyo: If you ever have 91 days to spare in Tokyo, this blog should be pretty useful I think! Even if you don’t have the luxury of (so much) time, take a look at their index and do your own cherry-picking.
The Thousands – Tokyo is a site about things locals love about the Japanese capital. This stirs up wanderlust; click at your own risk.