Tokyo

Tokyo is the capital of Japan and one of its 47 prefectures. The Greater Tokyo Area is the most populated metropolitan area in the world. Tokyo is often referred to as a city, but is more officially known and governed as a "metropolitan prefecture", which combines elements of a city and a prefecture.  The special wards have a population of over 9 million people, with the total population of the prefecture exceeding 13 million.  The city hosts 51 of the Fortune Global 500 companies, the highest number of any city in the world. I'm always telling people that you could spend two weeks in central Tokyo on the Yamanote train line and still not even come close to seeing all there is to see.  Tokyo is home to an incredible amount of subcultures from tech, to fashion, to culinary, and history just to name a few.  Rail is the primary mode of transportation in Tokyo, which has the most extensive urban railway network in the world and an equally extensive network of surface lines.   Japan is still, to date, my favorite country in the world.  It's difficult to travel anywhere new because I always want to go back to Japan.

 

WHERE TO STAY

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9 Hours is a modern take on the capsule hotel.  Originally Capsule hotels were designed for salarymen who missed the last train of the night and needed a place to stay until the first trains began running again. 9 Hours is incredibly minimal, both in design and space. They do a great job explaining this particular niche on their website; 

It is said that the time of staying in a hotel for a business traveler is approximately nine to ten hours. Neither more nor less that that. A hotel stay should preferably be simple, time when you can relax and be yourself. Ninehours is the concept of staying with seven hours sleep combined with an additional hour for sleeping and grooming. There are roughly two patterns of a hotel stay. One is a long stay designed for enjoyment or leisure: “relaxing and taking your mind off stress”, and the other is a short stay: “visiting a place for a certain purpose such as a business trip”. Ninehours will set up a new theory, finding satisfaction and contentment in “a short stay in an urban setting” [sic]

 
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I would absolutely recommend this; It's a unique Tokyo experience and it's absolutely the least expensive option in Tokyo at ¥3,900 per night ($35.14 USD at time of writing) or ¥2,700 for a < 9 Hour nap ($24.32). Be sure to reserve a room in advance on their website, it's significantly cheaper than booking in person.   You may also meet like-minded travelers from all over the world at a capsule hotel.  Capsule hotels are also excellent first or last night stays in Tokyo because when you are checked-in there are QR-code lockers and after you check out they will watch your luggage for you in the lobby area.  Just be aware that the floors are gender separated. 
 

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AirBnb is another excellent option for Tokyo.  Entire apartments can be rented for a modest price (~$30-100 USD), most hosts have english postings, and you can often find listings that offer pocket wifi or commuter passes for foreigners.  This is a great way to see and stay in a Japanese apartment or enjoy traditional tatami mats.  Just be sure to book one that is a brief walk from the nearest train station.  Use this link to get $40 off your first booking with AirBnb.
 

Hotels are a good choice when staying in Tokyo. I usually stay with friends, so I don't have any particular locations to recommend.  Just know that the room size will be significantly smaller than a US hotel.  When selecting a hotel, be sure to choose one that is a short distance from your local train stop. Almost all travel in Japan is Shinkansen, then local trains and then by foot.  Some hotels also offer luggage delivery.  I would absolutely recommend this; Having to lug heavy suitcases up and down stairs in the subway can be strenous.

 

FOOD & DRINK

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Cuisine in Tokyo is internationally acclaimed. In November 2007, Michelin released their first guide for fine dining in Tokyo, awarding 191 stars in total, or about twice as many as Tokyo's nearest competitor, Paris.  The Japanese are exceptionally good at taking something that they like, learning everything about it, and reverse engineering it to give it a subtle Japanese touch that makes it distinctly different but in many ways better.  Japanese cuisine is no different.  
 

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Ramen (ラーメン) is a Japanese staple.  In the 1980s, ramen became a Japanese cultural icon and was studied around the world from many perspectives. At the same time, local varieties of ramen were hitting the national market and could even be ordered by their regional names.  The noodles are made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (an alkaline mineral water).  Ramen soup is generally made from stock based on chicken or pork, combined with a variety of ingredients such as kelp, tuna flakes, baby sardines, beef bones, pig bones, shiitake, and onions.  There are a large number of regional flavors and styles.  Tokyo style ramen consists of curly noodles served in a soy chicken broth. The Tokyo style broth typically has a touch of dashi, as old ramen establishments in Tokyo often originate from soba eateries. Standard toppings are chopped scallion, menma, sliced pork, kamaboko, egg, nori, and spinach. IkebukuroOgikubo and Ebisu are three areas in Tokyo famous for their ramen.  Most of the best places are hole-in-the-wall or food carts like the one above that seat between two to eight people.  Although native Japanese will scoff, I find that one ramen shop that I like and is just about everywhere is the notorious fast-food chain Hidakaya. It's quick, easy and incredibly inexpensive.  ($4-5 and a double portion of noodles comes at no charge)  Many of these shops will have a vending machine that you will purchase tickets for your meal and exchange them with your server.  

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Japanese Curry (カレー)Curry was introduced to Japan during the Meiji era (1868–1912) by the British, at a time when India was under the colonial rule of the British Raj. The dish became popular and available for purchase in supermarkets and restaurants in the late 1960s. It has been adapted since its introduction to Japan, and is so widely consumed that it can be called a national dish.  It is most commonly served as curry over rice, curry over noodles, or a curry-filled pastry. Curry rice is most commonly referred to simply as "curry" (カレー).  Japanese curry is significantly more mild than curry found in other countries and is often served with a breaded chicken or pork cutlet and pickled ginger.  You can find curry restaurants or dishes at almost every restaurant.

 

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Teppanyaki restaurants have flat-griddle surfaces and a chef at each table to cook small vegetables, and meat in front of you. The word teppanyaki is derived from teppan, which means iron plate, and yaki, which means grilled, broiled, or pan-fried.  Unfortunately in the United States, teppanyaki was made famous by the Benihana restaurant chain. Benihana places an emphasis on the chef performing a show for the diners; The chef might juggle utensils, flip a shrimp tail into his shirt pocket, catch an egg in his hat, toss an egg up in the air and split it with a spatula, flip flattened shrimp pieces into diners' mouths, or arrange onion rings into fire-shooting volcanoes. Do not expect this sort of performance at a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant.  You can however expect some of the finest and most expertly prepared steaks and ingredients. Side dishes of garlic chips, fried rice, Goya Champloo, and fresh rice usually accompany the meal. Some restaurants provide sauces in which to dip the food.   Heki is a great example of fine teppanyaki steak.  Located in Ginza on the 12th floor of the Mitsukshi building, the staff prepares dishes with incredible attention to detail and dedication.  Lunchtime is my favorite time to go to one of these because they're usually not as busy. Many of the meals offered are 9+ course meals and take some time to prepare so don't go for a quick meal, go for the full experience.
 

Japanese Steak; Kobe & Wagyu. Japanese Kobe beef is considered the tastiest beef money can buy: a single steak can cost as much as $700 USD. If you think you've had Kobe beef in the united states, chances are, you haven't. Today, enough reaches the U.S. to satisfy the average beef consumption of just 77 Americans. It’s so scarce that Kobe’s marketing board licenses individual restaurants, and real Kobe beef is available at just eight restaurants in the entire country (See the list), while none, ever, is sold at retail. The proliferation of beef outside Japan marketed as Kobe beef is an issue for Kobe beef farmers. Due to a lack of legal recognition of the Kobe beef trademark in the United States,  you'll find loads of copycats that aren't even close to the real deal.
 

Japanese Crepes are almost everywhere in Tokyo.  They differ from French crepes in that they are significantly less formal. They'll make them right in front of you, usually at a food truck or stand then hand them to you like an ice cream cone.  Crepes are probably one of the more popular Japanese street snacks on the sweet side.  Although they do have savory ones, you're more likely to find the sweet variety.  A few famous crepe spots are in Harajuku right down Takeshita street.
 

Drinking in Japan can be overwhelming. The good news for visitors fond of their booze: Japan is pretty much a drinker's paradise and always has been. It seems even as far back as the 3rd century there has been a very strong drinking culture in Japan.  Most establishments are about the size of a walk-in closet and seat about eight people. Bars open and close as and when they please, and no license is needed to operate one.  The primary drinks you'll find people enjoying are beer, wine, and a cocktail affectionately named the highball.  

 

WHAT TO DO

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Tokyo is full of different things to do.  I often tell people that they could spend a week or two on the Yamanote line and still not even come close to seeing everything.  Each ward of Tokyo has it's own subculture, it's own cuisine, and each is equally fascinating to explore.

MariCar is something that's been popping up on social media a lot and for good reason! It's a real-life Mario Kart adventure that rents costumes and street-legal go karts for a tour around Tokyo. You will need a valid Japanese driver's license, or an International Driving Permit, or a SOFA license so be sure to arrange for that with plenty of time before you arrive. They offer both private or group karting.

Many different festivals occur throughout Tokyo. Major events include the Sannō at Hie Shrine, the Sanja at Asakusa Shrine, and the biennial Kanda Festivals. The last features a parade with elaborately decorated floats and thousands of people. Annually on the last Saturday of July, an enormous fireworks display over the Sumida River attracts over a million viewers. Once cherry blossoms bloom in spring, many residents gather in Ueno Park, Inokashira Park, and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for picnics under the blossoms.
 

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Shinto Shrines are all over Tokyo.  There are estimated to be about 80,000+ shrines in Japan.  Over one-third are associated with Inari. That's over 30,000 shrines! These are all really interesting to explore. 

The Japanese are incredibly kind and understanding of foreigners but there are a few etiquette rules to keep in mind when visiting a shrine

When you enter, pass through the torii gate. 
Next, purify your hands and mouth at the water pavilion.

Once inside the shrine:  
Toss a coin into the offering box. 
Ring the bell to greet the deity. (If there is no bell you can skip this step) 
Bow twice. 
Clap your hands twice. 
Bow one more time.

It might seem like a lot, but while you certainly don't have to do these things but if you do, native Japanese folk will appreciate your desire to follow the custom and be respectful.

 
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Meji-Jingu Shrine is one such shrine in Tokyo located in a preserve much like Central Park in New York City.  It is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Unfortunately the original buildings were destroyed in the Tokyo air raids of World War II, but the present reconstruction has been standing since 1958. The shrine was built in the traditional nagare-zukuri style with Japanese cypress and copper but the shrine is currently getting re-roofed with new copper for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games.

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower is a national landmark.  It's a beautiful communications and observation tower that was inspired by the French Eiffel Tower.  It is painted white and international orange to comply with air safety regulations. The tower is designed with a flexible structure to match the earthquake-prone environment of Japan, so it is built to gently sway over time and gradually absorb the shock. Even in the 2011 Tohoku quakes the tip of the tower only bent a tiny bit. 

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree

I would absolutely recommend a visit, but think twice about visiting the observatory.  The different observatory levels have different prices and are frequented by a lot of tourists. If you want to get a shot of Tokyo Tower on the skyline, head over to any one of these nearby towers: The Observation Room of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, The Roppongi Hills Sky Deck, The Observation Lounge of the Bunkyo Civic Center, The Seaside Top of the World Trade Center Building, The KITTE Rooftop Garden, or Tokyo Skytree.  All of these are great viewing locations.   

Anata No Warehouse this is by far– the coolest game center I've ever been to.  It's a multi-level arcade and billiards hall located just a short train ride southwest of Tokyo in Kawasaki. 

The outside is designed to have a rusted, worn down post-apocalyptic appearance.  The inside has different themes on every floor.   From post-apocalyptic on the first floor, to haunted mansion on the top floor, it's a cool arcade with all sorts of machines and a super cool environment to just explore for a few hours.
 

 
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Onsen (hot spring baths) are a great way to unwind after walking all over the 23 wards of Tokyo.  Onsen is the diametric opposite of everything in normal, hectic day-to-day life.  It's an opportunity to relax in an almost meditative way. One of the most magical experiences I've had is sitting an an outdoor Onsen with snow falling on my head.

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  There are two main types of public baths: Sento which are an ordinary heated water bathhouse, and Onsen which are geothermally heated beneath the ground.

Japan is a volcanically active country and has thousands of Onsens scattered across the country. The presence of an onsen is often indicated on signs and maps by the symbol ♨ or the kanji 湯 (yu, meaning "hot water"). Or sometimes the simpler hiragana character ゆ.  

The idea of communal bathing is likely to put-off a lot of foreigners, but I'd strongly recommend trying it at least once since it is a significant part of Japanese culture. It's also incredibly relaxing to enjoy hotsprings at an outdoor Onsen.

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the etiquette rules before you go to be respectful.  

 
Shibuya Scramble Crossing

Shibuya Scramble Crossing

 

Shibuya Crossing is one of the most famous places in Tokyo.  It's almost always the one you see in B-roll footage of Japan or Tokyo.  There are so many pedestrians that the intersection stops vehicles in all directions; sometimes upwards of 1,000 people cross at a time.  This intersection is also made famous by the movie Hachi a Dog's Tale. (If you haven't seen it, it's a great one.  But be prepared to cut lots of onions)   Hachi's statue is a common meeting place and is usually pretty crowded with lots of people.

      

WHAT TO BRING

 

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Power adapters. Japan uses uniformly 100 volt, AC power.  There are two kinds of frequencies in use; 50 Hertz in eastern Japan and 60 Hertz in western Japan (including Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka).  Japanese power outlets are identical to ungrounded North American outlets and most of them are unpolarized.  Most North American devices can handle an input of 100-240v ~ 50-60Hz so you just need to pick up a three prong to two prong adapter if your device has a ground. You can tell by looking on the plug or adapter what sort of power it supports.  Older electronics or things like hairdryers are less likely to be compatible.  Be sure to read the label!  I usually have this adapter with me, which is my absolute favorite.  It has the top four plug types and two high powered usb ports (2.5A) for charging mobile devices at the same time.  It'll keep you covered in 150 different countries.
 

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Yen comes in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, and 10,000 denominations. It's always a good idea to check the current exchange rate to determine how much you need, but an easy way to estimate is that ¥100 is approximately $1. You can make international withdrawals at most convenience stores and Japanese Post offices for a relatively inexpensive fee.  Look for the postal symbol: テ or 〒.  Japan is largely a cash only society so you'll want to make sure you have plenty on hand.  Japan is incredibly safe, so don't be nervous about carrying around several hundred dollars worth of yen at a time.
 

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An electronic dictionary is a great idea, and there are several great Japanese brands, but I prefer the iOS app, Japanese.  It's pretty great because it has handwriting recognition where you can write any kanji in any stroke order and have the app decipher and display the most likely kanji or kana. It's incredibly simple if you speak some Japanese or want to look up a word you can't think of. You can search by kanji or radical and Japanese will predict the complete word with its predictive search feature.  Google Translate also works fairly well, with OCR if you that don't speak the language at all.
 

Suica Card is a must.  It's a RFID card that can be loaded with Yen and used for trains, busses, convenience stores, coin lockers, video arcades, pretty much everything really. This will save you from having to calculate your fare from station to station.  Just hop on and go. 

There are a few different variations depending on the region that you are in.  In Tokyo the primary ones are Suica and Pasmo.  These will usually work in other regions that have their own RFID card, but not all of them.  You can get one at any JR Service Station with a ¥1,500 deposit and when you leave you can turn it in to cash-out the deposit.


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