Angela, Insider Journey’s Japan product manager, shares her tips for a stress-free trip to Tokyo.
I’ve been exploring Tokyo this month, so I thought I’d share a few tips and suggestions for those of you who are planning a trip to Japan. There’s a lot to take in - particularly if it’s your first time in Tokyo - but as I’ve discovered, a little planning goes a long way.
Konnichiwa, MEETING ASSISTANT!
With a 9-hour stop in Bangkok, it would take me 29 hours to get to Narita, Tokyo’s international airport. Faced with the prospect of major jetlag, I decided to begin my stay in Japan by making use of Insider Journeys’ meeting assistant service. My meeting assistant was waiting for me at my gate, with my name clearly written, which was just as well, as I was a little soft-in-the-head by this point. He assisted me with finding the ATM, buying a Tokyo travel pass for my stay, and exchanging my rail pass. With his help, it took less than an hour to do all this and get through immigration. He even collected my limo bus tickets for me while I had a rest, and took me to the correct bus stop. This really took the pressure off after a long flight, and I’d definitely recommend it for those who haven’t been to Japan before.
Tokyo train station (Credit: JNTO)
The sights, sounds and tastes of Shibuya
After a shower and a little rest, I decided to try out the travel pass and hit the trains. My first port of call was Shibuya, a bright, energetic area noted for ‘The Crossing’, which allows pedestrians to cross the road in any direction (resulting in what feels like complete chaos). This part of Tokyo is one of Japan’s most famous fashion districts as well as being nightlife central.
I went down under Shibuya Station to the bustling Tokyu Food Show for an elegant array of gourmet eats and local tastes: grilled eel, fried pork, tiny fish salad, octopus on a stick, seafood-and-rice seaweed wraps and much more. The prepared dishes and grocery items are all sold from immaculate counters amid a chorus of "Irashaimasen!" ("Welcome!"). There are aisles full of beautifully packaged treats — rice crackers, mochi cakes, jellied confections — but the pickle counter proved to be my favourite.
The incandescent and world-famous Shibuya intersection (Credit: JNTO)
Night-time exploration in Akasaka
Akasaka-mitsuke is a trendy and affluent area with lots of locals, and a few expats who work at nearby embassies. It’s very lively, especially on a Friday night. Around the four-star Akasaka Excel Tokyu Hotel, where I stayed, there are blocks of restaurants and bars catering to every possible taste: Izakayas (drinking establishments marked out by their iconic red paper lanterns), Thai, Indian, Swedish, Chinese, Michelin-star sushi restaurants, American-style diners and a lot of Korean food. The range is quite amazing, though very few have English signs or menus. Not to worry, though, because not being able to read the menu is actually a great way of discovering tasty new foods.
One of Akasaka's numerous eating and drinking establishments (Credit: JNTO)
Discovering Ueno, Roppongi and Shinjuku
At times incomprehensible the Tokyo Metro lines remain the best way to explore the city
Ueno - Tokyo's Cultural Hub
Ueno Park is Tokyo's most significant cultural centre. Its 300 acres are filled with museums, temples, shrines, natural attractions, important institutions and several of Japan's top schools. I can only imagine how amazing it would be here when the cherry blossoms are out. Ueno Park covers a large area and is surrounded by a number of stations. Most people who visit the park use Ueno Station, and it’s very easy access from most metro hotels.
Ueno Park (sorry about the map quality!)
The park would make the perfect day out for a family in particular, with the museums, zoo and a small amusement centre (the latter ideally suited to small children). Here’s my pick of the best places to see around Ueno.
Tokyo National Museum – this is Japan's oldest and largest museum. Each of its five large buildings could be a decent museum on its own. The museum holds over 110,000 objects, including 87 priceless national treasures (mostly historical artefacts and art). It’s cheap - 620JPY ($6) - and a must-see.
Ueno Zoo – this is Japan's oldest zoo, built in 1882. At 35 acres, the zoo occupies over 10% of the park, and it's home to 460 species, more than any other zoo in Japan. Ueno Zoo has many popular animals, including two pandas received from China in 2011, and polar bears. Admission is 600JPY, and it’s great for families, with strollers for hire and a lovely family atmosphere.
National Museum of Nature and Science – this is also good for families, featuring interactive displays and a large number of animal and plant specimens, including two floors of dinosaurs.
The National Museum of Nature and Science at Ueno - just USD $6 entry fee (Credit: JNTO)
For art-lovers and Lost in Translation fans: Roppongi and Shinjuku
There's a lot going on at and around the popular Roppongi Hills complex, including a garden, a cinema, loads of shops, cafés and restaurants, but you can be in and out in an hour and still hit all the highlights. One such highlight is Louise Bourgeois's giant spider sculpture, Maman, and another is the Mori Tower, for its 52nd-floor observation deck, known as Tokyo City View. The $15 ticket includes admission to the Mori Art Museum, where exhibits range from the intriguingly modern to the truly bizarre. For an extra $3, you can go up to the 54th floor Sky Deck, which runs the perimeter of the rooftop heliport.
Shinjuku - Tokyo’s artistic heart (Credit: JNTO)
To enjoy a stunning view of the city without having to pay, tr the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building (TMGO), which boasts two towers and two observation decks on the 45th floor; it’s free. The TMGO stands at the west end of the Shinjuku skyscraper district, near the Washington Hotel.
National Art Centre Tokyo Roppongi - I spent three hours here, exploring its many floors and incredible artworks. The closest stations are Nogizaka Station, which is connected to the Centre, and Roppongi, though the latter is a 10-15 minute walk and you need a map (come out of Roppongi Station and take access exit 2).
Roppongi Art Triangle – if you love your contemporary art, three galleries have joined together and offer a significant discount if you visit them all in one day. They’re all contemporary, but very different to each other and all in Roppongi. You could easily spend a whole day in this interesting part of Tokyo, seeing the galleries, shopping and people-watching.
Tokyo tower - fans of the movie Lost in Translation will recognise this view (Credit: JNTO)
Park Hyatt Tokyo – this is one of the city's best and most expensive hotels. It can be reached in a 15-minute walk from Shinjuku Station, a large business and entertainment district around Japan's busiest railway station. The Park Hyatt is the hotel where Bob and Charlotte stay and meet each other in the movie Lost in Translation. A bottle of domestic beer is the most inexpensive item on the menu, at 1,000 JPY, and a 2,000 JPY cover fee applies after 8pm (7pm on Sundays). A cocktail is 3,000 JPY, so I only had one, but the view is amazing and the cocktail not so bad either, so it was worth it.
Japanese Sword Museum Shinjuku – this museum is a sword enthusiast's dream. Along with the countless blades on display, there are also exhibits on sword-making and care, all accompanied by excellent English pamphlets. It costs 600 JPY to get in, and the easiest access point is the Keio New Line to Hatsudai (east exit).
Japanese Sword Museum Shinjuku
My biggest tip for Tokyo
I quickly found that a little research at the start of each day goes a long way; before going out, I’d sit down to plan where to go and how to get there, which made it easier to cope with Tokyo’s busy and complicated Metro network. Having made a note of which train lines I needed to be on, and where to transfer, it was much easier to negotiate the intimidating-looking Metro map and to remain calm! It’s worth noting that free Tokyo guides are available at the airport, and trains come every five minutes, so there’s no need to rush. I also made use of the excellent new Suica travel card, which you can buy at any station and top up as you need to.