CITY GUIDE: TokyoFiled Under:
Tokyo is a fuel-injected sensory and adrenaline overload through bizarre districts lined by eccentric alleyways. A fast-talking, impulsive and mercurial metropolis. It’s an assault on the senses; a brain-blast of culture shock plagued by incessant noise, compromising customs, methodical businessmen, roadside temples, stand up noodle bars packed with people. It’s a subterranean wonder-world of booze huts, all-night-internet-houses and party palaces.
A simple stroll down a street can be fun, hyperactive and dangerous in this trendy madhouse pop-culture laboratory of saucer-eyed schoolgirls, sci-fi technology and cute anime characters. Any first time visitor should wear protection, or at least ready yourself for a ride through a wacky-world where the imminent conclusion is inescapable: the city will seduce you, sleep with you, buy you breakfast, leave money for a cab and make you feel like you never thought possible, tempting you to come back again and again, feeling no shame about the night before or the morning after.
If you wanna count every time I have visited Tokyo as a separate occasion then the tally is nearing ten. I’ve been inside it enough by now to move around and get it off with my eyes closed. It is hands down the most unique and inimitable city I have ever been to, which doesn’t mean its my favourite, just that there ain’t nothing like the controlled chaotic network of Tokyo’s neon-signed districts and eight million people. The place has a wayward charm and enigmatic character blending its rich cultural heritage with a selective obsession of Western consumerism and a futuristic expansion plan straight out of a George Lucas wet dream.
It may seem like the typical urban nightmare: too many people, too many buildings and too many businessmen, but the city’s abundant wealth and relative lack of planning restrictions means boundless advances to corporate architecture and a public transport system unparalleled by any other city, connecting its lively districts through the concrete burrows in the underground rabbit warren of the Tokyo Metro. A city of conflicting images reflects off every corner-store window; the first truly new-world city of the 21st century is the arbiter of the latest trends and fashions and high-tech euphoria, contrasted against the pride of its longstanding heritage. Wander back from the frenzied main drags to find serene alleys and quiet backstreets where dinky and anachronistic wooden bars are bordered by bonsai trees, temples and shrines are wound in wisps of incense and lantern-lit izakaya and yakitori stands illuminate the surrealism of the city streets.
Japanese pop culture is a worldwide phenomenon: an island constantly on the fringe of a new technology, fashion or trend that will suddenly grow legs and invade the rest of the world, and Tokyo is it’s little engine room. Whether you’re scoping out the up-to-the-minute looks sprouting out of Harajuku’s fashionable backstreets and Shimokitazawa’s second-hand-stores; scootin’ across the world’s busiest crosswalk in Shibuya, digging up all the city’s reserved fetishes in the multitude of underground sex stores; understanding and observing its Buddhist heritage in old town Asakusa; hustlin’ the African and American bouncers for cheap entry into Roppongi’s strip-clubs, shot-bars and dart-halls; or summersaulting headfirst into the weird-n’-wacky world of dress-up maids and threadbare-underwear stocked vending machines of Akihabara, where the freshest anime, manga and gizmo-gadgetry have a home; its easy to see how much of an influence (and how far removed) Tokyo is on the rest of the world and how much of an all-inclusive jam-packed snapshot it gives to Japanese culture, in all its raving beauty and contradiction.
All of this is to only partly realise the city’s ambitious reality. You can browse the shop windows in Ginza, marvel at a random passing parade or take a break from the insane energy and relax in a perfectly manicured street-side garden, but until you interact with the notoriously nice and well mannered people of Japan you’re only experiencing the surface of what Tokyo has to offer. It’s a friendly town and one of the safest places you will ever go, despite the looming shadows from surrounding buildings and an overwhelming amount of strangers. Petty crime is virtually at zero percent and almost everyone is happy to help with the subway map or give you directions – just wander into a 7-11, ask for directions and before you know there’ll be 2 cashiers and 5 customers huddled around a map to help you out.
It’s a strict place where conviction rates are at 99% and all drugs hold the same penalty: a seven-year jail sentence. That doesn’t make it any less of a trip though and all the hallucinations in this town are real. Tokyo is the vanguard of Japan’s prosperous space-age development into the future, trailblazers of the new world the rest of us are either desperate to keep up with or content just watching the beast roar. You may not figure out exactly what makes it work but you’re sure to get lost while trying.
Hitchin’ a Ride: Transport
If Japan should be exporting anything to the West apart from sushi and anime then it should easily be their public transport planning and train engineering. In my experience the country has the best public transport in the world. Buses are in abundance and generally pretty cheap, though the subway and metro system in the country is incomparable to any other, and Tokyo is the best of the best. Trains are virtually always on time, down to the second, and if you miss one you never have to wait more than 5 or 10 minutes to catch the next. The system has to connect a city of lively and busy districts cast across the entire prefecture and Tokyo trains have a reputation for being reliable, swift and inexpensive. In addition, Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympic Games – and are currently preparing to host the 2020 Olympic Games – so there are English translations on every subway sign and the automated voice on trains repeats every stop in English. For a foreigner it couldn’t be any easier to travel, despite how confusing it may look.
Unless there is an unforeseen suicide on the tracks (which does happen) the Tokyo metro is the most reliable train system on the globe. The city simply would not be able to function as it does without trains. One or two stops could cost as low as ¥120 and an all-stop ride across town will cost maximum ¥480, with friendly staff never too busy to help you out and automatic vender machines which cater to English the city and its subway are well-equipped to help the Western traveller. Sure, there is a butt-load of different lines and it can be intimidating at first, but once you get, it’s easy, man.
Alternatively, rent a bike and explore Tokyo above ground. Most hostels will have a few bikes they hire out for full or half days and there is an abundance of rental shops sprawled across the city. Plus, if you want, you can always splurge a little bit and take a river cruise to get you up or down town, but our advice, stick to the subways, man. You can’t go wrong. Once you figure out how to buy a ticket and remember the hidden truths of the Japanese subway, you’ll be hitching’ rides like a fully-fledged resident.
For extra convenience, download the HyperDia App or visit their website for up-to-the-minute train-time information across Japan.
Fork It! This’ll Do: Eating
This hyperactive city can be an energizing experience and when it comes to food it doesn’t need to be an expensive one either. In my early days of travel I visited Tokyo three times on a shoestring budget of a $60-$80(AUD) a day and a majority of my meals came by inexpensive rice bowls and ramen and the 7-11 mini fridge. Tokyo is often the first stop for tourists in Japan so there is your fare-share of overpriced sushi stalls but amongst the well-worn tourist traps of popular districts there are hidden gems that are easy on the wallet and the belly.
Japanese cuisine is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list and Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world and just as many hole-in-the-wall take-out joints, burger bars and ramen shops. A day on the grub in Tokyo could cost the budget traveller anywhere between $10 to $30(AUD), depending on how picky you want to be, how sick you get of microwave-meals and cup-noodles from the local convenience store and how fond you become of lunch-time specials from the friendly neighborhood ramen expert.
People say Tokyo is an expensive city, and in comparison to the rest of Asia, it is. You aren’t going to find street-side fried noodles for a dollar like you would in Jakarta or Penang, though compared to Australia its pretty much on par, if not cheaper for the budget traveller. The best part about Tokyo’s food heritage is the long-standing artisan culture that is evident in almost every dish; no matter if it is the most expensive sushi you’ve had in your life or a cheap rice bowl you ordered drunk on your way home from the bar. Tokyo could well be expensive, but it is definitely affordable. You could spend ¥800 on a bowl of noodles, made from an age-old recipe, honed through decades of experience; ¥500 on a lunchtime tonkatsu (deep fried pork) special, served with rice, cabbage and miso soup; load up on yakitori (grilled chicken) and karaage (Japanese fried chicken) over a frothy Asahi at a small but lively izakaya (small local bars that serve food); or just visit your local convenience store for a magical trip through a kaleidoscopic food and beverage voyage.
Make sure you keep it semi-healthy with our list of local culinary treats and health value; alternatively chow down on some Sukiya Gyudon Bowls, Takoyaki or an abundance of grease-laden fast food corner stores.
Cruisin’ for a Boozin’: Drinking
While it’s true that Tokyo’s uber-chic bars, lavish restaurants and space age dance clubs you see today are what the rest of the world will have tomorrow, getting a drink in this city doesn’t have to be the insane money monster its made out to be. Of course, if you want to spend your time at high-end cocktail bars or robot restaurants then you’re gonna be bleeding money like you got a heavy case of the hemorrhoids, but if you’re an average backpacker out cruisin’ for a boozin’ then drinking in Tokyo is very affordable if you know where to look.
Because of the sheer size and density of Tokyo there is no single must go place that begs you to empty the insides of your pockets in it. Every convenience store sells a huge array of alcohol for next to nothing while any roadside restaurant or snack-shack sells cheap brew. So start there: get a frothy brew with your rice bowl at dinner, head to a convenience store and pick up some cans for the road (drinking in public is legal here), head into town and find a Nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) joint where for ¥1000 you can drink ‘til you sink, then hit up a bar or club where by now you should be drunk enough to only need a couple of shots, or too drunk to worry about what you’re spending.
Still stuck? Just get the subway to these Dionysian districts and get lost in their thick atmosphere, winding side streets and multi-story bar-housing buildings.
Things We Wish We Knew in Tokyo
Some vital information to keep in mind, and things we wish we knew before we went. So listen up!
Learn the Language and the Culture
Even just a little will go a long way. Do a bit of research, or better yet, check out this guide for an easy lesson on all the important words and phrases.
There might be a time when you’re out in public and the four coffees you had earlier that morning are starting to run for the backdoor. As we’ve mentioned, Japan is a very traditional place and their public toilets are no exception. So don’t expect to ride a western style porcelain pony; it’s time to squat, baby! Just mindful of where your pants fall, and always carry tissues. You never know when the last roll of toilet paper will run out, or if there is any at all!
There are literally no bins in Japan. It’s insane, and very hard to believe once you realise how exceptionally clean the place is. Apart from out front of convenience stores and next to vending machines you will very rarely see bins in public places, so be ready to carry your rubbish around for a while until you spot one. Don’t be that guy who litters; the place is immaculate, which is a rarity in Asia, so don’t ruin it. It’d be like killing a unicorn.
The most reliable places to fetch money from your card is CitiBank. Regardless of Visa, Mastercard or Cash Passport, CitiBank ATMs always worked for us, likewise with post office ATMs (every post office in Japan will have at least one ATM in or around the building). There are also cash points inside every convenience store, which worked on the occasional basis, though if I were you I’d be loading up every time I saw a post office or CitiBank.