(Brutally honest travel guide to Japan. Lots of cursing, limited revisions or planning. Sorry in advance.)
So, I went to Japan last year and spent like 5 days in Tokyo. I went as soon as I could for a variety of reasons:
- I’m a fucking cheapskate and saved up enough money to head out there relatively quickly.
- I’m a borderline sociopath who likes the idea of going to a foreign country alone.
- I like anime, so like, yeah.
Anyway, it seems like everyone and their mothers (unless you’re an Elric–zing!) has been traveling to Tokyo lately. Understandably so, I’ve had several people reach out to me about any tips I might have while there.
I’ve gotten a bit tired of copy-pasting the same paragraph over and over, so I figured I’d put this little guide together so I can just copy-paste the link from now on.
Keep in mind that it’s been 9 months since my trip, so the only things I remember now are actually useful information and not some bullshit fluff to show off how worldly I am.
And away we go:
Go to your bank to exchange currency and do a travel notification
Your bank will likely give you the best exchange rate with foreign currency. It might not be better than EVERY other exchange around, but it’s a convenient enough place to where the time you save will end up being worth it.
Also–be sure to let them know when you’ll be going. Cash is always the best way to go when abroad, since stands and small shops don’t take cards, but an authorized card can save your life in a pinch.
There are also some credit cards that don’t have foreign transaction fees. They’re definitely worth looking into, since you usually get other perks for traveling.
Get a pocket Wifi
There are various ways to do this. It doesn’t really matter which one, but it does matter that you get one at all.
I didn’t, and I paid the price.
…literally, I had like $90 in roaming charges.
And don’t think that the utility of a Pocket Wifi is to be a dick and Snapchat your activities to your broke friends. Rather, it’ll come in handy if you ever get lost, need to call an uber, or need to translate a phrase.
The JR Pass
You’ve probably read 3-5 articles about Japan by now that swear by getting a JR Pass early, because you can’t get one once you’re already in Japan.
I mean, if you’re the type of person who would rather pay more money to not have to think about getting around, then by all means, go for it. You can use the train as many times as you want, and the JR network is pretty expansive
But, remember, I’m a cheap bastard, so I decided to chance it instead of paying $300 upfront.
It actually worked out pretty well. I spent about $180 total in public transportation (including this Taxi cab that cost 700 Yen to travel literally 300 fucking feet) and was able to get anywhere I wanted.
The thing with the JR Pass is that it only works for JR lines. And while that’s enough for most people, I actually used the subway to get around most of the time.
Just something to keep in mind.
*EDIT* I forgot to mention that I was only in Tokyo for about 5 days. If you’re staying in Japan for longer than that, then the JR Pass is definitely the way to go,
What to pack
Whatever the fuck you want.
You’re an adult, you can figure it out. Don’t pack anything large that you could easily just buy when you arrive. No need to waste cargo space.
The only things I can really stress is a universal outlet adapter and a mobile charger. The last thing you want is a dead phone in a country where you know no one and don’t speak the language.
Where To Stay
Stay at hostel. The end.
Okay, that’s not all I have to say, but it’s generally the main point.
Ignore that one movie–hostels are awesome. They’re inexpensive, typically in great locations around Tokyo, and are full of really friendly travelers from all over the world. Most of which, oddly enough, speak English.
The staff at hostels are always really cool, and can recommend shit to do and places to eat.
“Oh, but Shayne, we’re traveling in a group”
If you have a group of people, you could all book at the same time and be put in the same room. I ran into several groups of people who were staying at hostels because they still wanted to meet new people and save HELLA money.
“Oh, but Shayne, I’m only going with my significant other”
Mkay, Hostels have singles. They’re still cheaper than Airbnbs (albeit way smaller), and have all the perks I mentioned above ^^^.
“Oh, but Shayne, we want a private and romantic trip”
Then what the hell are you doing in Tokyo? Get your ass to Spain or something with all the other love birds. This is a celebration, bitches.
The Districts of Tokyo
Alright. While I didn’t go to EVERY district/area in Tokyo, I went to a lot of them. Here are some of the more notable ones:
This is where I stayed for most of my trip, so it has a special place in my heart.
The Sanja-sama is here, which is one of the most famous Shinto shrines in Tokyo. If you don’t go to this, then you basically never were in Tokyo as far as I’m concerned.
Surrounding the Sanja-sama are several streets of touristy gift shops and such. You can literally spend hours looking around at all the cool stuff that’s for sale. I wouldn’t recommend you spend too much money, because it’s still a tourist trap, but it comes in handy if you need souvenirs.
Also in Asakusa is the Tokyo Sky Tree. Not only is it one of the tallest towers in the worlds (giving you a 360 degree view of Tokyo), but it also has its own Pokemon Center. That alone is worth going to, if you don’t wanna fork over $35 to go up the tower.
But you should. Like, seriously.
The famous Shibuya Crossing is here, just outside Shibuya Station. It’s pretty cool to see….for about 2 minutes or so. I’d do what my friend Long did in his recent trip, which is find a nearby building to see the crosswalk from a downward angle.
Other than that, Shibuya has some cool stores and such. I unfortunately didn’t get to spend too much time here (but I did get to see my college friend, Yooheui <3), so I can’t say much beyond that.
Where the disappointing anime “Durarara!!” takes place.
Shinjuku is probably the most well-rounded area in Tokyo. There’s arcades, restaurants, bars (more on this later), and the Shinjuku Gyoen, which is an amazing national garden.
It also has the craziest train station that you’ll ever visit. No, seriously: it’s the busiest rail station in the world. A slew of different lines converge at Shinjuku, so the station is huge and always full of people. You have been warned.
Shinjuku At Night
So, massage parlors, host clubs, and strip clubs are scattered here and there throughout most of Tokyo, but holy shit is it big business in Shinjuku.
A certain area of Shinjuku is known as Kabukichō, which is basically a Red Light District.
I wandered into Kabukichō by “accident” one night, and was bombarded by random dudes on every street corner asking me what my plans were for the night.
Regardless of what I said, they always tried to get me into these obscure, windowless buildings, with promises of buffet food and drinks and topless girls of all ethnicities.
You’ve probably heard the horror stories before, but the way these things usually go is that they get you into the building and charge you a fuckton of money. If you don’t pay, you get your ass beat (and maybe worse).
Now, as tempting as it sounds, if you really think that hot chicks and endless food awaits in a sketchy ass-building that a stranger is leading you to, then maybe you deserve to get beat up.
Everybody fucking goes here. You’re going to go here regardless of what I say.
There are a bunch of dive bars that only seat 6-8 people and are crawling with friendly foreigners. The bartenders all speak English.
The drinks are pretty expensive, because they owners know idiotic tourists like us would still go even if the whole area was chronically on fire.
In all seriousness, I met some really great people while at Golden Gai. We even went to Karaoke afterwards, where I blacked out.
Pro tip: The alcohol at Karaoke bars is really cheap, and apparently all native people in Japan know this. Don’t drink it.
The Robot Restaurant
Hey, do you like spending $80 for inauthentic experiences?
If so, then the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is the place for you!
Wait–sorry, its actual name is the American Robot Restaurant.
The naming difference is important, because the Robot Restaurant is a spectacle based on how Americans view Japan. You know–giant robots, martial arts fighting, lasers, and wacky costumes.
You won’t really see anything this extreme in any other parts of Tokyo, because the show is a tourist trap that’s catered towards foreigners.
Don’t get me wrong–it’s an AMAZING show, and I don’t regret going at all, but just keep in mind that it’s a wildly inaccurate depiction of Japanese culture.
Oh, and don’t buy the food. Apparently it sucks.
I don’t remember too much about Roppongi. My hostel friends and I went to a pub crawl in this area, so the memories are a bit hazy (word to Troy of Canada and Scott from Taiwan).
Roppongi is known for its nightlife. However, there’s a caveat to this.
The bars and clubs are indeed fun, but should be approached with caution.
Some establishments have been accused of lacing drinks with drugs and robbing customers. Other places with unlimited drink specials will deceptively make drinks super strong so people consume less.
Apparently, things have calmed down recently. I didn’t have a bad experience in the bars, but I was approached by a stream of aggressive women who asked if I wanted a “massage”. So yeah, it can be pretty sketchy.
Side note: This one dude on a street corner gave me the best pitch ever: “Hey, come to this bar! Titties bigger than your head, man!”
Also known as “Electric Town”
This is the place where all the Otakus (or “nerds” if you’re an uncultured swine) come to frolic.
The mere sight of this place is breathtaking, since the Tetris of lights is what most people expect when thinking of Tokyo.
Oddly enough, I found the shops and stuff at Akihabara to be a bit disappointing. Now, this isn’t necessarily because the items weren’t cool, but moreso because Japanese nerds value different things than compared to us in the US.
The Japanese seem to really be into figurines and manga. Most stores were stocked primarily with these two types of items, while anime merchandise took a backseat.
Additionally, since Anime comes out in Japan first (no shit), the enthusiasm for shows is way more seasonal there than it is in the US. While shows like Dragon Ball and One Piece will ALWAYS be popular in Japan, most people had already gotten over shows the were popular in the west, like One Punch Man.
Arcades are also still a thriving business in Japan. It’s still a legitimate activity to partake in, so arcades in Akihabara are always packed with people of all ages…who are very, VERY good at video games. Arcades are everywhere in Tokyo, but the busiest ones were always in Akihabara.
The Gundam Cafe is also here. Go to it, just to say that you did.
The main attraction here is that real-life Mario Kart place that you see on everyone’s Instagram and Snapchat.
You get to dress up on costumes and go-kart around the streets of Tokyo.
I’m pretty torn about this. One one hand, it looks like sleazy touristy nonsense. On the other, it also looks like a lot of fun with the right people.
It’ll run you about 6,000 yen (or like $60) for one hour. So it’s really up to you. Just don’t post any snapchats, because everyone already knows what it fucking looks like and I’m tired of getting FOMO while playing DoubleDash in my underwear at home.
There’s a super famous sushi restaurant here. It’s so popular, that you have to start waiting in line around 4am or so to get in.
But if you’re not psychotic enough to do that, there are still several other great seafood restaurants in the area (like the one I met Hui at—hope to see you again someday!) that are better than 99% of places in the US.
The Tsukiji Fish Market also happens here. I didn’t get to witness any of the famous Tuna Auctions here, but I’ve heard that it’s quite the experience. I’d check it out if I were you.
There’s about one main alley here of what you would expect, thanks to Gwen Stefani: crazy outfits, creative food, and a generally wacky vibe.
Outside of that area, Harajuku is a fashion district with incredibly well-dressed people compared to the rest of Tokyo. The shops here are awesome, but insanely expensive. Tokyo is one of the world’s most expensive cities for a reason.
Still, it’s nice to window shop and see how different Japanese fashion trends are compared to ours.
The Japanese are very respectful
Don’t expect strangers to look you directly in the eye while in Tokyo. Now, don’t mistake this for them being rude. It’s actually quite the opposite, since prolonged eye contact is considered aggressive and disrespectful.
It’s also not really a thing to talk to strangers, from what I’ve experienced. Many people will be friendly, but shy if you randomly talk to them. It’s generally the same as how it is in the US, but less standoffish and more respectful.
It’s considered pretty rude to talk while on the train or subway. Anyone with half a brain would be able to pick this up quickly, but you’ll always notice a group of obnoxious foreigners who won’t shut the hell up.
It’s not illegal to talk while riding, but it’s generally frowned upon. You’re visiting their country, so play by the rules and save the conversation for when you get off.
You Can Drink in Public (No Open Container Laws)
This is actually a huge deal, since bars can get kinda pricey in Tokyo.
If you want a quick buzz, run to your local 7-Eleven and grab a Strong Zero (9% abv) for 100 yen. Walk outside, pound it, and you’ve gotten your fix for around a dollar.
Just make sure you dispose of it properly. Which reminds me…
Japan is VERY clean
The streets are spotless here. However, oddly enough, you’ll find a lack of trash cans in public areas. Always carry a bag with you to carry your trash until you can get rid of it in the proper place. Don’t be a dick and ruin this great city by littering.
Eating/Drinking While Walking
No. Not a thing.
I mean, you can most likely get away with it since you’re a foreigner, but Japanese people generally don’t eat or drink snacks while walking around.
If you buy a baked good or something at a stand, you’re supposed to eat it in the immediate area before continuing to walk again. It won’t take long to notice everyone else doing it.
Unless you’re a dumbass.
You might think this is just a stereotype, but bowing is totally a thing in Japan.
It’s the equivalent of giving someone a handshake in the US, albeit a bit more respectful.
If someone bows to you, bow back a bit lower. They’ll usually return the favor once more.
You can usually stop there and walk away knowing you did your part. However, if you wanna be an all-star, you’ll give yet another bow that’s slightly lower than theirs. This can go on for quite a while, but I would usually stop before it seemed like I was trying to one-up someone.
Females typically cross their hands over their belt line, while males keep arms at the sides. Usually, no one is going to expect you to bow as a foreigner, so doing so is just another way of showing your appreciation for the culture.
Walking lanes are flipped
I kept nearly running into people during my first few days in Tokyo, and couldn’t seem to figure out why.
…especially since most Japanese people seemed to do anything to avoid getting near a big black dude.
It finally occurred to me that people walk on opposite sides of paths in Japan when compared to the US. People in America tend to stick to our right hand side walking on sidewalks. It’s flipped in Japan, so most people keep to the left.
This might not be actually true, but it was the general way of conduct as far as my experience goes.
I’ve always found it rude when people eat their food before everyone at the table is served. This actually helped me fit right in while in Tokyo.
People in Japan will often wait until everyone is served, do a quick head bow with clasped hands, and say “Itadakimasu” (“Let’s eat”) before starting to eat.
If you forget the phrase, then a simple bow will usually suffice.
Again, you’re in a new place, and it behooves you to immerse yourself in the culture. Don’t be a dick.
Most bars and clubs I’ve been to in the US close at around 2am, so I need to be drunk out of my mind by 1am and in my ex’s bed by 2:30am to have a complete night.
Japan is much more of a marathon than a sprint. The rails stop running at midnight, and don’t start again until around 5:30. So, if you stay out past midnight, you’re in it for the long haul. It’s best to pace yourself.
…Like, seriously. This shit is no joke. I saw people sleeping on the sidewalk a few times. If you’re planning for a night of drinking, I hope you’re well-rested.
If you DO end up crapping out, one tip I’ve heard is to go and rent a Karaoke room with your friends for a few hours. You can sleep in there to recover.
You also might be able to find a Cyber Cafe, which is a 24 hour place to read manga, use the internet, and chill. You probably should visit one anyway, but they come in clutch if you’re dead tired and need a nap.
Oh, and since some of you might ask, here are the best places for nightlife in Tokyo (IMO)
- Shin-Kiba (but only for the club ageHa)
Okay, that’s all I’ve got for now.
Drop a comment or send me a note if you have any additional questions. I’m not hard to find 😉