Everything you need to know before going to Tokyo
From delicious food to stunning temples, ryokans and gorgeous cherry blossoms, Japan has a lot to offer. Here’s what every first-time visitor needs to know before visiting Tokyo and beyond.
- November 2019
Japan’s capital Tokyo was once a small fishing village called Edo before being renamed in 1868, ending the age of samurais and ninjas. Today, the city is a sprawling metropolis filled with nearly 14 million people living a cultural hybrid of kawaii (all things cute - think anime and manga), gaming, tech, good food (this is the one city with the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world) and endless shopping among the bustle of traffic and high-rise buildings. But the city also holds pockets of tradition, with narrow alleyways, sumo-wrestling, ryokans, cherry blossom trees, tea ceremonies (sado), geishas, a 17th-century Buddhist temple and an Imperial Palace, all to give visitors a glimpse into old-world Tokyo.
Before you go, here’s what you need to know…
Unless you want to part with AUD $290 for a taxi ride to the city, then head to terminal 1 for the one-hour express ride on the N’EX train to Tokyo Station. Tickets cost about AUD $40 and a train departs every 30 minutes. Although buses are subject to traffic and can take longer than an hour to reach the city, it’s a very budget-friendly AUD $14 for a one-way ticket. Buses depart from Narita Airport’s three terminals.
The easiest way to get around Tokyo is on the train. The JR Yamanote Line loops through the city and stops at Tokyo’s main centres including the often packed Shinjuku Station. You can buy a discounted railpass Most buses in Tokyo have free WiFi and are ideal for travelling to lesser-known destinations away from the busy train stations.
Buy a prepaid Suica or Pasmo card for seamless travel on the city’s extensive public transport network. You can find the best route and mode of transport throughout Tokyo to anywhere in Japan at HyperDia.com opens in new window or the Japan Transit Planner website opens in new window, or use the Tokyo Metro app opens in new window.
Taxis are the most expensive, with a flagfall rate of about AUD $10 before the meter even gets running, but are ideal if you’re heading back to the hotel after a late night out on the town.
The nation’s currency - the Yen (¥ opens in new window) - is the third most popular after the US dollar and the euro on the world stock market. Those JPY notes are available in 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10,000. Most ATMs in Tokyo do not accept international debit, credit or ATM cards, so carry cash and save that card for hotel or motel purchases. Many 7-Elevens in Tokyo have ATMS that work with international cards but those fees are unavoidable. Convert your currency online at XE.com opens in new window.
Australians and New Zealanders are among the 68 countries and territories that can enter Japan without a visa for up to 90 days, as long as no paid work is involved. They do however get their passports inked with a ‘Temporary Visa’ stamp on arrival at immigration and need to provide proof of accommodation in Tokyo, sufficient bank funds and a return or onward ticket.
Welcome to the home of the world famous nigiri sushi - those bite-sized pieces of raw fish served on mounds of white rice loved the world over. Enjoy deep-fried tempura, buckwheat soba or ramen noodles, yakitori (all the parts of the chicken on a skewer) and unagi (eel) washed down with sake or green tea. Meander through the streets for quaint hole-in-the-wall eateries or live it up in style with a reservation in one of the city’s 230 Michelin-starred restaurants. Just don’t use those chopsticks as drumsticks, for pointing at people or left sticking up out of your food bowl. Instead, place them beside each other on a chopstick holder or on the table, and do not cross them - doing so is deeply frowned upon in Japanese culture. Find a good place to eat with the Gurunavi app opens in new window.
Although English is a compulsory subject in Japanese schools, not everyone can speak or understand it at a conversational level. So, as the saying goes, when in Japan… say ‘hai’ for yes. ‘Iie’ for no. ‘Kon’nichiwa’ for hello. And don’t forget your pleases (kudasai) and thank-yous (arigatou). A few basic words in this language, which is the ninth most popular in the world and spoken by about 128 million people, should be enough to break the ice and open those lines of communication. If you’re struggling, download the Imiwa app opens in new window to convert a Japanese word into English.
Customs and etiquette
The Tokyo of today is diverse and complex but beneath the surface threads the highly structured society of conservative Japanese culture. So pack your manners because it’s all about modesty and quiet talking, which basically means no ‘shouty speaking’ into your mobile phone like a tourist on public transport. Instead, do your best to be polite. And when dining out, just give waiters a brief head-nod least you become locked in a courteous bow-off, because the deeper and longer you bow, the greater the respect shown. Other forms of etiquette include removing shoes when inside (take clean socks!), loudly slurping those noodles to show appreciation for a good meal (hold the burps), being punctual, and not piercing food with chopsticks.
Whether your style is eclectic or more low-key and practical, you’ll fit in among the diverse fashion-set on the streets of Kyoto.
But if you head to the Yoshicho, Asakusa or Gion districts then you could spot a geisha or two wearing the traditional Japanese kimono which is as old as the Heian period (794-1185). Just be considerate and ask before taking a selfie with a geisha, as reports of unacceptable behaviour by tourists have caused upsets in local communities.
Foreigners are encouraged to hire kimonos though, and you’ll need their assistance dressing into the elaborate costume that has at least two underlayers, toe-split socks (tabi) and a pair of Japanese sandals (zori).
Temperatures in Japan range from a shivery five degrees celsius during the December to February winter season, to over 30ºC in the humidity of high summer from June to August. Spring blooms from March to May, with the popular cherry-blossom season drawing tourists for a short period before the end of the first week of April. Autumn in Tokyo’s gardens (such as Rikugi-en opens in new window, Koishikawa Kōrakuen opens in new window and Hama-rikyū Onshi-teien opens in new window) erupt into fiery colours of reds and oranges from late September to November.
Tokyo is one of the most connected cities in the world, but the many free WiFi spots opens in new window can become congested. So for greater reliability and faster speeds than your average hotel connection, book a pocket WiFi opens in new window for rent a few weeks in advance to secure availability. You can pick it up at the airport and post it back in a supplied envelope. Also, buy a local SIM card and disable data roaming on your phone to avoid shock charges when you get home. To call Australia, dial 010 then the country code 61.
The electricity currents in Australia and Tokyo are the same at 50 hertz but the voltage is 100v compared to Australia’s 230v. Unfortunately though, you’re unlikely to find an Australian three-pin adapter that can convert to a Japanese two-pin socket - they just don’t work in Japan. So buy a two-pin charger for your laptop/mobile phone/devices before you leave.