Tokyo: An Overview

Tokyo, Japan

Another second day of the work week, another #TravelTuesday.  On the heels of Hong Kong and Paris, today, we stay in Asia and take a look at Tokyo.  This is the Land of the Rising Sun, the origin of super advanced everything, the secret headquarters of all sorts of bizarre and messed up schnit, the home of the most polite and respectful people on Earth, and then some.  A trip to Tokyo is a glance at a unique facet of Asia, one that combines traditional beliefs of selflessness and communal priority with cutting edge technology, extreme thoughtfulness, and a drive for perfection.  There is plenty to explore and enough to last months, even for just the tourist-y stuff.  So this is just a shallow dip into the immensity of Tokyo, Japan.

TRANSPORTATION

It is easy for most first-time travelers to discount just how large and complex Tokyo actually is.  Spoilers: it is very much so in both regards.  As such, this section will be longer than it was for Paris and Tokyo, and probably longer than most future city overviews. 

First... airplane information.  Tokyo has two main airports serving both international and domestic travel: Narita and Haneda.

A comparison of Tokyo's two major international airports (in red) in relation to each other, plus several outside-of-city theme/amusement park destinations for comparison.  The red outlined area is my subjective "tourist area of interest" part of Tokyo--i.e. the outline of areas most tourists would visit.

For most American travelers, chances are that the most common airport destination will be Narita International Airport (NRT), located east of the metropolitan city.  This major transit hub is state of the art, accounts for half of Tokyo's international flights, and serves as a connecting airport to numerous other cities in Asia.    It's also located a loooooooong ways away from the city--to the tune of about 40 miles east, to be somewhat specific.  This is farther than most airports, and guests flying into Narita should budget ample time for taking public transportation into the city--60-90 minutes minimum by train, in fact, and longer if by bus.

Haneda Airport (HND), formally called Tokyo International Airport, is actually busier than Narita and located substantially closer--about 11 miles south of the heart of the city.  Set along the northwest shore of Tokyo Bay, this airport features more business international flights and a major amount of domestic connections.  From the opening of Narita in the late 1970s until a couple of years ago, Haneda had actually been more of a domestic hub for Japan.   But in 2014, the opening of a brand new international terminal allowed Haneda to once again connect with a bevvy of international air traffic.  Due to a lack of a direction connection between Haneda and the heart of Tokyo, however, light rail can still take at least 30-45 minutes.  This is significantly less than Tokyo but by no means brisk.

I should note that the aforementioned times are very rough.  Tokyo is huge and sprawling, and even the dense urban portion of the city occupies a large area of land.  Consider the center of Tokyo to be the Imperial Place and anchored by Tokyo Station.  A visitor trying to get from either airport to Shibuya or Shinjuku, which are west of the center, will require a different length of time compared to someone trying to reach Ginza, located just to the south, or Ueno, a bit to the north, or Asakusa, which is northeast.  And by noticeably different length of time, I mean a variation of usually 10-20 minutes, but sometimes up to 45 minutes additional, depending on which line is taken and the time of day. 

Some of the more well-known landmark districts and areas of interest in and around Tokyo, for the common tourist.  Many of these (like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, and Oshiage) coincide with major rail stations the serve as connecting hubs or destination lines, for orientation.

There are a lot of ways to get from either Narita or Haneda into Tokyo city itself--train, bus, taxi, or car.  For most travelers, however, I would recommend taking advantage of Japan's exceptionally developed light rail system by taking the train into the city.  But before I delve into that detail, I should provide some orientation to the city itself.

Formally, Tokyo is a mammoth prefecture (which is kind of like an autonomous "county" in American terms) consisting of highly developed metropolis surrounded by a widespread suburban and rural land.  The prefecture itself is sub-divided into "wards" (which can be equated to the metropolitan area), "cities" (more like suburbs) and "towns" (more rural).  For travelers who are primarily interested in the city, "Tokyo" really refers to several wards clustered around the historic center--places like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Chiyoda, Chuo, Taito, and Minato.  And even the Tokyo Disney Resort--a destination many readers of this site would no doubt be interested in--is actually outside of Tokyo proper.  It's just adjacent to the prefecture, in neighboring Chiba, technically. 

All of this means that even someone who is interested in somewhat thoroughly exploring the main tourist attractions of just Tokyo itself will need a lot of time to do so--even a full week won't really cut it.  Keep this in mind as you plan both where you'd like to visit and how long to devote to each locale.

Here's another comparison of a foreign city to Los Angeles.  Tokyo is in color; L.A. geography is overlaid in black and white.  The "tourist area of interest" in the city itself is twice the size of that of Paris, and every bit of it is packed with the density and offerings of any modern metropolis.

Now that you're maybe somewhat oriented with the city, lets return to how to get there from the airports.

Narita offers a Narita Express ("N-EX") line run by the East Japan Railway Company ("JR East") that takes guests pretty much straight from the airport into Tokyo Station.  But from there, visitors would have to navigate the Tokyo subway system to reach a stop close to wherever they are staying--unless they are staying in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shinegawa, Yokohama, or a select other stations to which the N-EX continues (splitting after certain stops).  Travel on the Narita Express usually requires a reservation in advance, but it does work on the JR Rail Pass (more on this later).

Narita is also served by the Keisei Skyliner and Access Express, which can reach destinations like Ueno, Asakusa, and Ginza directly but requires a transfer to access places like Tokyo Station, Akihabara, Shibuya, and Shinjuku.  The Skyliner is convenient in that arriving travelers can purchase tickets on the spot at the airport instead of in advance.  It is not included in the JR Rail Pass, however, but it can be paid for via a SUICA or PASMO card (more on these later also).

Haneda, on the other hand, has different primary options.  Guests going to Tokyo Station should take the Tokyo Monorail from the airport to the Hamamatsucho Station before transferring to the JR Yamanote line to Tokyo Station.  Stops along this JR Line between Hamamatsucho and Tokyo Stations allow transfers to other subway lines to other destinations in the city.  In addition,

Conversely, arriving guests in Haneda can take the Keikyu line out south to Yokohama or up north into the city by riding to the Shinegawa stop and then transfering to the JR Line loop to access destinations like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Tokyo Station, or staying on the line to continue to Asakusa.  But as you can see, we've crossed the threshold of strict airport light rail transportation and entered the complex world of light rail in Tokyo.

The Tokyo subway system is the most comprehensive and inter-connected in the world.

As with cities like Paris and Hong Kong, getting around Tokyo is best done by train, using the city's extensive subway system.  Unlike Paris and Hong Kong (and really, most cities), Tokyo's subway system is not run by a single government-sponsored entity but rather by several independent private railway companies that coordinate together to create a network that works seamlessly with its various lines.  And until you understand how it works, it's rather confusing.  So I will attempt to explain...

What people commonly call the "Tokyo Subway" consists of three main railway company lines:
- Toei (4 lines, features a green fan-like icon)
- Tokyo Metro (9 lines, features a blue and white crown-like icon)
- JR, a.k.a. East Japan Railway Company (1 loop, multiple lines into city, features a "JR" icon)

In addition to this, there are other railway lines that run to the airports, suburbs, and other cities in Japan, such as the aforementioned Narita Express, Tokyo Monorail, Keisei lines, Keikyu lines, and others (even the Tokyo Disneyland Resort monorail is a part of this system).  It is important to understand that sometimes, these separate lines are exactly that--separate lines--while other times, a Tokyo subway train may physically continue onto a route labeled as a private railway, but it's the same train that simply changes names and doesn't require passengers to disembark and transfer. 

Even the Tokyo Disney Resort monorail is connected to the Tokyo subway system. Downside: this means you have to pay for the Tokyo Disney Resort monorail.

I highly recommend finding some means of mobile internet access to help navigate Tokyo, especially for first time visitors.  Most people seem to use mobile WiFi ("MiFi") devices, but SIM cards can also work for those with unlocked smart phones.  These can be rented or purchased online from various proprietors ahead of time or at kiosks at the airport.  Either way, internet access is very helpful for figuring out how to get from place to place, due to the complexity of Tokyo's light rail network.  Use a combination of Google Maps and a free mobile app called Hyperdia.  The first will help with locating what is where.  The second offers choices on the fastest way to get from one stop to another and is accurate to live rail conditions.

When you look at a Tokyo subway route map, you'll notice that each stop is identified by a unique label: a letter representing the name of the line and a number representing the stop.  This is your key to getting around.  On your itinerary of places you'd like to visit, write down both the name of the stop and its label.  The prior will help you identify where to go on Hyperdia; the latter will help you visually figure out which direction to go to find the correct platform when you're actually at a subway stop.  Graphically, the signs in the Tokyo subways are set up to allow quick processing of where to go based upon knowing the stop numbers, not the names.  This system is not really common in most cities I've visited, but it's actually more efficient.

Payment for all Tokyo light rail is similar to how it works in Hong Kong in that you obtain a debit transportation pass, load it up with credit, and swipe to charge as you go.  The charges are automated and vary depending on the distance between stops and number of transfers and lines taken.  There are two systems in place for visitors: the SUICA card and the PASMO card.  Within Tokyo, both are pretty much the same thing--they can be used at all subway lines, buses and other public transit modes, and they also double as debit cards usable at many convenience and grocery stores, vending machines, and lockers.  Outside of Tokyo, they are still largely the same, but there are some transportation lines that PASMO cannot access and vice versa.  Overall, I was recommended to get a SUICA card on my first trip, so I'll pass along that tip.  But realistically, there's not really a difference between the two cards.

Some people may have also heard about the Japan Rail Pass, which is an unlimited use multi-day pass for travel by train on Japan Rail lines.  For those who intend to stay exclusively or even primarily in Tokyo, it is not economically worth it to purchase a JR Pass, because this pass cannot be used for non-JR lines such as the Tokyo Metro, Toei subway lines, or private rail lines.  Typically, a JR pass does not offer a value unless it is used for a round trip to a non-neighboring city--Tokyo to Osaka, for instance.  So if you're staying in Tokyo, stick to SUICA or PASMO.

ATTRACTIONS

Zojoji Temple and Tokyo Tower provide a wonderful composition during a brief moment of blue skies.

Now that we've finally gotten transportation out of the way (in retrospect, I should have written a separate blog just about that--I might very well separate that into a standalone post in the future), lets look at some of the many, many, many things to do in Tokyo!  There are a ton of sights and interests in Tokyo, ranging from typical points of interests like museums, monuments, and temples to bizarre attractions that are distinctly Japanese... as in the "Because Japan" variety--they won't make much sense to Americans, but they're amazing, and we should just sit back and enjoy them.  Here's a most definitely incomplete list that will be updated in the future:

ARCHITECTURE & MONUMENTS

Plenty of interesting buildings and structures abound in Tokyo.  Japanese architecture runs the gamut from the traditional styles of the feudal ages to the clean, minimalist modern variety.  People who like buildings and towers might enjoy places like:
- Imperial Palace
- Imperial Hotel
- Tokyo Skytree
- Tokyo Tower
- Tokyo Sky View
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
- Rainbow Bridge
- Tokyo Dome
- Yoyogi National Gymnasium

Tokyo Skytree (center) is the tallest structure in all of Tokyo.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Building offers great views of the city from the west side of the metropolis, and it's free to go up for the view!

Tokyo Dome is home to the Yomiuri Giants baseball team and set in the center of a large amusement park complex.

MUSEUMS & ENTERTAINMENT

Like any international city, Tokyo has a TON of museums covering all sorts of subjects, from the serious to the silly.  These include but are not limited to:
- Edo-Tokyo Museum
- Tokyo National Museum
- Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
- Museum of Nature and Science
- Museum of Western Art
- Odaiba Takoyaki Museum
- National Art Centre
- Ramen Museum (Yokohama)

The Tokyo National Museum, in the Ueno museum complex, houses a treasure trove of culture, history, and artifacts.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's the Odaiba Takoyaki Museum, which is really an elaborate takoyaki (fried octopus ball) food court with various exhibits on takoyaki.

But since this is Japan, there is also a variety of entertainment options that are completely oddball and bizarre, but also extremely captivating.  Examples include:
- Robot Restaurant
- The LockUp
- Maidreamin's Digitized Cafe and Dining Bar
- Ninja Akasaka (Ninja Restaurant)
- Zauo
- Espace Pachinko Parlor
- Calico Cat Cafe

The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is basically Gundam meets cabaret, all with dinner accompanying the show.

SHOPPING

A lot of Tokyo shopping revolves around sleek, modern, sophisticated complexes.  But there are casual options as well.  Tourists and get their purchasing fix at places like such as:
- Shibuya Shopping District
- Harajuku & Takeshita Street
- Roppongi Hills
- Ginza
- DiverCity Tokyo Plaza

Takeshita Street offers lots of eclectic merchandise and sweet snacks.

RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENTS

A traditional far east nation, Japan is rooted in Shinto, Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism culture.  There are plenty of temples and shrines just in the city--some very touristy, some rather peaceful, including:
- Senso-Ji Temple
- Zojoji Temple
- Meiji Jingu Shrine

You couldn't tell in this night shot, but Senso-Ji Temple is an extraordinarily busy and tourist-oriented temple near Akihabara.

PARKS & GARDENS

Although Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis that seems almost completely filled with streets and buildings, there are examples of urban green space abound, many rooted in Japanese history before the country's industrialization:
- Hama-rikyu Gardens
- Yoyogi Park
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens
- Odaiba Kaihin Kouen (Seaside Park)

Hama-rikyu Gardens, located off Tokyo Bay near Tsukiji, offers a tranquil urban oasis in the middle of the bustling city.

Yoyogi Park is massive and is also where tourists can find Meiji Jingu Shrine.

AMUSEMENT & THEME PARKS

Theme park and amusement park enthusiasts and roller coaster nerds will love the large variety of parks and credits available, many inside the city and some that require a bit of a train ride too--but they all have some unique charms and offerings:
- Tokyo Disney Resort
- Tokyo Joyopolis
- Tokyo Dome City Attractions
- La Qua
- Hanayashiki Amusement Park
- Taikanransha Ferris Wheel
- Toshimaen
- Tobu Zoo
- Yomiuri Land
- Sanrio Puroland
- Yokohama Cosmoworld

Tokyo Disney Sea is the most beautiful theme park in the world and one half of the immaculate Tokyo Disney Resort, in Urayasu, just east of Tokyo proper.

Hanayashiki Amusement Park, located right next to Senso-Ji Temple, features literally the world's oldest steel track roller coaster--yes, older than the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland.

La Qua, located right in the Tokyo Dome City complex, features the best named roller coaster ever: the Intamin megacoaster, Thunder Dolphin.

NEIGHBORHOODS AND TOURIST DESTINATIONS

As I've mentioned, Tokyo is absoutely sprawling, and it's broken up into sectors that each have its own character and vibe.  Shibuya is bustling and alive; Shinjuku features plenty of electric nightlife; Ginza is about high class sophistication; Akihabara is a haven for anime and video games and electronics.  And then there are major suburbs like Yokohama, which is a trip in and of itself.
- Shibuya Crossing
- Golden Street (Shinjuku)
- Kabuki Cho Street (Shinjuku)
- Ginza
- Akihabara

World famous Shibuya Crossing, one of the dynamic and electric intersections on Earth.

And for tourist attractions that I can't quite categorize elsewhere, we have these (and more):
- Tsukiji Fish Market
- Hachiko Statue
- Mega Web Toyota City

Right adjacent to Shibuya Crossing is the famous statue of Hachiko, the legendarily loyal dog famous for waiting for years at the train station for his owner to return, even though his owner had passed away during the train trip.

MONEY

Japan uses the Japanese yen, and it's generally accurate to think of one Japanese yen as equal to one cent in American currency.  Thus, 100 yen is a dollar.  This makes conversions relatively simple (and in fact, just last year, the dollar was even stronger against the yen).

This is going to sound a lot like Hong Kong, but Tokyo is also very much a cash economy.  There are not very many places that accept credit cards (Tokyo Disney is fine, as are major shopping centers).  Even charging an SUICA or PASMO card requires cash in many locations.  On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, the SUICA and PASMO cards do work at a lot of services throughout the city.  But visitors to Tokyo would be very wise to have Japanese Yen on hand before they land.  Do not bank on being able to get around just on one's own plastic, though if cash is needed, there are 7-11's, Family Marts, and Circle K's everywhere that offer ATM's for cash withdrawal (in addition to bank ATM's, of course).

As far as dining goes, tipping is not a standard practice in Tokyo either.  You'll find this common in probably all of the city overviews I'll be doing for a while.  In fact, it is considered rude, and any overpayment will be returned.  The Japanese strive for expert customer service, and it is a matter of honor in their culture afford patrons of anything a highly enjoyable experience.

COMMUNICATION & CUSTOMS

Tokyo is clean, safe, and full of very polite and helpful people.  But the notion that English is prevalent isn't exactly true.  Japanese speak English, but they often feel uncomfortable and are not willing to speak in English if they do not feel they can be clear.  Think of it as people in Southern California who took Spanish in high school as their foreign language but haven't really retained it since.  That's about the level of English for many Japanese.  As a result, being able to communicate without speaking Japanese is a mixed bag.  It may be okay depending on who you meet, but it may also be difficult because you can't find anyone who can speak English.  Signs are also often only in Japanese, so knowing a few words and phrases is definitely helpful.  And definitely get a mental feel for the train system before arriving, as it can be tricky figuring out routes on the spot.

Vibrant and surprising Shinjuku, one of the many places in Tokyo that really resonates "Japan."

Still, Tokyo is a fascinating place with an incredible amount of things to do.  Food is especially incredible and was one of the two things that exceeded my very high expectations when I visited last year (the other being the Tokyo Disney Resort).  Sushi, ramen, takoyaki, grilled meats... everything is worth trying (unless you have food allergies).  Even convenience store food is pretty delicious!  Common also are vending machines pretty much everywhere (in malls, on streets, in subways) with a variety of interesting drinks and beverages.  As Dan likes to say, if it's edible, just try it.  Chances are that it's pretty tasty.  I found this to be true for all but two meals and beverages I tried during my week in the city.

And that's today's doozy of a #TravelTuesday.  Kudos to you if you've made it this far.  But I couldn't really cover Tokyo in less words unless I wanted to be pretty much uninformative.  Tokyo is a vast and complicated city with a wealth of offerings for guests of practically any interest or disposition.  It is definitely worth checking out for any world traveler.  And if you're not a world traveler but a lover of Disney, well, Tokyo Disney must be on your bucket list.

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.