I’ve been living in Tokyo for a year now and it’s a beautiful and exciting place to visit. I’m often asked a lot of questions from people interested in visiting and I thought I’d put together a few things that I think are important to know before coming to visit.
Here they are…
There are no public trash cans. Or very few, rather. There are bins that collect bottles and cans near vending machines and sometimes outside of conbinis (convenience stores). But don’t bank on these being everywhere. It’s not uncommon to have bags of trash in your book bag because there is nowhere to put it. Sometimes it’s left for days because I forget it’s in there.
Remember: Suica or Pasmo. Tokyo hosts one of the most efficient and reliable mass transit systems in the world. And with 13 million residents, traffic can be insane and frustrating. Therefore it’s best to buy a Suica or Pasmo when you get here. Not only can you use it on the 158 number of trains and regional lines and 41 bus routes, you can also use it at convenience stores to buy food and beer and at some vending machines. You can even use them when you miss the last train and have to take a taxi home. (But I wouldn’t recommend this) It’s a convenient way to reach all corners of the city and cuts down on the hassle of buying tickets and guessing the fare.
Also to note: The trains trains will be crowded. People will squeeze in as much as possible. No way around it during certain times of day. It’s all part of the experience.
Do not take a taxi if you can avoid it. Simply put: Taxis in Tokyo are expensive. The flag rate is 730 yen for the first two kilometers and rapidly increases from there. It’s also important to note that rates increase between 11pm and 5am. This is important to remember if you happen to miss the last train home.
Trains and busses usually stop from midnight to 5am, so if you end up at a random bar in Rippongi and your hotel is in Omotesando, you might end up paying close to 100 bucks to get back to your hotel. Just avoid it if you can. Pay attention to the last train information or plan to make it an all-nighter. It’s Tokyo, so it’s pretty easy to do if you’re a rockstar.
Never leave tips. I know in a lot of parts of the world, tips are considered customary. However here in Japan, they can be interpreted as an insult. Something about pride and whatnot. Just remember, most of the things you pay for not only include the service charge, but also the taxes. Expect to get your change back when paying at a bar or restaurant and remember to take it with you. You will get chased down and they will insist you take it back. And speaking of restaurants…
No, the service is not bad. With restaurants in Japan, you have to flag them down to order. Someone will seat you, bring you water, and even might ask for your drink order. But when it’s time to order, you will need to flag them down with a polite sumimasen and someone will rush over to take your order.
It’s also important to know that they may not come back to check on you unless your plate is empty. Unlike in the States, where they come back every 5-10 minutes to see if everything is okay. I think it might be that they just want you to enjoy your meal without constant pestering and they figure if you wanted them, you will let them know. It took some time for me to get used to this as well. No worries.
Best time to go. For the most part, you can visit Tokyo any time of the year. My recommendation is to come during Sakura season (mid-late March through early April). This is the best time to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, participate in a hanami party, and eat all the wonderful food and drinks that are sakura themed and flavored. It’s my favorite time of year here and the weather is really amazing. The summers are horrid and humid and frankly, unbearable. The winters are mild, but makes for really bad sight-seeing if you’re looking for outdoor activities. I would absolutely avoid Tokyo during typhoon season, which is end of August until early October. If it gets really bad, everything closes to avoid damage and injury. Don’t let a typhoon, or even really bad humidity, ruin your vacation. Come during the spring or fall for the best weather.
Plan ahead and do you research. I would never suggest someone coming here and winging it. I can’t even really do weekend activities without some kind of plan. Between navigating the transportation to beating the crowds, you really need to know what you’re doing and where. And also search where things are. Tokyo has a lot of nooks and crannies to discover and although it’s fun getting lost in a new city, getting lost here is a whole nother beast. I would say, make room for impulsivity. You can definitely end up in a random bar in Shibuya and find yourself in a middle of a karaoke battle with locals or smack dab in the middle of a Brazilian festival in Asakusa. It happens. Embrace it, but do plan ahead just in case. You can lose a couple of days if you get lost in Shinjuku station. Seriously.
Tokyo is a vast land of tradition, fashion, food, and entertainment. You can find almost anything under the sun to do and experience while you are here, but it’s not one of those places you can just stumble through. Because of its deep roots in traditions, there are things you should know before coming, to avoid being a stereotypical gaijin or foreigner.
Respect the customs, enjoy the history, and interact with the people. Tokyo is an amazing place and I hope you enjoy your experience if you ever find yourself here.
(and yes, I know those were more than 5 things. I’m a rebel and I do what I want)