Of all the colorful adjectives you could ascribe to Tokyo, “inspiring” may be the most appropriate. Japan’s capital inspires workers from abroad to relocate and chase dreams of prosperity, and it inspires culture-hungry travelers to reach its shores every year. The cityscape has inspired dramatists to create their utopian visions, while the local culinary scene’s influence is apparent in haute cuisine restaurants the world over. Art and history buffs, gaijin otaku (foreign super fans of Japanese pop culture), cutting-edge technophiles, aspiring architects, and alcohol connoisseurs are among the other groups of travelers who just can’t resist Tokyo’s allure.
Exploring Tokyo is a series of stark contradictions: The chaos of its train stations are balanced by the zen of its temples and daimyo gardens. Michelin-starred, invite-only sushi restaurants are hidden within buildings with crumbling exterior walls. Ancient iconography and rudimentary architecture rub shoulders with elevated highways and neon-stitched skyscrapers. All the while, the 38 million-strong population manages to coexist in a kind of surreal harmony.
This, and so much more, is the essence of Tokyo; a chaotic and endearing global city that is different at every turn and limitless in its possibilities.
Tokyo’s busy seasons are when the spring cherry blossoms bloom (a two-to-three-week period from mid-March to early April) and when fall foliage peaks (late October through November). The respective natural phenomena are accompanied by agreeable weather, creative seasonal cuisine, annual festivals and spiritual fetes, and Tokyo’s signature after-dark illuminations. Yet as Japan has become an increasingly popular destination, the high-season has started to spread throughout much of the calendar.
Around 38 million people live in the greater metropolitan area. Added to that are the millions of tourists in Tokyo fields during peak seasons. As a result, bucket-list neighborhoods and must-see diversions can become obscenely congested. And you can bet hotel prices soar to accommodate the extra heads.
Winter is a quieter, more economical time to land in Tokyo. December remains relatively sunny and cool, though it can get pretty chilly in January and February as atmospheric humidity levels plummet. New Years is best avoided, as many Tokyoites return to their hometowns, most excursions are shut, and the metropolis becomes strangely vacant. Late May and early July, sandwiched between either side of Japan’s June rainy season, offer a nice balance of warm weather, less congestion, and more competitive accommodation prices.
Japan’s currency is the yen, with a conversion of around $109.64 per 1 USD
The golden rule for tipping in Japan is simple: NEVER. You can take solace in the fact that Japanese hospitality staff are relatively well paid and your self-perceived stinginess will not be shared by those providing the service. In izakaya (gastro pubs), you may receive an otoshi, which is like an amuse bouche. Usually, you are charged for the pleasure of receiving these dishes — think of this as a pseudo-tip or service charge.
Even leaving a few coins at a restaurant could be deemed highly rude, and in extreme cases, some young waiter will be forced to vacate their post and chase you down the street brandishing the money you “left behind.”
English is not as widely spoken in Japan as many travelers expect. In fact, Japan has one of the lowest rates of English proficiency among the world’s richest countries. Japanese, or nihongo, is the local language with various dialects and colloquialisms differing from region to region. The written language comes in three forms: kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana (phonetic alphabet for Japanese words), and katakana (phonetic alphabet for foreign and scientific words). The latter two are actually quite easy to learn, and can be useful in decoding restaurant menus.
Nevertheless, Tokyo’s millennials often have a host of katakana words (bastardized foreign terms, many of which are English) in their lexicon. These can be great for Japanese neophytes trying to circumvent communication barriers. For example:
Acquiring a few nifty Japanese phrases can be the key for unlocking the door of comprehension — and also friendliness. The Japanese are, by and large, polite — even when you butcher their language. “Nihongo jouzu desu ne” (your Japanese is skilled) is a common utterance when foreigners blurt out a patchwork of mispronounced local words.
The Japanese language is laden with honorifics, different verb conjugations depending on who you're addressing, and Yoda-like grammar — and that’s before we even touch on the regional dialects. So, in the interest of clarity, here are some basic phrases in their polite form, in what’s known as “Tokyo-ben” or “Tokyo-go” — standard Japanese spoken in the capital.
(As a general rule, elders and seniors should be addressed with polite forms.)
Other useful words:
Tokyo’s subterranean web of railway lines is one of the most intricate feats of engineering humans have ever devised, never mind implemented. Then there’s the subway system, the Japan Rail city trains, Shinkansen (bullet trains) fizzing along arterial routes in and out of the city, old tram and monorail networks, fleets of intercity buses, and city bike share programs. In short, it’s quite a system to navigate.
Trains are the best way to travel between Tokyo’s districts, and they will quickly turn from your biggest enemy into your dearest friend. They can be confusing — and can fill up far past capacity during peak times — but if you utilize Google maps, avoid mid-week rush hours when possible, and keep an eye out for color-coded lines, the learning curve is manageable.
Tokyo’s train stations also have English signage, though that doesn’t necessarily guarantee their usefulness. Basically, if you are traveling a certain route for the first time, it’s good to give yourself a buffer of 15-30 minutes.
Taxis are abundant in Tokyo, and Uber also exists, but only in its more expensive X form. Unless you are traveling a short journey to avoid packed trains or a torrential downpour, cabs are the least economically efficient way to travel around the city. Note that public transport stops around midnight every night (resuming around 5:00 AM), in which case on foot or by taxi might be your only viable options of getting home. Already expensive fares will increase after the last train has departed, however.
Based on the 2019 Safe Cities Index, Tokyo is the safest city on earth. For a metropolis of such scale and congestion, that is a remarkable statistic. Tokyo is often thought of as a modern utopia, and its safety statistics — based on digital, health, infrastructural, and personal security — fit nicely into that narrative. Activities that may be deemed unwise in certain parts of the world, such as walking down alleyways late at night, traveling alone as a woman, striking up conversations with strangers, or getting lost in economically deprived neighborhoods, are all comparatively safe endeavors in Tokyo.