Photo: Alex Waltner Photography/Shutterstock

Tokyo Can Be a Challenging Place to Travel. Here's How to Make It Awesome

by Jennifer Gracey Jan 4, 2017

Tokyo requires a certain finesse to navigate successfully. Aside from the linguistic challenges of the Japanese language and the sheer size in population, Tokyo (and other large Japanese cities) are filled with myriad unspoken rules. Rules, hard learned by those who park themselves here longer than the average work contract, school term, or working holiday visa allows.

Time is the most costly commodity.

While Tokyo is consistently a list-topper when it comes to ‘most expensive cities in the world’ rankings, those lists too often ignore the time factor. A gross oversight considering few of the list compilers actually live here. Time, as every resident can attest, is the holy grail of life in Tokyo. There’s never enough and it always takes ten times longer than estimated to accomplish a task. When someone in Tokyo says, “I can’t, I’m busy.” What they mean is, “My schedule was meticulously planned and booked ages in advance. If I say ‘yes’ to this, I’ll have to cancel something. Why didn’t you mention this sooner?” Or they could also be politely turning you down. “Chotto isogashii…”, is also how the Japanese save face and gracefully decline an invitation they never intend to accept. Stick around long enough and you’ll be able to tell which is which.

Tokyo is huge.

When you ask us if we can preemptively check out a place for you and we respond by saying, “Maybe. It’s on the other side of town….” What we really mean is, “I’m not about to pay nearly ¥2,000 yen to spend 90 minutes each way climbing umpteen flights of stairs, transferring 3 trains, battling crowds and draining my cell phone battery with the google map app to check out a place for the sake of checking out a place.” The reality is: Tokyo is a geographic and logistical monstrosity. It takes forever to get anywhere on a good day never mind on earthquake, weather delay, or train accident days. If and when we go somewhere off our beaten path, it’s rarely because we only have one reason for going there.

Tokyo is exhausting.

We endure standing-room-only trains at the crack of dawn and regularly arrive home after 11 PM. Over-exposed to lights, sound, and moving throngs of humanity, we’re a tribe of walking corporate zombies. We’re stressed out, on sensory overload, and hopped up on energy aids so we don’t keel over in the train like a felled tree. Cranky and tired of tripping over selfie-taking tourists, a moment of peace and quiet is the Tokyoite’s idea of heaven. When we say, “It’s been a busy week and I’m so tired…” What we really mean is, “If I have to go out and into the city one more day this week, I’m going to lose my mind.

The red tape isn’t red, it’s invisible and it’s everywhere.

It’s also far more abundant than disposable chopsticks or Japan’s infamously excessive product packaging. We’re talking from the most simple things like procuring part-time work or a library card, to something as complex as opening a bank account or getting hitched. The fact is, everything is wound up tighter than a drum in layers upon layers of bureaucratic policy and procedure. When you ask about X, Y, or Z and we respond by saying, “Muzukashi…” What we really mean is, “I would rather shoot myself in the foot than deal with the red tape.

Smartphones and good headphones aren’t luxuries, they’re survival tools.

Before the days of smartphones, the norm was: navigating the city with badly drawn maps, indecipherable addresses chicken-scratched on paper scraps, and few options for extracting one’s lost self from the labyrinth of nameless side streets and alleyways. The smartphone and Google Maps changed all that. We now know exactly where we are at all times — as do our friends, family, and the entire GPS tracking universe. We also have things like: translation aids, language dictionaries, public transportation schedules, kanji practice flash cards, scanned copies of important personal documents, address books, Kindle libraries, cameras and so much more. The 24/7/365 accessibility and mobility smartphones afford us is a lifesaver. In fact, after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, 3G networks made communication possible in spite of widespread phone and power outages.

An urban survival necessity in this headache-inducing hub is instant access to our playlists. For those moments where we need to plug into our own sound bubbles and subsequently shield ourselves from the relentless machine that is Tokyo, investing in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones a must.

Sort out mobile tech needs at the airport.

Finding places to rent mobile wi-fi boxes or buy data sim cards in Tokyo is one of the biggest time-wasters and language barriers only exasperate the issue. If you need either of those or need to rent a phone or something else, for the love of all things good, do that stuff at the airport BEFORE hopping on the train from Narita or Haneda and coming into the city.

The airport staff can speak decent enough English to help you. In fact, it’s better for everyone if they help you. Asking us, “Do you know where I can get a [input mobile tech item here]?”, will 9 times out of 10 results in this response: “At the airport.

Save yourself some yen and some time by making a bee-line for the mobile services counters immediately after leaving customs and visiting the currency exchange.

There is etiquette for riding the trains.

Hanging or swinging off the overhead handles/bars, taking up more seat space than actually necessary, conversing loudly, talking on phones, mobile phones beeping/ringing/not switched to ‘manner’ mode, eating smelly foods, staring at other passengers, taking gobs of selfies, etc. all scream “I’m not from around here and I have no idea what I’m doing.

Maintaining situational awareness, getting a rechargeable Pasmo/Suica card, talking only as loud as necessary to be heard, occupying as little space as possible and knowing where you’re going before you get there are essentials. In Tokyo, mindfulness of others is key and riding public transport is absolutely one of those ‘When in Rome…’ situations.

Backpacks are for the rainforest.

When we say, “Leave the backpack at home.”, we’re not talking about the day pack, rucksack, or airplane carry-on. We’re talking about the kind used for trips humping it into the Alaskan bush, trekking through the Himalayas, or hostel hopping around South East Asia.

Tokyo is an extremely urban city with (most likely) more flights of stairs, escalators, elevators, ramps and foot bridges than any other city on earth. The population density is nuts and walking the streets, visiting shops, and riding public transport with a 75-liter backpack is extremely impractical. When we say, “Bring the wheely bag.”, we’re actually saying, “Invest in a smallish suitcase with wheels if you don’t already have one and save that pack for the rainforest instead of bringing to the urban jungle.” You’re welcome.

Dress comfortable, with class and bring good shoes.

Tokyo’s one of the top five global fashion hot spots. People dress better here than many places and the grungy hobo or iconic shorts/white tube socks/sandals looks don’t cut it. Tokyoites dress comfortably and in layers with insulated clothing for winter and breathable items for summer.

Quality, fashionable bags and/or daypacks paired with comfortable footwear play essential roles in daily life. We’re on our feet for hours at a time and walking almost as much as we’re riding or sitting. The one ‘must have’ item every Tokyo visitor needs to pack is this: comfortable shoes.

Sort out currency exchange at the airport.

The Japan Post Office, convenience stores, and higher-end hotels (they have currency exchange machines in their lobbies) are the best places to get cash when running short. Most chain shops and large establishments accept credit cards while mom and pop shops are more hit and miss. Get outside of Tokyo and it’s pretty much ‘cash only.’

Coffee shops and cafés are friends.

With an exploding coffee culture, it’s hard not to find a personal favorite. The best thing about coffee shops and cafés in Tokyo is not the menu as much as what they represent — charging stations for humans. In Tokyo, they are the unshifting constant and places of refuge. It’s not uncommon during a full day out in the city for Tokyoites to stop in a coffee shop (or three) between activities for a bit of R&R from the madness of a city chock full of 30+ million people. When a Tokyoite says, “I need a coffee…”, he/she really means, “We need to find a place with wi-fi and power outlets to recharge my phone and a corner table so I can rest— I’m whipped.

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