Tokyo Visitor's Survival Guide
Here are some of the pointers I always share with my foreign guests. Find out how to get around the city; how to buy tickets; managing shoes and other mysteries; what to eat; where to visit; and some handy communication tips
Getting Around Tokyo
Use the trains & subways
JR is the state-owned rail system. The Yamanote line circles the city. Many other JR lines and subways connect to the Yamanote. [JR Tokyo area rail map (PDF)]
If you buy a JR rail pass before you come to Japan (really only a good deal if you plan to take trips outside of Tokyo or will be here a long time and plan to move around Tokyo quite a bit) then all your travel is free on JR trains. Otherwise, fares start at 130 yen per trip, though that fare takes you only a few stops down the line. You can buy IO or Suica cards which are pre-paid fare cards.
Subways are operated by Eidan and Toei. Other railways connect to the ends of the subway lines and extend to Tokyo's bedroom communities and outlying areas. These are a convenient way to get across town and to most major sightseeing locations within the city. [ Tokyo subway map, in English]
Subway fares begin at 160 yen per trip which will get you about 1/3 of the way across town. Passnet cards are pre-paid fare cards that work on almost all the subways and trains except JR. They are sold at every station in denominations of 1000, 3000 & 5000 yen. Very convenient if you are planning a trip that starts on the subway and transfers to another line.
My favorite way to see things is on foot. If you have the time, walking is the best way to get from point A to point B. Be sure to carry a map; Tokyo is a maze.
Tokyo is safe to traverse on foot at all hours of the day, though some neighborhoods are a little dodgier than others. Public drunkenness is acceptable as is urinating in public (well, for men, anyway) but visitors are not advised to do so. Locals only, please.
Walking and eating is taboo, though you will see local people doing it from time to time, especially in tourist destinations. Still, expect to be glared at or clucked at if you eat (or drink) while perambulating. Ice cream might be an exception, but everything else, including canned drinks should be consumed while standing next to the place where you bought them or sitting on a nearby park bench.
Catch a taxi
Taxis are expensive and slow (traffic can be horrible in Tokyo) so they are best to avoid. However, if you get lost, a taxi to the nearest station is a good way to find your way home. Just tell your driver: chikaku densha eki ma-de, onegaishimasu. “The closest train station, please.” Another handy phrase to know in a taxi: tomete-kudasai. “Please stop.”
Taxi doors open and close automatically. Don't touch the door.
Taxi fares start at 660 yen for 1 km. Extra passengers are 500 yen each. Late night fares have a surcharge.
Buying Tickets & Admissions
Trains & Transportation
You'll buy your train tickets at a machine. Most s have maps of the available routes and fares to each destination but not all of the maps are in English, so it's a good idea to have your destination station written in kanji. This helps, too, if you need to ask someone for assistance.
Put the money in the ticket vending machine and press the button with the correct fare amount. If you aren't sure, buy the lowest priced fare and Fare Adjust at your destination.
To Fare Adjust, you put your ticket into the machine near the wickets marked Fare Adjustment, and it will tell you how much more you have to pay. Add the money and you'll get a new ticket for the correct amount. This can be a little confusing if you've transferred train lines during your journey. If that's the case, go to the ticket collector and he'll help you.
When you put your ticket into the wicket to enter the train platform, remember to take your ticket. You will need it at your destination to get out of the station!
Depending on where you go, you'll purchase admission tickets from a vending machine or from a human at a window. Vending machines sometimes let you buy a combination of admission tickets (2 adults and a child, for example) by pressing one button.
Shoes and Other Mysteries
When is OK to wear your shoes inside? How do you know when you're supposed to take them off? It can be tricky, but just do what everyone else does and you'll be fine. Some visual clues might include shoe lockers, neat rows of empty shoes, tatami flooring or people walking around in sock feet.
Leave Shoes On
Take Shoes Off
Hotel Lobby (western)
Hotel Room (all)
Bow or Handshake?
Generally, Westerners are expected to give handshakes. But handshakes are not always welcomed in a society where touching isn't common. Yet we don't have the training to bow properly. It's a quandary. A good compromise is to incline your head a little bit—make a deep nod, as it were—in place of a proper bow or a handshake.
You can elicit praise by being able to use chopsticks. If you don't know how, you'll learn quickly.
If you already know, here are some tips to make you look even more skillful:
Don't pass food from your chopsticks to someone else's chopsticks or stand your chopsticks upright in your rice. These are funeral customs only!
To break apart a large piece of something, such as a croquette, you can either hold your chopsticks together like a knife and press down, wiggling slightly to separate, or take one chopstick in each hand and pry apart the offending chunk. Method 1 is slightly more common; method 2 is easier.
When not eating, put your chopsticks on a chopstick rest, or on the edge of your tray. If you have no chopstick rest or tray, lay them across your rice bowl. When finished eating, tuck your used chopsticks back into their paper holder.
In general, nobody tips in Japan. You shouldn't either. Prices are high enough to give workers a living wage. Some restaurants, usually those with a prominent bar, have a “table charge” that is added to your bill. In a ryokan, it is customary to leave a small tip for the women who make up your room and bring your meals. 1,000 yen per person is sufficient.
Typically, Japanese bathe at night before bed. It is a nice feeling to slide into your futon all clean and relaxed after a hot bath.
Whether you are bathing at a sento, onsen or a family's private bath, your bath is taken in two steps. First, shower and clean yourself completely. Be sure to rinse off all traces of soap and shampoo. Then you sit in a tub of very hot, clean or fragranced water until your skin turns pink and your heart feels like it's going to beat through your chest. When you step from the tub, you may want to give yourself a cool rinse. If you've left any stray hairs or other crud in the tub, skim off the surface for the next person—everyone shares the same bath water.
Japanese rooms live a double life. During the day they are dining rooms or living rooms. At night they transform into bedrooms. After dinner, but before bath time, furniture is moved into the deep closets and futons are laid out on the floor.
The proper way to arrange a futon is:
In the morning, fold the futon up, put it in the closet and move the daytime furniture back into place.
It rains a lot here and people carry umbrellas for months on end (or so it seems). If you are carrying a wet umbrella into a shop, look for a rack of disposable plastic sheaths at the door. Put your umbrella in one to keep the floor and merchandise dry. Some buildings have umbrella blow dryers to eliminate the plastic waste.
If you are caught without an umbrella or lose it during your travels, almost every shop will put out a small rack of inexpensive, clear plastic umbrellas at the first sign of rain.
Where & What to Eat
For a quick bite between sights, fast food chains are convenient. Some will be familiar—McDonald's, Wendys, KFC. But you didn't come to Japan for familiarity, did you? Try out some of the Japanese fast food chains: MOS Burger, Freshness Burger, First Kitchen. All of them have menus with pictures, so you can see what you're ordering.
Another fast food concept is the ramen shop. Most of these are family owned shops that don't look like much from the outside. Sometimes they even look unsanitary— probably by American standards they are, but I've never gotten sick yet at one, so…
Anyway, ramen shops have big bowls of ramen noodles in broth. They are nothing like the instant ramen packs you can buy in the States. Ramen shops stay open really late for the benefit of tipsy salarymen on their way home from a late evening of drinking with coworkers.
For an affordable feast, visit any restaurant at lunch time. The lunch set usually includes an entree, drink and salad for a fixed price. It's a great bargain and there is often a choice of two or three sets for the day. All-you-can-eat buffets, called viking lunch, are a good bargain for the very hungry.
If you are hungry while shopping, take the elevator to any department store's restaurant floor—usually the top floor or two. A variety of specialty restaurants and coffee shops are waiting to take your order. There is at least one “family style” place with a wide range of dishes which should appeal to everyone in your group.
Foods you may want to try while you're in Japan:
- Bento Box lunches with a variety of small portions
- Curry Japanese style curry over rice
- Okonomiyaki Grilled egg frittata with lots of things mixed into the batter
- Onigiri Traditional rice & seaweed paper sandwich
- Sushi Raw fish slices on rice patties
- Ten-don Tempura shrimp and vegetables over rice
- Tonkatsu Breaded, deep-fried pork with sauce and a raw cabbage
- Yakisoba Stir fried soba noodles with ginger and cabbage
- Yakitori Grilled skewers of meat and vegetables
- Zaru Soba Buckwheat noodles served chilled with wasabi and soy
In the Restaurant
Before you go into a restaurant, take a look at the display of plastic food in the window. Not only will this let you know what to expect inside, but most places label the dishes with the name and price. Find one that looks good, note the price and try to remember the kanji or write it down. This helps when you're looking at the menu.
When you enter a restaurant (or just about any shop) the staff will yell Irrashaimase, which means welcome. Ignore them. No need to acknowledge them, just hold up some finger to let them know how many people in your party.
In most restaurants, you will be able to catch your server's eye and he or she will come take your order. In some busy places, calling “Sumimasen” accompanied by a wave will get you a server.
It is perfectly fine to point to the menu when you order. Nobody expects you to be able to read a Japanese menu. If you have come to a restaurant with no pictures on the menu, but there is plastic food outside and you can't remember the kanji, take your waitperson outside and point to what you want. I've done it, and though a little bit embarrassing, it is effective!
Coffee, tea and soft drinks are customarily served at the end of the meal, though you will have endless, tiny glasses of water to wash down your food. There are very few "bottomless cups" or refills in restaurants. Drinks are expensive, so be aware when you ask for more iced tea that you will be charged for two. Beer and cocktails are served before the meal and can be sipped throughout.
When the last item of your order is delivered to your table, your check will be placed face down on the table, or hung on a hook at the side of the table. When you are finished eating, take your check to the register and pay.
Handy Restaurant Vocabulary
Kore wo kudasai
koh-ray oh coo-dah-sigh
I'll have that
Places to Go/Things to See
Here are some of my suggested sightseeing spots. There are so many places that you might want to visit, but this list will keep you busy for a week's stay in Tokyo. Do not to try to cram everything into a single day. Give yourself time to decipher the city around you! Click the areas above for descriptions and access details.
Helpful Hints on Surviving Illiteracy
It isn't necessary to speak Japanese to enjoy your trip. A few words can help, but it is completely possible to never speak a word of Japanese. But you will have to use your wits; being illiterate is a challenge!
Six tips for stress-free communication
- Carry a pad and pen with you at all times.
Indispensable for copying kanji on train maps or at restaurants, drawing pictures to explain that thingamabob you need, and for keeping a phone number handy.
- Point and gesture.
Universally understood in most situations and embarrassing in only a few.
- Hold on to a phrase book.
Although it may not be lots of help, it can give you confidence to try a word or two when gesturing and drawing aren't getting the point across.
- Sneak a look at the register.
It will tell you how much to pay. To avoid fumbling with cash, or if the register doesn't tell you your total, use a credit card. But not all stores take them so be prepared to have enough cash on hand.
- Stick with the familiar.
If you are confused by the options, it's always safe to pick the thing you know. Apple, biwa or yuzu? Apple.
It may not help you communicate, but it's friendly and better than crying.
Some Basic Phrases
sue mee mah sen
Kristen McQuillin. March 2003.