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Tokyo travel tips: Know before you go

Ueno Park

Heading to Tokyo for the first time can be overwhelming. It’s absolutely gigantic and boasts a population of more than 9 million people, and on top of that, there’s the language barrier. Despite those facts, it’s actually not tough to get around if you follow a few key Tokyo travel tips, which I thankfully received from friends before I left. I’ve listed them out below!

TOKYO TRAVEL TIPS: KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

cherry blossoms

1. POCKET WI-FI IS KEY

When I first began researching what I would need for my trip, I “pocket Wi-Fi” came up over and over. I was a little confused by the suggestion since I’ve been in plenty of countries with language barriers and got along just fine. 

My verdict after visiting? Get it. It’s necessary. It’s not just for translating, but also for finding things, which can sometimes feel next to impossible (see tip No. 2 for more on that!).

Luckily, getting pocket Wi-Fi—which is really just a hotspot you can carry around in your pocket or purse and connect your phone to—couldn’t be easier. I rented a device for the week from a kiosk from the airport. It came with a charger and a return shipping bag. If you know you won’t have time to drop it back off at the airport—or won’t be coming back to that same airport—you can just drop the bag in the mail, and voila—you’re good to go. 

If pocket Wi-Fi is something you feel like you could use on other trips, too, check out the Skyroam Solis. I got it after my trip to Japan, so it didn’t come with me to Tokyo, but it’s been with me on every international trip since!

city buildings

2. TOKYO BUILDS UP

Tokyo is certainly sprawling, with neighborhoods you’ll want to visit stretching out in every direction. But the city also boasts a staggering lineup of skyscrapers. A lot of the time, you’ll find that something you’re looking for—be it a restaurant, your hotel, etc.—is hidden within one of them on a high-up floor. 

While it wouldn’t be such a problem if buildings clearly listed all the businesses within them on a sign outside, they don’t. My friend and I spent nearly an hour wandering around looking for the entrance to our hotel before we finally found it, with Google Maps claiming we were 50 feet away the entire time.

My recommendation here? Bring that pocket Wi-Fi, yes, but also make sure you leave plenty early for any events or restaurant reservation you may have. You’ll need the extra time just to figure out where you’re going. Of all my Tokyo travel tips, I think this one is the biggest to note!

biker
cherry blossom tree

3. TAXIS ARE INSANELY PRICEY

I put off going to Japan for years because I heard it was really expensive, which for the most part turned out not to be true (keep in mind though that I was coming from Washington, D.C., which itself is an expensive city). Of course, there were a couple exceptions where I did find certain things to be exorbitantly priced. One of those things was taxis. 

Because I see your next question coming, Ubers in Tokyo are really no better. I’ve read reports that they can even be more expensive than the local cabs, and on top of that, they’re scarce.

Luckily, Tokyo’s train system is absolutely incredible. Between its multiple train types and lines, you’ll have no problem getting around quickly, cheaply and easily. I’ll admit that I can be REALLY lazy when it comes to public transport. But cab prices in Tokyo are really no joke, and neither is traffic in a city of 9 million-plus.

And while the city is mammoth, you can also walk from neighborhood to neighborhood; just make sure you pack the right shoes!

ramen

4. LINE UP FOR FOOD

I came to Tokyo with a list of restaurants big and small. Including a fair number of casual ramen hotspots. I’m vegetarian, but I was traveling with a friend who could eat it. And if part of your interest in Japan revolves around the local cuisine, you’ll likely do the same.

The thing is, the city’s millions of inhabitants also frequented the places on my list, which meant one thing: Lines. Like, long lines, and lots of them. At one point, we waited an hour to get into a ramen place, which from what I gather is not uncommon. (Oh, and vegetarians take note: As it was a small, counter-top spot and there was nothing vegetarian on the menu, the employees wouldn’t even let me into the restaurant to sit with my friend.)

In addition to lines, if you go later in the day, you also run the risk of facing sellouts, particularly when it comes to ramen.  Afuri (which, in addition to the classics, serves vegan ramen…!!) was just one place we went where you ordered your food by punching what you wanted into a machine, but the first time we tried to go, our selections were gone for the day.

All this is to say that if food is important to you, it’s worth it to devise a plan of attack and hit the most popular places before the lunch rush if you can!

cherry blossoms and building

5. 7-ELEVEN IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK

If you’ve started telling people about your trip yet, you’ve probably heard a comment or two about 7-Eleven in Tokyo, and the rumors are true. Now, I’m not trying to knock U.S. 7-Eleven (I grew up close to one and spent way more time there in high school than one would expect), but 7-Eleven in Japan is something else… and something much, much better. 

First of all, the food and drink selection there is unbelievable. You’ll find all kinds of prepared food that are actually good quality, as opposed to the pizza and hot dogs you might be used to seeing at home. Every kind of alcohol you could want is there, too. But the real highlight is the snacks. Whether or not you intend to buy anything, just seeing them is a fun cultural experience. You’ll find things you never thought could be snacks in flavors you never thought could be flavors. Also, they’ll all come in adorable packaging because Japan. 

The stores also stock tons of non-food items that you wouldn’t expect, too. So, 7-Eleven can be your go-to in a pinch if you left something critical at home.

Long story short, even if you don’t use 7-Eleven as a staple during your trip for on-the-go food, at least pop into one for the tourist experience. 

For more on how you can take your first trip to Japan for free, check out this post on how to join ANA Mileage Club, and then see my picks for how to spend one week in Tokyo. And for more on earning and using points and miles, visit the 52 Cities free resource library or register for an upcoming points and miles masterclass!

Akihabara

Hope these Tokyo travel tips help you on your first trip to Japan! Have you been to Tokyo? Let me know in the comments >>

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Carly

October 18, 2019

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