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Beginner’s guide to Tokyo

Venturing to Japan for the Rugby World Cup or 2020 Olympics? Read on for Jess Scott’s hot take on Tokyo.

Tokyo can feel like a manic feverish dreamscape, an intense, immense sensory overload. You can order dinner from a vending machine, drive Mario Carts on the road, drink viper snake wine, snack on candied squid and wasabi-flavoured Kit Kats, and smoke in most restaurants, but not on most streets. Japan is a country of contradictions, with sex hotels around every corner, yet record youth celibacy and a declining birthrate. Ancient culture is interspersed with hyper-modernity, as women in traditional yukata sit on the train next to Harajuku kids, decked out in the latest Supreme drop.

I have visited twice over the past two years, for a week each time during August–September (unbearably hot temperatures = incredibly cheap flights), with my partner (and designated shopping carrier) in tow. If you can afford not to go in the height of summer, I would recommend it, as temperatures upward of 32 degrees add unnecessary stress to an already hectic environment.

In short

Visa required: No
Shots needed: None
English speaking: In popular areas
Cash: Carrying cash is vital, many places do not accept cards.

How not to get hopelessly lost

Ubers and taxis in Tokyo are some of the most expensive in the world, so the most economical way to get around the sprawling city is by train.

Tokyo’s seamless public transport system is a far cry from waiting 40 minutes at a wind-blown Wellington bus stop, only for your bus to be cancelled. Trains run every 60 seconds from 6.00am until midnight, seven days a week. In 2017, a Japanese railway company actually issued a public apology after a train departed 20 seconds earlier than scheduled.

Narita airport is about an hour and a half drive from the city’s centre, which, unless you’re in the market to drop half a plane ticket on a taxi, requires braving the train or airport bus. After a week, we were feeling confident enough to catch a train. With two hours aside for an hour-long ride, what could go wrong?

Laden with luggage, we caught a cab to the station. Ten minutes in, we realised we had been driving for far longer than we should have. In a garbled amalgamation of broken English and beginner’s Japanese, we checked in with our driver. He assured us we were going to the station. Another ten minutes passed. We showed him a Google Map screenshot. He nodded. Another ten. We showed him the screenshot again. The car ground to a halt. The driver started apologising, thrusting a wad of cash at us. Panicked, we flagged down a passerby to translate… Ninety minutes and $300NZD later we were running through the airport.

A mural in the Shibuya train station. Photo: Jess Scott

Worth the hype

Harajuku:
Everyone who has ever been to Tokyo will recommend Harajuku, but even for the least sartorially-inclined, it is an incredible visual feast. Every fashion subculture you could possibly imagine, and many you could not, are combined in a mishmash extravaganza. You’ll see more in a trip to the mall than you would in the entire of New Zealand Fashion Week. Find a perch and sit back for some truly fascinating people-watching.

Shimokitazawa:
Named the coolest suburb in Japan (and second in the world) by Time Out, ‘Shimokita’ is the ‘indie’ alternative to bustling Shibuya. The quaint suburb is a welcome reprieve from the city’s manic pace, peppered with vintage clothing stores, boutique coffee shops, and record dealers. Second-hand stores here aren’t as curated, or expensive, as other parts of Tokyo, for those who love the thrill of an afternoon rummaging through racks. By night, Shimokita is home to Tokyo’s rock scene, with numerous beer bars (even a beer-serving bookstore), gig venues, and cocktail bars.

Golden Gai:
A shantytown labyrinth of minuscule bars, Shinjuku’s Golden Gai feels as though you’re entering a Shōwa-era timewarp. Golden Gai features more than 280 drinking dens, crammed into six streets, each with its own distinctive personality. One we visited had spiked bras hung from the ceiling, allegedly intended to be a bondage bar, but the owners couldn’t afford specialised staff. However, a word of advice, some bars do not accommodate tourists. Watch for signs like ‘Japanese speakers only’.

Drunkard’s Alley:
Shibuya’s equivalent of Golden Gai, Drunkard’s Alley similarly features a miscellany of tiny bars, most only able to seat five or six people. One, Bar Piano, was barely wider than its namesake, which bartenders were slinging drinks off. Although somewhat dilapidated from the exterior, it had the seedy grandeur of an 18th century opium den, dripping in crystal chandeliers, bathed in red light and padded in plush velvet, drinks sipped from antique goblets.

Nomihōdai:
Translating to ‘all you can drink’, many establishments offer deals where you pay a set fee to drink as much as humanly possible for a fixed period, sometimes for as little as $10NZD. No catch, although keep in mind that public displays of drunken disorder are far less socially acceptable in Japan than they are here.

Overhyped

Roppongi:
The Ibiza of Japan – exclusively populated by Contiki tours, stag parties, and legless lads vomiting in gutters. Avoid at all costs, unless you’re going to Tokyo to relive your Dunedin student days.

Cat cafes:
Watching a roomful of fully-grown adults competing for the attention of apathetic felines was a somewhat uncomfortable way to spend an hour (and $20). After seeing an owl on a leash, sweltering in 32 degree heat, the idea of owl cafes made me even less comfortable. Not to mention the flamingo we spotted peeking out of their upstairs window…

Toilets

Like many things in Japan, toilets range from one extreme to the other. You will either be faced with complex contraptions that require a Bachelors Degree in Engineering to operate or a literal hole in the ground.

Vegetarian friendly?

Travelling Japan as a vegetarian is extremely difficult, worse as a vegan. Researching in advance is vital, as dishes that outwardly appear animal-free have often been cooked in dashi (fish) broth. I found vegemap.org and the Happy Cow app incredibly useful.

We enjoyed Sorano in Shibuya, specialising in tofu, Madosh avocado cafe in Harajuku, and Mr Farmer, a Western-style eatery with many vegan options and an entire menu dedicated to water infusions. Some ramen shops use vegetarian stock, including chains Afuri and T’s Tantan, and the restaurants in Buddhist temples are always vegan. Popular dishes like okonomiyaki (a Japanese cabbage pancake/frittata situation) and tempura can easily be made vegetarian.

Decorum/ manners

Politeness is vitally important within Japanese culture. I’d recommend having a basic understanding before you go, to avoid committing a fatal faux pas by stamping out a cigarette on the street or wearing shoes inside someone’s house.

Bowing is used as a sign of respect, the deeper the bow, the more respected a person is. In most contexts, particularly as a foreigner, a nod or dip of the head is sufficient.

When entering and leaving shops and restaurants you’ll hear ‘Arigato Gozaimasu’, both used as a greeting and thanks. Even if you don’t pick up a single other phrase, replying with the same is enough. Any effort to speak Japanese will be seen favourably.

In clothing stores you are expected to remove your shoes before entering changing rooms and if you are wearing makeup, you must wear a ‘face cover’ to protect the garments.

Travelling with my visibly-tattooed partner, we were surprised to find tattoos less of a social hindrance than they were rumoured to be, however we didn’t visit onsen (hot pools), beaches or waterparks, where they are explicitly banned. Tipping is not expected and can actually be considered insulting. Instead, many eateries will serve ‘otoshi’, a mandatory appetiser, which functions as a sort of cover charge (usually around 300–500 yen per person).

Shibuya. Photo: Emily Wakeling

Although Tokyo’s scale can be daunting, don’t anchor yourself to an itinerary. It can be tempting to try and squeeze in as many activities as humanly possible, in fear of missing out on something incredible, but the city is so vast that you’ll never see everything. Leave space for wandering back alleys and stumbling upon the kind of places you’d never be able to find on Google Maps, they’re often the best.


Jess Scott is a writer, eternal student, and shopping fanatic.
In her high school leaver’s quote, she said her aspiration was to be a trophy wife with a PhD. Six years and ⅔ of a Master’s degree later, she still thinks this is funny.
Her boyfriend does not.

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