If you were to ask me my favourite country in the world, I’ll not hesitate to say it’s Japan. Yes, 日本 Japon Giappone, I love Japan. I’m not sure how or why, but it was my childhood dream to go there, and it was finally realised when I was 18. Yeah, it took that long, but it’s okay. 🙂
The adrenaline rush was pretty awesome, and I felt it again when I landed in Narita Airport in Tokyo on 2 May from Chicago. It was the day that I came back to Asia for the first time in 2014, and there was no better place than Japan to transit before I return home from 4 months in Canada.
In Japan, no tourist is unhappy. The courteous people, the clean toilets, the mouth-watering food. Omg, #foodgasm. Here’s a guide and some tips on how to travel free & easy in Tokyo for the first time.
1. ALL YOU KNOW IS KONNICHIWA, ARIGATOU & SAYONARA FROM THE JAPANESE LANGUAGE? DON’T WORRY.
I know many fear Japan for the language barrier. They want to go but are afraid, or like some of my friends, they go on tour groups. But I’d say the latter is unnecessary. Yes, most Japanese are not fluent in English (or any other languages in the world), but they try to understand you. For all you know, they’re as lost as you are when you’re speaking to them. But from most of my encounters, they really try their best to help you, just look at their faces. Keep trying! Most places have English translations, even their subway ticketing machine.
- Try airbnb.com for accommodation, look for Japanese host(s) who are fluent in English (or maybe your home langauge). You get the best of both worlds, because it’s your chance to make a Japanese friend who could fill you in about Japanese cultures without the language barrier. Ask for tips of where to go and what to eat, they know best! You can start to learn more simple conversational phrases from them too.
- Try couchsurfing. Same reason as above. However, because you won’t be paying for your accommodation, remember to bring some of your home country souvenirs or prepare to cook a meal or two of your home country to thank your hosts.
- Do your homework before going, i.e. try learning a bit more Japanese and store them in your phone. It’s only polite. 🙂
- Japanese have a way of translating foreign English words into Japanese (using their Katakana), so you can try your luck by separating the English words into vowels (especially for nouns) and they might understand. For example, escalator in English is known as e-su-ka-re-ta in Japanese. I’m serious. The vowel insertion!
If all else fails, just look at pictures and prices and then, point. Universal sign language. You’ll still survive.
2. PRINT OUT THE SUBWAY MAP IN BOTH JAPANESE AND ENGLISH (OR YOUR OWN LANGUAGE IF THERE’S A TRANSLATED ONE)
The Tokyo subway is famous for being complicated. After all, it’s the world’s most populous subway. Haven’t seen it? Get them here.
Daunted? Don’t be, it’s just very comprehensive. You can almost get to anywhere – any major attractions – by the subway, which is of course convenient. Subway over Buses anytime right?
Bad news is, within Tokyo itself, the subway lines are operated by different companies. There is the JR line that’s operated by the government, and the others are by private companies. So you’ll find yourself exiting and re-entering the station even though it’s supposed to be an ‘interchange’. With that, the transport costs can be really high if you didn’t plan your route well.
- Get a general Pasmo / Suica card if you’re there for a few days where you can store and top up values. If not, you can even get a personal Pasmo / Suica card with your name printed on it, how awesome and it doesn’t cost anything extra (you can also get it reissued if you lose it)! These cards can be used for all lines and even the N’EX (Narita Express) to the airport.
- Plan your itinerary well. Tokyo is really big, they have their attractions spread all around. You may want to go places near each other within the same day to save on transport costs. For e.g., Shibuya, Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine are really close to each other. Furthermore, they’re on the JR line so they’re cheaper.
- Walk. The Japanese walk a lot everyday – learn from them! Plus, you can burn the calories from all the good food you ate along the way. 😉 Just remember to invest in a comfortable pair of shoes.
3. ALL HAIL THE TOKYO METRO LOST & FOUND.
Lost a scarf? Lost an umbrella? Lost a phone? No worries, the Lost & Found center at Ueno got you covered.
This is one thing that amazes me so much. Personally, I’ve lost 4-5 phones in Singapore and none was recovered. My friend lost her work phone while travelling on the Ginza line. It was 9pm at night and we tried to seek help from the service crew. Due to our inability to communicate properly, it took us awhile to understand that the various subway companies would not call each other to check a lost item for you. Instead, they have this Lost & Found center which operates from 9am to 8pm, for anything you’ve lost. Yes, even that transparent umbrella from the 100yen shop. My friend was really upset that they couldn’t do anything for her at that point in time, and she tried calling her own phone (it’s forever ringing and no one picks it up) for 70 times the entire night but to no avail. Initially, we thought that the phone was still unfound. It wasn’t until we reach the Lost & Found the next day to see the phone… waiting to be collected. If this is not enough, a Japanese friend (my friend’s previous airbnb host) herself said she lost her phone 4 times and she got it back 4 times. Amazing.
seen along the Meguro River
The integrity of Japanese is powerful. You’ll feel safe there, promise.
4. FAMILY MART WILL BE YOUR FAVOURITE HANGOUT. AND MAYBE THE 100 YEN SHOP.
Family Mart is similar to 7-eleven, a 24h convenient store. I swear by their onigiri, I eat that for supper or breakfast or snack. I’m not a rice person back home but you just can’t resist Japanese rice.
You’ll want to get some affordable fruit juice and bananas (individually packed nicely) from there because Japan is famous for expensive fruits. You may want to splurge on them in supermarkets (I’d really love to try their white strawberries), but many won’t bear to.
They also have a whole lot of ready packed udon bowls or sandwiches to choose from which tastes so good you didn’t realise you bought it from a convenient store. Other than that, you can get oden, a traditional Japanese stew, to eat on the go or to go with your onigiri.
5. IF YOU HAPPEN TO NEED TO GO BACK TO THE NARITA AIRPORT TO PICK UP A FRIEND, PLEASE BRING ALONG YOUR PASSPORT.
Yes, even if you don’t have a flight to board and is there to pick up a friend. I’m not sure if it’s okay if you forget to bring, but I guess it’s fine to bring your passports everywhere with you since Japan is safe. 🙂 I’m not too sure for Haneda Airport though.
6. JAPANESE SIM CARDS ARE PRETTY TROUBLESOME.
From what I heard and researched, you have to get a Japanese phone in order to use their sim cards to get data and local numbers. So if you’re just touring Tokyo (or Japan) for awhile, you can try getting the portable wifi devices instead.
7. SADLY, TOKYO IS NOT WIFI-FRIENDLY.
I have to admit I’m someone who can’t live without wifi – I have this constant urge to stay connected. Many Tokyo hotels do not have free wifi, so if you’re someone like me, you have to find hotels (or alternative accommodations mentioned above) with wifi so book early! Cafes like Starbucks claim that they have free wifi, but only for users with a Japanese number so…
Oh well, it’s good to be disconnected for awhile I guess! There’s more than sufficient things to do in Tokyo to keep you busy the whole day. You just gotta wait to go back to the hotel to update your instagram 😉
8. SHOPPING IN TOKYO IS EXPENSIVE. IT’S MORE WORTH IT TO EAT.
Apart from international brands such H&M, F21 and Uniqlo, which offer clothes cheaper than Singapore at the very least, Japanese home brands are really expensive. You can try GU (Uniqlo’s sister brand) which is cheap and popular for casual clothes in Tokyo for both males and females. Alternatively, there’s WEGO, an American vintage merchandise clothing store, which sells many chic clothing and accessories. Otherwise, I’d recommend you to spend more on food and snacks. 😉
9. TOKYO BANANAS EXPIRE FAST.
Your friends would probably ask for Tokyo bananas as souvenirs. But, they expire really fast. (I assume the sponge cake is really fresh and not much preservatives were added) I bought mine on 11 May from the Narita Airport, and the expiry date was 21 May. So, if you aren’t gonna meet your friend(s) in the next 10 days, your family would probably have the privilege of eating them before they expire because Tokyo bananas are not cheap. Therefore, if you happen to pass by Tokyo Station, where they sell the Tokyo bananas as well, don’t buy them first unless you want to eat them immediately.
10. NOT ALL KIT KAT FLAVOURS CAN BE FOUND IN TOKYO.
The world’s first Kit Kat boutique (Kit Kat Chocolatory) recently opened in Tokyo earlier this year. Sadly, I didn’t have time to go there during my trip in May but a friend went to check it out for us. I’m not sure why but there were only 3 flavours left (most interesting one was chili flavoured). Either they were sold out too fast even till now or some just wasn’t brought in yet. If you really want to collect them all, you can try buying the shinkansen 7-days pass to go on a Kit Kat hunt. Otherwise, the most common one would be the matcha ones which could be found in many supermarkets.
Now you’re all ready to book a flight to Tokyo! Food and places to go in another post next time. 🙂