Visiting Tokyo: a guide for the bamboozled

‘I’m going to Tokyo for a few days, what should I do?’ This is a question I am periodically asked by friends, family and acquaintances, and one I always find difficult to answer. Because whilst Tokyo is a remarkable city, the sheer size of the place and diversity of stuff on offer can be more than a little overwhelming. No matter what I tell people, though, I have an awful tendency to get carried away and write and write and write until the scroll bar at the side of the email gets really tiny. In the belief that knowledge ought to be shared wherever possible, and also to save myself having to type this kind of stuff time and time again, I thought it would make a useful blog post. I have also tried to keep it fairly light-hearted and informative in the hope that it will be of interest to people who have no intention of ever traveling to Japan.

  1. Choose your airport wisely

There are two main airports serving the city, Narita and Haneda. Narita is out to the east of Tokyo, about an hour and a half’s train ride from the main metropolitan area, and Haneda juts out into Tokyo Bay only half an hour away from the city centre. Put like that, you could be forgiven for thinking Haneda is the airport all the big carriers fly to, whereas Narita’s the one easyJet lands at. But the fact I’ve bothered to write something about this is a pretty good indication things ain’t that simple. Haneda only in the last couple of years expanded to take long-haul international flights, so a lot of the big airlines still primarily fly into Narita. Prices for flights going to Haneda are also generally more expensive than those going to Narita. In short, flying to Haneda gives you less options and seems to cost you more.

Tokyo is not a small place

Tokyo is not a small place

However – and it’s a big however – flying in and out of Haneda does save you having to take one of the Narita Express or Skyliner trains that cost around forty pounds each way. Also, long-haul flights out of Haneda can depart later at night than those from Narita which, thanks to the proximity of Haneda to the city centre, means you can still do a full day’s sightseeing, have a light meal, and enjoy your evening before traveling to the airport. If the times and prices are right, this might mean you need one less night’s hotel accommodation and one fewer big meal – so even if the plane ticket costs more than a Narita flight, when you add in all the extras it might work out cheaper. Sadly the only way to really find out which is better value is to get online, and compare the prices and times with your planned schedule to see what matches up best.

  1. Don’t underestimate how long it will take to travel by train

I would give exactly the same advice to anyone traveling round Britain, albeit for very different reasons. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn Tokyo doesn’t suffer the same delays as the British rail network (unless there is a ‘human accident’, although in fairness we do have those in the UK too), but getting around the Tokyo area by train does have its own challenges. The main issue is the sheer size of the place. It’s easy to underestimate just how big Tokyo is compared to somewhere like London, and the logical extension of this is that it takes longer to get around the various stations. Also, the stations themselves are massive – the village I grew up in would fit inside Shinjuku station.

My village (left) and Shinjuku Station (right)

My village (left) and Shinjuku Station (right)

Unlike most of the other metropolitan rail networks I’ve traveled on, the lines in Tokyo are operated by lots of different companies. The main Yamanote Line is run by Japan Railways, the trains to Haneda Airport are operated by Keikyu, other lines are operated by Keisei, Seibu and others. All these companies have their own section of the big stations, so if you’re changing lines you may well have to go through the ticket barriers to ‘exit’ one company’s line, then through different ticket barriers to ‘enter’ another line. If you don’t know where you’re going, these different entrances can be pretty hard to find even in the presence of English language signs – bearing in mind some of the stations are the size of small villages, things like ‘Ginza Line 170m that way’ can be a little vague.

Oh, and the network maps are a barrel of laughs too. The various companies often only show ‘their’ stations on the maps, with good reason – I have a map of the full Tokyo metropolitan rail network on my office wall, and it is bonkers. There are just too many stations to do the whole clear and simple London Underground thing. And if you’re relying on a map in the station, don’t bank on the place names being in Western characters either (if you can’t read Japanese, bring with you a copy of the characters for your destination station so you can at least identify it on a board or train screen).

One more thing… local, semi-express and express trains. Not a problem if you’re right in the city centre, but if you are traveling into the more suburban parts of Tokyo you may want to make sure your train isn’t going to go thundering through your destination station at 80 km/h. Express trains do exactly what they say on the tin, only stopping at the biggest stations and speeding through others with just a brief blast of the horn to warn those waiting to stand well back. Some backwaters are served only by the slowest local trains, which stop at every halt. If you are unlucky enough to end up on one of the fastest trains by mistake – from experience I can tell you this is more likely to happen when intoxicated – it can be a good twenty minutes to get back to where you want to be.

For someone whose previous mass transit experience consisted solely of the London Underground, Tokyo’s rail network came as a bit of a shock. It was a good few months before I felt confident enough to go exploring alone. But having said that, as compensation for the madness Tokyo trains do give you unparalleled cleanliness, supreme punctuality, and some really funky music at all the stations.

  1. If you want to get high…

…go to Tokyo Tower. There are three really high buildings in Tokyo offering views of the city: Tokyo Sky Tree, the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills, and Tokyo Tower. The Sky Tree is the tallest, at a stupid 634m, and unsurprisingly the most expensive given that it cost an arm and a leg to build. It is also the furthest from the middle of the city, and the busiest. When I went to have a look last summer the queues were so long they hired in mist machines to spray waiting people and stop them passing out.

Such is the height of the Sky Tree that can on occasion poke through the clouds. This is more than a little inconvenient if you have paid the best part of thirty sheets to see a view of the city. It is also located near Ueno, so all the cool stuff is quite a way away and all you have nearby are low-lying buildings and fields. Then again, its primary function is as a communications tower and not a sightseeing platform.

The Sky Tree is now the highest structure in Tokyo, a fact that renders the Mori Tower virtually pointless in terms of city viewing. Yes, there is a really good art gallery at the top if that’s your bag and you can go outside to do your viewing al fresco, but what’s the point in paying a shedload of money to go to the top of a Reasonably High Building?

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

No, if you want a panoramic view of Tokyo then your best bet is and always will be Tokyo Tower. The red and white Eiffel Tower-a-like might seem a little faded on the inside – I believe the correct Japanese term is ‘very showa’ – but it still offers unparalleled views. Because Tokyo Tower was built so long ago, a combination of reasonable land prices and the need for communications coverage of the whole Kanto area led to the thing being sited right in the middle of the capital. So although the Tower is much smaller than the Sky Tree, it’s much closer to all the things you want to see. Thanks to the wonder of perspective, you’ll get a much closer and clearer view of Roppongi Hills, Odaiba, Shinjuku, Yokohama and of course Mt Fuji. And for the clincher, the entry fee is about a fifth of the price of the Sky Tree. Form (in this case tallest building status) is temporary, class is permanent.

  1. There’s a lot of the city you don’t need to see

See that map of the Tokyo rail network? See all that stuff inside the Yamanote Line? Here’s a little secret: very little of it is worth seeing. Don’t believe me? Go to Google Maps, zoom in on the area inside the Yamanote, and drop the yellow guy on a random street. Repeat this five times in different locations. Every time, you saw the same narrow streets, grey buildings and parked vehicles, didn’t you?

You see, an awful lot of central Tokyo is made up of governmental and corporate buildings. This can be entertaining for twenty minutes if you want to see black-suited salarymen zipping about the place, but beyond that the absence of anything remotely of interest starts to wear. I spent an afternoon around Kudanshita with my wife getting some documents for our wedding from an obscure government department, and can report it was not pleasant. On the plus side, it can be mildly amusing to visit areas like Shinagawa at the weekend for the simple fact the place is virtually deserted. Kind of like New York in I Am Legend, without the zombies.

Yep, there's an awful lot of this in Tokyo

Yep, there’s an awful lot of this in Tokyo

At the risk of ending up like the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’ sketch from Monty Python, there are some good things right in the centre of Tokyo that may be of interest: the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Dome for baseball, Roppongi. But most of the bonkers stuff you might reasonably have thought was slap bang in the middle of Tokyo – huge LCD screens, giant electronics stores, outlandish costumes – is actually located at the various stations around the Yamanote Line. It’s as if there’s not one city centre but ten, each with a different sort of theme: cheap electronics and geeky stuff in Akihabara, lights and noise in Shibuya, somewhat less salubrious stuff in Uguisudani (don’t ask how I know that).

Tokyo is a very big and populous city, but a lot of it is of little consequence if you’re on a sightseeing mission – to be fair, though, the same could probably be said of many cities worldwide. Given the size of the place, in a day you might only manage to get time to go to 2-3 areas, so pick your ‘city’ according to what kind of experience you want to have and plan accordingly. Although there is one ‘city’ nearby I would wholeheartedly recommend…

  1. Go to Yokohama
The famous Yokohama skyline

The famous Yokohama skyline

Yokohama is not actually part of Tokyo, it’s in the adjoining prefecture of Kanagawa – saying it is part of Tokyo is kind of like saying North Berwick is part of Edinburgh. However, it is only a 45 minute journey from the middle of Tokyo, reachable without having to change trains if you take the Tokyu Toyoko line from Shibuya.

I have to give a disclaimer here and say I was born and raised near the sea, which may explain why I like Yokohama so much. After being in a big and congested city for a week or so and standing on a stuffy train, only a five minute walk remains before you can enjoy the (comparatively) fresh salt sea air. Actually, if like me you crave the sea after a few days in the city, Rinkai Park at the eastern edge of Tokyo is also lovely – and is also the only place I have ever seen someone playing bagpipes in Japan.

Yokohama has plenty of fun things to do, easily enough to pass an afternoon and evening. Get off at Yokohama Station, and walk towards the massive towers with ‘Nissan’ and ‘Fuji Xerox’ written on them. The Nissan one is the HQ of one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers, and they have a splendid showroom/museum on the ground floor if you are that way inclined.

From there head on to Minato Mirai – which translates literally as ‘Port of the Future’ – and enjoy the sea, the fairground with ferris wheel, and the red brick warehouses. The warehouses were built at the start of last century as customs buildings, and now house lots of retail outlets, including some fine coffee shops.

Yokohama has a large and famous Chinatown, which means lots of awesome food at reasonable prices. There is also a boat you can take that sails round the bay whilst serving an all you can eat Chinese buffet, but as well as being expensive, I have also discovered that the combination of a rolling boat, gassy food and even gassier beer does not for a pleasant evening make. If you are into football, Yokohama’s team is better than most of the ones in Tokyo, and you can see over the hill players like Shunsuke Nakamura and Yuji ‘Bomber’ Nakazawa seeing out their days – if it’s not a match day, you might catch them training at Marinos Town in the shadow of the Nissan building.

Finish your evening by watching the lights on the Yokohama skyline come on from the Osanbashi Pier, and at the same time amuse yourself by observing the hundreds of photographers lining up to snap the skyline (seriously, do they come and take the same photo every night?) and the dozens of young guys who all think taking their girlfriend here is the most original thing anyone in the world has ever thought of.

  1. Dive into what you’re interested in, Tokyo style

Perhaps the hardest thing about advising people on what to do in Tokyo is trying to give 1-2 ‘must see’ things. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, there is so much stuff it’s hard to select just a handful of things. Second, Tokyo is such a diverse city that I find it virtually impossible to select something that’s representative of the place. So, what I recommend people to do is first of all do the stuff they know about and are desperately keen to see – Asakusa, Shinjuku, Harajuku etc – and then to go out onto the world wide web and ask what Tokyo can do for them.

Ueno

Ueno

For instance, I am very much into cars and Formula 1, so when I have time to kill in the Japanese capital I seek out model shops, tuning companies and F1 stores (of which there are a lot of very good ones) and head to them no matter where in the city they may be. One could do something very similar for underground fashion or obscure music and spend weeks cruising round the city, such is the breadth and depth of diversity. There is a very high probability that whatever your interests are, there will be an enclave somewhere within Tokyo that caters to it and has something you can’t obtain or see anywhere else.

And as it happens, seeking out your own thing just happens to be the best way to see the ‘authentic’ Tokyo. Because as you ride the trains through miles and miles of grey apartment blocks to get to some obscure shop in a one-horse station, as you pass so many vending machines that you stop noticing them, and as your ears begin to tune in to all the chimes, jingles and tunes that punctuate the otherwise quiet streets, you’ll get a sense of what daily life is really like for most of the city’s twenty million inhabitants. And as mundane as that may sound, it’s these little everyday things that everyone remembers most vividly when they come back from Tokyo.

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