Tokyo is perhaps one of the most interesting cities on earth, and has long been on the bucket lists of seasoned travellers. Home to more than 13 million people, it is a sprawling, hectic metropolis full of towering skyscrapers, lightning-fast trains, questionable fashion, temples, geishas and sushi. Lots of sushi. Here are the top 10 most fascinating things to know before you go.
1) It seamlessly blends old with new
Tokyo is one of those cities that really has it all. Being a modern city, it has all the high-end, luxury stores and glitzy hotels that anyone could ask for, as well as some of the most advanced technology around (more on that later). At the same time, visitors can enjoy the peaceful, bright green parks, centuries-old temples of Asakusa and a glimpse of the iconic Imperial Palace or Tokyo Tower. Secretive Geishas walk side-by-side with giggling teens outfitted in Hello Kitty shirts and high-tops—and somehow, it all works. That’s why Tokyo is truly a place that has something for everyone.
2) It will give you sensory overload
Tokyo is not the place to come for a relaxing vacation, unless you plan to sit in the Imperial Palace gardens the entire time. Frankly, the entire city is sensory overload—but that’s what you came here for, right? Bright, flashing neon signs, speeding trains and the hustle and bustle of millions of people getting from point A to point B are par for the course. And if you do need a break, whatever you do DON’T head anywhere near the Shibuya district. Even a quiet restaurant is still not safe from the hub of non-stop activity from the streets below, which you simply can’t look away from. A safer bet to seek refuge in Asakusa, where the sacred temples will grant you some peace and quiet.
3) They have the best toilets
I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. Japan is famous for its toilets, and for good reason. They have transformed the porcelain goddess into a machine that features: seat warmers, music, water sprayers and deodorizers, to name a few. Be prepared for this the first time you head into a stall, as you will likely spend much more time in there than usual, trying to figure out what each of the buttons do! While it probably sounds like the designers went a bit overboard, I personally think this should be the gold standard around the world, and have no idea why these still aren’t available anywhere else.
4) It’s expensive
Most major cities are pricey, and sadly Tokyo is no exception. If you are a backpacker on a tight budget, you’d be wise to put off your visit to Tokyo until you can afford to splurge. A standard hotel room starts at around $120 and goes WAY up from there—and when I say standard, it’s not exactly ‘North American’ standard. No, expect to be able to touch all four walls at the same time, and trip over your suitcase as you try and make it into the tiny washroom. Cabs and bullet trains will also set you back a pretty penny, but the good news is the subway system in Tokyo is rather affordable. Hopefully budget concerns won’t deter you from a trip to Tokyo, as like anywhere, there are easy ways to cut back expenses.
5) It’s home to the world’s busiest intersection
There is one word to perfectly sum up Hachiko Square: insane. Located in the bustling Shibuya district, it was made famous for being home to the Hachiko sculpture, which depicts a loyal dog. The story goes that the pet met his owner every night at that spot, and continued to come even after his master died. The story of loyalty so moved the Japanese, that they erected a statue in his honour. Anyway, the second reason Hachiko Square is famous is because it can accommodate thousands of pedestrians that cross the intersection AT THE SAME TIME. It is incredibly hectic as you can imagine, and you could basically end up crowd-surfing if you don’t keep your feet moving fast enough. This is THE place for people watching—if you don’t give yourself a headache first.
6) People still eat on the floor
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for tourist traps. If there’s something that I feel like you need to experience in a place, I’m all for it, which is why I basically refused to sit in a chair during my entire trip to Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to find that while most people in Tokyo now sit in chairs and booths at restaurants, you can still find places where you can station yourself on a tatami mat while you gobble down your sushi. If you head to Tokyo, try to do this at least once! Unless you are like my 6’3” tall husband who cannot cross his legs—in which case you might find the whole experience a tad uncomfortable.
7) You can buy pretty much anything from a vending machine
The Japanese love their technology, and they’ve used it to come up with a way to avoid going to the store—thanks to the vending machine. Now, we’re not just talking boring stuff like food here (although you can order entire meals from a restaurant at the vending machine located at the entrance, before you seat yourself). No, you can get just about anything. iPods. Umbrellas. Clothes. Eggs. Beer (super handy, by the way). Let’s just say, you’ll rarely be caught trying to track something down in a store.
8) The fashion is insane
Trying to go shopping was a bad idea. Let’s just say, the fashion in Japan doesn’t quite translate over to the streets of North America. Basically, the trick in Japan is to grab anything you like and layer it on top of each other, regardless of colour or pattern. Anime is a huge thing here, so cartoon logos abound. Knee socks, vests, little bright pink skirts, skulls…really, anything goes. The city is also famous for ‘Harajuku,’ a district in Shibuya where teens dress in all sorts of mismatched outfits—and was made famous by singer Gwen Stefani.
Then on the other side of the spectrum, you can see women wearing traditional Geisha outfits—a real treat, in my opinion! You can usually spot them in Asakusa, near the temples. If there’s one thing the Japanese like, it’s cameras, so people are usually happy to pose for a picture.
9) Need a nap? Hop on the train
By far one of the most bizarre trends I noticed during my time in Tokyo was what happens on the train. People in Japan work extremely long hours, and then have a long commute on the subway to get home. So, they save time by doing their sleeping on the train. Seriously. I don’t know how they manage to get a good rest while sitting side-by-side, or know when their stop is coming up, but somehow they have it all figured out. Get ready for some quiet, relaxing rides if you ever hop on…
10) Everyone is incredibly nice
Us Canadians are famous for being polite, and saying ‘sorry’ rather excessively—even though YOU ran into ME! So I was rather shocked when I arrived in Japan, and realized that they basically put us Canucks to shame. When the train pulls into the station, they patiently wait until everyone is off before getting on (what a concept!), the entire staff greets you with a happy chorus of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome) when you enter a restaurant, and they go above and beyond to help tourists—even if it’s super inconvenient.
In my experience, the Japanese are the nicest people on earth, and that alone can make any trip to Tokyo a great one.
Currency: The Japanese Yen (JPY)
Where to stay: There are a number of districts throughout Japan which are excellent to base yourself in, depending on which sites you see. Asakusa is a great choice as it is quieter and near the temples, while Ginza is where you’ll want to be if you like to shop. Roppongi is famous with foreigners as it’s home to many embassies and considered the entertainment district, and Ueno is the best spot for seeing those famous cherry blossoms.
How to get there: Most visitors arrive by plane, and touch down at Narita Airport. FYI, this is far away from Tokyo. You’ll have to hop on the JR Narita Express Line train, and travel about one hour to get to the city centre. Tickets cost anywhere from 2900-5700 yen depending on class and destination. Alternatively, you can buy a 3,000 yen ticket for the limousine bus, which takes about two hours and stops at hotels and stations throughout the city.
Must try: Anything flavoured with green tea. Try a green tea ice cream cone, and be sure to pick up Green Tea Kit Kat’s at the airport to bring back home!
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