I recently wrote up some tips for a friend headed to Tokyo:
Get a Suica card. First stop at the airport should be the ATM (I like 7-Eleven’s Seven Bank). Then in the basement (or mezzanine at Haneda), you can put ¥3000 to ¥5000 on a Suica or Pasmo stored-value card. This will let you hop onto almost any form of bus or train, and can also be used in convenience stores, coffee shops, etc., and for storage lockers and some vending machines. No more figuring out which coin is which.
Konbini. Convenience stores—7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson’s, and Sunkyu—are everywhere. Besides the usual pop and candy, they sell a remarkable array of tasty hot food. Outside city centers, they often have small seating areas and even toilets. If your vision of 7-Eleven food is hot dogs on a roller, think again. They have warming cases of delicious fried or grilled chicken (yakitori) or pork nuggets on a stick, meat dumplings, fried prawns, etc. Pick up some rice cake snacks in the chip aisle and a beer or soda from the cooler, then point to a couple of meat-on-a-sticks and you have a very tasty lunch. Chilly day? Buy your instant ramen and take it to the hot water dispenser. Just make sure there’s cafe seating in the store or a park nearby. Japanese people never eat on the street.
Department store food halls. Big department stores flank or top most of Japan’s big train stations (often owned by the railway company). In the basement, usually, is an incredible variety of food counters selling delicious ready-to-eat food of all kind. Here you’ll find a much wider variety of grilled or fried meats, sushi, bento boxes, and croissants and similar pastries that rival anything in Paris. The bakery areas often have savory pastries like curry puffs or ham croissants that are great for eating on the (intercity) trains. See something odd and intriguing, like dried fish or seaweed chips? Have a 100-gram taste. But, again, where to eat your goodies? Many department stores will have a “park” on the roof, with playground equipment, and often, picnic tables.
Supermarkets. Even big supermarkets often have good ready-to-eat food. The market is single people taking supper home, but after a tiring day you may find it convenient to just take something to the store’s cafe seating area, or back to your hotel room. If you visit Himeji Castle, or similar areas where lots of locals picnic, the nearby supermarkets will have lots of options to cater to this market.
Japanese curry. Meat in delicious spicy gravy, served next to rice. Don’t think of Indian curry; think of salisbury steak with extra yumminess. Choose your spice level when you order. CoCo’s is the big chain, but you can find it nearly everywhere. At some places, you buy a ticket from a vending machine and hand it to the counter attendant; no language skills needed.
100-yen shops. Japan is not an inexpensive place, and bargains are not easy to find. A big exception are the three chains of 100-yen shops: Daiso, Seria, and CanDo. Daiso is now known around the world for the useful little housewares and gadgets, and even gloves and belts—all for ¥100! Seria is much more fashion-conscious, with design central to many of the things they sell. The largest Daiso (66,000 sq. ft.!) is near Keisei Funabashi station in Chiba. More convenient, with lots of stuff perfect for gifts and souvenirs, is the one at DiverCity. Seria stores are a little harder to find, often on upper floors of shopping centers, or even within other stores. CanDo has even fewer locations, but some unique merchandise.
Stationery stores. If you like art supply stores, they’re still big in Japan. I never miss visiting the eight floors of Sekaido, just 1000 feet due east of Shinjuku Station. In central Tokyo (Ginza), there’s the more upscale G. Itoya. Stationery and other handcrafts are the focus of Tokyu Hands stores, with many locations throughout Japan. These are also great sources for souvenirs that the recipients can use everyday.
Souvenirs. You’ll also find cool souvenirs—including pencils shaped like subway trains—at the Tokyo Subway merchandise shop in the Ikebukuro Station shopping concourse. The Ekitetsu Pop Shop in Divercity Tokyo (Odaiba) sells all kinds of wonderful train-themed toys—including chopsticks shaped like shinkansen. Though we have Uniqlo stores in the US, some of the Tokyo locations are huge. For manga and anime-themed stuff, Akihabara is the district. Japan’s discount store is Don Quijote: snack foods, kitchen stuff, toys, funny socks, costumes, underwear with hilarious English labels.
For the railfan. Japan is heaven for the rail transport buff. The subway isn’t especially notable compared to others around the world, unless you’re interested in operational details, like through-running of suburban trains. Much more interesting is riding the above-ground JR lines, including the Yamanote Line that encircles Tokyo, and the Shuo line that cuts through the middle. There’s a new trainwatcher’s plaza (with a statue of a Suica penguin) at the south end of Shinjuku Station.
Coastline circle trip. For an afternoon excursion, you may enjoy a circle trip: a limited or express JR train southwest via Yokohama to Ofuna. There, transfer to the Shonan monorail (no Suica accepted), riding above the suburban streets—and through hills—to Enoshima. There switch to the historic Enoshima Electric Railway along the coast, watching the surf crash on the beach or stopping at the Giant Buddha, a short walk uphill from Hase Station, and back east to Kamakura. There you can catch JR back to Tokyo.