I spent a week in Osaka. Although it’s big, it’s neither as big, nor as cosmopolitan, as Tokyo.
I had almost no trouble getting around and making myself understood. As a backup, I kept a card from my hotel I could show if I got lost, but never needed it.
Just head to your local bookstore, pick up one or two travel guides, check and see if the hotel cateers to international guests (which means someone on the staff will speak at least passable English) and you’ll be ready.
For hotels, I’d recommend a good business hotel. The rooms are small, but more affordable than Western-style hotels. I’ve recommended Olympic Inn Hotel in Azabu and various Sunroute Hotels locations to people in the past. The first link is actually to a travel site that is a pretty good reference.
As for where to visit, the main areas that pretty much everyone goes to see in Tokyo are Shibuya, Shinjuku, Asakusa and Omote-Sando/Harajuku. These are all important districts in Tokyo worth visiting. Asakusa is north-east of the Imperial Palace, in a somewhat older part of the city, and home to both a shrine (Asakusa Jinja) and a temple (Sensoo-ji) that are good tourist destinations. A couple of stations west of Asakusa is Ueno Park, around which are several wonderful museums. If you like museums, I’d also recommend a visit to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.
Other worthwhile visits are Odaiba (an area adjacent to Tokyo Bay), Tokyo Disney (actually just east of the city in Chiba), Tokyo Sea Life Park (also in Chiba, within sight of Disney) and Yokohama’s Chinatown. If you’re willing to travel a bit outside of the city, I always strongly recommend a visit to Hakone to see Mount Fuji and enjoy some time at an onsen (hot spring spa, which can be as cheap as $10 for a very basic example).
The first hotel recommendation I mentioned is in an area called Azabu, which is a quick walk from Roppongi, the entertainment district that caters most to foreigners. And, if you like classic rock and live music, I know of a great club not too far from there.
Tokyo Player asked all the key questions. Once you answer those, then planning a trip is much much easier. For right now, I’ll just say that for experiencing traditional Japanese culture, visiting Kyoto and the area around (Nara especially IMHO) is key.
I understand where you’re coming from. I’m a newcomer to Japan, don’t speak the language, nor do I live in Tokyo but I visit occasionally. Below are some strategies I use when I’m plan these trips.
I’ve found that staying near the Ueno Station convenient for sightseeing. As Cerowyn mentioned, there are sights nearby. It’s a bit easier to navigate through Ueno Station than Tokyo Station (main train station) yet you can get to almost anywhere from there. And if you crave some greasy, American food, there’s a Hard Rock Cafe in the station. That said, if you get a hotel near a train station on the Yamanote Line, you’ll do well. The Yamanote Line goes in a loop, crossing most other lines. It’s a great train for tourists because the sign above the door is a computer screen that shows the next stop in English and Japanese and even includes an approximate time to the stations further down the line.
Trains will be your friend when traversing Tokyo. Taxis will be expensive for lengthy trips. I use Hyperdia Timetable to figure out how to get from where I am to where I want to be. It inlcudes approximate travel time so you can more easily develop a realistic plan with this knowledge. Tokyo’s more spread out than you’d expect. As you’re researching attractions on the Web, take a peek at the map or directions page. Obviously note the train or subway station name. Print and bring the maps but be aware that they are generally not drawn to scale and are as confusing as h3ll. They’re handy to show someone if you think you’re lost, though.
For hotels, I use Cerowyn’s link. The hotels in the $70 range will be tiny, but since you’re only going there to sleep and shower, they’re fine. And, after all, you want to soak up Japanese culture. They’re definitely different than the Holiday Inn! Be aware that Japanese hotel beds are usually much firmer than in American hotels. The Olympic Hotel, though, has very comfortable beds. While I love the hotel, the location isn’t as optimal for sightseeing. For travel to sights outside the immediate area, it often means adding a subway-to-train change to the itinerary. Which increases the chances of getting lost. As a newby, it may be easier to stick to a hotel near a major station and/or one on the Yamanote Line. As you can see, I really like the Yamanote Line!
Having said all that, I’ll toss Kamakura into the mix of sights to see. There’s a passel of temples, a big Buddha, hiking trails, and a beach. You can spend a whole day there with no train travel between sites. The trip there is interesting, too: a regular JR train then a charming local electric trolley.
If you can read English, you’ll at least catch free entertainment just people watching in Japan. For every t-shirt that has a pretentious yet rediculous kanji character on it in the states, there is a Japanese girl walking around with an equally rediculous english slogan or perverse symbology.
I’m curious, how would TokyoPlayer and others recommend finding cheap individual lodging? I know the hostels work well if you use one of the 5 or 6-person rooms, but bunking with strangers always creeped me out a fair bit. And hotel bills are killers, if you go for more than a week or two.
Be careful in your hotel selections or at least know what your getting into. I would recommend staying in an American style hotel, where you can find things like comfy beds and western style toilets. Also having a room bigger then a coffin is nice.
Being able to speak Japanese is not needed. You can get around just fine. It is fairly easy to find someone who speaks English if needed. Most the signs are written in Japanese and English. Most the taxi drivers I dealt with did not speak English so it was helpful to be able to point at a location or name in the tourist guide I had.
I’ve been watching anime for 10 years, and whatever you think of “cartoons,” if you watch enough of them, I think you get a sense of the culture. There are some that are less about mecha and artillery, and more about presenting aspects of the culture and history. From there, I started watching live action Japanese films. I always watch them in the native language with subtitles. I watch Japanese TV when I get the chance, even though I don’t understand the language.
I also love reading books that address the culture and history of Japan. I read news articles about things that go on there. I’ve seen Tokyo on TV. I love the history of Japan. It’s a place I want to experience.
I love Japanese pop music.
The complexity and ideas of the language captivate me. I want to learn more. I want to see it all in person.
I guess it doesn’t have to be Tokyo; it just seemed like that is a center of it all that I can start out with. Kyoto would be fine as well.
I guess it’s sort of a general interest. I want to dive in and begin exploring.
The Sunroute Hotels that Cerowyn mentioned are good if you’re looking for a western-style business hotel with all the standard amenities. Decent-sized rooms, good location, and very reasonable price. My parents stayed at the one in Asakusa last year and enjoyed it very much.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a very low-cost room that’s more of a traditional Japanese experience, around the Asakusa area (Arakawa Ward and Taito Ward), there are a growing number of hostel-style bed & breakfast places. Most of them started as flophouses for day laborers and the semi-homeless that made up a large part of the population in these wards, but recently they’ve discovered the growing backpacker tourist market and spruced things up accordingly.
From what I’ve heard, the rooms are tiny (about enough space for your bag and a futon laid on the floor) but very clean, the bathrooms will probably be shared, the breakfast is usually traditional Japanese (fish and rice), and the owners are typically very friendly.
Type Cheap Hotels Tokyo into google and go from there.
I found one place with room rate ranging from 5,900 yen to 7,100 yen. That’s US$62 on the upper end. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect less than that.
If you’re looking for $20 single person accomidations, then I’d suggest this site.
Here’s a good site for sightseeing. Check out the entries on Harujuku and Shibuya, two areas which have a lot of young people.
Here’s some recommendations I put together before. Check this out and let me know if anything is interesting.
Akihabara (short: Akiba) is a district in central Tokyo, famous for its many electronics shops. In recent years, it has also gained fame as a center of the gaming, manga and animation culture. A major redevelopment of Akihabara Station and surroundings is nearing its completion, giving Akihabara a new face. TP comments: Electronic paradise.
Asakusa is the center of Tokyo’s shitamachi, lit. “low city”, one of Tokyo’s few districts, which have preserved a certain atmosphere of the old Tokyo.
Asakusa’s main attraction is Sensoji, a very popular Buddhist temple, built in the 7th century. The temple is approached via the Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs for centuries.
TP comments: A really good example of Japanese temples.
Sumida River Cruise (Near the Asakusa Temples)
Sumida River sightseeing ships operate every 30 to 60 minutes from Asakusa Pier via Hama Rikyu Garden to Hinode Pier, where you can transfer to a ship to Odaiba. In addition, there are some direct ships from Asakusa to Odaiba.
TP comments I’ve taken many people on this. It starts near the Asakusa temples.
Hama Rikyu, the garden of a feudal lord’s residence during the Edo Period, is one of Tokyo’s most attractive landscape gardens. It is located alongside Tokyo Bay, next to the futuristic Shiodome district.
Seawater ponds, which change water level with the tides, former duck hunting grounds, forested areas and a teahouse are some of the park’s attractions. Furthermore, the contrast between the traditional gardens with Shiodome’s skyscrapers in the background is spectacular. TP comments: This is a good example of Japanese gardens. You can take the river cruse to here.
The Imperial Palace East Gardens (Kokyo Higashi Gyoen) are a part of the inner palace area and are open to the public, except on Mondays, Fridays and some special occasions (see links below). Admissions is free of charge
TP comments: This is near central Tokyo.
Kamakura is a coastal town in Kanagawa prefecture, less than one hour south of Tokyo.
Kamakura became the political center of Japan, when Minamoto Yoritomo chose the city as the seat of his new military government in 1192. The Kamakura government continued to rule Japan for over a century, first under the Minamoto shogun and then under the Hojo regents.
After the decline of the Kamakura government in the 14th century and the establishment of its successor, the Muromachi or Ashikaga government in Kyoto, Kamakura remained the political center of Eastern Japan for some time before losing its position to other cities.
Today, Kamakura is a very popular tourist destination. Sometimes called the Kyoto of Eastern Japan, Kamakura offers numerous temples, shrines and other historical monuments. In addition, Kamakura’s sand beaches attract large crowds during the summer months TP comments: If you have a day for getting out there, this would be a great destination. Lots of great temples and a giant Buddha
Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu) is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. TP comments: Best known Shinto shrine (different from Buddhist temple) This is a “must see.”
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (Tocho)
The 243 meter tall twin towers and surrounding buildings contain the offices and the assembly hall of the metropolitan government of Tokyo, as well as observatories on the 45th floor of each tower. The view from the southern tower is considered slightly more interesting. TP comments: I would recommend going to the observatory.
Kabukicho (In Shinjuku)
Named after a kabuki theater, whose construction plans have never been realized, Japan’s largest red light district features countless restaurants, bars, pachinko parlors, love hotels and a wide variety of red light establishments for both sexes and sexual orientations. Explore with caution and beware of exorbitant cover fees. TP comments: This is the night district. Very interesting to just even what this looks like, but I would strongly recommend having a guide if you are interested in visiting. It is completely safe, but care must be taken.
Many upscale department stores.
The Ginza is Tokyo’s most famous upmarket shopping, dining and entertainment district, featuring numerous department stores, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, night clubs and cafes. TP comments: Also more shopping.
Rainbow Bridge from Daiba http://tokyoyakei.cool.ne.jp/tokyo/rainbow-bridge/tokyo-rainbow.html TP comments: Great view of Tokyo from an island in the bay. Best seen at night.
Current events at Museums, including art, photography and history
Upon crossing a replica of the “Nihonbashi” Bridge, one enters the Edo-Tokyo Museum permanent exhibit from1590, when Tokugawa Ieyasu first built Edo, (renamed Tokyo at Meiji Era) the Edo-Tokyo area has enjoyed a long 400 years history.
The permanent exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum showcases politics, culture, and an insight into the lifestyle of the people from its birth to present day Tokyo
Interesting museum if you are interested in history.
Harujuku / Omotesando Shopping district
The main drag through Harajuku, Omotesando, is one of Tokyo’s completely tree-lined streets. In addition to the greenery, Harajuku is a shrine to high fashion to which devotees come every day in droves. From Yoyogi Station up to Aoyama Dori is as nice a stroll as you will find in Tokyo. Cafes, boutiques, and funky little shops line Omotesando. On Sundays Harajuku draws all types, sharing virtually nothing but a craving of attention: musicians, various urban ‘tribes’ (zoku) in distintively way-out garb, and suburban teenagers off for a day in the big city.
Prada’s Tokyo flagship store was built on Omotesando at a cost of US$80 million, designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. It is, as a New Yorker magazine article noted, ‘one of Japan’s most provocative public spaces’. An amazing experience, even for the rabid anti-shopper.
TP comments: Many of the big names in fashion, including Prada, Louis Vuitton and others have shops in Omote Sando.
The current (Kokyo) is located on the former site of Edo Castle, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the center of Tokyo, a short walk from Tokyo station. It is the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family.
TP comments: This is all you get to see, just the outside walls.
I’ll give a shout-out to two of my favorite places in Japan. The first is Toudaiji in Nara and the second is Ginkakuji in Kyoto. A quick google search will turn up tons of links for both. Have you decided how long you will visit for?
If you want to learn more of the language, I can tutor you a little bit for free.
TP’s last post almost directly mirrors my own visit to Tokyo last year. I highly recommend everything on there. I got lucky enough to be invited to a dinner at the very top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office. I believe it was in the observatory, in fact. Wonderful view of the city, and very fun.
Kamakura is an excellent day trip just outside of Tokyo. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend in Japan, it’s a good way to see a less urban side of Japan (if no less touristy). The Daibutsu (big Budda) and Hase Temple are both quite awe-inspiring sights. (There’s also a wonderful little okonomiyaki place near Hase Temple, with yakisoba and some other stuff as well. Very pleasant little shop.)
I had the (mis)fortune of visiting Harajuku during one of the busy shopping days of the year. Takeshita Street was packed, packed, packed. While the people-watching was fun, I was feeling under the weather (it being our first day in Japan after a harrowing night trying to find our accomodations didn’t help either) and found it oppressive, but that was a singular experience.
I have to echo everyone recommending the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The exhibits are magnificent and the guides, should you choose to ask for one, are quite knowledgeable and friendly. Ours was only too happy to try out his English, and showed us his collection of souveniers tourists gave him as thanks. Also, while we waited for the museum to open, we tracked down some sumo wrestler stables in the area and found a veritable herd of them exercising in an alleyway. They were only too happy to let us get up close and take pictures.
Odaiba is a trip, though the train fare costs a bit more to reach it than anywhere else in Tokyo. The architecture is unique and there’s some interesting attractions to be seen. A great place to just walk around.
Use the metro! It’s well worth it to learn to navigate. I can read rudimentary Japanese, so I found it easier to learn than you might, but as I’m unfamiliar with metro systems in general, I was utterly astonished at how easy and cheap it was to get around Tokyo. I got so used to riding the trains within a week that I mourned the lack of a metro system in Arizona for weeks afterward.
Regarding accomodations, I can’t help much; we tagged along with a conference and others made the reservations for us.
Most Japanese people won’t hold it against you if you don’t know Japanese, and English is pretty accessible anyway, so you shouldn’t have much of a problem. I did encounter some embarassing situations when I tried to use my paltry skills and couldn’t make myself understood, but that’s how it goes. (I tried to buy a kanji dictionary for my Nintendo DS, and the shopkeeper refused to sell it to me. At first I thought it was a communication issue, but I realized afterward that he thought it wouldn’t work in my DS. :mad: That was specifically on my list of things to buy, too.)
(Oh yeah, if you’re inclined to taste the nightlife, don’t try looking for out-of-the-way dives like my brother did. He found a bar that was Locals Only, and boy did they make that abundantly clear to him when he walked in.)