no-sweat tokyo travel tips
By Patricia Belyea
I encourage you to grab a buddy and travel to Tokyo. Buy a plane ticket, order yen from your bank, and pack your bags. It’s time to head to the most populated city in the world!
before you go
JR Rail Pass
If you’re traveling outside of Tokyo on your trip, it’s cost-efficient to buy a JR Rail Pass. A one-week pass costs the same as a return rail trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the high-speed Shinkansen—but you can get in a lot more travel for your bucks during those seven days. Important: You have to buy your JR Rail Pass before you land in Japan. +see more about the JR Pass
I love traveling with a pocket wifi in Japan. I’ve had trouble with promised wifi connections in Japanese AirBNBs and hotels so I prefer this portable version of a powerful personal hotspot. Plus it keeps my cell phone smart while I’m out all day. Pre-ordering a pocket wifi online saves money. For instance, it costs $76 online for 12 days instead of $120 for 12 days with a vendor at the airport. Ordering four days in advance, you can pick up your device and a return mailing pack at the Post Office in Narita Airport. +see more about the pocket wifi
Narita Airport, with Terminal 1, 2, and 3, serves as the usual destination for international flights to Tokyo. That means you are arriving in another city, about 50 miles from downtown Tokyo. This is not the place to rent a car unless you can easily drive on the left side of the road and read Japanese navigation signs. And, you need a parking spot at your destination.
The N’EX train, offered by Japan Rail (JR), takes 1 to 1.5 hours to get to the main train stations of Tokyo. The tickets are discounted for foreign passport holders. The return fare costs approximately $40 for a reserved seat in an Ordinary Car with a reclining seat, tray table, and laptop outlet. Buy your reserved seat ticket at JR East Travel Service Centers and JR Ticket Offices at all terminals. +learn more
The Skyliner, a high-speed train, leaves up to three times an hour and takes 40 to 60 minutes to get to Nippori or Ueno Stations in Tokyo. A ticket costs approximately $25 one way. Look for the Keisei ticket counter across from the Customs/Baggage Claim exit at each terminal. +learn more
Airport Limousine Bus
For travelers with lots of luggage who are staying at a major Tokyo hotel, this is a convenient choice with airport-to-hotel service. The bus also delivers travelers to main train stations. Return cost is approximately $45 for foreign passport holders. Buy your ticket at the Airport Limousine Bus ticketing counter in Terminal 2, Terminal 1 (South) and Terminal 1 (North). The bus is subject the the travails of Tokyo traffic so the trip can take up to two hours. +learn more
tokyo public transit
Tokyo’s public transit systems move 38 million people around in their daily lives. They are well-signed, logical, and affordable.
Suica —a pre-paid card for use on JR East trains, other train systems, subways, and buses in the metropolitan area—is your key to getting around Tokyo. (Not valid on the Shinkansen.)
You can buy your Suica at a vending machine at the front of any train or subway station (or when you buy your N’EX train ticket in Narita). On the vending machine screen, first push ENGLISH. Then follow the instructions for buying a Suica. Your first purchase includes a ¥500 deposit. For adding more money to your Suica, choose the Charging button. Then add ¥1000 to ¥10000 to your card.
NOTE: The vending machine only accepts cash. The good news is that the machine gives change if you don’t have the correct amount of yen.
To use your Suica, simply touch your card to the reader atop the access gates at the beginning and end of your trip. This calculates your fare and deducts the amount from your Suica.
Getting To Your Destination
Your best bet is public transit for traveling around Tokyo, Subways and trains share the same main stations so you can easily transfer between networks during one trip.
You can use these maps to easily figure out how to get around town. Or use the two apps mentioned below.
Tokyo Subways By The Numbers
Each subway line has a full name, a nickname letter, and a color. For instance, the Ginza Line is G and tangerine.
Each subway station has a number. So Kyobashi is G10—the tenth stop on the Ginza Line.
When you enter the subway station, look for the correct subway line on the overhead signs. Next you need to get to the correct track. If you at Kyobashi station (G10) and want to go to Akasaka-Mitsuke (G5), look for the Ginza train that goes to Shibuya (G1). (Note to novices—see how the numbers are going down for defining your direction.)
When you are on the subway, the electronic signage will show you a map of the line you are riding and its subway stations. The numbers below the stops are the minutes to each destination.
Wait, there’s one more set of numbers. These are the exit numbers such as B1. Since some stations can be quite large, it’s helpful to know which exit you want.
The main train group is JR East. There are smaller companies also running trains through the city. The good news is that they all use Suica for easily paying your fare.
Again look for the overhead signage that directs you to the rail line you want. Sometimes at major destinations, such as Shinjuku, the train station is across the street from the subway station. Just follow the signs for JR Line. You will go underground, along a long tunnel, and access the trains via JR Train entry gate. Then you will see your rail line signage directing you to the platform you need.
Train routes also have names and colors. Remembering the color helps you quickly recognize the directional signage that points you to the correct platform.
Riding the train in central Tokyo doesn’t feel very different than riding the subway. There are seats, if you can grab one, and lots of hanging handles for standing passengers.
Suggestion by reader Janet Illingworth: Foreign passport holders can purchase a Tokunai Pass for approximately $8/day. The pass is valid on JR East lines for unlimited travel within 23 wards of Tokyo for 24 hours. You need to purchase a new one each day. It’s inexpensive and saves the trouble of having to calculate your fare.
Etiquette on Public Transit
If I wrote a long list of rules for riding on the public transit, you might think the Japanese are incredibly restrictive. Instead, think of them as incredibly courteous. No talking on cell phones. No food or drinks. Yield your seat to someone in need—older, pregnant, disabled. Don’t hog the seat beside you. No selfie sticks. You get it. Just use common sense.
With the name Rome2Rio, you wouldn’t expect this free app to get you from your Shibuya hotel to the Tokyo Dome. But it does, smartly. (Remember that you will need cellular data service to run any apps.)
Just input FROM and TO, then click the Search button. It will show your travel options such as Train, Subway, Taxi or Walk, with prices and travel times for comparison. Drill down to the transit mode you want and you’ll get timetables, stations, transfers, and any walking directions. Pull open the map and see which exit to take at your destination.
Yes, Google really has mapped the whole world! This standard app from home works just as well in Tokyo. Sometimes it’s useful just to get your bearings—such as when walking across the vast Imperial Palace Grounds and wondering where you will end up. Google Maps also gives you public transit info in Tokyo when you input your destination.
I can’t emphasize this little pointer enough. Order yen, lots of yen, from your bank before you go. The Japanese do not want to steal your money so you can safely carry a more-than-normal amount of cash. Also, they do not want your American dollars. Credit cards are accepted at many businesses but you need yen for charging up your Suica, buying a ¥3000 bag of satsumas from the local produce vendor, and shopping in small stores and at flea market booths.
Bank ATMs only give money to their customers. So you need to find an international ATM, with English buttons, to access your funds. That is not always an easy or convenient feat.
Suggestion by reader Marianne Burr: The exchange rate used and fees charged make trading at my bank unreasonably expensive. Each time I have gone to Narita, I’ve taken US cash and made the exchange at the airport. It’s right when you exit Customs. The exchange rate there is THE EXCHANGE RATE with no profit built in like at my bank. Going home, I just trade back at the airport.
Bring Nice Gifts!
It is appropriate to give a gift when you meet with someone in Japan. The Japanese will typically outclass you with their generosity. True Travel Story: I brought a gift bag of cookies made in Seattle that were crumbs by the time I got there, and our hostess took Michael and I to the most incredible restaurant. How embarrassing! Do the best you can to load up on thoughtful gifts before you leave. I’ve upgraded my giveaway selection, and also bring along gift bags and tissue paper. Plus I always tuck in a few extra goodies for unplanned social opportunities.
Tokyo lives up to its reputation of being an exciting, cosmopolitan destination. If you have time, be sure to get outside of the city with day trips to nearby locales such as Kamakura (the Great Buddha), Nikko (Kegon Waterfalls), and Mount Fuji (Kubota Museum). Better yet, head up or down the island country to experience even more of Japan and its wonderful culture.
Disclosure: JRailPass.com supplied me with a pocket-wifi for my recent trip to Tokyo. I can confirm that it was incredibly useful to have in my hotel and on my excursions every day!