Tokyo for a First-Timer Part I
I don’t profess to know Tokyo (東京) extremely well – don’t think we even covered 50% of this awesome metropolis despite having been there 5 times the last 5 years – but with the good fortune of having a friend who brought us around town the first 2 times, I would say the mister and I permitted ourselves to get to know Tokyo a little more intimately than many others. We both conclusively declare that it is easily one of our most favourite cities in the world so much so that, when undecided about where to go, it invariably becomes our default destination.
This post was not in my planned schedule; it just so happened that I was asked by 3 different friends to provide some tips on Tokyo for a first-timer. And all within the same week at that! Instead of sitting down to draft the email that I promised all 3, I mulled over things a little and came to the resolution that it might not be a bad idea at all to assemble a comprehensive guide on Tokyo based on our knowledge and travel preferences.
To and From Narita/Haneda Airports
Narita International Airport (成田空港), situated on the far eastern side of central Tokyo, used to be the main and only international travel hub for Tokyo while Tokyo International Airport (羽田空港 – more commonly known as Haneda Airport) at the south-eastern side handled almost all the domestic flights in and out of Tokyo . However in recent years, Haneda Airport is increasingly handling more and more international flights to help cope with the insane number of flights flying in and out of Tokyo. Case in point, Singapore Airlines flies into and out of both airports.
I myself have never stepped foot at Haneda Airport for some reason or another although a friend swears by it, given its closer proximity to central Tokyo. One day I must land at Haneda Airport to see it for myself.
Cabbing from any of the two airports to central Tokyo is virtually unheard of, unless one has very deep pockets or is on a company-funded business trip. Even then, there are better ways to spend the money. A trip from Narita Airport to central Tokyo could set you back by any amount north of S$200, according to my friend who tried it once and almost had a heart attack on seeing the final bill. People usually opt for one of the other two more viable options – by bus or by rail. In terms of cost and time taken, both modes of transport are similar. Alright, that’s an outright lie. The Airport Limousine Bus would take 140 minutes to reach a hotel in Ikebukuro and cost ¥3,000 while the train would take 60 minutes, 1 transfer and cost ¥2,560. Despite the difference in time taken, the mister and I both prefer taking the bus for a couple of reasons: no transfer required, no train station stairs to manoeuvre luggage through and no necessity to watch our luggage like hawks (since the luggage would be stored undercarriage and the bus driver would ensure that the luggage go to their rightful owners by means of matching tags on the luggage and owners). You would have guessed right if you were thinking that we seldom travel light. Not light enough anyway.
If you are won over by the option of taking the limousine bus, let me assure you that it is rather stress-free getting tickets. Come out of the Arrival Hall and there should be an Airport Limousine Bus Counter a little to the left, or right. Buy tickets to the hotel nearest to the accommodation you are putting up at, and go to the bus stop number as indicated on the ticket.
When you finally arrive at your destination point, do not just happily walk off. Go to the limousine bus counter and book your seats for your return trip to airport. Reservations are sometimes necessary if your departure timing is a popular one. If you are not confident of making your reservations by phone using Japanese, just do yourself a favour and get it done before making way to your accommodation.
Another important point to note is, make sure your passport is within reach on the return trip to the airport (and NOT in your luggage in the undercarriage) because at a checkpoint near the airport, airport security (or airport police) do board the bus to check the passports. This is true for all my trips to Narita Airport. Haneda Airport should be the same, I presume. For some reason, I guess they want to know that every passenger on the buses have reasons to be headed for the airport.
Also, if you are a fan of Hokkaido Shiroi Koibito (北海道 白い恋人 – White Lover) chocolate cookie like the missus, you will be elated to know that it is on sale at Narita Airport, after clearing immigration, at a store called Akihabara. I am not sure if it is also available at Haneda Airport but a safe bet would be yes since I also managed to locate these chocolate cookies at Nagoya Chubu Airport (名古屋 中部国際空港) earlier this year.
Tokyo has an extremely well-connected transport network. At first sight it may look very complicated but it is not. First off, download the two maps below and commit the url of this website to memory – Hyperdia. This website is an excellent resource: not only does it indicate how one could get from point to point, but it also gives you other details like the fastest route available, the cheapest option and the estimated time taken to walk during a transfer. Just remember that the time taken to walk should be multiplied by 1.5x or 2x because the Japanese walk crazy fast and the timing indicated is based on their walking speed.
Central Tokyo is served mainly by JR trains and two subway – Toei Subways and Tokyo Metro. Outside of central Tokyo it is also served by some private train lines. This is just some good-to-know information. Other than that, simply know that you really only need one prepaid IC card (which is exactly like our EZ-Link card) to travel in Tokyo. There are two types available: PASMO or Suica, but since we always seem to locate machines dispensing the Suica more often than not, it makes more sense to buy it then. Any of the bigger JR stations should have a machine that dispenses new Suica cards but topping up is generally available in most of the stations I come across, even the smaller ones.
The thing with Suica is that, you don’t get any discount for using it. There are various day passes available to tourists but we never did purchase any of them. I might have done some calculation years back and realised that it was not really that economical. If you are travelling out of Tokyo to other cities and will be getting JR rail passes, then you might need to do more research on your own because the mister and I have not really done much inter-city travel in Japan.
The only line that you need to know intimately as a first-timer to Tokyo – the JR Yamanote Line (山手線). This is a railway loop line that connects most of the important and busiest stations in central Tokyo, and the singular line that is most important to tourists.
Just another point to note, transportation is not cheap in Tokyo. We have not taken buses in central Tokyo itself but have cabbed a couple of times when we got lazy. The fare when you board starts at ¥710, which is reasonable, but jumps very rapidly so be forewarned. As a precaution, try not to miss the last train.
Contrary to common belief, Tokyo provides accommodation from spaces fit for royalty right down to affordable rooms for common folk like the rest of us. Because we spend a lot of time outside, we never felt the need to stay very well while in Tokyo. The mister and I may splurge on a lot of things including food and shopping, but we usually opt to stay simply.
The location to stay at is important in that you would want to stay near an Airport Limousine Bus stop if that is the way you are making your way to the airport at the end of the trip. And of course, stay near a rail/subway station. Most travellers to Tokyo I know of like to stay near Shinjuku Station (新宿駅). I, on the other hand, much prefer Ikebukuro Station (池袋駅) because having been very lost in Shinjuku Station twice (no thanks to the mister) trying to locate the connecting platform to the Hibiya Line (日比谷線), I have developed an unhealthy phobia of and a healthy respect for the sheer size of Shinjuku Station. Plus, we love ramen and there are numerous famous ramen joints in Ikebukuro a stone’s throw away from where we put up at!
—> House Ikebukuro: The mister is averse to not having our own bathroom in the room because he likes taking his time in the bathroom without being rushed. And my pet peeve must be dirty lavatories that I associate with communal sharing. House Ikebukuro completely debunked the urban legend that all common bathrooms must be dirty (and restored our faith in mankind lol). If I have any grouse about our stay at Ikebukuro, it’s how small the rooms are and how thin the walls are. The room was really quite small with little space for anything else after the luggage have been laid open. And the walls… where do I even begin? On one of the nights, we came across 2 inconsiderate families who returned close to midnight. They didn’t stay next to each other, and while showering the children one by one (each family has several), they paid no attention to the rest of the children who were running up and down the corridor, shouting out the names of their friends at the top of their voices. This went on for almost an hour. I was really at the end of my tether, but at the advice of the mister, I decided to keep my peace instead of giving the parents a piece of my mind. I am embarrassed to admit that we hail from the same country.
For those of you who might be concerned about the thin walls, be rest assured that we had restful nights once these 2 families checked out. Otherwise carry earplugs or earphones with you like every sensible traveller does. Do take note that House Ikebukuro is insanely popular, especially with Chinese-speaking travellers so if you don’t book early enough, you might not be able to secure a room which was in the range of ¥9,000 the last time we stayed there.
—> Tokyu Stay Ikebukuro (東急ステイ池袋): For the next trip following, we put up at Tokyu Stay Ikebukuro. This was not because we were unhappy with our experience at House Ikebukuro but more because I was travelling alone for the first part of the trip and the mister wanted me to stay at Tokyu Stay that has a special floor for solo female travellers staying in their Ladies Single rooms. It was a small and cosy room, repleted with all modern contraptions a solo female traveller might require in her room including an air purifier/humidifier and a washing machine! I felt so pampered, but this feeling certainly did not come cheap.
When the mister flew from the States to join me, we both moved over to a double room on another storey. The room was a little bigger, but without the air purifier/humidifier. Other than that, the furniture and interior decor are largely similiar to the single room I stayed in.
There are other more expensive accommodation options if your preference is to stay well. Several of my friends particularly like Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo or the big guns like Hyatt Regency Tokyo, The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo or Hotel New Otani Tokyo.
Tokyo is not as expensive as people make it out to be, if you know where to stay and don’t mind eating simply. A simple bowl of ramen can cost as little as ¥800, even in a reputable joint with a snaking queue outside. And if you are really on a tight budget, bento sets and sushi at very reasonable prices can be found at their convenient stores (コンビニ店), which you can easily find at every turn you make. I usually set a daily budget of ¥10,000 for both the mister and I whenever we visit Tokyo and it is based on this budget that we estimate how much cash we should carry with us. More often than not, it is never enough simply because we tend to eat very well and shop a lot in Tokyo. But as a general guide, you cannot go wrong with this daily budget for 2 adults.
When I was travelling alone, the mister wanted me to have internet access to check-in with him at every place I went to because he was at a location without his mobile phone (but have internet access – strange, I know). The cheaper way of doing things (rather than auto-roaming with SingTel) was renting a pocket WiFi device and I chose to rent from Global Advanced Communications. The whole process was rather straight forward. All I had to do was to pick up the package at the hotel lobby when I checked in, and at the end of the trip, place the pocket WiFi device into the prepaid envelope prepared by the company and drop it into a mailbox. Connecting it with my iPhone 4 was also a piece of cake. A note of caution: this pocket WiFi’s battery tends to drain out rather quickly which could turn out quite tricky when I made day trips out of Tokyo. My solution was to charge the pocket WiFi with an external battery pack I bought for my iPhone 4.
This post has gone on for far too long; writing succinctly is still a skill eluding me after all these years. Tentatively I’m hoping to finish up all I have to share about Tokyo in the next post. In the event that the other post runs too long too, then there might be a Part III.
The next post might only be completed in a week’s time – I will not lie. Several posts on Tokyo have already been written so while waiting for the Why-We-Visited-These-Places, you could read the Where-We-Visited.
I recently learnt that Japan has also started providing short-term pre-paid SIM cards to tourists for the sole purpose of data access on-the-go. Therefore take special note that voice calls are not possible with this SIM card. Check out b-mobile for more information. We have personally not tried it out, but the website has spelled things out rather clearly hence we are inclined to register for one of these SIM cards on our next trip out to Japan.
Since the last update, we have tried using other means of accessing data on-the-go. In particular, we like the Iljmio data sim cards available at Bic Camera. They have a long expiry, usually about a year and come in either 1GB plan for 30 days, or 3GB plan for 3 months. Passports are not required for purchases.