Our two-week stay in Japan’s capital was so different to other destinations we’ve stayed so far on our Grand Tour and there were so many lessons we learned for slow travellers and fans of local travel that we thought the experience warranted a post just on our Tokyo reflections and travel tips.
For the first time this year, in Tokyo we got to play at being tourists. It wasn’t because we hadn’t been to Tokyo before (we had), but because it was so long ago (a stopover 17 years ago!) it was as if we were visiting for the first time. Experiencing the city as wide-eyed travellers gave us plenty to reflect upon. Here are some thoughts…
In Tokyo, it was the first time we felt the need to carry around a guidebook so far on the trip. In Jerez, Ceret, Perpignan and Kotor, all small- to medium-sized villages and towns, which we were also visiting for the first time, we relied on advice from locals and used our travel skills and instincts to settle in, get around, figure out the lay of the land, where we should eat and drink, and what we should do and learn. We didn’t need or miss having a guidebook until Tokyo.
Lesson learned: guidebooks can be helpful in big cities like Tokyo, especially for their maps (when the maps are accurate, that is), their background, historical and cultural info, and for pointing you to particular areas if not specific places. When they’re full of errors, mischaracterizations and poor recommendations, however, as one was that we used, you’re better off without them and the frustration they cause.
Why was our Tokyo experience so different to other destinations, even though we’d been before? Well, for one thing, there’s the language barrier. Unlike our first trip 17 years when we don’t recall seeing anything in English at all, but do remember clutching onto the bit of paper bearing the instructions the hotel staff had written down for us for the day in Japanese, nowadays there are helpful bilingual signs everywhere. However, while we’re trying to pick up as many words as we can wherever we go for Grantourismo, it’s difficult to learn very much at all in Tokyo in two weeks without formal language classes.
While we met many friendly Tokyoites who spoke English, we also met many warm souls who didn’t speak a word at all. Most eateries we ate at didn’t have English menus, but that wasn’t a major problem – we could always point to the photo menus or the deliciously kitsch and incredibly helpful plastic food replicas in the windows of many restaurants where food is prepared out of sight. Plus we always seemed to meet other customers who made helpful suggestions.
Lessons learned: human beings will always find ways to communicate, but next time we return to Tokyo we’ll enroll in language classes as soon as we arrive – and in the interim, we’ll work on our miming skills.
ON SIGHTSEEING VERSUS GOING LOCAL
As per Paris and Venice, where we didn’t tick off any major sights this trip, we didn’t visit the Imperial Palace or Tokyo Tower here either. Nor did we do any iconic activities, such as attend a tea ceremony or sumo wrestling match, apart from visit the Tsukiji fish markets, but then we shop the local markets in every place we stay.
Perhaps more than any other destination, in Tokyo we really delighted in wandering the streets and taking in the rhythm and colour of everyday neighbourhoods. We still learned things from locals, though in a more informal way, from visiting the fish markets with food expert Etsuko Nakamura to talking sake with food and drink writer Melinda Joe to getting a lesson in pop culture from authors of books on robots and monsters. In all cases, we connected with these locals using social media, via their blogs or on Twitter.
Lessons learned: This one was a lesson we learned long ago, and was one of the reasons we embarked on Grantourismo: rather than do the things we feel we should do when we visit places, pursue our own interests in any way that it seems to make sense – it just so happens that for us those ways involve connecting with locals, both in the ‘real’ and social media worlds.
Our Tokyo Tips
• Rent an apartment: nowhere does a holiday rental make more sense than an expensive hotel room than it does in Tokyo; see our reasoning here.
• Take the Airport Limousine Bus Service: if flying into Tokyo, figure out which is the nearest hotel to your apartment, then take a ‘limousine bus’ there. Tickets cost just Y3000 (around £32) compared to a £165 taxi ride – buy them at the desk at Arrivals. Porters take care of your luggage and on arrival hotel staff will organize a taxi to your apartment.
• Use PASMO for daily transport: buy a plastic PASMO card from the ticket machines at your nearest Metro and whack a couple of thousand yen on it. It’s not necessarily cheaper to use the PASMO (although individual rides on the subway are cheaper in Tokyo than, say, in Paris or London), it’s just incredibly convenient – you swipe it as you go through the gates leading to the platforms (you see the balance every time) and swipe it on the way out again, with no need to pay supplements when you change between private train lines; you can use it on trains, buses and even some drink vending machines; it’s easy to re-charge, with cash or credit card; and you can easily get your Y500 deposit back when you leave.
• Carry Maps: pick up a free Tokyo Metro map from the station and carry it with you always, and if you’re staying a week or longer, buy a small bilingual Tokyo street directory.
• Navigating Tokyo: identify the nearest Metros and walk to them from your apartment, marking the route on your map. Don’t attempt to walk home from a Metro without having done this (unless you’re using a GPS!) as we guarantee (from experience!) you’ll get lost. Most minor Tokyo streets aren’t named but are numbered. While there are maps at all Metros the top of the Map is not necessarily north, so the direction you need to go in can be challenging to figure out the first few times.
• Eat Affordably: it’s a myth that Tokyo has to be an expensive city – eating here doesn’t have to cost more than any other city – but if you’re on a budget you can save lots of money by buying bento boxes for picnic lunches or when you want to eat in, opting for set meals (many for less than £8/US$10), and eating at noodle shops, yakitori stands and izakaya bars. See this post for more tips.
• Free Stuff: there is plenty to do in Tokyo that needn’t cost a thing, from kicking back in the city’s many beautiful parks to strolling the tranquil grounds of shrines. Just walking the streets of the city is a buzz.
If you have any reflections or tips you’d love to share from your travels in Tokyo, please do leave them in the Comments below. We’d love to know what we missed out on so we can do it next time!