Photo via PxHere
For the first time on “Hack Your City,” we went way outside our usual anglophone range. While most editions of this column boil down to restaurant and bar recs, our Tokyo edition addresses some more fundamental differences that an American tourist needs to know. If you’re visiting for the first time, read all 66 of the best comments on the original post. But for those who are just curious, we’ve compiled the highlights below.
We’re sixteen weeks into Hack Your City, so maybe it’s time to talk about the largest metropolitan…
Each Monday on Hack Your City, we ask readers for your best tips on a city: driving tips, restaurant recs, things to do, and any other advice for visitors and locals. Then on Thursday, we present the best comments. We’re working our way around the U.S. and around the globe.
First, some short tips:
- ·“Don’t touch the taxi doors,” says KumquatRodeo. “They’ll auto open/close and you aren’t supposed to touch them.”
- ·To communicate better with taxi drivers, says marayas, “keep the hotel business card on your wallet or your phone, but make sure the address is in Japanese.”
- ·“The view from the Tokyo Metropolitan government building was incredible,” says crs12. “Do it during the day and it’s free!”
- ·Narita Airport is an hour and a half outside the city. “Pre-buy your bus ticket to Tokyo PRIOR to getting on the plane,” says YeahRight, or you might miss the last trip out and have to stay overnight at an airport hotel.
Photo by Humanoid one
- ·There are area maps installed around the city, says LittleJohnHarrisonFordPrefect, but they’re usually oriented toward the direction you’re facing, not toward north.
- ·“Eating ‘low grade’ Japanese beef is already better than what we get in the states,” says popotamus. “They treat their cows very well so no need to splurge on the Wagyu or Kobe.”
- ·Arosukekeke lists some great attractions and events, like this: “Ladies’ Day is every Wednesday and you can find lots of deals at every shop in Tokyo if you are a female shopper.”
- ·“Look up the local holidays before your trip,” says Kenopoly1. For instance, this week many shops closed for Coming of Age Day (a celebration of everyone who turned 20 in the last year).
There are no trash cans on the streets of Tokyo. “I carried a large ziplock bag in my backpack to carry my rubbish,” says Broken-Spoke-Boy. “I just dealt with all of my rubbish at the end of the day.” Saritasara says you can find bins on train platforms and at the front of convenience stores. Kenopoly1 says you can take your trash back to the vendor you bought it at.
Recent Video from Lifehacker
‘How I Work’ with Gretchen Rubin
- ·6128 kbps
- ·4628 kbps
- ·3528 kbps
- ·2378 kbps
- ·1596 kbps
- ·846 kbps
‘How I Work’ with Gretchen Rubin
Tokyo’s 7-11s are essential. They have wifi, and their ATMs take American cards. “The food quality is unbelievable and they have everything you will need there for great prices,” says JosieFluffyPants.
Photo by LERK
Navigation can be confusing, as Japan numbers addresses by block, not by street, says Iota. Google Maps is essential, as is wifi. Bring a portable hotspot, or rely on wifi at Starbucks and train stations. And while you’re on wifi, download a local map (a handy Google Maps feature), says emrichar. Even when you’re without wifi or cell service, GPS will work.
Everyone recommends Tokyo’s train system. But you have to learn to navigate it. (Remember, the trains stop at 1 AM.) Geoviki gives an extensive breakdown of the system in and out of Tokyo. Some highlights:
JR rail passes are a great deal if you’re travelling outside Tokyo. You must buy it online outside Japan before you go, in increments of 7, 14, or 21 days.
It’s not cost-effective to use the JR pass only for the lines within Tokyo, so don’t add extra days or buy it only for the Tokyo part of your trip. Use a Pasmo/Suica card instead.
Unlike most cities, Tokyo’s Metro/subway system is not owned by one entity but several private companies. That can make the metro/train stations extra confusing. Each station can have multiple companies and their tracks in it, so search for the company you’re using.
Check out YouTube for many “how-to-get-through X station” videos.
And if you do go outside the city, book your seat in advance, or you might get stuck standing, says cassidy paul.
The train loops around Tokyo in both directions, so if you get a day pass, you can just take it around. And you can store your stuff at the train stations, says viralpotato:
Make use of the coin-lockers located in the stations to store your bulky luggage/purchases. You can even store large-size hard cases at train hubs when you’re off on an overnight trip outside of Tokyo.
GuB says you can stay in an internet café for even less than a capsule hotel:
Internet cafés are a well known cheap hotel substitutes. You have a small, private cubicle with either a comfortable chair or a floor matress (“flat”), showers are available. You pay by the hour but they often have packages for 8 or so hours that are ideal for sleeping.
Internet cafés are everywhere and open 24/7. There is probably one closer to the place you are visiting than the nearest metro station. No planning required unless there is a big event nearby.
Photo by Mr Hicks46
DTVGGal has a long list of tips, including this food tip:
While some people might focus on solely Japanese food, there are other types of food that vary from what you might find locally. For example, there’s a lot of Italian food that caters more to a Japanese taste. I went to an amazing Indian place in Japan. I’ve also heard good things about Chinese restaurants.
And this booze tip:
Another good tip is that hard liquor can be cheaper than beer. Some places like The Hub (which is a British Pub style place) had mixed drinks that were less than the beers.
Lifehacker writer Patrick Allan gives a lot of advice, like:
If you’re a snacky person like me, load up your Pasmo card (subway card) with more than what you need for train rides. Many of the vending machines in and around the stations will accept those cards.
Patrick also points to this Japanese etiquette video:
Keep an eye out for cops, but in a good way, says cesariojpn:
“TMPD [Tokyo police] have places called “Koban.” Small stations in which an officer or two will stay for a shift. Where ever you stay or go, note the nearest Koban. Just in case you need help or even lose something.
You’ll be carrying a lot of coins, so don’t just shove them in your pocket, says So Shiney:
Get a coin purse. It’s a cash society and you will want plenty of smaller denominations on you which means coins and the coin purse means you won’t be frantically digging in you pocket for that last 100 Yen you know you have and need right now to buy your train ticket at the ticket machine while 10 people are waiting behind you.
“Exchange money at the airport or at your hotel, they don’t charge a fee,” says Mike B.
For a longer Japan trip, listen to Mixeddrinks:
Use Tokyo as the start and end point of your trip. Take the Tokaido Shinkansen all the way to Osaka and work your way slowly back to Tokyo. Stop at the spots you want to visit. Literally this takes you to all the largest urban centers of Japan.
Photo by Sui-setz
As a foreigner, Tokyo kind of eases you in to Japan. It’s easy to get around and it seemed like every business/restaurant had English speakers on staff or English menus available.
One attraction kept popping up in the comments: Real-life Mario Kart. Grapenut says:
Do a Mario Kart type experience if you have time. Best use of $60 for a unique time. You will need an International Driving Permit, but you can get this done at AAA in the US for about $20. Schedule a night drive as it makes Shibuya and Tokyo Tower really standout.
Hack More Cities
Your Best New York City Tips
The Best Toronto Tips From Our Readers
The Best L.A. Hacks From Our Readers
About the author
Staff Writer, Lifehacker | Nick has been writing online for 11 years at sites like Urlesque, Gawker, the Daily Dot, and Slacktory. He lives in Park Slope with his wife and their books.
Speaking as a Japanese-American guy who travels to Tokyo 2-3 times a year for work:
1) Get a pocket wifi transmitter. You can get them for around $5 – 10 a day (depending on how much data you want), and it will make your life WAY easier. Turn your phone to wifi calling, adn you can make calls, use GOOGLE MAPS, and generally operate as if you had a cell phone in the US. It will make your life WAY easier.
2) Also, use google maps. USE GOOGLE MAPS. Japanese streets don’t have street signs, generally. And if they do, they are almost always in Japanese. Also, especially the Tokyo subway/train system is incredibly complicated. You will find life is MUCH easier if you can access google maps and have it tell you where to go.
3) The Pasmo (the Tokyo metro card) can be used almost nationwide. Some cities like Hiroshima have trolleys that won’t accept it and such, but you can use it to ride the Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, or other metros. Most buses (excepting long-distance express buses) accept Pasmo for payment.
If you see a sign that says “Suica” it means the same thing as Pasmo.
4) Check out a Japanese convenience store. They are WAY better than convenience stores in the US—good food for cheap, open 24 hours. A bento box from a convenience store is better food than many casual restaurants int he US.
Also, they will accept payment with your Pasmo (Tokyo Metro card)—just hold it up and the store clerk can show you where to scan.
5) re: to Wagyu or not—most cheap beef you eat in Japan is imported from Australia, FYI. The main reason to splurge for more expensive Wagyu is for greater marbling and tenderness. When Americans eat meat, they tend to favor a balance between the meaty taste enriched by flavors of fat. Japanese people love the flavor of high quality fat—the greater the marbling, the better.
As a Japanese guy who grew in the States, I actually kind of prefer higher end American beef than Wagyu. I woudln’t dissuade someone from trying it, and it IS a different experience than what you’d find in the US. But know it’s very different than say, a Prime steakhouse steak int he US.
6) If you’re in west-central Tokyo (Roppongi or Shibuya), it can easily take 2 hours or more to get to Narita. Narita is really flipping far out there. Use google maps, and definitely give yourself extra time. I hit some train delays and missed my flight once. The Narita Express or Skyliner is pretty nice, and makes things easy, but it’s actually only about 10-15 minutes faster than taking the regular local express train (about $30 for Narita Express, about $10 for local express trains)
Excellent tips! Your comment is as good as the article!
My daughter is African American in her early 20s with a moderate (and improving) grasp of Japanese language, writing and speaking. She is hoping to go to Japan as a teacher for a couple years after college.
I have not been to Japan since the early 80s (Okinawa, few trips to Tokyo). I’m concerned about how AA women are received and her general safety. Thoughts?
First, regarding safety, Japan is probably the safest country in the world. Not only is the crime rate low (the murder rate is 1/15th that of hte US), she will generally have little to fear from the Japanese police. Unlike in the US, Japanese police have VERY strict limitations on use of force. In a nation about 1/2 the size of the US, Japan averages less than 1 fatal police shooting a year. Nationwide.
That being said, I think there are some challenges to being African-American in Japan. As a highly homogenous society, Japan has never had to grapple with racial issues in the way the United States has.
As a result, Japanese people can be very overtly racist, in a way you wouldn’t see in the US. For example, a Japanese comedian did a skit on New Years day less than 2 weeks ago in blackface on national television. Sometimes, Japanese comedians will throw around the N-word in a joking way, again on national television.
Furthermore, many Japanese people tend to have a general low-level hostility to outsiders (gaijin) living in Japan. Japanese people are almost universally welcoming to tourists of all stripes, but to those living in Japan, they can face harsh scrutiny, especially with regards to their community obligations (in particular, your daughter will need to learn about how trash works in Japan—it can be very complicated).
It’s not all bad—Japanese racism tends to take a bit of a different form than the US, more wariness of outsiders and general obliviousness/ignorance on stereotyping, as opposed to outright hostility. But I’m nto going to say it won’t come with it’s own challenges.
All that being said, in the balance, I think it would be a good experience. I have a close friend who is an African American guy who lives and works in Tokyo—he is acutely aware of all these issues, but nonetheless loves living there, and plans to stay indefinitely.
Just understand that it won’t be 100% Roses and Rainbows.
All of these are great tips. An addition to #1, if you go the AirBnB route, as my wife and I did for twelve nights in Tokyo in 2015, a lot of the hosts will include these pocket LTE Wi-Fis with the room. The thing to watch out for is that they often get throttled once they’ve hit the monthly data cap. We spent the last four or five days with internet that was slow as molasses.
Downloading local map data to your phone for the Tokyo area before your trip can help alleviate the throttled data problem. I thankfully did this, so we were still able to find our destinations quickly.
A how to (for Android) for downloading an area map, though I assume it should be similar on iPhone if you’re using Google Maps.
When I studied abroad in Japan, I did not have a smart phone or google maps. 2 years ago I went back for the first time with those things. I have NO IDEA how I got anywhere the first time. No clue at all.
Also I get lost, at least briefly, every single time I’ve been in Shinjuku Station. Without fail. Even if I’m not lost lost, I NEVER come out the exit I was intending to. Screw that station.
Some Japanese stations are legit labyrinthine. What’s confusing is when you can move between 2 (or more!) subway stations without ever going going above ground.
For the automotive enthusiasts:
The need to use cash at so many places was annoying. Next time I go I need to figure out how to use Suica to pay for stuff at stores that have it but not credit.
One tip for getting rid of coins is to reload your Suica/Pasmo with them. Most machines have set reloads, but some let you specify an exact amount.
You can get good Sushi rolls/pieces in the prepared food section of any supermarket, and if you go over to the fish section, they’ll have pre cut sashimi without rice.
Apps like Yelp and TripAdvisor are really helpful because the addresses are mostly useless. I often got to the street it was supposed to be on and had to look for the storefront that matched the pictures in the app. Also, not every restaurant has a ground floor storefront. One brewpub I went to was on the second floor of an office building, and I had to go in an entrance at the other end.
Good idea about the card. I kept telling my tax driver in Shinjuku “Hilton” over and over again in various speeds, annunciations, etc. He still could NOT understand me. I used google translate on my phone and it showed up and he said “OHH! HIRUTON”.. we had a laugh and he drove me the mile.
For what it’s worth, the trains around Tokyo itself were pretty easy to navigate for me at the age of 16, and that’s when my sense of direction (and Japanese language) were terrible. I can’t say much for the lines that go out of Tokyo, as I was on a guided tour.