Know how much to budget per day. I am forever hearing about how expensive Tokyo is, but I didn't necessarily find that to be the case. Of course, getting there if you are traveling from the United States won't be cheap, and if you want to spend a paycheck on a delicious meal, Tokyo is arguably the best place in the world to do so. But on average, I found the prices of meals and activities to be in the same range as you would find in the U.S.. The graph above shows how much I paid, in total, in each category over the course of 3 days. If you take the flight out of the equation, this works out to about $88 per day including lodging. (I didn't actually pay for the flight since I was traveling for a conference - stay tuned for a post on how travel more by doing this!).
While there are plenty of free things to do and cheap ways to stay and eat in Tokyo, $65 per day is the lower bound I would recommend budgeting for a trip there. On $88 per day I was able to stay with an amazing Airbnb host in a beautiful traditionally-styled house, eat some truly kickass meals, and do all of the activities I list in this guide. At $65 per day, you will likely stay in a hostel, forgo two of the most expensive activities on that list, and eat more of your meals at convenience stores like Lawson and 7-11. (Immediately banish your preconceptions about convenience store food - in Japan it is GOOD. The bread, the chicken, the ramen, all of it. My mind was boggled.) Also keep in mind that without some thorough research and planning, your costs in Tokyo can quickly add up, so without further ado...
Plan out your trip! Tokyo is seemingly endless in all dimensions - restaurants, shops, offices, and homes are packed in on each other sideways, vertically, and even concentrically. It is the most populous metropolis in the world, and it is dense, with an overwhelming amount to do and see in every neighborhood. You could very probably spend 3 days on any given street and keep occupied. That being said, with a limited amount of time here, planning your itinerary out very carefully so you see things that are close to each other on the same days will save you a significant amount of transit time and allow you to make the most of your visit. Some tips:
- Get a multi-day metro pass. The Tokyo subway is extremely efficient and extensive, and you can likely do all your travel within the city by using it. If you are going to be taking the train a few times per day, the 3 day pass will save you money. Also, the train lines in the Tokyo subway system are run by two different operators, so a rail pass will make transferring between the two much easier and less confusing.
- Figure out where you're going ahead of time. Unless you speak and/ or read Japanese, navigating the Tokyo subway can be confusing. English characters won't always be present on signs and maps, and you may not be able to communicate well with the station employees. Keep a list on your phone with the names of places you are going written in Japanese in case you need to ask, and pull up the public transportation directions on Google Maps. Even if you don't have roaming data (which I didn't) Google Maps will show your location on the map. Free wifi is also very prevalent in case you need to update your directions.
- Learn cultural norms and key phrases (and how to say them properly). This is not unique to Tokyo, but making an effort to learn some of the language and customs of the place you are visiting is not only respectful and usually appreciated, but will definitely help your trip go smoothly. Japanese culture places a strong emphasis on politeness and making public spaces comfortable for everyone, and certain things that may be acceptable in the United States are not in Japan. One small example: people are generally very quiet and calm in the metro. No one is yelling, shoving, eating, or even talking at an above-average volume. As an East Coast native this bordered on alarming to me at first, but I happily adjusted.
Be a gracious guest. As American tourists in other countries, we often expect a lot. I'm not just talking about the stereotypical image of a loud, arrogant American who crashes Looney Tunes-style into another country, flouting the local customs and demanding Burger King. But we do tend to travel with some implicit expectations that English will be sufficient to get by, American-style food will be prevalent, and that American customs will be welcomed.
In a sense, yes, American culture is pervasive - through movies, clothes, music, and our politics, it is intentionally commodified and exported. So on the one hand, loads and loads of people you meet around the world will be able to discuss the ins and outs of the entire Fast and the Furious franchise with you. But expecting a certain degree of American-ness to prevail over the local culture everywhere you go is damaging, reductive, and ultimately will limit your own experience in a new place. It's something I noticed a lot as an U.S. citizen growing up outside the U.S.. As Americans we would often arrive and simultaneously be very excited about being in a different part of the world, but there were always, always, remarks like "I can't believe how no one speaks English" (in a non-English speaking country) or "wow they desperately need to get a Chilis here" (in a place famous for delicious Mediterranean cuisine). First of all, mozzarella sticks are wonderful but nowhere desperately needs a Chili's, ok. Let's just dispel with that right now.
So, all that being said, Japan is very, very different from the United States! Embrace it. English will probably not always be sufficient to get by, so learn some words in Japanese and place the responsibility for communicating on you, not on other people to understand you. Japanese cuisine is paradise, so definitely minimize the Chili's visits. And most of all, Tokyo has some truly incredible and unique things that you will not find anywhere else, so...
Allow yourself to be amazed by the unique and incredible things in Tokyo.
The list in this category is probably endless, but there are many, many things in Tokyo that you will likely have never seen before and may not ever see again. These include (but are not limited to):
- ATMs from the Bank of 7-11 that sing a song as they present your money in a little box
- Historic palace grounds from the Edo Period
- Shirts with extremely good, inexplicable English phrases like "do not deny the famous beagle power of Snoopy", "Cream Cheese", and, simply, "you are adopted"
- Japanese toilets with an astounding array of functions and buttons
- The Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the largest wholesale markets in the world
- A real life Mario Kart tour through the streets of the city
- Vending machines that sell absolutely everything
- An energy drink called Pocari Sweat
- The view from the Tokyo SkyTree
- The Robot Restaurant which defies explanation but involves laser beams, robot/ dinosaur battles, pyrotechnics, dance shows, and - I guess - food
Tokyo is one of my favorite cities I've ever been, and with such a huge variety of things to see, eat, and do there, this list only scratches the surface. Send me a message or let me know via comment if you have any questions or if there is anything you'd like to hear about that I didn't cover!