[11/29/12 EDIT] The below content is definitely still relevant, but for those of you with Twitter magic, I suggest first reading this.
[11/30/12 EDIT] I cannot emphasize enough how hard it is to get wifi in Japan if you don’t live here. I would highly recommend skimming this - where you can learn how to book your wifi prior to your departure so that it will be waiting for you at the airport or your hotel.
AS YOUR TOURGUIDE/DRINKING BUDDY/KARAOKE CONFIDANTE
►MEETING FOR BREAKFAST/LUNCH◄
Weekdays I work at an office close to 麹町駅 (Kojimachi station) on the 有楽町線 (Tokyo Metro Yurakucho Subway Line) and can meet before work (I start at 9:15am) as well as during lunch Tuesday through Friday, from 12pm-1pm.
Between teaching English on the side and doing shows around Tokyo, my schedule in the evening and on weekends has me running around a bit. But I do try to keep track of everything here - any chunk of time marked “空き” is available time to spend with you (^_^)! I suggest viewing the calendar using the “weekly” view option (週), which you can select in the upper right hand corner of the page.
I’m on Google chat (danielmorito) and AIM (koshershamisen) the entire working day and - if things are quiet in the office - I can chat/guide you around. And while I tend to keep my cell phone off during working hours, you can reach me at the office - within Tokyo, the number is (0)3-3512-3711. Please note that although the phone will always be answered in Japanese - you can just say “Hello. May I please speak with Danny Katz?” and whoever answers will connect you to my desk.
►JAPAN RAIL PASS◄
I highly recommend the Japan Rail Pass if you’re going to travel a lot by 新幹線 (shinkansen/bullet train). (But for travel just within Tokyo, it’s probably not worth the money - see information below on discounted daily passes for Tokyo’s subways). If you buy a Japan Rail Pass, read all the information here. You need to get the pass purchased and voucher taken care of BEFORE you arrive in Japan.
►TRAIN SCHEDULING GUIDES◄
For those of you familiar with www.hopstop.com, you’ll appreciate both of the following websites as they allow you to plan your travel routes, departure and destination times, as well as providing you the total cost of the trip:
2. www.hyperdia.com (The advantage to Hyperdia is that it allows you to deselect “Nozomi” 新幹線 from the routes it pulls from - which is important if you’re using the Japan Rail Pass (as the Japan Rail Pass will not allow you to travel on Nozomi).
When you select a station at www.jorudan.co.jp/english or www.hyperdia.com, double check that you’re selecting the right one as there are multiple stations in Japan that share the same name. (Don’t assume that the station that the search engine defaults to is the correct one).
Many stations in Tokyo are rather large with extensive exits, tracks deep underground, lots of escalators, cute shops to distract you, etc. - always give yourself at least 10 extra minutes to get where you’re going - and if you’re wandering through 新宿駅 (Shinjuku Station) maybe even more time than that.
A comprehensive map of the two Tokyo subway systems (the privately owned Tokyo Metro and the government owned Toei) can be found here.
. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, this map of all the Japan Rail routes around the Tokyo area should be useful too. Also note that in addition to the subways and Japan Rail, there are extensive private rail companies, identified here.
►TRANSIT DISCOUNT OPTIONS◄
While the Japan Rail Pass will allow you to get around Tokyo on Japan Rail (“JR”) commuter lines, you should consider subway day passes to cover the entire area. Tokyo Metro and Toei both have separate all day pass options (that I think run around 700 Yen each), but for the money, you’re probably best off with the 1000円 per day all-access day pass (Tokyo Metro and Toei combined). You can, of course, buy tickets as you go, with the cost determined by distance. Regular rail tickets can only be purchased at stations, not in advance. Information on discount passes for subways can be found here).
This package might be worth looking into, if for no other reason than using the SUICA/PASSMO touch system is much easier than trying to figure out transit costs all the time. It’s like a MetroCard and it comes as a package deal if you take the Narita Express train. You can easily refill (add money to your balance) your SUICA/PASSMO card in any station.
It is fairly common for private train lines, commuter rails and subways to run on the same track (where the train is under different management in different sections of its route) so don’t be completely perplexed if you get on a subway and the last stop appears to be somewhere in the hinterlands of suburbia, or if you hop on a commuter rail and it routes you through subway stations. (For NYC folk - it’s like seeing a LIRR train pull into the 23rd St./8th Ave. station, or a 2 train heading out to upstate New York).
►THE LAST TRAIN◄
All subways and trains stop running around midnight to 5am. And Tokyo is huge. Just keep this in mind as you could easily blow hundreds of dollars on taxis if you’re not careful. And you also want to avoid the last train on Friday nights - it can be so crowded your feet won’t touch the ground. An experience, but one I would recommend you best avoid.
►MAKING SENSE OF JAPANESE ADDRESSES◄
Tokyo isn’t so much a city as a sprawling metropolis which is broken into 23 special wards, but those wards are referred to in English as cities. So you may come across something located in “Shinjuku (City).” This is a good explanation of those zany addresses you’re likely to see. Needless to say, always have a map or good GPS handy!
AT NARITA AIRPORT
►RENTAL CELL PHONE◄
If you don’t want to use your American cell phone while here because of costs, rental phones at the airport are pretty cheap. (Green/gray payphones are not nearly as common as they used to be, but you can usually find one near any convenience store or train/subway station, and unlike the ones in the U.S. 99% of
them work perfectly.)
If your luggage is particularly bulky and you don’t want to bring it up and down tons of stairs, you can have the luggage shipped to your first destination. If you anticipate buying lots of heavy souvenirs, you can have your hotel coordinate a pre-flight luggage pickup, although I believe the requirement is that your luggage has to be completely packed at least a day before your trip out of Narita.
Although they may be shy and hesitant to speak, a lot of people in Tokyo can handle basic English, such as giving directions. You may even find that Police Officers and Rail/Transit Employees pride themselves on speaking English, no matter how grammatically wrong it may be. Also - most tour guide books list basic survival phrases in Japanese - if you want free resources, check out About.com (but be warned, you could easily kill a few days just browsing there).
Even if you avoid rush hour, you may find yourself on crowded trains, buses, etc. Aside from making sure your luggage takes up minimal space (hold your backpack in front of you if possible so you’re not smacking into people behind you), the best word you can say is すみません (soo-me-mah-sen), also passable as すいません (soo-ee-mah-sen) - it translates loosely into “sorry/excuse me/please move.” Use this when you’re getting onto a crowded train, off a crowded train and if you bump into someone. If you really want to be assertively polite, you can also say ごめんなさい (gommen-na-sai) which means “sorry” as well as すみません・おります (soo-me-mah-sen, oh-ree-mah-soo) - “excuse me, please move, i’m exiting [the train, bus]”
PLANNING YOUR SCHEDULE
►WEEKLY EVENT CALENDARS◄
2. Also, an excellent suggestion from my friend Graeme: “Tell them to go to department store basements and buy lunch boxes, then eat said lunchboxes on the roof of the department store. Top recommendations are Isetan Shinjuku and Mitsukoshi Ginza. Also, don’t be shy to buy a whole cake and eat it up there.”
There are plenty of great coffeeshops and smaller chains throughout Tokyo, but if you need your Starbucks fix (I don’t judge - jetlag can be a helluva drug :P), you can find locations here:
1. Hotel Sunroute Shinjuku - not super cheap, but super convenient being a 5-10 minute walk from JR Shinjuku station, which gives you access to a ton of train and subway lines.
2. Hotel Maruchu - not as central (think this one is closer to Ueno/Minami-Senju). Might be dumpy in comparison to Sunroute, but safe and cheap.
3. Shinjuku Capsule Hotel - if you want to try something… different.
Time Out Tokyo. That’s just my personal fave, especially for its neighborhood descriptions. But Lonely Planet and the other standard guide books are a-ok too!
When planning out your finances for the trip, ALWAYS check a currency converter to make sure you’re bringing enough with you. MANY BUSINESSES IN JAPAN WILL NOT ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS. ALWAYS HAVE YEN ON YOU!
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO CHECK OUT
►TOURISTY STUFF OR…◄
Everything in the Time Out Tokyo book and Visit Japan website is solid. But if you want to do stuff slightly off the beaten path and waaaay less touristy, I recommend:
1. Shimo-Kitazawa (下北沢) - http://www.japan-i.jp/explorejapan/kanto/tokyo/shibuya/d8jk7l000002rm0t.html and http://www.japan-i.jp/news/d8jk7l000005pqej.html
2. Kichijoji (吉祥寺) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kichijoji and http://www.japan-i.jp/news/kichijoji_shopping_town_part_1.html
3. Asagaya (阿佐ヶ谷)
4. Koenji (高円寺) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koenji
5. Ogikubo (荻窪) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogikubo
6. Nakano (中野) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakano,_Tokyo
7. Yanaka Ginza (谷中銀座) - http://www.japan-i.jp/explorejapan/kanto/tokyo/yanaka-nezu-sendagi-hongo/d8jk7l000002rmdn.htm
8. Toden-Arakawa Streetcar (東電荒川線) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toden_Arakawa_Line and http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/eng/services/streetcar.html
9. Tsukishima (月島) - Exit 7 from Tsukishima Station and walk straight until you hit the restaurant row - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukishima.
Unfortunately the Wiki entries are a bit dry - definitely Google the neighborhoods a bit or read the respective description blurbs in the Time Out Tokyo book. They’re great neighborhoods :D