Taking In Tokyo as a Japan first-timer

Come with me to visit Tokyo (東京), Japan’s capital city since 1869. Think Tokyo and you will automagically imagine a soulless fast paced heavily populated city. I think Tokyo is a great introduction to Japan especially if you can’t speak a word of Japanese. It was the first time I had set foot in Japan. Tokyo had welcomed me with the most friendly and cheerful smiles, keeping me adequately entertained throughout my jet lag days and made me a loyal Japan fan.

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For first-timers to Japan, I will teach you some of the tricks of the trade. Tip: After you have booked your flights and fulfilled your Japan visa requirements (if any), pencil in a date in your diary (or the more modern Iphone calendar) and purchase a Japan rail pass (JR Pass) from your local travel agency in your country of origin e.g. H.I.S. Europe Ltd. You will be given a JR Pass voucher that you can exchange in Japan at the latest 90 days after your purchase. The JR Pass is sold exclusively to foreigners and depending on the type of JR Pass, it is valid for 7 days, 14 or 21 days. JR pass is valid for bullet trains except for the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen, local JR buses e.g. Hiroshima and even the JR Miyajima Ferry (Japanese for bullet train: Shinkansen). If you are planning on visiting more than one travel destinations within Japan apart from Tokyo, activate the Japan Rail Pass on the day that you are leaving Tokyo. There are 2 kinds of Japan Rail Pass, an ordinary Pass or a Green Pass. We are loyal fans of the Green class Japan Rail Pass. I think it is worth every single penny for the Green class upgrade, especially if you do not travel light, prefer pre-assigned seating, does not like queueing and crowds and love to travel in comfort.

See http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/about_jrp.html for further details.

Tip: For JR Pass holders, make the HyperDia website your friend. The HyperDia website is an indispensable tool for planning your bullet train journeys in Japan.

See http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ for details.

Most tourists will fly into Tokyo’s International Haneda or Narita airports. Tip: When you arrive at Haneda airport, buy a Japan prepaid SIM card from Mobile Center Haneda Airport 2F Arrival Lobby International Terminal e.g. Sony’s So-net prepaid LTE depending on your data requirements. Tip: Remember to pack your SIM eject tool in your hand luggage. Otherwise, the Mobile Center’s friendly employee should have one at hand too. A straightened paper clip will also do the job nicely.

See http://www.so-net.ne.jp/prepaid/en/ for further details.

Next, buy a prepaid Suica IC Card (a deposit of 500 yen is included in the price) for your public transportation ground travel needs. I found that the Suica IC Card is widely accepted in most cities in Japan. You can use the Suica card at the vending machines, in bakeries, convenience stores and even supermarkets. We bought our Suica cards at the JR EAST Travel Service Center in Haneda airport. Should you wish to, you can also redeem your JR Pass here.

If in doubt, consult http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica.html 

We took a bus to Tokyo City Air Terminal (T-CAT) from the Haneda airport as we were staying at Royal Park hotel’s club room. Usually, breakfast, afternoon tea and an evening reception of free alcoholic drinks e.g. sake, wine and finger food are included in the price of a club room. Having bought our one-way ticket from the T-CAT bus counter, we waited in the waiting area before boarding our bus. There is a drinks vending machine in the waiting area. The helpful staff will place your luggage in the bus’s luggage compartment. Bag yourself an empty bus seat. An employee will start speaking in Japanese and bow repeatedly as she passed you by before exiting the bus again. Honestly, I was not too sure what she was trying to say but I bowed my head as politely as I could have and smiled back chirpily. When the bus was about to leave Haneda airport, what amazed me the most was when the employees lined up in a row and bow at the bus and its occupants before the bus driver sets off. Such an amazing level of customer service!

See https://www.limousinebus.co.jp/en/platform_searches/index/4/10 for further details.

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On our first day after our breakfast, we visited Shinjuku, the entertainment, business and shopping power hub of Tokyo. Owing to our jet lag, we gave Shinjuku railway station, the world’s busiest railway station, a miss. Our first stop was Isetan Shinjuku’s depachika, grocery-filled basement of a department store to get a glimpse of Tokyo’s cuisines. Depachika visit is a must do in Tokyo. You can think of each food counter as a glorified version of food trucks within a fancy department store. Each of the vendors are highly competitive as each depachika space is prime real estate within the ever popular Isetan Shinjuku. Take your pick from bento boxes (Japanese lunch box originally created for rail travellers), sushi, fried chicken, salads, cream cakes, cute animal-shaped buns, fruit-filled mochi (glutinous rice dumplings), dorayaki (adzuki bean paste pancake sandwich), old fashioned Kyoto wagashi and chestnut sweets from Obuse, Nagano prefecture. The Japanese are maestros in the art of creative food preparation and presentation. Every food item is a work of art!

Tip: If you are too tired to go out for dinner or you wish to save some money, do visit a depachika at about 7pm to bag your dinner at more than 50% off! The earlier you are, the wider the choices but the smaller the reduction. It is quite a fun atmosphere with vendors banging on metal containers to catch your attention and shouting on the top of their lungs to ensure that all their products had been sold off. The more experienced bargain hunters amongst you would have visited the depachika in the morning, preselected what you wish to have for dinner and come back in the evenings to bag a bargain. It is quite a competitive sport, bargain hunting! You have to experience it to really understand what I mean.

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We could only stomach a cup of matcha, salted caramel and vanilla ice-cream between us at Premium Mario Gelateria. You can help yourself to a free drink of water after your ice-cream. How about that for a great customer service? We attended a Life is Cat exhibition. I love the playful store display in Tokyo.

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We walked around Shinjuku to admire the shopping streets and business district. Try and spot the Uniqlo Shinjuku branch. Shinjuku comes alive in the evening, offering much entertainment and late-night snacks.

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Our next stop is Shibuya, a playground for the young and trendy. Tick off your must see checklist by walking across the Shibuya crossing.

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For lunch, we tried another must do in Tokyo by visiting a super-affordable and fun dining experience. We ate at Genki Sushi in Shibuya, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. As you are seated, self-serve a cup of green tea (make sure it is powdered green tea and not wasabi!) and order your food from the tablet. The plates are colour-coded for price. We tried the seafood chawanmushi (steamed seafood egg custard, this is a savoury dish), ramen and various sushi. Add a small dollop of wasabi into some soy sauce, give it a gentle swirl with your chopsticks and dip away your sushi happily.

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You can help yourself to the pickled ginger as a palate cleanser. I was very amazed as the conveyor belts could carry a bowl of ramen and even a pint of beer, not just your average sushi plates. You can checkout your meal on the same tablet and pay at the cashier counter on your way out.

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After lunch, take a step back in time and have a really great cup of coffee at a kissaten (traditional coffee house) called Chatei Hatou 茶亭 羽當 in Shibuya. Step into the kissaten and you will soon forget that you are in the ever-busy Tokyo city. Try the house blend, café’s original Hatou Blend, drip-filter coffee. The barista who had at least 30 year experience of working in this cafe will hand select an artfully decorated china cup to serve you the best personalised cup of coffee you will have ever had. I hope the coffee menu will help you to pick your coffee of choice. Chatei Hatou is the source of inspiration for the super-famous Blue Bottle Coffee chain of high end organic coffee microroasters in San Francisco. You don’t have to be a coffee nerd to be very impressed by Chatei Hatou.

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For snacks, we had an ice-cream at Japanese Ice Ouca, Ebisu. The ice-cream came with some seaweed accompaniment but I am not sure that I liked the seaweed objects! Again, help yourself to a free cup of Japanese tea after the ice-cream. This is certainly not the average ice-cream parlour experience in the West.

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Just before we headed back to our hotel, we visited Ginza’s Mitsukoshi department store. The fruits were very exhorbitantly priced. The dark-green skinned watermelons at the back were priced at 5400 Yen each and the ones in front and the honey melons were slightly cheaper at 1620 Yen each. Still, I don’t think these are usual prices for melons. No wonder these melons are protected by the expanded polystyrene packaging EPE foam nettings.

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We walked around Ginza to admire the street views and spotted a japanese monk in a traditionally dressed costume with a takuhatsugasa hat who was banging his handheld gong as he walked up and down the streets.

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Can you spot the Apple store and LV store in Ginza?

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In the evening, we visited another Tokyo must do, the Tokyo Skytree. You can do some window shopping or visit Calbee+, a potato chip brand in the Far East that is branching out into the cafe business. The adventurous ones amongst you may wish to try Calbee ice-cream, an ice-cream decorated with chocolate drizzled potato chips. We were really lucky to not have purchased a ticket to go to the top of Tokyo Skytree.

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As we were really tired from pounding the streets of Tokyo, we decided to call it a day. What a great decision that was, as we narrowly missed a 4.5-magnitude earthquake which hit Tokyo about 5-10 min after we had returned to our hotel room. The hotel building shook as if Godzilla was shaking the hotel building. More accurately, I felt as if I was placed in a metal cage and this cage was swayed gently from left to right. I was brushing my teeth when I felt the earthquake. You can still stand up at a 4.5 magnitude earthquake, I am not sure I wish to experience any earthquakes with a higher magnitude than that as a souvenir from Japan!

I thank God that I had lived to tell you our Tokyo tales. Thanks for reading my first experience as a tourist in Japan. The next stop is Kanazawa. I hope you will continue to follow Dreamplifly. Greetings from Tokyo Japan with love! Sayonara!

Must eats

  • Genki Sushi
    Signature dish: Sushi

          Address:24-8 Udagawacho, Shibuya 150-0042, Tokyo Prefecture

  • Chatei Hatou
    Signature dish: Hatou blend drip-filter coffee

          Address:1 Chome-15-19 Shibuya, 渋谷区 Tokyo 150-0002, Japan

  • Japanese Ouca Ice
    Signature dish: matcha ice cream

          Address1-6-6 Ebisu, Shibuya 150-0013, Tokyo Prefecture

  • Premium Mario Gelateria
    Signature dish: handmade gelato

          Address: Isetan Shinjuku B1F, 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

Practical Tips

  • Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY)
  • Best Time to Visit: May or November to avoid the mad tourist crush!
  • Getting around:  Buy a Suica card and take the metro.
  • Getting here:

Fly to Haneda or Narita airport. Take the metro or airport limousine bus to downtown Tokyo in about 30 – 60 minutes.

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