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Tokyo cheatsheet

What a strange thing! / to be alive / beneath cherry blossoms. 
– Kobayashi Issa

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The famous Shibuya crossing by night. Photo: Karl Baron / Flickr.

ORIENTATION

Since 1869, the seaside city of Tokyo, a fishing village known as Edo, has been the capital of the island of Japan (but until there is an official edict, Kyoto would beg to differ). Twenty six cities, five towns, and eight villages fall under the metropolis heading, but the 23 districts surrounding the imperial palace are at the heart of it all. To see the prefecture at its best, visit during late March/early April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, and in November when the autumn leaves start to change. Skip hot, muggy August – typhoon season – altogether.


IN AND OUT OF THE CITY

There are two international airports in Tokyo. Narita International Airport (NRT), the larger and newer of the two, handles more volume and a higher percentage of international traffic with ease but is about 90 minutes from the center of the city. Only 30 minutes from the heart of town is Haneda Airport International (HND). A jumping off point for domestic travel, the domestic hub handles a handful of direct international arrivals and departures each day.

While exploring the country, hitch a ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to see the scenery – albeit a bit blurry – at 185 miles an hour.


GETTING AROUND

It seems the Tokugawa Shogunate was not so into urban planning. So be prepared to get lost in the unruly, unorganized web of nameless streets to which an illogical numbering system has been applied. A few days in, haphazard nature turns into urban sprawl charm. When asking for help to find your way, it’s best to show the destination address written in Japanese. Take note of train stations, department stores, and konbinis (aka convenience stores), as people often reference landmarks when giving directions. 

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the train is the most reliable, flexible, and economical way to move throughout the city. Avoid the morning and evening rush hour crush. Plan on heading in for the night around 11:30 p.m. when the 13 lines start to slow for the night, or plan on a taxi ride unless or be prepared to stay out until the rail reopens at 6 a.m. Buy a pre-paid card or day pass (look for Pasmo or Suica signs) to avoid calculating exact fare costs every time. Get directions and check the schedule online beforehand. Hail a taxi in the street or wait at a clearly marked curbside stand. They can become expensive quickly, however, as the sprawling city is also prone to congestion. Per-day bike rentals go for around 1000 yen at Tokyo Bike.


CASH AND TIPS

Keep cash on hand as many restaurants, shops, and services don’t bother with credit cards. ATMs give you the best exchange rate. The best place to find a machine that processes international bankcards is at 7-11s, which are everywhere. Tipping is not customary. 


IT DEPARTMENT

Many non-Japanese cellular networks offer a compatible international plan. Those that do often come with a hefty charge for voice and data usage. Complicating cell phone issues further is Wi-Fi, since free Wi-Fi is not at all common. The best bet is to rent a phone at the airport, which will likely save frustration and expensive charges.


STYLE AND ATTIRE

Ranging from the salary man’s basic black suit and tie to the teenage kid in the homemade teddy bear-covered cape, personal style is what’s in style. There’s only one rule: you must commit. It’s not a T-shirt and jeans: it’s Americana. It’s not a blouse and skirt: it’s a few swipes of mascara away from true gyaru (girlie) style.


ETIQUETTE

Good manners are an absolute must for any gracious traveler but when a culture is particularly foreign, there are a few cardinal p’s and q’s that need minding: give and receive business cards with two hands; set bills, change, and credit cards in the cashier’s tray rather than handing it over; never use your chopsticks to take food off a plate other than your own; always pour your neighbor’s drink but not your own — they will return the favor; and no nose blowing in public, please.


LOCAL DELICACIES

Tokyo can take credit for sushi (find the freshest at 5 a.m. at Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market), cold soba (shops hand-make the buckwheat noodles several times a day), shoyu ramen (topped with pork, fish cake, bamboo shoots, scallion, egg, nori, and spinach is de rigueur), oden (a wintery mix of eggs, fish cakes, konnyaku, tofu, and veggies simmered in rich dashi), and unagi (broiled freshwater eel served over rice). Sake is technically from the southwest, but after 1300 years, it feels local. 


NON-TOURISTY SOUVENIRS

Beyond chopsticks and sake sets, there is a whole world of kawaii-ness to take home in your suitcase. Wacky chocolate, candy, and snacks from Lawson minimarket chain, a set of Dollywink eyelashes that are all the rage, or any of the housewares, stationery, and purposeful accessories from mega stores like Loft, Tokyu Hands, and Muji will make any Japonphile’s heart skip a beat.

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