First time visitors to Tokyo often experience sensory overload—screaming neon signs, crowds moving politely at a frenetic pace, the sheer size of the place. It’s the ultimate megacity with 30 million people living within 30 miles of the center. The city’s population and its position as a powerhouse of finance and industry have driven property prices firmly upward. Its innovative skyscrapers house some of the most expensive apartments and offices on the planet.
But Tokyo is not all about tall buildings and bullet trains. The city has a rich history; expansion and development began in the early 17th century when the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu established a government around his residence, Edo Castle. Despite extensive damage caused by past and recent natural disasters and bombing during World War II, Tokyo has preserved glimpses of its fascinating past while marching steadily toward the future.
Getting to and from the airport
Narita International Airport is located about 60km from the city center. Taxi fares from the airport are fixed and cost between 15,000 to 26,000 Japanese yen or JPY (approximately US$160 to 275), depending on your city zone. The Narita Express train takes 53 minutes to central Tokyo, and one-way tickets cost between 2,940 and 3,110 JPY.
In recent years, Tokyo’s Haneda Airport has begun to rival Narita as the business traveller’s preferred gateway. Its new international terminal, fourth runway and proximity to the city center (14km south of the city) mean that taxis cost between 7,000 to 9,000 JPY. Depending on your arrival time, it may be faster to take the train, as the station at the international terminal connects directly to the underground on the Keikyu Line and to the Tokyo Monorail Line.
Getting around Tokyo
Tokyo’s extensive public transport system can seem overwhelming, but stick with the Tokyo Metro if you’re staying in the city center. There are nine metro lines and stations are numbered with a letter representing the subway line and a number for the station.
Tickets cost between 160 and 300 JPY depending on the distance, and you can buy them from in-station vending machines that display instructions in English. For longer stays, consider buying a PASMO rechargeable travel card, which requires a 500 JPY deposit and a minimum credit of 1,000 JPY.
Where to stay
For a luxury stay, try the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo, Tokyo Midtown 9-7-1 Akasaka Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-6245, Ph: +81-3-34238000; the Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo, 1-8-3 Marunouchi, Tokyo 100-8283, Ph: +81-3-67397888; or the Park Hyatt Tokyo, 3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Tokyo 163-1055, Ph: +81-3-53221234.
Upscale options include the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay, 1-16-2 Kaigan, Tokyo 105-8576, Ph: +81-3-54042222 and Courtyard Tokyo Ginza Hotel, 6-14-10 Ginza Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061, Ph: +81-3-35460111.
For a midscale hotel, try Comfort Hotel Tokyo Kanda, 11-2 Kanda Higashimatsushita, Tokyo 101-0042, Ph: +81-3-52972711. And an economy option is IBIS Tokyo Shinjuku, 7-10-5 Nishi-shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0023, Ph: +81-3-33611111.
What to see and do
Dating from the seventh century, Senso-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo. It’s in the Asakusa district, and you can get there by metro, using the Ginza line, Asakusa stop. Admission is free, and the main hall is open daily from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. although the grounds are always open. The temple is an extremely popular attraction, and it gets crowded. Visit in the evening when the crowds thin, and you’ll enjoy a stunning view of the five main temple structures, which are illuminated at night.
For an authentic Japanese experience visit Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatari, located in the Daiba district and a three-minute walk from the Telecom Center subway station. Onsen means hot springs and you’ll find open-air and foot baths fed by water pumped from 1,400 meters underground. The baths are popular with locals and tourists and can get crowded. Men and women have separate bath facilities, and nudity is the norm. If you’re sporting a tattoo, you won’t be admitted. You also can enjoy a Japanese massage, which requires booking and additional fees. General admission is 1,980 JPY; the baths are closed daily between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. and once a month for maintenance.
For a traditional Japanese cultural experience, visit a Noh or Kabuki performance. Noh musical drama involves dances performed by masked performers in elegant costumes, and Kabuki involves performances of traditional dance styles by actors in elaborate makeup and costumes.
You’ll find several Noh and Kabuki theaters in Tokyo. Consult the comprehensive English language Kabuki website, including online ticket reservations and details of the English earphone guide at selected theatres. You can rent an earphone and receiver for 650 JPY, with a refundable deposit of 1,000 yen. The service provides information in English during the performance.
If you prefer technology to tradition, visit Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Featuring both permanent and special exhibitions, the museum is open daily, apart from Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry costs 600 JPY for permanent exhibitions; consult the event calendar to find out about special events.
For a behind-the-scenes view of Japanese cuisine, get up early and head to the Tsukiji Outside Market. The tuna wholesale market and auction starts at 5 a.m., and only 70 people are allowed on each of two early morning tours. It’s first come, first served. The tuna auction is serious business, and visitors are expected to behave respectfully.
For a taste of historical Tokyo, visit the Imperial Palace. Although you don’t get to see inside the palace, the gardens and surrounding parks are popular with visitors and residents for their stunning photo opportunities.
If you’re visiting Tokyo in the spring, make sure to see the city’s famous cherry blossoms. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden features about 1,300 cherry trees. Access is from the Shinkjuku station on the JR, Keio and Odakyu subway lines. The Koishikawa Botanical Gardens specialises in botanical research and attracts large crowds both to see its cherry trees and its collection of azaleas. Access the gardens via Hakusan station on the Mita line.
If you need a little sensory overload after the peace and quiet of the gardens, head to the Ginza district for high-end clothes, jewelry and crafts.
Where to eat
Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris, so you’ll have plenty of choices for a special dining experience. An affordable Michelin-starred option is Esaki (3 39-9 Jingumae, Tokyo 150-0001, Ph: +81 3-3408-5056). On the menu, you’ll find Kaiseki, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner.
For top-notch French cuisine, try the Tokyo branch of the world famous Joël Robuchon restaurant empire. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon has two Michelin stars and the prix fixe dinner menu starts at about 4,668 JPY (US$50) per person (2F Hillside, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Tokyo 106-0032, Ph: +81 3-5772-7500).
Sushi fans may want to try Fukuzushi, open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner (5-7-8, Rappongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032, Ph: +81 3-3402-4116). The service is very friendly, and some of the staff speak English.
Torishiki is small, with only 17 seats and a single counter. Find it at 2-14-12 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, Ph: +81-3-3440-7656. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday, and although reservations are difficult to come by, if you can plan ahead, they accept bookings up to two months in advance. Torishki is a yakitori (skewered food) restaurant, and chef Yoshiteru Ikegawa is a master.
The chef at Teuchisoba Narutomi has mastered the rare art of producing noodles from 100% buckwheat flour to make delectable soba. Served hot and cold, try the noodles with exquisite tempura dishes such as mouth-watering anago (conger eel) or juicy hotate scallops. Located at Futaba Bldg. 1F, 8-18-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Ph: +81-3-5565-0055.
What not to do: tipping is virtually unheard of in Japanese restaurants, hotels and bars. Staff may run after you to return a tip left on the plate.