If you want to see sakuras blooming, you should go at the end of March / beginning of April, but the exact time is different each year and different for each area of Japan.
Hotel Shinjuku Sunlite. There are several things that make it ideal for me (I stayed there twice):
- Room for two for less than JPY 10,000 per night (per room, not per person!)
- Own bathroom with towels and soap, clean bedsheets every day, TV with many free channels (Japanese only), writing desk, etc... This is not a hostel, this is real hotel.
- Excellent location:
- Literally three minutes walk to many Shinjuku shopping / entertainment centers / restaurants / convenience shops
- Five minutes walk to nearest Metro Station
- Ten minutes walk to Shinjuku railway station which is probably the main transportation hub of the whole Tokyo (Metro, trains, buses)
- Ten minutes walk to Shinjuku skyscraper district, 20 minutes to the new Town Hall observatory
- 10 - 15 minutes walk to two beautiful (and large) parks
- And yet rather quiet
- Small fridge in your room (useful for storing food/drinks you bought)
- Free LAN Internet connection in your room, public Internet computers in the lobby
You'll see later why exactly I think Shinjuku is the best part of Tokyo to stay - it offers everything Tokyo has to offer.
MoneyIt might be surprising but even in the most technologically advanced city of the world, the international credit / debit cards are often not accepted. Don't get this wrong, Japanese use cards all the time, but they are local Japanese cards! Of course, large department stores / restaurants will usually accept your card, but there are places where you are out of luck with your international Visa / Mastercard:
- Smaller shops
- Cheaper restaurants, especially non-international
- Most of public transit
Note: The Japanese coin which has no Arabic numerals on it at all is worth 5 JPY.
Language: All Our Base Are Belong To ThemMost Japanese don't understand English at all. Curiously, at the same time, most of them think English is really cool language and use it in ads and product names, often with hilarious results. Even shop assistants in expensive international stores or people behind information desks at the airport (!!!) are often completely unable to speak or understand English. Your best chance is to try to mutilate the English words and grammar in a way similar to theirs and hoping they understand you ("Prease - Give - One - Orangeu - Juiceu").
Beware: The Japanese are polite and they will often smile and bow while you are speaking to them, without indicating they don't understant a single word of what you are saying!
Japanese language is extremely complex (and I am saying that as a Czech speaker, Czech language being extremely complex compared to English). Forget about learning any usable spoken Japanese apart from "arigato domo gozaimas" or how the hell is that spelled. However, there is one thing which can make you stay in Japan much, much easier:
Learn to read Katakana!
Yes, really. Katakana consists of 40 or so characters and it's used to phonetically represent foreign words, of which there is a lot in contemporary Japanese, taken mostly from English.
Before you leave for Japan, learn Katakana characters (to distinguish them from Kanji and Hiragana - they are often mixed in single sentence), then start browsing some Japanese websites, trying to say the characters aloud, optionally using Google Translate to check your attempts. After a while, you'll get used to the way the English words are represented in Katakana (where there is no "L" or "V" so "R" and "B" are used as a replacement). For example, have a look at the title of this page. If you know Katakana, you'll immediately see the characters are "chi - wa - wa - waaa - ru - do". What's that? "Chihuahua World", of course!
Believe me, after a few days of practice (and learning some special, often used mutations, like "terebi" - "television"), you'll be surprised how much "Japanese" you can understand. If you already understand English, you can spend one week learning and practicing Katakana and after that you'll understand significant portion of contemporary real-life written Japanese, especially shop signs, product names and food menus! This is invaluable because then you can just show the menu item to the waiter, for example.
Maps and Public TransitIt's not easy getting around Tokyo. You cannot read or pronounce street names (and most of the streets don't have names, instead the city blocks are numbered) and you are getting lost in transit all the time.
Google Maps in your mobile phone help but you often cannot get GPS fix between the skyscrapers and online mobile maps from Google are currently Japanese only. You can buy this unique city atlas which has all the names in both English and Japanese, which is extremely useful.
As for the transit: You definitely need MetrO mobile application (with up-to-date Tokyo database) which automatically calculates routes in Tokyo Metro and railroads. After you get to grips with the basic transport structure, you can get more adventurous and look at the exact locations of stations on the map. You can often save time by traveling to nearby station which is part of the other line and then walking 100 or 200 meters. Metro stations are often very close to each other.
Fortunately, you can now travel on all lines (including changes) using the same ticket. But there is a better solution: You can buy Suica card which you simly swipe at the entrance and exit and the cost of ticket is automatically deducted from your balance. You can recharge Suica in most stations but only using cash (see the "Money" section, above). During my two last visits (when Suica was available), I didn't need anything else to pay for travels in and around Tokyo (including hour-long train trips from Tokyo).
Extra tip: When you arrive at Narita airport, there is Japan Rail office in the basement (before you enter the train station) and here you can buy pre-charged Suica together with Narita Express ticket (which goes straight to Shinjuku) at advantageous price.
EatingThere are several large chains of convenience stores (Seven Eleven, Lawson, AM/PM, Sunkus, Family Mart...) which offer various food (including salads, sushi, sandwiches), beverages and snacks at reasonable prices and are open 24/7. Many of them also offer hot food. The important thing is that you can have a close look at what you are buying before you buy it.
Unfortunately, the restaurants with legible English menus are either extremely expensive or have bad food and exist solely to rip off the tourists.
If you want "traditional Japanese", there is of course sushi, which is - unsurprisingly - quite cheaper here than in the rest of the world. I prefer conveyor belt sushi where you can see up close what you are eating before you choose. You can expect to pay 200 - 400 JPY for one Sushi plate but I have one special tip for you: This sushi joint is situated just between Shinjuku central station and Shinjuku Sunlite Hotel (you see why it is such a great choice?) and its prices are 105 - 210 JPY pre plate, including free green tea (or bring your own beverage). There is also a sushi chain advertising prices "from 100 JPY per plate" but their sushi is not very good and most of it is costs more than 100 JPY anyway...
If you want to visit "real Japanese restaurant with real Japanese people", you are pretty much out of luck (apart from conveyor belt sushi) because you will not understand what's on menu and how much it costs (traditional restaurants don't even use Arabic numerals). There are often plastic models of food in front of the restaurant but they usually don't give you any idea about how the food actually tastes.
If you know someone in Tokyo, ask him to take you to this eatery which has several branches around Tokyo. It offers very cheap food which tastes very good and portions are very small, so you can taste 5-10 different foods in one sitting (and the menu has pictures). Unfortunately, you really need to communicate in Japanese when you visit this joint.
It's not expected to give tips in restaurants! In fact, they usually don't understand what "tip" is and insist on giving you the exact change.
... To be continued (I hope) ...