Saturday, May 09, 2009

Geek's Guide to Tokyo - Preparations

Let's assume you are not exactly rich and you are - more or less - an ignorant geek. And you want to go to Tokyo. Here are some pointers:

When (not) to go

I was never in Tokyo during Winter, but I was there at various times of year, from March to October, and the most important thing I can tell you is: Don't go during the summer! During July - August, the temperatures can be up to 40 degrees Celsius (which is well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit). No matter when you go, the weather can change very rapidly and there are often short bursts of rain. During the hot summer months the rain doesn't help very much because it's warm and unpleasant.

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.


Where to Stay

I have a very specific tip for you: 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
All rooms are smoking by default. If you hate cigarette smoke, be sure to indicate it when booking the room and they will try to "ionize the room" or whatever

You'll see later why exactly I think Shinjuku is the best part of Tokyo to stay - it offers everything Tokyo has to offer.


It 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
  • ATMs!!!!!!
The last item is super-important. It's very hard to get cash in Japan because the only international ATMs I have ever seen are at the airport and at the post offices (they take major international cards and offer English interface). This means that if you run out of cash in Tokyo on Saturday, you are pretty much screwed and your shopping / eating / transportation options are suddenly very limited.

Note: The Japanese coin which has no Arabic numerals on it at all is worth 5 JPY.

Language: All Our Base Are Belong To Them

Most 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").

How is the box lunch!!

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 Transit

It'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.


There 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) ...


Dr.Sid said...

Thanks ! So far pretty scary. What about hotel reception, do they talk English ?

Fuxoft said...

In Sunlite Shinjuku, I had no problem communicating with the staff (both on site and throug email during booking) but I was careful to use really simple sentences. When I stayed in more expensive hotels, there were no problems at all.

Dr.Sid said...

What about electricity ?

Jojin said...

I used to live in Tokyo and helped some people to get around/organize trips. 10000 yen is probably fair price for 2 in Shinjuku, but one can get it to around 8000 yen in less popular places around Yamanote line. I'm talking about "business hotels".The key to cheap reservation is called Jalan, which is a common way for japanese to book a hotel (it's just a reservation site, the payment is still taking place at the hotel, so no problems with credit card there). Of course it doesn't have english version, but if you know someone who speaks japanese at least on a basic level, or like to solve puzzles (with web translator/rikaichan plugin, katakana/hiragana knowledge and the japanese IME enabled) I recommend to give it a try. The prices are mostly better than you can get directly at the hotel.
However, and I can't stress this enough, if you go to japan, you should try these 3 different sorts of accomodation: love hotel (a must for couples), capsule hotel (a must for single males) and traditional japanese ryokan (a must in general). I have been living in different part of J. for last few years, so I can't be concrete with places in Tokyo, but Lonely planet was quite helpful for me in my beginnings here and the net is vast and infinite...
And, If all the above mentioned options fail, or you are on a tight budget, there is always an option for mangakissa, which is basically a manga/internet cafe (explanatory example here ). They tend to be around big train stations (catering for people who missed the last train), on the upper floors of the buildings.

Anonymous said...

Also there is an option to buy RailPass in advance for 7/14/21 days, valid for almost all JR (JapanRail) trains - also JR trains in Tokyo, including Shinkansen, but it's available outside of Japan only, it's good option for longer trips - or

Fuxoft said...

Dr. Sid: Electricity is 110V / U.S. plug

Anonymous said...

Diky diky diky za geek pruvodce, tesim se na pripadne pokracovani.

Dr.Sid said...

FF: Yes, I know .. I mean how did YOU went around it ? HOw to charge all those gadgets humans just NEEDs these days ?

Fuxoft said...

Dr. Sid: Most of gadgets today take any voltage from 110V to 240V, so I just took a simple socket adapter with me and standard Czech "rozdvojka". :) The oly problem was with Nintendo DS which requires precisely 220-240V but I had Japanese Nintendo transformer because I bought japanese DS during the last visit.

Dr.Sid said...

Ahh .. it seems all my devices can do that too. Good idea.
Thanks again.

kyssling said...

Nebudu se pokoušet o angličtinu, anžto by mě možná nikdo nerozuměl ...

Ale ta "Suica card" vypadá skvěle ! Proplatí pak peníze co člověk neprojezdí ?

Fuxoft said...

kyssling: Ano, ve stejne kancelari na letisti vrati zbytek (po odecteni nejakeho manipulacniho poplatku)

kyssling said...

Hmm tak mě napadá ještě jedna jedna maličkost a docházíme k dokonalosti ...

Aby byla jak to nazvat ... nascenovaná třebas skrz peněženku v kapse a člověk ji nemusel vytahovat ...

Fuxoft said...

kyssling: To se samozrejme takhle scanuje - staci prejet penezenkou pres turniket! Tak hura do Tokia...

KubaU said...

Thanks for the guide, info like this (especially from Czech point of view) is priceless. I hope to make good use of it one day, preferably soon :)

Jan Vaněk jr. said...

As for learning katakana, does the lack of a more specific advice mean that you yourself learned it gradually from games etc. without concentrated short-term cramming, so can't recommend any particular tool/method?

Fuxoft said...

Jan Vanek: I also used some random exercises on the net but basically I just had the alphabet open in one browser window and looked at japanese headlines and names in the other. It really took less than 14 days, about 1-2 hours each day.

Shar said...

Im going to Tokyo in April for 3 weeks, im staying in Akasaka, is that a pretty good place to stay? I think my Japanese is just 3 words, hello, thank you and yes. What other sayings would be good to pre learn?
completely excited about going!

Fuxoft said...

Shar: As far as I know, Akasaka is not particularly interesting or wild place. There is a large garden there which is NOT ACCESSIBLE TO PUBLIC and several embassies.

KubaU said...

Is it / will it be continued somewhere? I'm considering going there, and this is great :)

Rugal Lam said...


Your guide say to go to a cheap sushi place via google map link but it does not seem to point to anywhere in particular. Do you have any another link to the place? Going to be staying in Shinjuku in a couple of weeks.