Your most frustrating moments in Tokyo will probably occur when you find that you’re totally lost. Maybe it will be in a subway or train station or on a street somewhere as you search for a museum, restaurant, or bar. At any rate, accept it here and now: You will get lost if you are at all adventurous and strike out on your own. It’s inevitable. But take comfort in the fact that Japanese get lost, too. And don’t forget that most of the hotel and restaurant listings in this book have the number of minutes (in parentheses) it takes to walk there from the nearest station, so you’ll at least know the radius from the station to your destination. It’s wise, too, to always allow extra time to find your way around.
Tokyo, situated at one end of Tokyo Bay and spreading across the Kanto Plain, still retains some of its Edo Period features. If you look at a map, you’ll find a large green oasis in the middle of the city, site of the Imperial Palace and its grounds. Surrounding it is the castle moat; a bit farther out are remnants of another circular moat built by the Tokugawa shogun. The JR Yamanote Line forms another loop around the inner city; most of Tokyo’s major hotels, nightlife districts, and attractions are near or inside this oblong loop.
For administrative purposes, Tokyo is broken down into 23 wards, known as ku. Its business districts of Marunouchi and Hibiya, for example, are in Chiyoda-ku, while Ginza is part of Chuo-ku (Central Ward). These two ku are the historic hearts of Tokyo, for it was here that the city had its humble beginnings. Greater Tokyo is also Japan’s largest prefecture (similar to a state or province), with a population of more than 13 million, and includes 26 cities, five towns, and eight villages in addition to its 23 wards, as well as Pacific islands. For most purposes, however, references to Tokyo in this guide pertain mostly to central Tokyo’s 23 wards, home to 9 million residents.
Main Streets & Arteries — One difficulty in finding your way around Tokyo is that hardly any streets are named. Think about what that means: 9 million people living in a huge metropolis of nameless streets. Granted, major thoroughfares received names after World War II at the insistence of American occupation forces, and more have been labeled or given nicknames since then, but for the most part, Tokyo’s address system is based on a complicated number scheme that before GPS must have made the postal worker’s job a nightmare. To make matters worse, most streets in Tokyo zigzag—an arrangement apparently left over from olden days, to confuse potential attacking enemies. Now they confuse Tokyoites and visitors alike.
Among Tokyo’s most important named streets are Meiji Dori, which follows the loop of the Yamanote Line and runs from Minato-ku in the south through Ebisu, Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro in the north; Yasukuni Dori and Shinjuku Dori, which cut across the heart of the city from Shinjuku to Chiyoda-ku; and Sotobori Dori, Chuo Dori, Harumi Dori, and Showa Dori, which pass through Ginza. Other major thoroughfares are named after the districts they’re in, such as Roppongi Dori in Roppongi and Aoyama Dori in Aoyama (dori means avenue or street, as does michi).
Intersections in Tokyo are called a crossing (and more recently a scramble); it seems every district has a famous crossing. Ginza 4-chome Crossing is the intersection of Chuo Dori and Harumi Dori. Roppongi Crossing is the intersection of Roppongi Dori and Gaien-Higashi Dori. The Shibuya Scramble became famous after being featured in the movie Lost in Translation.
Addresses — Because streets did not have names when Japan’s postal system was established, Tokyo has a unique address system. A typical address might read 7–10–1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, which is the address of Hotel Gracery. Chuo-ku is the name of the ward. Wards are further divided into named districts, in this case Ginza. Ginza itself is broken down into chome (numbered subsections), the first number in the series, here 7. The second number (10 in the example) refers to a smaller area within the chome—usually an entire block, sometimes larger. Thus, houses on one side of the street will usually have a different middle number from houses on the other side. The last number, in this case 1, refers to the actual building.
Addresses are usually, but not always, posted on buildings beside doors, on telephone poles, and at major intersection traffic lights, but sometimes they are written in kanji only. One frustrating trend is that newer buildings omit posting any address whatsoever on their facades, perhaps in the belief that no one understands the address system anyway.
Finding Your Way Around — If you’re traveling by subway or JR train, the first thing you should do upon exiting your compartment is to look for yellow signs posted on every platform that tell you which exit to take for particular buildings, attractions, and chome. At Roppongi Station, for example, you’ll find yellow signboards that tell you the exit to take for Roppongi Hills, which will at least get you pointed in the right direction once you emerge from the station. Stations also have maps of the areas either inside the station or at the exit and some even have actual printouts available from the station attendant; these are your best plan of attack when trying to find a particular address.
As you walk around Tokyo, you will also notice map boards posted beside sidewalks (look for a white circle with an “i” in the middle) giving a breakdown of the postal number system for that particular neighborhood. The first time I tried to use one, I stopped one Japanese, then another, and asked them to locate a specific address on the map. They both studied the map and pointed out the direction. Both turned out to be wrong. Not very encouraging, but if you learn how to read these maps, they’re invaluable. Nowadays, many of them include landmarks translated in English.
Another invaluable source of information is the numerous police boxes, called koban, located in major neighborhoods and beside major train and subway stations throughout the city. Police officers have area maps and are very helpful (helping lost souls seems to occupy much of their time). You should also never hesitate to ask a Japanese the way, but be sure to ask more than one. You’ll be amazed at the conflicting directions you’ll receive. Apparently, Japanese would rather hazard a guess than impolitely shrug their shoulders and leave you standing there. The best thing to do is ask directions of several Japanese and then follow the majority opinion. You can also duck into a shop and ask someone where a nearby address is, although in my experience employees do not even know the address of their own store. However, they may have a map of the area.
For short-term visitors, calculating travel times in Tokyo is tricky business. The first rule of getting around Tokyo: It will always take longer than you think. Taking a taxi is expensive and involves the probability of getting stuck interminably in traffic, with the meter ticking away. Taking the subway is usually more efficient, even though it’s harder on your feet and more complicated: Choosing which route to take isn’t always clear, and transfers between lines are sometimes quite a hike in themselves. If I’m going from one end of Tokyo to the other by subway, I usually allow anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the number of transfers and the walking distance to my final destination. If you don’t have to change trains, you can travel from one end of central Tokyo to the other (say, from Shibuya to Ueno) in about 30 minutes or less.
Your best bet for getting around Tokyo is to take the subway or a Japan Railways (JR) commuter train such as the Yamanote Line to the station nearest your destination. From there you can either walk or take a taxi. Unfortunately, Tokyo doesn’t offer public transportation late at night (most services stop from around midnight to 4 or 5am), but maybe the 2020 Olympics will spur extended hours.
Tips on Taking Public Transportation — Each mode of transportation in Tokyo—subway (with two different companies), JR train (such as the Yamanote Line), private rail companies, and bus—has its own fare system and therefore requires a new ticket each time you transfer from one mode of transport to another. It’s much more convenient to purchase a Suica (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica), issued by JR East and available at any JR station via ticket vending machine, or a PASMO (www.pasmo.co.jp), issued by Tokyo Metro subways and sold from ticket vending machines in subway stations. Both are contactless prepaid IC (integrated circuit) cards that automatically deduct fares and can be used on virtually all modes of transportation, including JR trains (excluding the Shinkansen), private railways (such as the Rinkai Line to Odaiba), subways, and buses at a slight discount. They can even be used for purchases at designated vending machines, convenience stores, and fast-food outlets that display the Suica/PASMO sign. Best of all, the cards can be used on various modes of local transportation throughout Japan, whether you’re in Kamakura or Kyoto. Note that both cards come with a ¥500 deposit, plus any initial value between ¥1,000 to ¥10,000 that you choose to load. You can then reload them at ticket vending machines as needed. If you don’t have enough balance on your card when you reach your destination, simply top off your card at the exit’s fare adjustment machine. When you’re ready to leave Tokyo, PASMO will refund the deposit and any remaining balance on the card, while Suica will refund the deposit but charge a handling fee of up to ¥220 for any remaining balance (so be sure the card is depleted). Although other options are available, including 1-day cards and metro-only cards, the Suica and the Pasmo are by far my favorites.
That being said, if you think you’re going to be traveling a lot by public transportation on any given day, consider purchasing a Tokyo Combination Ticket (Tokyo Furii Kippu) for ¥1,590, which allows unlimited travel for 1 day on all subways, JR trains, and Toei buses within Tokyo’s 23 wards. It’s available at almost all JR and subway stations. There are also 1-day tickets that can be used only on Metro subway lines for ¥600, on all subway lines of both companies for ¥900, or only on JR trains for ¥750. In addition, there are 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour discount tickets just for visitors. See www.tokyometro.jp/en/ticket/value/travel/index.html for details.
Note that children 6 to 11 pay half-fare on public transportation in Japan; children 5 and under ride free. Note, too, that all cellphones should be switched to silent mode (called “manner mode” in Japanese) on public conveyances. Finally, avoid taking the subway or JR train during the weekday morning rush hour, from 8 to 9am—the stories you’ve heard about commuters packed like sardines into trains are all true. There are even “platform pushers,” men who push people into compartments so that the doors can close. If you want to witness Tokyo at its craziest, go to Shinjuku Station at 8:30am—but get there by taxi unless you want to experience the crowding firsthand. Most lines provide women-only compartments at the end of the train weekdays until 9am.
To get around Tokyo on your own, it’s imperative to learn how to ride its subways. Fortunately, the subway system is efficient, modern, clean, and easy to use; in fact, I think it’s one of the most user-friendly systems on the planet. And to remove the guessing game regarding which route to take, what it will cost, and the estimated time of the ride, download the free and invaluable Tokyo Subway Navigation app. Tokyo subway stations provide free Wi-Fi.
Altogether, some 13 underground subway lines crisscross the city, operated by two companies: Tokyo Metro (the bigger of the two, which uses a symbol “M” that is vaguely reminiscent of McDonald’s famous arches) and Toei, which uses a gingko leaf symbol and operates four lines. Station names are written in English, and each subway line is color-coded and assigned a letter (usually the subway’s initial). The Ginza Line, for example, is orange, which means that all its trains and signs are orange, and it’s identified by the letter “G.” Additionally, each station along each line is assigned a number in chronological order beginning with the first station (Shibuya Station, for example, is G1 because it’s the first station on the Ginza Line, while Asakusa Station is G19). Before boarding, however, make sure the train is going in the right direction—signs at each station show both the previous and the next stop, so you can double-check that you’re heading in the right direction. Tokyo’s newest line, Toei’s Oedo Line, makes a zigzag loop around the city and can be useful, but be aware that it’s buried deep underground and platforms take a while to reach, despite escalators.
Whereas it used to be a matter of skill to know exactly which train compartment to board if making transfers down the line, diagrams at each station (usually on a pillar at the entrance to each platform) show which end of the train and compartment is most useful for connections. Signs also show exactly how many minutes it takes to reach every destination on that line. Once you're on your way, trains display the next station in English on digital signs above their doors and announce stops in English.
Remember, once you reach your destination, look for the yellow signs on station platforms designating which exit to take for major buildings, museums, and addresses. If you’re confused about which exit to take, ask an attendant near the ticket gate. Taking the right exit can make a world of difference, especially in Shinjuku, where there are some 60 station exits.
Because buying individual tickets is a hassle, I suggest buying either a Suica or PASMO prepaid card (see above). Otherwise, vending machines at all subway stations sell tickets; fares begin at ¥170 for the shortest distance and increase according to how far you’re traveling. Vending machines give change, even for a ¥10,000 note. To purchase your ticket, insert money into the vending machine until the fare buttons light up, and then push the amount for the ticket you want.
Before purchasing your ticket, you first have to figure out your fare. Fares are posted on a large subway map above the vending machines, but they’re sometimes in Japanese only. Some stations also have a signboard posting fares to other stations. If you still don’t know the fare, just buy the cheapest ticket for ¥170. When you reach your destination, look for the fare adjustment machine; insert your ticket to find out how much more you owe, or look for a subway employee at the ticket window to tell you how much extra you owe. In any case, be sure to hang onto your ticket, since you must give it up at the end of your journey.
Most subways run from about 5am to midnight, although the times of the first and last trains depend on the line, the station, and whether it’s a weekday or a weekend. Schedules are posted in the stations, and throughout most of the day, trains run every 3 to 5 minutes.
For more information on tickets, passes, and subway routes, as well as a detailed subway map, stop by Metro Information desks located at Ueno, Ginza, Shinjuku, and Omotesando stations. Or check the website www.tokyometro.jp. Information on Toei Subway is available at www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp.
In addition to subway lines, commuter trains operated by the East Japan Railway Company (JR) run aboveground throughout greater Tokyo. These are also color-coded, with fares beginning at ¥140. Buy your ticket from vending machines just as you would for the subway, but more convenient is the Suica or PASMO. Otherwise, if you think you’ll be traveling a lot by JR lines on any given day, the 1-Day Metropolitan District Pass (Tokunai Pass) allows unlimited travel within Tokyo’s 23 wards for ¥750. If you have a validated Japan Rail Pass, you can travel on JR trains for free.
The Yamanote Line (green-colored coaches) is the best-known and most convenient JR line. It makes an oblong loop around the city in about an hour, stopping at 29 stations along the way, all of them announced in English and with digital signboards in each compartment (a new station between Shinagawa and Tamachi is scheduled to open in spring 2020). Another convenient JR line is the orange-colored Chuo Line; it’s an express train that cuts across Tokyo between Shinjuku and Tokyo stations, with a stop at Ochanomizu. The yellow-colored Sobu Line runs between Shinjuku and Akihabara and beyond to Ryogoku and Chiba. Other JR lines serve outlying districts for the metropolis’s commuting public, including Yokohama and Kamakura. Because the Yamanote, Chuo, and Sobu lines are often not identified by their specific names at major stations, look for signs that say jr lines.
For more information on JR trains, as well as train travel throughout Japan, stop by the JR East Travel Service Center at Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi North Exit. Open daily 7:30am to 8:30pm, it also offers free Wi-Fi, hotel reservations, tourist information, currency exchange and luggage delivery and storage. You can also exchange vouchers here for the Japan Rail Pass. Otherwise, for traveling in Tokyo, stop by a JR East Travel Service Center at Ueno, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro stations, call the English-language JR East Infoline (tel. 050/2016-1603; open daily 10am–6pm), or visit the website www.jreast.co.jp/e.
In addition to JR, private train companies provide service from Tokyo to outlying areas. Tobu Railway, for example, operates trains to Nikko, while Odakyu Electric Railway covers the Hakone area. Both offer discount travel passes.
Toei buses are not as easy to use as trains or subways unless you know their routes, because only the end destination is written on the bus and many bus drivers don’t speak English. However, I find they’re more user-friendly than they used to be (buses even offer free Wi-Fi onboard) and are often convenient for short distances (such as traveling between Roppongi and Shibuya). If you’re feeling adventurous, board the bus at the front and drop the exact fare (usually ¥210) into the box. If you don’t have the exact amount, fare boxes accept coins or bills; your change minus the fare will come out below. Better yet, use a Suica or PASMO (see above) card. A signboard at the front of the bus displays the next stop, usually in English. When you wish to get off, press one of the purple buttons on the railing near the door or the seats. You can pick up an excellent Toei bus map showing all major routes at one of the Tokyo Tourist Information Centers operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The Toei website at www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp also provides information on routes, timetables, and fares.
In addition to Toei buses, the tourist-oriented Sky Bus (www.skybus.jp; tel. 03/3215-0008) offers 50-minute double-decker open-top bus tours around the Imperial Palace (¥1,600) and other tourist sites. It also offers hop-on, hop-off buses that travel three routes—Asakusa/Tokyo SkyTree, Odaiba, and Roppongi. These begin and end in Marunouchi near Tokyo Station and cost ¥3,500 for 24 hours. But frankly, taking public transportation is much cheaper.
Taxis are expensive in Tokyo, unless you’re going a short distance. Fares start at ¥410 for the first 1.052km (.65 miles) but increase ¥80 for each additional 237m (924 ft.) or 90 seconds of waiting time. There are also smaller, more compact taxis that charge slightly less, but these are fewer in number. Fares are posted on the back of the front passenger seat. If you’re like me, you probably won’t shop around—you’ll gratefully jump into the first taxi that stops. Note that from 10pm to 5am, an extra 20% is added to your fare. Perhaps as an admission of how expensive taxis are, fares can be paid by credit card.
With the exception of some major downtown thoroughfares, you can hail a taxi from any street or go to a taxi stand or a major hotel. A red light above the dashboard shows if a taxi is free to pick up a passenger; a greenish-yellow light indicates that the taxi is occupied. Note: Be sure to stand clear of the back left door—it swings open automatically. Likewise, it shuts automatically once you’re in. Taxi drivers are quite perturbed if you try to maneuver the door yourself. Note: The law requires that back-seat passengers wear seat belts.
Because many taxi drivers don’t speak English, it’s best to have your destination written out in Japanese, but even that may not help. Tokyo is so complicated that taxi drivers may not know a certain area, although many now have navigation systems. If you have a landline telephone number for your destination, the driver can locate it by entering it into his GPS.
There are so many taxis cruising Tokyo (about 50,000) that you can hail one easily on most thoroughfares—except when you need it most: when it’s raining, or just after 1am on weekends when subways and trains have stopped. To call a taxi for a pickup (which carries a ¥310 surcharge), try Nihon Kotsu (www.nihon-kotsu.co.jp; tel. 03/5755-2336) for an English-speaking operator. I have rarely telephoned for a taxi—as in the movies, one usually cruises by just when I raise my hand.
Unlike in many cities around the world, Uber (www.uber.com/cities/tokyo) is tightly restricted, isn’t widely used, and works in conjunction with high-end private drivers and taxi companies. Expect some changes before the 2020 Olympics, however, including the prospect of driverless taxis.
Maps — Before leaving home, you’ll want to download an app of offline maps to help you navigate Tokyo’s streets, such as the Tokyo Offline City Map. In addition, the free Tokyo Handy Guide app issued by the Tokyo government has offline maps and lots of tourist information. Once in Tokyo, you might also find it useful to arm yourself with physical maps to understand the big picture. Maps are so much a part of life in Tokyo that they’re often included in shop or restaurant advertisements or brochures, on business cards, and even in private party invitations. You can pick up free maps at Tokyo’s many tourist information centers, many of which include a subway map. Hotels sometimes distribute their own maps. Many Metro subway stations also have area maps of surrounding neighborhoods, so don’t be shy about asking the attendant. Armed with these maps, you should be able to locate at least the general vicinity of every place mentioned in this book. In short, never pass up a free map.
In addition to those located at both airports, there’s another Tourist Information Center (TIC) in the heart of Tokyo in the Shin-Tokyo Building, 3–3–1 Marunouchi (www.japantravelinfo.com; tel. 03/3201-3331; station: Yurakucho), within walking distance of the Ginza. The TIC staff is courteous and efficient—I cannot recommend them highly enough. In addition to city maps and sightseeing materials, this office (affiliated with the Japan National Tourism Organization) has more information on the rest of Japan than any other tourist office in town, including pamphlets and brochures on major cities and attractions such as Kyoto and Kamakura. Hours are daily 9am to 5pm.
A great source for local information is the Tokyo Tourist Information Center, operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and located on the first floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) Building no. 1, 2–8–1 Nishi-Shinjuku (www.gotokyo.org; tel. 03/5321-3077; station: Tochomae or Shinjuku). You’ll want to come here anyway for the great views from TMG’s free observation floor. The center dispenses pamphlets, its own city map, and the handy Tokyo Travel Guide (also available as a free app), with information and detailed maps of various neighborhoods, from Ueno to Roppongi. It’s open daily 9:30am to 6:30pm. Other city-run information counters are located at Keisei Ueno Station (tel. 03/3836-3471), open daily 9:30am to 6:30pm, and at the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal (tel. 03/6274-8198), open daily from 6:30am to 11pm.
Near Tokyo Station, the TIC TOKYO, facing the Nihombashi exit of Tokyo Station’s north end at 1–8–1 Marunouchi (www.tictokyo.jp; tel. 03/5220-7055), dispenses information on traveling in Tokyo and Japan and offers SIM cards and mobile Wi-Fi routers; it's open daily 10am to 7pm. Inside Tokyo Station at the Marunouchi north exit is the JR EAST Travel Service Center (www.jreast.co.jp; tel. 050/2016-1603), which provides tourist information as well as train tickets and is open daily from 7:30am to 8:30pm. Tokyo City i, in JP Tower next to the Central Post Office, 2–7–2 Marunouchi (http://tokyocity-i.jp; daily 8am–8pm), provides support and information to both international tourists and foreigners conducting business in Japan.
Among the increasing number of neighborhood tourist offices are the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, 2–18–9 Kaminarimon (tel. 03/6280-6710; daily 9:30am–8pm); the Shibuya Tourist Information Center in an old train car at the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station (daily 10am–6pm); and the Sumida City Tourist Information Office outside Ryogoku Station (daily 10am–6pm).
Tourist Publications: Of the many free giveaways available at tourist information centers, restaurants, bars, bookstores, hotels, and other establishments where visitors and expats are likely to frequent, the best are the weekly Metropolis (www.metropolisjapan.com), with features on Tokyo, club listings, and restaurant and movie reviews, and the quarterly TimeOut Tokyo (www.timeout.jp) which covers so much information, including offbeat destinations, that it’s even useful for expats living in Tokyo. Look also for the free att.Japan (www.att-japan.net) and WAttention (www.wattention.com). Local English-language newspapers the Japan Times and the Japan News also carry entertainment sections and articles.