From finding the best sushi and ramen to the madness of the famous Shibuya crossing, and catching the latest trends in Harajuku to getting steamy in an Onsen, this is a country of contrasts that I just can’t get enough of.
Deciding what to do and see in Tokyo and greater Japan depends on how much time you have because the exciting sights are sprawled across vast distances.
Once you land off your flight, your adventure begins. My top tip is to try and book a flight into Haneda Airport rather than Narita. Haneda is much closer to the city and you can be there on a train in about 28 minutes. It can be tempting to look for the cheapest flight to Japan but remember that you will need to factor in the costs of travelling from the airport to your final destination.
Lucky for us, Japan’s efficient railway system is often touted as one of the best in the world. These few tips will make it even easier to explore.
1. Choose the right pass for your length of stay and your itinerary
Depending on how long your stay is, booking the tourist-only Japan Rail Pass can save you a lot of money.
The JR Pass gives you access to the major Tokyo train lines and bullet trains (shinkansen) throughout the country. You can get a 7, 14 or 21-day pass which is great for seeing a lot of the country.
It is important to remember that a JR Pass is only valid for use on consecutive days.
If your trip is based mainly in Tokyo or one other city, it may not make sense to get a pass. For example, if you are only catching one or two longer or bullet train trips, it is probably more cost-effective to just buy individual train tickets.
If you are wanting to take a few smaller trips, it might be worth getting an IC Card. If, like me, you are likely to lose a bunch of different train tickets, this is an invaluable tool. It is a reloadable card that can be used to pay for your transport and sometimes you can get a small discount at train stations if you use an IC Card instead of buying a ticket – saving time AND money!
If you don’t have a pass or a card, you can still buy tickets from the kiosks right outside the gates.
2. Purchase your tickets in advance
Unless you aren’t planning on travelling on bullet trains, your best bet is to purchase your JR Pass in your home country before you fly off to Japan. While the pass is now available at selected JR stations, it will cost you more.
For underground trains within Tokyo, you can get away with just buying tickets as you need them.
3. Download an app
It is the technology age! Download useful apps before you leave home and your trip will be that much smoother.
The one I found the most useful was Hyperdia. You will find travel time, ticket prices, transfer information and even keeps a history of your previous searches. It will even help you find your platform – so you won’t ever have to worry about getting lost underground! The only downside is that to use it you will need an active internet connection.
This can be a great planning tool to use when in range of W-Fi though.
4. Be aware of the different types of trains
Probably the most confusing part of travelling by train in Japan is that there are a lot of different types of trains. I’ve found the important thing to know is which type of train stops at which station.
Luckily for us English speakers, you will find most train stations offer an easy to read map. Check it, or take a photo, before you jump on your train.
Once on the trains, don’t worry about not knowing any Japanese, most of the trains have LED displays that show the station name and number so you can prepare to get off the train with plenty of time.
Before you go, familiarise yourself with the main hubs in Tokyo:
Akihabara Station: Head down to Tokyo’s ‘Electric City’, – this station is served by all three major JR lines.
Ikebukuro Station: The Narita Express departs from here.
Shibuya Station: This is where you can see the crossing and get that holiday snap. Be warned that this station is not all in one building though.
Shimbashi Station: A 10-minute walk away from the Ginza shopping area and 15 minutes away from the famous Tsukiji Fish Market.
Shinjuku Station: The busiest train station in the world - you can get most JR and private lines from here.
Tokyo Station: This is where all bullet trains depart from.
Ueno Station: On the northern side of Tokyo, served by Shinkansen lines going north of Tokyo.