Navigating a sprawling urban metropolis such as Tokyo isn’t as daunting as it appears.
With an estimated 36 million people living in the greater metropolitan area, Tokyo is still the world’s biggest city but commandeering the streets and trains to get from one destination to another isn’t that intimidating even if you don’t speak or understand a word of Japanese other than konichiwa.
After getting off the daily Qantas red eye flight from Sydney at 5.10am, we arrived at Haneda airport, which is less than 30 minutes south of central Tokyo, considerably closer to the city than Narita airport.
A big sign written in English promoting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next to the baggage claim area was just the first indication of how the city is upgrading its signage for tourists ahead of the giant sporting event.
A quick taxi ride — cost of about 5000 Yen (roughly $62) — saw us arrive at the new Pullman Tokyo Tomachi in one of the city’s burgeoning business districts.
The location proved to be a winner because it offered a quiet oasis from the pulsating hub of some of the busier and more expensive districts, which are close and easy to get to as the hotel provides direct access to Tamachi railway station.
For Japan first-timers the hotel’s Australian-raised general manager, Darren Morrish, is a godsend.
With 15 years of experience in Japan, Mr Morrish knows the ins and outs and is more than happy to help set you on your way with some clear and comfortable guidance.
“If you were in Tokyo for the first time, where is the first place you would go,” we eagerly asked Mr Morrish after a quick freshen up, ready to explore.
Undaunted,he pulled out maps and a pen and told us to get on a train and head just a few stops away to the vibrant, fashion-district of Harajuku and walk to Shibuya, home of the two busiest railway stations in the world, Shibuya Station and Shinjuku Station, servicing 3.5 million people a day.
“You will think you will be gone for a couple of hours and then you will want to be there all day, exploring one street to the next,” Mr Morrish said as he guided us on the direct path from the hotel to the train station and showing us how to purchase tickets (you can easily click a button and it turns into English) and read the maps, which also offer the stations written in English.
You can either buy individual tickets for each leg of your trip (roughly 200/220 Yen), or purchase a Suica — a rechargeable day pass which can be topped up at any station and also be used at places such as convenience stores and even some vending machines.
Japan does take credit cards but don’t be surprised by many cash-only places either, especially smaller cafes and restaurants.
Train etiquette is of huge importance. Don’t push, don’t eat or drink, don’t talk on your phone and talk softly to those near you if you need to speak at all. With so many people using the intricate public transport web, there is a feeling of serenity and order unlike anywhere else. Most stations and some trains offer free wi-fi, so you will be able to sign up and log in on the go. And just remember all trains come to a halt at 1am, no matter which station you are situated at.
As it was a weekday on our first day in Japan, the famous Harajuku girls were still in school so the bustling streets were filled with elegant, sophisticated street fashion.
While the main streets harboured oversized boutiques from the likes of Chanel, Dior, Coach and Ralph Lauren, head into any side street and alley to be wowed by the edgy street fashion and vintage “modern recycle” stores.
These vintage stores — such as Pass the Baton, hidden in a basement off the main street — are no ordinary bric-a-brac, they offer the finest, well-kept memorabilia and high-end fashion expertly displayed.
The choice is overwhelming and addictive.
Walk down one cool alley and come face-to-face with seven different sneaker stores all offering the best, hardest-to-find shoes in the world and best of all if you have your passport with you nearly all of the shops in Japan offer a tax refund if you spend more than 5000 yen and are going to take the purchased goods out of the country within 30 days.
You just have to show the passport you travelled into the country on and they will stick the receipt into your passport.
Neither do you need to show your valid purchases on exiting the country, just hand over the receipt just before departure.
For more information on visiting Japan; see travel-associates.com.au or phone 13 70 71.
DisclaimerRoss McRae visited Japan as a guest of Travel Associates. They have not seen or reviewed these stories.
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