Visiting a sprawling metropolis such as Tokyo can seem a daunting prospect but it’s actually easy, fun and safe — providing you keep a few things in mind. WILLIAM YEOMAN explains.
Recently, some English ex-pats living in Tokyo assured me they’d never felt safer anywhere else. The police boxes, or koban, near train stations, certainly help. Then there’s the famous Japanese courtesy and attitude towards stealing. It would never occur to them to take someone else’s property.
Tokyo’s transport system is brilliant. The subway system, with its speed, extensive network, colour coding, English signage and tap-on-and off (IC) cards (which can also be used as cash cards), is especially impressive. Taxis, with their courteous, white-gloved drivers, are easy to find. There’s also free wi-fi throughout the city (though you should get an international SIM or wi-fi router at the airport for convenience). Convenience stores are exactly that. if you’re going to do any extensive travelling outside of Tokyo, purchase a Japan Rail pass BEFORE you leave Australia. It’s great value for money.
Tokyo is many cities in one, and there really is something to suit every taste. That’s because traditional Japanese culture has the extraordinary ability to preserve its identity while absorbing just about everything else the world has to offer. Museums, galleries, theme parks, retail outlets, restaurants: all exhibit an endless capacity for Japanese culture to absorb foreign influences, change it into something just a little wacky, and give it back to us. Talk about fun.
Travelling with others provides a cultural safety net. You’re always reminded of home. Travelling alone means confronting Japanese culture head-on. Most people you’re likely to encounter in Tokyo will speak at least some English. But don’t count on it: learn at least some Japanese phrases. Either way, people will always go the extra mile to help you out if you need it.
Yes, it depends on the time of the year. But the Japanese are pretty snappy dressers, and expect you to be, too. The big one is footwear. Not only should it be comfortable, but you’ll probably have to remove your shoes often, especially in temples or wherever tatami matting is used. So lace-ups should be avoided. Also consider using a luggage forwarding service when you arrive at the airport.
There’s a range of accommodation options in Tokyo, from five-star opulence to bargain capsule hotels. However the ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, should be the accommodation of choice for the discerning traveller. The combination of old-world hospitality, intimate dining and bathing arrangements and minimalist rooms with single futons, make it an experience to be savoured.
The quality of drinking water in Tokyo is superb. So bring your own refillable bottle and avoid the plastic variety. For extra security and convenience, I also like a small hip bag worn across the chest in the current fashionable style. Easy access to your purse or wallet, phone and passport.
We mentioned language briefly. In Tokyo, knowing just a little Japanese can go a long way. Get used to bowing too, just slightly, at every interaction. Also, don’t talk loudly on your mobile phone. Especially not on trains. Oh, and tipping is unnecessary. In fact, it can even be seen as disrespectful.
Tokyo’s food offerings are legendary. The ramen alone is to die for. You’ll want to acquaint yourself with ordering using ticket dispensing machines. And frequenting those intimate retro cafes known as kissaten. Just don’t eat while you’re walking or on local public transport. Both are considered bad manners.
Tokyo’s famous temples and shrines are usually overrun with tourists. The traveller craving tranquillity and contemplation will choose to visit early in the morning. Another great option is to visit one of the sub-temples attached to a more famous temple. They’re almost never busy, and very Zen.
Speaking of Zen, a peaceful walk through one of Tokyo’s beautiful parks, such as Yoyogi Park, or a long soak in a natural spring bath, or onsen, is a must. But solo travelling really comes into its own when visiting galleries and museums, where you can blissfully get lost in art and history.
It hardly needs saying that Tokyo is one of the world’s shopping meccas, offering everything from big-name brands to traditional crafts and fine arts. Kawaii (”cute”) culture is rife, so there’s never any shortage of gift ideas featuring cute fluffy animals or adorable cartoon mascots for the kids. Flash your passport and most places will waive the sales tax on the spot.
This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.
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