For my 29th birthday, Axel surprised me with a flight to Tokyo! He managed to keep it a complete secret until just minutes before we boarded the departing flight to take off over the Pacific to Japan. I'm excited to share the personal and give recommendations for those heading to Tokyo. If you’re not one for romance feel free to skip ahead to recommendations.
So how exactly was he able to keep it a secret and get me through airport security all the way to our gate without revealing our final destination? For starters, Axel disguised the foreign trip as a vacation to Southern California. When we arrived at LAX we went straight to Manhattan beach for dinner at Little Sister. It was here that the anticipation for his surprise really kicked in. When I asked questions about who we will meet up with or where we will go Axel would just respond “Wait, you will see” and sure enough the surprise unfolded.
After dinner, we hopped into an Uber which took us back to the airport. By this time it was only 2 hours until my official birthday. Of course, I could have peaked at the listed departing flights and tried to guess where we were going by this point, but in the spirit of honoring his efforts I resisted -while secretly assumed we were going south to Mexico.
Upon checking in, Axel managed to convince the airline agents to check my ID at the bag drop to keep the final destination a secret. We went through security and once the clock struck twelve Axel sat me down to read my birthday card and open a present. With sweet words and sentiments inscribed inside he closed with saying "Konichiwa!" and sure enough, he had planned a four-day getaway to Tokyo!
Along with the surprise vacation he gave me these super cool compression socks which now having experienced their amazing benefits I highly recommend getting your own pair to all travelers!
The Ultimate Tokyo Guide
All you really need for Tokyo is in this map offering suggestions to things like:
Whiskey & Cocktails
Sights Worth The Experience
The majority of the map came from years of friends visiting Tokyo and contributing to their suggestions. Just about every neighborhood in Tokyo has a recommendation.
With a SIM card take advantage of the Tokyo Google map as it won't use up much data and can be amazingly helpful for navigating the train system. I strongly recommend you spring for a SIM card while you're there, as it makes everything a LOT easier.
Alternatively, download a map of the region so you can explore when offline. Google maps does not offer a download feature for this region and suggestion using MapsOn. You can choose which map (it includes google maps) and cache all you want with however precision you want. FYI, be wary of the walking directions in MapsOn and just make sure it looks like the best route. Others have reported comparing a few routes between MapsOn and Google maps with MapsOn often taking a longer route. I read about on case that was an additional 20 minutes more.
Worst case scenario is that you can always pop into the nearest Starbucks or Family Mart to use their free WiFi to cache new map data for the area you're in.
When you arrive first things first:
Withdraw cash - While you’ll find places that accept your card being able to pay with yen will make things SO much easier. I would suggest withdrawing between 10,000 (~100USD)
Trains - Use them, they're great. Get a Pasmo/Suica Card - This is your universal public transit card to get around Tokyo and all the machines have english as an option when making your purchase. Taking a train from the airport to your hotel is encourageùd. The system is amazingly efficient and a great way to see the city upon arriving. Plus, this will help you become familiar with the transit system which will make exploring accessible and easy. We took the Narita Express (NEX) and transferred at to the local metro.
All the machines have English language toggles. You have to do this in cash, unfortunately, and when you top up your Suica or Pasmo it has to be cash too. Basically keep about 10k yen in cash on you at all times. Overview here.Keep all of the stubs for the NEX ride and remember that it has assigned seating (car, row, seat) that is enforced. You'll need those stubs to exit the train station on the other end.
Passport - This is weird, but I always carry mine with me. Technically you're supposed to because Japanese cops have the right to demand it of you at any time. Happened to me once in the last 4 trips. You'll be forced to go back to your hotel with them to get it otherwise.
Language - Don't worry too much about this. Most people will find a way to communicate. A few useful words:"hai" - Yes"iie" - No (pronounced like the letters E and then A)"arigato gozaimas" - thank you, in a polite way"sumimasen" - excuse me, used to get peoples attention"eki" - station, as in train station. So you can say, "Sumimasen, Shinjuku eki wa doku deska?" which is the magical phrase that tells them you're a foreigner and need help to get to Shinjuku station. This works with everyone. (It literally means, "Excuse me, Shinjuku station, where is it?")
Sights Worth Seeing
Fish market - Don't bother with the auctions which happen at like 4am. Go at around 9am, take the subway, drop by Turret Coffee on your way in. Eat basically anywhere that doesn't have a conveyor belt. This guide explains things decently.
Fuji - Fuji-san is closed for climbing as of Sep 10th this year. Bummer.
Snow monkeys - Really hard to get there without booking transit there ahead of time, plus it's about 3 hours out of the way and not so stunning without the snow.
Shibuya - Go and gawk! It's especially amazing at nights because it's a common place to meet friends before going out, so it is extra packed. People like to also take pictures with this cute and loyal pup, Hachiko.
Eating - Do a lot of this, look for red pins on the map. You'll need cash at most places, so carry a good bit. There's no proper breakfast food in Japan unless you eat at the hotel, or go to a newish/hip coffee shop, or a place that specializes in it. Most people eat gyu-don (beef + onion + rice) or udon (thick, chewy noodles in broth) or a set breakfast of like rice + fish + salad + miso soup. I usually opt for just coffee in the mornings knowing how much I eat the rest of the day. BTW good coffee is everywhere in Japan. You can even just search Google Maps for it and find a hip looking place with 4+ stars and I guarantee the coffee is great.
Ramen - The map is full of amazing ramen (sadly under both the 'ramen' and 'general attractions' sections, but you can just look for red pins for food). Also, the only universal "rules" are:
Eat at a decent pace and then leave, no dawdling around
Finish your bowl.
Some ramen types with descriptions and my favorite place (on the map)
Tonkotsu - rich pork broth
Jiro Ramen or Ichiran ramen
Tori paitan - rich chicken broth
kagariShio ramen - salt broth
Motenashi Kuroki RamenTsukemen - thick broth, served on the side for dipping
RokurinshaNiboshi - fishy as fuck
The most famous one, arguabqly, is Rokurinsha and will require a pretty significant line no matter the time or day. It's fucking bonkers good.
Go to "Ramen Street" in Tokyo Station and get the famous stuff, or honestly just walk into any place and push the button for the most expensive item and play roulette! (Most places you buy a ticket that contains your order from a vending machine that accepts cash, then you present the order to the cook.)
If you want truly weird as fuck fishy ramen, try Nagi in Golden Gai, which is also on the map.
Nagi in Golden GaiSushi
Sushi - eat the sushi literally anywhere. The sushi at the 7-11 is great. The sushi at the local corner place is great. The sushi at the we-have-no-stools-or-seats-so-you-leave-faster place is great. Don't overthink it. If you don't get your fill at the fish market, here are a few solid "maybe the best in the world" recommendations:
Sushi Sho, Jiro (in Roppongi Hills, not the original). Getting in is a pain, so I would ask the concierge at your hotel to see if anyone has a spot at any time.
Kobe - If you want beef, I suggest trying it sukiyaki style. Chin-ya is my go-to place, and is also near the Kaminarimon (giant gate) in Asakusa.
Cocktails - If you only have one cocktail in tokyo - Go to Bar High Five. Ueno-san is an amazing character and it is so much fun to watch them all work.
Mister Donut - they have a type of donut here which looks like a bunch of little spheres attached together, which has mochi flour in it that makes it a bit chewy - not too sweet- just divine.
Grilled, Cosotte SP is great. COROLLARY: if you're into pork, you have to try the equivalent which is tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet).
Tonki - friend’s favorite
Butagumi - noteworthy fave (Both grilled joints are covered well in this article.)
Tour on the map - It's scattered around but these are some real gems.
FB office - email the front desk there now and mention you're visiting. The views are astonishing.
Imperial palace - worth a quick pass through
National Museum of Modern Art - unexpectedly good
Tokyo National Museum - old stuff from Japan and other parts of asia.
Harajuku + Meiji Jingu - crazy outfits and teen shopping bonanza plus one of the most stately shrines on earth, right next door to each other? how? why wtf, japan?
Tokyu Hands + Loft - modern japanese department stores, multi-story, huge variety of neat goods.Isetan - old school japanese department store, food court in the basement is unparalleled in the world. amazing food.
Mori Art Museum - art museum on the 50th floor with amazing views. in a crazy gigantic shopping mall complex.
Nakano - in the suburbs (30m metro ride) there's a covered mall that is the epicenter of all things nerdy in the universe. densest packing of figurine shops, comic book shops, antique electronic shops, etc. it's the new akihabara.
Tsutaya T Site - a stunning book store in one of the most upscale and hip neighborhoods. great people watching as you walk through and around.
Ask some of the Mar Sci people to take you out, especially dice (daisuke akiba) and osh (takeshi oshima). They're a fucking riot and will gladly do it. happy to make an intro for you.
Just walk a lot. You'll see crazy things.