Tokyo is a bustling capital city known for its clash of ultra-modern lifestyles and traditional Japanese culture. From towering, neon-lit skyscrapers to revered historic temples, the city offers experiences for all types of travelers.
- Founded: During the late 12th century
- Area: 845 square miles (2,189 square kilometers)
- Population: 9.3 million
- Language: Japanese
- Currency: Yen (¥)
- Time Zone: Japan Standard Time (JST)
- Major Airports: Tokyo International Airport/Haneda Airport (HND), Narita International Airport (NRT)
- Drive on the: Left
The best times to visit Tokyo are in March, April, October, or November — when the weather is practically perfect. During these times of year, travelers miss the city’s summer rains and heat, and find themselves in ideal conditions for exploration. That said, Tokyo is a year-round destination, international business hub, and one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. So, if you’re looking to travel cheap(er), book your flights for travel dates between mid-January and March, when the city sees cooler temperatures, fewer tourists, and greater travel deals. Although January is typically Tokyo’s coldest month of the year, with an average temperature of 41°F (5°C), the weather is usually sunny and dry.
Tokyo is a massive city comprised of a great span of neighborhoods, each of which are identified by their corresponding train station. Most of the city’s major hubs are located on the JR Yamanote Line (or, “Loop Line”), with the only major exceptions being Roppongi and Asakusa. That said, there are over 1,000 train stations in the city, spread out over an equal number of identifiable neighborhoods. For a tour of the city’s best corners, check out our Tokyo neighborhood guide.
If you’re a first-time Tokyo traveler, the city’s train and subway systems might overwhelm you at first glance. But the best way to understand the city’s layout is to think of it as several cities connected by a larger public transportation system. There are two different subway operators (Tokyo Metro and Toei), one major rail company (JR), and a multitude of private-line operators. In general, tickets are reasonably priced compared to other major cities around the world but, if you’re looking to cut down on extra expenses, try not to transfer between different operators.
If you’re staying in Tokyo for more than 24 hours, we recommend purchasing a Suica travel pass. These all-access cards are accepted on every rail and subway line across Japan and will save you time and energy. You can find these passes at the airport, JR ticket offices, and practically any vending machine or small shop across the city. After you’ve used your initial credit, you can top them off at any train station — just remember to press the button that says “English” before starting your transaction.
For travel within the city, the bus system can also be useful, especially when making trips to areas that aren’t subway-friendly. Fares are relatively cheap, but be sure to study your maps and know where you’re supposed to get off. Additionally, Tokyo is swarming with taxis, though they are known for being shamefully expensive. If you find yourself stranded after the night’s last train, however, they can be rather useful. All fares can be paid with major credit cards (though some companies require a minimum fare of ¥5,000), but note that from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., an extra 30 percent is added. Also keep in mind that although taxis accept card, you will need cash for most kiosks and eateries — so be sure to carry yen with you!
English signage and announcements are not widely available within the city, except in major tourist areas like Yoyogi Park and in subway stations. That said, Tokyo is preparing to host the 2020 Olympic Games and is in the process of creating as much English signage as possible. In turn, many locals are open to practicing their English and helping travelers communicate. But, if you’re headed to Tokyo sooner rather than later, the main areas will still have enough English signs to get you where you need to go and most restaurants display photos of their dishes so you can literally point to order your meal. If you have food allergies or want to make sure you have a clear way to communicate, create a document of helpful phrases ahead of time and have it readily available.
With more than 35 million people, greater Tokyo is one of the most densely populated urban centers in the world, yet crowds remain orderly. When navigating Tokyo by foot, remember that walking is given the same amount of care and caution as driving. That means no eating, drinking, smoking, or talking on a cell phone while on the move. Also, everyone waits until the light changes to cross the street and always walks on the left side of the sidewalk. The only exception to this rule is when on escalators, where you either stand on the left or walk on the right.
A few additional things to note about Japanese culture: everyone is extremely welcoming, it is not customary to tip restaurant waitstaff (it’s actually seen as an insult), and manners and etiquette are held in the highest regard. So … be friendly and respectful, and don’t forget to use your inside voice.
Header image by Patrick Gather.