Am not going to pretend to be an expert here but my first time in Tokyo hinted some tips I could use the next time. You could say that this post is primarily for me but I also hope it will come handy to at least one person out there brewing a trip to this amazing metropolis.
When you visit Japan, especially Tokyo, you will spend a huge chunk of your day moving. Unless you have private transportation services, it is a must to learn how to navigate the system, especially the trains, to get to your destinations, . Japan’s train services are said to be one of the most reliable and efficient platforms in the world. I may not have a lot in my backpack experience to compare this system against but what I saw during my 5-day trip was enough to say that it is true for myself.
Luck was on my side my first time. I was with my friend, Flights and Flavours, who has been to Tokyo. She made it look so easy. Am sure I would have gotten lost many times if I were just on my own. So I listed these quick guide questions below that first timers can ask themselves in order to make the trip planning easier. The seasoned travelers would probably say that these are pretty much universal questions we ask ourselves in almost all kinds of travel. But if this benefits at least one, I think writing it here is worth it.
I wrote questions and not all the answers for two reasons. First, I do not have all the answers. Second, I believe guide questions give a lot of room for pure chase and wander. An added adventure to the travel and a space for personalizing the trip.
Let’s start the journey!
1. What places do I want to visit?
Though it is wonderful to let yourself discover random finds, it is still good to have a list in mind especially if you are landing on a foreign land. More necessarily when you do not speak the language. You want all the money you spent for the trip worth it. Complete your list and research their specific locations. The location will help you find the train station/s nearest to them. Put your list on the side and let it simmer.
2. Where will I be coming from for most of my trips? Where is my hotel located?
Assuming that, at this time of your preparation, you’ve already booked your accommodation. It’s important that you know what station is nearest to your home as this is where you will be coming from and going to each day you move. Not to mention, this is where you will get off coming from the airport. Most hotels or home stays share this information when they advertise. Using your answer to above question, track the train stops you need to know to get to your destinations. Your answers to this will also help you decide on sequence (where to go first) and proximity (which places can be grouped in one day).
3. Given my itinerary, what train tickets will work best for me?
Japan’s train system didn’t become one of the best because it’s simple. Efficiency at its best will require some dose of complexity. Looking at the train map for the first time may give you eyes a sore. But if you have specific points to look at, it makes things easier.
There are multiple companies that run the multiple train lines all over Japan. Once you’ve done numbers 1 and 2 above, your basic itinerary will give you an idea what kind of train pass will work for you. Train passes come in different ways from different companies. They are as follows (and maybe more):
a. Single Pass – you go to the station, find your route and ticket cost, buy the ticket, and pass. Wait for the ticket to be dispensed as you will use it again to exit your next station. You will do this every time you enter and exit a station. The cost of the ticket can be found from the fare matrix usually above the ticket machines.
b. Day Tickets – there are tickets that allow you to use certain lines for 24 hours. A variation of this are the Combos where it allows you more than one train line or even a bus access.
c. Discount Visitor Tickets – These are available for Tokyo Metro lines and four Toei Subway Lines. They provide unlimited pass for a limited time. This was what we used on our trip since most of our destinations are within downtown Tokyo. We just purchased single tickets for those that are out of our way. The pass gets stamped the first time and every time you use it. The first stamp is bigger than the rest and shall hint you when it expires.
4. Where and how to purchase the tickets?
Tickets are purchased via manned ticket booths or ticket machines located at the train stations. In the course of our travel, we’ve only used cash to purchase our tickets, including the Visitor Tickets. Credit cards are not yet widely accepted. Make sure you have ready cash by the time you exit the airport. You may also withdraw from ATMs but may be charged an international cash advance fee or your card may not work (mine didn’t despite travel notice).
Aside from the tickets, you may also use PASMO. Pasmo is a smart card that you can purchase on self-service machines or authorized retailers. It can be used as train tickets, can serve certain bus lines, and are accepted by selected stores and vending machines. All purchases deducted from its original balance. It also allows you to top up the load and personalize your card. Please note that it requires a certain deposit on first purchase that can be refunded from where you bought it. If you plan on coming back to Japan, you may keep and use it until 10 years from first. Another alternative to this is the SUICA card.
5. Other Tips
a. Train navigation can be easier nowadays with the different apps available. You may use Tokyo Subway Navigation, Japan Rail Map, HyperDia, or the good old Google routes. You will have two navigation needs – finding the right trains and mapping through the right destination once you get off the train.
b. All the navigation tips above require net access. Lucky for us, our home provided a mobile wifi that has unlimited internet. Airports and trains provide public wifis but may not be as consistent. It is important that you research what train to take form the airport to central Tokyo and to your hotel before you even leave the airport. There are special trains that move passengers from the airport to downtown Tokyo . These lines offer guaranteed seats.
c. All trains are equipped with TV displays, track numbers, codes, maps, and routes, to guide you. You will have to do a lot of sign reading. If lost, you can always find a manned booth and ask. English may be a bit of a challenge but everyone is polite and willing to help. When we ran out of cash and I had to exit the train to look for world money exchange, I took a picture of the train’s standard money exchange symbol and showed it to the train staff. I was led the right way.
d. Hotel check In/out time may not be very convenient for your flight schedules. This is where the Coin Lockers can be of best help. They are located at certain train stations. You can use cash or smart cards such as Pasmo and Suica. You can leave your luggage while you enjoy your remaining free hours before heading to your hotel or the airport.
I hope above tips help you to begin. Japan was a dream destination to me but it wasn’t part of my travel plans for 2017. Thanks to Flight and Flavours for pushing me and leaving me with no choice. Ha! And for allowing two more of my friends to tag along. The more the cheaper!
One thing am sure of is – I am going back and will put into action the above things I learned from my first trip. There is so much more to say about this Tokyo trip but that deserves an entirely different post.