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10 Things to Know Before You Go to Tokyo

By Edited Mar 30, 2016 4 7

A Guide to a Hassle-Free Travel

Tokyo Day View
Credit: Lyra Kua
The first time I went to Tokyo was with my family in a tour package. We didn't really need to know anything about the trip as we merely followed wherever the guide took us. Everything was being spoon-fed. We could get lazy and still not get lost on our way.
During the second time, we decided to become more adventurous and booked a flight to Tokyo on our own. I made my family's itinerary. I seriously want more independence on the trip so I refused to hire a tour guide - not even a volunteer guide that is widely available in Japan. Getting lost can be fun anyway, as long as you have extra pocket money, that is.
We were lucky. We didn't get seriously lost, only confused on which way to go, but we managed to reach our destinations. The whole trip is surely a memorable learning experience.
While reading several travel blogs and travel reviews, I noticed that many foreigners find Tokyo to be more overwhelming than the rest of Japan. While other cities offer similar amenities available in Tokyo, everything in Tokyo is in a much larger scale. Tokyoites are also less laid-back than their other counterparts, which makes commuting during peak hours even the more confusing for first-timers.

Indeed, taking the time to prepare and read about Tokyo will pay off for a smooth trip. If you wish to explore Tokyo on your own as well, there are some things that you might want to know before setting off. So here, I have prepared a list of some of the things to know before you go to Tokyo. These things may apply on Japan as a whole, but the trip we took was mainly in Tokyo, thus the title. I hope you will find these pointers helpful for your travel.

1. Tokyo's Train and Subway Network is Very Complicated

Yurikamome Train
Tokyo's transportation network is operated by different companies. That means you have to move in and out of station buildings if you want to transfer to another company's line. Operators in Tokyo include: JR East, Toei, Tokyo Metro, Tobu, Keisei, and Yurikamome. The good thing is, you can use a single IC card (prepaid cards that are swiped in and out of stations for payments of fares, e.g. Suica) across different stations. It's a good idea to acquire a map of train lines for an easier commute. You may also download apps for specific train operators.

2. Tokyo Doesn't Have a Lot of Escalators

Miraikan Escalators
Credit: Lyra Kua

Good thing there are escalators in this museum.

One thing I've noticed is that Tokyo lacks escalators, particularly escalators that go down. Stairs are everywhere, but it can be quite tiresome for an unfit person like me to move around through stairs. It takes some time getting used to the lack of escalators, but at least it can be a good form of exercise.

3. Tokyo's Voltage is 100 Volts

Wall Socket in Japan
The wall socket configuration consists of two vertical flat lines. In some wall sockets, the other line may be slightly longer than the other (as shown in the photo). Heating items from overseas, such as hair dryers or hair straighteners, with different voltage will not work well on 100 volts. Make sure you check the plugs of your gadgets or bring an adapter with the right configuration.[1]
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Here's a useful compact adapter kit that can also be used in many different countries.

4. You Do Not Need to Tip the Waitstaff

A Meal in Ebisu
Credit: Lyra Kua

A meal in Ebisu.

At restaurants, you usually pay at the cashier near the exit. Tips aren't necessary and are even discouraged.

5. Taxi Fares are Extremely Expensive

Taxi in Roppongi
Credit: Joi Ito via Flickr

A taxi in Roppongi.

If you are just arriving from Narita airport, be warned that taking a taxi might cost you around 20,000 yen to the city center.[2] If you prefer the comforts of a car, it's much more cost-effective to take a train bound to Tokyo station and from there you can hail a taxi to your hotel at a much lower fare.

The Japanese are Strict on Time

Subway Schedule
In my country, we always set an appointment time down to 0 or 5 minutes: 10:15, 4:30, 2:45, and such. That's why it's quite a surprise to see timetables in Tokyo transportatio

7. Vending Machines and Other Sorts of Machines are Almost Everywhere

Vending Machine
Credit: Lyra Kua

Vending machines offering both hot and cold drinks.

I didn't need to bring my own drinking bottle, as everywhere I walked, I saw vending machines. They offer both hot and cold drinks. Not only are they limited to drinks, they also have vending machines for umbrellas. Machines are also available at some food establishments wherein you choose your order first before taking the receipt that comes out from the slot to the staff at the counter. Even tickets to certain attractions can be bought from machines.

8. Shops and Establishments Close Rather Early

When you pass by an interesting store around the evening, take the chance to shop right then and there. I once passed by a huge collection of gachapons in a station, but since I had an itinerary to follow, I simply skipped the goodies with the intention of returning afterwards. Much to my dismay, I arrived "too late" (7:30pm). The staffs were already taking away the gachapons.

9. Taxes are Sometimes Not Yet Included in the Price Tags of the Products

Hello Kitty
Credit: Lyra Kua

Hello Kitty in lovely red kimono.

So don't be surprised if you see your bill suddenly increase upon payment. In some stores though, they display two amounts, showing both the tax-free price and the tax-inclusive price.

10. Foreigners can Enjoy Tax-Free Shopping in Certain Establishments

Fruits in a Tokyo Supermarket
Credit: Lyra Kua

Fruits in a Tokyo supermarket.

That is, provided they spend a minimum threshold amount and keep the items sealed before leaving the country. For consumable goods such as food, medicine, and cosmetics, a minimum total spending of 5,001 yen from the same store is required for tax exemption. On the other hand, for general items that are non-consumable, a minimum total spending of 10,001 yen from the same store is required.[3]


Apr 14, 2015 11:20am
A nice article which brought back memories of my visit to Tokyo. Although the train/subway system is very complicated there were lots of easy to read maps and the station names were written in Romaji (our Roman script) as well as Japanese, which made finding your route and getting off at the correct station very easy (I wish the same were true of the buses!).

I also liked the vending machines that sold hot drinks.

I didn't know about the tax break for visitors, though. That is really useful info.
Apr 15, 2015 8:36pm
Hi HLesley. Thank you! The train/subway system is indeed very complicated. It can be really overwhelming to first-time visitors. Good thing there are Romaji signs all around the stations. Buses aren't that tourist-friendly to foreigners at all.

Yes, I am thankful for the hot drinks available from those machines, especially during winter.
Apr 14, 2015 11:21am
Also, there is no tipping on taxis either because Japan is really a "no tipping" culture.

And taxis and trains are always squeaky clean.
Apr 15, 2015 8:37pm
Thanks for the additional information. I wish my house is also squeaky clean, LOL.
May 11, 2015 1:43pm
Very interesting article, thanks for a good read!
May 11, 2015 7:56pm
Thank you LeighGoessl! I'm glad you find this article interesting.
May 13, 2015 3:39am
This article was very nice. I was surprised about the subway system being operated by different companies and all being accessible by a prepaid card. I would definitely refer to this article as a guide if I ever visit Japan. My mother visited Japan years ago, and I'll ask her if she noticed some of the same things you noticed, though, things might have changed of course.
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  1. "Japan: The Official Guide." Electricity. 15/01/2015 <Web >
  2. "Taxi Fare Finder." Taxi Fare Finder. 15/01/2015 <Web >
  3. "Japan Tax Free Shop FAQ." Japan Tax Free Shop. 15/01/2015 <Web >

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