Tokyo, Japan - Stein Travel
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Tokyo

As a modern city Tokyo, the capital of Japan, could be described as too good to be true. People dress in the latest gear, excellent restaurants serve up delicious food of all varieties, and the trendiest nightclubs keep things hopping. The public transport system is punctual and one of the most efficient in the world; and shops and vending machines provide necessities and luxuries both day and night. All this is achieved in a city that is home to 12 million people, amid the confusion of bumper-to-bumper traffic, flickering neon signs and a crush of humanity packing subways and sidewalks. In the crush and rush Tokyo remains, remarkably, one of the world's safest cities with a low crime rate and local people who are only too willing to spare the time and effort to assist a stranger.

With such a dense population, Tokyo is an urban maze of buildings that jostle for space in an unplanned jumble of grey concrete, which makes parts of it ugly and drab. The city fills a huge area that seems to go on forever, with no specific city centre, but rather a succession of districts grouped together. In the back streets, where timber houses line narrow lanes, there are reminders that this is exotic Japan: kimono-clad women prune bonsai trees and colourful neighbourhood festivals take place.

The city is an exuberant experience for visitors. It also hosts many museums and is the largest repository of Japanese art in the world. Then, of course, it would take forever to exhaust the shopping possibilities in this megalopolis. The more one explores Tokyo the more it becomes obvious that one cannot judge a book by its cover. Inside the modern buildings the cultural life of Japan is very much alive and well. Interiors reflect the tranquil minimalist Asian style and taste of Japan.

Information & Facts

Climate

Tokyo has four distinct seasons, similar to New York. The summer months (June, July and August) are hot and sticky while winter can be freezing. Tokyo is best visited in spring or autumn.

Eating Out

Tokyo is one of the world's great cities for diners. Not only is there a fabulous variety of premium eateries (collectively with more Michelin stars than Paris) but the wonderfully diverse and exciting world of Japanese cuisine reaches its highest peaks here. From kaiseki, the elaborate and expensive Japanese cuisine themed around the four seasons, to down-market roadside classics like sukiyakinoodle dishes, deep-fried tempura, mouth-watering tonkatsupork, and yakitorichicken grilled on skewers, Tokyo has it all in abundance.

Then there is the perennial western favourite, sushi - impeccably served in a thousand different varieties around the city. Note that when eating sushi it is usual to eat with your fingers, and go easy on the soy sauce and wasabi. For a light meal on the move, you can also grab a lunchtime bentobox from any convenience store and find a seat in the many quiet enclaves amidst the city bustle. For an unforgettable experience, treat yourself to a pricey but incredibly fresh sushi breakfast at one of the restaurants near the Tsukiji Fish Market in Chuo.

You can also visit the basement level of nearly any department store, which will contain a number of shops selling prepared foods. Piece together your own meal, or just browse the free samples. Note that these stores will begin discounting their food around 7pm.

Chopsticks are used in most restaurants, except those serving western cuisine. You can ask for western utensils, but you are better off getting into the spirit and practicing with chopsticks before your visit! When eating noodles it is quite normal to pick up the bowl and drink from it, using the chopsticks to eat the solid bits. Slurping is also normal; in fact, it improves the flavour of the food.

In most restaurants you will be given a wet towel known as oshiboribefore eating. Use this to freshen up by wiping your face and hands. While ordering in a restaurant without an English menu can be intimidating, many restaurants have plastic food models on display, and most offer set menus with popular combinations.

Tipping is not customary in Japan, and attempts to provide gratuity are likely to be met with confusion. At more up-scale restaurants a 10-15% service charge may be added to your bill. Smaller restaurants and roadside stalls will not accept credit cards.

Getting Around

Tokyo's public transport system is one of the most efficient in the world and is clean and safe, combining an extensive train network, 13 underground subway lines and a bus system. Visitors usually find the trains (JR) and subways the best way to get around although the complexity of the underground network can be intimidating; rush hour from 7:30am to 9am and 5pm to 7pm should be avoided. Most stations have English signs. Because lines are owned by different companies, transfers between trains or subways usually require a transfer between different train systems, with different ticketing systems that can be confusing. The Tokyo Combination Ticket (Tokyo Free Kippu) is a day travel pass that allows unlimited use of the trains, subway and bus lines within the city. Subway tickets are bought at vending machines; buy the cheapest ticket if unsure how much to pay and the difference, if any, can be paid at the end of the journey. The bus system is more complicated for visitors as most destinations are written in Japanese only and bus drivers don't speak English. Taxis are convenient but never cheap, particularly in rush hour. Taxis can be hailed on the street, except in some central areas, where they only pick up from taxi ranks. Drivers speak little English so it is a good idea to have the destination written out in Japanese. Driving a car in the city is not advised. JR trains are free with a Japan Rail Pass.

Kids Attractions

Not everyone's ideal holiday destination with children, Tokyo is surprisingly well geared towards kids on holiday in this bustling city. With a dazzling array of technological attractions, scientific museums and a rich and colourful history, children should find there is plenty to explore round Tokyo.

The Baji Equestrian park is a great place to take kids to watch horse shows and even have a pony ride, or for a more exhilarating day out, head to the Tokyo Dome City where children can enjoy countless rides and games at the amusement park and parents relax and pamper themselves in the spa. The Tokyo Metropolitan Children's Hall is also a great attraction for kids to enjoy with its indoor gyms, computers, crafts areas, mini-theatre and rooftop playground, it's Tokyo's largest public facility for children.

On a sunny day, why not pack a picnic and the Frisbee and head off to Shinjuku Park, or Hama-Rikyu Sunken Garden for a stroll or just to admire the cherry trees and blossoms. Or for those days when the weather turns bad and outdoor activities for kids are no longer an option, visit the Panasonic Center, or soak up a bit of culture at one of Tokyo's many museums, such as the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Museum of Maritime Science or the National Science Museum. You'll find a number of skating rinks, sports clubs, and swimming pools dotted around the city as well.

Language

Japanese is the official language. Most Japanese people will have studied English at school, but few can speak it well or understand what is said to them.

Money

The currency is the Japanese Yen (JPY), which is equal to 100 sen. Major credit cards are accepted in the larger hotels and stores, but most Japanese operate with cash. Cash and travellers cheques can be exchanged in banks, post offices and currency exchange bureaux. Banks are usually open Monday to Friday 9am to 3pm. Travellers cheques offer the best exchange rate and are best taken in US dollars. ATMs do not accept all credit and debit cards; only the international ATMs in post offices, airports and some major stores.

Night Life

Nightlife in Tokyo is huge. They have everything from geisha bars to jazz or 'hostess' clubs, dive bars referred to as 'shot bars' and zany themed dance clubs. It is legal to drink out in the streets and vending machines even stock cans of beer!

A good way to enjoy Tokyo's nightlife is in an izakaya, a pub-style watering hole serving food and drink. Western-style bars are much more expensive than those with local flavour, though chains like The Hub have happy-hour prices that are more reasonable.

Roppongi is the top nightlife district in Tokyo, where the locals are very friendly to gaijin(Westerners). Be wary of hostesses and 'patrons' who try to lure you into one of the districts many gentlemen's clubs, where drinks are prohibitively expensive. Shibuya also has a number of nightclubs, and Shinjuku is home to both Tokyo's red-light district and its primary gay bars. While Shinjuku is famous for its crazy atmosphere, women are advised not to walk around alone. For less expensive bars that cater to students and backbackers, go a little further to the Shimokitazawa, Koenji and Nakano districts.

Many bars and lounges impose a 'table charge', which includes snacks like nuts or chips. Not all venues charge and policies vary, so ask before you order anything. Note that the legal age for both drinking and smoking in Japan is 20.

Those looking for a more cultured evening can catch a traditional Kabukiperformance at the Kabuki-za theatre in Ginza. Tickets range from ¥3, 000 to ¥22, 000, or you can catch a single act for as little as ¥800. Other popular forms of theatre include the restrained and refined Noh, and Bunrakupuppet theatre. You can also see traditional Western music performances by the Tokyo and NHK Symphony Orchestras at various theatres around Tokyo. Check the Japan Times for concert information.

For detailed nightlife listings, grab a copy of the free Metropolis publication.

Shopping

Tokyo has refined shopping into an urban art form and essential cultural experience. The result is quite possibly the most futuristic shopping environment in the world where you can purchase everything from underwear to watermelons from vending machines while never interacting with a human. Tokyo is also at the cutting edge of fashion and design, as a wide-eyed stroll through Ginza and Shibuya districts will confirm. Tokyo is also famous for its electronics stores, the biggest concentration of which can be found in Akihabara, Tokyo's 'Electric Town'. Despite the wide range you will struggle to find genuine bargains and don't expect to negotiate too much on price.

Shopping malls have also been taken to another level here - in some cases, up to 20 levels. Shinjuku Station is surrounded by multi-level shopping stores selling everything under the sun. Big name chains such as Keio and Isetan can be accessed directly from the station. They both offer tax-free shopping and European language assistance. For a more upmarket department store experience, visit Mitsukoshi which has several branches throughout the city.

Tokyo isn't known for flea markets, but two that are worth a visit for artisan-style gifts are Togo Shrine in Harajuku on the first and fourth Sundays of each month, and Nogi Shrine on the second Sunday of each month. There are many small markets around the various temples and shrines. Essential purchases include traditional items like Duruma dolls and crafts such as ceramics and chop-sticks. Kimonos are another good purchase although those made from pure silk, as true kimonos are, will be expensive. On a more modern note, the very latest gadgetry and electronics gear will also be perfectly emblematic of your visit to Tokyo. A good place to browse for souvenirs is the Oriental Bazaar and Omotesando, both of which offer good value and plenty of interesting human scenery.

A popular sight is the otakuarea of Akihabara. There you'll find colourful manga and anime stores, and you may catch some fans and promoters wandering around in fantastical costumes.

One of the surprising aspects of shopping in Tokyo is that despite the vast buildings and slick modernity surrounding everyone, there are still traditional neighbourhoods and quiet districts to be found. Here you can find specialist stores selling unique and frequently hand made items such as micro-brewed sakeor beautiful lacquerware.

Sightseeing

Sightseeing in Tokyo can bring about sensory overload if you're not careful. Animated billboards, the buzz of a densely packed and highly energetic population, and glittering, gleaming architecture all compete for your attention. One thing is certain though, you'll never be bored.

The transport system is excellent, good value, and easy to figure out, even for westerners. However, the best way to view the city remains the oldest way: on foot, walking the streets, taking in the multitude of sights and sounds on your way. You'll be sure to find plenty of unexpected treasures, from little temples on a side streets, to the warm smile welcome of a local shop keeper.

Tokyo really does have something for everyone. Westerners honeymooners come to cultivate romance amidst the cherry blossoms, shoppers will find exactly what they're looking for and plenty on top of that, and even backpackers can find a way take in the culture without breaking the bank. The temples and museums listed below are well worth your time, or you can lose yourself in the neon lights of Shibuya, check out the hip Harajuku girls in Takeshita Street or cosplayers in Akihabara, and take the elevated train from Shimbashi station to the bayside Odaiba district, and ride on the giant ferris wheel.

If you're curious, you can also take a class in any number of traditional Japanese art forms, including calligraphy, tea ceremony, martial arts, massage, flower arranging or meditation. Tokyo also has a number of neon-lit pachinko parlours with men, women and childrentrying their hand at the popular game. Japanese sports such as baseball and sumo wrestling are also fun ways to get a taste of Tokyo culture.

Time

Local time is GMT +9.

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