Time to take stock and perform a quick review of Tokyo.
The city itself is superb. 5 days (the effective amount of time we had there) is no where near enough. Ideally you would want two weeks if you’re up to the pace, else three if you want to take a slightly more leisurely pace. It is a city full of contradictions. If you’re wanting an exotic location you will instantly be disappointed as Tokyo is the number 1 western city. We’re talking state of the art and modern buildings here, however dig deeper and the old locations (even if rebuilt out of ferro-concrete in the 1960s) are just round the corner. Temples sit alongside modern high rises and crowds are every where.
The people are very polite and often helpful, which is especially useful when trying to navigate the underground/rail system. This can, however, at times be in sign language, be some what frustrating, and even not be needed as many people do not speak English, even in the hotels. To get by you do need a phrase book, or some notes written down, but with just a limited number of expressions you can get surprisingly far.
Travelling around. If you’ve got a JR Rail Pass (as you’re going else where by shinkansen (bullet train) then use it as all stations will accept it, simply show the card to the ticket guard and he’ll let you through.
If you do not have the above pass then a SUICA card is worth picking up. There’s a 500 yen deposit, but it works just like an Octopus (Hong Kong) or Oyster (London) card. In fact if you’re going to get the train in from Narita, then there’s a deal combining the N’Ex ticket and a SUICA card (with an arty picture on) complete with 2000 yen worth of charge on the card for just 3500 yen (~£18), a saving of around 2000 yen. It can be quite shocking how quickly you go through the credit, and in five days I used up 3500 yen (and then the remaining 500 yen at the airport on goodies) on train fares. There’s no discount for travel, it just makes things more convenient as even the locals get confused on how much tickets should cost. Also it can be used in many convenience stores.
Changing line on a journey can involve exiting a ticket area, then entering another one, even when staying in the same station, as there are multiple companies. If you are limited to buying tickets, then no fear. Simply buy the cheapest, then either use the fare adjustment machine as found on most platforms, else go to the ticket guard and pay the difference. This is perfectly acceptable and there are no fines.
Postcard buying can be an experience. In fact postcard hunting is a more accurate description. While the Japanese are big on gifts, especially to make up for the extra work load they’ve placed on their colleagues, they do not do postcards. The easiest way in Tokyo is find one of the tourist bureaus as these at least will have a range in stock. Sending them is a lot easier as there are post offices everywhere.
If you run out of cash, and remember Japan is still very much a cash society, then you can use the ATMs in any post office, however do not expect the ones in banks to work for you.
Gift buying can be fun, but also frustrating. The best places for some thing different are the temples, or more accurately the shops just outside selling temple cakes and charms. The department stores can also be good for items such as yakatas. For the otaku in your life, then hunt out a comic store – head to Akihabara for the largest (Gamers is just by the station which makes it even easier). If all else fails and your out of time, then it’s a very Japanese thing to have stores at the big stations and all airports where you can buy local goods. After all the Japanese do not get long for their holidays so they tend not to have time to shop for others either.
Mobile Phones. If your phone us a 3G model then it will work here, however if not then forget it, so no posing around with Jesus phones (iPhone). Phones can be hired from the airport if you really need one.
Eating out is always part of the experience, though there seems to be an ever increasing number of French, Italian, Thai and Indian restaurants appearing. Prices vary wildling, but as a whole even Tokyo is a cheap place to eat. Drink prices are higher and dedicated bars can be hard to find. Izakayas are fun places though to combine eating and drinking. One thing to be aware of though. The Japanese eat early and most restaurants close between 21:00 and 21:30.
If you want to see sport, then both Sumo and Baseball and fun to watch with great atmospheres that draw you in. Sumo tournaments are only held 3 times a year in Tokyo (I think it’s on 7 in the whole of Japan) and last for 16 days. It’s worth getting to the stadium and getting tickets if a basho is on while you’re in the city. Also there are gift shops inside for some thing different.
Baseball is probably the number one sport in Japan these days and during the season there is lots on TV. The atmosphere in the stadiums is great and it is a surprisingly cheap sport to watch, just make sure you can say home or away for which fans you want to sit with. The merchandise is also reasonably priced. Food and drink inside the grounds is, however, more expensive.
Tokyo Green Hotel Ochanomizu
I liked this hotel. It was small and apparently slightly out of the way, however this proved to be false as it was dangerously close to geek/otaku/gadget central that is Akihabara. Sure it was small and many of the staff could not speak English, but after all you’re only sleeping there, not spending lots of time, and the beds were comfortable, the bathroom useable, and they even had free Internet in the rooms (though you have to connect the router up yourself – all bits and English instructions included). The Internet service could be patchy and I did have great problems uploading photos on one night, but as a whole it worked well (and was free). The only downsides really were the lack of an in-room safe, though you could safely store items with reception, and the Japanese breakfast hardly varied each day. The breakfast was cheap though (think it was 1200 yen/£6).