Tims Travel Tips: Japan

A friend is off to Tokyo soon so I thought I’d collect up a few recomendations for him… Tokyo is often most peoples arrival & exit point for Japan, but if time allows I highly reccomend visiting Kyoto and Naoshima…


Getting around Tokyo:
1. Narita Airport is about 90minutes train ride from central Tokyo; the best way to get into town is to catch the Narita Express (N’Ex) train. You buy a ticket at the airport but they also do a special cheap deal for the N’Ex ticket plus a Suica card thats good value….

2. buy a Suica card as soon as you arrive (as above)
They are like an EFTPOS card except you put money on them & then you use them to pay for subway… it makes it easy to use the subway as, presuming you have credit on your Suica card you never have to worry about what the fare is (usually you have to work it out & prebuy the right ticket…) You just wave the Suica card past the scanner (stand by an entrance way & watch other people use theirs) and there are machines in the entrance of all train stations for refilling your card.

3. Tokyo has a main circular subway line called the Yamanote line which goes between all the main areas/suburbs – you’ll use it lots to get around…

4. Its important that you note what EXIT from a subway station you are wanting eg a bar or art gallery might say on their map:
take East Exit Shinjuku Station or take the No.2 exit Ueno Station…

5. Finding places can be tricky – most websites will have an access map with directions from nearest Subway station – it pays to print out the map & address so you can ask people, even if they dont speak english or as a last resort jump in a taxi & let them find it for you!
UPDATE: having an iPad and a wifi portable modem is imho essential in Japan! Google maps is excellent (& even tells you what time next train is leaving on any planned route)

6. Rent a wifi modem! Apart from email & keeping in touch, its essential for google maps, website access & directions etc…. These can be picked up (& returned) from whichever airport you arrive at/leave. I’ve used this company: Japan Mobile Rental 4 or 5 times now, and highly reccomend them – excellent service!

7. If you need a Hotel in Tokyo one of my favourites is Sutton place as its right beside Ueno station (on Yamamote line)… More expensive (depending which floor you stay on) I also really like Hotel Metropolitan which is close to Ikebukuro Train Station – improtant note: you can often get better discounts via booking.com than if you walk in off the street. I stayed in a very nice hotel, then tried to extend my booking and they couldn’t match the discounted price on booking.com (so I rebooked online) – just be aware of how far your potential hotel is from the nearest Yamanote line station, especially during your first visits to Tokyo it simplifies access if you are close to the Yamanote line.
I also highly reccomend staying in a traditional ryokan at some point during your visit

UPDATE: I mainly use Air BnB now – my favourite is this sound proof apartment with a grand piano!

My favourite things to do in Tokyo:

1. ICC Gallery near Shinjuku station
Best art gallery in the whole world, especially for digital art! (& a note for soundies: they have an anechoic chamber!) Its a 20-30 minute walk from Shinjuku Station although I tend to catch taxi there/walk back as means you dont get lost quite so easily… But getting lost is half the fun! Also very useful is the Tokyo Art Beat website which lists all the current exhibitions. Also very useful is the book Art Space Tokyo

2. Mori Tower – Roppongi
Another good contemporary art gallery but its also on the 53rd floor & you can buy a ticket for the gallery that also gives you access to the 360 degree viewing floor! This is good to do in first few days to give you an idea of the sheer scale of Tokyo – also good to do at dusk & watch the day turn to night & Tokyo light up! For other art gallerys/events: ArtBeat website lists all current exhibitions on in Tokyo

3. Ghibli Museum (Mitaka station on Chuo line)
This is a fantastic place to visit – a museum & theatre for Miyazaki animated films; you have to prebook as its hugely popular, especially at weekends, but its so great!

4. Yoyogi Park on a Sunday (Harajuku station on Yamanote line)
Lots of people go to the park on a sunday & especially kids in weird cosplay costumes & lots of bands (eg every 50m a different genre band)
A few examples:

5. La Jetee – the best bar in Tokyo!
A friend introduced me to it & you would otherwise never find it! Its tiny, upstairs, holds ten people max & everyone there tends to be film people…. Tarantino has a sake bottle kept there etc… its run by a French/Japanese woman who speaks a little english if she has to… I’ll scan the map sometime as its otherwise impossible to find, it is in an old part of Shinjuku called Golden Gai – full of tiny tiny bars….. Address is: La Jetee; 1-1-8 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku

Kyoto is definitely worth visiting – catch the Shinkansen/bullet train from Tokyo in about 3 hours… There are literally hundreds of temples in Kyoto – I’ve been to maybe a dozen or so over the course of 3 visits, many are not open to public or are only open via appointment or at certain times of year… They are so beautiful words can not express the experience. A few I reccomend visiting are:

Daittoku-ji (a good first one to visit as close to central Kyoto) which is a collection of temples including Daisen-in, Ryogen-in & Koto-in

Ryoan-ji beautiful but often busy with busloads of tourists… has a zen dry garden with 15 stones, but no matter where you stand you can only ever see 12 of them!

Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) – beautiful, park like grounds

Naoshima is the ultimate art destination – its a small island in the Seto Inland Sea & contains two major art galleries, both designed by Tadao Ando, plus a dozen art houses; traditional houses that have been rebuilt as installations by noted artists… Each time I’ve been to Naoshima we got a rental car from a town called Okayama and drove to the port of Uno, where we caught a ferry over to Naoshima. Then its easy to explore the island in the car…. basic Naoshima info etc here
If you do rent a car, get one with a NavMan in it & ask the rental company to enter the phone number of your destination. Then the Navman will display map of how to get there – we didnt use any other maps at all!

Places to go on Naoshima:
Chichu Art Gallery (Tadao Ando designed gallery – so so beautiful!)

Bennesse House Art Gallery

Miniderma Art House (James Turell/Tadao Ando)

The first two times I went to Naoshima we stayed at a hotel on the mainland & just went over for the day, but last time we stayed at the very flash (& youch! expensive! We had to use several buy now pay later apps to cover the cost and worry about paying it off later) Bennesse House beach Hotel, also designed by Tadao Ando….
But, its on a beautiful beach & just along from it were some great little cheap cottages which is where I will stay next time….

I’ll post some info about Osaka, Kobe & a few other places I’ve been in Japan & recommend…
Check my photos from travels in Japan here – if you go back through previous photos/visits you can get a feel for many of the places I have been in Japan… I cant wait to return!

I’ll reformat this & find a better place to keep it & update it…

A great online source of info and advice is the Japan Guide site

4 thoughts on “Tims Travel Tips: Japan

  1. Dan

    Nara is also worth a day’s visit if you’re in Kansai. You can have a good hike around the park, there’s some wonderful buildings and gardens… (bamboo forest — take your recorder Tim!)

    There’s also a few Japanese musical instrument shops in the long arcade between the station and the park. And I mean gagaku instruments, not Yamaha and Roland.

    Oh, and the sweet mochi is nice.

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