Tokyo is one of the most exciting cities in the world where you can enjoy unique and unforgettable experiences. From seeing the largest Mountain in Japan to exploring the city by Mario Go Kart, you won’t go short of fun things to do in this exciting city.
However, there are many things first time visitors need to be aware of when visiting Japan’s capital for the first time from correct etiquette when out in public places to avoiding disappointment when visiting top attractions. Spending a bit of time planning your trip before you go can ensure you have a more satisfactory trip and get to see and do all the things you planned to.
Having learned the hard way during our first visit to Tokyo, we want to ensure you don’t experience the same pitfalls as we did. Therefore, we have compiled our list of 6 things you should know before visiting Tokyo for the first time. This includes how to behave in public areas, using public transport (including getting to and from the both Narita and Haneda airport), the best times to see cherry blossoms, how to ensure you are equipped to experience one of the top tours in Tokyo (Mario Go Kart), and finally, having realistic expectations of Mount. Fuji.
1. Be Aware of How to Behave in Public Areas
Japan is a country where respect is everything so as a tourist you should respect this rule and ensure you are aware of the basic manners, behaviours and etiquette to abide by when visiting this part of the world. A few basics that we learned the hard way where to cover up tattoos in public, keep a low voice (i.e. no shouting) in public areas, and do not eat or drink in the street or on public transport.
A word on tattoos: When awaiting the check-in time for our hotel after a sleepless night of travelling from Hong Kong, we visited another hotel to laze about by the outdoor pool. Upon arrival, we were kindly informed that Brett couldn’t go in unless he covered up his entire forearm tattoo. We then had to leave the hotel to seek out a local pharmacy where we purchased a cover up for his arm that was suitable for swimming. In order to avoid being in this situation, make sure you cover up any tattoos when visiting public areas and this includes both small and large tattoos.
Keep a low tone when out in public: Being quiet when out in Japan is also a must so make sure you don’t raise your voice as this may seem aggressive or disrespectful and could land you in some trouble. Even if you are simply expressing excitement, ensure this is in a soft and quiet manner.
Tipping isn’t expected: Although in many European and American countries it’s often polite to provide a tip to hospitality staff as restaurants, taxi drivers or your hotel, for example, it’s quite the opposite in Japan. Tipping is often not expected given that the Japanese believe that good service is the standard and attempting to provide a tip may result in your it being refused and handed back to you.
If you insist on tipping, it’s recommended that you place the money in an envelope to hand it over, rather than pulling money directly from your pocket or purse. However, given that tipping is not expected by the Japanese, it can be more polite to not provide a tip and just express your gratefulness for a great service by thanking the employees and keeping your money to yourself.
Additional points to consider: Other things to consider which might seem disrespectful are pointing with your finger, staring at locals, being on the phone in public, blowing your nose in public (make sure you go the toilet for this) and counting change when you have made a cash payment. Overall, ensure you read around Japanese etiquette before visiting the country to avoid upsetting the locals and if you take anything from this post, remember that quietness and respect go a long way in this country.
2. Using Public Transport in Japan
The Japanese public transport network is known for being clean, reliable, and offering an excellent, efficient service. As with most major cities, visitors are provided the option of bus, subway or train with the subway being the most convenient and preferred way to get around the city (including ours). You can buy multi-day tickets that can be used throughout 1-3 days costing around 800-1500 Yen (approx. £6-£12), which can be more convenient and save you time each day.
Although the underground system isn’t the easiest to understand given the vast size of the metropolitan area, taking taxis can be timely (given the inner-city traffic) and costly, so it could pay off in the long run to try your best at getting to grips with the underground system.
Granted, the subway can be even trickier for foreigners who don’t understand the local language given that there the majority of signs etc. are in Japanese. However, bear in mind that the locals are often more than happy to help and you could always ask the ticket staff although a high level of English language isn’t guaranteed so getting to know a few basics of the local language could go a long way. Alternatively, Google Translate could be your new best friend.
3. Pre-book Airport Transfer or Take Public Transport
During our first trip to Tokyo, we arrived at Haneda Airport during the early hours of the morning so public transport was limited. We joined the orderly taxi queue and as we were surviving on no sleep, we didn’t even realise we had been bundled into a local black cab (i.e. the more expensive taxi!). It wasn’t until 15 minutes into the journey, Brett noticed the metre quickly growing and when we finally arrived at our hotel around 25 minutes later we were blown away by the fee, which was the equivalent to more than 32,000 Yen (approx. £250)!
For just a short 25 minute journey, we paid the equivalent to more than one nights stay in our hotel. We quickly learned that getting around by taxi was not the most economic mode of transport to say the least. For the rest of our time in Tokyo, we walked and took the subway.
However, when leaving Tokyo and travelling to Indonesia on an early morning flight, we decided to take the train rather than pay 38,500 Yen (approx. £300) for a taxi as quoted by our hotel. We caught the subway to central Tokyo and after some running around we eventually found the platform where the first airport train was due to arrive. The JR Narita Express takes around one hour to reach the airport and costs around 3000 Yen (approx. £24) one-way with departures every 30-60 minutes.
When the train stopped, we were informed that we couldn’t board with the tickets we had purchased as the JR Narita Express is reservation only so pre-booked seats are required. We were then challenged with running back to the ticket office to purchase the correct tickets and overall it was a lot of fuss and unnecessary stress that could have been avoided had we planned our trip more carefully and known this vital information.
So when you are visiting Tokyo, make sure you have either pre-arranged airport transfer or ensure your flight lands during the hours that public transport is operating to avoid a hefty taxi fee like we did.
Also, if you travel by train, make sure you pre-book your seats. We recommend doing this online or have your hotel book it for you as trying to achieve this at the various train stations like we did could result in a lot of lost time and money and a lot of stress in fear of missed flights!
4. Realistic Expectations of Mount. Fuji Tour
One of the main attractions for people visiting Tokyo is to take a day excursion to see the wonderful Mount. Fuji (or Fuji-san in Japanese), Japan’s highest and most prominent mountain standing at a staggering 3,776 metres high. Located around 60 miles west of the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area, Mount. Fuji attracts over 250,000 visitors per year.
Although it has remained dormant since its last eruption in 1707, geologists still classify it as an active volcano. There are many options for experiencing the mountain and visitors can opt to climb or take a full or half day tour by bullet train or cruise/bus tour. Check out Get Your Guide for more specific options and pricing, which varies from £50 upwards (approx. 6,500 Yen) and the option to add on extra activities such as shopping or fruit picking. You can also book tours locally while in Tokyo, which we recommend based on our experience below.
The mountain is best viewed from afar, so during our stay we aimed to book on a full day tour to experience the views of Mount. Fuji and the surrounding areas including shrines, hot spring towns and Lake Kawaguchi and Oshino Hakkai. However, when we headed to a local tour operator to book our day excursion, we were kindly informed that even on the clearest of days, the visibility of the mountain is limited.
During our stay, we hadn’t experienced the best weather in Tokyo but it had brightened up in the 24 hours prior to our visit and us aiming to book a tour. However, the forecast wasn’t that great so the tour operator suggested for us to not waste our money on the tour that would have cost us more than 25,000 Yen (approx. £200).
So if you plan on visiting Mount. Fuji during your trip to Tokyo, it’s recommended that you visit from Autumn to Winter. It’s visible from the capital on some days between November and February and rarely between April and August with September being Typhoon season, so again visibility is low.
We will be heading back to see the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site in the future, this time with better planning!
5. International License Required for Mario Go Kart City Tour
One of the most exciting and popular tours in Tokyo is the Mario Go Kart city tour, a real-life Mario Kart experience. It’s exactly as it sounds, you dress as your favourite comic such as Mario or Luigi and explore the city by Go Kart for between two and four hours.
The tours are led by a local guide and you will get to see top attractions such as Tokyo Tower, Shibuya Crossing and Rainbow Bridge, among many others. You can even hire an action camera to record your entire journey, all you have to do is bring or buy your own SD card. The Karts are also equipped with Bluetooth speakers so you can enjoy your own music while exploring the city in the most exciting way.
Prices start from around 8,500 Yen (approx. £66) and vary depending on which of the three tours you decide to take and you can also access reduced-rate tickets via Voyagin. There are also a few things to consider prior to your tour with the most important being the correct drivers license.
Given that the Go-Kart experience takes place on the roads, it’s important that you have one of the following drivers licenses depending on your country of origin:
- A full Japanese Driver’s license
- SOFA driving license for US Forces Japan
- Passport with forieng driving license (issued in Switzerland, Germany, France, Taiwan, Belgium, Solvenia or Monaco) with Japanese translation by authorised organisation
- Passport with an international driving permit (issued by a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention)
It’s best to make sure you have the correct license prior to visiting in order to ensure you can take part in this exciting tour during your visit. For further information, click here.
6. Cherry Blossom Blooming Dates are Short and Sweet
When absorbed in the hustle and bustle of the fast-paced city life, it’s always nice to escape into nature for a while, which is why we always seek out parks and gardens on city breaks. During our visit to Tokyo, we visited Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (featured in our 15 Photos that Will Make You Want to Visit Tokyo), which is one of the capital’s largest and most popular parks.
The gardens are conveniently located just a short walk from Shinjuku station and you just pay a small fee of 500 Yen upon entering through Shinjuku Gate. Then, you are free to wander the tranquil scenery and make your way through the many gardens including the Japanese Garden, English Garden and French Garden.
The gardens are one of the best places in the city to see the Cherry Blossoms. However, as we found out during our trip, they are in bloom for a very short period of time so it’s important to plan your visit accordingly if you aim to see them during your visit to Tokyo.
Ensure you double check when they are due to start blooming and plan your visit to coincide with this. Be aware that once they have begun to bloom, they hit full bloom around a week later and a further week later most of the blossoms will have fallen off the trees. This gives you just a two week window to see the wonderful pink cherry blossoms during your visit to Tokyo.
Also, the gardens open at 9am throughout the year, however, the closing hours vary from season to season so make sure you double check this too. High season (July-August) is often as late as 7pm, reducing to 6pm during mid-season (March-June and August-September) and 4.30pm during low season (October-March).
There are so many exciting things to see and do in the ultramodern city of Tokyo. We love this city because it isn’t like any other and you can easily combine exploring national parks and gardens with the hustle and bustle of the city centre. We hope these tips and tricks help planning your trip to this incredible part of the world!