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June 3, 2019

Former Tour Leader’s Insider Guide to Tokyo

Tokyo is home to 14 million and on the bucket lists of many millions more. With endless stimulation, entertainment, things to do, see, taste, and experience, it’s sensory overload in all the best ways. Days are fast and full but promise to send visitors home with unforgettable memories.

Prior to joining the Conlin Travel family as a Group Travel Support Specialist, Kimi Sugiyama worked as a tour guide in Tokyo for two years. Her primary responsibilities included showing visitors around an intimidating mega metropolis, helping them to navigate a city with a sturdy language barrier in place, serving as a cultural connector, and staying on top of the ever-changing landscape as the city gears up to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. She shares her in-depth insider knowledge to a city that is still very foreign and mysterious to many.

How to Get from Detroit to Tokyo

Your Japan adventure begins as soon as you step foot in the Detroit Metro Airport’s McNamara terminal. As you make your way to the gate, you may notice that signage and announcements are provided in Japanese to accommodate Metro-Detroit’s fair-sized Japanese community that work in the local automotive industry. You can also start to get your palette acquainted with traditional Japanese fare at Sora Japanese Cuisine & Sushi Bar located near gate A35. Personal recommendations include either a combination sushi platter, tempura, or tonkatsu (deep fried pork sirloin) with katsu sauce.

From Detroit, Delta offers a daily direct flight (DL 275) at 12:15 PM to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. Since it’s about a 13-hour flight, I recommend upgrading to first class to take advantage of

Delta’s lie-flat beds so you can get a good rest on the way over. Alternatively, American Airlines offers daily flights with a layover in either Chicago or Dallas.

Narita Airport is a solid 1.5-2-hour hike from the city center. Once you arrive, you have three main options to get to your hotel:

  • Taxi ($200-300)
  • Limousine Bus ($30 for adults and $15 for children
  • Comes equipped with free Wi-Fi, clean bathrooms, leg room
    > Drops off at most major hotels
    > Tickets can be purchased online or at the airport upon arrival
  • Narita Express Train ($40 RT for adults and $20 RT for children)
    > Stops at Tokyo’s major train stations and transportation hubs
    > Tickets can be purchased upon arrival at the airport

Which hotels would you recommend?

If you want to be in the center of everything, Shinjuku is the area where you want to stay because it’s the main hub of business, entertainment, government, and transportation. If you prefer to stay in a quieter neighborhood with a more traditional atmosphere but still easy access to everything, you’ll want to stay in Asakusa.

Shinjuku Hotel Recommendations:

  • Park Hyatt
    > Great view over the city from the 45th floor lobby
    > Home to the New York Bar
  • Keio Plaza
    > Most tour buses for day excursions meet in the lobby of this hotel regardless of where you’re staying so it’s convenient to stay in this hotel.

Asakusa Hotel Recommendations:

  • The Gate Hotel
    > Upgrade to a suite
    > Located directly across the street from the main gate of Sensoji Temple
  • Asakusa View Hotel
    > More spacious rooms
    > Best aerial view over the neighborhood
    > Equal distance to Sensoji Temple or Kappabashi street (kitchenware street).

Business Hotel Recommendations:

  • Mitsui Garden Hotel Nihonbashi
  • Conrad Tokyo
    > Located in the largest business district on Tokyo’s east side
    > Spacious meeting rooms and event spaces

What’s the best way to get around the city?

Tokyo has a fantastic public transportation system that is famed for its meticulous efficiency and reliability. The subway system runs on a consistent schedule of every 3 minutes during the morning rush, and every 6 minutes in the afternoon. The combination of the extensive underground subway system, above ground Japan Railway (JR) train lines that extend nationwide, and the buses will take you anywhere you want to go in the city. Plus, they’re clean, safe to ride, and a great way to travel like the locals.

Upon arrival at the airport, buy a Pasmo or Suica card that you can load with money and use across all train and bus lines as well as convenience stores and vending machines. It can be used like a debit card, and you just refill when your balance is running low. At the end of your trip, you can return the card for a refund of any money that’s left on it.

To ride the bullet trains to other parts of Japan, you have to buy separate tickets at JR train stations. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of traveling to different cities, you can purchase a JR pass that allows you to ride on all JR trains and buses throughout the country at no extra cost. The JR Pass must be purchased and delivered to you prior to your departure.

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What are some cultural faux pas/customs to be aware of?

It’s wise to be aware of and sensitive to cultural customs anywhere you travel and do your best to incorporate them into your daily habits while you’re abroad. Here are a few important customs to note while in Japan.

DO

  • Take your shoes off whenever entering someone’s home or eating at more traditional restaurants. Often, slippers or house shoes will be provided that you may borrow.
  • Always stand to the side of an elevator and subway train doors to let people off first before boarding.
  • Bring a souvenir/gift to your hosts
  • When riding escalators, stand on the left and walk on the right.
  • Slurp your noodles!

 

 

DON’T

  • Talk on the phone or eat/drink on the trains (bullet trains being the exception)
  • Eat, drink, or smoke while you walk
  • Stand your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice or point them at other people while you’re talking.
  • No tipping necessary. While not offensive, tipping is simply not a part of Japanese culture, so it is not expected
  • Blow your nose in public. Step off to a side street or into a bathroom if you absolutely must.

What’s the climate like? When’s the best time to visit?

The best time to visit Japan depends on what you want to do while you’re there. Spring (March – May) tends to be the most crowded time of year because the cherry blossoms start to bloom at the end of March and attracts Japanese from all over the nation as well as visitors from all over the world. The weather is much milder, but the hotel prices are much higher compared to other seasons.

Summers are extremely hot and humid. Temperatures can soar up into the 90s with 70-80% humidity every day, but summer is loaded with all sorts of cultural festivals that can be the cherry (blossom) on top to your trip. Avoid June which is the rainy season; It can rain up to 20/30 days of the month.

For cooler weather, crisp autumn air, and colorful maple leaves, September to November is the ideal time to visit especially if you like to hike.

December through February is considered low season, but if you love to ski, this is the season for you. There are fewer crowds so you can come to Tokyo for a few days then head north to Hokkaido to hit the slopes.

Where’s the best place to eat?

 

Sushi Sei in Tsukiji Market – SushiThis is a tough question to answer. With over 160,000 restaurants and cafes in the city to choose from, there’s an endless selection of great places to eat. As a starting point, here are my top 5 favorite restaurants that I frequented when I was in the city.

  • Kakashi Ramen in Ueno – Ramen
  • Nagomi Gyoza in Harajuku – Pan-fried dumplings
  • Misojyu in Asakusa – Miso soup and onigiri rice balls
  • Teppei in Yurakucho – Grilled meat skewers

For more foodie recommendations, you can check out my Tokyo Foodie File. It’s a compilation of all my favorite places to eat in Tokyo that I sent to clients when they asked for recommendations.
Additional good news for travelers with diet restrictions or preferences is that Tokyo has made great strides in catering to different diets such as halal, vegan/vegetarian, and gluten free.

What are some underrated/lesser-known activities?

You could spend a lifetime in Tokyo and still not see or experience everything the city has to offer. For first-time visitors, I understand the desire to want to see everything because you don’t know if you’ll be back, but you’ll wear yourself out quickly doing that. With that in mind, I recommend picking 1-2 activities or sightseeing spots per day so you can learn more in depth the history and meaning behind it all.

As a former tour guide, here are my top sights I would recommend to visitors with a short amount of time and some other off the beaten path places to explore for more balance.

Tourist Sights

  • Eat your way through Tsukiji Fish Market
  • Drink your way through the tiny bars of Golden Gai
  • Make a wish at Meiji Shrine (Tokyo’s oldest and largest Shinto shrine)
  • Browse through the tiny traditional shops in Yanaka

Off-the-Beaten-Path

  • Hike Mt. Tsukuba or Shosenkyo Gorge
  • Spend a day at Ishihama beach
    > For fewer crowds, a weekday afternoon is best
  • End an evening at a traditional bathhouse known as a sento
    > Recommendation: Akebonoyu in Asakusa

What is the currency exchange rate?

$1 USD equals roughly 100 yen. The best way to exchange your money would be to take money out at the ATM upon arrival at the airport. ATMs with an English menu are also widely available in Japan at convenience stores, any Citibank branch, or the post office.

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