Tokyo: Need to Know

City Basics

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Tourism dropped sharply after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But according to the U.S. State Department's travel alert, available through its main page on Japan, the situation poses no significant health and safety risks in the Tokyo metro area (the city is about 140 miles, or 220 km, away from the Fukushima plant). Click here for further guidance from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo.

If you are worried about exposure to radioactive fallout — some radiation did escape from the plant in the days following the initial crisis, but subsequently, experts have reported that Tokyo was spared the worst of it — take a look at this map from Safecast. It shows at a glance that no serious levels of contamination have been detected anywhere in the city. (Basically, if you see green, you're good.) The organization has 200 volunteers around Japan collecting data, and the map shows the aggregate findings. Zoom in to see what's being found — or, more to the point, not being found — in specific locales.

Arriving. After you land at Narita Airport, don't take a taxi into town because the 38-mile, or 60-km, journey could set you back a couple hundred bucks. Take the Narita Express. As you come out of customs, look for the signs that say JR, for Japan Rail, in green. These trains stop at Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station; you can take a taxi to your hotel from there. This will save you a lot of money; a ticket from the airport to Tokyo Station costs about $16 for a reserved seat. You can also take one of the airport "limos" which are really coach buses that stop at some of the bigger and better known hotels. These are a bit cheaper but take longer, and train travel is so much more pleasant.

Cell Phones. Consider renting a mobile phone for the duration of your stay. There are service counters near the entrance to the Narita Express. JAL ABC and Telecom Square both have brochures in English that will explain pricing. Expect to pay about $3 to $6 per day for voice calling, plus about a buck a minute to make calls, and another $3 per day for data services. (If your U.S. handset is 3G-capable, you should be able to make calls on Japan's 3G cellular network, but check your carrier's international roaming charges.)

Getting Around. Tokyo is notoriously difficult to navigate. Buy this book at any local bookshop and keep it with you: Tokyo City Atlas, A Bilingual Guide.

The streets do not follow any logical pattern, and most of them don't have names. Addresses are written in a code of three numbers: the first represents the chome, or neighborhood, within a city ward, or ku. The second indicates which block the building is on; the last number is specific to the building itself, but it is not determined by location, as you might think, but rather the order in which the building was built. When an old structure is knocked down, the one that goes up in its place gets the next number in line.

The good news: Most cabs have GPS navigation systems and they can just plug those numbers in. And the first two numbers are frequently posted on utility poles. In spite of all this, don't be afraid to explore the side streets and small alleyways, or to duck under doorway curtains of unfamiliar restaurants. You can always ask someone in the place to point you back to the main road. Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world — so safe 6-year-olds are often seen alone riding public buses home from school.

Trains and Taxis. It's pleasant to travel around by taxi. The door will open and close for you (the driver controls it using a hand lever), the seats have lace coverlets and nobody seems to have heard of road rage. But fares start at about $7, and quickly tick up.

So take advantage of Tokyo's massive, highly efficient and reliable system of commuter trains and subways. Bookmark (click the tiny "English" button in the upper left hand corner of the home page); it's like that other uber-handy site, only instead of addresses, it asks you to plug in station names, then gives you all available routes and schedules. Nota bene: Avoid transfers whenever possible, as they sometimes involve switching from one system (JR) to another (Tokyo Metro) which can mean a long trek underground and a new set of tickets.

Hyperdia will also tell you the fare, something you need to know before purchasing your tickets at the machines. And hold onto that ticket after you board, you'll use it to exit the station at the other end. Consider purchasing a Suica or Pasmo card for the duration of your stay, so you can swipe your way in and out. Also avoid the Metro during morning and evening rush hour, or prepare for it to be packed. It is socially acceptable to shove your way on to a crowded car, but turn your back first.

Tipping, Money and Food To-Go. Even though customer service is generally excellent everywhere, tipping is not done. Not in cabs, not at restaurants, not in hotels. Saying thank you — "domo arigato," or "arigato gozaimasu" — is enough. Saying it while slightly bowing your head is even nicer. Monetary transactions are conducted with the greatest of care. Sometimes this is confusing. Be patient. Put your cash in the little tray by the register. Not all ATMs accept cards from foreign banks, but the ones in 7-Eleven do.

Any and all food purchases — even the smallest snack from a food counter at the train station — will be neatly bagged or boxed, taped up and secured with ice packs if available, as this is not an eat-on-the-go kinda town. Noshing on the sidewalk or subway is not forbidden per se, but it is considered rude.

Tourist Information. The Japan National Tourist Organization website offers encyclopedic data and heaps of ideas for extended travel around the country. See the Attractions section, or browse by interests. For more personal attention, stop by the headquarters located on the 10th floor of the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan building. 2-10-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; 81-(0)3-3201-3331; open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Learn the Language. The free Survival Phrases podcasts will teach you all the important phrases, from "Hajimemashite" ("Nice to meet you") to "Mata ne" ("See ya later!").

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