Tokyo Arrival Travel

About two weeks ago, I stepped off United flight 891 and into Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan. It was the first time I had been outside of the United States.

About two weeks ago, I stepped off United flight 891 and into Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan. It was the first time I had been outside of the United States. To many, Japan would seem like a shocking country to visit for a first trip abroad. Though there is nothing wrong with going somewhere more familiar like Europe, I was ready for something very different. It was also the place I wanted to visit most in the world. So for me, it was the perfect first international destination.

Taito, Tokyo, Japan at night

I arrived at the airport around 4:30pm. There are several things I would recommend travelers to Japan do when they first arrive. The first thing to do when you get to the airport is to exchange currency. Japan is a very cash based society, much more so than then United States, and so you should plan to bring most of how much you plan to spend in cash. I paid for my hotel with my Visa, but everything else in Japan I paid in yen.

The next stop at the airport is the JR East office. JR stands for Japan Railway and JR East is the branch that serves Tokyo. There are two things to do here, and one of them requires planning in advance. If you plan to go to an area of Japan far from Tokyo, like Kyoto or Osaka, you should get a JR Pass. At least a couple weeks before you arrive in Japan, you should purchase a JR Pass. You will get a voucher in the mail, which you need to bring to Japan and exchange for your actual rail pass. You can purchase a rail pass for 7, 14, or 21 days, and you have to choose the date to start using it when you redeem your voucher. If you’re not sure when you want to start using it, you don’t have to exchange it at the airport and can do it at many JR stations.

The other thing you should do while at this JR East office is purchase a Suica and NEX pass. This is a combo package and is actually 2 separate passes. NEX is a ticket on the Narita Express, which gets you from the airport to central Tokyo. You can also get a round trip if you will be coming back to Narita within 14 days. The Suica card is a rechargeable card that you can use for a train pass, and also at different konbini, or convenience stores. It comes loaded with 1500 yen and you can turn it back in before you leave Japan to get back a 500 yen deposit.

From there I hopped on the Narita Express to Tokyo. If you buy the NEX ticket, you will have a reserved seat. The trip takes a little over an hour.

My hostel was located in the Taito City area of Tokyo. I stayed at Hotel New Koyo, which is a 10 minute walk from Minamisenju station. It is the cheapest hotel in Tokyo at only 2700JPY per night, or about $35. Even with such a cheap rate, it is great if you are not looking for a full service hotel and I’d recommend it if you visit Tokyo.

Since I was staying at a hostel rather than a traditional hotel, my room was small, and there was no private bathroom or shower in the room. Instead it is more like a dorm, with a bathroom and private showers shared among all the guests. My room was a Japanese style room, where you sleep on a Japanese futon, or a mat with blankets that you fold up during the day.

Japanese style hostel room with futon

After I got settled in, I went out and explored. Since it was already evening by this point, I decided to stay in the area near the hotel and get to know what was around. Most conveniently, there was a 7-Eleven only a block away from my hotel. Convenience shops are very common in Japan and other stores to look out for are Lawson and Family Mart.

Along with conbini, vending machines are extremely common to see around Tokyo. It would not be an exaggeration to say there is more than 1 vending machine on every block, on average. I am not a big fan of vending machines and especially bottled water, because of the waste it produces from plastic bottles, but unlike in the US, there were almost always recycling slots right next to the vending machines. I ended up having to buy quite a few bottles of water while in Japan to stay hydrated throughout the days, though I tried to refill them as much as possible.

Vending machine in Tokyo, Japan

After walking a little ways, I had a view of the Tokyo Sky Tree from across the river. Unfortunately, my camera was acting up that night, and so most of the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone 4.

Tokyo Sky Tree view at night

Taito City, Tokyo

I continued wandering around the area surrounding my hotel, making sure not to go too far so I didn’t get lost in the dark. One thing that surprised me when I first arrived at the station near my hotel was the street signs in Japan, or lack thereof. In Japan, streets don’t all have names. Instead, blocks have numbers. Addresses are also different from in the US in that they are written reverse, with the most broad area coming first in the address and going down to the more specific. Even if streets have names on a map, they aren’t posted at every intersection. This can make getting around Japan without GPS a little difficult, as sometimes it is hard to even tell where you are if you are just looking at a map. Since I did not know about this difference before arriving, I got a bit lost before finding the right way to go to my hotel, even having a map with directions to the hotel. Later in the trip I remembered about using the compass app on my phone to help with directions.

Unfortunately because I got a little turned around, I made the mistake of turning on my roaming data to look up where I was on the map. In my mind I thought maybe I would be hit with a $10 fee. No big deal. While this 30 seconds of data usage did point me in the right direction and I made it to my hotel, I was actually charged $50 just for turning on roaming. Thanks, Verizon! If you think you will need to use data while you are abroad, make sure to notify your carrier beforehand so that the roaming rates are a little more reasonable.

Taito City, Tokyo

I ended up going to the nearby 7-Eleven to buy a breaded shrimp sandwich and a bottle of water for dinner that night, since it was getting late, and having just arrived, I was still a little intimidated to go to a Japanese restaurant. One piece of advice for those visiting Japan for a short time like I did is to plan your next day the night before (or if you are an early riser, the morning of works). Unlike many western countries, Japan does not have free wifi available almost anywhere, even at places like McDonalds or Starbucks. So once you leave where you are staying in the morning, it is hard to look up directions, especially if there are specific shops or restaurants you want to visit. What I did was look up directions on Google Maps on my iPad, and take screenshots of the maps with the transit info on them. I also wrote down what stations and platforms for the train to toke on my phone for easier access than having to pull out the iPad every time. A side benefit of doing this is that having your entire day planned out in the morning lets you fit in a lot more, since you spend much down time figuring out “where should I go next?”.

That is what I did that evening after finishing scouting the area and returning to my hotel. The next day, Saturday, I would be exploring Akihabara, the electronics and “otaku” district of Tokyo, before meeting with a group made up of both Japanese and travelers like me for a few events that day. Look forward to the tales of these events in the next post. Thanks for reading my first Japan trip entry, and please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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