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Invaluable Tips You’ve Never Heard Anywhere Else — From 24 Years in Tokyo
Hi! Is this your first time in Tokyo? Or perhaps arriving soon?
You’re in for a treat. Tokyo is so interesting. The wonderful Japanese food, the spectacular sights (and sounds)… and the unique culture. There’s a lot to enjoy here.
It’s not always about how to prepare for Tokyo, or what you need to know before arriving.
In this guide, I’m going to give you TONS of great tips to help you enjoy your time in Japan more. Tips and advice I’ve learned from over 24 years living in Tokyo.
Your head might be spinning thinking about Shibuya, Ginza, the Tokyo Metro, convenience stores, anime, and izakaya — but here I want to give you advice. Tips that will help you make the most of Tokyo — no matter how long you will be here.
Tip #1: Don’t Be A “Main-Roader”
I’m starting off with some of my best advice. I call it “don’t be a ‘main-roader.’” What the heck does that mean right?
Once I explain it to you, you’ll be like “duh!” — but hear us out, because this is something you might catch yourself doing without even realizing it.
When I say “don’t be a ‘main-roader’” here’s what I mean:
“Don’t be someone who only visits the places on the large main roads in Japan.“
This advice is more for restaurants than anything.
The BEST food in Japan is not found in large, rich, chain restaurants that can afford to have locations on the large main roads.
It’s so easy to fall into this trap though. The main roads do have quite a lot of amazing food places too. But guess what.
You’ll miss out on one of the best things about Japan (and well, any country for that matter): The mom ‘n pop shops.
Ooh, the mom ‘n pop shops
The mom ‘n pop shops that are down the small roads, the alleys… the places that don’t even look like restaurants are the absolute best places. The food is usually cheaper, and far higher quality.
But of course, there is a huge catch — they usually don’t speak English, don’t have English menus, or even have photos in their menus.
They’re the best, most interesting places, but are also the most difficult to enjoy if you don’t speak Japanese.
But don’t worry about that. Later tips will explain why.
Explore past the main roads. Don’t be a “main-roader.” You absolutely will not regret it. You will regret it if you don’t take this advice.
Would you like some restaurant recommendations? These are the best restaurants in Tokyo hand-picked by some of my local Japanese friends.
Tip #2: Parking lots, and parking your car
This tip is for those who want rental cars… or are moving to Tokyo longer-term. For travelers, you can probably skip this since you’ll likely use the trains.
If you’ve driven even a tiny bit in Tokyo, you’ll know parking can be a real pain in the butt.
What’s worse is, if you take our advice from the previous tip and stay off the main roads, you’ll find the amazing mom ‘n pop shops have no parking lot of their own.
You’ll have to find a paid parking lot.
Not only does this cost you more money but you’ll then have to deal with the payment mechanisms at the parking lot.
Tire-locking parking lots
One type of paid parking lot you will encounter is a tire-locking parking lot (sometimes referred to as the gate-less parking lot). When you park here, a plate will raise up to lock your car in place until you pay.
Prices vary greatly by location, but one thing you can count on… a payment terminal in Japanese. Luckily most follow the same pattern, here it is:
On the type pad, enter the number of the parking spot your car is in. You’ll see the price come up on the screen, put your money in, collect change, and you’re done!
Pro tip: if you want a receipt for this transaction, hit the green button after you put your money in. This will tell the machine to kick out a receipt for you.
Here is a fantastic YouTube video showing you this entire process.
The locking mechanism will lower, but don’t wait too long to move your car though — it will raise up again if it doesn’t detect your car has moved from the spot.
Tip #3: Saying Hello
In the previous tip, I told you I would get into some language.
It’s time! You’re about to learn a little Japanese!
Saying hello is probably one of the most common things you’d say in any language. You want to be a polite and cool person while adventuring around Japan right?
There is a small gotcha when trying to say hello in Japanese though. Japan has a few different ways to say hello, depending on the time of day:
- Ohayo (おはよう) — means good morning. Use this between breakfast and lunch.
- Konnichiwa (こんにちは) — means good afternoon. Use this between lunch and about 5:00 PM
- Konbanwa (こんばんは) — means good evening. Use this after 5:00 PM until late night, or early morning (before the sun comes up).
That’s it for this tip — nice and quick.
Tip #4: Using Credit Cards in Japan
Credit cards. You know, for an advanced country like Japan, you’d think credit cards would be everywhere, and work everywhere.
Guess what — they aren’t, and unfortunately, they don’t. While it has gotten better (especially with the Olympics coming), it seems Japan has been slow to adopt credit cards.
Sure, every major department store, restaurant chain, etc… will accept them — but many mom ‘n pops still do not — bring yen with you. Then, when you do use your credit card, they start to ask you a question.
It’s interesting actually.
In Japan, they can break up your bill, and charge you monthly — except there is a problem: they can’t do this with most American credit cards (I have heard reports of some banks working, but cannot confirm this).
Even worse, the staff at most places don’t know that, so they will ask you.
Here’s what they say:
“ikkatsu barai to bunkatsu barai dochirani nasaimasu ka?”
That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?
When you hear something like that, while trying to pay with a credit card, just hold up one finger — they’ll set it to charge once and everything should work fine.
However, be prepared for random failures, or your bank blocking transactions because the charges are overseas.
It isn’t frequent, but you might experience this while out and about in Japan.
It would help to notify your bank when traveling to Japan to prevent fraud protections from mistakenly blocking your transactions.
Tip #5: I want one of “this.”
I’ve got a very special phrase for you — one you’ll be able to use in a TON of situations you come across while in Japan.
Are you ready? It’s not as hard as you think, but is so useful:
“kore o hitotsu kudasai“
It means “one of this please.”
Use this phrase when you can point at something you want. Perhaps you’re holding a restaurant menu or at a glass counter.
Point at the item you want to order and say “kore o hitotsu kudasai”.
Tip #6: Thank you and You’re Welcome
How to say thank you, and you’re welcome. Piece of cake right?
Arigatou is probably easy enough for you. It’s used in a lot of movies and you may have heard it before.
Actually, if you just want to say a quick “thanks” you can use doumo. It’s less formal, but it is more casual and used often between friends, but don’t worry — the Japanese people around you won’t judge you for it.
But I bet doitashimashite is quite a mouthful huh? It’s so much easier to say “you’re welcome” in English, isn’t it?
A nice and easy tip, right? Just a couple of words to learn.
Tip #7: Do you speak English?
English is relatively scarce, but since the 2020 Olympics (now 2021 maybe), Tokyo has been working to be more international friendly. But it doesn’t hurt to check if someone can speak English.
I can’t count how many times I’ve asked if the Japanese person I was about to talk to could speak English — and they could (at least some).
It’s so nice when they can speak English, even just a little. You’ll find many Japanese people can speak some, but they’re a little shy to try.
This is a Japanese cultural thing. If they aren’t skilled speakers, they often won’t try — they’ll hide from it.
But you can still ask. To ask if they can speak English say:
“anata wa eigo ga hanasemasu ka?“
This means exactly what you think “can you speak English?”
You can use this phrase almost anywhere. I often use it over the phone when I can’t be face-to-face with someone, and I know the conversation might include some rather difficult Japanese language.
Nope, no English
If they can’t speak English, you’ll typically see the universal sign for no: forearms crossed in an X shape — or you might hear a timid “no” in response.
If they can speak some English, no matter their level, they’ll usually say “a little.”
Give it a shot though, this phrase can save you in some situations — you’ll get some help from friendly Japanese people with the ability to speak some English.
Tip #8: Some of the nicest people on Earth
I’m going to let you in on a cultural tip — which if you’ve been in Japan even a little while, I’m sure you’ve discovered this already.
The Japanese people are some of the nicest people on Earth.
They don’t belittle even the simplest of jobs — such as janitors, housekeeping, or fast-food workers.
They relish in self-pride (sometimes too much so). You’ll often find them bending over backward to help others.
My point with this is, mingle.
The Japanese will take you under their wing if you show the desire and effort to learn the culture. They’ll offer you food at outdoor events, help you at the train station, give you directions, etc…
Get out there, enjoy the culture, enjoy the people. Make some connections, and you’ll more fully enjoy your time in Japan.
We’re reaching the halfway point of this course. I know I’ve been slamming you with new content quickly.
What do you think about the course so far? Hit reply, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Tip #9: Stay Motivated
Staying motivated when the language barrier is so steep can be quite hard. You’ll run into this barrier over, and over, and over, and over again… and over again some more.
Japanese is a tough language. The characters look nothing like English. There is extremely little English spoken.
The vast majority of the people in Japan are Japanese (unlike America where we’re a melting pot of cultures).
But that makes the reward so much better.
When you begin learning a few phrases and reading a little… you’ll feel like a superhero. You’ll feel liberated, excited even, that you can get out there and do things your peers can only dream of.
So stay motivated. Keep learning. Never stop learning, never give up, and slowly, but surely, you’ll begin grasping the language.
Tip #10: Don’t worry about making mistakes
This is probably one of the most important bits of advice I can give to new ex-pats or visitors in Japan. Remember above when I said to stay motivated, even though the language is pretty tough?
This ties into that.
Don’t worry about making mistakes.
Being afraid to get out there and attempting to use the language will slow your progress, and may stifle your full enjoyment of what Japan has to offer.
Like I said before, the Japanese people are some of the nicest on Earth. You won’t be belittled for making mistakes.
Instead, they’ll often be excited that you’re trying! They’ll help you, encourage you, and may even try to befriend you if the situation is appropriate.
In short, don’t worry so much. Get out there, make mistakes, learn from them, and you’ll enjoy Japan a whole lot more.
Tip #11: Take on the mindset of an adventurer
I want to expand upon what I’ve been talking about the last couple of tips: mindset.
Stay motivated, don’t worry about making mistakes, and now — take on the mindset of an adventurer.
It’s easy to become lazy… wait, lazy isn’t the right word.
I mean “stuck in a rut.”
Where you just go along your normal routine day-by-day. Before you know it, you’ve been in Japan for a while, still have very low Japanese language skills, haven’t seen much… you’re basically in a rut.
That’s not to say you’re not enjoying the rut.
A rut in Japan is still something to brag about to your friends and family back home… but I’m guessing you want more than that, and it’s so easy to break out of the rut.
Take on the mindset of an adventure.
Be bright-eyed like an infant. See the world from a whole new angle (or well, at least see Japan from a whole new angle).
Here are a few things I like to do to be an adventurer for a day:
- Hop on the train, go anywhere new
- Walk down the side roads, get off the main roads
- Pop into a new restaurant, try to order something new off the menu that you have never tried before
- Check out a Japanese arcade, show great curiosity, try to chat with others there
I realize that some things are harder for some.
If you’re more introverted, don’t try the talking parts… just walk around new places with your eyes wide open.
Realize you’re in Japan, a fantastic foreign country with all kinds of things that are so different than what you’re used to at home.
Go out, adventure, have fun.
Tomorrow we’re going to get back in a little more language to help you count and order food in Japan.
Tip #12: Numbers when ordering food
Okay, you’ve had a few bits of great advice, now it’s time to drop a language bomb on you.
In this tip, you’ll learn a bit about counting in Japanese.
Japanese has many different ways of counting things, depending on the type of object, size, shape, etc…
…but I won’t be going into all that.
Instead, I’m going to focus on the counting you will need when ordering food at a restaurant.
This counting system is sometimes referred to simply as the “native counting” system. I’m going to show you how to order between one and five of something from the menu.
If you refer back to tip #5 where I showed you how to order one of something, it looked like this:
kore wo hitotsu kudasai
means ‘one of this please.’
Now you simply replace the bold word — hitotsu — in the phrase above, with the number you want from the list below:
You might use this when ordering more than one of the same dish, or buying more than one of the same item at a store… there are many situations these counting words will come in handy.
This tip is perhaps a little difficult. Read it over a few times, practice the words. If you click on each one, you’ll hear a pronunciation of the word.
Listen, practice, repeat… then wait a day, do it again.
Tip #13: Why learn some Japanese?
Okay, maybe you don’t want to master Japanese — that takes a very long time.
Maybe you don’t really want to study the language at all. You might be too busy, don’t really need it, or just won’t be in Japan very long.
But I would challenge you to learn some Japanese because even just a tiny bit goes a LONG way toward improving your time here.
Even just small things, like some of the phrases I’ve already given you, will smooth things out for you.
There will be many times when you’re out and about and a couple of good phrases will come in handy.
They could mean the difference between a frustrating situation and a constructive one — and learning some Japanese is not nearly as hard as you might imagine at first.
Tip #14: Learn situationally, what you like
This is a tip I give everyone who asks me for a good way to learn Japanese.
I tell them, learn situationally.
Pick something about Japan you’re really interested in, dive into it, and learn it.
A 5-step process to learn enough Japanese:
- Pick one situation you enjoy in Japan
- List the tiny situations that might come up while in that situation
- Research the Japanese phrases to use in those tiny situations
- Test the phrases, revise them, and begin using them
- Repeat again with another situation you enjoy
Your homework is to give the steps above a try. Try to build out a situation map as I described.
Tip #15: Telling Time
“Excuse me, what time is it?”
In Japanese, you’d say “ima nan-ji desu ka?”
This tip is about telling time in Japanese, and it’s a lot easier than you might think.
First, you’ll learn to count from 1 to 12, then add “-ji” to the end of it — almost.
Did you notice that after 10, it was just 10 + the next number? So for 11, you would say juu-ichi.
Now add “-ji”
- ichi-ji = 1 o’clock
Wait, what about AM/PM?
By default they’ll assume you’re talking about the time in the same part of the day you’re currently in (so PM if you’re in the afternoon, etc…) There’s a modifier you can add to specify AM/PM though.
To specify AM, before the time say asa — and for PM say yoru.
For example, to say 3:00 am you would say “asa san-ji”
That was just a starter. To learn more, here’s a great site that takes you through everything. I’ve reviewed the material and think it’s high quality, and will definitely help you out.
Tip #16: Free your mind, the rest will follow
This sounds hokey, doesn’t it?
Trust me it’s not.
If you have a free mind and you bump into someone who doesn’t — it will be immediately clear to you just how liberating a free mind can be while in Japan.
That “non-free mind” person sticks out like a sore thumb.
This has always been my best advice. The biggest thing I want you to grasp — don’t get stuck with a foreigner mindset.
When in Japan this can cause major confusion, angst, resentment, etc…
You want to fully enjoy the country while you’re here right?
So don’t let preconceived notions get in the way. There will be a lot of little things that seem counterintuitive to you.
Don’t worry yourself with these things.
Look at it from the “it’s how the Japanese wish to operate in their own country” perspective — and do so with empathy.
You don’t have to try to understand it, but realize you have no control over it.
Free your mind, and you’ll have a significantly better time in Japan.
Tip #17: Stay in the Tama Area and Save Money
Sometimes staying in a hotel is an experience itself. But I think exploring Tokyo is the experience when you’re here. Not the hotel.
The hotel is really the place to crash and recover from a day of adventure.
Because unless you stay at a ryokan, the hotel experience is essentially the same as it is anywhere.
So how about this.
Instead of paying through the nose for a place smack in the middle of downtown Tokyo, check out Tachikawa.
It’s a smaller town on the western side of Tokyo.
It has a well-connected train station that will get you downtown in 25-40 minutes — and the hotels are nice.
Here’s Tachikawa on the map.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention. Tachikawa is home to Showa Kinen Park too. You’ll find there are often interesting events hosted there.
Or if it is cherry blossom season when you’re visiting, Showa Park has some great views for you.
I think one of the nicest things about Tachikawa is the almost downtown feel, but less touristy and a tiny bit of the down-home country living has seeped into the area.
Just a little — it is still Tokyo.
Tachikawa isn’t on the average tourist’s to-do list so it’s a bit of an exclusive adventure you can show off to your friends.
Tip #18: Convenience Stores Have ATMs
Among many other things such as food, drinks, magazines, toilets, snacks, even dog food… convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Mini Stop, Family Mart, and Lawson have ATMs where you can withdraw yen in a pinch.
Best of all? There is a convenience store on almost every street in Tokyo. Now that’s convenient!
I do go more in-depth into 7-Eleven and what it offers here (which other convenience stores offer too).
Tip # 19: Izakayas are the Key to Enjoying Tokyo
Izakayas are Japanese pubs but calling them a pub is a bit of a misrepresentation. Of course, they are drinking establishments but the food is absolutely incredible too.
These are where you find the best yakitori, kushikatsu, and more. And they have the best atmosphere. Some dank, tiny, dark hole in the wall — others super modern, almost zen-like. And everything in between.
It seems like there is an endless sea of izakaya to choose from, each different from the next.
So when you’re out there adventuring in Tokyo and can’t decide on a restaurant… duck into an izakaya. You won’t regret it.
If you’d like to learn more about izakaya I have a great guide here for you.
Tip #20: You Don’t Tip in Japan
Yea… if you’re coming from the U.S. you’re probably used to tipping at restaurants. You don’t need to do that in Japan. It’s simply not a part of the customs here.
Instead smile, say thank you, and you’re good to go.
Tip #21: Get a SUICA Card for the Trains
A SUICA card will allow you to zip through the train turnstiles when you’re racing to get on the train before it departs. No more train tickets, get a SUICA card, and travel the trains with ease.
How to Get a SUICA Card
- Go to the train ticket machine
- Hit “English”
- Choose “Purchase New SUICA Card”
- Put your money in
- Use your fancy new SUICA card
Tip #22: Bring a Bag With a Bag in It
Now, this sounds weird, doesn’t it? Bring a bag with a bag in it? What does that mean?
It means have a backpack. Not a huge one like you’re getting ready to climb Mt. Fuji or something. Even a small sling-type backpack will work. You just need something to hold your things.
So what’s with the bag inside the bag?
Japan recently added some rules that restrict shops from putting the goods you purchase into plastic bags — unless you pay extra for it. A policy to reduce plastic usage.
So carry an eco-bag (or even a plastic bag) in your bag just in case. Oh, and don’t forget a couple of spare face masks too — gotta stay safe out there.
I also explain a really cool technique for enjoying Tokyo without making plans ahead of time here — which involves the bag you packed.
Tip #23: Hit Coffee Shops for a Break (and Free WiFi)
I suppose this one isn’t much of a tip you probably didn’t know already right? I mean, Starbucks kind of has this common vibe already.
But Tokyo’s coffee scene is strong and if you like coffee, you’ll love some of the tiny brewers in downtown Tokyo.
They have an incredible atmosphere and the coffee is some of the best in the world. Oh, and yea… there’s WiFi too so you can upload all your sweet Tokyo alley shots to make all your friends jealous.
Well, that’s all for now. 23 tips full of advice that will help your journey in Tokyo. Whether you’re heading to the Ueno Zoo, the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Skytree, or maybe just exploring for amazing street food — the advice in this guide will help you make the most of Tokyo.
I will add more tips over time to make this an even better resource for you.
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