Aswin Sivaraman

Travel Advice: Tokyo & Kyoto

Last Updated: Feb 20, 2018 14 min read — Tags: travel


This post is a long time overdue, but since a few friends of mine have asked for my trip itinerary, as well as general advice with regards to travel in Japan, I figured it was time to write this out. Here is all my travel advice with regards to Tokyo & Kyoto.

Figure 1. An awesome photo I took of Kyoto at sunset from atop Kiyomizu-dera Temple. I was very lucky to have visited in November when the fall colors were at their peak.

Figure 2. Don't forget to stop by a "maid cafe" while you're in Japan! The most famous ones (such as @home-cafe) are all located in Akihabara.

Language (How To Say Things)

It goes without saying that you don't need to speak Japanese to have a good time in Japan. However, knowing a few vital words or phrases will go a long way when asking for directions or inquiring about a place/restaurant. Most importantly, it's a sign of respect and an indication that, despite being a tourist, you have some legitimate concern.

The most useful word your entire trip will be "su-mi-ma-sen" (すみません), which roughly translates to "excuse me". Nearly every conversation you have with a local will begin with sumimasen, and it's how you'll get anyone's attention.

After any exchange, you'll want to thank the person, so you'll say "a-ri-ga-to go-sai-ma-s" (ありがとうございます). This is the proper and polite way to say "thank you". The "gosaimas" is what makes it proper, as opposed to just saying "arigato". To say "thanks a lot", you could say "do-mo a-ri-ga-to" (どうもありがとう).

Figure 3. This Vegeta collectible figurine at the Mandrake store in Akhiabara was tempting, but I ended up picking up the Bulma figurine instead. Shopping here was tax-free as long as you carried your passport!

These are the bare essentials you'll need to get by. For anything else, I highly recommend downloading the Google Translate app to your mobile phone, then downloading the Japanese dictionary locally within the app. This will allow you to translate any phrase on the fly without a wireless internet connection. You can take it a step further by installing a Japanese keyboard on your phone so that, if you're wandering around, you can easily have Japanese people reverse translate for you in English.

Cash & Credit Cards

VISA cards are accepted in some of the biggger restaurants or stores in Japan, but you'll quickly find that many more things are still paid for in cash in Japan. I recommend carrying a VISA credit card with you (one without foreign transactions fees) in addition to a good amount of cash (say 1000 to 2000 Yen), replenishing this with each day of travel.

Note that the percentages of stores that accept credit cards drastically drops outside of Tokyo. You'll need to have more cash on hand when visiting Kyoto, where you'll be almost entirely reliant on cash.

Hostels (Where To Stay)

Figure 4. An example of the bunks in the Chuo Wise Owl hostel. Screens can be pulled down to totally cover your bunk from the passageway in the middle. Narrow staircases between bunks are used to walk up to the top bunks, and the staircases act as cubbies where you can safely store belongings (locked with a key).

Tokyo

Everyone will have different advice in this regard, but I personally found my stay at the Wise Owl chain of hostels to be fantastic. The hostels are extremely well up-kept, in comparison to hostels which I had stayed at in Europe even. With the Wise Owl, you'll get to pick bunks in co-ed rooms, and utilize common shower stalls and common laundry. The staff are extremely polite, friendly, mostly English savvy, and at the desk 24-hours. This is cruicial for my fellow nightclubbers. 😎

There is another reason I recommend the Wise Owl. They have two hostel locations in two neighborhoods, Chuo and Shibuya. Both are on opposite sides of Tokyo, but are rather conveniently located, with easy access to a train station and plenty to do around them. If you're trying to cover Tokyo in four or five days, you could split your stay across these two hostels, covering the eastern half of the city first, and then the western half of the city later.

The Chuo Wise Owl is right across from the Hatchobori Station (view on Google Maps), while the Shibuya Wise Owl is just under a ten-minute walk from the massive Shibuya Station (view on Google Maps). These are prime locations with train service to practically everywhere you'll want to go.

Kyoto

Staying in a hostel as near to the Kyoto main station would be most ideal. It's nearest to the famous Kyoto Tower and has easy transit to every other part of the city. I didn't stay here personally, but I've read good things about Backpacker Hostel K's House, a place that is super close (like a 3-minute walk) from Shichijo train station, has got free WiFi, co-ed or gender split rooming options, and English-speaking friendly staff. It's well situated near the Kamo River, alongside which the most happening parts of the city are located. As I only stayed in Kyoto for three days, I'd be curious to hear where friends stayed during their trip and what they'd recommend. 🙂

Transportation (Getting Around)

Figure 5. Playing DDR in Akhiabara was a must for me. I played at TAITO Station, but I think the pros played over at Try Amusement Tower.

In Japan, there are no ridesharing services such as Uber or Lyft. Transit is entirely in the form of subway or taxi. The trains run late into the night, cease operation in the twilight arounds (around 1am to 4am), and then resume services again in the early morning. For those in-between hours, you can hail a taxi, whose fare must be paid in Yen cash.

Assuming you are flying to Tokyo, you will land in either Haneda or Narita. In either case, after customs, to get out of the airport, you can either take a taxi, or get started with a SUICA card and take the appropriate trains to get you to your hostel (or whatever your first destination is). The attendant at the airport lobby can help get you started with a Tokyo transit map and how to get a SUICA.

As far as how to get from point A to point B, in either Tokyo or Kyoto, Google Maps works well as long as you have cellular data or Wi-Fi. Note that, for some strange reason, you cannot download a map of Japan for offline use on Google Maps.

The Train System

Check out the English version of the Tokyo subway map. At first glance, it may be rather confusing what goes where and what costs what, but I'll breakdown some of the basic concepts here as best as I can.

All of the colored lines (A,I,S,E,G,M,H,T,C,Y,Z,N,F) will be referred to in this blog post as "local lines". The only line which is different from all of these is the Japan Rail (JR) / Yamanote line (usually indicated by grey or lime-green). The JR / Yamanote Line is unlike the local lines for a few reasons. These are the basic things you need to know:

  • The Yamanote Line operates as a fully looping circuit around the city, whereas the local lines have distinct starting stations and ending stations.
  • If you have a JR Pass, you can ride the Yamanote for free. What will happen is that when you reach the turnstiles in the subway entrance, you'll instead walk through the turnstile nearest the ticketing attendant. A simple "sumimasen" will get the attendant's attention. Simply wave your JR Pass in their face, and they'll let you pass.
  • You can't just wave your JR Pass to ride the local lines. Riding the local lines must all be paid for using Yen in change or using a SUICA card. At the turnstiles, you'll lay down your SUICA card on the scanner upon entering and exiting the subway. It'll automatically deduct the amount in Yen that your trip costed (usually train rides average 200 Yen).

SUICA

Figure 6. The most important thing in your wallet while in Japan. Stare into the penguin's eyes to realize this ultimate truth.

The SUICA card is a godsend. People swear by SUICA. SUICA is a way of life.

But for real, this is a pre-paid smart card which will store your Yen and can be used to pay for all of the local subway lines, busses, and more. Not only that, but it can be used as payment in nearly any restaurant or convenience store as well (especially handy in those places which don't accept VISA). It's like Chicago's VENTRA card on steroids.

You'll quickly come to love this thing. Always have it on you.

In case you do lose a SUICA card, you can always re-make another card at any subway SUICA terminal. I believe there's a 500 Yen flat fee for making the card. Remember that you cannot use your credit card to replenish your SUICA, so you'll want to carry Yen denomination (around 1000-1500 per day depending on how much you plan to travel). It is even possible to have your SUICA card printed with your name on it, in case you want to differentiate your SUICA card from your friend's card.

There'll probably be some leftover money in your SUICA by the end of the trip, but that's okay because that friendly penguin on plastic is entirely worth it.

The JR Pass & The Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

Assuming you will want to visit Tokyo and Kyoto, you will want to get a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. The JR pass will allow you to ride the Shinkansen as a unreserved passenger an unlimited number of times while the pass is valid. Note that I say "unreserved"; this is important as certain cabins of the Shinkansen are strictly reserved seating only (meant for commuters and local businessmen). Tourists are promptly asked to move (or exit the train) if they're found in the wrong cabin.

The JR pass can be purchased with fixed durations of either 7-days, 14-days, or 21-days consecutively. The prices are either 38800 Yen, 62950 Yen, or 81870 Yen respectively. As far as how to purchase one of these, I recommend buying it in Tokyo itself, most likely at Tokyo Station or elsewhere. The JR office will require you to show your passport and to fill out a simple piece of paperwork. Once that's done, you can purchase the JR pass using your credit card. Don't buy the pass immediately either, as the timer ticks as soon as you buy it. For example, I was in Japan for 10 days, but I got away with the 7-day pass by waiting until later in the trip to buy the JR pass.

Figure 7. An example of GACHA Japanese capsule toys. This paticular machine was found in DiverCity, Odaiba, Tokyo. Here I bought a small model Shinkansen.

Convenience Stores

Let's take a minute here to talk about convenience stores. In Japan, there's basically three flavors of them: 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, and Lawson. They're all practically open 24-hours as well. You'll find one of these at every other block, and they're super handy. You can head into these and pick up Japan-exclusive snacks like Calorie Mate and Pocky, go day-drinking for practically a dollar with drinks like Suntory's Strong Zero or any Asahi beer, or even withdraw some additional Yen cash from the indoor ATMs (foreign rates may apply).

Vending Machines

There are supposedly 5.52 million vending machines in Japan, and just from what I saw in Tokyo and Kyoto, I believe it. You'll find one literally on every street corner, and they're jam packed with all sorts of random things. You can find vending machines for instant-hot coffee in a can, energy drinks, condoms, ramen, bananas, surgical masks, canned carrots, figurines, corn chowder, and so much more.

One specific type of vending machine I'd like to highlight is the Gashapon machines. These basically sell toys-that-come-in-a-capsule costing anywhere from ¥100-500. You'll find gashapon machines in the airports, in Odaiba, Akihabara, and elsewhere. You can read more about those here.

Figure 8. A video I took at the pool stage in AgeHa. Basically a bunch of Japanese teenagers hopping up and down to electro house outside in the pouring rain at 3AM. It was like I found heaven that night.

Nightclubs

Tokyo

Some Google searches will lead you to the same discoveries I made, but here's what I recommend. If you're staying in the east side of Tokyo, try to take one night to go to AgeHa, essentially the premiere electronic dance music venue of Tokyo. I went out there one night using a taxi in the pouring rain to see international acid house extraordinares Hardfloor at the Re:animation11 event; the cover was ¥500 (like five dollars), but it came with a free drink ticket as well. The sound system is bumping, they've got four (4!) stages to pick from, and the patrons are super friendly and really really into the music. Just my kind of scene. Just note that AgeHa is super far from anything else, and I don't recommend walking to it. The club itself was open until 5AM or so, after which the trains started running again, and I was able to make it back to my hostel.

On the west side of Tokyo, all of the nightlife is more or less contained in Shibuya and Shinjuku. HARLEM Tokyo is supposed to be "the place" to be if you wanna see Japan's hip-hop scene. The club is tucked away in an alleyway along with two other famous Shibuya nightclubs, Atom and WOMB, about an 8 minute walk from Shibuya train station. Practically every club except for AgeHa has a tiered cover fee system, where ladies get in for free or cheaper. These Shibuya clubs are relatively pricier than AgeHa. While AgeHa goes for more of a rave-type open-space setup, ATOM, WOMB, and HARLEM are specifically meant for clubbing.

Figure 9. My friends and I standing near the entrance to one of the main streets in Shinjuku. I believe this ward is what inspired the aesthetic of Blade Runner. There's bright lights, late-night restaurants, and strip clubs as far as the eyes can see.

If you have a night where you're in the middle of Tokyo, say in the Roppongi district, I'd personally recommend ELE TOKYO, a relatively-small but bumping nightclub in the Minato ward. There's a great story I can tell you about how I met a Chinese millionaire here one night, who introduced me to two British blokes and pulled me into bottle service for no skin off my back, but that's a story for another time. 😏

Kyoto

Being the more traditional city, one might think that Kyoto doesn't have much to offer in terms of nightlife, but it most certainly does. Gion District and Geisha life aside, you've got a couple of club options in Kyoto as well. I explored a couple club and bar options along the Kiyamachi Dori street. The only one I'd actively recommend though is WORLD KYOTO, a small night-club as well that boasts tons of local acts on the regular, and a few international stars every now and then (Skrillex has played here before, if I'm not mistaken).

Izakayas

Figure 10. Friends and I splitting cold tofu, eggplants, and near-unlimited sake at a Doma-Doma location.

Let's take another minute to talk about izakayas. Originally named to be a sake shop, izakaya (居酒屋) are essentially late-night watering holes that act sort of like pubs or tapas bars. You can walk into one, grab a seat with a couple friends, and essentially order all you can eat or all you can drink. You can basically get finger food from every kind of cuisine (everything from fried tofu to edamame to yakitori to even personal pan pizzas), along with cheap-to-boot highballs and beer. There's happy hour pricing that's especially easy to abuse, and they're generally open from 4PM to as late as 6AM! Keep your eye out for the izakaya chain "Doma-Doma", as it's one I found personally easy to eat at and enjoy.