Arriving in Tokyo is like stepping into the future – a chaotic flurry of light, noise and 13 million people that runs like clockwork thanks its own internal logic. But it’s also a notoriously tough city to crack. While any gaijin (foreigner) can wander into Robot Restaurant and buy a ticket, seeing the authentic side of this metropolis takes a little extra effort.
Don’t pay ¥2,500 JPY ($28) just to walk into the Park Hyatt. Yes, the hotel offers an unbeatable bird’s-eye view of the city and was the third star of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. But when you’re already paying ¥4,200 ($47) and upwards for your glass of Suntory Whisky, the last thing you want is to part with almost $30 before you even sit down.
Instead, have your relaxing times a little earlier. The cover charge applies Monday through to Saturday from 8.00pm and Sunday from 7.00pm, so if you get there before the fee kicks in you can skip the cover charge. So the hard part of leaving isn’t paying the bill; it’s tearing yourself away from that beautiful view.
Don’t expect to get a glimpse of Japan’s diverse subcultures in Harajuku. This thriving district of Shibuya was once a hotbed of creativity and outré fashion dominated by gothic Lolitas, cosplay enthusiasts and rockabilly guys and gals. The more eccentric stores have since been replaced by upmarket shops and kitsch cafes, so while you’ll still see the odd pink wig and manga character, you’ll also see a lot of other tourists.
Instead, check out laid-back Shimokitazawa. Just a short train ride from Shinjuku, this happening suburb is teeming with young bohemians forced out of other areas by skyrocketing rent. Along its haphazard streets you’ll find great vintage stores, trendy cafés and a thriving art scene. It’s also one of the few places in Tokyo that offers an abundance of options for vegetarians and vegans. Pick up some locally made threads from an emerging designer then head south as night falls to get your fill of live music, bars and tattoo parlours.
Don’t go to Tokyo Disneyland. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Instead, get your thrills at Fuji-Q Highland, an amusement park in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi. Not only does it boast record-breaking rollercoasters and a mostly local crowd, but it also offers incredible views of Mount Fuji. If you stay at the Highland Resort Hotel and Spa, admission is included and you get priority access to the park before the rest of the public. That means you can buy a “free pass” and book the rides you want at specific times. This may not sound like a big deal, but without it you can expect to wait up to three-and-a-half hours for a single ride. If you’d prefer to stay within Tokyo, Ghibli Museum in Mitaka lets you explore the storybook world of Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) and was designed by director Hayao Miyazaki himself.
Don’t party in Kabukicho and Roppongi. We’re not saying these notorious spots aren’t worth wandering through once; the neon signs, strip clubs, hostess bars and baffling pachinko parlours are certainly an experience. But you’ll soon weary of the touts, sleazy vibe and inflated prices.
Instead, see a different side of Tokyo’s nightlife by visiting a less obvious venue – and we mean “less obvious” both figuratively and literally. Covert, underground bars have been a Tokyo staple since before World War II. Now, clandestine nominya (drinking establishments) are making a comeback – the challenge is finding them. While some hotels like The Conrad offer a nightlife “fixer” to help you find the best cocktail bar behind a curtain behind a door in a shady-looking alley, the best bet is often just to ask a bartender.
Don’t visit Tokyo Skytree. It may be the highest point in the city and the highest tower in the world, but it also rated as the biggest tourist letdown in a recent survey. Massive weekend lines plus a steep fee to access the observation deck take a lot of fun out of the experience.
Instead, hit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, designed by Kenzō Tange, one of the 20th century’s most significant architects. It’s not as tall as Tokyo Skytree, but when you’re that high up who can tell the difference? It’s open late, queues are short and it’s free.
Don’t blow all your yen on expensive galleries.
Instead, take advantage of the many free, high-calibre exhibitions on offer. SCAI The Bathhouse showcases avant-garde Japanese artists, as does Espace Louis Vuitton, an impressive gallery on the seventh floor of the Louis Vuitton flagship store.
Don’t be ignorant of Japanese manners and customs at the dinner table.
Instead, get acquainted with basic etiquette before you arrive. You’ll quickly notice that Japanese people are extremely gracious hosts and guests. It’s bad manners to blow your nose in public, step on someone else’s tatami mat or to pour your own drink (instead, you should refill each other’s glasses).
Don’t skip the onsen or sentō just because you have tattoos.
Instead, find an establishment that’s happy to welcome inked patrons. While many onsen, gyms and even swimming pools may still refuse entry to anyone with tattoos (they’re traditionally associated with yakuza gangsters in Japan), plenty of bathhouses have changed with the times. Jakotsu-yu is one such establishment.