Think of Tokyo as a collection of minicities, neighborhoods designated by their associated subway stations. Central Tokyo encircles the Imperial Palace, an imposing castle surrounded by a moat and gardens (sadly, only the East Gardens are open to the public year-round). East of the palace, there's Tokyo Station and its Marunouchi business district; the technophile haven of Akihabara Electric Town; trendy Ginza, where old Tokyo and new fashion meet; and Tsukiji Fish Market, near the harbor. On the western end of the city, you'll find Shinjuku and Shibuya, bustling centers of modern shopping and nightlife. To the north, you'll find Ueno with its park and zoological gardens, as well as Asakusa with its lantern-lit Senso-ji Temple. To the south, Roppongi is home to an infamous red-light district and the Roppongi Hills complex, where the 780-foot-high Mori Tower serves as a monument to modern excess.
WHEN TO GO
Japan has four distinct seasons—five if you include the rainy season. Winters tend to be cold, dry, and clear (New Year's is best avoided, as most businesses close for the first week of January), while summers are exhaustingly hot and humid. The rainy season, which falls roughly between mid-June and mid-July, can be sticky and gray. July and August are only for those who can bear soaring temperatures and junglelike humidity. Spring and autumn are good times to visit. Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, lasts for about ten days in early April.
HOW TO GET THERE
Tokyo has two airports: Narita Airport (NRT), about 37 miles from Tokyo, for international flights, and the more centrally located Haneda (HND), for domestic flights. There are several nonstop flights daily from major U.S. cities.
From Narita Airport, metered taxis to central Tokyo will cost at least ¥25,000 (about $322), unless you hire a fixed-fare taxi: Tokyo MK charges ¥16,000 (about $207) to Ginza; ¥17,000 (about $220) to Shibuya or Shinjuku, plus tolls. There is also a fixed-fare taxi stand at the arrivals terminal. Orange-and-white Airport Limousine buses leave regularly and promptly, linking the airport with an extensive network of destinations in Tokyo in about 80 minutes. Tickets are ¥3,000 (about $39) and are available at the airport. The Narita Express travels between the airport and Tokyo Station nonstop in just under an hour. Trains leave on the hour, and every 30 minutes at peak hours. From Tokyo Station, the Narita Express goes on to other destinations in Tokyo, including Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Shinagawa. A one-way ticket to Tokyo Station costs ¥2,940 (about $38); to Shinjuku, ¥3,110 (about $41). Keisei Railway runs the Skyliner Airport Express from Narita to Keisei Ueno station; the 41-minute trip costs ¥2,400 (about $31). From there, you can connect with the subway. Trains leave approximately every 40 minutes.
Tokyo is crisscrossed with subway, bus, and railway lines, which provide an enviably efficient public transport system.
Tokyo's subway is cheap and spotless and runs like clockwork. The 13 lines, operated by two companies, are color-coded, and station names are usually written in English and Japanese. It's confusing at first, but indispensable once you get the hang of it; the staff is uniformly helpful. A basic ticket costs ¥160, or about $2. The most useful above-ground train for visitors is the JR Yamanote, or circle, line, which runs around the city, links Tokyo's major centers, and intersects with the subway and trains to the suburbs. Avoid rush hour. Basic tickets cost ¥130 (about $1.50).
The bus network is extensive but can be difficult for the non–Japanese speaker to negotiate, since bus-stop signs and maps are written in Japanese. If you do use the buses, buy either one of the prepaid passes from the subway (also good for the buses) or pay when you board. Trips usually cost a flat fare of ¥200 (about $2.50).
Prepaid passes are recommended to avoid waiting in line and having to calculate individual fares; the price is deducted automatically at the gate. Passnet passes—¥1,000 (about $13), ¥3,000 (about $39), or ¥5,000 (about $65)—are sold at subway ticket machines and can be used on the subway and railway lines (but not the Yamanote line). The rechargeable Suica card, which starts at ¥500 (about $6.50), is good for JR trains (including the Yamanote line). The Tokyo Free Kippu is a combination pass that allows unlimited travel on all subway lines and JR trains in central Tokyo for one day. It's also valid on city-run buses. Available at subway and JR stations, it costs ¥1,580 (about $20). If you're planning to travel around the country, a Japan Rail Pass is a must. It's strictly for tourists and can only be bought outside of Japan. A standard-class seven-day pass for an adult costs $357 and is good for unlimited travel on all Japan Rail (JR) trains, including most shinkansen, or bullet trains. It's also valid for the Narita Express train to and from the airport.
Finding a taxi is not a problem—there are thousands of them in central Tokyo. As in New York, available taxis have their top lights on and can be hailed anywhere. Unlike in New York, Tokyo cabs are spotless (the drivers even wear white gloves) and safe. Enter the taxi via the rear left-hand door, which is opened and closed automatically by the driver (don't close the door yourself—you'll damage the hydraulics). Taxis are metered, and the base fare is ¥660 (about $8.50). Japanese addresses are notoriously difficult to locate, so it helps to have a map in Japanese on hand.
You'd be a fool to rent a car in Tokyo, because public transport is so good. Besides, parking is expensive and traffic can be heavy during rush hour (you'll notice, however, that nobody really honks). Save car rentals for trips away from the city. You can rent a car at Narita Airport from Nippon, Toyota, Nissan, and Japaren.
Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO)
Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan Building
2-10-1 Yurakucho, 10th Floor
Chiyoda-ku (next to JR Yurakucho Station)
Visit the JNTO Tokyo Information Center for maps, brochures, and travel advice. Its excellent English-language Web site is packed with practical information about traveling in Japan. JNTO also operates a tourist help line (81-3-3201-3331) that travelers can call for anything from museum operating hours to bus timetables.
There are also tourist locations at the airport: Arrivals Terminal 1 (81-4-7630-3383); Arrivals Terminal 2 (81-4-7634-5877).View Japan Factsheet