Subways: Tokyo and all cities have local subways / trains run by private and government agencies. Unlike my home of New York City, their fares run based on distance, not per ride. For getting around, you will want a PASMO card (there are also other brands like SUICA). This is a simple and free electronic touch card you load cash onto at a machine and use for getting in and out of transport stations. You can also buy drinks and snacks at vending machines with it! It requires a 500yen deposit but you will get that refunded if you return/recycle the card when you leave. You can do this on your departure when leaving the last station at the airport.
I highly recommend a PASMO card because 1) it’s easier, faster, and free and 2) locals will thank you as you won’t hold up the flow with paper tickets. You can grab a PASMO card right when you land in the airport.
Regional Trains: Some trains that run outside the city center will cost more to ride. Similar to the LIRR but they feel the same as the subways. The easy part is that you can still use your PASMO card.
Bullet Train (Shinkansen): The bullet train is iconic in Japan and also the most expensive. You would most likely use this if you decide to travel to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, etc. For long-distance travel like this in Japan I’d recommend the 7 day JR Rail Pass since 1 round-trip ticket to Kyoto or Osaka will run you around $260 USD and a 7 day unlimited JR Rail Pass is about $250-260 (you can purchase them from multiple online vendors before your trip). This pass will allow you to ride unlimited on all JR lines including the bullet train and subways within the city. However, the JR Rail Pass will not work on any other govt or private lines within the city, only JR. So it is only worthwhile if traveling long distance outside Tokyo. My advice is to activate the pass on the day you start your long-distance travel to get the most time out of it. You can definitely use the remaining days you have left within Tokyo and just make plans around JR train lines. I used a 7 day to go from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka for $258 plus $11 shipping but looks like some vendors offer free shipping now. If you have time, you can stop anywhere else you like along the way which is the beauty of the pass. This pass is only available to tourists so there is a separate lane for you to pass through when using it (right next to the normal lanes you will use with your PASMO). For the bullet train, you will have to go into a JR office at the station to get a seat assignment, besides the special lane and seat assignments, the pass is simple and efficient and after the first time the process is easy enough.
7/11 is a fully operational bank in Japan. Their ATMs are some of the easiest and cheapest ways to grab cash. Plus you can find them everywhere.
Charles Schwab High Yield Checking / Debit Card: This is what I use all the time when traveling. This account which is free to open and has no annual, maintenance, or low balance fees allows you to withdraw cash at any foreign ATM overseas from any bank without fees. It’s as if you went to your own bank’s ATM at home. Charles Schwab will either not charge you a fee to begin with or if they do they reimburse those fees at the end of the statement cycle (30 days). This card is a travel must. I transfer my USD into this account a few days before I leave and then withdraw the balance leftover when I get home. Only catch with this is that they ask you to open a brokerage account a well as the checking which you can leave a $0 balance in without any penalty. It’s a marketing promotion they’ve been doing for years that is totally worth taking advantage of. I use this account only when traveling and the rest of the time it sits dormant.
This may be one of the best places on the planet you will ever eat. Everything we know about food in the US is destroyed and rebuilt here. Chain restaurants… they’re delicious. Fast food… delicious. Airport food… also delicious. The insanely high food standard in Japan creates an ecosystem for incredibly good food. If they don’t make good food, they won’t last. I’ve included some of my personal favorites here but at the end of this section are links to my food maps which you can open and follow on Google Maps as you move around. Enjoy everything! p.s. tipping is not necessary as the tips are already included in the price.
Ramen Koike: About 20min outside Shinjuku on the Keio line. This shop is recommended by the Michelin Guide. I was staying closeby and a Japanese friend recommended this place to me. Incredible ramen you won’t find replicated in the US.
Ichigen: this shop specializes in a tonkotsu-shrimp based ramen. This reminded me of a bowl of seafood bisque almost. You can even adjust the level of shrimp flavor vs the tonkotsu. This is a unique bowl of ramen I haven’t seen anywhere but here.
Tenkaippin: This is a chain and you can find them all over but it is a solid bowl and they are open late. Their specialty is a paitan ramen that is thick, almost between a liquid broth and gravy. Their shoyu is also solid.
Kikanbo: Spicy miso ramen with szechuan peppercorns with an underworld / devil theme. This shop is pretty popular among food bloggers.
Tsuta Japanese Soba Noodles: This was the first ramen shop in the world to be awarded a Michelin star. There are only two and the second is also in Japan. This leads to the queue being pretty long and the ramen being a bit more expensive in Japan. The cost is funny compared to the US since their bowls still only start around $10 USD. With add-ons and special items a bowl here can run up to about $16 USD which is almost the average in NYC. If you’re interested in this shop I would suggest going during the day on a weekday to avoid the longer waits. They allow you to take a ticket and come back so you don’t have to wait all day. Again, I’d only come here if you are really interested and have the time to potentially wait. You can find incredible ramen similar to this in Japan without the long waits. Check out Ramen Koike in Hachimanyama for a similar refined bowl of ramen.
Ramen Jiro: “Jiro” style ramen is A LOT of food. I haven’t tried this style in Tokyo but it is usually a thicker soup heavy with garlic and topped with lots of pork and bean sprouts. It isn’t my favorite because it knocks you out for a day but it is an iconic bowl of ramen and it’s own unique style.
Tokyo Ramen Street: I think a lot of ramen shops are better than the ones located in the basement of Tokyo station in what’s famously called “ramen street”. I haven’t tried them all though so I can’t say for sure. Either way, the sheer amount of ramen being served in one place which happens to be underground and a train station is amazing to see. Rokurinsha is the big shop here that was featured on Mind of a Chef with David Chang and Peter Meehan.
Ramen Yashichi (らーめん 弥七): This shop is in a residential area in Osaka. They specialize in a creamy rich chicken ramen and throw two kinds of pork on top. Classic chashu and pan fried crispy pork cubes. This bowl is so freakin’ good.
Tsukemen (dipping style ramen): these shops specialize in tsukemen which is usually thicker room temperature noodles with hot broth on the side in which you dip the noodles. This is my personal favorite style of ramen as you can eat it right away (not as piping hot) and customize each bite. Plus the dipping is fun. These broths are typically a bit stronger and not meant to be totally consumed, just used to coat the noodles as you eat. Sometimes they will offer a light or “white soup” to dilute the leftover broth so you can then drink it otherwise it is very thick to drink.
Fuunji: this shop is a well known tsukemen shop. The owner and his team of 2 crank out bowls all day and the line goes down into the slightly subterranean basement which makes it a bit tough to find. I walked by a few times before seeing the back of the line poke out from the shop banners.
銀座 朧月: another small tsukemen shop (even smaller than Fuunji). I don’t remember this shop having an English menu but it was very good. This is the shop that turned me on to the tsukemen style. The standard bowl of tsukemen is what you come here for and will probably be what you end up with if you just ask for the chef’s suggestion. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can ask “Ichioshi wa nan desu ka?” or “Osusume wa nan desu ka?” which means “What do you suggest?” or “What do you recommend?”
Tomita at Narita Airport (中華蕎麦 とみ田 成田空港店): Keizo Shimamoto from Ramen Shack in Queens, NY recommended this spot to me. This is also a brand of the original shop featured in the documentary Ramen Heads. He said it is the best airport ramen in the world and he might be right. Airport food in Japan and Asia in general is light years better than others but this shop is pretty awesome if you’re flying in or out of Narita. They’re located in Terminal 1 and have a few different bowls but their speciality is tsukemen.
Yamagishi Taishoken (東池袋 大勝軒 京都拉麺小路店): Yamagishi Taishoken is named after the originator / creator of tsukemen style ramen Kazuo Yamagishi. He passed away not too long ago and hundreds of chefs who studied under him have opened up their own shops across Japan with tsukemen on the menu. This shop is in Kyoto station on a “ramen street” which is basically just a floor of ramen in a train station much like the famous one in Tokyo station. Super convenient on the way in or out of Kyoto before a train.
Soupless ramen (abura-soba): ramen without soup that usually has a sauce at the bottom and is meant to be mixed up and “tossed” like pasta before eating. Owners will sometimes stress that you mix it first to get the flavors right.
Sansanto (燦燦斗): Small shop with homemade noodles. The soup-less ramen here aka abura-soba is on the level of handmade Italian pasta. This style has a sauce at the bottom which you mix all together before eating. It is sometimes called “mazeman” in the US but in Japan it seems to be referring to as “abura-soba” at most shops.
Midori Sushi Echika Ikebukuro: Standing sushi bar in the basement hallway of Ikebukuro train station. Very small. They have pencils, paper, and a picture menu (English menu available). Hand your order papers over the counter to place your order with the chef. Sushi comes out fast and you can keep ordering. This place has an incredible value to quality ratio. Most pieces of sushi cost less than $1.50 and will put most sushi restaurants in the US to shame. It’s a bit tough to find sandwiched in the back between some other shops but worth the search. They usually have a queue but it moves fast as diners are in and out. They have a take-out area outside the shop if you don’t have time. This is also where you pay your bill after dining inside.
Sushi Daidokoya (すし台所家 渋谷本店): This is a conveyor belt sushi shop which usually means some good deals, variety, and fun but lesser quality fish but this one is special. I had a local friend recommend it after I asked about another one nearby. They freaked out and said “NO, go here” and that was the end of the conversation. Even though it has a belt, you end up just ordering with the servers who place your order over the counter to the chefs. The conveyor belt here is kind of just for show unless you want to grab something off of it. Locals usually order over the counter at conveyor belt shops so the fish is THAT much fresher. They usually don’t want it if it’s been rolling around before they got there. This shop is in Shibuya which is super high traffic (famous Shibuya crossing) and full of tourists so you’d think this place is a trap. It’s a bit off the main drag so this place is just tucked away enough to avoid the massive crowds. English picture menu available at the counter and free matcha tea.
Tsukiji Market: The infamous fish market in Tokyo. A must. Everything here is delicious. This is the first place I went to eat when I got to Japan. It just throws you in without a life jacket and you can take it all in. From $1 sweet egg omelettes, sushi shops tucked in every corner, standing street ramen, or blowtorched seafood in a shell you’ll be eating all day. I usually spend some time here and then walk over to Hamarikyu Gardens and then walk back for more. Early morning is the best time to go as there will be less crowds than mid-day and stuff does sell out. You may even see someone from Jiro Dreams of Sushi if you’re early enough. I saw his son Yoshikazu riding his bike *star-struck*. Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai are two well known sushi shops here. They are no-frills 10 seat bars that have very long queues so I have not tried them yet but try your luck and see!
Sashimi and Chirashi (みなとや): This is not a sushi spot but they serve sashimi (raw sushi-grade fish sliced thick) and chirashi (sashimi and other seafood over rice). This is located in the Ameyayokocho market which is amazing in itself. It’s really cool to eat here tucked away just a few feet from the busy market madness. The prices are really reasonable and their menu is hanging outside with ALL photos which is super helpful.
タカマル鮮魚店 二号館: Another sashimi / chirashi spot but this time in Shinjuku. This place is a bit tougher to get by with English only. If you know or meet anyone while in Japan, ask them if they can take you here or give it a go with the “insert English name of fish” and point method. Sometimes a nearby diner is happy to help you. Other times you get the stink eye.
Tempura Rice Bowls (Ten-Don)
Kaneko Hannosuke: This is another really old Tokyo institution much like Kat’z or Russ and Daughters in NYC. We have these in all the Mitsuwa Marketplace locations in the US but it is not the same. It is still very good in the US but nothing like the standard here in Japan. This links to the original location which can have queues around 1 hour. They do have another Tokyo location that might be worth scoping out for a shorter wait. The menu here is really just the one “edo-mae” bowl which is assorted seafood over rice.
Tendon Makino Kyoto Teramachi (天丼まきの 京都寺町店): This shop is in Kyoto and by far the best ten-don (tempura rice bowl) I had in Japan. It’s also nestled in the infamous Nishiki market which is full of amazing vendors, snacks, and shopping. I went for the seafood special with is often referred to as “edo-mae” which usually comes with tempura battered squid, scallops, shrimp, a poached egg, and an amazing strip of eel. Sometimes they throw in mushrooms, a pepper, and roasted seaweed.
Tamahide (玉ひで): This is an incredibly old restaurant, something around 250 years specializing in Oyakodon which is made up of two kinds of chicken (thigh and breast) simmered in a sweet-and-salty soy sauce based sukiyaki broth, a custard like egg and served in a bowl over rice. I read the restaurant invented this dish 130 years ago for royalty. It is a Japanese classic you can find cheaper versions of which are also delicious but this one (for about $15 USD) helps set the bar high.
Katsu / Curry
Miso Tonkatsu Yabaton (矢場とん 東京駅グランルーフ店): a special pork katsu hailing from the city of Nagoya served with miso curry sauce. Most katsu is served with a more traditional sauce and you used to have to travel to Nagoya to try this. Now they have a shop in Tokyo. The miso sauce is poured fresh over the fried cutlet right in front of you to prevent any sogginess and ensure ultimate crispness. It also just looks cool and they know it.
Gyukatsu Motomura: beef cutlet shop located in a basement in Shinjuku. They provide each person with a stone slab and flame to cook your cutlet to your preference. This is a really cool experience and the cutlet comes with rice, soup, and some cabbage and dipping sauces. I loved this spot though I was still a bit hungry after which in Japan is never a bad thing.
CoCo Ichibanya: popular chain curry shop for solid Japanese curry. If you’re hungry and need a quick fix and you see one it’s worth a stop. I really like the hamburger steak filled with cheese. We do have these in Los Angeles (not sure if they have the same taste / standard) so if you’re tight on time, skipping this isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Yakitori Ton Ton: no frills “open-air” izakaya under the train tracks selling skewered grilled meats, beer, and other snacks.
Convenience Stores aka “conbini” (7-11, Lawson, Family Mart):
The food at convenience stores in Japan is delicious and pretty much the exact opposite of what we expect in the US. In my opinion the stand-out items to try at conbini are onigiri (rice balls), the egg salad sandwiches (soft-boiled egg and pork katsu are my favorite), and all the fun ice cream. They’ll even heat up some of the dishes for you if you’re hungry late at night. Even the fried chicken at the cashier is awesome. If it’s fall / winter they will also have Oden which is a simple dashi broth where you get to pick the fish cake, vegetables, and other items that have been simmering in it.
Food & Travel Maps: Open these links on desktop or mobile to see them on a list and “follow” to plot them out on map view wherever you are to see what’s nearby.
Favorites (most memorable meals)
Japan (everywhere else plus places I haven’t been yet)
Neighborhoods / Where to Stay
My recommendation for exploring and staying in Tokyo would be to spread out your stay and circle the city center. I stayed 2-3 days in major hubs around Tokyo which sort of makes a circle on a map. This helps you get a feel for each neighborhood and also allows you to walk and experience the neighborhood more instead of using public transport for every activity. The subway in Japan is priced by distance so overall this strategy can save you some cash too. Another benefit is if a hotel isn’t amazing, you’re only there a few days and can look forward to the next one. Though just like with the food, Japan has a high standard for hospitality and even some of the cheapest hotels are more than adequate. If you end up using Booking.com, feel free to use my referral link which could potentially get you some discounts.
Shinjuku: Bright lights, lots of incredible food, and a great central location with direct access to Harijuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Akabane, and more. Shinjuku is a bit higher priced because of the convenience and popularity but it’s a great place to stay. I felt like if I could visit Tokyo for only one day, Shinjuku would be the area that has a little bit of it all. Check out Shinjuku Loft for music, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden 新宿御苑 for nature within the city, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for amazing (and free) views of Tokyo from the observatory, amazing alleys of yakitori and food shops on Memory Lane (aka Piss Alley), a tightly snug strip of bars at Golden Gai, and if you’re into shrines and design, visit Meiji Jingu. This is the only neighborhood where I didn’t stay in a capsule hotel or with friends so I can recommend Apartment Hotel Shinjuku which was affordable for the area and really cool with a great location a few blocks from the station.
Shibuya: The Times Square of Tokyo. Insanely crowded and the site of the infamous Shibuya Crossing (you can get a good elevated view from the glass bridge in Shibuya station or the 2nd floor Starbucks across the street). This is like Shinjuku on steroids and the bright lights make the street feel almost like daylight at night on certain blocks. This is the only area in Tokyo where I felt like I could potentially find mediocre food as there is just so much here for tourists the probability is higher much like Times Square in NYC. Check out Ruby Room for local live music. There are also two locations for Ichiran, the famous customizable tonkotsu ramen shop where you are served in a private booth. My recommendation is to visit Shibuya as its close to Shinjuku and Harijuku but staying here might be one of the most expensive and over-crowded areas.
Harijuku: Known for cosplay, anime, cat cafes, shopping, and all things weird. I didn’t spend too much time here but it’s very close to Shibuya and not far from Shinjuku. This gyoza shop seems popular though if you’re in the area.
Roppongi: During the day it’s mostly apartments, offices, and shops. Apparently at night it is the nightlife hub for foreigners.
Ginza: The most luxurious district in Tokyo. Huge fashion brands have branches here. It is also home to the sushi shop from Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Tsukiji Market is also walking distance or just 1-2 stops away via subway. Tokyo Ramen Street is also here as well as a miso curry shop from Nagoya and Yakitori Ton Ton, an semi-outdoor izakaya under the train tracks.
Akihabara: Video games, comic books, and electronics… everywhere. This is the nerd nation of Tokyo. If you’re not into that sort of thing, this neighborhood may not be for you. If you are, you may spend an entire day here.
Asakusa: This neighborhood can be crowded but it’s jam packed with food, markets, and sights. The historic Sensō-ji Temple is also here. I enjoyed staying here a lot. It has a flat urban landscape feel compared to the tall towering buildings in other areas. Nakamise is a huge shopping street where you can pick up souvenirs.
Ikebukuro: Much more quiet compared to Shinjuku which is just south of here. Ikebukuro is home to a lot of great food including this standing sushi bar inside the train station. The area is a bit “grittier” and working class and you’ll see some of the more scandalous side of Japan here.
Internet & Apps
Pocket Wi-Fi: This option is great for having Internet on your devices outside your hotel or coffee shops. I borrowed a friend’s unit but you can rent them fairly cheap from so many vendors in Japan or ahead of time online for pick-up when you arrive. My first trip I got by without it and just used public wi-fi and Google Maps still tracks your satellite location even when in Airplane Mode. I will admit having it the second time around was really convenient and came in handy when trying to identify restaurants and what I wanted to order at some of them.
Google Maps: I use Google Maps for everything now. Yelp is almost non-existent in Asia. Google Maps is great for finding more accurate addresses and locations. It works great with copying and pasting Japanese characters into search. English will sometimes return no results for a restaurant but pasting the Japanese name in will usually get you what you’re looking for.
Foursquare / Swarm / Yelp: These apps come in handy for searching for restaurants as well. If you can find the English name here and not Google, you can click on “Edit” or “Suggest an Edit” and see the translations of the name in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc. to then copy and paste the Japanese name into Google and find it. These apps are also just nice to keep a record of where you visit for future reference. Yelp is probably the weakest when it comes to results on these 3 but it also has the translated names of restaurants if you can’t find it on the others.
Tabelog: The “Yelp” of Japan. I didn’t download this app since the US version is not developed well but I would use the Japanese version in my mobile web-browser and convert to English to see details on the restaurant and to see how Japanese diners felt about certain food shops I came across. The food standard in Japan is so much higher than in the US… do not be fooled by a score of only 3.1 or 3.2… this is almost like 4.5 stars for us on Yelp. They RARELY give out anything over a 3.5. Also the sheer number of shops in Japan make a place with an award for being in the “Top 5,000” or “Top 1,000” a big deal.
Instagram: Follow my feed @wandersauce and search the hashtag #wandersaucejapan for all things Japan.
Snow: It’s the Snapchat of Japan and it’s just super funny and weird.
I hope you found this guide useful. Feel free to give me a follow over at @wandersauce on Instagram and say hello. Safe travels!