By Sophie Tupper 3rd year Psychology
Your ultimate guide to travelling around Japan's capital city.
Tokyo is like a whole new world in itself and is an absolute must-see for any travel lover. From traditional temples to modern museums, there isn’t really anything that this amazing city doesn’t have. Here’s a quick guide to visiting Tokyo (with a student budget) with a few helpful tips that I wish I’d known before I visited.
What to eat
Unlike Western countries, ‘fast-food’ in Japan isn’t processed or deep fried. Think steaming bowls of rice topped with veggies, miso soup, savoury meats and a side of green tea instead. Meals like these can easily be bought for about £1 and make a filling and healthy lunch option. ‘Button’ style restaurants are also a common (cheaper) alternative; this is basically a vending machine where you select and pay for your meal based on the photos and prices listed on the machine. You then take your receipt to the chef and bam, you’ve got food. Personally, I became rather fond of this option simply because a) it was cheap b) it’s fun to do and c) language translation was never an issue since ordering is as simple as clicking on a picture.
Cheap and fresh bento boxes, take-away noodles, sushi and wraps are just some of the great grab-and-go options from Japanese supermarkets which can be located on most street corners. The supermarkets in Tokyo are also full of novelty items such as green tea Kit Kats or sweet potato lollipops so I’d definitely recommend browsing the aisles for some unique treats.
Visit Tokyo’s cute, cool and crazy fashion district
Harajuku was my favourite area to go to in Tokyo. It’s the centre of Japan’s most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles and is the home to hundreds of cool shops and cafes. Picture busy streets, wild fashion choices (anything goes here), giant stuffed animals, candy shops galore, flashing lights everywhere you look and hundreds of people. Takeshita Street is the focal point of all this. Just a few minutes’ walk away you’ll find Omotesando; a one kilometer long, Beverley-Hills-vibe, tree lined avenue featuring famous brand name shops, cafes and restaurants. This is very much not ‘student budget friendly’ and is aimed more towards high earning fashion conscious urbanites in their 30s and 40s, but it’s fun to window shop.
Image: Sophie Tupper / Epigram
Getting from A to B
Transport in Tokyo is quick and efficient, but is definitely one of the most expensive necessities you’ll come across. One tip for saving the ‘dolla’ would definitely be to buy a Japan Rail pass - this gives you unlimited travel across the whole JR network (their equivalent of National Rail), but doesn’t work on the Subway. You can also get a IR pass which is basically an Oyster Card that you can top up at stations. The buses are also a great option for short journeys and are clean and efficient. A typical 10 minute journey will cost you approximately £1 – not bad at all.
Go to a ninja restaurant
Yes, you read that right. Now to be perfectly honest, this was very touristy but I loved every minute of it. You’re going to have to book this one a while in advance but boy is it worth it. This is very much a ‘booking’ only restaurant and I’m not even sure ‘restaurant’ is the best way to describe it. From the outside, you knock on a door and are greeted by a ninja completely in character. From this moment on, you too are a ninja and everything is top secret - this means no phones and no pictures. You then go underground through various dark and secret passages until you reach a cell, which is where your meal is held. A five course dinner is served by your own personal ninja before you are escorted out and sworn to secrecy.
Public bathhouses were created when most homes didn’t have their own bathtubs and quickly became a soothing and peaceful haven for locals to relax in. They are still commonly used and are an amazing experience so if you do get the opportunity to visit one, do it. The water is typically obtained from mineral-rich volcanic natural springs, which you bathe in completely naked with people of the same gender. Initially, this was a rather odd experience, but you soon get used to it.
Get high on an observation deck
Not literally! Tokyo has an amazing skyline that you’d be nuts not to appreciate. One of the main tourist attractions in Tokyo are the city-viewing platforms: Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Skytree is the highest tourist platform in Tokyo and so, of course, is pretty expensive to visit. If you’re on a student budget, I’d therefore recommend the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (which is free). Located at the heart of Shinjuku, the government building has great views of the city skyline and you can even see Tokyo Tower and Skytree which is nice. It’s also really quite peaceful up there since it’s not as popular as the other two attractions, making it a nice escape from the buzzing city streets while enjoying an impressive view.
The toilets show you a good time
Before going to Japan I thought the ‘musical toilet’ thing was a myth. But low and behold, almost every toilet has an array of buttons that’ll keep you in there much longer than necessary. If you’re like me, you’ll no doubt find this very entertaining and quickly find your toilet spraying water, blowing hot air or playing classical music while you do your business. It’s fun.
Experience the culture
Japan is filled with the most beautiful traditional architecture and their culture is fascinating. A few places that I found to be the most interesting were the Imperial Palace and Sensō-ji Buddhist temple. The current imperial palace is located a short walk from Tokyo Station and is a set in a large park surrounded by moats and massive stone walls. It is the residence to the Japanese imperial family. Sensō-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple and is the most visited temple in the city. If you want to indulge in the really touristy (which I did) you can even rent kimonos and wander round in Japanese traditional outfits.
Featured image: Epigram / Sophie Tupper