If you’re thinking of traveling to Japan, I’ve put together some of my travel tips. I’m doing this post because of the interest and questions I’ve been asked recently. If anyone else is planning a trip, I hope this helps you too.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Before visiting Japan, I knew I loved the country based on what I had read and seen. Remember when they were hit with that devastating earthquake in 2011? They didn’t ask for handouts, and set out to rebuild everything almost immediately. It was this remarkable attitude that prompted me to donate money to the Red Cross who aided in their relief campaign. So yes, I had a long standing love for Japan, which was as a ‘must visit’ for me. After I saved enough money because the impression you have is that it’s expensive. More on this further below.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo with Sony on a press trip last May (blogged about it here). To say I was excited was an understatement. It was a 3 day trip and we had a packed itinerary but some free time on the last day. Please note that I didn’t book my flights, pay for hotels, food, or the WiFi dongle we were supplied with throughout the trip. So with that in mind, I will share what I think might be useful to potential travellers. 

VISA APPLICATION

The Embassy of Japan in South Africa is located in Pretoria, not sure of other locations in SA. You can find all the info you need on their website. I was sent the visa forms by Sony, including the documents required from their side. Regarding an appointment, you do not need one. I repeat, you do not need an appointment; this is the first embassy in all my life of physically applying for visas that you don’t need one. You simply go there and hand your documents in. It took me less than five minutes to apply for my visa, which was ready within 2 working days. 

FLIGHTS

Getting to Japan from South Africa is best done via a Middle Eastern airline because you’re heading in the same direction. There are two international airports in Tokyo: Haneda International Airport (HND) and Narita International Airport (NRT). I flew via Emirates to Haneda Airport, which is very close to the main city. Narita is a bit far out, 76km away from HND. I would recommend flying to Haneda; it’s also going to be cheaper to get to your hotel.

Another thing to keep in mind when flying to Haneda, all flights via Emirates lands at 22:45pm. There’s still waiting for bags, going through passport control, and not even factoring a potential flight delay. You’re likely going to get to your hotel at midnight if not after, so keep this in mind when booking accommodation because it’s technically a day “wasted”.  Similarly, the flight back to Dubai leaves at 00:30.

On the flight from Tokyo to Dubai, we were told that the rule was one item of hand luggage only. So I shoved my handbag into my hand luggage because I wasn’t going to check in additional bags. Double check with Emirates if this is still the case, or keep place in your hand luggage for your handbag/laptop bag. I flew on an economy flight but my Emirates Gold status did not help with the hand luggage situation. It was so odd, I have never encountered this anywhere, ever. Flights here are pricey, so keep an eye when your favourite airline is having a sale and then book.

ACCOMMODATION

I stayed in Minato, near Sony HQ at the Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa, and it was excellent. I would highly recommend that you stay in a hotel in Tokyo if you plan to take an Emirates flight here. The reason being is that if you check-out early on your last day, you have somewhere safe to store your luggage while you’re out sight-seeing or shopping. If you opt for an Airbnb you may be left with no choice but lug it around with you. That said, accommodation is not cheap here. You can get a three star hotel for up to R1500 a night if you search booking.com (for two people), but if you skip the free breakfast you can get a wider selection of hotels.

Side Note: You can also search other airlines besides Emirates to see what their timetable is like, and if they take off and land in the afternoon or during the day. This would also make using Airbnb an option should this be the case, but in addition to what I said above, you can always ask your host what to do with luggage. 

FOOD

I was spoilt with food options on this trip as Sony took us to the best places. I noted my dietary requirements as Pescatarian (seafood and vegetarian) so I didn’t have to worry about halaal. We went to the famous Kill Bill Restaurant called Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu. It’s very touristy, you need a booking to get in but it’s got a vibe. These are just some of the dishes we had on the evening and they brought us extra dessert. 

Regarding halaal food, you can find places that offer Chinese, Arab, Indian, and other Asian spots, so you can eat ramen, curries, noodles, wagyu, kebabs etc. See image below. But here’s a better list of the top halaal places in Tokyo with reviews. It’s not as easily available as in New York or London. 

There are also vegetarian and vegan places to consider and well, sushi. On this trip, I was with Middle Eastern and a Saudi journalist and we opted to have curry on our free day for lunch near the tech part of the city because we had seafood on the previous days. I can’t remember the name but we searched for halaal food near us on Google Maps. We also ate at Kawaii Monster Cafe but this place isn’t really about the food, more the experience:

GETTING AROUND

Getting around Tokyo is easy with the Tokyo Metro. You can access information in English and buy tickets without additional help. I managed to navigate myself when I took a train to the tech part of the city. If you’re familiar with the Subway, Underground, MRT etc, it’s the same thing.

There are various lines, all colour coded, and each station is numbered. At the actual stations, you will see the numbers next to Japanese text. As you can see above, the map is also available in English and you can download the official app for Android and iOS. A day pass for unlimited rides, valid for 24 hours is ¥600, which is roughly R80. I can’t be sure if you get multiple day or weekly passes, but use this as a guideline to budget for getting around per day. Uber and cabs are available here but they are pricey. This is the best way to get around. We were supplied with metro cards by Sony, which displays your balance like it does on the Underground or Subway.

SIGHT-SEEING

Even though it was a quick 3 day trip, Sony tried to include some fun bits between our official itinerary. This is all I have to include for this section.

We made a stop at Shibuya, the world’s busiest intersection. My photo doesn’t do it justice:

We went to the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku in Shibuya (you probably heard of this area, famous for its fashion and colourful street art):

This is the view from the top at the Kill Bill restaurant, Gonpachi:

On my free day I visited a cat cafe as my top priority (my first stop!). It’s very clinical, you have to put your shoes into a locker and wear slippers, and take in a drink (hot or cold, included in your entry fee), and you have to pay extra to feed the cats. You cannot go to Tokyo and not go to a cat cafe:

We spent the rest of our time at the tech part of the city called Akihabara. I bought a bunch of cute geeky things and as mentioned below, Google Home Minis and a Chromecast.

We also got peckish at some point. Finding food places was all about relying on location and using Google Maps to narrow down a cuisine type (coffee, cakes, dessert, Indian, etc):

Regarding doing other cool things in the city, I suggest you look that up online. Alas I wasn’t there long enough to do it myself but if there’s a sight-seeing bus with commentary like in most cities, I recommend doing that.

LANGUAGE BARRIER

The places we went to, we didn’t have an issue communicating. People understand basic English. Sometimes at restaurants you may have to point at something if they don’t understand your accent. But also, keep Google Translate with the Japanese language downloaded for a backup. This app has helped me tons of times in non-English speaking countries. Also if you buy anything in the supermarket and want translations. 

IS IT EXPENSIVE?

Regarding the cost of visiting the city as a whole, like paying for food etc, I’d say it’s similar to New York City, which is on the expensive side but it’s not unattainable. You can be smart with your choices – like pack your own snacks from South Africa, bring a few ready meals that you can heat in boiling water in your room kettle (Woolies and some Indian shops sell delicious vegetarian curries/ready-meals) for one meal a day or the days you don’t feel like eating out. I’ve been told that food in the food halls are cheaper but I haven’t been there, and I’m not sure if there’s any contamination for those with dietary requirements. Here’s some prices from a halaal spot in Tokyo and it looks reasonable. I would assume the Asian spots are cheaper.

Regarding tech, I went to Yodobashi Camera shop in Akihabara, and bought a bunch of Google Home Mini’s and a Chromecast because they had a special for that weekend. It’s about five or six floors and we spent a lot of time in there. You can always find bargains if you look carefully and know exactly what you want, and how much it costs at home to know if it’s worth it.

If you’re a gamer, Tokyo is heaven – think Playstation, Nintendo, Sega, Mario, Pokemon etc. Pikachu is everywhere. If you’re a regular traveller, Tokyo is heaven. The three days I visited was not enough, I plan to go back, as well as visiting Kyoto. It is the cleanest city I’ve come across in Asia. It really stood out for me and I was like “wow, there’s no litter on the streets”. I noticed the ladies dress up properly, full on hairdos, and make up. It’s quite something to notice. Also, at the bus stops, you will see people queuing in a single file to take public transport – have you ever?  People also have weird fetishes going on and there’s something for everyone in that regard. I was told that going to a karaoke bar is a must but alas I didn’t have a free evening for it.

I’ve been working on this post for a while and I hope I covered everything. If you have more questions, please leave a comment.

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