by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Are you thinking of visiting Tokyo? As someone who recently went there for the first time, I can't recommend a more interesting and exotically eye-opening destination than Japan, and I'll share a list of things to see and do in Tokyo in our upcoming travel issue on February 19. But before traveling to this major international city, here are 10 things to note in advance of purchasing your plane ticket.
1) Getting to Tokyo
Two airlines - Delta and United - offer daily nonstop flights between Seattle-Tacoma and Tokyo-Narita airports. The United flight is a code-share agreement with US Airways and Continental, which means you'll be flying on a United aircraft but can earn mileage points with the other two airlines by giving the reservation agent your rewards program number at the time of booking. I took the Delta flight, previously operated by Northwest, and it was a breeze getting to Japan - initially, our flight was scheduled for 10 hours and 55 minutes, but we arrived 75 minutes early. A less expensive option besides flying non-stop from Seattle, yet one that could potentially include a delay and/or headache, is to connect through Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Vancouver, B.C.
2) Customs and immigration
If your final destination is Tokyo, it will probably take more time to walk to the customs and immigration stations than it takes to complete the checkpoint process - it's a long walk from the arrival gates. The Japanese are sticklers when it comes to order, so be sure to complete your customs forms before landing because they will immediately put you in line with the next available agent. US-issued visas should have an expiration date up to three months from your return ticket, but you probably won't have any problems if the expiration date is less than 90 days. On the way to customs, be on the lookout for signage that splits passenger lines in two: those staying in Tokyo and those continuing onto connecting flights within Japan or Asia - it will save you precious time to be in the right line. Seriously, getting through customs and immigration at Tokyo-Narita is a snap.
Japan operates on the yen, available mostly in 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 paper increments and 500, 100, 50, 10 and 1 coin denominations. The simplest way to convert American money to Japanese yen is to subtract two zeros from the end, so a 1,000 yen note is equivalent to a 10 dollar bill - this isn't an exact conversion, but it's close and one that many US travelers use when making purchases there. I strongly recommend exchanging money at the Seattle airport before departure or at Tokyo-Narita upon landing, and then seek an ATM (7-11 stores usually have them) in the city when needed. Also, if staying at a Western-style hotel, your front desk should be able to convert American currency for a minimal fee. Major credit cards work, too.
4) Rail service / public trains
From the airport terminal 2, you can board the Narita Express to central Tokyo - it will take about an hour to arrive at Tokyo Station, where you can transfer to the Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shiodome or other districts within the metropolitan area. The cost is 2,940 yen (or $30 US) for a reserved one-way seat, and if all train cars are completely full you might be able to purchase a standing-room-only ticket for about 2,430 yen (or $25 US). First-class seats are available for about $15 more if you feel like splurging. Visit www.jreast.co.jp for more information. Within Tokyo, there are multiple train services, and though they're intertwined, they're not connected internally - this means separate fares for each service, so if your hotel is north in the Odaiba district, expect to pay about 450 yen for a one-way trip to Harajuku. Take notice: public train service ends at midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends.
Tipping is not customary throughout Japan, and gratuity is often added to your restaurant or hotel charges, even taxi services. In some cases, the Japanese can't accept tips in the form of cash due to company policy or traditional
practices, so please ask before extending a tip if they can accept it and always look at your receipts for built-in gratuity.
6) Food and beverages
If you're a picky eater, plan on staying close to your hotel or snacking at the nearest Starbucks (they're scattered throughout Tokyo). The traditional Japanese meal consists of steamed rice and a serving of local fish and pickled vegetables. Bento is an affordable and favorite item for lunch, a boxed meal found in convenience stores like AM/PM. Western-style hotels will offer familiar fare, such as steaks and salads, or another option is American fast-food: McDonalds, KFC, Denny's and Tony Roma's are a few US-based chains in the city. Vending machines sell both hot and cold beverages for about 130 yen, making it possible to sightsee with a can or bottle of warm green tea. Also, don't hesitate to sample Japan's leading beers, Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world for travelers, and not once did I ever feel threatened during my time there. The Japanese are very friendly hosts, so if you encounter any discomfort, just let someone know - and if you wind up in the girly section of Shinjuku, just politely say "no" to the men trying to woo you into the nudie arcades.
Don't expect the Japanese to speak great English, although their attempts are certainly appreciated. My best advice is to buy a small dictionary or phrasebook with basic Japanese-English conversions, and be sure to ask directions from your hotel front desk before stepping out for the night - even the taxi drivers speak very minimal English. If you need to ask random people for information, whether on the street or train stations, condense your question into a few words like "Shimbashi station, where?" or "I want Harajuku."
Unfortunately, as stunningly picturesque as Japan truly is - whether it's the well-illuminated city streets or serene rural villages - the one health problem it presents to travelers is pollution. I came down with a sinus infection just two days into my trip and forgot to pack appropriate medication, which can be difficult to purchase once there. I highly suggest taking sinus medication, nasal pumps, throat lozenges, and basic aspirin. Smoking is permitted in most bar-lounges, though on city streets it's only allowed in designated areas.
10) Gay lifestyle
Last, but certainly not least, the Gay lifestyle in Tokyo is vibrant and cruisy - the trick is finding it. While the Japanese aren't homophobic, they're also not the most open either - they're tolerant of Gay residents and tourists, as long as they keep to themselves. Gay bars and available Japanese men congregate in the Shinjuku Ni-Chome area, a 10-minute walk east of the popular Shinjuku station. Otherwise, your hookup options are reduced to American and European businessmen at Western-style hotels, which isn't a bad plan either.
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