First Time in Tokyo: Surprises & Disappointments

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Japan has always been on my bucket list. Quirky things, many strange attractions, sushi – what can else you want.

I think my trip to Tokyo was the most unplanned and unexpected trip of my entire life. On Monday I found out that I have a long weekend so that night I booked my flight for Wednesday. By using my frequent flier miles, I got a free flight from Lufthansa (cheers to Miles & More program). On Tuesday I booked a hotel and started planning what to do once I arrived in Tokyo.

But Tokyo hides many surprises. I might let some people down by saying this, but Tokyo turned out to be way different than I expected it to be. Here is what surprised me positively (+) and negatively (-) in Tokyo.

First Time in Tokyo: Surprises & Disappointments
Tokyo


Tokyo is actually affordable

After hearing a lot of opinions on how expensive is Japan, I was a bit afraid of destroying my budget. To my surprise, it turned out that Tokyo is not expensive at all. Well, if you compare it to other places in Asia like Vietnam, Thailand or India, it will be expensive for you.

However, Tokyo is less expensive than London and much cheaper than the Netherlands. For example, you can eat in a small restaurant for $4 euros and you’ll get a big portion. If you want to try an all-you-can-eat type of restaurant, with a hot pot, you’re going to spend $23.

Accommodation is great

I paid approx. $30 a night for my bed at Oak Zen Hostel. Same price that I’d pay in Berlin, Amsterdam or London, with better standard. Each bed had 2 individual plugs, a lamp, curtains, a free locker, and the Wi-Fi worked everywhere. The bathroom had free amenities such as shampoo, conditioner, etc. I would love to see more hostels like this around the world!

Toilets are smart!

Talking about bathrooms… I loved Japanese toilet seats. You get to press some buttons and you’ll get a quick wash, bidet, massage and dryer for the end. This toilet knows what it’s doing. You can also adjust the temperature of the seat. Amazing! The women’s toilet also plays cicada sounds, so you can’t hear any noise coming from the toilet.

Tokyo Surprises

Transportation in Tokyo isn’t the greatest

The transportation system in Japan surprised me, but not in a good way. For a city as developed as Tokyo, I’d expect at least some sense in the metro system.

Each metro line is operated by a different company, so therefore they all require separate tickets. For example, if you need to change 3 times then every time you have to get out and purchase another ticket. Of course, you can get a frequent user pass, but not if you’re planning on using it just a few times.

How do you buy metro tickets? Each time you should check the map and see how much it costs to get to your destination. Not the final one obviously, just until your interchange. If you change your mind and the fare you’ve chosen isn’t enough, you need to go to the machine and adjust it before you get out. If you paid more – oh well, you’ll lose the money.

It’s also important to mention that the trains close at midnight and the metro closes at 1 am. There are also no night buses, so unless you take a cab there is no way you can get home until the trains reopen at 5 am.

Tokyo is very safe

I’d have thought that since Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s not very safe. To my surprise, Tokyo is one of the safest places I’ve been and Japan has maintained its reputation as being the safest country in the world. You can put your phone next to you on the train and fall asleep, or leave your opened bag behind when shopping, and nothing will happen. It’s quite amazing actually!

Tokyo isn’t all about neon and modernity 

Japan is the Mecca of modern technology and neon lights. This is why I expected Tokyo to be a very modern city: full of shiny skyscrapers and modern technology.

Tokyo looks like a regular city, kind of like New York, except 50 years ago. For those who are looking for a city that’s modern and impressive, I’d recommend a visit to Hong Kong or Shanghai instead.

There’s one important thing that Tokyo is missing – trash bins. You can’t find any free-standing bins ANYWHERE in Tokyo, because the city wants you to carry your trash with you. The only place where you can find bins is next to 7-Eleven.

It isn’t easy to withdraw money from the bank and pay by card

It amazed me that in a place like Tokyo you can’t withdraw money from a regular bank ATM. Banks never accept foreign cards, and the only places where you can take money are 7-Eleven stores.

The idea of withdrawing money from an ATM located in a corner store seemed super sketchy to me, but in Japan that was my only choice.

Moreover, it’s quite hard to pay by card anywhere, unless you visit some 5-star hotels or exclusive restaurants. Most places accept cash only or Japanese cards. In various local restaurants, you have to place and pay for your order at a machine and bring your ticket to the waiter.machine

Sushi can be questionable to Westerners

Japan = sushi, right? Sushi is present on Japanese tables, but it’s not as common as pizza and pasta in Italy. Quite the opposite actually. Sushi is seemingly hard to find in Tokyo.

When you finally find it, it’s either terrible or incredibly expensive, unless you visit the Fish Market before 9 am. I don’t think I’m being subjective on this matter because a few of my Japanese friends confirmed that Japanese people eat sushi like 5 times a year.

 

When talking about eating out I need to warn you. Waiters don’t really speak any English and quite often an English menu isn’t available. I felt bad for two vegetarian girls at my hostel, because you can never be sure that what you’ve ordered is actually what you thought it would be.menu_japan

It’s not so easy to see the Mount Fuji

The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Japan is the traditional cherry blossom trees. Ideally, they’re surrounding Mount Fuji. But there is nothing more wrong than this image.

Cherry blossoms are blooming for just a month around March, and Mount Fuji is rarely visible due to the mist and clouds. I guess you should just Google those beautiful photos because the chance of capturing those two together is no higher than 5%.Mount Fuji

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17 Comments

  1. Jun 4, 2014 / 2:22 pm

    Not sure about Tokyo but in Kyoto you can buy an ICOCA card and basically just charge it without having to worry about train and metro fares at all 🙂

    The ATM/Card thing is not a sign of not being modern but more like a sign of being a cash based society that doesn’t believes in western inventions such as credit. Japanese people pay with what they have, nothing more, nothing less.

    • Anna
      Jun 4, 2014 / 3:54 pm

      I was rather concerned – I usually don’t trust ATMs based in corner stores or bars (I’ve seen a lot happening when I worked in a bar with an ATM) 😉

  2. Jun 4, 2014 / 3:01 pm

    I was in Tokyo for a weekend and I found a lot of affordable sushi restaurants, but I was guided by a fellow travel blogger who knew the city very well. When it comes to menu not being available in English – c’mon! That’s a big minus! It’s Tokyo and English should be widely spoken there. I would also feel sorry for vegetarian girls!! 🙁

    • Anna
      Jun 4, 2014 / 3:57 pm

      I mean I did find sushi (my Japanese based friends showed me)… but it was horrible! Although what scared me the most was a raw egg served in a soup I ordered…

  3. new
    Jun 5, 2014 / 9:15 am

    Thanks for sharing I love japan I am a japan fan

  4. Jun 6, 2014 / 2:42 pm

    Hey Anna, this is a really interesting article and really challenged the perception I’ve always had of Tokyo.

    Hearing that you found it so affordable makes it a lot more appealing now and doesn’t scare me from going.

    However the issues with the bank cards and public transport really surprised me, in a bad way.

    • Anna
      Jun 10, 2014 / 7:20 pm

      Thanks The Guy!
      You should definitely visit Tokyo – it’s a place weird enough to keep you entertained 😉

  5. Jun 17, 2014 / 5:03 pm

    Anna, your advice about transportation in Tokyo is not correct. To travel on Metro, Japan Rail and many other transport providers one should buy a SUICA or PASMO card and charge it. You won’t need to work out the cost of your journey as it will be deducted at the gates as you leave each station. The display will also inform you of remaining credit. Raphael pointed this out by refering to the IOCCA card which works in a similar way in Kyoto. The SUICA / PASMO cards can be used to buy products from vending machines at some stations and even pay for entry to ornamental gardens.
    It is perfectly possible to get around Japan by using a combination of a JR Rail Pass and on foot. The 3 Day JR Kanto Pass is great value if you intend visiting Nikko, Kamakura and for a 1000 yen supplement you can take the Shinkansen to Gala Yuzawa and go skiing / snowboarding in winter.
    Japan = sushi is purely an outsider’s view of Japan. Shabu shabu, ramen and Okinawen food are well worth trying as you found out. Bento boxes are probably the best packed lunches I have experienced.

  6. Jul 3, 2014 / 5:56 pm

    For me, the biggest pain is the menu. If you cannot speak, you can still use gestures and Google Translate. If you cannot read the menu and the waiter/waitress speak no English, you’re well and truly screwed.
    One thing I loved though was their pocket wifi, although it is not something exclusively Tokyo. Super high speed and it works at high speed (I was traveling from Tokyo to Fukushima on the bullet train and the pocket wifi remains connected with no problems), and unlimited data. It was my single best friend for the entire week because free wifi in Tokyo is either scarce or non-existent.

  7. Oct 24, 2014 / 10:10 pm

    Hi Anna! Realyl interesting to read about your thoughts on Tokyo. It’s up there near the top of the places that I want to visit, but I haven’t made it yet because there so many cheaper places I can visit for longer instead of a short trip there. Hmmmm… certainly gets me thinking. The sushi thing is disappointing, it’s on my bucket list to eat sushi there!

    • Oct 25, 2014 / 12:15 am

      I think you still need to try the sushi there… disappointing or not it’s like saying you’ve been to Paris, but didn’t see Eiffel Tower 😉

  8. Feb 9, 2015 / 5:30 am

    You really need a Pasmo card to use the metro system in Tokyo. No one buys metro tickets to transfer around Tokyo lol!! I’m really not sure why they even sell tickets, but tourists still buy them. But yea, I can imagine that being a real pain in the ass. It only costs like 500 yen for a Pasmo card and you just charge it with money on it and swipe it every time you enter and exit. I’ve lived here for several years and find the system quite efficient.

    As far as the trash bins, that’s not really a reflection of their lack of modernity. It’s because of some lame policy implemented after a terrorist tried to use trash cans to carry out an attack. (Typical Japanese governmental policy reaction.) If you travel the rest of Japan, you’ll find trash cans. Oh, it’s not fair. I have a dog to walk!!!

    As far as withdrawing money, yes, we can’t use foreign bank cards in Japanese banks. That’s kinda understandable. That said, 711s are quite reputable over here, after all it’s not America! Japan is an amazing country and a lot of the problems you deal with in America just don’t exist over here. As you noted, safety for one. BUT, you can also withdraw money from JP Post Offices which are everywhere and they do accept foreign cards. They usually offer a better exchange rate too, fyi in case you come back :).

    If you ever visit Japan again, check out my website http://www.thepassportlifestyle.com and you’ll find a lot of tips and guides that I’m working on for Japan and Tokyo. Cheers!

  9. HH
    Apr 20, 2015 / 1:59 am

    You came to Tokyo expecting to see Mt. Fuji together with cherry blossoms, without planning for either one of those, is like me coming to San Francisco demanding to see Lake Tahoe. I’m quite shocked this is coming from someone who’s been traveling extensively. But I can already tell when you said you’re surprised Tokyo is safe. Any prior research about Japan (that would have taken about 30 minutes) would have informed you how safe Japan is. That is not too say one shouldn’t be careful in Japan – bad things happen anywhere; it just makes the points that you raised rather comical and unnecessary.
    Maybe you don’t plan ahead when you travel and that’s none of my business to say how you should travel, but as a blog that tries to be informative, I’d like to think you can say more useful things than “Don’t show up anywhere in Japan at any time of the year expecting to see Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms at the same time”. Again, like me showing up in DC in September demanding to see Blue Ridge Mountain with beautiful fall foliage.

  10. Apr 24, 2015 / 3:34 am

    Hey Anna!

    It’s really nice to hear that another Anna have been in Tokyo and have been enyoing it ^^ But I was kinda surprised, that such experienced traveler, as You, is disappointed when country doens’t match stereotypes… C’mon, there are dozens of typical food here, not only sushi ! Please try tempura, soba, ramen, takoyaki, shabushabu, sukiyaki, okonomiyaki, wagashi, wagyu (and much more) next time 🙂 During spring, even if sakura season is over, You can enjoy many different flowers (like azalea or wisteria), sorrounding Fuji-san. Yaezakura (layered sakura, with many fluffy petals) is also blooming now 🙂
    Metro is not that scary if You buy electronical ticket (available in every ticket machine). And You can use ATMs in konbini or post offices. City Bank is also accepting foregin cards. It’s really safe.
    Anyway, have fun during Your next trip, wherever You will go! And please visit Japan onse again one day- to experience other aspects of this amazing country 🙂

    xoxo from Polish Tokyo Universityu of The Arts student /Chiba ken/ 🙂

    • Apr 24, 2015 / 4:26 pm

      Hi Anna! I think a lot of people took my post like a bunch of complains and it wasn’t my intention – I enjoyed my time in Tokyo. I wanted to show some people who had these stereotypes in mind that it’s not exactly like they imagines. I found out about these metro cards later, which actualy surprised me even more that two expat girls I was hanging otu with had no idea about it 0_o I definitely want to see more of Japan!

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