It's not surprising that Tokyo is high on many people’s list of places to visit. This great world city has a well earned reputation for its neon lights, great food, safety record…
…and a reputation for a sushi trainload full of complete nonsense. Tokyo’s relative distance, the language barrier and the heady mix of modern and traditional sets Japan’s capital up as an enigma to tourists. Some misconceptions are understandable, others are downright bizarre. For example:
5. Mt. Fuji is Really Close to Tokyo!
Every time I see a picture of the Tokyo skyline, Mount Fuji is there, peeking over a ridge of mountains like a nosy neighbor spying over the fence. It looks so close, doesn't it? You could lay some of those Tokyo skyscrapers flat and they'd touch the foot of the mountain, it’s that close! I mean, look at this photo:
Except...it isn’t. Not even close. All those photos you see of Mount Fuji looming over Tokyo are either taken from far away and zoomed in, flattening the horizon to create the illusion that Mount Fuji is much closer than it really is. Or the photo is straight up photoshopped to make Tokyo look as though it is literally on the slopes of the great volcano!
In reality, though, it’s 150 km from Tokyo to Mount Fuji. That's the distance from New York to Philadelphia, or Central London to Swindon. Oh, and there's a whole ridge of mountains in between them too. This photo gives you a more honest view:
Why the dishonesty in the photos? More on this in a moment...
4. I Need a Week in Tokyo to See it All!
Hold your horses! What is it you're hoping to see in Tokyo? Shrines? Temples? Just general touristy places? If so, I've got bad news for you: Tokyo ain't got much to offer.
Now don't get me wrong, Tokyo has an almost endless list of things to do as places to go - all world cities do. This website right here gives a wealth of Tokyo advice and it's still but the tip of the iceberg. But if you're a tourist and you plan to see the most important sights, you can do it all in a comfortable two or three days. You're honestly better served giving Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for a thousand years, more of your time.
I think this is why photos of Tokyo pull Mount Fuji in close - Tokyo lacks a defining landmark of its own (the nearest thing to this is Tokyo Tower, a replica of the Eiffel Tower).
If you're in Tokyo for a week or more, don't fret - you'll still have a great time and won't ever be bored! You'll be able to visit some of the less obvious places, shop ‘til you drop and take some day trips out of the capital. Even after all these years and endless visits to Tokyo I still find new points of interest. Tokyo may seem like a small pond but it's depths are unfathomably deep.
3. Where’s the Main Part of Tokyo?
Understandably, when tourists first arrive in Tokyo, they want to head ‘downtown’: to the heart of the city where most sights are clustered.
Except, if you were to look at a map of Tokyo, you'd see that the ‘heart’ of Tokyo is a green one: the verdant fields of The Emperor’s Palace, the inner grounds of which is off limits. Not downtown at all. What gives?
Well, Tokyo isn't like any any other city with a clearly defined center from which everything else radiates. It is more like several mini-cities all connected together like beads on a necklace by the circular Yamanote line. People will differ on which are the main neighborhoods, but in my opinion they are: Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Ueno, Akihabara and finally Tokyo itself.
Each neighborhood has its own charm and personality, and while some are bigger and busier than others it all depends on what you're looking for. If you're looking for electronics and pop-culture, head for Akihabara. If you’re here for nightlife, Shibuya is your best bet. In most cases the best way to enjoy the area is to simply pick a direction and walk.
2. Tokyo is Endless Urban Sprawl
Do an image search for Tokyo and every single photo is urban. Pictures from the sky show a city stretching as far as the eye can see. And sure, Tokyo is one of the most built-up, overwhelmingly urban cities on Earth. But to say Tokyo is nothing but concrete and tarmac is to sell Tokyo short, and I'm not just talking about public parks.
Want to be surprised? Go to Shinjuku (the busiest train station in the world) and get on the Chuo Rapid line towards Takao. After 40 minutes you'll be in the mountains.
Mt. Takao. 40 minutes from Shinjuku
Yep, mountains. You're at the foot of Takao-San, one of Japan’s most important peaks and the gateway to a whole ridge of other mountains. And while you're climbing the muddied track, enjoying the birdsong and seeing nothing but nature in every direction, take a moment to remind yourself that you're still in Tokyo.
Confused? This all stems from a misunderstanding of what Tokyo is. When most people say ‘Tokyo’ they are referring to the 23 Special Wards of Tokyo, districts clustered around Tokyo Bay that form the urban heart of the city. But Tokyo as a Prefecture (known as Tokyo-to) stretches much farther west, into the countryside and ultimately into the mountains. So when you're in Tokyo city and fancy a change of pace, you could be in the wilderness within an hour. Plus you get to enjoy the perplexed look on your friend’s faces as you tell them how you were shopping in Shinjuku then mountain climbing an hour later!
1. Tokyo is Extremely Expensive
A classic, this one. Japan has long held a reputation for being an expensive destination, and as the capital Tokyo must be the zenith of bank-balance-breaking bills.
But it isn't. No more than any other major city, and in many respects it's cheaper.
This image of high-price Tokyo stems from the days of the bubble era, when the Japanese economy was in overdrive and it was indeed a pricey destination. But since the bubble burst in the early 90s, the economy has been pretty sluggish ever since. While that is generally bad news for the locals, the silver lining is that prices for goods and services have barely changed for the last quarter-century. The manufacturers of the much loved popsicle ‘Gari Gari Kun’ changed their prices from 60 yen to 70 yen last year (an increase of about 10 cents), their first price hike in 25 years. A video of the company staff bowing in apology to the camera made national news.
Can you rack up eye-watering bills in Japan? Sure, if you’re eating at fancy gourmet restaurants every night. But for most people eating out will usually come to ¥1,000 ($10) for lunch and ¥2,000 to ¥3,000 ($30) for an evening with food and drinks. This is for good food, mind: you can go even cheaper with budget options. Eating in is cheaper still.
Train travel is also very reasonable. If you’re sticking to the Tokyo Metropolitan area a single train journey will cost from ¥100 to ¥200 ($1 to $2), or you can get an all day metro pass for ¥600. Compare this to London where a day travelcard is, at the time of writing, £12.30 (over $15), or New York which doesn’t even have a day pass ($6 would get you only two single journeys). Not only is the image of Tokyo as an expensive place false, the opposite is true: Tokyo should have the image of the good value world city!
Tokyo is a wonderful place, and you can never go wrong no matter what you’re doing here. But there is more than meets the eye, and any assumption you may have about the capital in Japan can be false (or true and false at the same time). That’s all part of what makes it so great!