The Ultimate Guide to Tokyo (Part 1: Transportation)
The thought of planning a trip to Tokyo delivered a host of emotions from excitement to fear to feeling completely overwhelmed. One, I had never visited any country on the Asian continent. I must admit there was this fear of doing something wrong that would land me in jail. Extra, I know! Two, I had never been on a flight that long. This fact caused a lot of anxiety because I wasn't sure what to carry on the plane to ensure I was as comfortable and content as possible. And three, I was traveling to Tokyo for Christmas....Holy shit! I had never done Christmas out of the country. Let alone apart from family and friends. When I tell you I put myself through those emotions for nothing, I truly mean it.
So here's what you need to do - take a deep breath! I'm here to guide you through it. If you're planning a trip to Tokyo, Japan, here's everything you need to know.
For reference I flew out of Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) located in Newark, NJ. EWR offers to routes to get to Tokyo: Narita International Airport (NRT) and Haneda Airport (HND. Here's what's important to note (or rather the pros and cons if your airport offers these two options.
Narita International Airport (NRT)
Non-stop flight via United Airlines (approximately 14 hours)
Further from the Greater Tokyo Area
Cheaper flight fares
Non-stop flight options were not available (1+ stops)
Close to the Greater Tokyo Area
More expensive flight fares
I opted to fly into NRT simply because I prefer non-stop flights. I understood this meant that I would have more leg work once I landed, however, I've had bad experiences with connections - so I didn't want to risk it. Plus, when I've had connecting flights into Europe, I've had to go through a customs check point of sorts in between flights. No, thank you.
With that said, I flew ERW to NRT via United Airlines. Since the flight was longer, I decided to pay a more for Economy Plus seating. To prepare for the flight, I made sure to properly pack my personal sized bag (I also carried on my bag). Inside my personal bag I packed the following:
Hot Food / Snacks
iPad (downloaded movies/shows from Netflix )
Toiletries (deodorant, lotion, wipes, soap, small hand towel)
Cleaning Supplies (sanitizer, disinfectant wipes)
These things definitely made the flight more enjoyable for me. Although, not all of it was needed as the airline provided more amenities since it was a long international flight like:
Dinner, Breakfast, Snack
Complimentary Beer & Wine (of course water & soft drinks)
For me, it's about preference. Using my own blanket and pillow made me feel more comfortable, but was not necessary. Also, did y'all catch beer and wine were complimentary? On long-haul, international flights to/from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the South Pacific, and select destinations in Latin America, United offers these services. This includes Basic Economy fares.
Lastly, I used my United points to purchase Wi-Fi. I don't have a credit card with United. These points were from signing up for Mileage Plus enrollment. Each time I book a flight, I get points.
The airport was easy to navigate. We filled out the required paperwork (standard if you've traveled internationally). Now, I did get selected for a "random search" before exiting customs, but it only took five minutes. I'm pretty sure they were looking for drugs, but all I had were snacks on snacks on snacks!
Once I exited customs, I walked over to the ATMs and withdrew funds. I withdrew the amount I thought I would need for the entire trip, which wasn't a lot. I prefer to use my credit card (without foreign transaction fees) when traveling. I'll explain this in detail on another post. Please note, the currency exchange booths only accept cash at the airport. This why the ATMs are key.
TRANSPORTATION FROM AIRPORT TO HOTEL
I previously stated that I knew it would take me more leg work to get to my hotel from NRT. It was more important for me to make it to the country without delay. This meant figuring out a viable option to get to my hotel was worth it to me. Not to worry! There are multiple transport options to get to the Greater Tokyo Area. Here are the options I considered before finally booking my selection.
I won't get into the specific details of all of the options. For a full run down on transport options, visit here. This article provides a comprehensive list of options from buses to taxis to helicopter rides to trains. However, I will share why I ultimately chose the Airport Limousine instead of the Narita Airport Shuttle Bus or Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass).
In all honesty, I chose the Airport Limousine Bus for three reasons:
It was convenient.
It was cheap. Not the cheapest option though.
The buses "run" to hotels all over Tokyo, which mean I didn't have to navigate the trains. More on this below.
I didn't book the bus tickets in advance. Although, I should have (and really wanted to) to get the discount for booking in advance. However, the language on their website didn't seem clear to me at the time. I partially feel the language wasn't clear because I was planning and navigating so much "newness" and couldn't process it enough to reach a sound decision. For this reason, I waited until I exited customs to purchase my roundtrip ticket. You can't miss the kiosk. The buses depart from the airport frequently.
Now that I'm experienced, I would probably opt to take the train. The commute from NRT to the Greater Tokyo area can be approximately 20 minutes to 2+ hours depending on your form of transportation. Since there was tons of traffic, my commute ended up being around 2 hours. After using the free Wi-Fi to let my loved ones know I arrived, I ended up sleeping most of the trip. The bus dropped me off two blocks from my hotel, which was an easy walk from the "terminal".
Pro Tip: It may be more difficult to get transport from the airport to the Greater Tokyo area if your flight arrives late night. For example, it seemed the buses stopped running around midnight and startup again early morning, depending on the bus company. It is my understanding that there are stipulations for residents to purchase a N'EX train pass at the airpot and the JR Pass is only available to foreign passport holders.
Important: The JR Pass can be purchased in advance of your trip via their website. Once your order is confirmed, your pass can either be delivered to your home or to your temporary residence in Japan. After you arrive to Tokyo, your voucher needs to be exchanged for the actual rail pass. Read more here. If you choose this option, you need to plan accordingly. Why?:
If you opt to use the JR Pass to get from the airport to the Greater Tokyo Area, you'll need the pass to be delivered to your home.
More importantly, whether you use it for transport from the airport or not, you'll still need to ensure it arrives to your home or temporary residence in Japan in time for you to use it during your trip.
GETTING AROUND TOKYO
My hotel was in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. I intentionally chose to stay in this area because it's super safe and has an active nightlife. The Shinjuku ward is similar to Times Square. Boasting nightclubs, karaoke, pubs, and tons of food options. Many of the businesses do not open until the late afternoon and close around dawn. Plus, a lot of the attractions were walkable from this ward. Remember when I told y'all, I didn't want to navigate the trains? Push this far from your memory! I'd heard the trains were quite challenging to navigate. For this reason, I tried to opt out before even giving myself or the train a chance. Needless to say, I used my feet to get around (at first). In my opinion Tokyo was a very walkable city and brought several pairs of tennis shoes and comfortable boots.
I eventually bossed up...I'm lying! One of the activities I wanted to do was too far to walk. I had to quickly retract my decision to not learn the trains system. Take another breath - You'll be fine! If you've managed a train system in any major city, you can navigate Tokyo's train system. I think the people who shared how challenging it would be got caught up on not knowing the language. Once you get passed the fact that you don't know the language, employ some common sense. Simply put - match colors to letters/symbols. I ended up purchasing a regular day pass. Next time, I would explore multi-day pass options.
Pro Tip: Taxis can be quite pricey. I didn't take not a one taxi during my visit. For this reason, if you're not interested in walking, learning the train system seems like the next best option.
In part 2 of this guide, I will share my itinerary. This will be especially important if your trip is short. Or you want a plan of action that is time efficient. For this trip, I used a new layout (to me) to organize my days that helped me reclaim my time.
Ready?! Read part 2 here.