Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident’s Guide to Japan’s Sprawling Capital
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Ride the Trains Like a Tokyoite
Tokyo's train system can seem daunting to first-time visitors, with a tangled web of JR lines, 13 subway lines, and various private railways crisscrossing the metropolis. However, riding the trains is an integral part of life in Tokyo, and learning to navigate them like a local will enrich your experience of the city.
The first step is getting a Suica or Pasmo card, reloadable IC cards that can be used on all of Tokyo's rail systems and provide discounts over paper tickets. Both can be purchased at any station. Load the card with enough yen to cover your journeys, then simply tap on and off at the ticket gates as you ride.
When possible, avoid rush hours between 7-9am and 5-7pm, when trains become extremely crowded. Schedules are posted at each platform, making it easy to identify express and local trains. For short trips within the Yamanote Loop, local trains are just fine. For longer journeys, take the express trains, which make limited stops.
Don't be afraid to ask for help reading signs or figuring out transfers. Station attendants are used to assisting overwhelmed visitors and most speak English. Downloading a Tokyo subway map on your phone is wise, as station signage is only in Japanese.
Observe common courtesy rules like letting passengers exit before you board, not talking loudly or eating on board, and giving up priority seats for the elderly, pregnant, or disabled. Locals are very polite on trains, with little chatter and not much eye contact. Blend in by following their lead.
While Tokyo's web of rail lines may seem challenging, think of it as a puzzle to unlock during your visit. By the end of your trip, you may find yourself effortlessly navigating from Asakusa to Shibuya, or cruising the Yamanote Loop like a true Tokyoite. Some tips for mastering Tokyo's rails:
- Get a prepaid IC card to make paying easy
- Avoid rush hours if possible
- Take express trains for long trips
- Don't hesitate to ask for help
- Download a map to your phone
- Mind your manners and follow local customs
- Approach it as a puzzle to solve over time
What else is in this post?
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Ride the Trains Like a Tokyoite
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Eat and Drink in Izakayas for an Authentic Experience
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Explore the Vibrant Neighborhoods Outside the City Center
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - See a Sumo Match or Kabuki Theater Performance
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Shop at the Massive Tsukiji Fish Market
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Relax in a Historic Sento Public Bathhouse
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Wander Through the Surreal Robot Restaurant
- Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Experience the Nightlife in Shinjuku and Shibuya
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Eat and Drink in Izakayas for an Authentic Experience
For an authentic dining experience in Tokyo, head to an izakaya - a type of informal Japanese gastropub. Izakayas offer a warm, lively atmosphere perfect for trying Japanese comfort foods alongside locals while sipping on sake, beer, or whisky.
Far from the hushed tones of high-end sushi counters, izakayas encourage conviviality among patrons through their bustling shared tables and counters. Servers circulate continuously, making recommendations and refilling drinks. The menus focus on pub grub classics like yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and tempura, as well as small plates called otsumami meant for snacking alongside drinks.
Izakaya menus often consist entirely of pictures, so don't be shy about pointing to dishes that look tempting. Adventurous eaters can simply say "omakase" (I'll leave it to you) to indicate the chef should choose. This is a great way to try authentic specialties you might otherwise miss. The atmosphere is casual, so feel free to chat with fellow diners or staff.
For an intensely local experience, Rokurinsha in bustling Shibuya has patrons competing for counter seats while cooks grill succulent tare-glazed yakitori just inches away. Under swirling paper lamps in Asakusa, Jyuma Kappou Raku serves delicate tempura alongside craft beer and playfully decorated cocktails. And in upscale Ginza, Suehiro specializes in seafood delicacies from sweet shrimp to sea urchin, accompanied by premium sake.
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Explore the Vibrant Neighborhoods Outside the City Center
Beyond the flashing neon of Shibuya and Shinjuku, Tokyo teems with distinct neighborhoods offering glimpses of daily life. Venturing into these vibrant outer districts provides opportunities to experience Tokyo's diversity. Riding local trains and wandering lesser-known alleys feels worlds apart from the well-trodden city center. Discover intimate shops, hidden shrines, eclectic architecture, and a slower pace in Tokyo's outer neighborhoods.
Kichijoji, just a 15-minute train ride west of Shinjuku, mixes modern vibrancy with a nostalgic atmosphere. Sunny days draw locals to Inokashira Park to row boats on the pond or picnic under the cherry blossoms. Browse the narrow harmonic arcades off the main street to discover tiny cafes, craft shops, and cozy izakayas that retain a small-town charm. Don't miss the Ghibli-themed Ghibli Clock, a whimsical landmark installed in 2017.
Further west, Nakano’s Akihabara-esque culture beckons anime fans and electronics enthusiasts. Below the train tracks, the shopping arcade houses specialty shops selling model trains, vintage cameras, anime figures and retro video games. Nearby, Nakano Broadway delights with floors of toy stores, manga dealers, idol merchandise, and maid cafes. Animate, Japan’s largest retailer of anime goods, began here.
For serenity, head northeast to tranquil Yanaka. One of Tokyo’s few areas spared from wartime bombing, it retains an old city ambience. Weaving lanes lined with machiya merchant houses lead to art galleries and specialty craft shops. Over 100 temples and shrines are sprinkled throughout this district, including the imposing Sally Forth Toyokawa Inari Shrine. With history around every corner, Yanaka feels wonderfully stuck in time.
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - See a Sumo Match or Kabuki Theater Performance
For an only-in-Japan experience, catch a sumo wrestling match or kabuki theater performance on your Tokyo trip. These traditional spectacles offer thrilling entertainment paired with cultural immersion. Delve into two quintessentially Japanese pastimes as an active audience member, not just a passive observer.
Sumo originated in Shinto ritual over 1,500 years ago and today persists as Japan's national sport. Six 15-day tournaments are held annually in the country, including three at Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. Arrive early to wander the venue stalls selling bento boxes, match programs, and wrestler dolls. Soon the arena fills with salarymen in suits, families with bento spreads, and dedicated fans hoisting banners to support their favored grappler.
As an ancient drum beats, the wrestlers stride into the ring during the ceremonial dohyo-iri procession, wearing only loincloths under ornate aprons. The referee oversees purified salt tosses and other Shinto rituals before each bout begins. Then it's time for explosive action as the titanic athletes crash together with astonishing force. Fans roar and react intensely to each twisting turn and thunderous crash, living every moment. Even seated far back, the visceral energy pulsates.
Kabuki also offers intense audience engagement, though the spectacle unfolds via elaborately costumed performers in stylized poses accompanied by the shamisen lute, taiko drums, and vocalized cries. Though kabuki's roots reach back to 1603, today's productions feature state-of-the-art revolving stages, trap doors, and dramatic reveals at venues like the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza.
Arrive early at kabuki shows as well, to snag bento dinners and browse souvenir shops before the curtain rises. Follow along with handy earpieces offering English narration on the plot and characterization, as traditional kabuki is not easily comprehensible for first-timers. Loyal fans cheer for favorite actors playing heroic roles in dramatic retellings of history and myth.
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Shop at the Massive Tsukiji Fish Market
The cacophonous cries of fishmongers and the intoxicating scent of the sea draw visitors by the thousands each day to Tokyo’s iconic Tsukiji Market. This sprawling complex on the Sumida River has operated as Japan’s premier fish market for over 80 years, though fish have been traded on this same site for centuries. Wandering Tsukiji’s warren of stalls offers a visceral plunge into Japanese food culture and the frenzied machinery powering one of the world’s largest seafood economies.
Arrive by 5am to catch the famous tuna auction, where Tokyo’s top chefs bid on glistening huge tuna and other coveted catches on display. However, even after the auctions finish around 10am, meandering through Tsukiji remains a feast for the senses. The inner market’s crowded alleys teem with turret trucks whisking Styrofoam boxes between unloading docks and vendor stalls. Towering stacks of king crab legs, trays of squid and octopus, and every type of live exotic fish imaginable lie ready for the taking.
Tsukiji provides prime opportunities to sample outrageously fresh sushi and sashimi at the market’s numerous tiny restaurants and stalls. Belly up to a counter and let the food come flying at you, prepared just moments after leaving the sea. For breakfast, join the line at tiny Sushi Dai, which opens before 5am and draws marathon queues for its melt-in-your-mouth nigiri. Or slurp down steaming bowls of salty miso ramen at Yoshio while cooks shout orders in the open kitchen.
Beyond seafood, the market contains a staggering variety of Japanese staples. Pick up bamboo steamers and fine matcha in the kitchenwares area, or nab souvenir snacks like Tokyo Banana cakes or colorful dagashi candy and rice crackers. Mind-boggling arrays of mushrooms, exotic Asian vegetables, and mounds of green tea dazzle in the inner stalls. Grab a melon or traditional sweets wrapped elegantly in ornate packaging as unique food gifts.
Venture into the sprawling outer market surrounding Tsukiji proper to explore block after block of wholesale seafood distributors, produce warehouses, spice merchants, and countless shops catering to Tokyo’s restaurant industry. Ducking into tiny retail stores offers chances to interact with proprietors and glimpse traditional wares crafted on-site like hand-forged kitchen knives, woven bamboo baskets, or Japanese incense.
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Relax in a Historic Sento Public Bathhouse
After pounding the pavement exploring Tokyo's endless sights, do as locals do and soak your sore muscles at a traditional sento public bath. These communal bathhouses offer the quintessential Japanese spa experience, providing calming relaxation paired with cultural immersion. Sentos let you connect with everyday city life while unwinding from the day's adventures.
Stepping into the humid changing room, you'll receive a woven wicker basket and locker key from the attendant. Leave shoes in the cubbies and change into your bathing suit or provided shorts and t-shirt. Grab a wee towel and stool, then head through the swinging saloon doors into the steamy bathing area. Select a spout and mirror to wash thoroughly before entering the large communal bath.
As you ease into the steaming hot water, all your tension melts away. The bath fills with locals chatting after work, elders reading newspapers, and kids giggling as they splash about. Soak up the convivial yet peaceful atmosphere unique to Japan's bathhouse culture. Let your mind empty as your body relaxes utterly.
While modern sentos offer updated facilities, many retain vintage mid-century details like tile mosaics, stone lion heads spouting hot water, and wall sketches explaining bath etiquette. Seek out historic bathhouses like Shinjuku's Oedo Onsen Monogatari in a 1928 former dancehall, or the Art Deco Circus Sento crafted by famous architect Kengo Kuma, complete with its original 1951 mosaic ceiling.
For a luxurious sento experience, visit upscale oases like Ooedo-Onsen in Odaiba, complete with outdoor foot baths overlooking Tokyo Bay. Or try a super sento with additional sauna, massage and relaxation rooms. Sento are highly affordable, ranging from 300-1000 yen for all-day access, making them cheaper than even a cup of coffee.
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Wander Through the Surreal Robot Restaurant
Welcome to the Robot Restaurant in Kabukicho, Shinjuku - enter and abandon all preconceptions. This sensory overload experience delivers wild entertainment so bizarre that describing it inadequately does it no justice. You simply must see it yourself. Opened in 2012 by pioneering theatrical dining producer Enji Tanaka, it rapidly grew so popular that 90-minute shows now blast off every night. Critics call it overstimulating and absurd, but that's precisely the point. Joyful revelry and unchained creativity produce an atmosphere without parallel.
Visitors descend in droves to the Robot Restaurant's basement venue, ponying up the 7000 yen ticket fee to indulge this only-in-Tokyo phenomenon. Yet the word "restaurant" here is a complete misnomer, as no food is served during the spectacle. Instead, prepare for a short sharp dose of choreographed lunacy amped up with neon costumes, flashing lights, buzzing drones, explosions and heavy bass beats. Oh, and some robots. But importantly, none of it takes itself seriously. Smile, laugh, holler and clap amid the euphoric madness.
The show evolves in a quick series of vignettes, each completely unrelated to the last. Scantily-clad dancers gyrate inside giant mechanized skulls, waving feather fans as a psychedelic skull-topped vehicle rolls in blasting music. A young girl pilots a bus-sized crab mech while a red velvet dragon undulates. Outrageous costumes straight from anime populate the stage as performers dance, strike poses, or zoom overhead. Confetti cannons erupt, smoke bombs burst and glowing beach balls bounce over the audience in joyful pandemonium.
Somehow it all flows together hypnotically, if not totally coherently. Any shred of a plot remains mystifying, even with the available earpiece English narration. But the lack of logic merely accentuates the fantastical ambiance. LED lights strobe as dancers cavort with Day-Glo sea creatures and neon dinosaurs. Godzilla, ninjas, tanks and Transformers cameos further the pop culture pastiche. The sensory bombardment becomes almost psychedelic. Inhibitions lower amid the dance party energy until even shy visitors are whooping it up.
Tokyo Like a Local: A Resident's Guide to Japan's Sprawling Capital - Experience the Nightlife in Shinjuku and Shibuya
After the sun sets, Tokyo transforms into a neon wonderland humming with youthful energy. For first-time visitors eager to experience Tokyo after dark, the bustling nightlife districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya offer plenty to see and do into the wee hours. Wandering among the pulsing clubs, flashing signs, and hordes of fashionable locals lets you soak up the electric ambiance of urban Japan once the salarymen head home.
Within the gleaming forest of skyscrapers in Shinjuku, follow the pulsing crowds to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s largest and wildest red light district. You needn’t actually set foot inside the numerous hostess clubs and love hotels to feel the salacious vibe of this Neverland for adults. In nearby Golden Gai, discover over 200 tiny shanty-style bars crammed into a warren of alleys. Just pick one, slide back the wood door, and strike up a conversation with the gregarious owner. Buy a round to break the ice if your Japanese isn’t up for much small talk. If you meet kindred spirits, bar hop late into the night.
Shinjuku Ni-Chome offers an LGBT-friendly cluster of tiny watering holes, dance clubs and drag bars to explore. Stop by friendly neighborhood pub Aiiro Cafe for the lowdown on the scene from locals over a cold beer. Or shake it on the LED light-up dance floor at club arcH with a mix of club kids, drag queens, and salarymen.
For a wilder night out, make your way over to Shibuya’s main intersection, the iconic Shibuya Crossing. All around this epicenter of youth culture, Shibuya’s narrow streets resound with blaring music competing for attention. Follow your ears down Nonbei Yokocho alley’s row of hole-in-the-wall blue-lit bars barely large enough for a dozen patrons and the inevitable Shibuya street barkers shouting drink deals at passersby.
On Center-gai street, wallflowers can grab a beer from a convenience store then simply soak up the street party atmosphere overflowing from bar doorways. For EDM, Club Asia draws a mixed crowd of locals and foreigners dancing under swirling lights until first train at 5am. Just down the block, womb boasts a towering curved LED screen behind the DJ booth at this long-running Tokyo techno institution. Hip hop heads flock to Club Harlem in the shadow of the station for energetic rap battles and open mic nights.