Everything I Wish I Knew Before I Went to Tokyo
11 unexpected lessons in accidentally looking like an idiot.
For my first trip to Tokyo, I felt like I’d been training for at least a decade. Under the tutelage of my mother-in-law and wife -- a Japan native, and a woman who will not tolerate public embarrassment, respectively -- I felt fully prepared to navigate twisting alleys and food stalls. I knew all about the robot toilets and four different ways to say thank you. My bows were on point. My ramen etiquette was strong.
But here's the thing: When you immerse yourself in somebody else's culture, even the most studious traveler will miss something -- a social cue that goes over your head, a tradition that Fodor's skipped over because it feels like common sense. Then -- BAM -- you're drawing death glares from old women because you're tying your shoes in the wrong place.
Tokyo rewards curiosity and provides a new source of awe around every corner. But it can catch you off guard. From the minute I was greeted by a security robot en route to the bright-pink customs counter, I knew that all my tutelage wasn't going to cover everything. Here are the mistakes I made in Tokyo, so that you don’t have to.
Don't just hand people money to purchase things
Cash is king in Tokyo, but that doesn't mean you'll be doing a lot of hand-to-hand exchanges. Cash is typically exchanged by putting your money on a plastic tray and handing that to a cashier.
Awake for 27 hours straight, my first stop after the airport was a brightly lit 24/7 grocery store. I grabbed some basics -- rice balls, cold fried chicken, mystery chips, and a fancy beer -- and approached the register. The woman rang me up. I smiled stupidly and held out my money. She looked down at the little tray. I smiled bigger and started mumbling incoherently. Finally she pointed to the money, then the tray. It clicked! Nobody here wanted to touch my grubby money. In hindsight, it probably helped prepare me for the post-COVID world of commerce on the horizon.
Your pocket or purse will become a trash landfill
Tokyo seems to operate on a "leave no trace" philosophy usually reserved for pack-it-in/pack-it-out campers. It’s the cleanest megalopolis I've ever experienced, yet finding a trash can is like hunting for a unicorn. If you're very lucky, you'll find one outside a subway stop. But probably not.
So if you purchase a can of hot coffee from one of the many vending machines throughout the city, expect it to be your travel buddy for a while. Make like the locals and carry a little plastic bag so you don't end up with a landfill's worth of wrappers, bottles, cans, and skewers in your pocket.
No eating on the run
My checklist for Tokyo looked like a grocery list. Sushi. Okonomiyaki. Takoyaki. Yakitori. Wagyu beef. Kobe beef. Katsu. Karaage. Melon pan. Curry pan. Gyoza. Ramen. Shabu shabu. Repeat. Then repeat again. I planned to do a lot of eating on the go, jaunting down alleys with a croquette in one hand and an onigiri ball in the other.
That went out the window the minute I grabbed a to-go sandwich and bit into it while walking, only to have somebody tap me on the shoulder and point to a sign that said "no eating beyond this point." Then I noticed a group of sandwich-munching commuters leaned against the wall right next to the restaurant. Eating on the go is frowned upon, and eating in front of other businesses is a definite no no. That makes sense, too. With 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo metro, you can't really have everybody running with noodles hanging out of their mouths.
Prepare to rethink 7-Eleven
There are more 7-Elevens in Tokyo than there are trash cans. OK, that's not saying much, considering. But there are a lot of 7-Elevens. Much has been made of Japan's konbini culture, and it's not uncommon to see a 7-Eleven next door to a Lawson's or a FamilyMart that sells similar shit. But 7-Eleven is also a hot spot for international ATMs, currency exchanges, and more. You're going to end up in one. And when you do, you're going to want to eat.
The cuisine of American 7-Eleven is comprised of rotating hot dogs, neon cheese, and bad pizza. In Tokyo, it will blow your mind... not just because it's palatable, but because sometimes it's great. Karaage chicken is fried fresh. Onigiri balls come in all flavors. Katsu sandos are crispy and superlative. There are buns and noodles for days. The typical 7-Eleven here is like a good Japanese buffet in the states. And yes, they even have seating. Because, again, no eating on the run.
You're going to spend a LOT of time in malls
I hate malls. So when my wife announced that, due to a torrential downpour, we'd spend the day at the DiverCity mall, with deep existential dread I pictured the Japanese equivalent of the Gap, loitering teenagers, and feasting on the finest Auntie Anne's Tokyo could muster.
When we were greeted by the booming voice of a three-story Unicorn Gundam robot outside, things began looking up. And when the doors opened to a sprawling food court stacked with curry shops, ramen stalls, and incredible fried chicken, I was sold. The third floor had a Gundam museum next to an arcade that contained a trampoline park, mini-bike track, pool hall, and comic book lounge. Several virtual reality experiences. A full museum dedicated to unco (poop… Japan likes making weird things cute, best to just go with it)
The next day, more rain and another mall, this time the famous Sunshine City. There’s a massive aquarium en route to Namjatown, best described as a full replica of an Edo-period Japanese city, but for kids… complete with augmented reality, a creepy-ass haunted village, and a dumpling-centric food court. On the floor below, a boy band called Colon -- Colon! -- greeted screaming fans. I felt like I was on acid. I wasn't. It was great.
Watch where you put your feet
Most travelers know that if you're eating at a tatami-mat restaurant, those shoes are coming off, and that you wear slippers in hotels and homes. But it runs deeper than that. I wasn't surprised when my 4-year-old drew glares sharp enough to cut sashimi when she pulled her legs up onto the bench at a sushi restaurant. But lest you think you're better than a preschooler, rest assured you're going to slip up. Maybe you'll cross your legs and find your foot resting on a bus seat, or you'll put your foot up on a bench to tie your shoe. You will be noticed. And you will be scolded to put your foot back on the ground. Sharply.
Punctuality is everything
In Japan, being on time means being a little early. Being late means you're a monster. It's taken so seriously that subway trains broadcast profuse apologies when they're more than a minute late. So if you have a reservation, be early.
Sometimes, the clock works both ways: hitting an all-in shabu shabu dinner or an experiential cafe has a definite beginning and an end, and going over time will result in penalties both social and monetary. Make sure you know whether you're on the clock if you plan to linger or you might be paying a premium.
Tokyo subway stations are basically underground cities
If somebody told you to spend the entire night eating and drinking in a New York subway station, you might reasonably think they're a rat-controlled robot. In Tokyo, though, stations like Shibuya and Tokyo are basically underground cities humming with life. You'll find department stores, travel agencies, pizza joints, souvenir shops, karaoke bars, candy stands, museums, pharmacies, cartoon-themed corridors, hazy izakayas, and world-famous Michelin-starred restaurants.
Many of these stations are straight-up opulent. Don't be surprised to see chandeliers hanging above your head, or to be tempted by the scent of the world's best curry pan as you round the corner to make a connection.
The trains are eerily silent
Millions and millions of people use the subway daily. At rush hour, you will be packed into a car so tightly that New York's R line will feel like an Amtrak sleeping car. You might get prodded into place with a stick. But nothing will prepare American riders for the eerie silence that is a packed subway car in Tokyo.
Headphones are inaudible. Conversations are had in whispers, if at all. Eye contact is avoided. Food from the subways station goes uneaten. Everyone -- from little kids who definitely don't have their shoes on the bench to the wobbly businessmen who no-doubt just made a nine-figure deal over nine highballs in a subway izakaya -- is silent. Follow suit. If you talk loudly, you'll be greeted with a thousand stares.
You are going to feel very out of place (so embrace it)
My wife told me that when her English father visited Japan, people would stop and take photos of him. While non-Japanese visitors here don't draw the paparazzi like they used to, if you're not of Japanese descent, you're going to stick out. Just roll with it.
Tokyo's a buzzing metropolis, but Japan is also a very, very homogenous country. The ethnic breakdown is 98% Japanese. While Tokyo's got diversity (and DiverCity!), it makes Portland, Oregon look like a model U.N. Sometimes, that results in awkward stares. Sometimes it's heartwarming, as when school kids engage with you in order to practice their English.
In most big cities, sticking out makes you a target. And while Tokyo definitely has its grifters, it's also a city where you can almost always depend on the kindness of strangers. Toward the end of the visit, I realized my difference meant people were eager to help me. I'd be asked if I needed help finding things in stores, or walked through subway stations if somebody observed me looking at a map.
Tipping isn't a thing. But seating fees are.
Good service is just expected in Japan, so don't feel the need to tip. But there will be times when a place will sneak in a little extra fee. Don't question it like I did.
Toward the end of the trip, I was feeling confident and a little assimilated. So when I entered infamous Piss Alley -- a must-visit cluster of tiny bars, smoky yakitori restaurants, and izakaya stacked atop one another in a series of tight, winding alleyways so named because of its preponderance of shady characters relieving themselves on the walls -- I was ready to ruckus. I plopped down at a random 8-seat bar and ordered skewers of pork belly, steak, and what I think was beef heart. I made sure not to drink my highball before somebody gave me a kanpai toast. And I ate the cold noodles/mayo/mystery meat appetizer that was handed to me politely and without explanation, thinking it was maybe a Piss Alley take on bar peanuts.
When I asked for the tab, I noticed an extra 500 yen item that didn't add up. Confused and emboldened by booze, I asked what was up, only to be told it was a table fee. That unasked-for-appetizer wasn't free -- it was the price of admission. I’d mistook a custom for a menu mistake. It was my last night, and I'd begun right where I started: Looking like a dopey American trying to play it cool. As it should be.