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Even if you've spent lots of time in other big cities, there is no way to adequately prepare for Tokyo. The sprawling modern metropolis has a dizzying kaleidoscope of neon lights, pachinko parlors, karaoke palaces, standing sushi bars and basement noodle restaurants dotting its busy streets.
An Imperial City, Tokyo is home to the Imperial Family, ensconced most of the year in the Imperial Palace. But unless you're in the city on January 2 or December 23, forget about visiting. It's off-limits except for New Year's Greeting Day and the emperor's birthday. But you can visit the contemplative outer gardens that surround the palace.
Such quiet spots exist throughout the city. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are great spots to stop and think about all you've seen, but don't wonder too far afield. You'll hit a high-end and name-brand shop before you see the next peaceful oasis.
The Japanese take shopping very seriously, dedicating entire districts, like high-end Ginza and electronic-centric Akihabara, to it. And their malls aren't just places to buy things, you'll find some of the best restaurants, and at one -- Skytown at the foot of the 2,080-foot Skytree Tower -- you'll also find an aquarium and planetarium.
Tokyo is an amazingly easy city to get around. The massive train system covers nearly every inch of the city, and though few people speak English, they will do their best to help if you just ask.
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Tokyo has numerous izakayas, drinking establishments that also serve small bites with beer and sake. While craft beer and microbrews have caught on (as in most cosmopolitan areas worldwide), popular brands include Baird, Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo.
For those who have only sampled sake in an American sushi restaurant, the sheer variety of rice liquor in Japan can be overwhelming. Nigori, or unfiltered sake, is colored white instead of clear and has a sweeter taste than the clear sake that you've probably had in the U.S.
Choose from a large variety of iconic Japanese souvenirs, including painted paper fans, colorful kimonos and charms of various shapes and sizes to protect against evil, provide good health or success, or bring love.
Japanese is the official language of Tokyo, and though some people speak English, do not count on it.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The yen is the official currency of Japan; coins are available in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500, while bank notes come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen. For up-to-the-minute conversions, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Credit cards are widely accepted for payments. If you want to use cash, you'll need to exchange money at an official currency office, or withdraw cash from an ATM in a post office or at a 7-Eleven store. ATMs at Japanese banks do not accept foreign country ATM or debit cards.
Where You're Docked
Small cruise ships that can fit under the Rainbow Bridge dock at Harumi Passenger Ship Terminal on Harumi Island. The nearest train station, which is about a 30-minute walk away from the port, is the Kachidoki Station on the Toei Oedo subway line.
However, the vast majority of cruise ships dock at Osanbashi Pier in Yokohama approximately 15 miles southwest of Tokyo. The nearest train station is the Nihon-Odori station on the Minato Mirai line, about a 10-minute walk from the port.
Harumi Passenger Ship Terminal, Tokyo: The Tokyo port is in an isolated part of the city, about a 30-minute walk from the nearest train station. Your best bet is to take the 05 bus from the train station straight to the cruise terminal. Inside the terminal, you'll find vending machines with drinks and snacks; free Wi-Fi also is available.
Osanbashi Pier, Yokohama: The Yokohama pier is about a 40-minute train ride from central Tokyo, therefore some passengers choose to spend the night before the cruise in Yokohama. For those who do and have time to see a bit of Yokohama before embarking, there are a few attractions near the port. The closest is the Silk Museum, which displays the silk manufacturing process, as well as a variety of silk products. A little farther away, though still within walking distance, is the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History. It features exhibits on the lives of the Japanese people from ancient times to the present, as well as explores the relations between Japan and other countries. On sunny days, take a stroll at the nearby Yamashita Park, one of Japan's oldest seaside parks.
Within a five- to 10-minute walk of the port, you'll find a few shops and convenience stores.
By Rail: The best way to get around Tokyo, and surrounding suburbs like Yokohama, is the mass transit rail system, one of the most comprehensive in the world. It can be confusing, though, because there are several distinct rail companies operating within Tokyo.
The main three services: the color-coded JR East network and the Metro and Toei subway systems. There also are numerous private networks.
For tourists, the most important rail line is the JR Yamanote Line, which runs in a loop around central Tokyo. Many of the city's major sites are within this loop, and almost every other rail line, regardless of operator, intersects with a station along this route. Within the loop, in what is considered central Tokyo, the nine Metro lines and four Toei lines are your best bet for getting around. All signs (and announcements in touristy areas) are in Japanese and English.
Rail tickets must be purchased from automated vending machines, all of which offer English instructions. Fares are based on the distance you travel; one way to make traveling the rails a bit easier is to estimate how much money you think you'll be spending on the train and then purchase a prepaid fare card so you don't have to pay each time you get on the train. Try not to overload your card; you can't get back any unused money.
By Taxi: Taxis are not your least expensive option for getting around Tokyo; fares are high and congestion can be a problem. But there are some 50,000 taxis in Tokyo, which can be picked up at taxi stations at most train stations or flagged down by raising your hand when you see a vacant car (look for the lighted lamp on the top of the car). Not all taxis accept credit cards.
Watch Out For
Very few people in Tokyo speak English, so it's important to always have a map that has both Japanese and English on it. That way, if you get lost you can point to where you want to go to get, at the very least, basic directions.
Tokyo is an intriguing mix of ancient, modern and futuristic. In a single day, you can go from the serenity of the temples of Asakusa to the glitzy name-brand shops of Ginza.
Senso-ji, located in the Asakusa district of Taito, is one of Tokyo's most important -- and popular -- Buddhist temples. Though the actual buildings, including the impressive Thunder Gate and a lovely five-story pagoda, have been rebuilt many times, Senso-ji originally dates to 645 A.D., making it the oldest temple in Tokyo. Within the temple you'll find omikuji stalls, where you can pick up a clue to your future written on scraps of paper or consult an oracle for answers to questions. After you've visited the temple, make sure you wander the nearby streets dotted with souvenir shops selling everything under the sun and eateries serving noodles, sushi and tempura. (Open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
Dedicated to the deified spirit of Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of modern Japan, Meiji Shrine, (sunrise to sunset daily) is another of Tokyo's most visited shrines. Located right near the busy Harajuku train station, the shrine and next door Yoyogi Park are nevertheless peaceful respites with walking paths meandering through a quiet forest. At the northern end of the shrine grounds is the Meiji Jingu Treasure House (9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily), which is home to a collection of personal items that once belonged to the emperor and his empress. On the southern grounds of the shrine is the Inner Garden (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.). This for-fee space is especially popular in early summer when the irises are in bloom.
Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing, famously seen on the big screen in "Lost in Translation," is a bit like Times Square on steroids. Located outside Shibuya train station, the crossing is always packed (and we do mean packed!) with shoppers and commuters, and when the lights turn red, everyone one of them steps out onto the street to cross, a veritable surge of humanity.
One of the world's most upscale neighborhoods, Ginza is the place to go for high-end shopping in Tokyo, as well as some of the city's best restaurants. You'll find every luxury brand represented, including Chanel, Dior and Gucci. It's also where you'll find a $10 cup of coffee, so make sure to check the price of everything before making a purchase.
Still have energy after a full day of touring? How about taking in a bit of Japanese evening entertainment? You've got lots of choices, but two of the most iconic are a sumo wrestling match or kabuki theater show. For sumo, you'll head to the Ryogoku district and the 10,000-seat Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall. Fifteen-day Sumo tournaments are held three times a year: in January, May and September.
Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama performance best known for the elaborate makeup worn by performers. Kabuki is performed in multiple acts and can take up to four hours, but visitors may opt to purchase single-act tickets for a taste of the art form. Be sure to rent translation headsets to understand what's happening on stage. Kabuki-za in Ginza is the main kabuki theater in Tokyo, offering a variety of kabuki shows year-round.
Been There, Done That
Sushi lovers who want to see where all the fish comes from should head to Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Though the inner sanctum, where most of the fish auctions take place, is closed to the public, you can apply for a viewer spot at the tuna auction. You've got to get up bright and early, though. On busy days, visitors start lining up at the Osakana Fukyu Center before 5 a.m. -- it's first come, first served up to 120 people per day. If you don't get into the tuna auction, you can still visit Tsukiji's outer market, which consists of fresh seafood shops and sushi restaurants. Top off your visit with a sushi breakfast at a restaurant outside the market -- the fish is freshest in the morning!
To put all the sightseeing you've been doing into perspective, spend half a day at the Edo-Tokyo Museum,, which traces the city's history from its early days of Edo to its transformation into modern day Tokyo. With lots of models and displays, as well as a few interactive exhibits, the museum is a great place to learn about the city.
On a sunny day, the best place to go for a view is Skytree Tower. The 2,080-foot tower is the tallest building in Japan. When you're done, spend time exploring Skytree Town, with its eight floors of shopping and dining, as well as a full-fledged aquarium and planetarium.
If you've got an extra day of free time and the weather is clear, consider heading out of town for a visit to Mount Fuji. The highest mountain in Japan and one of the best-known symbols of the country, snow-capped Mount Fuji is about 60 miles away from Tokyo. Numerous operators offer day tours, which typically include a bus ride about halfway up the mountain to the 5th Station and may also feature a lake cruise on nearby Lake Ashi.
Like any other major metropolitan city, Tokyo offers a vast assortment of restaurants and cuisines. With that said, when in Tokyo, do as the Japanese do and indulge in sushi, dumplings and noodles at least once.
In the Mood for Sushi: The tiny Sushiryori Inose isn't the easiest restaurant to find, but it's got some of the best sushi in Tokyo. The elderly couple who runs the place is very friendly, though their English is limited. Be sure to make a reservation because it fills up quickly. (2-20-2 Higashigotanda, Shinagawa)
Uniquely Japanese: A distinctively Tokyo experience is a visit to a maid cafe, most of which are located almost exclusively in Akihabara, where young women in poufy French maid uniforms serve customers with silly deference. MaidCafe is a chain with several locations in the district. Keep in mind, they charge $20 a person just to enter the restaurant, then overcharge for basic diner food, and they don't allow you to take any pictures unless you pay extra.
Aged Elegance: The two Michelin-starred restaurant Hamadaya offers traditional Japanese cuisine served by kimono-clad waitresses embodying the grace and poise of a geisha. Eating there is like stepping back into Japan's bygone days. Diners are invited into private tatami rooms, where the decor highlights Japanese culture and excellent meals are served by attentive geisha. (3-13-5 Ningyo-cho Nihonbashi Chuo-ku; open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday)
Vegetarian Delight: Whether you're vegetarian or not, the noodles (all dishes are actually vegan) at T's TanTan Tokyostation inside Tokyo Station are worth every yen you pay -- and you don't pay that much! Be careful going during prime lunch hours or you could be waiting for up to an hour. (1-9-1 Marunouchi, Keiyo Street, Chiyoda; open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Sunday)
As Seen in the Movies: One of Tokyo's finest hotel, you might recognize the Park Hyatt as the backdrop for the film "Lost in Translation." Even a standard room does not come cheaply, but if you're looking for opulence and stunning views of the city, a night at the famed Park Hyatt will not disappoint. (3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku)
Spacious and Modern: Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo is located within an easy five-minute walk from Shinjuku station in the heart of central Tokyo. The 1,400 deluxe Western-style accommodations come in a variety of styles, but ask for the most recently renovated rooms to get the most space (especially by Tokyo standards). (2-2-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku)
TripAdvisor Winner: The 2014 TripAdvisor winner for best bargain hotel in Tokyo, the 136-room Hotel Grand Fresa Akasaka is a comfortable place to rest after a full day of exploring. Located near the Imperial gardens, rooms are small by Tokyo standards, but rates include free Wi-Fi. (6-3-17 Akasaka, Minato)
Budget Option: Part of the budget extended-stay Hotel MyStays brand, the 138-room Hotel MyStays Asakusa-bashi is located just outside central Tokyo, within a seven-minute walk of the Torigoe Shrine. Amenities include free laundry facilities and free Wi-Fi in the lobby. (1-5-5 Asakusabashi, Taito)
Closest to Port: For those staying in Yokohama before or after their cruise, the New Grand Hotel offers 251 rooms in two buildings: an older main building with just two floors and a more modern tower building. The larger rooms are in the tower building, but they do not have the charm of the older rooms. Chinatown is just a block away. (10 Yamashiracho, Naka-ku)
Staying in Touch
Tokyo has historically been stingy with free Wi-Fi, but that is slowly changing. Both of Tokyo's international airports (Narita and Haneda) offer free Wi-Fi, and more and more hotels are including free Internet in their pricing. Additionally, the largest JR rail stations in central Tokyo, such as Tokyo, Akihabara, Shinjuku, Shibuya and others, offer free, registration-required hotspots.
The Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corporation also launched Free Wi-Fi Japan, specifically for tourists. To use the service, free for 14 days, visitors must pick up an ID and password card at designated locations (showing your passport is necessary to get a card). Among the many designated locations are tourist information centers, Travelex shops and three department stores: Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings, Keio Department Store and Daimaru Sapporo. The username and password can be used at specially marked Free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the city.
Best for Seeing it All: For cruisers who want to see all of Tokyo's main tourist sights, a full-day tour is a must-do. Included are visits to the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace, stops at the Meiji Shrine and Senso-ji Buddhist Temple and time to wander around Ginza. Lunch is included. (7 to 8 hours)
Best for Slow Walkers: A half-day Tokyo drive tour is best for those who don't want to spend a lot of time walking. The tour bus will drive past some of Tokyo's main sights, including the Tokyo and Skytree towers, the city's governmental buildings, and the Imperial Palace, as well as through storied neighborhoods like Ginza and Akihabara. (2 to 4 hours)
Best for Temples and Shrines: Skip Tokyo and head to the nearby city of Kamakura, where visits to several temples and shrines are the main draw. Included is the Koutokuin Temple with its 42.5-foot tall Buddha statue and the Hase Temple with its 27.5-foot high 11-faced Kannon sculpture. The Tsuruaoka Hachimangu Shrine also is included. (4 to 8 hours, depending on cruise line)
Best for Mount Fuji: This tour takes cruisers further afield to Hakone National Park and the iconic Mount Fuji. Highlights include a ropeway tram ride to Owakudani Valley, an optional short hike to a series of sulfur springs, and a 30-minute lake cruise at Lake Ashi. Lunch is included, and the drive is 2.5 hours each way. (9 hours)
For More Information
On the Web: Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau or Japan National Tourism Organization, Tokyo
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
IndependentTraveler.com: Asia Travel Guide
--By Dori Saltzman, News Editor