From Wheels Down to Heads Down with a Tokyo Cheapo
Time. It’s THE non-renewable resource. Chances are, if you fly carry-on only, you’ve already sussed that one out. But what’s the next move after you’ve skipped the lines at baggage claim?
This landing card is designed to take you from ‘wheels down’ to ‘heads down’ with a minimum of daylight wasted. The faster and more fluidly you get yourself set up in your new location, the more time you’ll have to enjoy your visit.
The neon-smeared streets of Tokyo are notoriously expensive and tricky to navigate, so we enlisted Chris Kirkland, co-founder of TokyoCheapo.com and author of the book on the subject (get yours here for a limited time) as your guide.
Over to Chris!
Photo cred: Tony McNicol
I’ve lived in Tokyo on and off for the last 10 years and still my favourite phrase to describe Tokyo is: “A Disney remake of Blade Runner”.
When you arrive you’ll see what I mean. The Tokyo metropolitan area is the world’s largest city with over 38 million people, multi-level freeways snaking above and beneath the city, trains weaving in and out of the ground and through department stores—all with friendly animated characters guiding you at every turn.
It’s a very comfortable city in which to be based. It’s clean, totally safe and everything works. At the same time, there are massive cultural differences (with the rest of the world, not just the West) and a pretty rigid language barrier, so all in all it’s a rather unique cocktail of fun, unlike any other city on earth.
Most Westerners can just turn up and receive a 90-day tourist visa. Japan has a reciprocal tourist visa waiver with many countries around the world—here’s a full list. Entry is usually pretty smooth and I personally have never been asked any questions (I’ve entered as a tourist 5 times in the last 9 years)
Some nationalities (Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the UK) can apply to have the 90-day visa extended for up to 6 months after arrival. This requires a trip to the immigration bureau, filling out a form and waiting in a queue for a few hours.
Getting Immediate WiFi
The wintry ice age of wifi-less Japan is finally starting to thaw, but it’s by no means summer yet.
First off, the airports have free visitor wifi, so you can relax a bit on arrival. There are kiosks at the airports renting wifi routers (and phones?!) for tourists—these aren’t cheap though and costs usually hover around $8-10 USD/day.
For stays of up to 2 weeks, your best option is to get a SIM card, and there are a few ways to get your hands on one. If you’re landing at Narita Airport, you can rent a U-Mobile SIM card from a vending machine (1- or 2-week options). Also available is the B-Mobile data SIM, which you can order online in advance. Alternatively, you can turn up at a Bic Camera Store (found in most major districts in central Tokyo e.g. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Yurakucho, Ikebukuro) and buy one of their own branded tourist SIM cards. Both cost around 35 USD and should be good for a week or two of normal usage (no torrenting).
That’s your most assured option for staying connected to the digital world, but if you want to go full cheapo you can try the various free wifi resources for tourists offered by the Japanese government or major communication companies. You’ll be able to connect at various points of interest around the country as long as you’ve downloaded a particular app or entered in a passcode (depends on the provider). Your best options include:
- Get a “Premium Code” from the 2nd floor of the Haneda Airport (passport required) and download the Free Wi-fi Japan app.
- Japan. Free Wi-Fi app
- Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi app
- Travel Japan Wi-Fi app
- Softbank’s Free Wi-Fi Passport
As with many things that come free, it might be too good to work properly be true. A few friends who’ve made the trip to Japan have experienced issues with: downloading the app, confirming their profiles, getting an actual connection at a hot spot, etc., so be sure to use those wifi resources with a “c’est la vie” attitude.
A good backup plan to the above options is knowing that there’s wifi in all Starbucks stores and quite a few of the cool cafes and restaurants in central Tokyo, but it’s still a long way behind the cafe wifi situation in the rest of the world.
For a more exhaustive list, check the Tokyo Cheapo article on getting connected.
Phone Set Up
Unless you have a really specific reason, I don’t recommend getting a normal local mobile phone number—the data plans above are easier. If a Japanese VOIP or Skype number won’t satisfy your needs, then B-Mobile above also offers pay-as-you-go SIM cards.
In spite of the fact that I live in Japan, I cancelled my Japanese phone contract years ago, and have been on a data-only plan ever since—it’s 1/4th of the price plus there’s LTE everywhere and a VOIP/Skype number works great.
Suica Card – buy one as soon as you arrive.
First up, buy a Suica card (or Pasmo, which works exactly the same) at the train station at the airport as soon as you arrive. This is a credit card-sized IC card that you can charge up and then top up every time it runs out (note that there’s a 500 yen deposit fee you can get back at the end of your stay). Don’t bother fiddling with point-to-point tickets, it’s not worth the hassle. Just buy a Suica (or Pasmo) card and simply tap to enter and leave at the train station barrier.
The metro system in Tokyo is the biggest and most efficient in the world. You’ll barely be waiting on the platform more than 2 mins for your next train, which is almost always on time, accurate to a few seconds.
Use this English website to plan your journeys through the city. Unfortunately none of the English-language train apps are as comprehensive, but some like trains.jp give you train routes without having internet access.
Beware of the last train, don’t have your carriage turn into a pumpkin. Trains stop early, often before midnight, after which you’ll stranded at the mercy of cabs whose fares increase dramatically at night as trains stop running (see notes below about where to live).
When (And when NOT) to Visit
I’ll spare you the trite reminder of when you should come (spring for the ornamental cherry blossoms and autumn for the spectacular fall foliage). Rather, let’s go over when you shouldn’t come, along with events that could motivate a visit at given times throughout the year.
Absolutely stay away during the rainy season (beginning of June to mid-July). If you do, your time in the greatest city in the world will be set against a dismal backdrop of grey, when really you want to experience the bright neon of the metropolis or the vibrant greenery of the city’s surrounding landscapes.
The latter part of the summer months (end of July to end of August) is no better. Temperatures can rise to as high as 40 ℃ (not including humidity). Unless you plan on doing only indoor activities, you’re paying to come sweat and suffocate on foreign land. On top of that, ticket prices during the summer are unjustifiably high. If you must come during that time, though, the Asakusa Samba Festival is a must-see, along with the plethora of fireworks festival taking place every weekend until the end of August.
If you thought it was finally clear to come, the peak time of typhoon season is September. Basically, don’t visit from June to September.
Great times to come and great events to come for:
- October: The best outdoor weather one could ask for. Plus, Shibuya hosts the craziest Halloween street party in the world.
- November-December: Autumn and winter are at war these two months with koyo (the changing of the leaves) and Christmas winter illuminations battling it out for Tokyoites’ attention.
- End of March–end of May: Cherry blossoms mark the beginning of spring starting at the end of March, but let’s not forget about the Kanamara “Penis” Festival and Yabusame (horseback archery) events that succeed in April. May finishes spring off nicely with the anticipated Kanda Festival, Sanja Festival and Thai Festival—these events seeing millions (and growing) of visitors every year.
Coworking and Cafes
The coworking scene in Tokyo has really blossomed recently, and many are “drop-in-able” (no membership required) with hourly or daily rates, usually averaging out about 1,000 JPY (10 USD) for a day.
My personal preference is to use one of the many hip cafes with good coffee as my office, many have power outlets, wifi, standing desks and well-thought-out interiors—plus coworking spaces (usually) don’t include a good espresso with the entrance fee.
You’re spoiled for choice for both coworking spaces and cafes in the south-western section of central Tokyo, i.e. area encompassing Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi.
Here’s a list of favourites:
Downstairs Coffee – Mercedes Benz Connection (cafe)
Good coffee, free wifi in Roppongi opposite Midtown.
niko and … Tokyo (cafe)
Power outlets, nice workable tables right in the middle of Harajuku.
Lattest Omotesando (cafe)
This is one of my favourite spots, standing height desk, good coffee and never too crowded. Wifi can be a bit slow sometimes though.
Fuglen Tokyo (cafe)
Good coffee, wifi and chilled atmosphere located in the quieter backstreets about 15 mins walk from Shibuya station.
A bright, sunny coffee shop, with great coffee and sandwiches, plus free wifi. Surprisingly cheap for such a fancy Daikanyama location.
Hiki Cafe (cafe)
Not exactly cheap, but it’s a nice chilled cafe/restaurant right on the edge of all the neon, shopping and business of Shibuya. Free wifi, a wide range of drinks and a few terrace seats. The “Deep Chocolate Latte” is a real treat.
The Roastery (cafe)
Good coffee, some nice outdoor seating, free wifi and a bustling vibe. Obviously run by massive hipsters because by default they serve their espresso in a champagne flute—ask them for a normal espresso cup when you order.
Streamer Coffee (cafe)
Great espresso, some outdoor seating if you can snag a spot, and free wifi.
Habitat Meguro (coworking space)
Coworking space by Compass Serviced Offices with English-speaking staff. Mention Tokyo Cheapo for a free trial guest pass.
The Snack (coworking space)
Stylish space located in super upmarket Ginza. Apparently they accept bitcoin and the day rate is 1,620 JPY. Coworking 09:00-23:00.
Beez Shibuya (coworking space)
This place has an English website, although the staff may struggle to speak! 5-min incremental billing and a live tweet feed of desk availability. 400 JPY/hour capped at 1,000 JPY per day.
Mov (coworking space)
Brand new high-end coworking space, right next to Shibuya Station on the 8th floor of the Hikarie building, 800 JPY/hour plus 600 JPY for registration card on your first visit (need your passport for registration). They have English-speaking staff.
Co Edo (coworking space)
Friendly coworking space on the eastside of Tokyo at 1,000 JPY per day.
Open Source Cafe (coworking cafe)
Nice chilled out coworking space in a quiet area just outside of Shibuya.
Allincco Office (coworking space)
Good value coworking space in Shibuya, billed at 100 JPY per 15 mins and capped at 1,000 JPY per day.
Coba Shibuya (coworking space)
Stylish coworking in the heart of Shibuya, 2,000 JPY per day.
Open Office Copernica (coworking space)
Coworking space with free tea and coffee in the Koenji Neighbourhood, 500 JPY for 2 hours or 1,000 JPY for the day. Coworking between 11:00 and 17:30pm.
Fuglen Tokyo – Good vibes, good coffee.
Best Neighborhoods To Set Up IN
The best area of Tokyo by far is the southwest part of central Tokyo, roughly centred around Shibuya. A good rule of thumb would be anywhere 2 or 3 train stops from Shibuya. Most of the interesting events, people and culture are usually found in this zone. Unfortunately it’s also one of the more expensive areas and it can be difficult to find places to stay.
Because there’s no public transport except for taxis after about 23:30 it’s a real inconvenience living too far away from this area where you’re likely to go out—if you miss your train you have the delicious choice of a 3-hour trudge home, 100 USD taxi or pulling an all-nighter and catching the first train around 05:00.
There are other pleasant neighborhoods in Tokyo and during the day public transport is super fast and convenient, so if you don’t mind playing Cinderella and getting your carriage before midnight also consider:
- Shimokitazawa – just outside of Shibuya, hip and friendly hood.
- Hatsudai, Nakano, Sasaka – fairly close to Shinjuku and quite cheap.
- Yotsuya, Kagurazaka, Jimbocho – still fairly central and not too pricey.
- Asakusa – lots of budget and foreigner friendly accommodation.
- Anywhere on the south side of the Yamanote line.
Shibuya – Halloween Mayhem
Finding Mid Term Accommodation (1-3 months)
Accommodation is a little tricky in Tokyo especially if you are on a budget. If you can afford 1500 USD – 3000 USD per month for accommodation, then there’s quite a few serviced apartment options geared towards foreigners, a starting point would be RealEstate.co.jp or just searching for serviced apartment Tokyo. There’s an increasing amount of Airbnb inventory now, and if you’re coming “off season” (winter and summer) your life will be a lot easier.
Bootstrappers should look into “Share Houses” or “Guest Houses” and cheaper serviced apartments, some examples with good English service located in central Tokyo are Sakura House, Connect House and MyStays.
Also be prepared for a little bit of paperwork for renting accommodation, they like their application forms in Japan.
A connection on the ground offering Japanese help can open up a much broader range of accommodation options.
Gyms and Fitness
Surprisingly there are lots of cheap community gyms around the city, typically with entrance fees of 200 – 400 yen a pop.
Here’s one in Shinjuku with a squat rack – website.
And in Shibuya – website.
And yet more options here.
If you want to go a bit higher end, Golds Gym (of international fame) has a single-month membership for around 18,000 yen, and ongoing monthly plans from about 8,000 yen.
There’s also a surprising amount of chin up bars in small parks dotted throughout the city, if you can make do with body weight exercise.
The Emperor’s Palace is a popular spot for jogging, one lap is about 5km. NOTE: everyone usually runs round counterclockwise, but you won’t be arrested for going against the grain (I’ve battle tested that). There’s a nice public bath (sento) just here to shower off and soak in afterwards.
Learning The Language
My method for learning Japanese was to race through the books “Japanese for Busy People” and go out and practice on real people. Also it’s a buyer’s market if you want to do “language exchange”, because English learners massively outnumber Japanese learners. Though if you do seek out a language exchange partner it’s more practical to choose someone of the same sex—men and women speak Japanese quite differently and frankly “language exchange” seems more like a code word for interracial dating—not just language being exchanged, ahem.
For language meetups and international parties, (whatever your agenda) Meetup.com is your friend.
Business Meet Ups
For non-Japanese-speaking entrepreneurs there’s sadly just a handful of events. There’s Startup Circle, (a very developer-centric) Hacker News Meetup, designer-focused event Ride The Lightning and Pecha Kucha Night.
Chris, the Tokyo Cheapo himself, presenting at Ride the Lightning.
(*Shameless plug*) Check out TokyoCheapo.com for endless reams of advice on life in Tokyo with an eye for good value. And order our book here—it’ll pay for itself many times over in the time and money it’ll save you.
Timeout Tokyo has good English info on things to do.
Gaijin Pot has some entertaining and sometimes practical content about life in Japan.