A city can’t always speak for itself, but its locals can. Tokyo may be best known as a frenetic, uber-modern super city, but the people who live there want you to know it for more than that. Locals’ tender, grounded pride hints at Tokyo’s true depth—and its endless opportunities for discovery. From navigation advice to why you should forget the movie Lost in Translation, here are 10 things to know about Tokyo, based on recommendations from locals.
You Should Get Lost
Take a wander, and don’t be too concerned about keeping your bearings all the time, locals advise. So many visitors cling to cabs and the subway that they miss the magic of Tokyo’s smaller neighborhoods and back streets.
“Main streets have the same shops everywhere, but the back streets are unique,” one Tokyo native notes. The intoxicating tangle of side streets—where you can stumble across a hip cafe, an ancient shrine, and a sunbathing cat within a single block—tells the story of daily life here and offers up gems you won’t find in a guidebook.
This Truly Is a Vertical City
Assume everything is going to meet you at street level and you’ll miss out on a lot of Tokyo. Unlike the mixed-use buildings in many cities, in which retail is centralized on the ground floor and upper stories are filled with office and residential space, Tokyo’s buildings often use many floors for shops, cafes, and restaurants. Similarly, many of the high-rises dotting the skyline fill their top floors with hotels. The Conrad, the Andaz, and the Mandarin Oriental, for instance, crown tall buildings, offering stellar views of the city from every window.
You Can Overcome the Language Barrier
The language barrier may feel vast sometimes, but it’s no match for Japanese hospitality. Expat locals in particular note that they’ve been amazed, time and again, by the lengths to which Tokyoites will go to help non-Japanese speakers. Sure, it may take some miming and a healthy dose of Google Translate, but the culturally ingrained hospitality and helpfulness mean visitors who ask for help tend to receive it.
Forget Lost in Translation
“Before I moved here, I watched Lost in Translation and thought I sort of understood Tokyo. But it’s all wrong,” says one expat local. Tokyo’s frenetic pace and sometimes inscrutable customs may intensify the travel melancholy of feeling foreign and alone. But frame the city in those terms and you’ll miss what makes it truly special. As common as it is as a movie backdrop for inner dramas and chase scenes, Tokyo is a real place with people going about daily lives—a place where kids play in parks, grandmothers slurp noodles with audible satisfaction, and people go for walks just to take in a beautiful morning. Meet us where we are, urge locals, and you’ll find a city too real for the movies.
Information Is Everywhere
Yes, you’ll be in a place where you probably can’t read most signs, but English-language information is everywhere, if you know where to look. Locals point out the abundance of tourist information booths around the city. Most are staffed with English speakers and have pamphlets and guides in English. You’ll find robust visitor centers in popular districts such as Shinjuku and Asakusa.
Beware Fake Food Fronts
According to a local who devotes his life to helping others discover the joys of food in Tokyo, restaurants fronted by fake food in glass cases or laminated picture menus tend to be chains. Unfortunately, many of the best places to eat are barely marked and not even at street level, which presents a discovery challenge to most visitors. In Tokyo, more than in most cities, it pays to do advance research on where to eat. You will be rewarded for your hard work.
In Tokyo, pedestrians tend to obey local traffic laws, so drivers don’t necessarily watch for wayward jaywalkers while careening down city streets. Make like a local and stick to pedestrian crossings, and wait until the light turns before you head out into the street.
In general, locals favor following rules, since relative harmony in a city this dense takes working together. So be patient in lines, take your shoes off wherever you see it’s the norm, and if you smoke in public, only light up in designated zones on the street.
Things Are Changing
The Tokyo Olympics are around the corner, and Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, such as Chiba and Saitama, are gearing up for a major influx of visitors. Plenty of public Wi-Fi access, translation tools, apps, English-speaking guides, and more have made the city as visitor-friendly as possible.
There Are Free Guides
If you don’t speak or read Japanese, it helps to explore the city with someone who does. Guides are an incredible resource for discovery in Tokyo, and not all of them are expensive. The volunteer organization TOKYO FREE GUIDE unites knowledgeable locals with travelers from around the world. More than 550 guides, each with a slightly different specialty, show visitors around at no cost (though you’ll be expected to cover transportation, entry, and meal costs for your guide). It’s both an unbeatable and affordable way to hang out with a local and learn about Tokyo.
It All Starts Here
Long ago, Kyoto served as the capital of the country. But in the Edo period, power shifted to Tokyo (which translates to “east capital”) and the city became the center of life in Japan. Literally. According to locals, a bridge in the Nihonbashi neighborhood of Tokyo is the starting point from which mileage is measured in Japan. Tokyo may seem modern, but locals insist that it is at the very heart of history in Japan.