There are few better ways to get a sense of Tokyo than from a seat on a Yamanote Line train; a 34.5 kilometre loop around the Japanese capital used by millions of people every day.
- Never try to open a taxi door yourself. The driver does that from the inside.
- The heat and humidity in July and August can be singularly oppressive. Most buildings are air-conditioned, but be prepared for some sweaty walks outside.
Elevated on tracks above the street, the Yamanote Line marks the border between the inner city and the suburbs, an urban area so vast it’s hard to imagine the scale of the devastation once wreaked by natural disaster and war. Today, the Tokyo Metropolitan Area is home to more than 13 million people and its GDP is bigger than that of South Korea and Mexico, according to Japan’s Cabinet Office.
Tokyo is where the people, businesses, infrastructure, institutions and establishments of Japan all come together.
“Tokyo is where the people, businesses, infrastructure, institutions and establishments of Japan all come together,” said Kohei Ohno, who represents the Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau in London. Japan is the world’s third largest economy and while the government has struggled to boost growth since the property boom ended more than two decades ago, unemployment remains low and there are few outward signs of decline.
There are the skyscrapers, teeming crowds, neon lights and gaudy pachinko parlours – brightly lit and crammed with pinball machines, blaring music with every win - that have come to symbolise modern Japan, but also the calm of the Imperial Palace gardens and the densely forested paths around the Meiji Shrine. In between, the train rattles its way past warrens of narrow streets, lined with small shops and family homes; offering tantalising glimpses into life in this densely populated, but incredibly orderly, metropolis.
“Tokyo has some great strengths,” said Dan Slater, founder of the Delphi Network, a network-building service for businesses, who has lived in Tokyo since 2008. “It has a world-class train and subway infrastructure, it’s incredibly safe, and it has actually become relatively cheap.” Tokyo fell to eleventh place in this year’s Mercer Cost of Living survey while Hong Kong came in second and Singapore fourth.
The city has earned a reputation for innovation in areas from design to logistics, and convenience shops to mobile gaming and is preparing to host its second Olympic Games in 2020; an ideal opportunity to showcase the capital.
But while Tokyo might have an eye on the future, the city, founded more than 400 years ago, still moves to the rhythms of its past. With its deep-rooted culture, Tokyo provides a rare thrill in an increasingly globalised world – a city that while outwardly familiar remains exhilaratingly different.
Japanese culture is a minefield for any foreign visitor, especially business travellers. Complex social codes mean that in business dealings a Japanese person is unlikely to say what they really mean.
“Nodding does not mean agreement, just listening,” explained Katsuji Tochino, the Tokyo Tourism representative in Sydney. “Even if he (or) she receives some positive feedback, it might be just a courtesy comment, not interest.”
Complex social codes mean a Japanese person is unlikely to say what they really mean
English isn’t widely spoken and Japanese business is also notoriously insular. “Like a giant freemasons' lodge,” observed Delphi Network’s Slater. Visiting executives from foreign companies must build up a rapport with their Japanese partners. Expect lots of drinking, eating and karaoke.
Dinner for one
Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world, but even the most humble of restaurants is likely to serve food of a high quality.
Lone diners can try the restaurant floors of the department stores — window displays of uncannily realistic plastic food make ordering simple. Wander around the different restaurants on offer and take your pick.
Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world, but even the most humble of restaurants is likely to serve food of a high quality
Maisen is a Tokyo institution, serving tonkatsu, deep-fried breaded pork. It’s off the Omotesando shopping street — follow the signs.
Off the clock
At Tsukiji Market you can sample some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever find. Arrive early, browse the stalls on the way into the market, pick up a few snacks or try some noodles — and expect to queue for a seat at the counter of one of the tiny sushi shops.
The Meiji Shrine is a relaxing place for a stroll. The Nezu Museum houses a collection of rare ceramics and is set in exquisite gardens. The Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills has breath-taking views of the city, while, nearby, 21_21 Design Sight is the brainchild of fashion designer Issey Miyake.
Narita Airport is Tokyo’s main international gateway, about 70km east of the city.
The JR Narita Airport Express leaves every half hour and takes 53 minutes to get to Tokyo Station. NEX also serves other major stations, including Shibuya and Shinjuku. Cheaper options include the JR Airport Liner and the Keisei Skyliner Airport Express.
Airport Limousine Buses operate direct to major hotels around the city. The journey can take more than an hour if traffic is heavy, but if you’re staying in one of the hotels the bus serves, it’s extremely convenient. All buses have on-board announcements in Japanese and English and the white-gloved driver handles the baggage.
Haneda, in the south of the city, is Tokyo’s second airport. It’s easily accessible through the Tokyo monorail to Hamamatsucho Station or the Keikyu Line to Shinagawa Station. There are also taxis and Limousine Buses direct to city hotels.
Getting around is relatively easy, despite the language barrier. Signs on the Metro are in Japanese and English, with more languages planned. Exits are clearly marked and strategically placed maps help guide even the most confused visitor. Make sure you have enough coins for the ticket machines though, or buy a prepaid Suica card.
The Japanese yen comes in notes from 1,000 upwards. Coins are used for smaller amounts.
There are currency exchange bureaux in the airports. You can withdraw money at ATMs or cashpoints operated by Prestia (formerly Citibank), Seven Bank and Japan Post.
Tokyo has more than 3,600 hotels, from some of the world’s most iconic lodgings to affordable chains and the tiny capsule hotels that provide a clean bunk – and not much else.
The Shangri-La Tokyo occupies the uppermost floors of a skyscraper next to Tokyo Station. The 200 rooms and suites – the smallest 50 square metres in size – have stunning views of the city, the Imperial Palace gardens and the station platforms below.
The Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel is in the heart of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most lively shopping and entertainment districts. Shibuya Station and its iconic pedestrian crossing –used by half a million people every day – is a five-minute walk away.
Budget options include the Toyoko Inn chain. For a little more space, Citadines Shinjuku is a reliable option.
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