At least once a week, I get an email: “I’m coming to Japan for the first time, do you have any recommendations?” I tell everyone the same thing, so I decided to post on my blogs (I can also just point people here in the future #lazy).
Hope this helps!
Think of Tokyo like NYC… times 10. There are so many things to do, places to eat, areas to shop, must-sees, it will take about five lifetimes to see all of Tokyo. For sight-seeing recommendations, just Google “things to do in Tokyo”, compare-contrast lists and find destinations that are right for you. Pick an objective (ex: I want to shop. I want to eat. I want to see landmarks. I want to see art exhibitions. I want to wander with no plan but want a list of a few must-sees. I want to do it all!) and build your trip centered around what you really want to do. TimeOut Tokyo is a wonderful resource — it’s also in English :) Ex: for coffee shops, I love this list and another one (in Japanese — just Google the bigger, bold font on the left hand side above the photo, as it is the name of the coffee shop with ‘Tokyo’ in English, so you’ll get English results). For art shows / events, there is always something going on, so looking up what’s happening a few days before you are planning to go, is the way to do it. Of course TimeOut but this is also another good resource: http://enjp.blouinartinfo.com/events
For places to eat, Foursquare is a great resource. I follow a bunch of Foursquare lists to discover new restaurants. I kid you not, I can dine out every day for the rest of my life and still not even cover 1/4 of the restaurants in Tokyo — restaurants here are never-ending and all delicious. Foursquare lists are accessible on your computer here: https://foursquare.com/lists. Two example lists: https://foursquare.com/casioisac/list/michelin-guide-tokyo-ミシュラン東京-2012- and https://foursquare.com/khimming/list/tokyo-fine-restaurants
Japan — especially Tokyo — is many things. Magical, wonderful, whimsical, amazing, beautiful, etc., etc. The one thing it is not, is an English speaking country. Sounds mean, but it’s the truth.
So I came up with a 10 second rule: if you stop and ask a Japanese person for directions, and the Japanese person cannot get a few English words out within the first 10 seconds, just thank them and walk away.
If you are feeling really adventurous, keep this phrase handy: “Eigo wakarimasuka” (Do you speak / understand English?). That phrase prepares Japanese people to receive and respond in English. Even if the person says “yes English ok”, the 10 second rule still applies. 10 seconds, no English = don’t walk — RUN.
It may sound rude, but no one will outright tell you that one can waste a lot of time trying to communicate. And please, don’t feel bad. Japanese people will not be offended if you move on to someone else. Conversely, they will be happy you relieved them of their duty to help a person in need.
Trust me on this — I’m Japanese ;)
[UPDATE] Wi-Fi / SIM situation
Ugh, how can I forget to include this? Public Wi-Fi, what a nightmare!
As advanced of a country Japan is and as connected as we all are, public Wi-Fi is an absolute disaster. I came in April, expecting to be able to connect to something right off the bat, but every so-called public Wi-Fi requires creating an account, what the hell. I don’t really care about registering, but what I do care about, is how I was unable to register because I had no Internet. Because I have no Internet access, I can’t sign-up for an account but without an account, I can’t get Internet — total chicken-egg problem. It was so annoying. Also, registering for accounts is usually in all Japanese so unless you are Japanese. Or read Japanese. You are basically assed-out.
I recommend everyone to rent a SIM at the airport (Narita or Haneda, I’m assuming). Softbank has rental SIM booths there and the rates are super reasonable. The rental service is available only to visitors, so it’s super inconvenient to rent a SIM once you are in a city. There’s actually only one office in all of Tokyo, in some random office building that you won’t be able to find or access (because of security)…unless you are Japanese.