Nick Gray’s Tokyo Tips and Tricks

Last updated: March 27, 2024

Tokyo is an amazing city. You’re going to love it.

It can be overwhelming. And just like with Mexico City, you might get hundreds of restaurant or sightseeing recommendations.

This article doesn’t have any of that popular stuff.

Instead, I’ll show you:

  • How to save time at Immigration,
  • The best SIM card provider,
  • Why Google Maps ratings are low,
  • My most viral Tokyo Tips videos,
  • And a museum with a chill garden.

To set the stage for first-time visitors, I’ll share this Tokyo quote from Anthony Bourdain from the Parts Unknown: Tokyo intro

“What do you need to know about Tokyo? Deep, deep waters. The first time I came here was a transformative experience. It was a powerful and violent experience. It was just like taking acid for the first time. Meaning: What do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way.”

These things helped me manage that violence.

Before You Go

  1. Fill out your Immigration and Customs forms on this website. You’ll get a QR code. Use this at the airport when you land. It will save you 5-10 minutes in line at immigration or customs when you.
  2. Easy mobile payments: If you have an iPhone, you can go to the Wallet app, search for a new Transit card, and add a Suica card. Fill it with 1000 Yen. Now you have money on your iPhone for the subway, 7-11s, etc. You don’t need to buy a physical Suica card anymore.
  3. Get an eSIM instead of a pocket WiFi device. See the eSIM section at the end of this post for more information for which eSIM provider I like.
  4. Airports: There are two main airports in Tokyo, Narita and Haneda. My favorite is Haneda. It is much closer to the city center. If you have a choice, fly into Haneda.

Note: Google Maps reviews are universally low. This is important to note. Extremely important. As an American, I’d never eat at a place with less than a 4.0 rating. But in Tokyo you’ll find amazing spots with 3.5 ratings. That is because a 5-star rating is rarely given. Even 3-stars is considered “good,” compared to the American curve where 3-stars might be given for “there was visible trash in my food and the waiter stole from my purse.”

Random Notes

Japan is conservative. Japan is polite.

Japan is quiet. I can count the number of car horns I heard in downtown Tokyo over a week. It was 3.

You know all those things. But here are a few non-obvious things I found.

  • Japanese people stand on the escalator in Tokyo. They don’t walk up the stairs like New Yorkers do.
  • Lack of trash cans. There are virtually no public trash cans in Tokyo. So you end up carrying your trash with you to dispose of at home. Or throwing stuff away inside convenience stores like 7-11s.
  • Soybeans drive the food. Miso, soy sauce, tofu, etc.
This is the best green tea that you can buy at some 7-11s.
  • If you’re near Shinjuku, check out Thermae-Yu spa. It is open 24/7 and provides for at least two hours of relaxing water chilling. I think it would be a perfect place to go right off the plane to decompress a bit. There are more locals-only onsens you can find, too. Search on Google Maps for public bath or sento.
  • Fried chicken in Tokyo is great. Perhaps a leftover from American servicemen. Often on the menu as Karaage. Be sure to try it.

Friends in Tokyo

These are a few pictures of my friends in Tokyo. I’m thankful for them. Email me if you want to hang on my next visit. Maybe I’ll host a meetup.

Tokyo Anecdotes

(1) Everyone told me to avoid going to Tokyo in July because of how hot it is. But I spent a dozen sweaty summers in New York City. And I’ve lived the last three years in Texas. Sure, it is hot and muggy in Japan in July. But it was not so much to be unbearable.

(2) I loved taking a slow pace during my trip. No agenda and I wasn’t trying to do anything special. Example: Working one day on my laptop in a random Starbucks that I stumbled upon. Getting into the zone for an hour with my team. Then I closed my laptop and looked around and realized I was in the middle of Tokyo. It felt incredible.

Aman Tokyo hotel lobby is a nice place to read.

(3) Nice Hotel Lobby: Aman Tokyo. Beautiful space. One of the nicest hotels in Tokyo. I was never a guest, but I brought a book and read in the lobby for two hours one evening. It was divine. The lobby is huge and sparse and striking. They have a live musician playing an ancient Japanese stringed instrument at 5PM or 6PM each day for an hour.

(4) UNITED ARROWS is like the J. Crew of Japan. I liked some of the clothes there.

My Tokyo Videos

I filmed a lot of videos in Tokyo! See my full playlist on YouTube here. These are some of the most popular ones.

Cool Bookstore in Tokyo

Watch on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook

This bookstore is located in a popular shopping mall in Ginza. I hired a personal shopper one day and he took me to a few shops in this mall. This isn’t necessarily worth a dedicated trip, but if you were to seek this place out, you’ll end up in a cool mall that you can explore.

Standing Sushi Restaurant

Watch on ​Instagram​, ​YouTube​, ​TikTok​, ​Facebook

I love standing sushi spots in Tokyo. I’m sure there are hundreds; you can Google Maps for “standing sushi” and find a bunch. But I loved this one in particular because you can order via QR code, the fish was tasty, and the location in the basement of the train station was funny. A bit hard to find.

Japanese Tea Tasting

Watch on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, ​Facebook

I did this Airbnb Experience which I recommend if you want to go deep on Japanese green tea. You get pamphlets, you try like 10+ different teas, and the instructor was smart. However the experience is a bit dry and perhaps boring, and the location is out of the way.

Tokyo Eel Restaurant

Watch on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook

When we went inside the staff nervously said in broken English, “No food- only eel.” They were surprised I think, or worried, that we didn’t know they only served eel. But I knew. And I liked it. You don’t have to go exactly here. But it was cool. I’d go back.

Best Conveyor Belt Sushi in Tokyo

Watch on ​Instagram​, ​YouTube,​ ​TikTok,​ ​Facebook​

Is it the best? I don’t know. People told me it was. It was fine. I wouldn’t wait in a long line for it. You can go to any conveyor belt place. Kura and Sushiro are famous chains you can try.

Mesm Hotel Tokyo

Watch on YouTube

I liked this hotel. Especially if you have Marriott Bonvoy points to burn. I stayed here for my first two nights and am so happy that I did. It is a huge, modern, luxury hotel. Relatively easy to get to on the train if you land at Haneda airport, too.

Food Photos

Restaurants

Sigh. I can’t even begin to make recommendations on restaurants.

Every neighborhood, district, or even square block has hundreds of spots – many of which are amazing. Use someone else’s guide please and just explore Google Maps.

That being said, here are four spots that I saved:

  1. Sushi Yuu, near Rappongi. My friend Jonathan took me here. It’s very fancy. We had an omakase dinner. It was the best sushi I had during my trip. Nobody had phones out, there are very few seats, and you must make reservations. The chef speaks English.
  2. Motsuyaki Ban, near Nakameguro. I met a guy on Twitter who took me here as part of our walking tour of Nakameguro, a cool / hip / trendy / popular neighborhood. Izakaya vibes. Nothing fancy. Good food. Crowded at night. Packed, even. Definitely explore a bit of Nakameguro. It is a 15 minute walk nearby. Find a good walking tour online of the area.
  3. Manten Sushi Marunouchi. I never went, but my friend Todd lives there and he told me that if you go here 15 minutes before opening, you can get a nice lunch omakase course for cheap. I trust Todd.
  4. Tomidokoro. A similar good value in sushi that I want to try next time. My friend Josh said: “Best cost performance sushi. It was $50 for a lunch set and I’ve never had anything in London nearly as good at any price.”

My best general tip for food in Tokyo is this: Start at the bottom.

Not at the bottom of this list, but the bottom of your expectations.

I mean: Don’t land in Tokyo and head straight for a Michelin experience.

Instead, give your palette a few days to adapt to the fresh fish and the new flavors.

Eat at 3-star places. Wander into random spots. Begin to familiarize yourself with the elevated baseline before you go to the top end.

Other Spots to Visit

  • Nezu Museum. I never went, but heard great things. Specifically that the vibes are chill. Nice garden.
  • Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience. I went in 2019. I drank way too much tea and almost had a panic attack from the caffeine overdose. Still cool.
  • Academy Mom Massage Therapy. One night I was looking for a relaxing deep tissue massage near our apartment. I got an excellent $35 massage for 45 mins. Very good.
  • Thermae-Yu. I mentioned it above. But you must go to at least one onsen. If this is your first time in Japan, this is like the Times Square of onsens. It is open 24/7 and very foreigner-friendly.

More Tokyo Photos

Pocket WiFi vs eSIM

A note about mobile data: The advice in Japan for years was always “Get a pocket WiFi device and save yourself the headache.” But I think that advice is outdated now.

If you have a compatible phone or device, consider getting an eSIM online for reliable internet access while in Japan. With an eSIM, you can use data as your primary source while retaining your usual numbers for calls and texts, without worrying about the hefty data roaming charges. Plus it eliminates the hassle of swapping physical SIM cards.

Opting for an eSIM also means avoiding the need to carry and charge an additional device (pocket wifi). Traveling with kids? — you can easily hotspot from your phone making it a versatile alternative to pocket wifi devices.

I like using the Airalo app for easy eSIMs. Before your trip, you can set it up to ensure immediate connectivity upon arrival. You can use my code NICK9323 for $3 off. Or if you don’t trust me then search for a code on Reddit. They’re all $3 off coupons. Not sponsored and this is actually what I would use for my next trip to Japan. I’ve used Airalo a lot in Thailand and it is legit.

Additional Resources

Finally, I have a Google Maps list of 43 places that I saved for my next trip. They are spots that people I trust recommended to me. Send me an email if you want the link and I’m happy to share.

Conclusion

I want to go back to Tokyo. And I specifically want to go back with a friend or with a date.

The food is amazing. Such care and quality! And there are so, so, so many good restaurants.

But I’ll be honest: it was tough being there alone. For nine whole days by myself. Mostly staying in the apartment I own with friends. It felt isolating and a bit lonely.

The last time I went to Tokyo I felt overwhelmed. I had a hard time navigating.

But not this time. I took nine leisurely days to explore and do my best to live like a local.

It was great. I love Tokyo. It is like nowhere else I’ve been.

I hope you have a great trip. And that you’ll want to return.

Do you live in Tokyo? Or have a friend there? Email me so we can hang out next time I visit. I’ll host a meetup and invite interesting people.

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