The west side of Itabashi is a long 2-lane highway running north to east. Head south from here and you’ll end up in Ikebukuro.
If you head out to the west side of Itabashi you can get a nice neighborhood walk through residential backstreets, and along a nice brick footpath which will lead you out to a major 2-lane highway which leads south to Ikebukuro.
To get here from the west side square, follow the way we describe in Part 2 to the Yorkmart grocery, head south, cross the train tracks, and make an immediate right down the first street on your right:
On the right side of this street is a long footpath which winds for several blocks, and then turns left:
As you come to the end of this first part, be on the lookout for a turn to the left in the path shown here:
You’ll pass this apartment complex, and the now-abandoned Ruhe Coffee Shop:
On the way, you’ll also cross many side streets such as this:
And more small houses such as this:
As you pass this chomé sign, you’ll know you’re getting close:
As you come to this part of the path, with lots of trees, you’re getting near the end. At the end of the path, there will be a big red Eneos gas station sign on the right. At this point, turn left.
Along the way you’ll see many stop signs, which in Japan are red triangles:
As you turn left, Don Quijote discount store will be on your left. There is also a nice bicycle shop and golf shop right next to it:
Don Quijote discount store in Itabashi – look for the crazed penguin.
The madness that is Don Quijote.
In Don Quijote, you can even get a Press Sand Maker for a mere $15 USD.
Past Don Quijote, if you follow this highway and head south, you will arrive in Ikebukuro.But be careful – it’s very easy to get lost on backstreets and wind up on the other side of town in no time.
Well, that’s it for this 3-part guide to Itabashi. We hope you’ve found this guide useful – and we hope you will enjoy your trip to Itabashi.
JR Itabashi Station is covered in Part 1. Shin-Itabashi Station is just a few blocks northwest of JR Itabashi Station. We’ll discuss it below.
First the JR Line. The main Itabashi station is on the JRSaikyo Line, and is between Jujo to the north, and Ikebukuro to the south. This is very advantageous – Ikebukuro is one of the biggest and most important interchange hubs on the JR lines, and can be used to route you to other parts of the city quickly – such as Eastern Tokyo (via Chuo Line), and south to Shinjuku. You can also get the Maronuchi Metro Line at Ikebukuro, which shoots you right into the heart of the Maronuchi district, or south to Shibuya. Itabashi is just far enough away to be inexpensive to stay at, but close enough to get to the major interchange stations in just a few minutes. In addition there is a lot to do in Ikebukuro itself, and if you stay in Itabashi you can sight-see in Ikebukuro without paying more for a hotel.
Shin-Itabashi Station is on the Toei Subway Line, and is just a few blocks from the main JR Itabashi Station. To get here, exit the main Itabashi Square area and head to the west side of JR Itabashi Station. There are several ways to do this – 1) Go through JR Itabashi Station, climb the stairs at the far end, exit at the top, head west, and into the square, 2) go through the small pedestrian tunnel at the south exit of the station, turn right on the first side street, and north into the square, or 3) walk north from the main Itabashi Square, then head west, then southwest down side streets to get to the square. The west/north side square is located at 35°44’47.04″ N 139°43’10.81″ E the main square is located at 35°44’43.10″ N 139°43’12.82″ E. The main station sits between them.
Nishi-Sugamo Station on the Toei Mita Line to the southeast.Sugamo is one town south of Itabashi on the Nakasendo Hwy. In fact you can walk there from Itabashi in just a few miles.
Shimo-Itabashi Station is in the opposite direction – west of the APA Hotel, and on the Tobu Tojo Line. To get there, get to the west square outside the main JR Itabashi Station, head down the street to the south, turn right at the next street, follow it up to the YorkMart supermarket, then turn left. It’s one block to the left and you can’t miss it. Shimo-Itabashi Station is at 35°44’43.91″ N 139°42’53.47″ E.
Shimo-Itabashi Station on the Toei Mita Line to the west.To get here, head south, then west from the west main square, up the street, then left at the YorkMart supermarket:
To get to the YorkMart, and station, head left (west) past this bldg. just west of the west square, which is to the right in this photo.
To get to the YorkMart, and station, head left (west) up this white-picketed street. The station is just up on the left 1 block.In early fall in Tokyo, the weather is usually still quite nice and summer-like.Just to the left of this is a large Maruetsu grocery store as well.
We won’t cover the Naka-Itabashi Station because it’s several miles to the west, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It’s also on the Tobu Tojo Line. There is also a nice shopping street and cafés around the station. There’s also a vast long walkway along a small tributary river which you can walk all the way back into central Itabashi. In fact, this waterway runs all the way back east to the Arakawa River, which empties to the south into Tokyo Bay.
South to Ikebukuro
Before we get to Itabashi’s main attractions, as a footnote, note that Ikebukuro is just to the south. Itabashi is so close to Ikebukuro, you can walk there. It’s less than 1.5 miles. Or of course, you can take the JR Saikyo Line 1 stop south. To walk, get to the east square outside JR Itabashi Station, head south past the koban, past the APA Hotel, and follow the street all the way east to Rt. 305. Once on 305, head south (right), and walk to Ikebukuro. Very short and easy walk.
Itabashi is small Japanese town, and there aren’t any big, spectacular attractions. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do, and nothing to see. In fact, the town is quite charming with shopping streets, and a main walk all the way to Sugamo to the south along the Nakasendo Hwy, as mentioned above. There are 6 main areas: 1) the area to the east of the station where the main square is, with shops and cafés, 2) the area on the west side of the station, also with side streets + shops/restaurants/cafés. 3) the large shopping street to the north of the Nakasendo Hwy – well worth a look. Lots of charming cafés along this walk. There is also a huge Life Supermarket along this street, 4) the Nakasendo Hwy itself – which you can walk all the way to the south to Sugamo, and beyond that, Tokyo Dome City, 5) Happy Road Oyama Shopping Street, 6) old Shopping Street Sugamo.
Let’s take these one-by-one:
East Square and Shops
Outside the JR Station east exit is a small park with new benches, a fountain, and lots of shops and cafés around the area. On the street to the south are several cafes, and there are restaurants to the north including a big Italian place. There is also a nice Lawson conbini at the square where you can get some food to take back to the hotel or square, although eating in public is frowned on by the Japanese in general. There is a also a new small public toilet box in the square.
If you head right outside the east square, there are lots of side streets and things to explore. 2 blocks to the north is an east-west street which leads to the west square on the other side of the station. To the right is a small 7-11 and supermarket, along with a lot of other shops. To the south, a nice large Family Mart conbini.
Looking north just outside the east square. Lots of restaurants and shops. If you head left at the 2nd light above, you’ll come to the west square. There is also a 7-11 and small supermarket just a few blocks to the right.The Lawson is just to the left before the 1st light.
East-west road from west square outside Itabashi Station. Turn right here, then right again to get to the south/east side of the station.The CO-OP grocery on the corner is quite good and inexpensive. Just above that is a Gusto Café.
More nice local restaurants and shops on the east side.
Explore the area to the east of the station – side streets and interesting things around every corner. If you go far enough east, you’ll come to Rt. 305, which leads to Ikebukuro to the south.
Also on the east side – further east beyond the shops – is the Toden Arakawa Line – better known to locals as the Sakura Tram – and is one of the last small-scale functioning trams in Japan. You can buy a ticket at the station, and ride a loop line around Tokyo and back. The tram has huge windows – giving a vast and clear view of the surrounding area.
West Square and Streets
To the west of the station is another central square, with side streets with lots of shops, restaurants, and cafés. If you walk far enough west down the side streets from here, you’ll find the YorkMart grocery store. There is another large grocery (CO-OP) on the corner on the north side of the block the square is in too. To get here, exit JR Itabashi Station at the west exist, and head straight ahead.
A pano of the west square – west exit from the JR Itabashi Station on the left, square in the center, around to the bike locker on the right. Turning right beyond the bike locker takes you down a road to the east side of the station.The large organic grocery (CO-OP) is the orange building shown on the right to the north of the bike locker. The bike locker here is paid, but fairly cheap – around 400¥ for 16 hours. If you leave a bike here, you’ll need to feed the parking machine once a day.
View from the west side square. Side streets are in the center. There is also a nice café on the corner. A Welcia drug store is also down this street. To get to the YorkMart grocery store, head down the street to the left, turn right at the next intersection, then west up the street.
The west square at night. The Maruju Café on the corner is quite good.
Another restaurant on the backstreets on the west side.
Just to the east of the CO-OP grocery, across the railroad tracks is a large TSUTAYA record shop. If you continue right from here for a block, then right again, you will come to the east square.
Shopping Street to the Northwest of Nakasendo Hwy
At 35°45’00.43″ N 139°42’48.55” E along the Nakasendo Hwy, a long shopping street splits off to the west. It’s well worth a look and goes on for miles. To enter, look for the 1950’s-style Gusto Café on the right, and the PerconaBank on the left. This is where the entrance is. To get to this entrance from the city square, head north on side streets from the station, cross the Nakasendo Hwy, and get onto the sidewalk on the north side. Head west. Keep walking several blocks, until you find the entrance. There is also a nice Family Mart along this area. This street has all kinds of shops and nice cafés like something you’d find in Europe. There is also a huge Japan Post Office here.
Shopping street entrance. Nakasendo Hwy is just on the left. This is facing northwest.
Nakasendo Hwy facing west.There are also sidewalks for peds and bikes.
Nakasendo Hwy facing southeast towards Sugamo. We’ll get to this next.
Along Nakasendo Hwy. there are a lot of nice cafes and shops you can check out too.
The Bridge Café.
There are plenty of nice cafés along the street you can visit.
There are all sorts of old interesting things to see along the shopping street.In this case, an old Japan Post residential mailbox.
An old abandoned bike along the shopping street – with a warning telling the owner to remove it. This has been sitting here at least 10 years, maybe 20.Probably once a young girl’s bike – now since long moved on.The ghosts of the past.
A small historical monument.
There is also a Can*Do 100¥ shop on the street too.
Chrome-plated fire hydrants along the street – the Japanese don’t mess around.
The main shopping street, looking west.
Further up the street you will come to this bridge, which is a good photo spot.
Lots of small food shops such as Tiktea line the street.
The Smash Hair Salon. Typical Japanese trendiness.
Happy Road Oyama Shopping Street
Far to the west of the central part of Itabashi is shopping street called Happy Road Oyama Shotengai. It’s located at 35°44’52.85″ N 139°42’07.87″ E and runs east to west. Definitely worth a stroll.
Nakasendo Hwy SE->Sugamo->Tokyo DomeCity
Starting at approx. 35°44’54.94″ N 139°43’17.21″ E – just north of the town center in Itabashi, you can go all the way southeast on the Nakasendo Hwy – stop in Sugamo, then beyond down to Tokyo Dome City (TDC). It’s only a few miles and walkable in a few hours. On bike, only about 25 mins. Very easy. A nearly straight shot.
There are a few gotchas – such as the road split about 1/2 way to TDC which you must be aware of – we covered that in another post about biking from Itabashi to TDC. Don’t forget the Japanese drive on the left so it’s a good idea to stay on the left sidewalk side of the road.
The city has installed a new bike lane on part of the road near the universities area north of Tokyo Dome, so that part is easy and safe – although sometimes delivery trucks will park in the new bike lane – so be careful as you ride.
From Itabash Station, walk north til you hit Nakasendo Hwy – you can’t miss it since it’s a huge 2-lane street. You may want to cross to the north side of the street once on the sidewalk, then head right (south).
Footnote: Nakasendo Hwy later changes names down near TDC – and is called Hakusan-Dori or Rt. 403. The two are synonymous.
There are 3 main areas on the way: central shops and sidewalk to Sugamo, Sugamo area and station itself (there’s another nice APA Hotel in Sugamo), road split + university area after Sugamo, and Tokyo Dome City/Bunkyo Civic Center at the end. Along the way there are all kinds of restaurants and shops – including a MOS Burger, and Freshness Burger. There is also a very nice chocolatier shop near the Freshness Burger – just south of it on the same side of the street, in fact.
So…. here’s how to go:
First you’ll go south on the sidewalk/street for a long way. There’s not much to mention here – lots of ordinary high-rise apartments, and some shops. This part looks like this:
This part goes on for quite a way – just keep going.
After a while you’ll come into an area with more shops, gas stations, food, and other retail:
Keep going – head past this + just keep heading south.
After a while you’ll come to a similar area with a MOS Burner on the left, then critical split in the road, which you must take. If you don’t, you’ll end up way to the east on Old Hakusan-Dori which will lead you away from TDC. We show both below:
Continue on the left here ’til you hit the MOS Burger:
As a footnote – if you turn left on the next street immediately after the MOS Burger, you end up in Komagome – another small Japanese town.
Now the critical split: just on the right, you’ll see the area shown below with a weird split in the street – there’s a light on the right, with a bike lane about 5 ft. long, then another street, then another sidewalk across the street. This photo is facing southwest:
Wait for the crosswalk signal, then proceed across.
Old Hakusan-Dori goes off to the left. You don’t want that – you want to cross to the other side where you see the people standing, then immediately follow the sidewalk south again (left, or south). This puts you back on Hakusan-Dori south heading towards TDC. Don’t miss this crossing, or you’ll be lost!
On the other side, you’ll see the Freshness Burger:
Don’t cross all the way to the Freshness Burger – you want the left at the first sidewalk before that.
As you continue south again, you’ll be in the university area. There are several universities here, as well as the new city bike lanes on both sides paved with blue pavement:
As this photo shows, trucks can block the bike lanes, so be careful.
This section is all downhill, so if you’re on a bike, you can actually get a good cruising speed going.
Past this area, you’ll come into Sugamo. There is an APA hotel here, then the Sugamo subway station, with a covered shopping street, a Beck’s Coffee, and other shops and food:
APA Hotel just before Sugamo Station, facing south.
Cruise past the APA hotel, through the covered shopping street, and past Sugamo Station:
Looking back north in the covered shopping area.
If you want to take a break, there is also an atré shopping area just behind Sugamo Station.
Keep heading south past the station.
After just a few more miles, you’ll start to see TDC come into view. The first sign will be the Ferris wheel and roller coaster tracks in the distance:
Cruising into Tokyo Dome City, on the right.Biking in makes it a quick trip.
If you’re on bike, you’ll want to turn right at the corner shown above because the bike parking lot is 1 block to the right, across from Bunkyo Civic Center. If you’re on foot, you’ll want to continue south for 1 block, then cross at the light and head right into TDC area.
Footnote: if you head left at the intersection shown above, in just a few miles you’ll be in Ueno. If you head left at the next block south shown above, you’ll end up in Akihabara. Both are less than 1 hour’s walk.
Bunkyo Civic Center. The bike parking lot is just behind it to the right.Also behind BCC is Korakuen Station – one of the most critical stations on the Maronuchi Metro subway line.The round top area of the bldg. is a free observation deck with some of the best views in Tokyo.
Bike parking, right, Korakuen Station (M22), left. Tokyo Dome City is just to the left.Korakuen Station is the 4th stop on the Maronuchi Line – which makes it an ideal jumping off point to Ikebukuro to the west, and Tokyo Station to the east. You can also get the Namboku Line here, which will shoot you south to Iidabashi Station where you can interchange to the Hanzomon Line for Oshiagé-SKYTREE Station.Hanzomon Line can also shoot you to Shibuya to the south. Ikebukuro is the western terminus.
Marunouchi Line map. The current station is shown in red. The small colored circles on the line map indicate interchange stations to other lines. Text is both English and Japanese.Some stations, such as Akasaka-Mitsuke are critical interchanges to major lines such as Ginza and Namboku.The arrows indicate the name + number of the next + previous stations on the line.
There are all kinds of shops along both sides of the streets. Restaurants, and a British “The Hub” pub on the corner at the light. Just to the south of that is Meets Port – another shopping area that is part of TDC.
If you head just up the street to the west behind Tokyo Dome Stadium, you can visit Korakuen Gardens, which is spectacular – it’s less than a block.
Hakusan-Dori looking back north. Meets Port is just ahead. Turning right on Sotobori-Dori/Rt. 405 will take you back to the east side of Tokyo.
Don’t miss the New Yorker’s Café right across the street.
Well, you made it. Now enjoy Tokyo Dome City – there are all kinds of things to do here – rides, restaurants, a grocery store, shopping mall, coffee, and a baseball museum. Nana’s Green Tea matcha parlour is not to be missed in the LaQua mall area. There is also a nice Don Quijote discount store right across the street. There is a luxury hotel as well as a First Cabin capsule hotel right in TDC.
Tokyo Dome Hotel and ride @ Tokyo Dome City.
As a footnote if you head just another block south, you’ll come to Suidobashi Station. See our other article on things to explore around the Suidobashi Station area. That article also covers how to make the trip entirely on bike.
Enjoy your time in Itabashi. We hope this guide makes your visit easier and enjoyable.
My return to the first small town I stayed at in Japan 18 years ago – Itabashi in northwest Tokyo.
The name Itabashi literally means plankbridge.
Itabashi is part of a larger northwestern area of Tokyo called Toshima City.
In 2001, on my first trip to Japan, and right off the airplane, I landed in the charming small town of Itabashi. I was excited. Everything in Japan was new to me then, and I was thrilled to be there.
Purely by accident I discovered the great Japanese hotel chain APA Hotels, which has a hotel in Itabashi, right next to the JR Itabashi train station. APA stands for “Always Pleasant Amenities” and they mean it. APA’s are usually cheap, very clean, and have soundproof windows. The APA Itabashi hotel off season is an amazing $65/night – which is what you would pay for a Motel 6 in the US, but APAs are much much better.
The rooms have a fridge, HDTV, power, charging sockets, and nice bathrooms. Well worth the money. There is also a nice cafe in the lobby, a vending machine, and ice machine (which the Japanese call Ice Engines).
In 2019, I returned to Itabashi, 18 years after my initial sojurn, and stayed just 3 doors down from the room I stayed in during 2001.
This post is a memory of that journey, and about my new adventure in Itabashi in 2019.
The 2001 Photos + Trip
In 2001 digital cameras were still a new thing. All the photos in this section were taken on an Apple QuickTake 200 – which at the time was a hot camera. By today’s standards these are postage-stamp resolution, but they provide a good comparison with the 2019 trip.
In 2001 I hopped a flight from California to Tokyo. The city was overwhelming as was the 16-hour flight. Upon landing I took the NEX from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station, changed trains to the JR Chuo Line, changed again at Shinjuku Station, and took the Saikyo Line up to Itabashi. I will never forget the momemt I stepped off the train and onto the street below the station – the subdued feeling of calmness and relative silence for a city this large.
Overflying the Chiba peninsula into Narita, Summer 2001.
I headed straight to the hotel – APA Itabashi, which turns out to be one of the best hotel chains in Japan. I was amazed at the cleanliness and quality of both the city and hotel.
OriginalJR Itabashi Station – where I first stepped onto the street in Japan for the first time, now replaced.
City center square – just across from the station.This area and the station have been renovated in 2019 for the 2020 Summer Games.Note this view for later.
APA Hotel – just to the west of the station.There is a small pedestrian tunnel just on the right which leads to the other city square up to the north of the station.
Just to the east of APA Hotel. The small police box or Koban is the small white bldg. on the right. The small brown bldg. on the left has been torn down and replaced with a big new remodelled station in 2019.People in Japan don’t steal bikes and amazingly, all of these parked bikes were unlocked.Note this view for later below.
The Koban from the front. The old station is just to the right, and the city square is just behind the camera.APA Hotel is to the left.
One block south of the hotel. The yellow + red sign is the Daily Yamazaki – a 7-11 type convenience store chain in Japan. In Japan these stores are known as Conbini.
Diagonally from the Daily Yamazaki was this vending machine corner – still the same today.
APA Itabashi hotel lobby with cafe in 2001. Still the same today.
APA Itabashi room view in 2001 looking west. Today the small white apato bldg. has been torn down and replaced with a massive condo development which blocks nearly the entire view.The platform for JR Itabashi Station is just below, but the hotel has soundproof windows.Note this view for later, below.
APA Itabashi room. The rooms are tiny, but quite good, and very clean. They even have a tiny desk. Note the old-style CRT-type TV from 2001. In all APAs in Japan, these have now been replaced with HDTV’s.
The 2019 Photos + Trip
So in 2019 I began to make plans to return to Japan for an extended tour. I immediately began to think of returning to Itabashi as my 1st stop – just for fun – to see if it had changed. So I booked the same hotel for 2 weeks. This time I played the flight smart and stayed overnight in the Pacific Northwest in the US – which cuts the flight time down from 16 hours to a mere 10 – and makes it much easier. If you live in Vancouver you can do the same – although flight time will be 12 instead of 10 hours. 10 hours is doable. 16 is murder.
Upon landing at Narita and staying over in a local hotel for 2 nights to adjust to the time change, I once again booked a NEX train and shot right into Tokyo. I had not been back in 18 years.
Tokyo Station had changed and was now much more massive – by an order of several magnitudes. On top of that, all the train stations in Tokyo were being remodeled that fall in preparation for the 2020 Summer Games. I struggled my 3 bags through the station and its labyrinth tunnels to get the Chuo Line once again to Shinjuku.
Once in Shinjuku (whose station was also completely torn up), I bought a Suica prepaid IC card and headed for the Saikyo Line platform. After a few minutes’ wait, I boarded and rode the line back north – just as I had done 18 years earlier. Just as I had remembered, it was only a short hop.
The train stopped at Itabashi, brakes squealing, the doors opened, and I once again stepped off onto the platform. Time rewound decades as I vividly recalled my first step into Japan nearly 20 years earlier – as if I was Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon for the 1st time.
To my amazement, with the exception of a large white bldg. to the east of the station, nothing had changed. Nothing. The station and platform were almost unchanged. The back of the hotel, which faces the station was as if I had never left. I saw the long oval windows of the hotel restaurant where I had eaten my first breakfast in Japan the day after arriving the first time in 2001. Memories of that trip came flooding back – the unique smell of Japan, the low quiet rumble of this city of 32 million people, the cleanliness, the sky, the trains.
Return to Itabashi – as if by time machine – 18 years later.
I headed over to the stairs – to discover they had now been replaced by a new escalator. It was here I learned the stations were being remodeled for the Olympics. Inside, the station had completely changed. Modern marble walls, brand new restrooms, and a new conbini inside the station which had not existed before.
The newly remodeled JR Itabashi Station.
The new Itabashi Station was finally completed in June 2020– including a whole brand new row of shops on the right side.
South/East side of the new station. Entrance is on the left. Note the nice new pavement.In almost 20 years this is about the only thing that has changed in Itabashi.
I slapped my Suica card on the turnstile’s IC reader with a beep, and passed through. I went up the new exit ramp, around the corner of the new station, and onto the same street where I first set foot 18 years ago.
Nothing had changed.
The same small white police Koban, the same small town square and fountain, the shops and apartments, the same street.
First step out of Itabashi Station in 2019 – except for the large new station bldg. on the left, nothing had changed. The same Koban is visible up on the right. The pedestrian tunnel entrance is visible on the left.
The pedestrian tunnel leading to the north side of the station, bike parking, and the other city square.
Itabashi city square today – just outside the station.
The dental office directly across from the hotel. Except for the freshly painted railing, and new sidewalk pavement, nothing had changed.
I walked to the right 1 block and there was the hotel – exactly as I had left it all that time long ago. The same dentist office right across the street, the same small Italian restaurant where I had first eaten pizza in Japan in 2001. The Daily Yamakazi conbini right across from it. Surely I said to myself, the same vending machines can’t be on the corner – where I had tasted my first Japanese soft drink – Pocari Sweat in 2001. I walked down the street – and there it was – the same vending machine corner. As if by time machine, I was back in Tokyo, after all this time, at the exact same spot I remembered from long ago. And everything was exactly the same.
With the exception of the new tall station bldg, Itabashi had been trapped in a time warp.
I headed into the hotel on the right. Same bike parking lot, same sign, same street. Once again, memories came flooding back. The large brass frame on the front door’s circular sliding glass doors, floor tiles, and 200¥ coin lockers – all the same. I headed up the ramped lobby, past the small coffee bar I remembered, and to the front desk. Not one thing in the lobby had changed. Even the same painting on the stairs leading up to the restaurant.
APA hotel today – even the bike parking fence is the same – in fact, it hasn’t even been painted.
I checked in. The staff were polite as usual. I got my room key, and dragged my bags toward the elevator. Past the Hoshizaki Ice Engine I had used 18 years before. Into the elevator.
To my amazement, the hotel staff placed me in a room exactly 3 doors down from the very first room I had stayed in 18 years earlier. I didn’t request it – somehow it just turned out that way. Same floor, same wallpaper, same hotel – even the same side of the hall. Just 3 doors down.
4th floor in the hotel.
Just for fun, I walked to the end of the hall and to the door of the room I had stayed in during 2001. I looked out the same fire escape window at the first skyline view I had ever had of Tokyo. I just stood for a minute thinking in silence – 18 years – amazed that I was even here again, in the same spot.
My original room in 2001.
Looking south towards Ikebukuro. The groaning city in the gathering dark.
I went back down the hall to my room, unlocked the door and stepped inside. Everything here too, was just as I remembered it – except the view was now blocked by a huge new condo development. I opened the window and looked out into the humid late summer air. That familiar smell – the smell of Japan. The station platform below was just as I left it too.
Back in Japan for the first time in 18 years.
What a thrill.
In Part 2 I describe more about the town, the other side of the station, and things to do + see. Enjoy!
It turns out this is fairly easy – given a few caveats.
The main avenue that runs from Itabashi to Tokyo Dome City is called Hakusan-Dori. You can cruise all the way from northwest Tokyo down to Tokyo Dome and beyond on this one street. In fact, if you pass Tokyo Dome City heading east, you can take Hakusan-Dori all the way to the Imeperial Palace and Maruonuchi.
So, in photos we’ll show you roughly how to get there.
(As a side note, if you plan to come back this same way, note that as you pass Sugamo Station heading back north, you’ll come upon Jizo-Dori Shopping Street on the left. This is a must-see area, especially at dusk. Loads of great food and shops to explore. See our other post on Jizo-Dori Street).
Keep cruising for several miles. You’ll pass charming side streets, and a huge Mizuho Bank, which is, by chance, one block north of the world HQ of Pioneer Corporation, shown below.
The large white bldg. to the southeast is the world HQ of Pioneer Corp.
As the Fig Newton Man used to say in the 1970’s: here’s the tricky part:
Hakusan-Dorisplits shortly up ahead. The old street veers to the left and you don’t want to miss the split to the right, or you’ll be taken well out of your way. The split is shown below and when you come to it, cross at the light shown, then veer back left into a brand new bike lane:
Japan’s few bike lanes were designed to have a row of parking spaces to the right for deliveries to park in but lots of trucks just ignore them and park in the bike lane itself anyway – making it even more dangerous. Be extremely careful when passing vehicles parked in the bike lane. It’s easy for traffic not to see you since you’ll be where they don’t expect you to be – in the parking spaces to the right!
Keep cruising and shortly you’ll come to Bunkyo Civic Center. You can either turn right here, or go 1-2 more blocks + turn down the side alley next to the 1st Tokyo Dome City bldg (the big pink one on the right). In either case, your goal is to scope out the huge bike parking lot behind Bunkyo Civic Center. As a short side trip after parking your bike you might want to go check out the huge observation deck atop the city hall, shown below:
On most days – unless you arrive before dawn – the bike lot will most likely be full. In that case, just park your bike in the lot and put a lock on it. As with most places in Japan, the bike parking isn’t strictly enforced in the short-term. Just don’t leave your bike there overnight or for a few days – or else it might get towed. A Gorin Lock + bike lock will keep it safe. You generally don’t need to worry about bike theft in Japan.
Our $200 Chinese special parked in the lot – along with dozens of other bikes just sitting there, many without locks. Bike parking in the short-term isn’t strictly enforced in Japan.
Akabane is another fun, charming small Japanese town in northwest Tokyo. A nice short day trip, it sits just south of Saitama Prefecture in northwest Tokyo. Its train station is the 1st stop on the JR Saikyo Line with other notable stops to the south: Itabashi, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Omiya.
Be sure to check out the town square right outside Akabane Station. There are also very nice hotels right next to the station and even a western-style Denny’s. The lobby of the hotel Denny’s is in also has a 7-11 ATM which accepts some foreign bank + debit cards.
South of the East Exit – there’s also a large Family Mart here.
There’s even a Mister Donut at the east exit: leave the station and turn right – you can’t miss it.
Careful – this can get dangerous real fast.
There’s more usual western fast food, and coffee in the area. But the real treats are the fine dining restaurants located on the upper floors of buildings overlooking the square. Give any one of them a try:
There are 2 handy spots just to the north of the west exit: a bank of coin lockers where you can stash your stuff for a few bucks – and a free public WiFi spot. Go out of the west exit, turn left, cross the street, then turn left again. Cross the next intersection and immediately turn right – both the coin lockers + WiFi spot are just on your left.
After dark, visit Akabane Ichibangai alley – which dates back to the turn of the 20th century and survived World War 2 air raids intact. Locals pour into bars and tiny restaurants here. There’s an endless variety of local food.
There’s also a SEGA arcade, a UNIQLO and ABC Mart on the west side of the station.
If it’s your first time, there are a few things you need to know. This page shows you how in one place.
Helpful references are provided at the end.
We’ll discuss different aspects of visiting Japan, and some tips + pitfalls most first time travellers to Japan are unaware of. With careful planning your trip can go much more smoothly. Without planning, it’s easy to have a problem in Japan. You want to avoid that.
So let’s begin.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Getting to Japan – passports, visas, customs, and length of stay.
What to bring, how much to bring, and packing tips.
Navigating the major airports in Japan.
Money in Japan – currency exchange, and money transfer options.
Booking info + websites.
Transportation – how to get around in Japan as easily + cheaply as possible.
Food + dining in Japan.
Accomodation options – hotels, hostels, and capsules.
Phones, computers, and WiFi.
How to make the long trip easier, and more comfortable.
Sightseeing – things to do.
Other tips + tricks.
Getting to Japan
To get to Japan you need either your home country’s valid passport accepted by Japan, or else a visitor’s visa. Many western countries passports are accepted by Japan. If you are from one of these countries, such as US or UK, you may stay for up to 90 days on your passport. Longer stays, or people from other countries are required to apply for a visitor’s visa with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism within the Japanese government. The Japanese gov’t also operates the Japan National Travel Organizaton (JNTO) which is also an excellent resource on entry into Japan. So get your passport in order, or file for a visa before you go. You must show either at immigration at the airport or else you’ll be deported and sent home.
What to bring, how much to bring, and packing tips
If you are going to Japan from the west, the flight will be long. From Asia it is much shorter. If the trip is a long one, you’ll need to pack light. Some flights from the west coast of the US can take 16 hours or more. From UK or EU, even longer. The last thing you want is to have to drag a lot of heavy luggage all that way. It will really slow you down. If you must bring a lot of stuff to Japan, we recommend packing all the heavy items into one small rollable suitcase, and then packing other lightweight items into a laptop bag, and or a backpack. Backpacks are much easier to carry. Frame packs take the weight off your back and put it on your hips where it won’t feel as heavy. The downside to backpacks is they don’t have locks.
Another hack to shorten the trip: if you have time + money to spare, break the trip up into multiple shorter flights. The flight from San Francisco to Tokyo is a grueling 16 hours. You can shorten that to 10 hours by first flying to Seattle, staying over 1 night, then flying from Seattle to Tokyo, which is 10 hours. Even better (and more expensive) would be to fly from San Francisco to Seattle, stay over, then fly from Seattle to Anchorage, Alaska, stay over, then from Anchorage to Tokyo. To save fuel by utilizing the earth’s rotation, most airlines don’t fly from the west across the Pacific Ocean as you might expect – instead they fly a parabolic arc north, up past Canada, Alaska, then down from Alaska to Tokyo. This saves fuel + time by flying over the part of the earth that rotates the fastest – near the Arctic Circle where the earth’s circumference is shorter. Taking multi-hop steps will cost more – but if you can’t stand long plane rides, one of these options is a good way to break up the long flights.
Consider shipping a box full of light items ahead of you to the hotel via FedEx 2nd day air. It’s worth the cost not to have to drag heavy items with you. Just be sure to check what items are prohibited by Customs in Japan before you ship. Prohibited items will be confiscated and destroyed by Customs. Surprisingly, Japan has very strict rules on importing meat products, and raw fruits and nuts. Most western packaged food is fine. Use common sense.
An even better way is to just buy clothes in Japan when you arrive. Tokyo is the fashion capital of the world and good cheap clothes are everywhere. Clothes are actually really heavy, and it may be worth it just to bring 2 changes of minimal light clothes with you, then buy everything else when you arrive. Most hotels in Japan have coin laundries for washing clothes.
Bringing knives, and medicines into Japan can also be problematic. And they’re real serious about it. Even western meds such as Benedryll and cough syrup are considered narcotics by the Japanese gov’t and can land you in a Japanese prison if you bring them into the countryin your luggage.Firearms + ammunition of all kinds are absolutely banned. If you bring them into the country, you’ll be arrested + thrown in a Japanese prison immediately. Don’t even think about it.
Japan is also strict about quarantining sick people entering the country. In fact, as you pass through customs, your temperature will automatically be taken by remote controlwithout your consent as you pass through. If you have even a cold, or fever, or worse, when you arrive, you might be placed in quarantine. Again, they’re real serious about it.
Also be aware that Japan is a country of climate extremes and can be extremely cold in winter, and extremely hot + humid in summer. Spring and fall tend to be shorter and more mild due to Japan’s northern latitude. Pack appropriately.
Navigating the major airports in Japan
Japan’s major airports are: Narita (east of Tokyo), Haneda (in the south end of Tokyo, near the bay), and Kansai International, in Osaka Bay. Their symbols are NRT, HND, and KIX, respectively. Narita is actually far outside Tokyo. You will need to take the Japan Railways Narita Express (NE’X), a slower train, or a bus into Tokyo from Narita International Airport. See this site for ticket info. Haneda has recently be modernized to add more flights, but it can still get congested at times. The big advantage to flying in to Haneda is the trip into the city is shorter.
If you are flying into KIX, there is an excellent train at that airport called RAPIT (that’s the correct spelling), which shoots you directly into central downtown Osaka stations such as Namba, or the newly remodeled Osaka Station.
For Tokyo the pros and cons of each airport in a nutshell are:
Narita – farther from the city, takes 40 minutes to get into Tokyo, even using the NE’X, but it’s also bigger, and less congested.
Haneda – at the south end of the city. It’s more congested, and smaller but is much shorter to get into downtown Tokyo than from Narita.
Kansai International – Fly into KIX if you want to go to Osaka or Kyoto. You can catch local trains from downtown Osaka to Kyoto which take about 35 minutes and are cheap. If you want to go into downtown Osaka from KIX, just get on the RAPIT at KIX, then get off at Namba or Umeda stations, and you’re there. There’s also a great Osaka Station guide.
Once you arrive at Narita, you’ll need to collect your luggage, get through immigration, then Customs, then Quarantine. If you make it through all 3, you’re home free. Narita International can be really confusing. There aren’t a lot of signs, and it’s easy to get lost. So here’s the quick guide to navigating Narita:
When you land, exit the gate, turn left, unless you’re connecting to another international flight – in which case turn right. Follow the signs to “Domestic Arrivals”. You’ll go down several long corridors + people movers, then have to walk some more. Once you get to immigration, get in line. When you reach the front, an agent will direct you to fill out a simple immigration form with basic personal info. You then present this form + your passport or visa to another agent who will clear you. Once you get through that step, go down one level to collect your baggage if any. Watch the screens for the baggage carousel number for your flight. You might want to get a free baggage cart near the carousels if you have a lot of luggage.
Once through that, you’ll have to fill out another form for Customs. The forms are in tiny boxes at the end of the baggage carousels and they are not clearly marked. Usually you’ll just be asked if you’re bringing any prohibited or restricted items into Japan – or more than $10,000 USD in cash. Fill out the form, and hand it to a Customs agent. Once you’re cleared, proceeed directly ahead to the exit. It’s not clearly marked either, but it’s straight ahead. This brings you out into the main airport lobby. Turn right + walk down the concourse and you’ll find an Information Desk right next to a small coffee shop. You can ask agents there anything you like.
There are a few things you may want to do before proceeding to transportation: you probably will want to exchange some of your own currency into Japanese Yen (¥) at any one of the several currency exchanges there. Just be aware their rates are not the best and there are other places in Tokyo which have better rates, such as Sakura Exchange offices. We’ll talk more about currency exchange below.
You might also want to buy a phone SIM card to use in a GSM phone in Japan, if you have one. Western CDMA phones won’t work in Japan. Up until a few years ago, voice + data SIM cards for GSM phones were available, but due to crime by internationa, drug dealers in Japan, there is now only one Japan SIM card vendor which offers both voice and data to foreign travellers; a company called Mobal. See this article for a comparison of all foreign SIM card vendors in Japan. Another good article on SIM cards for foreigners in Japan is here. A US company called UltraMobile also offers an international SIM card for GSM phones at very low rates.
There are also luggage forwarding services in Narita International. For around $20 per item, you can have your luggage forwarded to your hotel. These are at the far right end of the concourse as you exit Customs. Luggage forwarding can save you a lot of struggle if you have multiple heavy items. Many hotels in Japan also offer luggage forwarding for an additional fee. There are also luggage storage places such as Yamato Transport and railway station coin lockers where you can temporarily store your luggage. More on that below.
You may want to take advantage of these services before you leave the airport.
All connections to trains out of Narita are down in the basement. The entry is near the Information Desk mentioned above. And this is clearly marked. Just take the escalator down. You may have to walk down several additional flights of stairs, so be prepared. If you have lots of heavy luggage, it will be a chore. We’ll cover trains in depth below.
If you want to take a taxi out of Narita, walk out any one of the front doors in the main concourse. But be warned a taxi ride from Narita into Tokyo will set you back $200 -$300.
There are also many good buses out of Narita to Tokyo. In fact, busses are the cheapest way to get to Tokyo – many of them are around or under $10. But it will take about 2 hours vs. 40 mins on NE’X. Search on Google for Narita bus companies.
Money in Japan – currency exchange, and money transfer options
There are a few tricks for currency exchange when going to Japan.
First off, the #1 thing you need to know is: airport currency exchanges are a total ripoff. Some American travellers report close to 30% fees at some major US airports. Don’t even think of paying more than 3%-5%.
You’ll need to change a little but of money into Yen (¥) before you go – just to be safe in case you need to take a taxi, buy food, get train passes, and other small incidentals.
But for the most part, you’ll want to exchange most of your currency in Japan. If you take more than $10,000 USD into Japan, you’ll also need to fill out a Customs form on the plane, or at immigration in Japan.
Japan is a cash society, and credit cards and debit cards are not accepted in many places. So, while in Japan you’ll need to carry lots of Yen. For currency exchange, here are your options, in order from least desirable to most desirable:
Airport Exchange Counters – in both countries. In general these are too expensive so you’ll want to limit the amount you exchange at airports.
Your bank at home before you leave – you can order foreign currency from your local bank before you leave, which may take a few days – so plan in advance. This is also not a good option since most US banks will charge you around 10%.
ATMs – some Japanese ATMs accept foregin bank cards and debit cards. Visa is the most accepted in Japan. But not all Japanese ATMs will accept foreign cards. Check with your bank first to see if they work in Japan. In general business debit cards are your best bet for ATMs in Japan. Both Bank of America and Charles Schwab offer US ATM business cards which work at many ATMs in Japan. So consider opening a business bank acct. in the US and get an ATM or debit card attached to it well before you go. The easiest ATMs to use in Japan that work with US cards are 7-11 (called 7′ and i’) in Japan, SMBC banks, and Japan Post post offices. You can actually walk into most Japan Post offices, slide your card in, and withdraw cash. Many hotels and hospitals in Japan also offer ATMs in their lobbies. Different ATMs and banks will change different fees for withdrawls. As of this writing Bank of America charges 3% per amount withdrawn. 7-11 ATMs in Japan also charge 3%. By far the best deal is Charles Schwab, which charges no fees whatsoever for overseas withdraws. You can read more about 7-11 ATMs in Japan here.
Online currency exchange – online services for currency exchange have popped up, but by far, the best one is Transferwise. PayPal also offers instant money exchange, but to remove your money as cash in Japan, you must first have a Japanese bank account in that country. There are other exchanges such as OFX, which are also very good. If you are sending cash to someone else in Japan, there is also always Western Union. The big advantage of WU is the recipient can pick up the money at at WU counter in Japan with just an ID.
Local currency exchanges – there are several small hole-in-the wall offices in Japan which specialize in exchanging currencies. For direct exchange, these are by far the best value. Some of them, such as Sakura Exchange do direct conversion with no fees. You won’t get exactly the market rate, but you’ll get close – and you won’t pay 3% either. In many of these exchanges, you’ll pay as little as 1% for exchange. Most of the exchanges in Tokyo have English-speaking Japanese staff, but we have also heard reports that sometimes the exchanges are staffed by foreign workers who have reportedly tried to rip customers off on occasion. So be careful. You will need to do the math yourself when you do the exchange. The offices can be a bit hard to find. Sakura Exchange has several offices in Tokyo near train stations, so you’ll need to map them on Google Earth to find the one you want. The easiest one by far is just 2 blocks north of Shibuya Station in Shibuya.
So what do we recommend? By far the best deal is a zero fee debit or ATM card from Charles Schwab. Just keep in mind withdraws from overseas ATMs will likely be limited to $1000 per withdraw. The second best deal are the local currency exchanges in Tokyo. We recommend Sakura Exchange. The other huge advantage to using a local exchange is there generally is no limit on the amount you can exchange at a time – walk in, drop a big stack of cash, and they will exchange it on the spot – you walk out with a big pile of local currency. Just remember to exchange a few hundred dollars for incidentals at home or at the airport before you leave so you have a little bit of Yen when you arrive in Japan.
We’ll come right out and say that most of the US booking sites are lousy: hard to use, confusing, poorly designed, and limited on payment options. Everyone goes to sites such as Expedia.com or Booking.com, but hands down, the very best booking site online is agoda.com. Agoda has a simple, easy interface, lets you set all options for booking such a smoking/non-smoking, free breakfast, cancellation, and other options right on each property’s page. It even lets you book a reservation for someone else using your credit card. It also offers options for pay now, pay later, or even pay at the property on arrival. Since Japan is a cash society, this is an awesome choice. It also shows you which reservations can be cancelled, and the date up to which you can cancel. Using agoda.com will make setting your trip up a thousand times easier. Just a few clicks, set your options, reserve. All your booking info is also stored in the site, so you can log in from anywhere later + view your entire itinerary. It’s awesome.
Transportation – how to get around in Japan as easily + cheaply as possible
In Japan there are 4 basic modes of transportation:
By far trains are the most commonly used – trains are usually packed, especially in urban centers. Try to avoid rush hour if you use the trains.
However, a lot of people cycle in Japan too – including ypoung housewives with small children and very old people. It’s not uncommon to see people over 70 or 80 riding bikes here. People cycle everywhere. The 1 big downside to cycling in Japan is the parking (see below).
People also walk everywhere – which is perhaps one reason the Japanese are so healthy and have long life expectancies. If you plan to come to Japan, you’d better be prepared to walk – a lot. Like 5-10 miles a day a lot. And up and down train station stairs – a lot. Walking here daily will get you in shape fast.
For trains you have several options:
Buy paper tickets at stations.
Buy + reload IC cards such as Suica or Passmo and use them at station turnstiles.
Here’s a short tutorial on dealing with the rail systems. Once you get used to it, it’s easy.
There are several different systems: JR (Japan Rail), Tokyo Metro (Subway), Toei Subway, and Keisei Railways. There are a few other minor ones as well. For the most part you’ll use JR and Metro.
If you order one of the rail paases online, you will be mailed a voucher, which you pick up at your hotel or at one of the JR service centers in Japan – such as the main one in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. You can also exchange your voucher for the rail pass at the airport when you arrive.
Despite what people may tell you it is possible to buy a rail pass once you are in Japan – at the JR Ikebukuro service center, for instance. But you must buy it in person, show your foreign passport, and not be a Japanese citizen in order to make the purchase.
If you plan to use the trains a lot, a rail pass may be the way to go as it allows yout to save ¥ by breezing through ticket turnstyles at stations.
If you plan to use the trains only a litle, then a Suica or Passmo card may be better. Suica and Passmo are electronic (IC) cards. You buy one at most JR stations, add money to it, then pass it over a sensor on turnstiles in stations as you enter and exit. Your fare is automatically deducted for each trip. When your card runs out of $, you can add more by using a Fare Adjustment Machine at most JR stations. If you go to exit a turnstile, and your card doesn’t have enough ¥ left on it, don’t panic, just turn around and go to the nearest Fare Adjustment Machine, insert your IC card, press the English on-screen button, then the button for adding fare, then press the Confirm onscreen button – your IC card will be ejected from the machine with more ¥ added to it. You can then go through the turnstile again by passing your card over the IC reader.
You can also use Suica and Passmo cards at many stores and post offices to pay for things. IC cards make the train system much easier to use.
When using trains at rush hour or at crowded stations, be ready for a lot of people, and be ready to be packed into a train with lots of other people. When lining up for a train at a packed stations, there’s only one way to deal with the rush: make sure you are first in line or near first in line for the next train. The worst thing you want is to be in the middle of a long line as you’kll usually end up in the center of a car with people packed around you on all sides. Making sure you are near the front of the line when the doors open means you will enter the train first, and get your choice of where to stand (or sit if seats are available).
In rare cases, be ready for emergency brakes to be used which could send you flying. With millions of people riding Japan’s trains daily, Human Damage Incidents (suicides, jumpers, peopple being pushed on tracks, people falling onto tracks) are not uncommon and you’ll likely encounter one before long.
As of this post, Japan is busy renovating many of its train stations in preparations for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. This means new facilities, but it also means if you’re there during renovation, you may be inconvenienced by construction.
Most of the new stations will have full handicapped access, escalators, and elevators, IC card terminals, and kiosks. Even many of the more remote new stations will have more restaurants and shops right in the stations themselves, to make things more convenient.
There are big express trains that run from the airports – especially NE’X and Keisei Skyliner from Narita International. In Osaka/Kobe the RAPIT train runs to and from Kansai International Airport (KIX) which sits out on a man-made island in Osaka Bay. (There is also a great luggage forwarding service at the Keisei Skyliner Ueno station which will forward your bags in either direction for $9/bag).
An unfortunate human-related accident has caused a delay on the Tobu Tojo Line.
Itabashi‘s beautiful brand new renovated JR station.
A Toei Subway station in Sugamo.
JR Itabashi Station at night.
See the huge links section at the end for complete rail info.
Cycling in Japan has not yet caught up with the rest of the world, but is still popular. New bike lanes are being built, but there are still far too few of them given the huge size of Japanese cities. Many people ride bikes on sidewalks, or simply brave traffic on city streets. Be careful on backstreets as many Japanese will fly thoruhg intersections on their bikes at full speed without stopping. If you’re not careful at intersections, you could collide with another cyclist.
Most bikes in Japan require a small registration sticker on them so that if they are stolen, they can be tracked. If you buy a bike in Japan, you’ll need to work out registration with the bike shop and the local police.
The one crazy thing in Japan about bikes is that in most cases it’s illegal to just park them anywhere. Instead you have to park them in designated paid bike parking lots. In most cases you’ll have to feed a bike parking machine twice a day ranging anywhere from $1 to $6. Most are around $2/day. If you don’t park your bike in a designated lot, and just lock it up anywhere, it may be impounded by the police. Not a good idea.
The bike parking lots are a bit crazy – the machines are usually in Japanese only, and at first don’t appear to work consistently. Usually you roll your bike up on a rack at a lot, you’ll hear a click, then you pay. To pay, in most cases, you enter your slot number, then press a button, then enter the amount shown on the display. There’s also a button for a receipt if you wish. The weird thing is some lots allow free parking for the first few hours, so even if you try to put ¥ in initally, the machine will tell you you’ve already paid – but in Japanese on the display. In these cases it’s only later (like 6 hours later) that you’re required to pay again. This cann confuse the hell out of you. If you’re not sure after locking your bike in the rack, and you don’t read Japanese, try to ask a local what the machine is telling you. In most cases it’s telling you you’ve already paid (i.e. that it’s free for the first X number of hours). You’ll need to come back in 6 hours to see if you need to pay again. It may take some time to get used to the machines.
Other types of bike parking racks have a box + slot for coins on each rack itself – along with a long thick wire cable used to secure the bike. These machines you feed coins into directly and are harder to use.
Food + dining in Japan
Myths abound about how expensive it is to eat in Japan. This is not entirely true.
Yes, top good restaurants might cost a pretty penny – a good meal at a good upscale restaurant might cost $60-$100 USD.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat well for less in Japan.
There are some surprisingly good supermarkets in Japan with fresh food cheap. In general, the quality of supermarket food in Japan seems to be higher than in the west. Many supermarkets hold midnight sales to clear out excess inventory at dirt-cheap prices. If you take advantage of these sales, you can eat cheap.
There are also conbini (convenience stores) which have good prices. In Japan, most conbibi food is fresher and of higher quality than in the US. You can get fresh great conbini sandwhiches for $1.50, drinks for $1-$3, and even cheap snacks. Some conbini have cheap pre-cooked meals in small plastic containers which only need to be microwaved. These typically are a full entire meal and only cost $4-$6.
Some conbini are built into train stations, such as this Kinokuniya mixed-use store@ Shinjuku Station.
There are also discount chains such as Don Quiojte, Can Do, and others which often have sales on good food cheap.
Tokyo and other major Japanese cities also have many good less expensive restaurants – great burger places abound, and there are all kinds of restaurants all over big cities in Japan with an endless variety of good stuff to eat. A really great burger in Japan will cost you $10-$14 but are well worth it, on occasion.
There are even some vending machines which sell hot + cold soups and sandwhiches right out of the machines.
So, sit back and enjoy the list of inexpensive foods in Japan.
We review a few foods with photos below.
There is a huge variety of snacks in Japan. You can buy them at conbini, and supermarkets, but the best place is at discount stores such as Don Quijote, Can Do, SEIYU, and others. Discount places have snacks as low as $1.50 each. Some are good, some are not so good.
Conbini snacks such as these for around $1 abound in Japan. Not the healthiest, but cheap and quick nontheless.
There are some crazy (and good) snacks in Japan. From Don Quijote to supermarkets, to conbini, you can find some strange, wacky, and tasty snacks in Japan, such as:
Lots of cheap snacks @ Don Qijote such as:
Even chocolate covered potato chips.
Conbini (convenience stores) have a wide variety of good cheap food. In general conbini sandwiches are fresher and more natural than those in the west. You can get good salad/egg/cheese/ham conbini sandwiches for under $2.00 in most conbini in Japan.
You can also get a wide variety of drinks + bottled coffee in conbini too.
The cheapest possible breakfast in Japan is a $1.00 bottle of coffee + a $1.28 Tamagoyaki (fried egg) pack from Lawson. $2.28 for breakfast is hard to beat.
Consider the breakfast shown below: $1.00 for coffee, $1.28 for milk, $1.75 for 3 slices of ham, and $2.00 for a 4-pack of croissants from Aeon supermarket. Total: $6. If you cut the croissants out, $4. A very cheap meal. For desert we threw in a $1.25 chocolate donut as well.
Good sandwhiches abound – many for under $3.50 USD.
3-pack of sliced ham – $1.50
You can get large yogurt containers for $1.50-$1.78 at most convenience stores and discount stores. Meiji seems to be the best brand, but there are others, Meiji brand is shown here:
Both conbini and grocery stores in Japan have a wide variety of good drinks. In general soft drinks and sodas are better than in the west – containing less sugar and more natural juices. Water and milk are also around $1.00-$1.25 each.There are endless varietes of coffee, shown on the center right, here.
Incredibly, you can get 1 liter, 26-vegetable drinks for $1.78 @ Don Quijote, SEIYU, and other discount stores. Aeon supermarkets also sell them. They contain a blended mixture of 26 different vegetables – nothing else. They’re an incredibly quick, cheap, healthy way to eat. Just buy 2 + chug them down. $3.25 USD for an entire meal. They’re incredibly healthy + good for you. If you do this once a day, for dinner or lunch you can save up to $7-$10 a day/per meal. That’s $300/month. If you stay in Japan a few months on vacation, you can save $600 this way – just on this one thing alone. Well worth it.
Mixed 26-veg. drink from Aeon – $1.78 US
There are a wide variety of great grocery stores in Japan – YorkMart, Life, SEIYU, Japan Meat, and others. All are excellent with very fresh food. Many are not that expensive. SEIYU seems to be the best discount store. SEIYU and Japan Meat can often be found in the basements of department stores right near train stations. We like the ones just outside Kinshicho Station – in PARCO‘s and OIOI‘s (pronounced “Marui”) basements.
Don Quijote also has small packages of folded paper towels for $1 – perfect for your backpack or bag.
Entrance to SEIYU, in the basement of the PARCO Kinshicho dept. store. There is also an entrance to the Kinshicho Metro Subway station in the basement. To get here, exit Kinshicho south or west exit, head south to the PARCO, take the escalator down.
More cheap, good yogurt – $1.25 for one pint @ SEIYU.
Another midnight sale. Not the healthiest – but cheap – around $1.50 for 3 corn dogs. Purchased @ YorkMart.
Japan, and Tokyo in particular, have lots of great burger places. Brozer’s on the top floor of the Takashimaya Annex Bldg. 2 blocks east of Tokyo Station has great burgers and other sandwiches for around $10. Definitely worth a trip.
Numerous good smaller burger places abound – such as Darcy’s hidden in the backstereets of Ikebukuro.
Don Quijote has both bottled, carton-ed, and ground coffee for very good prices. A 1 liter carton of black coffee will set you back a mere $.75 USD – an incredible deal. If your hotel or hostel has a fridge in it, you can make one of these stretch 2 days – $.37/day for coffee, not $7 for one cup at a café.
You can get a small jar of honey to use in coffee as a sugar substitute for under $2:
Both groceries + discount stores have some good canned food cheap – fish, ham, chicken. $1.50-$4.00 depending on brand and quality.
Amazingly, 7-11 sells very high quality packaged fish in most supermarkets in Japan. $2.75 gets you a nice fresh package of salmon. A great way to save $.
Since Japan is a seafood nation, most groceries have vast amounts of freshly-caught fish for very low prices. Look around most stores to find good deals on fresh fish.
Most 1st-time visitors to Japan are shocked to discover that the Japanese, despite their good health, and diminutive size are voracious eaters. This is because Japan is a pedestrian society. The average Japanese walks 5-10 miles daily. Up the station stairs, down the station stairs, through train station tunnels miles long, walking everywhere. As a tourist, you will quickly realize after walking all day you want to eat everything in sight.
As a reward, they eat, and eat well. Food is everywhere in big cities in Japan, in vast quantities. Japan has “food parlors” – a throwback to 1950’s-style fine dining. There are restaurants for just about everything. Most dept. stores have food palaces in their basements or on their top floors. All are generally pretty good. There are even entire buildings of 12 floors or more dedicated to food and restaurants – the DAIMARU food palace at Tokyo Station and others. Forget Paris or Italy – you want to eat – Japan is the place to be.
When it comes to food, in Japan, they don’t mess around.
In Japan you can pig out like a native and never gain weight.
Surprisingly, Japan loves deserts + sweets. They can do this without getting fat because they walk 10-15 miles on average per day. Japan is full of an abundance of deserts everywhere you turn. From cheap sweets like the Hokkaido Cream Roll shown below to higher end cakes + cookies in packages, to all kinds of deluxe food parlors, pancake shops, and dessert palaces, which we will discuss next.
Dessert + Fruit Parlors
There are even fruit and desert-only parlors in Japan, such as Takano Fruit Parlourin Shinjuku shown below.
Takano Fruit Parlor, Shinjuku
Heaping plates of all kinds of deserts.
A pancake craze has hit Japan big time. There are big pancake restaurants everywhere and their number keeps growing. The most famous of these is Happy Pancake – one in Ikebukuro, Omotesando, and Ginza. A new one has recently opened in Hong Kong as well. Well worth a trip. Around $10-$15 for just about every variety of pancake you can imagine. There are plenty of other smaller ones as well, such as Flippers, shown below. Happy Pancake Ikebukuro is just a few blocks east of the east exit @ JR Ikebukuro Station.
Flippers – a very popular pancake palace in Omotesando, Tokyo. The Japanese love their pancakes.So much so they will wait in line for them.
Rainbow Pancake in the food court @ ODAKYU dept. store in Shinjuku.
Window of a pancake palace in TOBU dept. store, Ikebukuro.If you want pancakes, Tokyo is the place.
Many dept. stores in Japan have food basements – huge floors where vendors sell both meals and desserts. Many of these Deepichika also have gift vendors which sell packaged gifts. TOBU, Isetan, PARCO, OIOI (Marui), Matsuyakaza, and SEIBU are just a few. There is also a huge Keio dept. store + food basement just outside the west side of Shinjuku Station, which is very good.
Food basement, Mitsukoshi @ Nihonbashi
Giant cookies the size of pies in the food basement of Keio Shinjuku.
Many hotels in Tokyo also run elaborate seasonal-themed dessert buffets on their restaurant floors, such as this one:
Cafes abound in Japan. You might say they are even more popular than in the US. Much more. There are small independent cafes and larger chains. The larger chains are:
We won’t go into rankings, but let’s just say in our opinion we like Doutor and Excelsior Cafe best with Tully’s a close 3rd. Cafe Crie is IOHO not that great – the food tends to be of lesser quality. Tully’s has charge ports and AC outlets in almost every store. Cafe Veloce is sort of a throwback to the 1950’s style diner. Its only drawback is it tends to have more smokers. Doutor is hands down the best for food value/price. You can get great hot dogs and small sandwhiches for under $3 along with coffee for around $2.50 – half what the big chains cost. Definitely worth a look. There are also all kinds of great cafes around Tokyo Station, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and other city areas. Here are a few photos of some of the cafes:
Doutor Menu with all kinds of inexpensive sandwhiches and drinks.
Doutor Lettuce Hot Dog and coffee – around $5.
A Doutour on the right, in Iidabashi.
2 Mister Donuts in Ikebukuro. In fact there are 3 Mister Donuts in Ikebukuro. There is also a very nice one in Akabane, and other areas in Tokyo.
Speaking of Ikebukuro – there is also this Tully’s in the now popular Q Front east of the station.
Oimeda’s Coffee, Ikebukuro
Roasted Cofee Laboratory in the Esola mall south of Ikebukuro Station.
Legendary Coffee Valley is one of the best coffee shops in all of Tokyo hands down – and it has a nice 2nd floor seating area. Don’t miss it just southeast of Ikebukuro Station.
If you walk 1 mile south from Ikebukuro Station, you will find the Rocket Cafe on the west side of Meiji Dori. It also has a nice 2nd floor seating area. A must-visit.As a footnote if you walk far enough south from here you will eventually hit Waseda University about 2 miles to the south.
Excelsior Cafe, Akihabara.
Cafe Legato and Sunday Coffee in Shibuya.
Legendary Junk Cafe, Shibuya – now closed.
Other restaurants + food malls
Many other restaurants, bakeries, and food malls abound, such as this food hall just west of the Shinjuku NTT HQ (aka “The Bubble Building”):
Bakeries abound everywhere – especially in train stations, such as this one – Little Mermaid Café in Komagome Station.
There are several accomodation options in Japan – luxury hotels, resorts, ski places, Ryokan inns, smaller hotels, budget business hotels, and hostels.
We review just business hotels + hostels since they tend to be cheaper.
By far, the very best value in Japan when it comes to hotels is the APA Hotels chain. There are hundreds of these all over Japan, and they are very reasonably priced. They are designed for business travellers, and have great rooms and service, although the hotel rooms tend to be smaller. Don’t let that deter you though – this chain of hotels is a great value for the money – some as low as $65/night USD, with far better accomodations than a similarly priced cheap Motel 6 in the US. Most of them have 4K TV, a fridge in the room, and power outlets + bathroom amenities. Most also have tiny desks in the rooms to work on. In fact, APA is an acronym for Always Pleasant Amenities – and they’re not joking. These are fine hotels. Well worth a look. There is even an APA just 1 train stop from Narita International Airport. If you want to avoid jet lag and want to crash on arrival, you can check in here for a few nights to recover, then move on to Tokyo on the Keisei Line which has a station in Narita City just a few blocks from the hotel. An easy way to make a long trip a bit easier.
Hostels are a cheap way to stay in Japan – some as low as $25-$35/night but you pay in terms of inconveneince and discomfort. Some are capsule hostels, such as And Hostel in Akihabara and Sumida – which we highly recommend. First Cabin is an upscale larger modern luxury “tube hostel” similar to capsule hotels – but the rooms are larger, cleaner, more modern, and have a large TV. These are very clean first class hostels when you can sleep cheap. There is also one of these near the Sumida River in east Tokyo south of Sky Tree.
The downside to hostels and capsules are the noise, lack of room AC control on a per-room basis, cramped quarters, and no where to stand up (although First Cabin also offers larger rooms which do have some floor space and a large table). The air in these places also tends to get a little stuffy. There are several First Cabins all over Tokyo – there is even one right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Akasaka near the central gov’t that is worth a look. Beware however that First Cabin requires all residents to check out daily from 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM for daily cleaning. No exceptions. All rooms also include a small lock box in which you can store valuables when you leave.
Most First Cabins have shared bathrooms, which are very upscale and clean. Floors are separated by gender – mens’s floors and ladies’ floors.
Outside of First Cabin we like And Hostel – as mentioned – in Akihabara, Sumida, and a few other locations. While not quite as upscale as First Cabin, they’re pretty good – clean, well ordered, and they also have the good sense to open floor windows to draft stuffy air outside. They have a lounge where you can sit on a sofa, and tables for work. Some of them have a kitchen you can use. These are pretty reasonable at $40-$50/night. Worth a look.
There are also a variety of smaller, older, privately-run capsule hotels – these vary in quality and price. Search Agoda for reviews + reservations.
Most hotel/hostel staff in Japan are very helpful – much more so than in the US – and many speak English as well. If you have any trouble or need something, most will be more than willing to help.
APA Komagome, east Tokyo. “Ekimae” means “At the station” or “In front of the station”.
Our APA room desk – loaded with loot from Don Quijote discount food store – including 3, 1-liter bottles of UCC Cofee.The big yogurt container with the blue lid is around $1. Good stuff cheap.
Inside First Cabin – like something from a 1970’s sci-fi movie.
Inside a First Cabin standard room.
First Cabin bathroom hallway.
First Cabin Atogoyama – near Shimbashi. Most First Cabins tend to be down side streets in residential neighboorhoods, but there are exceptions, such as in Akasaka.
Inside And Hostel, Akihabara. You get a plywood tube with a matress, and a pull curtain for privacy. The room also has power outlets and a light – but no TV, unlike First Cabin.The plywood walls help deaden sound, which makes And Hostel much better than most.
Phones, computers, WiFi
Much has been written about using phones + WiFi in Japan.
We will try to keep this subject brief. It’s pretty simple.
For phones, your best bet is to bring a phone from you home country which offers an affordable fixed monthly plan with unlimited roaming. Such plans in the US include UltraMobile and T-Mobile. UltraMobile offers a fixed $19/mo international roaming plan which allows you to use any western GSM phone in Japan. Up until 2016 foreigners could buy a Japanese phone in Japan, but this has now been disallowed by the Japanese gov’t over terrorism concerns. If you absolutely must have a Japanese phone, have an associate or company buy one for you there for you to use. Note that prepaid is not big in Japan and you’ll have to have the company pay the bill for you as well.
As for WiFi there are plenty of options – you can buy small roaming WiFi boxes at most electronic stores in Japan such as Bic Camera – you pay a fixed fee per month (usually $40-$70) and the little box piggypacks on the local cell network. There are various vendors such as eConnect Japan and others. Speeds can range from fast to slow, depending on service, and bandwidth. Most electronic stores are eager to sell/rent these boxes to foreigners and will be more than happy to help explain the services and features in both Japanese and English.
However, today, most hotels and many department stores in Japan now offer free WiFi. Some municipalities do – such as at a public hotspot shown below. Check each city’s website before you go. These are easy to use and usually require just an accept on a web page, or a free email registration. To use them, just get in range of the public WiFi signal and log in.
Computers in general, and laptops in particular are generally cheaper in Japan than the rest of the world – except perhaps for the high end modles. Good cheap laptops by Acer or Asus can be had in most electronic stores for $400-$700. Make sure you ask for one with an English keyboard if you don’t speak Japanese as most models in Japan have Japanese. Some models have both on the same keyboard.
A free WiFi spot in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.Just stand nearby + log in.