Life-Saving Travel Tips to Navigate Tokyo

Categories:Asia, Japan, Tokyo, Travel Tips, Urban
Jessica Peterson


Japan is a lovely country to visit and one of the most safe places in the world, but it seems to have been built by Japanese, for Japanese.

Not that the residents aren’t friendly — they really are the most polite crowds you could ever be surrounded by. It’s just that few speak fluent English and not all signs and directions are in English either. The farther from Tokyo you travel, the less English signage you’ll see.

Navigating the Airport

Narita N’EX, Narita Express discount fare is 1,500 Yen, but you can’t get the same rate going to the airport. Terminal 1 is the last stop on the Keisei Skyliner Eveningliner or the Narita Express.

Departures from Tokyo to Guam at Narita Airport typically board in Terminal 1 at Gate 31. Fortunately, the United Club Lounge is footsteps from the gate. This is one of the largest and most comfortable of the United lounges I’ve seen. I alternate between drinking screwdrivers and Cappuccinos. It’s a pretty trippy experience when you’re jetlagged or just plain beat from hoofing it in Tokyo.

Note that Narita Airport is huge. There are two main terminals plus a central building with a floor of brand new shops selling everything from apparel to nail services. That being said, I recommend you allow at least an hour prior to boarding time to get through security and immigration, which is usually expedient, but obviously takes longer the more passengers transiting.

Navigating the Metro

Even Japanese find the Tokyo Metro confounding. I have met local friends in Tokyo upon arrival and they almost always find it challenging to describe our meeting place. Tokyo is a context-specific destination — meaning visitors have a hard time navigating it. The Metro lines bob and weave like a ball of colored yarn and are owned by different companies.

I’ve been to Tokyo three times and must admit that it took me that many visits to get the hang of the Metro lines. I still managed to put a station employee into a tailspin as he helped me find the locker I had deposited by suitcase in just hours earlier. He was noticeably sweating and coughing as he searched his iPad and ran up and down the Tokyo Station corridors looking for my locker. Poor thing, though he still walked about ten times faster than me. Even old ladies were passing me in the station. Tokyo moves at a dizzying pace underground, so just resign yourself to stand out as a tourist and know that you will get lost at least once. You will get tired. You will walk for miles. And then you’ll walk some more.

Find the Metro Station number to determine your stop, if you are having a hard time pronouncing or reading the Japanese name. Keep your Metro ticket in hand because you will need it to exit the station, even if you have inserted it into a turnstile once already.

Also note that the Metro ticket machines accept credit cards only with a PIN, so carry one of those and a decent amount of cash. Don’t worry, you could leave your wallet open in just about any public area and no one will touch it. It’s really that safe. I dropped my jacket on a frantic race to meet a friend in Nippori and found it hung delicately on a nearby sign 30 minutes later. I cannot emphasize enough how pleasant Tokyoites and Japanese in general are even if they’re staring intently into their mobile phones.

Always carry a Metro map and note that tickets are not interchangeable between the lines — some of which are for subways and other for above-ground trains. Don’t be afraid to ask a Metro employee for help. The ticket office staff will not give up in finding a solution for your problem or question even if they have a hard time understanding you.

Travel light if possible. Some stations are a mile long when you factor in the twists and turns.

Carry Cash

Not all restaurants take credit cards, so carry a mixture of small denomination bills and coins.

Read my travel story, Three Perfect Days in Tokyo.

Do you have any other travel tips to make navigating Tokyo easier? Comment below!

Jessica Peterson
Follow me

Jessica Peterson

Jessica Peterson is a travel filmmaker, photographer, and journalist. She released her first documentary film about indigenous culture on Guam in 2016, after having lived nearly 7 years on the Pacific island. Jessica is currently on the Great American Roadtrip in her Airstream trailer.
Jessica Peterson
Follow me