A year ago: the Tokyo International Anime Fair

Every year, the Tokyo International Anime Fair gathers the different organizations and companies behind many of Japan’s anime and manga titles. Considered one of the largest anime trade fairs in the world, it is usually held for four days, in the latter part of March, in Tokyo Big Sight in Odaiba. The first two days are reserved for industry people and the press, then it opens to the public on the third and fourth day (typically on a weekend).

We got to go last year and being curious as to how it was going to turn out this year I searched online for news on the 2011 fair, which was slated for March 24 to 27. With the earthquake and tsunami that recently devastated parts of Japan however, it wasn’t surprising that they cancelled this year’s fair. For those who were planning to attend the fair for the first time this year, here are some anime fair photos–though they are from the 2010 exhibition, I hope it gives you an idea on what goes on inside this anime heaven of an event.

Fans of all ages (from kids excited to see Chibi Maruko-chan to grown ups drooling over the displays) get a chance to find out new things being planned for their favorite anime series, buy some spanking new merchandise, gape at the awesome sight of some life-sized anime characters up close, and just bask in the fun, crazy, and wonderful world of anime. (All photos were taken by the hubby)

Enter the hall of happiness

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The cherry blossoms are blooming

I just remembered that it was exactly a year ago today when my husband and I finally got to go to Japan. The trip was amazing and it sealed our fascination for everything Japanese. Japan was more beautiful than I imagined especially with those fluffy, pink clouds of cherry blossoms in parks, gardens, temples, street corners, riversides, and bridges.

A cherry blossom tree just outside a house along the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto

Many people stroll (and shoot) along the Philosopher's Path, a beautiful walkway lined with blooming cherry blossom trees during spring

Cherry blossom trees getting all lit up in the evening in a street in Gion

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park

Cherry trees line both sides of the Sumida River in Tokyo

Yoyogi Park in Tokyo

Japanese and foreign tourists descend upon Ueno Park in Tokyo from late March to early April

Appreciating the blossoms’ delicate beauty and short life span, the Japanese take the time to celebrate its arrival with viewing parties (hanami). The flower also figures in Japanese poetry and literature, seen as a metaphor for life–it’s beautiful, it’s fleeting, it has to be celebrated, and it ends. Sometimes all too soon.

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Riding trains in Tokyo

Woke up sick a couple of days ago. Spent all day in my pajamas. Made pitiful attempts to write, but ended up crawling back to bed. After a busy week, I think my body just wanted to slow down (that, or it was telling me not to accept any more assignments requiring tasting and ingesting 14 kinds of milkshakes).

I did spend an unhealthy amount of time (there I go again) looking at old vacation photos. And one of the things I have always wanted to post in here are some photos P and I took of the trains and train stations back in Tokyo. They’re not a lot since most days, by the time we reached the stations, we were just too tired or too cold to whip out the camera and shoot.

But I love trains. I love it that we at least have three (soon, four) rapid transit lines running within Metro Manila (Update: This isn’t counting the PNR lines, which go all the way from Manila to Bicol), providing commuters like me a faster and more convenient way to get from point A to point B minus the horrendous traffic on some of the city’s congested roads (Rizal Ave., EDSA, Aurora Blvd). So when faced with a massive and efficient railway system like the one in Tokyo, I can’t help but get some sort of inanimate infatuation.

It can be confusing–the many stations, exits and platforms–but once understood, oh the happy rewards. (Plus, this post I made on planning a trip to Japan also covers how to make sense of the Tokyo transit system.) The heated seats. Listening to the Japanese and English announcements made by a lovely Japanese voice. People watching in a crammed morning subway or in an almost deserted car of the last train (around midnight). And, of course, finding your way from point A to B (with a few transfers, of course) in one of the biggest cities in the world. I feel a little better now.

Catching the early morning train. Not a lot of salarymen yet.

Finding our way to Tsukiji Market

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The Cheapskate’s Guide to Tokyo (or at least how I did it)

A couple of weeks ago, I got messages from friends who are planning to go to Japan to catch the cherry blossoms in bloom next year. One of their concerns (as it was mine) was keeping the expenses down. I wrote about seeing Kyoto on a budget for in-flight magazine, Smile, last July, and I thought it would be good idea to list down some ideas to keep costs down in Tokyo while still seeing a lot of what that huge metropolitan city has to offer. So here’s another entry, my gift to my Japan-bound friends–minus my long Japan travel tales of Days 1 to 10. 🙂

Explore the streets. No better way to witness the pulse of the Japanese capital than walk its busy (as well as its quiet) streets where you can be among the ultra-fashionable, the throngs of salarymen, or fellow tourists in awe of Tokyo. To minimize transportation costs, it’s best to explore the city per area. The extensive metro rail of the city has stops for most of the popular spots in Tokyo, anyway. And bring your most comfortable shoes!  (There were days though when I did succumb to “vanity over comfort” mentality with a pair of boots that just looked nicer. Tsk, tsk.)

Heading down Takeshita-dori. Hello, crowd.

1. Harajuku. Head down Takeshita Dori, which is just across the JR Yamanote line exit of Harajuku Station. Walk down this narrow street lined with trendy boutiques, shops where cosplayers likely shop, a 100 yen store, some restaurants and a lot of crepe stalls. Check it our during a Sunday to see Japanese teens get all dressed up. Walk further south and you’ll end up in Omotesando, where the crowd is past their adolescence and has a different kind of style–less costumey, more chic.

Akihabara in the afternoon. An even better sight in the evening!

2. Akihabara. Tokyo’s Electric Town and ground zero for geekery with all the manga and toy stores, gadgets galore, and maid cafes to gawk at. You can get out of the JR Akihabara exit and start checking out the stores from there. (Here is the very detailed Akihabara map we were given on our walking tour. Here is another one from Tokyo Tourism that might be helpful. They have 53 Ways to Explore Tokyo on Foot; most tourist spots are in areas A, B, C, and D.)

Pedestrians waiting for the green light at the Shibuya Crossing

3. Shibuya. Where you can find the tourist-draw of a crossing, that little Hachiko statue, sharply dressed young Japanese women (makes you feel you want to go back to your inn and put on something nicer) and so many department stores for a consumerist high.

An alley in the Golden Gai in Shinjuku–one of the most interesting night spots in Tokyo

4. Shinjuku. Where skyscrapers, more department stores, and night spots, including a red-light district, abound. Must check out the alleys and pubs of the Golden Gai, though a visit in one of the bars will set you back a cover charge or admission fee between Y700 to Y2000. (FYI: To fellow Pinoys, there is a bar nearby called Champion Bar and it is co-owned by a Filipino and frequented by Pinoys working in Tokyo. Our friend pointed it out to us, but we didn’t get a chance to go inside.) You can also just head to one of the big chain stores, like Takashimaya (with a large Tokyu Hands branch inside), Isetan (must stop for the basement food hall), or Yodobashi to drool over electronics.

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Planning your trip to Japan (tiny quarters, free stuff, and why climate change is a b*tch)

A friend is heading to Japan on holiday for a few days in November and December and we’ve been e-mailing each other for the past few weeks. She’s been asking about money-changers, hostel accommodations, sights to see in such a tight schedule, etc. I have only been to Japan once, but there were a few things I did pick up that might help other people planning a trip there for the first time. (Some tips I have already buried, er, included, at the end of my past, long Japan entries, but it might be easier for new readers to see them in one entry.)

Dreaming of cherry blossoms before the trip

For me, the second best thing to actually being in Japan is planning your trip to Japan. Or planning a trip anywhere. You just get this wonderful high from the anticipation the trip brings. (My favorite quote from travel writer/editor Don George: Anticipation is one of travel’s great gifts. If you’re still not convinced, check out this NY Times article on a study from the Netherlands, which showed that “the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation.”) So, what’s included in the planning?

Getting your visa then your plane ticket: When it comes to heading off to a country where I need to acquire a visa, I try not to succumb to the temptation of buying those non-refundable promo fares. What I do is I get in touch with a travel agency, give them my budget for the ticket (that is after looking through websites of different airlines to have an idea on the average cost) and ask how long they can hold it for me. Usually they can reserve it for two weeks, so I then go about acquiring the requirements I need for the tourist visa within that time frame. In Manila, a Japanese visa is acquired through accredited travel agencies. We got ours through Reli Tours and after we submitted everything, we got our visa after 2-3 days. Only then do I give my travel agent the go to buy the tickets.

Getting a Japan Rail (JR) Pass: It can be a real travel bargain for foreign tourists planning to explore the different cities of Japan within seven, 14 or 21 days (the different types of passes), but it can only be acquired outside Japan.
1) You buy the JR Pass exchange order in authorized travel agencies in your country. (Here’s a list from the JR Pass website. We bought ours at Universal Holidays, Inc. in Makati. Credit card is accepted.)
2) When you get to Japan, take your exchange order, along with your passport, to a JR Station Information Center to get your pass. ONLY do this if you already need to use the train or shinkansen to travel between cities. At around ¥28,000 for a mere seven-day pass, it is not a bargain if you’re simply staying within the same city. (If that’s the case you’re better off purchasing one of the many day passes or prepaid cards for the local trains.) It comes close to paying off if you, for example, have to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and back (roundtrip fare is around ¥26,000). Taking the shinkansen to nearby Nara, Osaka, Kobe or Himeji once in Kyoto makes it a real bargain.
3) Assuming you acquired your JR Pass to ride the shinkansen, make sure you reserve a seat. There’s no additional payment and you can make the reservation at the Information Center as well. You will receive a reserved-seat ticket (left), which you need to show the train inspector once you’ve boarded the train. If you don’t reserve a seat, you might end up standing during the entire ride. (We got our exchange orders exchanged for the actual pass and reservations at the JR Information Center in Shibuya station)
* For an even cheaper transportation alternative between cities, check out the Japan Bus Pass by Willer Express.

Finding cheap and (with a semblance of) cozy digs. Accommodations in Tokyo (and sometimes even Kyoto) can be costly compared to other Asian cities–heck, compared to other Japanese cities. Even among typically affordable hostels, inns and guesthouses, what’s cheap in Tokyo (1 night at a basic twin private hostel room in Khaosan Tokyo Samurai with a shared bathroom is around PHP3,368) will get you a better looking and much more spacious hostel/business hotel/boutique hotel room with its own private bathroom in Saigon, Siem Reap or Kuala Lumpur. (I’ve been checking at Hostelworld.com for a trip next year, fingers crossed!) But then again, real estate in Tokyo is one of the most expensive in the world, so it’s not really a big surprise. Hostelworld is a good source of affordable accommodations. Just start booking as soon as you get your visa and tickets, because the higher rated hostels, inns, and hotels get full pretty fast. If you can’t get the ones you like and only the average- or low-rated accommodations have rooms or beds, check the hostel reviews of other travelers–particularly their “lowest rated” reviews and see if what they’re griping about is something you’ll have an issue with as well. For me, complaints about “not having a common area to meet fellow travelers,” “being hard to find,” “tiny rooms” or “far from the party scene” were things I could easily overlook. Bed bugs, security lapses and just plain bad service were not. (But in our 10-day stay in Japan, I have to say I did not encounter any sort of bad customer service even with the language barrier.)

Japanese culture-tripping: Tea ceremonies, ikebana, sake tasting, calligraphy, sushi making–there are many activities that can immerse you into Japanese culture. Most tours and services though are expensive, but if you’re heading to Kyoto, WAK Japan has a range of short programs for those on a limited time and budget. But if you want an introduction to Japanese culture for free…

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