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

BEFORE YOU LEAVE
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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Tokyo to Manila, Day 10: Easy Saturday morning

It was our last day in Japan. Although our flight was still at around 7 pm, we didn’t want to be running around Tokyo, trying to cross off things we didn’t get to do in my almost-forgotten itinerary. Like the day before, we just wanted to take it easy. Since we hadn’t explored the side of Sumida Park near our hostel, we decided it would be a good idea to go there and cap off our trip during sakura season with a last round of cherry blossom viewing.

We walked to the riverside park, where the cherry-tree lined pathway already had food stalls, low makeshift tables and mats set up (no blue sheets for this crowd) and families starting their hanami. Those who were not lucky enough to get those prime spots, contented themselves with eating their lunch overlooking the river. We followed suit after buying some yakitori, chicken karaage and yakisoba, which were all sooooo good. My mouth waters just looking at the pictures again. (Now that I think about it, it should be part of My top 10 Japanese eats; maybe dislodge number 9 or 10).

While we feasted on our humble hanami spread, we watched Sumida River cruises filled with tourists pass by, a yacht with a family having their own (I imagine, not so humble) feast, and—the surreal sight for the day—an airship gliding across the sky.

Welcome to another hanami. Families enjoying the hanami festivities at Sumida Park

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Tokyo, Day 9: The day we didn’t go to Ghibli Museum

On the ninth day, we had originally planned to head over to the Ghibli Museum. We knew you have to book months ahead if you plan to go during the peak tourist season, which was when we were going. Purchase of the tickets can only be done at certain travel agencies in certain countries—the Philippines not included. This meant we had to ask someone in Japan to buy our tickets in a Lawson’s convenience store. So we did. Two months before we arrived. But by the time our friend headed over to Lawson’s to get the tickets, the only ones available were for sometime in May. My Studio Ghibli dreams were crushed. (But check out this one blogger who got to go.) Oh, but there remained a silver lining. We were still in Japan and it was a free day without anything planned. (Pardon the low-res photos, my net connection sucks so these are easier to upload.)

Bandai mothership calling

P had originally wanted to see the life-sized Gundam statue that was erected in Odaiba a year before. But it had been moved out of Tokyo and into Shizuoka. So when he spotted the Bandai logo on top of a building as we were about to cross the blue bridge over Sumida River, it was like the mother ship calling out to him. I have friends who’ve gone to Paris and who headed to the Eiffel Tower just by keeping it in its sight. (Not a recommended thing to do.) This is how we ended up across the street from what looked like the Bandai office building, where statues of Bandai characters lined the sidewalk—including Ultraman and Kamen Rider. P had a nerdgasm. We took an embarrassing amount of photos before going inside, where toys and more Bandai characters were in display on the ground floor.

 

Kamen Rider equals nerdgasm for P

Hello, Ultraman

My favorite sight inside the Bandai building--it's the sergeant!

Keroro toys, hmmm.

Of course we had to go inside. (Too bad you can't take pictures inside)

When we got out, it started raining. We were hungry and I was still craving for tapsilog (which is a Filipino breakfast consisting of tapa or cured salty beef, sinangag or fried rice and pritong itlog or sunny side-up egg) or any –silog for the matter. I didn’t want tea, miso soup, beef bowl, ramen or onigiri that morning. Without a Filipino restaurant in sight, we ended up in McDonald’s.

Then with our one-day Metro card (bundled with the limousine bus ticket we bought in Narita the day we arrived) and our JR Pass, we took the Ginza line from Asakusa to Ueno, then from Ueno we took the JR line to Harajuku. Yes, we were creatures of habit and Harajuku seemed to be a pretty straightforward and manageable area to explore for the day as Meiji-Jingu and Yoyogi Park were also just short walking distance from the station exit. (I just promised P we were not going to set foot in crowded Takeshita-dori again.)

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Kyoto to Tokyo, Day 8: A few days before going home

Waiting for our bullet train back to Tokyo

Four days in Kyoto was just too fast. While we got to see most of the places we wanted to go to being the dutiful tourists that we were, we didn’t get to simply wander around most of the areas (downtown Kyoto, Nanzen-ji, I know you still have so many little corners to be explored). I was in love with this city and it was time to break up. (Or at least engage in a long-distance love affair, which is sort of the whole point to these blog entries, really.) The plus side to leaving Kyoto was getting to ride the shinkansen again (this time I knew how to close the lock in the toilet to avoid anymore dreadful flashing incidents), and eating the bento lunch we bought at one of the glorious food stalls at the depachika of Isetan at Kyoto Station.

P's bento lunch in the shinkansen

I got chicken karaage with some kind of fish tempura, while P got chicken teriyaki. Both came with rice, some shredded cabbage, some tsukudani and those cute cut-up vegetables in a plastic bento. I thought, if we’re to judge a culture’s level of refinement by how it prepares take-out food, the Japanese will likely win hands down. The only downside to it—where do all those nice, little packaging go after we’re done with them. (A quick web search on Japan’s garbage situation would immediately lead to articles on its effective waste management and recycling process.)

When we got to Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, we took the JR Yamanote line to Ueno (where we could still use our JR Pass, yay!), then the Ginza line to Asakusa. Considered one of the city’s few districts that retain the supposed vibe of the old Tokyo, Asakusa is also home to a number of affordable guesthouses and hostels—in one of which we got a room for our remaining two nights in Japan. Asakusa is also where you can find the popular Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, and the popular hanami spot of Sumida Park. So after P and I checked in and got settled in our room, we headed out.

Sumida Park

There’s always joy in trying to find your destination—unless you’re lugging a heavy baggage or your companion/the weather is miserable. That afternoon, our bags were stashed, the weather was fine, and P and I were happy to be back in Tokyo (even if it did mean saying goodbye to Kyoto) and to not have to wear four layers of clothing (only three this time). We got a bit lost on our way to Senso-ji, but ended up in Sumida Park, another popular spot for cherry blossom viewing. After a stroll in the park, we finally found Senso-ji.

Kaminarimon, entrance gate to Senso-ji

If I thought the number of tourists in the temples of Kyoto were a lot, standing in front of Senso-ji, by its large entrance gates (Kaminarimon), I realized we had stumbled upon the mother lode of Tokyo tourists—bus loads and boat loads (coming from the nearby river cruise). With the free admission and located right along a busy avenue, Senso-ji attracts multitudes and is considered the most popular of Tokyo’s temples. (The fact that it houses the golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, supposedly fished out of Sumida River in year 628, might also have something to do with it.) The crowd thickens even more past the first gate and into Nakamise-dōri, a shopping street of 250 meters lined with shops selling souvenirs and local delicacies.

Even after only spending a week in Japan, a visit to its restaurants, marketplaces and shopping streets should clue you in that the country is big on rice and beans and all its byproducts. Like other Asian countries, rice figures heavily in its meals. Then there are its byproducts—sake (rice wine), mochi (rice cakes made of glutinous rice), and rice flour used to make dango, various wagashi (Japanese sweets) and crackers. And because of Japan’s rich Buddhist history, the bean or mame is also big. It’s the source of Japanese staples such as tofu, yuba (soy milk skin), miso, soy sauce and anko (sweet paste made from azuki beans).

Nakamise Shopping Street—so this is where all the Tokyo tourists are

At Nakamise Shopping Street, stalls selling snacks and boxes of local goodies seem to be only made up of those two things. There were rice crackers of different shapes and sizes and Japanese sweets (such as ningyoyaki) filled with red bean paste. (I admit, I originally thought the red-brown filling was chocolate, which prompted me to buy a bag to snack on.)

Want some rice crackers?

Homemade fried bean-jam bun

Japanese sweets such as ningyoyaki, which is pancake or waffle batter filled with red bean paste and cooked in a mold

After P and I got through the crowd of Nakamise (though not without losing each other at some point), we got to the temple’s second gate, the Hozomon. The crowd had thinned considerably and only then did we realize that the main hall of the temple was already closed for the day. We contentedly took photos of the five-storied pagoda next to it (no other tourists on the background!) and the less crowded Hozomon gate. It was closing time, after all.

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Tokyo to Kyoto, Day 5: In slumber and snow (and a bullet train in between)

Shibuya Crossing on a quiet and rainy Monday morning

Our shinkansen ride to Kyoto was scheduled a few minutes past noon, but we left C’s apartment early. From Sangen-jaya, we had to go to the Shibuya train station to take the Yamanote line to Shinagawa station, where we would take the shinkansen. We wanted to have more than enough time to find Shinagawa and we also thought it would be a good idea to kill some time exploring Shibuya. After stashing our luggage in one of the lockers in the station by eight am, we headed out. (There are only a few station lockers for big pieces of luggage so if you want to grab a hold of one, be there early.)

Outside the Hachiko Exit of Shibuya Station

There was the statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya station exit named after the loyal Akita dog, all by its lonesome, minus the constant hordes of people who have made it a popular meeting spot. The Shibuya Crossing on that cold, rainy Monday morning seemed reluctant to come to life without the multitude of pedestrians. Its blinking video screens and neon lights still in slumber. It was like our first glimpse of Tokyo from the airport. As we walked the streets of Shibuya, the entire district, which is crammed with many department stores and little boutiques, seemed to be in no hurry to wake up. There was not much activity save for a camera crew shooting a group of dancing girls for what looked like a commercial. When we spotted an open gyudon restaurant an hour later, we ducked into it for some breakfast.

One of the reliable eateries for thrifty travelers in Japan are the gyudon-ya, which serves the popular donburi dish of gyudon (rice topped with beef and onion), along with some pork variations (butadon and tondon) and salmon for around ¥500. You either pay for it at the counter or via vending machine by the restaurant’s entrance. The vending machines often don’t have an English menu so you have to rely on the photos (though it’s sometimes hard to tell the beef and pork bowls apart). The gyudon typically comes with the Japanese set meal staples of miso soup, pickled vegetables, and hot tea.

In our entire trip to Japan, the gyudon has always been a dependable and satisfying meal, so we were surprised when less than three hours later, we were seated in one of the restaurants inside Shinagawa station having another meal. We still had an hour before our train arrived so we decided to explore the station. It was filled with stalls selling bento boxes, an udon place filled with salarymen hunched over their bowls of noodles, a restaurant serving “homemade curry” as it claimed on its doorway, and a bunch of other eateries that made us crave to have an early lunch.

Hello, shinkansen!

At 12:10 pm, the shinkansen Hikari line we were to board for Kyoto pulled up in front of the platform in all its sleek, steel gorgeousness…as much as a train can be gorgeous. (Or, judging from my past entries, I could be biased for everything Japanese.) Via the shinkansen, the 460-plus kilometer distance between two cities is covered in a little over two hours. (Taking the bus would have taken it around eight hours.) I felt like I was going on vacation from a vacation—from the rapid pace of Tokyo that can leave anyone breathless (I’m sure my itinerary didn’t help) to a slower and historically-rich Japan of surreal golden temples, well-preserved castles, and Zen gardens. I was going to get a taste of traditional Japan and my mouth was watering.

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