Saturday, September 13, 2008

Afterthoughts & tips on travelling to Tokyo Part 2

Places to Visit

I highly recommend a trip out to the country, the Tokyo outskirts are very beautiful and offer a nice change of scenery. But even if you decide to stay within Tokyo, there's lots to do. Obviously you need to cater to your family's tastes. We didn't bother with the many shrines and temples in Tokyo as they don't interest us. Other famous activities that we gave a miss included the Ginza shopping district (too upmarket), the Tsukiji fish market (too early), the Noh and Kabuki theatre shows (too cheem).

If you have kids, then I assume Disneyland and Disneysea are on your itinerary. But if these aren't enough to satisfy your kids' theme park appetites, Tokyo has lots of other theme parks - the Japanese are theme park crazy. There's Sanrio Puroland (Hello Kitty!), Sega Joypolis (Sonic the Hedgehog!), Fuji-Q Highland, LaQua at Tokyo Dome City (more for adults), just to name a few. Even some of the smaller districts boast their own theme parks. In Kinugawa near Tobu World Square where we went, there's Edo Wonderland - a theme park where everything is based on the Edo period. You can see ninja shows and even dress up like one!

In short, do what you enjoy. That's why we almost never go on package tours. It takes more effort and homework to design your own tour but you can be sure the itinerary is catered to your pace, and you only see and do what you like. If you do your planning well, chances are you'll find that you spend significantly less too.

Dates and Times

Since we have two schooling kids, we are able to travel only during the school holidays. So although we knew that June would be the rainy season for Japan, we had to take a chance, we didn't really have a choice.

Check out the peak periods for the specific place you're visiting. Eg. Nikko's peak season is autumn. So go there during that period if you want breath-taking scenery but be prepared for bumper-to-bumper traffic.

If you're going to visit theme parks, do try to avoid the school holidays or public holidays in Japan. Also try to go on weekdays instead of weekends. It will be a madhouse, especially at Disneyland. I am not exaggerating, the queues and crowds at Disneyland on weekdays, during low season, are bad enough. For the Disney parks, the mornings are the best, try to get there before opening and go for the most popular rides first. Plan for Fast Passes for maximum time saving (forgotten how it works? Go back to my blog.) The parks start to fill from 11am and they don't ebb until about dinner time. I can't speak for the other theme parks as we didn't visit those.

Other sights might have special time or day considerations. Eg. if you want to visit Harajuku, schedule it on a Sunday late morning, that's when the costume party is in full force. The morning peak hour rush at the train stations are legendary. Enroute to Mt Fuji near the Central Business District, from our coach, we saw a formidable sea of men looking identical in their suits, pouring out of a train station and waiting at a traffic light. Try not to schedule any travelling on trains, especially at the busy stations, before 9am. You will either get swept up with the crowd, get lost, or get crushed. The evening peak is not as bad as it's staggered over a few hours, but it can still get uncomfortable, especially if you have kids with you.

Oh yes, whatever you do, be on time! The Japanese don't fool around with their schedules. Eg. if you're going on the Mt Fuji day trip and the pickup time is 8.20am, don't be late. They will not, I repeat, will not wait for you.


What is there to say that I haven’t already said? Japan is a food haven and I hope through my blog, I’ve managed to debunk the myth that eating well in Tokyo has to cost a bomb. You just need to know where to look. Many restaurants have displays in their shop windows, you can check out the selection and prices before entering the restaurant. I would caution against going into restaurants without knowing the price range first.

There are also many street vendors in Tokyo, selling food like pizza or yakitori (grilled meat on a skewer), food that kids tend to enjoy anyway. There are many tiny noodle stalls where you can get a bowl of ramen or udon for S$5 but often at these places, you eat standing up at the counter, which makes them unsuitable for kids. Kaiten sushi is conveyor belt sushi and can be readily found around Tokyo. You've already read in my blog about the sushi there being cheap and good.

Of course, Bento boxes are a good bet. These come complete with chopsticks, paper napkin, even a toothpick, so they’re good on the go or to bring back to your hotel. (One Bento box we bought in Nikko came with a whole raw egg in its shell, meant to be cracked over the beef rice bowl. We heated it up in hot water and had soft boiled egg for breakfast.)

As a rule of thumb, the basements of supermarkets are the food halls and they offer the most choices for takeaway food. Here, they give out samples of all kinds of food and you can choose from rows of Bento boxes containing sushi, grilled meats, tempura, as well as counters selling croquette, oden (stew), tempura and other types of finger food. This is just my opinion but if you are ever faced with a choice between beef or chicken, take the beef. The beef we ate throughout the trip was exceptional.

And when all else fails, there's always Japanese fast food like MOS burger and Yoshinoya. Or *whispers* McDonald's or KFC. This should be the ultimate last resort because I think it's a tragedy to be in Tokyo and eating at McDonald's. (Andre heartily disagrees).

Final tips

Use the takuhaibin! If you’ve forgotten how it works, go back to my blog here. Using the takuhaibin will save you a lot of hassle, especially if you’re not going to stay put in one hotel throughout your trip. The service can be found at most hotels, at convenience stores and even at little shops. Near the Nikko train station, the service was offered at a little newspaper shack that didn’t look like it could withstand a strong breeze. It looked like a make-shift place, yet it offered the service.

If you're using the takuhaibin, it pays to pack smart. We packed one suitcase for Tokyo, one for Nikko. At any one time, we would have at least one suitcase with us, so we didn't have to worry about whether we were short of anything. In fact, most of the hotels we stayed at provided most of the amenities we needed, down to toothbrushes, so we didn't even have to pack that!

If you want to research Tokyo as a travel destination, chances are you would go to the library and borrow heaps of guidebooks like Frommers, Fodor and Lonely Planet. I know I did. I've read all of them and I feel that they all say more or less the same thing. They recommend similar hotels, similar restaurants, similar sights, sometimes even written in the same way. By all means, look up those books, I'm not saying they don't offer any valuable information. But do supplement your research by searching actual experiences and reviews online.

Eg. all these guidebooks list the Tsukiji fish market as a must-see and how the sushi they serve up from the fish freshly caught is a must-try. I did a search and came across an account about how a tourist well-versed in fish grades discovered that he had ordered the top grade plate of sushi at a stall but was served a 2nd grade one. He complained and they replaced his order with the correct one, but he then saw them do exactly the same thing to other unsuspecting tourists! A generally honest society doesn't mean there are no crooks. You won't find that sort of information on Lonely Planet.

If you want a fun read of a tourist’s impression of Japan, I recommend Dave Barry Does Japan. It’s NOT a guide book. It’s a comic travelogue by a very, very funny writer. It left me in stitches. I first read it ten years ago when Tokyo was furthest from my mind and read it again before we left for Tokyo. It’s still hilarious.

And that rounds up my blog for Tokyo, Japan. I'm not sure when I can write another travel post, unless it's of past trips, since there is nothing on the horizon for now. Next year, Lesley-Anne will be sitting for her PSLE exams and her teacher has already "strongly discouraged" any travel next year until after the exams. Maybe end of next year? I wonder if I can stay sane till then.

So for now, it's sayonara and arigato gozaimasu for reading!

Afterthoughts & tips on travelling to Tokyo Part 1

Writing this blog has been lots of fun, but it has been frustrating too, no thanks to the wonkiness of the Blogger formatting. Everything would look hunky dory on the screen, then when I publish the post, I would see pictures out of alignment and large chunks of text bunched together without spaces between paragraphs. I would go back and edit, re-publish post and... again! Everything would randomly jumble up and look completely messed up, like some malfunctioning puzzle.

So in the end, I had to resort to editing the HTML code. And I know zilch about HTML code. I would pore over each section of text, trying to guess what represents a line, what represents a paragraph, trying not to accidentally delete something I didn't know how to replace. The formatting ended up taking significantly longer than the actual writing!

But enough of my blogging woes. After this trip, I've come to the conclusion that Tokyo is a great family holiday destination. Here's why:
  • It's safe and the people are scrupulously honest.
  • The Japanese love children, and kids pay half fare for almost everything.
  • There's such a variety of sights and activities, you can find something to interest everyone.
  • Everything functions like clockwork and on schedule, making it easy to plan.
  • I've only mentioned this about 1,000 times - the food is superly duper.

Some things that might be slight obstacles in Tokyo:

  • To say things can be pretty pricey is an understatement.
  • Minimal English. Although the younger generation study English in school, the focus is on written, not spoken English so they don't speak or understand it well.
I've compiled some tips about travelling in Tokyo with children. If you're like me, wanting a good holiday with minimum hiccups while keeping to, not exactly a shoestring but a reasonable budget, then maybe my sharing of what I'd done and experienced would be helpful to you.


Accept that hotel rooms tend to be tiny in Japan. It's difficult to find rooms that sleep 4 or more (but not impossible - I did it). For a family of 4, the usual practice is to get 2 rooms that sleep 2 each. But this generally means paying more for the same class of hotel. If one or more of your kids are pre-schoolers, you might be able to fit into a room that sleeps 3 and share. This is workable especially with ryokans, since futons can be placed side by side.

Rooms with attached baths are also more expensive and harder to find. Most ryokans have common baths.

With kids, you need convenience. Try to stay at a hotel near a train station or at least just a short cab ride away (and by short, I mean time, not just distance. Traffic in central Tokyo can be horrendous and it can take a long time just to travel a short distance, exponentially pushing up your cab fare). The first and last hotel of your trip should also be near a mode of transport to and from the airport. You don't want to have to walk long distances or negotiate steps with heavy luggage.

The Welcome Inn Reservation Centre compiles a list of hotels throughout Japan which offer affordable rates to foreigners. It's very good - I found the Teddy Bear House in Nikko and Hotel Edoya via this website.

Travelling within Tokyo

Trains are by far the easiest way to get around. Some websites recommend buying the JR Pass which gives you unlimited rides on the JR rail. But after some calculation, I've concluded that the JR Pass is only worthwhile if you're going to travel to another city out of Tokyo, eg Osaka. If you're staying within Tokyo, the JR Pass is very expensive. The JR Pass also doesn't cover travel on the subway, which I've found is generally more convenient and user-friendly.

Try to plan the route beforehand (ie before you reach Tokyo). Use the route finder, it will save you time and money. But still, bring both the JR and subway maps with you. Both the JR and the subway offer pre-paid cards (Suica for JR, Pasmo for subway), similar to Singapore's EZ-link card, if you don't want the hassle of buying tickets before each trip. There are also child Suica and Pasmo. Both types of cards can be used interchangeably on JR and subway lines. However, we didn't get those because of the hassle of going to a station to get a refund at the end of our trip and there's a charge of Y210 for the refund service. Anyway, it's no biggie buying tickets before each trip. If you can't figure out how much your journey costs, just buy the cheapest ticket and pay the difference at your disembarking station.

As I've mentioned, avoid cabs except for short rides. Starting fare for the 1st 2km is Y710 (S$9.30). If you get lost, the best solution is to get into a cab and ask the driver to take you to the nearest train station.


The Japanese language comprises 3 systems - Hiragana, Katagana and Kanji. I memorised the Hiragana system but obviously you don't have to do that. If you read Chinese, you would recognise some of the Kanji characters. Although the pronunciation is different, the meanings are the same. I brought a pocket Japanese dictionary with me, you can also bring one of those handy electronic instant translators.

It's useful to know some of the basic words and phrases. The Japanese warm up to you when they see you're trying to speak their lingo.
  • Konichiwa - good afternoon or hello (use this liberally!)
  • Ohayo gozamasu (don't pronounce the 'u')- good morning
  • Konbanwa - good evening
  • Arigato - thank you
  • Sayonara - good-bye
  • Sumimasen - excuse me
  • Hai - yes
  • Gomen nasai - I'm sorry
  • Kudasai - please (usually placed at the end of a phrase)
  • Wakarimasen - I don't understand (my kids loved this and used it all the time!)
  • Ikura desuka? - (don't pronounce the 'u') - How much is it?
  • (place) doko desuka? - Where is (place)?
  • Toire - toilet (very important when you have kids!)

Some guidebooks give the Japanese version of phrases like "Can you tell me how to get to the train station." I think this is, to put it bluntly, stupid. If you say that, the person will almost certainly answer you in Japanese and you won't be able to understand a single word.

What I do is use a combination of basic Japanese phrases, pidgin English and sign language. Eg. if I want to buy tickets for 2 adults and 2 children at the train station, I go: "Sumimasen," show 2 fingers, gesture tall person, show 2 fingers, gesture short person, and say: "Ikura desuka?" If he answers in Japanese, I smile sweetly and say "Wakarimasen" (accompanied by shaking of head). He will then punch out the numbers on a calculator and show it to me. You may laugh but I'm telling you, it works! (Of course, check if he speaks English first, lah).

If you really need help, try to stop a younger person (more likely to have learnt English), speak slowly and use few key words. Instead of: "Can you please tell me where I can find a doctor as my son is sick", say: "Sick. Doctor? Where?" If that doesn't get through, try writing it down. The Japanese can read English better than they can understand it aurally.

I printed out all the key words and phrases and pasted them in a little notebook which I carried with me all the time. It also included printouts of all the names and addresses of the hotels we stayed at and places we were planning to go to in Japanese, so I could easily flash them at cab drivers when necessary, or at the concierge for filling in the takuhaibin forms.

Packing Food

I always pack snacks when I'm travelling with kids as you never know when they'll be hungry. In Tokyo, this is unlikely to be a problem, you can get a dazzling array of snacks from convenience stores and vending machines that are located along practically every street.

Drinks too. You'll be spoilt for choice. Their coffee vending machines alone offer hot, iced, decaf, caf, extra caf, cappucino, cafe au lait and in different brands. One type of drink you'll find at all their vending machines is green tea. Bottled, canned or in a cup, the Japanese drink this all the time. They hardly drink water.

You only need to pack snacks if you're travelling to the outskirts or suburbs. In Nikko, the shops close early, by 5pm there was hardly anything open. Our hotel was located within a forest, so no shops. In those cases, yes, do pack your own snacks. Mini boxed cereal and biscuits keep well.

What I found lacking however, was fruit. The fruit I saw at the supermarket were the high-end ones (maybe we didn't look in the right place). Even at the convenience store, they were selling bananas by the piece and if I recall correctly, each banana was more than S$1 each. Luckily, we had brought a few packs of Sunsweet dried prunes - they are handy and they come in resealable packs, so they keep well. Other dried fruit like apricots would work as well.

Another interesting titbit - while many hotels in other parts of the world offer tea and coffee making facilities in the room, in Tokyo, most of them only offer ocha sachets. This is especially true for the ryokans. So if you need your caffeine fix while you're in the room, make sure you pack your coffee sachets or Earl Grey. And don't forget your sugar and creamer sachets if you need those. (I had Super 3-in-1 with me. With 2 hyper kids in a small room, it was a life-saver!)

Part 2 coming up...

Friday, September 12, 2008

A dose of art and eating our way out of Tokyo

Day 9 (Tues, 3 June 2008)

Last day in Japan. I'd spent months planning for this trip and it felt like it was all over in a flash. But, no time for brooding! We're determined to enjoy this day to the fullest.

We didn't have a lot planned, our flight was at 5.30pm and we wanted to have a leisurely day. Out of curiosity, we went to explore the hot bath at our hotel. Yes, Hotel Edoya actually has its own outdoor hot bath on the top floor.

There are two separate bath areas, one for men, the other for ladies. When you open the door to either one, there is a common shower area that looks like this. Basically, you strip down to your birthday suit, sit on one of the stools and wash your entire body clean with soap and water. In full view of everyone! (We were very early, no one was around, that's why we could take pictures).

Once you are clean, you go past a sliding glass door where there is an outdoor bubbling hot bath. You soak inside and enjoy the soothing powers of the water, as relaxed as you can get sitting stark naked in a public place. You can bring a towel but it's to be folded and put on top of your head (??) It's considered very rude to dunk the towel in the water. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! Forget all the demure ladies you see on Japan Hour with a towel wrapped around their bodies when they're in a hot bath, that's just for the benefit of the camera.

For such a conservative society, I'm amazed that they have such an uninhibited practice. The Japanese are as fanatical about their hot baths as Singaporeans are about food.

Needless to say, we didn't indulge in a hot bath that day (and probably never will). Instead, we went back to our room and packed up to leave Hotel Edoya. Check-out time is 12pm and the hotel can store your luggage for you, but we didn't want to have the hassle of going out and returning to collect our luggage, so we checked out early and brought our luggage with us. To get back to Narita Airport, we were going to take the Keisei Skyliner at Keisei Ueno, so we had earlier planned to explore the Ueno area that day.

Here are the kids as we were waiting for a cab. As you can see, it was another wet day. By the way, you see these transparent umbrellas everywhere in Japan. They're very cheap (less than S$5) but also made of the flimsiest plastic. Often, within a couple of hours of usage, you would find the material tearing from the top, leaving gaping holes for the rain to seap through. Another evidence of the disposable culture in Japan.

We managed to hail a cab and piled in. I told the driver "Keisei Ueno" and showed him a printout of the name in Japanese, just in case. Without a word, he started driving. I was a little disconcerted. Did he hear me? I repeated "Keisei Ueno", a little louder this time. Again silence. I decided he just didn't want to acknowledge me. Maybe he was upset that we had wet his cab. That was the very first and only impolite Japanese we had met on the trip.

Keisei Ueno station was just a 7min drive away. We went to buy our Keisei Skyliner tickets and then we left our luggage at the lockers in the train station. I had done extensive research on this, even to the extent of finding out the size of lockers available at the station! What, you didn't think we were going to explore Ueno with bulky luggage, did you? There was even a nice elderly man, the keeper of the lockers, who tried to help us stuff all our luggage into one single ginormous locker so we would pay less.

Feeling much less encumbered, we headed out towards the National Museum of Western Art (NMWA). Ueno is home to quite a few museums - the National Science Museum, the Tokyo National Museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the NMWA. It's all located around or close to Ueno Park which is next to the Keisei Ueno and Ueno stations.

Why the NMWA? Well, in Japan, we'd experienced theme parks, nature and city shopping. Let's round it up with some culture. I've always liked western art, especially of the 19th and 20th century Impressionist painters, and the NMWA has arguably the best collection outside of the western world.

It definitely did not disappoint. It has an extensive collection of Monet and art pieces by the great masters like Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Gauguin and Van Gogh. The highlight and signature masterpiece of the NMWA is undoubtably Claude Monet's Water Lilies. It is absolutely stunning.

I'm just going to show a couple of other famous works, although there were many beautiful ones.

Roses by Vincent Van Gogh (left), Woman with Hat by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (right)

In the museum basement, there was a window that showed how the museum was built to withstand earthquakes. As you can see in the picture, it is fitted with an earthquake shock absorbing device in its foundation.

Outside the museum in the garden are several Rodin sculptures, the most famous one of course, being The Thinker.

There was another that particularly intrigued Andre. It was The Gates of Hell, also by Rodin. He was examining the sculpture with morbid fascination. I had to explain to him that it was the sculptor's impression of hell, not that he actually visited and saw what hell was like! (Trust me, I'm pretty sure that's what he was thinking). He was disturbingly absorbed with the graphic depictions of torment. Hmm... maybe that would motivate him to be good??

Satiated with culture, we then looked for a place to satisfy our stomachs. Lunch was at a restaurant within the huge Ueno station. There's actually a large shopping arcade inside the station. Ueno station is not to be confused with Keisei Ueno, the former is operated by the JR rail company. The stations are across the road from each other.
Lunch was not very memorable, hence no pictures. What was more interesting was the array of takeaway food sold at the arcarde, as shown here. Everything looked so appetising!

Throughout the trip, we ate a fair number of Bento boxes. You might wonder if we were sick of it, but honestly, the variety is so great that I think you can have a different one every night for a month and still have not tried everything! Here is a picture of how they are typically sold in shops or supermarkets.

And this is a picture of a counter selling just croquette. I'm making a special mention of croquette because I think they are truly exceptional. They're sold almost everywhere in Tokyo and are perfect as a side dish or a snack. Light and crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside. The standard one is potato, but there are so many other flavours like shrimp, fish and vegetable. I saw one with the chinese word for "cow" on the label and I asked the lady, "beef"? She shook her head, did a little scissors action with her fingers and said "kani". Crab! The "cow" word actually stood for "milk", as it was crab filling with a cream sauce. It was delicious.

Immediately after lunch, the kids still managed to find room in their tummies to down a couple of pizza buns from the bakery. We probably each gained about 2kg in Japan. But hey, it's our last day here, we're entitled to binge a little, right? Which meant it was time for...


We came across a little dessert shop tucked away in a corner. It offers Japanese desserts of different kinds but mostly featuring the favourite flavours of the locals - red bean and green tea.

We love red bean, especially the azuki bean used by the Japanese, so we placed an order for something which had red bean ice-cream, red bean paste, red beans, mandarin orange slices and some unidentified white jelly slices.

I don't think Kenneth and I had much, the kids polished off most of it.

With bulging bellies, we staggered back to Keisei Ueno station to collect our luggage and catch the Skyliner back to Narita Airport. This is another super fast luxury train, complete with vending machines. And rotatable seats, of course.

We're smiling here but you know we were all reluctant to leave this wonderful city.

At Narita Airport, would you believe we went to a cafe and ate more food? (Don't let our diminuitive frames fool you, they can hold a lot of fuel). And then we spent the rest of our loose change on... MORE FOOD! We bought snacks that were not available in Singapore. I was just astonished by the different types of Glico Pocky available. Brazilian Pudding! Coconut! Edamame bean! Blueberry! We also bought a box of azuki bean caramel (which tasted like red bean Fruitella) and Pringles in guacamole flavour.

So it's sayonara Tokyo. We really had fun, we would love to be back. This has been one of, if not the most, enjoyable family vacations we've had.

Lesley-Anne moaned on the plane, "now we have nothing to look forward to." Well, at least we can relive our memories while munching on our Edamame bean Pocky.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bashful Mount Fuji in all her glory

Day 8 (Mon, 2 June 2008)

We're up bright and early today because we're going on the Mount Fuji Hakone day trip by Sunrise Tours. Getting to and around Mount Fuji is rather complex, so we decided to just go with an organised tour. No need to carry maps and sheets of instructions today. Hooray!

The breakfast spread was identical to yesterday's. We suspect that the elderly lady (who's the only staff about in the restaurant in the mornings) has been cooking up that same breakfast for the last 30 years. There's a cat majestically upright outside the restaurant, looking through the glass pane as if surveying the guests within. It would appear that the cat is a regular because there was a sign by the glass:

After breakfast, we took a short cab ride to our pickup point, the Tokyo Dome Hotel. We were afraid of being late and missing the coach, so we left really early and ended up being there half an hour before the pickup time. Aside, the night before, Kenneth had gone down to the Hotel Edoya reception to ask if it was easy to catch a cab outside the hotel. The night receptionist obviously knew no English because Kenneth came back upstairs and said it was like a conversation between a duck and a chicken. He did manage to pick up our luggage that arrived from Nikko though.

We were picked up in a large coach and sent to Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal where we were transfered to another coach. We had requested for the English speaking guide, so we were put on the bus with the Aussies and Americans, among others.

And this was our guide - a very bubbly and chatty lady from Osaka. She told us to call her Mary. She imparted lots of interesting titbits about Mt Fuji (which for the life of me, I cannot remember). I do recall her saying that Japan's most famous peak is a very "shy" mountain because it's often shrouded in clouds and mist, rendering it not visible, especially during summer (they don't tell you this when you sign up for the tour!)

The funny thing was, just as she was saying, "I'm not sure if you'll be able to see it today..." Mt Fuji came into full view towards the left of the bus! All the passengers started exclaiming and taking pictures, it was a magnificent sight. We could even see all the way to the peak which according to Mary, is very rare in summer. She described how she had brought a group of tourists to Mt Fuji on a day so foggy that you couldn't see beyond 10m, let alone the mountain. She told them to hold up a postcard of Mt Fuji and pretend it's the real thing. It's always funnier when it happens to other people.

Our first stop was the Fuji Visitor Center. This is close to the base of Mt Fuji and here, you can get some pretty spectacular shots.

Like this one. Ain't she a beaut?

Next, we drove on towards the Mt Fuji 5th station. At altitude 2,305m, the 5th station is the highest point of Mt Fuji you can get to on wheels. Any higher and you'll need to go on foot. The actual height of the mountain is 3,776m.
Silly us didn't realise that getting to the 5th station was via a winding mountain road. By the time we reached the 5th station, Lesley-Anne had turned green and the minute she alighted from the bus, her breakfast came back up. You can see she still doesn't look too happy here.

However, all that was soon forgotten when the kids caught their first sight of ice, err... snow.

You can see the mist was already starting to roll in. By the time we had left the 5th station, the mountain had completely vanished. Thank goodness we were there early!

The bus took us back down to the base of the mountain where we had lunch at a restaurant. Each of us had a beautiful bento box (not made of styrofoam this time!) which had:

Assorted sashimi
Chinese-style jellyfish
Tamago (omelette)
Smoked duck
Salmon and scallop roulade,
Karage (fried) chicken
Grilled salmon, Bilberry cheese
Prawn tempura, Rolled tofu
Rice and miso soup

And sherbet for dessert

I didn't memorise the menu lah, we took a picture of it (can you say obsessed about food?)

From there, we moved next to Hakone, a town near Mt Fuji. Here, we boarded a boat and went on a cruise of Lake Ashi. Lake Ashi is a crater lake (like Lake Chuzenji in Nikko) known for its many hot springs.

The cruise was pleasant enough but it had begun to drizzle and once again, visibility was affected.

From the harbour, we walked to the Mt Komagatake ropeway - an aerial cablecar. From the cable car, we were supposed to be able to take in spectacular views of Hakone National Park and Mount Fuji.

However, what we saw from the window was this:

Sigh... it's raining again. In earnest this time.

There wasn't much to see up Mt Komagatake because of the mist, but that wasn't enough to stop Andre from having fun. He managed to find an arcade game and as far as he was concerned, that was way more interesting than any old mountain.

After that, it was a ride to Odawara station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo. At Sunrise Tours, you can opt to get back to Tokyo via coach or Shinkansen (the Shinkansen option is more expensive, obviously).

If you haven't had a chance to experience the Shinkansen, then this is a terrific way to try it. It's very, very comfortable and smooth and by golly, it's fast!

Just like the Tobu Spacia train, the seats can be rotated backwards and forwards. By the way, the seats are also centrally controlled. We saw an empty train at a station as it was being cleaned and suddenly zzzppppt! all the seats automatically rotated back to their original positions. How amazing is that?

Although we were scheduled to arrive at Tokyo station at only 8pm, we actually arrived 2 hours ahead of schedule because of the smooth traffic. Tokyo station is a historic monument in itself. It's undergoing renovation right now, hence the scaffolding.

Although we had planned to have dinner at Daimaru department store which is next to Tokyo station, the kids were tired. Since it was our last night in Japan, I suggested going back to Hotel Edoya and repeating our scrumptious dinner at Umejaya. Never was a decision met with such approval!

The weird and the wonderful at Harajuku

Day 7 (Sun, 1 June 2008)

It was a bright and sunny morning... whazzat? Sun's up?? Hallelujah!! Our first sunny day since Disney. And no better day for it too, today we're going to explore Harajuku - the youth district.

But first, breakfast. Hotel Edoya's buffet breakfast is included in the room charge. Unlike the one at Palm Terrace Hotel, the selection is much smaller and mostly Japanese style. They have a dozen choices of pickles, grilled salmon, tamago (egg), a sweet bean salad, miso soup, rice and rice porridge. On another table, there is a mini pseudo-Western selection comprising sausages (which tasted chewy like lap-cheong), salad and hard rolls.

The two tables were squeezed into a tiny room, only about 4 people could fit into the room at any one time. I have to point this out: you see the rice and soup bowls in the picture? They're made of styrofoam!!! The Japanese make styrofoam Bento boxes that look like wood, doesn't surprise me that they also make styrofoam bowls that look like ceramic. Methinks the Japanese are many things, but environmentally-friendly they are not.

I think Lesley-Anne and Andre were missing the breakfast at Palm Terrace. They're not the only ones. Somehow we can't appreciate pickles at breakfast.

Out in the sunshine, we took the subway to Meiji-Jingumae station (it's right next to and linked to JR Harajuku station). Harajuku is also a hop, skip and jump away from the famous Meiji Shrine. Now, we're not really interested in visiting shrines but I'd read that it has a fabulous iris garden which is considered the most beautiful in Japan. Since we were here, I thought we should take a look.

Here on the left is the torii (gate) to the shrine (or rather, the walkway to the shrine which is some 800m away!) Torii are part of the Shinto religion and passing under them supposedly purifies the worshippers' hearts and minds before they pray to the gods.

We walked along the path for a bit and came to the entrance to the iris gardens. There's an entrance fee. We walked on eagerly around the park, following the signs. After a while, we realised we were at the exit. Did we miss it? Where on earth was the garden? This was what we were expecting to see:

Finally, when we retraced our steps, it dawned on us that we had passed the garden without realising it. Here's why:

In the entire patch of green, there was a grand total of 3 irises!! What nobody tells you is that the irises come into full bloom only for a while in mid-summer. It was only the beginning of summer, so they were only starting to wake up. The gardens were also supposed to be blooming with azaleas in spring. Like this picture on the left. But what we actually saw is on the right.

Too early for irises, too late for azaleas. We had to resort to taking pictures of pictures. For this, they charge admission!

Felt a little ripped off, but never mind lah. We walked around the rest of the gardens. This on the left was a well belonging to one of the Lords from the Edo period. Pure water supposedly gushes out from it all year round.

On the way back out towards Harajuku, we saw this wall of barrels. They contain sake and are used for ceremonial purposes.

From the old and religious to the new and funky. Harajuku is truly a happening place. There's so much going on! We saw some very interesting advertising gimmicks (pictures below). The one on the left is actually a truck with two live women. I have no clue what they were advertising but there was a huge crowd watching their every movement.

We walked over to Takeshita Dori, the shopping street of Harajuku. This was the scene that greeted us:

Wah, mayhem! But very interesting. Here, there are budget shops galore and we went into a Y100 shop - 4 floors of bargains, everything at only Y100 each! Takeshita Dori also had a lot of cheap food on the go, from crepes to pizza. Too bad we didn't try any, we didn't want to spoil our lunch, which was...


We really wanted to try sushi and I had read some great reviews online about this Sushi Kaiten place just opposite the Harajuku station. It's basically sushi on a conveyor belt, with different coloured plates denoting different prices. Prices start from Y60 (S$0.80) so it's very affordable.

We had to wait for about 20mins, there was a long queue. The place is quite small, only one round of conveyor belt and counter seats. No booth seats. The sushi chefs are in the island and you can see them making the sushi for the conveyor belt or as per your order.

To say the sushi was fresh would be an understatement. I think if the fish was any fresher, it would be wriggling on the plate. I don't have pictures to show what we ordered because we were too busy eating! (I looked through my pictures and realised they were mostly of empty plates).

It was extremely good value for money too. You could order a plate of 5 different types of tuna sushi (including the coveted tuna belly) for just Y680 (S$8.90). We tried the tuna belly sushi, it was melt-in-your-mouth quality. I've never had anything like it. This was the most expensive item in the restaurant and still it was only Y510 (S$6.60) for two generous pieces. When it comes to sushi, my kids can really eat, so when our bill only came up to something like S$47, I was shell-shocked. What? Did they forget to count half the plates or something?? No, again the low tax, no service charge, free ocha and towels really made a difference.

After a very satisfying lunch, we thought it was time to see if the Harajuku kids were out yet. By then, it was already getting crowded. By the way, if you want to catch all the action at Harajuku, you have to go on a Sunday. That's the only day the teenagers will make their appearance. Anyway, this was the crowd in front of Harajuku station waiting to cross the road.

We walked over to the bridge area where the teenagers are said to gather and we saw that they'd already begun to congregate. Many of these kids dress up as their favourite anime characters. Among the girls, the two favourite looks are gothic or Lolita. They all come with matching trolley bags (presumably to hold their clothes and accessories) and readily pose for pictures. These were some of the groups we saw:

But for Lesley-Anne and Andre, this was not the highlight of Harajuku. The highlight was in the form of a 7-storey mega toy store called Kiddy Land. And if you think this is just a place for kids, think again. It has an entire floor dedicated to electronic toys and gadgets, I saw "boys" of all ages at the store.

Andre just went gaga. I think he could have stayed at the store all day. Although he did go "eeeee!" when we went to the Hello Kitty floor and was bombarded by an onslaught of pink.

When we finally managed to pry Andre away from Kiddy Land, we walked down Meiji Dori, the main shopping thoroughfare, towards Shibuya station. Nothing much to see. It was mostly lined with upmarket boutiques and we're not exactly your boutique type (we're more the pasar malam type).

On the left is a picture of the many vending machines that can be found in Japan. They're quite something - they don't just dispense drinks, they dispense anything from umbrellas to food.

Interesting fact: Shibuya train station is the third busiest train station in Tokyo, with something like 9 different rail and subway lines and get this, 2.4 million commuters passing through its gates A DAY. There was a scene of the famous Shibuya crossing in the film Lost In Translation.

The Shibuya station building is occupied by Tokyu, a massive department store. When we went to check it out, we found a kids playground on the roof. You would think that after 3 days at Disney, Andre would no longer be interested in these mechanical coin-operated cars. But no.... maybe he was still smarting from the fact that we didn't buy him anything from Kiddy Land (don't judge me till you see the price tags).

Time to get dinner. We went to the basement of Tokyu, which was the Tokyu Food Fair. For a while, we completely forgot about dinner, we were too fascinated by the humungous range of food. Ready-to-eat food, pre-packed food, fresh seafood, meat, veg, fruit, you name it, they have it.

On the left below was the selection of sushi. On the right was the fruit section.

And this, I have to show:

Nope, you're not seeing things. Those melons cost a whopping Y16,800 (S$218) a pair. They cost as much as one room night at Hotel Edoya!! Melons are prized presents in Japan, mostly given as corporate gifts. I couldn't believe they were just casually displayed on the rack. At that price, I would have locked them behind a glass window. I was so paranoid I kept telling Andre "don't touch!"

Anyway, no melons for us. We bought sushi and Bento boxes back for dinner. For fruit? We had dried prunes.