Saturday, September 13, 2008

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...


Lilian said...

Excellent tips...and you say Kenneth's the planner in the family?

monlim said...

Haha, only for things that interest me, I guess!!