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!

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