Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nikko and our very own babbling brook

Day 4 (Thur, 29 May 2008)

After three days of hectic fun at Disney, it's time for a change of pace. Today, we're off to Nikko, a popular mountain resort just north of Tokyo. We used the takuhaibin service to send our remaining luggage to our final hotel in Tokyo (remember, our luggage to Nikko had already been sent yesterday) and we took the shuttle bus for the last time to... no, we're not going back to Disneyland! There are no train or subway stations near Palm Terrace Hotel, so we're going to take the train from the station next to Disneyland. See how wonderful the shuttle bus is?

Today is going to be a day of travelling. If there's any day we're going to get lost, this is it. We have several changes of trains and buses, let's see how well we can negotiate them! Unfortunately, the weather had just turned for the worst, it had begun to rain, a cold, miserable, ongoing drizzly type of rain. Looking on the bright side, thank God we had three days of sunshine at Disney.

A note about Tokyo's rail and subway system. The rail is run by the JR company, the subway by two companies - Tokyo Metro and Toei Lines. It's all integrated and seamless, meaning a station can have inter-crossing lines by any or all three of these companies. This makes train travel extremely convenient, it's definitely the way to travel in Tokyo, considering the exhorbitant taxi rates. However, the maps can be extremely confusing. This is just the subway map (without JR) for Tokyo:

And here's the catch - if you change lines that belong to different companies, you end up paying TWICE because there's a minimum charge for each company. Eg. if I want to go from Tokyo station to Roppongi station (a 10-15min ride), there are 6 different routes and changes I can take and the fare varies from Y160 to Y320. So it's best to do your homework and find out the cheapest possible fare (without compromising too much on time, of course). Fortunately, there are quite a few route finders online, you key in your start and ending stations and they find the possible routes, with fares and time for you. Here's one that's quite good.

We started at JR Mahaima station. Couldn't figure out the ticket machine so bought the tickets from a counter. We took the JR Keiyo line to Hatchobori station, changed to Tokyo Metro's Hibaya line which we took to Ueno station, changed to Ginza line which we took to Asakusa station. Tah-dah! Went without a hitch. We quickly realised that the subway system is much more user-friendly than the JR system. Each station has a letter and a number, eg. Hatchobori station is no. 11 on Hibiya line, so it's H11. If you follow the letters and numbers, it's easy to figure out where you need to go, without knowing Japanese. Not that it really matters, all the subway stations have signs and ticket machines that feature English.

So we're now at Asakusa, where we needed to buy tickets for the Tobu train to Nikko. Funnily enough, the office to buy the tickets is not within the Asakusa building but a few doors away. So I trudged out in the rain while Kenneth bought our Bento boxes for lunch (the train station sits right beneath Matsuya Department Store). I found the ticket office, bought 4 tickets for the limited express Spacia train. I asked for seats that face the front and the lady looked at me funny and said, "you just step on the pedal on the side of the seat and the seat will turn any way you want." Ah so! The sua-ku Singaporean...

Just for info, I bought the All Nikko Pass, which gives you a return trip from Asakusa to Nikko, unlimited train trips within the Nikko and Kinugawa (an onsen town near Nikko) and unlimited bus rides within Nikko. It's pretty good value as bus trips in Nikko are expensive. This pass is only available only to foreigners.

And we're off! Right on the dot. We were pretty excited about taking the train, after seeing all those scenic trips on Japan Hour. The Spacia train is SUPER. Huge seats and the ride is smooooth and very fast. We were trying to figure out the pedal thing to turn the seats and this elderly gentleman immediately hopped up from his seat, stepped on the pedal and turned the front two seats (with me still in it!) to face the back. He was jabbering away in Japanese, obviously very pleased to have been able to help us.

It's an ingenious contraption, trust the Japanese to have thought of this. I'm sure though, they didn't account for little boys who kept wanting to turn the seat back and forth a hundred times.

And now, time for lunch. Kenneth had bought different types of Bento boxes. The one Andre is eating comprises different types of sushi. But the stand out one was one of braised beef. Tender, melt-in-your mouth, juicy... I'm drooling just thinking of it now.

Oh, and I have to mention this. You know how the Japanese are so into packaging? We're always admiring the painstaking efforts they put into packaging something as simple as a Bento box. Well, look at the Bento box Andre is eating from - it looks like wood but it's actually styrofoam!! I can't believe they actually manufacture styrofoam that looks like wood...

We'd decided to make a stop at Kinugawa first before Nikko, since our All Nikko Pass covered the train trip there. From Asakusa to Kinugawa-onsen station, it took about 2 hours (Spacia is the limited express and makes the fewest stops, so it's the quickest way to get there). Kinugawa is an onsen town ("onsen" ie hot spring). The Japanese love their onsen and they come here to relax.

But for us, we're just going to visit a mini theme park of sorts called Tobu World Square. A short bus ride and we're here! Tobu World Square is a park which showcases more than 100 most famous world sites. Everything is made to 1/25 scale. There are some 140,000 miniature people created for the park and apparently, NO TWO ARE THE SAME. I can believe this, coming from the Japanese!

The park is divided into regions, like Europe, Asia, America, and they have two for Japan - one of historic Japan and one modern Japan. I thought the ticket prices were not cheap, considering the park isn't very big (Y2,500 (S$33) for adults, Y1,200 (S$16) for children) but I guess we're paying for the intensive work that goes into the park.

Here's Big Ben! Eiffel Tower in the background. As you can see, it was still drizzling so Andre was wearing a poncho which he kept trodding on and was ripping with every step.

This is the Forbidden City in China. We didn't really try to examine if all those people were indeed different but it was pretty impressive all the same.

Kenneth took this photo because he thought it was interesting to show the maintenance guy cleaning up the streets in New York city. By the way, some of the exhibits like Narita Airport and Tokyo subway station actually had moving planes and trains. Andre was quite transfixed!

We had actually planned to take the bus back to Kinugawa-onsen station, but when we checked the bus timetable, we realised that we had just missed it and the next one was only in 45mins. We figured that since the station was quite close by, it might be worthwhile to take a cab.

A little about cabs in Japan: the starting fare is Y710 (S$9.30) for about 2km, after that it jumps at an alarming rate (all those horror stories about S$200 cab rides within Tokyo city are true). But since bus tickets for a family of four came up to Y500 (S$6.50), a short ride in a cab was not appreciably more expensive.

We took a cab and it turned out to be just about Y800. We saved 45mins, which turned out to be even more valuable because we were in time to catch the earlier train to Nikko. By the way, it's not uncommon for the train schedules to allocate 2mins for transfers. And now, some information about Nikko. It's a very popular mountain resort town, especially among the Japanese. The foliage there changes each season and has its own unique beauty. There's a Japanese saying, "Never say splendid till you've seen Nikko". In Autumn, tourists flock to Nikko to see the famous foliage and waterfalls.

Our plan was to buy Bento boxes from the town to bring back to our hotel for dinner (our hotel only offers western dinners on advanced orders and there's nothing in the vicinity). But when we arrived at the Nikko train station, we soon saw that there wasn't very much available. Unlike the train stations in Tokyo, this one was very small and only had a couple of small stalls. It was only about 4pm but due to the cold and the rain, we were starting to get hungry. We wandered around and saw a cosy looking udon shop just across the station. Udon at 4pm? Why not?

It's up a narrow staircase on the second floor. A smiley elderly lady showed us to a table. The menu had pictures - great! She brought us four cups of ocha. Hmmm... my kids don't drink green tea. How do you ask for hot water? A quick check with my pocket Japanese dictionary (I told you I was prepared!) told me it's "oyu". So I asked for two oyu and in no time, two cups of hot water arrive. Perfect!

We ordered two different types of udon, one bowl of soba and a plate of karage (fried) chicken. Have you ever had hot soup on a blistering cold day? It's heaven. I've never been fond of udon in Singapore but that day, it was the best thing ever.

Can I say this again? We LOVE Japanese food!

After that yummy snack/tea, we walked back to the train station. As we waited, Kenneth explored the surrounding vicinity a little and came back with some buns for our breakfast tomorrow. We also bought a couple of Bento boxes from the little station stalls for tonight.

The hotel that we're staying in is up on a hill, surrounded by a forest. There's a bus that plies that route but it stops operating from 3pm daily. So we took a cab up to the hotel. Wasn't very far, think the fare came up to about Y1,000 (S$13). Oh, another thing to note, if you're going to take cabs, make sure you have your destination printed out in Japanese. Address too and map if it's an obscure location. Taxi driver do get lost in Tokyo and you don't want them asking directions with the meter running!

So we arrived at the Forest Inn Nikko Teddy Bear House. It's a family-run establishment. I chose it for a few reasons: it's reasonably priced (Y17,850 (S$232) a night for a room that sleeps 4 with attached bath. Nikko hotels can be expensive as it's a tourist spot), it's close to the train station, it has large rooms that can comfortably sleep 4, and finally, it's cute!

This is the view of the hotel as you walk down the driveway. It's very peaceful. I love the thought of staying right in the middle of a forest, that's as far away from the hustle and bustle of city as you can get.

The owner is Mr Kobayashi, a kindly, elderly gentleman. He was expecting us and had put out four pairs of red slippers for us. We left our shoes at the entrance and wore the slippers to our room, it's like staying in somebody's private home. Mr Kobayashi went behind the counter and brought out... our luggage! It's like magic, really.

This is the hotel lobby. The inn is called Teddy Bear House because the owner's daughter, who helps run the inn, collects teddy bears. Some of them are on display here and throughout the hotel, you see teddy bears everywhere.
So we go to our room and it's very spacious. You can see how the four beds are laid out and there's a little veranda which looks out into the forest. Lesley-Anne was so stoked to discover that there was a little stream running just outside our room. It's like a page from a novel, our very own babbling brook! In fact, you can hear the soothing sound of the brook throughout the night.

Here it is, our very own babbling brook. This picture was taken from our veranda. Isn't it just gorgeous?

This picture shows the exterior of the hotel. Our room is the lower floor, 2nd one from the end. As you can see, the building is on stilts. I told Andre not to jump in the room in case it collapsed.

I think this hotel was another great find. I'm sure we went to bed dreaming of babbling brooks and udon.


mckenzy said...

Hi... the Tobu World looks very interesting...

i'm planning for a day trip which includes a morning at Asakusa then moving on to Tobu World... then back to our hotel in the Shinagawa area in Tokyo...

I've tried to find the cost for the SPACIA tickets from Asakusa but can't seem to find them... can you remember how much it would cost for adults and kids round trip to Tobu World? thanks a mil..!

monlim said...

McKenzy: thanks for reading! if you click on the Spacia link in my post and look under Timetable, you'll see the cost for the Spacia tickets. It depends on the travel time and day. Hope that helps!

mckenzy said...

ahh.... thanks! do you know that NOBODY i've talked-to knows about this place?

amazing find... perfect for the kids(and me :P)


Anonymous said...

Hi Monica
I'm planning a trip to Nikko in Dec. I would like to clarify that when you buy the All Nikko Pass, is the Spacia train included in this Pass? I'm a bit confused cos' the website states that the Pass includes a return train from Asakusa but excludes Spacia train fare.
Mrs Cheng

monlim said...

Mrs Cheng: Nice to see you here! Nope, the Spacia train fare is extra. When you buy the pass, it's for the regular train service only and you top up for Spacia. I highly recommend it though cos it's much faster and more comfortable.

Anonymous said...

i see. Thanks alot. Your Japan blog is highly informative. I'm using it as a guide to plan my itinery. Unfortunately, the exchange rate is rather high now and I'll be lucky if we can keep our budget at 11K.
Mrs Cheng

monlim said...

Yes, the exchange rate is quite unfavourable now. Anyway, hope you have a great time, my kids loved Japan!

CS said...

Hi, I read your blog with great interest becaue I will be visiting Tokyo in Dec with my wife and 10 yr old son. Is it overkill to spend2 nights at Nikko? Will there be enough interesting things to do or see Or should I just spend one night.

monlim said...

CS: No, definitely not overkill. In fact, 2 nights is better than one, then you have time to enjoy a full day at Nikko on Day 2 instead of rushing back to Tokyo. But pack warm, it'll be cold in Dec!

Anonymous said...

Mon, your blog is a life saver to me!!! I will follow exactly your itinary. Thanks for sharing all the tips!!


monlim said...

Chris: Happy to help!

Anonymous said...

Hi Mon,

Sorry, yet another question. Did you book the compartment for your train ride or just the standard seats? I'm booking thru their website and I saw beside the charges for the upgrade to Spacia train, they also have the compartment booking(with extra charges).

Thank you.


monlim said...

Chris: I don't remember booking the compartment, I think I just booked 4 seats.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mon!


Kenta said...

Hello Monlim. Do you still have a recent contact on this hotel? we would like to make reservations but we can't access their website. Do you have a contact number? Thank you very much.

monlim said...

Kenta: I haven't contacted them since and just realised the hotel link is not working. Didn't keep the contact details, sorry! Perhaps you could try booking via TripAdvisor, it appears you can book thru various websites.