From this post on… we will set off for Nippon Nagari.
We spent four days exploring Tokyo in the first leg our vacation and then another day and a half in the last. The middle days we went around exploring Kyoto and the cute little towns of Nara, Takayama, Toyama and Kanazawa around Kyoto and Central Japan. And not to forget, the raison d’être in Japan, the snow wall of Murodo along the Alpine route.
I will try and list down not only the things we did and saw, but also things and places we missed because of time mis-management or because we didn’t have enough time.
But, before we start visiting the places we went to and do the things we did on our awesome Japan trip, we will look into some helpful info and tid-bits that will help you set your expectations from a Japan travel.
Also, because visiting Japan is slightly complicated than visiting other famous countries of the world, I will try and point out some ‘good to know’ facts to detangle some misunderstandings.
Arriving into Tokyo
Internationally you can fly into Japan through Tokyo and Kyoto. But most people come to Tokyo first. There are two airports in Tokyo, Haneda and Narita. Narita is quite far from the Tokyo city but handles most of the international flights. Haneda is closer, but is basically the domestic airport, and off late does handle some of the international flights. Our chosen airline ANA (which is quite good and I highly recommend it – 8 hours direct flight from Mumbai to Tokyo and if you book in advance and from its website, you get good discounted rates too) connects Mumbai to Narita airport. From the airport it is a good 50 to 85 minutes journey to Tokyo station.
Narita airport is a veritable transport hub, with levels on levels of local and inter-city train stations, Bus and Limouzine Terminals, Taxi points, etc.
TIP: The two Disney parks, Disneyland and Disney Sea are located in Maihama, which is close to the Narita Airport. You can consider using this information while planning your itinerary, because it could save you time reaching to or from the Disney on arrival or departure dates.
Getting out of Narita airport
A taxi in Tokyo is the most luxurious spend you can imagine. To give you an example, the ride from the airport to Tokyo station will cost you around 21000 Yen (Rs. 13000!). But fret not, there are cheaper options available.
Take the train Narita Express, called the NEX, or take the Airport Limouzine bus, which has drop-off points at many of the popular hotels in Tokyo. These rides could cost you about 3000 Yen per head.
Then there is the Keisei Skyliner all-reserved train, which could cost you 2400 Yen or the local train run by Keisei which costs about 1000 Yen.
There are also buses run by Keisei Railways that cost just 1000 Yen per head and stops at several common drop off points.
Another bus company Access Narita runs a similar airport shuttle bus to and from Ginza (a popular area of Tokyo city) and Tokyo station, which has a very good frequency, departing every 15 minutes, charging only half price for kids and having washroom facilities on board! And costs 1000 Yen and takes just 55 minutes to Tokyo station.
We opted for the Access bus, which is bus stop no. 30 at the Narita Bus Terminal.
A bus ride when you first arrive into a new city is the best way to ‘acclimatise’ with your surroundings. It immediately gives you a non-invasive peek into the new ecosystem, its people, the roads, routes, the etiquettes of public travel and a ring side view of your temporary habitat.
Travel easy, travel hard
Before one departs the airport, there are a few things I recommend getting done to save time and money later.
Exchange your JR pass
If you have purchased a Japan Rail Pass (the seven or fourteen days super-discounted unlimited train pass valid on the bullet trains all over Japan!), do remember to exchange the voucher for the real pass at Narita airport. Especially, if you are activating your JR Pass from the day you land. Because them, you can use the JR pass on the NEX train to Tokyo and you can travel free.
We had purchased a 7 day JR pass but we planned on activating it on the second leg of our trip when we would be travelling outside Tokyo. So, we exchanged the voucher for our JR Pass from the JR office at Narita.
Internet and SIM
Also, if you are renting a SIM card or mobile Wi-fi, there are several counters that offer a good bargain. If you have advance booked online, the airport might be the pick-up drop off point for the device.
Pasmo and Suica cards
One very surprising fact about Japan is, though it is the most automated and digital place on earth, when it comes to money, hard cash rules! It is a very cash oriented economy. Credit cards and debit cards are not accepted everywhere. So, you really need lots of cash on you anywhere in Japan. Good thing is, Japan is so crime free that you need not worry about your wallet or purse getting stolen. You could leave it on a bench on the railway platform and find it there or at the station master’s office the next day! Still, you need a big bundle of Yen because the expenses commonly start from a 100 Yen at the minimum. Hence, for cash free convenience, there are two popular prepaid cards, Suica and Pasmo cards come to rescue.
Both cards, just different companies, are almost similar in use and cost. Basically they are prepaid travel cards.
They are accepted in trains, metros, buses, taxis, a whole lot of daily needs shops, coffee places, small restaurants, vending machines, luggage coin lockers, etc. They save time, offer a lot of convenience and flexibility and even save money. Because a ticket purchased on your Pasmo or Suica is marginally discounted than the original fare. And every Yen saved means more Yen added to experience more of Japan!
Recharging the cards as you go along is also very simple because their machines are at every corner of the road, every convenience store and every railway and bus terminals.
At the end of the trip, the deposit on the card is returned to you, which means you bought the card for free!
If my memory serves me well, I think the Pasmo works in Tokyo as well as Kyoto, which means you can co-habit the two cities seamlessly on one card.
Other stress-buster tips and life-savers
Luggage forwarding and coin lockers
I cannot stop raving about the tourist friendliness and thoughtfulness of my now-favourite country Japan. Whether you are travelling with family or solo, whether you have one rug-sack or three big suitcases, whether you are visiting two cities or four, all over Japan you will find these two amazing travel facitilies.
The luggage forwarding service is your ‘courier service’ for your bags. Called takuhaibin, luggage forwarding is not too expensive if you budget in properly. The forwarding convenience will make your travel across Japan a breeze. One can ‘forward’ the chosen luggage between airports, hotels, major attractions, etc. While you hop around from one place to another with just a tote, your heavy luggage has arrived or departed to your scheduled stay at a minor cost.
We had gone on a two-day intensive travel across the Alpine route where we had to carry a lot of woolens and stuff. That’s when we used the forwarding service to carry across our extra luggage. And I cannot tell you enough how blessed it felt to NOT tote around bags on such a travel intensive day.
Same with coin lockers, there are umpteen number of coin lockers in not just city or town airports and railway stations, but even at local train stations, bus stations, star attractions, etc. And they are very reasonably priced. They come in three sizes, small, medium and large and can hold anything, from your shopping bags to your travel suitcases.
We used a lot of coin lockers when we travelled to Kyoto, Takayama, Toyama, Kanazawa, etc.
Vending machines are an all pervasive feature in all of Japan. I have never seen so many vending machines anywhere else in the world!!!
Not every block, not every corner, I have seen vending machines on almost every pavement of Japan. And not one, not just two, sometimes there are anywhere from half a dozen to more vending machines lined up together.
Who knows, the rate at which they are growing, they may outnumber the population of Japan! 🙂 kidding! But you get the point?
Somewhere I read, there are 5.52 million vending machines in Japan according their Tourist Board numbers!
And what would you expect from a vending machine? Beverages, Cakes, chocolates, Beer, Sake…? right? Well, these could sell anything! From fruits to eggs, to umbrellas, to air masks, to frozen coca cola, to selfie portraits, to personalised drinks to sushi, to hamburgers, and lo and behold! even small pets!!
Well, Gia got so hooked to the vending machines, the whole idea of exchanging a coin for goodies was too irresistible for her and too expensive for us 🙂
But anyway, the point I am making is the vending machines are really convenient. Left hotel without breakfast, you can always coin-out a pancake!
Again, a life saver. The convenience stores of Japan are what makes an outsider an insider in hours, if not minutes, Three major convenience stores, 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson, all open 24/7 are present on every corner in most cities. Selling everything from your daily needs to hot food, to coffee, to haberdashery to the finest Wines and Sake and confectionery, the convenience stores of Japan truly live up to their names.
Another blessing in disguise is the fake food displays that the Japanese perfectionists have well, perfected. they have taken it to the level of art. So, what is fake food or plastic food? For the convenience of their customers, Japanese eateries make a replica of every item on their menu in silicon. And they look so real, you have to stop yourself from reaching out and grabbing one.
How does this help? Well, Konichiwa and Arigato, these two words would be the complete range of Japanese you can speak as a foreigner. So how on earth will you ask the restaurant what’s the item on the menu? Fikar not! See what you will be eating and decide of you like what you see. While on the subject, another remarkable thought process is the person at the counter will have ingredients of every single item on the menu listed out with him/her. That way, you can even know at a micro level, if fish oil was used for cooking or egg was used in the flour of the pizza etc. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, which we are, we can appreciate how helpful this info is.
With this background info in place, lets move on to the real world….
We chose the Access bus ride from Narita to Tokyo Station. It was a very pleasant ride….We got off at the Tokyo station, and went in to catch a metro train ride to the closest station to our hotel in the Ozanomichu area.
Forewarned is forearmed. Well not quite!
Once we stepped inside the Tokyo Station, the enormity of the whole thing struck us for the first time. So far it had been easy, finding our way around in the tourist centric Narita airport. But now, we were in Tokyo Station!!
Tokyo station – A city station or a Station City? Tokyo Station is not just the main railway station of the city of Tokyo. It is a city by itself!
It is known as the only Station City in the whole world. On its premises, the station has its own Tokyo Station Hotel, shopping malls, a museum and what not! There are streets under streets inside the railway station which are markets for all you can think of.
The Ramen street is lined up with Ramen (Japanese Noodles) shops serving the best noodles that Tokyo has to offer.
Long queues at a popular Ramen restaurant in the Ramen Street of Tokyo Station.Tokyo Station has invited seven of the city’s top restaurants to open their outlets on its premises. That’s how premium is this Station City.
There is the Kitchen Street that has a line-up of restaurants serving everything from Bento boxes (affordable lunch boxes) to fine dining options in all types of world cuisines.
Then there is the Okashi Land, which is a kingdom of sweets.
Grab a few boxes of the famous Tokyo Banana or Tokyo Strawberry as souvenirs for loved ones back home. Or ogle and drool at the desserts and cakes and bakes lined up in their most tempting avatars.
Go another level down and there’s yet another street to amaze you. Let’s talk about the Character Street. Every conceivable cartoon character you can think of, there’s a shop dedicated to that character on this character street. Doraemon, Shinchan, Hello Kitty, My Little Pony, Superman, Batman, Pokemon, this world is endless. Parents beware! Venture into this street at the risk of emptying your wallets. The range of accessories, toys and souvenirs that are available in the form of any of your favourite cartoon character will make shopping irresistible.
The Daimaru departmental super store will take of all your shopping needs, be it branded clothes, electronics or what have you!
Phew! The Tokyo station itself is a HUGE tourist attraction. You could spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days checking out all that it has to offer. I could go on and write this entire piece on the Tokyo Station alone (which maybe I should and I will) but for now…hope you are getting the Tokyo drift!!?
Coming back to us…our first time when we entered the gigantic station from the Yaesu exit was anything but awesome. The sheer size and traffic of people and trains stopped us dead in our tracks. We opened our mouths to ask for something and realized how less English the Japanese know!
We were lost! In the first hour of our first day in Japan! Although I had it all written down, the train we needed to take to reach our hotel, the directions…yet we had no clue how to proceed to that railway line!
There are 14 railway lines running to and from Tokyo Station. Including the Shinkansen (bullet trains) that takes you to any corner of Japan within hours. Locally, the main railway line is the JR Yamanote line which runs circular through the major centres of Tokyo.
Apart from this, there are a dozen local railway lines criss-crossing in a maze across Tokyo and its suburbs. Some called the subway, some called metro lines, these local trains run by two companies overlap each other, taking you to the furthest corner of the city and bringing you back to the nearest point of your destination. We had three stations at a five to seven minute walking distance to our hotel in the Ozanomichu area! Imagine our plight when we saw the map of Tokyo’s railway lines!
We must have stood there for about 10 minutes, dazed. And then slowly the research time I had spent preparing for the brave Japan visit came to rescue. I remembered that all the metro lines were colour coded. The JR East, which by the way is the largest passenger railway company in the world, would be denoted as JR and so on… We had to look for the M symbol in a red circle, for the Marunochi line to reach our hotel.
The long corridors joining the different lines are well, toooo long! Interestingly some of these corridors link link three of the nearest railway stations by foot! That’s how long they go. So, yeah we had a very long walk to our platform with two big bags in tow and a haversack each on our backs.
Long story short, we had an anxious trip to our hotel B.
A point to remember about hotels and accommodations in Japan is most hotels have a 3 p.m. check in. So ideally, you can leave your bags with the reception and use that time to explore something nearby. We, well, we got lucky! One of the hotel staff was a Nepali. He requested the front desk on our behalf to let us check in early and the sweet lady at the desk smiled and in her melodious voice said Konichiwa!
Our hotel room was much like mini Tokyo! Small, busy and still, complete.
When I want to describe Tokyo, I like to refer to our cubbyhole hotel room metamorphically. As you may have guessed the room was about the size of say two ATM cabins put together. With the bed against one wall, then the bag laid next to it, there was no room for us to even fit in one foot. And I am not exaggerating. But!! Our room had everything we needed. And more. There was a study table complete with a lamp and stationery, there were shelves which held the coffee pot, an ice-tub, a mini refrigerator, a collapsible ironing board, a small wash basin! A wardrobe in the passage had our bath robes, our night robes, wash cloths. The little washroom had a bath tub, some three types of showers, a sink, and the smallest hygiene requirement you could think of.
The point I am trying to make is Tokyo is quite like its compact hotel rooms it’s infamous for. The God of small things has everything. And some things so outrageously out of your imagination, that it leaves you perpetually amazed. In terms of largest, biggest, busiest, craziest, etc., Tokyo is a land of extremes and eccentricities.
Well, in the days that followed we tried to do as much as we could to get a slice of the busiest and craziest of Asian cities.
Coming up next… Our days in Tokyo and the beat and off beat of the city.
To get to the earlier Japan posts, click…