Hankering for Tokyo (who isn’t?) but totally intimidated (who isn’t?). Well worry no longer. This beginner’s guide will whet your appetite for more than just melt-in-your-mouth sashimi. My husband and I travelled (sans kids) to Tokyo and Kyoto in 2007 and our visit was one of the most memorable travel experiences of our lives. The Japanese capital is an absolute must-see for any traveller.
The first thing that struck me about Tokyo was the beauty. The second thing was the cost – but wait! not in the remortgage-your-house way. Tokyo is affordable. Forget those $200 taxi/$400 steak/$80 orange horror stories you’ve been reared on. It’s just not true, and with the Aussie dollar stronger than ever… maybe it’s time to think about heading to Japan.
We stayed at the Ginza Washington Hotel in Tokyo – 4 star and tiny but beautiful, naturally. They speak English but (surprisingly) not fluently enough for a 4 star establishment. You’ll be fine, but a word of warning – if you’re after any information on chirimen fabric, you might be pointed to a sushi bar instead.
The room was small – as you’d expect – not much room for a suitcase let alone an arm-swinging walk around the permiter of the bed – but it was stunning room, with a view right over Ginza. A loo to die for. You could do a roast, watch a 3D movie and weave a carpet in this loo, it’s so fandangled.
The room cost around US$230, which is certainly nothing outrageous – you can pay a lot more for a worse room elsewhere in the world – but there are plenty of cheaper options.
We chose to stay in Ginza, which is a kind of ritzy area – so staying in the more outer suburbs of Tokyo would save you money. Or look into a ryokan. These traditional guest houses are a lot more affordable and come with fantastic dining options – plus they’re a priceless way to see the real Japan. Just don’t choose to stay in one if you want to go out clubbing all night. There are curfews in place and a deep respect for your hosts and other guests must be maintained at all times.
Getting around: The awesome Tokyo subway network is, well – awesome. Really. You can travel from here to Paris on it, it’s so good. It has the most comprehensive network in the world and is really not as scary as they say, if you can just master the ‘coloured line’ thing. Ginza station is not on the Ginza line, for example. Don’t be confused, just get a good map. And if you get lost, ask.
You buy tickets at subway station machines – fairly straight forward, but be careful if you travel to the other side of town, as the more zones you travel through, the more it costs and your ticket might not cover it. Indeed, it may need to be ‘upgraded’ before you disembark if you’ve gone too far. Learn how to navigate this super system, at Tokyo Metro.
Japanese taxis are SO COOL! The doors open automatically and inside you will find a den of squeaky clean vinyl seats with white paper and fabric doilies covering every other surface, and a white-begloved-driver who will be the politest thing you’ll ever know. If you can nip around short distances in a taxi, it won’t cost you much. Otherwise, get the subway.
By far the most sensible and cost-effective way of getting around Japan is the Shinkansen bullet train. I N C R E D I B L E!! I loved this thing so much, I had to have a lie down. Not since my travels on the TGV in France have I been so enamoured. From the ultra-sleek design to the electronic screen cataloguing every nanosecond of your journey, you’ll delight in the silence, the cleanliness, the efficiency and the fact that you will arrive the very second the electronic screen tells you.
I want to be this elderly Japanese couple (above right). I want it to be me and Husband.
To really take advantage of the Japan Railways system, you need to buy a Japan Rail Pass which you must buy before you enter Japan. You can nominate how many days’ travel you want (7, 14 and 21) and it’s advisable to get the Green pass so you can book trips in advance and travel first class.
It cost us 37,800 yen each for a 7 day pass and it includes unlimited countryside rail travel as well as trips to and from the airport, and some subway travel in Tokyo (there are two companies that run the subway in Tokyo – Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway). If you plan to do a lot of rail travel, this will save you a fortune.
When you get to Tokyo airport, head straight to Japan Rail and validate your Japan Rail Pass. You can then pre-book all your trips (they run to the minute) for your entire stay in Japan, if desired. We found this priceless. We could just turn up and jump on.
Funds: We were shocked – I mean totally blown away – by the fact that Japan didn’t strip us of every yen nanoseconds after arrival. After years of financial horror stories – see opening paragraph, above – we were more than pleasantly surprised to discover that prices, on average, met Sydney. Overpriced, perhaps – but not expensive. And considering the fact that everything you even LOOK at is utterly beautiful, tenderly hand-wrapped and of the highest quality, the prices are very reasonable indeed.
Sure, you could turn up at the wrong tepanyaki joint and pay $70 for a small set, with no drinks. But if you simply walked out and tried the next place, you could pay $100 for three people who ate enough tepanyaki to stuff a turkey, plus two glasses of wine and three beers to boot. Yes, you could go to Printemps and pay 20,000 yen for three chocolates. Or you could pop into the local bakery and buy a basketful for the same amount. So it’s all about hunting – like anywhere in the world.
Ginza. If you’re on a budget, don’t go here (above right). Just stand and gawp at the amazing shadow puppet film on the facade of the building instead. And cry. And have your husband click his tongue at you.
A word of warning: for a nation of incredibly high technological advancement, getting money from an ATM is near impossible unless you are smack bang in the middle of Tokyo. We couldn’t get any money out in Kyoto, despite using the supposedly efficient post office money-withdrawal service. It didn’t work. Luckily, we had just enough yen to make it back to Tokyo without starving. A surprising amount of places don’t take credit cards, either, so cash up at the airport. Luckily, street crime is low in Japan, so you’ll feel safer with wads of yen stashed all over your body.
Most Japanese understand at least some English but they are often reluctant to speak it, even if quite fluent.
So… here’s an idea. Learn some phrases on the plane – hello, goodbye, please, thank you, where do I find…, do you speak English? It will help enormously and – frankly – I think it’s shortsighted to travel to any country in the world and not be able to at least count to ten, know what currency you’re using and be able to greet and thank.
Jidō-hanbaiki: I cried (I cried a lot in Japan) when I saw these vending machines. Pathetic, I know. They are just so quintessentially Japanese. In so many ways – beautiful, efficient, effective, fast. With delicious things inside. Could you want any more? Well, maybe if they sold sushi, paper and fabric…Husband stood there and clicked his tongue as I took pictures of this machine, cried (me, not Husband) and then slid all my money inside it (me, not Husband).
Sushi: If you don’t like sushi (I am recoiling in shock), you soon will if you travel to Japan. Husband was so-so about it before we visited, and now he’s an addict.If you want something so fresh from the sea, it tastes like fresh sea air…
If you want the consistency of the softest marshmallow melting on your tongue with the barely there warmth of just-cooked rice, delicately infused with the barest hint of mirin…
If you want the breathe-in-sharply tang of wasabi in your nostrils and that satisfying burst of seaweed on the sides of the tongue… you will find it here.
And you will never be able to eat sushi anywhere in the world, ever never ever again.
In fact, there’s lots of things you’ll never be able to do quite the same again after visiting Tokyo. From the superlative wrapping of every tiny item, to the exquisite detail, the cleanliness (even the building sites have shiny wheelbarrows) to the floral cast iron manhole covers in the road and the ultra cool moshi moshi kitsch pouring out of every second window – you’ll be hooked faster than a king-sized tuna.
And on that note… I end with the following picture. And the promise that I’ll soon be back to tempt you to Kyoto.
This was a truly pure moment in my life.