During the summer holidays in New Zealand we would usually be sailing our boat Wildwood up to the Marlborough Sounds and cruising around with our friends for a few weeks. This year however our friends James & Elisa asked us if we would like to join them in Japan for an adventure there instead.
It has been a long time since I have visited Japan. I came here when I was 17 and stayed with a Japanese family for a few weeks, and then came a number of other times with my ex-husband who used to travel to Japan every month buying cars to import in to New Zealand. But that must be about 15 years ago now, so I was keen to come back and explore some more.
First stop Tokyo.
We flew out on Christmas evening on an overnight flight. It is about 11 hours from Auckland and that got us in to Tokyo Narita airport early on Boxing Day morning.
We had our ski gear with us and didn’t fancy carrying it along with us so we used one of the freight forwarding services to send it on to our hotel in Hokkaido. You tell them when you are going to be arriving and they hold it and deliver it to the hotel the day before you arrive – all for about NZD$30.00 ish per bag!
(We are so glad we did this, at the end of the trip when we had to travel home with all our bags including the huge ski gear bag and transfer between terminals, it was a nightmare!)
Feeling much lighter we then had to figure out how to get in to the city.
Getting in to the City
Narita airport is about 60km away from the centre of Tokyo, so taking a taxi is always going to be an expensive option, Thankfully there are lots of different ways to get in to the City, including two or three different trains and buses. Most take you right to Tokyo Station and we had booked a hotel nearby as this station is also the departure point for the Shinkansen trains. We opted for the Tokyo Shuttle Bus which cost ¥1000 yen or about NZD$12.50 per person and took 90 minutes. The express train was the more expensive of the options at about ¥3000 per person.
Once we arrived at the station we got a taxi to our hotel. It is a good idea to have the name of your hotel written in Japanese to give to your taxi driver. Or buy some data on your mobile phone and use Google maps to help you get around.
Tokyo is enormous so it’s impossible to book a ‘central’ hotel as there are just so many different areas! We opted for the Sotetsu Fresa Inn Ginza-Nanachome which worked out at about $170.00 per night. This is a brand new hotel located a couple of streets back from the glitzy shops of Ginza. Very nice but tiny rooms. But that didn’t bother us – we are here for an adventure – not hanging around a hotel room! The hotel has a restaurant and laundry facilities and on the ground floor is a 7/11 convenience store selling just about everything you would ever need including cheap beer!
We met up with James and Elisa and went off to explore.
This is a lovely area to stay, lots of designer shops and the streets were lined with fabulous Christmas decorations, lights and flags. Just one block back from the main road are quiet streets lined with bars and restaurants. Some are so small that people queue out the door. We were starving so our first stop was for some ramen. A lovely noodle soup with veggies and pork accompanied by some great Japanese beer. Kampai! (Cheers)
We jumped on the train at Tokyo station and headed a couple of stops north to Akihabara. This is a district specialising in electronics. Shop after shop selling everything electrical. One store had an entire floor of iPhone covers, and another selling hundreds of different kinds of tripods. The choice was overwhelming.
Back on the train we headed south a couple of stops to another lively area. Under the spans of the railway bridges are numerous little izakaya – bars and restaurants, and we found a lovely looking place that soon filled up with ‘salary men’ smoking and drinking and creating a real atmosphere. By this stage the time difference was really starting to catch up with me and my head was starting to pound, so after dinner I headed back to the hotel and Andrew, James & Elisa carried on sampling some sake.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Andrew and I were awake early and we headed out on the hunt for some coffee before wandering down to the fish market. There were lots of people waiting to go in and so we joined the throng and carefully navigated our way through hundreds of tiny trucks ferrying boxes, ice and fish guts all over the place. I was sure I was going to get run over. The market is massive with narrow cobblestone alleyways filled with all kinds of fish. It was fascinating. We heard that they are planning on building a new market, so we were pleased to see it in its current historical setting.
From there we jumped on a train and headed to Shinjuku which is another huge shopping district. There are multi storied shopping malls both above and below the ground filled with hundreds of shops selling clothes, bags, toys, electronics, homewares and everything else in between. After seeing all the fish that morning we simply had to have sashimi for lunch and we found another great restaurant which served the freshest plate of sashimi for about ¥1000 or approx NZD$12 ish.
Shopping & Tax Free
Speaking of shopping, if you spend over JPY5000 in one shop (About NZD$60 ish) then you can ask for the item to be tax free. They take a copy of your passport and enter all the details in to the system and then staple the receipt in your passport. The receipt says you need to show the goods when you go through immigration, but we weren’t asked. They deduct the tax at the time of purchase (as opposed to asking for a refund at the airport which is how it works in Australia).
Some of the price tags included the tax of about 10% and some didn’t.
Another great thing about Japan is no tipping! In fact they apparently find it offensive. The people are genuinely kind and friendly without expecting any financial reward.
Cash is king in Japan. While here in New Zealand you can buy a bottle of milk with your credit card, it isn’t the case in Japan, and many places simply don’t take credit cards. You won’t find many ATM’s out on the street either. However the trusty 7/11 convenience store is your friend. They are everywhere and all seem to have ATM’s where you can withdraw cash. Most hotels and larger shops will take credit cards, but small restaurants, ticket & vending machines etc only take cash.
As there were four of us, we decided to set up a kitty for all shared expenses. We each put in JPY10,000 (about NZD$120) per person in to the kitty (a seperate wallet) and then used this to pay for taxis, lunches, drinks, dinners, and train tickets etc. Every time the kitty ran low we each added another JPY10,000. This works out heaps easier than trying to work out who paid for what later on, or trying to split the bill.
Then it was off to the incredible Robot Restarant to see this show we had read so much about. The cost is ¥8000 but you can pick up one of the free tourist magazines in the train station for a ¥2000 discount, so that works out at about NZD$70 a ticket, but it is well worth it. The decor of the place is completely outrageous and that is just a sign of the show to come. Impossible to explain, you just have to go and see for yourself. Unbelievable…
Just down the road from the Robots is an area filled with dark dingy alleyways. I think in any other part of the world you would probably avoid this part of town, but we felt quite safe, there is little crime in Japan compared with other big cities. Golden Gai is packed with lots of tiny bars that seat only five or so people in them. Watch out for the cover charge. Some had a ¥1000 entry fee plus drinks, but keep looking. We found a very cool spot with a barman who looked like a Japanese version of John Lennon.
The train system is incredibly extensive and you never seem to be far from a station. Tickets start from around ¥140 ($2 per sector) and you can also get day passes starting from around ¥700 ish but there are a few different companies operating different lines, so best to do some research before you buy. We also had a 7 day Japan Rail Pass for our travels further afield and we could also use this on the JR lines within Tokyo as well.
The next day was clear and sunny so Andrew and I headed off to the Sky Tree and James & Elisa went off on their own adventure. There was a huge queue at the Sky Tree entrance and if you can book in advance or get your tickets online then it would absolutely be worth doing to avoid the queues. We probably spent over an hour queuing and about 10 minutes at the top. Cost is ¥2060 per person (about $25 ish) to visit the 350m level and you can buy another ticket at that level to go up to 450m. The view was incredible though, we could see all the way to Mt Fuji which was absolutely spectacular and covered in snow. The city spread out beneath us. We spotted a temple across the river and headed back down to explore.
About 10 minutes walk from the Sky Tree is the beautiful Asakusa Temple. The temple was built in 645AD, and rebuilt again after WWII, and is the oldest temple in Tokyo. There must have been some special celebration happening as the place was heaving with people and many girls were dressed in their kimonos. The buildings were beautiful and the surrounding streets were full of market stalls selling souvenirs. We were starving and we managed to find another fabulous tiny cafe down a quiet backstreet where we had salad, crispy chicken, yakitori and beers all for around NZD$30.
An extremely popular past time in Japan is karaoke. There are lots of karaoke places dotted all around and so we decided to give it a go. Big Echo is one of the karaoke chains and they can be found in every suburb all over Japan! You pay per person in half hour blocks to rent a little room to go in to and sing. You can order drinks and food on a tablet and it’s delivered to your door. We queued up behind a group of serious looking salary men to book our room.
We had a great time! The hour passed far too quickly and we even got to experience a 5.9 magnitude earthquake while singing ‘sweet child of mine’, which didn’t improve my performance…
When our time was up, we paid our bill – about ¥11,000 or around NZD$130 ish for all four of us including a couple of rounds of drinks and we then went off to find another bar for a quiet drink. We came across a little place called ‘Pub’ located in one of the archways under the railway lines, and were welcomed with open arms by the 91 year old owner and her daughters, and other pub patrons. More karaoke and too many more drinks – a great night was had by all.
With slightly sore heads the next day we jumped on a train to Idabashi to explore the Kagurazaka area. This is the French precinct of Tokyo. We wandered along the tree lined, cobblestone streets with pattiserie shops, French restaurants and wine bars playing French music. Such a lovely area, and we couldn’t resist buying some of the amazing pastries even though we were still full from our tempura udon lunch.
The food here is absolutely amazing and you can eat incredible meals relatively cheaply. Many of the restaurants are really tiny and the tables are packed so closely together it is almost impossible to get in and out, but it all seems to work somehow, although they turn the tables over pretty quickly so you don’t stick around for very long.
We jumped on another train to Harajuku and emerged from the station in to a sea of people. Takeshita Street is where all the trendy youth seem to hang out. We were swept along in the crowd passing shop after shop of wacky frilly fluffy dresses, crazy shoes, jewellery and makeup.
We are pretty sure that it is New Year holiday time now, so that possibly explains the huge numbers of people milling around. Even though there are heaps of people somehow you don’t feel like you are being jostled around. Don’t know how that works, but people seem to respect each other’s space.
We had read all about these crazy cafes and were keen to check one out and we spotted a couple of them on Takeshita street. We apprehensively made our way up the stairs. Parting with ¥750 each for 30 minutes of cat time – about NZD$10 ish, which included a drink from a vending machine with “a lid so you don’t get cat fur in your drink”. We took a seat in the fake plastic jungle amongst giggling girls stroking a variety of crazy looking bengal cats. You have to wait for the cats to come to you, not that we were overly desperate to have one sit on our laps, I’m a bit allergic to cats… anyway eventually we did get one so we gave it a pat, took a photo and then passed the cats on to two loud American tourists while we made a hasty escape.
I am not overly sure on why there are cat cafes? Perhaps people aren’t allowed pets in their apartments? Anyway I am not sure if the concept would work in New Zealand…?
You could spend years exploring Tokyo and still not see everything, there are over 37 million people living here, after four days we have barely scratched the surface, but it’s time to move on to the next destination! Tomorrow we hopefully (it’s currently fully booked…) jump on a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.
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