Note: I’m going to spread highlights from my trip to Japan over the next few posts so this post is just a general overview of why I went, what I did while in Tokyo, and to be honest, an opportunity to ramble on about stuff that I can reminisce about later. I’ll also include some suggestions for people who may be considering their own journey to Japan since it’s now so much more affordable than ever before!
It may come as a surprise that for someone who has a Japanese background and who tries to inject a little bit of Japan in everything she does has waited seven long years to visit the mother country again. I had vowed to be a regular visitor after my two-year stint in Tokyo as a research student many, many years ago but of course priorities change and travelling goes on the backburner.
Having kids certainly limits your ability to book flights at will. Hubby and I took our toddler son to Tokyo seven years ago and while not a disaster by any means, the experience was a massive departure from my footloose days in the 90s as a single chick casually buying kawaii goods in Shibuya. Trying to get a hundred metres underground to a subway platform with a pram was not fun. We wisely chose to wait until our youngest child was able to walk long distances on her own before tackling Tokyo again.
Finally that time came in 2013 and what better birthday present than hanging out in Tokyo in lieu of a big party? Once we booked our flights, I spent hours on the net looking for good hotel deals and planning an itinerary that would let me see and do
everything most things I wanted, without sending the entire family insane from being ferried from one location to another.
During the course of my research, I became pleasantly surprised by how very affordable Tokyo was going to be. Of course, this was largely in part to the strong Australian dollar and the recent devaluation of the Yen (about 103 JPY to 1 AUD as at April 2013), but in light of how much more expensive the cost of living had become in Perth in the last five years, Tokyo seemed incredibly cheap. Whaaaat?? Japan was once the country of the 8 AUD cup of coffee but it appears that’s now firmly in the past.
To be fair, in spite of the long-standing infamy of being one of the most expensive cities in the world, Tokyo was never impossible to enjoy on a budget. Other than the cheap and cheerful Yoshinoya ($2.80 beef bowls anyone?), many small restaurants still offer special dine-in lunch deals for under 1000 yen. If you found the right bars, happy hour tipples are 500 yen or you could always liberate your local convenience store of its supply of beer or cocktails in a can, at around 300 yen a pop.
Accommodation was usually what hurt the hip pocket the most in the past but many good hotels in central Tokyo are markedly more affordable now so there’s no need to err towards the budget lodgings in the obscure parts of town. Nonetheless, I was still a little concerned about finding a suitable hotel for our family of four. I needn’t have worried; Hotel Century Southern Tower in Shinjuku had two connecting Superior Twin rooms for about 330 AUD. Not bad at all considering our hotel room in Bali last year cost about the same!
Our hotel was reasonably close to Shinjuku train station (virtually a small city in itself) and directly opposite Takashimaya Times Square, a fantastic department store complex that alone had all my retail needs sorted with Kinokuniya (books, comics), Takashimaya (everything, particularly food), Uniqlo (super affordable, great quality clothes for entire family) and Yuzawaya (crafts, sewing). For desperate moments, there is a Krispy Kreme and Starbucks as you depart the hotel via the terrace level.
I never spent much time in Shinjuku while I actually lived in Tokyo but it is a very central and convenient location for most things so it’s a highly recommended base for tourists. Its station is a major hub and gives you easy access to most other popular parts of Tokyo without transfers. Harajuku, Shibuya and Ebisu are just a few train stations away. I know most people have their preferred parts of Tokyo (Ueno, Roppongi and Ginza etc.) but to be honest, very few parts of Tokyo disappoint :)
This trip was virtually a carbon copy of our 2006 visit to Japan (we went via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific) but this time we stayed for a full seven days instead of a manic five days, and for our hot spring overnighter, we went to Hakone instead of Nikko. I got to briefly catch up with my flight attendant friend Yoko who happened to have a Tokyo layover once again during our trip. We also managed to visit my friend Lachlan’s house in Saitama (a neighbouring prefecture and where a good bulk of Tokyo’s workforce lives) which was not only a relaxed chance to catch up with friends but also an awesome insight for my kids into how an average Japanese family lives.
I can count many, many highlights from this trip such as dining at the Michelin starred Tapas Molecular Bar, chilling out at a traditional Japanese inn, and eating as many delectable things as possible each day, but they all pale in comparison to seeing how wholeheartedly my children embraced Japanese culture and language. In particular, I was so proud to see my son willingly try out his Japanese at every possible opportunity, even when it wasn’t necessary! This alone made the relative expense and effort required for the trip completely worth it :)
So did I achieve everything I set out to do in this trip? Not quite but oddly enough I am not that upset. I guess the Internet more than ever helps fill the void by giving me a fix of Japan whenever I need it and as my husband pointed out, I can probably plan solo excursions once the kids are older so I’d like to think it won’t be another seven years until I can visit again. Until then, I have a lot of wonderful photos and an insane amount of goods to get by on.
Moni’s Tokyo Travel Suggestions
(Please refer to my updated section, My Tokyo Travel Tips)
Research Accommodation vis-a-vis Points of Interest – If you are travelling with small children or have physical limitations, I recommend finding a hotel in Tokyo that has easy access (within 5 minutes by foot) to a station of a major aboveground rail system such as JR’s Yamanote Line. Subways are wonderfully efficient and most will take you to where you need to go but their lack of flexibility may eventually drive you mad. If you’re travelling solo or with other fit and able bodies, then being close to a station may not matter so much but I still suggest finding a hotel that is closer to the parts of Japan that interests you the most. If you enjoy the older parts of north eastern Tokyo (Asakusa, Nihonbashi, Ueno) or Akihabara (Electric Town), then please keep in mind that it’ll take at least 30 minutes to get there from Shinjuku/Shibuya which is more to the west and south. Also, if you travel during rush hour, you’ll be lucky to get a seat for the journey.
Find Comfortable Shoes – You may think you own comfortable shoes but until you’ve walked up and down stairs all day, and for up to 20 minutes between destinations, you don’t really know for sure. Trust me. Take your favourite pair out for a long walk and see how your feet hold up. Make sure you have a good supply of socks if travelling in cooler weather. Unless you have many glamourous dinners planned, I’d save the high-heels for home and bring along some dressy flats.
Weather Watch – Spring and Autumn are wonderful times of the year to travel to Japan as the temperature is pretty mild in most parts. Tokyo was mostly sunny mid/late April and a long sleeve shirt is usually enough though a lightweight jacket or cardigan should be packed too, especially for evenings. You’ll feel more ‘put together’ too since Japanese people observe seasonal trends rigidly and fashion is no exception. You’re not going to offend anyone by wearing shorts and T-shirts outside of summer but you will indeed look like a gaijin (foreigner) tourist! Be prepared for sudden changes too however; we got treated to some winter weather on the last few days of our trip. The Japanese summer is an amazing experience with its many festivals but those who can’t deal with humid heat should avoid July and August. May going into June is typically the wet season so while not cold, you’ll be holding an umbrella most days. Winter is usually bitterly cold so even if you’re not planning to visit the snow fields, pack your thermals, gloves and other warm apparel!
Breakfast – Unless you find a hotel deal that includes breakfast, breakfast may be the one meal you tend to wing. Breakfast is not generally considered a social meal or one that you go out for, so few cafes and eateries will offer a specific breakfast set. You may need to find your local Starbucks or Doutour for a coffee and some sort of bakery item but to be honest, if you’re near a department store or bakery, you may as well grab a few tasty items the day before and enjoy them in your hotel room the next morning for an in-room brekkie. You can always get a coffee or tea latte in a can from a nearby vending machine. Most vending machines dispense hot drinks from November to the end of April. It’s a cheap way to start the morning!
Cheap Eats In – If you’re not fussed about dining out or want to take a break from restaurant food, you can always venture down to the bottom floor/s of a department store, known as depachika (ground floor of department stores). Department store food floors are a sight to behold with an unfathomable number of counters selling everything from gift packs of high-end rice crackers to beautifully crumbed pork fillet to take home to the family. Prices of freshly prepared foods are generally slashed after 5pm but competition gets tough in the form of frugal housewives who will be keen for a bargain dinner. Be prepared to battle it out but it’s totally worth it! Most department stores will also have a small version of a supermarket so you can pick up yoghurt, fruit and other miscellaneous goods.
Cheap Eats Out – There are many no-frills eateries in Japan that will easily feed you and yours for a small amount of yen. A lot of noodle and rice bowl shops are set up so that all you do is select your item from a ticket vending machine outside the shop, pay for it and hand it in to the cook. He’ll serve you up your steaming bowl of tempura udon which you’ll either eat at a counter standing up or sitting on a bench. The idea is to feed you cheap and fast so no lingering here. There are of course many other dine-in options that will afford you some time to enjoy your meal and most will have their specials listed outside the shop. Minimal English is required most of the time and a good number of restaurants in Tokyo do have multi-lingual menus these days.
Bored of Japanese? – Fortunately, and as you’d expect, Tokyo is a very international city and has cuisine from all corners of the world, including the humble kebab which has proliferated considerably since I was living there. This is a great thing as my husband eventually had enough of eating rice and got a hankering for pasta. Tokyo is full of very good Italian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese and French restaurants so avoiding rice and teriyaki won’t be hard.
Kids and Dietary Restrictions – Japanese restaurants generally cater well to children and families and most offer a special kids meal (okosama setto). Usually costing under 1000 yen, these sets consist of a little bit of everything so even the fussiest of eaters should be appeased. Most include a beverage and dessert. All the sets I ordered for my kids included a delicious hamburger patty with a demi-glace sauce (I don’t know if this sauce actually exists outside of Japan!), some fried chicken, crumbed prawn and rice, along with a serving of salad or veges. For those with dietary restrictions, Tokyo is getting much better. The Japanese aren’t nut crazy so you won’t see it appear in menus so much but at the same time, they are not particularly conscious of nut allergies so those concerned should ask. Gluten intolerance isn’t widely understood so many places will probably serve you rice instead of bread where applicable. Ninja Akasaka however was one restaurant that could offer a gluten free set course and with advance notice, most higher-end restaurants should be able to accommodate dietary restrictions. Vegans and vegetarians should have no trouble finding places to enjoy food but vegans may need to note that most stock based dishes and sauces will contain bonito.
I might need to start a new post for suggestions alone! Please feel free to ask questions or watch this space for updates as I think up more suggestions :)