Sunday, April 21, 2019

Tokyo: Solo Travel Guide

A lot has been said & heard about Tokyo and I'm happy to say that most of it are true. You know we all have this notion of expectation vs. reality but Tokyo exceeded far more both my expectation and reality. I arrived in Tokyo early morning from the overnight bus I taken the night before from Kyoto and even in my dreamlike state, Tokyo was alluring me with its charm. It is a massive metropolitan city with lots of interesting districts, each with its distinct vibe and attractions full of cool and unusual things to do. You might spend a lifetime there and still not discover it all.

How To Apply for a Japan Visa
In case you're reading this first and not my previous blog post of Japan (link), I made a separate post about the Japan visa application. Click the link here to know more about this.

How To Get to Tokyo

There are two airports serving Tokyo namely Narita International airport and Haneda airport. If possible, try to find a flight that flies to/from Haneda airport since Haneda is so much closer than Narita, it will only take about 30 minutes to get you to the city via local train.

From Haneda airport:
From the map above, you can either take the Tokyo Monorail or Keikyu Railways. If you take the Tokyo Monorail alight at the Hamamatsucho Station (490 yen) and from there, transfer JR Yamanote or JR Keihin-Tohoku Line going to any station closest to your hotel. Same goes with taking the Keikyu Railways (420 yen) but you're just going to alight at the Shinagawa station and transfer to JR Yamanote line.

Alternatively, you can take the limousine bus from Haneda airport but I don't recommend it as it will take about 40 minutes to an hour depending on the traffic situation just to reach the Tokyo station.

From Narita airport:
There are a lot of options to travel from Narita airport to the city as this is a bigger airport serving International flight. But for 'budget' purposes of this blog, the cheapest option is the Keisei Main Line Limited Express for only 1,030 yen. This train will take you directly to Ueno station (where I stayed) and you can transfer to another line depending on where your hotel is located. Take note that this is different from Keisei Skyliner which is a faster route but for double the price costing 2,470 yen.

The JR Sobu Line (Rapid Service) is also a good option for only 1,320 yen. It is a slower but cheaper alternative from Narita Express. This train will stop directly at Tokyo station should your hotel is located near there.

How To Get Around Tokyo

* Or you can download the pdf for a clearer version by clicking this link Tokyo Subway map.

As I stated in my previous Osaka blog, download the Hyperdia app to help you get familiarize with the train stations because if you thought Osaka was crazy then Tokyo was obviously crazier. As you can see, most of the stations are seated side by side that it took me almost 10 minutes just to locate one station when I was finalizing my itinerary. Kelangan ata ng magnifying glass pero pra sa inyo netizen, let's breakdown this mazelike entangled stations. There are three operators that serve Central Tokyo: JR East, Toei Subway, and Tokyo Metro Subway.

> JR East or also known as JR line - they control the all-important JR Yamanote Line. Important because this is where all the major stations and of course, most of the tourist spots are located. If you refer to the map above, this line is the white & grey striped that form a big loop at the center. I think striped is the official color designated to JR line which makes it easier to find.

> Toei Subway & Tokyo Metro Subway are subway lines that are operated by separate companies but users of prepaid rail passes can freely interchange between the two networks. Basically all the colored-lines except the white & grey striped are under this network.

If Osaka has their own prepaid ICOCA card, then Tokyo has SUICA or PASMO card. You can still use the ICOCA card in Tokyo (if you happen to forgot to return it while you were in Kansai Region) but you won't be able to get the ICOCA's deposit or unused funds once you return it in Tokyo.

The only difference between SUICA and PASMO card is that they are owned by two different companies but both cards work the same. You can use it in ALL train stations and you can purchase these in any stations scattered around Tokyo.

Tokyo Subway Ticket

This ticket enable the users to have unlimited access to all subway lines -Toei & Tokyo Metro lines except the JR line. It is available for 24 hours (800 yen), 48 hours (1,200 yen) & 72 hours (1,500 yen). I think this is a better option out of all the passes to explore around Tokyo especially for first-time visitors as it won't matter how many times you're going to get lost since this ticket already got you covered. And cheaper too compared to the Suica/Pasmo card or any other passes. The only downside is that you're probably going to switch from one line to another since you can't use it in the JR line but I still think it's a better deal. You can purchase this online Tokyo Subway Ticket thru Klook.

Sounds easy right? Hopefully I made it easier for you guys but I can't guarantee that you won't get lost lol. Where's the thrill on that? Kidding aside, you can always ask the staff when you are in doubt, which is probably most of the time. In fact on my last day in Tokyo, I was already too tired of navigating and reading signs on which platform should I go to that I just approach the staff and asked him frantically "What platform should I go to going to Ueno?" He replied without blinking "Platform number 7." Do note that not a second passed when the staff answered instantly. I mean considering there are like gazillion platforms inside the station. Which is why I prefer to ask around than to navigate myself because locals always know best.

Places To Visit in Tokyo

Miura, Kanagawa

I know this place is not really well-known to most tourists but if you ever find yourself in Tokyo early February and you wanted to visit the most famous and if not, arguably the most beautiful season in Japan - the Cherry Blossom season, this is the place to be. Every year, the Miura Kaigan Sakura Festival is held along the railroad from Miurakaigan Station to Komatsugaike Park from the middle of February to the middle of March. There are approximately 1000 kawazu-zakura trees planted along the railroad. Unfortunately, I arrived a week early and there aren't any trees that are in full bloom the moment I step foot off the train but I still wished fervently "Lord kahit isang tree lang.." and sure enough He granted my wish. He gave me not just one but 3 trees. Of course it's not as picturesque had all the trees were in full bloom but it will do. You gotta work with you have.

To get here: Take the JR Keihin-Tohoku line and get off at Yokohama station. From Yokohama, transfer to Keikyu line and get off to Miurakaigan. Travel time is almost 2 hours from Tokyo for 1,120 yen.

Apart from Miura, there are also 2 other places that has an early Cherry Blossom but requires farther travel time, the Kawazu, Shizuoka  (around 3 hours)  and Matsuda, Kanagawa (2 hours & 30 minutes). Out of the three, I think I should have went to Matsuda instead, as this place offers a great view of Mount Fuji and there are little slides and train you can take around the park.
Tip: Visit the website Sakura Forecast by the Japan Meteorological Corporation (they were pretty much accurate with their predictions). Forecast gets updated every 1-2 week in the lead up to March/April.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Also commonly known as Tochō or Tokyo City Hall, has an observation deck that provides if not the best, an amazing view of the city from its 45th floor. You can even see Mount Fuji on a clear day. Tokyo's other famous viewpoint like Skytree and Tokyo Tower, although considerably taller, it is incomparable as the entrance fee to Tocho is absolutely FREE.
Nearest Station: Tocho-mae Station (Oedo Subway Line)

Tokyo Tower

A communication and observation tower, its structure is inspired by the iconic Eiffel Tower that lights up at night. Visitors can also enjoy the variety of souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and the One Piece Tower, an indoor amusement park.
Nearest Station: The closest subway stations are Onarimon Station on the Mita Subway Line, Akabanebashi Station on the Oedo Subway Line and Kamiyacho on the Hibiya Subway Line, which are all about a 5-10 minute walk from the tower.

Tokyo Disneyland

I have a confession to make...I didn't maximize my time here because of poor planning & I arrived late and I'm still limping because of my sprained leg. How cool is that?lol But the worst part is, the park was OVERLY crowded. I know Disneyland is always crowded since I've already been to Disneyland Hong Kong but I wasn't expecting the influx of tourist in Disneyland Tokyo. It's like all the people in Japan have agreed to go on that same day, on Monday of all days. And then I didn't know I'm entitled to have a Fast Pass. I thought you have to pay for extra fee for that just like in Universal Studios but it's totally FREE and available for everyone who has a ticket. I ended up just trying 3 rides. I'm literally kicking myself right now.

So to avoid going through the same tragic fate that I had, Fast Pass ticketing is a way of bypassing the long lines since it will take you almost 2 hours of waiting without it. Every key attraction has Fast Pass ticket machines installed near the entrance. Just scan the QR Code of your ticket and it will give you a fast pass for that particular ride. The ticket indicates what time you can use the ride and the time you can get another Fast Pass so only ONE Fast Pass is allowed at any given time. And yes Tokyo DisneySea also has this feature. Actually there's a lot of rave reviews about Tokyo DisneySea claiming it is better than the Disneyland. Probably I'll try that when I'm back in Japan next time :)

You can book the ticket online by clicking here
Nearest Station: JR Maihama Station (Keiyo Line)

Lake Kawaguchi (Mt. Fuji)

If there's one place in Tokyo that I wanted to visit again, this will be it or any place around the Fuji region. The hype is real. Mt. Fuji was indeed breathtakingly gorgeous. I was lucky enough to see it up close but it just decided to show up later in the day. Still :) And I can honestly say that visiting this Japan's famous landmark sans expensive tour package is doable. Make sure to pre-book your trip beforehand. Depending on where your hotel is located, the two most common stations that offer a sightseeing bus tour are from Tokyo (Japan Bus Online) and Shinjuku (Highway Buses). Travel time is 2 hours. Kawaguchiko Station is the last stop so you don't have to worry of getting lost. Once there, adventure awaits because there's no shortage of things to do. It's actually advisable to stay for 2 to 3 days at Kawaguchiko but if you're short of time, then a day tour is also fine. To help you plan on which place to see, you can view the map with the routes and sights here.

The highlight of all my Japan trip was going to Ski Resort on Mt. Fuji. Maaaaann even if I can barely walk, I just have to ski lol. And no, skiing wasn't easy especially for a tropical girl like me. Or maybe I was just too scared of hurting myself more and end up in a stretcher lol What makes this ski resort worthy of a visit is that Mt. Fuji is like a vast, larger than life painting in the background. I myself had a hard time whether I should ski or take pictures or just stare at it all day. I was that hypnotized of Mt. Fuji lol. To see more details about the ski resort, you can visit their website Fujiten.

How to get here: Most write-ups I read states that there's no shuttle bus going to the ski resort but you know me I'm gonna search far and wide lol. I just come across in an article in Tripadvisor that there is indeed one. Just across the Kawaguchiko Station, there's a bus tour that offers a round trip ticket for only 2,500 yen (& 1,000 coupon that you can use inside the resort for equipment rental, restaurants or souvenirs). Refer to the photo below for the timetable of the bus tour.

Imperial Palace

It is a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls and is said to be the residence of Japan's Imperial Family. The inner grounds of the palace are generally not open to the public. Only on January 2 (New Year's Greeting) and December 23 (Emperor's Birthday), visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds and see the members of the Imperial Family, who make several public appearances on a balcony.
Nearest Station: Tokyo Station (Marunouchi Central Exit), Otemachi Station (Exit D2) or Nijubashi-mae Station (Exit 6)

Sensoji (Asakusa Temple)

A Buddhist temple located in Asakusa, it is one of Tokyo's most colorful and popular temples.
Nearest Station: Asakusa

Tokyo Skytree

Just like the Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree is a television broadcasting tower that has a two observation decks which offer spectacular views all over Tokyo. The two enclosed decks are located at heights of 350 and 450 meters respectively, making them the highest observation decks in Japan and some of the highest in the world.
Nearest Station: It is a 20 minute walk across the Sumida River from Asakusa. Alternatively, it can also be reached by direct buses from Tokyo Station (30 minutes, 520 yen one way, 2 buses/hour) & Ueno Station (30 minutes, 220 yen, 3-4 buses/hour).

Meiji Shrine / Yoyogi Park

Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths that are great for a relaxing stroll.
Nearest Station: Harajuku (JR Yamanote Line)

Shibuya Crossing / Hachiko

Ok, I think this place is self-explanatory of what you can see here. Located outside the station is the famous statue of the faithful dog, Hachiko. Right beside it is the world-renowned busiest intersection, the Shibuya Crossing. The vibe in the crossing is electrifyingly contagious as you cross the street, nowhere else says "Welcome to Tokyo" better than this. Hundreds of people and at peak times (usually at night) can go thousands, cross slowly and all at once in all direction but still manage to dodge each other as if on cue.

That's it guys. Those are just one of the few places that I had the chance to visit because surely I barely scratch the surface of Japan. Apart from the place itself, what strikes me the most are the people. Everyone are so nice, disciplined, respectful and are always willing to help you. A little back story. When I was travelling from Osaka to Kyoto, I went on panic mode as I can't no longer find the train stations where the train is stopping on my map. Turns out I boarded the wrong train. I ask the girl seated next to me how am I supposed to get to Kyoto at that point. She happen to be not so well-versed in English so she ask another passenger who can speak in English to help us out. But the girl (who can speak better in English) are not that familiar on what's the best route for me to take. I think the old Japanese guy with his friends seated to the girl next to me overheard them and joined in. So in the end there were like 6 Japanese people hovering over me on what route I should take. I don't know if I should cry in relief or embarrassment. And yes, I arrived in Kyoto safe & sound all thanks to them. Japan, you are something else!

*Full details of my itinerary and breakdown of expenses are in the first part of my Japan blog or click the link Osaka + Kyoto: Solo Travel Guide for more details.

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