Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tips in travelling Tokyo!

Trivial tips about travelling in Tokyo.

I am sure no expert when it comes to travelling in Tokyo or in the Japanese language or culture. But I believe these tips will serve you well if you are a beginner explorer (just started planning and travelling without the help of travel agencies and tour guides) just like me. After all, I saw things in a way as confused as you can imagine me to be.

Lastly, if I can do it, you bet you can do it. So here goes!

1) Look for weird buildings.

I named this the 'washing machine building'. Keep an eye out for them and they are sure to brighten up your day.

2) Travelling by train/subway in Tokyo.

One of the most impressive thing in Tokyo has to be the train and subway systems.

It is really easy to plan your journey around the city. There are three main lines connecting almost every corner of Tokyo - JR East (train), Metro and Toei (subways). After that, all you need is just the maps of the train or subway networks. (maps for Metro and JR East here)

To plan a trip:

1) Decide where you want to travel to
2) See which line connects both places
3) Buy the appropriate ticket


1) Decide where you want to travel to - From Ikebukuro to Tokyo Station
2) See which line connects both places - Metro Marunouchi line or JR Yamanote
3) Buy the appropriate ticket
  • fare is charged according to distance but never worry about not knowing how much to pay because. . .
  • fare adjustment machines (!!) (the best invention ever )(no fare officers + peace), the trick is to buy the cheapest ticket no matter where you are heading to. Once you arrive at the train station of your destination, just insert your ticket into a fare adjustment machine and the amount you are lacking will appear. Pay for it and off you go!
  • Special tickets - cheaper way to travel!
  • Tokyo Free Kippu (1580 yen) for all three train/subway lines for the whole day in Tokyo.
  • Toei & Metro 1-Day Economy Pass (1000 yen)
  • Tokyo Metro Open Ticket (1 Day: 600 or 710 yen/ 2 days: 980 yen)
  • Toei 1-Day Economy Pass (700 yen)
  • JR Tokunai Pass (730 yen) for all JR trains for one day in central Tokyo.

For us, we used Metro most often. I find the subway stations easier to navigate (gazillion of signs around), the trains cleaner and they have a nice melody informing you the train doors are closing (in Shinjuku station I remember!). Their network coverage around Tokyo is extensive as well. Most importantly (!), their 2-day Tokyo Metro Open Ticket is 980 yen only!

But in the end if you still find this confusing, let me give you your personal travel genie. Hyperdia - train/subway timetable and route search. BAM, you are ready.

What about the time, you asked? I don't know about you but for the whole 8 days I was there, I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for any trains at all! They are so frequent and fast!

The train tickets are really tiny!

But don't underestimate its power.

1) No matter which orientation you slot it in (e.g. upside down),it always comes out right way.
2) It travels mighty fast when you slot it in.
3) Bent tickets once restraightened can be used (or we were just lucky!)

An observation on the trains and subways: Everyone is always sleeping.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

But the funny thing is, they always seem to wake up just in time for their stop! And we were not so powerful, of course.

Because of this, people are encouraged to not talk on the phone or make any noise at all on trains so that they do not disturb their neighbours.

The platforms are REALLLLLYYYYY long.

It is because the trains are REALLLLLLLLLLLLLYYYYYYYYY long.


But still, people are literally like XL sardines in an S-sized can during peak hours.
3) Hotel rooms in Tokyo
Accommodation in Tokyo can be expensive. There are a few reliable websites to look out for discount accommodation such as Wotif, Japan Accommodation and JAPANiCAN.
We booked 3-star accommodations. Despite the compactness and smaller size of things like bed, the hotel rooms were always clean and tidy.
Look at the toilet of our first accommodation. I named it the 'lunch box toilet'.
4) Toilets in Tokyo
What is one of the most famous and unique thing in Japan? The modern toilets, why of course.
It was one of the things I remembered most about from my trip to Tokyo more than 10 years back. The dinosaur sound to cover unpleasant toilet sounds from the user, the automated 'cleaning' services and the heated toilet seat.
The boys were pretty disappointed to not see one of this in our hotel room. Lo and behold. They greeted this with utmost excitement and more than 15 minutes in the toilet.

The experiments they performed.
According to the lead researched, Raymond Tan, "It cleans very well".
The most important function out of all? The heated toilet seat.
Don't you just hate it when it is cold and you have to sit on an ice cube to relieve yourself?
5) There are a lot of stairs
Unlike Malaysia and even Australia, you can hardly find escalators in train stations in Japan. Everywhere you see, there are staircases.
And Japanese climbs them so damn fast. You just have to climb fast as well. Especially when the old lady next to you is winning you.

6) Toys
There are tons of mou-liu and simply stupid but too cute or mou-liu to-say-no-to type of toys in Japan. And with the toy stores being humongous, there are just too much of these toys to say no to.
Example: Stacking Sheep
Stack all the sheep figurines (in whatever configuration you desire) and do not let them fall.
Erm, yes that is it.
Oh and watch it watch you with those eyes.
7) Set meals
I love eating out in Japan. Cause everything comes in a set and it makes me feel like it is damn worth the money I paid mmm-mmm.
The basics would be miso soup and rice with some pickles at the side. The better one would have small vegetable or seafood side dishes and maybe natto (ewww).
Some examples:

Whale steak set at Kujiraya with miso soup, rice and sides of salad and silverfish.
Tonkatsu set at a random dinner place with yam rice and miso soup and a side of pickled radish.

Thick soup something with seaweed and scallop rice with pickled radish.

8) Fluffy Rice
Rice always seems to be more delicious in Tokyo. Fluffier. Sweeter. Tender.
I don't even know how to describe!
John was so impressed that he decided to try cooking rice hte Japanese way when he returned home and according to him, the process takes almost 2 hours. Gasp!
For the rice-fanatics, here is the recipe for cooking Japanese rice. If you live around my area, give me a call when you do~!
9) Vending machines
One of the questions I got asked most was, "Are there really many vending machines over there? What do they sell?"
To the first question, yes. In fact Jess and John tried keeping count on the number they saw and gave up even before noon when the count was at 50+.
The the second question, anything you can think of. Drinks hot and cold, ramen, ice cream, vitamins and supplements, rice crackers, camera films, etc.

We just had to buy something from the ice cream vending machine.

A special breed of vending machine, which is more like an ordering machine, is the ramen machine you usually find in front of busy ramen shops.
1) Choose the ramen you want.
2) Pay for it.
3) Grab the ticket and give it to the owner.
4) Eat ramen.
After a while, you will either become an addict of or totally in a dilemma as to what to buy from every vending machine.

10) Informative posters
There are loadsa informative posters everywhere in Japan - sometimes on details so small that it makes you laugh. Like this one here:
11) Ninja
Sometimes Tokyo makes you want to act like a ninja. Be careful.

12) Face masks
Another observation: A lot of people wear face masks in Tokyo.
Our initial reasonings were - they were sick, they did not want contaminated air, to look cool, they are samsengs (like you see in mangas!).
Later we discovered - it was to keep them warm.
So in an attempt to test this technology:
Lead researcher John Boo said, "It is really quite warm, you know. . . "

13) Mini dogs
Pets in Tokyo are mini. Super-duper mini! And boy are they glamorous and fashionable head-to-toe.
When we first saw these dogs in Ginza, we thought it was a toy as it was just sitting outside a store staring into the far distance.
Then it moved.

Does it not look like a toy here?!

14) Convenience stores or konbini
I LURVE convenience stores in Tokyo. They are practically everywhere in Tokyo but still they are awesome!
You can almost get everything there. So much snacks you can never get tired to tasting. Like heaven to the snack monster, to me in simple terms!
To illustrate, just check out less than half of the drinks section:

Hmm, so have you decided on which drink?
Day 1 before we headed back to our hotel room:-
Me: Wanna head to the convenience store first?
Day 2 before we headed back to our hotel room:-
Ray: Eeeh! There is a convenience store there!
Day 3 before we headed back to our hotel room:-
Jess: Convenience store mou?
Day 4. . all walked to convenience store happily.
The first thing we said when we met again in Australia was: We miss convenience stores :-(
15) Godzilla-fied stores
IS it just me or are shops in Tokyo super big? Okay, either super big or super flashy in design.
How can I not shop?

16) Food display
They are vicious. They make you want to buy them. They make you coo at how cute they look.
And then you really buy them.
17) Ordering food in restaurants
Things we learnt, barging into restaurants in Tokyo.
Getting seated
  • As you step in, smile until you hear "Irrashaimase".
  • When asked, "Nan-mei sama desu ka?" (How many of you?). It is sufficient to just indicate using fingers or you can answer, "Yon-mei desu" (Four people).
  • Get a table and you passed!

Ordering food

  • Most shops have english menus if you ask for them, "Eigo no menu ga arimasu ka?" (Do you have an english menu?)
  • Sometimes the waiter will ask if you want drinks. Just look out for the word "nomimono".
  • Then you can just point and order! Passed!
  • Wait!! What if they have an electronic device like the one below? It is really easy, the pages flip like a book and it is a touch screen, hence just tap on whatever you want. Then you can even check how much it is!

Getting the bill
  • The first time we tried asking for the bill, I used "Bill kudasai" and the waitress was totally clueless. Then only I realised that instead of "bill", you ask for the "check". So if you want to get the bill, "Sumimasen, che-kku kudasai".
  • Passed!

18) Communicating in Japanese

I am no master in this, everyone knows I guess. Here is a list of the words I used most in Tokyo.

  • "Sumimasen" - I almost always start my questions with this word.
  • "Arigatou gozaimasu" - Japanese are really polite, so we say thank you to almost everything. Once I asked for directions and the guy said this to me.
  • "-kudasai" - generally means 'please'. It is really easy to use. "Four people please"~ 'Yon-mei kudasai'. "Check, please" ~ 'Che-kku kudasai'.
  • "Ikura desu ka?" - 'How much is it?' Essential to shoppers!
  • "Hontou ni?" - 'Really?' Whenever there are situations someone is trying really hard and sincerely explaining something to you and you don't understand a single thing!
  • "Eeeee?" - Use it for anything at all. Click to watch the tutorial.

That is all . . . . !

That's all folks, now you can go travel on your own to Japan!


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