Monday, January 17, 2011

Backpacking Japan: Going Around Japan on a Budget

Traveling around Japan is almost always equated to being expensive.  Generally speaking, yes it is.  But there are ways to cut down your costs, and we did just that when I joined a budget tour operator.  Transportation, food and accommodation comprise the bulk of any travelers' cost.  

Ten hectic days of backpacking Japan can be exhausting, nevertheless, we found ourselves enjoying the experience, roughing it at least once in our lives.  I'm sharing my thoughts and some tips, join Tokidoki in his  journey:


Tips:
  • If you have time to spare, take the bus and/or subway; instead of bullet trains and taxis.  Plan your trip, plot your stops and make reservations when necessary.   Check out unlimited day passes.
  • While going around in public transport, avoid the rush hour.  It can be so crowded, the locals walk fast in flocks!  Rush hour is between 730 to 900am, 530 to 700pm.
  • Settle in hostels, they are generally clean and wifi is free.
  • Eat to your heart's desire.  Dine in fancy restaurants but you can never go wrong with the many casual diners (go where the locals go) or even the convenience stores or grocery.  Per meal budget: at least 2,500 in a fancy restaurant; 1,000 to 1,500 yen for casual dining; 500 yen for ramen; 110 yen for bottled water.
  • Avoid touring at the height of summer, July to August.  Best time to party under the cherry blossom trees at the end of March to April  or see the burst of colors during autumn from October to early December.
  • Exchange enough yen at the airport, money changers are not readily accessible in the city.
  • Learn a handful of Japanese words ( I hope I got everything right):
    1. wakarimasen - i don't understand
    2. sumimasen - excuse me
    3. toi-le wa - where's the toilet?
    4. iie - no
    5. hai - yes
    6. sakana - fish
    7. buta-niku - pork
    8. gyuu-niku - beef
    9. ebi - shrimp
    10. tori-niku - chicken
    11. gohan - rice
    12. mizu - cold water
    13. oyu - hot water
    14. sha-ke - salmon
    15. "shio" (salt) "shouyu" (soy sauce) or "miso"- for different ramen soup base 
While finishing up my travel journal for Japan, I just got hold of another round trip ticket to Narita courtesy of Mabuhay Miles.  I'll be back in Tokyo, sooner than I thought!  Can't wait to party under those cherry blossom trees :D

    Backpacking Japan: From Tokyo to Osaka

    http://willerexpress.com en-info@willer.co.jp
    We took the eight-hour overnight bus from Tokyo Station to Osaka Station on Willer Express .  Do check out their site for details, the bus stop is about two blocks away from Tokyo Station.  It's a bus stop, not a station.  There's no visible sign on the bus stop, some ladies in apron will be there 30 minutes before boarding to check the manifest.  The bus ride costs at least 4,700 yen.  The seats were fairly comfortable with head cover like the one on the right.  We left Tokyo at midnight and arrived Osaka past 8 in the morning.  We found ourselves in the middle of racewalking locals, apparently, it was the subway rush hour.  So we decided to have breakfast in a cafe til the crowd was lesser.


    Around Osaka, we took the two-day unlimited pass for 2,700 yen which comes with a guide book.  It's an unlimited subway pass with free vouchers to selected attractions.  We took advantage of the free entrance to HEP FIVE Ferris Wheel and Sta. Maria Ferry around the bay area.  For more information, check out http://www.pia-kansai.ne.jp

    Tip:  When changing lines, the size of the white intersecting dots or lines on the subway map somehow depicts the distance between two lines.  Little did we know that when the intersecting dot appeared longer like a rectangle (see example: Yotsobashi and Shinsaibashi intersection below), it took us 15 minutes walk to get to the next line.  In that case, you might opt to change lines on the next stop where you need not walk too far to change lines.


    We checked-in U-en Guesthouse in Osaka.  It's about 10 minutes walk from the subway station, with a convenience store nearby, a few restaurants blocks away but generally nothing much to see in the neighborhood.  On tatami mats, 3 to 4 persons will share a room for 2,400-3,100 yen per person. Bathroom is common and small, the rooms and the place in general is quite cramped and smells fishy.  I do not highly recommend the place.

    Osaka's two major city center are Minami (South) around Namba Station and Kita (North) around Umeda Station.

    • Minami (South), around Namba Station

    There's a good selection of restaurants in Namba Subway Station.  Here, we had a good serving of ramen, Gyu-nabe and Sukiyaki on different occasions.

    Namba is the city's famous shopping and entertainment district but we already emptied our pockets in Tokyo.
    UCC

    Instead, we found ourselves sitting over a cup of coffee in UCC.  Except for words "cold" and "hot", their menu didn't have any english in it.  How do you say frappuccino or mocha or cappuccino in Japanese?  I didn't have that on my list!  You can't tell by the few pictures on the menu either. What a dilemma, so we made a wild guess and made a good one, it's nothing like the ones served here, I've never tasted coffee that great!


    • Kita, around Umeda Station

    While some friends opted to go shopping, we went up Hep Five Ferris Wheel for Osaka city view.  The view was so so but it was cool to be able to plug in your ipod on the ferris wheel!  We also would have wanted to see the Umeda Sky Building but dismayed by the thought that it will take another 30 minute walk to get there.




    • Bay Area
    Osaka Aquarium (Kaiyukan)
    Hours: 10:00 to 20:00 (entry until 19:00)
    Admission: 3400 yen
    Kiayukan's feature attraction is a massive tank that holds 5,400 tons of water, making it one of the world's largest tanks.  I've been to the aquariums of San Francisco, Bangkok, and Singapore, but nothing compares to the collection of different pelagics although they may not be much in numbers (per specie).  I'm a diver but it was my first to see such huge manta ray, sunfish (bola-bola) and tiger shark.  All the different species of shark was there including three whale sharks!  Twas worth the visit.

    • Onsen
    http://www.spaworld.co.jp


    • National Museum of Art
    After missing out on one of the famous landmark of Osaka, Umeda Sky Building (Floating Garden Observatory) as featured on our flight with Cebu Pacific's smile magazine, we went for a quick look at the facade of the National Museum of Art knowing it's closed on Mondays.

    Because of it's design, the National Museum of Art is dubbed as if an alien landed in the middle of the city.






    •  Kansai Airport
      After seeing the Megastructure feature of National Geographic about Kansai Airport, it appears to be an interesting one to be in.  Although it's interior are plain and simple, and generally outdated (my expectation was too high).  If you're looking for Royce and those flavored KitKats like cherry blossom, wasabe and green tea, you can find them at the airport's duty free shops.
      flavored KitKat

      Depending on your budget and time, there are a couple of options to take from Osaka City Center to Kansai Airport.  However, taking a Taxi is not recommended since the airport is located 50kms away and would costs about 14,000 yen. Our tour director opted for:
      Nankai Airport Express
      About 900 yen, 45 minutes to Namba
      Departures every 30 minutes
      It is the cheaper but slower alternative to the Rap:t trains.  These stop more frequently and can become crowded during rush hours.  It wasn't rush hour, so we were totally fine with it.  Some friends who flew out earlier in the day during rush hour, swear that it was really crowded and warned that even before the door opens, one should hold on to your luggage and rush in, the doors close immediately with no warning.  He literally had to dive into door when it was closing unexpectedly.

      For more information about access to Kansai Airport, check out http://www.kansai-airport.or.jp or http://www.japan-guide.com

      For more information going around Osaka, sidetrip to Kyoto and Nara, check this out.

      Backpacking Japan for 10 days was exhausting, yet was an experience to beat! :)

      Backpacking Japan: Going Around Osaka

       Going Around Osaka


      Osaka has an extensive train and subway system that provides access to most parts of the city. The subway is easy to use and is the recommended way to get around Osaka. The JR Osaka Loop Line is the main train line and runs a loop around the city center. Osaka does have a bus system, but it only has information available in Japanese and can be difficult to navigate.

      Osaka Subway System

      The most convenient way to get around Osaka is by subway. Seven lines service the area within the JR Osaka Loop Line, and an eighth line runs to the city outskirts. The most useful one for tourists is the the Midosuji Line, which runs from north to south and stops at many of the city's major areas, including Shin-Osaka, Umeda, Shinsaibashi, Namba, and Tennoji.
      Transfers between subway lines can be made on the same ticket, but changing to a railway line will require a separate charge. Most subway rides around the city cost between 200-300 yen.

      Osaka Trains

      Six train companies provide service to and within Osaka. Train types include local trains that stop at every station, limited express and express trains, and special express trains (tokkyu) that make the fewest stops.

      JR West

      JR West has service throughout Osaka and the surrounding area, including Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe. Similar to Tokyo's Yamanote Line, the JR Osaka Loop Line is Osaka most prominent line and does a circle around the city center. Other JR lines offer service to places such as Kansai Airport, Universal Studios, Kobe, Kyoto, and Nara.
      JR shinkansen bullet trains stop at Shin-Osaka Station on the subway's Midosuji Line.

      Hanshin Railways

      Hanshin Railways can be used to travel between Osaka and Kobe. It stops at Nishikujo Station and Umeda Station.

      Hankyu Railways

      Hankyu Railways can be used to travel between Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. It stops at Umeda Station and several places in northern Osaka.

      Keihan Railways

      Keihan Railways can be used to travel between Osaka and central Kyoto. It stops at Yodoyabashi Station.

      Kintetsu Railways

      Kintetsu Railways can be used to travel between Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Nagoya, Ise, and Yoshino. It stops at Namba Station, Nagata Station, and Tennoji Station.

      Nankai Railways

      Nankai Railways can be used to travel between southern Osaka, Kansai Airport, Mount Koya (Koyasan), and Wakayama. It stops at Namba Station.

      Osaka Buses

      Although Osaka has a network of city buses, there is not much information available in English. The subways and trains are much easier to use and can take you just about anywhere you want to go in and around the city.

      Unlimited Travel Cards

      There are several passes in Osaka that are good for unlimited travel on the subway, the New Tram, various train lines, and buses. Some cards also provide free or discounted admission into city attractions.
      These passes can be good for people planning on traveling a lot in one day, though many people may find it cheaper to simply pay the regular individual fares.

      Osaka Unlimited Pass

      The Osaka Unlimited Pass is good for unlimited travel on the subway, city buses, and travel within Osaka City on the following train lines:
      • Hankyu Railways
      • Hanshin Railways
      • Keihan Railways
      • Kintetsu Railways
      • Nankai Railways
      The Osaka Unlimited Pass costs 2,000 yen and includes free or discounted admission to various city attractions. It is available at travel agencies and information centers throughout Osaka.

      Osaka One-Day Pass

      The Osaka One-Day Pass is good for unlimited travel on the subway, city buses, and the New Tram, but does not include travel on the OTS Line. The card is not activated until it is inserted into a machine and can be purchased in advance for later usage.
      Available at subway stations and kiosks, the Osaka One-Day Pass costs 850 yen for adults and 430 yen for children. Osaka Castle and other attractions offer discounted admission to people with valid One-Day passes.

      No-My-Car-Day Pass

      In order to promote subway use instead of personal cars in Osaka, Fridays and the 20th of every month are called No-My-Car-Day. 'My Car' (マイカー) is a Japanese word taken from English that means one's own car. On these days, the Osaka One-Day Pass is discounted to 600 yen and is called the No-My-Car-Day Pass. This pass is a good deal for travelers who plan on taking 4 or more subway rides in a day.
      If the 20th is a Sunday or national holiday, the No-My-Car-Discount-Pass is available on the following day.

      Kansai Thru Pass

      The Kansai Thru Pass is good for travel on most of the transport lines in Osaka including:


    • Osaka subway

    • city buses

    • New Tram

    • Hankyu Railway

    • Hanshin Railways

    • Keihan Railways

    • Kinki Nippon Railways

    • Nankai Railways

    • Additionally, many temples, shrines, museums, onsen, and other tourist attractions throughout the Kansai region offer discounted admission to pass holders. A full list of discounts can be found here.
      The Kansai Thru Pass is only available to people residing outside of Japan and a passport must be shown when purchasing a ticket. Prices are 3,800 yen for a two day pass and 5,000 yen for a three day pass. Children's tickets are discounted by 50%.

      JR West Kansai Area Rail Pass

      The Kansai Area Pass is good for unlimited travel on JR West rapid service and local trains in the Kansai (Keihanshin) area, and non-reserved seats on the Haruka Kansai Airport Express train. These passes are for overseas tourists and you must show your passport at the time of purchase.
      Kansai Area Passes are available in one day (2,000 yen), two day (4,000 yen), three day (5,000 yen), and four day (6,000 yen) varieties. As a one-way trip to Osaka from Kansai Airport on a Haruka train costs 1,800 yen, these passes can be a great value for to tourists planning using JR trains.
      The JR West Kansai Area Pass also offers discounts on admission to some amusement parks, museums, and other cultural and tourist attractions located along the JR lines.

      JR West Sanyo Area Rail Pass

      The Sanyo Area Pass is good for unlimited travel on some JR lines running between Kansai Airport, Osaka, Kobe, and Himeji. Advantages of this ticket are that you can get reserved seats on limited express Haruka trains and it includes travel on the Sanyo Shinkansen. These passes are for overseas tourists to Japan and you must show your passport at the time of purchase.
      A four-day pass costs 20,000 yen and an eight-day pass costs 30,000 yen. Children's tickets are half price.

      Kansai Odekake Pass

      The Kansai Odekake Pass is good for one day of unlimited travel on JR West rapid service and local trains. The pass costs 2,000 yen and can be good for travel between Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and other surrounding cities.
      The Kansai Odekake Pass is good for people going on one day siteseeing trips to cities in the area.

      Osaka Prepaid Subway and Train Cards

      In addition to unlimited cards, Osaka also has several prepaid cards that can be used for riding the Osaka subway and various train lines. Prepaid cards are rechargeable and easy to use - simply wave the card over a touch pad as you enter and exit the gate.
      While most prepaid cards don't save you any money on travel, these cards can make getting around the city more convenient by saving you from having to buy a new ticket every time you get on a train or subway. Some cards also make transferring lines easier as they can be used on different railway lines that would normally require purchasing a new ticket upon transfer.
      Prepaid train and subway cards are available at vending machines throughout the city.

      Multiple Ride Card

      The Multiple Ride Card can be used on the Osaka Subway, New Tram, and city buses. This prepaid card is one of the few ones that actually offers a discount on travel. The regular card costs 3,000 yen and is good for 3,300 yen worth of travel, and the children's card costs 1,500 yen and can be used for 1,650 yen worth of travel.

      ICOCA Prepaid Card

      ICOCA stands for IC Operating Card, but is also a play on the Japanese phrase 'Iko ka?' (Shall we go?). These prepaid cards are good for travel on all JR trains around the Kansai region, excluding the shinkansen bullet train, and can also be used on the Surutto Kansai network and JR trains in metropolitan Tokyo, Sendai, and Niigata.
      ICOCA cards cost 2,000 yen, which includes a refundable 500 yen deposit that is returned when you return the card. The fee for travel is deducted from the card balance when you swipe it over the ICOCA sensor at ticket gates. Cards are rechargeable and can be purchased at vending machines at area train stations.

      Surutto Kansai Card

      Surutto means 'throughout Kansai without cash' and this card is good for travel on the Osaka Subway, the New Tram, and almost all trains buses in the Kansai Region other than those operated by JR.
      The card comes in denominations of 1,000-5,000 yen and is available at station vending machines.

      Rainbow Card

      The Rainbow Card is issued by the Osaka Subway and works in the same way as Surruto Kansai and Lagare cards. Cards come in various values between 500-5,000 yen and are available at subway vending machines.

      Lagare Card

      The Lagare Card is issued by Hankyu Railways and works in the same way as the Surutto Kansai and Rainbow cards.
      The Lagare Card comes in denominations of 1,000-5,000 yen and is available at station vending machines.

      PiTaPa Card Postpaid Card

      The PiTaPa card is a smart card issued by the Surutto Kansai network It can be used on the Osaka Subway, New Tram, and some 20 train systems, including the JR, Keihan Railways, and Hankyu Railways.
      Card holders can also add prepaid charges to the card and use it on the JR West ICOCA system. Although the ICOCA card is interchangeable with JR East's Suica system, PiTaPa cannot be used on the Suica system yet.
      When cards are swiped over the PiTaPa Card sensor at ticket gates, money is automatically deducted from a registered bank account. Setting up an account takes more time than buying a regular prepaid card, making the PiTaPa Card more suitable for Osaka residents and long-term visitors.

      Holidays in the Philippines for 2011

      I purposely ignored Proclamation No. 84 when it came out, knowing that I would not be able to take much leave this year.  But why does President Noy have to scrap the holiday of economics observed by the previous administration?  If there is any valuable legacy she left, that should have been it!  Politics aside, the holiday of economics is observed by several countries to give a boost to its local tourism industry; it's not all too bad for businessmen as long as it is announced long beforehand.

      As a result of this proclamation, aside from Holy Week and last day of the year, it leaves us with only one long weekend, that is August 27 to 29.  Sigh, it's going to be a looooong year.  Anyway here's the full text of Proclamation No. 84 declaring the holidays in the Philippines for year 2011:

      -o-

      MALACAÑAN PALACE
      MANILA
      BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE PHILIPPINES
      PROCLAMATION NO. 84
      DECLARING THE REGULAR HOLIDAYS, SPECIAL (NON-WORKING) DAYS, AND SPECIAL HOLIDAY (FOR ALL SCHOOLS) FOR THE YEAR 2011

      WHEREAS, Republic Act (RA) No. 9492, dated July 24, 2007, amended Section 26, Chapter 7, Book I of Executive Order (EO) No. 292, also known as the Administrative Code of 1987, by declaring certain days (specific or movable) as special or regular holidays;

      WHEREAS, RA No. 9492 provides that holidays, except those which are religious in nature, are moved to the nearest Monday unless otherwise modified by law, order or proclamation;

      WHEREAS, RA No. 9849 provides that the Eidul Adha shall be celebrated as a national holiday;

      WHEREAS, the EDSA People Power Revolution, which restored and ushered political, social and economic reforms in the country, serves as an inspiration to Filipinos everywhere as a nation and as a people;
      NOW, THEREFORE, I, BENIGNO S. AQUINO III, by virtue of the powers vested in me by the Constitution as President of the Philippines, do hereby declare:

      SECTION 1. The following regular holidays and special days for the year 2011 shall be observed in the country:

      A. Regular Holidays
      • New Year’s Day – January 1 (Saturday)
      • Araw ng Kagitingan – April 9 (Saturday)
      • Maundy Thursday – April 21
      • Good Friday – April 22
      • Labor Day – May 1 (Sunday)
      • Independence Day – June 12 (Sunday)
      • National Heroes Day – August 29 (Last Monday of August)
      • Bonifacio Day – November 30 (Wednesday)
      • Christmas Day – December 25 (Sunday)
      • Rizal Day – December 30 (Friday)
      B. Special (Non-Working) Days
      • Ninoy Aquino Day – August 21 (Sunday)
      • All Saints Day – November 1 (Tuesday)
      • Last Day of the Year – December 31 (Saturday)
      C. Special Holiday (for all schools)
      • EDSA Revolution Anniversary – February 25 (Friday)
      SECTION 2. The proclamations declaring national holidays for the observance of Eid’l Fitr and Eidul Adha shall hereafter be issued after the approximate dates of the Islamic holidays have been determined in accordance with the Islamic calendar (Hijra) or the lunar calendar, or upon Islamic astronomical calculations, whichever is possible or convenient. To this end, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) shall inform the Office of the President on which day the holiday shall fall.

      SECTION 3. The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) shall promulgate the implementing guidelines for this Proclamation.

      SECTION 4. This Proclamation shall take effect immediately.

      SECTION 5. This Proclamation shall be published in a newspaper of general circulation.

      IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the Republic of the Philippines to be affixed.

      DONE in the City of Manila, this 20th day of December in the year of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Ten.

      (Sgd.) BENIGNO S. AQUINO III
      By the President:
      (Sgd.) PAQUITO N. OCHOA, JR.
      Executive Secretary

      Sunday, January 16, 2011

      Backpacking Japan: Exploring Tokyo and How We Emptied Our Pockets


      After arriving in Tokyo, we settled in our hostel and immediately went out to experience the big city.


      Day One:
      • Asakusa

      The first thing we did when we settled in Tokyo was eat ramen!  The ramen house near Asakusa Hotel was good sans an english menu.  Good thing we are familiar with the names of Japanese cuisine, it was good enough to live by.  Later did we realize that the waitresses speaks mandarin!  They are from mainland China looking for greener pasteur in Japan.  It's a sigh of relief to find people in foreign land that you could communicate with. In most restaurants in Tokyo, one orders at the table and pays at the counter after meal.  When traveling with a group, it is also possible to pay your own bill (split the payment) at the counter.  By the way, tipping in Japan is an insult.
      ramen costs 500 yen and gyoza costs 250 yen

      From our hostel to the train station, we always pass by Nakamise Market, several hundreds of touristy micro-retail shops are neatly lined up selling all sorts of goodies right next to the Sensoji Temple.  The crowd was too much in the area, we didn't bother to look around on those kiosks.  Instead, we went on the side streets, and spotted a store that had a big sign that says 50% OFF!  I cannot help but succom to what I saw, almost all Le Sport Sac bags were sold at half the price and I came out of the shop with a big smile and three bags!  Who says shopping in Japan is a no no?!  It's one big lie. haha

      In the evening, the streets were clean, quiet but seemed safe.  Although a homeless or two lie on the street with radio on.  We had to have a photo stop at Sensoji Temple since at day time, this place is just too crowded with tourists.

      Sensoji Temple at night
      Aside from Nakamise Market and Sensoji Temple,  we were there to witness the Asakusa Samba Festival.    My take on the Samba Festival?  It's a far cry from our own Sinulog Festival, the audio was terrible, a live band would be more festive.  I'm amused by the participation of the locals, some maybe in their 50's were bold enough to show off their humps and bumps in their thongs unmindful of the crowd along side the few Brazilian ladies who had humps to die for.  I'm particularly impressed how organized the parade was, especially how they kept the barricades immediately following the last contingent, in a matter of minutes, the streets are clean just like any other day.
      Asakusa Samba Festival

      While the festival was going on, we ended up for an hour in a Phiten store.  I'm no Phiten fan but ended up buying one.  Phiten are sold at half the price in Japan compared to the retail price in the Philippines and hey, those rubber Phiten bracelets are in fact marked made in the Philippines!  My marathon runner friend, bought a handful of bracelets and necklaces and sold them back home.  He earned big enough to cover up half his airfare.


      • Tokyo Tower

      We were meeting the rest of the group at the foot of Tokyo Tower, so we had to rush and found our way to Onarimon Station, Mita Line.  When you get out of the station, simply follow where the tower is.  We got there in time but the tour leader came in late, so we missed the sunset by just a few minutes. :(

      night view of Tokyo
      Tokyo Tower's facade is everything like Paris' Eiffel Tower only13 meters taller.  It gives you a 360 degree look at the whole of Tokyo and on a clear day, a view of Mount Fuji.  Entrance to the main observatory costs 820 yen.
       

      Tokyo Tower at night
      To get to Tokyo Tower, you may take any of the following trains:
      For more information visit http://www.tokyotower.co.jp


      Line Station Distance
      Metropolitan Subway Oedo LineAkabanebashi St.
      Akabanebashi Gate
      5 min. walk
      Tokyo Metro Hibiya LineKamiyacho Station
      Ext No.1
      7 min. walk
      Metropolitan Subway Mita LineOnarimon Station
      Exit No. A1
      6 min. walk
      Metropolitan Subway Asakusa LineDaimon Station
      Exit A6
      10 min. walk
      JR Yamate LineHamamatsucho St.
      North Exit
      15 min. walk

      • Roponggi Hills

      Roponggi Hills is said to be where the night life is.  We did not know where to go exactly, our tired feet lead us to a restaurant called Tsukiji.  It's probably bringing Tsukiji Market into the city, with it's chain of restaurants that serves everything Sushi (but I wonder why Sashimi is difficult to find in Japan).  Finally, I get to have sha-ke (salmon).  We had a good laugh at this restaurant as we foot the bill on our own, the money we pooled in was not enough. They billed us differently from what was on the menu, good thing I had a picture taken of what we ate! It was embarrasing to be counting all those coins over and over again and it's difficult to complain due to the language barrier; we wonder what the locals were thinking.


      aaah, heavenly!  first of the many salmon sushi I had.

      sha-ke (salmon) roe overload

      We attempted to walk around Raponggi Hills, noticeably, there is a good number of black guys giving out leaflets, offering some drinks.   We tried to look for Hard Rock Cafe and spotted some hello kitty shirts!  In Japan, they sell everything in Hello Kitty.   It was quite pricey, so I settled with some Hello Kitty spoon and post-it at a hundred yen store nearby.

      We didn't find anything interesting around Raponggi, it was a weekday, maybe most shops closed early and we were too tired to walk further.

      Day Two:

      • Imperial Palace
      Imperial Palace or the former Edo Castle remains to be the residence of the imperial family.  The palace buildings is not open to the public However, there are two viewing areas when visiting the Imperial Palace.
      1. From Kokyo Gaien, the large plaza in front of the Imperial Palace, viewing is limited to Nijubashi, two bridges that form an entrance to the inner palace grounds. The stone bridge in front is called Meganebashi (Eyeglass Bridge) for its looks. The bridge in the back was formerly a wooden bridge with two levels, from which the name Nijubashi (Double Bridge) is derived.
      2. The Imperial Palace East Gardens are open to the public throughout the year except on Mondays, Fridays and special occasionsThe Otemon entrance to the East Gardens is a short walk from Otemachi Station on the Chiyoda, Tozai, Marunouchi, Hanzomon and Mita Subway Lines. It can also be reached in a 15 minute walk from Tokyo Station.
      • Akihabara
      Akihabara is a haven for shopaholics of electronics and anime and manga.  Although the goods are not necessarily cheaper, I for one, was amazed by the number of electronic shops and the volume of merchandise being displayed.  Sofmap, Laox, Yodobashi Camera, and Ishimaru, are among the more famous chain of stores.  If you're a gadget freak, visiting Akihabara will be a pain on the pocket.  I bought a spare battery for my Panasonic GF1 and a filter for my pancake lens, which I could not find in the Philippines.  I pushed my luck and realized it is possible to haggle with the price,  I got a few yen off the price tag.  Generally, foreign tourists get 5% discount when you present your passport in selected stores.

      For a more detailed information about Akihabara, check out www.japan-guide.com.


      If you're not a gadget freak, like my two other friends, they opted to shop around for clothes like the good bargains at UniQlo.  UniQlo is Japan's version of Gap and Giordano with reasonably priced clothing with good quality.  Shirts can sell for as low as 250 yen.  UniQlo outlets can be found almost anywhere in Tokyo. 

      Aside from shopping, there are several good restaurants around the area. We had a great tasting yakiniku in a restaurant inside one of the malls.  Noticeably, beef ordinarily served in average priced restaurants in Japan is inexpensive and the quality of meat is really good.  If you want to binge, you might want a serving of Kobe beef for about 100 US dollars.
      all meat yakiniku for 1980 yen

      Something we missed out was to check out cosplay themed cafe such as the maid cafe or the Gundam Cafe.


      • Harajuku

      Late in the afternoon, we headed to Harajuku and again, my shopping buddies, errr travel buddies was again panicking with too much to see.  Several branded stores especially sports shops, meet you upon exiting the subway station.

      My to do list for Japan was basically composed of "what to eat" rather than "what to see", tips courtesy of my friend sunjun.  We've ticked off okonomiyaki and takoyaki while going around Kyoto and we had ramen, sashimi, yakiniku, and the best tasting tonkatsudon (for breakfast) in Tokyo.  In Harajuku, we found an interesting yakitori place, it's kinda cramped but the seats were occupied by locals, ergo, it must be good and indeed it was.  We asked for "eigu" (english) menu, and thankfully they have.  In a yakitori, you get to choose what you like by the stick, then they season it will salt and pepper and grill it right in front of you. The bill came out more than we've expected, we didn't bother to complain, just laughed about it and split the bill.  I guess, the side dishes like shredded salads that they serve (without placing an order) aren't for free.
      all sort of yakitori (skewered meat & veggies)

      After dinner, we went around Harajuku station and ended up in Takeshita-dori.  It's a narrow street famous for fashionable young people lined with local fashion boutiques and cafes with the latest street fashion.  It was a weekday, so we only bumped into a few harajuku girls.  Sundays is the best time to see them.

      Wary to be out too late,  trains might close before midnight and taking a taxi in Tokyo are way too expensive, we spent little time here.

      Other interesting places (and people) to see in Harajuku would be:
      • branded shopping at Omotesando 
      • see Harajuku's youth culture: Gothic Lolita or GothLoli or cosplay people watching on the bridge across the train tracks from Harajuku station upto Yoyogi park (on Sundays).
      • partying under the cherry blossom trees on springtime around Yoyogi Park, the largest park in Tokyo. By the way, there are "no seats" in the park.
      • see Tokyo's grandest shrine, meiji jingu.
      Day Three:

      Tsukiji Market

      Tsukiji is the world's largest fish market (close on Sundays and public holidays).  If you wish to witness the bidding, be there as early as 4 in the morning.  Because of the overwhelming number of tourists that flock the area, that somehow has hampered their operations, the rules have changed recently.  Restricting the number of tourists allowed to view the auctions and the wholesale markets.  Apply at the Osakana Fukyu Centre (Fish Information Centre) at the markets as early as possible as people are accepted on a first come, first serve basis.

      We did not bother to wake up early to witness the auction, instead, we went there for brunch.  We lined up in a restaurant that serves everything sushi, it took too long to get a seat, instead, we wandered around the market, ate several street food like seaweeds, dimsum, fresh oysters and feasted on slabs of sha-ke sashimi and toro (fatty) tuna.  There is an indoor space around the market where there are tables and seats available to feast on those fresh catch and a countless number of vendo machines are available for drinks.  After consuming a slab of salmon sashimi all by myself, I swear, I won't be eating one for the rest of the trip or anytime sooner.  But I guess, I ate my words, when I came home, in less than a week, I ordered salmon sashimi.
      sha-ke (salmon) and otoro (fatty tuna) overload

      Warning:  like in any country, locals can take advantage of tourists.  The fish vendor was trying to sell the medium fatty tuna at the price of very fatty tuna, good thing we had brochures from the restaurants nearby to compare with and I could recognize those Japanese characters (since they were written like Chinese characters); again, we had to argue with them in broken english and sign language! haha

      According to wikitravel, Tsukiji's restaurants can be found in alleys of Building 6, reached by walking in from the main entrance and turning right at the central square. The following two sushi joints are very popular, so be prepared to queue on weekends (an hour's wait is typical) unless you get there very early. Smaller groups may be served before larger ones. Both make a point of serving only fresh fish that has never been frozen.
      • Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司), 03-3547-6807, 5:30AM-1:30PM. The larger of the two, so the queue moves faster. The standard omakase course is ¥3500 (7 pieces & 1 roll), and a cheaper ¥2100 version also available. Famous for their meltingly soft anago (conger eel).
      • Sushidai (寿司大), 03-3547-6797, 5AM-2PM. ¥3900 for day's set (10 pieces & 1 roll), of which you get to choose the last piece. They also have a cheaper ¥2500 version.
       Note:  Names of restaurants are written only in Kanji.


      Inoue Ramen
      After the trip, I learned that there is one must eat ramen buffet restaurant in Tsukiji Market called "Inoue".  Prepare to line up with the fish vendors and tourists.

      To get to Inoue Ramen one can take Hibiya metro line to Tsukiji. If you are coming from Ginza direction, get off from the rear exit and walk across the street. From Ningyo-cho, you can take the front exit and stay on the same side. You can walk in the direction of Tsukiji Honganji Temple Cross the first large crosswalk and you are in the outside market. Halfway down the block is Inoue Ramen. There are several other Ramen shops but Inoue has a large wooden sign in Kanji above the store.

      • Shibuya
      Hachiko
      Shibuya is a  popular shopping and entertainment district of Tokyo.  When in Shibuya, take the Hachiko exit.  If you have not seen the touching movie, Hachiko is a loyal dog who waited for his master everyday in front of Shibuya Station and continued to do so for years even after his master had passed away (without it knowing).  A statue was built here in memory of Hachiko.

      The large intersection in front of the station's Hachiko Exit is in itself a prominent landmark.  The intersection is heavily decorated by neon advertisements and gets flooded by pedestrian each time the crossing light turns green.

      Shibuya intersection (check out the pedestrian)
      • Ueno

      Ueno (上野?) is a district in Tokyo's Taitō Ward, best known as the home of Ueno Station and Ueno Park we frequently stop here to change line and eventually was tempted to shop at OIOI and at the three story anime store across the station.
      anime

      • Ginza
      Ginza is undoubtedly the heart of shopping in Tokyo, as we exit the subway and set foot in Ginza, the ambiance simply shouts, "this is Tokyo".
      Ginza

      shopping map of Ginza
      Aside from the Japanese department stores like Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya... mid to upscale fashion clothing flagship stores are located here, with the highest concentration of western shops.  Most brands does not only occupy one space but one building with several floors.  On Sundays, the main street is closed, thus, shoppers are free to cross the street from one store to another.
      14,000 yen baum kuchem, pricey dessert to die for (at Matsuzakaya)

      The Sony showroom was impressive with its interactive display of it's latest gadgets.  Abercrombie & Fitch eleven story concept store was a party place and the model was simply hot hot hot!
      Ambercrombie & Fitch hot model

      • Tokyo Disney Resort
      Tokyo Disney Resort is an hour away from the heart of Tokyo.  Anyone who has been to Disney in the USA or other countries, swears, Tokyo DisneySea is definitely something different.  If only I was travelling with my family, I would have gone there, I'm one proud Disney baby.

      • Odaiba
      Odaiba (お台場) is a large artificial island in Tokyo, Japan, featuring many hyper-modern and just plain strange buildings memorably described as the result of an acid-soaked pre-schooler's architecture class. We would have wanted to proceed to Odaiba to see the rainbow bridge and Statue of Liberty but realized a different train ply that route not covered by our day pass.  We were pressed with time, we are leaving for Osaka in a few hours and did not want to be left by the bus.  If I miss the bus, taking the bullet train can be so expensive.  So we decided to go back to the hostel and pack for Osaka.
      a glimpse of Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba (top) from the Tokyo Tower

      I guess, three days isn't enough to explore Tokyo,  I've got more reasons to be back here.

      Post trip accounting:

      Transportation and tours:
      Y4,740 3-day Tokyo Round Tour Ticket
      Y  820 Tokyo Tower observatory fee

      Meals (estimates):
      Y  800  ramen and gyoza lunch at Asakusa
      Y  900  all sushi dinner at Roponggi Hills
      Y  250  chicken fillet breakfast at a convenience store at Asakusa
      Y1,980 all meat yakiniku lunch at Akihabara
      Y  250  mochi rolls
      Y1,600 toriniku dinner at Harajuku
      Y  250 crepe for dessert
      Y1,500 a slab of sha-ke sashimi (Y3000 a slab of toro) for breakfast
      Y1,200 chinese food lunch at Asakusa
      Y  900 korean dinner at Asakusa
      Y  800 tonkatsudon and mackerel for breakfast at Asakusa
      Y1,400 italian lunch at Ginza
      Y  400  slice of baum kuchen
      Y  800 chahan and gyoza for lunch at Asakusa
      Y 110 for every bottled water from the vendo

      For pre-arranged day tours, check out Japan Gray Line:
      • Motorcoach side trip to Hakone & view of Mt. Fuji costs 11,000 yen (14,000 bullet train one-way)
      • Tokyo Grand Full Day Tour with sumida river cruise with lunch costs 9,700 yen
      • Talk of Town Day Tour with Odaiba and Tokyo Bay cruise with lunch costs 9,500
      For side trip to Kawaguchiko, check Backpacking Japan: Kawaguchiko and finding Fuji san.

      Next stop:  Osaka.

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