Last time I've been to Japan was 11 years old. When you do the math, that's about 2 decades back. I can hardly remember shit (except for those bright lights of Akihabara) and my Rockman (Megaman for you guys in the US). I'm sure lots of things have changed since then.
So early this December 2013, Raech and I took that crazy trip to Tokyo just for the heck of it. We stayed for five (5) days, and it wasn't enough.
This is by any no means a comprehensive guide on going around in Japan, but this humble attempt it should give you an idea on how easy it is despite the initial daunting impressions.
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Of course there are several airlines servicing Japan from Manila. A quick rundown of we checked out were:
- Philippine Airlines
Worst schedule if you're tourist, but best if you're a returning expat, since this maximizes your stay in the Philippines instead. Leaves in the afternoon and arrives as the last flight into Tokyo. Rates though are fairly constant even as you book later.
Leaves early morning, and you arrive around after lunch. This is best if you want maximize your trip. Not the cheapest, and rates go up quickly the later you book. A week before the trip would more or less damage you about $700 USD.
- ANA (All Nippon Airways)
This is the best bang for buck option. Cheapest, but hardest to book. Make sure you buy your tickets through them months in advance. Leaves mid-morning, and arrives mid-afternoon.
There are several offers for tourists / foreigners traveling in Japan that aren't made available for locals. This is something you have to take advantage, and more often than not, most arrangements are done prior to your flight or at the airport the moment you land.
If you plan to visit other cities asides from Tokyo, I would highly recommend taking the JR Rail Pass. This is only available for foreign travelers, and should be ordered online prior to your trip. They usually FedEx the claim stub to your house. You could then exchange this for the actual pass at the JR East Travel Centers.
Most Shinkansen trains leave from either the Ueno, Shibuya and Tokyo stations so you just have to double check where that particular train leaves.
Most international flights arrive at Narita Airport, which is Tokyo's newer airport compared to Haneda Airport, handling mostly domestic flights. Narita is about an hour away or so from the city proper. Which means your transfers to and from the airport have to be secured the moment you arrive. Of course you could do this separately, but it would come out more expensive. Knowing the prices in Japan, any amount of savings in a trip is well worth the effort.
Your options to and from Narita Airport:
- Keisei Skyliner
This is faster than the N'Ex, stops at the Ueno station, but doesn't have that Suica Card packaged, which is a better deal than their 1-2 day passes just for the Tokyo Metro lines.
- Narita Express (and Suica card package)
One of the most economical and convenient options to take. When you finally get out of customs and at the basement area, you could get this combination ticket either at the JR East Travel) Centers or the JR Ticketing offices (if the travel center is already closed).
When you get a round trip on the N'Ex, they immediately book you on the next available schedule unless you state otherwise. Then you're provided with a claim stub to get your return tickets on the day you're leaving Japan. You can exchange this on any major station (Shibuya or Tokyo) since their ticketing offices open early and close late. The N'Ex card has an expiry of 2 weeks, which is more or less the allowed stay per entry of a regular tourist visa.
These trains leave precisely down to the minute. Hence they got strangely timed departure schedules like, 12:49. And true enough the train does leave at that.
- Airport Limousine (Bus)
If you missed the schedules for the trains, this is the next best option.
If all other options fail (which I doubt they would), this is the last, and I mean the very last option to take. On average, a cab ride from the airport would set you back about P 24,000.00. Yes. P 24,000.00. So don't take this unless you have no choice anymore.
The JR Yamanote line is the heart and soul of their train system. This is a circular line that goes around the major districts. All the rest of the lines stem out from this circle. Though there are several subway operators, most of the platform transfers are done without having to get out of the stations. This is where the Suica card comes in very handy. Instead of spending time buying single-journey tickets and trying to read the confusing map, you just swipe through and ride. Just take note of the balance at the end when you exit so you'd know when to top-up the card.
I highly suggest finding a hotel near any of the stations for maximum convenience. We stayed at the Washington Akihabara Hotel, which is just right in front of the Akihabara station. Average business hotels prices would start from $150 USD / night above. Fancy places such as the Tokyo Daichi or the Tokyo Station Hotel, would fetch up as much as $350 USD / night.
If you want to have a feel of classic Japanese B&Bs, try out the ryokans in the Ueno area. These are relatively cheaper (about $ 90 / night on average). On the bit of a downside, most are found further from the stations and have curfews since they're run by local families.
Tokyo in five (5) days just isn't enough. You would need a solid week (and I mean seven days) to get a good grasp of what the city could offer. In our limited stay, we only got around several districts:
This is the old district where you could still find antique shop-house style establishments. The main major attraction in this area would be Sensoji Temple. This is lined up with tourist trappy stalls ranging from souvenirs, cheap yukatas, caps and mung bean buns.
This also leads you to other nearby attractions like theTokyo Skytree, which has an observation deck at 350M and 450M. Prior to this, Tokyo Tower was the highest point in Tokyo.
Also known Electric Town, this is the heart of all electronics, video games, and eventually anime. If you're looking for any gadget, this is the place to be -- Yodibashi Akiba. You could also find the Gundam Cafe beside the train station as well.
This is a major shopping district. This is also the place if you want to experience the insane X-crosswalk too. Best vantage point to take shots of all those people walking would be at the 2F Starbucks on one of the corners. This is also where you could find the famous Hachiko dog statue.
Best to check this place out during the weekends where you see cosplayers and girls in lolita outfits hang around the street up until the bridge crossing into the Meiji Jingu Shrine.
On the other side is Yoyogi park, which hosts several events over the year. Our trip was lucky enough to have the Earth Garden, which is like a mashed up organics market, food and music festival. Few times I get to encounter hipster-looking Japanese.
Returning it is no problem as well. The package comes with a paid-postage self-addressed envelope. You just have to drop it off at any Japan Post office box conveniently located right beside the escalator going down to the N'Ex platform. It's so convenient, it's scarily to too convenient.