So it’s actually been a year and a half since I was in Japan, and I’ve been planning a series of travel guides based around my trip since before I even went on the journey. But, you, know, other things always get in the way, and I was still trying to find a style of processing my photos that I liked (I’m very much just at the start of the intermediate level in photography and Lightroom). But finally were here with the first part of my Tokyo, Japan guide!
We had a pretty long journey to Japan. Overall our journey time was around 18 hours; two hours from Belfast to Dublin, one hour waiting in Dublin Airport, one and a half hour flight to London, a two and half stop over at Heathrow, and then an 11 and a half hour flight to Tokyo Narita.
The longest flight we’d had before this was a seven hour flight to New York, so the travel there was just a bit painful. But I did get through four films! We touched down in Tokyo at 9am Japanese time, or 1am UK time. I think if (when) we go again, I may aim for a touchdown time when we’ll be as close to compos mentis as possible, as we were overloaded very quickly. New country, completely different language (I’m barely at a kindergarten level with my Japanese), and we not only had to get through customs, but get our train passes, get to Tokyo, change trains, and then find our hotel.
Arriving at Kanda Station. The sky was this colour for most of our stay in Japan
But surprisingly, everything went smoothly for us. Before we knew it, we had easily gotten to Tokyo Station, changed over to the Yamanote Line, got our train to Kanda, and made the ten minute walk to our hotel without getting lost. It was at this point that we realised travelling in Japan probably wasn’t going to be that difficult. Everything is so well explained that two sleep-deprived first timers can get to their destination with little effort.
Our first sight (other than glimpse from the train) of Tokyo, coming out of Kanda Station
We purposely booked an extra day to our trip so that on our first day we could relax and acclimatise to Japan, and I’m very glad we did. We got to our hotel at a bit before noon, but couldn’t check into our room until 3pm, so after dropping our luggage, we used this time to get used to the area of Tokyo we were going to call our base, Kanda. These few hours were perfect as we not only were able to get loaded up with some coffee and lunch, and force me to use my Japanese with people other than my (very accommodating) Japanese friends back home, but meant we could scope out some konbini (Japanese corner stores), get used to shop transactions, review how to use the train system, and get orientated so we could easily get back to home base. We ironed out any problems and bits of missing knowledge, and made we feel this made the rest of the trip much easier.
Later went back to the hotel, checked in, got freshened up, had a bit of a nap, and then went back out to grab some more food for dinner at the konbini (we were not awake enough for a proper meal at a restaurant!) before heading to bed early at 8 or 9 at night, in the hopes we could get onto Japanese time as soon as possible.
Studio Ghibli Museum
Our first plan for the next morning was one of the parts of the trip I was most looking forward to; the magical Studio Ghibli Museum! The museum is in the area of Mitaka, a little outside of the main part of Tokyo, and we luckily had a direct train from Kanda Station (but it’s very easy to reach from many major stations in Tokyo). Getting off at Mitaka Station, we decided to take a 20 minute walk to the museum through a residential area to enjoy seeing somewhere non-touristy in Japan (we adored walking through these kinds of areas in Japan).
As we walked along the street, we noticed these Totoro embellished signs to the museum. These just increased our excitement, counting down the distances to our destination. And then we hit the museum itself. Ah, how my heart fluttered when I first saw Totoro himself at the window of the entrance.
You aren’t allowed to take photos in the museum itself, so I can’t show you anything from there, but there was so much to enjoy. From rooms full of planning notes and illustrations of the movies, interactive exhibits, a movie theatre where you can watch an exclusive short animation (it was Whale Hunt the day we visited), the Tri Hawks and Mamma Aiuto stores, full of wonderful goodies (a pink Totoro enamel pin, a cuddly Catbus and numerous postcards were some of the merchandise I bought) and a massive Catbus for kids, it is a marvellous experience to wonder around, climbing up spiral staircases and crossing over wooden bridges and balconies. I was able to learn so much about how the creators at Ghibli make their wonderful animations.
When we were finished with the sites inside the museum, we wandered out to the Straw Hat Cafe for some treats (I had some lovely pear ice cream), before venturing up to see the The Robot Soldier on the museum’s rooftop garden.
If you have ever enjoyed a Studio Ghibli movie, the museum is somewhere I’d definitely recommend. It’s pretty cheap (we got tickets from here a few months in advance for around £11 each), the train is free with the JR Pass and only takes between 15-35 minutes (depending on your starting point), and you can cover the whole museum in around two hours.
For more information on how to get to the museum and buy tickets, check out this helpful guide from Japan Guide. But if you are booking tickets, do it as early as possible! It sells out quickly. They are released in waves for certain dates (three months in advance, if I remember correctly), and we got ours the morning tickets for our travel dates were released.
Kichijoji and Inokashira Park
I think one of the many, many reasons the Studio Ghibli Museum is such a magical place is that it is set beside the beautiful Inokashira Park in the Kichijoji neighbourhood (an area voted the best place to live in Tokyo by locals). If you exit the Studio Ghibli Museum from the Straw Hat Cafe, you’ll immediately find yourself in the park.
Inokashira Benzaiten in the Inokashira Park, Kichijoji, Tokyo, Japan
Walking through Inokashira Park was the perfect way to continue a wonderful start to our first proper day in Japan. The area was so quiet, and we often got little glimpses of homes set right next to the park that it felt very untouristy and truly Japanese. I was struck by the immensity of the park and the number of things to do, from visiting shrines and trying out the cafes and eateries, to transversing the bridges over the Kanda River, watching the koi or taking a trip in the swan peddle boats that inhabit the water.
However, the spell was momentarily broken by a bit of a panic attack. Walking under two tall trees, I took a look up towards the glorious blue sky … to be presented by a massive neon spider, the size of which I have never experienced first hand. Have you ever played Zelda? You know the spiders you fight in the game? Yeah… At this point, my exact thoughts were, “Holy fuck, I’m trapped half a world away from home with these shitting things!” I think this was the first time it truly hit me that I was at least a 18 hour journey from home, in a country very different to anywhere I’d travelled before (I’d only been to North America and Europe before this). But after the initial panic, the sheer distant that I had travelled the day before hit me in a positive, kind of “whoa" way. And I realised that I couldn’t let a little thing like a fear of spiders stop me from venturing around wooded areas. (And now that I’m home, British/Irish spiders just don’t frighten me in the way they used to!)
The Kanda River
Kichijoji Shopping District
Coming out of the park, we found ourselves immediately in the bustling shopping district of Kichijoji. This is a beautifully modern and vibrant neighbourhood, with almost any shop and eatery you could want.
While wondering around the stores, we both got hit by the dreaded jet lag. It was after 2pm, and suddenly we felt very odd. We had planned to find a nice place to sit down and eat lunch, but as our brains slowed, we knew we needed some quick calories to get through the slump, and I knew speaking or reading more than a word or two of Japanese was going to be difficult with my jet lag addled brain. Thankfully I remembered I had heard good things about Mos Burger, a Japanese franchise, from Japanese friends, so we quickly did a search with GPS, and lo and behold, we were close to one.
Gessoji, a Buddhist temple, on Sun Road, Kichijoji, Tokyo
As it turned out, we had been brought to Sun Road, a remarkable covered shopping street that is one of the best known landmarks of Kichijoji. (These covered shopping streets are popular in Japan. We came across a number of them during our travels.) There’s even Gessoji, a Buddhist temple, on Sun Road.
After reaching Mog Burger, I made a good stab at reading the menu, but our server realised that it was taking me a bit of time and thankfully flipped the menu to reveal an English version. We devoured our meals, and, realising that it was ten times better than McDonalds and Burger King, lamented the fact there were no Mos Burgers back home; not only were their burgers delicious (yay for fish burgers!), but the fries with the skin on were great. We also got to try melon soda. I felt a little bad that at this point, we had only eaten konbini and western food, but it was all good, so I couldn’t really complain.
Thankfully our lunch perked us back up and helped us fight off our jet lag. As we didn’t get to see many of the shops on the way through Sun Road as food was our only focus, we had a good scope on the way back, then another little look around Kichijoji, before catching the train back to Tokyo Station.
Tokyo Station, Marunouchi and First Avenue
I have a bit of a thing for the Japanese interpretation of European architecture from the early 1900s, so Tokyo Station to me is an astoundingly beautiful building. We didn’t get a chance to see it when we passed through on our way from Narita to Kanda the day before, so being able to come out and glut myself on its wonderful domes and brick work was an exciting experience. If you are a fan of older architecture, you may get a kick from the building as well.
There was a good bit of construction towards the front of the building while we were there, but it's hopefully finished now
Tokyo Station is in Marunochi, an area full of high class stores and modern office buildings. The high rise buildings here often looked more modern than most of those we saw throughout Tokyo. We had a good walk around these glossy buildings, and then, as the sun started to set, we headed towards the rear of Tokyo Station so we could enter the underground shopping centre First Avenue (you can find a map in English on the official website).
This is a massive, and pretty confusing, complex with numerous avenues of restaurants, shops and food halls. This is the perfect place if you are looking for some great souvenirs. And if you are looking to buy anime or game related toys, there is a whole area dedicated to this kind of merchandise, Character Street; when we were there, there was a Pokemon store, a Hello Kitty one, Studio Ghibli and even more. I bought a purse of Jiji from Kiki's Delivery Service, a Pikachu plushie shaped and coloured like a pumpkin (we were in Japan over the Halloween season), and a few other cute trinkets.
Although we got lost a good few times (and it took us ages to find Character Street), we loved seeing the delights of a Japanese underground shopping centre / mall (another thing we ran into a number of times in Japan). The size was astonishing compared to what we have experienced anywhere in the UK. Before heading back to our hotel, we grabbed a few fancy bentos from one of the food halls, a long with a chocolate roll shaped as a black cat.
After such a busy day, I think we ended up falling asleep at around 10pm, which put use in great shape to start early the next morning.
Some General Advice
I've gleamed a great deal of advice from a number of my friends who are either Japanese, have Japanese partners/spouses, or have travelled to Japan several times. Here’s a few pieces that made our journey and time in Japan hassle-free.
If you are travelling from the island of Ireland, it's worth flying from Ireland and not Northern Ireland. It would have increased the cost of our flight by £200 each by going Belfast > London instead of Dublin > London, due to cheaper taxes in the south of Ireland. (This feels so bizarre to me as I often get flights from Belfast > London for £40 return).
You can get return flights from Ireland to Japan for around £370, but we opted to pay a little more to save travel time and hassle; we paid £450 each return with British Airways and booked six months in advance. We had an overall journey time from our take off in Dublin of around 16 hours, including our two and a half hour layover in London. Two and a half hours may seem long, but with transfers and getting through the busy Heathrow, we found this was just the perfect amount of time; if something had gone wrong, any less time and we wouldn't have had enough time to deal with it. Friends of ours travelled at the same time on the cheaper flight but had a longer journey and only an hour to transfer planes in an unfamiliar airport in Turkey. I think paying a little bit more is worth it to save on stress and the length of a tiring journey.
We found that Kanda was the perfect place to stay while in Tokyo. I picked it as it has a number of advantages:
- Kanda Station is on the Yamanote Line, a train line that loops around Tokyo and is free to use for those with a JR Pass. Many of the main tourist destinations in Tokyo can be reached from a stop on the Yamanote Line, such a Shibuya and and Akihabara.
- Kanda Station is one stop from Tokyo Station on the Yamanote Line, the city’s primary train hub, and where you get the Shinkansen / bullet train to other major cities throughout Japan.
- I found an affordable hotel, MyStays Kanda, less than a ten minute walk from Kanda Station. Better known areas such as Shinjuku and Shibuya tended to be more expensive. We booked a room with a kitchenette but found this was unneeded as, if you are getting food from the konbini, they will heat it for you. But it did mean the room was much larger than most other hotels we saw and stayed in while in Japan.
Make sure to get a JR Pass. The price may seem a little scary, but if you are visiting more than Tokyo during your stay, it will save you a lot of money. For example, it cost us £240 each for a two week unlimited pass in 2015. A single ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is often (as of April 2017) around £100. Japan Guide has a great article with a wealth of information on the JR Pass.
I’ve heard a number of people say to bring plenty of cash to Japan as they are still a cash-based country, and that ATMs are hard to find. We definitely found the first point true, but we didn't have trouble finding an ATM in the konbinis. But of course ATM transactions can come with charges. So bring a good bit of cash, but don’t worry if you find you didn’t bring enough.
In the major cities, most street signs as well as the buses and trains, will have English next to the Japanese. And a lot of restaurants (especially Japanese chain restaurants) have English menus. So even if you have no knowledge of the Japanese language, you can get around quite easily with only a few token words of Japanese. The Japanese are always very eager to help tourists, and younger people and salarymen especially often have a good level of English. But if you can learn a little bit more than the very basics, it will be very much appreciated.
We were in Japan for the last two weeks of October. This was great as we got to see a lot of the Halloween festivities and the start of the leaves changing colour with the autumn season. We also found the temperatures were perfect for our Irish sensibilities. It’s usually around 17-18 degrees during the day at this time of year, but 2015 was a little warmer than normal and most days were 20-22 degrees with sunny, blue skies. That may seem a little on the low side to some, but to us it was perfect as we were constantly on the move, and meant we didn’t get overheated (well, apart from that one 25 degree day in Kyoto ... ).