Travel Dates: 19 – 25 May 2009
Tokyo is famed for all that’s quaint, exotic, unique, otherworldly… the city centre and its gleaming glass-and-steel skyscrapers speak only of a future brighter than the glowing red-hot Tokyo Tower in the night, yet the ancient castles and shrines that dot the city in surprising nooks and crannies whisper tales of the glorious, tumultuous past. This is a long overdue post, but I wanted to sit down and let everything sink in before I write a piece about Tokyo, by far the most fascinating city I’ve seen. It did help that one of my all-time favourite movies was Lost in Translation, but watching it hardly prepared me for the awe and intrigue that was about to hit me in the face the moment the Tokyo Metro rumbled into the city centre…
At the Narita Airport JR station…first Japanese encounter!
We landed in Narita Airport just after nightfall, taking the Narita Express into the city centre, to catch our connecting bus to Kyoto (see previous blog entry). Twinkling, coloured lights peeked at us through the darkness, faceless strangers passing us by as we walked through the underground streets that link to the metro station.
Crowded but quiet – on a JR subway train
We hit the ground running, with our coach from Kyoto dropping us somewhere in the central business district. First thing first, locate the metro station. Inside, it was a sea of business suit-clad men and women, their faces stern, eyes constantly fixated on their watches, legs striding forward as though they are in a powerwalking competition, except they are not, they are poised for corporate battle…but before that happens, the crushing morning rush hour crowd looked ready to squeeze half the life of them…literally! Everyone filed into the trains orderly (think: George Orwell’s 1984). And as the train chugged its way, trembling as it went along, I couldn’t help but notice how eerily quiet the train was. It was JAM PACKED, yet it was as though there was something truly sacred about the silence for the Japanese people. They read newspapers, kept their music on their Sony mp3 players low enough so their neighbours couldn’t hear, nobody yakked on the mobile phone, some dozed off…and hardly anyone spoke. It was this scene that struck me about how civic-minded and gracious Japanese society is, as compared to many much less desirable scenes I have witnessed. It might be a facade, but it was enough to win me over, for now at least.
Wow! …And this is only the JR subway system (not including the Tokyo Metro and Toei systems!)
The subway system is easily THE most complicated of its kind in the world over, its lines crawling all over the city centre like furiously knitted spider webs, and spilling over the suburban areas as well, covering practically the entire metropolitan area of Greater Tokyo. With the taxis’ initial meter fare starting at nearly ¥700 (around US$7.70), it is no wonder most of the people in Tokyo rely on the efficient and frequent metro services for travelling around. Getting used to which line to take on which metro service, the Tokyo Metro, the Toei or the JR, would be your first challenge, after of course deciphering how much it costs to travel from point A to point B on a hard-to-find but available at most stations map in English. The lines are denoted by colour, and noting the destination stations would be the easiest way to locate which line you need to get to your station. More often than not, there are many permutations and ways to get to a station by changing at various different interchanges, and that’s up to you to decide. As a person who’s a great fan of railway and subway trains, I found great joy in “getting lost” in the stations and figuring out how to get to, say, Ueno, Roppongi Hills or Marunouchi. If you are the kind of traveller (or should I say tourist) who wants information served to you on a china platter, good luck navigating in Tokyo. ;)
A shiny golden spermazoid greets us every morning! (That, my friend, is the Asahi headquarters in Asakusa.)
We stayed at the Tokyo Khaosan Annex House, a backpacker hostel in Asakusa, and it was quite a pleasant stay (just telling the truth, no I’m not getting any commission for this). It took around 8-10 minutes for us to get to the nearest metro station on foot, and it’s quite cool because we had to cross a bridge to get to the hostel, and every morning I got to see a little piece of the city, including this GLEAMING golden spermazoid in the sky! If you are a beer aficionado, you would know the Japanese brand of beer Asahi, and yes, that building is the Asahi headquarters. We see it everyday when we leave the hostel to go to the metro station and again when we return.
Accommodation in Tokyo is not cheap, as anyone would have figured out by now, and what we got was close to the lowest rate, around ¥2800/night per person for a bed. No breakfast included, shared bathroom, kitchen and dining area, complete with cable TV and free internet access in the common area. It costs around ¥190-230 to get to the city centre on the Tokyo Metro for a single-trip ticket, which CAN be a little pricey if you take into consideration that the cheapest bowl of ramen we found was around ¥390.
Something random…Found Gossip Girl in Japanese in a bookstore! :)
Expected expenditure based on our experience:
Conversion rate: SGD1 to ¥66 (approximate value as of May 2009)
– More expensive towards the central parts of the city
Backpacker hostel – Tokyo Khaosan Annex House ¥2,800/person
Capsule hotel (where you sleep in those coffin-like beds) ¥3,000/person (upwards)
Airport to Downtown Tokyo – approx. 65 mins
JR Narita Express ¥3,100 (Adult)
Follow the subway map once you reach Tokyo station to switch to other trains to get to your hotel/hostel.
Other types of trains are available but this is the only one we used.
Tokyo Metro One-Day Open Ticket ¥710 (Adult) / ¥360 (Child)
Get this one! It is definitely worthwhile as long as you take more than 3 trips in one day. Which you will.
Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway One-Day Common Ticket ¥1,000 (Adult) / ¥500 (Child)
JR subway – Tokyo Station to Narita Airport Station ¥1,280 (Adult)
Couldn’t find any student price tickets… either it doesn’t exist or something was lost in translation.
Taxi – Flagoff Fare ¥660
Never tried… seems really exorbitant!
We hardly took the bus…the metro is extremely convenient and brought us to every touristy place we went.
Bowl of ramen ¥390 – 1200
Can of beer from a supermarket ¥250-400
Packet of milk/ fruit juice (250ml) ¥130-210
Groceries to make a simple meal for two ¥500-1000
A set meal with ramen/udon + soup ¥1,100-2,000
A fancy meal in a restaurant for two ¥7,000-10,000