#49 Koyo in Nikko, Japan

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When we think about koyo, amazing colours come to our mind. Gold, crimson, marigold yellow, maple syrup brown, tangerine, plum red…

Going leaf spotting is a tradition in Japan — there is even a specific term for it — momijigari. It is simply the act of enjoying the gorgeous autumn foliage. In this tech-obsessed world, a little spot of koyo is just what we needed.

For some, it could be a lot of fuss for nothing. Then again, the whole idea is to chill and relax. It’s for scenery and nature lovers, and for people who just want to take their mind off the hustle and bustle of real world. A refreshing change indeed for many who travel on a tight itinerary, and a great break for those who have spent a couple of hectic days in Tokyo.

I love trees and autumn is my favourite season. So yes, observing the koyo is just right up my alley. :-)

Here’s my trip report, hopefully it helps you get all the manic planning out of the way and focus on the beautiful scenery.

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#3 Towering Ambitions – Tokyo, Japan

I must be pretty lucky to be able to spend my 21st birthday in Tokyo. My first official day of adulthood and I was already doing something that I would be really proud of myself when I looked back in a decade or two. I started out the day a little exhausted, but hopeful and feeling blessed. It was a beautiful day to start exploring the city.

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Street scene in Shinjuku

Shinjuku (新宿) is a visual explosion of colours. The world’s busiest metro station was located here with tons of restaurants, bars, retail stores, hotels and skyscraping government buildings dotting the surrounding area. I felt like I was in the centre of the universe. Lost in Translation, here I come!

The city is huuuuuge. I could feel the throbbing heartbeat of Tokyo right where I stood. I angled my neck and marvelled at the multi-coloured advertising banners with Japanese characters splashed across in massive cartoonish characters across gray, steel-and-glass facades of shopping malls. Since neither my bf nor I were fans of planning our routes to death (i.e. plotting everything on a Google Map and following it to a T), we decided to wander around and find a few of the interesting places that we read about and try not to get sucked into the lovely patisseries and cutesy shops that lined every street.

Perhaps it was the time of the day, but Kabuki-cho wasn’t the most exciting place to be in at 3PM; a few wild-haired teenagers stood at the curb smoking thin cigarettes and loitered around, didn’t want to wander in any further as there didn’t seem to be much action going on… Figured the place only comes alive at night for all the reasons we didn’t want to know about, since it is a red-light district and all. Come to think of it, we should have come around here in the evening, but we never did. Oh well, I can save this for the next time I come around, when I’m older and won’t be mistaken for what I’m not…

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School children on a field excursion…so kawaii! (near Shinjuku Gyoen)

We began hunting for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where we could access the Observatory Deck (45th floor) for free (!) to enjoy a good day view of the entire city from the top. I thought we could recognise the building since it should be the “tallest” to have a good vantage point — I thought WRONG. Every damn building in Tokyo is so tall, one obscures another from view, especially we are just mere mortals standing on the sidewalk. So better to consult a map…and Tokyo’s street maps (the kind erected on the sidewalk at regular intervals) are not the easiest to decipher, but we managed… Stumbled upon the Shinjuku Gyoen but refused to walk through a huge park of nothing to see but pretty pavillions and well-manicured lawns. Sorry, we’ll pass for this one. (A side-effect of post-Kyoto visiting.)

It’s a totally different world here altogether. Take out the technicolor billboards and humongous ads and add 50 storeys to the buildings from the main shopping area in Shinjuku, and you have the CBD. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is lauded to be the symbol of Shinjuku. We entered through the wide glass doors, and felt a little embarrassed to be dressed down for such a formal looking building in such a formal looking district where most people (Japanese) were donning business suits and carrying briefcases. But we were met by fellow tourists who looked equally ridiculous (or worse, especially the Americans in their trainers and visors), and instantly we didn’t feel as bad. The North Observatory was closed on that day so we went to the South Observatory instead. They essentially the same except the view is different. The two Observatories (located in the same building) open on different days so check before going if you’re particular about which one you want to visit.

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There it is, very faint, but still unmistakable! Fuji-san! :)

The view was priceless. (Well, admission was free, too.) I could spy Mount Fuji! Easily the highlight of the day! The peak could barely be seen; it peeked out faintly from behind the veil of marbled clouds in the sky, but it was there. I could barely contain the excitement — I’m a fan of tall buildings and looking at the city from the top — didn’t squeal in case the steel-faced security guards throw me off out of the building. :)

The day was coming to an end and I was hungry for dinner… Time to head out to Roppongi.
That’s all for Shinjuku!

Link:
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (in Japanese)

#2 Run Tokyo Run! – Tokyo, Japan

Travel Dates: 19 – 25 May 2009

TOKYO, JAPAN

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…

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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.

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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.

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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. ;)

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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.

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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)

ACCOMMODATION
– 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)

TRANSPORT
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.

Around Tokyo
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!

Bus
We hardly took the bus…the metro is extremely convenient and brought us to every touristy place we went.

FOOD
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

#1 Shrine City – Kyoto, Japan

KYOTO, JAPAN
Travel dates: 17 – 18 May 2009

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Kinkakuji

Kyoto is well-known for its sheer amount of beautiful and magnificent ancient shrines and temples, boasting of spectacular Japanese architecture and remnants of olden-day opulence. I was in Kyoto for 2 days with my friend, which was perfect for purchasing the Kyoto City Tour 2-Day pass for the bus. We travelled nearly 7 hours by bus from Tokyo since we disembarked at Narita Airport. The bus ride cost us 2800 yen (one way) each and it was not comfortable at all, though it is much cheaper than taking the renowned Shinkansen (bullet train). Most of the booking sites are written ENTIRELY in Japanese (with no or very poor English translation), so unless you have a Japanese friend to translate and help you, this option is not feasible.

Transport within Kyoto is relatively convenient, just like most modern cities, it is well-equipped with an efficient public transport system, with public bus and subway. (Check out this website for more on Kyoto’s public transport.)

Tip: They have two kinds of subway just like in Tokyo, but don’t be tempted to purchase the day pass that includes subway rides! Because the pass usually only covers the lines from only one or the other subway company, and makes it extremely inconvenient if you ended up at a subway station that you cannot gain entry to with the pass you already bought. I highly recommend just getting the pass for the city tour bus, since they have pre-planned tourist routes that travel to all the popular tourist destinations, like the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion Shrine) and Gion.

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Kyoto International Manga Museum

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Nijo Castle

A few must-go places in Kyoto are of course the Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion Shrine), Fushimi Inari (possibly one of the most impressive and biggest Inari shrines — with a beautiful and huuuuge torii gate — in Japan!), Nijo Castle and perhaps a day trip to Arayashima! There are really so many shrines and temples in Kyoto that it was impossible for me to finish seeing even half of them after the two days! Some require admission fee and some don’t, so pick and choose the ones you want to go wisely. For the budget-conscious, the shrines with free entry do not necessaily pale in comparison to the ones you need to pay to visit.

If you are a fan of Japanese shrine architecture, do consider spending more than 3 days in Kyoto to slowly enjoy (and not gorge on) the lovely structures and peaceful atmosphere surrounding the splendid and well-maintained shrines.

When you’re sick of the shrines (and yes, trust me, you will!), head over to Kyoto’s International Museum of Manga…which is really an interesting place to explore, and a true haven for manga fans! Although their collection of manga books are not entirely exhaustive and especially extensive since it is meant to be more of a display museum than a repository, the books they have there are enough to wow your socks off. There are also permanent and special manga exhibitions for visitors to enjoy. You can also sit there to read some of them if you have time to spare. I was more fascinated with the insanely vast volume and variety of manga books they own, than interested in actually perusing the books. It costs ¥500 to enter, but I think it is pretty worth it. :)

Extra tip: Drop by the Kyoto Tourist Office (opens at 8.30am) located within Kyoto Main Station (follow the map directions), to grab some free (!) Kyoto maps and find out what activities and places are worth seeing.

ACCOMMODATION
Backpacker hostel – K’s House Kyoto                                                                  ¥2,300 (dormitory); ¥3,500 (single)
15-minute bus ride and 25-minute walk to Kyoto station
– 3-minute walk to Shichi jo Subway; 5-minute walk to various bus stops

TRANSPORT
Kyoto Travel Two-Day Pass                                                                                    ¥2,000 (Adult); ¥600 (Child) 
(For : City Bus, Municipal Subway Line or Kyoto Bus)    

RAKU City Bus                                                                                                              ¥220 (flat rate)
Goes to most of the popular tourist sites around Kyoto
– If I’m not wrong you can use the two-day pass on the RAKU Bus as well
– This bus is the fool-proof way if you don’t want to struggle with public transport. :)
– For more information, visit the
official Kyoto Transport website

FOOD
– In general, everything is cheaper than in Tokyo.
A simple restaurant meal for two                                                                           ¥1,200-1,500