“Incomplete,” said a fellow friend of mine when asked about not including Japan as a must-have in a standard travel bucket list. The reason is simple: Japan is really meant for everyone from adventure seekers and bold trendsetters to families with small children. So, when Gaya Travel Magazine received an invitation to join a familiarisation trip to Japan courtesy of Kanto Transport Bureau and Relation Japan Inc. last September 2014, I simply jumped for joy.
The fact that Japan itself is considerably large with many worthy attractions, it is near to impossible to explore all of them in such a short period. Therefore, how on earth did I make the most of my recent visit to Japan? Thanks to Kanto Transport Bureau and Relation Japan Inc., they made sure that my travelling companions and I experienced among the best parts of Nippon (the Japanese name of Japan) through a very well thought out itinerary.
Our journey in Japan began in Tokyo, the capital city of Japan. With its screaming neon lights, sleek glass skyscrapers, meticulous landscaping and fashion forward people, it is no surprise why Tokyo excites travellers, especially the young ones. However, Tokyo is not just about urban architecture and lifestyle – it is also rich in culture. The metropolis is divided into several special wards, but we managed to visit three of them: Sumida, Shinagawa and Taito.
If travellers enter Tokyo through Haneda airport like how we did, the first advisable thing to do is to visit the Keikyu Tourist Information Centre. Though there are not many fluent English speaking staff available here, they are more than happy to assist you with your travel plan through practical brochures, train timetables and maps. Travellers can also purchase special deal passes here or even get the free Wi-Fi password that can be used at any of the 200,000 locations throughout Japan for the first six hours. Visit their informative website at www.haneda-tokyo-access.com/en/ for more information.
Before Tokyo, there was Edo – the final period of traditional Japan when the people were still under the Shogunate (military dictatorship). Realising the importance of this 400-year history, the Edo-Tokyo Museum helps to unfold the story through its impressive exhibition starting with a replica of Nihonbashi Bridge at the entrance.
There are a total of three zones in the museum called the Edo Zone, the Tokyo Zone and the Second Event Exhibition. Here, visitors can expect to learn more about the economic and political systems, cultures and lifestyles of the Japanese from the start of Edo period to the post-World War II era. The museum also organises special exhibitions occasionally.
But, what attracts me the most about the museum is its attentiveness towards the visitors. This can be seen through the availability of multilingual guides, wheelchair service, baby carriages and nursery rooms, proving that the museum is people friendly. The Edo-Tokyo Museum opens every day except Monday from 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. for a fee of JPY600 (the museum closes at 7.30 p.m. on Saturday).
Suitable for: Cultural history buffs
Food Sample Making
Food sample making is currently a hit in Japan. It began in 1917 when they were first introduced in a Tokyo department store. Typically, food samples are usually displayed in front of restaurants in order to ease the customers in placing orders, especially to those who cannot understand Japanese language. But today, the Japanese gets more creative by making these samples as cute little souvenirs. Please remember that these food samples are not food and actually made out of wax.
When we were in Sumida, we managed to make the food samples ourselves with the aid of lovely instructors at the Kappabashi Showroom at the fee of JPY2,160 per person. The process involves pouring drops of boiling coloured melted wax into a bucket of lukewarm water and shaping the wax into the food that you want to make a sample of, for instance salad or tempura, with your own hands – mind you, the process is delicate and requires patience.
The Kappabashi Showroom opens every day from 10.00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Those interested in joining this food sample making class need to make a one-month advance booking. There are three class sessions per day scheduled at 11.00 a.m., 2.00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. Each class runs for about 60 to 75 minutes and the maximum number of participants for every class is 16. If you can’t join the class, then there is the DIY kit that you can buy from the Kappabashi Showroom for you to try at home.
Suitable for: Arts and crafts enthusiasts, especially those who are good with their hands
Sumida City Point
I admire how Sumida tourism organisation combines the tourist information centre, local art and history exhibitions, interactive cultural lessons and numerous shopping opportunities all under one roof at the place called Tokyo Solamachi. On the fifth floor of the building, there is a centre called Sumida City Point where travellers can obtain proper educational experience on Sumida and be advised on the area’s worthy attractions. Travellers will also be given special authentic gifts when visiting the centre!
Some of the offerings provided here include a public reading corner, an interactive Artisan’s Old House, a video corner, Sumo wrestlers’ wardrobe that travellers can try on, Chanko Cushion fashion that travellers can pose with and watching live demonstrations by experienced artisans.
During our recent visit there, we were able to see a ‘Mushikui No Shuufuku’ demonstration, which was the art of repairing centuries-old documents. Sumida City Point opens every day from 10.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m.
Suitable for: Art collectors and cultural enthusiasts
With plenty of high rise buildings, Tokyo is no doubt beautiful to see, particularly from the top. And what better place to watch the city than from the tallest building in Japan, the Tokyo Skytree, built at the height of 634 metres and employs the fusion of neo-futuristic and traditional design.
Moreover, a spokesman for Tobu Tower, Sho Toyoshima, also shared that the Tokyo Skytree is capable of withstanding a magnitude 7 quake. Plus, a shopping mall called Solamachi is also built at the base of the tower. The two observation decks located at the heights of 350 and 450 metres are called Tembo Deck and Tembo Galleria respectively. On a clear day, from the observation decks, visitors could also catch a glimpse of the great Mount Fuji if they are lucky.
My suggestion is to visit the tower at night since that is the time when Tokyo city illuminates gloriously, casting a romantic mood over the observation decks. Tickets can be purchased for JPY2,060 each at the fourth floor of the tower. However, in order to get to the Tembo Galleria (450m), visitors need to pay the additional price of JPY1,030 at the Tembo Deck (350m). The Tokyo Skytree opens every day from 8.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m.
Suitable for: Couples and families
Tokaido Shinagawa Syuku
Back during the ancient Edo period, many post towns were developed along the main road that connected Edo (now called Tokyo) and Kyoto. These post tows are where the passing travellers had their permits checked and obtained food and rest at the available inns. Shinagawa was one of these post towns along that route, which travellers entered using the iconic Tokaido Road. Today, though Tokyo metropolis is rapidly urbanising, Shinagawa seems to retain its slow pace, as what we saw at Shinagawa Syuku.
For cultural enthusiasts, Shinagawa Syuku is perfect for them. With its authentic old world vibe and the original Tokaido Road that still exists, the place certainly has character. Travellers are recommended to take a stroll along the narrow streets where they can find abundant eateries selling cheap delicious Japanese treats or numerous ancient Buddhist temples and shrines. I managed to find a 100 year-old shop called Akioka that sells scrumptious rice crackers.
Along the streets, travellers will notice that the shops still use traditional signages instead of the typical neon-lit ones so often used in the big city. The peaceful Shinagawa Syuku is usually packed with locals and foreigners during festivals that are held throughout the year.
If travellers are spending the night at Shinagawa, I personally suggest that you have your dinner in Yakatabune, an authentic Japanese houseboat cruise. There are over 10 companies that offer Yakatabune service that typically would cost you between JPY7,350 and JPY15,350 per person, depending on the type of meal served and seasons. The houseboat cruises leisurely along the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay while offering the magnificent view of Tokyo landmarks and the Rainbow Bridge, which travellers should not miss! Moreover, if singing is your forte, you will be thrilled to know that the two-hour cruise offer a fun karaoke session.
Suitable for: Cultural history buffs and romantics
TAITO – Ueno & Asakusa
Ameyoko is a popular shopping street located on the eastern side of Ueno Park. There are multiple theories on how the street got its name: first, it is said that Ame is derived from the word ‘American’ which makes Ameyoko means the ‘American Market’. This is due to a claim saying that Ameyoko used to be a black market during post World War II. Secondly, Ameyoko is also said to be a short form of Ameyayokocho, which means ‘Candy Shop Alley’, signifying the main product sold at the time.
But today Ameyoko is no longer the market like it used to be as it has now expanded to become a safe and well-stocked market in Tokyo. The place is lively with loud screams of competitive merchants selling their own goods ranging from food, clothes and even souvenirs. Ameyoko is also popular among Malaysian Muslim students studying in the city because it has extensive Halal Kebab stalls, allowing them to satisfy their craving for chicken or beef with a peace of mind. Lovers of branded bags will also find this busy street interesting as there is a second hand shop here that sells top quality products at reasonable prices.
Goods sold here are generally cheaper than most retail outlets in the city. Travellers are advised to come here on weekdays because the market can be too crowded during weekends.
Suitable for: Global shoppers
If truth to be told, the long haul trip to Japan is meaningless if travellers do not spend some quality time to experience the Japanese graceful culture. But learning about culture through lectures or exhibitions is different than practising it out. At Asakusa Jidaiya, their mission is to make Japanese culture more visible and accessible. Here, travellers can get involved in a traditional tea ceremony, don Japanese costumes like the kimono, play traditional fan tossing game, learn about Japanese calligraphy (Kanji) or even ride a pulled rickshaw around Asakusa.
I recommend that travellers try out the rickshaw ride because chances are, you will be able to obtain local knowledge from the rickshaw-puller such as the locals’ favourite spot for cheap branded shoes. Close to Jidaiya, there is also another touristy spot that is worth visiting named Nakamise Shopping Street that leads to the popular Sensoji Temple.
The fees for each activity are as in the following:
Observation of a tea ceremony: JPY2,500 per person
Joining a tea ceremony: JPY3,000 per person
Fan tossing game: JPY3,000 for four-nine people, JPY2,500 for more than 10 people
Traditional costumes experience: JPY6,000 – JPY9,000 per person (free pictures included)
Calligraphy session: JPY5,500 per person (minimum of four persons)
Rickshaw ride: JPY7,000 per person for 30 minutes
*Fees for the above activities (except rickshaw ride) are not tax included.
Suitable for: Cultural buffs
Tokyo, to put it briefly, is the most convenient destination that I have ever been to, with its easy access to popular attractions, ultra hygienic toilets, plenty of tourist information centres and uber-polite citizens that are ready to assist you.