It was our fourth day in Japan and the endless drizzle since day one didn’t seem get tired. A super typhoon from the Philippines was heading directly to Tokyo and almost half of the establishments in the capital city are shut for the day. Fortunately, the subway was fully operational. Me and my buddies were aiming for an awesome autumn trip but were devastated by the weather report. We may have been doomed to be soaked but our spirits are brighter than the sun. Resiliency is my favorite characteristic of the Filipino people.
I’ve never dreamt of going to Japan, really. I dunno why, but it doesn’t have this appeal or charm of a rustic countryside that I enjoyed when I was in Myanmar or Nepal. Also, its reputation of being one of the world’s most expensive countries is totally a hindrance with my meager means to travel. But with a little urge from my travel buddies (and after them securing a great deal on flight from Manila to Tokyo), a plan was made to conquer the Land of the Rising Sun—it was a first for me, not for them.
|Japanese toilets are everywhere!
Five days. During those days, only the last was clear and sunny. Everything seemed like a movie set. Trash bins were null as locals are used to taking care of their own rubbish. Public transportation is efficient that almost everybody prefers to use it. Cabs, on the other hand, are so expensive that when we had an all-nighter on a pub somewhere, we ended up shelling out almost US$75 for a 20-minute ride (good thing they accept credit card). And the people—the people are very kind in every way they could especially in the non-touristy areas. They will go out of their way to lend a hand in spite of the language barrier.
|Tokyo cabs are so technologically advanced and costly.
Cold, wet, soaked, but everyone was in good mood. Five days of exploring Tokyo and its nearby provinces could be sum up in this useful guide to help first-timers in realizing their Japan dreams.
There are cheaper options to go to Japan without breaking the bank. Subscribe to Low Cost Airlines and mock book every day (yes, it has to be a daily routine for cheapos) to see promo deals on airfares. We secured a roundtrip Manila to Tokyo flight six months prior to this trip via Cebu Pacific Air which made everything easier in terms of the planning process.
|Cebu Pacific check-in counter at Narita International Airport.
Having been to Seoul early this year during winter, I kinda knew what to expect for early autumn. We arrived at Narita International Airport early in the morning where the temperature check was 10 deg. C. Every day, weather forecast was regularly checked right before we had our morning coffee. A super typhoon coincided with our trip which let us use the famed transparent umbrellas of Japan. We couldn’t be grumpy with this kind of weather, or should I say, we are so used in dealing with it during monsoon season in the Philippines.
Foreign Currency Exchange can be tricky in Tokyo. I skipped the money changer counters at the airport and sought the banks near our hotel in Asakusa for my money exchange needs. I always bring US Dollars when I travel abroad so I always check the highest possible rates that were posted outside the banks. When I entered this certain bank because of its higher rate, I was surprised when I learned that it was the Selling Rate which means that it was the rate they use when you secure US Dollars from them. Apparently, they have other rates when you exchange your US Dollars to Japanese Yen or the Buying Rate (US$1 = Y109.94).
The rate was fair enough when I compared it to a reputable online currency exchange site so I went on with the transaction. I filled out a form where I had to write my hotel and room number (no need for passport verification for the name). The bank staff was kind and cheery so I wasn’t feel duped or whatsoever. Maybe it was just the way it is in Tokyo, the Selling Rate versus the Buying Rate, I mean.
Getting to Downtown Tokyo from Narita International Airport is easy peasy. You have a number of options such as using the local regular train, express train, private chartered car, airport limousine bus and shared mini bus. I consulted my ever reliable Klook App on my smartphone to check the easiest and fastest way to get to the city.
Prior to this trip, we checked our options and decided to purchase Tokyo Skyliner (two, one-way trip for each) for P990 (US$19.32) which will take 41 minutes to reach Downtown Tokyo (Ueno) from Narita International Airport. The vouchers were safely stored on my phone and we needed to get the redemption coupon from the voucher pick-up points on Narita International Airport or Haneda International Airport to use it.
|Narita International Airport to Downtown Tokyo in 41 minutes.
At 8:30am sharp, we were first on the queue and showed the gracious staff at HIS Counter on the International Arrival Lobby. We were then given the vouchers for each way and were pointed to the Skyliner & Kensei Information Center at Narita International Airport Terminal 2.3 Train Station.
|You need to redeem a physical ticket using your Skyliner voucher.
We skipped the long queue of on-the-day passenger lane and breezed through the special counter. We were then given options for the train schedule and we opted to catch the closest time. We were provided with a physical Skyliner ticket afterwrds. Indicated on the ticket was the train coach and seat numbers so the seat is always guaranteed.
|Japan is known for its efficient train system.
After a few minutes, we boarded the high-speed train and enjoyed the early morning scene of Japan through our windows. And yes, we arrived in Downtown Tokyo in 41 minutes. From there, we took the Tokyo Metro Subway to get to our hotel.
On our last day, we went to the Ueno Station and exchanged our vouchers for the physical ticket and sped through the efficient railway system of Tokyo to the airport.
STAY CONNECTED (WIFI RENTAL versus SIM CARD PURCHASE)
When I go out of the country, I find it easier to connect to the world (especially to my mom) by getting a pocket WiFi device or local sim card. Data roaming from my telecommunications provider in the Philippines is totally out of the question because of the exorbitant (and sometimes hidden) fees incurred while on the service.
Using the handy dandy Klook App, we narrowed our choices to Portable WiFI Device and local sim card. We ended up purchasing four local sim cards through the easy navigable app. We could’ve purchased just one sim card and use one smart phone as a WiFi Hotspot but as per our previous trips, we’re kinda prone to getting lost so it will be so much easier to get our own sim cards.
There are many packages to choose from at Klook App such as 1GB Data for 6 days, 3GB Data for 8 days, and Unlimited 4G Data for 8 days. We purchased the 3GB Data for 8 days at P882 (US$17.20).
Just like our Skyliner Train vouchers, we headed at HIS Counter on the International Arrival Hall of Narita Airport’s Terminal 2 to get our sim cards. We were first on the queue and showed the staff our Klook vouchers from my smart phone (I love paperless transactions) and the standard procedures were done.
We were then given four sim cards including a guide on the connectivity specifications and right away, we were connected again to the world. We never had any problems at all with our data connection even at the remotest area we’ve been to. Plus, our 3GB never ran out. It’s so amazing to get fast and reliable internet connection for a bargain price.
UNLIMITED TOKYO SUBWAY PASS
The Tokyo Subway is a part of a very extensive and complex rapid transit system around Greater Tokyo area. The fare might be pricey compared to other highly urbanized cities (like Singapore) but it’s always efficient. We had five days of exploring the city and all those times, we used the subway.
Well, getting a single ticket every time (considering a number of transfers on the way) could be a hassle. So when I saw a deal on Unlimited Tokyo Subway Pass on Klook App, I immediately shared it to my buddies which they all agreed on getting.
|We’re the only ones who were chatting inside the trains.
The Unlimited Access on Tokyo Subway can be used on 13 routes and over 250 stations on both the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines. Three passes with validity for 24 hours, 48 hours and 72 hours are available. And because we were staying for five days, we got one 72-hour pass and one 48-hour pass each.
Just like how we redeemed the Skyliner Airport Transfer and 3GB Data Sim Card, we headed at HIS Counter on International Arrival Hall of Narita Airport’s Terminal 2 to get our unlimited subway passes.
The Klook voucher was, again, verified from my smart phone and in seconds, we were given our individual passes. The validity of which is depending on the number of hours since you first used it on the subway. They have a way of knowing when it will end so as long as you haven’t used it, the validity will stay the same.
I have to reiterate the practicality of having an unlimited subway pass as we were lost a few times in Tokyo and having the assurance of indefinite train rides reduced the stress in our part. We just laughed about our mistakes and went on with our adventures. Plus, one-way tickets are costly. I checked once and realized that one station is equivalent to almost US$2. So it’s wiser to get the unlimited access on the major subway lines of Tokyo Metro.
In highly urbanized cities, I always seek the help of online guide map apps for a more smooth and efficient commute. In the case of our Tokyo trip, navigating through the very complex 90-year old train system can be quite stressful.
So I checked online for reliable free apps to navigate Tokyo Subway and found Tokyo Subway App to be the most convenient because you can use it offline. The fare will be automatically computed as well as the number of transfers and the estimated amount of time that will be spent. And always, like always, the trains will arrive exactly on the scheduled time.
I experienced a sub-zero snowy weather in Seoul months back so I exactly knew what to expect when my buddies told me the early autumn weather forecast—between 10 deg. C. to 16 deg. C.
And just like my first ever winter trip, I will be reiterating the secrets on looking great without the numb feeling.
Know your body’s quick-cooling spots. I learned this the hard way when I was in Seoul. I never knew that my hands and feet were my weakest points so it was always frozen. For this trip, I specifically knew what to warm up more.
Layering. If there’s one valuable thing that I learned from my winter trip is that the key in surviving cold weather is the art of layering clothes. Wind chill during autumn can be numbing so don’t underestimate the 2-digit temperature during these times. So for this trip, my standard layering of clothes went like;
TOP – Thermal underwear, fleece pullover or turtle neck, and overcoat.
BOTTOM – Thermal underwear, and jeans.
FOOTWEAR – Thermal socks, and boots with wool lining.
ACCESSORIES –Wool or fleece scarf, and beanie.
The freezing winter in Seoul when I was there prepped me up pretty well for this particular trip. But the rainy weather plus the wind chill was a total shock. This is where those cutesy transparent Japanese umbrellas came in handy.
For accommodation, we chose the quaint neighborhood of Asakusa for the duration of our stay because of its old Tokyo vibe. For three nights, we stayed on the cool and hip Wired Hotel (check here for discounted room rates)and one night on a mixed dorm in Enaka Asakusa Central Hostel (check here for discounted dorm bed rates). Surprisingly, rooms on this area are quite cheaper compared to the areas of Shinjuku and Shibuya.
My Japanese food vocabulary before this trip was limited to maki, sushi, sashimi, tempura and sukiyaki. I didn’t even like ramen, or any noodle soup for that matter. But during the course of our five-day trip in and around Tokyo, we’ve discovered nice yakitori alleys, cheap food thrills on local minimarts, bargain bento meals during afternoon on groceries, and spent hours on a local pub restaurant with Japanese salarymen.
Ticket machines are also common. It’s like a vendo wherein you have to choose and pay for your meal and wait for it once you’re settled inside the restaurant. We tried this and were stunned on the amusing way they automate everything.
Just to give you an idea though, a regular combo meal in McDonald’s will set you back at Y700 (US6.16). I will dedicate a separate post on our Japanese Food enculturation.
I specifically wanted to get lost in the narrow alleys and bright lights of Tokyo during the course of our five-day trip. But then, my buddies were convincing me really hard to go on day trips to nearby provinces. After so many bribes I agreed on dedicating two days for these trips.
I am not the go-to person when it comes to plotting itineraries so I let them choose from the wide array of offered private and shared tours via Klook App. They then decided to explore Hakone for Mt. Fuiji sightseeing and the World Heritage Site of Nikko.
|Our gate pass to Mt. Fuji sightseeing
We could’ve done shared tours for this but we chose to have our own luxury time so instead, we purchased the 2-Day Hakone Free Pass and 2-Day Nikko Travel Pass. It gave us the liberty to choose our transportation with the short period of time we had.
On the Hakone Free Pass, we had unlimited trips on eight different transportation including Hakone Tozan Bus, Hakone Tozan Cable Car, Hakone ropeway and Hakone Sightseeing Cruise. On the other hand, the Nikko Travel Pass let us explore Nikko by train and bus with our all-you-can-ride pass. I will dedicate separate articles on these wonderful trips we had.
I am not the person to be with when it comes to shopping. I have the least patience in combing each and every aisle for something I don’t really need. But we all went overboard when we were stuck in a mall (BIC Camera) and hoarded Japan-made cameras, lenses and even drones. We arrived 10 minutes prior to the shop’s closing time and we practically owned the store and the attention of the staff. These thingamajigs are cheaper for almost $200 compared to the ones they sell in the Philippines. Plus, they have tax-free counters (less 8%) and additional 5% to 10% discount when you use credit cards. Amazing, isn’t it? Imagine our credit card bills once we set foot back home. Haha.
In terms of local knick-knacks, go to Ueno and head straight to Ameyoko Shopping Street for the cheapest Kit Kat chocolates, green teas, Anello bags, Casio watches and whatnots. For wasabi and Japanese mayonnaise (I hoarded a handful), we went to a local grocery store with photos on hand while shopping. Tax-free counters are available almost everywhere as long as you bring with you your passport. An 8% discount will be automatically deducted to your purchases.
For local souvenirs, we sought the local shops in our neighborhood in Asakusa near the Sensoji Temple. You could haggle but almost always, they stick to their upfront pricing. Credit cards are also widely used here.
We were in the hunt for those elusive cactus plants that my mom specifically requested (with photos and pinned location). After an hour of video conference with her, we were at the check-out counter to settle our purchases. Lost in translation, we were asking them to remove the soil as well as the pot and wrap the plant itself with a newspaper.
After a few minutes (and after six staff converging and figuring out what we were trying to say), we were brought to the gardening section where I saw three staff preparing some bubble wraps and other gardening tools. And while they were heeding to our request, you could feel the sincerity of their work as I try to tell them that everything was for my okasan. For this recent trip, I couldn’t think of any Japanese who was rude or impolite. They were all calm, reserved and very passionate on their crafts.
Tokyo is very different from Southeast Asia. It is fast-paced, highly urbanized and easy to navigate to. I have this thing with big cities being cold and lifeless, but in Tokyo, I felt the warmth of its people in spite of the cold and rainy weather. We never had any conflict with anything or anyone. I will be sharing with you more stories about our early autumn/super typhoon jaunt in the next posts. Can’t wait to tell you more.
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