Pictures in this post taken with the Nikon D5500
I made my virgin trip to Japan this year, and I fell in love with the country so much I booked my next trip there immediately upon my return. There’s just something about Japan that converts people to the country..
We did Tokyo in April. Metropolitan hub of Asia. A Hollywood favourite. The subject of multiple pop songs over the years. It was everything I’d dreamed of and more. It rained the entire time we were there, and usually that messes up your entire trip, but even in the rain we were wandering around the city, faces tilted up in wonder, so incredibly and blatantly happy. Thinking: I can’t believe it took me this long to make it to Japan.
So here I am as usual, pining after the city post trip, and working it off by immortalising it in words. I feel like there is this conception that Japan is very expensive – and it is, I’m sure, compared to its other Asian destination counterparts. But I did Tokyo, supposedly the most expensive japanese city, on an extremely low budget, and it was pretty much the best trip I’ve had this year so far. Which means that you can do Tokyo without going bankrupt. And here’s how:
5D4N in Tokyo – A Note:
I didn’t go to Japan with the conscious decision to craft a very nitty gritty BSG, so you wont get the same kind of cost breakdown you do with my Phuket BSG. I did, however, have a rough notion hanging at the back of my head that i didn’t want to bankrupt myself on the trip, so as and when cost-effective options came up, I made a mental note, which is what I’ll be documenting in this post.
Flying to Japan
I planned to fly in during cherry blossom season, and I don’t think I could have done tokyo at a better period! Cherry blossom season is truly a new brand of magical. But because everyone wants a piece of this magic, flights and accommodation tends to be slightly jacked up during this period – which means you won’t get any super deals on flights, I guess. I paid 590SGD for a return fare, no checked luggage, with Air Asia X. It was already considered a ‘deal’ fare, which is just as well.
Two months later, my friend booked a return trip to Tokyo on a super-deal fare for SGD270 return. That’s something that is nearly impossible during cherry blossom season, but I guess the payoff for a higher fare in April is that you get to frolic in pink fields of falling blossom petals, which is something I feel is totally worth it
There’s never been a better time to go to Japan – the yen is at an all time low. Trust me, I’m not just speaking out of my ass: the boyfriend’s brother works in the Bank of Tokyo, so I really do know, okay? It’s a good time to go.
Everyone told me that a hundred SGD worth of yen per day is a good gauge for conversion. Well, I did that, and I had so much money leftover I spent it all on a ridiculous number of tokyo banana boxes. The main thing you spend on each day is that transport pass. Other than that, it’s just street food, snacking, and meals. I didn’t shop much because that wasn’t why I was in Japan, but I did go to shopping areas to soak up the vibe. And for every must try food thing, we bought one and split it between us – I honestly think that’s a large part of the reason we got to try so much and spend so little. It was awesome!
Accommodation and transport are quite closely linked when planning for Tokyo. I’ll explain why later. For now, just know that you should definitely be looking to book a place on the JR Yamanote Line, because Strategic Accommodation Planning, ok?
I booked a private room in this darling traditional japanese apartment on Airbnb, which was located in Meijiro, in the Shinjuku area. I picked this apartment for several reasons:
1. I wanted somewhere that would afford me a traditional japanese experience. I didn’t want to just check into an ubiquitous modern apartment that I can find in, say, hongkong or bangkok. Japan is known for their traditional apartments, and I wanted the full experience! I wanted to sleep on the floor! On that futon thing!
2. I specifically booked a private room with a host because I was going to be in a new country where I knew nobody and wasn’t familiar with the language. I wanted to have someone to talk to about recommendations in the area, about Tokyo in general, and I wanted to spend extensive time with someone who’d been naturalised into Tokyo. That someone was Catherine, a Frenchwoman who’s been living in Japan, and I swear, the recommendations she gave us… it was like living with a very detailed secret version of wikipedia.
3. The apartment was reasonably priced and well located. Still on the JR Yamanote line within the Shinjuku area, but a couple of train stops from Shinjuku centre itself. This meant that it would be easy to get to and fro places, things would still be affordable in my area, but also that it wouldn’t be superbly noisy or expensive.
Lex and I arrived in Japan separately – she arrived about twelve hours earlier than me. Catherine met Lex at the train station and walked her in, showing her the shortcuts to our apartment and pointing out the best hidden gems along the way. We would have been hopelessly lost without her, I think: Lex later told me that she asked Catherine how people navigated their ways in the neighbourhoods since only the main roads had proper street names.
“We call them by the name of our neighbours. So, a Japanese person would say, you enter at Mr X’s street, turn at Mrs Y’s house, and walk straight till you see Madam Z’s blossom tree.”
Staying with a host you get accidental gems like that. This meant nothing to Catherine but it amused Lex and I for days.
Here are some other things you save on when living with a host. Much like our airbnb apartment stay in Bangkok, she provided us with train cards so we wouldn’t have to buy one and load it up. She also gave us this wifi egg which was useful when Lex and I were occasionally separated because then we could contact each other – I brought along my own wifi egg from y5buddy of course, but I imagine this would be especially useful for travellers who were intending to rely on wifi the entire trip to save costs 🙂
Beyond that, she was also always contactable (and very quickly so!) via LINE chat, which is a popular mode of contact for airbnb hosts, I’ve realised. The three of us had a LINE chat group a week before our arrival in Tokyo, and we were happily making plans on it the whole time. When there, she would check in with us randomly and answer all our sudden questions when we were out and about. And honestly.. I think half of our itinerary came from her. It was awesome! More specifics on that later..
PS. You can read more about how to pick an airbnb apartment on my Broke Student’s Guide to Accommodation in Europe post. Different continent, same underlying rules.
Remember how I mentioned earlier about staying on the JR Yamanote Line? Now’s where I explain that.
Everyone says that transport in Japan is superbly expensive, but I actually find it ok, compared to Singapore. It can be a little confusing, but it’s workable, and very, very efficient. Basically, the whole of Tokyo is covered in the criss cross of train lines. You can view the full train map here. Getting around Tokyo can be done a few ways:
1. With a JR pass.
You can get those passes that give you access to all trains in Japan. Yknw, intercity, within the city, whatever. They also cover most of the local trains, so that’s convenient. But they cost upward of two hundred dollars for a week (i think?) and usually people only get them if they’re travelling to a few japanese cities.
2. On a per trip basis.
This is basically like every other transport system where you top up stored value into the card (provided by the airbnb host, otherwise you’ll have to purchase one) and then tap in and out of the train gantries. This works if you’re intending to venture to places a bit further, but it tends to be rather costly because if I’m not wrong it’s something like two singaporean bucks for every couple of stops.
3. With a localised JR pass.
This is what I used every day I was there. There’s this daily pass you can purchase called the JR Yamanote Line Pass, and it costs 730Yen/day. It covers all the stops on the JR Yamanote line, which is a loop line, and it’s the best line in all of Tokyo in my opinion because if it’s your first time in Tokyo, it covers all the places tourists will want to go. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Ueno, Akihabara, Tokyo Station.. they’re all on the JR Yamanote line. And of course, so is Meijiro, which is where I stayed.
I only ventured out of the JR Yamanote line a couple of times. To and fro the airport, obviously. To Disneyland, which is far out of the city centre. And once more, to the tsukiji fish market for brunch on Catherine’s recommendation. Otherwise, I was exploring all the areas on the JR Yamanote line, and trust me – that’s enough to keep your hands full for days.
So, this is where I try to flesh out the details of my trip. I won’t be going into Disneyland here, because I think that’s a post for another day. Instead, I’ll list the places I visited by area and other memorable things about the place! Besides the tsukiji fish market, they’re all on the Yamanote line, which only serves to reinforce my point that you should definitely stay on the JR Yamanote line. You can view my listing here.
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: 3 train stops.
Shinjuku is the centre of Tokyo, according to Catherine. The place is a massive attack on one’s senses, with neon lights and japanese signs screaming out at you. I loved it. It felt very cosmopolitan in a japanese way, as opposed to shibuya which just felt cosmopolitan. On Catherine’s recommendation, we headed to Shinjuku Gyoen which was about ten minutes walk from the station to try and catch the last of the cherry blossoms: and as you can see, we were very happily successful. It was gorgeous. Entry to the Gyoen is 200Yen, I believe, which is completely worth your money.
Shinjuku is also where you can find Ichiran, one of those bucket list ramen places that can and will change your life. I still dream about it sometimes: it was so good.
I returned to Shinjuku a couple of times – on my last day again, on Catherine’s recommendation, I headed to the Tokyo Government Building on the fringe of Shinjuku to get a view of the city skyline. It’s pretty popular with the tourists – I settled myself in a piano bar and had a latte while gazing down on all of Tokyo. Pretty surreal experience.
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: 11 train stops.
Akihabara is geek fantasy land. It felt the most japanese to us of all the places we hit – giant, flashing, neon buildings with anime characters plastered all over them, rows and rows of arcades and game canters, dedicated comic book and gachapon shops… it felt like we’d stepped into an Otaku’s fantasy. Which, funnily enough, is what Akihabara is nicknamed to be. Spent nothing, but had a good time walking around.
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: 6 train stops.
Shibuya is another one of the more iconic places in Tokyo. I think it’s probably a close tussle between Shibuya and Shinjuku for most iconic. Shibuya is home to the famous Shibuya crossing, which, I don’t care what anyone else says, is a damn mess. The entire place is swarming with people and I expected to feel like it was a more momentous thing, being amongst the thronging jumble cross walking crowds, but all I felt was claustrophobic. It’s a huge shopping district, with Shibuya 109 (not keen on it, personally), and giant Muji/Tokyu Hands stores, but what I liked most about Shibuya was slipping into its tiny streets and discovering gems like the Standing Sushi Bar we had such an amazing dinner at.
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: 5 train stops.
Harajuku! When you get off the train at harajuku, the japanese recorded voice heralds your arrival: hallajuuuukuuuu. It’s cute, which is basically what all of Harajuku is: cute. Harajuku is the bright, goth-punk, hotbed of youth culture in Tokyo, and you’ll find cosplay and neoprint shops here amongst other things. If you find cosplaying a little too hardcore a venture into Jap youth culture, drop by a neoprint store instead. They’re only four bucks per machine, which works out to two bucks per person, and the technology is amaaazing. A great way to dabble into cutesy jap youth culture at low cost.
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: 1 train stop.
Ikebukuro felt pretty heartland to me – but then again we were there with single minded determination and purpose: to get to the Pokecenter in Sunshine City! Geeking out, as always. I thought I went crazy, picking out soft toys and other collectibles I will never use, but then I saw the other tourists who purchased things by the truckload. What can I say? They gotta catch em all..
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: 3 train stops.
We would have never made it to Sugamo if not for Catherine! Her favourite onsen is in Sugamo, a ten minute walk from the station, and she recommended that we visit after a long day of walking around Tokyo. We went from 9-11pm, but the onsen is open from 10am to 11pm, for those of you who want to spend all day there. The entry fee is 1260yen, and there’s actually a free pink shuttle bus to and fro the station – just ask the gantry guards for the timetable.
The minute we entered it was easy to see why Sakura Onsen was her favourite place. I’ve been to several onsens with similar concepts in Korea, but this is by far the nicest onsen I’ve ever been to! The entire place was ultra clean and classy, with indoor and outdoor baths that consist pools of different temperatures, ph levels, and mineral content. The outdoor baths were especially incredible – imagine soaking in hot waters while feeling the icy cold night air on your cheeks. Heaven. Yes, it’s a naked spa, and yes, it’s gender-segregated. 10/10 would recommend.
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: 9 train stops.
Ueno is where all the street food is at. Walking along Ueno i had the freshest, juiciest, sweetest strawberries of my life. I had no idea strawberries could taste so good.. it was mind-blowing. I sprained my ankle sometime before making it to Ueno, and by that time Lex had already left for Singapore and I was exploring Tokyo alone, so I was basically hobbling through Ueno torn between wonder and misery. Still, if you wanna get snacks to bring back home, Ueno is the place to be. It’s cheaper and there’s more variety. I also bought back dried scallops for my mum, the kind you use to cook. It’s 200 bucks in singapore but I only paid 80 dollars for it there. Not bad, eh?
Ueno also has its own park, which has free entry, but I personally didn’t think much of it because it only had one surviving cherry blossom tree which was infested with selfie-stick-touting tourists. And of course, Shinjuku Gyoen spoilt all other parks for me…
Distance from our Airbnb Apartment: one line change.
Tsukiji is the only place not on the JR Yamanote line, which meant I had to use the travel card Catherine lent me to get there instead. Honestly, my impression of Tsukiji before heading there was basically this vague idea of a 4am fish auction, which I wasn’t very keen on because 1. all sushi in japan is good, i didn’t feel the overwhelming need to have MIND-BLOWING sushi so far away and 2. i didn’t want to wake up at 3am. But when I mentioned this to Catherine, she told me that you could actually go to Tsukiji throughout the day for lunch in the surrounding areas! So I did. And it was mindblowing.
The entire area is packed with stalls selling food, inside and outside the tsukiji fish market building. I went into the first stall i saw, which happened to be selling oysters, scallops, and other forms of grilled fresh seafood. Now, I’m not a huge seafood person, but when in Rome.. right? So I ordered 3 oysters and 1 scallop.
It was so freakin good. It was the freshest I’ve ever had, obviously, and so cheap too! I remember ever paying thirty bucks for a platter of half a dozen oysters in SG, and they tasted weird. These were delicious, and cost me like five bucks for three?!?!? I died.
Walking along the outside of the tsukiji fish market building is like threading the outer rings of an onion’s cross section. It expands outwards and each ring is so intensely packed with flavour. I bought so much to eat at the fish market.. tamago sticks, the freshest tuna sashimi of my life.. and then I bumped into two expats working in Japan who overheard me speaking in English, this limping asian girl hobbling along alone, and ended up hanging out with them all day.
They also brought me to have the BEST BEEF BOWL EVER. Unfortunately I have no idea what it’s called because i don’t read japanese (one of them does) but i think it translates to Fox Face or something and it’s located on the outer rims of the fish market. You’ll know it when you see it because the queue is ridiculously long.
Honestly, if you couldn’t already tell, Tokyo is the kind of place you munch and snack your way though. I don’t remember ever being actually hungry in Tokyo because we were just always snacking on new things, and if you’re on a budget, the convenience stores serve amazing sushi and sandwiches! The short walk from our apartment to the train station already saw us passing one supermarket and four convenience stores, which should give you some idea of how densely littered Tokyo is with convenience stores..
Anyway, we all agreed that it is pretty damn near impossible to have a bad meal in Japan. Everything you eat is bound to be a new level of delicious.
Alright, so we’ve touched on food, accommodation, transport, flights, budgeting, and a very rough itinerary. What else? While writing this post, I had to force myself to pare it down a lot because I frequently caught myself getting carried away gushing about one place or another… which meant, that long as this post is already, it could have been much, much longer. Documenting Tokyo in categories – food, destination, travel – was something of an attempt to pen Tokyo down as something concrete, something relatable to people who haven’t been there before. Still, my adoration for the city spills out at the seams. It really is the most exquisite place.
I say this a lot, but much of my experience with destinations has to do with where I stay and who I meet – which is something that I believe shows up pretty strongly in my travelogues. Over the past year, I’m so thankful to have been given the opportunity to partner with Airbnb in exploring the world. It feels like a match made in heaven, Airbnb being, of course, the proverbial one. With them I’ve had the freedom to really connect with hosts all over the world, and while I’m pretty rough around the edges myself – I’m totally game for couchsurfing or slumming it out in hostels as y’all know – I have to say that it’s pretty hard to opt for anything else now that I’ve established Airbnb as my firm favourite in terms of accommodation options.
And as with all partnerships I’ve had thus far, creating good content and working through new ideas is something I genuinely enjoy and am excited for. This time for Tokyo, Airbnb and I decided to go one step further beyond just reviewing and recommending listings / destinations, to really connecting more and more people around the world together via Airbnb. Which is why I headed this section Are you in love with Tokyo yet? Because..
JEMMA X AIRBNB GIVEAWAY
I roamed Tokyo for a week picking out items I felt really suited the full Japanese vibe – snacks, themed trinkets, etcetera etcetera – and put them all in a personalised, hand stamped paper bag. Airbnb matched it with their exclusive Airbnb tote bag, their Pineapple magazine publication, and a SGD hundred dollar Airbnb Voucher.
And if you’ve fallen in love with Tokyo, just as I have, then all the better for you. We are giving this personalised gift as a present to one of you, and what you have to do to win it is prove your love for Airbnb and Japan to us. Like, really convince us! Comment on the Jemma x Airbnb Facebook post, show us your favourite Japan listing and tell us why you love it. (Yes, it can be a listing outside of Tokyo too!) If there ever were an excuse to spend hours lusting after dream listings on Airbnb, this would be it.
The contest only runs three days and will be held over on the Airbnb Singapore Facebook Page. I really look forward to browsing all your dream japan listings!! We thought long and hard before deciding on this giveaway, and I really hope you guys like what we have in store for you. I mean, a hundred bucks off your next booking is pretty damn sweet, isn’t it? And if you win it, well, it’s a great reason to finally tick another place off your travel bucket list.
Luvly. I’m super excited about this giveaway because I feel like it’s really a present from us to you hahaha. I CANT WAIT FOR ONE OF YOU TO WIN IT AND EAT ALL THE AWESOME JAPANESE SNACKS IN THE BAG. So yes, start picking out your listings now and enter as soon as you can, because it’s only going to run for a short while. I’m really looking forward to giving one of you an awesome reason to get away and travel soon 🙂
And till then,