Pictures in this post taken with the Nikon D5500
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:
Flying to Japan
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
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!
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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,