Thursday, April 25, 2013

Waking up in the land of the rising sun

Being a avid history book reader, I've always been a fan of documentation and as much as I would like to jot down every details of my everyday life, I simply don't have the energy nor time to do it.

But there are certain milestones and significant periods in life where I make the effort to do something, so that in time to come, my next generation, my friends or the general public might come to read about it.

For most of you my Facebook friends, you would have known that I've just been and came back from Japan. It has been a place where I've always want to visit ever since I was little. And finally at 30, I get the chance to courtesy of my company Prudential!

The company covered my flight there plus a 3 days 2 nights accommodation. I chose to extend for an additional 8 days with Shirley and Marcus because I didn't want to waste the free flight there and since I was about to visit a new place, might as well stay longer and see more!

All set for our reward trip

Day 1

Upon arrival in Tokyo after a 6-7 hours flight on Delta Airlines, the first thing I insisted on getting was a mobile wifi, because that's something that most of us can't live without nowadays; the Internet. And because we will be there for a period of almost 2 weeks, and with no itinerary planned and accommodation settled only for the first 4 nights, we got to have the Internet to have information on the go.

I love the irony of this picture, so my kind of joke!

The weather was nice and cool. After the short briefing by our Vice President, we dropped our items in our rooms and headed out.

Privileged to be part of this group of elites

One of the Cosplay entertainer thoughtfully arranged by Prudential. Kawaii looking Sakura girl here.

Dragonball Goku

Female Ninja

Samurai Warrior

The view from our room in Hilton Tokyo 1

The view from our room in Hilton Tokyo 2

After the long flight and bus journey from the airport, the first thing on our minds were of course food! We wandered around the vicinity of our hotel and settled for a small store 2 streets away.

With the majority of us all on our virgin experience in Japan, we got quite confused because ordering food was via a machine. The next time any of you get blur in front of one of these machines, just simply put your money in and press the button of your selection. It works just like a vending machine and yes don't worry change will be provided. The major obstacle will be trying to figure out what you're ordering because everything was in Japanese.

Quite satisfied by our first meal in Japan, we continued wandering around the area and found a 100 yen shop! With the exchange rate at $1 to 77 yen, a 100 yen shop means everything in the shop cost only about $1.30! I ended up with only 2 purchases this time though, my favourite Mickey Mouse chocolate biscuit, something that is also available in Singapore, but at more than double the price.

Mickey Mouse biscuit!

Clement and I in front of the first 100 yen shop we find in Japan

Having made arrangement to meet my long lost Japanese friend Izumi via FaceBook, she made the effort to come all the way to Hilton Tokyo after work and meet us. She brought us to a nice authentic looking Japanese restaurant somewhere near our hotel for our dinner that day.

Dinner with Izumi

Cheers to being in Japan!

After the nice cosy dinner, she brought us around Shinjuku. We then asked to be taken to the red light district there because we all wanted to know how it's like. Standing there on the street, you will never expect that you are standing in the middle of a red light district. The shops were all colourfully lighted, with high tech digital posters and cutesy J-Pop music. We were secretly disappointed when we were told that we were not allowed to take a look inside because we were not Nihon-Jins. So much for national pride.

The high tech brothel behind me

Walking down Shinjuku's streets

The night ended with us walking around shopping a little and eating more.

Supper place number 1

Supper place number 2

Being typical tourists, we had to take a picture even on the train

Day 2

Our very special, cute, pretty and gentle local guide Izumi had arranged to take 2 days off to bring us around and the first of these 2 days started with her coming all the way to Hilton Tokyo to meet us once again.

This time, Shann, Jessica and Chin Hong joined us too.

More photowhoring on the train

We requested to start the day off by visiting the famous Tsujiki market. If you want to witness the live auctioning of the very prized tuna fishes (That can fetch up to a few million yens) there in the market, we were told that we will have to wake up at around 3am and be there by about 4-5am. After being told that no more than 100 people can witness the auctioning per day, coupled with not wanting to spend the money on cabs and more so being reluctant to wake up early, we didn't bother making plans to witness the auction and decided to be there just for lunch.

Some of the seafood in Tsujiki on display

With dozens of side street stores around the market selling fresh seafood and sashimi, we however settled for a small restaurant much inside and beside the market. The 7 of us wanted to order a few sets and just share but they didn't allow that and insisted that we all order a set each. We agreed and being the only 1 among the 7 that really likes the raw seafood, I really had my fill!

Shirley, Shann and I inside the restaurant

My Chirashi and I

After lunch, Izumi brought us to Hamarikyu Gardens. It was nice, picturesque, serene, cooling and with no insects flying or crawling around affecting your mood. Overall a very nice walk and a great experience.

The bunch of us in Hamarikyu Gardens

From the garden, we walked to a Zojoji temple, a buddhist temple nearby where the bunch of them made wishes and drew lots. My lot was the worst among the lot and I sure hope whatever I did that day will change my luck for the better!

Zojoji Temple with Tokyo Tower in the background

After the walk, it was finally time for what the Singaporean ladies were waiting for; shopping! We started from Harajuku and walked down all the way to Shibuya.

With my ice cream crepe in Harajuku

The bunch of us with our ice creams in Harajuku

After shopping, the bunch of us had to say goodbye to Izumi and go for our company's Quality Elite dinner.

Day 3

On the third day, we had to trouble Izumi to bring us to our new hotel. It was all the way in Asakusa and after dragging all our big luggages up and down the stairs and the train, we were all exhausted by the time we reached our hotel. Unable to check in still by the time we reached, we walked around Asakusa, bought some rice crackers, snacks and toiletries and visited the famous Sensoji Temple nearby. Upon check in, the exhaustion took a toil on us and ended up dozing off in the room for awhile before restarting the adventure in the late afternoon.

Arrival in our budget hotel

How our room looks like. Its so small that we had to take turns to open our luggages

Sensoji Temple

Enjoying our freshly barbeque rice cracker outside one of the store in Asakusa

We requested Izumi to bring us to an Onsen (Hot spring) and she gladly obliged and recommended the one in Odaiba. Odaiba is a large artificial island just across the Rainbow Bridge. It was a lovely place with sea all around, nice buildings and a ferris wheel, much like our Marina Bay.

Rainbow Bridge

The ferris wheel

At the entrance of the spa resort

The onsen was a man made one, although I would have preferred a natural one. But the place was nice nevertheless with lots of food variety and a shops. "It's a small world after all" started ringing in my head after we bummed into Susanne and her fiance there in the same spa resort.

Although I've heard from many friends of their experience in such hot springs, it was still exhilarating to experience it yourself first hand. Yes everyone has got to strip naked before taking a bath in the onsen. And no the guys and girls are separated.

Taking a dip in the 40 degrees celsius water was made the more comfortable with the surrounding temperature at 12 - 13 degrees celsius. The moment you step in and your pores start opening and you start scratching because of the immense heat. But yet so comfortable because you've been braving the cold the whole day.

Enjoying a matcha ice cream right after the dip in the onsen. Life as it should be!

Farewell seems to be the hardest word

Day 4

Day 4 was to be the first day that we were to be on our own. We were to have no Izumi as our guide and no other companionship except for the 3 of us.

We had the itinerary covered for the day though, it was to be spent in DisneyLand! The journey there was complicated though. You will never understand how confusing the metro lines there are until you experience it yourself first hand. We had no idea where to change trains to get from one place to another, and even paying the right fare for the right destination can be confusing. We eventually found our way though, by asking around and looking at their messy train map.

We took some time deciding between visiting DisneyLand or DisneySea but we eventually settled for the more traditional and older DisneyLand.

Arrival in Tokyo Disneyland!

As a whole, it looked pretty much like the one that I visited in Anaheim. Except that this time, Mickey Mouse and the other Disney characters spoke in Japanese.

We tried almost every kiddy ride we walked past at the start. Waiting time wasn't that bad, an average of 10 - 15 minutes. After awhile they started to complain about the cold and boredom. And because I was the only one interested in thrill rides, they didn't really want to continue staying in DisneyLand and we ended up not completing the whole DisneyLand.

Inside Shrek ride

Space Mountain, the high speed roller coaster ride that got Marcus all pukish

We took their very lame and kiddish go-kart ride too

Inside it's a small small world

Belle model being worshipped and treated like a celebrity over there

Thoroughly enjoyed dinner here at this Alice In Wonderland themed restaurant. The food was fabulous!

I was a little disappointed though because I was looking forward to seeing the fireworks about the famous Disney castle. Would have been a very romantic experience, but unfortunately with the wrong company lol.

We walked into the Disney Resort Hotel before we left and I thought it was really really nice. The next time I go again, and if budget permits, I'll definitely want to spend at least one night there!

How it looks inside the hotel

Day 5

Day 5 was planned for a visit to Mount Fuji and the first day we planned to start using our 7 days JR Rail Pass and take their all famous Shinkansen aka Bullet Train!

As usual, we got a little confused and lost trying to find our way to take the Shinkansen.

We got onto a metro train in the direction where the station master and several passengers insisted will take us to our designated interchange station Shinagawa. But no matter how hard we looked at the station map, we couldn't find the station Shinagawa. But we decided to trust the locals there and fortunately, the train did eventually bring us to Shinagawa.

We then boarded the Shinkansen which was supposed to bring us to Odawara in 30 over minutes. Totally unfamiliar and inexperienced, we missed our stop by 2 stops. And the distance between where we ended up accidentally and Odawara was a good 300 over kilometers. Fortunately, these bullet trains travel at a cool 300km/hr to 400km/hr and we got back to Odawara in no time. No fun carrying our bulky and heavy luggages up and down though.

Did you know that the Shinkansen is so punctual that its average delay from schedule per train was 36 seconds. This includes delays due to uncontrollable causes, such as natural disasters. I read all that on the train ride from Google and Wikipedia, so cool right?!

Anyway we booked this Prince Hakone Hotel via Agoda the night before and was shocked when the tourism information counter told us that Mount Fuji was quite a distance away from Odawara and if we want to go to Mount Fuji, we had to go back to Tokyo and make our way somehow from there.

That sounded ridiculous to me because we did ride past Mount Fuji on the Shinkansen and to ask us to go back to Tokyo from where we were will be crazy. We were however pleasantly surprised to learn that our hotel provides a shuttle service from Odawara train station.

At the location, we were delighted when the hotel appeared as just what the pictures on Agoda showed. It was beautiful! And right in front of the hotel was Lake Ashi!

Our very nice hotel room

The hotel lobby

View of the hotel from the garden

The fabulous view from the hotel

Nice place for nice pictures

Lake Ashi

Green green grass

We were however extremely disappointed to learn that Mount Fuji was a distance away from where we were and we won't be able to visit it from there. But from what I know, Hakone is just next to Mount Fuji! Lesson learned, do a bit more research than us before you visit a place. No regrets though, we loved the hotel and its surroundings.

As beautiful as the hotel might be, the location wasn't fantastic, in fact it was rather isolated. The shops, aquarium and even a zoo nearby closes at 4pm! As much as I love the place, I wouldn't advise staying there if you want to have something to do in the evening and night time.

Outside the aquarium

Posing with the swan boats

Outside the mini zoo, which was more like a pet shop

Feeding the sheeps at the zoo

Because every other place around the area was already closed, we were left with the 2 restaurants in the hotel to settle our dinner. With the average cost of dining there about $80 - $100 per person, we were enormously reluctant even though we were famished. We ended up walking out of the restaurant and paying a visit to their souvenir store. Thank goodness they had this soba thing for sale and the only ingredient we could find around there was some dried scallops. And that was dinner for us that night, soba with hot water and dried scallops.

After a hugely dissatisfying dinner, Marcus and I visited the hotel's own onsen where we got identified by some Taiwaneses as Singaporeans. When we asked how they knew we were Singaporeans, they told us that they knew from the Singlish that we spoke. Not knowing that we can be so easily identifiable, we were both shocked. And when we asked if they had visited Singapore before, they said no.

I ended the night with a nice shiatsu massage. Even though it cost about $55, I badly needed one because of the nagging backache that has been bugging me. And it was especially bad the first few days there in Japan.

Day 6

The next morning was to be a rush because we had to catch our shuttle bus back to Odawara at 10.30am but I also wanted to take the Hakone Komagatake Ropeway just a stone throw away from our hotel. The ropeway was closed by the time we got there the day before and it was to be opened this day at 9.10am. Shirley and Marcus were reluctant to wake up the next morning and I ended up going for the cable car ride on my own. I was excited yet kind of lonely. Because with the lovely view up Mount Komagatake and of Lake Ashi, all I had was myself to take picture with. And we all know self taken pictures with the iPhone's front camera always don't end up nice.

The ropeway car

On the lonely ride up

Eagle's eye view of Lake Ashi up Mount Komagatake

That was to be the highlight of the day for me though. I loved the experience. And it was really a pity for Shirley and Marcus that they weren't there. They wouldn't have been able to take the cold up there though I'm sure. I thought my tolerance level for cold was bad, theirs was worse!

Self portrait of I with the shrine up Mount Komagatake

My view of Mount Fuji from up there

Anyway we left Hakone for our next destination; Kyoto!

In Kyoto, we settled for a hotel which was to be near the Kyoto station and in the middle of the shopping belt, the Keihan Hotel. The stay wasn't cheap (about $450 a night) but the location was perfect! We ended up shopping the most at this mall just beside our hotel call the Avanti. Marcus and Shirley came back with their hands filled with shopping bags. Even I did some shopping of my own there. The variety and quality of food in the mall was fantastic too and that kinda make up for the expensive stay.

Tried one of the bento set on the shinkansen, kinda suck

Arrival in Kyoto!

And in front of our hotel in Kyoto!

We had 3 beds this time!

Our first meal in Kyoto

And we found bubble tea

Our second meal in Kyoto

Day 7

Day 7 was planned for visits to the famous and historical temples and castles around Kyoto.

Researching on this really good site, I found all the information I needed to visit the place and decided to choose one castle and one temple to visit.

I chose Nijo castle and Kinkaku-Ji Temple out of the lot and it almost bore the 2 of them to death.

In front of Nijo Castle

The garden surrounding the castle

The moat

We weren't sure if these were sakuras

But we still took a picture with it anyway

Kinkakuji Temple, the golden temple

In front of the temple

We made a lot of wishes

And asked for a lot of good luck, wealth and health

And still had time for ice cream

The whole day, they just couldn't wait to get back to shopping at Kyoto central. But I wouldn't let them and insisted that we visit this place call Arashimaya, a district on the western outskirts of Kyoto before we go back. Arashimaya is a place of scenic beauty and the best way to get around according to the was to rent a bicycle and explore.

Where we'll be going next!

Rural and scenic Arashimaya

Where we go we eat!

But even that activity was deprived to me by the 2 of them. The 2 of them were playing around and fighting in front of the bicycle rental kiosk when they accidentally flipped over a box of stationery, causing it to crack a little. The woman from China who was manning the store looked a little pissed and said that she will go behind and speak to her supervisor before she decides if we will have to pay some compensation. When she went behind, we ran away!

The fight that caused me my cycling experience in Arashimaya

Unable to find another bicycle rental kiosk around after that, I went back with a heavy heart.

Looking forward to their shopping

Saying goodbye to Arashimaya

Day 8

Day 8 was designated for Osaka! Japan's third largest city by population, its home to Universal Studio Japan and the Osaka Castle.

Kyoto and Osaka were surprisingly close to each other, I think the journey from one to the other took less than 30 minutes.

In Osaka, we decided to pamper ourselves by booking the Hyatt Hotel. Beautiful, atas and with a sea view, it cost us only $200 a night, less than half of what we paid for Keihan Hotel!

In Osaka, they wanted to shop somemore but I insisted that we visit the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan first, supposedly one of the largest aquarium in the world. I wasn't disappointed though, I've always like looking at fishes, and there were lots! There was a whale shark, lots of other sharks, mantle rays, stingrays, penguins, otters, crabs, turtles and octopuses. You name it they have it!

Arrival at Osaka Aquarium

At the entrance

With the aquarium building behind us

Just tip of the iceberg

If only open sea diving can be like this

After the aquarium visit and dinner, it was shopping time for them. They were however disappointed with the shopping in Osaka and went back empty handed.

We had this yakitori buffet for dinner before we went back

Day 9

We were undecided on what to do on this day, to stay in Osaka, go to Kobe or go back to Tokyo? This was a point when the trip started to feel draggy and we all agreed that we kinda extended our vacation a little too long in Japan. In the end, we all made the decision to visit a new place and went to Kobe.

Arrival in Kobe!

The main objective of our visit there was of course to try their all famous Kobe beef!

And that we did, after scouting several shops and dining at 2, we were satisfied enough.

We got our beef!

More beef!

In front of the A1 restaurant that Sherlyn Sam recommended but it was closed!

Day 10

In all honesty, the rest of the trip was kind of uneventful from this day on. We went back to Tokyo and visited places that we've been, namely Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku.

Day 11

After another day of shopping, we arranged to meet up with Izumi this day for one last dinner before we go back home the next day.

We had a nice heartwarming shabu-shabu dinner at Ginza and thereafter we bid farewell to our very hospitable, gentle and kind Izumi.

Our shabu shabu

Day 12

Much time of the last day was used to travel to the airport and then walking around the airport. Shopping at Narita Airport turned out to be eventful and fulfilling for us though because we bought most of our souvenirs from there.

Our Narita Express Train. It was nice, comfortable and fast, but expensive!

Shirley and Marcus even decided to splurge on some branded goods, was which significantly cheaper than the boutiques here in Singapore.

The spoils

Cute little Ariel in the Yukata I bought her

After a good almost 2 weeks in Japan, the famous land of the rising sun, I kinda got sick of the food a bit. A few things I'll definitely miss about the place though; the cool weather and the pretty girls!

Overall, it has been a great experience for me. It is always a privilege to be able to travel and I love visiting new places, especially a place where I've always wanted to visit since young. I will be missing the gentle and pretty girls there, also the extremely helpful, courteous and smiley Japanese people, there's so much that we Singaporeans can learn from them!

Doubt I'll be returning to the country anytime soon, and even if I do, it will be Hokkaido next! I can't wait to go ski, eat some fresh seafood and bask in the snow when I eventually do go there. Till then!