I've visited places in the past where I've arrived completely unprepared for how I will get from the airport to my hotel and have just jumped into a taxi. This has never been a problem in the past, other than the one time I got caught out, with a healthy $110 cab ride to my hotel when I flew into Johannesburg for the World Cup in 2010. For some reason nobody uses taxis in South Africa, so the few that exist are basically just for the airport and are a complete rip off.
Fortunately, I was very prepared for my first trip to Tokyo. I learned that not only were taxis in Japan around the most expensive in the entire world, but the main international airport is 2 hours drive from the city centre A taxi from Narita airport to the city costs an eye-watering 30,000 Yen. That's £244 British Pounds or $382 of your American Dollars. Compare that to my taxi fare from Bangkok city centre to the airport to catch my flight to Tokyo, where the fare came to 190 Baht (£3.86 GBP / $6.04 USD). Needless to say that I wouldn't be getting my lazy ass driven around in taxis while in Tokyo.
Fortunately there are big comfortable limousine buses that run on the reg. The one I took dropped me off directly at the entrance of my hotel in Shinjuku. So it was pretty much as good as a taxi but only cost 3,000 Yen, a tenth of a taxi fare. The only downside was that I had to wait 20 minutes for it to leave. I figure that someone's time would have to be worth over $1,000 per hour to justify taking a taxi to save 20 minutes on the journey. Sadly, my time is worth nowhere near that amount.
I have to imagine that there are some tourists who come to Tokyo unprepared, jump a taxi at the airport and get the shock of their life when they see the price on the meter. It would be easy for me to laugh at them and call them idiots but I had a similar experience misjudging distance and taxi costs in Auckland last year, which resulted in many people laughing at me, and calling me an idiot. :-)
The usual thing for me to do when visiting a city for the first time is to join a group tour and get my lazy ass driven around in a bus to various tourist attractions. I did this in Macau and it proved to be a great way to see a lot in a short amount of time, with zero hassle or preparation.
After checking out the tours on offer in Tokyo, however, I decided to pass. The cost, 13,500 yen (£110 GBP / $172 USD) for a full day tour, hardly seemed like value for money, especially since most of the tourist stops on the tour were free to enter. I had also read reviews of the tours that mentioned most of the day was spent in traffic between destinations or that the tour guide's English was difficult to understand.
I decided to explore Tokyo by myself, using the extensive and fast train and subway networks to get from place to place.
The train network is just as confusing and hard to work out as it looks on the map. It was really difficult at first, each trip was like trying to solve a damn puzzle, so it took me a while before I really got the hang of it. After I did become well train-ed, the trains ultimately proved to be a fast, cheap and easy way to get around the city.
Perhaps the best thing that I did to get around easily, other than work out the rail system, was to purchase a local 3G SIM card for my phone. Regular pre-paid SIM cards don't exist in Japan, but you can buy data-only ones. The only catch is that it has to be activated from a Japanese phone, but the geezer in the electronics store hooked me up. I got 1GB of 3G data access valid for 1 month for 3,300 Yen (£27 GBP / $42 USD).
With data access on my phone it proved impossible to get lost in Tokyo. I would just fire up Google Maps with the GPS activated and I would instantly be able to see where I was, where I wanted to go, and figure out how to get there. When I was at tourist places I would just open a browser and read the Wikipedia article for the place to find out about it. Much better than have some tour guide tell me about it in broken English.
Exploring Tokyo by rail and foot, with navigation and information on my phone, certainly turned out to be a far more enjoyable and cost effective method of seeing Tokyo than taking a big group tour would have been.
The trains were really the only place that I got first hand experience of the racism that exists in Japan. Often when I would sit down on the train, and it would start to fill up with passengers, I was almost always the last person that anyone would sit next to. Often times people would just start to stand while there was one empty seat next to me. It happened on almost every train journey I took, and I took plenty. Whenever anyone did sit beside me it was almost always a young girl and almost never an old person. Do I smell rank awful or something?
After talking with foreigners who live in Japan, and researching online it seems that some portion of the older generation of Japan are quite blatantly racist towards foreigners. On the flip side, a lot of the younger Japanese, especially the girls, love foreigners and are fascinated by western culture. Overall, if a bunch of old men hate me because I'm white but a bunch of cute girls love me because I'm white then I think I'm coming out well out in that scenario.
My hotel was in Shinjuku, the skyscraper district. Cool places that I visited included the upscale area of Ginza. The indie fashion district Harajuku. The Meiji Shrine, where you can write wishes on a block of wood. Monks then contemplate upon the wishes and burn the wood at the end of the month. Ueno where there is a big famous park. And Shibuya which has great nightlife and lots of bright lights. Whenever you see shots of Tokyo in a movie such as Lost in Translation or Fast and Furious, it's usually Shibuya.
I went out in Shibuya with another professional poker player, Kel, who plays as 'aces_up4108' on PokerStars and has lived in Japan for some time. It was interesting to hear his take on living in Japan and compare it with my own experience of living in Thailand. I think Japan is certainly somewhere I would love to live, but damn it's expensive. Maybe if I win a WCOOP or something I will think about making the move.
Here are some highlights from my stay in Tokyo:
I visited the brand new Tokyo SkyTree which has only been open for a matter of weeks. and at a height of 634.0 metres is the second tallest man-made structure in the world after Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
There are two observation decks but I only visited the first one. By the time I got to the SkyTree the weather had become cloudy and I could see as I approached that the taller observation deck was either just above or covered by clouds so it seemed pointless to pay the extra money to take the next step up.
I wish I had visited on a clearer day where the views would have been better but it was still cool. All I could think about when I was up there was how cool it would be if they had a bungee jump.
That same evening I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, located close to my hotel in Shinjuku, which has a free to enter observation deck on one of it's top floors at 200m. The price and location were right so I walked over, following the blue arrow on my phone. My only complaint was that the glass windows were somewhat reflective which made it impossible to take good photos without having to put my camera lens right up against the window. But what am I gonna do, ask for my money back? :P
There are very few actual video game arcade machines at Joypolis. The best way I could describe it is as a virtual reality indoor theme park. The highlights for me were a fast, twisting roller-coaster that runs throughout the building and has a 3D first person shooter aspect to it and Half Pipe Canyon where you get strapped into an electronic snowboard which you can maneuver to spin while you get flung up and down a half-pipe.
As far as actual videos games go they had several of the full House of the Dead 4 Special cabinets where you get strapped into a chair in an enclosed room in-between two 100-inch screens. You get thrown from side to side in the chair, having to shoot zombies in-front of and behind you. There was virtually no queues for this so I played it so many times that I lost count.
It cost 3,300 Yen (£27 GBP / $42 USD) for a full day Joypolis pass with unlimited access to all the rides and games. The queues were very short compared to a regular theme park. I stayed for 11 hours until they closed and went on every ride multiple times so I got my money's worth for sure.
As far as food goes, when I wasn't in theme parks loading my mouth with delicious junk food I was mostly eating bento boxes. A bento is a take-out box divided into compartments with a variety of rice, vegetables, fish and meat. The bentos that I was picking up from nice delis or upmarket supermakets such as Isetan were so delicious that I kept choosing to eat them rather than frequent restaurants.
There's many good restaurants in Japan but I found them all quite intimidating at first. Most of them only have menus in Japanese and are quite small with people eating close together. A good way round the menus tht are written in Japanese problem is to find a place where the menus have pictures. That way you can just find something that looks tasty and point to it. Number symbols are universal in any language, so it's easy to see how much things cost.
One thing that I couldn't leave Japan without trying was ramen, a type of rich flavoured noodle soup with meat and egg, which you are apparently supposed to loudly slurp. So I wandered into a ramen shop and pointed at something nice-looking on the menu. It happened to be Tsukemen Dipping Ramen, a type of ramen where the soup and the noodles, eggs and meat are separate. The idea is that you pick stuff up with chopsticks, dip them in the rich soup, and then nomnomnom them. No problem, I've used chopsticks plenty of times in Thailand, easy game right? Nope. The chopsticks they gave me had ends that were needle thin and I was exposed as a total donk in-front of the entire restaurant, struggling to do something that's as easy for the Japanese as it is for me or you to eat something with a fork and knife.
I made some damn mess and I was sure everyone was watching me. It was more than just paranoia, I could see them looking at me out the corners of their eyes and smirking to each other, the gits. The ramen was delicious but I didn't go back there :(
Other than that disaster I found a few good places with sushi and sashimi. The sushi was a bit better than I'm used to eating in the Japanese restaurants in Thailand. It was the sashimi in Tokyo that was a total delight, because the fish is so fresh, only hours old, as the restaurants are supplied by the massive fish market daily.
Japanese people love cats. I'm sad that I missed out on a trip to a 'Cat Cafe' (anyone that's seen An Idiot Abroad will know what I'm talking about), but I did randomly see five kittens perched on a sign while I was walking around the Ginza district.
I've no idea why the kittens were there, but suddenly everyone was pulling phones and cameras out of their pockets to capture their cuteness.
I spent a full day at DisneySea Tokyo.
Whereas all the Disneylands across the world are quite similar to each other, DisneySea is a one of a kind resort. It's the most expensive theme park ever built, at $4 billion, and was the fourth most visited theme park in the world last year.
The huge park has a nautical theme with seven major 'ports', based on stuff like Aladdin, Little Mermaid and the city of Venice. Every single part of DisneySea is clean and beautiful. It's a very happy place to be. I was there for 12 hours (10am til 10pm) going on rides, watching shows and stuffing my face with glorious seafood, burgers, hotdogs and popcorn. There were as many restaurants there as there were rides and the prices were surprisingly reasonable.
Only three of the rides exist in other Disney resorts (Tower of Terror, Indiana Jones and Toy Story Mania), with the rest being unique to DisneySea. My favourite ride was Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a thrill ride where you are sent twisting and tumbling towards the earth's core featuring a bunch of cool animatronic monsters.
The day after I visited DisneySea I decided that I wanted more of them same and went to Disneyland Tokyo itself.
It was another 12 hours of fun, junk food and glorious weather. What made the experience all the more enjoyable was how orderly and quiet the Japanese people are. Even if they are waiting for a long time in a queue there's no kids running around screaming, misbehaving or anything like how I imagine Disneyland in America must be like. Everyone was just smiling and happy, a great environment to be in.
My favourite ride wasn't one of the fast, thrill rides like I would have expected it to be. It was actually Pooh's Hunny Hunt, a ride unique to Disneyland Tokyo which I can only describe as a trip. You ride in a honey pot and are transported through one of Winnie the Pooh's dreams. The ride is trackless and the vehicles are computer-controlled, with each journey through being unique, so it was worth riding it multiple times.
Just like the Fantasmic show at DisneySea, the night parade at Disneyland was spectacular and a great way to end a fantastic day.
The Akihabara district of Tokyo is also known as Electric Town. It's a large area filled with video games, electronics, manga, anime, maid cafes and people partaking in cosplay. Quite a paradise for anyone that is into all that stuff.
Video game arcades seem to be becoming rarer around the world, but in Japan they are still quite popular and can be found in most districts. In Akihabara, in particular, they are everywhere. There are two big towers, a Sega one and a Taito one that are filled with classic and modern arcade games. They have whole floors dedicated to one genre, such as 'beat 'em ups'. Most of the patrons are young adults rather than kids.
It seems to be more socially acceptably in Japan for adults to enjoy activities that people in western countries would consider as being 'for children' such as playing games or reading comic books. I remember a time when I was sitting on a train in Scotland playing a DS game. A chavvy scum of a girl wearing a shiny tracksuit walked past me with her scummy chav friends and called me a "sad bastard". The nerve. In Japan it's extremely normal to see men in business suits on the train playing Pokemon on a Nintendo DS or reading a manga book. I certainly can't imagine anyone getting verbally assaulted for playing a video game in public in Japan.
a After watching a documentary about maid cafes, that's what I was particularly interested in checking out in Akihabara. A 'maid cafe' is a type of cosplay restaurant, where the staff are girls aged between 16 and 19 who dress up in maid costumes and act like servants. They treat the customer as if they are the master of a private home. Yes, it's crazy, which is why I had to experience it first hand. It would be even more crazy to go all the way to Japan and not take part in something completely bonkers.
I had to visit a few cafes before I found one that had a few English speaking maids and would let me in. All the signs were in Japanese and there were absolutely zero foreigners there, so it was a little intimidating. The maids welcomed me by acting all excited and saying stuff like "the master is home", "welcome home master".
I ordered an ice milk and an om-rice. When my maid brought it to me she kneeled in-front of me with a bottle of ketchup in her hand and asked if she could draw something on the om-rice for me. I had her draw a cat and she spent a good few minutes drawing it with a cute look of concentration on her face.
You can also play games such as Hungry Hippos with the maids, for small prizes. They get a lot of practise so it's not an easy win, but another fun way to interact with the girls.
There's no photography allowed in the maid cafes but you can get a polaroid taken with your maid, for a price. How'd ya like my new ears?
Happy days. :)