We arrived in to Tokyo Haneda Airport at around 2230 on Tuesday night after leaving Amsterdam on Monday afternoon. We checked in to our hotel, the Nishitetsu Inn in Shinjuku just after midnight and went straight to bed.
Getting up at 0730, I still wasn’t feeling 100% after being ill in Amsterdam and during the flight. The other half also woke up feeling ropey and we feared that he’d picked up the bug that had battered me over the past few days.
For our first day in Tokyo, I’d booked a 6-hour, 20-mile bicycle tour around the city, which was a great idea when I booked it. Thinking about the distance due to be covered, the other half decided not to do the tour and was going to stay local to the hotel in case his upset stomach decided to not play nice. So, me and my brother set off walking to our tour meeting point at the Tokyo Opera City building.
During the walk I started to feel a lot worse and had to stop to gip a few times on the way. We arrived at the meeting point and our guide for the day, Gaku, took me to the pharmacy for something to settle my stomach. Swallowing down the pills, we set off on our bikes with 2 young guys from Australia.
I actually felt much better cycling than I did walking, but as soon as we stopped at the first point, a tiny little Shinto shrine, I immediately felt sick again. Conscious of the 20-mile distance and not wanting to spoil the tour for the others, I needed to make a decision on whether to continue or not. Gaku pointed out that the first couple of stops would be the best points to leave the bike if I couldn’t continue, but after that, the only way to get back would be to complete the tour.
Not wanting to give in too early, I pushed on to the third stop, a Buddhist temple, but knew I didn’t have the strength to ride another 19 miles and decided to throw in the towel. Gaku was really great and understanding and walked me to the nearest train station so that I could get a train directly back to Shinjuku. He even offered to pay for my train ticket, which was very kind, but not necessary. My brother continued with the tour which he really enjoyed and even went out for sake with the group afterwards. I was gutted I’d missed it, but after walking back to the hotel, I slept solidly for nearly 5 hours so think I made the right choice in going back.
Conscious that me and the other half had totally missed out on a fun day in Tokyo, we were keen to get out in the evening and set off for a walk around Shinjuku. Whilst exploring the back streets of the Golden Gai, we stumbled across the Capcom Café which I’d seen on TV before the trip and knew that this was where we had to have dinner. The other half is a big computer games fan, so he was keen to give the place a try. The menu is, shall we say, interesting. All the dishes are based on elements of Capcom computer games and I had to try some of the things from the Biohazard menu. The food was actually really good, although I still didn’t have much of an appetite.
The Golden Gai is a real maze of alleyways and side streets filled with restaurants and bars. You can feel the remnants of the old red-light district and there’s the odd girly bar still around, but the area still feels very safe. After dinner, we took a walk down Omoide Yokocho, or Piss Alley as it is affectionally known as by locals, which looks really cool but not my kind of place to eat. Wednesday night was fairly quiet, but it was heaving on Friday and actually quite overbearing. Most of the bars and restaurants only seat 10-12 people and they were all packed out. The whole area was very smoky with cigarettes and cooking, it was quite an assault on the senses! The other half is quite a fussy eater and he really struggled in Japan, mostly because of the language barrier but also because they seem to like to eat everything raw! My brother wanted to try some of the local delicacies, so we ate separately that night, although even he couldn’t manage the raw octopus!
Having missed out on the cycle tour, I was keen to get out and explore Tokyo, so we bought some day passes for the underground and set off for some the city’s most famous sights. The underground system is actually really easy to navigate, helped massively by the hotel printing A3 colour maps which made planning a route a doddle. All the signs and announcements are in English and stations are numbered as well as named, so even if you can’t pronounce the name of the station, as long as you know what number it is, you can find your way there. The day pass was less than Y1000, so great value for money.
We started our little tour at Shibuya for the world’s busiest zebra crossing. We’d just missed rush hour so the crowds had thinned a little but we grabbed a coffee and window seat at the Starbucks overlooking the crossing to enjoy the view. One thing we did notice all across Japan is that no one jaywalks. One of the best bits about the Shibuya crossing is actually seeing people wait patiently at all corners for the time to cross. You just don’t get that in the UK or US, where people often try and battle with traffic rather than wait for the green man.
After wondering around the shops of Shibuya, we headed off to the high-end department stores of the Ginza district. I’m not quite sure why we went, everything was a little out of our price range and very exclusive so we didn’t hang around long.
We then caught the underground to Akiharbara for Electric Town with its electric supply stores, manga and anime shops and – the highlight – Super Potato, where you can buy and even play retro video games consoles and games. Being a gamer, the other half was particularly looking forward to Super Potato and it was pretty cool. You can buy pick and mix sweets for Y10! I guess you need the sugar to fuel the marathon gaming sessions!
Whilst in Akiharbara, we stopped for lunch at a local café which wasn’t a great experience! With no English menu, we had to point to the pictures and hope that what came out was what we thought it was. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite happen for the other half as his meal came out of the kitchen with an unidentifiable meat which he couldn’t bring himself to eat. It actually tasted fine, whatever it was, but he was already put off and couldn’t eat it. We had an Indian for dinner that night, altogether safer!
After a shocking night’s sleep and being awake from around 1am, we had an early start for our day trip to the Hakone National Park area and the amazing Mount Fuji. Using our Japan Rail Pass, we caught the Narita Express from Shinjuku to Shinagawa where we transferred to the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Odawara. Riding a Shinkansen had been a long-time ambition so I was ridiculously excited! We also had some great views of Fuji from the train, seats C & D.
We arrived at Odawara and bought Hakone Free Passes to use the tourist transport links around the National Park area. As we’d had some specular views of Fuji from the train and without a cloud in the sky, we decided to do the Lake Ashi tour first to try and get a glimpse of the mountain before the weather changed. No such luck though, as by the time we got on the boat, clouds had moved in and blocked the view of the mountain! The pirate ship looked amazing, but man, it was bloody cold on the deck of that boat!
After getting off the boat, we stopped for lunch and to warm up in the café at the dock, just missing the rush. From the café, we caught the cable car to Owakdani which gave us the best views of the mountain and the volcanic hot springs before boarding the funicular to Gora and finally, the Tozan Railway back to where we started. We arrived at 10am and left at 5pm, so it was a full day. Because of the time of year, the autumn colours were really spectacular especially in the gardens in Gora. We noticed that the queues the other way around the loop were much bigger so I reckon we saved quite a lot of time by starting at the lake rather than with the Tozan Railway.
Although the rail journey to Odawara was quite straightforward, the return involved an additional change of trains which none of us could be bothered with, so we decided to get the Romance Car directly from Hakone to Shinjuku. It cost about Y2000 extra as its not included in the JR rail pass but we were happy with the extra cost to avoid the changes of trains at Odawara and Shinagwa at least. The Romance Car is not a fast train and the journey took about 90 minutes. It’s not a very romantic train at all either, it’s a pretty old train. It looks cool from the outside, quite retro, but the inside shows its age and the leg room is really poor. The seat was also not mega comfy, but maybe I was just tired! Despite the relative discomfort and the extra cost, it was direct to Shinjuku which worked for us. I think.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our trip to Japan, coming soon!
Date of trip: November 2017
Price paid: Tokyo hotel was £217.00 pp RO booked through hotels.com. Bicycle tour of Tokyo was £65.00 pp booked through Expedia. JR Rail Pass £283.00 pp. Hakone Free Pass was £30.00 pp paid on the day.
Points & cashback earned: £50.00 cashback through Topcashback for booking through hotels.com + credit towards a free night stay with hotels.com rewards. 3000 Virgin Flying Club points for paying with the Virgin Black American Express. 585 Avios for booking the cycle tour through Viator.