​The Crammer’s Japan Travel Guide

(Travel tips for a not-so-budget-friendly, hassle-free Tokyo vacation)

Shibuya Crossing before the mad scramble of people

My family and I wanted to take that one fun overseas trip this year. After months of procrastinating on the Japan visa application and stubbornly ignoring airlines’ seat sales (we’re not rich, just soooo slooooow to act), my family and I found ourselves headed for a lackluster Halloween/All Saints Day long weekend with nowhere to go. Nganga.

By some unusual surge of inspiration, without having settled any useful itinerary, we all decided at the last minute: “Hey, we can actually do this! Let’s go now.” Yes?

The major deciding factor was the weather. Travelling at winter time was not an option. It would be too cold for my 70+ -year old mother to enjoy. It’s either we go then (autumn) or wait next year (spring or summer).

Eh atat. We got our Japanese visas from the embassy on October 12th. (My mother had problems with her birth certificate which took some time to settle.)

For some reason, we wasted some more time and finally bought airline tickets on the 21st. We finalized hotel accommodations on the 25th.

On the 27th, against all odds, we flew out of Manila and headed for Narita, Japan for a 5-day mini-break. Master crammers, that’s us!

I’m not a fan of impromptu travels because I’m the type who really needs to plan everything and weight out all options (esp. when it comes to luggage, daily expenses, and itineraries). But I realized that sometimes, I just have to let go and just GO!

I learned a lot from this experience and I enjoyed tremendously (time with family is truly priceless!), so I thought of sharing some tips and lessons learned (some of which I learned the hard way) to help fellow cramming travelers.

1. ON AIRLINE TICKETS

Get the cheapest airline tickets from the year-round promos of PAL and CebuPac. Sign up for the email alerts and follow their social media pages.

But don’t stop there, because there are other airlines to consider like AirAsia, or if specifically going to Japan, there’s ANA and JAL which are both a notch above the other airlines in terms of service, food, cleanliness, and punctuality.

JAL had a promo when we belatedly booked tickets. The airfare was significantly more expensive than PAL and CebuPac, but at least we got better service. I was thankful to have left  for a vacation at all.

2. ON PUBLIC TRANSPO

To travel from Narita airport to the city center of Tokyo (where all the touristy stuff are, hahah), get a flight time that would arrive in Narita early enough to catch the Narita Express train (or N’EX of the JR East Railway Company). That’s the quickest way to travel — travel from Narita airport to Tokyo Station, then transfer to a subway or hail a cab to get to your hotel in the city center.

If you booked at a hotel along the route of the Limousine Bus, get on this bus instead that would take you from Narita airport then drop you off right in front of your hotel. The bus driver will even help you with your luggage. Although not as quick as the train, it remains the more convenient and less expensive option.

We missed both the N’EX and Limousine Bus because we took a late afternoon flight from Manila which arrived  evening in Narita. And so we had to take a train (slower than N’EX), then transfer at Sugamo station (with all our luggage!) to take a subway line, then walk a block to our hotel.

On our return trip to the airport on October 31st, we took that Limousine Bus. It was easy to book at the hotel and the bus picked us up at the hotel at the appointed time.

Although buying or renting a pocket wifi would be very useful for navigating around Tokyo, you can actually ditch the additional expense for the wifi and get by with just your mobile phone’s GPS and an offline map. MAPS.ME is highly recommended.

It worked for our family. We used the free hotel wifi to research online in the evening then went offline the next day. We survived with screenshots, handwritten notes, and an offline map.

Figuring out how the ticket dispensing machine at the subway works could be intimidating at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. Japanese characters are scary when you don’t know the language, of course.

Top tip: The first thing you do when you’re facing the ATM-like console is to stay calm and look for the “English” button. That’s it, and the machine will guide you through the motions of buying the tickets.

When you’ve been riding trikes, jeeps, buses and dilapidated MRT coaches all your life, an efficient train system seems frightening and exciting at the same time. Getting all travel  information I could get my hands on  just hours before our departure flight, I read so many official tourism and transpo sites and travel blogs talking about the routes and stops of the JR Yamanote line (the single most useful train line to reach the main attractions in the different Tokyo districts).

Nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, was as clear and helpful as the transpo explanation and color-coded illustrations I got from the Tokyo Disney website’s access page. Everything’s straightforward and simple, and so much better than all the info I got from the travel websites I visited. Although, Truly Tokyo is also an awesome resource.

3. ON CHOOSING HOTEL ACCOMMODATIONS

Choose a hotel that’s near, as in walking distance, to a JR Yamanote line or a subway station. This will spell all the difference in terms of convenience. Our group booked at Shiba Park Hotel in Minato, Tokyo, and it was probably the best decision ever. I hope to write more next time about the hotel’s Japanese Culture Experience.

Believe me, a 3-minute walk in the morning when you’re all “yey, sunshiny day!” is different from a 3-minute walk in the evening when you’re all tired and “gaaahd, it’s too cold it’s not even winter!”

No worries, public transportation is very efficient in Tokyo.  You just need to figure out the train system and prepare your legs and feet for lots and lots…and lots… of walking to enjoy moving around the city.

4. ON FOOD

If your hotel offers an option for room accommodations only, choose that. Don’t include breakfast which will only jack up the room rates.

Buy breakfast and stock up on bread, noodles, cookies, rice crackers, and other yummy treats from Family Mart. Their Family Marts are galaxies away from the Family Marts here in Manila. There are just so many eye-popping choices there, and cheap too.

Yoshinoya is also a good, crazy cheap option for quick meals, and they’re almost everywhere. The beef rice bowl is yummy and filling.

If you love seafood, never pass up the chance to go straight to the source of all things delicious: the market. When in Japan, it’s Tsukiji Market or nothing. That was easily the most colorful and enjoyable part of the trip for me. I loved Tsukiji!

5. ON THE WEATHER

Check the weather. Always. Plan day trips around the weather forecast.

We made the mistake of going to Disney Sea on a rainy morning, foolishly thinking the sky will clear up and get better. It did not. It was the worst part of our trip. Disney was biting cold, and dreary. Of course, my 6-year old niece had a totally different opinion. She loved Disney, rain and all.

Dress in layers, and bring a raincoat or an umbrella. Always, even if it’s sunny in the morning when you leave the hotel. It may be hot, cold, wet, dry, windy — all within the same day. At least in late October, the weather was as erratic as the mood of a hormonal, ovulating woman.

I’m sharing the rest of our family’s itinerary. We may have missed out on a lot of other “places to go” and “things to do” when compared with other travellers, but our leisurely pace was just perfect.

Our family of five roamed for three days (excluding MNL-NRT-MNL travel time). We used public transpo (with our mother on a wheelchair to boot), survived without wifi, endured the winter-like cold considering it was supposed to be only fall — everything was extra challenging, but also extra rewarding.

We’d do it all again, but hopefully plan thoroughly and add Mt. Fuji and Hakone to the itinerary next time!

Our short and sweet Tokyo, Japan itinerary:

Day 1: Travel time MNL-NRT

Day 2: Disney Sea

Day 3:

  1. Senjo-ji Temple
  2. Nakamise Shopping Street
  3. Tokyo Skytree (observation tower and mall)

Day 4:

  1. Tsukiji Market (food trip)
  2. Harajuku (Meiji Shrine and Takeshita fashion street)
  3. Shibuya (Hachiko statue, Shibuya scramble crossing, and shopping)

Day 5:

  1. Origami class at the Sakura Salon of Shiba Park Hotel
  2. Zojo-ji temple grounds (with Tokyo Tower in the background)
  3. Travel time NRT-MNL

Arigato and sayonara, beautiful Japan!

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Sometimes, you forget

Sometimes, you forget he’s dead.

You’ll be away for a long trip out of town, and come home expecting him to be there. He’s not. He’s gone.

You’ll want to come home and tell him about your travel tales, how much of a great adventure everything was.

You’ll tell him about how you got lost and how you figured everything out.

You’ll find that his room is now empty.

There’s no one there to listen to your hundred little stories of trains and airports and markets and temples and food and how origami seemed so much more fun when you’re there.

Or how much your feet ached to the bone from all the walking, then you’ll laugh about it together.

You’ll want to talk about the weather, how much colder autumn turned out to be, how autumn is like winter to someone who thrives on sweltering heat here.

You just forgot. He’s not here. He’s gone.

Remembering someone from way up the Tokyo Skytree

 

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My Ukulele Project

It could be done. I did the seemingly impossible: I now know how to play a four-stringed instrument, thanks to a one-time lesson at Uke Box Caffe, and endless hours of ukulele tutorials on Youtube.

For someone who was forced to take formal piano lessons for years but never learned a single thing, this ukulele thing has been a major accomplishment.

I learned, maybe because I was not forced to do it?  I’m not really good at it, but WTH I can read chords now and my fingers somehow know which part of the fretboard to press. And then there’s music — melodious, twinkly and bright music. It’s mind blowing.

My personal target at the start of the year was to learn one song per month and to devote at least two hours of practice time per week. I wrote it down on my vision board. I’m “overtarget” now, and there’s still so much more to learn and explore like plucking and chunking.

Strumming is still a struggle and most chords still perplex me (especially E), but I realized that a random decision I made seven months ago has given me hours and hours of fun. (Some of my recorded practice sessions are chronicled at Clyp.)

It’s impossible to be unhappy and emo when  playing the ukulele. Learning has given me a strange sense of purpose and accomplishment (like, “f*ck it, I can’t fix my life but I can play the ukulele”).

*Got my concert ukulele from The Four Strings in Cubao X. It’s quite possibly the best birthday gift I ever received begged for.

image

Concert uke from The Four Strings