Chances are if you are a long term expat to Thailand you would have left the country during Songkran to escape the mayhem. In the case of Pattaya Expat, Mike Bridge, he decided to check out Japan – and loved it. Here is his review of the experience.
Always been on my bucket list, a trip to Japan, however seemed so far away when living in London.
But now working in Thailand, it’s only six hours away. So, with a mate, we decided to skip crazy Songkran madness, and head for the land of the rising sun in mid April.
For our eight-day Japanese trip, we wanted to experience three cities, Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
We flew Air Asia X from DMK for the five and half hour flight to Narita on their large Airbus 330.
Having travelled extensively for work and pleasure, I normally do not get very excited about a stamp in my passport. However, arriving at Narita airport and getting my first stamp to visit Japan, was a buzz.
Tip: You need to book your hotels in advance especially during the Cherry Blossom season. We therefore decided to book basic 3-star hotels in interesting districts in each city. The rooms in most Japanese hotels are very small. but were well designed and comfortable. Check in was around 3pm, but you can leave your bags in their reception.
We decided not to plan any itineraries or tours as we just wanted to experience Japan on foot and by trains. It was fascinating just getting away from the touristy areas and walking down side streets.
We spent our first three nights in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, famed for its neon lights and nightlife. Although the nightlife area was big, we felt pressured from masses of African hustlers trying to encourage you to enter their clubs. So, we just took in the lights and enjoyed a few Japanese
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is Tokyo’s equivalent of Hyde Park in London, and at 9am is a peaceful place to wake up in Tokyo. You pay to visit this large park that stretches across Shinjuku and Shibuya, and there is a lot of ground to cover here. The park is split into gardens of three distinct styles: French formal, English landscape and Japanese traditional. Not surprising the Japanese section is the most interesting and beautiful with waterlily ponds, artfully trimmed bushes and statues. Cherry blossoms added to the experience.
Shinjuku is also home to some large stores, and the fashion is HiSo. We also had fun walking around electrical stores and even a department store dedicated to wood…it was packed!!!
Everywhere you went, you noticed how empty the streets were of vehicles, and no one parks on the street. It is a walker’s domain; hence the reason Tokyo has some seriously busy crossings.
Subways and trains are everywhere, and that’s how they move around the city. You need to observe the correct way to walk on the passages between trains, particularly at rush hour.
We did however find the directional signs at the stations, especially those that had subways and over ground trains, very confusing. Got lost a few times but all part of the experience!!!
On day three we decided to take the bullet train from Tokyo station to Osaka.
Tip: It is worth buying online BEFORE you fly to Japan, the Japan Rail Pass. This allows foreigners to travel on most Bullitt trains and on 50% of subways in most cities. A 7-day pass cost US$274 so it is a big saving. We also booked through them a IC card like a Rabbit card in Bangkok to use on some subways, buses and even at 7 Eleven stores. Plus, a Wi-Fi box for THB3,500 which up to 10 people can use.
Trains depart on the second, but it is well worth arriving early to see the drivers preparing their Bullitt trains and to film the trains coming and going. The drivers all wear smart suits, carry a black briefcase and wear white gloves and polished black shoes. Very important job being a train driver here.
We zoomed over the 507kms to Osaka past Mount Fuji in just over two and half hours and the ride was very smooth. An amazing experience! So much so that we even visited the Osaka railway museum to see all the old locos and all the Bullitt trains their too.
Osaka is Japan’s food capital and we spent a couple of nights enjoying sushi, steaks, pancakes and pizzas. They were even drinking tomato juice mixed with the wheat flavored blond beer, which was interesting. Overall meals cost around THB500 and beers were around THB100, so cheaper than in most restaurants in Thailand.
Took the subways and train to nearby Kyoto (57kms) in an hour and stayed nearby Kyoto station. Although famous for shrines and geisha, Kyoto is quite modern and hip with all the top fashion designers owning shops.
Went to a crazy robot musical about a toy factory called Gear. The special effects were amazing and some of the audience wear goggles, as they blast paper at you at the end. Very Blue Man Group style and great fun!!!
We took in a few shrines and the bamboo forest, plus filmed a few geisha and would book a longer trip next time.
Took the Bullitt train back to Tokyo’s Shibuya district where they have the world’s busiest crossing. Next morning caught the Narita Express back to the airport to catch our Airbus 330 to Bangkok.
We ended up walking over 70kms during our eight-night trip. It was an amazing holiday and we both would go back, and using the rail pass, could cover all of Japan maybe for two or even three weeks.
The eventual cost including return flights, hotels, trains and food came to less than THB65,000, which is very reasonable. Shoes, watches and bags were cheaper there as well.
Can’t wait to return.