Whenever I hear of families going to Japan on Free & Easy, I always assumed it is an impossible task without basic Japanese proficiency. When the hubby finally gave me the green light early this year to plan a family Summer holiday to Japan, I worked on it without delay, trolling TripAdvisor forums and relying on helpful real-time websites like Hyperdia to plan the itinerary for our 10 days Free & Easy Trip which will take us from Tokyo to Hakone and southwards to Kyoto and Osaka. After we had decided on the travel dates, we booked our flight. SQ has a night flight which departs at midnight (Singapore time) and arrives into Narita International Airport at 6am in the morning. Splendid, I thought. We can sleep on the plane and arrive next morning ready to sight-see. Well, I was wrong. Though the service on board was friendly, we only managed to catch few winks at most as there were too many announcement and activities onboard. That didn’t dampen our excitement though. We arrived at the airport raring to see Tokyo.
I chanced upon the services of goodwill volunteer guides from the Japan National Tourism Board website and promptly wrote in to request for a guide for each city we are visiting. Upon touch down, our first goodwill guide, Mr. Yamamoto was waiting for us at the arrival hall, holding a sign bearing our English names. He had offered to meet us at the airport so that we would board the right airport limousine bus to our hotel. This being our very 1st F&E trip to Japan, having goodwill guides to help us navigate around is so reassuring.
The Airport Limousine Bus was comfortable and convenient. Brought us right from the doorstep of the airport to the doorstep of our hotel.
Our guide had all the information ready for us and led us to the ticketing counter to buy the tickets for the Airport Limousine Bus. After purchasing the tics, we boarded the Airport Limousine bus where we exited from Narita Airport. All these happened right outside where we cleared immigration. I was impressed. However, you would need to know which platform number to wait for your bus. Our guide did all the planning and we just followed his instructions. Mr. Yamamoto speaks pretty good English and we had no problem communicating with him. Soon, our bus was here and we thanked him with some local souvenirs – Yakun Kaya, Prima cooking premixes and packets of dried mangoes which we hand-carried from Singapore!
Our journey from Narita Airport to Keio Plaza hotel took about 1.5 hours. Like most things in Japan, instructions in the bus were in Japanese but there are English language brochures to inform you where you are going. You can also try asking the bus driver to alert you once your hotel is near. The Japanese are well known for their hospitality and we’ve found it to be true.
The Japanese apparently love our Kaya! So, we brought along travel-friendly sized ones to present to each of our guides.
We stayed at Keio Plaza Hotel, which is the direct stop of the Airport Limousine Bus. The Keio Plaza hotel is ranked #6 hotel in Shinjuku with a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor. We chose this hotel primarily for its central location, near a subway station (Tochomae station). It is also a “Tokyo Disney Resort Good Neighbor Hotel”, which offers complimentary shuttle bus service directly from the hotel to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea Park daily. Advanced reservations for the shuttle service are required via this website.
Japanese hotels are known to be sticklers for timing – they won’t check you in until the exact time to do so (at 3pm). However, they did allow us the use of their Executive Lounge to freshen up and stored our luggage with the concierge. We were thankful. The service at Keio Plaza Hotel was good. Staff were attentive, approachable and accommodating. Most could understand and speak basic English too.
A bird’s eye view of the city.
View of Tokyo from the Executive Lounge.
Tokyo – a dense, busy but orderly metropolis.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (MGB) opposite our hotel…holds a well-kept secret. Read on to find out what it is.
We had arranged to meet out next local Tokyo guide, Mr. Hiroshi at 11am at the hotel lobby. He turned up 5 minutes before 11 – the Japanese are very punctual. Our itinerary for the day: to visit the famous Tsukiji Market and then to the CupNoodles Museum at Yokohama. The best part about having a local guide is that there is someone to help you navigate the labyrinth of Japanese subways. Mr. Hiroshi orientated us on how to buy our train tickets, pointed out to us which lines to take, where to switch trains and which platforms to wait for the next trains. Japanese trains always leave on time (i.e. if they mention 1257 pm, the train will leave at 1257 pm) unannounced. To help us retrace our steps back later, I made sure we took photos of the station names.
Tochomae station – nearest subway train station to our hotel connected by an underpass. Very convenient.
The Tokyo subway system is among the most complex in the world and their subway stations are seriously crowded. Having a guide was like a god-send.
Our first destination – an iconic one.
Lane outside Tsukiji Market.
Tsukiji market is the world’s largest fish market that opens from predawn till early afternoon. Famous for its tuna auctions and wide selection of fresh seafood, it is the perfect place for sashimi, sushi and everything Japanese. We arrived closed to noon and the whole place was bustling with locals and tourists eager for a fresh bite. Queues outside popular restaurants can be for 2 hour long as they have limited capacity, seating 10 to 12 persons max at a time.
Another common resident of Tsukiji Market.
Along the streets of Tokyo, its not uncommon to see vendors selling preserved titbits. They are available for sampling too!
One of our first few ‘scenic’ shots of Japan – the Lanterns and the Torii Gate, which separates the spiritual world from the mortal world. We had no idea the huge amount of picturesque opportunity that awaits us later on our trip.
One of our neighbours were also holidaying in Tokyo (we only discovered it 3 days before we flew!) so we made a pact to meet up at the market. Dana couldn’t be happier to meet her BFFs and it felt extra heartwarming to have kindred company in this foreign land.
Friends forever, wherever – even in Tokyo, Japan.
This dish above was officially our first dish in Japan – simple seafood dish flame-grilled over charcoal. Fresh,succulet, heavenly.
The best Tamagoyaki (Japanese Egg Roll) we’ve ever eaten. Moist, sweet, and ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ flavourful. The locals were also queuing for them!
Busy street scene outside Tsukiji market. It’s great to be where the locals are.
To me, this shot speaks of Tsukiji Market – with its iconic fork lifts used to carry pallet-loads of fish and seafood.
Tsukiji market, busy busy with people everywhere…for a good reason – seafood at its freshest!
There were 2 hour queues outside some restaurants at Tsukiji but we queued outside this one for 20 minutes.
A good sashimi eatery doesn’t need fancy decor…just the menu.
This was the freshest sashimi we’ve ever tasted. Every fish had their unique texture and every mounthful oozes such subtle flavours!
The young chefs who prepared these dishes did it so intensely, as if there were masterpieces and indeed, they were!
Some photos to remind me of the exquisite sashimi we’ve had at this little-nondescript eatery with just a 20 minute queue but packed with locals.
Back home, every fish tastes almost the same but here, they are all unique. These amazing sashimis are such a treat!
We even paired the sashimi with sake. Awesome.
More photos to tantilize us to return…
The typical small Japanese eatery sits 10 to 12 patrons at one go. This eatery had a shorter queue but filled with locals….We knew we couldn’t go wrong.
Tsukiji Fish Market (Tokyo) (築地市場)
As a first timer to Tokyo, we couldn’t have chosen a better place than Tsukiji Market to be thrown head first into the heartbeat of Tokyo. Locals, tourists, seafood, sashimi at its freshest…It reminded us of why we travel – to soak in the culture of a country and take in the myriad of unique experiences she has to offer. For these, Tsukiji has them all and though we were tired from the overnight flight, it was strangely invigorating! Here are more details on Tsukiji Market:
Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場) 5-2-1 Tsukiji (Tsukijishijo Station, Toei Oedo Subway)
Tel: +81 03-3542-1111
Opening Hours: Outer Market 5:00am-1:00pm, Wholesale Market 9:00am-1:00pm, Tuna Auction 5:00am-6:15am.
Closed Sundays, holidays, and the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. Check its 2015 calendar here.
After lunch, we took the trains to Yokohama which is about 1.5 hours away from Tsukiji Market. Yokohama (横浜) is Japan’s second largest city with a population of over three million. Yokohama’s port was one of the first to be opened to foreign trade in 1859 and remains bustling till today. It’s a pity we only devoted half a day to this beautiful city. A good excuse to return!
Just like their cities, every inch of space is well used.
The Tokyo subway…for everyone from all walks of life.
Hmmmm….an interesting local.
Escalators here are fast. ‘Slower’ people stick to the left while the rest ‘overtake’ on the right.
We’ve reached this port city for a reason…
The Cosmo clock 21. A symbol of Yokohama. In the ’80s, this was the tallest Ferris Wheel in the world with a height of nearly 400 ft. with 60 cars.
The huge Ferris Wheel is complemented by a large amusement park below. The girls wanted to play but we simply ran out of time…
Sights of Yokohama, the industrial port city.
We came to Yokohama to visit one of the most special museums dedicated to the Cup Noodles. Yes, the highly interactive and fun museum celebrates this Japanese invention that brought the instant noodle to the world! The museum is located at Yokohama’s Minato Mirai District and shows the history of instant ramen noodles using a combination of whimsical exhibits and hands on workshops. Opened by the Nissin Food company, the museum houses hands-on activities including the popular My Cupnoodles Factory workshop where we can create our own original cup noodle by mixing and matching a variety of soup flavors and toppings. It costs 300 yen and we heard it may sell out on busy days.
The kids also enjoyed the Cupnoodles Park children’s playground (additional 300 yen per kid), which is modeled after a factory where kids play noodles being made and shipped out. We found it interesting to discover the origins and transformation of instant noodles through the visual gallery and video showcasing how its founder, Momofuku Ando got his inspiration to sell instant noodles in a cup. The main draw of the museum was the novelty of customising our very own (edible) Cup Noodles (which tasted so yummy)! Even though it’s a an hour long commute from Tokyo to get to CupNoodles Museum, I think it’s worthwhile for the experience.
The Cup Noodles museum houses an indoor gym called the Cup Noodles Park. Children play in there for an extra Y300 for 25 minutes.
THIS is the reason we came: Design and mix your own instant noodles..for Y300 each on top of the Y500 admission fee.
Once you enter, pick a cup. Then take your time to design a cup using the many colourful markers around.
We saw scores of families, local and tourists alike engaged in designing their own unique cup noodle cup!
After designing your cup, bring it to the counter and you can choose and mix your own flavours.
Here, they show you how the instant noodles are ‘inserted’ into your customised cup.
You get to turn the wheel to insert the instant noodles in.
After that, bring your customised cup noodle to seal and packed in a specially designed bubble wrap bag! Cute to the max.
This is the model of Mr. Momofuko Ando’s hut where he invented the first instant noodles.
Cup noodles first began life…in a packet.
This unique room shows the transformation of instant noodles from packet to cup. It also features all the assorted design of the instant noodle packaging.
The Cupnoodles Museum in Yokohama is a fun and educational place for the family.
Cup Noodle Museum (Yokohama)
Address: 2-3-4 Shinko, Naka-ku, Yokohama 231-0001 Japan
We treated everyone to dinner at Saboten Tonkatsu Restaurant inside Yokohama Queen’s Square Mall (right above the train station) before we parted ways with our guide and trudged our way back to our hotel via subways and trains. We checked in at about 9.30pm and were delighted to be upgraded to a Plaza Luxe Room. The room was newly renovated and large for Japanese standards. I especially love the heated toilet bowls and the travel-sized L’OCCITANE toiletries supplied in the bathroom. What a bonus!
Clean, Cosy, Chic, Comfy…
The Plaza Luxe Room comes with Executive Lounge benefits…
The spacious bathroom. A true luxury for a land of capsule hotels.
Pampered with the finest bathroom amenities…
The Executive Lounge at Keio Plaza opens till 9:30pm nightly. Perfect to wind down over beer or a cool drink on a hot Summer’s day.
Here’s the little secret about the Metro Government Building opposite Keio Plaza Hotel: It offers visitors FREE access to its 45th floor for a stunning 360 view of Tokyo. On a clear day you can see Mt. Fuji.
By the time we settled into the room, unpacked and showered, it was close to midnight – exactly 24 hours since we boarded our flight. We spent a tiring but fulfilling day getting acquainted to Tokyo. Another day of adventure beckons. Good night!
Dave’s Tokyo Survival Tips:
1) Be prepared to walk a lot. I mean, A LOT: Tokyo (or the whole Japan for that matter) requires a lot of walking. There are steps to negotiate virtually everywhere. Not stroller friendly for sure and lifts at subway stations are a rarity.
2) Bring comfy and durable walking shoes. See point #1.
3) Fly by day: Our 7 hour SQ flight to Narita was an overnight flight which didn’t give allow us to rest properly on board with the obligatory announcements and flight routines. So we were quite tired when we arrived. On hindsight, we should have either flown in the morning, arrive in the late afternoon to rest and begin our trek the next day refreshed. Nevertheless, the fresh sashimi at Tsukiji and great company we had did the trick.
4) The Tokyo subways are an insanely packed and busy places. The subway routes are complex and the trains leave on the dot. So, do your homework well to get to the right platform for the right train on time (we used Hyperdia to do our research). Our local guide’s expertise also came in very handy indeed. We left all the walking tours and directions to him.
5) Once you have your tour dates confirmed, book your goodwill volunteer guides early. They would require you to furnish details like no. of travellers, age of each traveller, gender and places of interests you’ll like them to visit. Goodwill guides do not charge for their services but we are expected to pay for their transport fees and meals.
6) Trash bins are very difficult to locate. Apparently, it’s a Japanese thing to bring their trash home to dispose. However, we managed to ‘solve’ the problem by locating either a McDonald’s or Starbucks outlet.
7) To get a higher chance of a complimentary room upgrade, try booking the rooms directly from the hotel’s official website. We booked our 2 nights’ stay at Keio Plaza through iPrefer – the hotel’s free loyalty membership programme.
Hotel Info: Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo (Shinjuku)
Tel:+81 3 3344 011
Stay tuned for our next trip report on Tokyo!
Our DIY Japan Trip 2015 (Summer):