Left to your own devices in a city like Tokyo, with only a phonetic phrasebook to get you around, how do you begin to make sense of the signposts, let alone squeeze maximum enjoyment out of the city? Theres excitement lurking around every corner in Japans capital city, but rituals that must be observed and cultural norms that are alien to the west, are perceived to be an obstacle to accessing the huge wealth of fun that can be had here. Dont be afraid. A polite bow and good manners is all you need to gain help from passers-by in this very safe, very friendly, sprawling metropolis.
The UK transport system must be a constant frustration to Japanese visitors. In Japan, all trains run exactly on time and delays are virtually non-existent. There are trains, overgrounds, undergrounds, buses and taxis to get you to where you need to be in Tokyo; the worlds most populated city. English timetables and tube maps are available from every station kiosk, but bear in mind that you might be looking at a map that encompasses the lines of every available method of transport.
It might be easier to take separate train and metro maps. There are also apps that will tell you the quickest way to get to where you need to be, if your English phone can access the public Wifi which isnt guaranteed. The colours of each metro line will feature as a stripe across each train, so if you know the colour of line you need, you can be pretty sure youre getting on the right train. Youll need to look at the station monitors to check youre heading in the right direction. As for paying for each journey, a pasmodo card operates in much the same way a London Oyster card works.
Day 1 The Imperial Gardens
This is a great introduction to the stark contrast of old and new that combine harmoniously together. Much like Central Park in New York, modern skyscrapers and city bustle lines the fringes of the park, while inside, the trees, plants, lawns, bridges and holy buildings are designed to promote tranquility. Its particularly impressive when the cherry blossom is in bloom.
As for your evening meal tonight, why not try a BBQ place. They are smoky, but lots of fun and the food is delicious. Youll have a mini grill at your table and be brought plates of raw meat by your waiter, that youll put on the grill yourself, allowing you to have your food cooked exactly as you like it. Slightly longer chopsticks than normal will be supplied to handle the raw meat.
Rice and sauces will accompany your meal; usually soy sauce and a satay sauce. Use your chopsticks to dip the rice into the sauce, rather than pouring the sauce over the rice. Once the sticky rice gets wet, youll find it impossible to lift into your mouth.
Day 2 Harajuko and the Meiji Shrine
Begin your day with an authentic Japanese breakfast of rice, salted beef and miso soup, to which you can add eggs; fried or raw. This can be purchased in cafes all over the place. Youll use the vending machine to place the order and pay. The ticket resulting from this is given to the server or chef behind the counter.
Turn immediately right out of Harajuko station and head towards the large bridge. Youll notice crowds of young people hanging out on the bridge in elaborate clothing. This part of the city is renowned for its cosplay. The entrance to the Meji Shrine will be unmistakeable. A huge gateway will take you into tree-lined pathways, past the bonsai tree displays and platforms filled with sake barrels, onto the shrine, where youll cleanse yourself first; wetting first the left hand, then the right.
If youre then in the mood to experience more crowds and crazy costumes, you could head over to the neon wonderland that is the infamous Shibuya crossing. Here people use the statue of Hachikos dog as a meeting place, before making their way across the road and into the various pubs and restaurants. Ramen (noodles) is a must while youre here. Especially if youve had a few beers. Its the perfect end to the night!
Day 3 Odaiba
There are two huge attractions on the island of Odaiba, which is reached by train, over a long bridge with a terrific view of the harbour and surrounding skyscrapers. One is the science museum; or museum of emerging technology as its known. This is where youll find incredibly lifelike robots, including the world famous Asimo, whose movements perfectly mimic that of a human. The other is the towering statue of Gundam.
After a full day in Odaiba and a long journey to get back to the centre, you might just want to grab a snack from the supermarket. Family Mart and 7 Elevens are ubiquitous and will have huge fridges offering extremely high quality prepared meals, that you can even get heated up for you as you pay.
Day 4 Asakura and the Tokyo Skytree
The second tallest building in the world, The Tokyo Skytree stands proud of the skyline. Youll take a lift up the top and have incredible views of miles around, including a great view of Mount Fuji. A few stops away is the delightfully touristy area of Asakura. With its recently renovated shrines, streets full of craft and snack stalls, as well as water features and fortune kiosks, youll enjoy the excited bustle of the crowd as you linger in the scent of incense (considered good luck), take in the women in their elaborate kimonos and try green tea and soy beans flavoured ice cream.
To read your fortune, youll need to pay 100 yen (approximately 70p) and shake a barrel full of sticks to see which number falls out first. Select your fortune from the appropriately numbered drawers and hope for the best. Not to worry, if you get a bad one, however, as you can simply tie it onto the wire meshes and walk away to dissolve the bad luck.
Day 5 Haneko
Its time for a trip just outside of the city. Haneko is the place to be; to enjoy the time-honoured Japanese tradition of Onsen; bathing in hot springs and it can be reached easily by train. (Its only 30 minutes away on the Bullet Train.) Be warned though you will be expected to remove all of your clothes, but the experience is so special and so relaxing, its well worth getting over your nerves to do so.
Other pastimes here include meditation and calligraphy classes, taking a pirate boat across Lake Ashi and a cable car over the (very) active volcano. At the volcano, youl have superb views of Mount Fuji and enjoy eating an egg with a black shell that has been cooked in the volcano itself.
A huge part of these spa retreats is the exquisite formal Japanese dining experience you can expect to have. The all-important presentation means that youll have various meats, vegetables and tofu cooking away in different miniature pots around you while a wealth or smaller serving dishes will each present you with a tasty morsel. Its a meal youll remember forever.
Day 6 Odawara Castle
Youll take the funicular down the mountainside to Odawara castle, where you can hire ninja costumes for the kids and take in the views, the gardens and the castle itself.
Back in Tokyo, a great place for a night out is Shinjuku. This is another neon wonderland, filled with bars, shops, restaurants and cinemas. Youll also find extensive amusement arcades here, where one of the most popular games is Pochenko. Nobody really understand the rules, but its a great feeling when a previously hidden screen rotates to reveal to everyone that youre a winner, with your very own elaborate winner animation!
As for eating, while in Tokyo, you simply must try a hot pot meal. Shabu Shabu meals will provide your table with a boiling pot of water and flavouring for you to waft thin strips of meat over and cook vegetables. Again, rice will be provided. Its very delicious. Expect to eat far more than you thought you could, which isnt going to cost any extra, as so many of these deals are eat as much as you want!
Day 7 Kamakura
About an hours train ride away from the centre of Tokyo, youll find the beach resort of Kamakura. The coastline is picturesque and the shrines impressive. Must-visit places around here are the Bamboo Forest and the giant Buddha Shrine; both of which certainly have the wow-factor.
If you have time when you get back to the city centre and youre not too exhausted from your week, two more great things you should try to fit in is playing baseball on the top of a department store, (where a pitching machine will fire at you at your chosen speed to up your batting skills) and Karaoke. Simply select a booth and sing your heart out. Its good for the soul!
Booking your week in Tokyo
Of course, you dont have to find your way around Tokyo on your own, if you dont want to do that. Here at Aspen Travel, we offer a range of luxury escorted tours to Japan, that will give you your vewry own personal guide; someone who will guide you from place to place, ensure you get to your pre-booked overnights on time and help you manage any transfers.
Your food, drink and an exciting itinerary will all be included in the one price you pay, not to mention entrance tickets to attractions, so you dont need to worry about having to find more cash at a later date. Please give our friendly and dedicated team a call to find out more about our all inclusive trips to Japan.