Posts Tagged ‘Tokyo’

10 Super Cool & Totally Affordable Things to Do in Tokyo

The Tokyo Tower & Rainbow BridgeSaturday night in Shibuya against a backdrop of flashing neon ads and music from up above, walls of Japanese pedestrians stand ten people thick at each corner waiting to cross forward, back and diagonally once the light turns. When it does, a moving mosaic of people mingles in a remarkably orderly fashion through the intersection, and you find yourself wondering—like so many other weirdly wonderful moments in Japan—is this for real? In Tokyo there are a lot of people. Like 13,000,000 or so. It’s the world’s most populous city ahead, even, of Delhi and Shanghai. And as far as global cities go, Tokyo is uber hip. It’s uber everything, really. So shake off your jet lag and get ready to take a juicy bite out of the Big Mikan*. Here are 10 super cool and totally affordable things to see and do in Tokyo:

 

Cosplay1Behold the youthful dazzle on Takeshita-dori.

If you want to feel the pulse of Tokyo, go where the young people go. This narrow shopping street in Harajuku teems with young, trendsetting Tokyoites browsing the fashion boutiques and chattering away in the cafes and restaurants lining both sides of the street. On Takeshita-dori, teenagers dress up in cosplay (costume play), parading around as their favorite Japanese anime characters or going Goth with outlandish looks of leather, lace, dyed hair, painted faces and thick black eye liner. Giggling girls twirling frilly parasols go by in baby doll dresses and fancy pinafores, legs peeking out with kooky patterned socks pulled up over their knees. Giant bows adorn their girlie ponytails. It’s like stepping into your very own Japanese cartoon land.

 

A Tokyo "maid cafe"2Be a part of manga culture in Akihabara.

Akihabara district has been called Otaku Paradise, an oasis for Japanese pop culture nerds who come here to shop for everything anime, as well as games, manga (comic books), and the latest gadgets and electronics. Anime refers to the the Japanese animated cartoons loved by children and adults alike, and increasingly popular and influential outside Japan. Easily recognized by their characteristic wide-eyed people and animals (think Kimba the White Lion or Speed Racer), anime can be thought-provoking and imbued with life lessons.

Akihabara is also where “maid cafes” have sprung up, a cosplay phenomenon featuring young girls in French maid-inspired uniforms serving up tea, coffee and refreshments. Your maid will role play, never breaking out of character, as your very own servant.

 

Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku3Get assimilated at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku.

Mr. Roboto is alive and well in Shinjuku. You’ve never seen such a display of lights, sequins, girls on motorbikes, feathered headdresses and tiaras—a dancing, drumming robotic carnival involving people dressed up in bizarre animal costumes and performing nonsensical skits that nobody understands but will leave you enthralled, nonetheless. All for about US$70 plus another $9 for a meal. Reservations required, of course.

 

Meiji Shrine4Show some respect at Meiji Jingu.

The Meiji Shrine and public park is a spiritual tribute to the Emperor Meiji, perhaps the country’s most beloved leader who opened the doors of Japan to Western influence in 1868 after several hundred years of relative seclusion from the outside world. Meiji brought technological change as well as world literature and new ways of thinking to Japan. Here he is enshrined as a deity in Japan’s ancient Shinto religion, an animistic view of life in which there are spirits in everything. (Remember: Shrines are Shinto, temples are Buddhist.) Read up on shrine etiquette beforehand.

 

Mt. Fuji5Take the cable car up Mt. Takao (Takao-zan).

Just an hour outside of Tokyo, take the cable car or lift halfway up Mt. Takao, then climb the remaining 40 minutes to the top for a most exquisite view of Mt. Fuji. Visit the temples on the way back down the mountain, making offerings to Buddha and uttering prayers of thanks you didn’t fall out of the lift on the way down (no safety bar!). Round trip cable car or lift is less than US$10. Takao is also home to the Takao Monkey Park where a community of 50 monkeys frolic and perform for tourists.

 

Japanese bath house6Take a bath, Japanese style.

You’ll be able to say you really “did” Japan if you visit a local sento (public bath house) or venture to an onsen (spa-esque bathing in volcanic spring water). Bathing in Japan is a ritualistic experience that often includes a sauna, outdoor spring, whirlpool baths and massage options. Men and women bathe separately, but be prepared to get naked in front of the same sex, and quite possibly be ogled. Be mindful of shoe and slipper etiquette as well (you’ll wear different slippers for the bath than you wear for walking around the facility) and be sure to take a shower first. Plenty of shampoo and liquid soap is provided in the showers and you’ll be given a towel that’s about the size of a kitchen dish towel. There’s nowhere to hide! But once you slip into the bath, a wide-open steaming pool you’ll share with other bathers, close your eyes and luxuriate in one of the most blissful cultural experiences you can imagine—especially in winter! You can visit a Tokyo bath house for US$4–$22. Going to an onsen is a more luxe experience that usually involves an overnight stay in a traditional Japanese inn.

 

Nabe7Eat with the season.

In the winter months, especially, it’s customary to eat nabe, a Japanese stew that may consist of meat or seafood and a bounty of vegetables like daikon (Japanese radish), enoki mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and udon noodles. Every region of the country has its own variation on nabe and families often have their own renditions as well. Not to be confused with “noodle soup” found in ramen shops, nabe can only be had if you’re invited to someone’s home or you go to a place that serves it up, like Nabezo in Shinjuku and other Tokyo locations. For about US$17 you’ll feast like a local. A tasty bowl of ramen is good any time of year and you can easily spot a ramen shop marked with a short curtain over the door and patrons often standing at a tiny bar within. A hearty bowl of ramen is quick, cheap and tasty, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with Japanese so you can watch them slurping the noodles and drinking  broth from the bowl—all the etiquette lessons you’ll need to fit right in.

 

Edo-Tokyo Museum8Experience Tokyo through the ages at Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Step back in time to the Edo period (1603–1868) and wander through a fascinating, life-size exhibit featuring different “corners,” such as Aesthetics of Edo, Edo’s Four Seasons and Entertainment Districts, Commerce of Edo, and Theatres and Pleasure Districts. You’ll feel like you’re a part of the elaborate scenery complete with full-scale buildings, shops and home interiors, as well as models of festivals and bustling street life. You’ll then cross a wooden bridge into “Tokyo” and experience life and culture from the Meiji Restoration to modern day. At the Edo-Tokyo Museum, you’ll easily absorb 400 years of history in an afternoon for about US$5.

 

Spanish Fort, Mediterranean Harbor, DisneySea Photo by J. Miers9Get lost at Tokyo DisneySea.

While you might not think to go halfway around the world to an American-inspired amusement park, Tokyo Disney Resort does have a few surprises you won’t find anywhere else on the globe. Adjacent to the main amusement park (Cinderella’s castle and so forth) is Tokyo DisneySea, a nautical extravaganza catering more to adults. You can glide along in a Venetian gondola in the Mediterranean Harbor. On the American Waterfront, subject yourself to the Tower of Terror, a haunting ride that takes you to the top floor of a mysterious 1912 New York Hotel. Or spin and twirl in giant bumper boats in Aquatopia. It’s about US$60 for a day-pass at Tokyo Disney Resort.

 

Bob Sheppard live at B-Flat Jazz Club, Akasaka  Video by Giarola7710Tap into your soul at a live jazz house.

An unexpected find in Tokyo is jazz culture, often in minuscule spaces where people go to simply hear recorded jazz or see a favorite performer on screen. For live jazz performances, the jazz houses host a bevvy of internationally known musicians and groups, as well as local performers. When the music starts to play, a reverence sets in and Japanese audiences tend to be immensely present to the music. To take in some stellar entertainment try B Flat, a jazz live house venue in Akasaka where you can enjoy two evening sets for about US$22. At Chigusa, a jazz café in Yokohama that’s been around since 1933, they play vinyl recordings, and you can put in requests. The venue has some live shows as well.

 

At the end of the day you’ll likely be shindoi (completely exhausted) and looking to kick back with a can of Kirin or a cup of hot green tea. So drink up, drink in, and get ready to do it all again tomorrow. This is Tokyo, man—and it’s for real.


* Mikan = clementine orange. The Big Mikan, as Tokyo is affectionately called, is Japan’s variation on the Big Apple.

Traveler tips for a trip to Tokyo

Our staff at Friendly Planet is made up of many travel enthusiasts.  Most of us travel every chance we get, for both business and pleasure. When we return to the office, we often find ourselves having in-depth conversations with one another to share and compare our travel stories and experiences.

I’ve invited some of our staff members to share their travel experiences on the blog to give you a snapshot of some of the most fascinating places around the world, as well as their personal accounts from their trips. First up is Terence Foley, who works in product development here at Friendly Planet. Here’s his description of his most recent trip to Tokyo, in his own words:

“In September, I took a trip to Tokyo, Japan. This remarkable city is comprised of 27 special wards, each with their own distinct feel and attraction. From high-rise business centers and entertainment districts, to beautifully manicured parks and gardens, Tokyo has it all.

I visited most of Tokyo’s major attractions: Tsukiji fish marketMeiji ShrineGinza shopping districtTokyo-Edo Museum, and Asakusa Temple, just to name a few. I even went to Tokyo’s Sushi Academy and learned how to prepare fresh sushi. And, to top it all off, I also made a visit to the Tokyo Skytree’s observatory, 1,150 feet up, for a panoramic sunset view of the sprawling metropolis.

To be honest, I was a bit wary of using Tokyo’s metro system, especially after looking at the map, which looked like a plate of rainbow spaghetti. But to my surprise, it was actually quite simple. In fact, if you find yourself looking at a map for more than a few moments, a friendly Tokyoite is likely to approach you to offer help.

I’ve heard people planning trips to Japan say they were not interested in Tokyo because it’s just another big city. Well, Tokyo is big, but it is unlike any other major city I’ve ever visited. At times, I felt like I had traveled into the future, and other times back to the Edo period. The food was delicious, the people were friendly, and the culture was vibrant. I fell in love with Tokyo and I cannot wait to return!”

I share Terence’s enthusiasm for Tokyo, and can’t wait to return myself. Thanks for sharing about your trip Terence!

2 reasons why the Far East isn’t so far away for Friendly Planet travelers

We’re always trying to think of new, innovative tours to offer our customers at a great value. We’ve created two of these new tours in the Far East, which incorporate cities that are geographically close in proximity, but vastly different in history and culture. I wanted to fill you in on the details:

Tokyo skyline at night

Beijing and Tokyo: A Sale of Two Cities. On this 10-day tour, travelers visit two of the most attractive destinations in the world, Beijing and Tokyo, for an outrageously low price. The package combines two of Asia’s cultural and economic powerhouses that exhibit impressive modern achievements within ancient and incredibly rich cultures. Spend four nights in each city, with touring included, which provides just enough time to experience all that Beijing and Tokyo have to offer. Since we’re coming up on the cooler winter months, travelers will be able to take advantage of less crowds and incredible prices with this tour—a great perk! While the moderate temperatures in both cities throughout the winter months still provide an enjoyable climate for touring.

Taste of China and Hong Kong. This 13-day tour was created for the traveler who wants to see all of the sights and ancient culture that the vibrant international cities in China and Hong Kong have to offer. Visit three of China’s most awe-inspiring cities, ShanghaiXi’an, and Beijing, and then continue on to the beautiful, cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong. The best part? We’ve calculated that travelers will save over $1,000 with this tour, as compared to booking on their own. You simply can’t beat that for these attractive travel destinations!

Are there any Far East destinations that you’d like to see us offer next? Let us know in a comment below!

Japan update: Travel news and ways you can help

Since my last update on Japan, I’m happy to report that our representatives in Tokyo are safe. We also have been in contact with our airline partners, Singapore Airlines, who have extended the deadline to cancel flights to Japan without penalty from March 20 to April 10.

That means insurance coverage is guaranteed only through April 10. However, I believe this deadline will be pushed back, as the nuclear emergency in Japan has complicated things.

So in order to make sure our travelers don’t suffer unnecessary penalties for canceling their April 19 departure or later for the Japan Panorama tour, which is not yet protected by waivers from suppliers, we’re not making any changes or canceling any tours at this time.

If you’re on our April 19 Japan Panorama departure, we’ve already contacted you with a list of options to choose from at this time, including booking another Friendly Planet Travel destination or a later Japan departure date.

Once we have a better sense of damage to the particular regions visited on the Japan Panorama itinerary, we will be better able to determine how to proceed. I want to assure you that we will act in your best interests. Flip back to my previous post to get more details about this decision.

Amid this disaster that has reshaped Japan physically, it’s clear that the Japanese people are methodical, strong, and united. One journalist I heard this morning on the BBC spoke of spending the night in a standing apartment in a village in the earthquake zone.

The family who lives there has no electricity, water, phone service, and very little food. Despite this, the journalist was welcomed warmly and invited to share whatever meager resources the family had. The journalist was surprised by the lack of hysteria and the stoic, calm attitude of the people she has met.

I’m not surprised. I’ve been working with the Japanese for years and know that they will recover and emerge from this better and stronger than before. That is just how they are as a people. For example, our representatives in Japan expressed their gratitude at having been spared the worst of the earthquake and the tsunami, but are worried about people in the worst impacted areas. Their message to me ended with this stoic line: “We will fight this tragedy together and recover, for sure.”

This is just one of the reasons why people — especially those of us who value independence, strength of character, and the ability to look ahead and work toward a better future — will not cancel, but postpone travel to Japan. And, at the first possible moment, they will make a beeline to be among the first to witness the recovery.

Friendly Planet Travel is looking for the best ways to help the Japanese people at this terrible time. We will get back to you with some suggestions for places to send donations that assure the help gets through quickly and to those who need it the most.

In the meantime, we are recommending Doctors Without Borders as a good place to send donations. They are very active in the Japanese recovery and have indicated they will need special funding to handle the crisis. I’ll continue to post updates to the blog, Facebook, and Twitter about the situation in Japan.

Japan Panorama tour: Four 2011 departure dates available

Tokyo Tower at dusk

Japan might be the most expensive travel destination in Asia with the shortest touring season, but Friendly Planet Travel’s Japan Panorama tour is consistently one of the best for the least. Those of you who have been calling and writing to us asking when our 2011 dates will be posted, you’ll be pleased to know that they’re ready and are available at prices that are hard to beat.

Our 10-day Japan Panorama tour starts at $3,199, with departure dates on: April 19, May 10, May 24, June 14, and July 5.

Japan’s futuristic cities, ancient temples, and peaceful countryside epitomizes its ultra-modern life while respecting and coexisting with its cultural heritage. It’s this mixture of technological innovation and tradition that puts Japan on top of Friendly Planet’s list of must-see destinations.

Your 10-day exploration of Japan begins in Tokyo, one of the world’s main economic centers and Japan’s modern capital, as well as its largest city. You see all of the main attractions, including: Tokyo Tower, modeled after the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the historic Imperial Palace, which dates back to the 15th century and is the present residence of the Emperor of Japan; Sensoji, or Asakusa Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion; and the Ginza, Tokyo’s most famous up-market shopping, dining, and entertainment district.

Mount Fuji 

After a good night’s sleep at the Tokyo Prince Hotel Park Tower, it’s off to Mount Fuji, a beautiful snow-capped volcano. Experienced hikers can trek from the summit to get some amazing panoramic views.

After lunch take a cruise on Lake Ashi, a slender body of water formed in the Hakone caldera about 400 thousand years ago. Board the Komagatake Ropeway, and don’t forget your camera, because you’re treated to a picturesque ascent up Mount Komagatake and sweeping views of Hakone National Park and Mount Fuji.

The following day you have the chance to explore Tokyo independently or join an optional tour to Nikko, a city filled with shrines and pagodas. The tour takes you to to the Toshogu Shrine, it is the original site of the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys, which are carved on one of the gates.

The bullet train

Then get ready for a high-speed adventure the next morning aboard the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train. The train itself is an experience. It links the major cities in Japan efficiently, while reaching speeds of over 170 miles per hour. It takes you to Kyoto where you check in at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto.

While in Kyoto, Japan’s spiritual capital, visit the 17th-century Nijo Castle. You can see the architecture change as you go from the most public spaces to the private chambers of the shogun, which were protected by a highly imaginative security system comprised of floorboards deliberately built to squeak when walked upon.

Proceed to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple), which is covered in gold leaf and whose three stories each reflect a different architectural style. Continue to the Handicraft Center, where you can pick up some souvenirs on one of its five floors. Complete your day with a walking tour around the Gion neighborhood, where the best-selling novel “Memoirs of a Geisha” was set.

Then take advantage of a day of leisure in Kyoto or hop on the bullet train for an optional tour of Hiroshima, including a ferry ride to Miyajima. After breakfast the next day, you’re driven to Nara, one of the earliest capitals of Japan.

Todaiji Temple

Tour the Todaiji Temple, whose Buddha is the largest bronze statue in the world, and whose main structure is the world’s largest wooden building. Continue to Osaka, which remains a vital center for trade and entrepreneurial culture. On a city tour, you see the Osaka Castle, which played a major role in the unification of the country during the Azuchi-Momoyama period.

Stroll down Dotonboroi Street, a former pleasure district now famous for its theatres, shops, and restaurants, as well as the colorful neon and mechanized signs. You might recognize the snack/candy manufacturer Glico’s giant electronic display of a runner crossing the finish line. On your final day in Japan you’ll board the bullet train for Tokyo and your flight home.

Packaged in the price, from $3,199, are round-trip flights from Los Angeles via Singapore Airlines (voted the world’s #1 airline for safety, comfort, and service) non-stop jet service, including fuel surcharges; all intra-Japan ground transportation; superior first-class hotels; American buffet breakfast daily plus one lunch; fully escorted touring program with entrance fees; professional, English-speaking tour director and local guides; and more.

With limited departure dates and a price point that’s hard to beat in the travel industry, I’m expecting this tour to fill up fast. So if you’ve ever wanted to see Japan, book the 10-day Japan Panorama tour for $3,199 by Oct. 28.

And if you’ve been on this tour before, post a comment to let fellow travelers know how you liked it. And as always, if you have questions, you know the drill. Visit our website for the full tour itinerary, write to me, or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.

Friendly Planet Travel giving travelers what they want, according to Conde Nast Traveler’s 2009 Readers Choice Awards

As I was home catching up on some work-related e-mail this weekend, I spent some time browsing the latest Condé Nast Traveler: 2009 Readers’ Choice Awards. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I read that once again, Friendly Planet has it pretty well covered in terms of what travelers want.

Take the Top Cities category. We offer trips to eight out of the top 10 Asian cities: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Chiang Mai, Kyuoto, Shanghai, Jaipur, Tokyo, and Hanoi. Singapore, also on the top 10 list, is coming in 2010, and that’s just Asia. We also cover four out of five of the best Africa and Middle East cities: Cape Town, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Dubai.

FP_Plane.jpgThe No. 1 and No. 2 airlines on the list of Ten Best Global Carriers – Singapore Airlines and Emirates – are prominently featured on some of our tours. And even some of the world’s best hotels, such as the Fairmont Hotel Dubai, are found on our programs.

So, you could be thinking, "big deal." A lot of companies feature these places, these airlines, and these hotels. And that’s the point. A lot do feature all of this and more, but at what price? That’s where we differ from almost everyone out there. The best for the least means something in my mind. It translates into a lot of work in creating the tours that result in great vacations in great destinations at great prices.
 

That’s the thought  I had after reading these lists, anyway. But more importantly, how do YOU think Friendly Planet Travel stacks up? Are there cities we don’t offer that you wish we did? Where do you want to go with us? Let me know in the comments section below! I would really love to hear from you.