Monday 1 September 2008

Day 13 - Disney Sea

Today we revisited our childhood, making a trip to the newest Disney Theme park, Disney Sea, located in the Disney Resort, Tokyo. The park has a nautical twist and is aimed at adults. We really had an amazing time, arriving after 2pm and leaving just before 10pm. Take a look at the picture below of Vinnie and I on the Tower of Terror, the only one in the world not to use the Twilight Zone as it's background story. We free-fell 5 stories 3 times, it was HELL, but we loved it!

Sunday 31 August 2008

Day 12 - Tokyo Tower and Ikebukuro

Today to visited Tokyo Tower, travelled out to the malls of Ikebukuro and wandered around the 24 sub-city of Shibuya. This will be completed tomorrow at some stage. It's bed early for us as we're off to Disneyland tomorrow to spend the day at DisneySea.

Saturday 30 August 2008

Day 11 - Osaka

As we picked Osaka as our base for touring this part of Japan, we only gave ourselves this morning to see Osaka in daylight. We organised extended checkout for 2pm to catch our train back to Tokyo at 4.

Vinnie and I where both shocked and amazed by the quality of the service in the hotel, which really can be extended out to Japan as a whole. Our bell-lady retrieved our bags, pulled them out to the taxi, helped load the car, opened the door of the cab, held her hand over the roof as we climbed in, then as the door shut she bowed and remained still to bow once again when we had finally pulled out. All of this service for no tip, they don't except and are insulted if you tip. Us Westerners have alot to learn about customer service from Japan.

Our three hour bullet train pulled into Tokyo just after 7pm. It was lashing. There have been massive storms in Japan these past two weeks, majorly affecting central regions. This evening we drank in The Dubliners in Shunjinku (avoid) and back to Arty Farty to dance the night away until 5am!

Friday 29 August 2008

Day 10 - Kyoto

This update will be posted in full later tomorrow, but today we took the train from Osaka to Kyoto where we explored the old town on the ground and from 133 metres high from Kyoto Tower. We visited a Buddhist Temple and several shrines before shopping down town. Returning to Osaka we shopped in what has to be one of the biggest dept. stores we've ever shopped in and ended the night in Murphys Irish Bar (with free shots).

Tomorrow we spend the morning and early afternoon in Osaka before returning back to Tokyo and our hotel.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Day 9 - Hiroshima

Leaving Tokyo by bullet train, transferring at Osaka, we travelled some 4 hours and 850km south to visit Hiroshima today, the city made famous for all the wrong reasons. It was the site of the worlds first atomic bomb in, Aug 6th 1945 at 8:15am, killing 1000s in seconds and disintegrating the entire city in moments. It has been fully rebuilt from the ashes but is now an international peace centre with a very moving peace garden and museum - both a must.

Although Hiroshima has regrown and rebuilt the horrors of the mass killings and brutality of war are in the air. I got an eerie sense walking around the city, even though itsthriving one with trams and subways.

We only had 5 hours to pass in the city, all of which was taken up in the peace garden and exhibits as we had to catch a train back to Osaka where we will be basing ourselves for the next two nights. Osaka is the third largest city in Japan and a sky scraper heaven. We're staying in the ANA Crowne Plaza, which we got for free as reward nights. They even upgraded us to a suite! That's what you get for being a loyal intercontinental customer (Thank you work!).

We had a drink in The Blarney stone, ate in a local Japanese noodle bar and sipped on a vodka in a local bar.

Tomorrow we plan to Visit Kyoto.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Day 8 - Asakusa and the Temple

We actually got up early today, a first, before 10am in fact. Our plan to get the washing done before our little trip away tomorrow. The hotel provide a washer and dryer, so armed with detergent and softener we freshened up our clothes.

We took the metro to the Imperial Palace. It's only open to the public twice a year and is the active home to the Japanese Emperor. The East Gardens are open to the public, so we took a nice stroll around it. There are many gardens on the estate, all modelled on different Japanese styles. All very green but the heat out was unbearable. Today was the first day since day one that it didn't rain. It was hot.

We decided to continue the cultural theme to the day as we headed out to Asakusa, famed for it's massive Buddhist Temple. This area used to be the entertainment centre of Tokyo but has since been replaced by the upmarket and high rise west Tokyo districts of Shubuyi and Shinjuku.

Before entering the temple, you face a maze of stalls called the Nakamise-dori, of particular delight are the many food stalls selling pastries. The temple itself, called the Senso-ji is one of the sacred and spectacular of its kind in Japan. The shrine itself dates back to AD628! This was our first time in a Buddhist temple, so it was a case of follow the leader. No where appeared to be off limits as we explored the courtyards and main hall. A massive incense Burner sits in the middle of the temple and is the main focus of activity.

It's possible to purchase a fortune, you pay ¥100, randomly draw a numbered stick from a metal jar, match it to a drawer, open to reveal your fortune. Vinnie got a very good luck one, I on the other hand didn't. I tore it up and did my again. I've since learned that if you get bad luck you've to tie the fortune up on stings provided; the monks gather all of these nightly and pray against the bad fortune. Do I believe in Eastern religions and superstition. Not really!

We dined in a nearby noodle bar, helped in translation by a local. The noodles and dumplings where first rate. Two mains and two sides cost us a combined €9! So little for so much food.

Right outside the restaurant is Hanayashiki amusement park, this is old and full of rickety rides. Chancing my new found luck I tried out the roller-coaster. It was fun, short, but full of steep drops. It cost ¥900 admission and didn't include rides. We felt this was steep as we only stayed for 30mins and went on one ride costing a further ¥400.

This evening we made our way to Tokyo station to reserve seats on trains for our national adventure kicking off tomorrow. We've purchased a weeks national rail travel in the form of a JR pass before coming to Japan. This entitles us to unlimited train travel on bullet and all JR trains for 7 days. Our itinerary looks likes this:

* Thursday - Hiroshima
* Friday - Kyoto
* Saturday - Osaka

We are basing ourselves in Osaka. I've used my priory reward nights to claim two free night in the Crowne Plaza in Osaka!

We drank to the evening and holiday by having a drink in one of our two local Irish Bars, this is sharing the same name as Vinnie, Finn McCools. When they found this our we got free shots on the house! nice!

We're off to bed early as we've to catch the train at 8am!

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Day 7 - Akhiabara

Electronics were the focus today as we took a stroll through the electronics quarter of Akihabara. All intentions of an early rise went out the window. Mornings are for sleeping! We never made it out again until after 2pm again today, then again we are on our holidays, what's the rush!

Back to the electronics, the neighbourhood is massive. 100s of stores ranging in size from small to 7 stories all selling the latest gadgets to the big brand names all super cheap and tax free to tourists. I was taken away by the mobile phones. I believe the networks here all operate on different technologies, so texting between them is impossible. The European standard of GSM or 2.5G is long gone. Basic offering is 3G with the 5G network being built! Try to find European made phones like Nokia is near to impossible. The phones here are all sliders or clam-shell, both designs would be frowned upon back home. Mobile Internet and television is standard on them all, technology years ahead of us Europeans. The iPhone 3G is out in Japan on the Softbank network but why would you buy this if there are better integrated phones for Internet and texting. Japanese love to text, I thought the Irish where bad but here on the subway you are either sleeping or texting someone.

After some light electronic shopping we took the subway to another new area, Ueon. This district is old Tokyo. Labyrinth streets reveal markets, food stalls, capsule and love hotels (where you can get a room for 2 hours!). There is as ever a massive shopping centre with big names such as Gap, Starbucks and Virgin. In Starbucks Vinnie invented a new frappachino, vanilla bean matcha (Green Tea). It's delicious. In virgin I found the original Japanese cast recording of Wicked the musical had just been released. I had to get it. It's my favourite musical.

We dined in the same noodle bar as day 3 in Shibuya as it was so nice and western friendly. Some late evening shopping followed along with drinks in the local English pub. It's early to bed for us tonight. We need to wash cloths and book train tickets tomorrow. We are off on Thursday to visit southern Japan for three days, again more on this tomorrow!

Monday 25 August 2008

Day 6 - Odaiba

The man-made island consisting of two "cities within a city" off east Tokyo bay was our destination today. This area is spacious and is a full on entertainment district. It's been built on reclaimed land. Getting to the island involves a trip on the the futuristic driver-less Yurikamome monorail from Shinbashi station. The view is something else as the train first loops (teasing you with the view) then takes you over the iconic Tokyo Bay Rainbow Bridge, akin to New Yorks Hudson Bridge.

For the architectural lover, there are many fine buildings in Odaiba from the 25 story Fuji TV build (around which is one of the "cities within a city") to the many shopping centres all trying to complete to draw in the crowds.

This is the area where Tokyoites come to play and get away from the city; but that doesn't mean no crowds, it's one busy area.

Our first stop was the worlds tallest Ferris Wheel (in 1999), the Stream of Starlight, at 115metres. It even has entire glass carriages within which you can enjoy the 16min round trip. Unfortunately it was raining and misty, so the view from the top wasn't as awesome as anticipated, but nevertheless, worth the ¥900. The wheel is located in an area called Palette town, home to the Mega Web amusement park and a very very large Italian themed shopping mall, Venus Fort; it's interior is designed to resemble an Italian city with a fake sky that changes according to the time of the day. We spent way too long in here, but it is massive.

Ten minutes away are three further entertainment and shopping malls. The first is the Decks, a nautical-themed centre, home to the Island and Seaside malls. The Joypolis Game Centre is next, a massive indoor theme park by Sega then another shopping mall, 8 stories called Aqua City. This place is shopping mall heaven! Of particular interest is the 4th floor in the Island Mall as it contains a replica of 1960s Japan, with small back alleys to get lost in :)

A replica of the Statue of Liberty is located outside the Aqua City mall, it was built in France like the original in New York, and erected in site in 2000. It's a very strange sight seeing the Statue of Liberty illuminated in front of the Rainbow Bridge! You can not help but feel you where in New York. The Tokyo Bay and it's skyline is awesome, if not better then New York. We got a great window view in an Italian restaurant to enjoy it. My pizza had teriaki chicken and seaweed topping (I didn't know about the seaweed - I had to take it off).

We rested this evening and planned/booked hotels for our weekend get away where we plan to travel to south Japan taking in three citys. More on that later!

Sunday 24 August 2008

Day 5 - Shinjuku

Getting a taste of what this district had to offer us we headed back today. Starting off in West Shinjuku and the skyscraper district our travels then took us east into the more retail focus neon jungle!

It rained again today; locals appear to favour transparent umbrellas, it's comical watching them in their 100's cross roads in mass with their identical umbrellas. We've also observed that they queue in ordered lines at train stations, lining up behind markers indicating where the train doors will open, somehow I can not imagine that on the DART in Dublin.

We ate Thai in the Lumine shopping centre which spans over and under the massive Shinjuku train station. The remainder of the afternoon was spent in the Times Square shopping centre, a 14 store mini city. Shopping centres are really something else here.

That evening we returned back to the Shunjuku area via metro and JR and drank/ate in an English pub, The hub where we witnessed a traditional birthday party where the cake is thrown into the persons face. They all appeared to love it! Drinks followined in Arty Farty and The Annex. Bed before 3am! WOW, an early night for us!

Saturday 23 August 2008

Day 4 - Ginza

Central Tokyo and it's 5th avenue styled Ginza area was our destination for day 4. We kicked off the day rather late, not leaving the hotel until after 3pm! We really should get into a better daily routine as so far we've being going to bed at 5am and getting up after noon. Well it's working for us and this city really doesn't sleep.

It rained today but we still put on our shorts and sandals and hit the metro after picking up our morning/afternoon coffee at the local Starbucks beside our hotel.

Ginza is another shopping mecca - this city really knows how to shop, it has all the stores you'd expect to find on 5th avenue and more. Like most Tokyo hubs, the sides of buildings are decorated with rising columns of light and sound, some with TVs, other neon. Most of the designer stores try to make their mark with competing store fronts.

We visited one department store with a golf driving range on the roof! Crazy! The iconic Sony showrooms is also situated here with 7 floors of goodness and technology at least 2 years ahead of the western world. The worlds flattest TV technology was on show, organic LEDs, and wow, they are flat.

That evening we jumped into a taxi (we missed the last metro!) and headed up to the Shinjuku area where we have to return during the day. This is the Tokyo you see on TV with neon everywhere and more importantly another shopping hub. Our intention was pub and clubbing and was satisified. Dragon Bar and Arty Farty where our destinations. I managed to sample mint beer too! We retired for bed around 4:30, not before hitting the supermarket close by for late night nibbles.

Friday 22 August 2008

Day 3 - Shopping Shibuya Style

Shibuya is one of the 23 wards of Tokyo which has grown into a mecca for the youth and shopping. It's a non-stop party town within the Eastern part of the city. It was our shopping destination for day 3. The main pedestrian crossing consisting of many zebra crossings is one of the famed sights of the city and is a must see sight. 100's of Japanese wait in line only to spill out to onto the road once ever two minutes taking up all available space. It's something else.

Some 7 or so roads led off the central point, each with impressive department stores, noodle shops or gaming points; pachinko parlors are everywhere, noisy places full of locals inserting small metal balls into a game of luck, the only prize more ball-bearings! It's illegal to gamble for money here apparently. The music industry is well and truly still alive, the HMV store is some 6 stories high! Tokyos Apple store is also located here! We spent some 8 hours in the area and didn't even cover it all. We will have to return.

We braved a local noodle bar for lunch - we where so proud of ourselves. Inside they cook and prepare fresh noodle soups while patrons sit around the cooking point in a circle bar set up. You place your order outside at a vending machine, pay and move inside to await your food. We didn't know what we'd ordered, but the unknown meat dish was very tasty!

After some rest back at the hotel, we ventured out at 2am to a local Irish bar, which happened to be back in Rappongi! More dodging women pushing themselves at us! Makes a change!

Day 1 and Day 2 - Our Travel Days

It's hard to believe it look the best part of two days to get over to
Japan and recover from the journey. I write this entry on the morning on Friday 22nd Aug, what feels like our first day in Japan, but is actually our second.

We left a very cold, dull Dublin two days ago, on Wed 20th, taking the 7:20 AerLingus EI154 to London Heathrow. Our bags where checked straight through to Japan, which was class. Our flight was
perfectly on time; after arrival we transferred to terminal 3 to check in with Virgin, flight VS900 to Tokyo. I've only ever eaten in the pre-security area of terminal 3 before so it was a great treat to gain access to the vast duty free and food halls post security.

Our Virgin flight was such a pleasure. If you can, fly them anywhere. Their staff always have a smile and really made us feel welcome aboard. From free alcohol to little novelty gift packs (including socks and tooth brush) this really was how flying was and is meant to me. It had all the touches from sweets at landing to in-flight ice cream breaks. The food and entrainment was first class even through we flew coach. With at least three main course options to choose from and at least 50 odd recent movies on-demand we really where spoilt for choice.

Our route surprisingly took us directly over Russia, initially north and then south to Japan. The 297 other passengers and us took off at 1pm local in London and landed at 8:30am local in Tokyo, just shy of 12 hours later.

Clearing immigration and customs was a doddle, nothing like entering America. It did however take us some 3 hours to find our way to our hotel and attempt to check in.

The Tokyo public transport network is very clean, on time and well, all in Japanese! It's best to ask as many questions to the staff in the airport as once you leave, no-one will understand you. We purchased a SUICA card, the local equivalent to the London Oyster card for ¥2000 which comes with ¥1500 loaded for travel. A must; with 2 different companies running the cities underground and a very complicated pricing structure with fare difference machines and all sorts, its hard to understand. That's where the SUICA card comes in - swipe and go at entry and leaving, it works out the price and deducts from your credit. It works on all subways, JR trains and buses. It even is accepted in local newsagents for cash purchases.

We arrived at the hotel at 1pm to find out (1) check-in wasn't until 2pm and our room wasn't ready and (2) the room had feather pillows and duvets! NO! I argued a little but when we checked in at 2pm it was sorted for us. To pass the hour we walk around the local area,Akasaka . Its very beautiful and clean. The local TV broadcast tower and centre is right in-front of the hotel. On it's grounds they appears to have areas set up for each of it's main TV shows. Kids and adults mixed and laughed as they watched their stars on TVs and generally enjoyed the entertainment. Ice and wind machines blew cold air around, very much so needed, this place is HOT HOT HOT!

We checked into the hotel and went straight to bed around 3pm - we slept straight through a massive down pour and thunder storm to wake up at 1:30am. We dressed and took a walk up to Rappongi, what fun! This area comes to live at night. From bars, clubs, karaoke huts and women everywhere trying to sell themselves, it's and eye opener. As westeners we couldn't hide our out of town appearance. We where an open target and we where pounced on. Fun!

Returning back to the hotel for 5am with food in hand we drifted off to sleep. Aug 21st appeared to come and go without announcement, it was also my 28th birthday today too! Yahoo! Fully rested and re-charged Friday 22nd will be our first full day to experience Tokyo! Wish us well!

Wednesday 20 August 2008