Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Tokyo Trilogy: Part 2

Hi again,

We've had another really busy few days in Tokyo. There's so much to see and do and our feet are nearly dropping off from all the walking we've done!! 

Back to Monday which is where we last left off. We decided to be productive early on and sort out our Japan rail passes. Similar to an interrail/euro rail pass, this one ticket allows you unlimited travel on Japan railways for 14 consecutive days. We had to buy an exchange order while still in England because you can't buy one once you have arrived in Japan. Japanese rail travel is incredibly expensive (although efficient) so apparently the rail pass works out at the same price as a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto so we thought it was definitely worthwhile as once we leave Tokyo we will be visiting another 4 regions of Japan all by rail.

The pass proved remarkably simple to sort out and since we were in the area anyway we ended up walking back to the Imperial Palace to take a closer look. So far, this hasn't been our favourite attraction. A lot of the area is closed to the public and the first gardens you come across are quite sparse and open without much to see. Overall a bit of a letdown and Ueno Park was a much nicer outdoor space. The only highlight was seeing a procession with members of the royal family leaving the palace.

Next, we decided to explore a couple of the larger districts of Tokyo. We headed to Ginza first, which is the commercial centre of Tokyo with lots of shops and restaurants- a bit like London's Oxford Street.  While here we visited the Sony Showroom which was cool- you could try out all the newest gadgets including new generation 4k TVs and amazing glasses for the Playstation which allowed two players to see different screens of the same game. The whole place was aquarium themed with loads of tropical fish everywhere and a live tank outside with sharks in.

After walking around Ginza we hopped back on the subway (which is super easy and cheap by the way) to our next district- Akihabara. Famed for electronics, this neon filled area has pretty much every single gadget (real and fake) you may or may not have use for! This definitely fulfils a cultural stereotype that Japan is gadget-crazy! 

We headed back to the hostel and stopped in at an amazing department store near to us with a huge basement foodcourt. This seems to be the most cost effective way of trying a huge variety of local foods and they literally sell everything from whole octopi to fresh fruit to tempura, gyoza and a wide selection of prepared foods. We both love Japanese food here and have managed to try loads without spending a fortune. Going late at night means they are also reduced further making it even better value for money!! 

After eating in, we headed out for a few drinks to the local bar and ended up playing a few rounds of beer pong with some locals.....alcohol is hugely expensive in Japan compared to the UK so we've had to limit our consumption unfortunately! Beer is the most popular drink along with sake (can't say either of us are fans) but even that is very pricey and spirits even more so.....

The following morning, our heads thankfully weren't too foggy! We'd spent all our yen, so before hitting the sights again we went to try and withdraw some more money and hit our first problem of the trip so far. Basically, we'd both got Halifax credit cards which don't charge fees when you withdraw money on them abroad but they are master cards. It took us over an hour to find an ATM which took MasterCard by which point we were stressed and flustered. Eventually though, after replenishing our funds we made it onto the metro and headed to Western Tokyo for the day.

The first stop here was the Meiji Shrine, which is the largest Shinto temple in Japan. It's a gorgeous space with loads of shaded green areas and you walk through a huge wood making you forget you're in a huge city. You reach the main shrine and its spectacular. This has been one of our favourite sights so far....

Leaving here, we headed back to the hustle and bustle of the main streets of Harajuku, the neighbouring district. Harajuku girls are obviously famous for their crazy outfits and we definitely saw a few..... We walked around here for a while, made a quick detour to anger district-Shibuya and both were busier than most other places. There were a huge number of designer stores in both and after a long wander around we made tracks back to the hostel.

Tokyo is massively diverse and east does truly meet west in its various districts. Still loads more to do and we're cramming it into a couple of days so we'll post again......

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Tokyo Trilogy: Part 1

So we're here. We arrived in Tokyo early on Friday morning (late Thursday night our time) and made our way from the airport to our hostel in Asakusa. Adrenaline was keeping us going at this point as we were both running on no sleep whatsoever! Economy class on Finnair left a lot to be desired. We opted to get the slow train to our hostel as it was direct from the airport and a third of the price of the more popular Narita Express. It all ran pretty smoothly and we arrived much earlier than expected. 

The hostel we are currently in, Khaosan Tokyo Samurai caters for almost everything we would need. It has a basic kitchen, very comfy bed, good aircon and hot showers. The last two of these are particularly important because walking around Tokyo all day is HOT and exhausting. It's a relief to get back to a clean and quiet haven and to kick our shoes off at the front door (this is a requirement of all living areas in Japan).

The day we arrived was a bit of a write off. By the time we'd walked to the hostel and checked in, all we wanted to do was fall asleep. Of course, that's the worst thing to do with jet lag, so we made ourselves ride it out until night time. We had a mooch around the neighbourhood and got our bearings. Found a good shop nearby where everything is 105yen (about 80p) which was great as we got some cheap food to keep us going. 

The next day, after a good nights sleep, we were ready to see the sights. First stop was Senso-ji temple which is a 10minute walk from where we are staying. It's a lovely area with a great market outside selling food and souvenirs. The temple itself has different areas- a large pagoda, the traditional arched entrance with a bell and some pretty gardens. Walking around Tokyo in July is a challenge which we quickly realised. Temperatures are in the low 30s but the humidity and the crowded streets make it feel much much hotter. Thankfully, unlike some larger cities, Tokyo does seem calm and serene and there isn't the usual pushing and shoving associated with a lot of tourist attractions. 

The next stop on our tour was Ueno Park. A closely district, the park lies within a sea of huge skyscrapers and is something of a oasis in the middle of the city. The serenity and the tranquility of the city is particularly apparent in the greener areas and this is one such place. Street performers, food stalls, a boat lake and a huge area of water lilies make up the park. A small temple lies in the centre-religion and spirituality are everywhere you look in the city.

Around Ueno we hit our first Japanese food. We headed to a sushi bar for lunch and it was amazing. We were both surprised at the price of food- a large bowl of sashimi with about 6 types of fish and a mound of rice was 500yen (about £4.00). We had expected Tokyo to be much more expensive from what we had heard. While Japan may be expensive by Asian standards, and accommodation can bump up the daily budget, food is not expensive by Western standards. Other things we have found to be cheap are transport and attractions. The metro is super efficient, easy to use and rarely costs more than a pound each direction. Attractions, particularly temples, shrines and outdoor spaces are generally free. This has really helped us keep our costs down and enabled us to have plenty of delicious food. 

By the end of the afternoon, jet lag, the heat and the walking had got the better of us. We decided to stay local for food but this turned out to be much more complicated than expected.... Where we are staying is right next to the Sumida River and the last Saturday in July (I.e our first full day) is a huge Japanese festival with fireworks. When we walked from our hostel in search of food, it seemed the whole of Japan had congregated in the small streets nearby. We walked through a massive crowd, got some street noodles from one of the vendors, and tried to find a space to watch the fireworks. 

This proved something of a challenge, especially when the bridge back to our hostel was barricaded. We walked for ages, got back on the subway, took sanctuary in air conditioned Burger King and finally ended up with a decent vantage point. Of course, as soon as the fireworks began, the heavens opened and cue the largest tropical rain storm we had ever seen. We were forced to shelter under a canopy outside an apartment block with 50 locals and ended up staying there for over half an hour. Decided to brave the weather and made a dash for it.....ended up soaking wet, lost and alone in Tokyo. I'm the end we managed to find the hostel after another subway trip. 

The next morning we headed out for another busy day. We went to Tokyo Tower which is an iconic landmark based upon the Eiffel Tower. A good tip, is that the Skytree is now a more popular observation deck but it costs over 3 times the amount of Tokyo Tower and by all accounts you get similar views from both. We got an amazing view over Tokyo, right out to the suburbs and ended up staying for a few hours. Again, this was relatively cheap and only cost about £8.00 which is so cheap compared to European equivalents!! 

After this, we headed to the Imperial Palace and had a wander around the gardens. The mid-afternoon sun and the exhaustion kicked in though and we decided to call it a day and continue the massive area of the gardens the following day. We headed back to the hostel, calling in at a 7/11 on the way, bought some dinner and had an early night.......

We are both loving Tokyo so far, it's a great city. So much so, we can't get everything into one entry without it becoming a novel so it's going to be a trilogy instead!! 

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The next adventure.....

Hi Again,

It's been a while since I got back from India and updated this blog, however, I'm about to embark upon my next trip so I'm starting again! The next one is a big'un and I'm super super excited. My boyfriend Rob and I are off to Asia on Thursday for the next five months!!!

We fly to Tokyo on Thursday and from there we are hoping to explore the rest of Japan and then move on to China and Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and finally Singapore. Obviously a trip this big has taken a fair amount of planning (and saving!!). Just to give you all a brief overview, we booked our flights through Travelnation, who are specialists in backpacking trips. We opted to book the majority of our flights initially in order to save on costs and be able to budget accordingly. We're flying to Japan, then onto China, onto Vietnam and home from Singapore. We felt that this gave us the opportunity to be really flexible when exploring SE Asia and we're planning on making the trip from Vietnam to Singapore mostly overland. This will hopefully both save money and allow us to explore more of each country with a large amount of freedom!

It would have made it much cheaper and easier to skip Japan and China and stick to largely SE Asia which is a much more popular backpacking route, however we've both always wanted to go to these countries so we've stretched our budget, and our time allowance to fit them both in. Our accommodation in Japan is mostly booked- a combination of hostels and traditional guesthouses- and we've both purchased a Japan Rail Pass based on the recommendation of various travel sites. In China, due to the vast size of the country and the significant language and cultural barriers, we decided to book ourselves onto a guided tour ( After that, we've not booked anything really and will just do it all on the road!!

I can't believe that we jet off in two days time, and I'm equally excited and nervous. I don't think I'm a typical backpacker - I love my creature comforts and packing my life into a rucksack for the next four months was an incredibly daunting prospect. I know I've probably packed too much but I'm going to spend the next 24 hours trying to cull it down as much as possible....

I'm going to try and update this blog as often as possible, but for now, wish us luck! Here are some pictures of all the things I'm hoping to see over the coming months and of course many more...........

Mount Fuji, Japan

Great Wall of China

Big Buddha, Hong Kong

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Golden Temple, Bangkok

Kuala Lumpur Skyline, Malaysia

Gili Islands, Indonesia