Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spellbinding Tokyo - Japan Through My Eyes part 1

Tokyo, Japan – Home to the most populated urban area in the world. At the center of this 400 year old metropolis is a macrocosm where futuristic technological advancement meets old world charm and tradition; where most of its 12 million people represent some of the most polite beings to walk the earth. Who could ever imagine what was once a sleepy fishing village should rise into one of the most fascinating urban centers in the world?

Tokyo is expensive! In fact, it is the world’s 5th most expensive city to live in. A coke in can is 130 yen ($1.45/PhP67), McDonald's Big Mac is close to $3.55 (320 yen/PhP164). A 1.5 liter of evian water is 260 yen ($2.90/PhP133). Watching your favorite movie at the cineplex will cost you 1,800 yen ($20), that's a staggering PhP920. At least, London has the likes of Prince Charles Cinema right in the heart of Leicester Square with admissions of just 2 pounds. A taxi ride costs 710 yen ($7.90) for the first 2 kilometers, then 80 yen ($0.90) for every 274 meters thereafter!

With a population of 35 million populating the Greater Tokyo area, it can be a pretty overwhelming, intimidating, alienating experience roaming this conglomeration of cities!

Impression. It's a clean, beautiful city without the much hated red tape that is common in the rest of Asia (Southeast and South Asia, particularly). The four-star hotel rooms were lilliputian, so it's best to watch out where you stretch your arms or move your head. The taxi cabs are guided by GPS, so as long as you have a clearly written address, the cab drivers will just punch it in and, voila, you'll be on the way wherever you're going in no time. If you want a fast, inexpensive meal, just head for the nearest 24-hour convenience stores and buy a bowl of noodles or take-out sushi, you can even eat them inside the store (they have hot water in thermoses).

Everything is super expensive (and I could hardly find Diet Coke), but their rice meals are to die for. You grow up eating rice and this is where you realize how scrumptious Japanese rice is. It's chewy, tasty and comes in different flavors (those take-outs at 7/11s and their other convenience stores are a treat.) But many of these super efficient people don't speak a lot of English. They're not rude, they're not effusively friendly, but they'll point you in the right direction. I was extremely impressed when it was time to check out of the hotel, and was told to just punch my hotel "keys" in an ATM-like machine to check, and as soon as I did that, it was done. Nobody even checked my room! You have to hand it to the disciplined Japanese.

If you want to get some gifts but don't have enough money to go around (in the first place, let me just say that I don't really think Tokyo is for budget travelers and backpackers), just go to the nearest 100 Yen Shop and you'll find a lot of "local color" items that you can bring home to your friends and family.

What I found odd was the fact that it was so difficult for me to find Japanese DVDs (even the originals), but the concierge will give you a map and a serviceable instruction as to how you'll find DVD stores and rental shops, but let me just warn you that they are extremely expensive.

There's a little wrinkle in this otherwise lovely city and its people--while it is true that their trains and light rail transit system can take you to so many places, these stations have very few signs in English, so make sure you know where you're going, check the color-coded lines serving the different destinations, and carry the railway map with you. If the whole railway system discombobulates you, ask the help of a train station officer.

As for those "notable" landmarks and historical sites, as pictured above (and elsewhere), you will find them lovely and pristine, but I found it odd that it took the cab drivers sometime to figure out which place I wanted to go to and what it looked like. They're like preserved "houses, shrines, and monuments" that look imposing but not really quite astounding as you'd expect.

Roponggi on the other hand is a cultural melting pot that offers a lot of treats for tourists craving for various adventures, but the now posh Roponggi Hills, which used to be a seedy district in Tokyo, can still be dangerous, so just be wary of overly helpful strangers.

There are a lot of ATM machines, but many of them are local ones. Ask the concierge where the ATMS that serve Cirrus/Visa affiliates are, because there are not many of them. It's not easy to find them, so plan your finances ahead.
Immigration. Tokyo welcomes a lot of visitors from all over the world. You'll find the immigration people efficient and fast, especially if your travel documents are all in order. It's better to pre-arrange a taxi service to pick you up, because taxi fare can be very expensive, especially if you get caught in the terrible albeit orderly traffic situation in Tokyo.

People. The city looks serene, and so do the people. But don't be deceived. They lead a fast and furious existence. They are not the friendliest, but they are hardly rude (though there are certainly exceptions to this), and they will answer your questions if you need some help getting around. If an establishment says that it doesn't accept "tips" for their employees (like in restaurants), they mean it. A friend and I once gave the usual 15% tip and was very much surprised when the waitress, with her very lovely smile, tried to catch up with us as we were making our way out of the lift (elevator) of the three-story return the tip!

My taxi. Notice the GPS screen.

1 comment:

Trotter said...

Hi Eye! Wonderful reportage. Amazing how there was so little traffic when you were on that taxi... ;)

Meanwhile, Blogtrotter 2 is in Haiti. Hope you enjoy and have a great weekend!!