by Craig McBey
In May 2013, I was lucky enough to be invited to Japan as a guest of Tokyo Tourism. “Tokyo Is Value” was the theme for the week, and Tokyo Tourism certainly demonstrated this. The city of Tokyo, the largest in Japan, has a population of 13 million with 35 million covering the greater Tokyo area. In comparison, Los Angeles has a population of 4 million and 21 million for the greater Los Angeles area. Tokyo certainly is one big city!
I (that’s me on the left), like a lot of other Australians, had the perception that Japan, and in particular Tokyo, was going to be a very expensive country to visit. I am happy to report that I was very wrong! I was very pleasantly surprised at how affordable Tokyo was. I was able to eat a main course meal for between $11 – $30 Australian dollars which is not dissimilar from what we’re charged at home. Bottled water was AUD $3 and a takeaway coffee between AUD $3-$5. My wallet was also spared a major workout because Japan is not a tipping culture.
Japan’s extensive railway network allows for easy access throughout Tokyo and the rest of the country. Travelling within the Tokyo metropolitan area by train is relatively cheap and a day pass will set you back approximately AUD $7. If travelling off-peak by train, luggage would be fine as there is usually space available even if standing only. I would suggest you try and avoid travelling during peak hour as the trains get very busy.
I found Japanese society to be structured and signs of respect are very important. When asking for information or entering into a discussion, it is usually expected that you bow your head when first commencing and when completing discussion. Most Japanese however understand the western culture and a slight nod in respect is generally acceptable. Taking off your shoes is sometimes required in eating establishments and stores but do not worry as there is usually some indication whether you will need to do this.
A few highlights of my stay included a trip to the Ryogoku district, a visit to Hamarikyu Garden and spending a couple of days in the small countryside town of Hakone.
Ryogoku district is known for its Sumo Stadium and Museum. With 10,000 seats, this stadium hosts 3 of the 6 annual sumo tournaments. Sumo wrestling dates back 2000 years, and although it did not flourish in Japan until the 1600s, it’s now considered a national sport. While our visit didn’t coincide with an event, we did spot a Sumo wrestler wandering around the ground, one very big boy! The museum is also worth a look and displays the history of Sumo wrestling and information on current events. It was interesting to learn that traditionally only Japanese were permitted in this sport, however this has changed in recent times and the current champion is in fact from Mongolia.
We also enjoyed a cruise down the Sumida River towards Hamarikyu Garden, an oasis within a mega sized city. The garden is one typical of a Japanese feudal lord from the Edo period and includes a tidal pond and two wild duck hunting sites. Formerly used by Shogun families, it is divided into two parts, south & north garden. The South based on the Edo Period and the north based on the Meiji period used for royal families.
This garden was appointed special status by the Cultural Properties Protection Law of Japan. Interestingly it’s now surrounded by modern-day high-rise buildings highlighting the contrast between old and the new in Japan. Of course visiting a traditional tea house located within the gardens was a must!
Next up was my trip to Hakone, part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park and located around 100km south of Tokyo. The main attractions for Hakone are visits to Mt Fuji, Lake Ashinoko and the hot springs which are very popular, especially for locals.
Arriving early afternoon, I then spent my afternoon exploring this quaint hillside township. I stayed at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn that originated in the Edo period (1603-1868) when such inns served travellers along Japan’s highways. I was surprised by a very spacious room in front of me. During the day a Ryokan is set up with a small table in the centre of the room and some mats to sit on. Early evening, staff pop over to swap the table for Tatami mats for sleeping.
For a traditional Japanese experience, the hot springs (onsen) are also worth trying. It’s worth noting that swimwear is not the norm although gender is separated. If you’re looking for a romantic dip with your partner, that may have to wait!
Overall, I absolutely loved this trip and all to do with Japan. I just wished I had more time. The people, culture, food and entertainment went beyond expectations for me. I will be returning with my family in the future.