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Japan on a budget, 2: Tokyo

(This is part of a guide to travelling Honshu on a moderate budget and in limited time. Click here for the whole series).

Arriving

International flights arrive at Narita, outside Tokyo. It’s worth claiming your Japan Rail Pass in the large JR office here (follow signs to the trains, and it’s before the ticket gates) – I took the chance to wrangle with my bad Japanese, but I overheard staff speaking excellent English to another traveller. If you’re not starting your pass immediately, the N-EX and Suica deal (£50 or so) gets you express tickets to and from the city (Tokyo or Shinjuku stations, reservations required) plus the Oyster-like Suica card with cash on it at a discount price. If you’re not sticking around in Tokyo there are also Limited Express services into town.

I visited Tokyo before in 2009, so skipped most of the sights – see my old post here for Ten Tokyo Travel Tips, including Tsujiki, the Ghibli museum, etc. I did, however, find a few things I’d missed before.

Inside the Imperial Palace

The Japanese Imperial Family is notoriously reclusive, and the Tokyo palace is not open to the public. You can, however, tour some of the grounds inside if you book online (here) several weeks in advance. The tour is in Japanese only, but there’s a fairly basic headset guide in English.

Imperial Palace - Nijubashi Bridge

The Nijubashi bridge from the palace

It takes you around behind the famous Nijubashi bridge (no photos allowed, but everyone snaps away anyhow), around the front of the main palace building then to the back where, apparently, the Emperor has a rice paddy to work in (shades of the French monarchy, there). The tour is worth it just for the chance to get a closeish look at two of the keeps perched high on the ramparts – both are stunning.

Imperial Palace - Keep

Keep, inside the palace grounds

After the tour, if the Higashi-gyoen is open, you can go straight through to that. It’s not the prettiest garden I saw, but it is worth a stroll around. One word of advice, though: finding the correct gate to start the tour is a nightmare, as some small maps don’t have the gates labelled. It’s worth getting there early in case you have to walk miles to it. Also, large luggage is prohibited, so drop it in a coin locker at Tokyo eki.

Imperial Palace - Off limits

Inside the palace somewhere

Baseball at the dome

Arriving and leaving from Tokyo means that you know the dates you’ll be there, so I also booked a ticket at the Tokyo Dome for a baseball game – the cheap seats cost about £12, and you can book online here. I was in town for the Yoimuri Giants vs Hanshin Tigers series (Tokyo vs Osaka) – essentially the Yankees vs Red Sox.

Tokyo Dome - Baseball

Grudge match at the Tokyo Dome

I’ve had a soft spot for MLB on the television for some time, but even if you’re not a fan it’s well worth catching a game either here or in Hiroshima. The myriad songs and chants – one for each batter up – are continuous, hour after hour, and legions of keg-backpacked bartenders scurry around the stands delivering beer for a wallet-melting £8 a go.

Tokyo Dome - beerseller

Beer, 800Y. Hang on, 800Y?

I backed the Tigers, who lost thanks to a home run in the 10th after playing a great game (gah), but it was still a great experience. It’s also nice to note that, even in this most fiercely fought of matches, fans could mingle happily – a mother with her young, Giants-supporting daughter was alongside me in the middle of the Osaka crowd.

Onsen. Wait, in Tokyo?

God, I love Onsen. I didn’t previously know, though, that there’s one in Tokyo. The O-edo Onsen Monogatari is on Odaiba (take the Yurikamome to Telecom Centre) and is half-onsen, half-theme park. Pay your way in (go late, as it’s around 1500Y after 6pm), pick up a yukata and you’re free to roam a kind of Disney recreation of an Edo-period castle packed with various food, beer and knick-knack sellers.

Ooedo Onsen Monogatari

Onsen meets Disneyland on Odaiba

Towels and cloths are provided in the inner onsen changing room, and the male side has at least six indoor baths, a cold bath (ouch) and two outdoor ones. Go there on the evening of your arrival to soak away the jetlag – sitting in a hot outdoor bath in the cold rain makes any 12-hour flight worthwhile.

Bye, Tokyo

Also worth seeing on Odaiba: the view

Other facilities (mostly upstairs) include foot massage machines, vending machines of course, and a bizarre ‘relaxation room’ in which old men snore contentedly while failing to watch NHK on the in-seat TVs. Everything inside is purchased using a barcode wristband then paid-for when you check out.

Food, Hotels and Travel

God knows Tokyo isn’t cheap, but you can go a long way on onigiri and instant ramen (all business hotels have water heaters for just this purpose). I also found good food, cheap in the big department stores around Shinjuku and Ginza – hit the basement, not the restaurant level – and around Shinjuku station (great ramen for a tenner or so).

If you’re looking for a cheapish, decentish hotel, try Sunroute’s Higashi Shinjuku – it’s right by exit B2 of the Oedo Line station of that name, and is classic business hotel fare for about £70 despite the location. The Plaza Shinjuku branch, just a few stops away, is a little posher but runs £40 or so more per night (use the JR New South exit for that one).

JR Shinjuku is absolutely massive – I think it’s the biggest station in the world, or something – so obviously has a large reservation office where you can book onward tickets, but beware – there are a lot of platforms, on many levels, and about a million entrances or exits. Don’t try to rush for a train or book a tight connection unless you know it well.

Anyhow, the morning after the onsen before, I packed up early and caught a shinkansen from Tokyo station to Kyoto – for more on that city, see here.

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