It is an annual affair for boyfriend and I to take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and jet off for a year-end vacation. But unlike previous years where we would remain in our comfort zone and opt for a destination that speaks a language we are familiar with, we dauntlessly planned a free-and-easy trip last December to a country which mainly converses in a language we are absolutely stranger to. I was determined to overcome all the odds, though (even tried to pick up basic Japanese), because I had been dying to bask myself in the glory of authentic Japanese food and Pokémon in their country of origin 😆
We booked our flight and accommodation for four nights (starting from 15 December) via Expedia a month prior (we’re spontaneous like that) which amounted to a cost of S$1762 for both of us. Considering that we made our travel plans very close to the peak period, we obviously didn’t clinch the best deal. In fact, I felt it was extremely pricey for a budget carrier (Thai AirAsia X) with a 5-hour stopover at Don Mueang Airport on return (as we couldn’t afford the direct flights listed.. or so we thought) and a hotel accommodation without breakfast. To top it off, we had to fork out an additional S$264 for our luggage because AirAsia does not provide any free baggage allowance. The staggering amount was also due to the change in flight during the stopover on both departure and return, so we had to pay TWICE the usual baggage cost. Admittedly, it was our fault for not doing proper research before we went ahead with the booking but still… I think what we paid for was equivalent to the price of the direct flight tickets ARGHHHH!!
We boarded the plane with a virtually-empty stomach because of my tardiness (I had an advertorial due on that day and had only managed to pack my luggage an hour before I left the house) so we satisfied our hunger with some Economy Class airline meals. As unappetising as the picture above may seem, the dish was actually very tasty and fragrant. The chilli hot basil sauce that doused the fried rice had the right amount of heat. I was literally savouring every spoonful of this flavoursome dish.
Being amateur travellers without Japanese in our linguistic repertoire, we had our qualms about getting around Tokyo independently. But our worries were unfounded as soon as we landed at Narita Airport. From the moment we touched down to the time we arrived at our hotel, there were English signage guiding clueless tourists like us.
* * Day 1 * *
(WiFi router rental, Shinjuku Granbell Hotel, Sushizanmai, Harajuku, Shibuya Crossing & CoCo Ichibanya)
Everything went well until we tried communicating with the locals, that is. Before we left the airport, we combed the first storey for a telecom booth that we could purchase a prepaid SIM card from because we would need internet to use Google Maps on the go. We eventually rented a 3G WiFi router at ¥1,000/day (converts to approximately S$12+, slightly cheaper to rent from Changi Recommends which charges S$12/day) from the first booth we spotted (didn’t bother going around comparing prices) because there was a daily mobile data limit for SIM cards which I remember was definitely not enough for one full day of touring. The price of a SIM card was also comparable to that of renting a WiFi router so it made more sense getting the latter. Plus, up to four devices could be connected to the router at the same time too! Yay to live Instagram updates!
Rental of the router is chargeable from the pick-up day to the return day, regardless of whether it will be in use. According to the information leaflet we saw at the booth, the maximum download speed of the WiFi router is 40 Mbps but may slow down in trains (especially Shinkansen, or bullet trains, and subways), near mountains, seasides, basement floors on and near high buildings (higher than 15 storeys) so it is advisable that you share your itinerary with the staff before committing to the rental. Insurance (in case of loss or damage of item) is also available at ¥300 per day. You would need to produce your credit card for them to do a “temporary” charge to it as a form of deposit.. just in case you fail to turn in the router.
There were a few staff manning the booth and we were served by one who couldn’t really speak and understand English (but he was nice and I could see that he was trying very hard). Boyfriend had to rely on Google Translate (all hail the mighty Google) to get our message across. We wanted to know their operating hours as we were afraid that they would be closed by the time we reached the airport for our departure flight. If I remember correctly, they open at 8am and close at either 6 or 7pm (Japan time). I’m not sure about the telecom booths on other levels but if you’re going to arrive in or depart from Narita Airport at ungodly hours, then you should play safe and rent a router from Changi Airport instead.
Following that, we took the elevator down to the basement floor to purchase our Narita Express (NEX) pass to Shinjuku station (map here, line coloured red). There was a long queue at the ticket office and we had to wait for close to 45 minutes for our turn. The same pass could also be used for travelling back to the airport via NEX on our day of departure.
The platform serves different train services such as the JR (Japan Rail) and Keisei Electric Railway so it is important to pay attention to the announcements on the electronic scroll board as well as through the PA system to know if you should board the incoming train. You don’t want to get lost in a foreign country!
Upon boarding the train, we went to look for the seat number indicated on our passes, though we could technically occupy any one we saw since the train was quite empty. There is a storage space for the baggage at every cabin but you have to be quick to get the lowest compartment (the most convenient one which doesn’t require you to lift your heavy luggage). Once we fixed the position of our luggage, we secured them with the provided combination lock. With plenty of legroom and a comfortable reclining seat in a tranquil environment, I was kinda worried I would fall into deep slumber and miss our stop LOL.
All in all, the journey took about 1.5 hours. Reminders would be made a few minutes before the train pulls into the station to allow you to have ample time to collect your luggage. And the moment we alighted, I could immediately feel the chill (and omg I hate winter) 😐 We were supposed to take a 15-minute walk from Shinjuku station to get to our hotel but clearly that wasn’t possible in this cold weather. So we hailed a cab! This was despite having warned about the exorbitant cab fares (even for short distances) in Tokyo. True enough, it was expensive for we paid about S$15 for a 10-minute ride.
The first thing we noticed upon entering the cab was this plastic partition that separated the driver from the passengers, perhaps for safety or hygiene reasons? We had to show the driver the address of our hotel on our phone and pass the cab fare through the rectangular gap on the plastic panel. Honestly, it felt kinda.. weird. Haha.
Partially covered with foliage, the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel is inconspicuously located at the back of an alley, away from the main road. It seemed like a housing estate to me at first glance as the hotel signage wasn’t even noticeable (why the grey on grey though). Still, I loved the serene surrounding and how it was near to convenient shops and popular restaurants.
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It was 20 minutes past ten when we arrived at the hotel and all we wanted to do was dump our luggage aside and sink into the bed, re-energise ourselves before we hit the streets. But the concierge wouldn’t accommodate to our early check-in request (stipulated check-in time is 3pm) unless we paid ¥7500 (S$91.. that’s ninety-friggin’-one Singapore dollars), like, whaddaheck?! It wasn’t like it would affect their housekeeping activities because the room was clearly ready for occupancy. I was raging inside and annoyed (which spoiled my morning) by that ridiculous policy but both of us didn’t want to waste time loitering around the area with our bulky luggage (or worrying about our luggage at the lobby) so we relented! Looking back now, we shouldn’t have because ARGH it’s S$91 goddammit!!! Imagine the things I could do with S$91!!
*sigh* The hotel 无缘无故 (without any reason) earn ¥7500 from us. This, I cannot swallow! :angry:
The room overlooked the alley leading to the main street and was illuminated by the morning light that shone through the window. I’ve come to appreciate hotel rooms with unobstructed window view because it seems like a privilege these days only offered at deluxe rooms, so this was definitely a plus point.
It was also equipped with the necessities like a bar fridge, hairdryer, kettle, coffeemaker and a TV. Speaking of which, the hotel very kindly *cough* treated us to the preview of selected premium television channels (HBO and the like) for a day. After which, we would need to PAY to access them if we don’t want to watch the free channels (the only English channel with clear reception was CNN I think – pathetic and unacceptable).
NANJA KORYA?! (WHAT THE HELL?!)
Is it a common practice among Japanese hotels to charge (unreasonably even, in my book) for every nitty-gritty thing? Money seemed to be king in this hotel and I absolutely hate it -_-
Also, just a word of caution if you’re intending to book the cheapest room at Shinjuku Grandbell Hotel: the Economy room is as small as the typical cage apartment you see in Hong Kong. After assembling our luggage on the floor, there was practically no space for walking around the bed. If you’re claustrophobic, please do yourself a favour and upgrade to a bigger room.
The highlight of the bathroom was, of course, the smart toilet bowl which releases jet of water to cleanse your private area after you’re done with your business. I used to think that it would create more mess but the water pressure (adjustable to your preference) was actually strong enough to remove any fecal residue and what’s more, there’s even a function to blow-dry so you don’t wet your underwear after! On top of that, the position of the nozzle can be adjusted to aim the water at the right spot. My favourite function of all, however, has got to be its ability to warm the toilet seat before you sit on it because cold toilet seats are my mortal enemy especially during winter. So thank you, Japan, for this brilliant invention!
Now, where can I get this smart toilet bowl in Singapore?
Another discovery we made (I sound like a suaku) in the bathroom was the steam-proof shower mirror! It does not fog up because that particular area is heated and it saved me the trouble of wiping my mirror every time after bath. This is such a great toilet accessory to have so why aren’t other hotels following suit?!
Shinjuku Grandbell Hotel
Nearest subway station: Higashi-Shinjuku
* * *
After spending close to an hour frolicking in bed, we headed out for an early lunch at Sushizanmai, a famous sushi restaurant, under the recommendation of the hotel! It was conveniently located less than 10-minute walk away but the journey felt like an eternity because of the cold.
You might have heard of Sushizanmai as they were in the news (albeit one that caused a fair bit of uproar) recently for paying US$117,000 for a 200 kg bluefin tuna, an endangered species. But putting the negativity aside, this restaurant is regarded as the best sushi restaurant in Tsujiki Fish Market (where their main outlet is) and is known for serving reasonably priced sushi meals. They have over 40 branches in Tokyo and Kanagawa and are open 24 hours.
Apart from sushi, Sushizanmai offers delectable bowl dishes with complimentary miso soup as well. Throughout our stay at Tokyo, we have patronised the restaurant more than twice and had tried various dishes on the menu. On several occasions, we were given seats at the counter and the friendly itamae (chef), knowing very well that we were foreigners, would try to strike up a conversation in English with us. The service staff also provided us with spoons for the miso soup even though (based on our observation) it is to be drunk directly from the bowl. All these little actions made us feel so welcome we felt so happy spending our money there 😆
The scrumptious steamed egg contained generous portions of shrimp, eel, shiitake and chicken and had a bit of zest from the small piece of orange peel. Served hot, the egg was so soft and silky, it melted in my mouth!
It wasn’t long ago that boyfriend and I had our first taste of uni (sea urchin) and I remember how we were so apprehensive about the flavour and the texture it would leave in our mouth. Now that we have become complete lovers of uni, we find it hard to satisfy our craving in Singapore because not only is the serving generally small, it is also expensive here! But at Sushizanmai, the pocket-friendly price of the uni maki meant that we could have our fill of the coveted sea urchin. If you haven’t tried uni before, it actually feels like caviar on the palate and tastes slightly like seawater with a hint of sweetness. It’s hard to accurately describe the taste, though, because I find it rather unique, so keep an open mind and try it some day!
When it comes to customer service, the Japanese never fails to go the extra mile. Noting that we already had two complimentary bowls of miso soup that came with our don, the service staff who attended to us offered to swap them with the clam miso soup we separately ordered at only ¥200 each. In other words, we got to have two full bowls of clam miso soup for the price of one! We certainly did not make any special requests or show any signs of displeasure; she made the arrangement on her own accord!
We ordered tempura on our last day at Tokyo because we were starting to feel deprived of fried food after consuming mainly healthy dishes which were either steamed or raw since our arrival. We had something similar at Itacho Sushi (a sushi chain from Hong Kong) back home and we wanted to try for ourselves the original version of it. Although the taste didn’t turn out to be vastly different from what we had in Singapore, we preferred the squid leg tempura at Sushizanmai (duh!) as it was better battered (not too oily too despite being deep fried) with a light crunch.
Undoubtedly, what boyfriend and I miss most about Tokyo is the generous servings of fresh and high-grade sashimi in restaurants (so much so that there were still pieces of sashimi left even after we were done with the rice) while paying tens of dollars less than in Singapore. For less than S$40, you get an assortment of thick and succulent chunks of bluefin tuna (yes, the highly-coveted fatty ones too) over seasoned rice. The cold, buttery chewy flesh had a nice pale pink-red colour and was adequately moist. Boyfriend loved it so much that he had it at every single visit.
As much as I would love to sink my teeth into those bluefin tuna, I couldn’t resist having my all-time favourite Chirashi-don because I prefer variety. The Deluxe Chirashi-don boasts an assortment of thirteen kinds of rawfish and shellfish atop vinegared sushi rice for just (..wait for it..) S$19?! There were unagi (eel), ika (squid), saba (mackerel), salmon, tako (octopus) and many other types of sashimi as well as tobiko (fish roe) and tamago (egg) – all probably were still alive awhile ago. I don’t know how else to describe this dish, except to say that it’s pure perfection.
Both dons were so good, we completely abandoned our low-carb way of life and finished our meals down to the last grain of rice. Seriously, already writing this is giving me the urge to pack my bags and fly to Tokyo right now!
Sushizanmai (Higashi Shinjuku)
1-1-13 Okubo, Shinjuku, Tokyo Prefecture
Nearest subway station: Higashi-Shinjuku
Operating hours: 24 hours
Tel: +81 3-5155-6655
* * *
Foreseeing that we would be slightly jet lag on our first day in Tokyo, we didn’t plan anything strenuous on our (non-existent) itinerary and instead, went sightseeing at Harajuku and visited famous landmarks around the busy Shibuya station. The cheapest and most efficient way of getting around Tokyo is via subway but before we could do that we had to familiarise ourselves with the different routes and service providers – which is no mean feat, I tell you – or risk getting lost. Just by looking at the map is enough to give anyone a throbbing headache! We learnt that the easiest way to understand the map is by looking at the line symbol and station number because there was no way we could remember all the station names.
Even buying the pass can be a tricky business because certain terms we Singaporeans use such as ‘top-up’ is labelled differently on the ticket machines. But we eventually got the hang of it after a few attempts. If you’re going to Tokyo for the first time, here are some step-by-step guides to buying subway passes (or PASMO, as the Japanese call it) from the self-service ticket machines:
The subway station near our hotel (a 10-minute walk away) is an interchange station for the Oedo line (E) and Fukutoshin line (F) so in a way, it added to our convenience and saved us transport time. It is also worth noting that both lines are operated by different companies so they are accessible by different gates (housed on different levels) with separate charges. Boyfriend and I once entered the wrong gantry but fortunately the station master promptly refunded the money to our cards. We couldn’t afford to let the money go to waste because train fares in Tokyo aren’t cheap. I think we added ¥1,000 to each of our card about four times throughout our 5-day stay even though we only took the train up to four times each day!
¥4,000.. that’s approximately S$50 oh my god, and about how much I pay for my concession pass every month in Singapore. Oh Japan, Y UR COST OF LIVING SO HIGH?! (And we still have the cheek to complain about our transport fares back home)
The level of discipline among the Japanese is truly admirable. More vending machines that dispensed beverages and snacks were found at every corner of the train platform but even so, the platform and trains remained sparkling clean. I can’t imagine how dirty our train platforms would be with all the regular spillage if we were able to purchase food and drinks there.
Another memorable feature of the train stations in Tokyo was the use of melodies to signal train departures (typically about 3 seconds after train doors are open). As far as I can remember, every station has its own jingle and listening to them made our mundane train rides more enjoyable (I kinda looked forward to every station in the train HAHA). Many of them are also based popular songs like “It’s A Small World”/”Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (the two jingles I heard on separate occasions at Maihama station where we got off for Disneyland and DisneySea, and I understand that it was recently changed to “Let It Go” – how cool!) or Astro Boy theme song. The melody is so loud and crisp that sometimes I’d see passengers in the train waking up from their slumber and rushing out as it played LOL maybe Singapore should implement something similar because I find it more effective than the boring “doors closing” announcement 😆
I wonder if train companies have to pay royalties for using those popular jingles, though.
* * *
We took the subway and alighted at Meiji-jungumae station – just four stops away – to get to Harajuku, a district known for having the most fashionable brands in Japan. Contrary to what I saw on the internet, there weren’t many Lolita girls or people dressed in a bizarre fashion in sight, perhaps save for one or two loitering around the street with a boombox on their shoulder. Majority of the people there were decked out in normal winter outfits, or maybe.. those I saw were tourists just like us LOL
Since it was winter, there was nothing practical for sale that we could wear in sunny Singapore so we mainly combed the streets for food!
As we were walking around Harajuku, we saw a long queue forming outside this pastry shop called Croquant Chou Zaku Zaku and couldn’t help but get in line as well. Being Singaporeans, a useful rule of thumb is that anything with a queue must probably be something good. True enough, those almond cream sticks (or “Croquant Chou”) the shop was selling were so delightful, they’d warrant joining the snaking queue again (which, by the way, moved rather quickly too).
Encrusted with almonds on the surface (had initially thought they were cereal), the cream sticks were hand-piped-to-order with sweet milky custard to the brim. It kinda reminded me of the cream puffs from Beard Papa but these were a lot more gratifying because you get to relish in a bountiful amount of fresh custard with every bite. Apparently, Zaku Zaku originated from Hokkaido and was a huge hit (well, it still is judging from the queue) when it opened its first stores in Tokyo last year.
Japanese schoolchildren donned in their signature school ensemble dotted the shopping district as it was a weekday afternoon (winter break would only commence four days later on 19 December). Apart from a multi-storey Daiso, there were small boutiques carrying streetwear as well as other sundry shops selling toiletries. I blew most of the money we had allocated for that day’s spending at a gift shop (sorry, forgot to snap pictures!) that stocked up on Pokemon-themed items. I have a soft spot for anything Pokemon and it is also one major reason why I had always wanted to visit Japan. So go ahead and take my money!!
As we were walking along the streets of Harajuku, our attention was suddenly drawn to the massive heart-shaped cotton candies a few girls were holding. Beside them was a flight of stairs leading to a shop called “Totti Candy Factory” which we wouldn’t have known if not for the walking advertisement.
Totti Candy Factory is basically a shop that sells merely cotton candy in fanciful shapes and vibrant colours – a novelty which, no doubt, attracts the feminine eye. There are a few flavours (marked by different colours) that you can mix and match for your pyramid-shaped cotton candy but the option to switch around the flavours is not available for the heart-shaped one I’m holding in the picture above. The standard flavours for that were strawberry (pink) and soda (light blue) but honestly the taste wasn’t anything spectacular.
Another way to draw customers to your shop is to have an eye-catching banner overhead just like how Calbee+ does it. It’s impossible to miss Calbee+ when the area around it is illuminated by the three spot lights affixed above its banner at nighttime.
In addition to the racks and racks of potato chip bags you’d expect from a Calbee shop, there was a kitchen at the back that serves freshly-made potato sticks in a cup! I can’t remember what toppings there were but mine was sprinkled with cheese powder. Crispy, crunchy and salty to the right amount, these are a gazillion times better and more addictive than Jagabees! You’d definitely need more than one cup to momentarily please your palate.
* * *
Following that, we returned to the subway station to catch the train for Shibuya because I wanted to sightsee some more before heading back to our hotel. Shibuya is where you can find the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world in front of the Hachiko exit of the subway station as well as a very popular dog sculpture, just a stone’s throw away. Visiting these attractions had been a lifelong dream (no joke!) and I was extremely elated to be able to finally strike them off my to-do list.
It was an interesting sight to witness hundreds of people surging forward at the same time while the motorists waited patiently on one side for the traffic lights to turn in their favour. It would have felt like a scene from Resident Evil if it had rained! 😀
I remember watching Hachi (a movie based on the true story of a very loyal Japanese dog that waited faithfully for its owner to return home without knowing that he had already passed on) many years back and crying buckets of tears over it. When I found out that there was indeed a sculpture made in honour of Hachi, I told myself that I would visit it one day, and I’m glad I really did!
* * *
We settled on an affordable meal at CoCo Ichibanya for dinner after having spent most of our moolahs for the day at Harajuku. The outlet near our hotel also opens late into the night (like 1am) which was perfect for late-night eaters like us.
We’ve had dined at CoCo Ichibanya before we visited Tokyo as they have outlets too in Singapore, so we knew how the food tasted like. But unlike the Singapore outlets (or those outside Japan, I guess), you do not incur additional charges for every increase of spiciness level of the curry. The dishes are also a lot cheaper (and I’m talking about a price difference of about S$8 here) in Tokyo and not forgetting, more choices on the menu as well.
Curry, being the highlight of the menu at CoCo Ichibanya, is generously soused over the rice (most of it hidden beneath the cutlet) and the meat. It is fragrant, mildly thick and extremely appetising with a very recognisable sweetness that you would normally find in Japanese curry. The pork cutlet in this dish was well-battered with fairly chewy flesh and the portion was big enough to last ’til the final spoonful.
This is one of the dishes I believe isn’t available in Singapore. Well, it probably does with just the chicken meatball patty on rice and you’d need to make extra payment to have the egg added. The egg yolk, in fact, marries well with the curry to give it a thicker and more buttery texture. Therefore, I would really recommend adding a soft-boiled egg to whichever curry rice dish you have at CoCo Ichibanya. The meatball patty was extremely tender and moist (even without going with the curry) although I wish it would come in a much bigger portion.
Overall, I must say that the standard of the food there is not far off that of the outlets in Singapore. But while the food in the Tokyo outlets is served with people on a super tight budget in mind, it is the complete opposite in the case of the outlets back home and can cost me at least S$35 for just two simple dishes (after GST, of course).
CoCo Ichibanya Curry House
Fujiichi Bldg, Shinjuku 169-0072, Tokyo Prefecture
Nearest subway station: Higashi-Shinjuku
Tel: +81 3-5287-5518
That’s all from me for my first installment of my Tokyo travelogue! Do stay tuned for the subsequent parts! 🙂
Thanks for reading!