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East Meets West
This was how we killed two birds with one stone- Made two Birthday wishes of our 10 year old come true in one trip- Let me tell you how!
It all started when our not so little one was about to turn ten. She made her birthday wish, "I want to see Disneyland, but I also want to visit Doremon". Really? USA and Japan? To extreme opposite ends of the world. That's when our cousin suggested that Tokyo is also home to an exact replica of the original Disneyland. So as she blew her 10 candles we placed in her hand, her dream trip- Tokyo Disneyland (https://www.tokyodisneyresort.jp/hotel/tdh/) followed by a Japan Tour. We were kinda splurging but Japan seemed every bit worth it!
Her wish was to have her Grandparents with her too, so we took some extra precautions considering we had a child and senior citizens with us. Our seven day itinerary was planned to give us sufficient time to relax and soak in the culture. Due deliberation was done to leave out the few tourist attractions, to ensure we were not just running from point to point ( like most organized tours to Japan), as we wanted time to explore the place on our own too and do what the locals do.
So this is what are trip was going to look like-
Pune- Mumbai - Tokyo( Disneyland) - Kyoto - Nara - Tokyo - Back Home
Kon'nichiwa to Arigatōgozaimashita ( Hello and Thank You)
We were misled in believing that English would be used sparingly in Japan. So we did all our bookings through a travel agent, instead of ourselves, and downloaded a few good Apps to help us get around. The preparation did help, but when we landed we were pleasantly surprised that Japanese people are very helpful and getting around is not that difficult, as they have a very well planned public transportation system, with proper signages and assistance for tourists. Almost every location from the Airport, to Train Stations, Buses, Hotels were WIFI enabled, so we could look up information on the move too.
The 9 hour non-stop direct flight from Mumbai to Tokyo ensured we are not tired when we land in Tokyo early morning, The luxurious Air Nippon (ANA) flight set the mood for the holiday as me and my husband sipped on some Sake and aromatic Kabosu Juice. Anoushka was thrilled with all the inflight entertainment and exciting gifts.
As soon as we landed the first step was to go to get our JR passes at the Japan Rail Airport Counter. The Airport staff will guide you and thereafter the Japan Rail employees will explain how to get around. We had a minor hiccup to start with, while we waited in line for our passes, we missed our Taxi pick up and were left stranded at the Airport. It did frazzle us for a bit, as we wondered how were going to get to our hotel. But we used our JR passes and boarded the Narita Airport Express to Tokyo Station.
Unlike other holiday destinations, in Japan one must "Travel Light". The Airport express had an area to store baggage, but during our intercity city travel via bullet trains, we were not allowed to carry much baggage. The bags have to be shipped from the hotel to your destination. In case of delays, ensure you carry a small handbag which can hold your essentials every time you are moving within cities and the hotel reception will organize for your bags to be sent to your next stop, for a per suitcase charge. It's best to send the luggage one day in advance so you get it when you arrive.
Remember your Train Etiquette- Travel light, talk softly, keep your seat clean and leave it in upright position.
Tokyo station left me mesmerized, with chic women in their stilettoes, men looking sharp in business suits, bustling to get to work, yet following a certain discipline. Of course we were at one of the world's busiest yet most beautiful train stations. Japanese people may not seem expressively friendly, but are very polite, well mannered and helpful and expect the same from you. So don't forget your P's and Q's!
We parted ways at the Tokyo Station, as Mom and Dad took a cab to their hotel in town, Hamamatsucho and we took a JR train to Maihama Station, in JR Keiyo line. We were off to Disneyland! (BTW Narita Airport also has shuttle buses to take you to Disneyland directly)
While Mom and Dad explored their locality on foot, had a cozy dinner near their hotel Mystays Premier, we were blown away when we arrived at our grand Tokyo Disneyland Hotel. Anoushka was awestruck to see her palatial lodgings with an Alice in Wonderland themed room. Yes she had been disappointed earlier, as in this delay she had missed a trip to the Doremon Museum (http://fujiko-museum.com/english/), but instead we walked down to one of Asia's largest Ferris Wheels and spent time exploring the wonderful Disneyland Hotel and all it's amenities.
Day 2 - Welcome to Disneyland
Day 2 started with an elaborate breakfast at the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel. ( Don't forget to make a table reservation) You must enjoy the vast and sumptuous spread, because once you are in Disneyland you will get busy with your kids enjoying the rides and food stalls inside are a tad bit expensive and also very crowded. Plus a day in Disneyland does involve standing in long lines, waiting for all the popular rides, so make sure you wear super comfortable walking shoes and stay hydrated. Although we took this trip in May, the temperatures did drop in the evening and it was chilly early morning too, so a hoodie or jacket would be handy.
Guests at the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel ( this is the one right across the Disneyland entrance and is 'The Place' to stay for the real experience) are privileged to get an early entry, so you get to start your fun before the rush hour. Also our little darling got a 'Happy Birthday' sticker, which meant wherever she walked that day the Disneyland Cast Members showered her with wishes. They really know how to make a kid feel special!
We had studied the Disneyland Map the previous night, had planned our priority rides too. But once you are in there you realize it's too vast and it's justifiable that people take a 3 day Disney Vacation. Well, we had only one day to do it all, so we let our ten year old lead the way to mark her memories, whether it was trying on the Cinderella's Glass Slipper in the Castle, or visiting Mickie and Minnie Mouse's home, we went on Tom Sawyer's Boat and rode Dumbo the Elephant Merry Go Round, shook hands with Woody from Toy Story, waved at all the Princesses in a Disney Parade, watched the characters perform a show,and enjoyed a gazillion rides all day. A must have for every kid is the Popcorn in a Disney themed bucket, after all you have to carry the experience home!
It really is a magical land with memories to last a lifetime. So it was hard to say good bye as we rode the Disney Monorail one last time to head back to our JR Station which took us back to Tokyo. We grabbed a quick dinner at the Train Station Food court. Back with our parents we heard their story of how they had taken a One Day Tour of Tokyo.
Their Tokyo Tour included a visit to the Tokyo Tower, a Japanese Tea Ceremony, Imperial Palace, Ginza, Sumida River Cruise, Asakusa and Nakamise Street.
Before going to bed we handed over our Suitcases to be shipped to Kyoto, with our essentials in hand bags with us, for ease of travel.
Day 3 Mt. Fuji
After a taste of a few Japanese delicacies in breakfast, we set off to the Hamamatsucho JR Station, just a few minutes walk from our hotel. Took JY28 JR Yamanote line.to Shinjuku Station. A 9 minute walk guided by the signages in the Station, that led us to Hotel Keio Plaza. ( Sunrise Tour Desk). This seemed like the hub for all the local tours.
Our super friendly guide took us to multiple sites, with breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji, and luckily for us it was a clear sunny day so we didn't miss a single glimpse of this majestic Volcano, which is also Japan's highest peak.
Some of the highlights of the day were walking through Japanese villages, and the 398 step auspicious climb, to reach the Chureito Pagoda in the Arakurayama Sengen Park. The breathtaking views from there, followed by the Macha Ice Cream on our walk back, was worth the exercise. We stopped for some Japanese lunch at the Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park. Lunch was an amusing affair, as we had to enter the code of the dish we wanted to eaWe saw one of Asia's largest Roller Coaster here, but then it isn't for the faint hearted, so our guide took us instead for a 4 D stimulated ride to experience flying over Mt.Fuji virtually. Anoushka was thrilled when she was served "Dora Cakes" for lunch ( Yes they are real! ).
After lunch we headed to Ōwakudani, a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs in Hakone. A ride up it's ropeway meant more amazing views of Mt. Fuji. Our little enjoyed a treat of some Black Boiled Eggs, which were meant to have medicinal properties. We missed the Lake Ashi Cruise as we had to get dropped off at Odawara Station, for the JR Hikari line direct to Kyoto. Our Check in was right across the Kyoto Station at the Keihan Kyoto Grande. Having had our fill of Japanese food, we picked up McDonald's takeout, but Anoushka stayed true to her locale and ordered a Teriyaki burger. This hotel location was epic for our next two days!
Day 4 - Kyoto
Well our bags hadn't reached Kyoto, so we were glad we had carried enough clothing for our Kyoto Tour that morning. The hotel was so comfortable and we loved the breakfast buffet, with Noodles and the soft, sweet fluffy Tangzhong hot cross buns, apart from the regular spread of English breakfast options.
We reported to the Avanti Sunrise Tour Desk at Kyoto Station (Just a few an escalator away from our reception desk)
The tour took us to the Nijo-jo Castle, Heian Shrine, Sanjusangendo, Kiyomizu Dera. I loved the Golden Kinkakuji Temple and the Kyoto Imperial Palace, with stories of Shoguns and Emperors. The day started off with some rain, but we were lucky enough to get Umbrellas at a local store. It was a season of School Trips in Japan, so we kept bumping into young school kids who wanted pictures with us. The local Japanese lunch, was quite an experience. We took blessings along with other couples at the Kitani Tenmangu Shrine too.
It was a day steeped in Japanese Heritage, and it's heartening how harmoniously the Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines co-exist. An important lesson for us is how both religions are tolerant of each other's beliefs, sharing peace and tranquility.
We had the evening to ourselves, so we walked down the streets of Kyoto, indulged ourselves at the local pub for a beer (kids were allowed) and watched the people walk by, rushing home to their families after a long day at work, as we relished some delicious donuts. Guess Moms and Dads are the same all over the world...working hard to fulfill the dreams of their children.
Day 4 - Nara
Today we got up late, had a relaxing breakfast and just walked to a local park,which turned out to be a Rail Museum, Anoushka bored of us adults, was happy to have kids around her again, in a typical play area like back home. We strolled into a store and indulged in some retail therapy. While hubby got me advance birthday presents, Dad was thrilled to get a good deal on a pair of Golf Shoes. Soon we were back at our Avanti Tour Desk ready to leave for Nara.
Mom and I decided to grab some sandwiches for lunch at the local grocery shop. I was so overwhelmed with the currency, that I just poured out all my money on the counter. But the exasperated Japanese shopkeeper, took only those coins which I owed him, returning the rest to me politely. Another lesson in integrity for the world to learn.
Anyway the bus had a cheerful guide who kept us engaged in stories as we eagerly waited to reach our next stop, Unesco World Heritage Site,Todaiji Temple ( One of the largest wooden structures) and the Deer Park. It was a bright sunny day and Anoushka loved the opportunity to pet the friendly deer while we gaped at the 15 meter high Buddha statue. They also worship many Gods of Vedic origins, so we were surprised to see idols of Vishnu, Garuda, Varuna as we walked past numerous others. But what I found more religious here was how people conducted themselves so peacefully and meticulously in crowded places. Everything was in perfect harmony with its zen surroundings.
While we picked up souvenirs for friends and family, Anoushka helped some Japanese middle-schoolers fill up their research questionnaires. This little intercultural tête-à-tête showed how kids everywhere hate doing homework, but love making friends!
We also visited the Kasuga Taisha Shrine and stopped for some delicious strawberries and yummy treats at Nara Noaomikan. I was shocked when Hubby walked out with a Katana, and we couldn't stop laughing as he drew his sword to pull out an Umbrella...best gift ever!
Nara had been one of the most beautiful destinations, but since we had spent a day filled with Japanese culture, we ended it on an Italian note with some Pizza, Pasta and Donuts. By now we felt quite like locals ourselves, as we knew our way around eateries, train stations, and even grocery shops. We spent our last night carefully packing souvenirs in our handbags, while our luggage was already on its way to our last stop, Tokyo.
Day 6 - Leaving on a Bullet Train- Back to Tokyo
Today we dressed well, hoping to blend in with sharp cosmo office rush, as we headed back to our final pit stop, Tokyo Narita ( to a hotel near the airport).We had to walk across to Kyoto Station and take the Hikari Bullet to Tokyo and board the Narita Express to Airport. The Airport has a free shuttle service to the Hotel.
My parents just wanted to relax, so we had two options after check-in, either to take the JR back into Tokyo and visit the iconic downtown, or go and explore the more traditional streets of Narita itself. Having seen busy cities around the world like New York, Toronto and Mumbai, we decided to pass Tokyo, and head to the more quaint and serene town of Narita. The hotel shuttle service, along with a flood of Airline crew, dropped us off at this airport town, that wasn't frequented by tourists.
We walked up to Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, which is indeed a hidden gem. We loved this quite and isolated shrine, and gave up our last few coins to the wishing pond, which was meant to get us good luck. The intricate architecture and the beautiful pagoda we saw as we climbed up the steep steps made me vote this as one of the most beautiful temples of my entire trip.
The local shop owner surprisingly walked up to my Dad and offered him a really tiny good luck charm, which he carefully placed in his wallet. It was like a sign that we had taken the right decision to skip the city for this mysterious little village and we all walked back with blessings and a contentment of having spent a wonderful week in Japan.
We skipped past the numerous Sushi bars with its tatami-style dining and bonsai decorations, and ended up having a our last grand celebratory dinner, of steaks and sizzlers, an unusual yet perfect ending to our Japanese sojourn.
This trip had been a good mix of traditional with modern, of buddhism-shintoism, with glimpses of hinduism, of peaceful relaxation with exciting adventures.
Day 6- 7 - Heading Back Home
It made sense to stay at the Airport Hotel on our last day, as it gave us lot of time to explore on the last day and we were not rushed to leave early the next morning. After a leisurely and elaborate breakfast at the Narita Tobu Hotel, we took their shuttle drop to the Airport. Our Air Nippon flight was on time, but we just had enough to pick up some good quality Sake for ourselves and a Kimono for our Princess at the Duty Free Shop.
I would rate Japan as one of the cleanest places I may have visited ( haven't been to Singapore yet) and also one of the safest when it came to travelling as an outsider for the first time. I know Anoushka's favorite part of the trip had been Disneyland, and sampling Dora Cakes ( some of which she even carried for friends back home), but the highlights for us was the morning we spent in Kyoto exploring the local area as well as Naritasan, as these were the unexpected and unplanned parts of our tour.
The last glimpse of Mt. Fuji was our final farewell to this mesmerizing land and as the Airhostess came by with our 'masala chai', we were ready to get back to routine after this truly unforgettable trip.
What we learnt about travelling to Japan-
- It is easy to make all the bookings yourself, online. Don't forget to book your JR Pass before you leave the country and carry the reciept.
- Carry minimum luggage, trains are crowded and except for the Airport ones, they don't allow more than one small suitcase. Baggage is sent by courier between cities by your hotel.
- Always book a hotel near the JR Station, as it will help you get around easily. Taxis are very expensive and not easily accessible. But it's comfortable to get around on foot as the places are very clean and well laid out.
- Most tour operators organize Japanese meals, but you can also find familiar brands for burgers and pizza. Indian food is a bit hard to find. We had carried our favorite snacks from home, which gave us something to munch on in transit, and some pre-mix Indian Chai sachets with a thermos. Hot water is easily available, but hotels keep only green tea.
- People are polite and keep their country very clean, so always carry a small plastic bag and keep collecting all your garbage as you are sightseeing and dispose it off properly in the nearest garbage bin. Speak softly and never forget to say 'Thank You'.
© 2021 Snehal Sarkar