Travel Monitor regular contributors John and Carole Dunphy spent most of February 2017 in Japan – from Tokyo to Nagano, Sapporo and beyond, deep in snow, and loving it!
Grand Nikko Hotel and Odaiba area Tokyo
For our last three days in Japan we stayed at the Grand Nikko hotel in Odaiba, which is a huge reclaimed island on Tokyo Bay opposite the Tokyo city centre. We thought this area might be a bit out of the way, however it proved to be an excellent base for our stay and is extremely popular with both tourists and Tokyo locals.
You reach Odaiba by ferry across the bay or by the Yurikamome train line, which starts from Shimbashi Station on the Tokyo side and then crosses the lovely Rainbow Bridge to the end of the line at Toyosu Station. Grand Nikko is at Daiba Station and that station is between this hotel and the Hilton Hotel opposite. Both hotels have great views of Tokyo Bay and the city skyline from higher rooms.
Grand Nikko is a very nice 5 star hotel with many restaurants and excellent service levels. We had a room on the 20th floor facing the bay, the Rainbow Bridge and the city; we enjoyed great views both day and night. We recommend you have an early breakfast on level 30, which has spectacular views if you can snag a window seat. Get there early (before 8am) otherwise you will be on a wait list for a table. If you are extremely lucky and get a table on the western side, and it’s a clear day, you will see the lovely Mt Fuji in the distance.
Should you happen to have that double luck please give her a little bow of thanks for, as the Japanese say, she is a very shy mountain and is not often seen clearly!
The area around Grand Nikko has elevated pedestrian walkways that connect the waterfront, the hotels and shopping and entertainment centres. There is a lovely beachfront area with waterfront pedestrian pathway for those wanting a little exercise. You can walk around both the city and bay side of Daiba, including the park at the Tokyo Statue of Liberty replica, standing proudly in front of the Rainbow Bridge.
The Japanese love their small dogs and this area is also a great spot to see them walking their little doggies in coats and hats, (dogs that is!), and with quite a lot of the little mutts being pushed along in doggie strollers! We spoke to one couple who had just purchased a little puppy for USD$8000 so perhaps we shouldn’t call them mutts! If you are a dog lover it is worth a visit to the many pet shops in the local centres such as Diver City.
Within a short walk of the Grand Nikko (or Hilton) you can shop your credit card away at Aqua City, Diver City, Venus Forte, (which resembles an 18th century European street), and Decks Tokyo Beach. Palette Town, which includes Venus Forte, has a Mega Web hands-on car theme park, Tokyo Leisure Land, plus an indoor amusement facility, and a concert hall. It also has one of the largest ferris wheels you will ever see. Tokyo Madam Tussauds is in Decks Tokyo Beach centre. If you still have some energy left you can visit the amazing spherical observation dome at the Fuji Television building.
There are many more reasons to base yourself at Odaiba. We visited the Toyota showroom in Palette Town, to check out all the current models, sit in the cars and press the buttons. There’s a lovely historic car museum, sponsored by Toyota, in Venus Forte; we missed out on checking Panasonic’s latest products at its nearby showroom.
Tokyo and its train system
The English version Tokyo guide is available at all hotels and visitor centres as well as the airports. It gives lots of information on the various tourist sites including which trains or buses to take to get to them. We did a few trips on the train system. The Yurikamome train line from Shimbashi to Toyosu on Odaiba is very popular with locals and tourists. It is a six carriage driverless train and the most popular seats are the three front ones where you get to “drive” the train and take great photos (it’s an above ground line).
Try to avoid the morning and evening weekday peak times on all Tokyo trains, unless you want to get up close and personal with thousands of locals. We found the trains to be standing room only a lot of the time but that was part of the fun pretending to be a Tokyo local.
Tickets are bought from machines that take cash or card and you simply select the ‘English’ button for instructions, select the station you want to get to, or the fare, (which is shown on separate boards), then put your money in and away you go. Your ticket goes into a slot at the platform entry.
As a guide, it cost us ¥640 for a return ticket from Daiba to Shimbashi or you can buy a day pass for ¥800, that is roughly $7.50 to $9.50. From Shimbashi it is a short walk across the forecourt to connect to the JR Yamanote Line (JR Line), which is a big city circle line running trains in clockwise and anticlockwise directions. JR line is mostly above ground so you get to see the city and meet the locals. JR line connects to any other train line you are likely to need including the Shinkansen Bullet Trains at Shinagawa, the Narita Airport Express train and the Haneda Airport monorail.
Most trains have a station indicator display and there are auto announcements in English and Japanese, and some with Chinese and Korean as well. Each station also has a board with the name of the current, previous and next stations in English. Yes, we did get mildly lost a few times but that was half the fun and there is always a helpful local to set you straight. Not every line is operated by the same company so we had to buy three separate tickets for one trip.
Trains will take you to all of the tourist locations such as Ginza, Asakusa, Imperial Gardens, Hamarikyu Gardens. We did a couple of trips as follows:
- Daiba Station to Kawagoe to see the historic old warehouse area and the Kita-in temple. First we took the Yurikamome line to Shimbashi, then JR Line anti-clockwise to Ikebukuro Station. Change to the Tobu Tojo line to Kawagoe station.
- There is a tourist information office at Kawagoe station and we were directed to the hop on/off shuttle bus by a lovely gentleman who spoke excellent English. The shuttle bus day pass is ¥300 ($3.50) and takes you around in a loop to the historic warehouse district and the famous Kita-in Temple complex. There is a huge shopping centre next to Kawagoe station should you want to have lunch or stretch the credit card further. We were the only westerners on most of our trains and we really felt like locals.
- On our last day we visited the Meiji Shrine and gardens. Again we took the Yurikamome line from Daiba Station to Shimbashi and this time joined the JR line in a clockwise direction to Harajuku Station. The entrance to the lovely gardens of the Meiji shrine is only a one minute walk away and we were soon in a peaceful oasis of thousands of trees. The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. It is a very popular place for traditional Japanese weddings and we were privileged to see one taking place. There is a restaurant and café and a really nice souvenir shop where we bought some presents for friends.
- Across the road from Harajuku station is the ubiquitous shopping centre, should you feel the need. The gardens and station were extremely busy during our visit, with 90% of the visitors being locals. Harajuku is the centre of Japan’s extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, but also offers shopping for adults and some historic sights. The centre point of Harajuku’s teenage culture is Takeshita Street, lined by many trendy shops, fashion boutiques, used clothes stores, crepe stands and fast food outlets geared towards the fashion and trend conscious teens.
Our little group visited Yomiuriland to see the winter illuminations of millions of LED lights spread throughout this amusement park, which is the largest amusement park in Tokyo.
It has over 40 rides ranging from kid-friendly merry-go-round, to the stomach-churning upside-down rides and vertical drops. It also has one of Japans most popular rollercoaster rides with speeds up to 110kph and an upside down loop-the-loop. The attractions vary depending on the season and the winter illuminations run from October to February. In summer there are various water rides and pools to enjoy. You can pay for entry to the park and then for any additional rides you want to do.
There are lots of restaurants and take-away food and coffee places on site and during our visit in the evening there were dancing and singing performances for kids and adults. The favourite of ours was a performance of ‘Samurai Dog’ who defeated the enemy and saved the heroine!
The illuminations were spectacular and improved as it got darker. Initially we thought that three hours here would be too much as we are not amusement park people. However it was a great experience and we took heaps of photos. If you are a keen photographer you will need a good camera with high ASA settings to get sharp pictures of the illuminations.
Needless to say, in typical Japanese manner, the toilet and other facilities at the park are plentiful and spotless.
The owners are trying to attract more western visitors to Yomiuriland and we noticed that our group was the only western group there on the evening of our visit. We were discreetly photographed by a number of Japanese visitors. You can get to Yomiuriland by train in about 25 minutes from Shinjuku station on the Keio line directly to Keio Yomiuriland Station.
Adults and kids would love this place which would be a great alternative to Tokyo Disneyland.
Images: John Dunphy, Carole Dunphy