Help two lifelong dreamers plan their honeymoon in the future, AKA Tokyo!
August 2, 2010 10:07 AM   Subscribe

[TokyoFilter]: Planning a November honeymoon in Tokyo. Help two non-Japanese speaking USians who have dreamed of visiting Tokyo their entire lives figure out what's worth planning/reserving/paying for and what's not -- arigato in advance!

Have read through previous AskMes and figured out budget, shopping districts, restaurants and how to reserve train tickets to/from Narita airport - now we're down to reserving tickets for attractions and services while we're there, and I'm wary of trying to do too much in too little time.

We are renting a condo and have a bilingual friend who's lived there for almost a decade willing to help us out and show us around, but want to do some exploring on our own just enjoying the craziness that is Tokyo and not be dependent on him the whole time.

Things we'd like to visit/see on this trip:
1. Sumo match - these appear to be all-day affairs. Fiance is interested in seeing one... worth it? Is it really an all-day-long tournament and if so, is it considered rude to leave or what should we expect?

2. Mecha Gundam Warrior Statue - is there a particular time of day/location where we should go to get the best photos?

3. Traditional tea ceremony/onsen - considering this "super onsen": Toshimaen, Niwa no Yu. Recommendations? Warnings? Recommendations for traditional tea ceremony places near Shibuya or this onsen? If we can ONLY fit in tea ceremony or onsen, which do you think is more "worth it"?

4. The geisha of Asakusa - worth visiting the area behind the Asukusa temple, or would a day trip to Kyoto be better/worth it? I know this is where the first Western geisha, Sayuki, resides; I'd love some good photo ops and know that scheduling a traditional evening with geisha is difficult and expensive for foreigners.

Reserving local phone service/buying guidebooks beforehand:
1. We are planning on reserving and renting a cell phone through SoftBank - advisable, or can we simply rent a SIM card that'd be compatible with fiance's Droid? We'd want to rent the SoftBank cell phone for GPS/locating things while out and about in the city -- is this possible? Are there apps/services in English? If we JUST rent a SIM card, would it be usable without installing other Japanese-compatible software, etc.?

(Both of the condos we're looking at come with free computers and wifi/broadband access and free Vonage phone service, which allows us to contact the US without incurring roaming charges.)

2. It seems bilingual English/Japanese guide books and maps are a good idea. I've seen this one recommended - is it enough? Also considering this book, the Tokyo Superguide.

Since many Japanese event tickets and/or services must be reserved and paid for in advance, I'd rather not waste time or money on things we won't use or can do better/more cheaply without checking in with the Hive Mind first. Any insight is appreciated!
posted by Unicorn on the cob to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Your question is pretty complex, but the one question I can answer here is the one about phone rental. Do it. I rented a phone from Air's on my last visit there, and it was worth every yen. I think it came out to less than 2000 for the week I was there. The phone I rented used English menus, and had a pretty awesome Japanese-English dictionary that worked via the camera. My friends who were traveling with me on that trip rented SIM cards and tried to use them in their phones/blackberries, paid WAY more than I did - if they worked at all.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:36 AM on August 2, 2010

The November Sumo tournament is in Fukuoka: pretty far from Tokyo.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:40 AM on August 2, 2010

If we can ONLY fit in tea ceremony or onsen, which do you think is more "worth it"?

In my opinion, going to an onsen is a sublime experience. Going to a really nice public bath in the city (sento) is also cool and cheap. Tea ceremony is great, I love it, I studied it, but you can go to one wherever you are, honestly. And if you aren't used to sitting on your knees it'll be rough.

One word of caution about onsen and public baths: there's a rule against tattoos pretty much enforced everywhere. I wouldn't try to test it.

The geisha of Asakusa - worth visiting the area behind the Asukusa temple, or would a day trip to Kyoto be better/worth it?

A trip to Kyoto is definitely worth it for a dozens of reasons. Go! Go! Go! I don't really get the allure of spending time with a geisha, so someone else can speak to that. You will definitely see geisha if you walk around Gion at sunset. I wouldn't bother them and I've never seen people stop them to take pictures.

I'm a professor and I do Japanese prostitution/geisha/fuzoku for a living. I spent a lot of years in the Osaka-Kyoto area. I hope that you make some time to observe the underside of Japan-- the homeless encampments (throw a rock), the red light districts (like Kabukicho in Tokyo), the older pleasure quarters controlled by the yakuza (Gojorakuen in Kyoto comes to mind, and there's Tobita Shinchi in Osaka, I don't know about Tokyo), and yakuza offices (again, Gojorakuen, I don't know about Tokyo). These places aren't hidden at all. But no one points them out to foreigners, even when they are in plain sight and even when foreign visitors ask about them. Understanding what you see beyond the traditional and popular culture really deepens your perspective of Japan.

Have fun!
posted by vincele at 10:44 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Tokyo City Atlas which you linked to is absolutely essential, but it is not a guide book. It's simply a detailed street map of Tokyo, which is an incredibly confusing city to navigate around. It's the only place I've been to where you can have a street address in hand, be on the street in question, know you're within two blocks of the place you want to find - and still not be able to find it. If you want a guidebook recommendation, I liked the Lonely Planet series. The Superfuture stuff would be a nice supplement if you're into their sort of travel, but I wouldn't rely on their uber-hipster sensibilities for an entire trip.

Also, Kyoto is not really a 'day trip' from Tokyo - given the cost and travel time, and the awesomeness of Kyoto, you should at least do an overnight. If you haven't already booked the flights, consider an open-jaw into Tokyo NRT and out of Kansai KIX (or vice-versa) - that way you can spend a decent amount of time in both cities without backtracking.
posted by Gortuk at 11:17 AM on August 2, 2010

Following up on vincele's comment a bit. My wife and I visited friends in Japan in 2006. Friend took my request for modestly priced lodgings a little too seriously and put us up in a business hotel in a red light district near Kawasaki Station (in Kawasaki). We stuck it out for two nights. Frankly, it wasn't bad. Just a little rundown. And like vincele says, the proprietors in the neighborhood didn't seem to be hiding anything. It was certainly quieter there than around the corner, where pachinko parlors lined the sidewalk.

If you take the train (JR) south from Tokyo toward Yokohama, you'll cross a river. On the south bank there is (or was in 2006) a relatively large -- and apparently relatively tidy -- homeless encampment.

We moved on to Kyoto and spent an evening at a ryokan down there (this one: kikukuso). Hell of a contrast.

On our return from Kyoto, we found alternate lodgings near Tsurumi Station, closer to my friend's place.

Make sure you drop in at a few local grocery/liquor stores. The packaging is fascinating.

Have fun.
posted by notyou at 11:31 AM on August 2, 2010

Response by poster: All awesome suggestions, and thanks about informing me of the tattoo restrictions. I guess onsen is out for me, then! Have not yet booked flights, so this info about planning a side trip EITHER for visiting Gion or the Fukuoka Sumo match is excellent, thanks everybody. Keep 'em coming...
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:56 AM on August 2, 2010

You don't say how long you're in Japan for, but if it is for more than two weeks, I highly recommend you get a 1 week Japan Rail pass. That way, you can take the bullet train to Kyoto AND to Fukuoka, with stops in Hiroshima (especially to see Myojima), Himeji (for the castle) and anything else on the bullet train line (you could also go North, but November will be snowy the further up Honshu you go). You can also head out to Nikko, Nara, or other spots as fancy strikes.

As far as watching sumo goes, yes, it is a full day's event, but a lot of people (including my wife and I when we went), just go to the Makunouchi matches, which start around 4PM and go to about 6 (if memory serves).

Also, it really depends on how prominent your tattoos are. I have a smallish tattoo on my shoulder, and I've never had an issue at any onsen or sento.
posted by birdsquared at 12:46 PM on August 2, 2010

Response by poster: Birdsquared, I have one 2-3" tattoo on each shoulder (approx. square area) and one that goes hip-to-hip just above my rear (tramp stamp jokes! except they weren't called that in 1991). We were planning on approx. one week or so, but may have to leave out side-trips or schedule another visit at a different time.

Right now our concern is money/time off from work, as he only gets one week's vacation. Our list of "wants" was thrown out without tons of research behind them and we are adjusting accordingly in real-time.

We may have to give up on the whole sumo/Gion thing... for now. Unless someone wants to recommend a sumo event within Tokyo proper? I realize now that it would be a whole overnight trip to see the one we'd actually found, ack!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:20 PM on August 2, 2010

And if you haven't booked flights -- I habitually suggest Amnet-USA which was ridiculously cheap in 2006 (~$700 round trip, including fuel surcharges, etc). It seems to have lost the edge in the intervening years.

I just booked with Singapore Airlines for a trip to Japan in October (for the Formula One race at Suzuka) for ~$900. That looks to be just about what Amnet is advertising.
posted by notyou at 1:32 PM on August 2, 2010

Best answer: I have never been to Tokyo, or read the following book, or know much about art...but!

If you are interested in visiting any galleries or museums, take a look at the places featured in Art Space Tokyo.
posted by isnotchicago at 3:02 PM on August 2, 2010

About sumo: I enjoy it, but I can easily see how someone might not. Most of the tournament you're just watching dudes throw salt and stomp at each other. The actual wrestling occurs in short spurts for a total of maybe 5-10% of the time. Think baseball, except with no overarching narrative. I don't know how much your fiance knows about it, but if you go all the way out to Fukuoka hoping to see three hours of non-stop grappling, you will be disappointed.

If you buy reasonably-priced tickets, you will be sitting quite far up in the stands, so binoculars would be a good idea. (A la the opera -- you'll be able to see, but you won't be able to see facial expressions and so on very clearly.) The tournaments do last all day, but it's not rude to enter or leave whenever you like. It's most common to arrive late and stay until the end, though, since that's when the highest-ranked and most famous/popular wrestlers come out.

About Gundam: I'm out of the loop on these things, but didn't that get dismantled last September?
posted by No-sword at 3:07 PM on August 2, 2010

Response by poster: No-sword, Gundam has been upgraded with a light saber. We are hoping to get photos/video before the re-dismantle it :)
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:36 PM on August 2, 2010

Yeah, but No-sword, like baseball, at the sumo arena one drinks plenty of beer and eats plenty of snacks and soon decides this really is a decent way to spend the afternoon.
posted by notyou at 3:37 PM on August 2, 2010

Also, one more thing about sumo right now is that the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association) is knee deep in a gang-related gambling scandal right now, and although the Nagoya Basho in July ended up being held as scheduled, many of the high-ranking wrestlers were prohibited from competing and thus have fallen off the upper ranks. And after Asashoryu retired in February, also because of a scandal, Hakuho has been the only ranking yokozuna and the winner of every Basho held this year after Asashoryu's retirement. TL;DR, I've always liked sumo enough to have actually worked briefly in the business a long time ago, and although it can be very exciting it's currently unbelievably boring. IMO not worth the trip to Fukuoka.

The Gundam is standing near JR Higashi-Shizuoka station now.
posted by misozaki at 4:23 PM on August 2, 2010

Sumo -- I've been twice and I love it. Go early in the day and buy the cheapest ($25) ticket. Then come back around 3PM.

If you buy reasonably-priced tickets, you will be sitting quite far up in the stands, so binoculars would be a good idea.

But in the afternoon there's plenty of seats down lower and there's a happy tradition in the Kokugikan of sitting in someone else's seat and moving on when and if they eventually show up.

At 4PM, things get brighter and more intense when they begin televising the matches.

But yeah, going in November your only choice is the Fukuoka basho. Travel guides always mention visiting a training stable instead, but that's never appealed to me.

the homeless encampments (throw a rock)

What's meant by this? How about I recommend some tourists come by and throw a rock at your tent, after you've lost everything?
posted by Rash at 5:00 PM on August 2, 2010

the homeless encampments (throw a rock)

Oh no! What I meant was "throw a rock, and you don't have to go out of your way to find one." I feel horrible now that you point out that it reads "Go throw a rock and torment homeless people."

The homeless in Japan live in semi-permanent encampments, generally along rivers near the big train stations. I'm not really advocating some kind of misery or poverty tourism, but Japan gets a pass when it comes to things like poverty and crime, and it's just not true or fair to the people who suffer in that country, and who are largely invisible.

I'm so sorry I inadvertently advocated pelting homeless people with rocks. I usually left drinks and snacks for them if they weren't at their tents.
posted by vincele at 5:36 PM on August 2, 2010

Okay then.

a happy tradition in the Kokugikan of sitting in someone else's seat and moving on when and if they eventually show up.

Note this does NOT apply to the up-close floor seating. In fact an usher's usually positioned at that boundary to check tickets.
posted by Rash at 7:20 PM on August 2, 2010

1. We are planning on reserving and renting a cell phone through SoftBank - advisable, or can we simply rent a SIM card that'd be compatible with fiance's Droid? We'd want to rent the SoftBank cell phone for GPS/locating things while out and about in the city -- is this possible? Are there apps/services in English? If we JUST rent a SIM card, would it be usable without installing other Japanese-compatible software, etc.?

I'd go for the SIM card -- it's cheaper than renting a phone, and you can use your own handset. Keep in mind that data rates are not cheap -- 2,600 yen per MB on SoftBank -- and free WiFi is not nearly as widespread as it is in the US.

As for visiting an onsen, since your tattoos may be an issue, I'd suggest using a private bath or rotemburo. This particular hotel/ryokan is in Hakone (which I recommend visiting anyway) and has an open-air bath in each room plus three open-air onsen that you can reserve for free. Meals are in a central restaurant rather than your room, but they were quite nice. There was also a free shuttle bus from the station to the hotel. If you add a Hakone Free Pass which covers transport to, from, and around the area, it's quite a good deal, IMO.
posted by armage at 7:22 PM on August 2, 2010

Best answer: If you've only got a week, and you're set on coming to Tokyo, not going to Kyoto for the week, I've got a couple suggestions. In Tokyo, you might want to check out Harajuku on Sundays. The bridge over the tracks (leading to Meiji Shrine) is where the cosplayers meet to hang out and be photographed. That said, Meiji Shrine is also worth seeing, and there's a good chance that if you're there on a weekend, you might also see a couple getting married and having their incredibly elaborate pictures taken.

Asakusa isn't bad, it's worth seeing, but as foreigners, it's highly, highly unlikely that you'll have any chance of interacting with a geisha. It's also pretty unlikely that if you did, they'd be able to speak English. Still, in Asakusa, you can see the temple, wander around, have some decent food, head west, and end up at Kappabashidori, which is famous for being the restaurant supply street. Plastic sushi, adorable chopstick holders, all kinds of stuff. Keep going west, and you end up in Ueno, which has the park, Ameyoko shopping arcade, museums and such. If you walk straight down Ameyoko, following the train tracks (about 20 minutes) you'll end up in Akihabara. I was wandering around there a couple weeks ago, and it seems that maid cafes are really reaching out to foreign tourists. Lots of touts in maid outfits with English signs trying to bring in foreing customers. If you can't find a geisha, well, there's always a maid cafe.

The best part about Tokyo, in my mind, is getting out of it. Kamakura is a day trip, lot's of temples, giant Buddha statue, right on the sea. Yokohama is basically another big city, but it has a definitely different vibe than Tokyo. Western Tokyo, beyond the city, is mountains, and it's gorgeous. Hakone isn't bad, either, for an overnight (or day) trip. Keep a lookout for ryokan, minshuku, and pensions that have English websites. Some of them will have private baths, and if you're lucky, a rotenburo you can reserve.

As for Sumo, right now it does kind of suck. Hakuho is boring to watch, but no one seems to be able to beat him. That, and it's in Fukuoka while you're here. You might be able to catch it on TV (assuming NHK decides to broadcast it again). If you have an even moderately new TV, there's English announcing on the sub channel. Occaisionally Musashimaru is a guest commentator, and he's brutally honest about the condition of Sumo these days. Fun to watch. I'd love to have a beer with him.

Speaking of beer, or drinks, it's you're honeymoon. In Shiodome, near Shimbashi station, there's a building called Caretta. On the 46 and 47 floors, facing out over the Tokyo sky-line, there are a good number of nice, high end restaurants. At night, you get an amazing view of Tokyo. There used to be a bar there, I don't know if it's still there, where the bar was set low in the floor, with the staff on a lower platform, giving you a clear view of the city at night. It's not cheap, but it's pretty nice. Alternatively, you could check out the Michelin guide to Tokyo. You should try to treat yourselves to at least one fantastic meal while you're here, in addition to all the other stuff you'll be doing.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:21 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fiancé here.

itsnotchicago, thanks for the awesome link. I think we'll check out one or two or all of those galleries while we're there.

vincele, I think that getting to see as many sides of the country as possible would be a good thing. How would one go about that, though? I can't imagine just walking up to a yakuza office and just asking for a tour. What could we do to gain an understanding od the underside of Japan without being intrusive, gawking tourists?
posted by Uncle Ira at 8:34 PM on August 2, 2010

Uncle Ira, I slept on it, and I think I gave some pretty bad advice. The yakuza really don't want people to bother them. I've gone looking for their offices and stumbled upon them, and either way it was scary. They let me know I had no business being there.

If you have an interest in yakuza and their buddies ultra-nationalists, they aren't hard to find. The easiest way to find them is to look for them online. The locations of their compounds is common knowledge. Probably the best way to find them, if you can't find do it on the web, is to ask foreigners who've lived in Japan for decades, in gaijin bars.

If you have an interest in sumo primarily, the connections with the yakuza have come to light of course this past summer. That scandal doesn't really surprise anyone, but it's telling that the media reported it at all. Usually the yakuza bosses sit in the front rows at tournaments so you could probably spot a who's who of the underworld if you got to know their faces. That could be a fun way to pass time between matches.

So ignore my dumb advice about checking out yakuza strongholds. But if you really want to, blogs and the Japanese yellow press are the best starting points for finding them.
posted by vincele at 5:36 AM on August 3, 2010

If you're going in early November, you can catch the wonderful Design Festa at Tokyo Big Sight November 6&7 (free admission). It's 2700 small booths of independent, mostly Japanese artists, in all media. Lots of small paintings, jewelry, and trinkets, bizarre performance artists wandering around, and live music of all types, all day. A good way to get there is to take a cruise down the Sumida River after spending the morning in Asakusa - see the unique bridges of of the Sumida river (and, more sadly, the blue-tarped homeless encampments on the shore).
posted by Gortuk at 6:09 AM on August 3, 2010

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