Going to Japan has never been a budget holiday, so when SIA had a promotion that offered SGD480 nett per person for a return ticket from Singapore to Tokyo (Haneda Airport), it was a great opportunity to see Japan on the cheap. And just in time for the Vesak Day holiday in May. As we have been to Tokyo before a couple of times, we decided to spend less time there and see Kyoto instead.
The flight from Singapore to Haneda only arrives just after 11.00pm and by the time we had claimed our luggage and cleared immigration, it was already passed midnight. No trains or buses were running at this time. So the only option was to take a taxi into Tokyo. I guess there always has to be a catch for cheap flights. Given that taxis are rather expensive in Tokyo, the taxi companies operating from Haneda have capped the taxi fares at a certain rate depending on which zone in Tokyo your destination is. For our case, the total fare was capped at ¥8,000 although the meter showed more than ¥11,000. This was from Haneda Airport to our hotel in Ikebukuro. Since we were a group of 4 persons (my wife, parents-in-laws, and myself), the fare worked out to be quite reasonable.
We stayed 2 nights in Tokyo to visit Mt. Fuji (1 day) and another day for some sight-seeing before leaving to Kyoto. For the visit to Mt. Fuji, we opted to join with a organised tour. This was booked through JTB in Singapore. The excursion prices are the same whether you book through Singapore or buy the tickets directly in Tokyo. We also bought our Japan Rail passes through JTB in Singapore (more on that later). We were picked up from our hotel and dropped off at Tokyo Station where we joined with the other members of our excursion group.
After Mt. Fuji, we continued to the Hakone region for a lake cruise at Lake Ashinoko. By this time, the weather had started to get foggy and visibility was poor. There was also a cable car ride up to Mt. Komagatake but it was so foggy up there that we couldn’t see more than 2m ahead of us.
For the return trip to Tokyo, we had a choice of following the bus back, or taking the Shinkansen (bullet train). We opted for the Shinkansen since speed thrills. These trains travel at up to 300km/h and are a fast and efficient way to travel between cities in Japan.
The foggy weather continued into the second day and it became a rainy day in Tokyo. Despite the rain, everything in Tokyo still moves with incredible pace with people rushing everywhere. You get the feeling that you have to keep up or get left behind.
We took the Shinkansen to Kyoto the next morning and this is where the Japan Rail pass comes in. You can only buy the Japan Rail pass outside of Japan through appointed travel agents like JTB (https://www.jtb.com.sg/) in Singapore. We bought the 7 days pass where you will be issued with a voucher. You will then need to exchange this voucher for the actual passes when you arrive in Japan. The cost of a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka by Shinkansen already covers the cost of a rail pass, so if you plan to visit these cities, this is a good option instead of buying individual train tickets. The Japan Rail pass is only valid for travel on JR trains and includes the JR subway. This is rather convenient as you don’t need to buy subway tickets, but just need to go through the ticket inspector’s gate and show your rail pass.
The journey to Kyoto takes around 2.5 hrs by Shinkansen and is a pretty comfortable ride as you whiz along the countryside at high speed. After the rain in Tokyo, the sunny weather in Kyoto was a welcome relief.
Kyoto used to be Japan’s capital from 794AD until 1868AD. Due to its historical value, the city was spared as an atomic bomb target in WWII. There are many temples and historical buildings that survive until today. Getting around in Kyoto is easy as it is much smaller than Tokyo. The subway system is not as extensive though and for a small group like us, taxis were actually a more economical way to get around. The taxi fares in Kyoto are much cheaper than Tokyo. For some of the attractions, you will have to take a bus there if you don’t want to take a taxi.
In the evening we made our way down to the Gion, also known as the geisha district. Don’t expect to see geishas everywhere though, although you can see some of them as they make their way through the streets. The geishas entertain guests at special performances and you need to be invited or recommended.
The next day we visited the Nishiki Market. This is a shopping street with numerous shops selling all kinds of local foodstuffs and housewares.
For lunch we tried the famous Gogyo burnt ramen. This has got to be one of the best ramen I’ve eaten. The black gravy is so good that they serve you a bowl of rice and the gravy tastes so much better with the rice.
After lunch we made our way to Kiyomizudera Temple. We took the bus there since this was the most direct way. It seems that all the schools in Kyoto decided that day to send all their students on excursions to the temples. It was simply packed with school children.
On our last free day in Kyoto, we visited Kinkakuji Temple. This temple is well known for having a pavilion covered in gold leaf. It was also crowded with school children. There must have been some school holiday. The weather continued to be sunny and hot.
We came back to Tokyo by Shinkansen again, fully utilizing our rail passes. There was time for some shopping before flying back to Singapore the next day.
Our return flight was at the ungodly hour of 6.30am, and so we had to be at the airport by 4.30am. There’s always a catch with cheap tickets. Again we took a taxi and the fare was also capped so we didn’t have to pay extra as shown on the meter. But Haneda Airport must be used to all these flights with weird timings as the duty free shops were open even at 5am in the morning.
Cost of trip: This trip came to almost SGD2,000 per person, but only because we stayed at a higher class of hotels. You can save a lot if you stay in a cheaper hotel. Out of the SGD2,000, around SGD900 was for the airfare and rail pass. The rest was on hotels, meals and shopping.
Getting around: Japan is well connected by trains of all kinds from the slow ones to bullet trains. In the major cities the subway connects most of the areas well. There are also buses and taxis available. The only problem you may have is the language barrier if you can’t speak Japanese, as you try to explain to the taxi driver or bus driver where you want to go.
Length of stay: We only stayed 3 full days and I would have preferred to stay longer to explore Kyoto at a more leisurely pace but we didn’t have that much vacation leave. There were many sights that we missed and this warrants another visit in future. I would say that 5 days is sufficient to cover the whole city. From Kyoto, it is a short hop to Osaka and Nara. Both of which are good places to visit.