Monday, June 15, 2009

STI: From temples to theme parks

June 14, 2009

From temples to theme parks

Tokyo is not just Disney rides - the city is also full of pageantry and natural beauty

By Deepika Shetty



Huang Mei Lin

Age: In her 40s

Occupation: Residence manager

Length of stay: 11 years

Tokyo, home to some 12 million people or about 10 per cent of Japan's population, is easily Asia's most exciting metropolis, says Miss Huang Mei Lin, residence manager of Ascott International's Somerset serviced residential properties in the city.

Ginza and Shibuya are fashionable shopping districts, while Shinjuku is home to luxury hotels, giant camera stores, futuristic skyscrapers and hundreds of shops and restaurants.

In contrast, downtown Asakusa is best known for its many temples and Ueno enables visitors to experience old Tokyo.

Of course, the capital is also famous for its Disney Resort, a sprawling playground for the young and young at heart.


The best way to get around and explore the place is...

By public transport. Japan has one of the world's most advanced public transportation systems. The rail service alone covers almost all possible destinations. Get the Japan Rail Pass. This offers excellent value and convenience and only overseas visitors can buy it to enjoy unlimited rides on Japan Rail, including rides on the Shinkansen or bullet train and affiliated buses and ferries. It costs from 28,300 yen (S$419) for an adult for a seven-day pass.

The best time to visit the place is...

During spring or autumn. Spring, from March to May, is one of the best times to catch the sakura, or cherry blossoms. I also recommend visiting during autumn, from September to November, when the weather is just right for travelling in the city.

Spring is generally cool with temperatures ranging from 2 to 17 deg C. Autumn usually has clear skies and temperatures ranging from 13 to 26 deg C.

Which places really excite you?

I love theme parks, so naturally my favourite is the Tokyo Disney Resort, which comprises Disney Land and Disney Sea.

I also like Odaiba, a new development in Tokyo Bay. It features parks, amusement facilities and a shopping complex, not to mention a spectacular view of the Rainbow Bridge. Odaiba reminds me of the Marina area in Singapore.

To recharge, I go to the Odaiba Oedo Onsen Monogatari. This well-known natural hot spring is located just minutes from my workplace at Somerset Azabu East.

Must one know the language to get around?

Not really. The signs are in many languages, including English, Chinese and Korean.


The entire city has so much to offer, where does one start?

If you are visiting Tokyo for the first time, start at Asakusa which has retained an 'old Japan' feel. The Sensoji Temple located here is famous for its Kaminarimon, a huge, red Japanese lantern. Leading to the temple is a shopping street, Nakamise, where you will find seven blocks of shops - perfect for souvenir shopping.

Also, take the 5km walk around the Imperial Palace, a 115ha green oasis where there are no public roads. As you walk around, you go between massive guarded gateways and cross a great gravelled open space.

Then there is the National Theatre where you can catch regular performances of bunraku (puppet theatre) and kabuki, a traditional form of Japanese theatre which dates back to the Edo period from the 1600s to the 1800s.

If you continue your walk, you will come across the Diet - or parliament - building and the soaring buildings of the great trading companies.

At dusk, you will see the stunning contrast between Tokyo's dark and dramatic past, as represented by the palace, and the skyscrapers reflecting Japan's dynamic present.

One cannot leave without visiting...

Tsukiji, the world's busiest fish market. It is worth getting up early for a visit. It is located on the waterfront south of the Ginza, where the Sumida river spills into Tokyo Bay. On any given morning, starting from 3am, you can find thousands of fish here.

And do head to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Known for its history as an imperial garden, it also offers the best spot to view cherry blossoms. There are more than 1,500 cherry trees here.


Any key festivals to work into one's travel plans?

One of my favourite festivals is the Asakusa Sanja Festival, or the Three Shrines Festival. This is held at the Sensoji Temple during summer. Its prominent parades revolve around three portable shrines which give the festival its name. There is also traditional music and dance performances.

Visitors can also catch Yakuza members proudly showing off their tattoos, and watch geisha performances.

The festival attracts close to two million visitors every year.


The best bargains are at...

Harajuku, a shopper's paradise. Flip through the pages of Japanese and international fashion magazines and you will find many features of the Harajuku street style.

Along Takeshita Street, there are many small stores selling everything from punk outfits to delicious Harajuku crepes.

For the younger crowd, the back street of Harajuku, known as Ura-Hara, is a must-visit for its pronounced pop culture. The best-known clothing store there is A Bathing Ape.

However, if you are keen to splurge, visit the nearby Omotesando, where many luxury fashion boutiques are found.

The richest variety of products can be found at...

Ameyoko. This is a market that stretches from the Okachimachi train station to the Ueno train station on the Yamanote line. It offers a variety of products such as clothes, bags, cosmetics, fresh fish, dried food and spices. You can easily spend an entire day exploring the stores.


Do not leave the place without trying...

Authentic Japanese sushi. There are many sushi shops all over Tokyo but I always find the best and most inexpensive sushi at the Tsukiji fish market. Prices start from 50 yen. The more popular places at Tsukiji are easy to spot - they invariably have the longest queues.

The best lunch is at...

Nodaiwa Unagi Restaurant (1-5-4, Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku, tel: +03-3583-7852), which serves excellent unagi or eel. Try their value-for-money set lunch which includes eel rice with soup and green tea. Prices start from 3,000 yen.

The best dinner is at...

Higashiyama Gantan (1-8-6 Higashiyama, Sun Royal Higashiyama 109, Meguro, tel: +03-3791-4807). Expect to run into fashionistas and high society folks here. You'll catch them swooning over the techan nabe, a rice stew and sashimi. Dinner for two costs about 10,000 yen.


The best drinks are at...

Xen (5F West Walk in Roppongi Hills, 6-10-1, Roppongi, Minato-ku, tel: +03-5413-9577, This is a fashionable bar located along the same street as Somerset Roppongi in the upmarket Roppongi Hills area.

Try the Beniotome shochu, which is made from sesame, and awamori, from rice.

What is the one must-try drink in town?

Umeshu, a Japanese liqueur made from soaking ume fruit in alcohol and sugar. Typically sweet and sour, with an alcohol content of 10 to 15 per cent, it appeals to even those who do not normally like alcoholic drinks.

Japanese restaurants serve different types of umeshu and also make cocktails using them. Hot favourites are Umeshu Rokku (Umeshu On The Rocks), Umeshu Sawa (Umeshu Sour), Umeshu Tonic and Umeshu Soda.

Young people have even invented their own unique umeshu by mixing it with green tea.

Is there a Clarke Quay equivalent?

The many bars and restaurants located along Odaiba, a popular shopping and sightseeing destination for locals and tourists alike.


What is there to explore?

Mount Fuji, Japan's highest and most prominent mountain at 3,776m above sea level, is considered a sacred place.

Located about 100km south-west of Tokyo, it is also part of a nature zone that includes the Fuji Five Lakes, where visitors can go hiking, boating, fishing, camping and picnicking.

I also recommend a visit to Nikko, home to the Toshogun Shrine. The shrine, often called Japan's architectural gem, houses the mausoleum of the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It takes a two-hour train ride to get to Nikko from Tokyo.

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