This is the story of our totally last-minute yet totally fabulous trip to the Tokyo Disney Resort, Tokyo itself, and Kyoto — told breathlessly, at length, and in excruciating detail, with waaaaaay too many photos. Buckle up!
Going to Tokyo Disney Resort (specifically, Tokyo DisneySea) has been at the top of our Dream Trip list for years, but it was always sort of a far-off fantasy. I just assumed when we finally could afford it, I would spend a year or two planning the trip, learning Japanese, and intensively researching Japan.
And then one day Patrick announced that his puppet company had landed a job building puppets and puppeteering on an ad in Tokyo, and we would be leaving in just over two weeks!
Miraculously, we were able to plan an almost-three-week trip in that time, including finding Tokyo hotels during peak cherry blossom season, cobbling together four days in Disney hotels during their “Top Season,” and throwing in a bullet train trip to Kyoto at the last minute. The short time frame was both maddening (I have never paid for so much express shipping in my life!) and liberating as it kept me from over-thinking things the way I usually do.
* Participants: Lurkyloo & Mr. Lurkyloo
* Dates: March 16-April 2, 2010
- Akasaka Excel Hotel Tokyu (A Disney Good Neighbor Hotel)
- Tokyo Disneyland Hotel
- Tokyo DisneySea Hotel MiraCosta
- Disney Ambassador Hotel
- Yaesu Terminal Hotel
- Metropolitan Marunouchi Hotel
* To Do List
- See everything there was to see in Tokyo DisneySea & Tokyo Disneyland
- Tour Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings sites in Tokyo
- Check out a “cat café”
- Ride a bullet train
- View cherry blossoms
- Visit Totoro at the Ghibli Museum
- See as many temples, shrines, castles, palaces, and gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto as humanly possible
- Purchase innumerable adorable stuffed anime characters
- Eat a bunch of stuff that we didn’t know what it was
I thought it might be helpful to hit the highlights of the planning process here since I didn’t get a chance to do a pre-trip report (and for that we should all be very grateful – it was mostly a constant stream of freakouts…).
The Most Important Lesson I Learned: The only thing keeping a Disney fan from going to Tokyo Disney should be the money (OK, so that’s a HUGE thing…). But none of the other stuff I was worried about turned out to be a big deal: the language barrier, the long flight, booking hotels, figuring out all the transportation networks, getting foreign currency—none of it was a problem. If you can navigate any big city, you can navigate Tokyo.
That said, I think you can greatly improve the quality of your trip by learning even the most basic Japanese before you go. I can’t believe how many travel guides lead you to believe that most people in Japan speak or can understand English. That was certainly not our experience—even at Disney—nor did we expect it to be. I won’t get up on my soapbox about cultural sensitivity, but I will say that it is a lot easier if you can say and understand certain phrases. The rest is allllll pantomime! Unless you’re asking for earplugs at a Disney first aid station, in which case they will become convinced you are bleeding from the ears…
They say Japanese is very easy to pick up but very difficult to master. I only had those few short weeks, but by listening to one 30-minute Pimsleur Japanese lesson twice a day, I picked up enough to speak and understand handy phrases out in the real world. Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone programs are spendy, but I found some good deals on Amazon and eBay. I liked Pimsleur because it’s based on a memory technique that actually has you speaking and understanding the language at the end of your first lesson. I couldn’t believe it! It’s also good for people who don’t want to use books and worksheets – the course is entirely audio, but you must dedicate those 30 minutes to it. You can’t listen while driving or, like, Facebooking. Personally, I would have liked something to read along with it because I’m a visual learner, but it was still really effective.
This was not that big a deal at all. From the West Coast, you get on the plane in the afternoon and get off it in the evening—it just happens to be the evening of the next day. I set my watch ahead when I got on the plane and didn’t make a big deal out of constantly figuring out what time it was back home. When I got there, I stayed up til my regular bedtime and woke up the next morning feeling fine. I was worried that coming home would be awful; you leave in the evening and arrive the morning of the same day. We were pretty spacey when we got off the plane, and we took a 2-hour nap, but then we stayed up til our regular bedtime and felt pretty decent the next day.
The subway map looks like a bowl of spaghetti, but it’s color-coded and has numbers, so it’s not too difficult to figure out. The hardest part is figuring out which exit from the subway to take. They are usually numerous, and sometimes taking the wrong one can put you blocks out of your way (so I disagree with one author’s advice to just exit the station and then figure out where you are). There are maps at the exits (usually with English on them) that list what sights and attractions can be found if you take that exit. This may be a big DUH for some people, but I had to figure out that these maps are not always oriented north to south the way they were in my guidebook. Eventually I learned to hold my guidebook up next to the wall map, find a common point on both, and then rotate my book until it matched the wall map. But then I also still count with my fingers….
PASMO/Suica: These prepaid fare cards can be used on virtually all subways, railways, and buses in Tokyo, public and private, including the Disney Resort Monorail line, and they are also accepted as a form of payment by many merchants in and around train stations. Instead of having to figure out what ticket you need for each journey (and then use the fare adjustment machines at the end of your trip if you didn’t pay enough), you charge the card up like a gift card and then just swipe it over the reader at the turnstiles on your way in and out of the station. The turnstiles also display the amount remaining on the card as you walk by.
There are two brands of these cards—PAMSO and Suica—but they are interchangeable. You can use them anywhere either of them is accepted. The one you buy basically just depends on which brand is sold at the station where you’re buying the card. When you buy the it, you are charged a ¥500 refundable deposit, which you can get back at any PASMO/Suica machine at the end of your trip. You can recharge the card at the same kind of machine, which is found next to the ticket machines at the station. One thing to note: You can only buy and recharge these cards with cash—for some reason, the machines don’t accept credit cards, and you can’t even use credit if you buy them from an agent at the station office. You have a choice of buying an anonymous card or linking your name and info to the card. If you do the latter, you can easily replace the card if it is lost or stolen (for a small fee – but you retain the stored value on the card).
We booked our hotels a couple of different ways, all of them easy. For our longest Tokyo stay, we booked through Expedia just because it was offered there and we had an Expedia coupon code. However, many Tokyo hotels have English websites on which you can book directly, which is what we did for our one “fill-in” night when the ad shoot dates changed. I found Tokyo Top Guide to be a great resource for finding hotels by location and, in some cases, at a lower price. Another site with a good selection of hotels and some discount prices is Where to Stay in Tokyo.You kinda have to shop around though, and definitely figure out what neighborhood you want to stay in first. Tripadvisor is great for seeing photos of actual rooms, although you find wildly positive and negative reviews about nearly every hotel.
For the Disney hotels, I thought that calling would be best, but it turned out that they were basically just reading me all the info found in their extremely easy to use online booking engine. So just book online! If you don’t see the room type you want, book something else and check back every day. No deposit is required, and you can cancel anytime up to 2 weeks ahead. We booked just weeks ahead for travel during Disney’s very busiest time of year. I just kept making reservations, checking back, canceling and replacing them until I got exactly the combo we wanted (well, OK, we weren’t able to get 4 consecutive days at MiraCosta, but it was fun to try out all three hotels!). Availability changes daily; room types that had been previously sold out miraculously appeared the next day.
We are not “tour” kind of people, but we made two exceptions on this trip because we were pressed for research time.
1) The Ghibli Museum: I’ve been wanting to see this place ever since I discovered Totoro! Unfortunately, the exhibits are all in Japanese. Plus, only a limited number of tickets are available each day, and the process for buying them from the US is very complicated. So I found a tour aggregator called Viator that works with Japan’s Sunrise Tours. It’s a little funky how it works – you meet a guide who leads you on the subway and local bus system rather than riding in a motorcoach – but the guide stays with you for an hour at the museum and translates all the exhibits for you. I felt like we got so much more out of the place than if we’d been on our own.
2) Kyoto: When we decided to go to Kyoto and back in one day on the bullet train, we wanted to see as much as possible. So I used Viator again to book back-to-back morning and afternoon tours of 6 sites, total. I’ll describe them in more detail later, but there were SO many tourists and tour buses swarming Kyoto the day we went, I think I would have freaked out if we’d been on our own.
The thing I was most worried about was an inability to access cash or use credit cards. They say that the worst thing to do is exchange money at the airport (and Travelex online – talk about bad exchange rates and high fees!) or before you leave the States. I’ve also heard that it’s getting harder to find places that will cash travelers cheques, and I didn’t want to be hunting down banks all the time.
You’ll get the best exchange rate by using a credit card or withdrawing money at a foreign ATM. But most banks and credit card companies impose fees of up to 3% on each transaction, plus ATM owners may impose an extra fee. On top of that, credit cards are still not accepted by many smaller merchants and restaurants, and most Japanese ATMs do not accept US ATM cards. (Those that do can be found at 7 Eleven, post offices, airports, some department stores and train stations, Citibank branches, and Shinsei Bank and Sumitomo Mitsui Bank branches.)
So this is what we did…
Cash: We exchanged dollars for about ¥200 in pocket money before we left. Our bank didn’t give us too terrible an exchange rate, and there were no fees. However, it took them 3 days to order yen.
Credit Card: Capitol One and Charles Schwab are currently the only US companies that don’t charge any fees on foreign transactions. I signed up for a Capitol One card only to learn, a week before we left, that the credit limit was too low to charge more than 2 of our 6 hotel stays! Then I found out that they have lousy customer service and have been known to freeze your spending abilities even when you’ve notified them you’ll be using the card abroad. So I called Charles Schwab, and within 48 hours I had their Invest First Visa Card with a reasonable spending limit and great customer service.
ATM: While I was signing up for the Schwab credit card, I learned that they offer a bank account that charges no fees for international ATM withdrawals AND refunds any fees imposed by the ATM owner. So I signed up for one of those too!
When we got to our first hotel, there was a 7 Eleven on the first floor, so I took out a bunch of cash. Then for the rest of the trip, we’d ask “Crejito cardo?” at every checkout counter and only use the cash if they didn’t take credit. We found that every place at Disney took credit cards except the popcorn carts in Tokyo Disneyland.
As of this writing, only 3G phones will work in Japan. If you have a 3G phone that’s not SIM-locked, you can rent a Japanese SIM card to use while you’re there and get cheap calling rates. If you have an iPhone, you can use it but will pay through the nose. If you have any other kind of cell phone, you’ll need to rent a Japanese phone for delivery either to your house before you leave or to your hotel in Japan. You can also rent them at kiosks in the airport. Both of us needed phones so we could be in touch when Patrick was working, but only mine is 3G. Here’s what we did:
iPhone: We decided to bite the bullet and just pay for international calling and a small data package so I could use my phone to call Patrick, send a few Tweets and use GPS in a pinch. For voice service, you have to add the $5.99/month World Traveler Plan and pay $1.69/minute (vs. $2.29/minute without the plan) and $0.50/text message to use it. For data service, you have to buy a Data Global Add-On unless you are completely made of money: Regular rates start at $0.0195/kb, which is $159/MB! Even the add-ons aren’t cheap—they start at $24.99 for just 20MB of data. Check your average monthly usage to determine how much you’ll need, because in an typical month of Tweeting, checking my email, and searching for things with Google Maps, I use about 200 MB! As it turned out, I was so parsimonious with the 50MB package I bought, I actually only used about half of the data I’d paid for—argh!
Rental Phone: Trying to compare all the different phone rental services for Japan was so confusing. Some offer free phones but charge hidden fees or higher per-minute rates. Some charge a fee for the phone with lower rates on calls. Some give you free incoming and/or outgoing calls, but sometimes only to/from Japanese phones. Some can only be delivered in the US and some only in Japan. We finally went with Rentafone Japan because the process was easy and the rates seemed competitive. The whole thing is done online, and the phone is waiting for you when you check into the hotel. When you’re done, you put it in the pre-paid envelope and mail it or give it to the front desk staff. (You can also have it sent to the airport and return it there.) We paid ¥3,900 for a week’s rental of the phone and ended up spending ¥2,308 on calls. One trick was that to get really good rates with the phone, you had to use a dial-around code before entering the phone number. However, it’s programmed into the phone’s memory so you just have to remember to push the button.
One thing I kind of wish we’d done is hang on to the rental phone for our whole trip. There were times at Disney when we split up to accomplish things quicker—like grab FASTPASSes or wait in a line—and then couldn’t find each other because only I had a phone.
Whew! OK, to reward you for reading (or scrolling) this far, here is a picture of the early-morning dress rehearsal of Tokyo DisneySea’s spring-themed lagoon show Fairies Primavera, as seen from our room at Hotel MiraCosta.