Saturday, 23 March 2013

Pre-trip plans, research fever, and the allure of Tokyo Disney...

As some of you know, I am set to return to my beloved favourite city of Tokyo in May 2013. After years of waiting I am quite excited to be going back, and would like to document it properly for those who would find it useful. In order to get myself into the spirit of writing about it I have decided to begin posting pre-trip reports on my planning and ideas.

I am quite an avid planner, and as my last trip to Tokyo in 2010 was the result of about 4 years of saving, it was the result of about 4 years of idle planning too. I didn’t just read most guidebooks on the subject, as well as most websites: I developed my own printed map and tips book combining all of my information. In comparison, this trip was thoroughly rushed. After waiting years to have both the money to return and for my partner to be able to accompany me, I finally had the money in January 2013 and decided ‘Do you know what? My partner can accompany me on the next one.’ This took pressure off of him to save money fast just because I’m talking about going back to Tokyo all of the time. I went in the winter last time, and I hit the big winter sales (New Year’s lucky bags, and the big January sales sometimes taking up to 70% off). This time around I wanted to try another season. I didn’t feel that summer sale time would be much fun weather-wise (Tokyo weather in July is kind of like living in a sauna to a dry weather Australian), so I was considering autumn weather in September, but then suddenly found out how cheap the flights currently were for May. BOOM! End of spring festivities it was!

This gave me only about 4 months to plan, which for me was tiny, but luckily I had been obsessing over airlines, hotels, and other return trip ideas for a while. Within the month I had flights booked (two 7 hour legs, stopping for a few hours in Kuala Lumpur, flying with Malaysia Airlines), a private hostel room reserved to save money for shopping (a one person, 3 tatami room in Minami-senju, but the price was right at around ¥3300 a night!), and yen exchanged and put aside for most major expenses (train trips to and from the airport, Suica card, a food budget based on my daily spending from last trip, money for Disney tickets).

Now I must confess that I am a huge shopper. I shop for fun. I try my best to be frugal, as I don't earn a lot, but I've found I make a lot of sacrifices in the area of food and home comforts for more shopping money. When I visit a new place, the shops are the part I am most looking forward to. When I go to Disneyland, I often look forward to the shops just as much, if not sometimes more so than the rides. The last time I went to Tokyo I had saved a lot of money, then was confronted with a country full of amazing clothes and gadgets that just aren't available in my country. I must admit, I went crazy. My only travelling companion was possibly a bigger shopper than me, which only encouraged me. I still find little things in my house from that trip which have never been used or even opened, because I bought so much. This time however, I had little time to save, and I am working on a much, much tighter budget. I am determined to keep myself in check and not let myself go like last time, while still letting myself have shopping fun. Will it happen? That remains to be seen.

For fellow shoppers, I can’t stress two packing tips enough: 
  1. The less you bring with you, the more you can bring back
  2. BRING A TRAVEL SCALE. If you think you’ll come anything close to the maximum weight allowed for your baggage, have something to weigh it with. Airlines will often charge you $15-$30 per kilogram your suitcase weighs over the limit, which could be seriously expensive. My first trip I packed up my suitcase and found it 5 kilograms too heavy! Luckily, I was saved by a promotion for members of the frequent flyers club allowing an extra 5 kilos exactly, but I never expect to get that lucky again.
I thoroughly recommend making a packing list early on, and working out a) If you need everything on that list or if one item can fulfil several uses, and b) If there’s anything you’d like to bring that you don’t currently own. I know one doesn’t need a lot of travel gear for a big city like Tokyo as you can buy most things there, but some things are very useful and it’s good to have time to research and buy them bit by bit. I am a regular reader of websites like, which teach you how to look for items that can serve multiple purposes and pack well. Despite my impulsive nature, this pre-planning allows me to make my light packing list and stick to it (Think of the souvenir space!).

Once the basic planning was over, it was on to the frivolous stuff. I read up on stores and bars that had changed in Tokyo since my last trip, read the new guidebooks and websites (make sure the guidebooks came out AFTER the 2011 quake, as most new editions now did, otherwise you may find entries for places that have unfortunately closed or changed and be disappointed). Overall, Tokyo has not changed overwhelmingly since the tsunami/quake as it was far from the main disaster area, but there were a few casualties in the form of stores being closed to go be with their family and never reopened, or due to the electricity cuts or other damages. My printed guide from last time needed updating from both these events, the new destinations built since, and from the personal notes scrawled all over it when I experienced each destination in the book. I was also aware that one of my favourite anthropological and shopping haunts, Tokyo Disney Resort, had suffered some minor tsunami/quake damage, but had repaired most of it as far as I was aware. So I looked into some Disney research, and awakened a monster…

I LOVE RESEARCHING TOKYO DISNEY. I had no idea how obsessed I would get over the next couple of months with tip sites, trip reports, forums, and even the basic official English language site. It had occurred to me that for the first time EVER I would be doing Disney parks alone. This meant I could be as commando or laissez-faire as I wanted, go for the exact rides I wanted, and spend my time hunting down as many popcorn buckets as I saw fit without enduring head shaking and light-hearted mockery (my partner refers to them as ‘feedbags’). 

For those of you who are confused as to why a Japanese culture fanatic who adores the rest of Tokyo would want to spend time on Disney, let me explain. Many people feel that going to Tokyo Disney is a waste of time when you could be visiting the sites of more ‘authentic’ (read old and traditional) Japanese culture. I believe that visiting landmarks, shrines and places that highlight the beauty and culture of Japan is very important on a trip, it’s just that I don’t believe that just because a place is modern or attempts to be Americanised it doesn’t fit this criteria. The beauty of Tokyo Disney is that it’s a place where the Japanese tried to be as Americanised as possible, but still came out so very Japanese. The strange rules added, the differences in food, the completely different merchandise geared to a Japanese taste, are all amazing to me, as they are statements that MODERN Japanese culture is still so strong, not even the all encompassing power of Disney could change it. Watching the differences in how Japanese patrons behave here, and how all of the conveniences have been geared toward that, is one of my pet field studies.

These changes in culture at the park also allow for a variety of advantages you wouldn’t get at the American parks. When you go to a park in other parts of the world, you know there are rules, but what you find is a park full of screaming children and sneaky long-term patrons who have time honoured methods of breaking these rules. People exit ride vehicles during dark rides, stick chewing gum to the scenery, drop their food all over the place and let their children run amok. For the rule-abiding park goer, it just becomes an expectation that several someones will darken their day a little by pushing in front of them, dirtying and disrespecting the scenery, generally adding to noise pollution, and waywardly crossing in front of you when you least expect it with no apology. In most cases, these things are glaringly absent in Japan. 

Instead you find everyone lines up in order, trying not to cause too much bother to the other patrons (Sadly this does lead to one disadvantage – the lines can get LONG). There are somewhere between twice and three times as many Cast Members available any time to assist you, and they are ALWAYS SMILING (except in The Haunted Mansion, where it is the rule not to).  The patrons adhere strictly to the rules, and rarely litter or deface anything, as this behaviour is selfish and dishonourable. Tokyoites grow up learning that in a city of so many people, one person behaving like this can ruin it for the rest. In addition, the Japanese cultural bias against eating while walking vastly cuts down on accidentally dropped food in the park. Due to a much higher love of characters here in Japan (seriously, their tv stations and electric companies have cute, cartoon mascots), most things are geared toward parades and performances here, and the Japan-only ones tend to be of high quality. The merchandise is different due to this also, geared toward specific character rather than park merchandise, and usually the items sold are either useful or disposable, as Tokyoites don’t have much room for collectibles in their tiny apartments. Everyone knows how to use the Fastpass system here too (it’s one of the rules ;) which can be a disadvantage to commando park goers, but it does make me happy to see the patrons of a park actually using it effectively. These differences are like delicious food to my academic and travelling soul. So I absolutely love going to Tokyo Disney, and I believe it is a surprisingly cultural experience, so long as you define ‘culture’ correctly.

Anyway, as I researched changes since 2010, my Disney reading got intense. I started trying to hunt down as many trip reports from the last 3 years as I could. I even got to the point where I would get quite unreasonably frustrated when someone would angrily complain about a thing being ‘backward’ or ‘inconvenient’ when I knew (from all of my other reading) that there was a perfectly logical explanation. “How could you not know that they do that because of safety issues with thing A/Japanese law B/to create convenience C/Japanese cultural difference D?!???!??” I’d worked myself into a pretty amusingly and unreasonably obsessive state. Logically however, I knew that most people are not an armchair anthropologist who reads surprisingly relevant Japanese cultural studies and ALL THE TRIP REPORTS, and if it was important some lovely person online would often explain the reason to them anyway. 

Tokyo Disney is different than the other parks in some odd and unexpected ways, but there are as many good surprises as bad ones. Sadly some people remain stubbornly determined that Japan is ‘backward’ and determined to ruin their Disney experience for ‘no good reason’, but that’s their funeral. Overall, I feel that if you approach the parks with the idea that every strange Japanese difference has a reason behind it, even if it’s just that enforcing the rules is important in a place with that many people, including when the many people aren’t in that particular spot, you’ll feel better about your experience. Sometimes it can be heavily frustrating or downright disappointing, but you don’t need to know the reason for the rule/omission/design choice – the park managers do. I must admit I have cheered myself up from a few disappointments by trying to figure the reason out, but this attitude still helps.

Speaking of this attitude, it helps with Tokyo in general. Every traveller I know who has been to Tokyo, even with the best attitudes and expectations, has as some point been disappointed by a Japanese rule or custom that they didn’t know about which requires them to change their plans. This can be very frustrating, but its part of travelling to a country and culture different from your own, which is why we go, right? Luckily, I have personally found that every disappointment came with some form of silver lining. I would find wonderful things I never expected to find, and rules that I didn’t know existed that made things so much EASIER too. 

When I went to the New Year’s Lucky bag sales last trip was one such occasion. For those who don’t know lucky bags (or fukubukuro) are bags that are sold on New Years to thank customers for their year of patronage. They contain a large amount of merchandise for a very small fraction of the price, but the buyer is usually not allowed to know which merchandise it contains. It’s like a very expensive lucky dip which can turn out to be a huge bargain. Whether you like the merchandise or not, you are always guaranteed more value than what you paid, and the patrons of many places (notably Shibuya 109 fashion mecca) have system in which they run out the front of the store and hold up an item they don’t want, in the hopes that someone will come and trade with them. Now, given that in the top fashion stores you can buy a bag for ¥15000 that has up to ¥45000 worth of merchandise in it, I was expecting this tradition to be like a sample sale or Black Friday – full tilt jungle madness. I have seen girls in physical tug-of-war matches, tustles, and even full on fights at these sales back home, so I was prepared. 

What I found when I got to MaruiOne Shinjuku for my first lucky bag day was an orderly lineup split into careful sections to allow foot traffic to pass through, with uniformed men with signs every few sections holding signs saying “End of line (arrow pointing behind them)”. No pushing, no shoving, no line cutting from passers-by. I thought maybe this was due to the presence of the sign holders, and the trouble would start when we were let in. About half an hour before we were let in some ladies came around with a garbage bag for any rubbish we had, and showbags for everyone with maps of which stores were where inside, lists of the bags they had for sale, and some tissues and candies to keep us going. Still the line stayed excited, but well-behaved. Then the doors opened, AND…people were let in five at a time so as not to run in crowds up the escalator and hurt each other. When I got up to the store I wanted, nobody was fighting. Girls walked very fast to the bags and very quickly grabbed one, but nobody fought over them, nobody took them once somebody else had them, and everyone lined up happily to pay. I have never had an experience like this before or since, and the only ones that come close - you guessed it - all from Japan.

Sadly, this time around there will be no New Year’s sales, but there will be shopping. I will be shopping the alternative fashions of Harajuku, from lolita to aristocrat to street to high fashion to just downright wacky. I will be shopping the hip boutique and youthful department stores of Shibuya, where you can barely fit between racks of clothing in some of the stores but I love every minute of it. I will be returning to my shopping paradise in Shinjuku, searching out my favourite collectibles, idols, games and character goods in Akihabara, looking to replace broken or worn out parts of my kimono collection in Asakusa, and of course searching for those perfect exclusive springtime Disney souvenirs. In between of course I would bathe at onsen and sento, meet fellow travellers, view beautiful gardens, monuments, temples and shrines, and photograph everything possible.

Will I be able to stick to a budget this time and not go shopping mad? Will the new 30th anniversary Disneyland merchandise overwhelm me? We'll find out.

So now, with less than two months to go, I have set up this pre-trip report with the hope that it will help me to focus, to share with you all, and to get my excitement out. I hope you enjoy it!

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