Make time to enjoy Japan

Landing at Tokyo's Haneda Airport early on a Sunday morning (5.30 am), I was pleasantly surprised to find how convenient it was to commute to the city hotel where I had reserved a room for my one-week visit. I was welcomed at the airport exit by a Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) staffer who accompanied me to an airport bus that took me on a non-stop journey to the hotel.

And because it was a Sunday morning, road traffic was light so I reached my destination in less than half an hour. The airport bus had free Wifi, while the Travel Japan WiFi app offers visitors access in many parts of the country, not only in Tokyo.

This was a welcome change from my last visit two years ago when I struggled to get Wifi in Tokyo and other cities. I have the 2020 Olympics to thank for the improvement. With over 11,000 athletes from 206 countries preparing to converge on Japan next year from all over the world, along with fans, event staff and volunteers, Japan realised it needed a better communication network to serve visitors.

The next morning, I entered work mode and that involved taking subways. Our group of three Southeast Asian journalists was accompanied by an employe of our Japanese host, so getting around wasn't that difficult. We must have climbed thousands of stairs and made numerous train changes, but it was more convenient and faster than travelling on surface streets, we were told.

The Tokyo commuter rail system is one of the most complex in the world, not just because there are multiple lines, but because there are multiple companies operating them. Adding to the complexity, JR Rail operates train services within the city similar to a subway. Some might relish the adventure, but for first-time visitors or those with time-sensitive appointments, getting lost on the subway could be a big headache.

The best way to get around is to buy a Suica smartcard that lets you tap through subway (and most railway) turnstiles. You pay ¥500 (135 baht) and the fare is deducted from the card at the end of the journey. You can top up the card anytime.

As well, there are several apps to help you navigate the system. Available in many languages including English, Chinese and Thai, they tell you which station is closest to your destination and the approximate time of each stop, both on train and on foot. That's brilliant, isn't it?

My leisure time included a trip to admire the autumn leaves, which are lovely at this time of the year. A two-hour train or bus ride will bring you to scenic spots such as Hakone, Nikko and Kawaguchiko, returning the same day or staying overnight if you choose.

Kawaguchiko, 76km west of Tokyo, was recommended by a Thai friend who goes to Japan every year. It's also a great place to view Mount Fuji across the lake, a Japanese friend told me.

I chose to go by bus, which costs ¥2,000 one way, half the price of the JR Express train, with frequent buses leaving terminals at Tokyo and Shibuya stations, and no need to change buses en route. At Kawaguchiko, shuttle buses depart the main station on three sightseeing routes, and you can hop off and on at any stop.

My morning ride to Lake Kawaguchiko went well, even though the rain kept pouring that weekend. It took 25 minutes to get there, but the return trip lasted longer. Japanese public transport is famed for punctuality but things can go awry once rain and Sunday sightseeing traffic is factored in. At some stops, commuters couldn't board so they were told to wait for the next bus 20 minutes later.

It took me over an hour to return to the main station to catch the express bus back to Tokyo. That meant I missed the bus I had already bought a ticket for, so I had to buy a new ticket on the next one. Luckily, there were seats available.

Of course, tourists like me have to plan their trips well and manage their time properly so that they don't miss the bus. A town crowded with visitors at this time of the year needs better management of public transport and more frequent buses. Even in a country famous for its punctuality, anything can happen, so spare enough time for each trip so your Japan experience will be as enjoyable as possible.