The things that I pack for my overseas trips are pretty similar over the years. For this trip, I brought only the essential sketching tools, namely, the Arkademie sketchbook, Portable Painter palette, Daniel Smith watercolour paints, Rosemary reversible sable brush, Uniball Air, Uniball Signo Gelstick (backup) and portable stool. In the end, I did not bring my sling back and used my backpack to carry all those things.
I've managed to fill three quarters of the Arkademie sketchbook so I'll be putting out a detailed review soon.
The Portable Painter made by Steve Padden is incredibly useful. It is seriously the best portable palette box that I've used so far. I love the water containers!
The Rosemary brush that I brought along was seriously worn out and halfway through the trip, I had to visit Sekaido Shinjuku art supplies store (map) to buy a new brush -- a Holbein synthetic pocket brush. Having a sharp brush tip again makes painting so much easier.
Instead of bringing fountain pens, I brought the cheap and good Uniball Air and Signo Gelstick. I wished I had brought along more colours of the Signo Gelstick, including the white gel pen, because I felt helpless when trying to write the words on the advertising signs that I've drawn. Uniball Signo Gelsticks are the best value waterproof pigment sketching pens there are out there. The Uniball Air is great because it's capable of different line widths.
As the decision to go to Tokyo was made rather last minute, the best price for the flight came from budget airlines, more specifically AirAsia.
I was rather unhappy with the AirAsia booking experience though. Or maybe it's just my luck. I saw for 2 tickets to Tokyo at SGD 904. When I tried to pay, there was some limit problem with my bank transaction. After I fixed that, the price went up to SGD 958. Then I had some browser pop-up issues. After I fixed that, the price increased to SGD 1,032. Mind you, I booked the tickets one week before my flight. So I thought maybe the prices were increasing as the flight date approaches. Few hours after I paid for the tickets, the price dropped back to SGD 904. I basically wasted $128 for nothing.
Anyway, I just checked the AirAsia ticket prices again and you can book flights for as low as SGD 710 (for 2 person) to Tokyo if you book more than a week in advance. It's so affordable. That's almost the price of 1 ticket from airlines like JAL, Nippon Airways or Singapore Airlines. Of course with budget airlines you don't get the features like free movies. But the price savings is quite significant. At that kind of price, I'm tempted to go Japan every month. LOL.
Oh, another thing, AirAsia's timing to Tokyo is not very good. They transit at KL, so the minimum flight time is at least 10 hours. It's one hour from Singapore to KL and then 6 hours from KL to Haneda Airport. The plane lands in Tokyo at 1030pm. Clearing customs is quite fast so you can still catch the public train (take the Asakusa line) before midnight to the city area, Taito (near Ueno Station) or Chiyoda (new Tokyo Station). If the trains are no longer running, taking cabs into those areas is going to cost a lot. Cab fare is going to be at least 6,000 yen and above. A check with Uber price estimate came up to 7,600 yen so public cab fares will not be too different. 7,600 yen by the way is currently USD 68.50 or SGD 95.
I actually took a cab to a hotel near Haneda Airport before switching accommodation the next day. You can definitely make it in time to get to the public train if the plane lands at 10.30pm. Last train departure is at 00:01.
The overnight flight from Haneda Airport back to Singapore is at 1145pm, and the earliest time to reach Singapore is at 840am.
That's my first sketch in Tokyo. The metro or subway in Tokyo is very well connected. From what I have observed, there's almost a station within 10 minutes of walking from any residential area. My 50-minute train ride from Haneda Airport to the Airbnb apartment in Iriya Station (one station away from Ueno Station) came up to around 700 yen.
The best place to stay is around Ueno Station in my opinion. Ameyoko which is just beside Ueno has plenty of good eateries. Ueno Station is a very well connected station so you can get to anywhere easily.
In Japan, trains are run by different companies, but all trains share the same rail system. First thing you do is to get the Pasmo public transport card (fully refundable) at the airport. You can use the Pasmo card for all the public trains except the expensive Shinkansen bullet train.
Another suggestion that I see quite often is to stay near any train station that is on the green Yamanote JR line. The Yamanote line is a circular line that goes to most places of interest. But seriously, nowhere in Tokyo is going to be more than 30 minutes away by train because of how well interlinked the train lines are. If you can save significant money by staying one or two stations away from popular areas, I might actually recommend it because everything in Japan is quite expensive.
For this particular trip, I decided to book an Airbnb apartment because I don't pack a lot of clothes so I need to do my own laundry. And doing laundry in hotels is expensive so the alternative is to find an apartment with a washing machine. I know there are travelers who like to pack 7 sets of clothes for a 7-day trip, but I always pack 3 sets of clothes including the one I wear for all my trips regardless of the length. I like to travel light.
Anyway, I found out I had SGD $295 worth of Airbnb credit that I can use for this trip. So I chose Airbnb instead of hotel in the end, and I paid around SGD 64 daily (~USD 45). The SGD 295 credit is from the Airbnb affiliate program when I refer people. Without the credit, I would have paid SGD 106 daily instead. Hotels are even more expensive.
My apartment is near Iriya Station and the two sketches above show the neighborhood around. The neighborhood is exactly the same as those I see in anime and manga. LOL. It's really cool to be able to sketch the suburban Tokyo.
Dinner was at Akihabara at this place called Tucano's Grill (map). Akihabara sells a lot of electronics. Items are more pricey than what I can find in Singapore or online though. And things sold here usually do not have international warranty unless specified -- there are posters specifying this.
The sketch of the blue whale was drawn several days later at the National Museum of Nature and Science.
Ushima Shrine (map) at Sumida Park. I was in this area because I wanted to sketch to Tokyo Skytree. I kept walking to find a good place to draw and eventually ended up in Sumida Park and found this shrine.
Sumida River. Right across the river you can take a cruise with Tokyo Cruises. I was told the cruise ships were designed by some anime or manga artist.
Lunch at Nakamise shopping area, which is just in front of Senso Ji temple.
Sensō-ji (map) is such a beautiful temple. It was actually built in AD 645!
This is Ameyoko (map), a shopping area near Ueno Station. Since it's so close to Iriya Station, my wife and I came here to eat quite often. You can find sushi restaurants that sell 140 yen/piece sushi.
This was also drawn at the National Museum of Nature and Science located inside Ueno Park. On the right side is this train and the left is the blue whale.
This is Tokyo National Museum, also located at Ueno Park. I only sketched outside the museums and did not go into any of them. I tried to spend more time sketching whenever possible.
Dinner at some pizza place. I saw the sign that advertised 500 yen pizza. While inside, the waiter said there's a sitting charge that foreigners do not know of, and you have to buy an appetizer. We order some tiny pieces of meat which were definitely too overpriced. Then the waiter said we must order at least a drink. Other than that, we ordered two pizza (they were alright) and some beef potato thing. Overall, dinner was ~3,000 yen which was really pricey.
While in that restaurant, I noticed a lot of young people and just wondered how on earth are they able to afford to eat in a place like this? All the items on the menu are so expensive, except the pizzas.
So many people at Shinjuku.
While walking around Shinjuku, I discovered an alley of food stalls. It was a small alley that leads to Hanazono Shrine. It's really cool to find such alleys and the surprise you can get when you follow them.
Tsukiji outer market was incredibly crowded. I was so lucky to find a sitting spot in the shade with a great view.
It's such a challenge to draw Tokyo Station. I drew the open area in front of the station wrongly. Sketching complicated scenes can be tiring and when you're tired, you make mistakes. This sketch was drawn from the rooftop garden of Kitte building.
Here's another look at Tokyo Station. Those are the tracks behind the station. I can't count them properly and these are just the tracks above ground. There are tracks beneath too. It's amazing to see trains pulling in and out of the station, and at the precise timing Japanese is known for.
When I posted one of my sketches on Facebook, I received a comment by my friend Jenny Sim saying that she's in Tokyo too. She invited me to sketch with Urban Sketchers Japan which turned out to be only Kumi and Atsuko that day. I kept thinking that it was going to be a huge turn out. LOL. The sketch is of a pop up antique fair in front of Tokyo International Forum.
Seimonishi Bridge. I left visiting the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace on the last day and reached there too late and the place is already closed. Argh.
Unable to sketch in the East Gardens, I make do with the last sketch of the day at Tokyo Station again.
I had to walk quite a while to find the perfect spot to sketch Tokyo Tower. I wanted to fill a double page spread and knew this is the type of composition that will work. I think the buildings on the left aren't captured that well. One of my regrets during this trip was I did not get to draw Tokyo Skytree.
On my last day in Tokyo, I went to Harujuku in search of Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine in the forest.
I was at the shrine when I spotted a fellow sketcher called Jenny. She wasn't exactly sketching, she was painting. Anyway, she caught my attention because she was painting on her sketchbook. I initially thought that she was a Japanese. So I approached her to see what she was drawing and that's when she spoke in English. She's Canadian! The coincidence is one year ago, she was in Singapore and during her time there, she joined on of the monthly sketchwalks at Chinatown and I happened to remember she's in the video that I've filmed after she told me that she was in Singapore. What a coincidence! This is so amazing! What a small world.
This is the last sketch that I sketched while traveling to Haneda Airport.
Overall, it was quite an experience to be in Japan. The place is so clean. Every service personnel that I've seen are always so professional. They really take pride in their job. Even cashiers greet customers whenever they walk pass regardless if they have bought anything.
The cost of living in Tokyo is really high though. If you know how to cycle, you can book an Airbnb apartment that comes with a bicycle. Cycling in Tokyo is easy. Traffic system is easy to understand and there aren't many cars. Best time to cycle is during spring, autumn and perhaps winter. You can save a lot of money from avoiding the Tokyo metro.
This sketching trip is a major success. There are still some pages left in my sketchbook. I'm sure I'll be going back to Japan in the future.