Honor Dargan is one of TravelPod’s newer Local Experts, and she’s jumped right into the forums, quickly making some great friends and establishing herself as the ultimate authority on Tokyo and the surrounding area. She’s got some really interesting travel stories, including getting caught in the South Asia tsunami.
Why did you become a Local Expert?
I love Tokyo – I’ve said that before – but it’s not just Tokyo, it’s everything about Japan that kind of gets under your skin and you find yourself missing it so much when you leave. I came here in 2001 and left in 2006 to go to Singapore. I wouldn’t have believed I would miss Japan as much as I did – but I did! I couldn’t wait to get back which I did in July 2007.
I would love to see more people traveling here. Many people I speak to often seem reluctant or worried about traveling to Japan. Maybe it’s because Japan was closed for so long to the rest of the world – or maybe it’s the language. I really have no idea, but it’s such a great place. I want to encourage anyone thinking about coming here to just come – check it out. Because I’ve lived here I can also help answer any questions people may have and hopefully make the whole experience as happy and stress free as possible.
What’s are the best and worst things about living in Japan?
Best – This is the most convenient city – from getting around, to buying something at any hour, to being female and not worrying about my safety every step I take. Of course the last one is within reason but it’s true. I can go out with my friends, have some drinks and a laugh, and then catch the train and walk home by myself – a thing I would never consider doing in the UK.
Other bests include the freedom that comes from being a gaijin (foreigner) within this society. Some people hate the fact that they will always be ‘outside’ – but for me it means that I don’t have to worry about the day to day stuff as I would if I was Japanese, and yet I gain all the benefits of living in what is largely a polite and respectful society.
There is culture by the bucket load here and you can take in whichever aspects of it you care to be interested in. Food! Not just Japanese food although that is a topic in itself – international cuisine is big here so you can find almost anything you want. Spend a lot or spend a little – it’s up to you.
The back streets. You have to spend some time getting away from the madding crowd and see what’s going on behind the scenes. Life goes at a different pace and has a different feel to it once you start mixing with the locals.
Worst – The occasional prejudice that you just can’t avoid. Renting an apartment is one of the classic examples of this. ‘You’re gaijin? – Sorry we don’t rent to gaijin’. This is a refrain that can soon wear thin when you are desperately house hunting for that perfect place. Add to that my personal key angst – key money. Let’s say your monthly rent is 120,000 yen (approx $1,120 US). You usually have to pay a deposit of 2 months – ok that’s not so bad but just don’t count on getting it back. On top of that though is the usual minimum 2 months ‘gift’ money that you pay to the landlord to say ‘thank you’ – yes you heard me right ‘thank you’ – for letting me rent your apartment. This gift money is gone as soon as you hand it over. Grrrr… that’s something that really winds me up.
Other worsts – crowded trains. The infrastructure is fantastic but when you’ve got Mr. Sato squashing up next to you on the morning train going to work, you can forget all the good bits and get quite anti the whole train idea! Plastic wrapping – almost everything you buy will be wrapped to death. If you tell the cashier you don’t want a bag, they go and stick plastic sticky tape on it instead. I don’t need the tape, I have the receipt! The idea is I don’t want the plastic!!! Ok – rant over.
What are the top five or 10 things for travelers to do in Japan?
Top 10 things in Tokyo:
- Odaiba. Go shopping, play games, take in Rainbow Bridge, drive a Toyota or go to one of the largest onsens in the area – complete with a hot stone bath as well as the regular onsen features.
- Come out of Hachiko exit at Shibuya station for the first time and just take in the life and atmosphere around you. It’s youth culture at it’s best and worst all at the same time, surrounded by neon boards and mega speakers to further confuse your senses. My first experience is still a vivid memory and one I wouldn’t change.
- Get up high and get an idea of just how vast this city is. Go to the government buildings in Shinjuku and head up to the free observatory. There are signboard maps in English that show you where you are looking and what each area is. And did I mention it’s free?
- Go to Ebisu and Daikanyama to see Tokyoites in a class of their own. Ebisu Garden Place screams class while at the same time firmly keeping its roots with it’s founding company, the Ebisu Brewery. In Daikanyama just up the road you’ll find loads of funky smaller shops and hip people – a great place to do some people watching.
- Sumo is a must if you get the chance. Go for the cheaper seats at the top of the arena – you actually don’t want the area near the ring as these are boxes where you have to sit on the floor. It’s not long before you find yourself shuffling round trying to get comfortable rather than watching the action in front of you.
- The Imperial Palace is like an oasis in the middle of the city. With skyscrapers all around it’s quite bizarre to find this beautiful area nestling in the trees. You can stroll round the gardens, take a boat on the moat, and on 2 special days on the year there’s a chance to see the emperor and his family in residence.
- Yoyogi Park at the weekend is a mix of all ages and backgrounds. See what Tokyoites get up to in their spare time, take part in one of the many activities going on, or bring a picnic and chill out for the day.
- If you’re traveling with kids, Kodomo no Shiro near Shibuya is a must do venue with 5 floors. Dedicated to children, each floor in this building has a different set of activities going on. If you have a budding Beethoven with you, check out the music floor. If your little one is more inclined to run, jump and climb, there’s an enormous play area for doing just that.
- Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest fish market in the world and you have the chance to see it in full swing between 5am – 6:15am. There is a special viewing area where you can take in the sounds and smells of this long established trade and enjoy the noisy bartering going on around you. Don’t forget to try some super fresh sushi while you’re there.
- Ueno has a host of museums, a large park and a zoo so is a great day out for the family. In spring time the park is especially worth a visit as this is a popular cherry blossom viewing venue.
What are some of your best and worst travel experiences?
Best - Top of my list is Krabi in Thailand. This has to be the most beautiful scenery I have clapped eyes on. Turquoise seas, limestone rocks rising out the water and such friendly people that honestly, if you didn’t enjoy yourself I would seriously wonder what was wrong with you! This holiday was a vacation on the go. Every day was action packed – the way I like it – from kayaking, to speed boat trips, to walking along long stretches of white sand. Mmmmm – very fond memories.
A very close second has to be Phuket – also in Thailand. A family holiday for Christmas that was a great laugh. It was the first time I went paragliding, I got my suits made for work for next to nothing – sorry I know that’s not really a vacation idea, but when the alternative is paying Tokyo prices this is definitely a bonus – and ate the best Thai food ever. With great company to back it up it was a fab time.
Worst - is actually the same holiday as above in Phuket. We were due to fly out on December 26th 2004 in the afternoon. Because it was the last day we wanted to take one more dip in the sea before packing up and setting off on our journey. That was the day the Asian tsunami made her presence felt – and boy did we feel it. I thought my fella was dead, and I’ve never run so fast in all my life. I remember reaching safety and turning round to realize that Stuart was not behind me. All I could see was the sea. I was standing in it up to my calves and I was standing on the road. Beyond the road was a ditch that was now completely filled water and the beach was completely covered – it wasn’t there. So you can imagine how I felt – I was standing on the road shouting Stuart’s name and thinking to myself how on earth am I going to go back and tell his mum what happened. Absolute nightmare moment.
Probably two minutes later – although it felt like an eternity – I see Stuart heading down the road towards me. We get within hearing distance and the first thing he says to me is “Have you got my sunglasses?” I’ve never felt so relieved in all my life. Apparently he was hanging onto a palm tree and after the wave pulled back got down and ran across a bridge to the road further down.
Enough said – it was a loooong day and one that won’t be forgotten.
Best – I’m going to add a best to this moment as well if you don’t mind. We didn’t leave Phuket on the 26th as we couldn’t get to the airport which was closed anyway. We didn’t want to stay in our hotel as it was right on the beach and we’d had quite enough of water for that day. We headed up and away and found a hotel that still had some space.
Getting up for breakfast the next day, we were wandering down the road deciding what we fancied when we heard this shout. We realized someone was calling us and turned to find the Thai family who we had paid money to the day before, driving round to find us because we had paid for a trip that had been canceled due to the tsunami. My fella’s mum was supposed to go to Koh Phi Phi on the 26th, the same day we were due to fly out. She had paid for it that morning as we left her to go for our last swim. The money had never even entered our heads after the event – why would it – we were happy to be alive. Yet these lovely Thai people actually came to find us to give it back. Can you believe that? I still am blown away by it.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Leaving the UK at 29 years of age, with no idea where I was going, little money in my purse, but thinking if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. That decision changed my life completely and I wouldn’t be where I am today if that hadn’t happened.
Where are you planning on traveling in the future?
South America is next on the list. I really want to see Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina so we are currently looking at ways of doing that. Mexico is also high on the list as is South Africa.
What do you do with most of your time?
I work in coaching and seminar training for some of the international companies based in Tokyo. I am also involved in some of the client relations aspects and look for ways that we can improve the experience of the customer.
My own time is largely taken up with my website, which supports what I said in my answer to the first question. I am trying to make Tokyo a more accessible place for people wanting to visit. I spend a lot of time researching and checking details – things change here at a rate of knots that has to be seen to be believed some days. Then there’s the writing, taking the photos, preparing the photos for the web and working out any coding glitches.
Other than that, I love reading – all sorts, cycling round my local area – and football!
What’s a typical day like for you?
Up at 6 a.m., teach my first class at 8 a.m., then go to the office. Arrive there around 9:45 and start checking email, following up and actioning issues. Then it’s speaking with clients, liaising with my colleagues and any admin that is necessary. I leave work around 5:45 – 6:00 p.m. and get home around 6:45. Then I try get one website page finished before bed. Exciting, hey!
What’s your favourite TravelPod blog post?
One of my favourite blog posts is the one about Tokyoites and their dogs. It’s just so Tokyo!