If you are just joining in, this is part of a series of blog entries about a trip I took in March. Taking this trip was a challenge I gave to myself to cover as many miles and visit as many places I could in a two week time frame while still being able to see beautiful places and landmarks. So far I have covered my visits to New Zealand, Sydney, Australia, and Bali, Indonesia.
It was well after midnight and I was sitting at the airport in Bali. It had been a long day of sightseeing on the island and I was exhausted. I was looking forward to hopefully getting some rest on the six and a half hour journey to Tokyo. It was my first flight on Garuda Indonesia, the country’s flagship airline. I was quite taken with the hospitality of the crew and the service they provided. The flight attendants greeted each passenger with a warm Namaste, clasping their hands together and bowing slightly with a smile. Had I not been so tired, I would have been able to enjoy more of the nice service. But I needed sleep.
Tokyo was going to be the concluding destination in my journey and I had been looking forward to going there for a long time. When I discovered I could combine a short visit there with my other destinations for the same fare, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity.
Preparation & Necessities
Japan has always been a country which has intrigued me. I like the culture, the architecture, the bustling cities, the innovation, the beautiful scenery, the game shows, and all the quirkiness that goes with it. Like all other stops on this trip, this visit was a short “scouting trip” as I liked to call it, as I intend to return later and spend more time. I had two days in Japan’s capital city to see as much as I could.
I put a lot of effort into researching how best to get around Tokyo. It is the world’s largest metropolitan area with nearly twice as many people as New York City’s. I knew the language barrier would be an issue. But I felt that with my good photographic memory and by studying maps, planning in Google Earth, and reading up on all I could beforehand would help me get around on my own without much help. I had pre-loaded my phone and iPad with maps I knew I would need beforehand as well as a rough itinerary so I could prioritize things I wanted to do first.
We landed at Narita Airport, one of two major airports in Tokyo (Haneda being the other), at about eight in the morning. Clearing customs was relatively painless. My plan was to get into town as quickly as I could. Being able to use my phone to use maps and the internet proved to be helpful in other cities, so I knew it was a must here. Unlike in New Zealand or Australia, where I could just purchase a SIM card to put in my phone, I couldn’t do that in Japan. Japan’s wireless networks are not compatible with US mobile phones. As a work around, you can rent a portable WIFI hotspot at the airport. The cost was about $10 per day and worked well. You just had to carry it around with you in order for your mobile device to connect to it.
I also needed some currency. Many places in Tokyo and Japan do not accept Visa or other credit cards although the issue is gradually getting better. Since I could only count on being able to use credit cards at the hotel and some large merchants, having cash (Japanese Yen) was important. You can withdraw cash from select ATM’s in Tokyo, giving you a better rate than any currency exchange. Post offices and 7-11 stores/banks (yes, 7-11 operates banks here) are your best option. I was able to use an ATM at the airport.
The Japanese are very honorable, respectful, and polite people. They can also be shy and reserved. It is not easy to find English speakers in Japan unless you walk into a hotel or another establishment that caters to English speaking customers. If you don’t have someone to translate for you, it would definitely help to learn some basic Japanese to get by. I took time before the trip to study some basic Japanese words and phrases to be able to ask simple questions or order food. I found YouTube to be an excellent resource for this purpose.
Japan is well known for its rail network and is an easy and quick way to get around. While I wouldn’t be trying any of the famous Japanese bullet trains on this visit, I used the trains and subways extensively. Two companies offer rail service from Narita into the city, JR East and Keisei. Depending on where in the city you are going to will determine which rail line to buy tickets for.
It just so happened, Keisi’s Access Express line would stop at a station just a few blocks away from my hotel in the Asakusa district. I used a website called Hyperdia to do some pre-planning and figured out how much I thought I would be spending on subway fares. I chose to get a PASMO prepaid fare card and loaded what I thought would be enough money to cover my two days in Tokyo. These can be obtained from kiosk machines at stations but payment in Yen is required. The PASMO card can be used on pretty much all the major rail lines in Tokyo and was quite easy to use. Additionally, you can use the PASMO card like an ATM card at several merchants in the city including the numerous vending machines placed on the streets all over the city. The fare into the city was about ¥1300 (under $11 USD)
The weather when I arrived was pleasant. There were scattered clouds and temperatures were cool but you could tell spring was in the air. I was anxious to get to the hotel to drop off my luggage (I couldn’t check in until that afternoon) so I could go out and start exploring. So far things were off to a smooth start.
One thing I noticed immediately on the train ride was how quiet it was. Everyone on the train remained almost entirely silent. Having used mass transit in many other large cities, this was something very different to me. With the exception of a few people carrying on whispering conversations, the only noise was that of the train clacking along the rails. Everyone else sat quietly or passed the time with their head in their portable electronic device.
I arrived at Asakusa station and started getting my bearings straight so I could find my hotel. Trying to find the correct exit out of the subway stations and one that put you on the correct street was somewhat challenging but got easier as time went on. While some signs had English translation, I had to rely on maps and my own instincts to find my way around the underground paths that seemed like they went on for miles in some stations. To my frustration, sometimes I would go the wrong direction and I would have to turn around. With no reference to the outside, this underground world would become my nemesis on this trip.
During rush hours, the crowd using the subways and train stations is nothing short of organized chaos. I had seen the videos of train station “pushers” (train station attendants) jamming people into subway cars already packed to the brim. Expecting to see the same, I was somewhat disappointed when it never got to that point. For me, it seemed using the train was only a means to get somewhere rather than for its entertainment value. The vast majority of locals use the subways and commuter trains to and from work or school and commute times here are some of the highest in the world. I recommend planning around rush hour so as to avoid using the subways during these hours.
My accommodations were made for the Gate Hotel in the heart of Asakusa. It is a modern hotel which caters to business travelers, but I found it perfect for me as well. The hotel was beautiful inside with modern facilities and a nice rooftop terrace. The rooms are small (like pretty much any hotel room in Tokyo) but were nicely appointed and comfortable. I would stay here again. Overall I think hotel rooms in Tokyo were fairly priced compared to other large cities (like Sydney for example) which can be overpriced.
By 11:30 I had ditched my luggage and began wandering in Asakusa. This is an older district of Tokyo featuring many sites of historical and cultural value. It was considered an entertainment district during the Edo period between the 17th and 19th centuries. In Asakusa is Sensō-ji, the grounds of which feature an ancient Shinto shrine, Tokyo’s oldest. Leading to the shrine are two gates, the Kaminarimon and the Hōzōmon. Both were first erected in the 10th century but have been rebuilt twice after being destroyed by fire, most recently after World War II. The inner complex houses the Asakusa Shrine itself, which has stood since the 17th century, and a five story pagoda. Visitors are a mix of tourists and worshipers. Before reaching the shrine, visitors bathe themselves in smoke from a large incense burner. The smoke is believed to have healing powers. Outside of the inner complex is Nakamise-Dōri, a pedestrian corridor lined with small shops and restaurants.
Later that day temperatures dropped and the weather became more unsettled, much to my dismay. It seemed my good fortune was wearing off. With the exception of a very brief storm in Sydney and just a few drops in New Zealand, I had great weather for my entire journey. I had so hoped it would cooperate in Tokyo as well, enough to get to wander the Japanese gardens and take some nice pictures. As it started raining that evening and the forecast for the next day didn’t look much better, I was losing that optimism.
Despite the bleak outlook on the weather, I kept going and that evening took the subway to see some other parts of Tokyo. The first stop was Shibuya, popular for its shopping and entertainment. Shibuya Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest train stations, is central to many attractions. Just outside the station is the busiest pedestrian crosswalk in the world. Throughout the day, but especially during rush hour, thousands of people gather at the corners where three major roads intersect. This is Shibuya Crossing (or Shibuya Scramble). In regular intervals, all vehicular traffic is stopped and pedestrians flood the entire intersection, crossing in any direction they need to. It is truly an impressive sight.
Shibuya Crossing has been featured in several films, notably in a scene from Lost in Translation which highlights two American visitors to Tokyo and their feelings of being outsiders in such in a different culture from their own. Up until I visited Tokyo myself, I couldn’t understand how someone could feel so isolated in such a bustling and busy city. Perhaps being away from my comfort zone for two weeks and ending up in a place I couldn’t readily communicate with people or feeling like I stood out like I sore thumb exacerbated this, but I certainly had feelings of isolation I never thought I would experience, much like Scarlet Johansen and Bill Murray’s characters in the film. I am sure spending more time here would allow me to feel more comfortable.
As it got dark, I took the train to the lively and quirky Akihabara district. Located in the center of the city, this district became a place locals would shop for household appliances as they became more commonplace after World War II.
In the 1980s, as Japan started to take a lead in the development and manufacturing of consumer electronics, the Akihabara district became not only a good location to find such goods, but a sanctuary for nerds. The Japanese anime craze became more mainstream and comic stores and arcades came in.
Today, people from all over the world come to Akihabara to shop and be entertained. The colorfully lit buildings and anime characters walking outside set this part of Tokyo apart from the rest.
This is a place you can find almost any electronic device known to man. Nearly any piece or part down to the smallest circuit, transistor, or wire can be found here. Some stores are small, independent shops, while some are large department stores like Yodobashi, an eight story behemoth I liken to something like Ikea for electronics.
Shinjuku, Meiji Shrine
My last day in Tokyo was to be spent seeing some of the gardens. I woke up to dull gray skies and rain, and the forecast didn’t look very promising. My hopes for nice spring weather and blue skies, perfect for photo taking, were dashed. I forged ahead anyway.
I first headed to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is a lively area of Tokyo with many hotels, restaurants, and places to shop. In the heart of this district is Shinjuku Gyoen. It is a large park dating back to the 18th century and features gardens and open space. Like many other places in Tokyo, it was rebuilt after WWII. It is also a great place to see the Sakura (cherry tree blossoms). I was unfortunate to be about a week early (the last week in March into mid-April is a good time). Tourists crowded around the few trees which were blooming ahead of the rest to take pictures. Coming here during full bloom would be an amazing site. Nevertheless I thought the park was beautiful and somewhere I will come back to.
Afterwards, I decided to walk through the nearby neighborhoods to get to Meiji Shrine. It is built in a large forested park. It commemorates Meiji the Great, emperor of Japan who reigned for forty five years in the late 19h and early 20th century. He is known for leading Japan into an industrial revolution and world power. The grounds are a nice place for people to relax and other sites here include a small stadium and a mural gallery.
After rush hour had settled for the evening, I returned to my hotel and retrieved all my belongings. I took one last stroll through Asakusa. It was still drizzling with rain. I boarded my last train bound for Haneda Airport. I had some time to kill before my midnight departure to LAX. The International Terminal at Haneda was probably one of the nicest terminals I have been to. On top of the terminal is a nice deck overlooking the airfield, a perfect venue for any aviation geek like myself. Despite the cold rain, I sat out there to eat dinner.
I spent some time reflecting on this journey. While I was disappointed the weather didn’t cooperate and how it limited the number of places I visited, I still enjoyed my visit to Tokyo. And looking back at the trip as a whole, I felt satisfied with the results. It certainly goes to show how planning and preparation is key to pulling a trip like this off. In just under two weeks I had flown on four airlines over 23,000 miles, visited four countries in two continents in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and touched two oceans. My flights were on schedule, the weather cooperated for almost all of it, and I was under budget. Most importantly, I met some wonderful people, I learned a lot, had some amazing experiences, and saw some beautiful places. The memories from this trip will live with me forever.
So, where to next?