Japan: Tokyo: Arriving in Tokyo

Sunday, 12 April 2009

This is the first sight I saw when I emerged from the subway into Ginza.
I cried, yes I did indeed.

I know this travelblogue on Japan is not really kid-focused, but it is wife-focused and I think sometimes wives count, too. It will be a travelblogue packed full of loads of beautiful things – which is just, like, SO Japan.

Enjoy this first post on a divine trip from the comfort of your armchair. Then book your trip – post haste!

Where: Tokyo and Kyoto

When: September 2007

Who: Husband and I – kids stayed with sister and brother-in-law in Beijing.

How: Flew from Beijing, Air China. Don’t ask about the food.

Why: Having passed through a Nippon-love-phase as a teen, my tenderness for Japan was reignited by a new and adored friend – Megumi – whilst living in Beijing. After she returned home to Tokyo, I needed no more excuses to visit. I wanted paper and fabric, Husband wanted sushi. Flights from Beijing were cheap. We went.

Sleep: We stayed at the Ginza Washington Hotel in Tokyo – 4 star and tiny but beautiful, naturally. They speak English but (surprisingly) not fluently enough for a 4 star establishment. You’ll be fine, but if you’re after any information on chirimen fabric, you might be pointed to a sushi bar instead.

Stunning room - with a view right over Ginza. A loo to die for. You could do a roast and weave a carpet in this loo, it's so fandangled.

Getting around: The awesome Tokyo subway network is, well – awesome. Really. You can travel from here to Paris on it, it’s so good. It has the most comprehensive network in the world and is really not as scary as they say, if you can just master the “coloured line” thing. Ginza station is not on the Ginza line, for example.

You buy tickets at subway station machines – fairly straight forward, but be careful if you travel to the other side of town, as the more zones you travel through, the more it costs and your ticket might not cover it. Indeed, it may need to be “upgraded” before you disembark if you’ve gone too far. Learn how to navigate this super system, at Tokyo Metro.

Don't let this map scare you. You can do it!

Taxis are SO COOL! The doors open automatically and inside you will find a den of squeaky clean vinyl seats with white paper and fabric doilies covering every other surface, and a white-begloved-driver who will be the politest thing you’ll ever know. If you can nip around short distances in a taxi, it won’t cost you much. Otherwise, get the subway.

By far the most sensible and cost-effective way of getting around Japan is the Shinkansen bullet train. A W E S O M E!!! I loved this thing so much, I wanted to lie down. Not since my travels on the TGV in France have I been so enamoured. From the ultrasleek design to the electronic screen cataloguing every minute of your journey, you’ll delight in the silence, the cleanliness, the efficiency and the fact that you will arrive the very second the electronic screen tells you. LOVE IT!

I want to be this elderly Japanese couple. I want it to be me and Husband.

To really take advantage of the Japan Railways system, you need to buy a Japan Rail Pass which you must buy before you enter Japan. You can nominate how many days' travel you want (7, 14 and 21) and it's advisable to get the Green pass so you can book trips in advance and travel first class.

It cost us 37,800 yen each for a 7 day pass and it includes unlimited countryside rail travel as well as trips to and from the airport, and some subway travel in Tokyo (there are two companies that run the subway in Tokyo - Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway). If you plan to do a lot of rail travel, this will save you a fortune.

A rare shot of the elusive Husband (far right), checking out Sinkansenny things.

When you get to Tokyo airport, head straight to Japan Rail and validate your Japan Rail Pass. You can then pre-book all your trips (they run to the minute) for your entire stay in Japan, if desired. We found this priceless. We could just turn up and jump on.

Funds: We were shocked – I mean totally blown away – by the fact that Japan didn’t strip us of every yen nanoseconds after arrival. After years of financial horror stories - $50 oranges, $200 cab rides from the airport, $400 steaks – we were more than pleasantly surprised to discover that prices, on average, met Sydney. Overpriced, perhaps – but not expensive. And considering the fact that everything you even LOOK at is utterly beautiful, tenderly hand-wrapped and of the highest quality, the prices are very reasonable indeed.

Sure, you could turn up at the wrong tepanyaki joint and pay $70 for a small set, with no drinks. But if you simply walked out and tried the next place, you could pay $100 for three people who ate enough tepanyaki to stuff a turkey, plus two glasses of wine and three beers to boot. Yes, you could go to Printemps and pay 20,000 yen for three chocolates. Or you could pop into the local bakery and buy a basketful for the same amount. So it’s all about hunting – like anywhere in the world.

Ginza. If you're on a budget, don't go here (right). Just stand and gawp at the amazing shadow puppet film on the facade of the building instead. And cry.
And have your husband click his tongue.

A word of warning: for a nation of incredibly high technological advancement, getting money from an ATM is near impossible unless you are smack bang in the middle of Tokyo. We couldn’t get any money out in Kyoto, despite using the supposedly efficient post office money-withdrawal service. It didn’t work. Luckily, we had just enough yen to make it back to Tokyo without starving. Not all places take credit cards, either, so cash up at the airport.

The language: They speak Japanese in Japan, yes they do. But beware – it’s not widespread nor as fluent as you'd think (nor should it be - when in Rome...). The Japanese are so darned polite, they will nod and pretend they understand you – which makes you think they can speak English when they quite simply can’t.

Most Japanese understand at least some English but they are often reluctant to speak it, even if quite fluent. So... here's an idea. Learn some phrases on the plane – hello, goodbye, please, thank you, where do I find, do you speak English? It will help enormously and - frankly - I think it’s shortsighted to travel to any country in the world and not be able to at least count to ten, know what currency you’re using and be able to greet and thank.

Ladies in their
yukata in the middle of Tokyo. I was SUCH a tourist, taking snaps of anything that moved, especially women dressed to the nines.
Must have been Japanese in a past life...

Jidō-hanbaiki: I cried when I saw these vending machines. Pathetic, I know. They are just so quintessentially Japanese. In so many ways – beautiful, efficient, effective, fast. With delicious things inside. Could you want any more? Well, maybe if they sold sushi, paper and fabric...

Husband stood there and clicked his tongue as I took pictures of this machine, cried (me, not Husband) and then slid all my money inside it (me, not Husband).

Sushi: If you don’t like sushi (I am recoiling in shock), you soon will if you travel to Japan. Husband was so-so about it before we visited, and now he's an addict.

Plastic temptation is often found in the window of restaurants...
so kitsch it's cool.

If you want something so fresh from the sea, it tastes like fresh sea air.. if you want the consistency of the softest marshmallow melting on your tongue with the barely there warmth of just-cooked rice, delicately infused with the barest hint of mirin… if you want the breathe-in-sharply tang of wasabi in your nostrils and that satisfying burst of seaweed on the sides of the tongue… you will find it here. And you will never be able to eat sushi anywhere in the world, ever never ever again.

This was a truly pure moment in my life.

"And then the squid said to the tuna..." I don't look very happy, do I?

Next instalment: Walking the streets of Ginza, Shinjuku Temple and Sushi lunch.

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