Day 2 - Arrival

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Amazingly, we are pretty much on time for our arrival in Narita despite our late departure. Morning was announced by the cabin staff turning on the lights in the plane (which always works) then prompting coming around with breakfast. Breakfast was a bit interesting as they offered me a choice of a vegetarian or “English” breakfast however I noticed that there was a pot of soup on the tray so, suspecting it was Miso soup (Japanese) I asked for some but was told that this was only for people having the “bento box”. Now, if you don't know what that is, let me attempt to explain: A bento box is typically a black rectangular lacquer box containing a number of small dishes such as salad, meat, a bit of sushi, etc. Now, this was, in my opinion (and I feel, many others may agree) far superior to what I had been offered so I immediately opted for the bento option. I did not regret it: Much better than any of the other options (why is it that meals on board planes are always so consistently, well, not awful, but not terribly appealing?). I happily ate my way through the lovely things in my box and downed a number of cups of Japanese tea. Things are looking up…

Having now eaten, I focus my attention on the ground that is getting closer by the minute. I am very surprised that we are flying above what is obviously farmer's fields and not really any sort of city area. I know that Narita is a ways away from Tokyo but did not know it would be in the countryside at all. We bank over the ocean and come in for a landing. Another surprise: There is a sign on the side of the runway “Welcome to Tokyo” (in English). Departing from the plane pretty much everything is in English and Japanese though I am not sure whether or not the guy handling passport control spoke English as he didn't really say anything to me.

View from plane

Narita is quite a small airport. Well, at least the bit I have arrived in, namely, Terminal 1. There is another Terminal across the road but both myself and my mother arrive here. The layout is quite elongated and the first order of the day is to pick up my mobile phone. Ah yes, the mobile phone. There is a story here.

About a year and a half ago I had a bit of an accident with my mobile phone. That is, I dropped it into a glass of water. This is not good for a mobile phone and it expressed it's displeasure by refusing to work from then onwards. I took this opportunity to pick up a much better telephone and that served me quite well until I decided I was going to be visiting Japan and China. Because of this I realised that if I wanted to remain in touch (important, I thought, since we are away for so long and there are two of us…never mind we are going to some fairly remote areas) I would need to get an even better phone, particularly one that worked in different “bands” (the phone I had only worked in the one in the UK and Europe). Different countries use different technology for mobile phones. The different types of technologies are roughly split into bands, for example, the GSM technology of Europe and UK is one band while the CDMA of North America is another. The phone I decided to purchase was tri-band. Would that I had known at the time that actually I would need a QUAD-band (four band) phone. I found out only a few weeks ago that my phone would not work in Japan as they used a completely different technology to any of those supported by my phone so I would need to either do without or arrange another phone. As luck would have it I had been reading on the convention web site that a group in Tokyo was offering rental of mobile phones for the convention and their rates were very reasonable (a flat rate per minute with two tariffs: one only allowing local calls the other, higher rate, allowing both local and international calls – I took the second). Yes, so, I will have two phones: My original mobile phone (that doesn't work here) and this rental phone (which should).

Off in search of the mobile phone rental agency which, conveniently, is located at Narita in exactly the same terminal as I have arrived in. After wandering around a bit (eventually walking to the far side of the terminal from where I arrived) I eventually manage to find the rental agency and pick up my phone. Thank goodness they are expecting me. Language is a bit of a problem but I get the phone anyway and, o-o-o-h-h, the convention has attached a free paper lantern and a letter of welcome (in English). Cool.

The airport has a number of interesting little shops. The snack shops are quite interesting as the things they are selling are a bit different than what I am used to in the UK. Seaweed, dried squid, unknown flavour candies (Orange? Banana? Something else? – Hard to tell). I pick up some “Wasabi Peas” which I do recognise (the packaging is in Japanese but I have bought these in the UK before – basically dried peas covered with Wasabi, or horseradish powder – yes, very hot…but interesting…).

I have about 4 ½ hours before mother arrives so I have enough time to get to the hotel, I figure, or will try, at least. I am in a bit of a hurry so end up chatting to a polite Japanese lady who speaks not a lot of English (though some polite, but minimal and ultimately un-useful, Japanese on my part helps a bit) but manages to provide me with a few answers. It appears as though the train is just as quick as the bus so I am talked into doing the following:

  • Bus to Tokyo Station
  • Tokyo Station to Shinbashi by JR rail

Then, to return to the airport this afternoon to pick up mother:

  • Shinbashi to Narita by JR rail

Sounds pretty complicated to me. Incidentally, on the map and directions I have from the hotel, it appears as though Shinbashi (on the JR Yamanote line) is the closed to the hotel I have booked. How I get back to the hotel after I have picked up my mother is a bit of a mystery right now…But it should be easier as the hotel “limousine bus” begins operating in a few hours before my mother arrives (I am out of luck right now).

I have done a bit of research into transport in Tokyo (well, in general as well). Tokyo basically has two overlapping subway (underground) systems: A subway run by the city and a (much larger) series of lines run by the national railway company JR (Japan Rail). To buy a ticket you must make sure the ticket is for the appropriate system. There are, of course, buses but I am not really planning to take them as the subway/JR system is just so good for getting around the city (reading the system map is enough to give one headaches – MUCH more complicated and much bigger than the London Underground).

Incidentally, if you are familiar a bit with transport in Japan you may be thinking “why does he not have a JR rail pass?” the answer is: I do, but I only have a 7 day pass for next week when we will be travelling more long distances than this week. For those unfamiliar: The JR rail pass is a very good travel feature available for foreigners visiting Japan. Offered in 7, 14 and 21 day formats they provide unlimited travel on all JR lines (with a few notable exceptions) throughout the country. They are only available to purchase in advance from outside of Japan with the voucher you are given at purchased redeemable for the pass itself when you get to Japan (and want to begin using it). This week we are in Tokyo and Yokohama so using the rather expensive pass for local subway and train travel does not make a lot of sense so I am waiting until next week when we go further abroad.

Eventually I determine the bus stop I need to catch the bus only to find that there is another polite lady there organising the waiting passengers into orderly file to get onto the bus. I meet a gentleman while I am waiting for this arranging to occur who is hear on business and often visits Tokyo for work. I express a great deal of envy for him as we are filed onto the bus. The bus is very busy but we find a seat at the back to continue our conversation. I find it very interesting to chat but also want to see what the landscape looks like that we are going through. The countryside goes by very quickly. We are travelling above what is obviously the main road to the airport as we wend our way through the small mountains that are everywhere here. Between these “mountains” are rice paddies with people working in them. Another tunnel and we leave the farming behind and begin to approach Tokyo. The buildings are not that high but are pretty much everywhere now. We cross some water and see a mass of buildings to the right that I am told are a new sports complex recently opened but to be honest I am not listening that intently as we get onto an expressway into the centre of the city. The road is suspended above the streets below as we go quickly by the 4th or 5th story of the buildings at the same level all around. It is an odd sensation almost as if we were flying. Weird. We leave the expressway and are on fairly normal looking city streets. At the end of a particularly large street we come across Tokyo station. Not an eye-catching building by any stretch of the imagination as we are dropped off across a very busy road from it. My new-found friend wishes me good luck as the bus leaves me beside the road scratching my head. Eventually I find the underpass leading to the station as I drag my luggage behind. I have a feeling this is the first of many such situations where I will be dragging what is now my earthly possessions behind me.

The station is very, very large and has many, many people wandering very purposely around in it. There are also lots of shops which, at any other time, I might be interested in visiting. Right now though I am on a bit of a schedule so scramble around looking for where I catch my train. It is not as difficult as I thought and as I board the very comfortable and clean (but a bit crowded) Yamanote line train I relax for a few minutes. I will need it as I arrive at Shimbashi.

Whoever designed the so-called “map” for finding the hotel should be shot. The signs to the hotel are few and far between causing me to wander around aimlessly for quite a few minutes before taking the plunge in a particularly promising direction. I manage to luck out only after having visited the neighbouring NHK offices (the office tower is beside our hotel) to experience great scratching of heads as to where my hotel might be. I wander in the direction they think might be good only to find I can't get into the hotel and have to back track quite some distance before I can enter. The entrance to the hotel turns out to be on the first floor (above ground) and is only accessible if you take the outside escalator from the basement of the subway/shopping centre that leads to the area. Of course, you need to take the correct escalator (and exit)…But I am not bitter at all.

Eventually I get to the hotel. Impressive is one word. To get to the hotel you have to follow the rather obscure signs to the elevators on the first floor (remember: I am not at ALL bitter) then take them to the 24th floor of the building where the check in desk is. Yes, that is where the hotel STARTS. Below the hotel is an office building. Luckily the front desk spoke very good English and after a few minutes waiting on the rather comfortable leather sofas (beside the rock pool and opposite the modern bar and panoramic views) – it was still a bit early to check in – I was given the key to our room. We are on the 31st floor in room 3114. Absolutely fantastic room complete with our own computer (with Internet access, of course) and great views! I can see the fish market from here! The bathroom is very modern with a funny electronic toilet (I am afraid to turn it on and some of the options look a bit scary) as well as an enclosed area with the shower and bath. I am also pleased there are two beds – Often travelling with my mother we are offered a double bed but I am not THAT close to my mother! The room will be MORE than adequate.

After showering and shaving (aahhhh…) I prepare for the return journey. Luggage left behind. Camera take with.

The reverse trip to the airport is much simpler however on the way I notice that there is a big Totero on display near our hotel with a number of children running around. Oh, a cultural explanation: Totero is the character from a very famous Japanese animation film from quite some number of years ago for children. The animation is by arguably the most famous Japanese animation directors of all time, Hayao Miyazaki (of Ghibli Studios) – More about him later in this trip, I am sure, as I hope to visit the Ghibli Museum here in Tokyo. Totero is a big round…er…animal (?) that is quite cute to look at and quite harmless (in the animation – I am not sure about real life). There appears to be some sort of festival or something going on with the NHK (Japanese television/radio group) today so there are a lot kids around. A stage at the bottom of the escalator leading to our hotel has a show going on that is receiving very warm attention from the crowd. I don't have a lot of time to figure things out as I have to get back to the airport. I am sure I have enough time but I am a bit paranoid about these things.

The train is much more comfortable and simpler to catch than the bus as I quickly transfer at Tokyo station to catch it. I wanted to catch the train as well as the bus partly to see which is the better option for getting back into Tokyo with my mother. The train is a bit too quick and it is difficult to take pictures…

Back at the airport which is beginning, sadly, to look familiar to me I am a bit early, again, so wander through a few of the shops to see what is on offer. I am soon in the mob around the arrival area for where she will appear when the plane arrives. I am not sure how long it will take her to get from the plane through security but am waiting for her when she eventually does arrive. Bingo. We were able to meet up successfully despite being on opposite ends of the world (we have done this once before in 1999 in Hong Kong as well – but I am always pleased when it works).

She does not appear to be tired (I am) so we have a nice fresh fruit juice in one of the small shops here. Very tasty. She starts pulling things out of her luggage but I manage to restrain her until we are back at the hotel. It is very convenient that I have no luggage as I can help her with hers. A bit of discussion and we agree that the “Airport Limousine Bus” is the best option as it takes us directly to the hotel. Or, rather, it takes us to Shimbashi Station and we will have to walk from there (but since I have done this already…). Mother is a bit exhausted on the way into Tokyo and we are split up as the bus is so full. I do not have a chance to talk to her as I look out the window on the way back into the city – occasionally pointing something out to her as we pass. I am sure she has her eyes closed for some of it…It is about an hour and a half into the city.

Eventually we arrive and make our way, clumsily with the luggage, to the hotel. She is impressed. Very nice. Particularly the view out of the window.


After a bit of relaxation but before we can both fall asleep we agree a bit of dinner is in order so off we go in search of food. The Ginza area of Tokyo is just around the corner for us so we head off in that general direction making our way through the labyrinth of walkways (at different levels) until we find ourselves in the middle of what many must think of when they hear the name “Tokyo”: Skyscrapers, very expensive places to buy clothing (many of which, disappointingly, we recognise from Europe and North America) and expensive restaurants. The glittering lights and impressive store-fronts do not bode too well for finding somewhere to eat so we eventually settle on a small place on the first floor (above the ground floor) that is selling sushi. Their menu was one we understood (lots of pictures) and looked reasonably priced (not too many “0”s).

Food Display in Restaurant

Our first meal in Japan and it has to be sushi, doesn't it? A small place around the corner from our hotel in Ginza. Well, not as good as I would have liked. The service is not terribly good and we spot a few gai-jin (foreigners) at the sushi bar itself (not a good sign – only locals would have been preferable). We are seated beside a mother and her young child who appears to not be interested in anything on the menu despite his mother having ordered it for him. He is more interested in climbing around and under the table. I eventually decide to start with an interesting looking soup which ends up being a whole crab in soup (a bit tricking getting the bits out of the shell which has been soaking in very hot broth) and mother starts with a bit of a noodle soup – I think she did better than myself. We end up splitting a bit of sushi which is quite good but not anything we have not seen before…The place consists of a few tables against a wall (and a side room behind from which many sounds and smells emerge during our stay but whose occupants remain a mystery) then a few steps up and along the other wall a sushi bar with a few chefs preparing food chatting away to the customers. Not terribly trending nor terribly original but not too bad. Mother picks up the bill but that is the deal – Since I paid pretty much for the whole trip (except her flight but, basically, all hotels, and transport) she is supposed to pay for all the meals.

Kabuki-za Theatre

We head back to the hotel satiated and content. An early night (!). Neither of us knows how many hours of jet-lag we are suffering from (mother slept on the plane, lucky her) – particularly since we came from opposite ends of the globe!

Day 3 - Tokyo

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