Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Yeah, that was not a comfortable trip. I tried to sleep lying down on the two seats but that did not work as my head either hung out into the aisle or was resting on the metal of the arm rest against the window. I did manage a few hours but most of the time I had my eyes closed and decidedly NOT sleeping.

We travelled an interesting route that I do not recall having travelled before: North from London over Scandinavia then north of Russia until returning south across Korea and into Japan. As we made land-fall in Japan I was excited to see snow in the mountains on the north coast - Very close to where we will be skiing. As we were coming in for a landing I was not supposed to have my phone on but I quickly turned it on to take a few pictures. Amazing. As we approached Tokyo the mountains were left behind as was the snow. As on my previous trip we followed the coast to the north of Narita airport before landing. The green-grey sign in topiary on the side of the runway welcoming us to Tokyo was a relief after the 12 hour trip and a reminder that a lot of the signs here will, thankfully, be in English.

I always find it funny arriving by myself in a foreign country and particularly one where I do not speak the language. Well, technically, that is not entirely true as I did take several years of night courses in Japanese but my memory is such that this has resulted me in speaking little more than hello and good morning (in Japanese, you understand, of course). I have done this before in Tokyo so this time I was bit more prepared for the craziness that is the train stations in the middle of the city…but we are ahead of ourselves.

Arrival at Narita

I made a quick call to Mel after we arrived as I was making my way to immigration. I mentioned to her how cool it was that my phone actually worked - This was actually quite a concern because Japan has long been known for using a mobile phone standard that is different than anywhere else in the world. In these days of 3G though, my newer phone has no problems with it. The first time I visited I had to rent a phone for my visit so it is nice that my phone can be used if my mother’s does not and my phone has the added bonus of being used for Internet access should Wi-Fi present itself (several of the hotels we have booked have this - I checked, of course, before booking). Three minutes was all I needed to assure Mel I had arrived alright and that she could go back to sleep.

Immigration was simple - On arrival in Japan you complete a landing card that is then stapled into your passport. On departure the card is removed and proves that you left when you said you would. Only a chance for a brief “ohaio gozaimas” to the un-talkative agent before he stapled and filed then ushered me through to the baggage hall. Picking up my bag I headed out into the airport…

My mother is not arriving until this evening so it is up to me to get to the hotel, check-in then return to the airport in time to pick her up. So, I need a return ticket to the airport that takes me to the hotel. Heading down the escalators I made my way to the trains and…confusion. A local train service also operates here which is cheaper but takes far longer to get into the city (of course) - The Narita Express is the quicker and easier option with much newer trains as well. Walking over to the Narita Express ticket office the queue was quite long and looking around me I spotted the travel information centre so figured I would go there and see if I could book my tickets but also exchange my vouchers for our JR Rail Passes as well (though we bought the passes they are only issued when you arrive in the country - we have purchased a six day pass and since we do not wish to use them until we go to Kyoto I also checked to make sure we could exchange them for the pass itself ahead of the time we want to start using it…not being sure that wherever we were at the time we needed to start using them we would have somewhere to exchange them…follow?).

I stood in the small queue waiting for a teller in the Travel Information Centre when I was approached by a staff member who said it would be a better deal to pick up a “combination ticket” that was an airport express ticket but also something called a “Suica” (that he never did explain fully but assured me it was a good thing to have for travel in Tokyo). Being a bit jet-lagged I shrugged my shoulders and went with it. It turns out this “Suica” card is just a brand name for an “IC” card stored value transport card that can be used throughout Japan and, of most interest now, in Tokyo. It works on trains, buses and subways (as well as drink machines and some stores as well). It can be topped up everywhere as well so it started with me today at 1,500 yen which is not a lot but will certainly be good enough for the next few days here!

I made my way through the long stainless-steel entrance gate using the ticket I had been given (put it in at one end and pick it up at the other - a good 8 feet distant) then down to the platform to catch my train. The ticket is for a specific train and a specific seat on that train. I waited only minutes for the ultra-modern “NEX” (Narita Express) train to arrive with a somewhat blunt front nose…The luggage racks at each end of every car have combination locks you can use (with the assurance that you can retrieve your luggage at the end of the line should you forget your combination) but I did not bother - Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world but, mind you, there are lot of foreigners on this train…

Onboard the Narita Express

My seat was very comfortable as we quickly made our way to Tokyo station. I was startled to see the new addition to the Tokyo skyline since I last visited: The Tokyo Sky Tree - The tallest free-standing tower in the world with, supposedly, amazing views. It certainly looks a lot more modern than the Tokyo Tower which we visited on our last visit.

Tokyo Skytree

I have been over-analyzing the trip from the airport as I do not want to get too lost and would like to get to the hotel, settle and relax a bit before heading back to pick up my mother this evening. So, I had seen that there is a VERY local station just outside the hotel but noticed it is on a small subway line in the city so decided to make it easier and simply catch a local JR train to a bigger station that is only a bit further away. Tokyo is confusing in that there are Japan Rail (JR) rail lines as well as numerous subway lines operated by different companies cross-crossing all over the city. The map of all of this is a thing of nightmares but a bit of experience and you get used to it as long as you know where you are going you can piece the trip together…

Arriving at Tokyo Station I made my way up from floor “-4” to catch the JR Yamanote train on floor “-1” (or something) to Hamamatsucho (“Yamanote” being the train that does the “circle” route around the centre of Tokyo so most people find themselves on it at one point or another). Yes, Tokyo Station was unbelievably busy and there are signs everywhere - Never mind the advertising even just looking at the signs to get to the various transport options is confusing enough. I managed to lug my luggage around and board the local train - causing a bit of a fuss as I took up some space on the train. Thank goodness it was past rush hour. These local trains are amazing though - so much more room than London tube trains - These have very wide central aisles with small seats along each wall. You can see the length of the train as there are no doors between cars and the ceilings of the cars are festooned with not only straps to hold but also paper advertising sheets…None of it phases the locals, of course.

At the train station it took a bit of time to figure out what exit I should go through. I knew the hotel was on the other side of a park immediately adjacent to the station but just how to get around it was a bit of a mystery. I ended up taking my luggage down a flight of steps to the street and walking along it until I reached the harbour then turned right. I had found the hotel. Though, unfortunately, they were not ready for us yet. Check in is 3 pm and it was not even noon. I tried to sweet talk the lady at the desk but she was not having it…our room was simply not ready but she suggested I could try again a bit later…I was able to leave my luggage with the porter, thank goodness, so no matter what I did I would not have to carry it around with me.

Intercontinental Tokyo Bay

We are staying at the “Intercontinental Tokyo Bay” which, if it is anything like the lobby, looks to be very nice indeed. A bit over-the-top in terms of godiness though with ornate chandeliers, high-backed Napoleonic chairs, ornate carpets, etc.

Intercontinental Tokyo Bay Lobby

There are a number of restaurants here but they all look quite expensive so I thought I would take the opportunity to look around a bit and get a cheaper bite to eat. The guys at the front door with the top hats wished me good day as I headed out to explore.

Immediately beside the hotel (to the north) is an office building. Next to that is a ferry terminal. This was interesting. Entering I saw that they were offering ferry services to the local “Tokyo Islands” which often take several hours to get to by boat. All of the signs are in Japanese but there are a few stores in here selling food and there is a small cafe though this was beginning to get very busy as it was now getting very close to noon.

Returning to the rather cool outdoors I was in a large circular open area with a rather tall and odd ship’s mast planted in the middle complete with rigging and a pirate (!). Interesting.


Heading towards the harbour behind I spent a few minutes watching the activity around some ferries moored alongside only feet away. The harbour here is not terribly exciting with a few warehouses and other buildings on the other side but off to the far right I could make out the impressive “rainbow suspension bridge” that crosses over to “Daiba” which looks on the map like a number of shopping centres, amusement areas and offices. As a matter of fact I could clearly see the Fuji TV building with it’s striking massive observation ball (orb?) suspended between two towers.

Heading away from the harbour and back through the open area with the pirate (!) I could see that surrounding the area there were places where people were sitting eating and several planted areas. The street here passes under the monorail track of the Yurikamome Line that travels from the JR Shinbashi Station about a half mile down the road, past the hotel (there is a station just outside the ferry terminal I mentioned before), across the Rainbow Bridge to eventually end up in Toysu on the other side of the harbour.

Under the Monorail Track Near the Hotel

Having done a bit of sightseeing in the local area now was seriously a time to look for food as it was pushing on towards noon. Walking to the hotel earlier I had spotted a branch of the local “Sukiya” chain which looked quite promising - Looking at the pictures that festooned the windows it seems to serve meat and other accompaniments on top of rice - Donburi is the only sort of equivalent I can think of in my experience of eating Japanese. The prices looked good too but I could see walking up the street that the place was packed with salarymen and I was certainly not going to order takeaway (too cold outside and did not really fancy eating it in the lobby of the hotel). Looking around I could see that they were everywhere - Only an hour or so earlier it had been quite quiet but was now the definite lunch-time rush with suits drifting around in packs. I spotted several going into a small doorway beside a corner store that looked fairly “local” - nondescript and popular - so had a look at the menu posted on a board outside. It consisted of only a few, reasonably priced, dishes and obviously catered to the office crowd. Well, life is too short…

Heading in I found myself in a queue waiting for a table while the obviously busy waitress went back and forth from the till to the eating area up some stairs to the left. There were another set of stairs leading straight up but this seemed to be a single area for a large group of people eating from what I could see. The whole interior was worn, quite dark and very smoky - I had forgotten that it is still legal to smoke in restaurants here. Oh well, I had already committed. Eventually the group of four in front of me were shown to a table but I was only escorted 10 minutes later. Tellingly of the immediacy of lunch-time there was no one behind me. I was shown to an empty table that seated probably about 8 people in the corner - One of three such tables separated from the rest of the space by a low partition. As none of the tables here were occupied I was wondering if they were hiding the obvious “gai-jin” (foreigner) from the rest of the people dining who I could hear on the other side…

Hidden Away in the Corner...

The staff could not speak a word of English but it was easy enough to look at the pictures on the menu and stab at something that looked pretty good. As is proper I was given tea straightaway without even asking…A few minutes later she came back with apologies and led me to a smaller table in the main room beside other diners - Obviously she needed the larger table back for a group that had come in. This was fine with me as I was here to experience not just the food but the local “atmosphere”. It was quite that - Much smokier out here particularly with the diners on either side puffing away.

I entertained myself by reading a copy of Wired (magazine) that I had in my rucksack (my rucksack contains the papers, my passport and other critical stuff for the trip so I was not going to leave it with the porter at the hotel). The tall open space I was seated in showed the level above me for which I saw the stairs earlier and I also saw another seating area a few steps up just below that. The walls were painted a bright red and on the back wall there was an electronic board showing numbers that were obviously orders that waitresses would go and fetch from the opening in the wall below. I did not have long to wait as my meal was placed before me.

It was, effectively, a stir fry served in alongside a series of smaller bowls containing miso soup, salad, etc. It was very tasty indeed though a bit greasy.

On finishing I figured out that I basically had to bring the slip of paper tucked under my bowl to the front till to pay - Easy. It was a very good price compared to what I would have paid in London.

I returned to the hotel resigned at having to sit in the lobby for a few hours before our room was available. I did, however, check again to see if my room was free. She assured me no so I told her I would sit where I could see here and check again later. I sat down and figured out how to connect to the local Wi-Fi network to pick up my email and saw her come towards me - They had found a room though not the one that had been set aside for us, would I take it? Yes, of course, thank you!

I was shown up to the room by the check-in lady and a concierge who had my bags - A few seconds of awkwardness in the lift and we were on the third floor where our room is - Helpfully, it is immediately adjacent to the lifts. The room is wonderful. When you enter the large interior immediately to the left is the bathroom (large walk-in floor to ceiling glass shower, a fancy electronic toilet and a large whirlpool-style bath) with a small table to the right with mirror.

Bathroom - Left

Bathroom - Right

Moving into the room there is a large wardrobe on the right, with a dresser (with television above) and desk beside it, then the two beds on the opposite wall and the large set of windows directly ahead looking out…at the building just down from us but, thankfully, with a good enough view of the harbour and river heading north into the city proper.

View from Window

There are two chairs and a light in front of the window so it does seem a bit more relaxing and homey.

Of course, I was only just able to grab a shower, briefly unpack, lay down to watch a bit of television (CNN! BBC!) before I had to head out to return to the airport to pick up my mother. I had noticed in the lobby that there was a shuttle service to the local JR station (a helpful slip of paper had details of the times and actually how to physically walk to the station as well…) so I decided to give it a try. It headed down the street I was just on, past Sukiya then along the same road I had walked getting to the hotel, past the train station then turned into the bus station and let us out immediately outside of it’s main floor glass doors.

Felt a bit spooky. This is the same bus station we had visited on our first visit when taking one of our many bus trips to see Tokyo and other local areas. It had the same machines, the same shop selling tour tickets, everything. Feels a lot better when something looks familiar, I have to say. Also odd that I remembered so much about it…I guess we did spend a few hours here though, to be fair. Anyway, I was not here for the bus so headed upstairs to make my way back to the train station which was the next building over.

I tell you, the trip was a lot easier with no luggage. Transferring once again at Tokyo I put myself onto the Narita Express once again for the trip to the airport and noticed on the electronic boards that the flight was slightly ahead of it’s 5:30 arrival but I knew that security and luggage would take her a bit of time. Arriving at her terminal I was surprised to see a large group of people waiting around - Obviously a lot of flights were arriving at the same time, presumably from the west (e.g. North America) due to the time of day. I found a place to perch along the railing right outside of where the passengers were emerging - Made a bit more pretty with a large arrangement of flowers. I did not have long to wait. She came through looking surprisingly chipper and in much better shape than I was feeling - Jet lag was beginning to hit.

A bit of chatter later we headed down into the train station where we returned to the travel information shop I had visited earlier to pick up Narita Express tickets into Tokyo and back to the hotel. We picked up the same deal I had been given earlier as I felt an extra “Suica” card might come in handy if either of our’s ran out of money at some point in our trip. I also exchanged the JR rail pass vouchers we had for the rail pass itself as I know there are not that many places where this can be done and I also knew that I could do this ahead of the actual time when we wanted to start using it (Sunday).

Narita Express - Trip 3

The Narita Express was a pleasant way to get back into the city but it was now dark so I could not really point out anything to my mother on the way. We did manage to catch a furtive view of the Tokyo Skytree lit up as it is at night (there are two different lighting patterns that are used on alternative days). Mother indicated she had been able to sleep on the flight but this was not altogether unexpected as she works different shifts all the time as a nurse so is able to sleep whenever and wherever, I suppose, required. She has a massive bag with her that, to be fair to her, she did not truly know would be so large when she ordered it. It is the size of a hockey or sports equipment bag and has a pull out handle with wheels but it is generally difficult to manoeuvre.

At Hamamatsucho station I figured we would take the direct, walking, route to the hotel according to the bus shuttle information I still had with me. Walking up some stairs and against all of the salaryman leaving work, we managed to find a small door leading to a staircase taking us down to ground level. This was only after a false start that took us to the base of some buildings with no obvious way down. Anyway, we walked along the small street with a fence with a park beyond and offices on the right - But well lit despite the lack of vehicle traffic. We made our way under the monorail, across the busy and VERY wide road (politely waiting for the traffic light which everyone here appears to do even when there is obviously no traffic), beside an office building to turn a corner…and arrive at our hotel.

As mother unpacked I explained to her a bit about the area then we agreed to head out for a bit of something to eat. Looking at the menus for the local hotel restaurants earlier I had pretty much dismissed that (never mind it strikes me as a bit of “giving up” - we are here to experience a bit of the local culture not simply eat in the sterile hotel). Heading out I showed her the ferry terminal and we once again crossed the street. We debated (ok, I debated) where we should eat as it was a lot quieter than when I had been about at lunch so everywhere appeared to be available for dinner. Walking back towards the train station we looked in on a few restaurants that looked fairly cheap and cheerful but where you had to purchase tickets for what you wanted in advance. We settled on Sukiya as it was much more like the diners we are familiar with in North America. In through the sliding glass doors we seated ourselves at a table against the wall on the far left with bench seating. There is bar-style seating nearer to the door but we gave that a miss - We wanted to talk to each other. Pondering the menu for a short time I made up my mind fairly quickly but mother, as she tries to be more vegetarian, took a bit longer.

I had a big bowl of rice topped with shredded marinated beef (the marinade was soaking deliciously into the rice below) with a raw egg on the side (!), some miso soup and a cold glass of Japanese wheat tea. I found from watching a diner at another table that I was to mix the raw egg in it’s bowl and pour it over my meat. Ok…A bit slimy but tasted alright. Mother had a fish-based dish that she also enjoyed. At about 400 yen each the price was certainly right and it made us feel a bit more human.

We also figured out from the Sukiya menus that they offered breakfasts and were open very early in the morning so this is a candidate for that meal - The hotel does not include breakfast and the one place I saw that offered a buffet breakfast in the hotel is quite expensive.

Further on this track we decided to visit the local corner store to see what was on offer should we wish to get breakfast from there. Wow, quite the selection. Lots of sushi and takeaway-style meals on offer along with some hot items in heaters at the check-out. Certainly a good possibility as well.

Back at the hotel we are both quite tired. I have figured out that although the Wi-Fi is free in the lobby they are demanding an extortionate amount if you want to use Wi-Fi in your room so it looks like we will be checking email downstairs. A very long day but quite productive - We are now all settled in the hotel we can properly begin our holiday.

Aside: I have had trouble sleeping so I headed down to the lobby and called my wife on Skype using the free Wi-Fi. There was no one really around and I talked to her for about an hour. It was fun to use the video to show her around.

>> Next: Day 3

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