Tokyo’s Mass Transit Miracle

00019_Trim_Moment_MomentAs new visitors, with one member in the family raised near New York City(my husband), using Tokyo’s extensive mass transit system was just another day in the park according to “the expert” in the family. I was apprehensive. With a possible language barrier and my unfamiliarity in understanding the transit system, I feared that we were going to get lost. The Shinjuku train station was a few blocks away with an amazing pedestrian tunnel connection between our hotel. The downside was that it was the busiest train station in Tokyo. Called the commuter hub for the greater Tokyo area, it had 200 entrances and exits, multiple train and subway lines and over 3.5 million people using the station every day according to popular sites on the internet. I suggested heading for a nearby subway entrance in the opposite direction. It would be less daunting with one line to navigate.

Descending a wide staircase near Tokyo’s pristine government center where glass and steel buildings towered over us like giants, we walked past white tiled walls until we reached a hallway where a large map of the Toei subway line hung on the wall. Kiosks lined up below the map where tickets could be purchased. For a moment, we all stood gazing at the map dumbfounded. It was like trying to guess what kind of information was flowing through each line on a circuit board! Multiple colored lines interrupted with numbers and letters enclosed in a rectangle spread across the map.

What did it all mean? Fortunately, the names of the stations along the lines and the districts that they were in were displayed in Romanized characters. I knew what area of town we needed to get to. It was Asakusa. Sensoji Temple was located there. But how would we determine the cost of the ticket? There was no manned ticket booth to go to for help. What line should we take? Several routes went in that direction. As we debated what to do, miraculously a station attendant appeared. She was smartly dressed in her dark uniform and politely asked us if we needed help. You can imagine our relief when she spoke English!  She explained how to use the information we were looking at.  Knowing where we were and where we wanted to go, were some of the details we needed to input into the kiosk which had an English optional screen. The numbers on the map were costs in yen that we needed to deposit into the machine. After our onetime tutorial, we were familiar with the process.  It was that easy!

What I noticed immediately when we started using the trains, was the distinct cleanliness of the stations and the cars. Unlike New York’s uncomfortable plastic seats used in the subways, Tokyo has cloth seats set parallel against the walls. The floors and windows are spotless. A digital and audio announcement both in Japanese and English alerts you regarding the next stop along the line. We ended up using Japan’s rails for the duration of our visit.  Later when we dared to use the Shinjuku Station, we found it easy to navigate with digital monitors also displayed in English.

Other aspects that make using the transit system desirable and fun were the great shops and food counters that are in the stations.  Again, spotless and accessible, I was pulled into countless choices of ready-made foods behind glass displays.  From bento boxes to rice rolls and crepes, I had a hard time deciding what I should purchase.  In the end we all agreed to get different things and share.

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Shinjuku

I woke up to a room seeping with morning daylight as it escaped the edges of the black-out curtains.  Our room is on the 36th floor of the Keio Plaza and the white light of dawn is intense. The room is spacious!  Uncommon in a city where hotel rooms are notorious for tight quarters. As I sit at the desk that faces a wall, I quickly take in the the two low queen size beds, night stand in between them, the table and two stuffed chairs that stand next to the large floor to ceiling window, the dresser and flat screen TV.  It is a very nice room.

Trying to keep costs down, I had booked a smaller room.  To our surprise, we were told that we were going to be upgraded at no extra charge.  It was an awesome gesture by the “check-in” agent.  Our comfort seemed to be of some concern as I noted the agent frown at our booking information.  They had larger rooms available and would we like to take those instead?  Needless to say we were thrilled.

From the moment we disembarked from our plane, we have been treated with courtesy. I cannot express how wonderful it feels to be received with a kind gesture(a perfunctory bow or smile), willing guidance as we sought a limo bus(one of the options available to Tokyo that takes you directly to your hotel) and overall respectful attitude. How easy it is to reciprocate!

Our first night in Tokyo was a sensory overload!  After we rested a bit in our hotel, we decided to embrace the night and explore our immediate surroundings.  Shinjuku is known for its night life. Clubs, bars, restaurants and shops are adorned with bright lights. It seems like Las Vegas on steroids! The energy from the crowds and the lights fed my enthusiasm.

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We didn’t get far before our stomachs slowed us down.  We needed to find food!  I pulled out my smart phone to get some ideas from Yelp.  There were Ramen, Sushi, Yakiniku(Korean BBQ), Teppanyaki and other restaurants near us. We settled for a Ramen joint that had rave reviews. Fuunji. As we walked up to the restaurant, we noticed to our dismay that a line was spilling out of the restaurant and forming across the street. Our first family “pow wow”centered on “were we willing to wait for our dinner?”  The reviews were so convincing that we decided to wait along with the 20 plus people outside.

Fuunji is a small place with about 15 seats. Just inside the entrance stands a vending machine used to place your order.  Pictures of Ramen dishes and prices line the top of the machine.  You insert your yen and then chose the type of Ramen dish you want.  A ticket pops out which you hand to the cooks as you sit down. The place is so small that you stand in line directly behind the guests as they are eating. A little awkward, but we’re in Japan and the locals don’t seem to care. The ramen was amazing! The broth was flavorful, the meat tender, the molten egg sumptuous, the noodles a perfect texture. Wow, I’m getting hungry just writing about it! So happy Yelp led us to this place. And so glad folks take the time to share their great experiences.

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Afterward, we continued our exploration. Through narrow alleyways where cars are prohibited, we walked past strange sights like the Robot Restaurant, Godzilla peering over the Hotel Gracery and a conveyer belt idly carrying sushi to patrons sitting both in booths or at the bar. This was a place we were going to visit on another day.

Today we make our way to the oldest Buddha temple in Tokyo, Sanso Ji and the Sumida River and surrounding area. Impressions to follow.

 

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Bright Lights, Big City

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Akihabara

DSC00194 (2)Prior to booking a hotel in Tokyo, I became well aware of how vast Tokyo was in land area.  We would end up using most of our day traveling if I didn’t place us strategically within the city.  With Akihabara as a focal point, I searched for reasonable lodgings nearby and developed an itinerary from there.  Five days were allocated to visiting Tokyo during our 14 day visit in the country.  We weren’t going to see all of Tokyo in that time but I could mix enough culture, night-life, and culinary experiences to give us a great feel for the city.

Akihabara was one of the first places we visited.  Using one of two subway systems, the Toei line, it was about 20 minutes from our hotel.  I had learned the night before that shops usually open at 10 am on weekdays.  That fit right in with our “lazy-boy” schedule (I have to note here that prior to this trip with family, a discussion was brought up about start times for the day.  By establishing a time everyone could live with, I was eliminating the typical complaining that arose among all of us.  We came to a compromise. 10 am was acceptable by everyone).

Missing “rush hour”, we emerged from the subway tunnels to a plethora of sights and sounds.  Music pulsated over loud speakers, filling the streets with a kind of night club vibe.  Bright colored buildings were decorated with doe-eyed characters from popular Animes.  The clanging sound of arcade and video games flowed out into the streets from gaming centers where doors were pulled back, disappearing into the walls.  The whole feel of the area was charged with energy and I couldn’t help but feel pumped up with enthusiasm.

DSC00198 (2)As we walked along a side street patterned in cobble stone grey, an arcade appeared to our left.  Stairs descended into darkness and lured my game crazed kids.  I followed with a reluctant curiosity.  Set up in a basement, this arcade had rows of video game machines that reminded me of the video slots in Vegas.  The bulky casings of the machines were rimmed with neon colors of blue, purple and green.  Scenes of the game storylines flashed from the screens as we walked by.  Most of the machines were occupied by young adults.  In a corner, my kids found a Pokemon game and immediately figured out the currency and began to play.  Apparently, games had no language barriers.

I wandered around the building while they played.  Going back upstairs, I found another set of stairs and began to climb the narrow passage.  On the second floor was a Maid Café.  This was another “must-do” while we were in Tokyo.

Maid Cafés are a popular cosplay diner/bar.  Posted all over the internet as an experience you should try while in Akihabara, I was very curious about this “pop-culture” trend gaining momentum in Tokyo.  A cover charge is paid before entering the bar.  We were seated at a table and a menu listing a set of experiences is offered. We went all out and ordered the deluxe package.  Treated as masters, the patrons are drawn into the fantasy world of anime.  This meant a maid brought us fuzzy bunny ears to put on.  Not sure why.  The waitress’s English was very limited and my Japanese entailed only basic survival phrases.  Possibly we were transformed into an anime character?  A  meal of cheese burgers, fries, and a drink, followed by a dessert was part of the package.  Before we ate the Maid had us repeat a phrase(moi moi cue).  Later, I learned that the words were incantations used in the world of anime to create a magical experience while eating the food (Well, something was needed because the food wasn’t anything to brag about!)  A photo op with the maid was included along with a cute song and dance she performed on the club’s stage.  It is an experience that should be tried at least once.

IMG_4785After “playing around” we got to business and started the search for the perfect anime item to buy.  For my son, it was an exquisitely formed figurine as beautiful as the sculptured statues created by Praxiteles, Michelangelo, or Rodin.  Walking along the main drag called Chuo Dori, my oldest son scoured the stores.  There were department stores where we searched on 8 different levels.  There were tiny boutiques.  There were second-hand stores that reminded me of swap-meets.  From figurines to books, pins, pencils, pocketbooks, DVD’s and posters, anime was imprinted on everything.  Every now and then my kids were drawn into the many crane game stores that promised a chance to grab an anime stuffed character with the deposit of a coin.  The streets seemed to be packed with more gaming centers than shops.

The Mandarake, Animate, Kotobukiya and Lashinbang were a few places we visited.  They were well stocked with merchandise.  Sega and Taito Station were the larger gaming centers packed with every game imaginable.  For an Anime fan, Akihabara is truly a mecca that must be visited once in a lifetime.

The Flight

May 16, 2017

Sitting in United Airline’s economy class, I scanned the menu displayed on the seat back monitor.  I couldn’t keep my attention on the information.   A stream of thoughts flowed in the back of my mind. I wondered how I was going to acclimate when I landed in Japan. The 14 hour flight along with arriving midday the following day was surly going to disrupt my internal clock. Anxiety slowly began to rise inside of me. I worried how the trip was really going to play out. I was in charge of the itinerary with family members depending on me to have a great experience (talk about pressure!). Did I in fact schedule touring days efficiently? Was I ready to act upon contingent plans that deviated from the itinerary if bad weather, transportation delays or illness occurred? What kind of difficulties would I face in a country where English wasn’t a widely used language? Did I bring enough cash? Did I pack appropriately? I had to stop this self talk!

Trying to shake off these nagging questions, I pulled myself into the present.  Glancing around I noticed that passengers had settled into a restful state. Hushed voices filtered across the darkened cabin where window shades had been pulled down to facilitate sleep.  Having left the San Francisco International Airport at noon, we would experience perpetual daylight during the entire flight as the sun chased us around the globe.  It was time to get comfortable.

I pulled off my shoes and allowed my stocking feet to rest on my carry-on that was tucked under the seat.   With snacks, a bottled water, my journal and ipad set up for easy access, I assessed the rest of my family.  To my right, my oldest son was playing his video game.  On my left, my husband had pulled his baseball cap over his eyes and was trying to sleep.  And behind me, my youngest son was bopping to music that streamed from his headphones.  Conversation with them was not going to happen.  It was time to rent a movie.

Time dragged on.  After two movies and a short game played over the back seat monitor, I pulled myself out of my seat and walked to the furthest bathroom to stretch my legs.  Sitting on my bum for four hours straight was starting to annoy me.  My husband had left his assigned seat hours ago to find empty seats in the back of the plane.  I found him and my youngest son stretched out and fast asleep.  Errrr!  I wasn’t sleepy. Damn. I hated my inability to find sleep while flying.

This was the hardest part of the trip for me.  Trying to sleep is a monumental task, nearly impossible. A few years earlier, I had decided to try Ambien on a 10 hour flight to the Fijian Islands.  On that trip, I needed to be refreshed when we reached our first leg of the journey.  Two more connections were waiting for us with a final destination to a smaller island in the Fijian archipelago. Our a total “in-transit” time was going to end up close to 24 hours.

The drug had knocked me out. There was a sense of unease when I woke.  First, I couldn’t remember falling asleep. Second, I simply popped awake as we were landing.  As if a switch was flipped on.  What if I hadn’t “popped” awake to walk off the plane?  The experience left me apprehensive and since then drugs are off limits.  I let nature rule but my nature is ruthless.  I am still searching for a better way to endure long flights.

The pilot’s voice finally came over the intercom, announcing our impending approach to Narita Airport. I gazed outside to see verdant green spread out below as far as the eye could see.  I was expecting a metropolis of concrete, tall buildings, highways.   Then I remembered that Narita Airport is nearly 40 miles from Tokyo.  Rice fields, rolling, forested hills and a smattering of small towns covered the immediate area.  Excitement began to build as I was about to embark on my own personal discovery of the “Land of the Rising Sun”.

 

We’re going to Japan

Akihabara
Anime & Manga Capital

Participation and Preparation Serves to create an Exceptional Experience.

Akihaba….what? My mind couldn’t quite comprehend the word. I asked my son to repeat it.
“Akihabara, mom. That’s the place I would like to visit if I could choose a travel destination.”
I was at a bit of a loss. I was familiar with a lot of places but I had never heard of Akihabara.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Japan,” was the reply.

In my never-ending love of travel, I decided this particular year to have my sons more involved in choosing our vacation destination(even though I was paying the bill). I had my reasons. First, they were young adults and their input was valuable. Second, I noticed that my oldest son was having a lousy year at college. His classes were difficult, frustrating(Civil Engineering). His whole demeaner became lackluster. Possibly this vacation could be something positive he could focus on. And lastly, I hoped to encourage enthusiasm for family travel no matter how much change was on the horizon for our family(the alarm I felt nearing the empty-nester phase).

Akihabara, I quickly found out as my son pulled it up on his computer screen was a district in Tokyo that was known as the mecca of Anime and Manga. As an avid follower of this Japanese form of entertainment, my son was interested in visiting the shops that sold this art in a variety of mediums, from books to videos to figurines.

So, the journey began before we even set foot on Japanese soil. I suggested to my son that he look up all the places he wanted to visit in Akihabara. This way we wouldn’t be randomly wandering around wasting time and missing out on all the cool stuff he hoped to find. I asked my youngest son what he would like to do in Japan. As a theatre major, he immediately said, “lets go to a kabuki theatre.” And I filled in the rest of our itinerary with cultural sites, must see landmarks, eateries and parks.

We chose May to visit Japan. May had lots of pluses. The peak season hadn’t started yet, so prices were lower. The rainy season was near its end if not over. Tourists flocking to Tokyo hadn’t begun so crowds were relatively low. But in Tokyo, a city of 38 million(Greater Tokyo), I don’t know how we could avoid crowds.

As I searched the internet regarding our pending trip, I came across three great tips that helped our vacation run extremely smooth. First, rent a pocket wifi when you arrive. Second, buy your train pass before arriving in the country. Third, download a Japanese translator/language program.

Japan is definitely above the rest where technology is concerned. Rental pocket wifi shops were at the Narita airport but I had found a site online where I could have a pocket wifi delivered to our hotel. The wifi gave us access to all the important navigation tools we needed during our stay. Google maps, TripAdvisor, Yelp, making reservations and more. It allowed the independence we sought to enjoy our trip. And gave us a better price point than our own U.S. carrier. Kudos to YouTube contributor “annaleeandjess” travel vlog for suggesting this.

Regarding the train pass known as Japan Rail or the JR Pass, I had heard that Japan had one of the most efficient rapid transportation systems in the world. Taking the train to get around made sense. We were going to see a little more of Japan than Tokyo. Suggestions came from my son’s friends that visitors outside of the country got a discounted fare when they purchased tickets before arriving. The JR not only had a train from the airport to Tokyo but also had a circle line that stopped at major sections in the city and was part of the Shinkansen(the bullet train).

Lastly, having a smattering of Japanese could only serve to enrich our experience while in the country. I downloaded a free app onto my smartphone. I learned a few helpful phrases and had the translator speak for me when I was at a loss for words.

I used visitacity.com to get a sense of how much we could see in a day. It suggested day itineraries and allowed me to adjust the itinerary to our needs. Google maps gave me a sense of distance between sites and attractions to further help with scheduling.

With a customized itinerary developed around our interests, abilities(I still had kids that liked to sleep in)and dietary habits, we were on our way to the Land of the Rising Sun.