I'm planning to post this as a day-by-day report here. I think it reads best this way. Then I'll also submit the whole thing for the archive.
So without further ado ... Tink's Hairdresser's (a/k/a Alan Taylor's) Trip to Japan, November 2 to 15, 2005
I love how a trip like this comes together! You sort through so many options, and then one day it just gels.
This trip was on-again, off-again for several years. Last year a coworker went and loved the country. She said flat-out: "Go for 3 weeks."
Okay, easy for HER to say that. She's very clever and managed to snag free airfare.
That airline promotion is long-gone, and for me, well let's just say I signed my bank account over to the airline. I get custody back some time next year.
So I was looking at some of the parts of Japan I wanted to visit. "That looks nice." "Ooh, this place looks like fun." Then I added it up, and it came to about 5 grand. No, no way.
I almost gave up on the idea, and then I tried scaling it back to the bare minimum: 5 nites in Tokyo in a really cheap hotel, do a few days at Disney, get a quick tour of the city, and come home. This I could afford.
So then it was a matter of expanding it a little, to the point where the trip seemed more worthwhile. Here's how it ended up: 12 nites of hotels in all, and they are "middle path" (neither extreme of cheap nor expensive; think Sheraton).
I'll start in Tokyo, for 5 nights. Day trips to Disney.
Then 5 nights in Kyoto (everyone's second city, the first time they visit Japan), doing some day trips from there by train. Then back to Tokyo for 2 nights.
One night I was flipping back and forth between Hotels.com and tripadvisor.com. Get a listing, read the description, switch over to read the reviews, back to check on availability, look at photos, check reviews, etc. Faster and faster and faster until it was all a blur ... it became a Perfect Storm of internet information and the answers appeared:
Shinjuku New City Hotel in one of the entertainment districts of Tokyo for 5 nites, about $150 per. Hotel Royal Kyoto for 5 nites, about $125 per. Then a splurge for my last 2 nights in Tokyo, at the fabulous New Otani for about $240 per. All booked very simply thru Hotels.com.
Traveling solo, a guy in his forties, armed with a sense of adventure, and let's see if we can manage with the language barrier and everything.
And I'm off!
Day 1: Wednesday, November 2, 2005:
Empire State Building to Tokyo Tower
The car service had a Russian driver to start my Japan trip. I got to the airport in plenty of time for the noon flight, and changed some money. I'll be using a hybrid money form in this report. Japanese Yen are basically pennies. The exchange rate is a little more favorable for Americans, so you might get 100 Yen with, say, 94 pennies. I'm just going to pretend the rate is exactly 1 Yen = 1 Penny.
Then I'm going to quote things in dollars, so I might say "you buy a $1.30 train ticket." This is more relevant than saying a $1.22 train ticket, because when you get there you will buy a $1.30, only without the decimal point, i.e, you'll buy a 130 Yen ticket.
This is honestly the way I thought about money - I never really thought in Yen, only in dollars. A bottle of water is listed on the vending machine as 120 - okay, that's $1.20 to me.
My flight was on Japan Air Lines - might as well start with a themed ride! What I discovered is that when you step on that plane, you're basically in Japan. It is a reasonably bilingual part of Japan, with the most important information being given both ways. However, most of the printed materials are in Japanese, so if you want reading material, bring it along. Fortunately there is a mini-TV on the seat back.
The staff speak "tourist English" and are very professional and helpful - it's just that, given the language barrier, you will notice the Japanese customers are having a little more substantial transactions with the staff. I think this is reasonable to expect.
Now this is a 13 hour flight going from New York over western Canada and Alaska. You go through many time zones and pass the International Dateline, which isn't one of those internet scams, it has something to do with time zones. You do a Twilight Zone flight where you take off at noon on Wednesday and land at 4 pm on Thursday in Japan!
Now to put those 13 hours in perspective, it's enough time to watch Airport, Airport 1975, Airport '77, Airplane!, Passenger 57, Red Eye, and Flightplan in one sitting. Of course if you did that, you'd never get on another plane, and you'd have to book passage on a boat home!
I did find the time of the trip to be a pain. It's an AWFULLY long time to be just sitting there. Of course you must get up every so often and exercise. This was tricky for me in my window seat, because the person next to me was Mr. Iron Bladder who didn't move, I swear, for about the first 7 hours of the flight. So I always had to excuse myself over him and his mother, both Japanese, to get out.
The best way to think about it is that it's not a flight, it's a day. And you break the day into chunks. Now I'm reading, now I'm watching a movie. Now I'm going for a walk and a bathroom break. Now I'm watching a different movie. Now I'm eating dinner, now I'm listening to classical music ... And the individual activities are pretty pleasant, so you just have to be very patient and focus on whatever you're doing at the time.
The food was above-average for an airplane, and it was real meals plus snacks. They've mastered the art of serving food and drinks at the same time. I wish they'd give JetBlue a seminar on this.
I found the seatback entertainment system very useful, because I'd brought little reading material. Some of the films were in Japanese, so this was my first chance to see how well my language study had gone. Unfortunately I understood very little of it, because people were talking so fast and not asking "Where is the train station?" It was even movies I knew, War of the Worlds and Batman Begins for example. So this didn't bode well for my understanding of ride dialog later. Cinderella Man was in English, so I enjoyed that.
Every so often they would show little videos on the master screen up front. One of them suggested exercises you could do, little neck rolls, hand movements, dancing your feet around, etc. They omitted the most relevant one, which would be standing at the side of the plane, pounding your fists against the wall and screaming "LET ME OUT OF HERE! I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!"
Eventually, 9 hours into the flight, Mr. College Graduate in the window seat figures out that the remote has a "LANG" button which switches a program to English. "OH..."
Well that's better. Also, the announcements are bilingual. The staff gives you your food choices in English.
So we land, and honestly it was a little amazing, to think that this huge machine lifts off, then stays aloft for 13 hours, then just touches down on the other side of the world. It really is pretty profound.
I did a little "Ja - Pan!" as I put my 2 feet on the tarmac, happy not so much to be in Japan as to be ANYWHERE BUT ON AN AIRPLANE.
From the airport I took the Narita Express train to Tokyo Station and on to Shinjuku Station. You have to "reserve" this train ($26), but you often can do so about a half hour before the train leaves.
I saw this as a slightly better choice than the Limousine Bus which is about the same cost. Gotta come to terms with these trains at some point.
Arriving at the platform, you see the first evidence of the Tokyo train system. Spaces are marked out on the platform for various trains, and various cars in those trains. Everything is VERY orderly. The train was pretty nice, not too crowded at this early evening hour. Tokyo seems to be a city with a lot of neon, neon that moves. It's quite Vegas-y in spots.
Now Shinjuku station is THE BUSIEST TRAIN STATION IN THE WORLD. I step out and it just seems like complete chaos. The station seems to have more sides than are possible in geometry. It's beautiful and dazzling, an explosion of color and light. People are moving in a million directions at once, and I really have no idea of where to go. I have a map but it's buried somewhere in my luggage. And with blurry eyes after a 13 hour flight and another hour or so in the airport and another hour on the express train, I'm really not in a mood to dig through my stuff.
So I ask a cabdriver if he knows the hotel. He doesn't. Then I ask another. Same story. What is this, I thought this was a relatively small district? Anyway, here's where it really became interesting.
A young guy, maybe 20, overheard this, and stepped in to see if he could offer some help. His English was so-so. And he was with 3 friends, who didn't seem to be as interested in getting involved but allowed him some leeway.
Anyway, he offered to help me try to find the place on foot, so off we went. Now he broke off from his 3 friends to help me, and we walked for maybe 6 or 7 minutes all around this crooked station, and he presented me with a building and did the international "Voila!" body language.
Only problem was, it wasn't the right hotel. It was like, CityView Hotel or something. I needed New City Hotel. So I communicated this to him, and he didn't know what to do. Then he pulled out his cell phone and contacted someone I could talk to in English. Now there was a great commotion all around, and I could barely hear the guy on the phone. I really couldn't make any headway, and told them both this. So we hung up, and at this point out of desperation I said "chizu" (map) and spent about 5 minutes searching through my luggage (honestly I had a bad reaction to the dry air on the plane, and staring at a little TV screen so much - my eyes were stinging and I could barely see). I eventually found the map and we were able to locate the hotel - it's right near Shinjuku Central Park or Shinjuku Chuo Park (which is the same thing). He said in effect, "Ah yes." And then he walked with me for another 6 or 7 minutes - remember he's broken off from his group to do this - and we arrived at a better part of the station, and he was able to communicate to a cabdriver where to take me.
Now in America at this point, I'd be thinking about paying the guy something. However, I knew from research that in Japan they don't want tips and are even insulted if you try to suggest one.
You think I'm being cheap; this is really the system, I didn't want to offend someone on my first night in Tokyo. So I just thanked the guy profusely and got into the cab. It was just a minimum fare, $6.60, and there we were at Shinjuku New City Hotel.
I checked in, and went up to my room overlooking the park. Nice room, I'm happy to see a decent amount of space. Hotels.com rates this place 2 1/2 stars, and I agree. There are 2 twin beds. Bathroom is fine, and it's clean and quiet here. It's basic rather than luxury; it suits my needs.
The service at this hotel is terrific, and the location is fine. It turns out to be a pleasant 15 minute walk from the station - or you can take a shuttle bus. And they have a very nice English-friendly restaurant.
I unpacked, showered, etc., and my head was still spinning from the treatment I received from that young guy. You hear stuff like that all the time about Japan, but when it actually happens to you, it's still a surprise.
I went down and had my first Japan meal in the hotel restaurant: spaghetti with clams and a spicy soy sauce flavoring - quite delicious. This plus ice cream was $19. Had first experience with the "no tipping" rule in restaurants. This is tricky, especially when the service is good. I wanted some kind of flashing sign in 5-foot high letters to tell me "No tipping. Really. It's the culture. It's true. Everything you've read is true. Just leave without tipping, it's okay, really."
Anyway I went over to the front desk to confirm this, because it really is awkward the first time. He laughed and confirmed it. I pre-paid for tomorrow's breakfast buffet, $14. He tells ME my 4-digit room number! This is good to know; if I forget my room number I can always check at the front desk. Also if I forget my name.
I didn't actually see Tokyo Tower yet.