EDITOR’S NOTE: I originally hand planned to write about this trip soon after I had taken it — in fact, the majority of this entry was written while I was actually on the trip. But the tried and true blogger excuse — I got busy (aka – I got lazy) — kicked in and whelp… here we are a year and a half later. (If there is some form of extreme blogger repentance I should be doing, please let me know.) I know that I have probably forgotten a lot of the details of the trip that I would have liked to remember — the exact feelings and thoughts that were running through my head at the time or the funny little things I had noticed — but I’m going to do my best to try to pound this sucker out… you know, for posterity.
In April 2013, I took an amazing trip to Japan — all by myself. No friends or family to rely on, just me, my suitcase, and my pocket Japanese phrasebook. At the time I was in the midst of tending to the wounds of a recent heartbreak, and I needed to get out and do something that would force me to challenge myself.
My plane took off around around 12 noon from JFK on a 14 hour flight to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. I’ll admit, I was a little afraid I would go stir crazy, or the time would just drag on and on, but I actually found that the time flew by so fast, I hardly had time to sleep.
I flew ANA, which I had read was one of the best airlines to Japan, and rightly so. The food was fantastic — a healthy Japanese dinner (salmon, sushi rice, fruit salad, soba noodles, and a whole load of pickled things, with a miso soup and green tea AND a tiny carton of Hagan Daaz ice cream for dessert!) and a not-so-Japanese penne pasta with fruit for lunch.
The plane, a Boeing 777-300ER, was super comfy and modern – with multiple USB ports to charge devices, ample leg room, and cushy seats.
Spending the majority of my time listing to Japanese language lessons and music on my phone, it was only in the final hour or two of the flight that I finally cracked open the checked-out Rough Guide to Tokyo library book I had brought along. Whoops, so much for “planning on the plane ride”.
NOTE: I will pause here and report to you without remorse I pretty much played Maroon 5’s Overexposed album on repeat the entire time, with only a bit of the 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift’s Red, and my “Japan” Rdio playlist mixed in. When flying, I want the audial equivalent of Dipsy Doodles and mac ‘n’ cheese.
In hindsight, I will tell you, for me, the hardest thing about traveling in Japan was simply getting out of this airport:
I’m not kidding. It was probably a mix of jet lag and the barrage of unreadable Japanese words written on every backlit, glassy surface that spun me into a spiraling whirlpool of “HUH”? Never before and never since then have I ever been so confused as to how to even get OUT of an airport. I swear I must’ve spent at least two hours sorting through some mass confusion of locating the *correct* booth where bullet train tickets into the city were sold and hunting down my bank ATM. By the time I found the JR East office (where the issue the combo deal SUICA card + N’Ex pass), I saw this crazy line:
I headed back up to the smaller booth for N’Ex passes only that was upstairs, only to find that they closed EXACTLY at 5pm (it was probably 5:02). Back downstairs to the dreaded line. Took FOREVER, and they wouldn’t issue JR Passes unless you were activating it that day due to “high volume”.
Safe and sound on the Narita Express or N’Ex, as the cool kids call it, I headed into Tokyo proper! From here on in the transport was pretty much smooth sailing. Not only was this train incredibly clean and modern, outfitted with comfy red stadium seating style seats, but it had awesome digital graphics in both Japanese and English that told you exactly what was going on and where you were:
Getting off Shibuya station, my taste of Tokyo was being plopped right into the classic Hachiko Square scramble crossing — neon signs hanging from every imaginable building surface, casting a other-wordly glow on the hordes of people walking every which way with shopping bags and briefcases in hand, shuffling through a pedestrian crosswalk that split in endless combinations. All the while cars impatiently waited for the light to turn green, seemingly ready to mow down anyone who dared to still be in the scramble once the vehicles regained control of the road. It was the equivalent of getting off in Times Square, during the theater rush, while on LSD, on Black Friday:
Here’s a video (not mine) of what it’s like:
I walked through the crowded streets of Shibuya, luggage in tow up to my accommodations — the wonderful Hotel Unizo. With its calm and inviting cream-colored lobby outfitted with high end finishes, it was a more luxe experience than I was expecting for the reasonable room rate. Hotel Unizo has the benefit of offering women-only floors with single person accommodations, which can be had for a great price, considering the central location of the hotel.
My room on the 8th floor was a mastery in design work — every inch optimized for both form and function — with the singular wall unit acting as equal parts TV media console + desk + closet:
When I looked at the bathroom I almost started weeping out of joy – again, great design, and everything was Laura-sized, with a mini sink, mini shower, and mini garbage can:
That scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray is stuck with an extremely low-positioned showerhead? Totally believable. I can understand why normal-sized people find fault with some Japanese accommodations – some of them are simply not designed for anyone over 5’4″.
The only thing that didn’t seem to be mini-sized was the space-age toilet of the future. Ah… Japanese toilets, how I love them! With their plethora of options — bidet buttons, and water pressure, heat seat temperature, and sound machines (yes, some toilets will play a noise to mask the sounds of you going to the bathroom – most handy in public restrooms). I’m not sure why we don’t have these toilets everywhere in the world, it would probably be a nicer, friendly place if everyone had access to a peaceful pooping experience.
If I have one essential tip to provide to anyone traveling to Japan it is to get a Japanese SIM card to put in your phone. I bought a 1GB b-mobile Visitor SIM for my unlocked Nexus4. It is important that you order the SIM online at least one week before arriving and send it to a Japanese address (such as your hotel).
Having internet access to use Google Maps was CRITICAL to my time in Japan. I’m sure I would have gotten lost a billion times without it since there are no street names (or building numbers or street signs, for that matter) in Japan! Service worked great in Tokyo and Osaka, a little less so in Kyoto. I would never travel around Japan without mobile internet.
In any case, I popped in my Japanese SIM card, followed the detailed instructions in the kit and I was set up in no time.
I arrived at the address — a random shopping building — and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. As the doors opened, I was greeted by the hostess and timidly whispered, “ichi mei” (“one person” in Japanese). I was seated towards the back of the cute cafe, opposite the bar, and my waitress informed me that it was last call for food. The restaurant was largely empty except for two tables full of girls (one large party, the other small) seated in other areas of the restaurant.
I flipped through the menu and was thrilled to see not only pictures of all of the dishes, but english descriptions. (This is often true of most restaurants in Japan!) Everything looked so good, but I decided on the sea bream and root vegetables sauté with grain mustard sauce.
After finishing my meal, I walked around the very cool cafe. The space was designed by artist Yoshitomo Nara, and his artwork appears all over the space, and even features a mini wooden house in the middle! In addition to the artwork, the decor features mismatched chairs and quirky chotchkies. So cute!
On the way back to the hotel, I spotted loads of young girls and boys out on the street, tiny little diners serving late night food, late-night video game playing, and loads of discarded broken umbrellas!
A successful first night out in Tokyo!