Bangkok Phil

Seven days in Tokyo (part 1)

Getting from Tokyo Airport, Asakusa, The Tokyo Skytree and Ueno


I shuffled forward to present my passport to the immigration officer at Tokyo's Narita Airport. He flashed me a smile. I mean a proper smile. How often do you see immigration officers do that? And then he said "I'm sorry to keep you waiting sir".

I had been standing in a queue that consisted of three people for the grand total of four minutes.

Welcome to the always super-efficient Japan. It was good to be back.

I shot a glance at my faithful travel companion. Despite a 15-hour journey, which had included a five-hour layover in Hong Kong, the wife looked remarkably chipper. But Japan has always been her dream destination. She loves every aspect of Japanese culture. She also works for a large Japanese company and thinks Japanese bosses make the best bosses in the world. She won't hear a bad word about the place.

This was our second visit to Tokyo. We first went in 2009 so it had taken us six years to get back. The problem had always been time constraints but with my wife's company being very generous with their New Year holiday allowance, we seized the opportunity to take a week-long break.

The Skyliner

We were heading to the Ueno district again. It's probably our favorite area of the city. On our previous visit, we stayed in a hotel room that was so small you had to step out into the corridor to change your mind, but this time we'd booked a whole apartment to ourselves from the Air BnB website.

Taxis in Tokyo are aimed mainly at multi-millionaires and business people on unlimited expense accounts so the most popular and ‘economical' option for getting from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo is the high-speed Keisei Skyliner, which will whisk you from A to B in just over 40 minutes.

Again it's an opportunity to see that unrivalled Japanese efficiency in action. Firstly, you purchase a seat ticket (2,200 yen per person) and then make your way immediately to the adjacent platform.

Everything is clearly signposted and the trains run every ten minutes at peak periods. Every reserved seat has ample space in front of it to store your suitcase. You don't have to summon up Herculean strength to wrestle bulky luggage on to storage racks at the end of each compartment like on so many other train systems.

The Keisei Skyliner also boasts free wi-fi for all passengers. I spent much of the journey struggling to get a decent connection but I guess it's the thought that counts.

The Skyliner station at Ueno is the end of the line so we 'de-trained' and wheeled our suitcases up the escalators and into the fading light of a wintry Tokyo late afternoon.

Our Air BnB apartment was a ten-minute walk away but our Japanese host, Yoichiro-san, had left nothing to chance and had furnished us with detailed directions on how to get there.

We trundled our suitcases through Ueno's familiar main streets, dodging the hordes of weekend shoppers in the process.

Homely digs

We found the apartment building easily enough and after a problem or two obtaining the room key (a story you can read about in another blog) we were able to access our Tokyo digs for the week ahead.

At risk of stating the obvious, the apartment was small. Maybe it was designed with a Japanese bachelor in mind but for a couple, it was certainly a squeeze. The entrance hall also served as the kitchen area and off that was a separate toilet and bathroom. The bathroom was about the size of a British telephone box. My wife mastered the art of taking a shower without soaking every surface in the vicinity far quicker than I did.

The living room was spacious enough though, provided you both rolled up your futons each morning to allow yourself room to walk around.

Yoichiro-san advertised the apartment on Air BnB as being ‘suitable for up to four people'. All I can say is that I hope the four people get on well with each other.

Feeling peckish, we wandered down to the local Lawson's convenience store in search of a snack. Lawson's are the 7-11 of Japan. They're everywhere.

I love mooching around convenience stores in foreign countries and fondling all those boxes and packets containing strange foodstuffs that you've never eaten, described in a language that you won't possibly ever understand. I settled on something that resembled a hamburger, took one bite and chucked the rest of it into a garbage bin outside.

After a good night's sleep, we were eager to hit the streets. There's always that nagging worry that you haven't packed ‘the right clothes' but we seemed to have got it spot on for a chilly Tokyo morning and single digit temperatures.

But first it was definitely time for a coffee. Everywhere you go in Tokyo, there are clusters of vending machines dispensing small cans of steaming hot coffee for little more than a dollar. They're a wonderful way to start the day.

Not only do the vending machines present a terrific opportunity to get rid of all those strange coins that you seem to accumulate but also because clutching a piping hot can between a pair of freezing cold hands is nearly as pleasurable as drinking the contents.

Asakusa

We were on our way to Asakusa, one of Tokyo's most famous Buddhist shrines, and at the risk of eliciting groans from anyone reading - a Tokyo ‘must see'. The problem with ‘must-sees' in any city of course is that they are invariably ‘touristy' and Asakusa is no exception. But even though we'd been before, it's a pleasant place to while away a couple of hours.

On our first trip to Tokyo in 2009, we never once used the Tokyo subway system but looking at the map, it was just two or three subway stops from Ueno to Asakusa so we decided to give it a go.

My wife and I are both veterans when it comes to subway systems of the world but at the risk of pissing off any hardcore Tokyophiles out there, the Tokyo system is without doubt the most confusing one I've encountered. I suppose you have to cut it some slack when you have so many lines converging on each other but in my opinion (for what it's worth) the signage is poor, there isn't anywhere near enough information in English and in many of the stations, there's a complete absence of staff to answer questions or guide lost and weary travelers.

After two days, we all but gave up on the Tokyo subway system. I thought it could be just me and my low tolerance for inadequate signage, but I was reassured when my wife, who spends hours on Asian travel-related forums, told me that apparently Japanese visitors from out of town get just as confused.

If you're intent on getting around Tokyo, then the JR Yamanote line is the way to go. It's a train system that runs above the ground and goes in a circular loop that takes about an hour to complete. The JR line stops at all Tokyo's major hot spots and even has its own designated stations. Once you've got the JR Yamanote line sussed, you can leave the subway system to the salarymen and the misguided adventurous.

We wandered around Asakusa for an hour or two. The whole area was busy with tourists taking selfies. Do you remember the days when someone with a camera would assemble a small group of friends or family to pose for a photograph and click a button on the count of three? What happened to that? It seems such a distant memory now.

Although the Buddhist shrine is undoubtedly the main attraction, an equal number of sightseers go to browse the nearby street market and to sample some of the local foods. My wife is one of those travelers who thinks in situations like this you simply have to try everything on offer. So within half an hour, I'd eaten a Japanese ice cream, a steamed bun thing with a strange red filling and something called ‘melon bread' - on account that it tasted like bread and looked like a melon.

What I did find interesting was how numerous food shops displayed a sign forbidding - or rather discouraging - people from walking around and eating food at the same time. This activity is clearly frowned upon in Tokyo and seen as ‘rather common behavior'. Or perhaps it's just Asakusa where they get the hump.

The rip-off Tokyo Skytree

Japan is an expensive country to visit. We all know that. However, in all the time I've spent there, only once have I ever felt ‘ripped off'. Step forward The Tokyo Skytree and take a well-deserved bow.

The Tokyo Skytree was opened in 2011 and is now officially the tallest broadcasting and observation tower in the world. The tower is walking distance from Asakusa and dominates the surrounding skyline, which is a godsend if you have my appalling sense of direction.

When we reached the base of the tower, there were ridiculously long queues to take the elevator to the top. Being in the middle of the school holidays obviously didn't help.

I forget exactly how many Japanese yen the ascent cost but it was enough to make me gulp or lie to the wife that I'd suddenly become petrified of heights. But there was no way she was falling for that old chestnut.

Then upon further inspection of a notice-board displaying the admission prices, it became apparent that by handing over even more money, you could join a special ‘express line' for tourists (or for those who were just in a hurry) - and then nonchalantly wave at the lower orders as you sauntered towards the elevator doors. I found the whole thing most distasteful and ‘un-Japanese'

"There's no way I'm paying that amount of dough to go up a bloody tower" I said.

"But we're on holiday" said the wife.

"You're right" I replied "two tickets for the express line please"

And we made our way inside, my wife trembling with anticipation and me with a face as long as a gasman's mac. I then had to start shedding layers of clothing because they'd turned up the heating to a ridiculous level. I genuinely felt like punching someone.

The views from the top of the observation tower were breathtaking. That said, views generally are when you're looking down from the top of a very tall structure - except we weren't even at the top. For the payment of another not inconsiderable fee, we could go up a further few levels to The Skywalk. Or was it The Skydome? Who cares, because I certainly wasn't paying it.

And the Skytree's distasteful solicitation of funds didn't end there. You could pay to have a professional photograph glazed onto a tacky souvenir plate. You could pay to enter The Star Wars Movie Experience. There was just no end to it. Families with three or four kids must have walked out of there bankrupt.

I couldn't wait to leave. I don't think I gained a second of pleasure from the whole Skytree experience. I was certainly 10,000 Yen poorer.

Our beloved Ueno

But to put smiles back on our faces, the evening was spent walking around the Ueno shopping area. This is the Tokyo we love and the Tokyo we come to see.

I'm not sure if I can refer to Ueno as a ‘working class area' but by Japanese standards, it always comes across as a bit rough around the edges, a bit more ‘low down and dirty'. We love it!

It's packed with restaurants, amusement arcades, glitzy patchinko parlours, shops selling fresh and dried seafood, discount cosmetic stores and trendy clothes shops. The whole neighborhood is like one big street party.

It's also a place where you'll hear more spoken Thai than you would in the middle of Siam Square. During the New Year period, Tokyo is one of the most popular destinations for Thai travelers. Actually, you don't even need to eavesdrop on conversations; you can spot the Thais a mile off. As the Japanese, Koreans and younger generation Chinese stroll around in their black fur-lined parkas and dark grey trench coats, there will be the sudden flash of Mahboonkrong ski jacket in a bright shade of red or yellow. And you know a Thai person is not going to be too far away.

But I'm going to leave you with this final thought from our first full day in Tokyo and I realize I might be on shaky ground here. Why is it that certain groups from certain nationalities have an uncanny ability to bring a neighborhood down and to turn a cheerful atmosphere into something dark and menacing?

I pondered these thoughts as my wife and I walked around Ueno - generally having a whale of a time - and suddenly found ourselves in a narrow street flanked by Middle Eastern kebab shops.

Now I appreciate that everyone has to make a living but the modus operandi for the majority of these kebab sellers seemed to consist of placing a huge, imposing Middle Eastern or African gentleman outside to try and lure in customers. And this they achieved by accosting, manhandling and obstructing passers-by who were simply going about their daily business.

When they weren't physically trying to force customers into their shops, the Middle Eastern guys, predictably the good-looking, cockier types, took great pleasure from wolf-whistling and aiming crude chat-up lines at pretty Japanese girls as they walked home alone.

I would have found the whole scenario pathetic if it hadn't made me so angry.

I desperately wanted to approach one of these guys and ask them what they were about. Here they were in a country with the politest, calmest and most non-confrontational people on the planet. So who exactly has given you the right to act like such a twat?


You might be interested in.....

Seven days in Tokyo (part 2) - A day trip to Yokohama

Seven days in Tokyo (part 3) - The shopping neighborhoods of Harajuku and Shibuya

Locked out with Air B'n'B - Frustrations with using the popular accommodation website




Comments

I'd just like to say thank you for writing the 3-part blog about your trip to Japan. I have brazenly used them for reading and discussion with some of my students, both Thai and Japanese. I hope you don't mind.

Everyone has had good things to say about the information and description of experiences you and your wife had. Thanks again, Phil.

By Dan, Nonthaburi (27th May 2016)

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