Welcome to Japan

Tokyo, April 2023

Japan has been high on my bucketlist for a long time now, and this trip started as all good trips do – with an early start.  In this case with a 3.45am wake up call. It could have been an hour later, but my cautious side likes to ensure I have plenty of time for my transfer in Auckland.  It’s lucky I did, as the airline lounge in Auckland was incredibly busy and I had to wait 30 minutes for a coffee (first world problems I know, but problems nevertheless lol).

I had little sleep on the 11 hour flight from Auckland to Tokyo. Being a day flight, that was not too much of an issue as I wanted to be able to sleep not too long after I arrived in Tokyo, despite the 4 hour time difference.  We flew over New Caledonia, which looked beautiful from above and then over the Solomon Islands, the deep blue ocean and skies spotted with clouds were beautiful. I had a laugh to myself when lunch was served.  Not even halfway through the flight and the meal was served only with chopsticks 🥴 it’s going to be a fun couple of weeks!

Finally, as we neared Japan, I got my first view of the iconic Mt Fuji.  It was glowing in the hazy, orange sky as the sun had started to set in the west as was a long river winding across the land.  It was beautiful and any photos I got do not do it justice. At the same time, my excitement turned to nerves – did I have all the right paperwork? would I find my pickup? … I seem to get more nervous about these things the more I travel … or perhaps the older I get 🤔!

The arrival process was rather long winded but thankful my research into the constantly changing entry requirements ensured it all went smoothly.  First the quarantine check, I had already provided all info online so showed that page and was waved straight through.  Probably worth noting here that it was also helpful to have a mobile data connection – this was my first time using an e-sim (via Airalo) and this was the first of many times I would be grateful for it!

Next was the long queue for immigration, but again I had filled everything online and had QR code for it so when I finally made it to the front of the line 45 minutes later, the entry process went smoothly.  All that took so long, the bags were already off the belt waiting to be collected and finally, having done the customs check online, that process went quickly.  Note to anyone travelling to Japan, use the Visit Japan website and be sure to fill it in in advance to save time and hassle (until they change the rules again of course lol).

With the entry process completed, I found my pickup and we headed down into the train station to catch the Keisei skyline train.  My first Japanese train experience took me from Narita Airport into Tokyo city, and it was so clean (they sanitise and clean it after every journey to and from the airport) and efficient.  The train takes around 40 minutes for around ¥ 2570 (or NZ$32) compared to the drive which would take around 1.5 hours and cost well over NZ$100!  From the station in the city, we then took a short 10 minute taxi to the hotel.

I had a nice chat with the based Italian guide who met me as we travelled into the city.  She was not my tour guide, but she gave me some tips for places to go and explained that companies like Explore! (who I would be travelling with) struggle to hire local guides to do trips like this as the Japanese guides prefer to stay in one city rather than move around constantly.  This is a shame as although international guides can be well informed on the trip logistics and history of the country, you don’t get the same personal insights that you would from a truly local guide. Time will tell if this is true.

After a quick convenience store dinner (this will become a bit of a theme as they are most definitely convenient and well stocked) of some random (but delicious) creamy sponge cake and an unknown drink white coloured Fanta – going by the picture strawberry and custard 🤔, I checked out the lovely view from the hotel roof top before settling in for the night – after an almost 20 hour day 😴.  In reality I could not quite go to sleep as my roommate for the trip was yet to arrive – apparently her flight only landed 20 minutes after mine so not sure where she was 🤔 (It apparently took her more than 2 hours to get through immigration, so I was very lucky!)

My favourite things in Japan are already the clean, efficient transport system and the toilets!!!  Heated toilet seats for the win👍🏻.

My first full day in Japan started with waking up at 2am, 4am (you get the idea) and with a hammering headache! After a couple of rounds of tablets, I felt a little better and managed to make it down to breakfast.  It was an odd selection of options – beef curry, blue cheese salad, eggs benedict with spam or French toast!  I got the French toast – it was ok but definitely nothing to write home about (and yet, here I am writing about it lol). 

I meet my guide (Rinrin from Singapore) and the rest of my group at our welcome meeting on the rooftop.  There are 16 in the group.  More than half from the UK, a two from Australia, two from Ireland and a lady from Canada. It’s always interesting at this time, sizing everyone up, thinking who you will align with the most.  (Turns out it was the Irish – Suzanne and Ania (who is actually Polish) and Carla from Canada.)

It was a beautiful day as we headed out on foot just around the corner from the hotel (in the Asakusa area) to the oldest and most important Buddhist temple in Tokyo – Senso-ji Temple.  As legend has it, in 628, two brothers fished a statue out of the Sumida river – it was a statue of the goddess of mercy – Kannon.  They put the statue back, but it always returned to them, so they build the temple, which was completed in 645, nearby for the goddess.  The temple was hit by a bomb and destroyed in WWII and was subsequently rebuilt and is now a symbol of rebirth and peace.

Rinrin mentioned that the temple was not as crowded as she expected it to be, but it was still very crowded for me 🥴 but I guess that is what you get when you visit Japan during Cherry Blossom season.  It doesn’t help that it is also holiday season here so there are also lots of local tourists too, some oddly taking their dogs for a walk in prams!  I definitely won’t be getting many of my perfect people free photos here lol.

From the temple, we walked down the narrow, 250m long shopping street called Nakamise-dori which dates back to the 18th century (although in its current form from post WWII).  There were amazing smells of all the sweet street food being cooked – but one of Japan’s many quirks is that eating on this street is prohibited (and it is frowned upon in general everywhere).  So you either eat gathered around the shop or take your purchases home.  This is reinforced by the lack of rubbish bins which results in carrying rubbish around all day!   

At the top of Nakamise, we came to the famous Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, the outer gate of the Sensoji Temple and a symbol of Tokyo.  Humorously, this famous historic site is now ‘sponsored’ by Panasonic 🤦🏻‍♀️

From the thunder gate we crossed the Sumida River, admiring our first view of a small part of the Tokyo skyline, including the Asahi company headquarters, with a very odd interpretation of a golden beer spout before boarding a local bus to next temple – Fukugawa Fododo Temple, just in time to watch their Goma fire ceremony.

With our shoes off (a common occurrence in Japan) and masks on (not mandatory but many people still wear them, and some private places/temples ask for it), we entered the temple for the ceremony.  It was carried out by a number of monks. The head monk lit a fire with cedar to perform the purification and blessings, whilst the others took turns at blowing conch shells, beatingin trance inducing drums and chanting.  As well providing purification and blessings, the fire is meant to fend off evil spirits.   For a wooden temple, with a history of burning down, there was clearly no smoke detectors inside! (Sadly no photos allowed of the ceremony.)

After the ceremony we had time to work around the temple complex, starting with the toilets (oddly you will find much talk about toilets on a trip to Japan as the toilets are amazing) – as you can’t wear your shoes inside the temple, they provide “toilet” shoes – sadly not in my size 😂

Within the complex there was also a large wooden Fudomyo-o statue.  It is a Buddha guardian who represents the rath of Buddha, and also a small dark room with glow-in the dark imagines and pray wheels.  Outside, in contrast to the old wooden temple, the modern main hall next to it, is covered in gold and black Sanskrit which shows part of the Buddhist sutra.

From the temple we took a local subway train to the next stop where we walked through a really nice suburban area of Shiba, passed families picnicking in parks and kids playing baseball, to a smallish (size is very relative here) local station to get our JR (Japan Rail) pass for the rest of the trip.  Apparently if you go into the main station this can take 3-4 hours and our guide thought it would be much quicker to go to a small local station. 

A JR pass is like gold – it is only available to tourists and saves a significant about of money on Japan Rail travel.   But there is no way to replace it if you lose it and paying for the trips individually will costs thousands of dollars.  Oddly, purchasing a ticket for one of the most efficient train services in the world, is one of the least efficient processes – often involving pencil and paper rather than computer!!! (Worth noting it needs to be purchased online before you arrive and then picked up once you get to Japan.)

Thankfully we were ‘released’ to find some lunch while the guide waited for our tickets.  I joined a group who headed into a small mall near the station where we spent 30 minutes waiting for a table for some lunch.  Using google translate to translate the menu, I decided to try the ‘drinkable’ wagyu burger (I think it was actually “melt in the mouth” 😂) – it was great!  This place also has the most amazing wearable napkins – I never saw them again but they should be everywhere!

Lunch eaten and the precious JR pass in hand, we caught a train to Akihbara.  It started as the home to black market sellers of electronics after WWII but today it has become a hub for legitimate electronics shops and a mecca for the Japanese subcultures/fans of Japanese graphic cartoon tv/movies (anime) and graphic novels (manga).  With all the tall buildings, lights, music and crowds – this was more like the Tokyo I expected. 

I left the group here for my first solo expedition on the Tokyo transport system and I must admitted it started with some trepidation, even more so because my phone, which I was relying on for directions (I was so very grateful for google maps that provides a full breakdown on the journey including walking and public transport) was at 25%!   Thankfully, the train system is similar to London, though on a much larger scale once you find the right entrance, platform, train, direction and then fight to get a seat, it’s not too bad.

My destination was Shibuya, one of the largest shopping areas but probably more well known for its pedestrian crossing, known as the Shubuya Scramble.  The train station at Shibuya was crazy, almost is busy is the crossing itself!

Once I had fought my way out of the station, the looming tall buildings covered in neon advertising reminded me of Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London. It is definitely a “must see” in Tokyo, but I’m sure nowadays it is busy because of all the tourists that go there!

From here it was a 45 ninute journey back to Asakusa, and I found my way back to the Temple near my hotel where we had visited in the morning. It looked amazing at night and I took the opportunity to have street food for dinner from one of the small stalls near the temple – some sort of sweet waffle stuffed with cheese that I had seen on the Internet. It was pretty good and a great end to a long day.    

It was liberating having the opportunity to spend some time on my own working things out.  That’s always part of the fun.