Sunday, January 13, 2008

When You're Big in Japan...............

Big in Japan, Japan, Japan……

I tell you for the past 18 hours that song has been stuck in my head.
I AM big in Japan! Literally! Ah but more about that later.

"One night in Tokyo and the world’s your oyster…". We only had an hour and 45 minutes, so perhaps the world is now just a clam to us.

We took an American 777 from Dallas to Tokyo in Business Class, but not the Next Generation seats as had been hyped by American. We found the room and the comfort quite bearable. I have to concede that a 14 hour flight, sprinkled with a couple of Monty Python movies, sleep, food and drink is quite bearable. I was completely surprised that wasn’t going out of my mind. However, as I type this I am on our Japan Airlines flight for the 5 hour journey from Manila to Tokyo, on a 747 in coach, and I am nearly ready to kill someone. Moooooooo!

We left Dallas at 10AM and arrived in Japan at 2:30PM the next day. I managed to get about 5 hours of sleep on the flight, so we were able to go about the rest of the day without too much jet lag.

Our flight to Manila wasn’t until 9:20AM the next day, so we thought we’d take advantage of the evening and see a bit…and I mean a bit of Tokyo. We weren’t able to check our luggage all the way through to Manila due to the overnight layover. We cleared passport control, picked up our luggage and cleared customs in fairly decent time. We dropped off our big pieces at the “left luggage” service and headed out to the shuttle bus for our hotel in Narita. Right on time the bus came and we were on our way to the hotel. We stayed at the Holiday Inn right at the airport. The hotel was clean and comfortable and we found plenty of English speakers. After 20 minutes to clean up a bit we made our way back to the hotel shuttle bus, back to the airport and down to the train station to Tokyo.

You always think of Japan being a very advanced technological society. Now that may be true when you are talking about phones, computers and televisions, but the advancement doesn’t extend to paying for those items. We found that ATM machines only work during banking hours and many common items…like train tickets can only be paid for with cash. Thank goodness we suffered the beating of purchasing Yen before we left the States. (Wells Fargo has no clue how to make this easy; we had to find the 1 bank in the Dallas area that had someone on staff who was trained to sell foreign currency. When we did find that bank, it turns out we had to wait 2 days for the teller to pass his proficiency test. And…then we were his second customer! The transaction took about 30 minutes. Michael, can you work on this? LOL!)

I have found a place where customer service still exists. Every time we looked lost trying to purchase a train ticket, figure out which way the elevators were in the hotel or which line to get in to scan our checked bags, there was someone there who stepped up to help without being asked. It’s still someone’s job in Japan to help you!

At 7:00PM we managed to get our ticket to Tokyo, on the Keisei Skyliner Express to Nipori Station. The ride took about 50 minutes.

Different from the airport and the hotel, I had my first experience being completely different. I didn’t expect it to be a big deal, and it wasn’t, but I did get stared at. It was to be expected, as no matter what I did or wore, I am different. I’m a pale even by American standards. I was a giantess! Ah, it could have just been my Boston Red Sox World Series Championship hoodie they wanted to get a better look at! I heard that the Red Sox are the new “favorite” MLB team in Japan after we signed national hero, Matuzaka and Okijima last year. The World Series Championship bandwagon surely stretches across the Pacific. The odd thing is that it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, I just smiled back.

Beyond the window of the train, I could have been on Metro North from New Haven to New York. Aside from the difference in the language on the signage, as we traveled through the night it looked like any other suburbia that melds into big city.

Once we got to our connection station, we needed to change to the local subway, JR Yamanote line to get to Shibuya Station.

Check out the pictures of the subway map and the subway ride.
I’m usually very good at deciphering maps of any kind, but this was a jungle. We were quite grateful for the assistance of customer service agent at the Napori station. Even though he didn’t speak our language, instantly he could see we needed help and negotiated the automatic ticket machine and directed us to the right platform. Soon we were on the 30 minute ride, having the typical Tokyo subway experience. Incredibly crowded, with people happily texting away on their cell phones. Check out my shot from inside the train, that’s taken from just above my eye level.

We made our way out of Shibuya station and walked head on into the electronic billboard jungle, perhaps more beautiful than Times Square.

We exited at the Hachiko gate. The tale of the Akita dog, Hachiko is famous in Japan. In the 1930’s, every day the dog would leave the house of his owner on his way to work and then meet him at the train station. He did so for years, even after his owner’s death. He was adopted by the station as sort of a mascot. There is a statute of him outside of the station exit that is named for him. It’s a very popular and recognizable meeting place. For more info:

We walked head on into the famous “scramble crossing” featured in the movie Lost in Translation. When traffic stops, people descend on the crossing from all directions, however, when the lights flash, the crossing is instantly cleared and traffic flows again. The Starbucks store overlooking the crossing is also one of the busiest in the world.

Shibuya is the fashion and nightlife capital of Tokyo. It is the home of the huge department store, Toyku as well as the shopping complex Shibuya 109. It’s all hip, trendy and fashionable. I did find it odd that 99% of the women I saw were wearing skirts. There wasn’t a jean or pant in site. In winter, it’s skirts of all lengths and width with boots.

We had less than an hour to stroll around, if we wanted to make our train back to Narita Airport. Late night trains are not the norm in Tokyo. If we missed 10:20PM train, we’d be risking having to take a cab from the station in the City of Narita, as that was the end of the line for later trains. With a flight at 9:20AM, taking time to shop and eat in Tokyo was not worth the risk. We’d have to settle for just saying we’d experienced a tiny slice of Tokyo.

Alas, when you have a 12 year old boy, you still have to find a way to feed him. He’s a pretty picky eater, and we found the local Mc Donald’s

but alas, they did not have Mc Nugget’s. His Dad had already told him the tale of how when he was a boy and ate a hamburger at a Tokyo Mc Donald’s it was flavored with soy sauce, so a burger was out of the question. We searched on and eventually found an “American Dog” at a convenience store. It was a corny dog actually. We had some ketchup we saved from the airport in Dallas. It wasn’t good but it filled the hole. We were amused by all of the unique food offerings in the convenience store. Check out the photos for a hilarious sample.

We did have an experience with local Red Sox fans. They stopped Alex and I on the street and wanted to show us that they had the same World Series shirt. (Of course, they weren’t wearing theirs, but I gotta be me!) The difference is that they had theirs signed earlier in the day by Okijima at a local sports store! We just missed him. We chatted a bit and they said they went to Boston last August to see the Sox play. They took our picture, but I regret not taking the time to take theirs. Sigh!

It’s was time to take the long journey back to Narita, retracing our steps from the subway, to the suburban train through to the airport. The local subway eventually emptied the further out we traveled. I did get a snapshot of the famous NY Yankee pitcher, “Hideki Mastsui” sleeping on the train. I had fun imagining this is what years of Yankee losses had done to him, drunk and sleeping in his Yankee jacket on a random Tokyo subway.

Once at the airport station, we encountered the highlight of Alex’s day. The return train was not an airport express, and it delivered us to a different station at the Narita airport. We had to walk 500 meters through an underground hallway to get to Terminal 2, where our hotel shuttle would pick us up. The tunnel was about 10 feet high and 6 feet wide, with a floor surface that was smooth as glass. The hallway was completely empty and went on a 20 degree angle to the midpoint and up a 20 degree angle to the end of the tunnel. So for 500 meters, Alex was in Heely heaven. We were walking quite quickly, as we didn’t want to miss the last hotel shuttle, but he did several laps back and forth on his Heely’s while he waited for us to catch up. Can’t compete with the wheels on his shoes! We caught the very last hotel shuttle at 11PM and settled back in our rooms for a few hours sleep. Our flight to Manila left at 9:20AM the next day.

The hotel room was just what we needed. It had a fridge, internet and was quite clean. The lack of box springs on the beds contributed to my feeling Gulliver experience as the beds were about 2 feet off the floor. The shower spray was just an inch from the top of my head. I’m only 5’ 7”!

The alarm went of at 4:30AM and we hustled to get ready, packed and downstairs for what was promised to be an “American Breakfast”. We give them points for trying and we did find a few things to eat. Alex ate what would become the first of 100 bowls of rice over the course of the next 10 days. Of course, the hotel shuttle was on time and we found ourselves at the Narita airport before 7AM. We had no trouble picking up our luggage from “Left Luggage” and made our way to the check in counters. That were,……get this, closed! It’s 7:15AM and the airport had not opened yet? Odd, very odd! Soon the red ribbon barriers were moved and we were escorted by petite, check in agents wearing their fashionable neck scarves. They seemed overwhelmed by the size and number of our luggage. For us, we were traveling light! At first, there was the panic that we had too many pieces for the coach flight to Manila, but soon they realized that we had come inbound from the US the day before and the problem disappeared. With baggage checked, and boarding passes in hand, we made our way to security. Again to find it was CLOSED! It didn’t open till 8AM. We wandered around a bit, until someone had the courage to start the queue. It’s funny, everyone is happy to sit around and wait, until someone decides they want to be first in line. Within 5 minutes there were 100 people in line. We were about 3rd in line.

Security was the same as the US, shoes off, liquids out…we were through very quickly and off to our gate.
Ahh, here were the Filipinos, waiting for their flight to Manila. Even if you didn’t see them, you could tell these were not Japanese, by the energy they gave off. Filipinos are very happy people. Gone were the insular headphones of the subway. These MP3 players had speakers and played for all to hear. There were groups of families heading home for the holidays with bags of food at their feet; Mom’s offering food to all. After an efficient boarding process, we were on our way to Manila.

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