A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single plane. …wait, what?
This August I’m on vacation to Tokyo with my younger brother Noel, as mentioned in my short post a few weeks ago. It was a decision made somewhat on the spur of the moment, but I’m really happy I did!
For the past few years I have been interested in Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games. And when the subtitles and translations are right there with Japanese audio, you kind of just put two and 二 together and you’ve started learning a new language.
(It also helps when a good chunk of anime dialogue is stock fodder. See this link for an image with the most common lines. Seriously, you could write an entire script with this.)
I chose to stay for a month because I wanted to immerse myself as much as possible, practice as much Japanese as I could, and see the places and things I wanted to without having to rush or micromanage daily. Plus I was taking my 14-year old brother so it was better to be more flexible.
We booked accomodation through Sakura House based on the recommendation of a friend from the UK who had stayed there last year. Sakura House is a property management company that caters to foreigners, and has plenty of houses, apartments, and dorm listings for people looking to stay a month or longer. They were very courteous and polite when booking, and given that Noel is a minor it was great that they took our reservation.
We booked our flight through a travel agent that our family uses when we go back to the Philippines. When I checked through Air Canada and Expedia, the cheapest flights at the time cost about $1600 each without insurance; however through the agent we were able to save $200 each, which gave us room to get comprehensive travel insurance! Next time you plan a trip, contact a travel agent as they can likely offer better deals, packages, and advice on where you’re going.
I took the time to save and print Google Maps directions for our major trips: getting from the airport to Sakura House, then from Sakura House to our apartment. This turned out to be extremely helpful as our phones don’t work in Japan, and free wifi sometimes needs a Japanese phone #.
Our flight was nonstop from Toronto to Haneda, right in Tokyo Bay. We didn’t want to go to Narita because the flights landed around 3 – 4 pm and Narita is over an hour and a half from the city at the fastest. We needed to be at the property office in Shinjuku by 7 PM, so 13 hours straight to Haneda it was. We lucked out somehow because during the flight on the 777 jet, we were asked to move to make room for a mother with an infant, and they moved us to one of those bulkhead front rows! You know, just behind the bathrooms, so we had all the leg space we wanted and an empty seat on our right! I tried to speak Japanese on the plane and for the most part understood what the flight attendants were saying, but I was so out of it by the 3rd hour I was flip-flopping between the two. You know you’re tired when they ask you if you speak English and you say “A little.”
We touched down right on schedule and collected our baggage, then proceeded through to customs. In Japan, they take your mugshot and fingerprints when you arrive. At customs, the agent asked me some simple questions and I gave my replies in both English and Japanese as follows:
Agent: What is the purpose of your trip?
Me: Tourism. 観光客です。[“kankoukyaku desu”, lit. “(we’re) tourists”]
Agent: How long are you staying in Japan?
Me: 1 month. 一ヶ月 [“ikkagetsu”, lit. “1 month”]
which seemed to go over well; he said “上手ですね”, which basically meant
I was pretty good at it I was your typical silly foreigner (more on this later). But hey, it only took about 3 minutes and off we went. He didn’t ask for any proof of funds, accomodation, or an itinerary of my trip, but it would be wise to have these just in case. (IANAL)
So it’s 4:30, PM, just as I predicted, and now we need to get to the property office to sign contracts, pay, and get our keys. The office is in Shinjuku, west of central Tokyo, on what’s called the Yamanote Line: a train line that runs a large oval ring around the city. Haneda is to the south-southeast in the bay. So we had to either catch a bus to Shinjuku Station or a train to the Yamanote Line and go from there.
Luckily there was a help desk not more than 15 metres from the customs exit. There were also plenty of staff around the airport who would be happy to assist anyone with questions or needing help. Somehow I was able to ask completely in Japanese how to both buy a bus ticket and how to buy a Suica card, their electronic transit pass and wallet (guide to come later). 10 years of watching anime and reading manga weren’t just for show! We decided to take the bus as it was a direct route.
Note: if you take the bus and they offer to check your luggage into the lower compartments, check everything except your backpacks. There is no room for carry-ons inside the bus, and you can’t put your luggage on empty seats as they all fill up. Our legs were very cramped during that trip.
We get to Shinjuku Station around 5:30 and we’re dragging our luggage through the busy streets. Did I mention it’s about 35 degrees Celsius and at 90% relative humidity? We make it to Sakura House half an hour later, and the employee gives us water which we down freely. After going through all the proceedings, it’s now 7:00 and dark. We then lug ourselves back to Shinjuku and begin the very clumsy train trip to our apartment in the north part of the city. We get off at our station and walk through dark shopping districts nearly devoid of people. Passersby give us strange looks and we’re soaked in sweat. But finally, we make it! Our place is very close to the Yamanote Line, but for privacy concerns at the moment I’ll leave it out for now.
That night, after we cleaned ourselves up, I pinged my UK friend again and asked him how to order food at Sukiya, a 24-hour beef bowl chain of fast food restaurants of which one was right across the street. Basically you seat yourself, choose something from the menu, then ping a server with a handy button at the table. Kind of like some Asian restaurants back home, except you must seat yourself; truly fast food. And these beefs bowls were delicious. Like, wholesome and nutritious and fills you up for under $5 delicious. We mistakenly put some Japanese salad dressing as sauce on our beef bowls, but they still tasted pretty good anyway.
We then went to a convenience store, Family Mart, which was also right across the street. There we grabbed bentous for our breakfast tomorrow and some drinks and snacks. Kinda flubbed on my Japanese here as the cashiers were talking pretty fast and the customer in front of us forgot to take his stuff after he had paid, so the cashier might’ve been kinda ticked. (oops)
With all of the boring stuff out of the way, we jumped into bed and tried to sleep as much as our jet lagged bodies could. Noel slept most of the way and is used to powernapping, so he went out easily. Unfortunately I don’t sleep well when in a new place, so I didn’t get much rest.
That and Noel snores. (lol)
- Print copies of maps of any major trips you know you’re taking, especially if you need to take public transit from the airport (cabs are expensive!).
- Pick up some books on travel phrases or vocabulary in the local language (ie. Japanese).
- Have Google Translate installed on all mobile devices, and download the desired language pack for offline use. Although wifi is ubiquitous worldwide, the splash pages may require local identification such as phone #, addresses, etc.
- Download some 3rd party dictionary apps in the local language too; make sure they can be used offline!
- Have a tablet or a large phone that can be used to display copies of maps and tickets, as well as use GPS in case you’re lost.
- Water bottles with filters in them are great because as long as the municipal tap water is reasonably clean, you can fill up anytime anywhere!
Next time I’ll write about our trip south to the edge of Tokyo Bay, Yokosuka!Next in series