The past 48 hours have been some of the most confusing, stressful ones of my life. Let me tell you all about them!
Thursday morning I woke up early, said goodbye to Tom (my last remaining roommate) and headed off to the airport about 3 hours early. I like to be safe. Lucky, this time.
When I went to check in to my flight the woman says “Do you live in Tokyo?” No. “Are you stationed there or something?” and I’m like, “No, just going for holiday.” and then she said the words that would ruin my life for the next two hours.
“Do you have an onward ticket from Tokyo?”
I told her no, that I had planned to take the ferry from Japan to South Korea in a month or so, that I was backpacking round the world and did not have a set itinerary and that I had checked Japan’s immigration and customs website very carefully and that one was not required.
Unfortunately, she had a computer and a little book of laws that said one was required, so she took me out of line and directed me to the Qantas ticket booth to take it up with them.
I spent the next 2 hours explaining that same thing over and over to various people, then showing them the websites I checked. Finally they called Qantas in Narita (where the big airport is for Tokyo) and talked to someone they could barely understand there. That person called Japanese Immigration and got the scoop which was that I was correct. He called back, we wrote down names and numbers and such and I was eventually off.
The alternative would have been to buy a refundable ticket from Japan to elsewhere and then just get a refund for it once I arrived in Japan. Not a big deal, but it was nice to not have to do it.
So, the day started off rough. Once I made it up to the gate I had some lunch, and then spent all my remaining Aussie dollars on a Lonely Planet Japanese phrasebook and some supplies. I managed to spend basically every dollar and cent in my wallet so I didn’t have to use the exchange service and pay their fees! Hooray! Really bad move!
The flight was fine, and pleasant. Flying doesn’t bother me one bit at all any more. Even when we hit some pretty rough turbulence. I think I’ve finally gotten over that fear. We landed in Narita at around 6:45pm, on schedule and then the real fun started!
I picked up my backpack and headed for customs. The guy there stopped me, asked me how long I was going to be in Japan and then if I had any checked luggage. At this point I had my main backpack on my back and my small backpack (with all the electronics) on my front. I pointed at the one on my back and said “Just this. One.” and he asked me again. So we did that a few times and then he asked me how long I was going to be in Japan, looking at the bag on my back in disbelief. The impression was that if I was going to be staying for 1 month I was going to need a lot more luggage and what happened to it all? Just as I started to worry he handed back my passport and waved me through. I was a little surprised by the third degree. I figured customs people see filthy backpackers like myself by the hundred every day. Maybe it’s just standard procedure to grill us a bit.
So I finally made it to the arrivals lounge where I needed to figure out how to cross the 80km from Narita to my hotel in Tokyo, but first I needed to get some cash.
So far, everywhere I have gone (in Europe last year, and so far this year) I have always just got off the plane, hit the ATM and pulled out some local currency. It’s fast, and easy, and it saves on the exchange counter’s fees. You are at the whim of the current exchange rate, but that doesn’t bother me too much.
Well, I strolled over to the nearest ATM and tried to find a way to make it speak English, but no go. So I found another one and that one was willing. So I put in my card, did the whole deal, asking for ¥50,000 (about $400 US) and it said “Card provider not available”. That was a little scary but I remembered something similar happening in Amsterdam because it didn’t like my PIN, so I tried again using a credit card advance. My ATM card is also a Visa. No go there either. I tried a few more times with no luck and started to worry a bit.
So I wandered down to the other 2 ATMs in the area and got the same thing at all of them. Starting to seriously panic, I went to the currency exchange and asked them if they could do a cash advance on my Visa and they said they only deal with cash and traveler’s cheques and pointed to the ATM. I explained that it wasn’t working for me, but that stuff wasn’t in their English repertoire and they just smiled and waved me off. Very nice, if slightly useless.
So at this point I figured I was 80kms away from my reserved place to stay, with no cash to check in even if I could get there (no credit cards accepted) and that I was basically screwed. I remembered I had a £5 note in my wallet from my trip to Europe last year, so I traded that in for a measly ¥1000 and sat down to think. Checking to see if there was any Internet access I found there was, and that it was ¥500 per day and payable by credit card! Hooray! I tried my regular card (that wouldn’t work anywhere else) and it worked fine. So now I knew my account hadn’t been cleaned out or anything like that.
By the way, if you think of Yen (¥) as pennies it makes the conversion easiest. ¥500 is about $5.
So, I got online, checked out my bank account and saw that it was doing just fine. Then I checked out the accounts of my three credit cards. I have three credit cards I’ve gotten over the years but they all have tiny, tiny limits and I don’t really use them. Mostly cause I used them all when I got them and they’ve all been basically maxed out since then. I saw that my months of paying a little more than the minimum had paid off and I had some money on all of them! About $650 altogether.
So I ran back to the ATM that seemed the nicest and tried a cash advance and it worked! I quickly pulled out all the ¥ I could on that card and moved to the next. After it was all said and done, I had about ¥75,000 in my pocket and I was feeling pretty good!
Around now a guy from Detroit wandered up to me and said “Do you speak English?”. I said “Sure do” and he said “Thank God!”. He had been in Australia and was flying home to Detroit. He had asked for the cheapest flight available and it turned out to be one that laid over for the night in Tokyo. They had given him a hotel and told him to call the hotel when he arrived but he couldn’t figure out the phones or anything and was freaking out. I managed to help him get ahold of his hotel (blind leading the blind) and so I was feeling pretty smug at this point. I was winning!
Over to the desk with the letters “JR” on it, which I knew was the train I wanted and ¥2000 later I had an express ticket to Nippori Station with a change ticket for Minami-Senju station which was the closest to my hotel and from which it was supposed to be a 10 minute walk. I had no idea where in Tokyo either of those things are (and still don’t, for the record).
The train ride was nice, and very fast. We blew through some of the stations at scary speed. I’m sure the two high speed trains I took in Europe were faster, but it’s been a year and my memory sucks. It was cooooooooooool. When that one unloaded I found my way to my changeover pretty easily and hopped aboard. It was only two stops up the line so it didn’t take very long. Unfortunately, when I was changing trains I had noticed it was completely pouring outside. Not good.
That train landed and I headed down to the exit and yep, it was pouring. I had a 10 minute walk with bad directions in a place I’ve never been where I couldn’t ask anyone for directions and with everything I owned on my back… and it was pouring.
I had noticed that everyone seemed to have the same two umbrellas and as I was exiting the station I started considering offering someone ¥1000 for one. Happily, when I got to the bottom I noticed a little tiny store that everyone was gathered around buying umbrellas! I picked one up, couldn’t find a price tag and headed to the front for my first Japanese shopping experience!
It went the same way as most of them have since then. I put my stuff on the counter, the clerk speaks in fast Japanese during the entire transaction while I stand there drooling and eventually a price appears on the cash register. I happily hand over grillions of Yen and clerk says a bunch more stuff in Japanese and I take my stuff and leave, mumbling “arigato” fearing that I might actually be heard and I run out of the store. I always hope they aren’t saying something like “The first time you open the umbrella it may explode.” or “Before you eat that sandwich, make sure you remove the protective weasel from inside the bread.”
In any case, it was a small victory. I pulled my backpack’s rain cover out, wrapped up the important one (where the laptop and iPods were), donned my standard issue umbrella and walked and walked and walked.
Finding the hotel wasn’t hard, and I barely got soaked at all. The guy the desk spoke pretty good English and he was really, really nice. I walked in past a bunch of people hanging out in the lobby and finally, finally had a place to put my shit down. I had reserved a single, private, 3 tatami mat room with a low table and futon on the floor for ¥3200/night and it was really nice. I had a bed, a table, a TV, a lamp, a fridge and my own air conditioner. Backpacker heaven!
There was just one more little problem before this day from hell could end. I hadn’t eaten anything since dinner on the plane which was about 6 hours ago and I was starving. I had seen a 7-11 about 3 blocks away while I was walking to the hotel but the idea of going back out into the rain wasn’t very appealing and plus, the hotel locked it’s door at midnight and it was already after 11. I appeased my complaining belly with a giant beer and a coke from the vending machine upstairs. Beer in vending machines. Genius!
This is becoming pretty long winded, isn’t it? I still have an entire day to cover!
Okay, so that was day one. It was a little rough but I felt good about it. I had accomplished most of the basics (I still didn’t know where to eat), and I hadn’t gravely insulted anyone yet.
Friday morning I was up at 7:30am and I started studying. The first thing I needed to do was find out how to use the transit system. My Lonely Planet had pretty good guides and maps so I spent about 3 hours studying and taking notes and eventually felt like I knew what I was doing. The LP said you could take the city loop train for just the minimum ¥130 fee and see most of the major areas of Tokyo, so I had decided to try that. I didn’t really understand the low cost thing, but I figured it would work itself out.
I wandered downstairs and met a family from Ontario and chatted with them for a while. They told me I could get an English subway map at the station down the street and it also had a list of sights to see with the corresponding subway station. So that was my first goal. That went over pretty well, and I also secured a day pass on the subway from the machine and I was off!
I took the subway to Ueno station which was a more central station and headed for the JR Yamanote line, which circles the city and passed through the major districts. I found a ticket machine and started looking at ticket prices. I found out that you could pay ¥130 for a “platform ticket” just like LP said, and that was good enough to get you on the train. Once you got to your destination you would have to pay the balance for the distance you traveled. I didn’t realize until 30 minutes into the trip that if I went all the way back to the station I started in the gate keeper would just have to assume I had gone in and come back out without using the train. Around the city for ¥130! Hooray Lonely Planet!
So I looped the city and it was pretty cool, but hard to actually see anything. The crowds in Tokyo trains are legendary, and it’s partially true, but not completely. I have not experienced the pushing and shoving throng like I’ve heard about. It’s busy, but not any more than say Paris.
Back to the hotel for a little while to chill out and then I decided to go try to see my first “sight”. I picked Shinjuku, which Lonely Planet describes as the place to go if you’ve only got 1 day in Tokyo. It is the quintessential Tokyo experience you see in all the movies. Huge crowds, giant buildings covered with neon, people on the sidewalks with megaphones and everything else you can imagine. At one point I saw an arch over a street that was covered in flashing lights and stuff and decided to walk down there. I realized pretty quickly I had managed to find the red light district. I had a pretty good idea that’s where I was when I saw all the porn shops and massage parlors, but it was cemented when a guy chased me down, asked me if English was okay and then asked me if I wanted a “sex massage”. I passed.
I also ate in my first restaurant in Japan. I am careful not to say Japanese restaurant, because it definitely wasn’t. I wasn’t quite ready to delve into the Japanese food, mostly because it looks scary, so I wanted to start with something I knew. Like spaghetti. I did want to try ordering though and figure out how to take a seat and all that so it was a good experience. The spaghetti was awesome too 🙂
Most places to eat have this plastic food out front that looks just like what you’ll find on your plate. Obviously fancy places don’t do this, but I see it in front of more restaurants than not. A lot of times there will also be numbers or when you get inside you’ll find it all on a sheet and you can just point to order. There is no chance you’ll be able to order by speaking because all of the names of the food are in Kanji, and the person taking the order doesn’t speak English.
Altogether, there is a lot less English speaking than I was led to believe. I had the feeling coming in that most people would know some English, although they might be shy to use it. I have not found this to be true. Or at least, if it is, they are REALLY shy. I would say better than 90% of the people I have dealt with so far didn’t speak any English. I am trying to learn useful phrases in Japanese but it’s not easy at all. I have a hard time remembering a lot of the words that I read because I can’t associate it very well, or I use them so seldom that I forget it by the next time I need to use it.
Anyway, after I wandered around Shinjuku for a while I decided to hit the Tokyo Tower, which I had been told is great at night from the Ontario family I met downstairs. It’s basically a clone of the Eiffel Tower except it’s taller and stronger and lighter. The paperwork made it sound like they were very proud of it.
The Tower was pretty great, and I got to see just how huge this place is. It’s hard not to quote Douglas Adams here in his description of the size of the Universe. Suffice to say that seeing Tokyo from 250 meters gave me a sense of scale that I have nothing else to compare with. It is dense city as far as the eye can see and it doesn’t peter out like the downtowns of most cities. There are skyscrapers out there as far as you can see. It’s amazing.
I made it back to my hotel just a bit before the doors were to lock for the night and settled in for a little Battlestar Galactica. The wireless access at the hotel is awesome so I’ve taken advantage of it to download new episodes of some shows.
And that was Friday!
Now it’s Saturday. I’m being super lazy today. It’s already 3:25pm and all I’ve done so far is a little grocery shopping and lots of Internetting. I’m in no hurry, and it’s nice to lounge around and not be bothered after 2 weeks in the dorms in Cairns. Grocery shopping was hard. I am unable to read any of the packaging so I have to go by what is obvious. I bought 5 different kinds of noodle bowls and took a picture of them all so I can keep track of what I like and what is horrible 🙂 I also got some Pocky, which I remember Andrea talking about, and it’s really good. I got the strawberry kind.
So that’s it for now. I know it was a long one. I’m gonna chill out for a few more hours and then head down to Ginza for a few hours.
Oh, I’m almost positive I have thus far experienced two earthquakes. One yesterday around 8:30am and one today around 3:00pm.