Japan: konichiwa

Transcontinental travel can be exhausting.  Sure, it's exciting - but between the jet-lag and the desire to see it all, on occasion we've been known to bite off more than we can chew.  To extend the metaphor, it also helps to remember that we can only digest so much, so pacing is everything.  We forget these truths sometimes, so getting to Tokyo and settling in was key for the exploration that followed.  It is supposed to be vacation after all.

We flew to Tokyo by way of Vancouver.  Air Canada is happy to get you to Japan from southern California pretty affordably (relatively speaking) as long as you're willing to buy a latte in the YVR Starbucks in exchange.  A 2.5 hour layover, and then we were off on our journey across the Pacific, the first time for us both.

Because of the time difference, it doesn't make sense to sleep on the 10-hour westbound flight. We left Vancouver at 1:30pm Friday and arrived in Tokyo at 4:30pm Saturday - this disorientation stemming not from losing the day (which the body can't tell anyway) but from having been awake for an entire day without a dip to evening. Rather, we had the world's longest warm afternoon glow.  (In fairness, this is probably not the world's longest.  Should you keep flying eastward, I suppose one could experience a perpetual afternoon.)

Not unlike flying across the Atlantic from the east coast, the key to beating jet lag is to soak up all the daylight available immediately upon arrival, and push through the exhaustion fog to a normal bed time. 

And we did.  It would take days for us to get back to any sense of a normal schedule, but more on that to follow.

On the ground, we were confronted with two hours of dragging a 60lb suitcase around Tokyo's public transportation system.  After a two week jaunt through the French countryside a few years ago, we thought a single bag between the two of us was our best bet - a rookie mistake in Japan, for sure.  Neither the sidewalks nor the stairways accommodate the large and unwieldy. Simply put, never again.  NEVER AGAIN!

The first order of business at Narita - after immigration (easy, but be sure to follow the instructions to use only a blue or black pen), customs (easy, but be sure not to try to bring any mind-altering psychiatric drugs into the country lest you find yourself sitting in a Japanese jail cell as we were warned by an expert traveler on the plane), and baggage retrieval (easy, for the trifecta!) was to collect our pocket WiFi from the post office in the airport.

By recommendation from two co-workers, we contacted Global Advanced Communications to secure a portable WiFi hotspot that could be used throughout Japan.  This meant internet access for the full two weeks making maps, subway apps and all manner of Googling available as we traveled.  It costs about $100.  They deliver for pick up at the airport post office (4th floor, Terminal 1) and provide you with a tracking number.  The nice folks at the post office appear to deal with this regularly and it took all of two minutes to get in and out.  Easy, and a better deal for both cost and data access than turning on international phone plans.

Next on the agenda was to secure our rail pass which would allow us to move between Japanese cities and access a minimal number of subway lines within Tokyo.  You can buy them through a number of providers but can only be bought stateside as they are not available for sale within Japan.  They are reserved for tourists exclusively and require a bit of planning.  Admittedly, we procrastinated, but the people at Japan Experience have a standard two-day turnaround.  The passes ship from Paris and after ordering on a Monday evening, the vouchers were on their way by Tuesday and in our hands Wednesday for our Friday departure.  Keep in mind that what you are receiving is actually a voucher and once in Tokyo you need to redeem for your actual pass at the JR office in the train station located at the airport.  It's on the basement level (B1, Terminal 1).  Again, an easy process, and we were quickly on our way after grabbing a couple of donuts for the road.  We had missed National Donut Day in our homeland and were not to be denied.

A general note on Japanese travel: plan ahead.  A very busy May distracted us from rigorous planning and we had to do some last minute scrambling to get the rail passes on time, have wifi secured, and make all reservations for accommodations.  We recommend having all your arrangements made at least two full weeks before your departure date.  And packing light.  Did we say packing light?

Like many frugal travelers who don't relish staying in hotels, we decided to base Tokyo operations out of an Air BnB.  We found a spot just down the street from the electronics mega-neighborhood Akihabara.  The apartment had the vibe of a small loft, great light and was a fine reward despite it being a 5th floor walk-up.  Again, THAT SUITCASE!  In truth, the train rattled near-by at night, and with a sunrise of 4:25am daily those large windows proved to thwart any desire (or ability) to sleep in.  Yet if only for the chance to have a simple breakfast and a cup of tea before embarking on 10+ mile walking days, the Air BnB still proves to be a creature comfort when you're strangers in a strange land.  No regrets.

Before bed on this, our first night in Tokyo, we had time only to grab a quick meal.

The cities of Japan seem to be filled with 2 types of cuisine... Bowls of food filled with noodles and broth (Soba, Ramen, etc) and myriad meats (yakitori, tonkatsu), rich with traditional flavors that can be procured for the equivalent of $6-$12 , or high-end fare where multi-course dinners start at $45/person and go up from there.  In these latter instances, the food can be elevated Japanese cuisine or any number of other cosmopolitan strains (French, Italian, Spanish). Tokyo actually purports to have the greatest number of Michelin Star restaurants of any city in the world.  

The night of our arrival we were looking for something quick and strolled just around the corner to a little ramen spot our kindly Air BnB host recommended in her city guide.  The smaller shops often have food boards outside the store front - there, you make your selection, put money into the machine and get your ticket to present to the house purveyor.  You then take your seat at the counter and wait for the goods.  

Truth - we were not experts at this.  One of the cooks came outside and assisted with much pointing and smiling and limited English, although key words become very important (garlic versus spicy, for example), and we essentially picked at random.  We were not disappointed, and this was the first of many times our experience with Tokyoites demonstrated them to be the most polite and helpful people we've yet encountered.  The only Japanese word we've become comfortable with so far is the word for thank you and we say it over and over again.

In this instance we both opted (somewhat accidentally) for some version of the same ramen dish.  We'd be lying if we told you the definitive difference between our meals (Addie note - Andy's had one egg and mine had two), but we left equally happy with our selections and pleased with front row seats to the lightning fast culinary mayhem that produced our noodle bowls.

We went to bed happy and with bellies full of garlic coated noodles rich with pork fat and egg yolk, balanced with crunchy scallions, greens and mildly spicy seasoning and ready for the next day's wanderings.


--Addie and Andy