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Trip to Tokyo Japan October 15-23, 2013

by Jenny and Charlie Plesums


In March 2011 we were scheduled to visit Tokyo, as it turned out, just after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, tsunami, and reactor melt-down. Our friends Stuart and Emiko Ablett strongly advised that we not come - not because of the danger, but the lack of services (limited food deliveries to stores and restaurants, trains not running regularly, etc.). We have been watching for a bargain flight ever since, and finally took that trip October 16-23, 2013.

Travel hint

We are often advised that "your credit cards will not be welcome." In Paris, London, Amsterdam, Budapest, Italy, Singapore, and many other countries, that advice was not true - we used the credit cards practically everywhere. In some countries, vending machines (gas, train tickets) required the "Chip and Pin" card common in other countries, rather than the magnetic stripe cards used in the United States. In 2006, on our previous trip to Japan, we saw credit card applications being handed out in all the larger stores, so we felt sure cards would have caught on. But in Japan, 2013, cash is king. Even ATMs are far less common than elsewhere, and not all ATMs connect to the international banking network (try a Post Office or 7-Eleven for an international ATM if the ones on the streets and in the banks reject your card).

Getting There - October 15-16

We left Austin on Tuesday morning October 15, through Dallas departing at 12:45 Tuesday. Then non-stop to Tokyo Narita airport scheduled to arrive at 4:15 pm on Wednesday. The date line and 14 time zones really add up. A typhoon (hurricane) was near Tokyo on Wednesday afternoon, so we were delayed landing (waiting for planes to get out of the Narita airport to make room for us), and our train ride to the Shinjuku area of Tokyo was delayed and slower than usual because of the typhoon. It was about 11 pm before we got to the hotel.

Tokyo is huge - depending on what is included (who is doing the population study) the population ranges from 9 million people to as many as 35 million people over an area of 5,200 square miles. We decided to stay in Shinjuku this time - no big deal, I thought, but discovered it was over half an hour by train away from the station called Tokyo. Our hotel was next to the Metropolitan offices for Tokyo - definitely within the city. The Shinjuku train station is the busiest in the world - the one that has the famous "pushers" - attendants that push the last few people into the train cars during rush hour so the doors can close.

Travel hint

The best way to get from Narita airport to the city is the Japan Railway East "Narita Express," labeled N'EX. A one way ticket costs about ¥3,110 or about $31, and takes a little over an hour from the airport to the Tokyo stop. All seats are reserved, so be sure to get a seat reservation when you buy your ticket (credit cards accepted). But wait, there is more... If you buy a round trip ticket for ¥5,500 ($55) you get a free Suica card. What's that?

A Suica card is used around Tokyo for subways, trains, and vending machines. It is a proximity card, held near the reader when you enter the subway (a display tells you how much money you have left on the card) and pass it by the reader when you exit the subway, and it tells you the fare for what you have ridden, and the new card balance. If you don't have enough money on the card to exit, you can go to a vending machine to add either the balance you need to exit, or add $5, $10, $15, or $20 (in yen, of course, no credit cards). The "free" Suica card that comes with the round trip N'EX ticket has ¥1,500 value ($15), and if you turn the card in, you get most of the ¥500 deposit for the card back. Many food places near subways, and many vending machines take the Suica card, even though they probably don't take credit cards.

If you bought a round trip ticket on N'EX, when you are ready to depart be sure to get your seat reservation, at the station (from an agent or vending machine), before going to the train.

Too many of our friends, even those who travel a lot, are afraid of Japan, because of language difficulties or fear of crowding. That is not as we see it. So some of our pictures are to show you that it is no more crowded than any other big city, and plenty of the signs are in English. This is the Narita Express. Look at the sign on the floor, and note that this is car 5 (or where car 5 will stop) and our reserved seat is on car 9. Got it?

The signs near the ceiling of the train cars (car 9 - remember?) flash in various languages. Just wait a second and you will find English is one of the 4 different languages. This route map says it is 7:49 pm and we have gone through the city of Narita (after leaving Narita Airport terminal 1 and 2), we will skip the next two stations (express train), then Stop at Tokyo and two other stations before Shinjuku.

Those ceiling displays in the train are even more helpful, if you study them a bit. This sign says car 9 of the train will stop by the elevator in from the train platform to the Tokyo station. If you walk towards the head of the train you will find three more stairs and escalators; towards the rear of the train are more options. You are arriving on platform B5F, and will be able to transfer to other JR (Japan Rail) trains by heading for exit 1F, or exit the station from B1F or 1F.

When you get to the Tokyo station, it is announced (no better than any train with 4 languages) but the signs are pretty clear. 9:16 pm in Tokyo, so it will be around 9:45 pm when we get to Shinjuku station. We did not take pictures for the Shinjuku stop, since we were getting off.

Hotel recommendation

We stayed in the Shinjuku Washington Hotel, connected underground to the Shinjuku train station, although it was about a 10 minute walk into the main station from the N'EX tracks, and another 20 minutes within the station to the hotel. (Head towards the South exit in the station (but don't leave), until you see signs for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, then follow those signs until you see signs for the hotel. The hotel is so large that they have two lobbies (we were in the Annex - enter through the main hotel lobby and follow the signs). Our perfectly ample room was $110 per night (cheap for Tokyo or any big city), free WiFi, breakfast not included). In Japan you pay for the entire stay when you check in. Staff English was adequate - not as great as in luxury hotels, but never a problem. We would certainly stay there again.

Around Tokyo - Thursday October 17

As we ventured outside our hotel, it was a pleasant fall day. The typhoon was gone, which usually implies clear skys (the air freshly washed). Be careful to look both ways when you walk - they drive on the left side of the road, and there are lots of bicycles.

We were heading towards the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings - there are two free observation floors on the upper level, north and south, both accessed from special elevators on the 1st Floor of main building 1.

The view of the city was quite nice, but the city extended far beyond what you could see - there was no hope of saying "There is the Imperial Palace" or there is Temple....

In one direction there was some hope that, on a clear day, you might see Mount Fiji. I don't know if it was in this direction, but the hills in the specified direction were covered with a rainstorm.

More of the city, as far as the eye can see

Looking back, I think this was one of our hotel buildings. Sort of big. We wandered to the nearby Takashimaya department store. Think Macy's, or maybe even more upscale. 14 large floors not counting food court and parking.

We wandered through the commercial area to explore and find a snack. For our friends concerned about congestion, notice the crowds. The yellow line is bumpy pavement (like we have a street corners) so blind people can walk easily. I even saw a blind person walking through Shinjuku station using a white cane, with an infant in a carrier strapped to her chest.

And if you are looking for a familiar store, how about a 7-Eleven. Some even have sit-down areas like a cafe. And their in-store ATMs often (or always?) have international banking connections.

If you are going to take the train or subway, back to the station. With a Suica card, just touch it to the blue spot. If you are going to buy each trip separately, look at the map near the entrance to the station - the number on each destination is the cost to get there. Buy a ticket from the vending machine with the amount you need (or more) and put it in the slot (on the front of the two gates on the left). By the time you walk through, it will eject your ticket at another slot at the end of the gate. You will use that ticket (or your Suica card) to exit at your destination.

For Thursday night we decided to explore a restaurant area near the hotel

Simpler restaurants have plastic models of the food on display, and it is acceptable to take your waiter to the display and point. Fancy places have fancy pictures... you can still point. Using English at every opportunity is "cool" in Japan, even if the restaurant cannot spell "Japanese Food"

Of course, the opposite can be true. An American athlete has a Japanese symbol tattooed on his neck. It says I am strong, he brags. The literal translation of his tattoo is "ruffian," hardly a complementary way to describe a strong person.

We had a new restaurant experience this trip. Pick your numbers from the pictures or menu ... entree 123 with side 234, then go to a vending machine, insert money, and enter the numbers of your selection. It prints ticket(s) that you take to the counter, and your food is cooked and brought to your table - it felt like a cafeteria, but choose from pictures rather than from a steam table.

Friday October 18 - Fabric Town

If there are so many fabric stores that a suburb is called Fabric town, you know we have to go. This is the underground tunnel from the hotel to the Shinjuku station. Note the congestion - this is rush hour, and most of these people are heading for work at the Metropolitan Government Buildings. And since they drive on the left, they tend to walk on the left.

And a half hour later we arrive at Nippori - Fabric Town.

The biggest single "store" in Nippori is "Tomato." Why the name? Who knows, but on the far side of the street, there is a 5 floor store behind a two floor store behind a 1 floor store, all next to each other. Each floor has a different theme - for example, upholstery fabric, lace, prints for making wall hangings, etc. etc.

On this side of the street are two more Tomato stores. This sign didn't help us a lot. There are many diverse fabric and related stores in town - for example one that only sells buttons, one that primarily sells needles (bet you didn't know how many different types of needle you can get). One store sold pallets of mixed fabric - I guess it is a kit if you wanted to open a fabric store.

Notice the alternating green and yellow banners down the street. So many stores, so little time. We did our best to see it all - lots of unique fabrics, a lot priced at less than half what we would have paid at home, but even the non-bargain fabric was less than we would have paid here. And the selections were amazing.

This T-shirt, front and back, caught Jenny's attention - if it were not so grossly overpriced, she would be looking for events where she could wear it. Note the tattoo on the back of the shirt!

While in Nippori we watched someone making noodles in the window of a restaurant. They start with dough, then stretch it and repeatedly double it, coated with flour so it stays individual strands.

This is a different "cook" from a different window at the same place... you can see more strands of noodles developing as he stretches it repeatedly.

Back to the first cook - done or almost done. We just "had" to eat at this shop.

Saturday October 19 - Tokyo National Museum

We spent some time in the Tokyo National Museum

Being married to a fabric artist, some of the extraordinary fabric pieces have to be shown.


of course, you cannot exclude some exquisite Buddahs

I was intrigued by the polished stone daggers/knives, from the 5th century BC

And the ancient polished stone arrowheads from the 7th century BC.

Saturday October 19 - Meiji Shrine

We visited the Meiji Shrine - the entrance is huge

To see how big it really is, look at that little guy at the base of the column.

A ways in you encounter the Sake in straw wrapped barrels. I cannot improve on their description.

Shortly after Saki we encountered the wine offering

Upon entering the temple, even visitors are expected to purify themselves. Take a ladle, fill it with water flowing into the inner tank, rinse one had into the outer tank, rinse the other hand, then take a handful of water and rinse your mouth (spitting the water into the outer tank). Empty the ladle and put it back for the next person.

This seemed to be the day for weddings. Every 10-15 minutes there was a procession like this with the bridal party, we presume going to take their vows.

The formal dress was always beautiful, but is this a happy bride and groom?

And, of course, the photographers have to get the entire family.

People seemed to appreciate that we liked their beautiful clothes, and welcomed us taking their pictures. But little girls are the same all over the world, look at her expression, seconds later.

Even little boys seems to enjoy dressing up in the traditional outfits.

Arriving late for the wedding? Or is it over?

This seems to be the main building of the Shrine. From the back, there aren't all the people in the way!

Paraphrased from the English language sign, "Ema, Votive tablets for special personal prayers... are ¥500 ($5) apiece. Hung around this divine tree with your wishes written on the back, these Ema are offered at morning prayers held every day by the priests."

There is a "Treasure Museum" on premises down a wooded path from the main Shinto Shrine. The shrine itself is a pleasant park enjoyed by the locals. Remember that land in Tokyo is the most expensive in the world, so this pastoral area is a big deal.

The exhibits were attractive, but not photo opportunities.

The front of the museum had nice park land and entry buildings

Restrooms in Japan are not always modest by American standards. Men's rooms on a train usually have a glass door, so you can see if it is occupied. I have been in co-ed restrooms in Japan with urinals open to the central area, and enclosed toilets used by either men or women. This room was modest by some standards... no door closing the restrooms, but a partial wall between men's and women's sides.

By evening we had found the Franciscan Chapel Center - the English-Speaking Roman Catholic Parish of the Archdiocese of Tokyo. Wonderful community, friendly mass. But it was getting cold. The Roppongi area is moderately expensive ... a sweater or scarf for Jenny would have cost $30 to $60. Then she found the equivalent of a Dollar General store, and bought a man's cotton T-shirt for the equivalent of $1.25. Just what she needed. And we found a great Italian restaurant before returning to our hotel.

Between the shrine and dinner, we stopped at the National Art Center. Interesting place, but they only have special exhibits, not a permanent collection. There is a separate entrance fee for each exhibit. Today's exhibits were not of interest, even if they had been free. Beautiful building and area. Note the elegant "sweater" on Jenny, recently purchased at the Roppongi Dollar store.

Not far away there was an outdoor sculpture exhibit - avant guard but interesting.

Nor for my living room or garden, but ....

Nice. Interesting. But think - we are in Japan, and the word is in English.

Sunday October 20

This was the day to visit our friends, Stuart and Emiko Ablett. I am glad they invited us to their house (even though we had trouble finding it in the pouring rain). We were soaked, but they were kind enough to dry our clothes, lending us "interim" clothing. We had a wonderful visit.

TRAVEL HINT: Addresses in Japan are a number and a name, but the name is of the block, not the street. The number is the position in the block - the building across the street may have a totally different looking address. The building back to back with the one you are looking for may have a very similar address.

Lunch was good - Tempura. But for dinner, I think Jenny conspired with the Abletts. I am not big fan of sushi or raw fish. But guess what we had...

There were multiple courses to the dinner...

Jenny loved the food (she said, "At last, on my third trip to Japan, I finally got sushi"). And I did eat a wide variety of things

Until the little transparent fish looked at me.

Monday October 21 - Kawagoe

As the New York Times wrote, "Kawagoe does such a good job evoking the Tokyo of yore that it is affectionately called Little Edo, a reference to the ancient name for Tokyo." There are two tour bus companies that drive through the narrow streets - we took the one with imitation antique busses (they look old but are actually new). You can ride all day, getting on and off, for ¥500, or you can ride to the far end of town as we did, for ¥180; - $1.80, and walk through town back to the train station.

In the oldest section of town, where the streets are pedestrian only, there is a street referred to as candy street. All of the stores sell candy in every form you can imagine, some of which is made in the shops.

The red and white banners throughout the town are for a festival that had been held recently. I guess I am a little taller than the average person there.

These people were just completing their rickshaw ride. Jenny convinced them, and their "driver," to pose for her.

Much of the older section of town had buildings that, if not old, were at least in the old style.

We enjoyed window shopping. For example, I found a shop where they made knives. Between customers they were hand sharpening their creations on waterstones. They had several Samurai swords on display, but admitted that they did not make the swords.

At the back of one of the shops was a room, much like a traditional Japanese living room - bedroom with sparse furnishings, mats on the floor, and sliding paper screens over the windows. I thought it might be where the proprietor of the store lived, but someone pointed out that the shelves displaying vases were not typical,and there seemed to be a sales sign on the floor below the vases.

At the edge of the oldest part of town was a cemetery - very compact.

The descendents are expected to care for their ancestor's graves. The long vertical boards are prayer sticks.

At the edge of the cemetery was this shrine (or whatever it is called) to care for the spirits of people who have no descendants to watch over them. The monks take on that responsibility.

We came to a large garage where this float - a mobile temple - was being put away (with the delicate parts being wrapped in yellow cloth). We understand that each year this portable shrine is taken to the temple, the spirits are invited to get on board, then they are taken through town to see the good works of the faithful. (This is why the red and white banners were throughout town.) After the tour, the spirits are returned to the main temple, and the float is put away for another year.

(I probably have terminology wrong, and perhaps some of the details, so if you can help, please let me know.)

The newer part of town was much busier that the oldest part, but filled with excitement.

In most of Tokyo ATMs are relatively rare. But this is a bank of five ATMs for various banks. Each is enclosed in a room for privacy, and those waiting to use the ATM remain in line outside.

Ginza and Bridgestone Museum of Art Tuesday October 22

The Bridgestone Museum of Art has a very attractive collection of local and world renown artists and sculptors. The founder of the museum was a very successful businessman: Bridgestone Tires was just one mid-career venture. He decided to endow a museum, and put it on the entire second floor of his downtown office building, so it was readily accessible, rather than building a palace in a remote park. No photos allowed, so no pictures, but if you like art, it was well worth a visit.

Ginza is the shopping (think 5th Avenue) and entertainment (think Times Square) area of Tokyo. We had been there at night on an earlier trip, so, just did a daytime visit this trip.

This view should make you believe it is Times Square

Looks like begging, and looks like an iPhone. Okay. Note the cloth and rubber shoes - these were an early invention by the same person who later founded Bridgestone tires (and the museum), similar to today's common plastic flip-flops.

Jenny thought this sushi really looked good.

There was certainly a wide variety available.

Note the flowers used as street decorations - poinsettas.

A couple times we had difficulty locating the train station, even though we knew it was in the area.

Now that you see the sign up close, I bet it will be obvious in the previous picture.

One last tourist tutorial. Notice the special at this Tempura shop. For ¥680 you get this bowl - not sure what it is, but I bet it is good. Then for an additional ¥200 you can get a bowl of rice with it. Sign language and cash work well.

Departure Wednesday October 23

We caught the Wednesday 8:02 am N'EX from Shinjuku to Narita, to catch our 11:30 am flight to Dallas, connecting to Austin, arriving Wednesday at 11:50 am. Trust me, it was not a 20 minute flight - basically we got back the day we lost on the way over.

Our reservations were on car 7 of the train; this was on the side of the train. Of course it alternated with other signs besides English.

The train tickets can be confusing (with so much in Japanese). The first line says that this was purchased as part of a N'EX Suica deal, this part is for the trip to Narita. Our original return ticket was exchanged for this one, with our seat reservations on 10/23 on the 8:02 train that arrives at 9:25. Looking at the schedule I happen to know it was train number 13, but you don't need to know that. Beyond the 13, it says our reservation is for Car 7, Seats 5 A and 5 B. An ordinary seat is pretty classy on this train - you don't need to pay extra for a "Green" first class seat. The return trip was valid for anytime between 10/16 and 10/29 - you had to claim a seat reservation some time during that period.

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