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  • Tokyo 2013, Part I – The Old & New

    Posted on June 10th, 2013 Michele Sun No comments

    ANA DreamlinerANA (All Nippon Airway) announced resuming the Boeing 787 San Jose – Tokyo Route starting June 1st, and when I read the news I screamed “that should have been my Dreamliner. !%$@$^#%”

    So, after five months FAA finally lifted the 787 grounding and the Tokyo bound Dreamliner takes off from North America. Earlier in Jan, I was so anxious about whether I could fly 787 or not for my Tokyo Marathon trip;  anticipation of flying the newest, biggest and coolest aircraft to Tokyo was a huge excitement part of this trip, besides the Tokyo Marathon itself. But unfortunately that did not happen as planned, and two  weeks before my departure I had to change my flight and schedule. Since the plan had to be modified at the end, I then decided to fly into Haneda Airport instead of Narita since it’s closer to the central Tokyo and I would have more flight options. Now, sitting at Peet’s Coffee facing the Pacfic Ocean and enjoying the warm San Francisco weather, my thought is drifting back to the sight and sounds of this Tokyo 2013 trip !

    I had no definite plan where I would be going or what I would do after the Marathon race, but pretty much had ruled out the possibility of visiting any place far outside of Tokyo, therefore it would not be necessary (econimically) to get a multiple-day JR Pass this time. Upon landing Haneda, I approached the JR counter at the International Arrival Terminal and purchased a Suica Card. The main reason was because I wasn’t sure where I would be going, so it’s very possible that I would be riding JR, local train, subway, intercity train, even water bus maybe, and I didn’t want to buy  all kinds of day passes  then ended up wasting them. Therefore the most logical solution would be getting a Suica Card which would allow me to ride on multiple public transportation options, except there was no discount fare. The one I got was “Suica & Monorail” and cost me 2,700 yen; it combines 500 yen deposit, 1,500 yen of JR fare, plus a round-trip ticket for travel between the Haneda airport and Hamamatsucho on the Tokyo Monorail line. It also works as a debit card, so you can use it at convenient stores, retails shops, Starbucks, even vending machines.

    From Hamamatsucho I hopped on JR Yamanote line to get into Shinjuku, the heart of Tokyo, where I would be staying and where the race start was. The arrival terminal, immigration, luggage area, JR counter and the Monorail gate were all on the same level, so it’s very easy to access. The Monorail and Yamanote lines run every 3 – 5 minutes, and the whole trip into central Tokyo took about 45 minutes; it’s efficient, easy and hassle free. So really glad that I am pretty good at figuring out public transportation system in foreign countries; it saved me money and time plus the opportunity to experience local commuter life. Like everything else in Japan, the trains are clean, very well kept and on-schedule of course.  During my stay in Tokyo, I just simply recharged the fare on my Suica Card at JR Station when the remaining value became low, and by the time I left Tokyo I returned the card at the JR counter again at the airport terminal and got the deposit  back.  One tip to share — if you have some  money left in your Suica Card at the end of your trip and you wish to keep your card as souvenir, you can go one level above and buy some candies or tea and use up the money left in the card.

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    Arriving Shinjuku Station, the real challenge extreme edition began! Shinjuku Station is the busiest station in Tokyo, and in fact it’s the world’s busiest transport hub. It connects not only JR trains, but also inter-city rails, commuter rails and metro lines. On a daily basis it served about 3.64 million people per day (as of 2007), and it has 36 platforms with over 200 exits. When I got off my train I started looking for my gate “South”, however I found East, West, Central East, but could not see signs of South. I kept walking with my luggage trailing along and eventually found “North”,  but where the heck is South anyway? Well, everyone knows that I am not afraid of asking for help, so when in doubt just ask away :-p I asked one of the attendants at a gate booth and he told me the South was on upper platform. Walking out of South Gate ignoring all the bakery, bento shops, department stores which were all calling my name, and I entered into the cold and busy street. “Irrashaimase” I told myself!

    So which way was to my hotel? I pulled out my iPhone and walked few steps to be closer to the JR station — yes there is free Wifi inside JR station. Google Map said “Take the crosswalk”, and I identified a McDonald and a FamilyMart store on the map. You see, in Japan people don’t use street address, when giving directions one will go by “oh you walk across the street, turn right at the 7 Eleven store, walk pass floral shop and turn left at the ramen shop…” something like that. So I walked to my hotel, Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, accordingly and it only took about 7 minutes; on the way I found a Starbucks, pharmacy, Yoshinoya, several restaurants and of course that McDonald. I made a mental note that I should recommend this place to friends if they are coming to Tokyo; it’s really conveniently located.

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    And just like the place I stayed last year, the room was compact and I had a bit trouble finding place for my luggage or moving around, but I expected that already since this is Shinjuku and I just had to deal with it. There was an Ethernet port on the desk but no Wifi in the room, but it’s available down in the lobby area which was also the same in the hotel I stayed last year. I called Mike who was staying at, of course, a super fancy 4 star$ place, and left him a message saying I have arrived safely. I think he was either at the race Expo or was in Kyoto that day. My plan for the first day was to do something fun and touristy; something that I probably would not do if Max had been here with me :-p  I truly enjoyed the trip we took together last year because he simply  is a great travel partner and we got along well (at least I hope so), and it’s a memorable trip for  me with lots of special memory. But traveling solo has different kind of fun and excitement, for instance this time I can do some silly and girly stuffs like eating as much ice-cream as I want or go lip balms shopping… etc.

    I did not have any solid plan, but thought I would take care of the Tokyo Skytree the first day, that way I would not have to squeeze in time for this spot later. Hence it’s logical to visit Asakusa, Sensoji and those small traditional shops and eatery in that area, then go to Skytree before sunset and see if I could get a good view of Mt Fuji. I looked up the map, and figured out the route for myself – from Shinjuku Station – take Chuo Line – transfer to Tokyo Metro Ginza Line — get off at Asakusa Station – walk to Sensoji Temple. Though it’s afternoon on a weekday, but the trains were full of young students and it’s lots of fun listening to their rapid conversations or watching them playing games or watching  anime on their phones. I got to Asakusa and started walking without purpose, just looking around and feeling  “yes, vacation started.

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    I stopped at first sweet shop selling sweet potato Japanese pastry and soft served ice-cream, and how could I refuse that, right? The Marathon on Sunday seemed not that important now compared to this soft served ice-cream :-p The girl handed my ice-cream and asked if I would like to have a picture 🙂 Continued my walk and found those small grocery stores, dry seaweed shop, mochi shop, restaurantsnd…etc.  all were very neat, compact and cute.  Took my time walking over to Sensoji Temple and it looked so ancient at the heart of a very modern city. Before I entered the main Buddha hall, I stopped at the large censer and let myself blessed by smoke of those burning incenses. I wondered if I became smarter now? Am I seeing things more clearly? Saw many students were getting the fortune-telling wooden sticks and decided to give it a try. I picked up a stick and found the matching fortune paper, but it turned out to be a very bad one.

    So do I leave it behind by tying it to a tree branch and donate a small amount of money? Or just toss it and forget about it? A little voice inside me said “you might have bad luck on the race day.” But the very stubborn me decided to ignore it, ended up bringing it home as a souvenir! Looking at this oldest temple in Japan, I found it more like a tourist spot than a religious worship place, compared to the temples visited last year in Kyoto. Continued walking  around the temple ground and found rows of small shops selling very traditional food, rice sweet, and I bought a cup of hot sweet-rice liquor that I had never tried before. Very yummy and comforting in a cold afternoon like this.

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    It got dark quickly and I figured I better starting my trip to Skytree — the tallest tower in the world (and second tallest structure) and a functional television and radio broadcasting tower.

    I could see the Skytree  from the temple ground, but wasn’t sure how long it might take by walking since I had no internet access on my phone, and I also wanted to try the Tobu Skytree Line for the Skytree, so I opted for the very short 4 minute train ride and was only one stop away. Walking out of the Skytree station  found very clear signage pointing escalator to Skytree, Aquarium, shops.. etc., so I followed the crowds and had no problem to get there. Immediately saw huge crowds waiting outside at the main entrance on the 4th floor, and there were two lines with “A” and “B” signs at the front, but I couldn’t tell what  the differences were. I just picked and walked to the end of “A” and stood there patiently; from time to time a staff would come up and talking to people in line “6:15”, “6:30” in Japanese, so I assumed that meant the approximately time  we would get into the Tower.  But of course I was wrong. By the time I got closer to the door, a staff came up to me and asked for my “kado” which means “card”.  Ah… card?!  I replied “kado arimasen” (No, I don’t have a card). She found that I am a foreigner, and pointed me to some tents at the other corner and telling me in Japanese that I should go get a “waiting card” first. Sigh.. so I just wasted 15 minutes waiting for nothing, and what’s the point of a “waiting card”?  But I could not reason or argue in Japanese or English, so obligatorily went to the tents area and stood in line again, and got a card.

    More waiting in line and it soon got really dark and cold, my plan of seeing Mt Fuji definitely would not happen. I was debating if the wait was really worth it, but what’s the odd that I come back to Tokyo or Skytree anytime soon? If I could reserved a ticket in advance online that would solve all the problem, but unfortunately the online reservation  system is only available to those with Japan-issued credit card holders. And the card holder must present to pick up the ticket, so I could not purchase online nor ask my Japanese friends to get the ticket for me. The other options of getting ticket in advance will be booking a tour package with Skytree  excursion or hotel that offers Skytree as part of the stay. Either way I didn’t consider because I like flexibility and spontaneous when it comes to travel, however after I heard from friends that could not enter Skytree with multiple attempts due to the long wait, I would suggest  everyone to look into these options before you make your travel plan.

    Finally I got into the lobby and approaching the ticket counter, got my ticket! Yeh~ Waited in line again for the high speed elevator, and this part of practice was very similar to Empire State Building, CN Tower, Taipei 101..etc. We were grouped for the high speed elevator, and it’s probably the best looking elevator I have been. There were silk panel with embrodiery of cloud patterns, and LED display showing speed, floor numbers, and of course the white gloved elevator lady — so Japanese.  First we arrived the Tembo Deck  which was at 350 meter height above the ground, covered in 5 meter-high glass for a 360-degree all-round view. On this Tembo Deck, I could see Tokyo under the dark velvety sky with city lights twinkling under my feet and in distance.  I can’t really compare the view from Skytree and Tokyo Tower fairly, for my judgement will be heavily clouded by emotions.  But standing here alone and remembering the trip to Japan last year, the bitter sweet memory sadden me.

    Depending on which type of ticket you purchase, you can continually go up to the “Tokyo  Skytree Tembo Galleria” at 450 meter level. And from the floor 445  you can get to the floor 450 which is the highest floor of Skytree.  I saw many Japanese coming here with entire family of three generations, and seeing grandpas checking information at real-time with iPad made me smile. Young couples were having coffee or drinks at the Sky Restaurant which I don’t get it at all, but guess it’s a “sophisticated thing with good atmosphere”.

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    When leaving Skytree the elevator took me down to 5th floor where the Skytree shop was and I skipped it completely, no material things needed for memory. However, taking the escalator down the the 4th floor I found myself in candy-land immediately.  I visited the Nana’s Green Tea for the Japanese sweets – matcha green ice cream with azuki bean paste and sticky rice balls, in Japanese it’s called 抹茶白玉. I was walking and eating at the same time, and it must be that silly happy grin on my face that I got stopped by several old ladies asking where I got it, and I kept telling people “Kore wa oishii desu”. This was on my check-list for this trip and so happy that I had accomplished it the first night, and leaving  宇治金時 (green tea shaved ice with azuki bean paste) under the “green tea sweets” category for another day. There were many shops on this floor, but I went to the Hello Kitty Shop only; I am a huge Hello Kitty fan so seeing all these special Skytree edition Hello Kitty plush, towels, bags, cell phone accessories… was really exciting, and that huge Kitty in kimono robe was so cute! I knew there was a giant Totoro inside the Skytree Tower, and I purposely avoided that. I could not bring myself to see it!

    At 10:00pm I was on JR again and heading back to my hotel. That night I was thinking that I happened to see the oldest and newest of Japan in one day, and if I had come as the old me, would I be able to reset everything and leave as a new me at the end of this trip? My heart saddened and I was feeling a bit lost and lonely, but I looked at the card that Vinh  had given me before I left and remembered his words — ” You will be fine, because you have the best supporting system in the world!”

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