Hello fellow readers,
This is the first post of the series from The Country of The Rising Sun. Anyone who has ever visited Japan will probably agree the country is just different to what we are used to. Not only the architecture and countryside varies, but people’s mentality and culture contrast to ours. I only spent a week in Japan, but my visit was so intense and rich in experience it has left a solid mark in my soul (and body – thank you Mt. Fuji!)!
But first things first. Getting to Japan was quite a journey itself.
Manchester -> Paris -> 12h layover -> Moscow -> Tokyo.
And it wasn’t without surprises! I arrived in Manchester airport a bit late and had to be prioritized through security. Terminal 3 in Manchester is old and small and security staff made it extra stressful (for good reasons – they almost shouted at people to make sure we had all liquids and electronic devices out so there was no delay in additional bag check). Luckily I got it all right and expressed myself to the gate. The plane was half boarded at that point so I guess I still had some time left. Off to Paris yey!
Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is the main one in France and it’s massive! Luckily the departure to Moscow was from the same terminal (Terminal 2) as I arrived in so I could stay inside for the night. Be warned though: The terminal is huge and split into several legs. Getting from one leg to the other can take up to an hour (no kidding)! This is how I almost missed my second flight, but more about it in a sec. Terminal 2 is probably the best place to have a layover in Paris without booking any expensive rooms but still sleeping in decent conditions. If you manage to get to the building L (within the terminal 2) there is a free 24h public lounge with premium finishing! I could hardly believe it was for free. And I am not sure they will be able to maintain it for free, so make sure you check this before you go in the future. Either way – definitely recommended!
After a surprisingly quick night I took things easy in the morning. I was in the same terminal as my next flight, so I thought that no rush was needed. I wanted to get to the gate about 10 mins before boarding. I allowed 20 minutes to get there. What was my surprise to see there was a security check on the way! And there was a queue (of course there was a queue). I later realized it was for overseas connections and it’s a common practice for connecting flights. The reason for that huge queue was only 1 scanner in operation. I took me 30 mins to get through the security alone! I started to panic and rushed through corridors thinking I was almost at the gates. To mu surprise after 10 mins of speedy walking I hit another queue. A queue to a bus getting you to the right part of the terminal! Really? A bus within the same terminal? So I stood there for 5 minutes until the bus arrived and it wasn’t the end. I was at the beginning of the bus line and my departure gate was at the other end of the Terminal. Great! Not to mention the bus speed was about 5 mph due to safety or something, so it took 15 minutes to get there. By the time I got to the building doors the boarding should have completed and the gates closed. I was sweaty! I literally run for my life to the gate hoping for a delay. Trying to catch a breath I was looking around for signs leading to the right place. 5 minutes later I got there. I GOT THERE! And… there was nobody there anymore. Or I least this is what I thought. “Boarding complete” I thought…. I looked at the boarding screen and to my relief I read …”Flight Delayed”. Hell Yeah!!!!! (sort of).
The delay was astonishing 3 hours due to bad weather conditions in Moscow. I was sure I was to miss my connecting flight. How can you almost miss every flight on your itinerary?! This part was with Aeroflot (Russian Airlines) and I was surprised of the quality of the service. I’d say they are on par with any other European carrier. The food served was tasty and I cannot say that Emirates Airline do any better in the economy. I just wished people smiled a bit more as I sometimes felt I was a pain in the bum asking for a tea (people just don’t smile in Russia or something?). Either way I took the flight easy. Not much I could do at that point and hoped the airline would arrange for some alternative way to get me to Tokyo.
We landed in Moscow and went for passport control. I looked at the flight board and to my surprise the connecting flight to Tokyo was… delayed! Waiting for us (must have as the sky has cleared by the time we arrived). Like what on EARTH! Right between the passport control and the security control (yeah, standard procedure) a staff girl showed up asking-shouting for people going to Tokyo! I was at the back of the long queue and was instantly moved to the front and asked to hurry to the gate 6. And so I did. Running for my life again like there was no tomorrow. I was the last person who boarded the bus, which took us to a parked plane ready for departure. How nice of Aeroflot to wait for us about 15 people so we wouldn’t miss the plane (or so they wouldn’t have to arrange for hotels and alternative flights maybe). So yes, with a bit of luck again I managed to get on board the 3rd almost-missed flight. Off to Tokyo!
This leg of the journey was obviously the longest. As it was high summer and we were flying closer to the North Pole there was no night. It just did not get dark at all so my brain was like “Adrian, what the heck is going on? Are you time traveling?”. I tried to take some sleep but it wasn’t easy to do so. I did sleep for 3 hours in total maybe (waking up 15 times in between) but that was it. And of course you lose hours as you go east so we landed around noon (while departed at 7 pm. the day before). So…welcome to Japan! And however adventurous it had been up to that point, the real journey only begun then. But maybe a bit less stressful. Yey! 🙂
So, Japan! The very first thing you are hit by is how polite people are. The airport staff (or anywhere else for that matter) will greet you and serve you to the highest standards. And they wouldn’t be Japanese without…. (name all those things you associate Japanese with!) ]. I approached the Custom Officer and he pointed at the missing address in my arrival declaration. I asked for a pen so he handed me one. Unfortunately it wasn’t working so I asked for another one. He searched his pockets and handed me his own personal pen with a Pikachu sitting on top of it!!! I then knew I was in Japan!!!! <(^.^<)
Narita Airport is a well organized one. After crossing the border I headed to the Japan Railway office to exchange my Japan Rail Pass coupon for the ticket. I recommend the pass to anyone going to Japan for at least a week and venturing outside of Tokyo. It’s not cheap (approx £200 for a weekly pass) but it gives you free rides + reservation on all routes operated by Japan Rail (+some buses and ferries and excluding the fastest trains like Nozomi). So if you thought of going to Hiroshima like myself, the pass is more than useful. Plus you can use it right away as the train connecting the airport with the city is operated by JR. So once I received the weekly ticket I headed for the train. A fancy one! NEX – Narita Express takes about an hour to get Tokyo Station. It’s a direct, fast train. So you can imagine what’s the distance between the city and the airport if you considered other means of transport.
Tokyo is the biggest, most populated city in the World. If you take the metro area, the city population equals to the population of Poland (about 38 million ). It’s unbelievably huge. So one thing that strikes you when you enter the city is how well everything runs. Of course the train arrived on time (another thing in Japan!). So I could start exploring the city without a delay! Tokyo Station is a maze but the signs are written both in English and Japanese so it’s not (too) difficult to get around if you know where you are heading. And I was heading for the Imperial Palace! So here I am leaving the train station and…. ITS HOT! It’s hot and humid. It’s hot and humid and hot again… So after taking few steps I’m already sweaty and sticky. But hey, I am in Asia! And I shouldn’t complain about the weather but should enjoy what I see instead. I could see some superb stuff! The Imperial Palace is not open for visitor, but the surrounding area is. Well maintained with mowed lawns and short trees. Pretty!
I hanged around for a while and decided to move on to see another landmark of Tokyo. Tokyo Tower (Tōkyō-tō). It’s a similar structure to the Eiffel Tower (some say it’s a copy), but slightly taller (it does not appear to be though!). Half an hour walk from the Imperial Palace, but felt like forever in the heat. Although no regrets as I stumbled upon a very beautiful shrine! It’s a Shinto shrine established around 1603 in worship of the fire god Homusubi no Mikoto. Apparently the shrine was meant to protect people from fire (traditional Japanese houses are mostly wooden). The stairs leading up to the shrine are famous too as they represent success in life.
The shrine was actually almost next to the tower, which I was pleased to see. So here I am looking at the famous Tokyo Tower and it’s… short? It looks smaller than the Eiffel Tower really, but I know it’s taller! Must be an optical illusion and the tower is not sitting on a flat ground. Unfortunately the higher observation deck was under renovation. And the lower deck was at the level of surround buildings so I decided not to go up. I had plans to go up Sky Tree anyway later in the day. The tower was impressive and its distinctive colour added some spice. It was once the tallest structure in Japan but handed the crown few years ago to Sky Tree, which was the next and the last point of my interest for the day.
That was quite a walk from one tower to the other. By quite a walk I mean about hour and a half including a quick, few stations ride on a JR train. I also made a stop at one of the street restaurants to try something local. Oh man it was delicious! I was worried I wouldn’t be able to order anything not knowing Japanese. Fortunately meals are usually displayed outside in a form of plastic representatives or simple photos. Also the ordering process is common to be via a machine so easy peasy – the food was ready and it was delicious! A simple ramen-like meal. Cheap and filling!
And finally Sky Tree and Asakusa district. I was very unfortunate to get to the district late in the evening so did not get a chance to see much, but the sunset views of Tokyo from over 300 meters above the city were breathtaking! On a clear day you can see all of Tokyo and Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately the smog / fog make it often very difficult so you have to be lucky. The queue to the tower was ok’ish (15 mins) and nothing like hours of waiting time I was warned about. The lift goes up in merely 50 seconds and you can barely feel anything. There are 2 observation decks, one at 350m and the second at 450m. You can purchase the ticket to the 2nd deck on the first deck so there is no need to buy it straight at the tills as you might decide the first deck is enough, as I did. The higher you get the less personal the views are imho. If that makes sense! So… the views of a 38-million city. The sea of lights… absolutely amazing. It’s not a sea of skyscrapers like Manhattan in New York due to earthquake risks, but being flat and spread up till the horizon gives this wow effect. So yeah… wow! Tokyo’s shimmering lights are definitely one of the things to see in life.
So here it it my first day in Tokyo finished. Tomorrow is another exciting day involving some traveling down south! Hope you enjoy the reading and shots. Stay tuned for part 2!