Tokyo Travels- First Day Learning Curve

Street sign Sunjuku

Tokyo Marathon Expo
2015 Tokyo Marathon Expo
Birds eye view of Tokyo

Top Chef is over, and I am way behind on my challenge. It isn’t because I haven’t been cooking, but because for the past two weeks I have 1) been working like crazy, and 2) been cooking ultra healthy to help Luke prepare for his marathon. I have some dishes planned to finish up the Challenge, but in the meantime, I am super excited because we are in Tokyo! Neither one of us has ever traveled in Asia, so this is a big adventure. We have now been in Japan for approximately 24-hours, and I feel like in that small period of time, we have learned a lot. So for my first official travel post, I thought I would document our looong journey getting here, our initial impressions, and the struggles we had attempting to maneuver around Tokyo.

Air Canada is the absolute best airline for international travel

I heard a lot of horror stories about long-flights and international travel. My cousin recently moved to South Africa, and I had been warned by my aunt that Nicole’s flight was cramped, long, and totally full. The last time I flew to Mexico, my flight had terrible turbulence, and the airline charged for everything including water. So as I packed and prepared for our trip, I was honestly expecting the worst.

But I have to say, our flight was unexpectedly pleasant, and I’m pretty sure it all has to do with the wonder that is Air Canada airline. First of all, we had a layover in Vancouver, and I almost called off the rest of our vacation in order to live for a week in the airport. Seriously, it is the best airport ever. It is big and open, with floor to ceiling windows that look over amazing forestry. Throughout the airport are comfy chairs, large aquariums, and random ponds and gardens. It feels more like being inside the atrium of a mall then an airport. The restaurant we got lunch at had great food (they made their own blackberry ketchup!) and the staff everywhere we went was super friendly.

Burger and Fries
Burger and fries at the Vancouver Airport

And then there was the flight to Tokyo. It was half empty and we had a whole, extra middle seat to ourselves. We were both able to stretch out our legs, and keep our bags, pillows, etc. in the extra seat. That would have been enough for me to call it a successful flight. But then the flight attendants dropped two pieces of information on me that made me a forever customer of Air Canada. Selling point #1- FREE BOOZE on all international flights. You want a glass of wine? It costs you nothing. Seriously. The flight attendant even encouraged me to drink up. (They will cut you off eventually if you get too enthusiastic, but luckily it didn’t have to come to that). The second selling point? Free movies. Not just one movie that everyone has to watch at the same time. But you can freely browse through a whole collection of movies and t.v. shows and watch whatever you want on your own time. It was kind of amazing. It actually made me forget that I was stuck on a ten hour flight. Next time I have to fly across the country I might do so via Vancouver just so I can take an Air Canada flight.

Getting around Tokyo is surprisingly easy- even if you have no idea what you are doing

Once we landed, we immediately began making it obvious that we had no idea what we were doing. After having to ask how to get out of the baggage claim area, we finally made it through customs, managed to buy a ticket for the Hotel Shuttle Service, waited another hour, and then successfully boarded the bus. Thank God for shuttle services (and for staying at a hotel that has a direct shuttle from the airport to the hotel available) because at that point we had both been awake for over 24-hours and were starting to droop. For anyone who visits Japan, I highly recommend skipping the public transport on your first night while you are bogged down with luggage and splurging for a shuttle. Because after 20 hours of travel, it is no time to try and figure out the train system. We were safely delivered to the door of our hotel, got dinner, and promptly crashed.

On our first morning in Tokyo, we woke up bright and early, and were ready to see the sights. After getting breakfast in our hotel, we decided to wander around the neighborhood a little bit (we are staying in Shinjuku) and stopped by a cafe for lattes. You know you look like a tourist when the cashier tells you the cost of your drinks and you sort of stare at the assortment of coins in your hand. “Oh is it your first day in Tokyo?” he asked. Why yes it is. However did you know.

After wandering a bit, we had to go to the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, which is located in the Ariake district, and also where the finish line for the Tokyo Marathon is. The race starts in the Sunjuku district, by the government building, half a mile from our hotel. Which means that we essentially had to find our way across town.

Before we left, I had done my due diligence and learned that Tokyo has an excellent public transportation system, that allows the public to travel throughout the city, fairly cheaply and with relative ease. What I couldn’t prepare for was the confusion we would feel the first time we tried to buy a ticket. Using the magic of Google maps, (how did people possibly travel anywhere without the internet) we were able to map out how to walk where we needed to be, what line we needed to take, and any transfers that were necessary. But when we went to buy the tickets, all of the pride we felt in finding the train station evaporated, as we stood and stared at the unfamiliar cities and train lines listed on the ticket machine. We stood there confused for several minutes, before a helpful person showed us the life saver for all tourists- the red call button. You push the button, and a little window opens next to the machine you are standing in front of. You show the worker the station you are trying to get to, and they help direct you to what ticket you need to buy, and what platform you need to be at. We are now experts at pushing the red call button. Honestly, in some cases there is no way around it. Some information is in English (or at least written in Roman letters) but a lot of information is only available in Japanese. Including a lot of the comprehensive train maps, and comprehensive train schedules. If you don’t speak Japanese, there aren’t a lot of options. You just have to accept your tourist status, and realize you will be that person who needs help where ever you go.

Mary Beth and Luke wait on a train
Mary Beth and Luke waiting at the train platform

By the end of the day, we managed to get to the Exhibition Center, grab Luke’s packet, and then took a train another 3 miles to go take a ride on the Observation Ferris Wheel. (Which is so much more impressive than the one in Las Vegas, and only costs about $5 to ride). By the time we got back to our hotel we were feeling like we had come a long way since not knowing how to handle the money earlier that morning.

Other random thoughts about Tokyo so far:

  • Everyone is so friendly and polite. Not everyone speaks English, but they are willing to do their best to communicate. Several people used a calculator to help us understand how much something cost, or what train platform number we needed to be on. Everyone from the staff at our hotel, to the coffee shop worker down the street just seems really happy and genuinely interested in being helpful.
  • The public toilets are so fancy. They have a number of buttons attached to them so that you can use the bidet and control how much pressure you want. I also went into a few stalls that automatically started playing soothing nature sounds (I’m assuming so that if you aren’t feeling well, your neighbor in the next stall can’t hear any embarrassing sounds?) The public restroom in our hotel also has sanitary spray you can use to wipe down your toilet seat before you sit down. It sounds weird, but the toilets here put ours to shame.
  • The city is so clean. The air quality isn’t smoggy like Los Angeles, despite being so crowded. There is no graffiti, no trash in the streets and the train stations don’t smell like urine (like all of the underground stations in San Francisco). It is sort of like being in a parallel universe version of New York City.
  • There are hidden little nooks and crannies everywhere. In between the main streets are random alleys that hide bars, restaurants, and businesses. A lot of bars and restaurants are not on the street level, but are either in the basement or on a higher floor. Descending a flight of stairs into an underground restaurant makes me feel like I’m discovering a hidden gem. It’s a lot of fun.

Those are my impressions of the city so far. My next post will dive into all of the food (because it is incredible and needs its own post).

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