We arrived at Narita airport at 7.50 in the morning, after 11 hours and 45 minutes of flight, during which I slept for an hour at most. It did seem long of course (it’s no fun sitting down on a plane and thinking: “It’ll be like spending all 8 hours of work in one chair, in one stretch, with very little option to move… oh and another 4 hours on top of that!”) but in the end it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. As we age, we develop this ability to cope with “empty” moments in time (whether or not that’s a good thing, I’ll let you decide for yourself), thus making them pass more quickly… and I have never been as grateful for that as I was on that flight all the way out to Japan!
Going through customs and immigration was also easier than anticipated. Everyone seemed more polite than most other places, with even the security guards nodding to everyone who came through. A stark contrast with our experience in Philadelphia last year, where this customs guy was yelling at a tourist: “You’ve come to the US enough times to speak English by now!” I could already tell I would find Japan incredibly refreshing, just in terms of the general behaviour of people.
Having just travelled for over half a day (we’d already had an hour’s flight from Luxembourg to Zurich before the long one to Japan), I felt incredibly dirty, hot, sweaty, and out of place as I stood waiting for the luggage. A quick trip to the loo allowed me to change into a clean top and to brush my hair a little, but there’s only so much you can do… and we still had a whole day ahead of us until we could check into our hotel and have a shower, so I knew my torture was not about to end just yet.
As we went through customs, undisturbed (though I’d packed a prescription for my pills, just in case – if you’re travelling to Japan, do check whether your meds are allowed in or not beforehand), the lady sent by the travel agency was standing right in front of the crowd with my name on a big piece of paper. While I was pretty certain she would be there, it was a relief to note that something we’d planned from thousands of miles away, through several third parties, had fallen into place and gone as smoothly as it possibly could. She had several important documents to give us and help us with, and the trip would not have been the same without this successful exchange.
She was incredibly helpful, exchanging our vouchers for our Japan Rail Passes and even getting us an extended ticket that would go all the way to the station by our hotel, for no extra charge. She came with us onto the platform for the Narita Express, triple-checking that she’d given us all our tickets and everything we needed. She even stood by the train right up until it left, waving goodbye to us like a mother waving her children off to school.
Tiredness caught up with Tom on the train and he snoozed for a bit, but I was anxious to discover my very first glimpses of Japanese scenery. The area around the airport wasn’t all that interesting (rather predictably), but as the train pulled further and further away, I noticed one thing in particular that caused my heart to soar a little in my chest: the trees. Just over a week ago, Tom and I had watched My Neighbour Totoro as a joint opportunity for him to practice his Japanese and discover a Ghibli classic in preparation for our visit to the Ghibli Museum. In the film there is this massive tree where Totoro and his friends live, towering above all other trees like a giant mushroom of greenery. I’ve always dismissed it as part of the fantastical elements of the film – never did I imagine that in Japan, trees actually grow like that! Not individual trees, but rather groups of them growing together into an impenetrable mass that looks like one huge tree, a living organism hiding all sorts of potential mysteries. It’s not even one kind of tree in particular that grows like that, because I saw many different species in these “clumps”. Some are not very tall, but there’s always a sense of togetherness. It made me want to know what it would be like to stand beneath them, if it’s just like being in a regular forest or if there’s a certain magical feeling of some kind. I like to imagine it’s the latter…
I also glimpsed a torii (gate) leading into one of these mushrooms of trees, very similar to the one in Totoro (but then again, a torii is a torii, they all have more or less the same shape, even if they’re sometimes painted different colours), but it was gone a fleeting second later, before I could point it out to Tom. I’d stolen his camera, as I realised during the flight that I’d stupidly left my memory card in my laptop at home. My feeble attempts to capture these trees on camera failed rather miserably because of the movement on the train, but I hoped to see some more on our numerous excursions.
The train crossed into the suburbs and then into the city itself, which was just as tall and bustling as I’d imagined, though in some places I saw very few cars on the roads. It was nearing 10 o’clock when the pulled into Tokyo Station, which the woman at the airport had warned us was extremely chaotic, even providing us with a map of all 5 floors, should we get lost. But finding the correct line didn’t prove too difficult in the end. We took a train and, two stops later, changed onto another one. One more stop and we were at Suidobashi Station. A short walk brought us to Hotel Niwa, where the agency had booked us a room. By this point, we’d been awake for more than 20 hours (and it was 3.30 in the morning at home).
But because it was so early and hotels in Japan usually only let you check in around 4pm, we had to leave our suitcases in the luggage room and keep our sweaty, smelly clothes on a while longer. So we set off into Tokyo, feeling both excited and like we ought to be in bed. Unsure of where we were going, we went back to Suidobashi station, hoping to find the metro (not knowing that there is a Suidobashi Metro Station which is separate from the Suidobashi JR Station, of course). We stabbed at a ticket machine for a while, unable to work out how the fares worked. I must have looked suitably confused though, for within a short while, a kind gentleman stopped and asked in English if we needed help. He showed us how to buy tickets to Shinjuku (we’d randomly elected to go there, because it seemed to be a place with things to do) and off we went.
When we got to what we’d heard is the busiest train station in the world, we were lost for a moment in the sheer current of people walking briskly to and from all sides of the station. A Japanese station is a sea that is both tumultuous and incredibly smooth – try to swim against the current and you risk drowning very quickly. It’s best to follow the flow while slowly modifying your course, causing as little disturbance as possible, yet allowing you to reach your intended destination without making too much of a detour. Still in the process of learning this technique, we managed to find our way to one of the huge department stores I’d read about. We were looking for something to eat, eager not to miss the fairly tight lunch window that most restaurants seem to observe: 11 or 11.30am till 1.30 or 2pm. This can seem generous but when you’re used to strolling into a restaurant at 1 or 1.30 without a care in the world, just assuming they’ll be open for a while longer, making sure you do eat what you want to eat (finding the right restaurant can take some time) can be pretty stressful. The department store had two floors of restaurants at the top, though, so we thought we’d probably find something there. We wandered around in circles for a bit, looking at the lifelike display of dishes in the windows, but couldn’t make up our minds. We were both eager to try our first real Japanese food in Japan, but the pressure was so great we were afraid of choosing poorly… how foolish of us. If there is one thing I learned during our trip, it’s that the Japanese are true master when it comes to food. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a food stall or a high-end restaurant, you will eat like kings and queens there (or at the very least, we were lucky enough to have that experience).
This very first lunch was no exception. We ended up choosing a place with a special lunch menu that cost the equivalent of about 12 euros – a pretty good bargain, considering the amount of food shown in the picture. We weren’t sure what some of the things were (the staff barely spoke any English, but we managed), while other elements were recognisable straight away: tempura shrimp and vegetables, rice with strips of egg on top, noodles in broth… We were also given complimentary green tea (something that is common in Japan – they will often serve you hot or cold tea, or iced water with your meal). Everything was delicious and the view from the 15th floor over the train tracks and the main square (that looked a little like Times Square – in fact it might even be called Tokyo’s Times Square, if I’m not mistaken) was very entertaining. We left very satisfied indeed with our first meal in Japan.
After lunch, we wandered round the department store for a while, then to some shops on the other side of the street. I bought a memory card for my camera and we had an iced caramel latte in a little café at the end of a small pedestrian alley lined with cute little boutiques. By that point, we were desperate to keep ourselves awake, a deep tiredness having taken over both of us. We were incredibly happy (and slightly dazed) to be exploring Tokyo, but we knew we wouldn’t last much longer without some rest, so we got the train back to Suidobashi and reached the hotel at a more reasonable time for check-in. They even brought our suitcases up to our room separately, so we wouldn’t have to wait while they retrieved them from the luggage room. As there is virtually no tipping in Japan, it was a relief not to have to fret over how much would be appropriate to give the girl who brought the cases. Otherwise, our money would have dwindled away incredibly quickly due to the kindness of everyone we met! It was nice to get good service without worrying about over- or under-tipping. It made the helpfulness and kindness of the staff seem a bit more genuine than what we’re used to in the Western world.
Our room was nice, the only downside being that it was a twin (but I’d known that beforehand and would soon discover that this is quite common in Japan). The window was covered by a Japanese-style screen, giving the place a cosy and private feel – we could barely hear any noises coming from the busy city outside! In our bathroom, I discovered my first heated toilet, which also had all the bidet functions I’d read about (one for women and one for buttocks… the ladies’ one has a picture of a woman on a loo, while the other one just shows a pair of buttocks… apparently that’s how they objectify men in Japan, it’s quite hilarious). I found the heated seat nice, but couldn’t yet dare myself to try any of the bum-cleaning functions… I felt that my extreme level of tiredness did not put me in the ideal mood (is there ever one??) for potentially violent squirts of water to my nether regions, as it happens.
I did have a nice bath though, washing away the grime of the journey in one of those deep “sitting” bathtubs that the Japanese seem to favour. I read a story from The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (which I’d chosen for our book club that month, partly because it’s amazing and partly because I wanted to read it while travelling to Japan), washed my hair and got into my pyjamas (Tom used the ones thoughtfully provided by the hotel – also a common Japanese quirk). I slept from 4 till 6.30 and woke up hardly knowing where I was or what time of day it might be. The room was so quiet and the sun had already set outside, something I had not been expecting (but which is completely logical, as Japan is far more southern than Luxembourg). A quick glance at my watch reassured me that we hadn’t accidentally slept until 3am.
Feeling at least a little refreshed, I woke Tom and we dressed for dinner, although we had no idea where our next culinary adventure might happen. We hadn’t made any plans for the evening and so we decided to have a look at the hotel restaurant, but it turned out to be full. The people at reception directed us to a tall building behind the station called Meets Port, with several Japanese restaurants (and also an Italian restaurant, but I can’t bear the thought of eating pizza in Japan, for some reason, although it may be perfectly excellent).
Once we reached the restaurant on the 5th floor, we were shown to a table by the window with a view almost as spectacular as the one we had at lunchtime. The restaurant overlooked some of the Tokyo Dome attractions. We could see the steep hill of a roller coaster in the distance, as well as a big wheel. Closer to us was a ride that still seemed to be working. I’d spotted it as we were walking to the hotel earlier and thought it looked a bit like a ride, but never imagined it actually was one. It looked like a giant flat wheel supported by a stalk with long cables spaced out all around it, hanging down. Every so often, a small cage with a colourful parasol on was pulled up one of the cables, hung there for a minute (the view must be lovely!) before dropping quite fast towards the ground. We could just make out the faint stick-figures of people in the parasol-cages and the whole scene had a rather dream-like quality to it (the parasols light up at night, all in different colours). I kind of wanted to go explore the attractions afterwards, but at the same time I knew I’d probably be too full up and tired…
For starters, I had some raw tuna and avocado in a wasabi dressing. Stunningly delicious in its simplicity, I thought it was something I might actually be able to recreate later at home (and I did! It works! – I’m happy to post to recipe if anyone is interested). I can tell you straight away that didn’t happen often on our trip, as Japanese food is so full of intricate flavours and subtleties I wouldn’t know how to go about recreating most of the things we ate. Tom had some fish, which he said was nice. Then we both had a pretty decent omelette with some daikon (Japanese radish) soaked in soy sauce. For dessert, Tom had bananas and berries with a strange kind of translucent jelly that shone like mother-of-pearl in the evening light and was very pretty to look at. I had some red bean crème brûlée. All in all, it was a light but yummy meal and I couldn’t help but think that if all our meals were like that, I might end up going home without the dramatic weight gain that always seems to come hand in hand with holidays. Yay for Japan! We finished off the meal with some complimentary green tea.
After that, we tried to look at the Tokyo Dome attractions but the park had just closed, so we walked around for a little while and then decided to call it a day. Time to head back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep, so we might have enough energy to do some proper exploring the next day.
To Be Continued…
*Please forgive the small amount of photos that accompany this entry, I promise there will be more with the next instalments! With my memory card issues and the whole being generally very exhausted thing, I didn’t take that many pictures on the first day.
Photos – 2014 © Zoe Perrenoud (unless otherwise specified).