Day 1 Continued (1/11):
With a 14 hour flight + 15 hour time difference between Houston and Tokyo, I arrive at 3:30 the day after I leave.
The flight lands at an area of gates that's connected to the main terminal via a small shuttle. The airport isn't very busy (odd), and it only gets better towards Immigration, almost no line.
The immigration officer takes about 10 seconds to examine my passport, stamps it, asks "first time to Tokyo?" and gives me a small smile as I breeze on through. My checked-in bag is in good shape off the conveyor (minus one zipper dangly-thing, stupid cheap bag), and Customs has no issues with it, so off to arrivals.
I had already changed some currency into yen prior to leaving the US, so I can't comment on convenience of currency exchange or ATMs at Narita, but looking at a map and guidebooks earlier, it seems pretty easy.
Outside the Customs hall are a LOT of people, milling around, finding connections, etc. Very few non-Japanese (a recurring theme during my trip except at a couple of places). A couple of convenience stores, baggage fowarding places, and the ground transportation desk.
3000 yen buys a ticket to the Park Hotel in Shiodome (my initial hotel); the woman at the counter asks if I want the 4:15 or 4:20 bus. It's 4:13. I opt for the 4:20 bus. Japanese efficiency.
The bus stands are right outside the terminal,easy access. I see the 4:15 bus being loaded (maybe I should have taken it), but the extra 5 minutes lets me look around a bit and let it soak in: I'm in Japan! Wow!
Lots of vending machines, dispensing sodas/ teas/coffees. The names are sometimes on the cans (Coke, Pepsi, Pocari Sweat, Nestle), but I have no idea to this day what some of these drinks were. Maybe next trip I'll sample some more.
The 4:20 bus pulls up and within 5 minutes we're off. There's some traffic within the airport grounds (there's construction on what appears to be a massive new terminal or terminal upgrade, looks great, hopefully it will open soon), then off to the highway. Japanese roads are designed to drive on the left.
The ride to the hotel is endless. It's dusk when we leave, so initially we pass a lot of cheap-looking hotels/motels, some driving ranges, small towns. As it's getting dark, I start noticing more development. There's a huge furniture store on the left when you ride in (don't remember the name and didn't take a picture), followed by signs for Tokyo Disney (really can't see much of it from the road).
The development is incredible. Every square foot of land seems to have a building on it, and every second square foot seems to have a neon sign. I'm Korean, so Seoul has the same kind of population density, but (so far) not the same amount of sheer urban buildup. I think this is the one thing that's really impossible to truly describe, you have to go and experience it for yourself.
We get stuck in traffic for a long time after entering the city center. My shuttle stops at the TCAT (City Air Terminal), and a couple more hotels before arriving at Shiodome. Total travel time is about 2 hours.
Shiodome on first impression seems to be all office towers and concrete. It's crowded, so orientation is a little confusing. The Park Hotel has a clear sign, but it's not on the ground floor.
There's a bellman on the ground floor, though. The lower floors are of an office tower, there's an elevator tucked into one of the corners that takes you directly to the hotel lobby. Up to 25 and we're in the hotel lobby.
It's very chic. Lots of dark wood, live music, a central atrium that the rooms surround. Very quiet, no hustle and bustle. The reception and concierge desk are in one corner of the lobby, with a large picture window behind it, a good view of Tokyo Tower in the background.
Check-in is relaxed, no problems with finding my reservation, room rate, etc. My room is on the 33rd floor, the bellman takes me up (no tipping, that's also weird if you go to NYC or Vegas a lot, where tipping is so ingrained).
My room is very small (in a previous post I compared it to a really, really nice dorm room). Light wood, a good view out the window, and internet access (wired) for free. The room itself is sparkling clean. Bathroom amenities include a toothbrush, toothpaste, and various aromatherapy products. It's a tub (standard American size) with shower and your typical ingenious Japanese toilet with bidet function included (for those who may want to be fresher than in the States).
I spend a little time catching up on email, calling people back home (Important Tip #2 (#1 being renew your passport early)-- if you plan on calling anyone from Japan and you're bringing a laptop, get Skype for yourself and any contacts with computers (it's a free VOIP program that lets you call (or video chat if you have a webcam). It also has low rates to land lines in the States as well. Sound quality is excellent even without headphones or microphones. I can't recommend it highly enough), and unpacking some things.
Finally, time to go out and get lost! I make my way down to the lobby, ask the concierge where the subway station is (and receive a map of the subway lines and a map of the office complex itself (it's that big), with directions from the hotel lobby to the subway station.
Getting to the station from the lobby doesn't take very long but is a little bit convoluted. After getting off at the lobby, another bank of elevators takes you to the B2 (basement 2) level; there's an arcade of restaurants and shops on this level if you fancy a quick bite. A walkway leads you out of the building (briefly) to a small outdoor garden with tables that contains a convenience store (which is in fact very convenient) and on any given hour a number of Japanese smoking salarymen. Directly connected to this is the subway line.
Culture shock again; the Japanese subway is huge. Repeat: the Japanese subway is HUGE. Tons of stops, and more importantly, the stations themselves are massive. Forget NYC as a comparison. Many of the stations are self-contained cities in and of themselves, with shops, stands, restaurants, and connections to major offices and department stores within the station. It's more like Montreal's "Underground City", except much more spread-out.
It take some time to figure out the subway line, but luckily most of the signs are in English, and there's lot of computerized ticket machines that have an English option. Otherwise, figuring out the subway is the same as in any other city, the signs are clearly marked as to which direction the trains are heading, which stations are transfers, etc. The only tricky thing is that there are two main subway companies (Toei and Tokyo Metro), and they don't accept transfers on fares between lines. If that sounds confusing, it is a little, but it shouldn't really come up that much.
Fares range between 160 yen to 260 (or 290?) yen. Not too bad.
The trains and stations are clean. There's no litter in Japan to speak of; walk around the city sometime and then just take a look around the sidewalks, there will be no litter to speak of. There aren't many wastebaskets in Japan either. If you have litter, you carry it around until you can throw it away. This is made somewhat easier by the fact that the Japanese don't eat while they travel. The Japanese I saw during my trip (at least during the week) were all stylish, skinny, and neat. Lots of black clothes for men and women. Polished shoes, short skirts, stylish coats. The women all wear medium-length heels (how they get around and go up and down the stairs, I don't know). Not many people wearing jeans. In fact, the only people I really saw deviating from this fashion formula were younger Japanese and tourists. Note: if you wouldn't be caught dead in slacks/dresses/ heels, and are a pullover/jeans person, you will look sloppy. I sort of struggled with my attitude towards this during my trip. I guess that if you're not Japanese, you're going to look foreign no matter what you wear, so be comfortable. On the other hand, the tourists I saw looked like complete slobs. I'm Asian, and was forewarned, so tried my best to blend in anyway.
I take the subway on this evening to Shinjuku (might as well get maximum crowdedness and sensory overload over with soon, right?) Shinjuku Station is so big, I forget about exploring it right off the bat. There's over a dozen exits, countless passageways leading to shoppping arcades, connections to multiple other lines... forget it. Just get out when you can.
So I just pick a random exit that will take me close to East Shinjuku (away from the skyscraper district). To this day, I don't quite know where I ended up, I wasn't able to find it again on subsequent trips. As I emerged from the station (as previously posted, Tokyo is hell for people with disabilities, stairs everywhere and many withohut elevators), I was assaulted by miles of neon, people, noise; once again, if you haven't experienced it, there's no way to adequately describe it.
At this point I'm starving, and the area I'm in looks promising. Lots of electronic stores (so so many cell phones, and cell phones coverage is incredible in Japan. They even work on the subway (although no one speaks on their phone in the subway). I can't even get Cingular to work in my house!), small clothing stores, and a McDonald's and Wendy's. It's so crowded... people walking home, walking to the subway station, strolling... I spend 30-45 minutes just navigating the streets. There's a lot of people in parkas handing out flyers for something. Karaoke? Porn shops? I never find out.
This area also has a lot of pachinko parlors and DVD stores. Finally, I pick a sushi place where it rolls by on a conveyor. I speak no Japanese but the hostess doesn't seem to mind. The place is crowded with salarymen and some families, so it seems like a good bet.
I've been to "sushi-boat" or "sushi-train" places a lot in the US, but not conveyor belt places (which is the original concept). These places have a reputation for serving less-than -optimal sushi, and I'm sure that's true, but it's still much better than most of the sushi you can get in the US. The setup is the same at the restaurants I visited. There's a canister of loose green tea mix, you take a small scoop of it and add hot water spigots that a located near every seat. Another canister of grated ginger, a little container of soy sauce for your little dish (you don't add wasabi to soy sauce in Tokyo), and you pick plates off the belt and go to town. Prices are clearly marked.
This place was pretty inexpensive. I eat a considerable amount of sushi for less than 1500 yen. Now fortified and pleased with my first "Japanese" meal, I emerge from the restaurant and walk some more, just soaking it all in. After some consultation with maps and my guidebooks, I walk to Kabuki-cho (Shinjuku's red-light district). Everything is done behind closed doors, so there's not much overt content on the streets, but there are scores of Nigerian touts soliciting pedestrians on the street. They'd start in Japanese with me; some would realize I wasn't Japanese and then switch to English. "You want to go to st*** club? Only 5000 yen! White girls!" and numerous variations on that theme. There are also some Japanese girls in parkas, asking if I'd like "massage". Generally, though, as stated by every guidebook I've ever read, it's really safe. No one is overly solicitous or really bothersome. The neon in this district is if anything even more pronounced than my original stop. I also pass by restaurants serving sushi, udon, ramen, tempura, rice bowls... everything advertised with plastic food models, everything smelling so good.
Finally, exhausted by jet lag, walking, and being overwhelmed by modern Japan, I find my way back to Shinjuku Station, back to the hotel, and off to bed. Tomorrow morning Tsukiji fish market awaits, I ask for a wake-up call for 5:45.