Sunday, June 21, 2015

Polly's Japan Trip Journal 1

My trip plan to Japan in 2015 started in 2014.   I  missed original plan to visit Japan for my class reunion that was held in Tokyo in 2014.  I injured my left knee and could not recover enough to handle lots of walking and up and down the stairways.  The opportunity to visit Japan for another good reason was presented in summer of 2014.   We were informed of the 16th World Kendo Championship to be held in Tokyo, 2015.  I finalized my travel plan through Travelocity a few days after the Thanksgiving Day, which I wished I had done before the holiday.  I could have saved $300 on Air + Hotel combination booking.  I tried to come up with travel plan to visit this and that - never got around completing.  Whenever I had the time, I was reviewing the map of Japan.  I didn't want to visit all the castles and historical places... because I've been there before.  I wanted to see the mountain and do something as the locals would.   The trip end up to be my memorable belated birthday present for myself.
Day 1 - May 24 flight out from SFO on China Airlines - layover in Taoyuan airport, Taiwan.
Meal and services on China Airlines flight to Tokyo, Japan was quite pleasant.
(At Taoyuan airport in Taiwan.  Children's cultural art exhibit displayed at the terminal.)
 It was a well spent 2 hours layover at the Taoyuan airport viewing these art exhibit.  
 I trained myself to sleep at 4 am PST that is 9 pm in Japan time, and it worked out.  I arrived in Japan, Monday, May 25 - Narita airport.
Took NEX (Narita Express Train) from Terminal #2 directly to my destination IKEBUKURO.   This was a great plus as I did not have to change the train.
I wished I found this link before I left for the trip because I did not know if NEX would take me to Ikebukuro directly.  That was quite a concern for me travelling with luggage instead of a backpack.

Purchasing the JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) from U.S. for 'foreigner' is a bargain that no one should miss.   7 Day pass for $238 took me around everywhere on Japanese via Bullet train - SHINKANSEN.  It would have otherwise costed as much as $450 some for all the trips I took 8 days in Japan.   again, this is another link I just now found but not before that would have been of a great use.   I actually did not have much time to organize my tour route before I left, in fact I had a phobia to go.  But everything went smoothly.   On each train ride, They announce each arriving train station loud and clear in Japanese and in English.  Unlike some of our light rail services in South Bay area where I find the ride unpleasant and as for the announcement? Don't even know what they announced.  A big difference between services that depends in capital income from riders versus 'whatever' attitude in U.S.  Everything at the train station is posted in both Japanese and in KATAKANA - Alphabetic pronunciation of the Japanese, so that you can easily read the Train name and Destination name.  Always announced in both Japanese, English, and sometimes in Korean.
 And thank goodness, every where is "No Smoking" zone.  You are only allowed to smoke in a Smoke Room!! Why we can't even do that in the States is mind boggling.  What good is 25 feet no smoking sign when the floating 'smoke' can't read the sign?!  One phobia solved.  Thank you, Tokyo.

The Green Window:  Every train station has "Green Window" for JR Pass holder.   This is the window that I visit every day to make next day's reservation to ride Shinkansen to go places, especially somewhere 'far' - to different prefecture.   Or when I get "lost" and in need of direction as well as for local tour information.  My train ride phobia solved!
And it's true, most of the train agents speaks English.  But be kind and speak slowly and watch their facial expression to confirm their understanding of what you just said.   I noticed many foreign travellers to Japan have posted on their blog or at hotel 'comment' section complaining about difficulties communicating with hotel concierge, for example. But I found no difficulty at the hotel's front counter, except to watch 'foreign' guest next to me at the counter speaking English way too fast.  I just spoke totally slowly to give them time to translate to respond back.  I was surprised many a times at the train stations and at remote country side - found senior ladies around my age to speak fluent English to help me out in a couple of situations.  Hotel staff are trained always to greet and speak in Japanese first.  When they are spoken to with English, they will respond with English the best they know how with smile.
On my Day 1 in Japan after arriving to my destination to IKEBUKURO, north of Tokyo... about 11 stations away from Tokyo stations, I ventured around trying to feel my way around this highly organized underground train station.  You might want to say Subways but they are not quite the same.  Their real estates above ground is so densely populated here in IKEBUKURO that this train station is built underground.  But the trains runs above ground most of the time - in my routes at least.
     (Train station at 5 am)  Click on any image to enlarge.
(then, there they come - Start of Commuter Rush Hours all the way till 11 pm ....)  And be aware, all commuters are "Plugged-In" to their cell phones or smart phones and pads, etc.  (Reminded me of Kingsmen movie and the new Terminator movie Genisys.)   So you better take along with you a pair of ear plugs also.   Receiving cell phone calls in the public is considered 'inconsiderate' and 'restricted' on the public transportation.   Very cool etiquette.   No one has to deal with your 'Stress' over the phone listening to your private conversation.  No one has to listen to your uncivilized phrases in a tight commuting space area.   When you board the train, you will hear the reminder announcement regarding setting your phone into "Manner" mode - Silent mode/Airplane mode.  And silencing the clicking of the keyboards are also reminded.   I think America could learn from this etiquettes in public places.  It's like a total "radio silence' mode in effect during the morning Sardine train commute hours.   I can see most of the people are not quite awake... so they are nodding off on the train rides.  Some got their eyes closed ... likely went home late and had to wake up at 5:30 am... Everyone seems to have learned and disciplined to build this private silent wall... the silence was broken, however, in the trains but with few muffled laughters and light conversations here and there when the weekend came - Liberty! 
Train stations are smartly built with conveniences in mind - retail stores, restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores to include Krispy Creme, Subway sandwich, Annie's Pretzel...

 I found my "C1" exit eventually.... 1/2 mile away...maybe it's 1/4 mile, but I know my track distance in the normal field...  I walked my suitcase, my backpack and braved myself through the maze of commuter crowds at 3 pm.  I thought I would be lost.   Each 30 to 50 steps, there is another train station entrances and exits.  Commuters are in and out, walking quickly to transfer to different stations.  Their pace is like "half time" anywhere you turn.  And Don't Forget!! Walk on the LEFT or suffer the onslaught of getting run over and getting funny look from everyone.    I learned that quickly.  And also - Don't Pack your Suitcase that You cannot Carry at least three flights of stairways.   Before I left for Japan, I found myself having issue going up two flights of stairways ever since I started taking the HBP medication.  Short of breath and tight chest and throbbing head and dizziness is some of the symptom after going up stairs.  Amazingly, it did not occur!!  Wow! I thought.  By the time, I walked 1/4 mile to my exit through this busy maze, I was walking up three flights of stairways and out to the main street.  I took a deep breath and felt "Wow!  I am breathing normally."   Then, off to search for my hotel.   Another surprise, "1 minute" from the Station is exactly where it is.  About 20 steps from the exit, I turned left.  The TOKYU STAY IKEBUKURO appeared right in front of me.  Street view coming up the train station's stairways.
Street view of Ikebukuro after emerging from the underground.
Sky View from Hotel

No Public Smotking!  Double Awesome!!!
You can ride this GREEN bus with your prepaid "SUIKA" card you purchased or if it has "JR" sign, then, you ride with your Japan Rail Pass..

Everything in Japan is just a few steps away.  The don't have this American luxury of "your city is 45 miles away from the airport" and "your hotel is 15 miles away" if your destination is somewhere away from the airport.
  I felt safe in and out of the place.   My room was on the 10th floor.  You are given a security entry card.  It is used to ride the Elevator, to enter your room, to turn on your room's services - lights, TV, A/C, Washer/Dryer.
The room is perfectly designed - efficient space usage - perfect for my stay style - In and Out, In and Out, for 7 days.   Best part of this room is the in-room Washer and Dryer.  The washer is the front load combo model by Panasonic.  It washes and dry laundry in the same unit.  How efficient!  I could actually took its word for it and had taken a few less clothing to lighten my luggage.

Minus for this hotel - your guest are not allowed to visit you in the room.  I was dumb founded.  I received my friend at the front lobby - 3 steps away from the front counter is a mini table and two chairs.  I could use the dining room that is five more steps away.   That was REALLY WEIRD!!   But I got over it.   Just left and went out for exploring.

Best actions are always in the back allies.   Across the main road and a few steps to the left of neon lights are - bars and grills, noodle houses, sushi restaurants, pachinko game house, etc.  My friend took me to a some kind of bar and grill.  Everything is in tight space...I would not have ventured in if it were not for my friend. Up the narrow stairs and into the door is a bar.  Seats about 10 customers.  A stage with grand piano, drum sets, speaker and light systems.. They have jazz performances and other venues on weekends (I think that's what he said...) The bartender served us nice cold glass of beer. It went along quite well with Japanese crackers - Chili Arare and peanuts (I suppose it's Japanese bar standard) ... . And he prepared us bruschetta sort of appetizer with melted cheese.  The beer helped me to relax and I had a good night sleep.  Alarm clock is set for 4 am.  Ready for tomorrow's adventure-Shinkansen ride to Shin-Aomori - farthest north of main Japan before transits to Hokkaido.  
More pictures can be seen at:

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