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Trip Report Kathie’s & Cheryl’s Impressions of Japan

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This was our first trip to Japan. We were helped greatly in our planning by fellow Fodorites, especially Hawaiian Traveler, mrwunfl, DonTopaz, KimJapan, mara and Kuranosuke. Our thanks to them all and to all of the other generous Fodorites who answered our questions. You can follow Cheryl’s blog of our trip at http://www.cherylmarland.com/category/japan/ The photos on our travel photo website will be up soon – I’ll give a link when they are posted.

Lost in Tokyo.

We anticipated that the flight and getting to our hotel would be easy. We travel somewhere in Asia every November, but all the other times we’d fly into Narita only to have to change planes and have another 6 – 8 hour flight to Bangkok or Singapore. So the one flight seemed very easy. And I expected the jet lag would be less.

Our arrival in Japan was very easy. We had some trouble finding the ATMs in the arrival hall, but got yen and quickly bought our limo bus tickets. The bus trip was 90 minutes to the Hyatt Regency Tokyo. We got there in time to have drinks and canapes in the Regency Club. We both slept pretty well that night.

I didn’t really have a sightseeing agenda in Tokyo, instead, my goal was to get the “vibe” of the city.

Up early, had breakfast in the Club, then took the Hyatt shuttle to Shinjuku Station to purchase all of our train tickets. It seemed like the ticket office should be readily apparent, but it was not. We wandered 15 min or so before we found the JR ticket counter. I had carefully cut and pasted all of the train info from hyperdia.com into a document, so even though the ticket agent spoke almost no English, it seemed easy. The man handed us a stack of tickets and I saw they were entirely in Japanese. I asked the man to write what they were for, and he did write the destination on some of the tickets. (I learned later than the tickets could have been printed in English had we known to ask.) Not only were the tickets in Japanese, he had printed the seat tickets and the fare tickets separately – very confusing! We had the concierge at the hotel go through the tickets and write what they were for.

We headed out of the station to find our shuttle bus back to the Hyatt. Even though I had written down the exit number and the number on the sign where the bus stopped, finding it was not easy. There are very few signs in the station in English. We wandered for 15 minutes or so before stumbling across our shuttle stop. I figured we’d have an easier time next time we were in the station. We were both struck by the sheer number of people in the station, all rushing around. We had planned to take our luggage on the trains, but this experience gave us pause.

The new hop-on bus was offering free rides, and we felt that would be a good way to get oriented. So we walked to the Kieo Plaza Hotel, not far from the Hyatt, to catch the bus. With beautiful, sunny weather the double-decker open-air bus ride seemed like an ideal activity. The bus ride is a good way to see a sample of Tokyo’s modern architecture. The first stop was at Roppongi Center. We got off there to wander around and find a place for lunch. The shopping center was like a maze. Even though there was English signage, it was not very helpful. We had a guide to restaurants in the shopping center, but asking people who worked there where a particular restaurant was never got us an answer. While they all wanted to be helpful, they had no idea. We wanted the tempura place, but we knew it was closed in Wednesdays. I am very sensitive to msg, and I have a note written in Japanese saying I cannot eat msg. We stopped at several Japanese places, but all said they could not accommodate me. We chose an Italian place, but when we got inside, the lunches were $50 per person, and they had only one portion of the duck special, the dish we both would have ordered. There was no one else in the restaurant, which also seemed like a bad sign, so we chose to leave. We finally ate at an Indian place, which was ok, but not memorable food.

Of course, once we had eaten, we found many more promising places. We went back to the hop-on bus pick-up/drop off area and waited for our bus. The remaining stops on the route were of no interest to us, but again, we enjoyed the architecture.

Getting back to our hotel turned out to be an ordeal. The hotel had entrances/exits on four different streets and we would walk toward where we thought the Hyatt was from the map, only to find that we seemed to be going the wrong way. We went in circles for a while, then went back and asked the doorman, who got us on the right track. We were relieved to get back to the Hyatt.

We woke up the next morning to rain. In an effort to conquer Shinjuku, went to Shinjuku again to get Suica cards. Oddly enough, we could only find machines for the pasmo cards. We found the JR ticket desk again, and bought them there. I really wanted to use the machines, as I had seen a video on how to buy a personalized Suica Card from a machine.

It was my birthday, so we had lunch at Le Coup Chou, a recommendation from HawaiianTraveler. We took a taxi, as per HT’s instructions. It is located on a walking street, so the taxi driver let us out with a motion as to where he thought it was, and we gamely started looking. After several blocks, we stopped and asked someone who wasn’t sure but sent us off on another street. We asked again, and the man was able to tell us to go down two blocks and over one. Once we got there, it looked to me like the taxi driver was very close, but let us off one street over from where the restaurant was. The restaurant offers a fixed menu at lunch with two options – chicken or fish today. We also ordered a nice half bottle of burgundy. The food was excellent salad/mushroom timbale, then cream of celery soup, then a lovely, lightly sauced chicken breast, followed by coconut custard. Total about 7500 yen (cash only). What a wonderful birthday lunch!

We had a relaxing afternoon at the Hyatt before meeting Don Topaz for drinks at the NY Bar at the Park Hyatt. Great view, great company, a nice finish to my birthday in Tokyo.

Next morning, our goal was the Meiji shrine. We wanted to take the train, in part as practice for Saturday when we take the train to Kanazawa. I asked the concierge if there was a map of Shinjuku station, his reply “Shinjuku station very large, very confusing. No map.” Once we were dropped off, we followed the signs that said JR. Once inside the JR station, we found the platform pretty easily. The platform numbers are clearly marked. The train was crowded, but I’ve seen worse on the skytrain in Bangkok.

The shrine is listed as a one-minute walk from the train station. The guidebook we had said to take exit #2 from the Harajuku station, but we could find no exit numbers. We walked 10 minutes, asked and turned around… it was one minute the other direction. Once inside the gates I breathed a sigh of relief – for the first time since being in Tokyo, I felt like I wasn’t lost. We enjoyed the shrine, gardens and the chrysanthemum display. Walked back down the path, back through the gates to the street, and it didn’t look right. I asked a woman on the street which way to Harajuku station, and she said, “Oh, that is very far, too far to walk, but you can take the train from Yoyogi.” She pointed the way, and we were off. Obviously, we had come out of a different gate then we came in. We successfully negotiated our way out of Shinjuku and to the shuttle stop. The driver this morning pointed out that the stop was next to the Okyu Dept store… if we had only had that instruction previously!

We thought we’d go to the top of the Met Bldg next. I remembered that Bob mentioned they ate at a restaurant in that building. But we discovered the restaurant is a cafeteria. With my need to avoid msg, that was clearly not going to work. Back to the Hyatt, we found the restaurant in the lobby, Caffe, had a lovely lunch. The “Ladies Lunch” included an appetizer/salad bar, foie gras with a mushroom basamic reduction, a choice of entrees, dessert, and coffee or tea for 3000 per person. It was excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to eat there again. They had to other options for 1600 and 1900 yen.

Our first experience with the long-distance trains

After our observations of Shinjuku station, we made arrangements for our luggage to be delivered to the machiya house where we are staying in Kanazawa. The cost for two suitcases was just under 3000 yen. So we each took a small carry-on on the train. I was glad we were leaving from Sinjuku on a Saturday – it seemed like it should be less frantic.

Indeed, our last foray through Shinjuku was easier. We had learned from getting lost…again and again. We found the right platform easily. The platforms are clearly marked.

We knew we had just 19 minutes at Omiya to find our next train. Fortunately, the next train was a Shinkansan, and there are clear signs to the Shinkansan. We found our platform and got on the train. The seating is 2/3 and is double decker. I had tried to talk to the ticket agent about what we seats we wanted, but it was not possible. He gave us a window and middle on the side with 3 seats and we were on the lower level, so no view. Space was very tight on this train. We found space for our carry-ons, but I don’t know where we would have put suitcases.

At our next stop we had 11 minutes to make our train. As we got off the train, I looked around and saw no signs that were helpful, no board showing the trains and the platform numbers, etc. I turned and asked a Japanese man behind me where I would find the train to Kanazawa (I had all of the train info printed out) he looked and said follow me, that is where I am going. The next train was an Express Limited – I like these trains much better, more spacious and comfortable. Had we not found someone to help us – and quickly – there is no way we would have made the connection. There is more space on these trains – the woman across the aisle from us had her large suitcase between her knees and the seat in front of her. We resolved to use the luggage delivery service whenever we could.

The Japanese train system is really remarkable. The trains are clean, efficient and they run on time. We read that Japan is trying to sell trains to the US, and have even offered to help with some of the infrastructure costs. I do hope the US will take them up on their offer, as our current rail system doesn’t hold a candle to Japan’s.

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