The land of the rising sun. That is one of the nicknames for our next destination. When we arrived in Haneda airport in the middle of the night it was anything but. Our friends in Tokyo had arranged some private accommodation for us and since we could hardly wake them up at 1am and public transport had already stopped, we spent this night in the airport. What we did not expect, was that by the time we arrived most benches and seats were already occupied. We walked arround all the floors in the arrivals terminal hunting for some comfy sleeping surfaces, but in the end our only option was two hard wooden benches outside a shop. This sleeping in airport seems to be very popular. Somebody actually made a website about all the options and facilities one can use for spending the night in Haneda (). Using our jackets Zoë managed to get a relatively decent night sleep, while Matthias kept watch over her dreams and our belongings. Unfortunately, there were no windows nearby and so we missed our first sunrise in Japan.
Public transport resumed operation around 5.30am but we did not leave until later on. Our couchsurfer friends had sent us a lot of information about the Tokyo metro and on how to get to them and the apartment they arranged for us. The Japanese rail system might be very efficient but the Tokyo metro is still confusing. There are at least 15 lines plus some privately run lines that go outside the city. You have to buy separate tickets for private lines or exchange tickets within the stations. Tickets can be bought to a certain stop for a fixed price. Maps above the ticket machines show how much the ride to each stop along the line is. The one thing that allowed us to take on this spider web-like system is the English button on the ticket machines. This made it easy to buy the right tickets. If this didn’t work the staff at the counters spoke good English and were always very helpful.
Once on the platform, we found that on most lines (mainly the ones going away from the center) there were 4 types of train: local, semi-express, limited express and express. Local trains stopped at every station but the others only stopped at fewer stops thus shortening travel time. We always had to check which trains actually stopped where we wanted to go.
We arranged to meet our friends for lunch and headed for Shibuya area for breakfast. Near the station were dozens of various eateries but we found most of them closed or just opening and setting up. We found a nice bakery café with good coffee. Next to the station is also Shibuja junction. It’s claim to fame is that up to 1000 people cross it in all directions at the same time. Cafés around it as well as the station have windows from which people can (and do) stop to see the masses cross the roads. It was raining that morning and therefore not quite that many people on the road but it was still a flood of umbrellas everytime the green men lit up.
Matthias was tired and we were not yet used to the Japanese pronounciation and so we managed to miss our stop and did not realise it until two stops later. To get back to where we came from we jumped onto the first train back which unfortunately happened to be a local one that stopped 10 times instead of twice. In the end we were one hour late to our meeting but luckily our friends were still there.
After dropping our bags in the flat and a quick introduction we went out for lunch. There we had our first bowl of the famous ramen (noodles in broth) plus some other specialities. We spent a long time catching up since we hadn’t seen each other for over a year.
In the late afternoon we went to Shibuya station for drinks and a stroll through the streets and quirky shops were you can buy second hand kimonos for ¥1000 (£6.70).
The next day was meant to be soaking wet and it did not disappoint. Matthias decided to brave the Japanese cuisine and bought natto following a recommendation from our friends. As we were not particularly hungry, we decided not to cook any rice but eat it just with toast. Natto is fermented soy beans and ours came with soy sauce and a japanese mustard. Eventhough it did not contain any cheese, it was similar in consistency (only more slimy), formingvvery long strings which made it difficult to eat. We managed one of the three 50g boxes before giving up and resorting to other toast toppings.
Our activity options were fairly limited by the heavy rain, we decided to go and see the Tokyo national museum near Ueno train station. The museum consisted of five buildings holding different themed exhibitions. All of them are very well set up and have English signs. Even with all the downpour outside, the museum was not overly crowded. The best thing about the exhibitions there was that they only had a small number of items on show in each section. Unlike European museums that tend to show 20 paintings for a certain area or period, the national museum had maybe 5 on display but covered more areas of Japanese lifestyle, culture and history. We were particularly impressed by the level of detail in some artworks that dated back as far as the 7th century. It was very interesting to see how this country developed; especially as it was cut off from contact with other countries for hundreds of years. Overall, we both enjoyed this cultural stint a lot and definitely recommend this museum as the one (if you only have time for one) museum where you can learn about Japanese culture and history.
After a yummy dinner near the station, we headed back home for an early night since we had to go to the airport the next day. This night, after a one month break, typhoon lan (21) hit the island. We watched the weather forecast anxiously. It was expected to arrive in Tokyo early morning, so we expected the worst for our flight north. Very surprisingly though there was no wind and no rain by the time we got up. We had factored in some extra time to get to the airport but it soon emerged that it wasn’t enough. Almost all train lines were delayed or ran a reduced service due to the storm. By the time we finally got to Haneda airport, we had only just over one hour left before departure. Because we could not find any info about our flight or the airline on any sign we turned to the woman at the infomation desk for help. She didn’t know about it either and at this point we discovered that we were on the wrong airport!
Haneda and Narita airport are on the opposite sides of Tokyo bay and, though linked by multiple transport options, at least 90min apart. Even though it was easy to despair we sat down and immidiately sorted out a solution. We had booked an appartment through Airbnb which could not easily be changed so we tried to fly later the same day but by the time we found cheap flights, getting to the other airport two hours before the next flight was a bit of a risk considering the disruption caused by the typhoon. Evening flights were too late and would have meant arriving in Sapporo with the last express train. With New Chitose airport being located an hour away from Sapporo we didn’t feel like taking that risk and possibly having to spend the night at the airport. We therefore decided ro spend the night in Tokyo and fly the next day. Flights were also cheaper the next day. Zoë was lucky to find a cheap double room in Asakusa world travellers guesthouse near Ueno station from where we had good train connection to the right airport. The room was tiny but we also got a breakfast and free use of the hostel’s jacuzzi which was amazing and really helped us to relax in the evening. The hostel also has a small but nice roof terrace. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Senso-ji (temple) and the gardens which are located about 1.5km from the guesthouse. The surrounding area is full of stalls and small shops where you can by everything: second hand kimonos, chop sticks, steamed dumplings and lots of souvenirs. It was really busy but we enjoyed wondering and looking so much we forgot all about the trouble we had had only a few hours earlier.
That evening we had a mission for dinner: finding a place that served a bowl of ramen for ¥300. That number has been mentioned on quite a few blogs and travel cheaply-websites as the normal rate. We walked around many alleys and along some streets near a train station (where cheap eateries are usually to be found). When we eventually gave up and sat down the cheapest ramen we found cost ¥400 for noodles, vegetables and soup. The most common option (with some vegetable, half an egg and one or two slices of meat) costs on average ¥750. Considering for that price you get a bowl about 20cm in diameter and 5-6cm deep full of filling and yummy food it is still very good value for money. The cheapest place we found was a so-called button restaurant. The name comes from a machine at which customers pay and order their dish by pressing respective button. They then recieve a small ticket which they hand over to the chef at the counter. This type of eatery is normally quite small; ours had about 12 seats. Thankfully the chef came to help us with our selection and cooked us a simple tasty meal.
Back in the hostel we were very excited about getting into the jaquzzi. It was not an onsen (hot spring), but still quite close. Showers came in half height and with a plastic stool to sit on while washing. The water was as hot as we could endure and very relaxing. By the time we came out we needed to go to the roof terrace to cool down.
In the morning we had only 20min between start of breakfast time and having to leave for the airport. We managed it and with a good Japanese breakfast of fish, rice , vegetables and tofu we were on a fast march and our way out of Tokyo (this time through the correct airport).