In this, part one of my Japan blog series, I’ll be reflecting on my first trip to what is now, certifiably my favourite country on the planet.
We would be flying on the 18th May, arriving on the 19th, departing and arriving back in the UK on the 30th. That gave us 11 days and nights to pack full of adventure, experience and memories. We flew from Newcastle (UK) to Schiphol (Amsterdam, Netherlands), then onward to Kansai (Osaka, Japan) before transferring to Haneda (Tokyo, Japan). We only booked the flights in January but managed to snag the whole journey for a little over £1,200 in total. There were cheaper or more direct routes but we chose what worked best for us, as we wanted to treat ourselves as soon as my graduate degree course was finished.
While my availability was the main factor that dictated we visit at this time, we also consulted several different sources when planning our trip. Most relevant to us was the advice on avoiding Golden Week (late April to mid-May), which is a cluster of very busy public holidays. Japan is host to the Rugby World Cup 2019, as well as the 2020 Summer Olympics, making 2018 an opportune time to benefit from some of those early infrastructure improvements while avoiding the heavy foreign influx.
In our jet-lagged state Japan seemed immediately weird, despite us preparing for the culture shock best we could. Strange tasting and wondrously named products, that fake-money feeling and the sometimes questionable Engrish – they’re taking the piss out of us, right – juxtaposed against an apparently indecipherable but elegantly drawn language.
My son took an immediate dislike to what he would later affectionately refer to as “robot toilets”. I botched and butchered my way to and through an interaction with the post office, in order to pick up our portable wifi device.
My daughter seemed to just be enjoying sitting in all manner of plastic seat. Meanwhile, my partner took immediately to sampling the sweet delights we’d seen in our late-night YouTube video binges.
We knew we were not in Jarra anymore.
After our brief orientation at Kansai airport, we took our connecting domestic flight on towards Haneda, which is one of the two airports serving Tokyo. Haneda is just outside central Tokyo, it’s sister Narita airport is some ways away to the east of the city proper. While I obviously haven’t flown in through it, all recommendations given to me were to, when possible, fly into Tokyo through Haneda, as you fly into the heart of the metropolis’ bay area. It really was quite a sight!
It was now late afternoon and the sun had begun to set in the direction of Mt.Fuji, bathing the city in a golden aura as the sea of lights below had started to glisten. When I was younger I would fantasise about this moment, and, much like the rest of our trip, actually experiencing this blew my expectations out the stratosphere.
We chose to take the Tokyo Monorail into the city, as our apartment was within walking distance of Hamamatsucho Station, in Minato.
My son had demanded to watch a “Japan tram video!” – plus every type of railed transport we could find – each night before bed in the months leading up to our trip. it was something to see him in silent awe as we zippily sped between the familiar glass and concrete high-rises. “This is Japan, Dad”, he whispered.
He was damn right.
When we arrived at Hamamatsucho a proud and sharp looking monorail driver walked past us, briefcase in hand. My son gasped and observed him in reverence as I held his hand and tried to figure out which station exit instructions were ours. “White gloves and black hat!”, he exclaimed. As the train punctually departed he waved frantically at the capped head poking out the rear carriage door, “Goodbye conductor! Thank you!”
Ask my son what he wants to be when he grows up and I’m sure you already know the response.
Walking the streets of Tokyo is a joy. That first evening, romantic. Everything is special. Every detail and disparate form catches your attention.
The city’s loose zoning laws produce a patchwork where modernity meets the ancient and the pristine glass facade of a multiuse tower block can reflect both a cramped, lantern-lit 80’s backstreet and the solitudinous stone courtyard of a secluded shrine, flanked on all sides by a hotchpotch of apartments, restaurants and corporate castles.
Every doorway, window, stairwell and sidestreet exude an allure that entices me to explore their secrets. The pungent scent of fresh foods being prepared. My senses are now hyper-alert as if I’d just been born.
Is this paradise?
Almost 40 million people and yet the streets are clean, so very clean. Order and convenience is king. The people, their language and their culture so different, yet so approachable, welcoming and respectful.
My partner and I would mention these points to each other every single day, in what bordered disbelief. This is what we wanted within our society, back home in England.
At the end of the first day, we were exhausted. We hadn’t slept on the journey so the plan was simply to explore the local area, find food and get to bed. Though between Cafe Lounge COLON and the 100¥ Lawson (hail Lawson!), we may have overdone it.
As we settle down for bed I’m staring, wide-but-dreary-eyed at the soothing lights that illuminate then wane atop the peaks of the mega-structures that surround us. I’m already in love with this country.
Next stop, Akihabara.
Brace for culture shock in 3, 2, 1…