16 June 2013

Tokyo -- for newbies, kind of

A couple of friends set up a short trip to Tokyo.  They asked me if I would join them and help guide them through a "taste" of Tokyo.  One of them had visited once about 20 years ago, and the other had never been to Japan before.  I said yes and promptly flooded them with information so they could give me ideas on what they wanted to see.

One thing I did prior to departing (and did not consult them) was set up a reservation to visit the grounds of the Imperial Palace.  One can do this through the Imperial Household Agency website expressly designed for this.  It does not cost anything, and the tours fill up so that one cannot wait until the last minute to reserve a spot.

We were scheduled t arrive in Tokyo on the same flight from San Francisco, so that helped getting set up at the beginning very easy.  After we exited baggage claim and Customs at Narita Airport (Terminal 2, South Wing), I immediately directed them to an ATM to see if they wanted to load up with a little cash, since U.S. bank-compatible can be difficult to find at times (located by turning left and heading to where the escalators are located).  I learned that a very recent change eliminated using 7-Eleven Bank ATMs for me, as they no longer accepted MasterCard-based cards.

After that, we headed to the Airport Limousine Bus counter (back right across from the Customs exit).  Originally, I had intended to compare the bus with taking the train by sending them on the bus and me taking the train, but I decided that it would be simpler if we all went the same way (although we ended up on separate buses despite our hotels being right across the street from each other in the Shinjuku area).  We opted for paying the standard round-trip fare (60,000 yen and they take credit cards) but took advantage of the tourist option that gave us a 2-day Tokyo Metro Pass for free.  They made special note to tell us that the pass would be good on the Tokyo Metro subway lines and not the Toei subway lines and not the JR trains.  They also did not need to be used starting on our arrival day.  It's a decent deal and we were staying near a Tokyo Metro stop, so it would be very useful.

With the on-time arrival at 3pm and the 90-minute trip to the hotels, there wasn't much left to the day.  Eventually, we walked out in search of a quick and casual bite to eat.  We tried to find something that a hotel concierge recommended, but didn't do too well following directions.  We turned down one small street and saw pictures of food we might like.  It looked like a fast food place, but with lots of table seating.  However, it actually was a decent small, prepared-to-order restaurant.  The interesting thing was how you ordered.  Near the door were vending machines with screens of menus.  You put in some money, select the items you want, and then you get a ticket that you give to the waitress, who seats you and then puts your order in.  It was fast and relatively inexpensive by Tokyo standards, so it was good enough for the evening.

My hotel room at the Tokyo Hilton, similar suite to the one I had earlier in the year, but updated:

The next day, our agenda was:  Asakusa Shrine and the Senso-ji Temple and the SkyTree for the highest view possible of Tokyo, ending with an early dinner at the Molecular Tapas Bar (one of my favorite places to visit).  We made good use of our Metro passes to cross town twice.


At the SkyTree

View from the SkyTree

The SkyTree

For Day 2, our agenda included A visit to the Hama Rikyu Garden, a boat ride from there through the harbor and up the Sumida River to Asakusa, a visit to the Tokyo National Museum (for them), Oedo-Onsen Monogatari traditional Japanese bathhouse (for me), drinks at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel at the "Lost in Translation" bar. and another search for a cheap and easy dinner in the nearby Shinjuku area.

For Day 3, we no longer had Metro passes, so we travelled on PASMO/Suica pay as you go cards and free to take JR trains and any subway line.  We started at the Meiji Shrine and then moved on to the Shinjuku National Garden.  We decided on a non-Japanese dinner and ended up at the Union Square Cafe in the Tokyo Midtown complex.  After dinner, we tried to make it to the observation deck at the Tokyo Tower but were too late to take the ride up.
Wedding at Meiji Shrine

Shinjuku National Garden

Shinjuku National garden

Shinjuku National Garden

Tokyo Tower

For our departure day, the flights were scheduled for a late afternoon departure.  So we had enough time to do something in the morning.  This was our day to visit the Imperial Palace grounds.  There are very specific procedures to follow for the tour.  First, you have to check in at the right gate.  Second, you have to have the printout with your reservation information.  Third, you have to go into the staging area and avail yourself of the restroom facilities as there are none once on tour. Fourth, English speakers have to use an audio guide, as the tour conductor speaks only Japanese during the walk around the grounds. Finally, you are in a group of about 50 people and get lined-up and directed to various stops on the grounds with no visits inside to any of the buildings.

I had never done this tour, so I thought this was a good visit to set this up.  I had done the Kyoto Imperial Palace tour, and I thought that one was a little better (smaller group and you could join an English-led tour guide).  But in the end, it was still worth doing.  We were disappointed  that we could not tour the East Garden, but we already knew that the gardens were scheduled to be closed every day of our visit.

After the tour, it was back on the subway for our cross-town trip to our hotels.  We had plenty of time to catch our scheduled bus departures back to Narita Airport.

Normally, I take the earlier flight back to SFO.  But, my friends booked the later departure (which leaves about 90 minutes later), so I picked that same flight.  It was a very different experience at the airport, with many more flights getting ready to leave.  The United Club business lounge was extremely busy, so much so, that my friends opted to use the Star Alliance Gold access to the ANA Lounge, which is down the concourse past several of the gates (I was already firmly embedded in the First Class Lounge upstairs, which was busier than I have seen. but still much better than the craziness downstairs).

With our on-time departure and early arrival into SFO, the trip ended smoothly.  My friends could not catch an earlier onward flight as the flights were very full.  So, we said our goodbyes as they went to domestic security and I headed to the Arrivals Lounge for a quick snack and then home.  Even though I had been to Tokyo several times before, there were a few basic tourist things that I had never done.  So this trip afforded me the perfect opportunity to cover ground that I might not have gotten around to for awhile.

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