Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tokyo

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Japan was one of the first countries we placed on our must-see list for traveling around the world in 2012, and it was one of the last that we removed from that same list, due to cost and time constraints.  At the  time, we decided that Japan was a good candidate for it’s own, dedicated trip.  While our must-see list has grown since then, Japan seemed to be the obvious choice for our next over-seas trip.  A great deal on tickets didn’t hurt either.


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We worried that we’d be a little rusty in our packing skills after a 3 year hiatus, but quickly hit our stride.  Lana ended up downsizing her bag to one that’s 3” shorter, but otherwise identical.  My original eBags had developed a couple of tears as surly baggage handlers were sharpening their hammer throw form, and I had it replaced under warranty a few weeks before the trip.  Our backpacks were still in fine shape, and we ended up with a selection of gear not much different than we’d traveled with previously.  7 days of clothes, a laptop, one camera each, and a fair stash of snack bars to ward off hangry while we got our food footing.  Japan’s Spring weather made our clothing choices pretty simple—we’d be seeing highs in the upper 70s, and lows in the low 60s.
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We were flying Singapore Air, and we can’t say enough nice things about them; even economy class was quite comfortable.  There were two included meals that were not horrible—quite a surprise for air travel this decade.  We were in a double-decker 787, and managed to get a 3 seat row to ourselves, which was a great start to our trip!
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It was an 11ish hour flight from L.A. to Tokyo, but we crossed the international date line, and sprung 15 hours ahead.  We left L.A. at 4:30 PM (Denver time) on Friday, and landed at 7:15 PM (Tokyo time) Saturday.  We’ve learned that we deal with jet lag better if we switch our clocks (physical and mental) to the destination time as soon as we can, so we thought of our departure time as at 7:30 AM (Saturday), Tokyo time.  We’ve also learned that it’s best to stay awake until it’s night in your destination, no matter how hard that is.  So our plan was to stay awake on the flight during Japan’s daytime.  The last thing we wanted was to arrive at night, having just woken up from a full day’s sleep, and start our vacation 3/4 of a day out of sync with daylight and when things are open (notably: restaurant hours and check-out times are fairly rigid in Japan).  We managed to stay awake, just shy of 24 hours from waking up in Denver on Friday, and we slept fairly deeply our first night in Tokyo, but we found that +15 hours is a really brutal time shift to acclimate to.  We weren’t fully acclimated for 4 days.
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At Narita airport, after clearing customs and immigration, we exchanged our foreign tourist vouchers for 2-week JR Rail Passes.  Those passes were incredibly useful, and saved us a lot in transit fees (once we learned to take the JR loop in Tokyo, instead of the subway, it saved us even more).  While we were at the JR desk we also reserved our seats on the Narita Express into Tokyo.  The airport was a breeze to navigate, even on no sleep.  We easily found the train, and an hour later, hopped off at Shinjuku station, which is the busiest transit center in the world, with 200 exits.  We were a little worried about navigating that, as some acquaintances mentioned getting perpetually lost in it.  Here’s a map:

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We’d planned ahead though, and had a pinned location for the exit we needed in Maps.me, as well as the name.  GPS signal was a little sketchy underground, but it got us pointed in the right initial direction, and the excellent signage got us the rest of the way, which is good, because we were flagging at this point.  We emerged into the relatively bright Tokyo night, and immediately had our first experience with the multi-directional pedestrian crossing (“scramble”) system.  We’re from Denver, and we’re very comfortable with the Barnes Dance there, but this takes it to another level, especially since most of the intersections involve more than just two streets.  We didn’t see the walk/don’t walk signals in our bleary-eyed state, but we figured as long as everyone else was crossing, we could.  About 3/4 of the way across, suddenly the intersection started to clear of pedestrians, which was as good a “don’t walk” indicator as we could ask for, and we mustered a final spurt of energy for the far sidewalk.  Our hotel was nearby, and we were relieved to set our bags down and shower the long journey off us before climbing into bed. We got to sleep pretty quickly although there was plenty of interesting stuff going on outside the window all night.
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The next morning we got up (a bit bleary as that jet lag was a killer) and had breakfast at the hotel and dove back into Shinjuku station, and made our way to Ido Castle. Unfortunately the castle grounds weren’t open because it was Monday, but we had enjoyed a wander around the moat outside, taking in all the gorgeous cherry blossoms. What you can’t tell from this photo was how amazing they smelled, as well.  It was also interesting how many varieties of cherry blossoms there were; some of which you can see below.
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After we finished a circuit of the castle, we encountered our first of several challenging meal adventures.  But that’s another story. Stay tuned!