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Tokyo, January 2017

Well, it wasn’t that Jeri and I were dying to go to Tokyo. It was more of getting our money’s worth. We like bargains and free shit.

You see, for some reason (probably me) we ended up flying about 100,000 miles in 2016. A thing’s not worth doing unless it can be done to excess, right?. However…….this gave us all sorts of neat benefits, like free upgrades from coach to business that we could cash in in 2017. But these came with certain “strings” like expiration dates and annoying strategic constraints that limited how and when they could be effectively used. On top of that, sucktastic changes to the American Airlines frequent flyer program meant we would no longer qualify for their lofty levels beyond the end of 2017 and thus future benefits would be minor. This set the operative plan for 2017 as “use it or lose it”, and we were going to burn those suckers through, even if we already had an assfull of traveling and really didn’t want to go anywhere. I know, a real first world problem.

Anyway, we decided Tokyo would be the first of this series. We had never been to Japan and thought it would be a strange and interesting place to visit (as preparation we rewatched “Lost in Translation”). So by selecting an off-peak time to visit, I was able to buy a couple of fairly cheap nonstop coach tickets from LAX to Tokyo and immediately get upgraded to business class (Yay, 4 upgrades burned!) on American’s nice new 787. So yeah, that’s how we ended up going to Tokyo. There’s really nothing like having a burning passion to do something……and this was really nothing like that.

As we began our trip we really seemed to win the flying lottery as we not only pushed back from the gate a little early at LAX, we arrived in Tokyo a full 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Or maybe it was just that we’ve had so many marginal flight experiences lately that when everything works as it’s supposed to we’re overwhelmed with gratitude. Our early arrival meant we’d be traveling to our hotel in daylight, so we’d be able to take in the sights…..Except that most of the drive was in a rather amazing tunnel under a big hunk of Tokyo.

Our first impression of Tokyo was pretty much “wow!”. Not for the city, although it was truly impressive architecture. It was the culture. Everyone was so damn nice and sincerely cared about what they were doing. After we boarded the airport bus to our hotel, as the bus pulled away the attendant bowed to the bus. Even during our walk through the airport there was staff everywhere directing us. Even their immigrations officials were cheerful. All during our visit we were just blown away with how polite the Japanese were and really loved that aspect of our trip.

Our home for the five nights (!!) we were in Tokyo was the Tokyo Hilton in Shinjuku, one of the wards of Tokyo (I always thought Tokyo was a city but it’s not. It’s a “prefecture” made up of 23 wards…I guess travel is educational even for me). We picked the Hilton as I had quite a few Hilton points accumulated and by purchasing just a few more points we were able to stay there VERY cheaply. And I was able to get us upgraded to a rather phenomenal junior suite at no charge, with breakfast thrown in. Playing the airline and hotel loyalty programs can be very tedious at times, but with the proper gaming they can pay off handsomely.

The curvy building is the Shinjuku Hilton where we stayed while in Tokyo. Damn nice place!

For our first full day Jeri had arranged a private tour guide for us to show us around parts of Tokyo. This was the sort of thing that at home in the planning stages sounded really good. But once there and in the midst of jet lag misery this proved challenging. However it was nice to just follow someone else around and not have to make decisions. One attractive aspect of this tour was that we used local transit to get around so we learned how to use that.

Anyway, we took the train to a very large park and saw the Meiji Jingu shrine, then walked through a variety of neighborhoods and streets. While dining at a local hole in the wall restaurant, we discovered that it’s up to each restaurant to decide if they want to prohibit smoking and we had people lighting up around us. WTF??! Welcome back to the 1960s. It was odd since Japan seems to prohibit smoking in most all public areas, even parks and on some streets. Go figure.

A small part of the Meiji Shrine.

We we lucky to stumble upon a traditional Japanese wedding at the Meiji Shrine. That’s one fine hat the bride is wearing.

A weird, random alley we went through on our tour. Lots of interesting places like this.

A couple of wayward tourists at a park in Tokyo’s museum cluster. You’d close your eyes too if you were married to me. “Make it go away…..”

Our hotel was about three quarters of a mile from Shinjuku Station, a fantastically busy train station. Each day about 3.6 million people pass through it, or just a bit less than the population of Los Angeles. How it works is beyond me, but work it does, and well.

What seems strange is you can’t really see the station. It’s completely wrapped with a series of very tall department stores. In passing, our guide mentioned we should really check out the food courts in their basements, which is what we did on the morning of our second day.

We got there a few minutes before everything opened and were treated to what must be a uniquely Japanese sight. All the workers were lined up at attention and were being some sort of inspirational pep talk. Everyone looked to be taking it really seriously. Then EXACTLY at opening time, people in suits and white gloves opened the doors and bowed at all entering. We felt unworthy!

Making pork dumplings at one of the food courts. That circular thing on the right is a massive steamer.

At the risk of overusing the word “amazing”, the food courts were, well….amazing. We had never seen anything so vast or varied. After a while it felt my head was going to explode from all the options. Or maybe it was still just jet lag. But it completely overwhelmed (and I forgot to take stinkin’ pictures!!). And each department store had its own food court so this was repeated completely around Shinjuku Station.

We were pleasantly surprised to see names of pâtisseries we were familiar with from Paris (I’m a bakery snob!), as well as some USA names. This gave us a feeding routine we followed for the remainder of our Tokyo stay.

After our (free!) breakfast at the hotel, at some point later in the day we’d swing by the vast halls of food and grab whatever things looked interesting to go. We’d then return to the hotel and camp out in the executive lounge on the 37th floor and devour our haul along with the lounge’s free drinks. Then in the evening Hilton offered free “appetizers” in that same lounge which functioned just fine as our dinner, having stuffed ourselves at lunch. Thus our food outlay cost was really small. So, yeah….a budget trip!

On our second day we discovered….the tunnels. These were so friggin’ cool! These were pink areas in Google Maps that connected our hotel to Shinjuku Station, and a whole lot more. They were vast, amazingly clean and safe and an interesting alternative to using the streets above. Yeah, we got lost a lot of times, but it was still fun. Sometimes we popped up in unexpected locations and even stumbled upon a cool cemetery that way.

A map showing the maze of tunnels (in pink) allowing for easy wandering between our hotel and the Shinjuku Station area.

Tokyo tunnels, or a scene from (fill in the name of your favorite dystopian scifi flick).

And yet more tunnels……

A typically perfect and elegant Japanese water feature, unfortunately dry, in one of the tunnels we explored.

Part of our getting lost were the numerous maps inside the tunnels, which were sometimes more of a hindrance than help. For reasons unknown to me, the Japanese kept rotating the north arrow. Sometimes it was up (as is usual custom) but other times it was down or left or right. And this was with maps that might be only a couple hundred feet apart. Knowing how methodical the Japanese are, there had to have been a good reason for this oddness, but I couldn’t figure it. So we ended up visiting places we hadn’t planned, which was still OK.

The Kumano Shrine, about a block away from where we were staying.

Water for purification at the Kumano Shrine. The process involves dipping water and washing one hand then the other. At the very least it makes for a cool water feature.

An interesting cemetery surrounded by high rises. The sticks are not picket fences but are called Tohbas and contain written prayers for the deceased.

Prior to the trip we had some ideas of taking trains to areas outside of Tokyo and taking in some sights. But after seeing how complex some of the transit was, and being warned by our guide that the amount of English spoken falls off once outside of Tokyo, we cooled on that idea. At the same time we were becoming mesmerized by the gracious, precise Japanese culture and decided instead to just walk around and look at people and stuff, AKA Plan B.

This is a map of Tokyo’s urban rail system not including the Metro. Not confusing at all. But it’s a nice day so I think I’ll walk.

One morning while studying the map for likely targets I spotted a Toto design center very close to Shinjuku Station. Now for those who don’t know, Toto is THE toilet and bathroom fixture manufacturer in Japan. What Toyota did for autos, Toto did for toilets. A number of years ago when low flow toilets first became a requirement in the USA, I got wind of Toto (bad phrasing?) and ended up switching out all of ours to Toto. Best. Damn. Toilets. Ever. So the chance to visit the Toto mothership was not to be missed. And while all of their bathroom exhibits were amazing, so of it seemed a little scary to us primitive Americans as we are not used to having water shot at our collective asses.

It’s a row of saluting toilets in the Toto design center. The toilets have sensors that open the seats when approached. “Feed me, Seymour!!”

One place we visited repeatedly was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, only about a block away from our hotel. There are two towers to the building, and on the 45th floor of each tower is a free observation deck that’s open until late at night, and a couple of restaurants. Did I mention the free part? Pretty damn good for a governmental agency. Why it’s almost as if the government puts its people first and foremost.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. There are free observation areas on the 45th floor of both towers, of which we made copious use.

This striking building is the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, built in 2008. Instead of being the headquarters of a large, multinational corporation (as one might expect), it houses three schools.

The view of Tokyo Bay from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. The large park is home to the Meiji Shrine.

The view of Mt. Fugi from the observation level of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to prove we were in Tokyo.

We also hit a few parks near us, oddly getting there mostly via tunnels. It had been unusually warm in Tokyo, and as a result it was surprising to see a few plum and cherry trees in bloom. At the end of January this must have been highly unusual judging from the number of locals taking pictures of these trees.

This building loomed ominously over Shinjuku Gyoen park looking like a bit of Gotham City in a Batman flick.

One of the very impressive (and warm!) greenhouses in the Shinjuku Gyoen park.

Building and pond in the Shinjuku Gyoen park.

In the Shinjuku Gyoen park. The grass is yellow and dormant but the crazy cherry trees are blooming. In January. We are all doomed.

See, I’m not making this stuff up. Blooms at the end of January.

On our last night we visited the Kabukichō red light district on the other side of Shinjuku Station. We expected something seedy and it appeared anything but. Of course we couldn’t read the signs of the various businesses hawking their wares but there were sometimes enough pictures to figure things out. There were a few tiny, dark alleys that there was no way in hell I’d ever go down, but most of the area were bustling well lit streets that felt perfectly safe.

Tokyo’s Kabukicho red light district. If I could read any of the signage it would probably seem a lot seedier, but otherwise it appeared rather neat.

We REALLY enjoyed our Tokyo visit. The Japanese people were just stunningly polite and gracious. It blew us away. They make Canadians seem downright boorish! Service workers always greeted their customers with a smile and seemed sincerely glad to see them.

I think this was best exemplified by an experience we had while at one of the nearby parks. There was a small food concession stand, and outside it were some vending machines for drinks. We got a drink out of one of the machines, and as we started to walk away an older gentlemen manning the concession stand called out to us, thanking us, and then bowed. Just….wow. Gracious people…..

And of course everything was very clean and ran on time. In the tunnels we saw workers in ties diligently wiping even the handrails of escalators (when was the last time you saw someone in the US clean those??) Trains came and went when they were supposed to, as did the buses.

Oh! And toilets! (not more about toilets, please….). There were toilets everywhere. In Europe it’s something of a challenge when out all day to find toilets. Hell, if you scratch off Home Depot and McDonalds that’s even true in the US. But not so in Japan, clean toilets are everywhere. Maybe there’s something in their constitution establishing toiletry as a basic human right. After seeing how Japan works it, perhaps the US Constitution is in need of an amendment.

Despite all that gushing over Japan, and it indeed is gushing, I’m not sure we would go back. A big part of this trip was the adventure of discovering such a neat and unexpected culture, so that sense of surprise would be lacking on future trips. And we’ve been told that once out of the metropolitan areas the amount of English spoken falls off sharply as does even US credit card acceptance. And communication is a big drawback for us.

You can drop us pretty much anywhere in Europe and between French, Spanish and Italian we’d be able to get by on language. In Japan we felt functionally illiterate! While many signs were in English, those in Japanese were completely incomprehensible to us. And other than learning a few greetings and pleasantries the spoken language completely eluded us. I hasten to add that despite our communication shortcomings all the Japanese we interacted with bent over backwards for us with grace and good humor. After a few days the politeness was rubbing off even on me, if such a thing can be imagined. Just a wonderful culture and people.

The final hesitancy for us is the food (since it’s all about the food, right?). Jeri and I aren’t much fans of sushi to start with, and while much of the food looked like it was really high quality, the spicing and flavorings just weren’t a good match for us. It all looked good and we wanted to like it, but it just didn’t match our tastes.

So, yeah, Tokyo. Great visit, crappy jetlag in that direction. So not exactly looking forward to the next trip on our agenda….