1992 Round World

Japan - like nowhere else on earth

7 April 1992 Air New Zealand 33 Auckland to Tokyo Narita, Business

We had arranged for a shuttle to come and collect us from the hotel and take us to the airport, all of which happened before it was properly light. Once at the airport, check-in ran smoothly, for which we were grateful. Rather than go to the lounge, we decided to go to the viewing gallery and playground, where there was a chance to look at aeroplanes and play on slides.

Before long, it was time to board. Business Class passengers were invited to board, but not First Class passengers, for a reason which will become apparent later, but which puzzled me at the time.

The flight to Tokyo is a long one by any definition, but this one seemed longer still. As we were asked to fasten our seatbelts as we encountered some turbulence, I did so and then fastened my son's belt. His declaration that he had a sore tummy was followed immediately by the inevitable consequence of that state. As none of us were in the best of health, this was not good, but we made the best of it. There is nothing else to do in the circumstances.

Rather than dwell on such things, I shall talk about some rather brighter and more interesting things about the flight. Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean was back on the screen, bringing amusement to the small number of passengers on board. To be precise, there were seventy-seven passengers on this Air New Zealand Boeing 747-200. Of these, eleven were travelling in the front in Business Class while nobody at all was travelling upstairs in First Class. This explained why they hadn't been called for boarding at Auckland.

Time continued to pass, but in all fairness the flight is something of a blur in my mind.

Japanese immigration and customs were most straightforward but with longer queues than some I have known. However, after arriving in the country, there is always the adventure of getting to the hotel. In Tokyo, this will always be a problem as Narita is about 70 kilometres from the city.

Japan, it seems, has numerous different types of trains, offering different amounts of speed and comfort for differing prices. As non-residents, we could qualify for Japan rail passes, which allow transport in virtually all trains for a fixed price. Similar packages are available world-wide for non- residents of just about any country with moderate amounts of internal rail or air travel.

The Narita Express offers reserved seat service straight to Tokyo rail station, a journey time of 53 minutes. One thing that nobody tells you in advance is that all seats must be reserved, and that you cannot reserve seats before arriving in Japan. Nor are you told that the trains are completely full and that amount of luggage space does not allow for those on a round the world trip with two children. (The children do not pay a rail fare, so they do not get any seat at all.) Most importantly, nobody points out that Tokyo station is enormous in the extreme, the Narita Express comes in at the lowest level and almost none of the signs are in English.

The journey from Tokyo Narita into the city was pleasant enough if a little cramped, but the journey from the bottom of the station to the taxi rank was a nightmare. But for the kindness of one Japanese businessman we met on the train, we would probably still be trying to get to the street. Remember that we had just flown a long way with a child under one year and a sick child under three, both of whom by this stage were nearly asleep.

The Japanese have a reputation for being standoffish and inscrutable. I found them neither. This man helped us with our luggage, showed us through the labyrinth of corridors, doors, turnstiles and escalators to the taxi rank, a journey for us all of over half an hour, which he could have walked steadily alone in less than ten minutes. Ask whether, after a long flight yourself, you would have been prepared to assist a foreign family in your own country. I think the answer will be in the negative. For us, it may not be in future.

Our hotel in Ginza, a main commercial area of Tokyo was adequate, but the room was rather small. This was partly because two enormous cots were added to a room which already contained a double bed large enough to be suitable for four people. Partly because we were so tired that we failed to notice that there were wardrobes for our suitcases, a fact we failed to notice until we were checking out. I am still happy to recommend the Ginza Tobu/Ramada Renaissance Hotel.

Our stay in Tokyo was quiet, punctuated by shopping trips to some of Tokyo's department stores. One afternoon was taken up by deciding that it was necessary to take a trip to see a doctor about my son, who was no better. A telephone call to the British Embassy pointed us to a clinic, which pointed us to another, and finally to a third, who were able to see us that day. They proved to be a twenty minute taxi ride away, in an area with considerable American influence. The doctor who saw us really couldn't offer us much practical assistance. A primary health care leaflet on diarrhoea, which told us little we didn't already know, was all we got for JPY5000. However, a slight bonus was received in another way. The surgery was located above an American supermarket. We were able to find our way around this much more easily, and were able to buy coffee, sugar, milk, bread, bananas and such things fairly easily.

The next morning we travelled on the Shinkansen or bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. These names, incidentally, are not anagrams in the Katakana script. The journey time is just over two hours, and I recommend travelling by Shinkansen if you are able. The Shinkansen or "new railway" offers fast passenger service between major centres in Japan. In my limited experience, they were never late. This is probably because no other trains travel on their lines, which were laid separately to the existing lines which carry freight and other passenger traffic. The frequency with which the trains leave Tokyo is quite astonishing, and indicative of the large number of travellers who are in A but wish to be in B as soon as possible.

Arrival in Kyoto was followed by hunting for the hotel, which was supposed to be right next to the station and may well have been so. The Dai San Tower Hotel was most interesting as a place to stay. At reception, I was puzzled to be told that our room would be Japanese style rather than Western style. On arrival at the room this did indeed prove to be the case. A door led to the room, which was a wooden platform followed by four mattresses laid out on a woven floor. Four sets of house slippers were by the door. A tea set was on a low table in the main room, and a television stood at one end of the room. The windows had small paper panes in a wooden frame, although ordinary glass windows outside would be visible when these were opened. At first I was not at all taken with this, but I soon warmed to the idea. The kimonos on the bed were what one might expect too. A different pair of slippers was found in the toilet. I am told it is a faux pas without equal to wear ordinary house slippers in the lavatory, and vice versa. Almost as bad is wearing ordinary shoes on the matting surface. These were things I had read about living in a Japanese house or a ryokan, but I never expected to put the knowledge into practice.

I could almost hear the dialogue between my travel agent and the hotel management, warning that a room for four would be Japanese style. I could hear the reply, assuring the proprietor that he was sure we would love it.

In fact, we did. It was the best night we had travelling around the world. Other features of the hotel were its lack of room service, compensated by a large number of vending machines outside the room. Did you ever try sake? It's like weak sherry, served in a cup larger than you would normally use for serving sherry. From a mini-bar in a Tokyo hotel, JPY800. From a vending machine in a Kyoto hotel, JPY300.

Being the ancient capital, Kyoto has much more for the tourist. The first afternoon, we visited a beautiful temple and grounds. The next day, we had booked a half-day tour. It never occurred to us that the weather would not be so good. As we awoke, it became apparent that we should have considered this. It was pouring with rain, which somewhat detracted from the beauty of the golden temple, the imperial palace and the shogun palace. Perhaps I could say more about them. If you want details, go there yourself or get a specialist book on Kyoto! I did end up buying some Kyoto blend green tea. I liked it, but nobody else who has tried it since seems to share my enthusiasm for it. At the end of the morning, we had lunch in a leading Kyoto store before buying a few other things and returning to the hotel to pick up our bags before returning to Tokyo by Shinkansen train. It was on this train that I tried my most genuine Japanese cuisine, although fried rice is pretty much the same anywhere.

Back in Tokyo, we knew what to do and were soon in a taxi on the way to the hotel. On arrival, we checked in and signed for the goods we had left behind earlier in the week, which had been handed in to their Lost Property department. I wonder how much we lose in each hotel to which we never return.

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