Thursday, November 15, 2012

Impressions of Tokyo

To visit Tokyo properly, you should stay awhile and get a little lost. At first I found this city’s enormity, velocity, and confusing address system somewhat overwhelming. To say that a sense of direction is not my forte would be an understatement. But to my surprise and delight my ability to get lost came in handy. Take today for example. I got a bit disoriented walking from Mori tower to Azabu-juban metro stop. I blame a cool fountain that caught my attention and got me off track. I saw a lady walking by and decided to use one of the few Japanese sentence I know well: “Sumimasen, Azabu-juban eki wa doku desu ka?” I have no idea why I did that. My smart phone could get me there, but that’s not nearly as much fun as talking to the people on the street. I was imagining what would happen if I asked that in New York, Boston or Paris. The scenarios vary from being pointed in the right direction to being ignored or even cursed at, but in Tokyo I only got one response -- incredible helpfulness to the point that if you don’t look extremely confident after their explanation, they’ll walk you there. After 9 days, I still got a kick out of it.

Turned out the lady I asked for directions was walking to Azabu-juban area to go shopping and said she’ll take me. She spoke about as much English as I spoke Japanese. But we still ended up having a lovely walk through a hidden little residential neighborhood where steps away from the enormous skyscrapers and glowing billboards were quaint houses whose gates were covered in grapevines. Don’t know why, but I never imagined grapevines in Tokyo. She told me her daughter was studying in LA. I told her “Ii otenki, desu ne?” (It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?) Thank god for Pimsleur CDs! And indeed it was. After a day of rain, the sun came out and the whole city smelled fresh and sweet.

The reason I was heading to Azabu-juban station was to take the metro to Happo-en. My friend Junko, with whom I was staying, told me that I should see this lovely garden before heading back to the US. The words “lovely garden” don’t do it justice. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Tokyo. You step behind a huge building on a busy street, go through a few gates, and suddenly you are in another world. The transformation was so sudden that I felt my knees buckle.

The gravel paths were crunching under my feet as I started wondering the garden. I followed a row of bonzai flushed with autumnal colors and got to a gazebo overhanging a pond with crimson spotted fish playfully jumping out of the still water. Behind me a waterfall was singing, drowning out the street traffic. I curled up on the bench in the gazebo and closed my eyes. It felt so cozy and intimate, as if I was wrapped in a cocoon. I missed Jason so terribly it hurt. 

The sun was setting and the lanterns came on. It was my last sunset in Tokyo. The last sunset of an exquisite trip.

No amount of thanks can be adequate to express how grateful I feel to the people who made this trip possible: my husband Jason and my friend Junko.

General trip practicalities.

1) When the first 5 ATMs including the one at Narita airport didn’t accept my ATM card, I started to panic. My card is part of the cirrus network and all the ATMs I tried had a cirrus logo. Was it because my account was with a credit union? Was the bank blocking my card because it was used in Japan? Strange, because I called them last week to notify them of my trip. On my second day in Tokyo, I finally found ATMs that work -- the ones in post offices.

2) I might have been dragged kicking and screaming when Jason tried to get me a smart phone, but now I am hopelessly addicted and the thought of being left without GPS and google maps was terrifying, but so were the roaming charges. I looked into different options for weeks and finally settled on pocket wifi from rentafone. You fill out a form on-line a few days before your trip and they mail the little wifi unit to the address of your choise (hotel, airport, etc). You can connect your phone, laptop and whatever other devices to it. Make sure to remove your sim card or set your phone to airplane mode to avoid roaming charges. Also, be mindful of how long you keep the pocket wifi on. The battery only lasts 8 hours if you don’t put it into sleep mode.

3) If you take a cab, which is sometimes very convenient and affordable, don’t touch the doors. They open and close by themselves.

4) Always carry a good bit of cash on you. Many restaurants and stores don’t accept credit cards.

This is the first of many posts about my trip.  The future ones will be food related.  Stay tuned...

View of Tokyo Tower from Roppongi where I was staying


mamster said...

I am so excited to read this first taste about your trip and can't wait for more.

Anonymous said...

Oh thank god. My favorite blogger has been found. I'm very glad you didn't get wiped out by Sandy... which is what I'd feared.

Also, I'm incredibly glad you're in Tokyo. I just hope you didn't pay too much for your ticket!

Helen said...

Hi Matthew and Anonymous,

I am indeed alive and well. We flew back from vacation on the west cost 1 day before Sandy and a week later I left for Tokyo. I really lucked out with the dates this time. It was also a relief that American Airlines that I was flying to Tokyo ended the strike a week or two before my trip. I expect AirFrance to do that sort of thing, but they make up for it with the food. On American, the food is as bad as it gets, so I at least expect my flight to take off ;)