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JAPAN
 
Pictures At The Bottom Of The Page

This was our first trip to Japan.  We chose to visit early in January.  Quite frankly in planning other trips we purposely avoided The Land of the Rising Sun due to the high cost of visiting.

We flew to Portland and then non-stop to Tokyo.  The flight was delayed by about two hours because the plane was late arriving in Portland.  Adding to the lateness was a potential problem with tire pressure in one of the main wheels just as we reached the take-off end of the runway.  A quick trip back to the terminal and the Delta techs decided that the tires were just fine on our MD-11 jet.  A sensor had gone on the fritz.  Once the sensor was replaced we were ready to roll.

As it turns out, our being late was really a good thing.  As we took off, the sun was just beginning to set in Portland and for the next ten hours, we would fly into a non-stop sunset!  It was perfect.  It was the kind of sunset where there's just a strip of brilliant orange on the horizon along with faint daylight above and a dark layer below that.  I kept nodding off in my Business Class Elite seat but would keep checking out the window to see if the sunset was still there. It was beautiful.

Arrival came at the "New Tokyo International Airport" in Narita.  That's about 44 miles from the business center of downtown Tokyo.  After a quick exit from the plane and breezing through immigration and customs, we checked with the information kiosk at Terminal-2 to find out where the hotel shuttle bus would meet us for our first night.  We opted to stay at the Holiday Inn at Narita Airport.

The place was "okay" but not quite up to snuff compared to what we're used to in America.  The decor could only be described as "drab yellow."  If I didn't know better I'd swear we were staying in Russia in 1970 or something like that.   It wasn't bad just needed some splashes of color.  The room was pretty small and the bathroom was micro in size.  It was like an expanded lavatory that you'd find on a commercial jet.  But as my wife pointed out, for $90 U.S., this place was a real bargain for Japan!  Next time, though, I think we'll HQ at the Radisson.  I've heard good things about it.  It's a little farther from the airport but offers shuttle busses into downtown Tokyo several times a day which is a real bonus. Ideally you'd head to downtown Tokyo immediately after arriving in Japan.  But in our case, we had been in transit for more than 24 straight hours and all we could think about was hitting the sack!

The next day was Sunday and we caught the shuttle bus back to the airport and headed for the JR Railways NEX Express Train ticket counter located adjacent to the airport terminal.  By the way, an important bit of advice here.  Before you even enter the airport (at either Terminal-1 or Terminal-2), you must show your passport.  They stop hotel shuttle busses at the entrance to the airport.  A police officer gets on board and checks each and every person for a passport.  For a clarification on this routine, please checked out an e-mail sent by a viewer in Japan.  Scroll on down the page until you hit the red text.

We decided to get a general overview of the region on this day and bought roundtrip tickets to Yokohama and back.  The JR NEX (Narita Express) trains are great.  We opted for first class and the cars were wonderful.  There's an illuminated map at the front section of each car that electronically shows you were you are at all times.  

One rather curious pest showed up at the Narita NEX train station.  Mosquitoes!  They attacked several times as we waited for our train.  You don't expect this in Tokyo in January!

One of the first surprises we got on this trip was the fact that there are quite a few palm trees in the Tokyo area!  Who would have thunk it?  After all, they do get snow from time to time and it's often below freezing during the winter.  They also have several orange trees growing in the area.  Again, a surprise.

It was fascinating passing through this mega-metropolis called Tokyo.  Initially leaving Narita (which is actually a neat little town in itself) we passed by "traditional" Japanese homes with the "Benihana" blue tile roofs. We rolled by several rice paddies along the way. The closer to Tokyo we got the more high rise buildings came into sight.  In fact, it was hard to tell when we actually left Tokyo and arrived in Yokohama, which is Japan's second largest city.

Once in Yokohama we visited Japan's second largest department store called Sogo.  This was a fascinating place consisting of 10 stories and it's located just a few steps from the train station.  On one of the sub-basement floors, they've got a food court that rivals what you may have seen in London.  Tons of candy, veggies, meat, fish, etc.  Enough to boggle the mind.  The tenth floor is dedicated to several branches of some of the most famous restaurants in Japan.

We chose to give the best known tempura restaurant in Japan a try.  It's called Ten-ichi.  The main branch is located in Tokyo and the restaurant is credited with introducing and making tempura popular the world over.  Tempura is an ultra light and crispy batter used to delicately fry fish, shrimp, and veggies.  At least it can be if you know what to order! We found that most people in Japan don't speak English or at best, just a tad bit.  And why should they?!!!  Most Americans don't speak Japanese!!  The Japanese  were extremely pleasant and tried their best to communicate.  At Ten-ichi, I couldn't read the menu but ordered "something" that was gonna be tempura. They had plastic approximations of the dishes outside in the window and it all looked pretty good so I knew I'd be okay by just eeny-meeny-miney-moin' it.  I was able to communicate to our extremely nice female server that I wanted tempura. Turns out I got fried shrimp (two different kinds), fish, eel and--I think--slipper lobster.  Some asparagus came with it and it was all piled on top of a rice bowl with a soy based dipping sauce on the side.  I couldn't wait to try it but my expectations fell short because instead of being crisp, it was limp and with a sauce. 

However what I didn't know until just recently is that what I ordered was actually a version of tempura called "tendon" which is designed to be limp because a sauce is poured over the top.  At the time I thought to myself that this was the worst tempura I've ever had in the world.  But again I had ordered a special kind of tempura that was not designed to be that lovely, light, crispy food we're used to seeing although the restaurant does serve it that way, too--if you can read the menu. 

I'd really like to thank Michelle Plourde, a most kind woman who e-mailed from Tokyo to straighten me out.  Turns out she is a granddaughter of the man who started this world famous chain a long time ago. In her e-mail she closed by stating:  "The fact that Ten-ichi has been serving tempura to kings, queens, presidents (at least four U.S. ones included), and celebrities, etc., for 72 years attests to it's leadership in quality tempura."  She forgot one thing.  The restaurant has served all those people plus one idiot--me!  You can view her enlightening e-mail here.  Next time I'm in Japan I'll revisit one of their branches with a Japanese speaking friend so I'll know what to order rather than just spinning the culinary wheel of fortune.

Again, I can't stress how nice the Japanese people were.  Upon paying our bill and leaving the restaurant, the cashier bowed several times and--I assume--thanked us profusely for dining with them.  Couldn't understand a thing she said!  Oh yeah, there's no tipping in Japan.  It's hard to get used to but you really shouldn't try to change the way they do things.  Tips are not expected and in some cases are viewed as an insult.

Even at this sensational Sogo department store, the restrooms were Japanese style with normal urinals for the men and "hover" stalls for more serious time spent in there.  They were just like flat toilets on the floor and I guess you just squat over them and do your business.  Many restrooms in Japan don't come with toilet paper so it's a good idea to carry some with you, especially for the ladies.

We walked around the area a bit and then caught a cab to the Yokohama Hard Rock Cafe.  Again, no English on the part of the taxi driver and in fact, he had never heard of the Hard Rock or the building it was in.  Eventually we got there, though.  By the way, taxis in Japan are equipped with left rear doors that open automatically.  Drivers get PO'd when customers try to open the doors or close them (or so we were told, we didn't interfere with the operation of the doors).  Taxis in Hong Kong operate the same way with the automatic doors.

We enjoyed a nice burger at the Hard Rock and purchased shot-glasses for our collection and enjoyed the area around the Queens Tower where the Hard Rock is located.  They had a neat amusement park right across the street with one of the biggest Ferris wheels in the world.  The facility also includes a great aquarium and it's all right on the harbor front.  

A great way to see the attractions of Yokohama is to take the Sea Bass shuttle boat.  Give it a shot.  It's great!  The city also has an extremely nice Chinatown and since it's only 20 miles from Tokyo, many residents flock there for great Chinese food on weekends.

The whole trip from Narita to Yokohama took about 90 minutes.  After a fun afternoon we were back on the JR NEX train back to Narita by way of Tokyo.

We spent the night again at the Holiday Inn and the next morning (Monday) headed back to the airport, this time to Terminal-1 for our Northwest 747-200 flight to Saipan and Guam.  (Check out the Saipan  and Guam section for those reviews and pictures).

We arrived back in Tokyo late in the evening on Thursday night and took the "Airport Limousine Bus" to our downtown Tokyo hotel -- the Park Hyatt.

Up front I talked about the extremely high cost of visiting Japan.  A taxi from Narita airport to the Park Hyatt in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo--one way--runs between $250 and $300 U.S.!!!!   Ouch!!!!   It is THE most expensive airport cab ride in the world to my knowledge.  There are several other more affordable choices including the JR Railways NEX express train which takes you from the airport to a nearby train station and then it's a short cab ride to the hotel. Coach fare on the NEX is (as I recall) about $30 each. First class runs about $50 one way.  And you must stop by the ticket counter and reserve a seat before you board the train.  Or you can do what we did and take the Airport Limousine Bus at $30 each.  The good thing about these busses is that they take you right to the door of your hotel.  Just over 90 minutes after boarding the bus at Narita, we were arriving at the incredible Park Hyatt Hotel.

The Park Hyatt has got to be the finest hotel in Japan and certainly one of the finest hotels in the entire world.  The hotel is on the upper floors of a skyscraper. You enter through a curious lobby on the ground floor and immediately hit the elevator for the ride up to the 41st floor which is the actual lobby level of this posh hotel.  Instead of waiting in line at a counter, you are seated as a hostess graciously checks you in.  The next thing you know you're being personally escorted to your room.

The hostess described the amenities of our room and as she left I asked her about getting ice.  She replied in an almost shocked manner:  "Oh sir, I'm sure it's already here."  And sure enough the bucket was chock full of cubes.

The view was breathtaking.  Unbelievable!  Our room was on the 42nd floor and you could see forever.  The lights of the city were beautiful and the next morning when the sun came up it was apparent just how big Tokyo really is. With a population of more than 13 million, it's one of the biggest cities in the world and, I might add, one of the safest.

Our room had two oversized double beds with wonderful comforters.  The Park Hyatt's rooms are--by far--the largest in the city.  The bathroom was huge and had a beautiful deep tub and separate shower.  The potty was in the same area in its own little enclosure.  And get this.  The whole john was electric.  The seat was heated (you could adjust it from medium to really warm) and it had some controls that----well, scared me!  It had an automatic bidet.  A panel of buttons controlled the water jets and blow drier!!!!  I didn't try it and I don't think Cindy did either.   We don't have pampered posteriors!

We grabbed a cab on Friday and headed out to explore the city.  Our first jaunt took us to the Hard Rock Cafe.  Okay, call us stupid.  But we do collect the shot glasses.  I'm sure you've got your own stupid vices so back off!!!!!! Thank you!

Figuring that there might be a language problem, I asked the concierge at the hotel to write down the name of the restaurant and directions to it in Japanese.  Even with that, the taxi driver had no idea of where to go.  The doorman spent probably five minutes jabbering with him and we were finally off.  The driver, while a very nice guy, kept muttering something to himself in Japanese, checking his maps, and looking very puzzled.  But finally, alas, we arrived at the H.R.C.

At the Hard Rock Cindy was facing the door and I had my back to it.  She chuckled and said: "A bunch of firemen just went into a building and they were in a hurry.  Now they're coming out.  And now more are going in."  I thought it might have been a practice drill but about thirty minutes later as we left the restaurant, sure enough a small high rise building had suffered a fire on the 7th or 8th floor.  There were fire trucks everywhere, even news helicopters hovering over the scene.  Lots of damage but no injuries.

After inhaling a burger and buying our shot glasses we took off on foot and explored the 'hood.  It was quite interesting. We passed by a small produce store where small cantaloupes were going for $8 each.  We grabbed another cab and headed back to the hotel.  I was armed with a small map provided by the hotel that led back to the Park Hyatt but again, the driver looked like he was totally lost--which turned out to be exactly the case.  He wound up in the general vicinity of our hotel but went round and round in circles in the area unable to find it.  He muttered something in Japanese and pointed to the meter, which he kindly turned off knowing that we had spent at least 30 minutes going nowhere.  When stopped at traffic lights, he would get out of the cab and run back to the car behind us and ask for directions. The light would turn green and it seemed like ten thousand horns were honking at us.  The driver would dive back into the seat and boogie on.  Finally Cindy and I actually got a visual fix on our high rise hotel and were able to point him in the right direction.  We finally got there.  Even with the driver's courtesy of turning off the meter, that round trip to the Hard Rock from the hotel set us back nearly $80 U.S.  Tokyo ain't cheap.

We had expected to hear from a friend of a friend while in Tokyo and hung around in our hotel room for a bit to see if we would wind up hooking up but that didn't happen.  So we wound up meandering around the neighborhood and ducked into a small Japanese "mom and pop" type restaurant for an interesting meal of Sukiyaki and then it was back to the hotel.

The posted rates for the Park Hyatt were out of sight at around $420 a night, U.S.  But thanks to a special credit card perk, we were able to whittle that down considerably PLUS we got a free American breakfast thrown in each morning.  And at the Park Hyatt, the American breakfast carries a price tag of $32.  A burger there is $23.  A glass of OJ will set ya back $8.

We have stayed at some of the finest hotels on this planet and the service at the Park Hyatt Tokyo is  the best  we've ever encountered.  And folks, that's sayin' something!

The big deal on Japanese t.v. during our stay was sumo wrestling.  It was quite interesting to watch those big guys go at it!

The next morning (Saturday) it was time to pack up and head back to the airport for the flight home.  Coming back to our room from breakfast we were treated to view of Mt. Fuji.  It was a bit hazy but you could easily make out the snow-capped dome of the famous and revered mountain.

Check-out was a breeze at this beautiful hotel and we climbed aboard the Airport Limousine Bus for the 90 plus minute ride back to Narita.  On the way we passed some interesting sites including Tokyo's Ski Dome (a huge indoor, year round, snow ski slope) and Disneyland of Tokyo. Since our visit, the Ski Dome is gone (read the e-mail in the red print below). But the Disney theme park still alive and well as billed as the most popular in the world in terms of attendance (even hosting more people than the big Mouse House down in Orlando).

Again--upon entering the airport area we were stopped by police who boarded the bus and politely checked everybody's passports.  Believe me, you don't even get into the general airport area unless you've got a passport and under Japanese law, you must carry your passport with you at all times.

I was a little disappointed with the Duty Free shops at Terminal-2.  Not as good of a selection as we've seen elsewhere like at London's Gatwick or Heathrow.  And prices on colognes and perfumes were NOT a good deal so unlike most trips, we didn't come home with a bunch of new fragrances.

In the spring of 2005, we received a very thoughtful and enlightening e-mail from an American currently living in Japan.  Click here to read his thoughts on Japan.  Thank you very much, Michael.

CLOSING THOUGHTS ON JAPAN

Obviously we didn't have nearly enough time in Japan to do even a tenth of what most tourists do.  But we did get a good general impression about the new Japan.  Much of Tokyo is new and vibrant.  We will return someday and see much more of Tokyo and some of the more traditional cities such as Kyoto.

We were very impressed by the politeness and warmth of the Japanese people even though we were a world away when it came to language.

We are always amazed at how lucky we are to be Americans in a foreign country because in nearly all civilized nations, at least some signs are posted in English.  We imagined how difficult it would be for somebody from---say---Hungary to try and navigate around this huge metropolis of Tokyo.

Tokyo is a very expensive and very confusing city to negotiate.  Every, single time we took a taxi in Japan even from one major destination to another, the cab drivers seemed confused.  Of course, that's the way it is in New York city all too often and that's IF the driver speaks enough English to be properly understood!

DRIVING IS ON THE LEFT IN JAPAN.  AMERICANS WILL NEED A VALID PASSPORT FOR A NORMAL VISIT ALTHOUGH A VISA IS NOT REQUIRED FOR A TYPICAL STAY.  THE CURRENCY IS THE JAPANESE YEN. YOU MUST CARRY YOUR PASSPORT WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES.

  Click here for photos of Japan


 

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