We landed in Tokyo. Immediately, we realized just how long it’s been since we landed unassisted in a country unfamiliar to us. We hit the road on July 1st, 2017. Since then we’ve been in just two countries we had never visited before: Ukraine and Germany. We have family in Berlin, and we had a job to do in Ukraine, so in each case we had a lot of help getting around. We had forgotten our usual orientation routine to understand the currency and exchange, transit, SIM cards, etc. Obviously we knew we had to clear passport control and customs, get cash from an ATM, buy a SIM and then get to our guesthouse from the airport. We forgot what we needed to do in advance to make it all smoother. To be clear, I forgot. Karen did her jobs. I was a bit more… lackadaisical.
Karen had booked our flights and our Airbnb in Nakano (a suburb of Tokyo), so we knew where we needed to go when we landed. She’d figured out how much money to withdraw, and she planned the most economical period for us to use our Japanese Rail Pass given our itinerary. We’re here a month, but the longest rail pass is 21 days, so you have to plan it out; we’ll explain more later.
At the Hong Kong airport… waiting to board
I had my usual jobs, which mostly revolve around how to work things like ticket machines, SIM cards, and navigating transit systems. Karen tells me my job also includes researching ATMs to know how much you can withdraw, if they’re in English, or service international banks, etc. Everywhere is pretty much the same nowadays. Getting money in Ukraine was easy. We exchanged English pounds for Ukraine hryvnias at the airport. Metro systems in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Berlin all work in basically the same way. Japan is the most modern and tech savvy country on earth. It’ll be easy.
Our flight from Hong Kong was perfect (thanks again Cathay Pacific). We went through the quirky Japanese passport control, fingerprinting and face detection, and health scans. We got our bags and went through customs. Smooth. It was obvious we had landed in an organized and forward-looking nation.
We entered the arrivals hall and saw everything was in Japanese. Almost no English anywhere. Surprising, given this was the international arrivals terminal of Japan’s biggest airport. We looked for an ATM. We saw many of them, none of which seemed even remotely familiar, most didn’t even bother with an English brand at all. Just Kanji letters splattered everywhere. Karen asked me, “Which bank do we use?” Great question. We tried a green one. It had a single label in English: “Accepts international bank cards.” Super. While Karen tried her card and started using the keypad, I wandered over to look at SIM cards. All in Japanese. And all of the plans I saw included only data; no SMS or voice calls. That’s weird, I thought. I wandered back over to Karen. The machine had spit her card out after telling her it wouldn’t work. The machine had labels from Visa, Cirrus, Plus, and a host of Euro-looking network labels too. But it didn’t work. I was no longer getting the usual, “I’m so lucky you’re my husband” vibes from Karen. She was giving me the look you give your dog after you come home to bathroom garbage strewn all over the house. I realized maybe Japan might have required a little research after all. Whoopsie.
We tried another ATM. This time it worked, but it had severe limits on the amount of money you can withdraw. Karen is very particular about money. And especially particular about how much and how often we withdraw money because there are steep charges usually for withdrawing, charges from both the local ATM and our own greedy banks back home. If you can’t withdraw a large enough amount, you end up paying a fortune for small withdrawls. I learned from Karen that this is very (VERY) bad. We were in a very serious situation. I connected to the airport WiFi (which is super fast), and looked up ATM withdrawls in Japan for foreigners. I found out from my research that 7-Eleven has much higher limits for withdrawls. I also learned that there is a 7-Eleven ATM one floor below us, on the way to the Narita Express into Tokyo. I told her that. After she had already taken out a quarter of the amount she wanted to. Too little. Too late.
Now for some more fun. SIM-card buying. I had not researched the various options or providers. So we were learning on the fly. This is not Karen’s favourite way to go. I quickly got on the internet again – to do more research. What I shared with Karen is that apparently foreigners in Japan aren’t trusted with actual phone numbers. So no voice calls allowed. Or rather, you can rent a whole phone (very expensive) or pay a huge fee to use a mobile number. And SMS is not allowed. But you can get Data SIM plans. And there are some differences among the dozens of options. I wandered among the various counters and compared plans, all the while using the internet to try to get some advice. I learned that there is only one national carrier in Japan, and all others are virtual carriers who just distribute variations of data plans. We found a recommendation on the internet and went with a plan that costs about $66 for 30 days and gives you 5 GB of data. Less expensive than Canada (but where isn’t that true?), but still not cheap.
We’d now been in the airport arrival hall for a while. It was getting dark, and we still had to get to the Narita Express to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. From there we were planning to take a taxi to our guest house in Nakano.
It’s hard to process just how large a city Tokyo is. We all know it’s the largest city on earth. Greater Tokyo has 36 million people living within its bounds. But one has no way to encompass that in the mind, the geography of it. Like most things, experience is the only path to understanding. To really get how big Tokyo is you have to try to get around in it. It’s a little overwhelming. Any time you land in a new city, there’s a steep curve to finding your way around. Tokyo is a few orders of magnitude over any other place when it comes to the challenges of learning the city. Orientation is more complicated too by the almost total lack of English speakers or signs. Most people do not understand any English. A few might know enough to say thank you or hello.
Just a portion of the Tokyo metro map
Our guesthouse is on the other side of Tokyo from the one closest to the airport. It takes about 90 minutes just to get from Narita to Shinjuku on the airport express. Then we had to get to our guesthouse. Rather than learn the Tokyo metro system with all of our bags on us, we decided for simplicity sake, to take the train from the airport to as close to our Airbnb as possible, and then take a taxi the rest of the way. Tokyo taxi drivers have a reputation for getting lost. Addresses here are notoriously difficult for Japanese to figure out. We’d read that taxis are basically honest here, always using the meter. So armed with Google maps, we found a taxi at Shinjuku and got in. He got lost only at the very end. But we were basically already there.
We made it to our Airbnb by about 7pm, four hours after we landed. Our host Ikko had left two beautiful little packages of inari sushi for us. We were grateful. The place is lovely and its fantastic to stay in a very quiet, very local neighbourhood outside the bustle of Tokyo.
A street near our guest house in a lovely quiet neighbourhood
We had just three days in Tokyo before leaving for Kamakura and Kyoto, so we got up early the next day and found our way to the local train station. Getting there was easy. Buying a train ticket was not. There was no human attendant. This is a small commuter station. There are just ticket machines. There’s a map on the wall in Japanese of the transit system included in the company’s routes, and next to it a map of the rest of the Tokyo system. We pressed the English button on the terminal and still were completely confused by the choices. This was not at all like any other transit system. It seemed to work by locating your destination on the map, then choosing the amount of the fare you needed. But what if you can’t find your fare for your final destination? With everything in Japanese, and anything in English not much more understandable, we stood there for about 20 minutes staring at the board then staring at the ticket machine, trying to figure it out. A man in a business suit stopped and asked us if we needed help. Um, yes. I think we do.
Very kindly, and struggling bravely through very broken English, he walked us through the process of buying a ticket. He missed his own train to do this. We were grateful, of course. Help always seems to show up, just when you need it.
He rode the train with us, including through a transfer we needed to make, and then explained how to use the subway to get to our final destination, Asakusa.
We thanked him a million times, said goodbye and went on our way.
One of the most important pieces of advice he gave us was to get an IC card, in Tokyo you can get either a Suica or Pasmo. If you aren’t going to use a Japan Rail Pass right away when you land, or at all because it doesn’t make cost-effective sense, get an IC card. It works by tapping through the gates of the subway, the train system, or buses all over Tokyo. We even bought treats from a bakery with it. Tap! It’s just like Hong Kong’s Octopus Card. It saves you having to work out the fare you need for your given transfers or destination. You can recharge it when you run out of credit. The deposit and remaining balance gets returned when you’re finished with it. Easy.
We are now on our way to Kamakura for a few days before we head to Kyoto. Here are some photos of our short time in Tokyo. It’s been just a few days, and already we know Japan is the greatest country on earth. We love it here.