The View From The Top

I’m finally here! It took 28 hours and 37 minutes door-to-door, but I am nicely settled in a “ladies room” on the 14th floor of a Tokyo hotel. I was following the advice of the “First Time in Asia” Lonely Planet book to make sure you had a nice place to stay the first night because of jet lag, and I’m glad I did because I think I woke up at 3 am and every 20 minutes from 5-7, but I could always roll over and go straight back to sleep since the room was so quiet. My plan for the day is to go to Mariakan, the museum of emerging science and technology (robots!!!!), walk around the neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ueno, and probably go to the Tokyo National Museum. I’m going to try to meet up with my cousin, and she has some friends she wants to see, so we’ll see how it all shakes out. Also it’s the O-Bon festival, which means some stuff is closed (like the Tsukiji market, which I am very bummed about), but hopefully that means there will be a parade at some point. When I’m traveling, I love stumbling onto local parades and street fairs, because everyone who’s there is always, without fail, very cheerful and happy, and the good moods are infectious.

When I checked into the room, the lady at the front desk gave me this cute little goody bag with shampoo and things, which surprised me because it seemed like a nice enough hotel that it would already have that in the room. But it turns out that the Ladies Rooms come with special perks: I was opening all the cabinets and finding all of these little machines, most of which I could not identify. I did figure out what the foot massager and clothing steamer were, but there were two other little boxes. A white noise machine maybe? And a mystery box? But the goody bag also came with a questionnaire.


So I’m assuming the mystery box is a face steamer. I have no idea what that is or how to use it, but I might give it a try. There are also all sorts of little packets and things, most of which are either only labeled in Japanese or which have very generic names (e.g. “ladies amenity”, which I’m guessing is a pad?) in English.


I picked the ladies room (it’s on a floor that only women stay on) because I had heard that drunk Japanese businessmen can get a little pushy, and it cost the same price as all the other rooms so I figured why not, plus it was guaranteed to be non-smoking, but based on the questionnaire the “ladies amenities” and “ladies facilities” are also things that people seek out. I’ll try to ask my cousin’s boyfriend if this is a common thing in most big hotels, to have a women-only floor, but he probably won’t know.

For the last twenty minutes or so of the flight, I started chatting with (read: lightly interrogating) my seat mate, because even though he was obviously American he was also a Japanese citizen (since he had refused the foreigner card when the flight attendants were passing out immigration forms). It turns out he was bringing his boyfriend to meet his ultra-conservative Japanese relatives, and so all of his time living in Japan had been mostly with family. But he did confirm some of the things I hadn’t been totally sure about, namely that Google Maps is absolutely essential, and unless you read and speak Japanese you really can’t get around without it. Japanese addresses are for the location on the street on the block in the district in the bigger district in the something else in the city, and without Google maps you have to go find the district map to figure out what block to go to. Sort of like DC, where there are four places where Second Street intersects D Street, and you have to know which quadrant you’re in, only in a language that I can’t read. Also when I was asking about manners things, he basically said I can get away with anything because I’m so obviously white, and if people get upset with me for being rude I will probably never know. (Unlike in his case, where his relatives get mad at him for being rude but don’t tell him why.) I will try not to be rude, but there are so many extra rules! When the front desk lady handed me back my passport she did it two-handed, which reminded me that you’re never supposed to hand things to people with only one hand, and that I had therefore been rude to (so far): the people at the SIM card counter, the ticket lady at the airport, the guy at the information desk in Ueno station, and the lady at the front desk when I handed her my passport in the first place. Oops.

Two random facts about Japanese customs: they ask about swords on the forms. (Like, “are you importing illegal drugs, explosives, or swords.”) Also, they funnel you through a single file line next to a quarantine station (big sign reading “This is a quarantine station! We do NOT provide ANY medical care!”) so a thermometer can read your temperature, and over a carpet soaked in disinfectant. There were a lot of signs warning about various diseases, with maps of the world color-coded in various shades of red to indicate risk, but it was all in Japanese, and the US was the palest yellow, so I figured I was fine unless someone told me otherwise. The only word in Roman script was “MERS”.

Getting to the hotel was surprisingly easy, because the trains run so. precisely. on. time. I started with the information desk at the airport, asking her to tell me how to get to an ATM machine, a SIM card seller, and the train. Money in hand, it was time to get online. There were a bunch of counters selling SIM cards, I just picked the closest one, and paid about $35 for 200 mb of data each day for 15 days. More expensive than India, but still very cheap given how impossible it would be for me to function without a smartphone. I asked at the train counter what the best way to get to Shinjuku was, since Google Maps was telling me about trains and buses and I wasn’t sure what was easier, and she looks at the clock (it was 8:03 pm) and says “There’s an 8:10 train, and you only have to change trains once. But you only have seven minutes! Go!” So I hustle downstairs, and wait in line, and by the time I step up to the ticket counter it is 8:07. And yet I managed to get on the 8:10 train with not only my train ticket (I love the train names, it was the Kaisei Skyliner) but a two-day pass for the Tokyo metro. Amazingly efficient.

It took me longer to get the 500 meters from Shinjuku to my hotel than to walk 1 km from the main Ueno station to the one that had the E subway line, because there are so many exits, and so many streets, and all the streets were packed with people on the Saturday night stroll. I kept getting turned around. Thank goodness for Google Maps! Even when I could see the tower of the hotel, I couldn’t necessarily figure out which streets took me to the entrance. The only obviously drunk guy I saw was this older man, who was being carefully steered away from the crowds by very cheerful-looking policemen with white gloves. Somehow I can’t imagine the Times Square police on a Saturday night with white gloves on.


So I have now spent one night in a Western-style room, and I have to say, other than the fact that the bed is raised off the floor, there is no question about the fact that you’re in Japan. I won’t sleep on a tatami until near the end of the week, when I stay in a ryokan, so I don’t have anything to compare it too, but the Japanese definitely like their mattresses and pillows FIRM. I slept well, but I think it will take my back a while to get used to the new normal.

The mattress has no springs, and has an interesting pattern on the top:


One of the pillows is a normal feather pillow on one side, but then it’s like straw on the other, you can sort of see the ridges on the top:


And then the other pillow is sort of like a cross between foam and straw:


When I say straw, it’s not spiky like real straw, it bends, but it’s like a bunch of flexible straws sewn into pockets. Also, the toilet has a lot of buttons on the wall for the various angles of spray, and you can set the water pressure. Toto is definitely not in Kansas anymore!


And So It Begins!


I’m sitting in LAX right now, 12 hours into a trip that started at 4 am this morning with a drive to Logan Airport to catch my first flight. It was pitch black, and I had my fingers crossed I would be able to see the Perseid “meteor storm,” but unfortunately it was still cloudy. It was a beautiful sunrise, though, and I learned that Boston’s rush hour really does start at 5:30 in the morning.

First stop: Tokyo! I’m going to have three nights in Tokyo, then catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto for four nights. I’m planning to use Kyoto as a base for day trips to Hiroshima and probably Nara, though so far I’ve only read the Tokyo section of the guidebook. Whatever, I still have an 11 ½ hour flight from LA to Tokyo, plenty of time. I’m checking out e-book guidebooks from my library instead of buying a bunch of paper ones. Traveling light, 2016 edition. So far, my library has me covered, but I probably will end up buying the e-books for at least a few countries.

My cousin is in Tokyo right now visiting her boyfriend, and she speaks Japanese, so I’m planning to meet up with her on Sunday or Monday and hopefully she can show me around a little. She taught English in the southern part of Japan for a year, so I will also pick her brains about what to do in Kyoto/Hiroshima/Nara/etc.

Although I’m nowhere near as exhausted at this point as I was the only other times I flew to the other side of the world (India: the day after finals ended; Australia: a Sunday flight after spending all day Friday/early morning Saturday moving my entire apartment from DC to Boston and then catching a bus to New York), I’m still spending my first few nights in Japan in a hotel, to get over the jet lag a bit before I switch to sharing rooms in hostels. The hotel advertises “Godzilla-view rooms,” which should be interesting.

So excited to start my adventure!