“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough- to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” -Anthony Bourdain
I can’t believe I haven’t updated this in a year! February seems to be my month for big travels, considering I like to plan trips over school breaks and get away from the cold. It’s not that I haven’t traveled in the past year; I just didn’t want to post about mundane trips to Miami, Texas, California, Mexico, Grand Cayman, etc. (I found Grand Cayman itself to be boring, but the scuba diving was great.) Not that these places don’t have a lot to offer or aren’t worth writing about, but I really give it up to bloggers who post daily or even weekly, because it’s like a full-time job.
But back to what you’re here for, Tokyo! I was only transiting through Haneda airport on a 7 hour layover on my way to Bangkok. I could’ve done it in a shorter amount of time, but if you remember, I love stopping in new cities on my travels to get a taste and see if I’d like to go back. I’ve gone to Europe the past 3 years in the winter/spring and had enough of the cold, which is why I chose to go to Thailand. I have friends in Korea and Japan and know no one in Thailand, but Korea and Japan have the same weather as New York this time of year. Another first for me, this was my first completely solo trip! I’ve traveled solo before, but always met up with friends along the way. It wasn’t a “spiritual journey” or anything like that, it’s just the way it worked out, and I felt I did enough traveling that I could finally do Asia by myself. Friends and family are sometimes shocked by this, but I love being on my own time and making my own itinerary to really experience the culture. Remember, I hate guided tours and all-inclusives!
Anyway, back to Tokyo. I was pleasantly surprised I was transiting through Haneda, because it’s relatively close to Tokyo in comparison to its other international airport, Narita. If I was going through Narita I figured I’d only have time to see Narita itself, as the journey into Tokyo is an hour on the Narita Express.
What a pleasant surprise! I originally wanted to fly Korean Air, which always gets positive reviews as a top airline (there are no direct flights to Bangkok from NYC), but this itinerary worked out better. The service was outstanding, the Japanese are very polite and clean, and it was a great introduction to Japanese culture. It also didn’t hurt that I got the emergency exit row aisle seat, economy service on JAL (long-haul flights) is actually equivalent (if not better) than first class on a typical American airline like American or United.
Lumbar (back) pillows and blankets were provided.Look at all that space! I couldn’t have asked for more on a 14 hour flight.Flight attendants came around frequently with warm towels to wipe your hands and face with.There was an exercise program for stretches to do on the plane.I thought this was a nice touch, parents with children were seated in these rows and didn’t have to have them on their laps.Unlimited alcohol, I only had one red wine, but the Korean guy next to me had about 10. They also have unlimited snacks you can just get up and get yourself.The first meal was served a couple of hours into the flight, the second was a couple of hours before landing. JAL is odd in its food choices in that it doesn’t serve typical Japanese food and you can’t order it ahead of time. The first choice was chicken teriyaki or a red wine beef stew, I chose chicken but would go with the beef in the future because the chicken was dark meat and I didn’t eat it. The sides were a tuna and ham salad (weird), fruit, seaweed/soba noodles, and a regular salad. I didn’t eat the salad or fruit either because I was afraid of getting sick. The second meal was a vegetarian rigatoni with yogurt, cheese and crackers. This one was better.
Cost of ticket: Most people probably wouldn’t believe it, $478 including my 20kg checked luggage.I thought this was cute, I noticed they put this on my bag when I picked it up in Bangkok! It was nice to be able to check my luggage all the way through since it was JAL for both flights and not a partner airline.
Haneda was surprisingly easy to navigate, and again, the Japanese are so polite, there’s no irate people yelling at customer service like you see in the US, but this also reflects on their level of service.There are showers in the arrivals terminal you can rent for a set amount of time (like I said, the Japanese are very clean.)This might look confusing, but with a little research on google maps beforehand to navigate where you want to go it’s very simple.The one thing that shocked me in my research about Japan, is that I think we (Americans) look at it as so technologically advanced, which it is, but it is still very much a cash society. American debit cards don’t work at several Japanese banks/ATMs, but 7 Bank (at 7 Elevens and in the arrivals terminal), is one that does accept American cards. Minimum withdrawal was 10,000 yen ($91 USD with exchange rate.) I highly recommend a no-fee card like Capital One when you travel internationally.
So in my research, I decided Shibuya was where I wanted to go. Harajuku is out, Shibuya is in. Shibuya is the Gangnam (in Seoul, South Korea); the West End of London, you get my point. It’s TRENDY, it’s TOURISTY. But really, after having been there, it’s like Times Square.
How to get there: Here’s where google maps is very handy, better than Apple maps on your iPhone for international public transit directions.Take the Keikyu (red) line and transfer to the green JR Yamanote line at Shinagawa station, then get off at Shibuya. The signs are all in English, and they repeat the announcements in English, so it’s pretty hard to mess up.You enter where you want to go and you can get a round trip ticket. This machine only accepts cash unless you have PASMO, Japan’s smart card that’s like Apple Pay. It was $6 one way.On my way to the train I passed storage lockers, I decided to put some of my stuff in here because I was carrying heavy books. It was very convenient, I had to get a larger locker for 600 yen (around $6) because that’s all that was available. If you do this make sure you get your belongings out by midnight, they also only accept cash.I wish New York subways had barriers like this and were this clean. As you can see, all the trains say what line they are and where they’re going. I could’ve taken any train that passed through Shinagawa to get to Shibuya.When they say Japan is crowded, they aren’t kidding. The weirdest thing about this is you couldn’t move on the train, but it was completely silent, literally no one talks.
One of the many things tourists come to see in Tokyo is Shibuya Crossing, apparently the largest pedestrian crossing in the world where 7 cross walks come together and all the lights turn red at the same time. Time Magazine sums it up pretty eloquently: “It would be a shame to come to Tokyo and not take a walk across the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station… traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides, like marbles spilling out of a box.” Pretty much.It’s really something you just have to see for yourself. It’s Times Square x100. Shibuya 109 is a famous department store, and apparently the rooftop, Mag’s Park, is a great place to watch this scene unfold, but I didn’t go up to the top.After this, I was pretty much exhausted and only wanted to have some authentic Japanese food before I headed back to the airport. I just walked around the area aimlessly until I came across a ramen spot that seemed to be populated by locals. I asked a Japanese friend what this says and she said she didn’t know?You press the button for what you want on this machine and pay with yen, then give the receipt to the hostess. No one spoke English, at first I was really confused until a helpful girl just pointed to the food pictures then the money slot and said “money.” I ordered 3 dumplings (gyoza) which I hoped were vegetarian but figured I had a very small chance of that in Japan, since I don’t eat pork or seafood, and the 900 yen dan dan noodle ramen because I like dan dan noodles (which are actually Chinese.)All the food was cooked in front of you, and it ended up being delicious! The gyoza were actually full of vegetables, and I know that’s pork in the soup but I just pushed it aside. I figured it was better than having slabs of pork belly in my soup. This whole meal (which I didn’t finish) was $10. Tipping isn’t required in Japan but I left my change.
Back to Haneda, on to Bangkok!
I just did the reverse going back to the airport, picked up my carry-on items from the storage locker, and with a little time to spare and half of my yen left, did some shopping at the duty free stores. Security is fast and efficient at Haneda, and I would definitely come back to Japan. Japan Olympics 2020 anyone? The people are so nice and helpful even when there’s a lack of communication, and I believe it’s probably one of the safest countries in the world. Japan has so much culture (on a longer trip I’d love to go to Kyoto), but even this small taste left a good impression on me.Bathrooms at the airport, for the third time the Japanese are very clean.