Saturday, March 17, 2012

Journey to the Orient

I promised to catch you up on Japan so here you are.

The Journey

It began with a short and uneventful Ryanair flight to London, bargain-tastic at £30 all-in. I arrived on time expecting to see my sister in the pickup zone but we had hit a snag. You see, I was at Stansted Airport while she was at Luton.

It turns out that my dear sweet sibling had spent all day preparing for this. She had bought me a favourite box of chocolates (not that any box of chocolates is ever rejected), made up a chauffeur-style sign with my name on it and left over an hour early to ensure a perfect pickup. She just forgot to check where she was to pick me up from. In her own words, what a dick.

So we had a cosy night at her place with good old British fish and chips and drove up to Heathrow the next morning.

On boarding the aircraft, I discovered that for the first time ever I'd been upgraded! I had a large seat with extra legroom, a top notch entertainment system and a menu for complimentary food. Unfortunately though, unlike the seat I'd reserved, it was in the aisle so I was completely unable to get to sleep. I came close once but only by sort of flopping sideways so the cabin crew couldn't get past with their trolleys.

I arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport at 9:30 having been up for 18 hours and having to wait another 4 hours before I could check into the hotel. Three guesses what I did after that.

Taking the Tube

So the next morning I was to venture into Tokyo and find my backpackers' hostel. I had to take three connecting trains and I was terrified.

I started by going to the train station. I stared blankly for ten minutes at a ticket machine that was asking me how much I wanted to pay. This was a new concept to me. How much did I want to pay? I scrutinised my print-out (in Japanese) and realised that each leg of the journey had a price associated with it, so I selected the corresponding amount on the screen and paid for a small cardboard slip.

You'd think that would be the hard part over, right? Hmm.

I looked to my right and saw some machines that people were occasionally passing through using touch technology that I assumed to be similar to Oyster cards. I looked to my left and saw escalators leading down. I analysed the signs for both directions but could find no mention of the train line I wanted or the destination I was heading for.

Eventually I approached a woman in a facemask selling 'commuter tickets'. I showed her my printed itinerary asking "please, where to go?". She responded "here, you are in the right place". Hmm. "Yes, here, but where?". I pointed dramatically to the right: "here?" And then to the left "or here?". She asked if I wanted the airport, I replied "no" and she smiled saying "go to platform 8" with a pointed glance to my right.

So after 20 minutes I'd managed to buy a ticket and find a platform number. What other challenges could there possibly be?

Now, these machines on the right looked similar to the ticket barriers we're so accustomed to in the UK. Except that there was no actual barrier. I was cautious - did this mean you could just walk through? I watched the locals at work. But they all seemed to have these Oyster cards - what did you do with tickets? I was about to take the risk when finally I saw someone insert that tiny cardboard slip into a slot at the front and then retrieve it from the back so I followed suit.

I found Platform 8 and found that it was for trains to the airport. Thankfully, however, now that I was through the barrier I could see more instructive signs and easily found the correct platform. Five minutes later I was seated on a warm and comfortable train (with no phones allowed - this seems to be rather frowned upon on trains).

Eating and Grooming

Once arrived at my destination, having suffered remarkably few panics, I looked for somewhere to stop and have lunch. A place next to the Hostel looked promising - it was called 'Garden' and had the words 'Cafe' and 'Menu' outside, so I ventured in.

The room was small, with three individual tables and no customers. A staff member greeted me at the door questioningly so I said a polite hello and mimed eating. She excused herself for a moment so I looked around and was a little surprised to find this on one of the tables:

I was surprised again when I looked around and saw a window behind which an alsatian was being shaved.
I eventually worked out that I'd walked into a dog grooming salon. But they made me a decent vegetable stir-fry with rice anyway.

Living on a Shelf

Now the hostel may not be to everyone's taste but I think it's genius. It's the cheapest in Tokyo at only £11 a night with free WiFi, and they have achieved this by squeezing beds into inconceivably tiny spaces. There are ten wooden shelves built into my bedroom, each one fitted with a mattress and a backpacker. It's just like being back in the van :-)

The view from my shelf in the dormitory

There is one bath, by appointment only. The universal language here is English and it operates on a trust system so there are no keys or locks, just like-minded people. And of course it's shoes off at the door!
I think I'm going to like it.

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