Posts Tagged ‘tokyo’

On To Seoul

Welcome to Seoul: outside Gyeongbok Palace

Staying in Asakusa gave me what should have been easy access to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where I’d catch my flight to Seoul Gimpo. The helpful lady in the T.I. office wrote the route out for me in great detail (very simple, one train change, no platform change), starting out on the Asakusa line. So when I got back the night before, ON the Asakusa line, after I followed the arrows to the exit I wanted and cleared the ticket barrier, I looked back to see the arrows pointing the way to the Asakusa line, and I looked round for a ticket machine for that line. But I was now in the Ginza line station, and even the English language terminal wouldn’t recognize Haneda as a destination. So finally I asked the guy in the ticket office. Guess what? He had a nice big sign, in English, telling you how to buy a ticket to Haneda – HIDDEN IN THE OFFICE!

He could put it up on the wall, and let the foreigners read it at their leisure, but then they’d know what to do, and that would be no fun, right? Then I found another catch. I wanted to buy a ticket that day, when I had no luggage, to use the next day, when I would have luggage. Could I do that? No, I couldn’t. (Good thing I noticed the tickets were date-stamped.) When I expressed quite mild dismay at this news I clearly violated the Japanese code, because the guy went completely blank on me. I ceased to exist and he just stood there. (I know that technique – I’ve used it on persistent Indian salesmen.) Well, I feel the same way about the Tokyo subway non-system.

Aside from having to get up at 5:00 am, I had no trouble getting to Haneda. Since the rain

Live guards at Gyeongbok Palace

hadn’t stopped, and I was flying JAL again, I had taken the precaution of packing everything in plastic. A new International terminal was due to open at Haneda on October 21st, and did they ever need it! I was very grateful to slide past the zoo at economy check-in to the business class area. The JAL lounge turned out to be a bit better than the one in Vancouver, but the food on the flight was much better, featuring a double-layered bento box.

Although JAL managed to keep my bag dry, I had an inordinately long wait for it to arrive. Apparently a soccer team had traveled on the same flight, and ALL their immense quantity of luggage was unloaded before anyone else’s! Then I had a little trouble finding my hotel from the limousine bus stop, as the map I got at the T.I. counter in the airport had positioned it too far west.

My western chain hotel

Shortly before I left on this trip, I had been introduced to a Korean couple, long time friends of friends,  about to move back to Seoul after a second sojourn in the U.S., and they had kindly offered to help me with my visit to Korea. They had recommended the Ibis  Ambassador in the Gangnam district, south of the river but close to where they lived in the upscale Apgujeong area. While the Ibis was both more western and more upmarket than my usual hotels, after several nights on the floor I appreciated some extra comforts. I started by taking advantage of the guests’ discount for the Japanese style hot bath in the basement.

Statue outside the nearby Starbucks

That evening D and M took me out for a traditional Korean meal, and I had my first adventure with Korean chopsticks. Now I’m no fan of chopsticks – I find it perverse that peoples who love noodles choose to eat them with chopsticks – but I am reasonably competent with the normal round variety. In Korea they aren’t round and they aren’t made from wood or plastic. They’re flat and metal and I had no end of difficulty with them. You also get a metal spoon with a long handle, but don’t imagine this is just for soup. Later a waitress gave me a lesson in how to use the spoon: you pick up some rice, you add pickled vegetables with the chopsticks, and then you dip it in the soup. I felt like I needed an extra hand.

No Korean meal is complete without pickled vegetables – lots of little dishes with different kinds. You’ll also get soup and rice, and whatever you’ve chosen as the main dish. The little dishes may contain other treats – at one meal a whole fish showed up! Some restaurants presented me with additional implements – tongs and shears. These are for kimchi or noodles or both – you lift the long strands with the tongs and cut off a sensible length with the shears.


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Trying Tokyo

Some people are beach people. Some people are city people. I’m a mountain person – nothing lifts my spirits like seeing a mountain in the distance, getting closer. There are a few big cities I like – London, Paris, Vienna, Lisbon – but I approach places the size of Tokyo (12.56 million people) with caution.  In fact, I put it last on my Japan itinerary just so I’d have time to get used to the country before tackling it, and I was a little sad to see the rice fields give way to a rather depressing cityscape well before my train pulled into Shinjuku station.

Senso-ji in Asakusa at night

Things started out well – my JR ticket got me as far as Ueno and I found it easy to buy a subway ticket the rest of the way to Asakusa. (But I had a lot more trouble with the subway “system” later.) I was sleeping on the floor again, at the Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa, in an historic, if very touristy, section of town. I had eaten on the train, so after I cleaned up (the humidity was much higher than in the Alps) I headed back to Ueno to visit the Shitamachi Museum.

Shinobazu Pond at Ueno Park

Getting out of the subway station was a real route march, worse even than the Moscow system, and I had even more trouble later getting back in from Ueno Park, as I needed the Ginza line section, and the Park entrance turned out to be just for the JR lines… I know it’s a big city, but three, THREE, independent subway systems? All serving the same parts of town? Sometimes from the same station, sometimes from adjacent stations, but not sharing a ticketing system? Hate.

Reconstructed theater in the Edo-Tokyo Museum

The Shitamachi Museum turned out to be quite small, and with the second floor devoted to a special exhibition with no English explanations. I later discovered that the Edo-Tokyo Museum, much bigger, gave a better feel for historic Tokyo, although most of its exhibits were reconstructions (and it was a lot harder to get to).

Torii in Ueno Park

In Ueno Park I saw the first dirty pavement of the whole trip, and the first homeless men. Also for the first time, I had the feeling, possibly quite wrong, that it might be better to be gone before dark. While I enjoyed the shinto shrine I visited (lots of torii and lots of steps), the shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu was being renovated. I paid my respects to the nearby flame from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which earned me, to my surprise, a very strange look from a local.

I spent another, very wet, day mostly in the Ginza area. My first target was the Sony Building, which turned out to be having a massive promotion around the Charlie Brown cartoons. (I couldn’t help wondering how much Charles Schulz’ estate was taking in as a result). Its popularity was evident. The unpopularity of foreigners was also evident. On the top floor a 3D demo took place every 20 minutes. (It was a total waste of time.) Two prime front row seats, between me and another westerner, remained empty, even though plenty of people were standing.

Sony loves Snoopy

Following the guide books’ recommendations I planned to eat lunch in one of the Ginza department stores, but found the selections both more western and more expensive than I had expected. I eventually wound up waiting around 30 minutes (the top floor restaurants were very popular on a Saturday) to eat at a place advertising its use of fresh, local, produce. And for the first time in Japan I enjoyed an actual salad bar and raw veggies!

I also enjoyed some quality people watching. I saw a grand total of six other westerners during my half hour wait, but plenty of locals. Further to the matter of skirts, more women were wearing trousers, and those in skirts were split between knee-length and dowdy, and fashion-forward frills. Fur (probably fake) and frills seemed to be the key-notes for the winter season in Japan.

The approach to Senso-ji in daylight

Between my bad foot and the bad weather, I ate dinner close to home my three nights in Tokyo. I consulted the English-speaking man on the reception desk, and he actually walked me to neighborhood restaurants. I ate twice at an izakaya, feasting on excellent skewers of chicken, chicken liver, duck and shellfish, washed down with sake, and once at an okonomiyaki place that didn’t measure up to the one in Kanazawa – and was reluctant to seat a solo diner. I did learn that Tokyo has its own, sloppier, version of the pancake – I stuck to the provincial version.

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Limping to Kyoto

After a bizarre breakfast – tasteless pasta with a few canned mushroom pieces and tomato dice, wth fruit and ice cream – we landed at Narita airport in a driving rainstorm. Not a problem for people – we used the jetway. But after having my fingerprints and photo taken by the immigration officer, and answering several questions, I retrieved my big pack from the carousel to find it soaking wet! Is it really too much to expect Japan Airlines to put a tarp over the bags in a rainstorm?

My pack does have a built-in cover I use when I travel in the rain, but it’s not suitable for flights, and only covers the side that stayed dry. That, of course, is the side with the plastic I put between the clothes and the toiletries. Fortunately, I also bag the books and papers, and footwear, in plastic, but quite a few of my clothes were wet, and my silk sleep sack was totally soaked. My room at the Toyoko Inn Shinagawa would have been plenty big enough under normal circumstances, but with the entire contents of my pack spread around, in various stages of drying, it was decidedly cramped.

Getting to Shinagawa was pretty straightforward: free trolleys in the airport, a Citibank ATM for cash (after I figured out the exchange rate and asked for a reasonable amount), my Visa card bought me a ticket on the N’EX airport express, and I spotted a sign for the Prince Hotel, next door to the Toyoko, in the station. Dinner, back at the station, was easy too. I picked a restaurant based on the pictures outside, and enjoyed remarkably tender and tasty pork slices fried in ginger, with miso soup, rice and pickles. I was no better or worse with the chopsticks than on previous trips – adequate but not expert.

Central hall in Kyoto station

My original plan had been to take advantage of jet lag and visit the fish market, but with a bad ankle it seemed more sensible to go straight on to Kyoto. The Toyoko put on a  better breakfast than JAL, with unlimited orange juice and coffee, and so-so croissants, but I was puzzled by what appeared to be tuna fish sandwiches, and potato salad, which had also appeared the night before. Again, I had no trouble using a credit card (although I hear that MasterCard might be a different matter) to buy a ticket on the shinkansen to Kyoto.

The bullet train proved a bit disappointing – not as blindingly fast as I had expected – not noticeably faster than a French ICE. And on a hazy day, with an aisle seat, I didn’t get much of a view. What countryside I did see attracted me – lots of steep, shaggy hills – and contrasted strongly with the crowded cities. My room at the Palace Side in Kyoto was bigger but shabbier than the one in the Toyoko in Tokyo, and the garden view not worth the extra I was paying – all I could see were the trees along the outer wall. The location proved poor too – the area shut down almost completely late afternoon, and it wasn’t on a main bus route.

I spent the afternoon asleep, hoping to cure jet lag and my bad ankle at the same time. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for my ankle, and as I limped slowly to a nearby izakaya for an informal dinner of things (mostly chicken livers) on sticks I started feeling really worried.

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