September 2nd, 2017
11 hours, 27 minutes. There I sat inside of a metal tube gliding above the seemingly infinite Pacific Ocean. Months of planning and research all came down to "now," and I still can't quite believe that I'm here. The moment I disembarked the plane, I could already feel the strange and different energy of Japan. The smell of the Tokyo area hits you first. It's indescribable, but extremely distinct - The strangest mix of modern industry and humid forest. I think it's what Cyberpunk smells like.
As I walk through the door of the Airplane, I'm greeted by the staff of not only the aircraft, but the ground crew. Each member individually bowed and thanked every passenger.
Meaning, "Thank you." This phrase summarizes the entire attitude of the country so far. Every service industry member, every cashier, every information booth person, every post office employee, every restaurant host, every random person in a yellow safety vest standing near an escalator. They thank you. Perhaps the most interesting to me was on my first rail trip on the Narita Express (N'EX). A train employee that was simply passing between cars reaches the double doors at the end of our section, stops, turns, bows, "Arigatōgozaimashita" and proceeds. Amazing.
I'll talk more of the N'EX soon, but first, I'd like to share my experience with Narita Airport since I had a few errands to do without any internet on my phone to help me! First step, get to customs & passport control. This was actually quite simple, as all paths directly led to this point. Further still, convenient "fast-walking" moving floors zipped you down what seemed like over a mile walk in mere minutes. Convenience will be a reoccurring theme.
I eventually arrive at passport control. This was very simple - wait your turn in an incredibly short and fast-moving line. Hand your passport and immigration slip to the attendant. Fingerprints, photo, bam, you may move on to the next attendant who will verify your information and let you proceed. Now you're not done yet. A short walk down the hall and you will now see the blue-shirted customs officers. Naturally, it's a little scary to confront foreign TSA-esque officials, especially with a language barrier. I went up to the counter and was immediately greeted with smiles. "こんにちは," says the officer as he picked up a tattered binder of laminated photos. Within the binder lie photos of hard drugs, gold bars, firearms, and explosives. "Do you have any of this?" he says while cheerfully pointing to objects of malice. "No," I reply. "Okay, may I check your backpack?" the officer asks. "Sure!" One quick check later and I was off. Of course, not without a respectful Arigatōgozaimashita.
...That was too easy. Something has got to cause me issues here soon... right? No. Japan simply isn't like that. Just from my incredibly brief exposure, I could already tell that every part of this country was designed to be convenient. This was confirmed by my next two tasks: Getting a SIM card delivery for mobile phone data, and redeeming my Japan Rail Pass for a ticket on the Narita Express.
To obtain my SIM card delivery, I had to scope out the post office. After a little bit of wandering and a quick inquiry at an information booth, I found the post office inside of the main hall of Terminal 2. There I greeted the attendant, asked for a delivery, and the package was dispatched to me as soon as I showed my passport. Installation was very simple - pop in the SIM card, type in the information that comes with it, and that's it. I now have data on my phone! Woo! Google!
Next, it was time to redeem my rail pass. After one last quick check at the information desk, I'm directed to the basement level of Narita Airport. There, I see three sub-buildings. A red N'EX building, a blue Keisei Skyliner building, and finally, a green JR East information building. I first walk into the green JR East information building, and was immediately greeted by an attendant. The second I showed my rail pass order, I was given a little sheet to fill out and was directed to the secretaries behind the counter. The secretary was of course wildly friendly and helpful and redeemed my pass very quickly. I even managed to slip on to the very next train that was leaving in 10 minutes. Convenient!
After I had my pass, I walked over to the red N'EX building area. Here, there was a giant line of people buying tickets and a set of beeping, RFID-controlled gates. Next to those gates, an open attendant window sits. I walk up to the window, not knowing which of the many slips of paper I'm supposed to hand to the attendant. He points to the main JR pass, gives it a stamp, then waves me through. ...Convenient!
I now have my train ticket, my SIM card for data, and know which train to take. It was time to leave Narita Airport. I simply had to find my train. Immediately after the ticket gates, there was an escalator that led down to the train station platform. Here I witnessed a bright blue train with an English automated voice blaring "This is NOT the train to Tokyo!" on repeat. I thought that was pretty funny, but I also wondered where the N'EX train was. What seems obvious to me now was not entirely evident in the moment I was there. The trains will share the single station platform as they arrive. My N'EX train was next, and all I had to do was to wait a little bit, wait for the electronic signs to switch, and find my car. Sure enough, within literal seconds of the time listed on the ticket, a fancy red, white, and black train arrives at my platform. I get on, stow my luggage, and find my seat. Less than a minute later, the doors shut and we're off.
Silence. This was the weird part to me. There was no talking. There was little to no train noise. There was no music. Silence through the green Tokyo hills. The train ride was 50 minutes long, but felt much shorter than that due to the sheer amount of awesome sights that are visible from the train's route. Soon, I was at Tokyo station. I walk off the train, get out of the way a little to get my bearings, and as I look back, the train is gone. I was in Tokyo. This was it.
I now had the choice to walk about two miles through Tokyo to my hotel, or to take another train. As tired as I was, I elected to walk through Tokyo. But first, I needed to snake my way through the crowded subterranean maze of Tokyo Station. I found signs for a central exit - I had no idea where it would lead, I just wanted to get up to the surface. A bit of walking, a few escalators, and a whole lot of "learning to walk on the left" later, I made it to the surface... WWHHHOOOAAAAAH!!! Up until that point, I was mainly enclosed inside of either a building or a vehicle, but right then and there, WAS TOKYO! I am here!
First thing that I noticed was the size of everything. The buildings were huge, flashing with lights, and plastered with enormous ads. The cars mainly consisted of very shiny black taxis, luxury vehicles, and many varieties of itty bitty, boxy kei-cars. I fired up Google Maps, pin-pointed my hotel, and started my first journey through Tokyo.
The rumors of the city being impeccably clean are true. Everything seems to be completely spotless. No streaks, no grime, no dust. Every car I saw was mirror-like. I also found that their crosswalk lights are interesting too. There was one point where I came to an intersection alone and tried to find the "push-to-cross" button. Erm... well.. uh... hey where is it? I guess I'll just stand here and hope it changes... please change...
The light eventually changed green and signaled for me to walk. Turns out, there are no "push-to-cross" buttons. You just have to wait your turn. I suppose this makes sense - from what I've perceived so far, it seems that if the Japanese don't have to touch something, they wont. Not just out of convenience, but for avoiding contact with "dirty" public utilities!
As I walked through the city, I enjoyed the perfect sunny 75°F, oh sorry, 24°C, and slightly humid weather. I walked down big streets, I walked down little ally-ways, I crossed under bridges, and I saw trains go by. I don't really watch Anime, but from what I have seen, it felt exactly like I was in one. It's surreal. It doesn't feel like this is a real place.
Eventually, I managed to find my hotel. I walked up to the front desk, and wouldn't you know, the attendants were happy and delightful. After a little more paperwork, I was given my key and off I went! My room is very tiny. I mean, VERY tiny. But at the same time, the lack of space is so perfectly utilized that there is no discomfort due to the small size of the room. It's actually a very comfortable room with lots of cool features! All of the lights in the room are activated by placing your card in a special glowing key slot near the door. Plop in your key and your room comes to life! Convenient! Speaking of convenience, these guys have literally thought of everything. Any sort of mild day to day nuisance has been rectified with a clever solution. Don't like cold toilet seat? Automatically heated. Ever take a shower and have the mirror all fogged up? No problem, we'll automatically defog a spot for you. Don't want to get up to turn off the lights? Easy, lighting controls built into your bed's headboard along with a power outlet and a USB port for charging. Every little tiny inconvenience you could think of (and even some that don't even occur to you) is taken care of.
Another thing I looked forward to was experiencing Japanese television. I flipped on the TV and on the second channel, I found Japanese-dubbed SpongeBob. It's wonderfully wrong in all the right ways.
After a quick shower and bit of freshening-up, I was suddenly hit with a wave of both hunger and overwhelming exhaustion. It was my first night and I haven't had dinner yet. Should I just skip it and get something in the morning? There's a Kombini (convenience store) right outside, maybe I'll grab something quick...
NO. I must go out and find something special. I came here to wander the streets in search of what ever sounded good. I'm getting myself some ramen, dammit. I decide to get dressed yet again and head out. I refused to look at my GPS and began to wander the Tokyo streets alone at night. The city was still very much alive since it was only about 8:00 PM. Tired salary men and women gathered in small restaurants and bars, laughing and having a good time after a long days work. I wandered for about 40 minutes or so and found quite a few interesting places to eat, but admittedly, I was a bit nervous to enter any of them. Most of these places are not like American restaurants where you are seated by a waiter and served. Instead, you often have to sit at a bar-like table and order directly or with a coupon from a vending machine. I don't have the strongest grasp on the Japanese language, so ordering was going to be a challenge. After a bit more wandering, I stopped at a street corner and looked at the signage for a larger noddle restaurant. It looked alright, but not exactly what I was looking for. In that moment, I had my first unforgettable experience.
In Japan, it's not often you see the public reaching out and directly interacting with foreigners without being asked first. But, as I was just about to leave that little street corner, and older and happy local looked towards me and motioned eating noodles and smiling with his hands. "おいしい" (delicious) he says, "good!" as he motions me to find the smaller, hidden RAMEN SHOP! It's like he read my mind! I reply with two thumbs up and say "それは良いですか?" (Is it good?). He nods and smiles "hai! hai!" I laugh, he laughs, and I say, "I'll take your word for it!" and enter the shop as he walks away laughing cheerfully. Inside, I find a small wooden bar, a ticket vending machine, and a few patrons slurping away at amazing looking noddle bowls. "いらっしゃいませ" (Welcome, come in) says the woman working the ramen bar. Here's the location of the shop on Google Maps.
At this ramen bar, there is an older, clunky looking ticket vending machine that will give you an order slip after you have selected what you want to eat from a large set of buttons. Only one problem. It's all in Kanji. I can read Hiragana and Katakana, but an entirely kanji menu? Ruh oh. Just then, a young man and his girlfriend slip through the door. I decide to step away from the machine for a moment and let them go first (of course, they politely motioned that I could take my time and go first, which was sweet, but.. uh... I dunno what I'm doing here). I watch them carefully and hear the words "Miso Ramen," as the man pushes a nondescript brown button on the machine. Oh hell yeah, Miso Ramen sounds great! They finish ordering, grab their ticket, and now it's my turn. I push the button that I hope is for Miso Ramen, pay in cash, grab my ticket and change, then seat myself at the bar.
Immediately after placing my ticket on the top section of the bar, the host shouts the order in Japanese and pours me a glass of water. I sit. I take in the atmosphere. I appreciate where I am and try to take it all in. It's exactly what I expected and yet at the same time, nothing at all like what I expected. Locals next to me slurping away on their noodles, exhausted after a long day just like I was. I look through the window to see the glistening lights of the Tokyo streets and over some to peer into the kitchen where they were preparing my meal. Minutes later, a piping hot bowl of pork miso ramen is placed in front of me. Holy. Shit. It looks incredible and smells amazing.
It was probably the greatest bowl of soup and noodles I have ever had in my life period. Wow. Genuine ramen noodles are so different. The noodles are a bit stiff and chewy! The broth was deliciously seasoned and oily with a big cut of incredible pork with other fresh toppings in the middle. I finish slowly - it was too good not to savor. I'll never forget the series of events that led up to this discovery and the man that I met who directed me here. It was magical. Once I was done, I cleaned up my space, pushed up my bowl, and the second I moved an inch to get out of the store,