Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Getting There 

     As the capital of Japan, Tokyo is easily reached from major international cities. Tokyo’s main airport, Narita (NRT), is a hub for much Asia-Pacific travel so it is not unusual to fly to Tokyo to change to an on-going flight, whether domestic or international.
    Personally, I’ve been to Narita airport many times without ever going into Tokyo. The transfer from Narita to town is indeed a rite of passage and a serious statement that you are committed to the idea. Besides, the shopping at Narita (home of United and other international airlines) will keep you occupied for hours. I almost missed my connecting flight to San Francisco because I was buying watches for $10 each….
     If you are travelling to Tokyo from elsewhere in Asia, you may be able to use Haneda airport (HND), which is closer to downtown than Narita. Haneda recently began receiving international flights, so you can actually make this choice in coming from the U.S.

Getting There, Part 2

     Getting to Narita isn’t quite the same as getting to Tokyo, so hold on to your obi, you’ve got another two hours or so to go. Unless you are really rich (and who is these days?), you do not want to take a taxi.
     First off, Narita is some 50 miles east of Tokyo and you have the problem of the infamous Tokyo traffic. Most people figure at least two hours of drive time between central Tokyo and Narita. Depending on what part of Tokyo you are headed to helps decide if you should take a bus or a train into town. Trains usually make it to their main station in 90 minutes (from Terminal 2 of Narita), but then you have to get through the train station and transfer to your hotel.
     There are bus services and train services from Narita to Tokyo; some of them are faster than others, some are faster depending on the traffic/ time of day. Some are more plush than others; obviously, some are more expensive than others.
    Liz and I took the bus (Friendly Bus) which was easy to find, easy to use and very comfortable. The kiosk for buying tickets was right inside the air terminal; we were told to stand at a specific bay (bus stop) and voila, a bus arrived and whisked us directly to our hotel. Yes, there are bathrooms on the bus. Announcements are in Japanese and in English.
     Expect to pay about $40 per person for your train or bus transfer. A taxi into town will cost $200 or more.
Getting Around Tokyo

    Once you have recovered from your flight and the stress of actually getting to your hotel from the airport, you will find getting around Tokyo is like a giant game or puzzle. It is not very hard, but it does take patience, practice and attention to detail. Most important rule of all: never leave your hotel without a taxi card so that you can get back to the hotel.
WALK: If at all possible, pick a hotel that is walking distance to something you want to see. Liz and I stayed in the Peninsula Hotel which was wonderful in itself, but its location was also a serious part of the equation—you could walk to many places and even dash across the street for a burger (Freshness Burger)…or to the yakatori stands under the train tracks.

TAXIS: There are plenty of taxis in Tokyo (except in rush hour or when it’s raining); they are expensive, but worth doing at least once if only for the fun of it. Do not venture out unless you are totally prepared with a map, a taxi card and your destination printed out in Japanese. That said, enjoy the white gloves, fancy and very clean cars, automatic swinging doors and good manners. Tokyo traffic is notorious – so expect a short dash anywhere to cost about $20. It is unlikely that a driver will cheat you, but he may get lost—which will run up your fare. (Everyone gets lost in Tokyo; this is to be expected and accepted.) Also, there are surcharges, extra charges and cultural oddities…plus all that traffic.  Taxi drivers do not usually speak, or read, English. You do not tip. It’s difficult to get a taxi during rush hour in the morning or late afternoon; it’s equally difficult to get a taxi around midnight when the trains shut down.

TRAINS:  There is a large train system (above and underground) that goes just about everywhere you want to go; yes, it is marked in English.  There are several train lines (above ground) as well as subway lines; there is a color coded system to help you use the system and connect.
     Trains have digital signs that are written in English and Kanji and will announce the upcoming stop in English and Japanese on the overhead speaker system. If you are new in town, try a simple route until you warm up and gain confidence.
     Tokyo's most prominent train line is the JR Yamanote Line, a loop line which connects Tokyo's multiple city centers. The city's 13 subway lines are operated by two companies and run largely inside the Yamanote circle and the areas around Ginza and Shitamachi, but if you’re willing to walk a few blocks, the JR will take you almost any place you want to go.
     A whole variety of day passes is available for the Tokyo area, however, most of them are overpriced and/or not very practical because they do not cover all of Tokyo's train and subway lines. Consequently, single tickets or prepaid cards usually come cheaper, especially if you plan your city sightseeing in a geographically wise way.
     Prepaid IC cards are generally the recommended way to get around Tokyo. Prepaid cards don't give you any discounts over single tickets, but they provide convenience as you can ride virtually any train or bus in Tokyo with just a simple swipe over a card reader. They can also be used to make quick purchases at a constantly increasing number of shops in Tokyo (and across the country).Two types of IC cards are available for purchase in the city: Suica cards at JR stations and Pasmo cards at non-JR stations.

 The Lay of the Land
     Tokyo is a very large city, dominating a rather small country. Located to the eastern center of an island country, Tokyo is not far from water, but isolated enough to be protected from the sea.
     There is no specific downtown—there are so many districts that you will always need a bi-lingual map. It helps to study the map once you know where your hotel is located so you can get a feel for where the major districts are in relationship to your hotel.
     The best way to learn the basics of Tokyo geography is to look at a subway map – find one online This map may at first just seem like a maze of colors and spaghetti, but it also demonstrates the box like structure of the city and the way the various parts interconnect. Find your hotel and work to get to destinations without having to change lines.
     Because there are so many subway lines, a specific district may be served by many lines with odd (to you) station names. However, there is invariably one station in that area that bears the name of the area, such as Ginza, Ueno or Akihabara. These will help you, uh, get oriented. Once you are in the station and looking to exit, various stairwells will be marked with directions or the chome (block) so that if you know you want to go to Ginza 4 chome, you can look for the proper exit which enables you to exit exactly where you want to be.

About Directions

          Understand that most of Tokyo was destroyed in World War II; buildings take on street addresses from when they are built, so the numbers do not go in order. It’s not unheard of for one block to have buildings that range in age over a period of 500 years. The oldest building will have the lowest street number; the newest, the highest. But only Google Maps can know what’s what.
     For this reason, almost every store business card and web site will provide a map. Taxis with GPS can sometimes spend less time getting lost, but Lost in Tokyo is a general condition. Very few people you stop on the street to help with directions will speak English adequately. Soooooo:
·         The part of the street address that ends with ‘ku’ (per above) tells you the prefecture;
·         The part of the address marked with ‘chome’ (two syllable word) indicates the block. The best known chomes are Ginza, 1-9. Don’t you wish Fifth Avenue was divided up like this? In Tokyo, the chome will be crucial to getting where you want to go.
     Two other descriptive words that are good to know, and are often woven into directions are bashi  (bridge) and torii  (gate).
     Directions will also be easier to follow if you learn to count to five in Japanese, because so many subway stops and addresses have the chome in English letter but in Japanese words, such as ni ,ishi, or san—one, two, three.

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