Japan current locationJanuary 12, 2006

I’m on the Keisei Skyliner, bound for Ueno.

Flight arrived as expected, and outside of a brief incident where I thought I lost my cell phone, I was off the plane in record time. Helps to be up in the front, even if they don’t use both exit doors here. Oh, I have a pretty good track on my GPS of the entire trip over, until just before landing! Cool… I sat through a good fifteen minute line to get through customs, located my bags nearly instantly, and headed out the door to the terminal proper. I was trying to hold on to my box that contains Yuriko’s espresso machine, since it was precariously perched on the suitcase, and I think the customs officer was a little concerned. He asked what was in it, and I guess you just don’t lie about coffee makers.

Once I got out into the hectic, bustling arrival terminal, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I really had no clue where I was going or what I was doing. Normally I’d be headed downstairs to get my rail pass exchanged, then head in to Sakura Ryokan. This time, however, I had nothing booked, and couldn’t use my rail pass yet. I decided I needed money first, so I exchanged what cash I had.

Next order of business, call Terri. My quad-band GSM Razr cell phone is completely useless here, and I couldn’t figure out how to enter an American number in my Japanese one. Not to mention it probably doesn’t have any time on it right now. I was hoping the GSM would at least work in the airport, considering how many people probably come through Narita using GSM phones, but I was mistaken. GSM works brilliantly in Europe, but in Japan it’s all 3G CDMA. I purchased a prepaid Vodaphone one last time I was here, so I just need to get the time back on it. It’s paid for itself really; both Cloyce and Ana have taken it with them to Japan, and gotten a fair amount of use out of it.

The simplest way to call, I decided was just to use the standard NTT phone cards, which are not very efficient, but function just fine. I bought a 1000 yen one, and then headed to a gray phone to call home. Convenient dialing instructions right over the phone had me talking to her in short order. Short being the key phrase, since international calls suck those puppies down right now. For reference, the exchange rate is about 120 yen to the dollar right now. Right about in the middle of exchange rates I’ve experienced, so not too bad, all things considered. We quickly relayed our sentiments, then I got off the phone to move on to other pressing tasks.

I realized the hotel reservation counter nearby only accepted cash, so I went to the Citibank (yay, Citibank!) ATM nearby. I took out another 20,000 yen, since I’ll need it for the hotel and some spending money, including local trains. Next task was the reservation, and now the fear began, the same fear I always have, the fear that Japanese has left my brain completely.

Fortunately, in this case, I had no trouble at all. I guess travel Japanese is pretty ingrained into my head. They completely understood me, I completely understood them, and nobody tried to break into English at any point. Yay! It’s still not as good as it has been in the past, but not surprising considering it’s been over a year since I’ve really used it. I asked if there were any hotels near Tokyo station, and they set me up with one near Ginza. Actually, really near the Tsukiji fish market… which gives me an idea. If I’m going to be up ridiculously early tomorrow anyway, maybe I should walk down there. Couldn’t hurt, right? Unless they’re closed on Fridays. At any rate, my only complaint, I discovered later, is that I don’t know if this reservation is for is the Annex or the Main building, which are a few minutes walk away from one another. Guess I’ll find out. I purchased a ticket for the Keisei Skyliner which was leaving in 30 minutes, and headed down to the trains. I’ll still need to take the trusty Hibiya subway line all the way to Tsukiji, but that I’m used to. After stopping in to a convenience store get a strap so my box isn’t so floppy on top of the suitcase, I went down to my track and waited.

At this point two things occurred to me. One was that I was pretty much a zombie. Jetlag is setting in, and hard, but I can’t succumb. Two is that this doesn’t feel real. Maybe it’s a combination of lack of sleep and not being as excited about going this time, as Terri’s not with me, but it just feels like a dream right now. It’s all so familiar to me, too, so nothing gives me that “adrenaline edge” like I normally get traveling. Outside of not having a hotel, nothing really made me nervous at all. The train arrived and passed all of us waiting parties up completely, then just as we were going to walk to the car, they announced in Japanese it would be backing up. Magically, I understood this too. I got onboard, took my seat, and now here I sit filling you all in. My eyes are trying hard to close, so maybe I should shut them for a bit. We’re at the first major stop now, it seems, and it will be a few more minutes until we get to Ueno.

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I arrived at Ueno, and had only minor difficulty in getting to the Hibiya subway line. Coming from the Keisei station, it was all underground but it enters the subway station from the opposite direction. The difficulty was merely in carrying around the bag in my zombie-like state, up and down multiple flights of stairs. Whee.

I rode the subway line past Sakura’s Iriya for a number of stops until I reached Tsukiji. I hopped off there, then decided to take Exit 4, which seemed to be correct on the map on the back of the reservation. This required me to go down and up another set of stairs for the underpass, then up a long, really narrow staircase out of the station. A map nearby confirmed the location of the Ginza Plaza Hotel, so I thought I was hunky dory. I was in fact on the wrong side of the street for the Annex, but the right one for the Main building, so I wandered in that direction. I doubted my assurance of knowing where I was initially, but located the hotel in short order.

The main desk had me fill out a card, but then redirected me to the Annex after all. Drat. I walked back out toward the subway station and crossed the street to the now-obvious Annex. Checking in was easy as cake, and I headed up to my room on the 7th floor. He had said something at the end about the size of the room, but I wasn’t clear until I saw it. It was a twin room but he’d told me they knew it was just me. Ah, makes sense.

Pretty standard business hotel room, really… shower, bidet dealie on the toilet, pay porn on the TV. Yup, I was definitely in Japan. I turned on my laptop and was happy to discover a few leechable wireless networks around (don’t try this at home, folks). Way I look at it, I wouldn’t do anything to hurt them, and if you don’t want me on your network, don’t leave it unsecured.  I was able to connect, albeit in a flaky manner, and check my email. Even Skype worked, so that was cool.

Next mission at this point, as it was already 6:30 was to head to Akihabara, the closest place with electronics stores, and get a charger for my Canon EOS 20D batteries. I nabbed my laptop, camera bag, and tripod, then ducked back out the door.

Rush hour. Gracious me. The trains were packed to the gills, in the sort of way that has everyone completely pressed against someone else on all sides. Just when you think the train can’t possibly hold a single more soul, someone shows up and pushes inside the doors, reducing the already sardine-like personal space into negative numbers. I wanted to get a picture of the insanity, but I couldn’t get my camera out if I’d tried! The subway stop was fortunately only about four back in the direction I’d come to Akihabara, and I came out as I expected on the wrong side of the JR station. No big. As I approached the station, however, I was surprised to see a pass-through that wasn’t there before. Really! I began to follow it and was met with a *huge* surprise, both figuratively and literally.

A brand-spankin’-new store, Yodabashi Camera met me as I turned the corner. What the? I had forgotten they were doing construction last time I was here, and man, what a difference. I entered the Blissful Utopia of Electronic Goodness and rode the escalator to the third floor. This place is FREAKING MASSIVE. So big, you can’t imagine. I never found the back wall. Really.

The third floor provided me with dozens upon dozens of camera options, and after a short search, I located the huge section for Digital SLRs. The selection was the best I’ve ever seen anywhere, rivaling even online shops! I wandered around a bit, lusting after multi-thousand dollar lenses for my camera, and finally decided to ask a salesperson for the charger. He located me one, and I purchased it, a new lens cap, a portable lens case, and a rubber hood. Happy to have completed my mission, I decided to head over to Akihabara proper to take some pictures and do some shopping.

This proved to be a bit confusing; the front entrance of the store leads to a newly constructed area that I don’t think I’d ever been in before, probably before it was under construction. I made a logical guess to which direction I needed to go, cutting under the tracks and through a brand-new station entrance. The pass-throughs they made were very handy, and I was led right out into the area of Akihabara I know. I took some pictures of the neon wonderland, then wandered out a bit. As I turned a corner by the crosswalk near Sega, I heard a voice ask me, “Hey, do you know of any good restaurants around here?” A group of kids (kids I say… they’re probably the same age I was when I came here the first time) were looking for somewhere to sit down and hang out. I pointed out a few locations where they could find them, recalling a time when I first visited Akihabara in 1994 and Cloyce, Peter, Jimmy, Shannik, and I couldn’t find anywhere to eat. They said they were from Illinois, and they had that “wow this place is cool, and we’re so totally lost, but having a great time, even though we’re tired as hell” look in their eyes. I know that look well.

I took a few more steps, then looked at my watch and decided I, too, needed to head back to the hotel. I was starting to fade. I stopped briefly into K-Books, a nice source for manga and various anime-related stuff. I finally realized buying tons of stuff to sell is pointless these days, so I ignored anything that I personally didn’t have an interest in. Wasn’t much that I really was interested in actually. Bianca had asked me to look for Princess Tutu stuff, but I realized I have no idea what it looks like! Whups.

I headed down to the first floor and through a shop that said it had “hidden treasures”. This meant it carried lots of collectible stuff from Star Wars to anime to Spider-Man, what have you. It also carried some really obnoxious vinyl models of women with breasts of a size that couldn’t exist in nature without causing their own gravitational pull. Freaky. Shops started to close down, and as I walked back toward the subway, I realized I could have just gone to eat with those kids. I think that would have been fun, and I would have solved my food dilemma. Ah well, no big.

I returned to the subway and headed back towards Ginza. Trains were empty now; what a difference an hour makes. I had a seat and waited, my head feeling extremely heavy. I forced myself back onto my feet at Tsukiji, and this time took the right exit back to the hotel. I stopped into the convenience store next door and got two negiri (rice balls), a big grapefruit chi-hi alcoholic drink, and two pork buns. My brain actually popped out the correct counter for round objects, “kou”, and I realized that immersion back into Japanese culture is making such a difference already.

I took my booty back to the hotel and got online briefly to check on the fish market and stuff. No maps, doggone it. I ate my nummy convenience store food and decided at 9:30 that was as much as I could take. Planning on getting up early for the fish market, which is just down the street, no trains, I got into bed. Sleep took over just about the same time my head hit the pillow.

--Hik