I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

morning in Hong Kong, evening in Tokyo

I already mentioned what happened after my flight to Hong Kong, ending it by saying I was off for a drink. And that's exactly what I did -- I went to the hotel bar and had a pint of stella, then a wheat beer of sorts. Finished them in double quick time too. The waitresses were dressed in school uniforms.
hotel room in Hong Kong novotel citygate

A few things I've forgotten to mention previously about pre-Japan. Australia -- hoofing great country, but no discernible difference in accents or culture between points 4500+ miles apart. How does that work? We can't even keep things the same 100 miles apart in the UK. Singapore -- everyone's pickup truck has two stickers on the back, one saying maximum speed and one saying number of passengers. What's illegal in a lot of countries is the norm there, as the motorways are full of trucks carrying people in the back. Very odd. Probably more forgotten comments and insights to come.

That hotel in Hong Kong was superb actually, really really good. I had a great night's sleep, the shower was great (but it was only a shower; fine for me but I know some people like baths) and I would have had access to the pool were it not for the fact I was checking out before it opened. Having checked my bags through all the way from Singapore I was only carrying my laptop bag to the airport, which meant my feeling of smug superiority which accompanies all flights on this trip started early as I watched other people checking out at the same time as me struggle with their bags. Mind you if you're going to take 6 bags which looked like they had a combined capacity of my one you deserve everything you get. Turns out there is a shuttle bus too, which I used rather than that local S1.

Ah, I already wrote about waiting for the plane too. This is quite annoying as I understand it; at least two people have complained about struggling to cope with the erratic non-linear timing of the things I'm writing about. Sorry :-( it won't happen again, even though I'm really tempted to write about what's going on around me right now. But I'll resist, except for saying that someone (Bose, Sennheiser, LISTEN UP) needs to invent headphones that cancel out the sounds of 2 year old children running amok and their parents doing nothing to discourage them. I will pay thousands of pounds for such a device.

Finally leaving the stability of timezone H (home to Perth, Hong Kong and Singapore) the flight to I, Hong Kong to Tokyo, was a damn good 'un. Upper-deck and no-one sat next to me, great service (best of all the Cathay legs) probably stemmed from the smaller cabin and it not even being full. I knew what was on the entertainment and decided to watch Election 2... not the best film I've ever seen, but certainly a lot better than that Andy Lau nonsense.

I've never watched an episode of 24 in my life. I understand the concept though: 24 hour long episodes, in real time, telling the story of 24 hours in some guy's life, right? Well, that's what I thought it was anyway. I know I'm wrong now, since the entertainment guide listed 24 as one of the options in the "TV boxsets" section that you could watch. 6 episodes of it, each... 45 minutes long. Are there 32 episodes in a series then?

On this flight I got handed a survey to fill out too, a "what do you think of Cathay Pacific?" thing. Unfortunately it was entirely directed towards things to do with the flight itself, and had no section for commenting on general Cathayness (ie the lounges). And because this flight was so good, better than the previous 3, the answers I gave were very different to what they would have been had I been given the form on an earlier flight. Bit suspicious that -- I wonder if they only give out forms when they're putting in the extra effort to give a great service.

Got off at Tokyo and one of the things I'd researched/been told/thought about Japan was immediately proved: the customs guy's English was awful. Well, that might be a bit harsh I guess. He asked me a question in English, with a very very strong Japanese accent, but when I replied (using only words he'd used) he didn't understand what I said. A bit of nodding and gesticulating later and I was allowed through. First things first I needed to arrange some transport to the airport.
toilet controls

The problem with Tokyo airport is that it isn't in Tokyo. Nor is it in fact called Tokyo airport. It's Narita airport, NRT, and 70km or so away from Tokyo. There is an airport in Tokyo itself, Haneda, but that seems to only handle about 10 flights a day and all domestic afaict. Cab fares in Japan are extortionate and it costs circa 100 pounds sterling to get from Narita, screw that. There's the Shinkansen (the real name for the bullet train, which is a term never used in Japan) but I wasn't feeling brave enough to get that despite having deliberately picked a hotel near Tokyo train station (how mad is that? Imagine having a station called "London" -- not London Euston, London Waterloo, London Paddington etc, just "London") where it goes. No, instead I'd been told on flyertalk, and by Jenny the Australian, to get the Limousine bus service. This is a fairly comfortable coach that goes from right outside the departures area and direct to various hotels, different ones on each service. Bought a ticket at the desk for that, which was a little struggle too -- I don't think people who are expecting English cope very well with my accent tbh -- but a success, especially because they took credit cards.

The English language issue is one of several things my research about Japan had yielded. I probably read more about Japan and Tokyo than anywhere else on the trip because I felt it was the most intimidating place to visit. I was pretty scared of it tbh, and the research had done little to help me. Having such a strong economy and an enforced pacificist constitution since picking the wrong side in World War II they're an insular bunch, not requiring or expecting the influx of tourist dollar and sterling to help things tick along, unlike most other countries in the world. Accordingly the following items were accepted as truisms:

  • their English is terrible. Why do you think comedy bad English signs/etc are so often from Japan?
  • you can't use western ATM cards because their network isn't connected to the outside world.
  • there are vending machines all over the place and they sell everything from food and drink to DVDs and porn and schoolgirl pants.
  • western phones don't work. They've got a completely different type of network and you need to get a phone locally.

I managed to test all of these preconceptions in the space of my first 20 minutes. First, the English: yes, it seemed pretty bad, but that's fine. ATMs could cause more of a problem. I knew Japan was an expensive city, but then so are lots of places, and the matter of expense is typically only given in such general terms: "it's expensive". What I really needed to know was what was expensive. Hotels? Doesn't bother me, already paid on a credit card. Food? Alcohol? Public transport? I had no idea whether my pattern of expenditure was going to prove expensive, and therefore no clue of how much to get out. An exchange rate of 222 yen to the pound doesn't make the mental arithmetic required as simple as it might be either. Anyway, I needed some money and was in an airport so went to the currency exchange desk, credit card in hand. They didn't take credit cards, but told me there was an ATM 300 metres away. Went there, shoved in VISA card, was refused. Noticed a Cirrus sign, shoved in my regular NatWest card and got money out. OK so I was in an airport where an internationally-connected ATM may be more expected, so perhaps I didn't really test that preconception properly.

Next was a vending machine. I needed a diet coke and sure enough there were vending machines outside. They only sold drinks though, and the only one I'd heard of was coke. No diet. I bought some watery thing that was quite nice and waited for the bus. Again I figured the demand for schoolgirls pants and non-drinks may be limited at airports, and Tokyo was the place where that was really going to be tested.

Wanting to take a photo I turned my camera -- ie, phone -- on and put it in normal mode rather than flight mode, just to see if it was true about Japanese phone networks not working with European phones. It's not true. I had a choice of 2 3G networks and both worked perfectly for voice and data.

The bus came along on time (of course) and about 90 minutes later I was at my hotel, the Marunouchi. Greeted at the ground floor, my luggage was taken from me as I was escorted up to the 7th floor where the reception/lobby is. Escorted in the glass-sided lift on the edge of the building that is. FFHS. At least it was only the 7th floor but having decided to stop with all the height nonsense this wasn't ideal. Checked in, got my room on the 11th floor and was taken to the lift. Which was glass-sided. FFHS. Oh well. The room was tiny, certainly in comparison with my Hong Kong (first time) and Singapore rooms, but it'd do. Out of the window I could see all the platforms of Tokyo train station, including the frequent Shinkansen. Cool! And actually there's another thing about Japan I left out of the list above but was aware of: that toilets have all manner of controls. They sure do.
view from hotel room

Booked in for 4 nights I found it fairly easy to convince myself that staying in the room for a few hours, maybe even all evening on my first night, was an acceptable thing to do. No need to hurry around on my first day trying to do stuff in the dark, better to relax after the flight and start properly in the morning, etc. This is a frequent cop-out, one I probably employed in every city except for Singapore and Sydney. However in Tokyo I thought, no, I want a pint, and I'm not going to cop-out. I've got money, I'm in the centre, I should go out. Looked for pubs online and found one called Antwerp Central, a place selling Belgian beers, apparently just within 2 or 3 blocks of my hotel. Didn't bother writing down the address -- Tokyo addresses are confusing anyway -- I vaguely attempted to memorise the map and went out.

Came back about 90 minutes later having gone nowhere. Well, having gone in nowhere. The first thing I was confronted with was a large amount of roadworks directly in front of Tokyo station, making it impossible to go in the direction I wanted. No map in my pocket I took a few detours but made sure to remember at least how to retrace my steps, and eventually I got near where I thought the bar was. Couldn't find it though. Oh well. I did find the Tokyo International Forum, a somewhat impressive set of buildings containing bars and shops and stuff, but none that I had the balls to go in. The vending machine theory was being put to the test though -- there really were bloody loads of 'em all over the place, but I was yet to find one selling anything but drinks (and only non-alcoholic ones at that). In fact it was a struggle to find diet coke, out of probably 30 machines I walked past that night only 1 sold it. Pfft.

I ended up walking a long ol' way, getting my bearings pretty well and doing a fairly thorough investigation of Tokyo station itself, albeit not thorough enough to work out how to buy a travelcard. It had transpired earlier that the best thing to buy for a visitor is the Japan Railpass, and conveniently enough these things can only be bought outside of Japan. I'd learnt this from my guidebook which I was reading on the flight. Sigh. So I wanted something similar and couldn't for the life of me convince a machine to sell me one, even though they all had an English operation mode. Oh well, that could wait until tomorrow, I'd get the concierge to help me out.

Back at the hotel, watered but not fed, I sat around online for a bit more and then realised it was soon time for the AFC Wimbledon game to kick off and I was going to listen to it online, before watching the England vs Macedonia game. I nipped back out to Tokyo station -- full of shops and food places -- to get some solids at about 2145 and found everything to be shut. On a Saturday night, FFHS! No good at all, but I wasn't going to buy anything from room service because it was terrifyingly expensive. Something like 15 quid for a burger.

Oh well. Solids I could live without so long as I had a beer... which I didn't. The hotel room did have a mini-bar, but it only sold whisky. 5 types, all 5 quid each for a miniature, and that was it. No pringles or other crisps, no chocolate bars, no schoolgirl pants, no soft drinks, no lagers. Just whisky. Well, I didn't want a whisky, I wanted a beer, so I looked again at the room service menu. 5 quid a pint? No ta. So I went without. Oh how hard done by am I on this holiday! I can hear the violins already.

AFC Wimbledon vs Hampton and Richmond should have been a shoe-in. We were unbeaten going in, they'd just been trounced 4 or 5 nil in their last 2 games. We lost. Oh well. The real event of the evening, even if it did start at 1am Tokyo time, was England's qualifier against Macedonia. Turned the TV on and no channel had it on. Oh. Well, at least the BBC were streaming the commentary online... except not to people in Tokyo, even those who had spent ages dicking around jumping through various proxy-shaped hoops to try and convince their fucking servers that I was really in the UK. Sigh. I could have entered my TV Licence number as proof being a UK citizen if they'd wanted, but oh well. I searched in vain for other radio channels with commentary and found none, in the end settling for some god-awful show on TalkSport? Something like that. Hosted by Terry Christian, a prime candidate for "people whose middle name is obviously the word 'fucking'" if ever there was one. Left that streaming and laid on the bed, then fell asleep within about 5 minutes. Woke up the next morning and saw that it had been a 0-0 draw and I'd missed precisely fuck all. Scant consolation I guess: I was generally feeling that my first few hours in Tokyo had been a bust. No transport, hadn't found any bars or pubs I was confident enough to go in, but the hotel was too expensive for food and drink. At least I could get a soft drink whenever I wanted, even if it wasn't diet coke.

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