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Travel Japan Report - Arrival at Narita Airport, Exploration of Uenoand Akihabara, Tokyo

This is a lighthearted report of my wonderful experiences during this my first trip to Japan. I hope to use this series of reports to provide you with a real insight of a first-time visitors perspective to some of Tokyo's districts and Kyoto including various tourist attractions. I am going to try and list as much detail and information, covering what I undertook during this trip to help anyone interested or perhaps anxious about visiting. If there is anything about my reports that you are unclear about or would like me to go into further detail, please just leave a comment on this article below. I will address them and update this article accordingly. Therefore it may be desirable to revisit nearer your journey to see if I've updated anything.
Pictures will play an important part in this report too. You are very welcome to leave comments on the pictures themselves. All pictures are clickable there's a complete album for each report containing more than those that are shown on this page. The album can be found at the foot of these travel reports. You could also click this link now to start viewing the album's pictures. In addition to pictures, I will feature a few personal videos of the trip. They are not of a professional nature so please take them at face value. In case anyone's wondering, I used a Sony DSC-HX5V compact camera for all pictures and videos on the trip. I feel the camera performed very well, in some cases better than I expected. The only real issue I would point out is that the wide angle lens warps/stretches the edges of some pictures. This is barely noticeable but once known about, it can be annoying afterwards. On my return home and reviewing the pictures from this trip, I really came to appreciate this camera's Geotagging feature, even though it was a drain on the camera's battery (I carried two and they lasted just over a day a time) I am thankful the camera was light and didn't hinder my travels at all.

Should tell you a bit about myself. I am a 30-Year-old, married, European sales professional, living and working in central London, with a healthy passion for Nintendo video gaming. I have no link to Japan other than admiring their games and animation culture. I wouldn't class myself as being particularly knowledgeable on either subject. It's just something I like and appreciate. However, technology does fascinate me. Seeing as Japan has a particular aura about it with regards to innovation and technology I have always wanted to pay this land and it's vast metropolis a personal visit.

The planning I took for this trip was pretty straightforward. The cost was the most important factor for me (as it is with most people). So I had to be careful as to when the best time would be to visit during a two week break from work. I had to pick the best time for the season, coupling that with flight and hotel prices. I started looking at these two factors roughly 10 Months before the eventual travel date, that came to be the early two weeks of September 2011. For seasonal factors, I used a simple chart that's on every lonely planet travel guide-book but you can basically see it here. Such a guidebook is recommended. Here's a link to two books that I bought, one for the whole of Japan (Here's the newer edition) and this one for just Tokyo (I ended up only using the Tokyo book). Although so much information can be obtained over the internet, there is a real need for an actual hard copy of such information. I'll talk more about the flight and hotel bookings further on in this report, please keep reading.

A few Months before travel we found out that we are going to be parents. This was 5 Months before we were set to leave, this in itself was not a concern. But like we all know there was to have been a massive Earthquake in Japan (March 2011) and this quickly resulted in the nuclear emergency with a radiation breach from one of Japan's nuclear power plants. Giving a new cause for concern, radiation and my pregnant wife. We searched the net and consulted plenty of doctors. The general professional opinion was that it was fine to visit Tokyo for the planned 2 weeks. We came to a decision that we would travel and my wife would at least avoid the tap water (BBC Report), as that was a running concern at the time of travel (like it still is for some now). For us to go might seem reckless to some. But considering my wife would 24 weeks into the pregnancy, the baby has at this point reached full development so any spike in radiation would pose really a very minimal risk.

Travel Japan Report - Arrival at Narita Airport, Exploration of Ueno and Akihabara, Tokyo.

And so my epic travel is to begin. Finishing work late on Saturday night bags ready I crash out for a few hours before my 10am Sunday morning flight to the land of fish and technology. I couldn't wait didn't want to sleep one bit. The time came and we left. Me and the wife with bags in tow. Heathrow the departure port. Everything goes fine we board the plane, first to Moscow, around six hours in the air everything going well. We make the connecting flight at Sheremetyevo, Moscow in good time to our long haul flight, a mega Airbus 333. This was only my second long-haul flight. The first being to Bogotá, Colombia with Iberia. But this plane was kitted out a whole lot better. This time, each passenger had each their own entertainment console installed in the headrest before us. It looked like they were state of the art when they were installed (perhaps 10 Years ago), but I am sorry to say they were knackered. Glitchy, freezing, and a bit dirty. Never the less it had a cool SNES styled controller with the same face and shoulder buttons, plus it had a cool flight tracker showing the progress of the flight with maps and external craft camera angles. This kept me occupied on and off for the whole flight. I think Nintendo would have a strong case against Aeroflot concerning the controller ripoff on patent infringement. Or maybe Nintendo was happy that no pirated Nintendo software was running. Either way, I just played a good game of chess (forgot how much I loved that game) and a few films too. I went into the flight full of energy and excitement, but halfway through the seats became very uncomfortable. You could at points feel the frame through the seats, and the not to mention were very small and cramped. I only managed to grab one or two drooling hours sleep. The service was pretty cold and the food was poor. Lots of salt, very sloppy, only the neat chocolates were the highlight. But lets put it all in context, these were the cheapest fairs I could find and it was economy of course. If I had the choice I would have flown BA or Virgin. But if I were in the same position with the price difference is the same I would have to bite my lip and do it again. I just kept thinking of the money and the land of the rising sun that I would soon be in.
For the flight I used a site called KAYAK to search and index multiple flights over a number of different dates. I had a few different choices for flights but because I wanted to make this as cheap as possible I bought a flight with a few hours stopover both ways in Sheremetyevo (SVO), Moscow. The flight was with Aeroflot. The flight cost  by far the cheapest at UK£490.03 return. The cost was far lower due to the resent terroist attack at that airport only a week before buying the tickets.
  • Outbound: Aeroflot SU581 Depart London Heathrow Terminal 4 10:35am Sunday - Arriving Tokyo Narita Terminal 1 0:20am Monday - Duration 15:45hrs.
  • Inbound: Aeroflot SU582 Depart Tokyo Narita Terminal 1 12:00pm Monday - Arriving London Heathrow Terminal 4 19:55pm Monday - Duration 14:55hrs.

YouTube playlist of my time in Japan

Arriving at Tokyo's Narita Airport and Travel to Ueno Station for Hotel Checkin.

On time, at ten thirty in the morning, we disembarked our prison flight and set foot upon Japanese soil. Rather the concrete of Narita Airport, first impressions are muted, but excitement still bustling inside us. We progressed through the walkways. Making a pit stop at the first toilets. Yes, low and behold, totally unexpected... I set my eyes on the first techno/super toilet. In all the places, I didn't expect these famous toilets to be prevalent in public toilets. Two of the five cubicles had these installed. Spic and span, buttons and all, I took my first picture in Japan of a public super toilet. Stood in awe, unable to function a number two, I had to leave using one for the first time, to a later encounter. Off we went towards immigration. Westerners do not have any problems in the airport. Everything is well signposted in English and it is very apparent where you need to go. Reaching immigration there's a simple form to fill in. Stuff like; name, passport number, duration of stay and address in Japan (just give your hotel details). I handed it over to the immigration officer. Whilst my wife shot through with no problems. My officer checked my passport and asked a few things in scratchy English (didn't understand much, but just nodded my head) and he waved me through. Next up was baggage reclaim. All easy and apparent on where to go. But there is another form and a check for your baggage on the way out. Once you're through this, you really do feel as if you are in a different world. Busy people, Japanese signage (to be fair, with English too), Heat with gusts of air conditioning, Yen price-lists, talking escalators, the lot... You sure do know you are in Japan at this point.

Without wasting time, and frankly being exhausted from the long flight, we made a break to the underground (subway) to get on the train to our hotel. We researched this method well before and went straight to the Keisei Main Line going to Ueno Station in Tokyo. This train costs a neat ¥1000 and the service is called Cityliner. There are many different services taking you into town (or returning to the airport) at different speeds and prices whilst including or passing certain stops. You'll see lots of advertising in the airport for the Narita Express (otherwise know as N'EX), but for about twice the price, this would have taken us to Tokyo Station. It's fine if that's where you're going but not for us in this case. I would actually say that even if our hotel weren't situated in Ueno, this is still the cheapest form of transport into Tokyo and Ueno has almost the same connections if not more on-wards around the city. Just consider this train service whilst planning your trip. Buying the ticket from the Keisei line ticket counter is easy. Most people don't speak fluent English but communication with one or two words rolls easy. I pointed out Cityliner to Ueno and the lady got it, took the money, printed the ticket and told me which platform number and the time of the next train's departure. Before taking the train specified we went to JR East Travel Service Center on the same level as the Keisei line ticket office to purchase our Suica Cards. But this office can be used for a multitude of over travel services; information on tickets and accommodation. But just say Suica and they get want you to want. This card is essential for travel around Tokyo. It is a prepaid card not offering any discount but does offer convenience. We paid ¥2000 for each card, this includes ¥500 deposit  (which you get when returning the card to any JR East Station) and the remaining ¥1500 is the credit to use. You could pay cash for each public transport journey but this would've been a real chore if we had to do it for each and every journey we took. There used to be a difference between a Suica and a Pasmo card, but they are now virtually the same. I have made a video on how to add credit to your Suica or Pasmo cards, and it will be included in a coming report in this series. We were actually silly enough to miss the train we were told to take and just jumped on another from the adjacent platform. Never the less all trains leaving this part of the station were travelling the Keisei line and ended in Ueno either way. The difference was that this was the Limited Express, meaning it stopped at more stations on the way and resulted in the journey taking an extra twenty minutes. This delay didn't bother us though.

Arriving at the Keisei Ueno Station, Tokyo - one of two stations in this area. This Keiseiueno station was built specifically to cater for passengers of this private railway line (the Keisei Line). The station stands side-by-side to it's larger brother; Ueno Station. Ueno station has loads of different travel options in every which direction, above ground and overground. The two stations are a few minutes apart and both have subways taking passengers to the underground lines servicing the stations. Anyways, we look at a local area map to find our Hotel and get our bearings. As faltered as we were to have made it in one piece, we decided to press on and make haste to our hotel. With a good idea of the direct, we went East through the Subway with a toilet break halfway through. Yes, they even have electric toilets in public underground/subway stations. The 300m route through the subway was made attractive with dozens of real plants in pots, the whole area was clear with not one stop of litter. The general public is very much engrossed in their commute. We emerged on the East side of the gyratory and pressed on Eastward, walking along a massive road stopped by a convenience store for a drink. These places are expensive and I'd equate them, understandably to the prices charged in petrol stations back home. Not a place where you'd do an important grocery shop. We carried on walking along Asakusa Dori, a great big road that drives from Ueno to Asakusa and beyond.

Arriving at the Chisun Hotel in Ueno.

Despite the various reviews on Tripadvisor for this hotel saying it's hard if not impossible to find, we had no problem. Like I said, the hotel is listed on all public maps of the area. To clear things up, you walk East from Ueno station along Asakusa Dori (road) till you see a great big red gate on your right, you then take the road opposite this gate to the left off of the main road, walk two minutes straight, taking the second road on your right. Bam, there's the Chisun Hotel Ueno standing smack in front of you. Another concern cited in the reviews is to the presence of homeless people in the area. I can say that Ueno does see a few dozen homeless people bedding down for the night immediately around Ueno station. But these homeless people aren't what some might fear, they don't seem to be drug abusers or drunks even, hookers or thieves. They did not for any reason present us with any worry or concern at any time. In fact, they seemed quite nice. Anyways, we checked into our room. The reception staff knew very basic English but were still very helpful and polite. We requested some extra pillows and the maid was waiting outside our room with them by the time we got out the lift. Entering the room, we were pleasantly surprised! Everyone moans a lot about the size of Tokyo hotel rooms, but although this was smaller than what we're used to in the West, it was more than adequate. Semi-double bed, two chairs and a table, desk with TV and LAN access port. There's a small fridge with a cabinet beside it housing a soup kettle and cups with powdered tea and coffee. These were refilled each time the room got cleaned. We slammed the air conditioning on full blast. Next was the bathroom. A mini bathtub with loads of toiletries. The showers here in Japan the showers are awesomely powerful and this was no exception, it nearly skinned me alive. Oh, and yes... This hotel room had to, of course, have a techno toilet. For the price, we really were very relieved to have been landed in such a great hotel and room. Considering all factors, the location couldn't have been better either. You will realize this more as you read on through further reports here. This hotel can most definitely be considered as a recommendation by myself. Room was very clean, quiet, with all utilities working perfectly. As you'll see in this reports picture gallery below, the view isn't much. But to be frank, that's not a factor in choosing a hotel.
For the hotel I used a website called HRS. The hotel selected was the Chisun Hotel in Ueno, Tokyo and at the time was the very best priced hotel listed. Plus the coincidence being that it was the most central hotel too. To be honest, all hotels were priced very low due to the slump in tourists visiting the country as a consequence of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
  • 13 Nights at the Chisun Hotel in Ueno, Tokyo priced a UK£43.21 average per night (Total 13 x £43.21 = £561.73).
We were so tired we bedded straight down to sleep off the jet lag. This was about 4pm local time or 1am home time. This meant we hadn't slept properly for 26hrs or so.

The first full day Begins with Supermarket Hunting.

After crashing out the afternoon before, we woke up jet lag free and fresh as daisies at around 7am. Our hotel booking excluded breakfast. At roughly £12 per day, we thought that was overpriced as they are with most hotels, besides we wanted to get out an experience this place as much as possible. After seeing the mad high prices set in the convenience stores such as 7 Eleven and Family Mart we figured it was critical in finding some kind of decent supermarket which had a better selection of fresh food at prices the locals would pay. We asked the receptionist for the nearest supermarket, she circled a point on the map only a few blocks away. We were sceptical and though she may have just directed us to another convenience store, without much other option we set out to see. Now I would like to make clear just how thankful we were to have found this place. The Maruetsu supermarket just a mere 5 mins walk from our Hotel on the Kiyosu-Bashi Dori (Google Listing / Street View) has everything and more than we wanted and needed. Looking back, this place saved us so much hassle and a lot of money too. If we would have had to purchase all our food from convenience stores it would have raised our final cost of this trip by about £500. Plus it offered so much more than the convenience stores. Sushi for good prices, fresh fruit, big drinks and lots of bottled water at a cheap price. Bread, cheese, ham,.. and noodles of course. All this coupled with our soup kettle back in the hotel meant we really had our culinary needs covered for the whole trip. The icing on the cake was that this supermarket was open 24hrs a day. It also had a wares department on the first floor selling all sorts of household items from clothing to microwaves to bric-a-brac. We did, later on, find another supermarket about 15mins walk away called Akafudado (Google Listing / Street View). We found this when we walked to Asakusa (which I'll write about in a coming report). Although the supermarket sold much the same groceries, the prices weren't quite as good. My strongest advice to anyone travelling here on a budget is to research exactly where you might find a supermarket in the area of your hotel. Convenience stores are exactly that, they are not enough to sustain a long stay. Use this "grocery store" google search, but be warned, not every listing is a grocery store. In fact, hardly any of them are of the kind I am meaning here, so it really would be best to try and delve deeper and researching before making embarking on your trip.

Setting course for Akihabara, including Ameyayokocho Market and a Ramen Stop

After refuelling with the delights we found at the above supermarket we felt ready to make our way to Akihabara. Now it really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that this is the place at the front of my mind when thinking of visiting Japan. It's the place I've always read about and I guess this indoctrination started from within the pages of future publishing's awesome SNES dedicated magazine, Super Play. Akihabara is synonymous with Japanese modern day culture. From video games to anime, gadgets to hentai. This place is a neon mecca that cannot be ignored.

We left our hotel just after lunch, which at this time of Year with an outside temperature of 34C, was not the best of times to embark. But we headed back towards the Ueno Keisei station where we arrived the day before. Opposite this station to the South is a massive toy store. The Japanese equivalent to Hamleys in London, only this time so many times more awesome. Yamashiroya (website) is a kid (and in some cases, adult's) favourite place to shop. Several floors of every kind of small toy, anime merchandise, figurines and so much more than you can think of. I love how it has small arcade machines around the shop floor for the young'uns to play (get em started early I say). It's also a must to buy small items for the friends and family back home. I would, however, recommend that for larger purchases or anything more important, I feel it's best to buy from Yodobashi-Akiba. A department store which I will be writing about in reports to come. Never the less, Yamashiroya is a great store to visit and spend some quality time in just browsing.

Leaving Yamashiroya we headed South into and through Ameyayokocho Market (Check this short YouTube video out from Mikarea's channel on her visit here. She's worth a follow on her twitter account too @ciaela). Now, this Market is pretty cool. It runs alongside and under the Yamanote and JR lines. Founded after the second world war it sold American and sweet tasting food. The market's name means, "Sweet Food Alley". In nowadays terms, the market is mainly fish and vegetables with some fruit. But there's a lot more to the area. There are tons of slot machine arcades which churn out the scary and evil sound of the automated change counting machines (something that has to be heard to understand). The route has loads of restaurants and pop-up shops. It's bustling just like any other successful market in the World. If you are in the area (which you should be for Akihabara) pay this place a visit. Halfway through the market, we stopped at a very busy ramen restaurant. Positioned opposite the entrance to the JR Uenookachimachi station under the railway bridge (Street View) We could see that place was packed with businessmen, market traders and shoppers. There's nothing like a local endorsement so decided to lunch here. It's also worth mentioning that these types of restaurants have these neat order vending machines outside and sometimes inside. You use them to place your order and pre-pay for it too. On the face of the machine, there's an index of buttons, sometimes they're helpful by including pictures of the menu items too. You select the item(s) you want by pressing the relevant buttons, the display shows you the price, you pay with either cash or can use the Suica or Pasmo smart cards, the machine prints out a slip that you take straight to the kitchen counter. This ticket is placed on a tray onto which they will assemble your order and call you over. The only real reason they may ask you something is, whether or not you want your noodles of the Soba or not. Soba being a sweeter and more flavoursome noodle, I always ask for it where I have the choice. Nothing could be easier faster or even tastier. Remember to return your tray and clean your table afterwards.

Sensing time was slipping through our fingers and wanting to see the real trophy our trip we set off for Akihabara again.

Made it to Akihabara.

Venturing further and deeper into the neon city we weren't sure if we made it to Akihabara or not. Then landing on the Akihabara metro station brought it home to us. We had made it and it looked awesome! Looking all around us, up down and in every which direction, this was more than I expected it to be. We walked the side streets in and around, we didn't want to invest our early time stuck in the first shop we saw. Observing the buzz and the rush of people heading in each their own directions. We came across the iconic Labi store with its rows and floors full of tech much of which was discounted. Deciding to hunt down the famed Super Potato before our first-day venturing was to come to a close. Super Potato is three floors of pure Nintendo gaming retroness. Seeing as the shops were about to close we dashed to locate the store. Finding it was easy from a printed out google map. But we only had a few minutes to take a look inside. Briskly walking through the many floors of repacked NES, SNES and every which Nintendo cartridges, arcade machines, Famicom and demo units. I found a Virtual Boy standing on what must have been an old demo unit from back in the day. I adjusted the height of the visor took a grip of the dirty and worn control pad and set out to play WarioLand good and proper. My eyes did feel a little disjointed, much like when I first tried the 3DS but it soon becomes fine. I would actually say the mono-red of the image is more off-putting than the 3D effect. Wario Land is, in fact, a surprisingly accomplished game. Not in the slightest gimmicky and making me wish the console hadn't failed so badly. Little did I know it at the start of the day, but this interaction was to fulfil the need for myself to play the Virtual Boy console. It was the only Nintendo system I had never been able to play.

The store was still busy and I could feel others wanted a go too. Even though my first time in Akihabara was rushed and I only managed to capture glimpses of this heaving tech heaven, I knew I weren't far and would be back at very short notice for more.

There's still plenty of reports to come. I'll be writing more on my visit to points around Tokyo, my trip to Nintendo HQ, Kyoto and of course I'll be revisiting Akihabara.

Subsequently, I wrote yet another Travel Japan report of mine. It features a trip out of the capital and on to Kyoto for a pilgrimage.

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