When we booked our trip to Vietnam one of the options for the return flight included a 12-hour layover from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm in Tokyo. Harold lived there many years ago and there is a high-speed train from Narita Airport to the city so we decided to take that option and do a quick tour of Tokyo on the way home.
Before we left Ottawa we checked and discovered that Canadian’s don’t need visas in advance for Japan. The only nagging question was in a post 9 11 world can you check your bags and leave the airport between connecting flights? Logically we could not see how or why they would stop us and we found other people writing about doing it so we figured lets try. Worst case we spend 12 hours in Narita airport.
When the plane landed we were still asking ourselves if this was really a good idea. We figured we might as well try. If they would not let us into Japan we would be no worse off. We headed to customs where the line was very, very long. It took us an hour to get to the front of the line where they took our fingerprints and informed us that yes we could enter the country we just had to use our flight number as our address in Japan. They stamped our passports with free 90-day visas and we were good to go even if we had used 90 minutes of our 12 hours without actually going anywhere.
We needed cash so we found a bank machine that worked with our cards (the 7-11 on level one) and we headed to the basement where the trains can be found. There are machines where you can buy train tickets in English if you understand what you want to buy. We were not so sure so we lined-up to buy them from a real person. We took the JR (Japan Rail) Narita Express which is more expensive but it gets you from the airport to Tokyo Station in an hour. The return trip is 4000 Y. Buying a return ticket is cheaper than buying two one-way tickets. Our Visa card would not work in the machines but it did work at the teller. We were also able to buy a return ticket from a different station in Tokyo at the teller which I do not think can be done at the machines. The people at the counter were very helpful and they explained how to use the tickets.
The seats on the train are reserved so you have to book a return seat when you buy your ticket. You can change your mind about your return train and change your ticket at a machine in Tokyo.
Your ticket has your car and seat number on it and when you go to the platform there are signs on the floor indicating where you should wait based on your car number. When the train pulls in it stops in the exact spot required so you are standing by the door of your assigned car. You can get on a train you do not have a reserved seat for but you have to move if someone arrives with a ticket for your seat so assigned seats are simpler and I don’t think we paid extra for the seat reservations.
The airport is the last stop on the line so after everyone gets off they close off the doors with yellow tape, clean the cars and turn the seats around before you are allowed to get on. The train is smooth and fast and there are lots of announcements and signs in English so its easy to know when to get off the train. There is a rack on each car with locks you can use to lock up your bags but if you forget the combination you have to pick your bags up from Tokyo Station. The trains also had free wi-fi which worked but it was a bit limited. If you are going past Tokyo station the train splits and goes in two directions so it’s important to make sure you are in the correct half of the train.
There are card readers at each station which you run your ticket through when you get on and again when you get off. If you underpaid they will simply stop you and ask you to pay the extra fee. This is all done very politely because everything is very polite in Japan.
By the time we actually got off the train in Tokyo is was 11:00 am …5 of our 12 hours were already gone. We could have saved at least an hour if we had known exactly what we wanted and where to find it. Our return tickets were for 3:30pm which would get us to the airport by 4:45 pm for our 6:45 pm flight. Pretty doable as we already had boarding passes and our luggage was checked through. Trains in Japan are always on time so we just had to make it back to the station on time.
The plan was a quick trip to Meiji Shrine, a walk through the park, maybe a Bento Box in the park for lunch and then a quick peak at the Imperial Palace.
We knew Japan would be cool in January so we had down jackets expecting a temperature of 8-10 C.
It started to rain almost as soon as we walked outside so we invested some Yen in an umbrella and made the mandatory tourist visit to Shibuya Crossing. We started with Tokyo’s most famous dog statue Hachiko. Hachiko the dog came to the station every day to meet his master and when his master died the dog continued to come to the station until he died 10 years latter. It is mandatory to get a picture with the statue and as it was cold and wet so we actually got a picture without ten other people in it. There is also a useful tourist trailer there with good maps in English. Shibuya Crossing is where you find the famous scramble crossing where thousands of people pour across the street at the same time. It’s quite a sight.
As we walked through the park towards Meniji Shrine the rain turned to sleet then to hail and finally to snow. It was cold and wet and we were not really dressed for the weather.
We walked trough the park between the towering trees. It’s a very peaceful place in a big city.
When they arrive at the shrine visitors purify themselves by washing their hands and feet. There are stalls selling papers and plaques which you buy and leave prayers on. You can just drop your prayer in a handy mailbox.
We were cold and it was not a picnic in the park kind of day so we found a local businessman’s lunch spot. To order you put money in a sort of vending machine with pictures of the food. You get a ticket and you give it to the guy at the counter when your food is ready they bring it to you. We had no idea what we had ordered but the picture looked nice!
It turned out to be a sort of lunch special which included mizo soup and green tea for 550 Yen. The main dish was a bowl with rice, a sauce, raw egg, seaweed and bean sprouts. We were the only tourists there. But it was very good.
We took the train to Tokyo Station to see the imperial palace which is easy to find because it’s signposted from inside the train station. By the time we were out in the real world it was really snowing.
We walked to the palace in the snow. It looked pretty and everyone was taking pictures of the snow on things. It does not snow in Tokyo.
We rushed and made it back to the station with time to spare for our train back to the airport. The train stations in Tokyo are huge with all kinds of different trains coming and going. They are quite well sign posted but it can be a long walk inside the station.
Our Japanize train which is never late (because trains in Japan are never late) was 15 minutes late but we had built some extra time into our plan so we felt good about making the flight.
The snow was continuing to come down and the arrival time of the train kept creeping back and getting later and later. The train announcements included regular apologies about the train being late. By the time we reached the airport we were 45 minutes late. We were starting to get a little concerned but we still had time to make the flight. We rushed back and made it through customs and security without any issues. When we arrived at the gate we still had 20 minutes until boarding time but they had already started to board the plane? We thought that was odd but we got in line and headed onto the plane…