On December 4th, 2010, my girlfriend and I, as a present to each other on our 7 year anniversary, decided to book a holiday to Japan.
As you all will be aware of, everything in Japan was just peachy fine, until March 11th, 2011, when northern Honshu was devestated by an 9.0 Magnitude Earthquake and subsequent Tsunami. Additionally, the Fukushima dai-ichi nuclear power plant sustained major damage and is now teetering back and forth from "relatively stable" to "verging on meltdown" on a daily basis.
With our departure date approaching, this terrible situation weighed in on our hearts and minds as we decided whether or not to continue with our trip. After a long period of decision making, Emma and I decided to go forward with the trip, albeit spending less time in Tokyo, to lessen the risks associated with our travel shenanigans.
Let it be known that I will not be divulging our reasons or justifications of why we decided to go ahead with the trip. What's important is that we're here now, experiencing this amazing country, and helping their economy recover, too.
March 26th, 2011
The morning of our departure had arrived. Lucky for us, Emma's parents, Jen and Gerry were heading down to Melbourne for a few days, so we were able to catch a lift with them to the airport. Apparently they were flying Tiger Airways, equally famous for their low fares as they are their poor customer service and nigh-non existent schedule reliability. We, on the other hand were flying Singapore Airlines, a high quality international carrier. It turns out that while Jen and Gerry's flight *was* delayed, it was still more on time than our flights...
Emma and I have been quite nervous about mentioning the "J word" to anybody over the past few days, as it is generally accompanied by looks of bewilderment and shock as to why we'd want to travel to such a stricken place. However, passing through check-in and immigration was a relative breeze, with the check-in agent not really caring, and the immigration lady not even batting an eyelid. I did have a good chat to her about traffic levels and the A380 and such. She was nice.
Then, we had a browse through the duty free areas of Brisbane's international terminal. Well, by we, I mean Emma. All of the electronics in the terminal didn't really interest me as you'll generally find it all cheaper at a JB Hi Fi than at Duty Free these days. As such, I went and did my plane thing, looking at the various metal tubes with wings that would carry people to far flung places around the globe. Although, really this is a lie, because at Brisbane International Airport, you're pretty much either going to New Zealand or Singapore.
Speaking of Singapore, just before boarding our flight to Singapore, I got a phonecall from Singapore Airlines, telling us that our flight departure time had changed from 11:30pm to 3:30am the next day. Rage ensued.
Anyways, enough ranting about the airport, here's the arbitrary flight details:
Singapore Airlines flight SQ236 BNE-SIN
Airbus A330-300 9V-STJ
One of the plus sides to re-scheduling our flights to a few days later was that some exit row seats became available for our flight to Singapore. I jumped on this opportunity straight away, paid the extra $50 each and grabbed the exit row seats. Definitely money well spent. The extra space you get is worth every penny if you're a tall bastard like me.
The flight was pretty good actually, good food and good entertainment. The flight attendants were a little bit lacking in some areas (I had one flight attendant turn away to serve a meal to somebody else mid-sentence while I was asking her a question - a basic customer service no-no), but on the whole, the flight was great. What's more, with the exit row seating, the usually painful 7 and a half hour flight flew by (geddit), and Emma and I were soon sauntering around the impossibly large Changi Terminal 3. Our first stop was the butterfly garden, which seeing as it was around 9pm by this time, was significantly disappointing as all of the butterflies were pretty much asleep, or dead. I guess I'll have to pay them a more proper visit on my journey home.
Given that it was getting quite late in the day, and that we now had ample time to kill before our next flight, Emma and I tried to book a 6 hour room in one of the transit hotels. No such luck for us. We then staggered over to Terminal 1 to see if there were any available rooms there. Yes! There was, but there was also construction works right next to the hotel, so the chances of sleep were slim. On a side note, Terminal 1 is a real mess at the moment. A literal maze of shops, construction zones and various lounges. Difficult as hell to find anything in there except for confused passengers and eager salespersons.
We eventually found our way back to the transit hotel in Terminal 3, where we booked a "nap room". This was a bad move. We got talked into buying some "nap deal", wherein you get a three hour nap in a room, as well as lounge access and a shower and what have you. While this sounds great in theory, when you actually get into the nap room and try to sleep, it becomes quite clear that you've been swindled, unless you are a very heavy sleeper (which if this is the case, you probably caught a decent enough amount of shuteye on your flight *to* Singapore!)
The rooms are small, and have a single bed in them. The bed is quite hard, but this is no issue as most tired travellers by this stage don't care what the bed is like -- you just want to be horizontal. The problems arise when you realise that the walls are paper-thin, and they don't go all the way to the ceiling, so you can hear everybody else in this corridor coughing/snoring/answering their phone AT THREE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING. Then, every 20 minutes or so, you get one of the hotel assistants coming in to give somebody a wake-up call to let them know that their nap time is up, subsequently waking up everybody else in the process. To make matters worse, the floor is paper thin, too, so you can hear all of the boarding/page announcements from the many flights that leave Singapore at this time of night.
I have thought long and hard about this, and I have thought of the perfect litmus test to see if the "nap room experience" is right for you next time you visit Singapore Airport:
Firstly, go to your nearest large shopping centre. Find a Jay Jays or some other equally awful clothing store. Then try to SLEEP IN ONE OF THEIR CHANGING ROOMS. - you have all of the distractions of the shoppers around you trying on clothes/exuding other bodily functions, and then you have the shop assistant asking someone near you every two seconds if someone needs another size of the tank top they're trying on. If you can successfully sleep through that, then this facility may be right for you!
Needless to say, I didn't get a wink of sleep, and I found it to be one of the most frustrating three hour periods of my life.
One very good thing did come out of our trip to the transit lounge - we met a lovely American woman called Wendy, who lives in Japan. She was on the same flight as us, and turned out to be a great help at the other end of our flight to Japan.
Anyways, my already foul mood was made worse when I discovered that our aircraft had been changed from an Airbus A380 to a Boeing 777-300ER. Scandal! I hear you all shout. To be honest, this wasn't all that much of a drastic change, but my major gripe was that we were seated on the top deck of the A380, and as the 777-300ER doesn't have an upper deck, we weren't going to be sitting on it. Every time I've had the opportunity to sit on the upper deck, it seems to have been stopped by forces beyond my control. One of these days though, one of these days...
Singapore Airlines Flight SQ632 SIN - NRT
Boeing 777-300ER 9V-SWL
This flight was largely uneventful. Emma and I did our best to try and sleep, with little success. One of the other downsides to our equipment change was that we were now seated over the wing, and as such we had a brilliant view of everything *on* the wing, and nothing else. Still, as most frequent flyers will know, sitting over the wing generally means you will be buffeted the least by turbulence. As such, this was one of the smoothest flights I've ever had. Although Emma claims otherwise, because apparently I was asleep. Oh, also, the 777-300ER is one noisy bastard of a plane, but I guess that's because it has very large engines.
After de-planing, we made our way through the busy Narita airport. We then headed to immigration and customs, where there was very little of a line for foreigners, probably due to the current situation, and also that our flight was probably 90% japanese citizens heading home from Singapore.
Upon clearing customs, we met up with Wendy, who we had seen at the transit hotel in Singapore. She was kind enough to help us buy the correct train ticket into Tokyo. We exchanged details and I told her to have a read of my blog. If you're reading this, HI WENDY! THANKS FOR YOUR HELP!
We boarded the Keisei Skyliner, and I promptly smacked my head against a luggage rail that was clearly not designed for eight foot people. After a short time of sitting down, we had a japanese family ask us why we were sitting in their seat. So apparently the seats were reserved. We then looked at our tickets, and saw that our seats were aaaaaalll the way at the other end of the train. Embarrassment ensued.
After a short trip on the Skyliner, we were at Nippori station, where we managed to decipher the way to Shinjuku. We then struggled through Shinjuku station, the busiest station in the world, with our large suitcases and found our hotel.
So far, our hotel has done nothing but impress. The room is quite small, but it has everything you need, and the staff are brilliantly helpful, speaking fluent english, and going out of their way to make your trip easier.
We then went to locate the nearest "Lawson", a convenience store similar to 7/11. We needed to book tickets to the Studio Ghibli museum for the following day. After doing battle with the ticket booking machine about three times (carefully pressing buttons that we were guided to by a web printout), we came to the conclusion that no more tickets were available for that day. Also, seeing as the museum is closed on Tuesdays, and we left Tokyo on Wednesday, it looks like we aren't going to be able to go...
Emma and I then had a look through Lumine, a shopping centre attatched to Shinjuku station. We had a look through a store called "Tomorrowland". Given the promising name, I was expecting a land full of fancy electronic gadgets and other futuristic doodads. Instead, it was a clothing store. Fail. On the top level of Lumine, they had a series of eateries very similar to the one we experienced in Bangkok's MBK mall, "fifth". Unlike in Bangkok, we decided not to eat there tonight.
It was now getting very cold in Tokyo, around 5 degrees celsius. So, we decided to go back to the hotel, rug up and make plans for dinner.
We ended up on the eastern side of Shinjuku station, in a bustling shopping and restaurant district. We ate at a restaurant called "Tsunahachi", which was a highly regarded Tempura restaurant. The food which we had was interesting, to say the least. It ranged from delicious, such as the tempura prawns, to the strange, such as the tempura cuttlefish, to the "what the hell am I eating", such as the shot glass that was filled with vinegar, and something that had the taste and texture of snot. Needless to say, it was a gastronomic experience, and somehow I doubt it will be the last of the trip.
After dinner, we had a look around the shopping district, and went in to stores such as "Forever 21" (which I last saw in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York... I swear that store is following me!), Top Shop and "Mega Fun Time" (possibly not it's name), a bustling arcade full of skill testers, arcade games and strange colourful gambling machines. Emma found one of those "candy tipper" games, wherein she wasted a significant amount of Yen trying to get some Godovia chocolate and other tasty looking chocolates. Unfortunately, we walked away with nothing but a need to play "one more round" to get that tasty, tasty chocolate.
We then headed back to the room, where we watched some Japanese TV. Yes, it definitely is as weird as people talk about. I had no idea what was going on on ANY of the programs. EVEN THE NEWS. Maybe I was just too tired to understand. I'll try again tomorrow.
And with that, we went to bed.
Thoughts on the Japan situation:
It appears as though (Central) Tokyo has been barely affected by the crisis at all. The streets are still bustling, and the lights are still mainly on. The only things we have observed are that most shops close a few hours earlier, and that supermarket shelves seem to be a bit empty. There also appears to not be very much bottled water in any of the vending machines, although our hotel has a vending machine on our floor that is fully stocked, so we will be fine.
Next up: MOAR TOKYO!