Japan 2010: 1 - Where Things Begin Badly

Sometimes, however hard you try to make things run smoothly, something or someone you need to rely upon will leave you wishing you had just left it all to luck.

I had set my alarm for 5 o'clock, but the adrenaline had woken me long before that. The 6am train to Manchester airport arrived approximately on time, although perhaps choosing to use the train to arrive somewhere, anywhere at 9am on a weekday is not the best of ideas when you have large backpacks to lug everywhere. Then, the BMI computers didn't accept my ticket, which meant some manual checks and tests to see that I was me. The airport check kerfuffleators were noticeably more involved and stringent than the previous time, meaning my nice stress free 3-hour buffer was now being significantly eaten into. Even though airport security is now a top priority, this seemed not to have affected the number of staff on duty, and so they were all concentrated on eagle-eyeing everyone through a single metal detector, whilst three others remained unused. I arrived, nervous, sweaty and violated into the departure lounge with 20 minutes left on the clock before take-off.

So I got on, and we all sat, and sat. And waited. The plane had taxied to a quiet spot in the autumn sun and the cheery, chatty pilot announced in his amusing, chummy banter how Heathrow was 'unexpectedly busy' and thus we would be sat there for another quarter of an hour. Rest assured, he told us, he would scratch backs and get us a sneaky queue-jump so we would all arrive for our connecting flights on time. I waited and hoped.

We arrived at Heathrow in reasonable time. 1 and a quarter hours remained between the plane touching down and the next one setting off. Once the bus had arrived and took us merrily through the roadworks to Terminal 1, we were greeted with another set of checks. Unfortunately it seems that Heathrow doesn't trust in the competence of the Manchester security crews, and so even though we had just been through all the necessary airport checks an hour or so previous, I would be removing my belt, jumper, coat, shoes and just about anything else from my person once more just in case I had managed to stick my hand out of the window during the flight and pick up one of those bombs you see perched on clouds. And did they have more people manning the detectors at the busier, sexier London airport..?

The gate was open, and had been for some time. They were making last calls over the tannoy. Unfortunately it was half a mile away across travellators and down corridors. As I ran, I passed a man who was apparently expecting me not to make the gate. He shouted after me but I kept going. I would get on that sodding plane. I ran to the gate desk, the startled ladies congratulated me on making it there just in time; they were closing up. I had made it to the final leg.

Unfortunately my luggage hadn't.

Yep, one of those things that always seems to happen. But never before on the way to a destination. When I ordered my tickets, this is something I had not taken into account, all that interested me was (1) the relative lateness of the flight meaning I didn't need to get up at silly-o-clock, and (2) the small stopover at Heathrow meaning a significantly reduced journey time. It also meant that the time taken to get my bag out of the hold, work out where it needs to go, and stick it on the next plane, (which is only done when they know I have made the connection) would be longer than the stopover time.

Of course, I hadn't worked this out yet. I was too busy trying to contort my spine and jam my legs under the seat in front so I could make out the darkened picture on the 1st generation LCD screen I was assigned to watch movies. The woman in front had decided that today was stretch out and relax day, setting her chair as far back as it could. She ignored my requests to perhaps share the space between us. The screen tilts, yes, but not by much, and I'm a tall guy, so my chosen movies (The Secret in their Eyes which from what I saw was very good, Shrek 4, which was pretty good, and The A Team, which I saw half of, and was forgettable.)

We landed, and we shuffled off. Mercifully, Japan has yet to have the draconian airport security afforded to the UK, although they did decide to make us feel at home by having a huge queue for the immigration control. Maybe a third of the 30 or so booths were staffed. I stood there, tried to be as cheery and optimistic as I could for the camera and the faintly suspicious border guard, and then I was free to pick up my bag.

I learned the fate of my checked baggage after seeing my name scrawled on a big metal box as it drifted slowly around the carousel. Ambling to the service desk I filled out a few forms, and attempted to inform the Japanese staff of the scope of the problem. Not having some of my stuff was not an immediate concern (I had a small backpack which I had taken on as hand luggage, with a single change of clothes inside, but no toiletries because of the restrictions on them), but they had a single day to find my things, fly them over, and then deliver them to the address I was staying at in Ueno (which again, thankfully I had decided to include in my hand luggage). This was because the day after tomorrow, first thing in the morning, I was leaving Ueno for Okinawa by another plane, so they either got it to me in the next 24 hours, or I was seriously screwed.

Battered from bad experiences, I got out my hotel information. They were expecting me to check in at 11am, and it was after 9am now. I had to leave Narita airport on the next express, (1 hour) and then take the Yamanote Line to Ueno (about 10 mins), and then find the damn place, which according to the map was a good half mile from the station. Before all that, I had to deal with my Japan Rail Pass. Getting a drink at the same kiosk I remembered getting my first Japanese tea (by mistake, I thought it was strawberry juice and it was awful), I allowed myself a little feeling of elation that despite the setbacks I was here again, and it felt good.

Renewed with some optimism, I went down to the lower floor and headed for where the pass offices were. Before, there was just an office, a happy lady behind the desk who took the voucher from my tired, confused clutches, and replaced it with a shiny pass. In and out in 10 minutes.

This time was similar, but for one change; a sodding huge queue of holidaymakers, each with vouchers in their hand. It snaked round the queue barriers within the office, and outside to the tune of another dozen or so people. The queue was not moving. People stood and sat on their luggage where it allowed them to with less than happy expressions. They had been here some time. I waited once more.

With one hour remaining before check-in, I was getting paranoid; thinking sanely after the event, I should have known they would not need me to be there so early but my addled brain had not made that connection; I was convinced that if I was more than a half hour late, they would let my room go and I would need to find somewhere else like last time.

I rushed upstairs, back to the phones and rang the number for the hotel. It's Ueno, they'll get loads of English speaking visitors so will have some staff to parlez with; and anyway, I've just spent 3 months with My Japanese Coach on the train to work each morning; I'll be fine.


And then I realised that what little Japanese I had learnt had disappeared out of my ear.

'Erm.. I have... reservation... I will be late...',

Silence on the other end. They didn't understand. I gave my name and repeated myself in slow, which-way-is-the-beach style words. They didn't understand. I hung up the phone.

I grabbed my things and left for the imminent express train to Tokyo. I remembered my elation at seeing what now looked like very drab, normal Japanese houses cramped in close proximity to each other, albeit cloaked in more greenery this time. The train sped nicely into Tokyo and from there (after remembering how to do it) I got on the Yamanote loop for Ueno.
Using the Japan Rail Pass
  • Most people get their pass as they arrive at Narita, and the first thing you use it for is to save having to pay 3000 or so yen for the Narita Express into central Tokyo.
  • To get one, first choose the 1, 2 or 3 week option, and whether you want to be able to use the Green Cars (luxury seats) or not. (Most people don't bother with the extra green car expense; the normal seats are luxurious enough and it only applies to the longer haul routes).
  • You need to purchase an exchange voucher for the pass before you arrive in Japan (as in a few weeks before - you can't get one while you are there), and then exchange it for the pass itself when you arrive at one of their participating ticket offices, like at Narita Airport.
  • Using the pass is simple. If taking a local train, or a non-reserved seat on other trains, just get straight on the train and show the pass if required (you might be asked to show your passport too so it's best to keep them both handy).
  • If taking a longer route, it's best to reserve a seat, and you do that by showing your pass at the ticket office and saying where you want to go and when.
  • Whether or not you have a ticket, you'll need to use the pass to get through the platform barriers at each station. Most barriers are automatic machines which will spit out and block your way if you have a reserved ticket bought with a pass, so it's best to show it to the stationed guard who is present at each gate.
  • Note also that not all train lines in Japan accept the pass (basically, if the station is a JR station it will, otherwise it won't) and occasionally, the train will pass over a route owned by a private company (I know of 2 places now, they're pretty rare).
  • Even if it's a JR-operated route, you can't use the pass to take a Nozomi train. Take this into account when planning a trip.
  • Passes are also valid when travelling on JR Buses (e.g. the JR Buses from Yamaguchi to the Akiyoshi cave) and the JR Ferries (e.g. the ferry from Hiroshima port to Miyajima), so make sure you remember to use it.
  • With the current exchange rates, the passes are less value for money now than before, but if you are planning on a lot of train travel, they are still very good things to have.
Ueno station was larger than expected, and my hurried steps were getting more flustered as jet-lag set in and I was getting further and further past my check-in time. Fortunately, the eagerness of the stranger to help out a foreigner was not diminished from last time; a policeman and two civilians separately helped me to find the place after seeing me look horribly lost with a map and confused look on my face, the latter of which went a good distance out of his way using his mobile to locate the hotel on Google Maps.

I burst through the doors, stopped a second to look up the word for 'reservation', and then blathered my name and a few other words to the slightly startled staff, who eventually realised the situation, before telling me that check-in there wasn't until 3pm. An Iranian guest at the hotel saw me waving my hands and offered to help when he saw me struggling to explain the baggage situation. He didn't speak Japanese, but would later be going out drinking with a group who did. He suggested I write down what I wanted to say and then he will get them to translate for me that night. I also took his advice to use the useful Google Translate to give them an idea of the situation now as well.

Not wanting to waste my time just kicking around, I returned via a more direct route to Ueno station and made my way to Sinegawa station, where a private train would take me to Haneda Airport for a quick flight to Okinawa in two days' time. Tickets were 400 yen but they only sell them for the day, so I would have to get one when I arrived in earnest.

Tired and feeling like the day needed to end, I finished up by riding to Yokohama, a place I wanted to visit since a friend bought me a T-shirt bearing the town name, which I always felt guilty about wearing because I'd never actually been there. I got to the station, walked outside to be greeted to a maze of roads and overpasses, took a picture or two, and then turned round without bothering to visit further. From what I had seen, Yokohama had much to keep a tourist interested, but my mind returned to checking in and becoming one with a comfy bed, so it could wait, and anyway, I could wear my T-shirt with confidence at last.

I arrived back around 4.30pm, paid for the next few days and checked in. After a short sleep I hit a nice little Italian restaurant on the corner nearby (just didn't have the confidence just yet to taste the local stuff), and then returned to sleep some more at 8.30. That was the plan, anyway, but the thought of my baggage and whether or not it would be returned to me, whether the hotel staff understood my message and wouldn't turn my bag away, if it ever arrived, and whether the Okinawan spiders were as big as they looked to be, all kept me awake for some time afterwards.

If you're wondering about the lack of pictures here, I was too damn grumpy and concerned even to consider getting the camera out. Fortunately, things start to pick up..

Hotel Review: Tsukuba Hotel Ueno (4400 yen/night, 2 nights)

It's well past it's best, this hotel; my room was dark and dingy and everything in it was either brown or grey coloured, perhaps from a life of tired businessmen smoking the night away in their rooms. My room was small with a very poky little bathroom where every inch had to be justified. There was no telephone, and the kettle had a flex approximately 6 inches long and nowhere to plug it in that didn't involve hanging the kettle by the flex. But, it was quiet, clean-ish, and pretty cheap for the location; it did the job of getting me a nights sleep and had free internet downstairs. Though the staff didn't speak English, they were very friendly and understanding of my situation and were as helpful as you could want. It could have done with being nearer the station though. 6/10

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