We’re on our way to London to travel on to visit Scotland and to do some house-sitting in Europe.
We’re travelling with Japan Airlines, which means changing flights in Tokyo, so we’re having a short stopover there to give us a break. The stopover is more than just a way to endure a long flight – it will give us a little taste of a place that will be very different from our main destinations.
Breaking our journey
Flights from Australia to Tokyo tend to fly to Narita airport, and flights from Tokyo to London commonly leave from Haneda airport; this is happening to our flights, so changing airports is necessary. Narita and Haneda airports are 80 km apart, so an hour-and-a-half bus journey is required to get from one airport to the other.
This sounds like an onerous process to add to two over-long flight segments (10 hours and 12 hours) in one continuous journey. However, we worked out long ago that it is well worth breaking the journey from Australia to Europe with an overnight stopover somewhere.
Adding a stopover is much better than spending 25-30 hours sitting in planes and airport waiting areas, and arriving at your final European destination wrecked (even the 10 hour flight from Sydney to Tokyo combined with an early Sydney departure time leaves you pretty wrecked). Plus, I don’t get much sleep in an economy aeroplane seat as I’m 190 centimetres tall, and therefore find it difficult to get comfortable. A stopover adds a bit of cost to the trip, but it adds more value than it costs. So, we’re having a stopover in Tokyo on the way to London. This means that swapping airports doesn’t affect us too much as we’ll have time for it.
We did this process last time we went to Europe, flying with Korean Airlines and stopping over in Seoul. We were so impressed with Seoul in our one-night stop-over that we changed our flights for the return journey to give us a few days there on the way home, and we had a great time. So this time, we’ve booked flights to give us a few days stop-over in Tokyo on our way back right from the start, so this short stop-over is great to give us some idea of what we’ll get when we come back for a few days in a few months. Even though this is just a one-night stopover with no real sight-seeing, we’re still able to get an impression.
So, what is my brief impression of Japan?
English is a very strong second language here, with most official signage, including most road signs, in both English and Japanese. Almost all signage for bigger corporations is in English, and a lot of small businesses such as tyre shops, food shops, and corner stores, have their names up in English, too. Most people who interact with international visitors speak English well, or at least well enough to interact effectively in the sphere of their business. Language need not be a great concern to casual travellers in Japan.
All vehicle badging, that is, the shiny chromed badges with brand names, model names, and model variant names, are in English. I watched out as we travelled around in busses and a taxi and I never saw a vehicle with badges in Japanese characters, even though virtually all of the vehicles here are domestic brands, with the ubiquitous smattering of Korean vehicles. In the one taxi that we caught all of the dashboard lettering was in English, and, considering what’s on the outside of the cars, I expect that this is the case for most other cars, too.
Even the logoed uniforms of the staff of the bus company that we used to get between the airports was in English, with not a single Japanese character!
Of course, all this English language is very convenient for travellers, but it does take away a little of the magic and weirdness of visiting a foreign county; although there’s still plenty of relative unusualness going around us. I would expect the use of English to greatly reduce outside of the big cities.
By the way, most of the taxis here, including the one we used, are big, black, purpose-fitted-out vehicles; however, there are a quite few 80s-era ‘vintage’ taxis in fully-restored condition running around, too.
Generally, based on the few things we bought in our 18 hour stay (which included 10 hours asleep), prices seem fine: our 3km ten-minute taxi ride cost us ¥1300 (AU$19), two coffees, one sandwich and one muffin at the airport cost us ¥ ($25), our eighty kilometre, one-and-a-half hour bus trip cost us A$44 each, and our small, but clean, fresh, modern, and sufficient hotel room cost us ¥11790 (AU$157), including a very nice hand-prepared Japanese breakfast. These are generally similar to or better than Australian prices, that is, expensive, but not impossible.
By the way, those two coffees, one sandwich and one muffin were bought at a coffee shop in Haneda Airport that had a sandwich board out the front that proclaimed that it was open until 26.00, with last orders taken at 25.30!
The hotel toilet
Our hotel room has a typical Japanese hotel toilet – it’s hard-wired into the electricity supply, has a row of status lights, a remotely-mounted control panel covered in buttons, and a wall plaque covered in instructions.
The seat is heated to almost hot enough to burn your rear end, which make me feel like someone has sat on it for a long time until just before I got there!
Unlike a toilet in a previous stopover in Japan, this one doesn’t play calming music when you sit on it.
I presume these toilets maintain basic functionality in the case of a power outage – perhaps they have a backup generator for them.
The hotel breakfast
Our included breakfast at the hotel was great. It was sufficiently exotic to take us a moment to work out what most things on offer were, and what to do with the vast range of little bowls available. It seems that the Japanese like to get together a wide range of small serving of different things and take them all back to their table on a tray. There was a sample tray on display to help out uninitiated foreign visitors.
The food was all flavoursome and was more what I’d expect to eat for lunch or dinner, with no cereal (well, there was hot boiled rice) and no dairy products. There were croissants, which were welcome, but I hope they are not the thin edge of the wedge of europeanisation of Japanese breakfasts!
Phone and data
Before I left Australia, I made sure that I had an Australian mobile phone service with international roaming, but only as a backup, as the calling, texting, and especially mobile data costs are very high. Generally, I’ll get local SIMs for mobile phone and data service as I travel.
With only 18 hours in Japan it’s not worth the effort to organise a local SIM card to give me mobile access, so I’m relying on what Wi-Fi I can get around the place. So far, I’ve found plenty – both Narita and Haneda airports had free Wi-Fi, the Limousine Airport bus between the airports and the hotel had included Wi-Fi, and all were reasonably easy to connect to. I’m certainly not concerned about relying on Wi-Fi for my longer, but still short, stopover on the way back to Australia.
Between the plentiful use of English language, reasonable prices, and accessible Wi-Fi, I’m expecting our longer stop-over on our homeward bound journey to be doable, interesting, and enjoyable.
There is an unexpected issue with charging my laptop and using other electrical appliances in japan, which I’ve discussed here, but I can live with that for a couple of days, and I have no trouble recharging my USB devices.
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