Diego arrives in Japan and has his first encounter with sakura in bloom.
Day 1 was the shortest and most lacklustre day of the entire trip, mainly because it involved little more than flying to Tokyo and settling into my hotel. I’ll get this report out of the way quickly and start working on the write-ups for Days 2 onward, which should take longer to prepare owing to the much larger number of stops and photographs involved.
Like most visitors to Tokyo, my journey began at Narita International Airport – the capital’s main gateway to the outside world. The airport’s location (some 60 kilometres from downtown Tokyo) presented me with my first major challenge: travelling to the city as quickly as possible. Even before arriving I had already ruled out shuttle buses (too slow) and taxis (too slow and too expensive), which narrowed my choices down to two: JR East’s Narita Express (or N’EX) and the Keisei Electric Railway’s competing Skyliner service. The Keisei Skyliner was much cheaper (1,920 yen versus 2,940 yen for the N’EX), but I finally decided on the N’EX chiefly because I was reeled in by JR East’s excellent “Suica & N’EX” special offer.
Available only to foreign passport holders, the 3,500-yen “Suica & N’EX” includes a discounted N’EX ticket (1,500 yen) and a Suica card – an automatic fare card valid for use on virtually all of the city’s train, subway and bus systems, including non-JR lines – that comes pre-loaded with 1,500 yen (worth 2,000 yen including the 500 yen deposit). Since I was planning to stay in Tokyo for almost a week and would need to use the subway lines on a regular basis, the “Suica & N’EX” combination made perfect sense.
After leaving Narita Airport’s Terminal 2, the N’EX took about an hour to reach Tokyo Station. I then switched to JR’s Yamanote Line and used my N’EX ticket (valid for further travel at no extra cost on JR lines within a specified area) to reach Ueno Station, where I transferred to the Tokyo Metro’s Ginza Line and travelled a short distance to Inarichō Station (this time using my Suica card). From there, I hauled my bags up to street level – no escalators or lifts here – and walked a fairly short distance to my hotel.
I arrived quite late in the afternoon, beyond the closing times of most major attractions, so I initially decided to jump straight into bed after unpacking and finalising my plans for the following day. After settling in, I realised I still had a fair bit of light left for a stroll around the neighbourhood before retiring for the night. My hotel was a long but manageable walk from Ueno Park, one of the Tokyo area’s major breathing spaces, and it was in that place that I got my first real taste of Japan.
Keep in mind that this was just a quick (and mostly unplanned) excursion, conducted at a time when most public attractions were shuttered for the night; hence the small number of pictures in this report.
My evening stroll began at a prominent Tokyo landmark: the famous statue of Saigō Takamori near one of the entrances to Ueno Park. Erected in the late 1890’s, the statue commemorates the man who led the failed Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 and was posthumously pardoned by the same government he sought to overthrow, having achieved the status of a model samurai in the eyes of the public at large.
From the statue, I followed a series of winding paths and staircases to reach a broad paved path that cuts right through the heart of the park. Lined with cherry trees that were already breaking out into clouds of white and pale pink blossoms, the path was being readied for the hanami crush with areas on either side cordoned off (giving people ample room to spread their picnic blankets right under the trees) and large rubbish bins – with separate compartments for segregated waste – set up every few metres. White lines and arrows had been freshly marked out on the pavements, directing traffic this way or that to ensure a smooth flow for pedestrians and bicycle riders.
The lamps hung from the trees were a nice touch.
At the end of the main path, I started encountering some of the museums that this area of Tokyo is famous for. This one, for example, is the main hall of the Tokyo National Museum. (If the building looks familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen it in this animated film.)
The Tokyo National Museum was closed by this time, but no worries; I had it marked down for a visit on another day.
I spent some time wandering along some of the park’s minor paths, passing a couple of other museum buildings – this part of the city is thick with them – and the entrance to the venerable Ueno Zoo.
Near a small fairground, I found a number of early-blooming trees already at the height of their splendour.
After an hour of poking into this corner and that, I called it a day and started on the long trek back to my pleasantly warm hotel room. Whilst crossing a footbridge, I snapped the above picture of the area’s night skyline, with one of Ueno Station’s main platforms in the foreground.
The Ueno area is heavily urbanised, but it’s a pretty low-rise district and – thanks in no small part to its extensive public romping grounds – retains a nice small-city atmosphere. Away from the ever-busy station, the streets are fairly quiet even at rush hour. I had my doubts about establishing my base here, but they were soon dispelled as I quietly settled into what I now began to think of as “my” neighbourhood.
Day 2 highlights: the Imperial Palace, the Imperial Palace East Gardens and Diego’s first visit to Akihabara.
Here ends the first day.