Japan has been on my “countries I must visit” list since I was a teenager and was introduced to Japanese culture through food and of course anime. Finally, last year I began planning this hopefully not “once in a lifetime” trip and the first stop was Japan.
Day 1: After a 14 hour flight and a 13 hour time zone difference, we arrived for the most part – one day after we left NYC into Narita International Airport. By the way Japan Airlines has one of the best in-flight service and loads of entertainment (2 full meals, numerous snacks, Japanese hot soups, ice-cream and beverages).
After we disembarked, we got our luggage, cleared customs and headed to cash in our Japan Rail (JR) passes. The process was so simple – we gave the JR agent the receipts from our travel agent back in NYC (JTB-USA) and our passports with the proper stamp from Japanese immigration. If you live in most major US cities, JTB probably has a local office and they offer pickup service if you wait until closer to your departure date like we did. Important: you cannot buy a JR pass in Japan, they are for foreigners or Japanese nationals living abroad. So, you must pick them up before you leave the states.
Once we got our passes, we could begin using Japan Rail’s extensive network of transportation, which include trains, buses and the Tokyo Monorail (very useful if you will be flying in or out of Haneda). Immediately, the JR agent got us tickets on the Narita Express (NEX) into Tokyo which departed in 15 minutes. Additionally, she helped us to reserve seats on the Hikari (JR Shinkansen or bullet trains) to Kyoto and Osaka. Important: JR passes currently only covers the Hikari level and NOT the faster, limited stop Nozomi. If you are caught on a Nozomi train without a ticket – you will be changed full fare, plus the Nozomi fee and it will cost you almost as much as the entire JR pass. Next we headed to catch our NEX train into Tokyo.
About an hour later, we were pulling into Shinjuku station – the train stop that would get us closest to our hotel. Since we had 2 suitcases and 2 carryon bags, we opted to taking a taxi, which under most circumstance I would not recommend doing in Japan as they are very expensive. Our 3 minute ride cost us 730 Yen ($6US), which with luggage and the fact that it was raining was worth it.
We arrived at our first hotel in Tokyo – the Tokyo Park Hyatt, I wanted to stay here because one of my favorite films Lost in Translation was shot mostly in this hotel. As our taxi pulled up, I was greeted by name. I asked the concierge a few months back to make a dinner reservation for us, they asked my estimated time of arrival and I can only assume that they took note. This hotel has an amazing check-in system. Once my bags where out of the car, the bell boy tagged them and we were sent on our way with two hotel representatives. We took an elevator to the 41 floor, all the while getting a full explanation of the hotel and it’s amenities. Next we took another elevator to the 42 floor, directly to our room. In our room, some further explanation, I signed a few forms, handed over a credit card for incidentals, we were given our dinner reservation confirmation and that was it. They make you feel like a VIP.
FULL DISCLAIMER: The Tokyo Park Hyatt is probably one of Tokyo’s most luxurious hotels, running about $800US dollars and up per night on average. But, we stayed for free! Just paying some small hotel fees. I travel frequently for work. So, a year ago I signed up for Chase’s Hyatt credit card knowing I would be making this trip and knowing that I wanted to stay at this hotel. The sign up bonus for this card is two free nights at a Hyatt hotel anywhere in the world with no restrictions other than availability. Of course every credit card bonus is attached with a “spend this amount of money, in this amount of time” to earn the sign up bonus. This one was $1,000 in 3 months. So, I paid my monthly bills and if a family member had a big ticket purchase they were going to make in cash, I asked to charge it and when they gave me the cash – I immediately paid off the card. I literally covered that $1,000 amount on nothing other than expenses I had to pay anyway, phone bill, car insurance, etc. And just that easy we stayed at a hotel which would have cost us about $1600+ for two nights, for free! The card also gives you free foreign transaction fees, an upgraded Hyatt membership status and I am also a Hyatt platinum member, so I got free coffee or tea every day (really good, side-note: the dairy in Japan is insanely delicious and makes tea or coffee takes even better) and free wifi, which in Tokyo is essential and saves you about $30US a day.
After we got settled into our hotel, we ventured out on a rainy evening in search of Yakitori at Tokyo’s famous “piss alley”. A once dangerous part of Tokyo, now a must visit destination for grilled meats or “sticks” as they call them and drinks. Most places in this little alley have very few seats and a lot of Japanese locals go here after work. Don’t be intimidated, grab a seat! All of the places that we tried came with english menus. Important: All of these places come with a 1 drink minimum to sit. If you want to try a couple of places, then get some sticks of your choice and keep walking. It was so delicious, however Yakitori literally means grilled chicken. So, while some will have beef and other options – chicken is the main event at most places.