Japan: The first 24 hours

Prescript: Air India inflight film selection sucks. On the other hand, it’s three seats per head. The New Delhi-Tokyo route is yet to catch on. I toss and turn in a tangle of blankets becoming steadily stale. We lose hours.

Day 1. October 30 2016. The day of arrival. We land at Narita sharp 830 am. I have nothing exceptional to report about the airport. We buy our NEX tickets. At 1000 yen for our ride from the airport to downtown Tokyo, it is the cheapest option by far. This is against the alternatives of metro, limo bus, or taxi, where rates start at 4000 yen. While the lucky among us connect to airport wifi my phone named after a red fruit does not catch the signal. We discover that we should activate our 7-day JR passes (bought online) on the day of travel. In other words, as soon as we exchange our vouchers for passes, the clock starts ticking. We plan to activate it on the fifth day, when we take a long-distance bullet train to Odawara from Tokyo.

We choose to get dropped at Ginza instead of Tokyo Central as Roppongi (where our apartment is located) is just one train change from Ginza, while it’s two changes from Tokyo Central. On hindsight, a wise move. Ginza is a small and comprehensible station for a first timer, while Tokyo Central, Shibuya and Shinjuku are dizzying mazes even for locals and veterans. Ginza station is on the yellow line, aka the Ginza line. Roppongi station on the grey Hibya line. It is easy. Really. Plenty of English speaking may-I-help-yous around. They are polishing up their English for Olympics 2020 in right earnest, the Tokyoites are.

So far we have been in enclosed spaces. Now, out of the NEX bus, my dazedness amplifies. A brilliant chill Sunday afternoon and rich young Japs are out in their perfect black clothes and spotless heels. We drag our suitcases like lacklustre hobbits, trailing scarves. Walk past stores with designer labels behind plate glass. I swiftly look elsewhere after catching a glimpse of my bedraggled self in a mirror. All I need is a good Japanese night’s sleep, I assure myself.

We are trying to locate a ramen joint. Enquiring at random, smiling extra large, being smiled at humbly, effusively, curiously by turns. Getting directed by everyone. After a while, we decide it would be best if two of us stood with luggage and the other two continued with the quest. Jhini and I soon find a joint in a basement. Many restaurants there but most are shut. First sighting of plastic food. We also locate an all-important elevator.

Old lady ramen owner lets us park our suitcases indoors as it is not rush hour yet. So we almost occupy the entire restaurant. First date with ramen is not too impressive as pork  is present only in terms of flavour and the slimmest of slivers. But at least it is hot and the bowl big. When we finish, the place has filled up, smoked up.

Ginza station. We expertly buy our Roppongi tickets from a vending machine. Ginza line to Hibya line. Efficient and clockwork-like. We have to lug our bags up the steps to the Ropponji exit as there’s no escalator in sight. It’s a straight and short walk to the apartment. Nobuo’s directions do not mention the most prominent landmark, a multiplex. A film festival is on. A film buff helps us locate the place as we are too disoriented. Nobuo has left Emergency-type regulations forbidding us to enter apartment before 3 pm. It is only 230 pm. I find a place to sit. Sinhas and Chandra take a walk down an alley in search of a Samurai. There are identical apartment blocks everywhere. Chandra rejoins me on the ledge and takes snaps of shaved and jacketed dogs of various sizes being led by their owners. Jaunty girl in track pants strides ahead carrying takeaway food. Finally it is 245 pm. We decide to break the law and enter the apartment before time.

Rini rises to the challenge of extracting the key from a box secured to a drain pipe. A car is parked there, so only one person can wedge herself between car and wall.  There are garbage bags and discarded beer bottles around the entrance. Not exactly spotless.

The apartment is true to form and expectation. Tiny. We sight a bed! Mattresses too are discovered and unrolled urgently. Furniture is moved to create space. We are settling in at the speed of lightning. Couple in bed and sisters on the floor. Three pillows, three plates. A whistling kettle. One mirror, but inside the bathroom. A square bathtub. Stain-free and bone-white. A bucket of a bathtub. Toto toilet set with warm seat. No internet. We find a router (TP link) in the shoe cabinet the next day. Also on the next day Jhini and I simultaneously spot the network name and password, which is stuck to the large desktop in the kitchen. At the exact same moment. We are stoked at the simultaneous spotting but never get it working. Nobuo is of no help, instead saying previous guests had no issues. A 7-11 store opposite the apartment has limited wifi, which primarily helps Jhini to keep track of her youngest son. A Nepalese guy works in that store.

After settling in and sleuthing around the flat, we congratulate ourselves on our great showing and set out for dinner. It’s 7 pm. We wander around Roppongi Hills, a sprawling hotel, mall and art gallery complex. Mori Tower is our first destination. I had read about a free entry with a full view of Tokyo. An illuminated tower keeps popping up on the horizon. Turns out it is far away, relatively. In Asakusa, where we’ll head tomorrow. In a different area of Tokyo. When we reach Mori it is closed, before time. Next day, we discovered Mori is no longer free.

Suddenly Louis Bourgeois’s giant iron spider, Maman, is bearing down on us and were posing under it. Have to admit, we were a spent and starved army by now. We see a window framing a glowing setup of beautiful young diners and waiters wining and dining. Sadly, there’s no room for us in there and anyway, the rule is to book in advance. We book for next day dinner. 830 pm.

We have our dinner in a less classy setup with bright strip lighting and high contrasts. We sit with slurping strangers on leggy chairs facing each other around a large table as in a large family meal setup. That’s typical Japanese style affordable public dining. Everyone is busy with smartphone or food and no one is staring at you. The man opposite us is oblivious to everything except his raw egg which he is beating to the ideal consistency. He is having the Korean rice in a bowl called bibimbap. Two friendly Indonesians speak full English sentences.

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