The seeds of this trip were planted when my middle child, Hannah, set her final date for work at Disney English in Chengdu, China. She wanted to have one more adventure in Asia as she headed back home to NC. So she asked me to plan something and go with her.
Having just explored Cambodia and Vietnam last year, Thailand was on my mind. She liked that idea as well. But for whatever reason, the planning just wasn’t coming together the way I wanted. As I scoured my travel opportunities, I saw a 15-day cruise from Yokohama to Vancouver. Hmmm- I hadn’t been to Japan since I was a teenager. Further, I’ve always been curious what it’s like to make a transoceanic crossing. Ending with the rugged beauty of Alaska seemed just perfect. So plans were made, tickets were purchased, and Hannah and I decided to meet up in Tokyo for 4 days before heading out on the cruise.
What do you do when all your perfect planning goes awry??
Well, it didn’t at first. Thankfully, my flights were all on time and flying on Japan Airlines from Chicago to Narita was sheer pleasure. The seats were comfortable and spotlessly clean, the plane wasn’t crowded, allowing for room to spread out to sleep, and the service was impeccable.
Hannah’s flight was to arrive nonstop from Chengdu to Narita about 3 hours after mine. Sadly hers was delayed just long enough for us to miss the second-to-last airport bus to our resort at Tokyo Bay (aka Disney). Having already waited 3 hours in Charlotte, flown 2 hours to Chicago, sat in Chicago for 2.5 hours, flown 13 hours and then sat in the Narita airport for 3 hours awaiting Hannah, I was just not in the mood to wait another 2 hours for the last airport bus. The trains are a possibility, but we were hauling my luggage plus everything Hannah was bringing home after 2 years in China. Figuring out the system and changing trains several times during rush hour loaded down with luggage seemed like a cruel punishment. So forking out the huge cost of a taxi became the only tolerable option! Expect to pay about $180 for a taxi from the airport to an outer suburb.
While waiting at the airport, I checked emails and received the bad news that our bike tour of Tokyo that we planned for the next morning had been canceled due to threat of rain. We were so disappointed! Move on to plan B…, except there isn’t a plan B. I checked at the hotel to see if there were any regular coach tours leaving from the area. None. So what to do? This was our only day to really explore Tokyo (we’ll get to the reason for that in a moment).
I checked around online and found some information about a cute, well-known neighborhood in Tokyo made up of older buildings and shrines, mostly from the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868) called Asakusa. The mixture of history, culture, street shopping, and traditional snack foods for sale sounded like a good option for a day of exploring on our own.
Navigating the combination of trains and metros was interesting. Hannah and I have both ridden plenty of trains and metros around Europe and Asia, but this system was a little different and a bit more confusing. Thanks to phone map apps, Hannah figured out our route. Figuring out how to pay was a little different, but we managed pretty quickly. Information kiosks are pretty available at the stations as well and they were kind and helpful when we had to ask a question or two. Sometimes in Tokyo, you have to leave the metro or train station and walk a few blocks to a different station, so connections can be a little tricky.
Asakusa was just what we hoped. We read some of the history and admired the architecture of the shrines and other ancient structures (like Japan’s oldest bridge), souvenir shopped, and tried some traditional snack foods after watching some of them being made. We also walked around the modern neighborhood and watched school children playing at recess and business people hustling to and fro. We had fun noting the cultural differences in Japan vs. China or the U.S. Some examples are:
- Allow personal space, even in crowds, with no pushing or shoving.
- Line up on the left on escalators so those walking up or down can pass on the right.
- Don’t talk on cell phones in the metro, on trains, or on buses.
- Politeness is not only valued, but is expected. Greetings, saying please and thank you (in Japanese if possible) and bowing, are expected courtesies.
- No trash is left anywhere, in spite of a general lack of trash cans in public areas.
- Everyone seems much less concerned about safety and theft than in most cities.
The next day was a bit rainy and cold, but it didn’t dampen our fun. Hannah’s goal, as not only a Disney fan, but Disney employee for several years, is to visit every Disney around the world. So we chose a Disney partner hotel on Tokyo Bay as our lodging and headed out on the monorail for Disney Sea one day, followed by Disneyland Tokyo the next day. Part of this decision was based on the fact that purchasing tickets online is somewhat difficult. By staying at a partner hotel, we could buy tickets in the lobby, skipping park lines, and guaranteeing availability, even if the parks were shutting down ticket sales because of over-crowding.
We were probably lucky that rain was in the forecast because it kept it from getting too crowded. Disney Sea and Disneyland are both beautifully done and perfectly maintained. Disney Sea had a few rides we had never experienced at Disney World and the themed areas were so beautiful, it was fun just to walk around and admire the creativity. We skipped most of the entertainment because pretty much everything with speaking or singing was in Japanese. In spite of the beauty and general Disney efficiency, the logistics of waiting in line and getting on rides were not quite at the level of Disney World (in our opinion). It seemed odd that the tickets and fast passes were all old-school, including needing a hand stamp to get back into the park later. And there is no app for checking show times or ride wait times. It didn’t seem to mesh with such a technological capital like Tokyo! But it was kind of refreshing to step out of technology for a few days. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in both parks and still felt like we experienced a bit of Japanese culture. My favorite difference was the popcorn. There were stands selling popcorn everywhere and each one was a different flavor. We saw honey, caramel, miso, curry, chili, some soy sauce mixture and others. I was on a mission to find a stand with good ole salted popcorn and finally found it in Adventureland!
After our time in Tokyo, we needed to head to our ship in Yokohama. I had looked up every way I could imagine to get there, but it boiled down to taking a taxi for another exorbitant ride or hauling our luggage onto the monorail and 2 trains for about $10 pp. Now that we had safely navigated the trains and were well-rested, we decided to suck it up and haul that baggage. Little did we know there was an electrical outage on one of the trains. After smoothly navigating the monorail followed by the first train, we were waiting at the track for the second train noticing a lot of Japanese writing scrolling across the boards but having no idea what it meant. Finally, a kind young man approached us and explained (in English) that we’d have to detour. He was our first angel of the day, helping get Hannah’s extra baggage up and down stairs since the elevators were also being repaired, and guiding us to an alternate track and train, and explaining extra transfers we would have to make. The second angel was an older man who insisted on helping us with luggage once again when we were in a smaller metro station with no elevator or escalator. We found nothing but kind, helpful people during our entire stay in Tokyo.
After exiting our final train station (we ended up taking 5 trains!) and walking about a mile through downtown to the pier, we were fully exhausted. But we did feel like we got to experience a bit more of Japanese life and were so touched by those who helped us! We waited about an hour for our turn to board the ship, Holland America’s Westerdam. The original plan was to have lunch onboard, then head out to explore Yokohama a bit more by foot. But we were just too tired. Just the same, we had great fun watching the locals promenade, as families and as couples, up and down the uniquely designed public pier, right alongside the ship. Since this was the final visit of the Westerdam for the season, people lined the pier with glow sticks and waved good-bye while Yokohama set off fireworks as the ship pulled out of port. What a lovely send-off from our very pleasant visit to Tokyo!