After a pretty good, but short, night at First Cabin, I had to run some errands before heading to Tokyo. This would be the first real test in communication and comprehension on my part and that of the Japanese people.
First order of business: find an ATM and withdraw some yen. I didn’t have any cash on me as I didn’t exchange anything in KL. With some help from the visitors services desk, I managed to find a “se-bu bank” (7-11 ATM) that accepted international cards.
Then, I headed to a Japanese bank branch within the airport to exchange the yen for smaller notes. The TravelEx office (where you’d normally do your currency exchange transactions) wouldn’t exchange my yen for smaller notes. The bank teller, who didn’t seem to know much English, was extremely helpful and assisted me in filling out the necessary forms to process the exchange. I didn’t realize such a simple transaction could be this complicated when being done in a foreign language.
Afterwards, I exchanged my pre-paid JR Rail voucher for the JR Rail 21-day pass. To get to the JR office, I caught the free terminal shuttle and only had to wait a few minutes before they opened. I picked up the pass, time schedules and maps and headed for the big city of Tokyo. Catching Monorail Hamamatsucho and transferring to the JR Yamanote line, I arrived at Ikebukuro station and located my hostel, Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro, which would be my home base for the next few days.
After dropping off my backpack, I was starving because I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. The hostel receptionist suggested Otoya for some cheap, traditional Japanese food. When I arrived, the hostess gave me a window-facing seat looking out at the bustling street below. I requested (in Japanese) an English menu, which were available per the sign on the door, and ordered the ebi katsu teishoku. A teishoku is a set meal that comes with a main dish and several side dishes. Ebi katsu is basically deep-fried shrimp and my teishoku included rice with flakes of pickled plum (ume), miso soup, egg salad, pickled vegetables (tsukemono) and hot tea.
My first meal in Japan was amazing, and I’m not just saying that because I was hungry. The food was fresh and delicious. The miso soup was just what I needed on such an overcast and rainy day. But the kicker was sitting among real working Japanese people, such as OL (office ladies), kyariaūman (business women) and sararīman (business men) in a restaurant in Japan. I finally experienced something I studied about in high school and college Japanese language classes. Of course, since my last class was probably more than 10 years ago, I can only imagine how my speaking, reading and comprehension levels have plummeted. Still, I was confident that I’d be able to maneuver through Japan with the help of many friendly Japanese people.
Lunch energized me and my spirits so I took the train to Shinjuku station and explored Shinjuku Chuo Central Park. The park seemed nice enough and was home to lots of trees and other greenery, Kumano Shrine, statues and a wonderful man-made waterfall. To my surprise, the park also sheltered a vagrant population who made their home among the shrubbery with their blue tarp coverings. However, I didn’t feel threatened by them or feel the need to avoid them at all. Unlike the homeless population in San Francisco, these guys minded their own business and didn’t ask for for money or hand outs. I wonder if this is due to the difference in culture between Americans and Japanese?
Nearby, in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, I took the elevator to the 45th floor observation deck to get a look at the area. Unfortunately, the rain and clouds were unavoidable, and the view wasn’t much to speak of. Despite being high above the city and even above some low-lying clouds, I could barely get a glimpse of the surrounding buildings.