So finally it took a typhoon (Typhoon Wipha) to put a screeching brake to my mad drive across Japan. But it's just a brake and I have still not turned my engine off. I am raring to go, racing my engine at the signal, just like the Ferrari I saw the other day, at the Shibuya crossing; and would lose myself into the frenzy again, like the car, as soon as the signal turns green and Wipha gives way.
But till then, I let the past few days unwind before me.
It has been raining since morning, but despite the gloom and the grey, I have been trying to paint Tokyo red with my enthusiasm and the reciprocation has been effulgent despite the missing sunshine.
Traveling from the Edo period at Kokyo (Imperial Palace) to the present day Museum of Contemporary Art, traversing in between the futuristic Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo International Forum Building, and walking past the imposing skylines of Hibiya and Ginza, I am finally here at Roppongi Hills, giving recognition to the rain, for its relentless efforts since morning to mar my day. I sit to write, as the rain has its fill to see me give in.
The transits had been quite a welcome experience as we were very apprehensive; and a Pepperoni pizza, ice creams and Mochi sweets later; we boarded the flight for Kansai International Airport. Landing at 18:30 hours had been our prime concern. In our numerous travel quests we had always managed to avoid landing in a new country in the evening. Since it was Japan, we were doubly apprehensive; we had very little individual feedback on Osaka, back home. Landing at 18:30 would mean you leave airport almost around 20:30 or later, what with all the formalities of entering a country, figuring out your luggage, where and what to board for the city and then reach the hotel finally, without any goof ups (which is quite usual for us). Despite the Google map, Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet, apprehensions are the soul of travel. Traditionally, daylight always gives one a sense of security that evening never does, and especially in an unknown land it counts more true. But, but, but...we had a different story awaiting us.
I had just read somewhere in the passing while surfing about Japan that it has the fastest passport control and even as you clear that and reach the conveyor belt, your luggage would be waiting for you there already. Boy, did I ever believe that?! I have travelled somewhat and been to quite efficient airports and no, even they take time for things. Half-an-hour for the passport control and another 15 minutes, say, for collecting luggage. Then you need to figure out what mode of transport to take for the city and your destination, ask people around or figure out oneself the directions for where to board from, etcetra etcetra, another half-an-hour to 45 minutes. And then, finally reaching the place would be another half-an-hour or more. At the Kansai International Airport, Osaka, our passport control took exactly 10 minutes, including waiting in the queue; and there was quite a fair amount of traffic, considering it is one of the busiest airports in Japan. Our luggage was indeed waiting at the conveyor belt, which was extremely convenient to locate. Another 7 minutes. The directions are clearly given for the trains and airport limousines, whichever you choose to reach the city. If you are well researched, like we were, you know exactly which train to take, and where to change lines, and how to proceed from there (though we goofed up as usual, by taking a slow train just because it was waiting at the platform and getting delayed by sometime). No worries, if you have not done your homework. You would not lose out on time. Just show the hotel address to anybody you fancy, I can assure you that the information will be accurate and fast. Even if the person fails to help you, he/she will see to it that you are handed over to the right person for the information needed. All these would take you at the most, an extra 10 minutes. And voila, you are on your way in just less than half an hour from your landing. By, 19:30, we are checking-in and by 20:00 we are out into the bustling streets of Nihombashi and Shinshaibashi, the heart of Osaka. Welcome to Japan.
The country is unique in more than one way and every facet of it makes an indelible impression in the mind.
So, Wipha played an extremely decent host. Apart from a brief appearance from midnight till early morning, and a preceding rainy day, it never crossed our path. Japan, amongst other things, is also famous for natural calamities, and Wipha almost seemed like arriving to only oblige us with that facet of the country. Thus the wait was not too long, except for the breather at Roppongi Hills to keep away from the rain. I could only unwind in my mind, as I could not miss soaking in the surrounding ambiance, if not the rain.
And now, finally after it is all over, I am finding it difficult to gather and organise the kaleidoscopic experiences and the myriad perceptions, that I name 'Japan'.
Beginning with planning, Japan can apparently seem expensive, and transport costs can run quite high, if not cautious. We were in quite a fix, whether to buy the JR Pass, which would set us back by 28,000 yen in 7days. We had roughly two weeks in hand, and we wanted to make the most of it and the best of it and yet keep a check on the budget that we had set aside, without compromising on things (moreso, with the plummeting rupee value just prior to our travel made us even more wary). We had planned to enter Japan through Osaka and exit from Tokyo. Osaka was our base for the Kansai region, where we wanted to do Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, along with Osaka. We then planned to hit Tokyo, which would be our base for the next 6 days. From Tokyo, we had decided to do Mt. Fuji-Hakone and Nikko, and explore and discover the madness, which is Tokyo itself. A lot of research and discussions and musings later, we decided to buy the three-day Kansai Pass, which would allow us to travel on the JR line in the Kansai region as many times as we wanted. For Mt. Fuji-Hakone, one has to buy the two-day Hakone pass (there is no one day pass) which enables one to ride the seven means of transport to go around the place, including reaching from Tokyo to Odawara (the base for the Hakone trip) on the Odakyu line, so a JR Pass is redundant. For Nikko, we found out that there are other convenient lines from Asakusa, apart from JR. Since we were not doing whole of Japan, it was simply pointless to buy a JR Pass, as it would only be worthwhile for the Shinkansen ride from Osaka to Tokyo. We thought of parting with the idea of the Shinkansen ride, to save us 18,000 yen. We rather decided to take the overnight bus from Osaka for Tokyo. That way, we could save on a day's hotel fare as well. We boarded our bus from Umeda Sky Tower (which is perhaps their main bus station) at 22:20 sharp, and reached Tokyo at around 6:20 and were dropped at Shinjuku, so we did not lose out on a day as well. It is supererogatory to say the bus ride was extremely comfortable and easy.
The next concern for us was whether to buy the subway day passes in Tokyo. The city has quite a dense network of trains and subways, which are operated by different companies, chief of which are the JR East (Yamanote Line) and Tokyo Metro and Toei Subways. The passes for each are available separately and in different combinations. Apart from these, there was also the prepaid cards’ option. However, it was quite difficult for us to pre-decide our itineraries for the six days, so as to decide on the passes beforehand. Not all lines go to all places and neither do they intersect at one’s convenience. Also, we wondered if we would actually use the subway that much on any given day, to burn up the whole amount we were paying for the day. The combination pass would burn a hole in the pocket to the tune of 3,000 yen per day for two. We couldn't figure out the distances between the places, and if some of them could be covered walking, since we prefer more to amble and explore a place on foot than just hop on and off the subway to see merely the landmarks, while missing out on the views and soaking in the general ambiance. Thankfully, we were advised by an acquaintance, who had just returned from Tokyo, that many of the stations can be covered walking, if one is keen to. Also, he mentioned that the passes often become redundant, as one does not tend to use it to its full value in a day. And also, it would limit one's plans. Buying tickets can be economical, he indicated. Chucking the plan of buying passes, we thanked the acquaintance in our hearts more, later when we were in Tokyo, than we did in person then perhaps. One really does not need the pass, and even the prepaid cards are also not absolutely necessary, since they do not give any discounts. The ticket counters are fairly free and like just any other thing in Japan, does not take much time to get a ticket. The pre-paid cards can be helpful in only one thing, that you do not have to waste any time in figuring out the fares and to get the different tickets for the line changes. The choice is yours, but we sailed quite smoothly without the cards, and figuring out is really no rocket-science, in Japan.
So, we were done with the transport part, more or less. Hotel bookings were not really difficult. Destinations had been decided. Any trip to Japan is not complete without a trip to Kyoto. Nara houses the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, a Unesco World heritage Site. In between we would fit in a day for Kobe, a famous port city (and later we could also pack in a day for Himmeji) and Osaka itself, which we would also do on the sidelines. Entering Japan from the Kansai region was definitely a pre-meditated plan. So, we were all set. The rest was to live it up with the flow.