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April 16, 2008

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Where's Mike?                                          Tokyo, Japan


High-speed Tokyo
An accelerated tour of Japan's cosmopolitan capital city.
By Mike Manna

Saint Augustine once said, "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." Throughout my years of travels, I've merely perused a few enlightened pages of the world's magnificent manuscript. Raring to read further, it was time for me to turn the page and begin a new chapter, full of vibrant histories, fascinating cultures and intriguing people. With great pleasure, I was preparing to embark on journey to a distant land, one that I have always yearned to visit.

This new chapter began with an invitation to visit the Kingdom of Thailand and to see firsthand, one of Southeast Asia's most well endowed regions, rife with picturesque landscapes, religious temples and delicious cuisine. The world's largest and most populous continent had, until then, been unchartered territory on my list of desirable destinations but first, getting there from New York would become my most daunting task. Flights departing from New York to major cities in Southeast Asia are long and arduous, intimidating to even the most experienced of flyers, nonstop flights sometimes exceeding 17 hours. With scores of airlines flying from New York to Asia, I opted for Japan Airlines (JAL) and their renowned international service. Unfortunately, JAL did not offer a nonstop flight from New York to Bangkok. I was required to make a two and half hour layover in Tokyo, before embarking on a connecting flight of seven hours. But as the saying goes, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Rather than lolling around in Narita airport for two and a half hours, I stayed overnight in Tokyo so I could have the opportunity to visit a city I have always admired. So without further ado, let's get this journey started. I'm off to Bangkok, with an unexpected, albeit abbreviated, visit to The Land of the Rising Sun, home to the modern yet traditional city of Tokyo.

I was quite pleased to make my maiden voyage to Asia on an Asian airline and to experience JAL's much-acclaimed service. Like clockwork, the 747-400 series aircraft left the gate as scheduled and within minutes, JAL flight 008 was taxiing to the runway and preparing for takeoff for the 14-hour, 10-minute voyage to Tokyo. Shortly before reaching our cruising altitude, the courteous crewmembers walked the aisle and distributed hot towels followed by complimentary drinks and snacks and made an offering of Japanese tea. There were two meals served during the flight, the first a warm chicken teriyaki dish, the second a cold sandwich of sorts. Both meals were acceptable at best. But let's remember that this is airline food we're talking about.

The economy class seating situated in the upper deck of the 747-400 series was remarkably comfortable. Each seat was equipped with its own in-flight entertainment console offering passengers an assortment of movies, shows and music, a GPS flight tracker, video games and most impressive, a live external video feed allowing curious onlookers to have an amazing view outside the aircraft. There were plenty of pillows and blankets and the flight crew was one of the most accommodating and respectful crews I've ever encountered. Japanese workers take immense pride in both their work ethic and commitment to excellence. Without a doubt, these characteristics were evident in JAL's flight services. It was wonderful to witness the efficiency and precision of the crewmembers coordinating their duties like a finely tuned orchestra. Their systematic approach in catering to customers seemed effortless while their graciousness and traditional charm ensured passengers had a pleasant trip. The crew's traditional bowing and courteous smiling made the 14-hour flight easy and comfortable. This impeccable service and attention to detail separates JAL from most other airlines that I've flown. From check-in to the point of disembarking the aircraft, my experience on this JAL flight was nothing short of pleasant. For travel reservations, visit

Travel tips: During long flights staying hydrated and moving regularly will have a positive impact on your physical and mental health. Avoid or limit your intake of alcoholic beverages and drink plenty of bottled water. Make a conscious effort to walk and stretch regularly.

Following a smooth landing, the massive 747 had taxied to its gate and shortly afterwards, we had disembarked and were headed towards customs. Outside at Narita International Airport, the temperature was chilly but invigorating and after the 14-hour flight, exposure to the wintry air was welcoming.

It was January and Tokyo is typically cold with temperatures occasionally dropping below freezing. Springtime brings warm and pleasant days and is without a doubt the time to visit this enchanting land. Japan's world famous cherry blossoms usually make their annual appearance in late March or early April, making the spring season a preferred time for visitors. Japanese summers are hot and humid and in autumn, pleasingly seasonal and cool temperatures make a return.

Sixty kilometers away from the airport awaits the cosmopolitan city of Tokyo, Japan's capital city and its largest. I was quite anxious to get there because after a 14-hour flight, I was looking forward to getting some much-needed rest. English may be the language of computing, aviation and diplomacy but it is most definitely not the Language of Japan. After a few failed attempts of basic inquiries to some local bystanders, I quickly learned that English is not widely used in Japan. Acting quickly, I resorted to my hotel printout for a written street address to assist in my communication and was delighted by its effectiveness.

Taxis are plentiful and readily available outside the terminal but the fares are expensive with prices as high as JPY 25,000 ($245USD), depending on where you are headed. Tokyo is one of the world's most expensive cities but you can find reasonable cost-saving options. A viable alternative to a taxi is the orange and white Airport Limousine Bus Service, which operates direct services throughout the day to and from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station, Tokyo City Air Terminal and many major hotels in downtown Tokyo.

The clean and comfortable buses depart in five to 30 minute intervals and their service counters are conveniently located near the exits of Terminals 1 and 2. Tickets cost JPY 3,100 ($30USD), which include a one-way ticket plus a Tokyo Metro One-Day ticket. Depending on traffic conditions, travel time can be up to 90 minutes to and from the city center and reservations are not required for passengers traveling from the airport to the city center. The uneventful ride took approximately 90 minutes and after a few stops, a most welcoming site came into view. It was the lobby door of the Courtyard Marriott Ginza Tobu Hotel. For further information about airport transportation from Narita, visit

Centrally located and situated in the world famous Ginza district, the Courtyard Marriott Ginza Tobu Hotel caters to both business travelers and tourists alike. The 11 floors of the hotel offer 169 newly renovated rooms, nine of which are suites. My room, styled in a contemporary design, was small and comfortable but offered an unromantic and dismal view of the city. The bathroom is definitely worth discussion, in particular the toilet. This land of high-tech gadgetry has brought the toilet into the 21st century. On the right side of the toilet was an electronic control panel, labeled with foreign and unfamiliar Japanese characters. Through trial and error, I soon discovered that the toilet had a built-in electronic bidet. How's that for a modern wonder?

Hotel info:
Daily rates for a deluxe room start at JPY 20800 ($210USD) per night. High-speed Internet is available in each room for JPY 1000 ($10USD) per day. Hotel renovations are scheduled to conclude in April 2008. For reservations, visit

In The Land of the Rising Sun, a new day was beginning and after a good night's sleep, it was time to begin my accelerated tour of Tokyo. Japanese is a language of which I have no knowledge and taking on a foreign city with so few individuals speaking English can make getting around a bit trying. The signs in Japanese can be challenging for most non-Japanese-speaking travelers, especially if your plans only allow a few short hours to see this grand city.

Fortunately, prior to my trip I had discovered through the Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO) the opportune and pleasant Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups. This free guide service helps overseas visitors experience Japan's culture and local customs through a well-versed, English-speaking guide. Yes it's true: there's no charge for the guide's service. However, you are responsible for paying for the guide's subway fares, admission fees and meals. My assigned tour guide, Mr. Oka, promptly met me in the hotel lobby of the Courtyard Marriott Ginza. He spoke perfect English, had an immense knowledge of Tokyo and Japanese history, and above all was courteous and respectful beyond compare.

Time being of the essence, we were off to see Tokyo well, at least parts of it. Following a short walk through the fashionable Ginza District, Mr. Oka and I were at the clean Ginza subway station. Using our Metro One-Day cards, we navigated effortlessly through the multi-line Tokyo metro and walked several parts of this vibrant, safe and orderly capital city. The Tokyo Metro One-day Open ticket is good for one day of unlimited rides on all Tokyo metro lines. (Prices for Adults: 710 ($7USD), Children: 360 ($3.50USD). For further information, visit and

Tokyo is a city with a unique blend of old and new; its skyscrapers and neon lights intertwine with historic shrines and temples. At night, you feel a pulsating energy as brilliant lights illuminate the city streets and during the day, you can find solace in one of the many peaceful Japanese gardens, temples or shrines situated throughout the city. Our first stop was at Sensoji, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, considered to be one of Tokyo's most popular tourist attractions. It was early morning and the crowds were starting to gather as we walked through Kaminarimon, also known as Thunder Gate. We meandered through Nakamise, a stretch of small shops that sell Japanese snacks and souvenirs and headed towards Hozomon, the main temple gate. Just beyond Hozomon stood the Sensoji temple's impressive main building situated next to a striking five-story pagoda. Standing mesmerized by these overwhelming sights, sounds and scents, I quickly realized that my decision for an overnight stay was well worth the effort.

Using our metro tickets, we proceeded to Tokyo's celebrated Ueno Park, famous for its more than 1000 cherry trees. During the spring, Ueno Park becomes one of Japan's most popular spots to view the blossoming trees. Unfortunately, it was winter and the trees were dormant but Ueno Park still had plenty of allure with attractions like the Toshogu Shrine, Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple, a zoo and Japan's oldest and largest museum, The Tokyo National Museum. Mr. Oka and I had the privilege of viewing the Courtly Millennium Art Treasures from the Konoe Family collection, an exhibit never to be repeated and worth much admiration.

Time was dwindling but we still had a couple of precious hours at our disposal so after a quick bite to eat, it was off to Akihabara Electric Town or simply Akihabara, a major shopping area for electronics, computers and animated products where consumers flock to find discounted prices. Through the cramped passageways, you can find an assortment of tools, electrical parts, wires, micro-sized cameras and more. This place is a techie's dream come true.

Our final destination was the Imperial Palace, home to Japan's Imperial Family, which was a brisk five-minute walk from Tokyo Station. Strategically surrounded by moats and massive stone walls were the celebrated palace grounds. For a guided tour of the palace, visitors must make reservations in advance at the Imperial Household Agency. The Imperial Palace East Gardens are open to the public throughout the year with Mondays and Fridays being the exception. The Land of the Rising Sun was quickly becoming the land of the setting sun and with time as a factor, a quick visit was not a feasible option and so we headed back to Ginza.

Mr. Oka and I had viewed many wonderful sights and attractions in an impossibly short six-hour window, making for a most memorable and pleasant experience. I can't imagine that I would have been able to see so much in such an abbreviated period if I had decided to go it alone. Thanks to the Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups and Mr. Oka, my short trip to Tokyo was one I'll never forget.

Rather than waiting in the Narita Airport for two and a half hours and traveling for 24 consecutive hours to Bangkok, an overnight stay in Tokyo was a sensible choice. My abridged but insightful tour of Tokyo had ended but it was time to journey onward to the Kingdom of Thailand. Having previously made reservations at the hotel concierge, the Airport Limousine Bus Service picked me up from the hotel lobby and in less than an hour, I was back at Narita International Airport, energized and ready for my seven hour JAL flight to Bangkok. I left Japan with a yearning to come back one day for an extended stay to this most enchanting and historic land. Visiting Tokyo allowed me to read a small paragraph further into the book of the world and to discover a distant land that I had much wanted to visit. To put it simply, this short and sweet trip to Tokyo was equivalent to sitting in a five-star restaurant with the anticipation of a four-course meal but only having the opportunity to taste the appetizer. But the taste, however small it may have been, was delectable and left me wanting more.

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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by JNTO & Marriott Hotels.

Pictures From

The Trip



JAL Flight to Tokyo


Hozomon Gate


Sensoji, Kaminarimon Gate

Hozomon Gate and Pagoda

Imperial Palace

Fashionable Ginza District


Japanese Pagoda

Hozomon Gate

Ueno Park, Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple

Ueno Park, Toshogu Shrine


Imperial Palace

Asakusa Kannon Temple

Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Park

Toshogu Shrine

Sensoji Temple Main Building

Tokyo National Museum

Ueno Park

Systematized Goodwill Guide, Mr. Oka

Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple


Akihabara Electric Town

JAL Flight to Bangkok

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