Day 18: Tokyo and flight home

Friday, 9 November 2012

Continues from Day 17: Kamakura

Today was always going to be a bit glum as it was to be our last in Japan. To make matters all the more sad I had also managed to pick up some variant of the common cold so I was feeling a bit under the weather.

It was not all bad news though as the actual weather was fine and as our plane didn't leave until 08:25pm we still had most of the day to enjoy Tokyo. I was particularly looking forward to the Tokyo Sky Tree which was our featured attraction for today!

When the bujid dubai was built I was amazed at how much taller it was than anything else built so far. It wasn’t just the tallest building it was the tallest out of anything! 

Taller than towers or even any guyed masts ever built!

I love learning about and visiting these massive feats of human engineering so when I heard that the Tokyo Sky tree was being built and would be the second tallest structure in the world, I was immediately interested and wanted to visit.

The Tokyo Sky Tree (東京スカイツリー) is a massive broadcasting tower in the Sumida ward of Tokyo that was built to transmit television and radio signals. The 333m tall Tokyo Tower had originally served this purpose but, despite being the tallest structure in Japan (and Tokyo), the large number of skyscrapers built around it in recent years has diminished it's coverage area and a new, taller building was required. 

At 634m tall the Tokyo Sky tree is nearly double the height of the old tower and is the second tallest structure in the world second only to the Burj Khalifa. The height can be read as "Musashi" in Japanese and is a reference to the historic name of the Tokyo region. Construction of the tower was led by the Tobu corporation with NHK and five other broadcasters.

Apart from it's practical purpose as a transmission tower the structure was also built to be a national landmark and tourist attraction and it is the centrepiece of a large commercial development that has been built around the tower. The tower itself has two observation levels, one at 350m high and another at 450m high. The total human capacity of the tower is just under 3000 with the upper level holding 900 people and the lower level 2000 people.

During our first trip to Japan in 2011 while the maximum height had been reached the interior and support infrastructure was still under construction. This didn’t stop us from trying to get a good look though and we walked over from Asakusa to get as close to the tower as we could.

A few months after we visited construction was completed therefore going up to the observation deck was a must do activity for this next trip!

Since the Tokyo Sky Tree had only officially opened a few months ago on 22 May 2012, it was still experiencing massive congestion and lines as the operators struggled to get all of Japan up and down the tower. In fact, initially it was only possible to ascend the tower if you registered for and won a random drawing, which was limited to Japanese credit card holders. 

Luckily for us, by November advanced registration was no longer necessary and we were able to buy a ticket at the tower. Still, I’d heard from a few reports that the queues were still massive so we wanted to get there a little bit before it opened at 8:00am in an attempt to beat the rush.

Although Hatchobori station is only located one stop from Tokyo station, from where we’d get the Narita express to the airport, we didn’t really want to have to come all the way back to the hotel, so we decided to find a coin locker to store our luggage in for the day.

Unfortunately though, even though we arrived at Tokyo Station pretty early we had a massive amount of trouble finding a spare locker! Due to our big suitcases we needed the largest (and rarest) sized locker. While there were lots of different coin locker banks all over the place we were increasingly frustrated to find that all the large ones were occupied.

The fact that we had to lug our massive suitcases all over the place also added to our annoyance.

We actually had this same problem on our last trip and ended up having to use lockers in Akihabara instead. Back then we thought the reason we couldn’t find anything was because it was around mid-day and we assumed all the lockers had already been taken in the morning. Based on that assumption we thought that we mistakenly thought we’d be ok today as it was still early in the morning.

Wrong wrong wrong.

Directly below the Tokyo Sky Tree
Kate saved us in the end when she had the excellent idea to check for lockers down near the remotely located soba line (and Narita Express) platforms. This was great for us too as it meant our luggage was close to where we needed to catch our train that afternoon.

Now we needed to hurry over to the Tokyo Sky tree!

Tokyo Sky Tree complex is home to two different stations with the Tokyo Sky Tree Station located at the western end and Oshiage Station located at the eastern end, which is where we were headed. Unfortunately, the kafuffle with the lockers meant we didn’t get going until much later than we had hoped and we also had some difficulties transferring at one of the subway stations as we didn't realise we actually had to leave the first station and then transfer above ground to reach the second. Furthermore, once we arrived at Oshiage station we had a little bit of difficulty finding the entrance to the actual tower as well.

All of these factors conspired to slow us down and resulted in us not arriving at the ticket counter queue until about 8:20am which was about thirty minutes later than what we had planned.

Luckily for us though we found that while there was a large line it wasn’t humongous and only took up about 20% of the area allocated inside. However, it did look like it was expected to grow much larger than even the area inside as extensive queue barriers were already being set up outside.

We quickly hopped in line to buy our tickets. Everything was quite new and fancy inside and there was a really neat animation of Tokyo displayed on some big TV screens. It was cartoonish and stylised such that different districts of Tokyo included big versions of the various things that defined them. For example, Akihabara had building sized giant batteries, capacitors and power cords incorporated into the landscape and Asakusa had big religious gods/demons (I can’t tell the difference) floating around the place.

While the style was cartoonish it was also quite realistic and amazing in its scale, with what looked to be pretty much every building and landmark in Tokyo included. The fact that is was completely animated with hundreds of people, cars, ships, trains and aircraft moving about the city brought it to another level of awesomeness. It was absolutely amazing. To see some pictures of the artwork Google "Tokyo Sky Tree Mural". For video you can try Youtube. Actually, have a look at this video (Skip ahead to where the animation starts).

Anyway, the people selling the tickets at the head of the line were quite efficient so the line moved pretty fast and after a pretty short twenty minutes it was our turn to buy a ticket.

There are two main observation levels at the Sky tree, the “Tembo Deck” located at 350m and the “Tembo Galleria” located another 100m higher at 450m. On the ground floor it was only possible to pay 2000 yen for tickets to the Tembo Deck floor. From there you could then pay another 1000 yen if you wanted to go all the way up to the Tembo Galleria. This meant that if we had arrived late we’d not only have to wait in one long line on the ground but would have to join another at the intermediate level before we could go to the highest floor.

They actually have a similar arrangement at Tokyo Tower and when we visited it the previous year at night we decided against going up to the top floor as we faced a 90 minute wait on the middle floor before we’d be able to go up to the top. Anyway, back to the Sky Tree, we paid our money, received our ticket and walked over to the lifts which we were then ushered into along with a stack of other people.

There were four big elevators with each one representing a season and they were arranged into a circle with each one shaped like a wedge and individually named. It was very shiny and new looking inside and lit up in a somewhat dramatic manner as we ascended the tower.

Tokyo Tower is visible in Minato to the south west
Looking to the north-east over the Sumida and Arakawa rivers
After a short fifty seconds we arrived at the Tembo Deck and had a quick look around. Like everything else here everything was new and shiny and when we approached the windows we encountered amazing views over Tokyo!

When we arrived the floor looked to be about half full and was filling fast. The estimated line length at the next level’s ticket counter was also increasing rapidly so, after quickly confirming that it was possible to return back here to the lower deck, we also joined the line.

The people selling tickets up here were just as efficient as those on the ground floor and so the queue also moved pretty quickly and after only about ten minutes we were able to buy a ticket. By this time the estimated line length had increased to twenty five minutes, so we were definitely glad we lined up when we did.

Wide windows of the Tembo Galleria skywalk
All up both tickets cost 3000 yen which may seem quite expensive compared to the cost of other attractions in Japan, but really wasn’t too bad. If this building was in Australia tickets would most definitely exceed $100.

Before buying our tickets we were not sure if we were able to wait until later before using them or if we had to go up straight away but once we bought them we found that it was the latter when we were directed into an elevator.

After a short trip up we found ourselves almost at the highest point of the sky tree. We actually still had a couple more meters to go as the very top level is to the elevators via a spiralling sky walk purported to be the planets highest. There were big windows around the edge that offered dizzying views out over the Kanto region. The sky walk was a little crowded and we had to sometimes walk around a bit to find a spare spot to look out.

It was amazing how high up we were!

We were easily far taller than anything else, and the view was spectacular.

If you ever find yourself up somewhere tall in Tokyo the first task is always to try and find Mt Fuji! Since it was a bit hazy today we had a little trouble at first but we were definitely able to make it out in the distance

I also remember trying to work out whether or not one of the islands we were looking at to the south was Odaiba- I think we managed to confirm its identity.

Looking out to the west south west Mt. Fuji is just visible
The big big of greenery on the left is the Imperial palace
Looking out to the south east, Disney world is above and
left of the Kaisai Rinkai park's Ferris wheel at the top left  
Once we reached the end of the spiral walkway we were finally at the top and officially 451.2 meters high or, more technically speaking, for me, 453.95 meters high. This top level was more like a traditional observation deck and had a number of lounges and big tall windows.

At one point towards the top we saw some people standing and posing in a weird way facing the window. When we looked down we saw that they were getting there photo taken by one of the Tokyo Sky Tree staff below. I think a photo from that angle would get a nice shot of the top of tower, as well as the people on the sky walk that juts out from the tower. It looked like it was something you could pay for and officially organised with the staff members on different levels communicating with walkie talkies.

Although it did seem a bit silly it was impressive as companies these days usually just take a photo of you in front of a green screen and then paste you into a background, so it was nice to see them going to the effort of actually taking a genuine photo.

One thing I feel I do have to mention though is that with these giant towers and buildings it sometimes doesn’t seem as if they’re really making an effort to get the viewing platform as high as they can.

To the north west Asakusa is visible in the foreground, Ueno Park
in the middle and Ikebukuro (& incinerator) in the background
A closer look at Asakusa, the five story pagoda, Hozo gate and
Sensoji Temple are visible on the other side of the Sumida River
Tokyo tower did fairly well with their highest accessible level located 75% of the way up the tower (250m of 333m). The Tokyo Sky Tree is starting to push it a little with their highest deck is located only 70% of the way up. The biggest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa (828m tall) is the worst offender with its observation level located a pathetic 54% of the way up the building at 452m, which is only 1m higher than the Sky Tree.

What makes matters worse for the Burj Khalifa is the fact that it’s a building, so it’s not as if it would be structurally unsound or financially prohibitive to have a level at the top. There’s even heaps of other levels above it! And the Shanghi Financial Centre building managed to put their observation level 96% of the way up at 474m.

Golden Asahi Flame near river and an endless metropolis
I can sort of understand for towers since their primary purpose is not for occupation and they narrow out quite a bit towards the top and it probably gets exponentially more expensive as you push the observation deck higher but people!


If you’re going to build a big ass tower or building put the observation deck right at the top!

Anyway, after having a look at the Tembo Galleria we returned back down to the Tembo Deck which we found to be composed of a couple of different levels, numbered according to their height. This meant, for example, that the floor following 345 was named floor 350, not 346.

We had a good look around but since we had already been up to the top floor we were a bit spoilt and really felt like we were lower down. Ideally it would be better to look at the lower floor first.

As with most tall towers the Sky Tree had those glass floors that let you stand on them and look straight down to the ground below. Unlike most other towers though, since it was brand new the glass was not all scuffed and opaque like usual but instead was completely transparent!

It's a long way down!
We could actually look down and see the ground!

The windows around the edge of the floor were also quite big and as there was a large number of them we didn’t have to crowd around with hundreds of people and it was easy for us to find one for ourselves.

As we walked around we say a school group gathering over another one of those the glass floors it for a photo. It was pretty funny as they clearly wanted to it look like they were all gathered around the giant drop but all the students had pretty much completely covered up the hole and the camera angle was nowhere near steep enough to be able to get a good look down anyway.

One final thing to mention is that there was a souvenir shop and a restaurant located on the middle floor though we only gave them a quick look and before long made our way back down.

The Tokyo Sky tree rising up from the Soramachi
Surrounding the Tokyo Sky Tree is the Tokyo Soramachi (Sky Town) which can be considered to be a city within a city containing offices, restaurants, shopping and entertainment facilities that include a planetarium and an aquarium. Unfortunately, unlike some other cities this was one that slept in and almost all the shops didn’t open until 10:00am. This was a little annoying as we wanted to have a look but it was only 9:30am. 

Back in Australia I used to think it was very strange seeing people waiting outside shops for them to open at the local shopping centre. I thought, go do something else until it opens! After travelling to Japan though I feel as if I can empathise with those people somewhat more.

Anyway, thanks to the security guy standing inside looking at his watch, the doors opened exactly at 10:00am and we went in to have a look.

The shops we found inside were quite specialised with, for example, one shop focusing on chopsticks another on salt and another on Hello Kitty merchandise. The best shop we looked in focused on a number of different TV networks and amongst the regular character goods and merchandise I managed to pick up some K-On! playing cards.

While I'd have liked to have got a deck that had all the characters they only had ones featuring specific individual characters (Get them all?) and I ended up picking Yui deck. The cards were from the K-On! Movie and each card had a different scene from the movie featuring Yui. Buying the deck cost me my last ¥1000 yen.

So, since I now only had coins left I definitely needed some most cash and as I didn’t want as much as the minimum 10 000 yen dispensed at 7-11’s, this meant we had to find a post office.

Before that though since Kate was hungry and still had some money we went and had a look at a nearby food court. As it was pretty early by Japanese standards the food court was practically empty, most of the shops were actually open though and Kate decided on a bread thing from one of the bakeries, which she shared with me.

Next it was time to look for a post office!

We had no idea where one might be so we went outside and used Google maps to look one up. I typed in 郵便局 (YuuBinKyoku = Mail + Convenience + Bureau) and we walked over to one located a few hundred meters away. Even though I thought I probably only needed 1000-2000 yen more I actually withdrew closer to 7000 yen so that I wouldn’t have to exchange any in Australia before the next trip.

The Tokyo Sky Tree from the post office
As Kate was running pretty low she also went in to restock while I waited outside. Unfortunately for Kate, even though she pressed a button to have the screen translated into English, the actual physical buttons were in Japanese and she had no idea what to do when she put in the wrong PIN.

Apparently there was a yellow, orange and red button but she couldn’t work them out and tried to get my attention. There were a few people in line behind here as well who were also trying to get my attention as they could see she was a bit panicked (and didn’t want to go up to her as it was an ATM). I was obliviously staring up at the Sky Tree so I no idea there was any issues, I think I might’ve even been taking some more photos. In the end she just decided to try her luck with one of the buttons. While the first apparently didn’t do anything she tried another and was able cancel her PIN and try again.

Once we’d got our money out it was pretty close to lunch time and we decided we’d like to go to Ootoya as we hadn’t been there in a while, it was to be our last meal before our flight, and we were pretty hungry.

I once again used Google maps to look it up and found that there was one located about 1.6 kilometres away near Kinshicho Station, which was actually the station we’d changed trains at the morning. Since we didn’t want to pay for the short trip we decided to walk all the way there instead, which took about 20 minutes. Once we arrived in the general location we head a bit of trouble finding the restaurant as it was located at the top of a big building.

After we sat down I asked for an English menu for Kate and waitress said she wasn't sure if they had one and that she'd go and check! We were pretty sure they had them as all the other Ootoya’s we had been to had the same ones and sure enough she returned with it. We thought that her uncertainty was probably because they didn’t get English tourists very much since the restaurant was a little far from any major tourist destinations and all the way at the top of a building.

I can't remember if I got chicken or pork katsu but whatever I had it was tasty as always. Kate tried something new and got char broiled mackerel which was apparently absolutely delicious but she won't be getting it again as heaps of bones made it too hard for her to eat!

After finishing our meal we went back down the building and went over to sing some Karaoke!

There's a few different Karaoke franchises around but the two main wholesalers (and stores) seem to be clubDAM (Big Echo) and Joysound (Karaoke-kan). We'd actually tried a Big Echo in Sendai but it was a complete failure for various reasons. After doing some further investigation I found that Joysound had a larger amount of songs to choose from and we ended up going to a Karaoke-Kan that was located on the other side of the nearby Kinshicho station.

Looking nearly straight down from the Sky Tree; everything looks like a toy
One thing we messed up last time was that we didn’t know that you had to buy a drink in order to sing. This time we were prepared and I chose strawberry milk and Kate a Tea. I said we wanted to stay for an hour and also made sure to ask for a non-smoking room.

We were then given a key and directed to an elevator that took us up to our room. 

There were two microphones inside, two wireless control panel things, a maraca and a tambourine. 
Everything was in Japanese and I had a bit of trouble with the meaning behind some phrases, for example, I wasn’t sure if “Cancel Performance” meant the current song or the entire session. 

Anyway, we worked it out and after a few minutes our drinks were delivered. My milk was alright but Kate’s tea was apparently the best she had ever had, not so much the tea though but the cream pot that came with it.

After our hour was nearly up a phone in the booth rang and we were asked if we’d like to finish now or continue singing. Since we were having so much fun we asked for another hour!

I sung mainly English songs as I was a little embarrassed with the Japanese ones but I did sing about 4 or 5 in Japanese I think, Kate sung all hers in English. There was an amazing collection of Japanese songs and a pretty decent collection of English ones, well, certainly the currently popular songs. I couldn't find some artists I wanted to sing (Mark Knopfler, The The, Placebo) though there was a decent collection of Bowie (29 songs).

You can actually look up what artists and songs are available here on the JoySound website:

At the top right there's a little search box and you can pick from the drop down options.

歌手名で検索 = Search by artist name

曲名で検索 = Search by song name

番組名で検索 = Search by program (I'm not really sure what this means)

If you search for an artist a list of possible matches will be displayed. When you click on the name that's correct (if you search in English it will be in English) you'll be given a list of all the songs Joysound has on file for that artist. However, only the ones that have "カラオケ" (Karaoke) lit up in pink below will be available for Karaoke. You can also refine your list of songs to include only those with karaoke by clicking the first blue "カラオケ" link at the top.

Each song has an index number and I had actually written down the numbers of a few songs before we went. I wasn’t able to work out where to input the number into the Karaoke control panel though and instead just had to search by artist or song name.

The actual Karaoke place we went to was a little dodgy, old looking and not super flash. I think this is mainly because it was in a bit of an out of the way area. It certainly wasn't too bad though and was reasonably busy with some teenage girls coming in a little bit after us at the front desk and when we walked to our room we could see a number of others were occupied. Mainly by teenaged girls and single middle aged men.

After our second hour and subsequent call we finished up in the Karaoke room and went down to the front desk to pay. I think it cost us about 700 yen each for our two hours with most of the price going to the drink.

There was one of those coffee shops located near the Karaoke-Kan and even though I wasn’t feeling too hungry I ate a final delicious custard and cherry muffin thing. I was a bit worried that they might be seasonal and that I’d never be able to have one again.

After I finished we walked over to the station and Kate led us onto a train that would take us to Tokyo. We were not in any particular hurry as there was only about an hour or two left until our Narita Express train left so there wasn’t much time left to do anything but heaps of time left to get to Tokyo station. I didn't check whether or not we got the right train. Is that enough foreshadowing?

Since we were pretty tired from walking, singing and the trip in general we just sat and looked out the window and didn’t think too much. I commented that we seemed to be out in the open a lot more than this morning and we reasoned that we were probably were not paying as much attention on the way in. After a bit longer we noticed that it seemed to be taking us quite some time to get to Tokyo. 

I wondered aloud if we had got the right train but Kate reassured me that we were going in the right direction since she recognised one of the station names. 

We continued to see scenery we hadn’t seen before and also started to notice that the buildings seemed to be getting more widely spaced. For some reason I was still not feeling too concerned but I got up anyway and had a closer look at the route map and signs on the train.

Oh no!

I turned out that we had got the wrong train and were halfway to Chiba!

The station that Kate thought she recognised was Nishi-Funabashi which she had confused with Shin-nihonbashi. I told her that bashi just means bridge and is in a lot of place names!

We got off at the next station and waited a few minutes for a train to take us all the way back to Tokyo. While we were not too concerned at the time we actually ended up cutting it pretty fine and once we arrived back in Tokyo we only had about 30minutes to spare. If we had stayed on the train only ten minutes longer we’d have had less than ten minutes by the time we got back!

Since Narita Airport is actually located in Chiba we might’ve ended up in a situation where we had enough time to get our plane but not enough time to go back and get our luggage. Thankfully that didn’t happen and instead we took our time getting our luggage and then made our way to the platform. While we were waiting we had a look in a convenience store and I bought some Peanut coated M&M’s and Kate got some nuts.

The Narita Express (NEX) is an interesting train as it is actually made up of two separate trains that join/split at Tokyo station. The trains are connected all the way from Narita to Tokyo whereupon they split and your final destination is dependent on what carriage you’re in. This is why when you look at the timetable on Hyperdia it actually lists two trains for every given time. On the way to Narita the trains join up at the platform and a few people always seem to freak out when the first part comes and they find that the train only takes up half the platform and there is not train where there car ought to be. We’ve seen people run down the platform with all their luggage when the front half arrives only to run all the way back down when the back half arrives a short while later.

A final shot of the Tokyo Sky Tree
There are signs in a few of the major languages but I can see how if you don’t speak any of those or miss the signs you might be quite worried about missing your train and flight

One this I forgot to mention in yesterdays post is that we had booked our NEX ticket that night. As we didn’t have the train pass anymore we had to pay for it and mistakenly thought we could get the SUICA and NEX deal. Unfortunately, the lady we spoke to had never even heard of it! I thought that I was explaining it wrong and tried pulling it up on the JR EAST website to show the lady what I meant. This prompted her to get someone who looked like a manager and who then looked it up in a massive manual they had. We were then told that the pass is only sold at the airport!


We then tried to buy just the normal ticket and were told we couldn’t, as we were at the same day ticket window!


We left pretty embarrassed and ended up just buying a ticket each from an automatic ticket machine at Hatchobori instead. 

Anyway, back to today.

The rest of the train trip was pretty uneventful. One thing I remember is that they had a big list of all the flights that were leaving that day displayed and after quite some time we were able to see our flight listed up there.

After arriving at the airport we searched around for some scales that we could use to weigh our luggage. We were getting a bit worried that wouldn’t be able to find any but eventually managed to track down a portable set of scales in an empty JAL check in line. 

The main thing I was worried about was the massive amount of books I had bought. I had considered mailing them home but thought that I’d probably be able to take them all on the plane – if not I hoped that I could mail them at the airport instead

Our limit was 20kg and filled up my suitcase with 20.1kg of books as Kate’s suitcase came to 19.9kg, hopefully they’d be happy with that.

I then put the remaining books into my carry on backpack and was pleased to find that it weighed less than the maximum 10kg. It was still freaking heavy though! 

We also weighed ourselves really quickly to make sure we hadn’t become fat during the trip!

Some other people saw us using the scales and started to line up behind us for a turn.

Once our baggage was sorted out we went over and lined up at the check in counter. As we had arrived pretty early we were about the 15th people in line. Despite this, it took us forever though to get to the counter! 

Like over half an hour! 

This was partially because they only had about four counters open but mainly because all the Japanese people in front of us had far too much luggage! Every one of them either had two suitcases and were told they were only allowed one or else had luggage that was too big and they started unpacking it at the counter!

Anyway, eventually we did get through and as it was still quite early we had a bit of a look around the airport. We had McDonalds for dinner for some reason and I had a look in a few of the bookshops. Once we’d got tired of wandering around we ended up just waiting in front of some shops in the main building near the shuttle train. As my phone was fairly flat I looked for and found a power point which I used to charge it up. Kate spent time in one of the souvenir shops (it played a Hawaii sort of noise every five minutes) and used up the rest of her money buying a few nick knacks.

Since it was a night flight and I can never sleep on a plane (which ruined the next few days for me) I had bought some phenergan and had taken 75mg an hour or two before the plane was due to depart (since it takes a few hours to kick in).

Once we had about half hour left before boarding time we went over to the little driverless shuttle train that took us over to the detached terminal building where our gate was located. Before long it was time to board and we found our seats. The flight wasn’t very full (maybe everyone was still trying to check in?) and Kate and I both managed to get a couple of seats to ourselves after takeoff.

The tablets were quite effective though I didn’t sleep anywhere near as well as I would’ve had I been in a proper bed at sea level. Still it was quite good and the trip went fairly quickly for me- it felt like four hours instead of nine. 

And that's the end of our trip to Japan!

I have one or two things left to say though and the next post for our 2012 trip to Japan will be a little one or eight paragraph epilogue about our arrival in Australia.

Continue reading: Australia

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