To Paradise And Back – Part 2

Purple Parking (Drop off)

We’ve recently moved a little further away from Heathrow, meaning a return taxi trip would have cost over £100, so I thought I’d try out some Heathrow parking.

After pricing up a few alternatives, Purple Parking came in cheapest at £69 for the 14 nights – this was originally £79 but if you join the Purple Parking Members Club for free, you get a discount.

When we hit the M25 to get to Heathrow it was absolutely grid locked (no surprise there) so we took the back roads. As we passed Heathrow on our way to Purple Parking, it soon became clear that it wasn’t actually that close to Heathrow; it was more like an extra 20 minutes drive in clear traffic.

We arrived, and checking in the car was very easy. The camera saw our number plate and brought up our booking. We then drove through the car park to the drop off zone, via some cameras that took photos of the car and the driver – a good security touch I thought.

We loaded our bags into the back of the minibus that would take us to Terminal 1, and 5 minutes later we were on our way. The traffic was clear, and the driver was driving pretty quickly‚ it was by no means comfortable! It took about 20 minutes to get to the terminal, and given the clear traffic and fast driver, I’m left somewhat sceptical about their published “15 minute” transfer time.

We were conveniently dropped by the entrance to Zone R (BA Premium Check In) and we made our way inside the terminal.

London – Tokyo in British Airways FIRST Class

Unusually, Zone R was like a ghost town other than a large family who for some reason thought it best to mill around where the entrance was narrowest. We walked through to the FIRST check in area, and up to the check in desks where there was no queue.

Having left our bags and collecting our boarding passes, we joined the front of the queue for security. The queue was only about 5 or so deep, but it’s still nice to jump any queue, however long!

Once through security, we made a quick trip to the IRIS registration office to get my wife Emma enrolled, and then headed to the BA FIRST lounge for a spot of breakfast.

I ordered a bacon baguette, and there was a small buffet of pastas etc. that Emma chose from (sorry – I didn’t take much notice of what healthy options were on offer!). We also worked our way through a few glasses of PJ Belle Epoque – always a welcome sight at the champagne bar.

Although our flight showed “Go to gate” we waited until it was announced as boarding by the lounge staff. It was quite a walk, but we eventually reached Gate 46, where people were boarding. There were, as usual, 2 queues – the left for Club and FIRST, and the right for World Traveller and World Traveller Plus. We joined the left queue, and were through and walking down the jetty after about 5 minutes.

When we got to the plane door, there was only one member of staff checking boarding passes. Normally there are two, but today the CSD was absent. Therefore when we showed our boarding passes, we were told where our seats were, rather than being directed to them.

As a Gold card holder, I could choose the best seats 1A/K for me at the time of booking. Unfortunately with Emma’s Blue status, she couldn’t. Therefore we chose 4E/F to be certain to sit next to each other and try again at Online Check in. Fortunately though for some reason at exactly 72 hours before the flight I was able to select 1A for myself and 1K for Emma! Result!

We took our seats, and the staff in the galley came and took our order for a pre-flight drink. Emma opted to have a nice cup a tea, but I was going to get my money’s worth and continued on the champagne! The bubbly on offer was a 1995 Charles Heidseick, which is now the standard in BA’s first class cabin. We were also brought some Japanese style canapes.

We pushed back on time at 13:45, and, unusually for Heathrow, it wasn’t long before we were airborne. We were given our wash bags, pyjamas and slippers, and once the seatbelt sign went out I nipped to the loo to get changed. A tip for those first timers in BA’s FIRST on a 747 – the first toilet on the Left side of the aircraft has a window which automatically goes transparent when you lock the door – a nice touch so you can watch the clouds go by as you make room for more champagne 🙂

The aeroplane had not been upgraded to New Club World in business class, which meant that the whole plane had not had its in flight video system upgraded to AVOD (Audio/Video On Demand). This was a bit of a shame, as it means you can’t really watch the first loop of films as you miss loads when being served meals, and for the second loop you’ve either gone to sleep or are too drunk to watch/understand!! I ended up watching Ocean’s Thirteen about 3 times before understanding it, and it really isn’t the most complex of films!

As a minimum, the CSD is meant to come round and individually greet all of the travellers in the first class cabin. If he was really into his job, he’d also go to the Club cabin and individually greet the Gold Card holders. What did our’s do? Nothing more than hand out the landing cards. He made no more appearances all flight. Pathetic.

I settled down to some dinner and had a Mark Edwards’ Foie Gras and Duck Confit with plum wine jelly and brioche croutons to start, followed by Grilled fillet of Beef with grilled marinated courgettes and Anna potatoes. For desert I worked my way through a very nice warm treacle tart with vanilla ice cream.

To avoid jet lag, I always try to sleep to the time zone that I’m flying to. In this case, Tokyo was 8 hours ahead of the UK, so by 4pm in the UK it was already midnight in Tokyo. We would be arriving at around 9am the next morning, so I wanted to get at least 5 hours sleep, but it wasn’t happening. At most I got 1 hour. It was nothing to do with the comfort, as BA’s 6ft 6inch beds are very comfortable, especially with the additional mattress they now provide, and everything to do with the fact that I was trying to sleep in what my body clock thought was the afternoon!

The only thing for it was to have a nice fresh bacon baguette and a chat to the cabin crew! I went up to the galley and got chatting to one of the crew. Mid conversation I (as always!) asked about my CIV (A score which represents how important BA consider you as a customer). Back on the Las Vegas trip it had taken a significant hit due to a lack of paid flying for a while. I was most surprised when she told me my new score – it had gone up by a good 20-odd (with Gold scores ranging between 36 and 99). She added “In fact, you’ve got the highest score in the cabin, and I can also confirm you are positively VIP!” Woohoo! That’s a nice comfort to the ego 🙂

I also chatted to another member of the crew‚ and it’s always amazing when you have one of those “it’s a small world” moments, but here’s one. Emma’s ancestors were Antarctic explorers, back in the days of Scott’s and Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions to discover and cross the unknown continent. Well‚ it turns out that so were this crew member’s ancestors! It’s a topic that I’ve recently become very interested in, and Emma’s Sister has also been to Antarctica, retracing her ancestor’s steps. I’m currently also reading the book “The Lost Men” by Kelly Tyler-Lewis, which is the fascinating true story about Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party expedition – the very one that they were on. It’s well worth a read.

I settled down again to watch a few of the comedy TV shows, and it wasn’t long before breakfast was being served. Having just had a bacon baguette, I decided just to have the full English and another glass of champagne 🙂

We landed bang on time, and disembarked from door 1L, right next to the FIRST cabin. The Club passengers were held back while we disembarked, and we made our way up the jetty to immigration, where there was no queue at all. 5 minutes later we were through to baggage reclaim, and 5 minutes after that we had our luggage. The service was very efficient.

Getting into Town
So you think you’ve arrived in Tokyo? Nope. You’ve arrived in Narita about 40 miles outside of Tokyo. To get into town you’ve got two main options (other than a Taxi which will set you back over £100).

Firstly, you can take the a “limousine bus” – sounds more glamorous than it is! This is a bus that goes a few times a day into town, and conveniently stopping at our hotel. The less convenient part is that it only goes a few times a day, and we’d have to wait over an hour for the next one. Details of when they go can be found here, and it costs Y3,000 (£12), taking around 90 minutes.

The other option (which we chose) was the Narita Express – a train which goes direct from Narita Airport to Tokyo centre station in about 50 minutes. The trains go every 30-60 minutes depending on the time of day. You can purchase your ticket in the arrivals hall at about the same price as the bus.

Having arrived at Tokyo train station, it was a simple cab ride to our Hotel, costing about Y1,500 (£6). I say simple, but it took a while to explain to the taxi driver where we wanted to go, as he (like nearly all taxi drivers) didn’t speak any English. The cabs, like everything else in Tokyo, were spotless. The drivers are smart, right down to their white gloves. I couldn’t decide if the taxis were very old or new – they were all Toyotas, and the design looked very old, but they were all so immaculate that they could have just rolled out of the show room. They all have air conditioning, and the curb side rear door is remote controlled by the driver, so he’ll open it to let you get in, and it’ll close behind you! Magic!

InterContinental Tokyo Bay

I entered the InterContinental Tokyo Bay and walked up to the reception desk to check in. I handed over my Royal Ambassador card, at which point the check in staff asked a member of staff to escort me up to the 20th Floor to check in at the Club Lounge.

The lounge staff were exceptionally friendly, gave me my room access card, and informed my I’d been upgraded to a superior corner Club room on the top floor. We then made our way up to the 24th Floor and to our room at the end of the corridor.

9 times out of 10 Royal Ambassadors are upgraded to Suites, and this was one of the few times that I wasn’t, it did turn out to be a very nice room. It was much larger than the other rooms on the floor as it was at the end of the hotel which is curved. It had a four-poster bed and a very nice marble bathroom with separate shower, two sinks, heated toilet seat, and the smallest TV I’ve seen in a long time! Large panoramic windows provided a fabulous view across the bay, and although there appeared to be a balcony, you couldn’t get out onto it. The style of the bedroom was a little dated in comparison to some of the newer stylish hotels in the city, but it wasn’t without its charm.

The hotel staff were all very polite and helpful, and our luggage (taken from our Taxi) was in our room very shortly after we were.

Having had little sleep on the flight, the first thing we did was climb into the lovely four-poster bed and get a few hours’ sleep.

As with nearly all paid stays at InterContinentals, my Royal Ambassador status meant we could help our selves to all the drinks we liked from the mini bar at no charge. This is always handy when the climate is much hotter than you’re used to.

In the evening before we went out, we thought we’d pay a visit to the Club Lounge, which offered free drinks and canapes. The canap√©s were largely local, with a few gems (like chicken nuggets) for those of us with a younger palette!

The Club Lounge also offers free breakfasts in the mornings, which we made use of every day. Though the buffet spread was not vast, it did offer a continental breakfast as well as a few cooked items such as bacon, eggs, fabulous potatoes, and also a selection Japanese dishes.

Next to the lounge is a business centre which has 2 computers offering free Internet access. It’s worth noting here that Japan doesn’t use GSM, GPRS or 3G, so your quad band Blackberries will be useless (as was mine). Some mobile phones are compatible with the Japanese networks, but if you’re planning to do a lot of travelling to Japan, make sure your mobile can handle it.

The only slight let down to the hotel was that the concierge never seemed to be around when we wanted them – namely in the evenings when we wanted restaurant recommendations, and at another time when we wanted to look get train times. Other members of staff were happy to try and help, although English is not a widely spoken language in Japan, so it became quite a game of charades!

Out & About in Tokyo Part 1
On our first night in Tokyo, we decided to go to a sushi restaurant. We had intended to ask the concierge for suggestions, but he’d clocked off a while beforehand. Another member of staff recommended a place near Ginza (the main shopping and restaurant area in Tokyo). He went out to hail a cab, and explained to the taxi driver where it was.

The taxi driver dropped us at the end of the road, and gestured the direction of the restaurant. It took a fair bit of finding, not least because we were trying to match Japanese symbols and not words!

Once we’d found the place, we had to wait outside for about 20 minutes for 2 seats to become available. This was apparently the oldest sushi restaurant in Tokyo, about 120 years old, and was quite popular.

Inside, you sit in a U-shape around the chefs who prepare the food in front of you. The chef serving our side of the table was extremely friendly, and while nobody in the restaurant spoke a word of English, we were able to work out that there were 3 menu options; “cheap”, “less cheap”, and “least cheap”. This was, unfortunately, all we could deduce, so we thought it safest to go for the least cheap, which was still only about £15 a head.

Using our phrase book we made a brief stab at saying what sorts of foods we didn’t want (e.g. eel – yuk!) and the chef set to work preparing us with a string of dishes for us to try. We started off with the brave “don’t ask what it is, just eat it” approach, on the belief that it would somehow make the stranger dishes taste better. For those that have never been to Japan, this is a million miles from what you might expect in Yo! Sushi!

All was going well (or at least all was being eaten) and we had a few local beers to help. As one strange looking dish appeared, I made the stupid mistake of asking what it was. It’s stupid because either way I was going to have to eat it (it would be rude not to). It turned out to be raw squid, which I thought would be fine. For Emma however, it was not fine. She hates cooked squid, so the idea of raw squid didn’t sit well with her. But it was too late – it was already in her mouth, and she was already wishing we weren’t sitting directly in front of the chef who wasn’t going anywhere. Emma looked at me and I noticed a mild state of panic appear on her face together with the bulge in her cheek. I told her to just swallow it and drink lots of beer, but she couldn’t – she said it was like her throat was point blank refusing to accept it! She desperately wanted to spit it out into a napkin, or go to the toilets to do it privately, but she didn’t know where they were and the bulge was too big to conceal.

This went on for about 5 minutes – before she eventually said “I’ve done it” and finished off her beer. The combination of shock and relief on Emma’s face would make anyone think she’d just finished a marathon! We thought it best to just point at things we liked the look of for the next dish before finishing up with another beer.

NEWS JUST IN! The Restaurant was called Sushi Sei. Thanks to FT’s QF009 and his colleagues on the SQTalk Forum for finding this out!
The main shopping district in Tokyo is Ginza, which was about 20 minutes walk (or a quick taxi ride!) from our hotel.

Ginza (like most of Tokyo) is a very impressive place. It had very wide streets with massive sky scrapers on either size. Everything is very clean, but doesn’t lack personality (something I felt that Singapore suffered from).

There are many expensive designer shops such as Cartier, Bulgari, Channel and D&G, as well as coffee shops, department stores, but very very few electronics shops – something I was most surprised about from Tokyo.

We visited the apple store, which was very stylish and well laid out. The shop was on 4 levels, each catering for a different market, with a cinema on one level to show you all of their products in as big and loud a way as possible!

We also went to the Sony shop, but this was a bit of a let down. It’s not nearly so well laid out, and the computer that tells you what’s on each floor was far too complicated to be useful. You had to place a card under a scanner so that the computer knew what language to display, and then press the card in certain places to simulate pressing buttons‚ which just didn’t work because it kept missing button presses, or getting the wrong one.

One evening we decided to venture out on the trains to Shibuya and try a restaurant called the Pink Cow which was recommended in the DK Eyewitness Travel Japan book we’d brought with us.

We walked to the local station, and our first task was to work out what ticket to buy. The concept is fairly simple. It costs a certain amount to travel from your station to any given station, so you use a machine to buy a ticket of that value. The machines have English on them, which is great. Great apart from one thing; the maps at our station which displayed how much it cost to go to each station were entirely in Japanese. So although we could buy tickets very easily, we had no idea how much to buy them for.

In the end we managed to find a guy at a ticket desk who was able to tell us how much we should put in the machine (in our case it was only about 80p) and we were on our way.

The trains are similar to the trains in Singapore – they’re like tube trains except they’re clean, spacious and air conditioned. In other words – they’re nothing like tube trains. They also have a computer screen that tells you how long it will take to get to each stop on the line.

We jumped off at Shibuya, and decided that as we were being adventurous, we’d walk to the restaurant rather than get a taxi. After all, we had the map in the book to guide us.

This is where we learnt our first lesson; this was a truly awful book. First of all, there was no scale to the map‚ therefore technically speaking it’s not a map, just a drawing. Secondly, minor roads were missing. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the third issue; most of the roads that were shown on the map didn’t have road names.

Just so you can really understand how bad this “map” was – the “Where to eat” section of the book recommended the restaurant, and gave a grid reference as to where it was on the map. It was indeed shown on the map, but there was no road name, there may or may not have been roads around it missing from the map, and there was no concept as to how far it was from anywhere else on the map. T’riffic.

We tried asking in a few shops, but it was a lost cause. By 11pm we were ravenous, and also noticed that most of the places around us were closing up. We walked back in the direction of the train station – every restaurant we’d passed on the way was closed.

Then we passed some steps which seemed to go underneath a building, and at the top of the steps where we stood there was a menu. We flicked through page after page of Japanese text, until suddenly a word jumped out at us that was so familiar and so absolutely perfect that we couldn’t believe it. Pizza. Emma and I didn’t even bother to look at each other, we just legged it down the stairs for fear that the restaurant may be closing.

When you arrive home from your holiday, there are certain points that you look back on as real highlights. This restaurant – hidden from its surroundings and miles away from the Tokyo we knew – was one of them. They served fabulous pizzas with good local beer, and all in a posh looking restaurant with excellent service and at pocket money prices. We loved this place, and if I knew what it was called I’d tell you.

Day Trip to Kyoto on the Bullet Train

On our second full day in Tokyo, we decided to take a day trip outside of the city to the former capital, Kyoto. There are a number of options you can take to get there, the quickest being on the famous Japanese Bullet Train.

The first thing you need to know is that you won’t see any mention of the bullet train anywhere – it’s always known by it’s local name, the Shinkansen.

The second thing to know is that the train types have quite confusing names. There are super express trains, limited express trains, rapid trains, nozomi, hikari, and kodama. The Nozomi is the fastest train, and is a super express train. It is also a limited express train. You’d think that a limited express train would somehow be slower than other trains, but the word “Limited” here appears to mean “limited stops” rather than “limited speed”.

It took a good half an hour trying to work out how to get what we wanted, which was the fastest of the trains (the Nozomi) to Kyoto, before we eventually worked out how it worked. There were no English translations, other than the words “Limited Express etc.” Eventually, about £200 lighter of pocket, we held 2 return tickets with seat reservations for the Nozomi to Kyoto in our hands.

We’d booked an early train to leave at around 8am, arriving just after 10am, and would return on a 6pm train in the evening, arriving just after 8pm. As the vast majority of services are non smoking, and since smoking has become a bit of a craze in Japan, there were a large number of Japanese stood outside the train doors, smoking (ironically) like their lives depended on it.

The train departed on time, and I mean to the minute and second. It was like everything else we encountered in Japan – incredibly efficient and precise.

I have to say that even thought the train travels at around 200 mph, it didn’t seem that fast. It was incredibly smooth, and apart from the 2 stops it made en route to Kyoto, it didn’t have to slow once.

There was a trolley with snacks and refreshments pushed down the carriages, but we’d already raided our free mini bar for refreshments. The seats were in an ABC–DE formation, so if you’re a couple travelling, the D and E seats are the best to go for.

Considering it was such a long journey, the Nozomi arrived exactly on time, and not a second later. The efficiency of Japanese services is incredible.

Kyoto station is nothing short of huge. Underneath the station there are also a vast number of shops selling everything you can imagine (except electronics again for some reason).

Running short of cash, I nipped down to the basement of Kyoto Tower where they had a Cash point. I don’t think Kyoto’s particularly over run with cash points, so I took the opportunity while I could.

When we resurfaced, we jumped into a taxi to the Chion-in Temple. This is a huge five story pagoda, towering high above the city.

We later visited Nijo Castle. As we walked up to the entrance, a group of 5 teenagers approached us asking if we spoke English. To be honest there was a fair chance we did as we were about the only European-looking people amongst a sea of Japanese. They seemed very excited that we were, and explained that they were students at Kyoto University who were studying English. They wanted to give us a free guided tour of the Nijo Castle to practice their English.

We could hardly refuse, and were quite grateful to be able to speak English to people for a change! They were very friendly, and while I can’t say the tour was the most informative one I’ve been on, they enjoyed practicing the language and asking us about our holiday.

Towards the end of the tour, it started to bucket down with sloppy wet rain, and we ran for cover. After 5 or so minutes it turned to a drizzle, so we decided to make our way to the exit. One of the boys had an umbrella which he gave to Emma for the walk back.

Once we’d reach the exit, we filled out a questionnaire for them (they scored 5 out of 5 for everything – they were very happy!) and we even added a quick note of thanks to the bottom to prove that we were real people and they hadn’t filled in the form themselves.

As we left, the guy with the umbrella tried to offer it to Emma to take with her. We politely declined, but thought it was incredibly kind of him.