To Paradise And Back – Part 5

Tahiti – Tokyo in Air Tahiti Nui Business Class

The check in desks were immediately in front of us as we entered the terminal. There was no queue at the Business/First desk for Air Tahiti Nui, and the whole process was as simple as it had been in Tokyo. I did ask how much it would cost to upgrade to First Class, but was told it was full. As it was a daytime flight I wasn’t so concerned with the non-flat seats in business.

I was more concerned that there was only one English film on the route and I’d seen it on the way out! Unlike British Airways, Air Tahiti Nui don’t change the films based on the direction you’re flying, they only change them depending on the route flown. Still, I had plenty of my book left to read, so it would give me time to get into it.

Once we’d checked in, we had to carry our luggage to a conveyor belt before proceeding through security to departures. At the passport control desk, the guard gave our UK passports a cursory glance and gave us the nod. However Emma knew that I was a little miffed that I’d come all this way and hadn’t got a stamp in my passport, and so she asked if he would stamp them for us, which he did – result 🙂

On the left after passport control was a tax man. When we purchased the pearls from Bora Bora we were given a couple of forms to fill in and give to the airport tax man on our departure to show that we really were taking the goods out of the country. If we didn’t, we’d have to pay the consumption tax (16%) which had been removed when we bought them. A stamp of the forms, and a copy went in an envelope to be posted back to the shop (which they had provided). All very easy.

This then got me thinking. In the Apple store in Tokyo Emma had bought a new iPod Nano without tax, and they’d glued something into my passport. On the way to the lounge I decided to have a read of it, and noticed at the bottom it said “This must be given to a customs official before your departure from Japan. Failure to do so will mean you must pay the consumption tax or be liable for‚” Oh Bugger. Would have been nice if they’d told me in the Apple store! Now the question is, would they query it when they checked my passport as I re-entered Tokyo?

We’d been given a map of how to get to the lounge; It wasn’t difficult, but there were no signs which didn’t make it easy! We took a lift up to the next level where there which appeared to be a smoking area. Fortunately in the lift was also a member of staff who was escorting a female traveller. I didn’t recognise them, so according to my mate Alex, that means they’re not famous. The staff member led the lady across the smoking area to an unmarked door (or if it was marked I didn’t notice), and on the other side lay Air Tahiti Nui’s lounge.

To be honest, I was expecting more from the lounge at Air Tahiti Nui’s main hub. The lounge was basically two largish rooms with old green sofas and low tables. There was a fridge with juices and beers, a magazine and paper rack, and that’s about it. There were no computers, and the drinks selection was very limited. We had a couple of beers while we read our books, and waited for our flight.

One thing I hadn’t realised was that after reaching Tokyo, our flight would then continue to Osaka. This was one of the airports that AA couldn’t quite work out if I could fly to and from when redeeming my miles, but I was glad I’d got Tokyo.

Our flight was called, and we made our way to the gate. We had to walk out to the aeroplane as there was no jetty. There was however a separate set of steps for First and Business Class, and staff at both top and bottom checking boarding passes. Again we were given a flower to put behind our ear and we took our seats; 3A and 3B – the same as the flight out.

The cabin was less full than on the flight to Tahiti, and we had nobody in front or behind us, which meant we didn’t have to worry about invading the personal space of the person behind or being encroached on by the person in front.

Sitting on the left hand side meant that at last we would see the islands as we flew over them. It wasn’t as good a view as from the Air Tahiti flight, but it was better than nothing.

For some reason on this flight there were no menu cards, which meant the crew had to explain each dish option as they served it from the trolley. In some cases we couldn’t be sure what was on offer, so we made a best guess by how it looked!

As the flight was from 7:30am to around 3pm (local times), the 3 meals served throughout the flight were Breakfast, Brunch, and Lunch! I heartily approve of having all three, and hope to build this into my daily routine at home.

I had about 2 hour’s attempted sleep during the flight, and made good progress with my book. There was little else to do other than eat, drink and read – the lack of films was quite frustrating, and I wasn’t going to ruin the holiday by watching “Hula Girls”!

In the amenity kits they also provide stickers that you can place on your seat top for “Wake me for meals / duty free”. I can’t say I was too impressed when I saw this photo on the camera!

The crew were all excellent. In fact one of the crew members was one we’d had on the flight out to Tahiti, and she remembered us and that we were in the same seats. Fortunately we didn’t have the Moody Trudy from the previous flight, so our departing impressions of Air Tahiti Nui were very good.

We landed on schedule, and we disembarked through the dual-jetty into Narita’s Terminal 2S. A quick shuttle ride back to the main terminal saw us to immigration, where they didn’t bat an eyelid at the tax form stapled in my passport (or to the fact that my last immigration stamp to Japan was only a week ago!)

We took the escalator down to baggage reclaim where we awaited our bags. Once again they were first off, but we did have the unwelcome surprise that the handle of one of our hold-all bags had been pulled away from the bag and ripped part of it. It wasn’t an expensive bag, but it was now unusable without being repaired.

This is always a bit of a pain as, although I’ve got travel insurance, it still means getting forms and quotes etc. – I wasn’t sure I could be bothered. I went over to the Baggage Information desk to show them the damage, and I was truly shocked by their attitude. They were very sorry that it had happened, and they had two or three members of staff filling in forms, gathering my information and dealing with it. It was fast, friendly and incredibly efficient.

They asked how long I was in Tokyo, and I replied that it was only for 2 nights. Unfortunately this was not long enough for them to repair my bag, so they gave me two options; 1) They would give me the relevant forms and I could make a claim to their Paris office, or 2) They would give me £40 there and then and I would waive my right to claim. Given the hassle of claiming, and that the bag was probably only worth about 40 quid, I took the money. All in all, it was no more than 15 minutes from finding my bag ripped to receiving compensation. Very impressive.

With only 10 minutes to spare we legged it through customs and to the train station where we bought tickets for the Narita Express, and made it down to the platform just as the train was approaching. Emma spent the hour’s journey catching up on a bit of sleep, and I dug out the world’s worst book on Japan to plan out the next couple of days.

The taxi driver had never heard of the Conrad hotel, but in all fairness it hadn’t been around long. I showed him a map I’d printed off of the web before we’d left the UK, and he tried to match this up to his large map of Tokyo while he drove. 10 quid later and we’d arrived.

The Conrad Tokyo

Our bags were loaded onto a trolley and we were led inside to a lift. I could tell this was a good hotel because the lift was so smooth we didn’t even realise it was moving. As we stepped out of the lift on the 28th floor, we were immediately impressed with the reception and bar area, with it’s high ceiling, stylish design, and impressive view.

The Conrad chain is part of the Hilton HHonors status and reward programme, and I’d used points collected from my stays in the Hilton Manchester to stay at the Conrad. There was no separate queue for those with HHonors status, but there were also 3 check-in desks free so it would have been of limited benefit.

As with just about everyone else I’d encountered in Japan, the check in staff were very polite. I was welcomed to the hotel and advised that as a Diamond HHonors member I’d been upgraded from a Classic Room (read: basic) to a King Classic Suite (read: much nicer!). I was also provided with vouchers for a continental breakfast for each day of my stay (another status perk), which I could have served to my room at no extra cost.

It’s worth noting here that Hilton HHonors is one of the few programmes that gives you full status benefits even on reward stays. Even though I used points for the room, I still counted as a qualifying stay, earning points and in this case receiving a better upgrade than any I’d had when paying!

We were escorted by another member of staff up to our suite on the 34th floor‚ and we instantly fell in love with it. It was very stylish, with a lamps, plants, large plasma screens with hidden DVD players in both the living room and the bedroom, a walk in (and out the other side!) wardrobe, and a very nice bath/wet room complete with Conrad rubber duck and full size Shiseido products (oh, and a couple of toilets with those nice heated seats and jet-wash systems!) Also present was a room service table with an anniversary cake I had requested as a surprise for Emma. The doors between each room were also very cool as they folded away and sat flush in the walls.

A little tired from the flight, we decided to spend the evening enjoying the hotel’s facilities rather than venture out on another wild goose chase to find the Pink Cow. We started with drinks in the hotel’s bar, which we saw in with a round of mojitos.

After another few drinks (and once Emma had ensured she’d polished off every last Japanese cracker, whilst avoiding the less tasty green things) and we were ready for dinner.

The Conrad has a number of excellent looking restaurants; Japanese, Chinese, French, and of course, Gordon Ramsay’s. It would be in our “Effing” chef’s latest restaurant that we would be dining tonight, and I was pleasantly surprised by that the prices didn’t seem as high as they were back in the UK (not that I’ve experienced the food in the Gordon’s Royal Hospital Road restaurant‚ just the credit card bill!)

The head chef was English, a guy aptly named Andy Cook who had been trained by Gordon, and who in turn was training a Japanese chef to soon take over. Throughout the meal we saw Andy checking every single dish before it went out, ensuring the presentation was perfect, and there was no room at all for even the slightest customer grumble.

The food was incredible – cooked to perfection and full of flavour. Even though it was poncey food, there was plenty of it, and it was all washed down with a lovely bottle of Cloudy Bay.

What was odd was that we were asked to choose desert at the beginning of the meal. This was however for one reason – his signature dish, an apple tart, takes about an hour to cook. An hour! We did go for it, but by the time desert came Emma had a bit of a headache, so they very kindly sent it up to our room. But they didn’t just pop it on a plate and send someone up with it – our same waiter delivered it, and prepared it on a table in our room so that it didn’t get cold and so the ice cream didn’t melt. How good is that?!?

Oh, and it goes without saying that the desert was incredible. Seriously, seriously good, and worth the 1 hour preparation time.

The next morning we had a full English breakfast served in our room. There was no charge for room service, and all we had to pay was the £3.50 difference between a continental and full English breakfast. Bargain.

We also had breakfast in the restaurant the following day – it was a buffet service with the same food as the room service. There was a wide selection, and being in the restaurant meant I could make repeated visits to the buffet counter 🙂

The hotel also has a small Business Centre that has two PCs with Internet access which can be used for free.

The Conrad Tokyo is one hotel that I would definitely return to. I can’t think of anything about our stay that didn’t exceed my expectations, and I’d recommend it to anyone staying in Tokyo.

Out & About in Tokyo Part 2
Electronics Shops
Having been at a loss as to why there were no electronics shops around, I decided to ask someone. It turns out that all of the electronics shops are in one place – Kanda in the Northern are of Tokyo.

We jumped on a train to the nearest station Akihabara, which took about 15 minutes from Ginza station.

As we came out of the train station, we were right in the heart of the electronics shops. There were no shortage of neon signs and English notices about duty free prices.

We spent a good hour or so wandering around the shops. While the prices were cheaper than the UK, unless you’re looking for something specific, everything’s still too expensive to be an impulsive buy.

I’m still completely baffled why all of their mobile phones are huge. I’d expected them to be the size of an AAA battery, but they’re bigger than any I’ve seen in a long time. If any one can shed any light, answers on a postcard‚

Lost In Translation – Our DIY Tour!

Every time I’ve watched the film Lost In Translation, I’ve wanted to go to Tokyo, so it only seemed right that I visited a few places from the film.

The Park Hyatt, Tokyo
The Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo was the central location in the film, so a visit to the bar was definitely in order. We took the train to Shinjuku station and got a taxi from there.

A lift took us up to around the 40th floor, and after a quick snake through the building we took another lift up to the top floor to a stunning view of the city.

The “New York Bar” was the one used in the film, and it was no less grand in real life. It was very lively, and had a band playing the classics (although it would have made my night if they’d played “Midnight at the oasis”.

The photos aren’t great because of the poor light, and I really didn’t want to use a flash and look like a tourist!

There was a per-person cover charge for the bar, which incidentally was more than each of our mojitos, and I was tempted to go for one of their cheese burgers which the waiter claimed to be “the best in Tokyo”, but at something like 30 quid I decided to pass.

Karaoke (meaning “empty orchestra”) is big business in Japan. Remember this scene? Well that’s where we were headed.

Karaoke-kan in Shibuya’s Center Gai is where it all happened, and more specifically in rooms 601 and 602. Given our experiences in Shibuya the previous weekend, we decided to get a taxi there from the Park Hyatt.

We told the taxi driver that we wanted to go to Center Gai, and he had absolutely no idea where we meant. After about 3 or 4 minutes of driving he suddenly realised “Aaaah. Center-Gaion” (or that’s what it sounded like anyway). He also for some reason drew us a road and I think he was suggesting he lived near it. Still, we were eventually on our way.

As the taxi pulled to a stop, although we had no idea where we were, we could say one thing for sure. This wasn’t where we were meant to be. 5 more minutes of gesturing and trying to pronounce Center Gai in as many different ways as we could think of, and then suddenly he got it.

“No no no no no no no no! CentER Gai? Oh no no no no no no no!”. He seemed very upset! We were now hopefully going in the right direction, although he never stopped saying “no no no” – I think we’d ruined his evening, but I’m still not sure how!

When the taxi stopped this time, we were much more hopeful. It was a busy part of town with plenty of neon lights. We paid the dismayed taxi driver, and set about looking for the karaoke bar‚ which wasn’t easy – primarily because everything was in Japanese. We wandered around for a sign – anything – that might tell us where our karaoke place was. Nothing.

We went into a shop and found someone that spoke pseudo-English, but all she was able to tell us was that there were Karaoke places in Tokyo. Right. I then asked a police officer about the place “karaoke-kan”, and after chatting with about 3 of the other officers in their tiny make-shift police station in the middle of the pavement, they were able to direct me to the place – a whole 10 metres away, just across the road!

I think we can be forgiven for not realising that this place was where we wanted to be! We went in, muttered something about Karaoke and Lost In Translation, and they knew exactly what we wanted. We went all the way to the top of the stairs where we were allocated room 601, which is right on the curved corner of the building, one down from the top floor.

We ordered a couple of beers, and then set about working out how the hell to use the karaoke machine! We had a couple of wireless microphones and a wireless control panel. We were able to select an English language for the screen, but some of the buttons on the control were in Japanese. Still, it all went swimmingly in the end and it wasn’t long before we were singing away.

We did also film a bit on the video camera, but I certainly haven’t had the bottle to play it back – not given my performance. I’m still shocked even now.

Hama Detached Palace Garden
We went here as it’s somewhere that Emma wanted to go, but I forgotten until I watched the Lost In Translation trailer again that it’s also in the film.

The gardens are immediately outside the Conrad Hotel where we were staying, so we decided to go there on the morning we left Tokyo, just before we went for our flight.

The 25 hectare garden was built in 1654 as a retreat for the shogun’s family. Today it’s a peaceful area in the middle of a busy city, although the towering skyscrapers around can feel imposing. All of the original tea houses, villas trees and vegetation burned down after a bombing raid in 1944, although much of it has been faithfully rebuilt including the Nakajima teahouse. We’d have stopped for a cup of green tea had we time.

After a stroll around the gardens, all that was left was to start the 6,000 mile trek back home.