Volume IV: Day 1–Ikebukuro, the Marshlands

I’ve decided to go back to my naming scheme from Volume II, just because – i.e. the out-of-context translation of the kanji in a place name relevant to the post. Though, this one’s not quite out of context – the kanji that make up the name “Ikebukuro” actually mean “bag of ponds”, but I didn’t think that was quite so catchy a name, so I went with the historical etymology.

So yeah, today I flew to Japan! One of the weird quirks of the sale under which I bought the tickets was that all flights went via Brisbane, so off to the Domestic Terminal I went! The flight took off at 7:30 am, but remembering how much time I spent waiting around at the airport before my trip in 2017, I made sure to call the Uber at a much more reasonable hour. But still not very reasonable. As an added bonus, I didn’t leave anything behind this time. Checked in without a hitch, headed inside, bought a few things (my customary Readers’ Digest, a packet of tic tacs for occasional snacks, et cetera) rode the sole moving walkway left in the Qantas terminal, then boarded the flight.


This flight was on a plane with a 3-3 seat arrangement – I booked a window seat (right over the wing, as I always seem to manage to do), and there was a woman in the aisle seat, but noone in between us which was nice – no armrest battles, we could stretch out a bit, and so forth. I remembered to have my iPad on hand for the entertainment system, but wound up just reading the American Readers’ Digest I bought on the way home at Doha airport last year, and doing crosswords. They served us breakfast – I chose the ham and cheese toasty, but it was very teensy. Quite tasty, though – fancy ham, fancy cheese, fancy bread.


As we landed in Brisbane – an hour and ten minutes later, according to the captain, but only ten minutes later according to my watch – it ocurred to me that I’ve never really visited Brisbane aside from passing through the airport a few times. The only capital city in Ausrtralia I’ve not visited, aside from Hobart, and I’ve never been to Tasmania at all. For some reason, the back half of the plane deplaned through the back door – i.e. down the stairs and across the tarmac – while the front half walked over the skybridge. What is this, a country town airport? On the plus side, I did get a nice view of the plane.


At Brisbane, I had to get the shuttle bus to the international terminal. My internet research ahead of time, and all the signage there, said I needed to wait for the orange shuttle bus, but then the blue long-term parking bus pulled up, and the driver said he was going to the international terminal anyway, so we all hopped on. At the international terminal, I realised I had only about a half hour left until my next flight departed, and was a bit concerned by the length of the queue at security, but fortunately I made it through in just a quarter-hour – including being randomly selected for an extra test – then headed to the gate… and wound up waiting, because the plane was a bit late to board.


When we eventually boarded, I sat in my new seat (window again, and again over the wing) and waited for a seat mate to turn up – this plane was a 2-4-2 arrangement. And waited. And waited until the captain ordered the cabin crew to lock the doors – nice, my very own row. As an added bonus, the woman behind me also lacked a seat mate, and she was sitting in the aisle seat, leaving me free to recline my chair all the way, put up the armrest, and just spread out.

They fed us lunch shortly after takeoff – at about 11am Brisbane time. A bit early for lunch, I thought. Granted, that was noon in Sydney, but it still felt quite early. I had braised wagyu beef with baby onions, polenta and roasted carrots. Plus a side of focaccia, and a citrus and matcha cheesecake for dessert. Then they put the plane in night mode – shades down, lights off. But… it was full daylight outside, and we’d be landing only just after sunset. Guess they wanted us to be asleep… and docile.


I settled down to watch some movies. First, the Secret Life of Pets 2 (amusing, and with a three-concurrent-plots arrangement that I don’t really recall seeing in movies – it’s more of a TV show thing), then Apollo 11 (the long-awaited prequel to Apollo 13, though I can kinda see why they waited, because not a great deal happens in the movie – and the actor they chose to play Buzz Aldrin looks kinda like Tom Hanks, which I thought was a mistake, since he was in Apollo 13), then A Dog’s Journey, then a Japanese film called Organ (about a group of women in WWII trying to run a kindergarten in a country town for children evacuated from Tokyo, and I was kinda hoping for a grand uplifting story about everyone striving together for the greater good, but… it wound up being kinda bleak, and apparently based on a true story – the name, incidentally, refers to the reed organ that one of the main characters plays a few times, but I’m not sure it was given enough importance to be worthy of having the movie named after it, aside from everyone (and the camera) giving it a significant glance right near the end).

And that got me all the way to landing time. They served us lemon myrtle Weiss bars in the middle, and shortly before landing there was a snack of samosas and cauliflower pakora with tamarind sauce… with no cutlery, and it was kinda messy, though tasty. And then we landed, in fog and rain. And it took us twenty minutes to taxi to the terminal.


I arrived at Narita Airport – somehow, I seem to have a trend of always arriving at the same Tokyo airport that I departed from last time (and I kinda wish I hadn’t noticed that, because next trip I’m gonna find myself going “oh, I have to book this more expensive / less convenient flight so that I don’t break the pattern”). For this first night, I’m staying in Ikebukuro – and I realised in planning that if I could get through customs and immigration quickly, there was a Narita Express direct to Ikebukuro Station that left just under an hour after our landing. And I did get through customs and immigrations quickly, but… there was a huge queue at the JR Pass exchange office. So I missed the train. Bah. (Side note, one thing in these pictures that amused me: big banner ads advertising toilets. At the airport. To all the new visitors to the country.)


I also got distracted en route by a wall display about the Anime 88 Pilgrimage – it’s a newish tourist attraction modelled after the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, which highlights 88 locations around Japan that were featured in well-known anime. Narita Airport is included as stop number zero, and it’s got a stamp, and some cards to stamp them on. I’ll be passing a few of the 88 during this trip, though not all of them have stamps.


Eventually got my JR Pass exchanged, and booked a seat on the next express. For the first time, instead of getting an all-Japan JR Pass, for this trip I’ve bought a JR East Pass covering the Kanto and Tohoku regions. Unlike the all-Japan pass, the JR East Pass can only be used on five specific days (which don’t have to be consecutive) in a fourteen-day period, which meant I had to sit down beforehand and work out which five days were my most expensive days – and getting from Narita to Ikebukuro turned out to be the fifth most-expensive day, even if I rode the cheaper private-line Skyliner express. (Slightly weird: if I went with the more expensive N’EX, it cost me less.) The JR East Pass represented a saving of about 20,000 yen over a 14-day all-Japan pass (which itself was a savings – though only slightly – over just buying all the tickets) so it was a bit of a no-brainer.


Got off the Narita Express at Tokyo Station – which was quite crowded; guess it’s the Friday evening second rush hour, perhaps – and went off to buy a few things. For starters, I need a new station stamp book… but after finding one in the first shop I walked into in 2017 and the second shop in 2018, this time I tried three shops with no success (though I confess I’m not completely certain whether they honestly didn’t have any, or just didn’t want to deal with the foreigner). Kind of annoyed at the waste of time. It’s also far more humid than I expected, so by the time I was done dragging my luggage from shop to shop, I was getting quite damp. Tossing up whether to (a ) keep trying shops, (b ) just buy a regular blank notebook, or (c ) not collect station stamps this time around…


I stopped for dinner at a place specialising in omurice and other egg dishes – I had cheesy beef stew omurice doria, which sounds like ten-car pileup of several different dishes, but it was quite tasty.


Also got some cash out – remembered my PIN this time – topped up my Suica card, and headed for Ikebukuro.


Once there, I stopped by the Seibu private line station to see if I could buy express tickets for tomorrow – I’m heading to my next destination first thing (Ikebukuro is just a place to break my journey so I don’t have to travel until midnight). And also there’s some rumblings that due to the incoming Typhoon Hagibis, all train lines in and around Tokyo are going to stop running at around 1pm. Unfortunately, the ticket office had closed before I got there (as I knew it would – it closed before I even got on the N’EX), and when I asked the guy in the manned ticket gate about it, he made an X with his arms (a common Japanese body language meaning “no” or “no good”) and said “all gone” in English, but I confess I don’t entirely know if he meant that all the tickets had been sold, or if all the limited express trains had been cancelled. Rather than gamble on having better luck tomorrow morning, I’ve decided I’ll just go for the 7:05 rapid express, which doesn’t require seat reservations – slightly slower and cheaper than the 7:30 limited express, but the limited express is also in the fancy new LAVIEW trainsets and might have been nice to ride in. Bah.

(Side note, LAVIEW is a good example of how Japan seems to like forming acronyms in weird ways. L stands for Luxury, A stands for Arrow (as in, fast as an, but it’s also the newest version of the Red Arrow trainsets, so there’s a link there), and VIEW stands for VIEW, because there’s one outside the nice big train windows. It’s just three separate words glued together, not an actual title or noun phrase or suchlike.)

After all that wasted time running around looking for things and finding very little, I didn’t arrive at my hotel until 11pm (after timing how long it’d take for me to walk from the Seibu station – or rather, to the Seibu station tomorrow morning). Plus, it was starting to rain in earnest. I’m staying at another Toyoko Inn – it’s much bigger than I’d expected; you can’t see it all from the road. There’s actually four rows of rooms – I’m in one of the interior rooms, but it does have a window… looking into a light well, perhaps, but it’s too dark to tell at 11pm. Also, the front windows are crossed with tape as a typhoon damage prevention method. A teeny bit disconcerting.


By this point, it was clear to me that my plans for tomorrow were an absolute washout. Uh, no pun intended, but yeah, bucketing rain is also involved. Forecast probabilities of 50-knot winds only climbed higher and higher as the date grew closer, and they’d be starting earlier and earlier, and by the time I landed in Japan, they were at 100% probability starting at about noon. I’d hoped I could switch my Saturday and Monday plans and somehow muddle through anyway (because Monday’s plans were in the town centre meaning I could bail any time things turned for the worse), but with 100% chance of a typhoon landing on my head at lunchtime, that wasn’t really happening. However, I still needed to take the early morning train anyway, for fear of not getting out of Tokyo at all before the trains were cancelled.

Nothing to do now but get to sleep…

Today’s photo count: a hundred and seventy-seven

Today’s step count: 10,923 – 7.6km – 7 flights of stairs

Today’s stamp count: One, the Narita Anime 88 stop zero.

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