Tokyo via Helsinki…
April 3, 2015
Our journey to Tokyo started at 5:45am as we wanted to be on the road by 6:30am. This was a fortunate decision. We had travelled less than five miles before getting stuck in a traffic jam. The traffic was slow-moving for an almost an hour, which gave me plenty of time to ponder what I had forgotten. Every trip, if forgot something. This time I realised that I had forgotten to put on any jewellery. Fortunately, it is all locked away somewhere safe as I had been considering not wearing it anyway. I don’t like wearing rings when I’m cycling.
Checking in at Heathrow
We arrived at Heathrow with plenty of time to check in. The baggage allowance was one case and a handbag each. We thought we would have to pay for over-size/heavy baggage. Fortunately, the check in assistant did not ask us to pay extra 🙂
As we will be cycling around, we have no room for additional items and can’t afford to buy souvenirs, so we chose not to browse the shops at Heathrow. Usually, I would have a look at the perfumes on offer, but as I seem to be becoming allergic to everything, I decided not to risk it. 🙁 Stuart and I chose to while away some time in Pret a Manger with a hot drink and an almond croissant each. Yummy!
Soon, it was time to board. We picked up several free newspapers before boarding. This was a good decision as there was no in-flight entertainment. Sadly, I didn’t have a pen, so we couldn’t do the crosswords. As usual, Stu was a gentleman and let me have the window seat. I like to periodically check that the wings are still attached.
Arriving in Finland
It was a fairly short flight, so after 2-3 hours it was time to start the descent. I hadn’t really thought much about Finland in advance but had assumed that as it is now spring that the snow might have melted. It was really exciting to come through the clouds and see that everything had a beautiful white dusting on it… However, I managed to restrain myself from shouting, “Wow! they’ve got snow here’, unlike the small boy in the seat in front of me 🙂
Helsinki Airport was surprisingly busy. I didn’t realise that it is one of the fastest routes to Asia from Europe. Over half of all of the travellers looked Asian, and the staff were doing a good job of speaking English and several other languages, none of which sounded like Finnish, which has a scary number of vowels in each word.
At the moment, Helsinki airport is being refurbished, so large areas were cordoned off. There were free wifi and charging points, but very few seats and very few places to eat. In the end, Stu and I went to Starbucks where he bought me a salad, as there was nothing else vegetarian.
Where’s my seat gone?
We found that we had not been allocated seats together, and were told that it was not possible for this to be changed. I gave Stu a big hug before we boarded the plane and then walked down the aisle to Row 54 where my seat was. My allocated seat was 54D, but the overhead labelling was a little confusing. I sat down where I thought my seat was, but after a while, a couple arrived and we decided that I was in one of their seats. This caused a problem, as none of us could locate 54D. There was an empty space on row 54 – not an empty seat, but an empty space the size of a chair.
I walked back down the aisle to a stewardess and asked her where my seat was. She gestured back down the aisle, but I explained that I could not find it. She looked a little exasperated but walked back down the aisle with me. When we got to Row 54, she seemed as surprised as me that my seat did not exist. Clearly, this was a problem. The plane looked full and I had no intention of disembarking. I wondered whether I would be upgraded.
The cabin crew started discussing the situation among themselves. I’m still not sure whether my seat existed or not, but the didn’t want to move the person who may have been in my seat as she was part of a couple. I was walked down the plane and left standing at the front. I felt really embarrassed, even though the problem was not of my making.
Films and food
Finally, an empty seat was found, in the centre of the middle row. It was next to a young Japanese guy who was on his own. As he had an aisle seat and Stu did as well, he was happy to swap with Stu, so the seat problem got resolved. 🙂
After takeoff, I decided to watch a couple of films. The first one was a family drama with some well-known actors, followed by Gone Girl. I listened to the audiobook of Gone Girl when I had my eyes layered, and although it was slow to get started, by the time I had heard the first third I was hooked (it was about 26 hours long!) the film was ok, but there are lots of parts of the novel that were left out that fleshed out the characters more.
When the staff started bringing the food around, there was another problem – although we had specifically ordered me a vegetarian meal, I was not on the list. I know that Stu had correctly completed the information online, so I can’t help but feel it was linked to the non-existence of my seat. Eventually, I was given a plain salad. I can’t say that a bowl of plain leaves excites me, but it was better than nothing. Shortly afterwards, we were served Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, which was much appreciated.
After the meal, I tried to sleep, but there had not been a pillow or blanket left on my seat and I didn’t want to cause more problems by trying to attract the air hostess’s attention, so I just curled up as best I could next to Stu dreaming about one of the best travel blanket & pillow I saw in the commercial right before boarding.
A couple of hours later, we ate breakfast. It was a very strange omelette with spinach. It was vegetarian, but I wasn’t really grateful for it!
I considered watching ‘Birdman’, but I was too tired to concentrate much, so instead I watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory.
Touchdown at Tokyo Narita Airport
After we had landed, I had to wait until the cabin was nearly empty, as my bag was in the overhead locker at the back of the plane. By the time we got to the baggage collection, our suitcases had been put out. We made our way towards the exit, as we knew we needed to unpack our bike boxes and repack everything to make it easier to carry.
The gentleman at the left-luggage facility was very kind and friendly. He carefully explained the opening hours and charges before asking us about our trip. He sounded genuinely interested, which was nice.
Our next challenge was collecting our Japan Rail passes. I got us a luggage trolley, but we couldn’t fit it into the lift with our bikes stacked sideways on it. Eventually, we got downstairs and found the place to queue… And what a queue it was! International travellers can get a special train pass, but it requires validation at the office, which can only be done in person with a passport. We queued for over 90 minutes before we were able to catch a train.
Heading into Tokyo by train
The train was an interesting one, with upper and lower seating areas. We saw the stewardess in the first class section and she directed us in the opposite direction, so we hauled all of our bags upstairs and made ourselves comfortable. After a while, the stewardess appeared again and explained that we were actually sitting in First Class – oops. We then had to carry our bags to the other end of the carriage and down the stairs.
We sat in the first seats we found, which were ones that have to be given up to the elderly/infirm/pregnant. At first, this was not a problem, as the train was empty, but it got busier and busier the closer to the city we got. When the other seats had filled, we felt we should stand, but it wasn’t easy as we each had a couple of bags along with our massive bike bags.
When we arrived in the city, we had to change trains for one stop. Again, it was a busy train, but we made it and managed to negotiate several flights of stairs to exit the station. By this time, we had been awake for 24 hours and were exhausted. I was struggling to carry everything, so Stu left me with the bags and went to locate the hotel. He checked us in, so we just needed to get up to our room.
Exploring the local area
After a nap and a shower, we both felt much better, although we didn’t really want to get up. We went out to explore the area around the hotel. It’s in quite a quiet district, so there were not many restaurants or shops.
We managed to locate an Italian restaurant, but I was frustrated that I could not remember much of my Japanese. After some discussion with the waiter, we placed an order and then waited to see what would arrive. Success! We got some olives, a mixed salad, spaghetti bolognese for Stu and a margarita pizza for me 🙂 I was quite thirsty and would perhaps have preferred a large glass of water, but we also ended up with 4 glasses of rose wine!
When we got back to the hotel, we both wanted to go to bed but decided that we had better assemble our bikes. We need to put both wheels back on, straighten the handlebars, put the saddle back on, reattach the pedals and attach the pannier rack. My bike was fine, but Stu’s was much more challenging. It took quite a lot of head-scratching and we had to do some improvement with his rear mech hanger. Finally, it was done – time for a well-deserved sleep.
Japan is notorious for being challenging to navigate, so we got up early to be able to cycle the 6km to Shimbashi. We thought we would cycle to the right area, and when we had located the shop, we could buy breakfast in a nearby coffee shop. We removed the front wheel from each bike, covered them up with their travel bags and went outside the hotel. Reassembling them outside attracted a bit of attention – especially from an elderly Chinese lady who seemed to think my helmet was hysterical. Only children here wear helmets.
Once our bikes were assembled, we changed shoes and went to head off… But Stu’s chain fell off. We tried to fix it but realised that there is still a problem with the rear mech hanger. We didn’t have enough time to fix it, so we wrapped the bikes up again and went back into the hotel.
Catching a train to go for a bike ride
A swift change later and we were at the train station. It was after 8am, so the trains were packed with commuters. I didn’t see any staff with white gloves pushing people onto the trains, but everyone pushes hard until anyone who is on the platform has been squeezed into the train. It was hot and uncomfortable, so I was relieved that we didn’t have to go far.
When we got out at Shimbashi, we consulted my printed notes. Unfortunately, only the first half of the directions had been printed, so Stu sorted out his phone so that we could use Google maps.
I had been warned that lack of punctuality is very discourteous in Japan, so I was worried we would arrive after 9am. We arrived on the dot and found out that there would be some other people on our tour who hadn’t yet arrived. This gave us time to catch our breath… And choose our bicycles.
All of the bicycles were made by Tokyo Cycle, which is a popular brand here. They are plain colours and have 8 gears, as well as a stand. I was surprised by how light they were. I chose a blue-grey bike and Stu picked a lime green one.
Our guide for the trip was a lovely young man called Nori. The other guests were a couple who live in Singapore: Simon, who was from Singapore and his friend who was Norwegian.
Bicycle tour of Tokyo
The first stop on the tour was Ginza. This is Tokyo’s high-end shopping district, so we didn’t spend long there. It has a famous building with this clock tower which has featured in many movies.
Ginza is also where the largest and most famous kabuki theatre is. There was a special event going on as a kabuki actor was receiving a new name today.
Tsukiji fish market
The next stop was Tokyo’s fish market. It is the largest fish market in the world. This area has been a fishing area for over 400 years. The market has existed in the same building for 80 years. A new fish market is currently being built and it will move there next year. This is part of the regeneration for the 2020 Olympics. Although I don’t eat fish, the market was a fascinating place with lots of smells, colours and sounds.
There appeared to be no driving laws in this area. Workers from the fish market were driving all over the place on little electric carts.
We also stopped at the site of the first Nishinomiya restaurant. This is a well-known chain that also has branches in Singapore. It is a kind of fast food.
Cycling next to the Sumida River
The next part of our tour took us along by the river. It was very windy and as the trees are in full bloom, the petals were falling like snow.
We turned back inland to a residential area. We could smell some delicious food, so we stopped at a little shop. It was selling cooked items that people eat as side dishes or meal accompaniments. There were all sorts of things, such as tuna and crab… And even grasshoppers. Our guide told us that although he likes most of the items very much, he doesn’t like grasshopper!
We then moved onto one of the man-made islands. The cherry blossoms were particularly beautiful. Behind us, there was an old lady who had lots of beautifully multi-stemmed orchids on her steps. I asked whether it was a flower shop as I assumed that the old lady grew the flowers. Nori asked a few questions and then explained everything to us. A company had bought the orchids for a corporate event. Then the flowers had been given to the old lady who was selling them. Whilst we were there, quite a few other old ladies stopped by to buy the flowers. They were very expensive and are the kind of flowers that are usually used for celebrations in Japan.
Next stop, Gundam Front
The weather turned a bit grey and cloudy at this point. We cycled off over a bridge, where we could see the work being done on the new fish market. We were also able to see the only barbecue area in Tokyo. Outdoor fires are banned. I assume this is because the area is so populous and a fire could be devastating.
Next stop was over the Bridge of Big Dreams to Odaiba. We arrived just in time to see the Gundam show. Gundam is a popular robot character from anime. Outside the shopping centre is a massive statue of Gundam that was created to celebrate his 30th anniversary. The statue has a moving head and flashing lights for eyes. He is clearly a popular character amongst Japanese youth. We could also see an enormous Ferris wheel. It was not until we got close to it that I could see just how large it was.
We then cycled off along by the river again and through another park. This time we passed a television crew who were interviewing people about the cherry blossoms. There was also an enormous replica of the Statue of Liberty, which seemed a little incongruous.
Traditional Japanese lunch
It was then time for our lunch break. We went into a Japanese restaurant, where Nori was able to order me some rice and vegetable tempura. We also had some salad as a starter. It was a very filling meal that tasted delicious.
After lunch, we had a boat trip around the local area, before landing back on the main island. We arrived at the jetty just before an enormous ‘ninja ship’ arrived. I think Nori said it was used for a film about the Shogun and now hosts ninja shows.
We then cycled on to my favourite part of the tour: a visit to Zosoji Temple. As the location is very old, it combined Buddhism and Shinto. There was a special event going on today, so we couldn’t see inside the temple. The service was being broadcast, so we could hear some beautiful traditional chanting. The original temple was destroyed in World War II. The temple that we saw is a large modern building built in a traditional style. It is interesting to see it juxtaposed against the Tokyo tower on the skyline.
Nori taught us the traditional way to wash before visiting the temple – how we should use the scoop to ladle up water and wash both hands as well as our mouths. Like the tea ceremony, every movement has to be done in a precise manner.
The temple is dedicated to a spirit who looks after the souls of unborn children. There were hundreds of little statues of children. Parents who are praying for their stillborn infants dress the statues. Most had on traditional knitted red bonnets and neckerchiefs, but a few were wearing much more modern clothes.
Behind the smaller temple, we saw the mausoleum of the Shogunate. It was very peaceful there. It is a popular place for people to visit. We saw a group of young women who were wearing kimonos for their cherry-blossom viewing.
There were also the usual things that can be seen at many other temples and shrines. These pieces of paper represent people’s wishes/prayers.
The final stop on our cycle tour was to see the Tokyo Tower. It was built after the Second World War out of old battleships. This was to symbolise that Japan didn’t need them anymore and wanted to lead a peaceful existence. After many skyscrapers were built, it no longer served its purpose and a taller antenna was built. For many people, the orange and white shape is symbolic of Tokyo.
We then cycled back to Miracle Cycle Tour’s headquarters, where Nori reminded us of our route and served us some rice cakes and drinks. It was sad for our tour to end. Nori was a brilliant guide – friendly and informative.
Returning to our hotel
The trains back to our hotel were much less crowded than in the morning. We left the station via a different exit. I was amused to see some photo opportunities. I think Stu was less amused!
When we got back, we spent a bit of time in the hotel lobby as it’s the only place in the hotel with wifi. Then Stu had a nap whilst I went out foraging. Neither of us was very hungry, so I decided to walk to a bakery that we saw when we arrived.
I couldn’t read many of the signs in the bakery, but that wasn’t a problem as it was self-service. That’s a bit like Russian roulette for a vegetarian. I selected something with a frankfurter in it for Stu and spied something square with beans in it that I fancied. I also selected what I thought was a green tea bun and another item that looked like it might be sweet potato.
When I left the bakery, I used the footbridge to cross the road and walked back done the street to a shop I saw earlier. I had assumed it was a supermarket, but when I got close to it, I could see lots of toiletries and jars of tablets. It was a convenience store and not just a pharmacy. I noted that it sold lots of noodle pots, including one that seems to be yasai ramen, or vegetable noodles, so that might be a meal later this week.
I selected a large bottle of water and then looked for another drink. Coca-cola looked tempting, but what’s the point in travelling half-way around the world to eat and drink exactly what you would have at home? I selected a small bottle with a milky green fluid in it. No idea what it was, but it looked healthy!
Sampling our food
When I returned to the hotel, we settled down for our feast. Stu thought his cold hot dog thing was ok, and I enjoyed my bean paste bun. We then split the other two items. The ‘sweet potato’ cake turned out to be some sort of maple syrup swirl, which was unusual, but not as much of a surprise as the ‘matcha’ bun that wasn’t green tea. When I broke it in half, I saw that it was orange inside and had some sort of creamy filling. A single bite proved just how wrong I was. It was a delicious cantaloupe melon bun. The drink went well as it also tasted of melon flavoured 🙂
Has any food ever surprised you? Is there any Japanese food that you can recommend to a vegetarian? Also, if you can recommend anywhere to eat in Tokyo, let me know!