The landing in Narita happened on a grey, rainy afternoon, around 3.50 pm. The ANA flight was uneventful, with some bouts of turbulence as we passed over Vietnam (that seems to be a usual thing). Immigration was a breeze as always (thanks to Japan’s great relationship with Malaysia) and we got our bags quickly, even though the flight was full. We didn’t realise the extent of renovations being done to prepare for the upcoming Olympics so the usual H.I.S counter where we were supposed to exchange our vouchers for Skyliner tickets had moved and that resulted in bit of confused going up and down escalators (this was helped also by being on Whatsapp with the H.I.S agent the entire time, thanks to the mobile wifi we switched on immediately upon clearing immigration). They do now have a larger Tourist Information Counter which helped point us in the right direction, and after we got the correct vouchers exchanged we were able to get on the Keisei Skyliner 5.40 pm train.
The Keisei Skyliner is probably our favorite way to get into town from Narita. The station is 2 floors below the arrival hall, and the staff at the Skyliner counter is always extremely helpful, even offering to exchange the tickets we had to a later one since we had that earlier confusion with the vouchers. Once we boarded we settled in for the 41 minute ride into the Keisei Ueno station.
Ueno definitely had changed since last year. There’s still massive construction, but the markings and hoardings were done so well as to minimise the inconvenience for travelers with luggage. Signage was aplenty and after a bit of a walk we switched to the lines which would take us near the hotel. We had a copy of the Tokyo Subway map on our phones, and a hard copy for the kids to help them visualise the route, and this really helped. This is also one of those areas where Google Maps shines: it told us which cars to ride on so we could exit faster, the chances of getting a seat, and even which exit to look out for (because in stations like Shinjuku which serves 3 million people a day, there are literally dozens of exits).
There’s something I love about riding on the Tokyo Subway. The platform jingle, the buzz of people waiting, the near silence in the trains themselves, it’s an incredible feeling. The best bit is that even though we arrived on a Monday in the middle of rush hour, we never really felt uncomfortable, even with the kids.
We got to the Shinjuku Gyoemmae station, exited and barely 2 minutes later we reached the tiny lobby of the APA Shinjuku Gyoemmae Hotel. Check-in was a breeze, as after the counter staff confirms your booking, they hand you a card key to insert into a machine that spits out breakfast vouchers and activates your room number and wifi key, no human intervention necessary.
You don’t get tiny bottles of hotel-issued shampoos and soaps in Tokyo. You get instead massive pump bottles filled with pretty good stuff (last year in the Washington Shinjuku, all the toiletries were Shiseido). So no squeezing out the last remnants of shower gel that simply won’t lather. Here, you just use it and housekeeping refills it every few days. It’s also customary to be given pyjamas for sleeping in, and the APA provides a yukata you are also supposed to wear if you’re going to the on-site public bath (more on that later), and TWO pairs of slippers (one for the room and one to go downstairs if you want to).
So as expected, the rooms are TINY, but extremely functional. There’s a bed, large screen TV, the bathroom/tub pod with the automatic toilets we miss already, an air purifier and some hanging space for jackets. We barely had enough room to unpack the bag. But again, we were expecting this, and prepared accordingly. What was more important, at that stage, was DINNER.
Last year we fell in love with the izakaya chain Isomaru Suisan, because they had pretty good food, it seems always packed with locals, and it’s pretty good value for money (who are we kidding, it’s Tokyo, everything is expensive, but expensive is also relative when you’re there). So we headed out because at this time we were already famished. It also gave us an excuse to head out to the Isetan area of Shinjuku, with its bright lights and incredible Christmas window displays.
This particular outlet was located at a different part of Shinjuku, and had 3 floors. They immediately handed us a tablet with an English menu and directed us to go upstairs because it was just packed with salarymen and co-workers having dinner. It was smoky, loud, and smelled incredibly of grilled (and grilling) seafood. Service was quick, and once we got our orders in we dug in for the night.
After that, it was back to the hotel where we cleaned up and collapsed for the night. I did manage to check out the amenities (coin laundry and the public bath for guests in the basement) in case we needed them before winding down for the night. Ah, that bath was incredible, but that’s for another entry.