Everybody loves Japan. Even those who have never been there. I had always been feeling jealous watching documentaries about Queen's tours in Japan. I was intrigued by the fact that Freddie Mercury was so much attracted by Japanese art and culture. The opening of the "Lost In Translation" movie, when Bill Murray is going through Tokyo in a taxi has been ever thrilling for me. Why? Subconsciously, I realized that Japan is very different from any other country in the world. But how? Does the perception of Japan change after visiting it? I decided to write about my first trip to Japan, my impressions and stuff that surprised me the most. I'm going to divide it into a few parts so that it's easier to read. Here we go...
You ain't seen nothing yet
I should say something right away. When I was only planning and dreaming about going to Japan it seemed like I had already known quite a lot about this country. Firstly, in many people's universe, Japan is where all their favourite tech, gadgets and other electronic devices come from. Despite the fact that most of those things you can buy in stores these days are made in China, a lot of portable electronic devices (for example, your good old dusty Walkman cassette player), gaming consoles (Nintendo, Sony Playstation) and other vital things were invented in Japan. Anime and manga adored by teenagers (and not only by them) also came from Japan. Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to find a restaurant or a café that would not serve sushi or some other Japanese food. We are surrounded by so much stuff brought from or inspired by Japan that we often get a feeling that we have seen it all.
No. We ain't seen nothing yet.
Doesn't really matter how many stories you've heard or videos about Japan you've watched. You are just like me. You love Japan, even though you know nothing about it. Of course, not everyone is able to go and visit this amazing country. If, however, right now you are deciding whether you should read this article or find a cheapest ticket to Japan then, please, close this page and buy your ticket. Pictures and videos will not replace a real life experience. On the other hand, if you are planning to go to Japan only someday in the future then you have to read my story no matter what :)
Why did I even go to Japan? Firstly, I had always wanted to visit it. Secondly, my girlfriend is Japanese (that's an entirely different story), Thirdly, me and Sachiko decided to get married in Japan.
Preparing for the trip
Normally, I start preparing for travel way beforehand. Yeah, mentally. No matter how much I want to pack my stuff in advance and get some sleep every time before travelling, I start packing late night before the morning flight. And this time I'm flying from Kiev. Although, something I still managed to prepare in advance. I spent a lot of time thinking what to buy as presents for my future Japanese relatives. Eventually, I decided to order big chocolate bars with custom-drawn Odessa sights on them. You can see them in the picture. Japanese writing goes like: さちとスタース | 愛と平和 | オデッサ (meaning: Sachi and Stas | Love and Peace | Odessa).
It is also probably worth mentioning that nobody is going to let you enter Japan without a visa (if you're Russian or Ukrainian). I needed a bunch of different documents that Sachiko's mom was kind enough to send from Japan (amongst them - her income statement, detailed plan of my stay in Japan, etc.), plus our pictures together (that, apparently, the embassy thinks is a reliable proof that we are not strangers). However, the Japanese embassy does not require you to bring the booking confirmation for your flight tickets. An obviously positive moment - for Ukrainian and Russian citizens Japanese tourist is free. By the way, there is no such thing as a fiancé or a fiancée visa in Japan. If you are planning to get married to a citizen of Japan you will have to apply for a regular tourist visa.
People who usually prefer luxurious travel and top-class entertainment might want to consider getting to Japan by sea. I, like most of the people, decided to go with a good old plane. There two kinds of answers when someone is asking: how much is the flight ticket to Japan? "Expensive" and "very expensive". If your circumstances (for example, when you know exact dates of your vacation in advance) allow you to buy a ticket, say, 5-6 months before the trip, you could be lucky enough to get it for $500-$600. If, however, you got an urgent undeniable desire to go to some festival in Akihabara just for the next weekend, I don't envy you. We'd be looking at the prices $1500+. I ended up somewhere between those to possibilities. My flight by "Aeroflot" was cancelled (thanks to the noble Ukrainian government) and I had to buy a new ticket immediately. The cheapest one turned out to be a Lufthansa's route Kiev (Borispol) - Frankfurt (FRA) - Tokyo-Haneda. By the way, there are two airports in Tokyo: Narita (NRT) and a less-known one (for some reason) Haneda (HND), at least I never knew about it until I started looking for a ticket to Japan.
From Odessa to Kiev I got by an "Autolux" bus. Considering it is not possible to go to the Kiev airport Borispol by train, a direct bus is the most efficient way to get there. I still had to wait for my flight in Borispol and, since I didn't have anything to do, I suddenly decided to try doing some video blogging. Whatever came out of it you are welcome to check out here, but I'm also going to put some of those videos right here in this article. The flight to Frankfurt (LH1491) went without any problems. By the way, I liked the airport in Frankfurt a lot. There are airports that I consider to be particularly unpleasant: Borispol, Sheremetyevo, Warsaw Chopin. Airports like Zurich, Vienna and Frankfurt are very comfortable to stay in. I had never been on a long-haul flight before. Boarding the flight LH716 seemd like a big deal because it takes a lot of time to get all those people on the huge Boeing 747-8. A welcome video message featured Lufthansa stewardesses (or flight attendants) from different countries welcoming passengers on board, each in her own language. I noticed that two of them, Japanese (and probably Korean) didn't say a word and just bowed. I always like to choose a window seat but what an unfortunate mistake it was this time! In 747-8, if you have a window seat in economy class, there is almost no space under the seat in front of you (at least, I got that lucky) and there was no way to shove my backpack with the precious Odessa chocolate there. Obviously, I didn't want to put on the shelf, since I feared someone might accidentally smash that chocolate with something. So, I had to put the backpack under my knees and just forget about bending my legs for this flight.
The worst thing that could ever happen to me during the flight is oversleeping the food. It's so easy to do since I almost didn't get any sleep last night. I had to make myself to stay awake for almost two hours but I managed! After eating I crashed. It's about 11 hours and a half from Frankfurt to Tokyo but it is actually much easier than it sounds because all this time you're either sleeping or eating. When that doesn't work you can always watch a movie on monitor in front of you. The selection of movies on Lufthansa is great and will satisfy any taste. The food was also pretty good: two big meals and one snack-ish. Japanese food was present too.
At the Haneda airport
Before landing we were given a migration form that needed to be filled out. Just the usual questions: why you are coming to Japan, who are you visiting and for how many days. At the passport check, besides already usual for the Schengen area fingerprints scan, you are also required to undergo the retinal scan. Well, this process has little to do with what we see in sci-fi movies. If you do not know what is going on it is easy to think that you are just being taken picture of. Amongst other surprising things at the airport, in the baggage claim there is a person that is aligning the suitcases on the baggage carousel so that the handle is always facing the people. Another person is watching so that people do not cross the line in front of the carousel and maintains the order in the area.
In the airport I met with Sachiko and her mom. After quickly getting something to eat, she went directly to Osaka where Sachiko's grandmother lives, and we went to Saitama. I couldn't wait to show her the chocolate that I brought (intact, I have to say), because it was a surprise!
To be continued!