The flight had gone as well as could be expected, but we were still all exhausted from our travel. Clearing customs had been relatively painless, although it did involve a little standing around in queues, something that Hannah was able to handle even better than some of the frustrated-looking adults around us! Finally, we walked through the exit doors. We were at our destination, we had officially arrived in Tokyo, Japan! Of course, we still had the little obstacle of using public transport in a foreign city to find our Airbnb accommodation, in a private apartment complex located on a tiny backstreet of the notoriously hard to navigate Tokyo suburbs… No worries.
Train Ride to Roppongi
Emma speaks a little Japanese (although she was a little worried about how rusty she was with it) and I speak a total of about five words. So we left it up to Emma to secure train tickets while I waited with Hannah. She returned moments later with two little paper stubs and a set of detailed instructions.
“Well done,” I complimented Emma. “You haven’t lost your Japanese after all!”
“She spoke perfect English,” Emma replied.
That’s the beauty of major cities in Japan. English is a fairly common language. At most tourist places there is at least one person who can speak English. Also, a lot of signage is written in English, which makes it easy for even a novice like me to get about.
After purchasing tickets we had a quick look at the large map on the wall, to make sure we knew exactly what we were doing. I had also downloaded an app called Japan Travel, which included a handy map of the Tokyo subway system.
Our journey involved two trains, with a change at Daimon Station. We headed down to the platform and double checked that the train we were about to board was heading in the right direction. Again, we were assisted by an abundance of English signage.
We were concerned that the time spent in customs, then sorting ourselves out at the airport, may have pushed us into Tokyo’s infamous public transport peak crush. Of course, the fact that we had arrived on a Saturday had completely slipped our minds (thank you sleep deprivation). We marvelled at how empty the train and platforms were until we realised our error.
The fact that we had arrived on a Saturday was somewhat obscured by the number of school students travelling on the train in their school uniform. I had forgotten just how different the culture of work is in Japan. Even school kids are expected to put in the long hours.
We found our connecting platform at Daimon Station with ease. An electronic sign declared Roppongi as the train’s destination, leaving us in little doubt that we had found the right place.
Again the train was not crowded. We were able to easily fit our two large suitcases, stroller, carry-on and backpack, without disturbing the locals too much. A couple of stations went by, then it was our turn. We had arrived in Roppongi.
No Internet, No Maps? No Worries!
We had briefly considered purchasing a travel sim at the airport, so that we could have internet access. The main reason for doing so would have been to have Google Maps. However, being the tightarse dad that I am, I elected to skip the travel sim and trust my instincts and self-declared excellent sense of direction. Besides, our Airbnb host had provided us with a comprehensive set of instructions for finding her apartment. I had studied them extensively and knew that all I had do was find exit 1a. From there, I knew the way as if I had walked it a thousand times. Emma seemed a little nervous about that decision, but she decided (was too tired to argue) to trust me.
We headed towards ground level and out through the ticket gates. In front of us were two exit options – exit 7 and exit 8. I briefly considered my choice of swearwords, while Emma set about the far more productive task of locating a map. She found one almost instantly, and after several minutes of trying to regain my bearings, I was once again confident in my ability to lead the way.
As I had mentioned earlier, Japan’s major cities have extensive English signage. The maps are all easy to use and understand, even with zero Japanese language ability.
Sure enough, we were soon walking past the police station and the landmarks from our host’s guide began to come into view. I found our way to our apartment without even needing to stop and look at the guide again, her instructions had been that good.
Airbnb, the moment of truth
And so it was that we found ourselves standing on the doorstep of a small residential apartment building on a tiny, non-descript alleyway in the heart of Tokyo. The moment of truth had arrived! Had the gamble to try Airbnb for the first time paid off? Or had I managed to completely ruin our holiday before it had even begun…?
I entered the code that our host had provided us into the letterbox padlock and it sprung open. Just as our host had said, the keys were inside.
We located our apartment for the next week. This wasn’t a hard task, as it was the very first one upon entering the building. The keychain came with only two keys, but it took me about five goes to figure out the two locks in my sleep-deprived state. Still, I was extremely thankful that Emma had been able to negotiate morning access to our apartment with our exceptionally kind host, for just 3000 Yen extra (approximately $40 AUD).
I opened the door and we wrestled our belongings inside. By this point, Hannah had fallen asleep in her pram and we weren’t about to wake her. We left the suitcases by the door and had a quick look around. Our apartment was just as it looked in the photos. By Tokyo accommodation standards it was huge! I was immediately happy with our decision to take the risk. We had stayed in a hotel the last time we went to Japan, but back then it was just Emma and I. We barely managed to fit just the two of us in, there is no way that we could have managed with Hannah in tow.
We left Hannah to sleep in her pram. The decision to bring the awesome RECARO stroller had already paid off, as the reclined position provided Hannah with a comfortable place to sleep. She stayed there for the next three hours!
Emma and I took the opportunity to grab a few much-needed hours’ sleep as well. The idea of asking to check-in to our accommodation early had been inspired, and the small extra fee had been more than worth it. As tight as I may be with money, I wouldn’t even flinch at paying for a whole extra day if it meant being able to check-in in the morning after an all-night flight, now that I have experienced the benefits. I highly recommend you consider this option if arriving in the morning.
When I booked our accommodation I was looking for two things: 1 – proximity to a decent park for Hannah to play in, and 2 – proximity to transport. Roppongi ticked those boxes perfectly. What I had not considered was proximity to bars with dubious reputations, or proximity to strip clubs. Again, Roppongi ticks all those boxes.
A few days before we were due to leave, I checked the Australian Government Smart Traveller website. Kim Jong Un had made the world a little nervous in recent weeks with his penchant for exploding nuclear devices under mountains and for firing Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles over Japan. Naturally I figured a visit to the Smart Traveller website prudent, as I like to think of myself as a smart traveller.
While there was no warning of imminent nuclear war, there was a little note that caught my eye:
“There have been reports of bars and night clubs (particularly in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho entertainment areas of Tokyo) targeting foreign citizens for overcharging, fraudulent credit card charges, drink spiking, illegal drugs and, in some cases, assault. Some venues use street touts to entice foreigners into their premises. Australians have reported incidents where they have been poured drinks that have a higher percentage of alcohol than would normally be expected. In some cases, victims have woken up in unknown locations and/or discovered exorbitant credit card charges.”
I’ll be honest, that made me feel a little worried. I like to think I can look after myself fairly well (I can’t fight, but I can run pretty quickly!), but the thought of bringing my little daughter to the seediest part of Tokyo made my stomach turn. Conducting my own further research didn’t make me feel any better. I discovered that Roppongi has a long history as a hive of scum and villainy. Think the Japanese version of Sydney’s Kings Cross. It apparently has deep Yakuza roots, although I was given some hope by suggestions on a few websites that it had cleaned up its act in recent years.
I genuinely considered changing our booking to a different area of Tokyo. I even went so far as to check Airbnb for other listings. Sure, we would lose some money on the place that we currently had booked, but would that really be important if it meant staying in a safe area?
But I didn’t change. A number of factors led me to keeping our plans as they were. Firstly, the apartment got rave reviews from all who had previously stayed, even those who had travelled with young kids. Secondly, we had the morning check-in in place and I couldn’t be sure that we would be able to negotiate a similar deal elsewhere. Finally, I am a cheap bastard and it turns out that wasting that amount of money would have caused me great pain. Roppongi it would have to be.
Of course, the first thing that greeted us when we exited the train station was a Gentlemen’s Lounge, and a sign that declared that there were Badd Girls inside (I pondered the act that these girls must perform in order to get their Badd reputation, and settled on tax evasion as the most likely possibility). That didn’t do much to boost our hopes for the area that I had booked.
However, as we began our walk to the apartment, things began to look up. There were some huge, shiny new buildings around and the cars that drove past gave a distinct impression of wealthy people living close by. It turns out that while there is still a seedy side to Roppongi, it is now also a place for high-end shops and other rich-people hang-outs.
After our nap, we ventured onto the mean (really quite tame and enjoyable to stroll along) streets of Roppongi. I enjoyed looking at the architecture, it seems to be a really eclectic mix of styles and there are plenty of unique-looking buildings. Some appear to have been shoehorned into places where buildings shouldn’t be, as is the way in a city where land prices carry such a heavy premium.
We walked down to the Roppongi Hills shopping complex. It is a vast maze of interconnected buildings with a design so bamboozling that even the greatest navigators would surely get lost. Seriously, if Captain James Cook were alive today he would definitely curse the unintuitive positioning of the lifts, the random locations of the food outlets and the inaccessible island of McDonalds. He too may have marooned his stroller as he attempted to push it onto a ridiculously narrow escalator (with a clear warning not to take strollers on it) because he was sick of trying to locate a lift.
Wait, You Ate at McDonalds?
DON’T JUDGE ME. Yes, we ate at McDonalds. Yes, it was our first meal in Japan. We were still really tired and very hungry. We didn’t know how long Hannah would be willing to sit still for and we didn’t have the mindset to be able to attempt a Japanese menu, even with all their helpful pictures.
To make things at least a little interesting, Emma ordered a prawn burger and I had a ginger pork burger. Hannah ate her banana, because we at least still had a little bit of common sense about us. To give the hard-working kids at Roppongi Maccas their due, they make a mean burger! Both tasted really good, despite their unique flavours.
With some food in our belly, we continued onto the next part of our Roppongi adventure – finding a supermarket. We found one that was part of the Roppongi Hills complex and we purchased a few essentials. I won’t go into the details of the curiosity that is a Japanese supermarket here, that is a post for another day.
We headed back into The Roppongi Hills complex and spent a solid 20 minutes trying to navigate our way through, before being spat back out at the exact point at which we had started. We decided that we’d had enough of giant shopping complexes for now, and made our way back to the apartment.
The Quest for Bread
Japan doesn’t traditionally do bread. However, there are French bakeries dotted around the place. Some department stores also have vast food courts in which reasonable bread can also be found.
We initially tried a couple of the local supermarkets, but as expected there wasn’t much. After a little searching we found two bakeries with reasonable options for bread within walking distance of our apartment. We purchased a little loaf of wholemeal bread for Hannah’s dinner, and made a mental note to return for the excellent-looking French Loaf later in the week.
We picked up a few interesting-looking pieces of pre-prepared food at a local supermarket and headed home to eat dinner. I also grabbed a can of Asahi beer to drink in celebration of our first night in Tokyo.
Time for bed – First Night in Tokyo
After dinner I gave Hannah a thorough soaking in the deep bath. Then we went through the usual bedtime routine from home, or at least as close to it as we could manage. Emma placed Hannah in her 0.5 tog Grobag, because the room was quite warm, and then into her BabyBjorn travel cot, which she was using for the first time.
Thankfully, Hannah was fast asleep within minutes. She was probably extremely tired after two days’ worth of excitement and disruption, but she must also have been very comfortable in the familiarity of a Grobag and the surroundings of the travel cot.