Apart from a visit to Wat Pho, our short stay in Bangkok was devoted to practicalities. Two trips to the dentist for Mr Vagabond, hours spent on the phone to our banks to tell them that we were extending our trip (thanks to a Skype subscription this cost less than £5, although the quality was extremely poor), and shopping for clothes – the weather in Japan was still cold and wet, so some proper shoes and warmer tops were required. Trudging around a Bangkok that was even hotter that it was in January, it was hard to imagine cold weather. Whereas we had just used the skytrain and river express on previous trips, this time we favoured the much cheaper (but slower) buses. I never did quite work out the fare structure though – it was related to the colour of the bus and whether or not it was air conditioned, but it still seemed rather random. If I couldn’t see the notice announcing the recent fare increase I just held out a handful of change and let the conductress help herself: it was never more than 26 baht for the two of us.
In the usual illogical way of airfares, the cost of a flight from Bangkok to Japan was more than twice the cost of flying from Bangkok to KL (in completely the wrong direction) in order to get the cheap Air Asia flight from KL to Tokyo. Even if we paid extra for exit row seats so that I could walk around frequently, as sitting for 7 hours would be a challenge even with painkillers. So we had a couple of days back in the Sentral Hotel, thrashing their wifi with hotel and flight bookings for Australia later in the year. It’ll be way, way over our budget, but I don’t care.
One of the disadvantages of budget airlines is that sometimes the timings are inconvenient, and so it was with the flight to Tokyo, which wasn’t scheduled to land until 22:30 – but at least it went to Haneda airport, not the more distant Narita. If we missed the last bus to Shinjuku a taxi would hurt our wallet but not require a 2nd mortgage. Happily the pilot managd to make up some time, so even with a take off an hour late (waiting for connecting passengers’ luggage) we were through the long immigration queues and buying a ticket for the midnight bus by 23:30.
Japanese orderliness and efficiency starts the moment you set foot on its soil. The bus stop displayed an electronic sign advising the bus’s expected arrival, alternating between Japanese and English. Shortly before the bus was due to arrive, a guy appeared at the bus top to check our tickets, label our luggage, and give us receipts. Then a second, just to ensure that the queue of 8 people did not become an unruly rabble or get on the wrong bus. Or feel that they had been insufficiently bowed to. There were toilets right by the bus stop – not only clean and supplied with paper, but fitted with two choices of bidet function (with adjustable pressure) and, of course, heated seats. They also played music. Once on the bus, signs prohibited just about everything, including making phone calls or talking loudly, and the flow of information continued in English as well as Japanese, so there was no uncertainty that we had reached our stop. Our luggage was handed over on production of the corresponding ticket (carefully checked), a final bow delivered, and we were left in the cold drizzle to get a taxi for the final short leg of our journey.
This was the bit that had most concerned me, but even at 01:00am there were taxis waiting by the bus stop. Our driver seemed very friendly and obliging – but unfortunately spoke not one word of English. Not a problem – knowing this to be the norm in Tokyo, I had the address of the hotel in Japanese on the tablet, so after a bit of fiddling with the satnav we were off through the neon lit streets of Shinjuku. I quickly lost track of our direction as we swooped around a one way system, so was unable to offer any advice when the satnav took us down a narrow alley marked as a one-way street in the opposite direction. There was concerned muttering from the driver (rules were being broken!) but, miraculously, there was the J Residence. We handed over ¥650 (about £3.50 – less than a UK taxi would cost, which was a surprise) and off he went. This was the real moment of truth. It had only dawned on me 4 days previously that the apartments might not have 24 hour reception – oops! A hasty email elicited an assurance that “arrangements for late check in would be made”, without giving any clues as to what they might entail, and the lack of a functioning phone was a worry. I had visions of us walking the freezing streets of Tokyo until dawn, or kipping in a metro station – but the main door was wide open, and a note stuck to the office door invited us to go to apartment 601 which we would find unlocked, with the keys inside. Clearly this was a city with no expectations of burglars or squatters, even in the supposedly insalubrious Kabukicho district which we had selected for its convenience and cheapness. I liked Tokyo already.