From Sydney to Shinjuku

There is nothing else quite so delicious in travel as collapsing into the bed of your favourite hotel, gentle music playing, your loved ones by your side, after a long and exhausting overnight flight. Here we are again in Shinjuku, in our home away from home, for another adventure in Japan.

Despite my practice, my positive thinking, I still felt a strong sense of anxiety in my stomach as I waited to board our Qantas flight to Narita Airport. The sunny day had disappeared, to be replaced by dark grey storm clouds. Thankfully the rain dissipated before we dragged our bags up to the bus stop for the ride to the airport.

The check in area was busy, with many school groups travelling for the holidays, including a number on our flight to Japan. Fortunately, they didn’t delay our passage through immigration.

In the couple of weeks since my last passage through Sydney’s International Terminal there had been some major construction changes. The Duty Free maze had gone, replaced by construction hoardings and an ugly series of open boxes in the centre area. My beloved Sony shop was gone, with a less interesting electronics section at the far end of the Duty Free area. The Apple products remained to distract Alex.

We met a colleague of mine and her family at the Qantas Business Lounge, catching the same flight to Japan as us. I was careful not to indulge in too much at the lounge, not wishing to give the sinking pit of my stomach too much ammunition. The food was good though, Thai beef curry, creamy soup, salads and rich chocolate cake and brownies. The hot chocolates are excellent.

I had to race over and shut down the sound on one of the lounge iMacs when it suddenly blurted out sound effects and music from one of Alex’s math game websites. Later we showered, refreshing ourselves in preparation for the flight.

The 747 may no longer be the flagship of the Qantas fleet, but I have a lot of fondness for the old Queen of the skies. The interior of Lord Howe Island, VH-OJU, was refurbished with the newer A380 style economy seats and had the more modern rounded Boeing interior rather than the classic boxy luggage compartments that have a special place in my memory from our first journeys overseas.

B insisted on the window seat and I was banished to the aisle, with Alex in the middle. She did let me setup my action camera at the window. With daylight savings now off again our flight, QF21, was no longer the last to leave the airport. which was coming towards the end of another busy day.

We lifted off into overcast skies and I could see the lights of the city across through the window. I couldn’t track our progress on the flight map, however, as I had accidentally opened the help mode of my touch screen and the spot where you press the “X” to close it was dead. Not the rest of the screen, just that spot. Infuriating and it took a reset to resolve.

The screen itself was not as nice as the Jetstar 787’s that I had flown on a couple of weeks earlier, lower resolution and covered with the touch screen grid.

The vision outside disappeared as we penetrated the cloud layer, then we finally saw clear skies again. Clear enough to see the flashes of lightning from the clouds below. As the seatbelt lights switched off, B offered to let me swap for the window seat and immediately I felt a sense of relief. I like being able to see the source of the bumps in the sky.

Alex played with his screen, was laughing away at the start to Paddington, which we had missed due to long queues at the cinema during our session. I just left it on the flight map and listened to music, staring outside into the blackness of a moonlit night sky.

Both Alex and B fell asleep before we were served supper. I had used the new preordering system to take a look at what was available, and it looked like pretty conservative food. I selected roast pork with apple, potatoes and cabbage, another option online was roast chicken, the Japanese option miso fish and rice. The meal was served on the new small trays with no salad. I enjoyed what I ate of mine, again not wishing to feel overly full. However, when I opened my tub of chocolate mousse with salted caramel, some of the pressurised mousse exploded outwards over my shirt.

Two hours into the flight and the lights were extinguished and we travelled in darkness. Queensland cities and towns sparkled like jewels below, punctuating the black land and cloud scapes. We crossed the coastline over the Whitsunday Islands, flying over the sea until Port Moresby and Papua New Guinea.

I had studied the turbulence forecast maps and, along with experience, had identified potential storm clouds over PNG and a cloudmass around typhoon Haishen near Guam as sources of rough air. The truth was that neither was particularly bumpy and I found that my mental preparations meant that I was largely untroubled by the myriad of small bumps along the way. The Moon helped, lighting the scenery outside.

Indeed I enjoyed the view as we skirted past some big tropical storm masses, bursts of lightning flashing yellow within. I watched another aircraft fly in the opposite directions, wondered if it had left the contrails I saw soon afterwards, white-grey in the moonlight.

I switched on the movie Interstellar, which I had wanted to watch but missed at the cinema, with the hope that it would make this ten hour flight pass faster. Almost three hours of entertainment certainly did help, but the flight felt long and I felt doubts about my commitment to aviation.

With Alex sleeping on my lap it was difficult to move and my left buttock was feeling very painful. I’m not sure if it was due to him, or a lack of padding on a seat I’ve had no issues with before or some other injury. Nevertheless, it didn’t make for the most comfortable of experiences and I was glad when, with two hours left in the flight, the lights were switched back on and woke both Alex and B up so I could stretch.

Alex ate very little of his child’s breakfast, a piece of hamburger patty, mushrooms, egg fritters and baked beans, mainly crunching on the apple and ignoring the delicious mini muffin and Greek yoghurt. Our service came later. B had the scrambled eggs option, but I was delighted to find a fruit salad on the menu. Of all the meals served on board I find fruit the nicest and really enjoyed thi serving. Except for one very dodgy looking strawberry half. Hmmmm.

The sun was rising and we skimmed high over a carpet of clouds, one of my favourite times for flying. There were a few bumps now and then was the cloudscape below us changed, but nothing major. I was a bit concerned though that we would have to penetrated that thick cloud layer in order to reach the airport.

There were a few twists along the way as Narita traffic control delayed us. Captain Collins warned us that the skies were busy this time of morning. It really wasn’t until a half an hour left that we suddenly began powering down towards the land.

No gentle descent this time like you often get into Sydney, it felt like we were going full bore down into Japan. Despite the urgency of the seatbelt announcements there were few bumps as we entered the clouds that obscured the land below until we were almost down. Then you could feel the gusts of wind that characterise Narita. But the pilots held it well and it was a nice touchdown into Japan, rain streaking the windows as we taxied to the distant Terminal 2 under miserable looking skies.

Back in Japan! Alex was so excited, dancing around, laughing, joking. Despite it’s length, I had enjoyed the flight and felt in a good mood too. The queues at immigration did put a damper on some of that enthusiasm and by the time we exited our bags were already off the belt.

We purchased tickets on the Narita Express and bought Alex his own Suica card, which greatly excited him not for the ticket gates but the vending machine possibilities.

The NEX is such a familiar way to travel for us, being our first introduction to Japan twelve years ago. Cherry blossoms were visible as pink puffs in the grey-green-brown landscape outside. B and I both drifted to sleep at times, Alex wondered what to do as he gets motion sick on trains if he plays games or draws. Not a good sign. He’d obviously got enough sleep on the flight!

Our destination was, as usual in Tokyo, Shinjuku. It is such a bustling place, with so many people and shops, so different to home. Though the temperature was only about 10 degrees and damp I felt refreshed.

As expected, our room was not available until the afternoon, so we dumped our bags and wandered the streets of Shinjuku. The first course of action was brunch, which we had in a small First Kitchen hamburger bar. As we ate burgers and fries that were much better than any McDonalds, the young lady at the counter came over and presented us, and another family, with the gift of a fake apple pie slice in a normal burger bag with a handwritten message at the side, as a welcome to Japan. It was such a lovely gesture, one of those things that keeps us coming back here.

Then clothes shopping. Better to get the bad bits over and done with I guess. First an hour at H&M, trying to keep Alex amused. Then Uniqlo, where at least there was a Bic Camera nearby. By the time we were finished Alex was hungry again and it was one o’clock, so we walked back towards the hotel and had a very nice lunch of sushi at the always wonderful Sakura sushi bar opposite the Prince Hotel.

Finally, we could take our room and collapse into bed. It feels so good to sleep after a long flight, one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

Hours later we awoke and decided that we’d better go somewhere. Yes, let’s get the shopping out of the way, it’s too late and too wet to do anything else.

First though, I tried without luck to get us tickets to the Ghibli Museum using a Loppi machine at Lawson. None of our possible dates was available at this late time. Another trip, maybe.

The Yamanote line took us up to Ikebukuro, stopping at my favourite station name of Takadanobaba along the way where they play Astro Boy music as their station theme. Our task at Ikebukuro was to find the KitKat Chocolatory in the Seibu Department Store basement.

It was rather disappointing actually. Rather than sell a large range of Japanese KitKat flavours, many of which we have tried (ginger beer is my favourite), there were just a few special types. Like the fruit salad exclusive to Tokyo and Y2300 in price, ginger, butter and strawberry and maple syrup flavours.

The surrounding basement patisseries were far more stimulating to the senses.

Hungry now for dinner, we emerged to the street level and went in search of food. Not wanting to get too far out in the rain we returned to the station and found a group of noodle stores. B and Alex didn’t particularly enjoy their ramen, but I had a wonderful bukkake udon and tempura sides that we just so good.

Back into Seibu and up to the top floors where there was a Loft store, full of things you want and never knew you needed. With Alex at school and into craft we had an excuse to explore the stationery section, making quite a few purchases. Our Japanese exchange student, ostensibly the reason for this trip, had introduced us to the joy of Japanese pens.

Tired again now, we returned to Shinjuku where one last purchase remained. Alex has seen B and I with our cameras and has long wanted one for himself. He had great fun with a little Nikon compact a couple of years ago, but that died, along with most of our other compact cameras that have been through so much.

The compact camera market is itself dying as people use smartphones instead, though they do lack the lenses and utility of a dedicated camera, especially for little hands. I should have bought him a camera in Australia, but we never seemed to have the time. The selection of cheap cameras in Japan is quite small, with the standard players. After the issues that both Mum and us had I didn’t want a Nikon compact and I’d had consistent problems with Panasonics as well, attractive though they are. I tried to get him a Sony W810, but Yodobashi claimed they were out of stock and, after a very long wait at Labi, we discovered that Japanese models don’t have an English option. So we ended up with a Canon Ixy 150.

In some ways it is appropriate, as our first digital camera, a wedding gift, was a Canon Ixy (Ixus overseas) from Japan. How much further they have come since then! For example, 20.1 megapixel CCDs instead of 2.1!

If it keeps him as occupied on trains as it does me, then I’ll be happy.

So here we are again. Another year, another trip to Japan. This trip is about family, visiting the student and teacher that stayed with us, doing the little things and eating great food. And hopefully trains. Hopefully.

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