My First Flight on the 787 Dreamliner

This is the story of my first flight aboard the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, traveling on All-Nippon Airways (ANA) flight 1075 from San Jose, California to Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan. An 11-minute video version of this trip report is embedded here if you would prefer to watch instead of read.

The Dreamliner is a revolutionary wide-body aircraft. Made largely with composite materials, it is about 20% more fuel efficient than the older 767 aircraft it is designed to replace. Despite a four-month grounding earlier this year because of electrical problems, the aircraft has performed very well for its initial customers and is opening new “long and thin” routes like San Jose to Tokyo that could not previously have been served profitably.

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I arrived at the airport plenty early to watch the inbound aircraft land, which arrived about twenty minutes late. Having grown up in the San Jose area and able to remember the days when the airport was a much smaller operation, it is exciting to see this cutting-edge plane regularly scheduled to fly here.

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ANA operates from terminal A. Now nearly a quarter-century old, I still recall terminal A as the “new” terminal compared to the 1960s era terminal C that was only recently demolished. As a child, I relished the opportunity to walk across the tarmac and climb a set of stairs to board the airplane. To me, that made air travel much more exciting. These days, the two terminals at San Jose are modern and entirely enclosed. Certainly the facilities are nicer but the travel experience is also more sterile.

ANA has a small counter space but lots of employees working check-in. As a Star Alliance gold level member, there was no wait and I was efficiently checked in by a friendly agent. While the agent did not appear to be of Japanese heritage – several of the staff members were – she displayed all the appropriate cultural training such as receiving and handing documents with both hands. This was a nice touch and leads me to believe that instead of relying on contract employees, ANA is using its own staff.

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Boarding pass in hand – a window seat in the second row of economy class – I headed up the escalator to the security screening area. The terminal has a single consolidated screening point and while there weren’t that many people in line, the process took a bit of time. In particular, the crew of Mexican budget airline Volaris seemed to be holding up the line, unfamiliar with the TSA’s screening procedures. It took several of the flight attendants multiple trips through the metal detector before they finally removed all of their metal items.

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Today’s flight operated from gate 15, one of two gates connected to the International Arrivals Area. This section of the terminal is essentially the connector between terminals A and B. There are few amenities but the windows offer a good view of the tarmac. Unfortunately, the sterile corridor leading to the customs and immigration area means you look out through two sets of windows.

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I spent plenty of time taking pictures of the Dreamliner. It is a unique-looking airplane, with an asymmetrical nose. The plane’s proportions make it looks smaller than it actually is, perhaps because it looks unusually low to the ground for so large an aircraft.

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After taking plenty of pictures – something lots of other waiting passengers were also doing – I headed to The Club at SJC, a private lounge that ANA uses for its premium customers. The Club is the only lounge at SJC, where the only dominant airline is Southwest.

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Located upstairs from the departure gate, the lounge offers limited views of the tarmac but has two large seating areas, workspaces, and a decent selection of food and beverage. They also have a single shower room, so I freshened up before the flight.

ANA Seating

It was nearing time to board. ANA operates the San Jose service with a 787 in a very low density configuration, only 158 passengers in a plane that can easily seat more than 220. Because of this, the gate area was not crowded.

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After the highest level members of ANA’s frequent flyer program were boarded, Star Alliance Gold members were invited. A single jetway is used at this gate but with so few passengers boarding, it isn’t a problem. I was welcomed aboard warmly and directed towards my seat.

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Business class, divided into two cabins, seats 46 people in alternating rows of 1-1-1 and 1-2-1 seating. All seats have direct aisle access and a lot of privacy. The problem with this arrangement is that it isn’t very friendly for couples traveling together. I know that privacy is something that a lot of premium customers value highly, but I prefer arrangements that are a little less cubicle-like.

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A small economy class cabin of just three rows sits behind business class and the mid-cabin lavatories. In another configuration, this area has premium economy seating with 38” legroom and only seven seats across. I can understand why they made that choice: there is nearly a foot of empty floor behind the last row in this cabin. Even without installing premium economy, they could have added a few more inches to each of these three rows.

The design of the overhead bins offers plenty of room to store roll-aboard bags placed on their side. The bins also pivot into the ceiling, making for a very open cabin when they are closed. This being a low-density seating configuration, lots of storage space remained even after everyone had boarded.

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ANA uses fixed-shell seats in economy, where instead of reclining back into the row behind you, your seat slides forward. I like this arrangement because my personal space remains fixed. With 33 to 34 inches of seat pitch, ANA’s Dreamliner offers several more inches of legroom than most competitors including joint-venture partner United Airlines. My one complaint with these seats is that the headrest doesn’t move up and down and, perhaps because it is designed for Japanese customers, it manages to fall at my neck rather than the back of my head.

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The inflight entertainment system is an “on-demand” system with touch screen controls. The selection of movies, TV shows, games, and music is extensive – plenty to keep you occupied on your flight. The system was also one of the more responsive that I have used. When you touch the screen, it reacts promptly. The overhead passenger service unit features a new design and it was nice to be on a wide-body airplane with personal air vents.

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Boarding was complete in about fifteen minutes and soon enough we had pushed back and the safety demo was finished. As the engines spooled up – a higher pitch whine than I’ve heard before – the ANA ground staff lined up to send us off with a wave. Being a small airport, we reached the departure end of runway 30 R in just a few minutes. Number one for takeoff, we pulled onto the runway and launched into our roll without a stop.

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Our departure followed an interesting path, indicated in green on the map. We leveled off at 5,000 feet and maintained that altitude across the south end of the bay, towards Woodside.

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Meanwhile, aircraft were circling wide on our left (yellow on the map), cutting behind us to line up for arrival on runways 28 L and R at San Francisco. While I am confident the air traffic controllers were keeping a close watch on us, the other aircraft came a lot closer than you usually see from your window. It was nice to have such a good view! As we approached Half Moon Bay, we resumed our climb, joining the westbound route across the Pacific.

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About forty minutes after departure, inflight service began with hot towels – real cloth towels – followed by a beverage service with snacks.

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The snacks were simple – rice crackers – and the selection of beverages included complimentary wine, beer, and spirits. The crew was friendly and helpful and there were no difficulties in communicating with them in English.

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An in-seat menu card described the general service while the specific meal choices for today’s flight could be read on the inflight entertainment system and also on laminated cards the flight attendants had on their carts.

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For dinner, I chose the Japanese option – a chicken teriyaki dish served with cold soba – buckwheat noodles. The portion was generous and the food was tasty. The dinner also included miso soup served from a pitcher.

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Afterwards, flight attendants distributed Häagen-Dazs ice cream – a simple and satisfying dessert. Since the meal was served with metal cutlery, I could use an actual spoon to scoop the rock-hard ice cream instead of the flimsy plastic one contained inside the ice cream container’s lid.

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After lunch, I walked around the mostly-full cabin. You can see the windows, which are about thirty percent larger than conventional airplane windows. Truthfully, this didn’t make as big an impression on me as I thought they would. Sure, the windows were large, but the biggest effect was that it made the cabin look narrower. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but because I am used to a standard-size window, as I looked across the width of the cabin and mentally estimated the width, the wall looked closer to me than it really was. Instead of shades, the windows use LCD controls for different levels of shading. Above, you can see two of the windows at the maximum-dark setting.

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The rear cabin has eleven additional rows of economy class seats. As you can see, the cabin has a spacious feel and the 2-4-2 arrangement is quite pleasant. Unfortunately, ANA is moving towards a 3-3-3 arrangement like most operators so the comfortably wide seats will be a thing of the past. I can understand the economics but will say that as a customer, I will go out of my way to fly an 8-abreast 787 instead of a 9-abreast configuration.

The other thing I noticed is that the screens on the entertainment system are coated in such a way that they are not visible unless viewed almost straight-on. For example, I couldn’t tell if the person seated next to me had his screen on until I leaned over to look. This would seem to be a good thing, minimizing extraneous light and also giving greater (although not complete) privacy in what you are viewing.

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The galley and entrance to the crew rest area are at the rear of the cabin. This arrangement is nice because it gives the crew plenty of space to work and minimizes the number of passengers congregating in this area. Instead, the congregate mid-cabin by the lavatories.

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Three lavatories are in the middle of the economy class cabin, located by doors 3 left and 3 right. I didn’t get a picture or video of them, but the doors are hinged in an interesting way. Instead of pivoting on a hinge at one side of the door or folding in half, the door slides and pivots into the toilet, lying flat against the side wall. This improves the accessibility of the lavatory although isn’t intuitive. I noticed several people pushing and pulling the door before they figured out how it moved.

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The lavatories are high-tech on ANA featuring lots of buttons, including for the automated bidet, in case you need to wash your bum afterwards. When you press the flush button, the toilet seat cover is automatically lowered. Oddly, though, the flush happens while the cover is still lowering. Lavatories were kept clean with flight attendants tidying them throughout the flight.

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The LCD shading for the windows is interesting. Instead of having physical shades that you pull shut, there are two buttons that allow you to increase the tinting along five settings from nearly transparent to nearly opaque. It seems that the most transparent setting still seems to have a light tint to it, or at least that was my impression.

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At its darkest, you can still see through the window although little light passes through. That may not make sense when I write it, but when you look at the windows from the side, they appear to be completely opaque. When you look at the windows straight-on, you can see through them as if they were very dark sunglasses. Mid-flight, which was still full daylight outside, the cabin was dark although not as dark as with physical window shades. If I’m not mistaken, I think the flight attendants were able to master set the windows to the darkest setting although individual passengers could modify the settings for their own windows, making them more transparent as they wished.

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Snacks and beverages were available in the galley throughout the flight. The selection was basic – some crisps and crackers along with bananas.

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About two and a half hours before landing – just a little early, in my estimation – a second meal service was offered. Unlike lunch/dinner, which had clear “Japanese” and “Western” options, the choices for the breakfast were less distinct.

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I had the chicken cacciatore, which was pretty tasty. The portion size was smaller than the previous meal, but considering that we had eaten just five hours ago, that was okay.

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One feature of the Dreamliner is that its cabin is pressurized to the equivalent of a 6000 foot elevation instead of at 8000 feet, as found in most airliners. Also, humidity levels are slightly higher, about 15% versus less than 5% normally. My impression was that the cabin was a bit more comfortable than normal. I travel frequently across the Pacific and find I get very dried out. The effect could just be psychological but on this flight, I felt less dehydrated.

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The rest of the flight was smooth as we descended into an overcast northern Japan and landed on-time in Narita. As we approached the airport, there was a lot of other traffic and on our turns there was always a good view of other planes. The rice paddies were also vibrant green and just starting to turn golden yellow.

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Again, thanks to the low-density configuration, it took just a few minutes to deplane. My nine hour, forty-five minute flight aboard the ANA Dreamliner left me with a positive impression of both the airplane and the airline.

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All things considered, I would go out of my way to fly ANA in general and the Dreamliner in particular on future trips. Additionally, flying out of San Jose was a very convenient option so I will keep that in mind for future trips to and from the Bay Area.

Delta BKK-IAH and MCI-BKK

The past week’s business trip to the United States was brutal.  Some helpful wag calculated that of the total trip time, 29.4% of it was spent in transit to/from the US.  The formula, for those of you looking for it, was (60 hrs / (60+(6*24))).  I’ll share a little bit about the trip over the next few posts, starting with some information about the flights themselves.

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Above, a reflection of a Delta 747 at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

My trip was on Delta Airlines, which offered the cheapest economy class prices by far for the dates I needed to travel.  While my company’s policy is business class on flights over 8 hours, I did not qualify for this as technically my agreement with the company is that they will not pay to fly me to the US for meetings at all, since I chose to relocate outside the country.  That’s okay – I appreciate simply having a job!

I worked very hard to avoid being routed on one of the planes shown above because the economy class experience on them is very out-of-date.  (This holds true for United Airlines’ 747, too.)  Instead, I routed myself through Seattle so I would be able to fly on the more up-to-date A330, which features power ports in the front half of economy class and individual seat-back screens and on-demand audio and video throughout the cabin.

My experience on Delta was mixed.  The hard product itself – seats, food, entertainment, etc. – was fine although not amazing.  For the Bangkok to Tokyo and Tokyo to Seattle segments I was able to get an aisle seat in the front half of the economy cabin, so had about an extra inch of leg room and access to the power ports so I could work on my computer without draining the battery.  Additionally, I had an empty seat next to me on both flights.  The seats are actually pretty comfortable and the adjustable headrest does a decent job of cradling your head if you try to doze.

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Breakfast out of Bangkok – omelet, potatoes, and sausage with fruit and yogurt.

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Pre-landing snack – chicken and cheese croissant – before arriving in Tokyo.

On the flight out of Bangkok (6 hours), I traveled with one of the three guests from Kansas City who had been in town the previous two weeks.  Since he slept most of the flight, it was okay that we were a few rows apart.  While in Tokyo we had a few hours transit time so we ate some ramen at an okay snack shop.  The Narita Airport has nice facilities but the food selection within the secure area of the terminal is only okay.  There are better restaurants in the public area of the main terminal.

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Out of Tokyo for the eight-hour flight to Seattle, I purchased the above box from the noodle shop to supplement the meal served on the flight.  What was inside?

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This lovely katsu (fried pork cutlet) sandwich!  Oddly enough, the bread doesn’t get greasy or soggy at all, even though it sits in the box for a few hours.  It was really, really satisfying to eat mid-flight.

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This was the meal served out of Tokyo, beef and (reconstituted) mashed potatoes with a shrimp appetizer and mixed green salad.  The best thing about the meal was the coconut sponge cake.  Portion size is fine and the quality was decent.

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Mid-flight they served a slice of banana bread as a snack.  Pre-arrival to Seattle (which was early morning) there was a breakfast sandwich which was quite greasy.

Arriving in Seattle for immigration and customs worked very nicely.  Ours was the first flight of the day, arriving shortly after 7:30 am.  There was no line at immigration and within about twenty-five minutes of landing I had my bags, was through customs, and had dropped the bags on the through-checked belt to continue to Houston.

With about three hours between flights, I had time for a friend to meet me for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, which was a nice opportunity for a brief catch-up.  While there, she gave me a gift she had been holding for me for many months: a pair of banneton, wicker bread proofing baskets that I had talked to her about at some point in the past.  This was a funny and much-appreciated gift I will have to blog about soon.

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After a busy week in Houston, I flew Southwest Airlines up to Kansas City.  In order to construct the least-expensive ticket I could, I routed myself on an “open jaw” ticket on Delta, flying from Bangkok to Houston and then returning from Kansas City to Bangkok.  A $100 ticket on Southwest connected the open part of the jaw, resulting in about $350 savings for my employer.  This also gave me the opportunity to fly out of Houston Hobby Airport, the smaller airport on the south side of downtown that is nearly monopolized by Southwest.

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As part of a promotion with Microsoft Windows, Southwest was offering free pictures of Santa (that came with a brief demonstration of some new photo editing feature from Microsoft).  These came with a coupon for $20 off your next Southwest flight (before the end of March).  Of course, who could resist getting their picture taken with Santa?

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In fact, this picture provided useful evidence the next day when I explained to my nieces how I had managed to make it to Kansas City from Thailand.  More on that tomorrow.

After just 30 hours in Kansas City and an overnight inch of snow, I headed for my return trip to Bangkok.  The 6:00 am flight out of KC to Salt Lake City was delayed for more than a half-hour thanks to a string of mishaps by Delta.  First there was the fact that the potable water in the water trucks was frozen – no coffee or tea and no water for washing hands in the lavatory.  (Thankfully they had sanitizing hand gel.)  It had been below freezing all of Saturday so why they didn’t leave the heaters on overnight is a mystery to me.

On top of it, the tow bar froze to the aircraft so it took them several minutes of dousing with antifreeze to get it unstuck.  You would think Delta has never conducted winter operations out of Kansas City!

The long and short of it is that I missed my connecting flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle.  Thankfully I was rebooked on a later flight (and upgraded to first class) that got me into Seattle in time for my connection to Tokyo.  However, my layover was no longer long enough to meet with my aunt and uncle for breakfast in Seattle, something I had intentionally scheduled.

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Above, the A330 for my flight at a drizzly Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The flight from Seattle to Tokyo was ten hours long, delayed for more than a half-hour because of electrical problems at the check-in podium.  In fact, the Seattle operations were a disorganized mess.  On the flight itself, I was able to get a bulkhead aisle seat, ensuring that nobody would recline into my personal space, which made the flight reasonable comfortable.  I slept for about five hours, waking every so often then dozing off again.

The service was spotty with a crew that was generally unfriendly.  One flight attendant, Jamie, had a sour lemon expression the entire flight.  During the flight she handed me things (food, water, etc.) a dozen times and each time I made the effort to give her a cheery “thank you”.  You see, I think it is my responsibility as a customer to initiate the friendly service I would like to receive.  Not once did she say ‘thank you” or acknowledge me in any way, verbal or nonverbal.  Terrible, unfriendly service.

Now another flight attendant, Ann, was the complete opposite.  She was cheerful and friendly, patting me on the shoulder when I declined a mid-flight treat of an ice cream sandwich (“They taste mighty good in the middle of the flight!” she advised) and laughing with other passengers throughout the service.  I am going to write a letter to Delta and offer praise for Ann and a note of concern about Jamie.  If even half of Delta flight attendants were as friendly as Ann, I would probably fly them regularly.

The final segment, Tokyo to Bangkok, was delayed by more than an hour.  I had time in Tokyo to use the public showers ($10 for thirty minutes) which makes for a nice mid-trip refresh, and also had a chance to get a bite to eat.  Comparing the two adjacent concourses, United’s operation out of Tokyo is much more organized and professional than Delta’s, using better signage to explain the boarding process and has a generally more updated look to the gate areas.

I landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 12:10 Tuesday morning.  Here’s a tip to help you deal with immigration lines: there are two immigration areas at the Bangkok airport and there are monitors outside each showing what the lines at the other area look like.  It is worth the walk of about 150 meters to go to the other immigration area if the queues are shorter.  I ended up clearing immigration and customs in less than forty minutes, which for late night at Suvarnabhumi is quite good.

Tawn picked me up and I was home and in bed by 2:30, exhausted and glad to be back.  More in the next few days about the Kansas City portion of the trip. 

 

Narita

I told you we were done with Tokyo and, yet, we’re not.  After checking in at the airport, Tawn and I took the train back one stop to the town of Narita.  Longer-term readers may recall that we did this during an 8-hour layover in Tokyo in March 2007.  For those of you who haven’t been reading that long, here’s a brief account:

Narita is the town where Tokyo’s main international airport is located.  It is an hour by train northeast of the city, has a very old and beautiful temple, and is known for its unagi – grilled eel.

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Taking the local train from the airport back to Narita, I remembered to take a picture of the daily news headlines posted in the train car.  You don’t need to be able to read Japanese to tell that sex sells!

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Narita isn’t a very large town, maybe 100,000 people, and its agricultural roots are still visible, although much of the town now supports the nearby airport industries, including the many hotels where overseas aircrew spend their one- or two-night layovers.

The walk from either of the train stations to the temple is only about ten minutes, following a cute street lined with little shops selling all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs.  Just in the last two years, we’ve noticed a lot of change on this street, though, with several older buildings and mom-and-pop shops demolished in favor of newer, more generic stores, restaurants and bars.

Right across from the tourist information office is a small grilled eel restaurant.  The kitchen faces the street and you can look in and watch the chefs grill the skewers of fresh eel.

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You order and pay at the front counter, receiving little paper tickets.  Then take a seat at a table (or in the traditional seating area on tatami mats, at the back of the restaurant).  A few minutes later, tender, sweet and crispy unagi comes your way!

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I’ve said it before and will say it again: if you have about six hours between flights at Tokyo Narita Airport, it is worth your effort to go through immigration and take the train into Narita Town.

After our return to the airport, Tawn did a little browsing in the shops and I went up to the observation deck.  Japanese airports still have observation decks that are open to the public, which I think is a great thing.  (Being an aviation enthusiast and all…)

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A Japan Airlines 747 touches down on the main runway, the same one that the FedEx MD-11 crashed on a few weeks ago.  I wasn’t able to spot any signs of that accident.  In the foreground is a Korean Airlines 777.

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With Delta Airlines’ recent acquisition of Northwest Airlines, they have been quick to repaint the Northwest fleet, at least the planes flying internationally.  Now you are able to see something that didn’t exist just a few months ago: a Delta 747 and A330.

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Beautiful new area in Terminal 1.  While Narita doesn’t have all the amenities of Singapore Changi Airport, it is a more beautiful airport.

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Since we had cashed in a few remaining miles to fly business class, we stopped by the All Nippon Airways lounge.  If you are flying Star Alliance through Tokyo, don’t bother with the United Airlines lounge – go straight to ANA’s as it is much nicer.

With shower facilities and a good selection of food and beverage – not to mention an excellent view of the airfield – the ANA lounge was a nice place to relax before boarding the flight home.

Our friend Masakazu, whom we had joined for shabu-shabu and sukiyaki a few nights earlier, had emailed several of his friends who were working the flight back to Bangkok.  The upside of this was that we received very friendly and attentive service on the way back home, including a complimentary bottle of wine to slip into our bag just before arrival!

Tsukiji Fish Market

After a full week in Tokyo, we work up at 3:00 am Thursday to check one last thing off our list: a visit to the Tsukiji Market, also known as the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market.  Pronounced “tskii-jii”, this is the largest fish market in the world, doing some US$28 million of business each day.

The guidebooks all say that that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has placed restrictions on what tourists can access at the market, after crowds caused concerns about sanitation and got in the way of the market workers.  That, combined with my perception that a wholesale fish market isn’t a place I want to be wandering around on my own, aimlessly, prompted me to search out guided tour options.

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Several reviews on the web sang the praises of Naoto Nakamura, a former market middleman who now gives tours three mornings a week.  While pricey at 7500 yen per person (about US$75), he limits his groups to no more than six and adjusts his tours each time based on the conditions of each day.

This, I was certain, would be a good way to learn about the market from someone with first-hand experience.

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My certainty was well-founded as the tour turned out to be every bit as insightful and informative as I could have hoped for.  Nakamura-san’s English was excellent and his sense of humor very dry.  We met our other two tour members, a pair of women (one who was half-Thai) visiting from the US.

The underlying subtext for the morning was a cat-and-mouse game.  Outsiders (non-employees) are not allowed in many areas of the market, especially on the auction floors around the seafood.  White-booted Tokyo Municipal Government inspectors were about and the captain of the market, Nakamura-san’s nemesis, kept appearing around corners and down hallways, so we would climb stairs, duck out side doors and do everything we could to avoid a confrontation.

We started our tour in the fresh fish area, observing an auction and taking a look at the huge variety (more than 400 types!) of seafood for sale at Tsukiji.  The fish arrives between about 6pm and midnight and is arranged by the vendors for inspection.  By 3 am the middlemen start poking around, looking at the seafood and evaluating it.  These days a lot of the sales are pre-negotiated, so auctions play a smaller role.

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We then went to the fresh tuna warehouse, where these 70 kg (150 lbs) fish lay in neat rows, being inspected by middlemen, notches in the side allowing a clear view of the quality – and fattiness – of their flesh.

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This is the key area that visitors are no longer allowed.  So this picture was actually taken crouching down looking under a rolling door that was open about two feet high.  The things I’ll do to get my shot.

We attended the auctions for fresh fish, live fish and sea urchins, marching away through the busy market, dodging electric carts that would silently creep up on you.

It was obvious that the market workers don’t really enjoy having tourists in their way, so it took a lot of concentration to keep out of trouble.  I was amazed when, later in the morning, I saw tourists on their own, dragging children as young as about five around.  Dangerous and inconsiderate of the people working here.

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The frozen tuna auction is by far the most interesting, at least visually.  These frosted fish look surreal, lined up with frozen mist rising around them like smoke.  We had just a few minutes at the rolling door before it was closed on us, so we headed to the live fish auction.

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Nakamura-san was able to get us up close for the live fish auction, above.  This moves very fast as there are two auctions going on at the same time.  Nearby, we saw workers pulling live fish from tanks based on the auction results, bashing them on the head with a knife, slitting their tail so the blood would drain out, then ramming a steel rod through their mouth and down their spinal nerve, killing them.  Not quite so gruesome as it sounds, but definitely gives you an appreciation for the food you eat.

At the live tuna auction, the market’s captain caught up with us and gave Nakamura-san a lecture.  Afterwards, he said, “At least he’s calling me ‘Nakamura-san’ now instead of the nasty names he used to use.”

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The auctions run from about 4:30-5:30, one after another.  Even before the last fish is sold, middlemen start carrying their purchases off to their stalls, where they prepare the fish for sale.  This is the last step in the transformation from whole fish to retail-ready cuts.

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Recognize this fish? It is whale meat.  The two rows on the right are from smaller whales but the back row is from whatever large-size whales Greenpeace tries to intervene in the hunt of.

Nakamura-san provided some perspective on why the Japanese are resistant to international pressure to end whaling.  After World War II, the whaling industry we re-established in Japan to help with severe food shortages.  For many baby boomers, whale meat was one of their main sources of protein during their childhood years.  To this day, it has strong resonance with the population even if its consumption has sharply declined.

According to statistics, almost 50% of the total animal protein consumption in 1947 in Japan was whale meat.  (Source: http://luna.pos.to/whale/jwa_trad.html)

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Watching the middlemen do their work was fascinating.  Knife skills are a beautiful art and this balding man in the picture below really was an artist.  Using a knife longer than a samurai’s sword, it took four men to carefully quarter a large fresh tuna.

The middlemen who bought frozen tuna had an easier time of it, using band saws to cut through the flesh.

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By 5:45 or so, many tourists had shown up, most guiding themselves and trying to edge in on our tour for free.  While they did get a peek at the tuna auction, I can’t imagine that they walked away with much of an understanding of the whole market.  For that reason, I’m glad we did the tour.

By shortly after 6:00, Nakamura-san had shown us all we needed to see.  He pointed out a few good sushi restaurants, took our money and thanked us.  Since we were already there and we knew the sushi would be fresh, Tawn and I queued up to eat the best sushi we’ve ever had.

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There are two restaurants in alley 6 of the “auxiliary market” (where the vendors that serve the needs of the market workers are located), both of which get quite a queue out their front doors.  These are are the two most highly recommended sushi bars.

Here’s what we ate.  Sorry that I can’t identify what everything was.

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Something very fatty (toro?) and squid

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Ebi (Shrimp) and Maguro (Blue Fin tuna)

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Uni – sea urchin with scrambled egg

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Tuna and Ikura (Salmon Roe) Nigiri (seaweed-wrapped sushi); and I think Grilled Saba (Mackerel) and Hamachi (Yellow Tail tuna).  But I’m not certain.

Total cost for the set including rice, soup and tea: 3500 yen, about US$35.  Pricey, but really good.  This is one of the few times I was willing to really splurge.

Again, I can’t say enough good things about the tour.  If you’re going to Tokyo and are interested in the tour of the market, you can find Nakamura-san’s website here.

Here’s a video of our trip to the market:

After “breakfast” we returned to the hotel for a few more hours of sleep, then packed our bags and headed to Narita Airport for the flight home.  And with that, eight days in Japan came to an end.

Teyandai – Okinawan Small Plates

You probably are wondering if these entries about Tokyo will ever end, right?  Well, just a few more, then we’ll be back to Thailand.  Actually, we’ve been back in Thailand since Thursday evening, but it takes a while to sort through pictures and tell all the stories.

During our trip, we were fortunate to have many friends to visit, most of whom are Japanese or Japanese-Americans who have lived in Tokyo for some time.  This gave us an edge in knowing where to go and what to see and eat, because they made the decisions for us.

Taro took us to Teyandai, an izakaya (basically a tapas bar) that specialized in Okinawan cuisine.  Hidden down a small street just a few blocks from the hustle and bustle of Shibuya, Teyandai is a real gem.

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You would never notice it.  The sign (in Japanese only) is the small patch of light on the upper left side of the lava stone facade.  Other than that, there’s no indication what the building is.

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But you head inside and find this wonderful space.

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There are several small sections to the restaurant, all crowded and cozy.  Notice the small seating area halfway up the steps!

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There was quite a large group of us: HP, Mark and Kathy from San Francisco, a couple HP and Mark knows from Spain and their son, and then Tawn and I and Taro.  We settled into a tight corner at the back of the room and started drinking and eating.

Compliments to Taro’s Panasonic Lumix LX3, which I borrowed to shoot these shots.  Its low-light performance is incredible, as its macro function.  HP helped by using a white screen function on his iPhone to provide some close-up ambient light.  (Thanks to Taro for letting me snag these pictures from his Facebook site.)

Here’s a look at some of the dishes we enjoyed:

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Recognize it?  Everyone’s favorite: umi-budo (sea grapes), a type of seaweed that is also known as green caviar.  Served with a plum-yuzu dipping sauce.

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Yamaimo no tatsuta-age (fried mountain yam) with tartar sauce.  Lovely.

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Atsuyaki tamago (fried egg) stuffed with unagi (grilled eel).

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Buta-suki corokke (pork sukiyaki croquette) which you dip in raw beaten egg before eating.

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Ebi-mayo (deep-fried prawns with mayonnaise sauce), similar to the walnut prawns dishes you find in many Chinese restaurants, but without the walnuts.

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Don’t have the Japanese name but it is a fried rice dish with pickled takana vegetables.

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Pan-aisu (bread ice cream) – it is actually a very French baguette stuffed with vanilla ice cream.  Can I tell you how wonderful this combination is?

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Fondant chocolat – not a traditional Okinawan dessert, I might add!

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Kokutou purin (brown sugar pudding).  Taro’s favorite, the eggless custard on top hides a rich pool of pudding made from an unrefined, molasses-like sugar.

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Me and Tawn in the entryway of the restaurant.  It contains little counters so if you’re waiting you can go ahead and start eating and drinking… which I guess means you wouldn’t really be waiting.

This was the highlight meal of the trip.  I really enjoy restaurants where I can try many different things and of course a “small plates” restaurant really meets that need.  There is no Japanese menu but if you make it to Tokyo I would encourage you to seek this restaurant out – the map is above.  I’d be happy to get you the name of things in Japanese so you can order.  Or just randomly point at things in the menu.

View Restaurants in Tokyo in a larger map

After dinner we went to Advocates Bar, one of the most inclusive bars in the gay district in East Shinjuku.  Situated on a corner, the bar only has room for about three people, so it inevitably spills out onto the street.

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Left to right: Mark, Christina, HP, Chris, Tawn and Taro.  Kathy took the picture.

Unlike many of the small bars in Tokyo that are geared very much to only Japanese or only men, Advocates welcomes anyone and everyone.  We had a tall Japanese drag queen wandering around, plenty of westerners and women, as well as locals.  All in all, a very “community” watering hole.

Last thing to write about: our trip to Tsukiji fish market.

Shiodome and Naka-Meguro

After a night in Hakone Yumoto we headed back to Tokyo on a misty and overcast Tuesday morning for two final days in Japan.  Switching hotels from our comfy little place in Ueno, we went upper end and stayed at the swanky Park Hotel in Shiodome. 

This hotel, which I initially confused with the Park Hyatt Hotel of “Lost in Translation” fame, is still very nice and a very good value.  Located on the 25th-33rd floors of the Shiodome Media Tower (with the lobby on the 25th floor!) this new hotel is centrally located to four subway/rail lines.  Rooms are modern and well-equipped and the staff is exceptionally attentive.

Best of all, the view from the room (the same one as from the reception counter in the lobby), is stunning:

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The upside/downside of this hotel’s location is that Shiodome is kind of like Century City in Los Angeles: largely a complex of business towers, a glass and steel wasteland that is deserted at night.  It is at once well connected to the city and cut off from it. 

An example of the stunning modern architecture across from our hotel, along with the kitschy faux tori gate set up in front of it:

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Not far from this concrete netherland we did find signs of nature: the landscaped grounds of what is considered one of the world’s finest daily newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun.

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Along our way we found more of the ubiquitous vending machines.  Water, water all around and not a drop to drink… if you don’t have a 100-yen coin.

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One of our stops was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government complex in Shinjuku West.  The pair of buildings at the center of the complex house two free observation decks: one of each tower’s 45th floor.  The view is wonderful and Tokyo stretches as far as the eye can see.  They say that on exceptionally clear days, you can see Mt. Fuji.  Today, though, all we could see is this funny egg-shaped building.

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It took me a while to find out what building this is, but the internet is a wonderful tool.  Thanks to Emporis.com, an international commercial real estate database that is accessible to the public, I located the so-called “Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower”.  This 50-story educational building houses three different vocational schools and was selected by Emporis as the 2008 Skyscraper of the Year.  More info here.

On the ground floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government towers is an excellent tourism office that provides all sorts of useful, free information about greater Tokyo.  One thing they offer (for which you are well-advised to sign up for in advance) is free tours in English.  Something I will do differently on my next trip to Tokyo: stop here on day one.

There is also an office providing information about the other prefectures of Japan.  Although much of the information is in Japanese, some English language materials are available.  There are some fantastic three-dimensional wall displays showing the highlights of various regions.  They looked like the hats from Beach Blanket Babylon.

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For lunch, we tracked down Funabashiya, a famous tempura restaurant in East Shinjuku recommended by a friend, Masakazu.  Dinners run around $50 here but like most restaurants in Tokyo, lunch is a much better deal.

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This restaurant is about only one thing, tempura, and they do it incredibly well.  They’ve been around for years and their lunch special – about $10 – was a set of two batches of tempura with rice, soup and pickles.  The second batch of tempura was a surprise.  After receiving a generous serving of light, crispy vegetables and shrimp fresh from the wok, we were already satisfied.  Then the waitress returned a few minutes later with a second serving!

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It is hard to describe how perfectly cooked this tempura was.  Very light batter and not a bit of grease.  There were three types of sea salt to sprinkle on the tempura, including a red salt with lots of minerals and a pepper-salt mixture.

After lunch we did a little more shopping in Shinjuku, including a stop at Tokyu Hands, an eight-story crafts/hardware/home improvement/DIY store in which you can definitely find at least one thing you never knew you needed.

On the way back to the rail station we passed something surprising: a large Krispy Kreme donuts outlet.  Fellow Xangan Tony took a picture of this on a recent trip to Tokyo but I was surprised to see it in person, and even more surprised by the number of people queued outside at 3:30 in the afternoon!

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Nearing rush hour, we hopped on a train, connected at Shibuya and traveled two stops further to a hidden gem that isn’t on the tourist guidebooks’ radar screen, yet: Naka-Meguro.

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Everyone wants to find that little hidden corner of a city, one they enjoy because it is hip and cool but not yet discovered.  Of course, by the time you find out about it, the secret is already out and Naka-Meguro is no exception.  Recently dubbed “the coolest corner of Tokyo” and profiled in the NY Times travel section, Naka-Meguro is a collection of cafes, boutiques and bookstores that runs along an idyllic, tree-lined river.

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Sure, gentrification is quickly happening and this area, which has never been inexpensive, is getting pricier by the week.  But it is still a cool and relatively quiet area and, given that it is just two stops from Shibuya – home of the intersection that sees two million people a day pass through it – it is amazing that it exists at all.  I’d definitely recommend you spend a few hours in the afternoon here, spilling into dinnertime if at all possible.

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Left to right: clothing and other fun items recalling Blackploitation and the 70s; Tawn in front of something a hair hipper than a Goodwill Store; a uber-modern Japanese sweets shop.

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Left: Another clothing store with a vaguely “rust belt” look; a stock pot cools on the windowsill of a restaurant specializing in squid.

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Sadly, evening was falling fast, Tawn was feeling a bit exhausted from all our running around, and we had a 3:45 am appointment the next day, so we excused ourselves from Taro, Mark and HP’s company and headed back to Shiodome, stopping at a tiny hole-in-the-wall tonkatsu place at the JR Shimbashi station and unwittingly finding the best tonkatsu we had in Tokyo!

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This tiny place was full of salarymen – the typical Japanese office workers – and there was nothing in English except for the Asahi beer bottle label.  We pointed to one thing on the menu (after all, everything there was a form of tonkatsu so how wrong could we get?) and ordered two plates of it.

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What arrived was beautiful in its simplicity.  The chef cooked and drained cutlets of pork loin, each with a small strip of fat along one side and served with shredded cabbage, rice, pickled daikon radish, and miso soup with baby clams.  The setting was pretty plain and the plating was that of a blue plate special, but the tonkatsu was divine: moist and flavorful interior with a crisp, dry exterior.  Perfection.

We were in bed by 10:00, trying to catch a few winks before a very early morning on our final day in Tokyo.

Harajuku and Ginza

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We started Sunday morning at a reasonable hour, leaving our hotel (pictured above) and heading to the Ueno-Oichimachi station.

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Still craving those wonderful strawberries, we stopped back by the greengrocer’s next to the station, admiring the wide range of strange produce and fish products before buying another pint of berries.

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We took the train to the Harajuku district.  First stop: Meiji Shrine, the grandest Shinto shrine, rebuilt in authentic fashion in 1958 after the original was destroyed in the Second World War.  If we had been wondering where all the tourists were, we finally found them on the pebble path leading from the railway station to the shrine.  “Crunch, crunch, crunch” went the pebbles as they were trod upon by hundreds of dazed and confused tourists.

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The shrine itself was beautiful but we couldn’t really appreciate it with the crowds.  Not just the tourists but the string of wedding parties that had booked space at the shrine.  We saw two in the short while we were there and I imagine more were to come.

If Shibuya is the scene for young Tokyoite’s trendy fashion, Harajuku is where the cutting edge of fashion is located.  Known for its “cos-play” (costume play) young people who dress up in bizarrely elaborate outfits on the bridge crossing the railway tracks, this area is where all sorts of hipsters create their own new looks.

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The main, tree-lined street doesn’t give a hint of the truly groundbreaking fashion the neighborhood is known for.  While very crowded, the main street is lined with shops that would look at home in any major city around the world.  Above, on a major intersection in Harajuku you find a Gap store.

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And if that isn’t high-end enough for you, there’s always the beautiful, paper lantern like Christian Dior store.

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Along this street you will find small groups of men in suits, sitting on folding chairs and holding counters in their hands.  Who knows what sorts of demographic data they are gathering?

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The real fashion is found off the main street, in a warren of alleys that are home to cool shops and small boutiques with names like Come Together, Ill Store and Junk Yard.

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Along these streets we found an interesting place for a distinctly American snack: Munch’s Burger, a mobile hamburger stand.  The grill (and griller) are in the back of the van.

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Nope, we weren’t hungry so didn’t try them.  The burger looked good, though.

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One store that caught my attention – I think my cousin who works for the airline will love this – is Ships Jet Blue.

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After an hour or two of wandering around we continued to another shopping area, Ginza.  This is the original home of haute couture in Tokyo and is still the major shopping district.  Every big name has a store or three here, along with outlets of the major Japanese department stores.

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On one side street there is a playful sculpture of Cupid peeking around the corner and down the alley.  Who knows where next he will spy love?

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Inside the Mitsukoshi department store is the only Tokyo outlet of La Duree, the fine Parisian patisserie.  We stopped by to buy some macarons.

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As sun set, I took the opportunity to snap a few more photos of this neon-charged city.

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Next: Hakone