Red-eye rites of passageYou’re a college student, and winter break is fast drawing to a close. You want to have some real fun, but you’re on a tight budget.
Do what my sister and I did earlier this month. Go to Tokyo for as low as 269,000 won ($224).
No, I’m not talking about the airfare. This is the round-trip ticket from Seoul and hotel accommodations.
Pretty amazing, when you consider that an economy class round-trip ticket to Tokyo normally costs around 350,000 won. (Prices vary. We went over the Lunar New Year weekend and paid more, 399,000 each.)
There’s one condition: You’ve got to be able to power through three days of travel, sightseeing, shopping and eating on less than 10 hours of sleep, which is why the tours are so popular among college students, mostly single women with a yen for partying and bargain hunting.
My 22-year-old sister, Soo-yeon, who’s a medical student at Seoul National University, and I flew from Incheon International Airport at 3:15 a.m. on Friday night (actually, Saturday morning) and caught a return flight from Haneda Airport at 11:45 p.m. Sunday. We had all Saturday and Sunday in Tokyo, enough to satisfy our bargaining needs and culinary curiosity.
The red-eye package was launched late last year by All Nippon Airways. It clicked immediately with high-adrenaline, low-maintenance travelers. This three-day, one-night cram, nicknamed the “Tokyo Goblin Tour,” is completely self-conducted. No guides, no transfers, no tour buses.
Only goblins haunt Incheon International at 1 a.m., when the marble-floored, halogen-lit terminal is eerily silent. At check-in, we stand behind a couple in their early 20s and a family with two children. Most of the other passengers are groups of animated young women.
The plane, packed with 120 people, is airborne for little more than an hour. Nobody sleeps. It arrives in Tokyo at 5:30 a.m., just as the sun is cracking the sky. While most international passengers arrive at Narita International Airport, a two-hour subway ride from downtown Tokyo, this flight lands at Haneda Airport, normally reserved for domestic flights and less than an hour from the capital.
The Seoul goblins scramble from the plane, plow through immigration and race to the monorail that speeds downtown. Then they scatter, never to see one another again until the return flight.
Tokyo’s subway system is run by a bunch of private companies along with the government. It’s initially confusing, but Soo-yeon and I reach Hamamatsucho Station without difficulty.
Our goal for the first day: rip through Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya, districts catering to Tokyo’s college crowd and Generation Xers.
There’s just one rub. It’s 6:30 a.m. and not a store is open, even in this shopper’s paradise.
The right place to be is Tokyo’s shrines, which are open from sunrise to sunset. Traveling light, we jump back on the subway, ride to Harajuku Station and climb the granite stairs to the Meiji Shrine, the biggest traditional shrine in Tokyo, where kings from Meiji Dynasty (1868-1912) are worshiped.
The entrance to the shrine is next to Harajuku Station. The walkway to the shrine, covered with carefully swept pebbles, is guarded by a torii, giant wooden pillars in the shape of the Chinese character meaning “sky.”
The Japanese believe that birds are the messengers to god, and a torii is a place for them rest. The one at Meiji Shrine is made of 1,700-year-old cedar.
We spend an hour touring the temple and grounds, watching people praying and writing their wishes on slips of paper or scraps of wood and hanging them on trees. Then, as we make our way to the exit, we hear familiar Korean words.
“Soo-yeon, is that really you?” asks a young man carrying a thick tour book. It is Soo-yeon’s classmate, Young-hyun, who had arrived a day earlier on the red eye.
We invite him for breakfast, a fresh-baked croissant and coffee, at a nearby cafe and chat for about an hour. Harajuku, one of our shopping destinations, is just a street away.
Around 9:30 a.m., I decide it’s time to get the party started. First stop: Takeshidadori, where shops sell the latest clothes and accessories. By midmorning, the 200-meter-long street is as crowded as Seoul Station at rush hour. We cruise the shops, amazed at the cute, affordable items. This is certainly the place to shop for accessories, although clothes for fashionable Japanese teenagers might be too avant-garde for Seoul’s streets. I buy a pair of butterfly earrings, the latest Harajuku design, for 470 yen (about 5,100 won or $4.25). A week later, I find the same design in Seoul’s Sinchon district, selling for double the price, 10,000 won.
In need of a sugar rush, we share a crepe, the street snack of Harajuku. After downing a pancake lathered with strawberries and custard cream, we head for our second destination, Omotesando Avenue.
If Takeshidadori is for the teens, Omotesando is for 20-somethings. With popular fashion malls like La Foret, Omotesando is packed with classy cafes and boutiques. After hitting every shop, Soo-yeon and I are now hefting three bags filled with shoes, gloves, hats, earrings and other jewelry.
Luckily, we’ve got nothing else, save the camera, guidebook and change of underwear I’ve stuffed in my satchel.
We glance at our watches. It’s 2 p.m. and we haven’t paused for lunch. Across from La Foret, we spy a restaurant, Tenya, specializing in donburi, a bowl of rice topped with assorted deep-fried seafood and vegetables, and a must-have in Tokyo. A bowl with shrimp costs 600 yen and meets our expectations.
Next, we head to Shibuya, one subway stop from Harajuku. Shibuya also is jammed with malls and department stores, which means another round of shopping. We charge our way through three malls, and by the time we emerge the sun has set and my feet are aching.
For fortification, we slip into a nearby sushi restaurant and load up on salmon, eel and California rolls as they careen along a conveyor belt. The restaurant has a rule: Each customer must down seven plates within 30 minutes to claim a spot along the conveyor. At 100 yen a serving, with two pieces of sushi on each plate, it’s a steal.
It’s 8 p.m. when we step back on the street. We still have one destination to hit before heading to our hotel; Shinjuku, which is three subway stops from Shibuya. Alas, when we get to the station, we discover the shopping malls don’t have as much stamina as we do. They’re closed.
Anyone in their right mind would call it a day and check into a hotel. We don’t. We head to Kabukicho, a popular pleasure zone, with countless restaurants and drinking joints, although it’s a bit seedy at night. We go back to Omotesando by subway and order a couple of cappuccinos and Napoleons at a French-style cafe.
Then we call it a night and take a subway to Shimbashi, the closest stop to our hotel. We catch a cab ―our first of the day ― for a five-minute, 600-yen ride to the Atagoyama Tokyu Inn in Shimbashi, near Ginza. The Goblin package features small, clean, simply furnished hotels that are close to downtown ― perfect for our crash course on Tokyo.
We collapse in bed at midnight, our first sleep in 39 hours.
Late the next morning, I awake to the sound of crows cawing. Just as Seoul is full of doves, Tokyo has practically been conquered by crows, which isn’t exactly a pleasurable sight.
I thank the crows, however, because we would have kept sleeping. We’re supposed to check out by 10 a.m., so it’s a mad dash for the shower and door. We miss the hotel’s American-style buffet breakfast.
The second day is as busy as the first. We visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese soldiers (world-class war criminals from Koreans’ point of view) are deified. Entire families are solemnly visiting the shrine, an unsettling sight for those who suffered under Japanese occupation. I’m nevertheless impressed by a small, carefully tended traditional garden in the corner of the shrine.
Our next destination is the king’s palace, which is best reached via taxi. En route, the taxi driver brakes in the middle of the road, jumps out and offers to take a photo of Soo-yeon and me in front of the Diet, Japan’s National Assembly. You don’t see the picture on this page, because he was a better driver than a photographer.
The palace is largely off-limits to visitors. So we stroll to Ginza, the upscale, downtown shopping area where department stores and Sony and Nissan showrooms vie for space.
Remember, we haven’t had breakfast or lunch. And, note that Ginza is much larger than Shibuya or Shinjuku. We get lost looking for Yoshida, a restaurant that specializes in soba, buckwheat noodles, served with croquettes.
In English, we ask a young lady for directions, and she says it’s her favorite restaurant. She takes us to the place, only to discover it’s closed on Sundays.
She keeps bowing and apologizing, saying she’s terribly sorry, like it’s her fault. I ask her if she has another recommendation. At this point, she’s so embarrassed that she phones the restaurant, called Bairin, to make sure they’re open and then insists on escorting us to its doors.
Along the way, she keeps asking, “Do you like Japan?” Each time I say, “Sure, we do.” And then, visibly pleased, she says, “Thank you, thank you, thank...” Truly, we’re grateful for her hospitality.
She refuses to have lunch with us, even after repeated invitations. In her honor, we sate ourselves, devouring every morsel of Japanese-style pork cutlets.
Then, having made the cultural tour in less than two hours in the morning, we do an afternoon showroom tour of Sony and Mikimoto, a pearl jewelry shop, followed by another round of shopping at high-end department stores (with prices to match). Our credit cards are practically molten when we hit Kimurayaso, the first bakery in Japan, known since 1869 for its traditional cakes and snacks. We’re now carrying 15 bags, brimming with merchandise. In all, we’ve spent 50,000 yen in 39 hours.
Dinner? Forget it. We’ve blasted through the day and it’s 8:30 p.m., time to head to Haneda Airport.
At check-in, all the goblins are back and looking exhausted. The married couple are arguing and their kids are crying. The unmarried couple are hardly speaking; the girl is flipping through a magazine and her boyfriend has that defeated hound-dog look that men get whenever they go shopping. The other coeds are defensively clutching their shopping bags that will undergo scrutiny at customs when they arrive in Seoul.
The plane, its occupants now silent, departs at 11:45 p.m. Everyone sleeps until it lands at Incheon at 2:15 a.m.
Soo-yeon and I drag ourselves home. I rise a few hours later to go to work. I feel like a goblin. My fingers ache from carrying overstuffed shopping bags. My calves throb from all the walking.
I’m immediately sent out of town by my editors on an overnight assignment even though my co-workers are sure I’m about to come down with the flu.
I swallow a couple of aspirins and bravely say I’m fine. I leave the newsroom, take the elevator to the ground floor and, as soon as I’m out of the building, check the schedule for the next weekend’s trips to Tokyo.
RED-EYE TRAVEL TIPS
1. Change your won to yen before going to the airport. If you’re taking the All Nippon Airways red-eye flight, don’t expect the money exchange booths to be open at 1 a.m.
2. Plan your itinerary. You’ve got 42 hours and 15 minutes in Tokyo. Make the best of them.
3. Bring a guidebook. While the Japanese are unimaginably kind to foreign tourists, their English is limited and their understanding of Korean is nil. Furthermore, their subway maps have flawed English, but do have Chinese characters.
4. Travel light. Carry a toothbrush, hair brush and a change of underwear. You can’t lug suitcases around Tokyo for 16 hours at a stretch.
Excuse me. Sumimasen.
Where is it? Dokodeska.
How much is it? Ikuradeska.
Do you speak English?
(It’s) too expensive. Dakai.
Thank you. Arigato gozaimas.
ALL NIPPON AIRWAYS TOKYO TOUR
Feb. 28: 329,000 won
March 1: 349,000 won
March 8, 15 and 22: 279,000 won
March 7 and 21: 269,000 won
by Chun Su-jin