Italy, Japan

From Sicily to Tokyo: The Morning Commute Challenge

We finally saw Mount Enta cleared up but that was the moment we were about to leave the hotel for our 3.5 hours journey to Palermo Airport.

The drive to Palermo was okay until we almost reach the city – traffic! Our flight was at 12:45 pm and we returned the car, walked into the check-in counter at 10:30 am and waited few minutes for the Vueling counter to open. Due to last minute change of itinerary, our flights from Palermo to Rome and the Rome to Madrid were booked under separate reservation but with the same airline. I asked the check-in lady if it’s possible to check our bag all the way to Madrid since the same airline. She wasn’t sure herself so she called to some help center and asked……the bad news was no, it is not possible with Vueling! Urg…I had done this in the past with other airlines and no issue. Anyways, we have a long layerover in Rome so I wasn’t concerning about the time to claim luggage and recheck.

Palermo has two lounges that we could access with our Priority Pass but both were located outside the security so it was super inconvenient! We decided to skip the lounge and instead went through security to the terminal….our quick bites were the traditional Sicily rice ball called Arancini. There were selections of fillings, I picked the meat one. The outer layer was crispy as expected and inside was very soft rice with some meat fillings. The taste was a little bit spicy so I enjoyed it.

Our flight was on time and once we landed in Rome and claimed our baggage, we walked out to the Vueling counter to recheck our bags. Guess what, they wouldn’t accept our luggage because our flight was more than 3 hours away….she said there’s a risk of losing the bags that was why. In today’s technology with those baggage tag scanning and tracking, seriously? I am not sure if it’s a Vueling thing or common, I am pretty sure there are a lot of connecting passengers with a layover of more than 3 hours then how they handled those bags? We found a space near the check-in counter and waited for an hour. I don’t like to waste time so I took out my laptop and did some work with my self-created “working” area LOL:

As soon as the clock ticked 4:30 pm, we walked into the line again to drop off our bags and then rest in more comfortable seating in the Passenger Lounge. We really wanted to check out the Plaza Premium Lounge that people raved about but since our flight was within the Schengen Area, we couldn’t get to it. There was only simple drinks and snacks in the Passenger Lounge 🙁

A full day of travel, we made it to our comfortable hotel room at the Crowne Plaza Madrid Airport at 11:30 pm!!! I wish we could’ve arrived earlier to enjoy this beautiful room. After 4 nights in the cramped Sicily hotel, this room looked like a mansion to us! I miss the big bed and the huge shower!

The shower stall is see-through from the bedroom haha, if you are sharing the room with a friend then privacy is an issue 😉

The huge bathroom, woah!!!

 

They even provided the deep sleep pillow spray, first time I see this!

Lots of toiletries!

We were both shocked by how huge our room is for an “airport” hotel. Sometimes, I am pretty confused by the Crowne Plaza brand in the IHG hotel portfolio. It’s an upscale brand that in my mind should be in the city center and meant to be enjoyed for a few days sightseeing the city. Usually, airport hotel is meant for connecting passengers who usually stay overnight only and yet you have this beautiful Crowne Plaza near the airport, hum! Nevertheless, we had a great night sleep for our early morning flight at 8:25 am. We took the 6 am hotel shuttle to Madrid Airport Terminal 4 and hang out at the Plaza Mayor lounge. It was early in the morning so there was plenty of seats in the lounge.

The lounge has a fridge stocked with yogurts, fruit plates, and sandwiches. I really like the imitation crab meat sandwich 😀

Breads, crossaints, and cookies:

Then, we had a short layover at London LHR Terminal 5 where we checked out the Aspire Lounge. We visited the Aspire Lounge in Zurich and really liked it, however, the one in London was just okay. There was limited seatings and felt like the space were so tight. The only good thing about it was the hot English breakfast!

After the quick breakfast, we proceed to the gate and I went up to ask the staff if there’s any 2-seater row available. Our British Airways 7 flight from LHR to Haneda is configured 3-3-3 but there are a few 2 seaters rows at the back. She said no one is seating next to us and I was like “oh then nevermind” 🙂 The flight was surprisingly not full so many of the 3 seater rows only occupied by 2 people like our row 😀 This was the first long haul international flight where we have 3 seats to ourselves, I was super happy!

This was also our first long-haul British Airways flight, it has a good seat pitch too at 31″ plenty of space!

The empty seat in between us so I could really lay back and sleep!

Food wise….two choices of dinner: the teriyaki chicken with rice or pasta. Without a doubt, I chose the teriyaki chicken and it was decent but a little bit salty that I can bare with. The chocolate was very creamy…yum!

I have to applaud British Airways for keeping the effort to provide hot breakfast! I noticed many airlines had switched to the “packaged cold ham and cheese sandwich” as breakfast; easy and fast for the flight attendants to pass out and collect. Those are not edible! I need something hot for breakfast to comfort my tummy and this did the job!

We landed at Haneda in the early morning at around 7 am, the passport control line was a breeze and welcomed by the friendly immigration officer. After we claimed our baggage, we walked to the Keikyu Railways ticket office and purchased the one-way train ticket (410 yen) to Shinagawa Station where our hotel was located. They accepted cash only and I have 20,000 yen with me from the last trip sleeping in Narita Airport (yes that horrible experience). I also purchased the Tokyo Subway 48-Hours Ticket that cost 1,200 yen per person, this ticket saved money and convenient. I did the research and for an experienced traveler like me, I even felt that the metro system in Japan is very confusing because there are different companies operating different metro lines! The Tokyo Subway Ticket covers all the subway lines (except the JR line) and unlimited rides for 48 hours (there’s 24, 48, and 72 hours pass) for a fixed price, I am in!

The lady, who speaks decent English, explained that the Keikyu Railways ticket only covers the one way to Shinagawa or Sengakuji. After the Keikyu Railways ticket is used, in order for us to get from Shinagawa to Sengakuji where it connects with the rest of the metro lines is either by walking or a separate $ ticket. She recommends walking to Sengakuji as it’s only 15 minutes away from Shinagawa Station. Ok, understood! She pointed us the entrance to the Keikyu line and platform number; the next train will arrive in 5 minutes. We walked to the platform and Japan is famous for being on time so as soon as the clock hits, the train arrived. We stepped in and the train was near empty! I thought it was an express train, nonstop to Shinagawa but then it made a stop in 5 minutes of the ride and the train station name is not listed on the map, urg! I know it takes around 30 minutes to get to Shinagawa Station so still a long way to go. Then, it made more stops and at each stop, more and more morning commuters entered in the train to a point that it was completely full, I mean packed full! OMG, the youtube videos of the Tokyo morning commute squeeze are real!

I got squeezed so bad even though I have a seat but I wasn’t even able to stand up to look at the marquee to see what is the next train station name. We made so many stops that I started to think are we in the wrong train? It couldn’t be right because it was the train arrived at the exact time and in the right platform? My questioning facial expression and keep getting up trying to check the station name caught the attention of the Japanese lady squeezing against Jason’s luggage, she said “Shinagawa Station, next station”. I was so relieved by her words and said: “Thank you very much!”. The next challenge: how to squeeze our luggage out?

Luckily, Shinagawa Station is one of the transportation hubs so many people exit out the train at this stop. We were almost getting pushed to move forward and out the train, phew! I was like sweating to make it out! We got out of the huge Shinagawa Station and loaded Google Map for the direction to walk to our hotel: Shinagawa Tobu Hotel. It was almost a straight road up the hotel at an incline that it made it difficult for me to roll my luggage so I had to pull it up, now that was sweaty! I know we arrived way before the hotel check-in time so before storing the luggage at the front desk, I asked for the restroom so we could freshen up a little and change our outfits. Jason came out of the restroom and he asked me “guess what I see in the men’s bathroom”? He said “makeup remover”, he thought it was liquid soap and when he looked closer he thought it was strange to see it in the men’s bathroom LOL!

Our long journey from Sicily to Madrid to London to Tokyo, finally, time to explore Tokyo! We walked 15 minutes to Sengakuji Metro Station, used our contactless Tokyo Subway Pass, looked at the train map to locate the platform and direction, and on our way to our first site – Asakusa!

Once we got off the train and used our subway pass to exit the gate, there are signs pointing to the exit to Sensōji, the famous Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Right across from the train station entrance is a convenience store where we checked out the drinks section. In Asian countries, I love to browse the drinks section in the convenience store to check out the drinks that I can’t get at home. Look at how many different brands and kinds of green tea drinks and very cheap!!! We got two bottles of refreshing green tea!

Located right in front of Sensōji is Nakamise marked the entrance with this red gate with a huge red lantern…somehow the lantern was half closed hummm why?

Nakamise is packed with souvenir and food stalls and people. There were even signs and broadcasting in English, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese that it’s not allowed to eat and walk LOL. Look at how crowded it was oh my! After few days in the quiet Sicily, it took me a while to adjust to the busy Tokyo. Despite the stalls and crowds, Japan is impressively clean (and they are famous for it); we don’t even see any trash on the street. Everyone was very polite and orderly, oh one thing I constantly reminded ourselves….no J-walking LOL!

Those shops even have the machine to make fresh pastries and cookies!

The side streets weren’t as busy and mostly restaurants instead of shops.

We kept marching along to Sensōji and those paintings of the ancient times really caught my eyes by the colors.

Finally, the magnificent Sensōji Temple that is bright red and decorated with lanterns! It was impossible to wait for the crowds to move away so it was important to be fast and hit the shutter button before get photobombed!

Or zoom into the details 😉

As I entered the gate, I looked up straight at the lantern and I noticed the dragon so I took the picture right away!

The lanterns on both sides are black with…are those names? Those are Chinese characters but I couldn’t figure out what they mean so I am guessing names.

Next to the temple is this beautiful pagoda that can’t be accessed but at least can stand in front for a photo without the crowds!

On the other side of the temple, you can see the Tokyo Skytree.

There’s an incense stick booth that you can purchase a roll of incense sticks for 100 yen to worship. Jason bought one:

The smoke from the incense pot and the heat it was releasing, wow!

Another big lantern inside the temple:

The ceiling has paintings of the goddesses and dragon.

The actual worship hall that is closed to the public, you can have a peek at the monks and worshippers inside.

Another side of the temple, you can see the rows of white lanterns hanging there and of course more food stalls.

One side where it was no crowds at all.

And this main entrance side, always filled with tourists.

There are no admission fees to enter the temple complex but they are really good at doing business; they sell incense sticks and lucky charms. They have lucky charms specific for each wish like health, wealth, love, etc. The lucky charms cost somewhere between 500 yen to 1000+ yen and besides the charms, they sell blessing crystal bracelets and necklaces. I bought a pink crystal bracelet for my mom that is for “good luck” as I know she is very supersitious and she likes crystal. My mom claimed that the bracelet really “works” because she won a $100 lottery from work after two days she received from me haha!

We noticed this huge thing made out of ropes (they are actually traditional straw sandals called waraji) on each side of the temple gate. The sign named it “O-waraji” meaning “big” sandals.

With all those flavorful smell coming from the food stalls, it was hard to not stop by at one to try it out. Jason picked the octopus balls and it was pretty good!

We obeyed the rule of no eating while walking so we found a corner to finish our octopus balls before moving. We noticed there wasn’t any trash bin around so we were hanging on to that container for a while.

Another pastry shop:

Japanese snacks are very pretty in packaging and expensive so watch out for your wallet 😉

The old style houses are very cute to browse around 🙂

Even the store gates are very pretty, an art itself!

 

I wish all the garage doors are as cute as this one 😀

After Sensōji, it was time for our first meal in Tokyo, I plugged in the GPS with the restaurant name “野口鲜鱼店” and it was like a 15 minutes walk to get there toward the direction of the Tokyo Skytree.

When we arrived at 11:15, it was already a line of people waiting for the restaurant to open at 11:30; it must be good!

The waiter came out to pass out the menu so people can decide what they want to order while waiting in line to speed up the process, another known fact about Japanese – they are efficient! The pictures in the menu helped because the rest of the menu is in Japanese!

We had no idea what those are but guessing those are the top sellers? I tried using the Google Translate to take a photo but it did a poor job of recognizing the characters.

The restaurant opened but already filled with people who were at the line first so we had to wait for the 2nd round; it was like a 30 minutes wait. The waiter and waitress came out and handed out a small cup of cold green tea to those in line, so kind of them! The waiter took our order; he translated for us and we picked the most popular two seafood rice plates “don”.

The restaurant is half a seafood market and a restaurant with limited seatings.

The ingredients were all there right from the market to the kitchen so it has to be fresh 😀 What I really like about this restaurant is this self-served green tea machine that you can choose hot or cold green tea. Free unlimited green tea and they offered good green tea too!

Our lunch!!! We ordered the crab soup for an additional charge but it was well worth the money, the soup was really good filled with seafood! Jason is a seafood fan and raw-seafood too, he was super impressed by the fresh selections and generous portions of sashimi. I am not a raw seafood fan so I gave him all the sashimi from my don!

Our lunch was around 4000 yen, they accepted cash only as like many restaurants and shops in Tokyo. I found it a little bit odd on being a high-tech country and credit card is not that widely accepted! My 20,000 yen quickly using up so I reminded myself to stop by an ATM; I saw plenty on our walk to the restaurant.

Well guess what, not all ATM accepts foreign debit cards nor have English menu. It took us three tries and finally found one that accepts foreign debit cards, it has a sign that said it accepts foreign cards. Thankfully, those ATM that accepts foreign cards have English menu, it’s just an effort to locate which ones 😉 I know I said it many times, I was super glad that I opened the online checking account with Charles Schwab, there’s no ATM withdrawal fee whatsoever so I can use any ATM worldwide and withdraw small amount as needed.

Next destination was Meiji Jingū, a shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji as the name indicated. In contrast to the red themed temples of Sensōji bustling with tourists and sellers, Meiji Jingū is more calm and peaceful with a long walk in shades at least. First thing we passed by were those colorful wine containers.

The color tone of Meiji Jingū is dark wooden color.

Except for this gate that is light colored and looked new.

At each of the shrine, you’ll see a purification fountain to rinse your hands and supposedly your mouth as well before you enter the shrine. Google for the complete steps 😉

The vanilla colored lantern complements the dark woods.

The dark wooden colors of the buildings blended well with the surrounding trees as like they were part of the forest.

Each shrine and temple sells lucky charms, I took a photo of the types of lucky charms they are selling and the staff said no photos allowed…oh opps sorry!

To get photos without people, walk toward a side and you’ll find your own corner of peace.

A huge wooden door with craved out pattern.

There are wooden stands for worshippers to hang their wishes and of course, they sell those wooden boards for you to write your wishes on!

A free way of making wishes is instead of a board, you can write your wishes on the paper and slip into an envelope provided; there is a separate box for envelopes 😀

The main building prohibited photo taking, perhaps there was a private ceremony going on.

We got out on the other entrance route and there were no crowds at that purification fountain.

After Meiji Jingū shrine, we decided to head back to our hotel because the Imperial Palace and other attractions were closed by then….usually 5 pm so pretty early. Tokyo is huge, it took us almost an hour to get back switching two different metro lines. The 15 minutes walk from the metro station to our hotel was not fun after a full day of walk and without real sleep. We picked up our luggage, got the room key and headed up to our tiny room. As you are aware, Tokyo real estate is very expensive so you would expect tiny hotel rooms…even compared to European standards, they are small! However, small but efficient!

The high-tech toilets with functions like self-cleaning, wash your butt, dry, and it even plays music LOL! The toiletries include full refillable bottles of everything you need, toothbrush, sewing kit, etc.

We were so tired that we didn’t feel like to walk 15 minutes to the metro station again to head out for dinner so I found a restaurant near the Shinagawa Station. We went to Nantsuttei Shinagawa and the first time I used a food ticket vending machine. Choose the dishes you want, insert cash, and you’ll get a “food ticket”.

Japan, being an expensive destination, ramen is one of the affordable filling meals. They have those 4 special ramens and we could order based on the photos without knowing any Japanese.

Only a few employees running this shop and it got crowded with locals but as efficient Japanese, it was never a long wait for our food.

Jason ordered this ramen with pork belly, egg, seafood, and flavorful broth!

My ramen has two kinds of broths, one that is black sesame based that I have never seen before and oh boy, it totally changed my perception of ramen. I am really not a fan of ramen because the ones I had previously were too salty for me; I characterized ramen as strong and salty pork bone flavors and no other “taste”. However, this one was spicy and not salty at all! I never know ramen or Japanese food could be this spicy! The only negative about this bowl of spicy ramen is that the “char siu” (roasted pork) were too dry and tasteless.

Our dinner was filling and we went into the train station to check out the supermarket located in the basement. There, we saw the brand of milk tea drink that normally is very expensive back home (at least $5 for a big bottle and almost $3 for a small bottle), the small bottle only cost 80 yen…that’s like $0.72 a bottle!!! We got crazy and stocked up on milk teas LOL! I also found the roasted sesame salad dressing that I had been searching for 🙂 After the food shopping, we walked the “hill” back to our hotel, it was a good way to burn some calories. When we got back to the hotel, we stopped at the 2nd floor to check out its coin laundry room where it have 2 washing+drying machines. Yay, we could do our laundry before we head to the next destination!

2 thoughts on “From Sicily to Tokyo: The Morning Commute Challenge

  1. Nara a short distance from Kyoto and Kobe has some great buddhist temples and giant buddha figures .Deer are sacred in Nara.

    Himeji Castle is probably the most impressive of the Japan castles .Also in this area.

    Definetly more to see in Japan.Mt Fuji Pink moss with a water reflection is a great photo.My aso and the Kagoshima volcano.Bomb museums in Nagasaki ,Hiroshima.

    1. Hi Tom, yes we did the pink moss at Mount Fuji and Kyoto-Nara – our main purpose to Japan 😀 More on that soon…

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