Getting to Japan from the Midwest definitely takes its time. Maybe not quite as long as flying from Boston to New Zealand via Australia, it still takes still about 12 hours just for the long leg from O'Hare to Narita. And of course one leaves in the morning to arrive still in the morning with a whole day ahead before even thinking of hitting the bed. The 14 hours difference between Central US and Japan time are the most effective recipe to completely scramble one's biorhythms. And then you arrive in one of the largest megalopolis in the world, where addresses are based on the block numbers instead of street names, and of course are written with totally alien characters. And you have to find your hotel.
The solution is of course an international data plan and google maps on your iPhone. And if you are into iPhone apps, install also the Hyperpedia app (free for a trial period, then subscription based), an essential tool to get real time itineraries, prices and timetables for all trains and metro system in the country. Japan has an exceptionally efficient and distributed public transportation system, but its navigation can be a little daunting, especially in the smaller stations where english signs are not obvious, and in the larger ones where you have to decide fast among dozens of platforms on many different levels. Hyperpedia and google maps can be life-saver tools to navigate the complexities of the system, especially when you are seriously jet lagged. Once you know what to do, it is actually easy to get to Tokyo, thanks to the Narita Skyliner connecting the airport with the main terminals in the city.
Kan'ei-ji temple, Japan (May 26, 2012)
Since my meeting was on the campus of the University of Tokyo, I choose my hotel next to the nearby Ueno Park, very close to one of the main Tokyo train stations. Ueno is one of the first public park in Japan, created in 1873 at a time (Meiji period) in which the country was experimenting with international practices (among which public park creation). With over 10 million visitors a year, it is still very popular. My hotel (the Tokyo Ueno Hotel Park Side) was very westernized, and is a good option if you are in Japan for the first time. Not the best way to see the "real Japan", but it will make your life easier, at least at the beginning. The presence of the Park makes the area quite touristic, which means there are plenty of places to eat with choices of traditional and international cuisine (yeah, there is even a MacDonald at the corner, ugh). I like Japanese food, though, so I tried to stick to more-or-less traditional cuisine for the whole trip (that included raw fish and raw eggs dropped in white rice for breakfast). After I arrived, however, I was more tired than starved, but I still tried to stay awake until sunset, to avoid being a zombie the next day. The photo above shows the view from the side of the pond at the center of the park, with touristy swan boats, the Kan'ei-ji temple and the newly inaugurated Tokyo Sky Tree far in the background. I didn't last very long, and after a short walk in the park I headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. The nocturnal image of the temple on the left was definitely shot on another day, as by the time it was dark, I was sound asleep in a jet-lag induced stupor.