A week of April in Tokyo

Last year, I had not had the chance to visit Japan, or Tokyo, for that matter. For a few years running, I think I had the chance to make an “annual pilgrimage” to Tokyo, one of the cities that never fails to lighten up my heart when I think of visiting. I wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim as it “my home”, because my home rightly will always be Singapore, with its warts and all, good and bad. It is where I will feel most comfortable in and where my loved ones are. But Tokyo, as a place to visit and holiday in, remains at the top. Perhaps until such day when I have a chance to live and work there for a prolonged period of time that will either change this view for better or for worse…

I booked myself on an early morning flight to Haneda, and before getting onto the plane, since I don’t get complimentary access to the lounge anymore (sigh), I made a short pit-stop at Coffee Bean for a tea latte before boarding.

Coffee Bean’s tea lattes are my favourite drink from them, despite that they tend to be fairly sweet due to the vanilla/chocolate powder being used, but somehow I always find them to be quite enjoyable. Maybe it’s the sweet tooth in me speaking up.  While waiting to board the flight, and on this weekday morning to Haneda, it seemed that the flight would not be a full one, judging by the sparse crowd in the waiting area. Indeed, it wasn’t full and there was quite a bit of space available. But it’s an old plane that SQ is using, a 777-200, so the KRIS World system isn’t the new version and can be a bit wonky at times, with a tiny screen that provides a low quality of movies that you watch. Nevertheless, at least there is inflight entertainment to tide me through the 6-hour flight.

When I got to Haneda, I decided to take the Airport Limousine Bus, but which also meant I had a long wait for the bus to depart. I wandered around the airport, which was not much in terms of shops that I could mill around, and also because I was lazy to wheel my luggage around. Even with a 4-wheeler, it still requires some effort particularly because the airport has those metal studs to facilitate the visually-impaired in getting to the lights and escalators, which impeded the smooth movement of the wheels. Got these from 7-11, a small cup of mixed beans salad and a red bean-flavoured Kit Kat! I love the convenience stores of Japan (only Taiwan follows close behind) and what they have. If only we get these here too. The convenience stores in Singapore aren’t really that ‘convenient’ at all, and often times, the prices are just exhorbitant.   On the ride to the hotel, which is just a 45 or 50-minute ride from Haneda. That’s the good part about flying in/out through Haneda, which is located much closer to the city as compared to Narita. However, if you are going by Narita, the NEX makes the transit shorter, less than an hour, but for lazy people like me who want the convenience of the Airport Limousine in terms of porterage for your luggage, then Haneda makes a good choice.  I reached the hotel in the evening and had a relatively quick and smooth check-in to the hotel, Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, my usual go-to hotel in Tokyo, which is located just opposite Takashimaya Shinjuku and boasts competitive pricing, especially if you are staying multiple nights and book early. The rooms are small but they are generally clean and well-maintained, and for the most part I find it to be sufficient for me. I have stayed in their double rooms before once, and other times, always booked the ‘Bright Single Room’. As you can see, there really isn’t much space for you to move around, especially if you have more than one piece of luggage, but with some maneuvering, it shouldn’t be too tough. I laid the luggage facing up on a rack the whole period when I was there and managed fine, but just needed to be a bit careful in not knocking into it in those middle-of-the-night bathroom visits.    That’s it for now, shall update more when I can. 🙂

Taipei’s Convenience Stores!

One of the things that I really love about some of our Asian neighbours is the abundance and thus easy availability of convenience stores. Funnily, the Japanese have an abbreviated form of this term, and they call them “combini”. The first time I was in Tokyo years ago and heard this term I was wondering what it meant, but after having visited Japan numerous times thereafter and also learning the Japanese language for the past years, I realise that they like to shorten words and sometimes they don’t make perfect sense. Haha.

Anyway, Japan is one of those countries that have just about a convenience store lurking at any street corner, whether it is 7-11, AMPM, Lawson’s, Family Mart, etc. The list can go on because right now I can’t remember all the different brands of convenience stores. Similarly in Seoul (since I haven’t been to other parts of Korea) and also Taipei, these stores are everywhere! I don’t think the situation is replicated in Hong Kong though, and perhaps also not in Singapore, or at least not that I recall, especially since we are impoverished where convenience store variety is concerned. We only have 7-11 and Cheers is that right? But generally, convenience stores are a dime and dozen in Asia, as compared to say, Europe.

So last month I took a one-week business trip to Taipei, and this time I was staying in a different hotel, nearer to the city centre, and I was pretty amazed that in the vicinity of my hotel, there were so many cafes and convenience stores. I absolutely love the convenience of them, because they operate round the clock and they are quite well-stocked. I am not a big fan of eating proper dinners so these places are a haven to me for finding food and drinks that I can bring back to my hotel room to satiate hunger when it arises, or whether to just buy some snacks to pop into my bag for an emergency hunger fix. Even if you need some toiletries that you have forgotten to bring on the trip or need some medication, these stores are the place to go to!

I think it is probably not forbidden to take pictures in the store, but I tried to sneak a photo one afternoon while I was at this 7-11 near the office buying some drinks. Isn’t it just amazing what they have? I always spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the display, mulling over what I should buy, till I think the shop assistants probably start to suspect if I might be trying to steal something.

The kiwi drink I got was surprisingly nice and not so sweet like how we normally expect bottled drinks to be. And needless to say, the chocolate-coated jumbo raisins were spectacular. I love raisins and milk chocolate, so this combination is a winner for me.So I saw this brown rice beverage one evening and bought it, and it was also not the sweet type, but yet still tastes really good. Ok, maybe healthy things don’t necessarily have to taste bland and bad, but one half-litre carton of this would seriously be enough to fill you up for a good long time. I wished they had them in smaller packages though, like perhaps half the size or 200ml boxes, which would then make it easier for me to try more things. Unfortunately, economies of scale probably dictate that such sizes are more popular for the general consumer and not the occasional tourist.

And of course they would have Jagabee. I went nuts over the various flavours of Jagabee when I was in Japan some time back, and ever since then I have always liked snacking on these, even if I am supposed to be on a diet. I can’t resist this potato snack. But maybe balancing it with a bottle of yogurt will make it better (delusional but who cares)? I can’t wait to go to Japan again and check what limited edition/seasonal flavours they have!

The other interesting thing about these convenience stores in Taipei, or sometimes Seoul/Japan is that they sell really cute stuff, or they have some sort of loyalty programs where if you purchase a certain amount you get a sticker (this applies for Taipei and Hong Kong, I can’t remember for the others) and when you have accumulated a certain number of stickers you can exchange them for some free gifts or buy something with an additional top-up in cash. I have seen Doraemon merchandise in Taipei, and in the past Rilakuma stuff in Hong Kong. I know a lot of people probably couldn’t care less about such things, but honestly I think they must have quite some clout in these cities to make the convenience stores use them as a bait for the consumers. In Singapore, we are probably more practical and there are less people into such cutesy stuff, but perhaps not because when we think of the queues for the Hello Kitty toys, I think we do have a market for them. It is probably a business direction undertaken by the franchisees of these stores, but well that is a point they are losing out on.

Somehow, in Singapore, a convenience store is really just a place we pop into when we need to get some snacks, magazines, drinks, etc. in the middle of the night when nothing else is open. Well it is a place we visit out of convenience, hey presto and therefore its name, but really the entire experience of “combinis” here and abroad is really so different. And because Halloween was just round the corner then, they even had M&Ms in special packaging!