Location: 35°44’45.85″ N 139°43’03.77″ E
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My return to the first small town I stayed at in Japan 18 years ago – Itabashi in northwest Tokyo.
The name Itabashi literally means plankbridge.
Itabashi is part of a larger northwestern area of Tokyo called Toshima City.
In 2001, on my first trip to Japan, and right off the airplane, I landed in the charming small town of Itabashi. I was excited. Everything in Japan was new to me then, and I was thrilled to be there.
Purely by accident I discovered the great Japanese hotel chain APA Hotels, which has a hotel in Itabashi, right next to the JR Itabashi train station. APA stands for “Always Pleasant Amenities” and they mean it. APA’s are usually cheap, very clean, and have soundproof windows. The APA Itabashi hotel off season is an amazing $65/night – which is what you would pay for a Motel 6 in the US, but APAs are much much better.
The rooms have a fridge, HDTV, power, charging sockets, and nice bathrooms. Well worth the money. There is also a nice cafe in the lobby, a vending machine, and ice machine (which the Japanese call Ice Engines).
In 2019, I returned to Itabashi, 18 years after my initial sojurn, and stayed just 3 doors down from the room I stayed in during 2001.
This post is a memory of that journey, and about my new adventure in Itabashi in 2019.
The 2001 Photos + Trip
In 2001 digital cameras were still a new thing. All the photos in this section were taken on an Apple QuickTake 200 – which at the time was a hot camera. By today’s standards these are postage-stamp resolution, but they provide a good comparison with the 2019 trip.
In 2001 I hopped a flight from California to Tokyo. The city was overwhelming as was the 16-hour flight. Upon landing I took the NEX from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station, changed trains to the JR Chuo Line, changed again at Shinjuku Station, and took the Saikyo Line up to Itabashi. I will never forget the momemt I stepped off the train and onto the street below the station – the subdued feeling of calmness and relative silence for a city this large.
Overflying the Chiba peninsula into Narita, Summer 2001.
I headed straight to the hotel – APA Itabashi, which turns out to be one of the best hotel chains in Japan. I was amazed at the cleanliness and quality of both the city and hotel.
Original JR Itabashi Station – where I first stepped onto the street in Japan for the first time, now replaced.
City center square – just across from the station. This area and the station have been renovated in 2019 for the 2020 Summer Games. Note this view for later.
APA Hotel – just to the west of the station. There is a small pedestrian tunnel just on the right which leads to the other city square up to the north of the station.
Just to the east of APA Hotel. The small police box or Koban is the small white bldg. on the right. The small brown bldg. on the left has been torn down and replaced with a big new remodelled station in 2019. People in Japan don’t steal bikes and amazingly, all of these parked bikes were unlocked. Note this view for later below.
The Koban from the front. The old station is just to the right, and the city square is just behind the camera. APA Hotel is to the left.
One block south of the hotel. The yellow + red sign is the Daily Yamazaki – a 7-11 type convenience store chain in Japan. In Japan these stores are known as Conbini.
Diagonally from the Daily Yamazaki was this vending machine corner – still the same today.
APA Itabashi hotel lobby with cafe in 2001. Still the same today.
APA Itabashi room view in 2001 looking west. Today the small white apato bldg. has been torn down and replaced with a massive condo development which blocks nearly the entire view. The platform for JR Itabashi Station is just below, but the hotel has soundproof windows. Note this view for later, below.
APA Itabashi room. The rooms are tiny, but quite good, and very clean. They even have a tiny desk. Note the old-style CRT-type TV from 2001. In all APAs in Japan, these have now been replaced with HDTV’s.
The 2019 Photos + Trip
So in 2019 I began to make plans to return to Japan for an extended tour. I immediately began to think of returning to Itabashi as my 1st stop – just for fun – to see if it had changed. So I booked the same hotel for 2 weeks. This time I played the flight smart and stayed overnight in the Pacific Northwest in the US – which cuts the flight time down from 16 hours to a mere 10 – and makes it much easier. If you live in Vancouver you can do the same – although flight time will be 12 instead of 10 hours. 10 hours is doable. 16 is murder.
Touching down at Narita, 2019.
Tokyo Station had changed and was now much more massive – by an order of several magnitudes. On top of that, all the train stations in Tokyo were being remodeled that fall in preparation for the 2020 Summer Games. I struggled my 3 bags through the station and its labyrinth tunnels to get the Chuo Line once again to Shinjuku.
Once in Shinjuku (whose station was also completely torn up), I bought a Suica prepaid IC card and headed for the Saikyo Line platform. After a few minutes’ wait, I boarded and rode the line back north – just as I had done 18 years earlier. Just as I had remembered, it was only a short hop.
The train stopped at Itabashi, brakes squealing, the doors opened, and I once again stepped off onto the platform. Time rewound decades as I vividly recalled my first step into Japan nearly 20 years earlier – as if I was Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon for the 1st time.
To my amazement, with the exception of a large white bldg. to the east of the station, nothing had changed. Nothing. The station and platform were almost unchanged. The back of the hotel, which faces the station was as if I had never left. I saw the long oval windows of the hotel restaurant where I had eaten my first breakfast in Japan the day after arriving the first time in 2001. Memories of that trip came flooding back – the unique smell of Japan, the low quiet rumble of this city of 32 million people, the cleanliness, the sky, the trains.
Return to Itabashi – as if by time machine – 18 years later.
I headed over to the stairs – to discover they had now been replaced by a new escalator. It was here I learned the stations were being remodeled for the Olympics. Inside, the station had completely changed. Modern marble walls, brand new restrooms, and a new conbini inside the station which had not existed before.
The newly remodeled JR Itabashi Station.
The new Itabashi Station was finally completed in June 2020 – including a whole brand new row of shops on the right side.
South/East side of the new station. Entrance is on the left. Note the nice new pavement. In almost 20 years this is about the only thing that has changed in Itabashi.
I slapped my Suica card on the turnstile’s IC reader with a beep, and passed through. I went up the new exit ramp, around the corner of the new station, and onto the same street where I first set foot 18 years ago.
Nothing had changed.
The same small white police Koban, the same small town square and fountain, the shops and apartments, the same street.
First step out of Itabashi Station in 2019 – except for the large new station bldg. on the left, nothing had changed. The same Koban is visible up on the right. The pedestrian tunnel entrance is visible on the left.
The pedestrian tunnel leading to the north side of the station, bike parking, and the other city square.
Itabashi city square today – just outside the station.
The dental office directly across from the hotel. Except for the freshly painted railing, and new sidewalk pavement, nothing had changed.
I walked to the right 1 block and there was the hotel – exactly as I had left it all that time long ago. The same dentist office right across the street, the same small Italian restaurant where I had first eaten pizza in Japan in 2001. The Daily Yamakazi conbini right across from it. Surely I said to myself, the same vending machines can’t be on the corner – where I had tasted my first Japanese soft drink – Pocari Sweat in 2001. I walked down the street – and there it was – the same vending machine corner. As if by time machine, I was back in Tokyo, after all this time, at the exact same spot I remembered from long ago. And everything was exactly the same.
With the exception of the new tall station bldg, Itabashi had been trapped in a time warp.
I headed into the hotel on the right. Same bike parking lot, same sign, same street. Once again, memories came flooding back. The large brass frame on the front door’s circular sliding glass doors, floor tiles, and 200¥ coin lockers – all the same. I headed up the ramped lobby, past the small coffee bar I remembered, and to the front desk. Not one thing in the lobby had changed. Even the same painting on the stairs leading up to the restaurant.
APA hotel today – even the bike parking fence is the same – in fact, it hasn’t even been painted.
I checked in. The staff were polite as usual. I got my room key, and dragged my bags toward the elevator. Past the Hoshizaki Ice Engine I had used 18 years before. Into the elevator.
To my amazement, the hotel staff placed me in a room exactly 3 doors down from the very first room I had stayed in 18 years earlier. I didn’t request it – somehow it just turned out that way. Same floor, same wallpaper, same hotel – even the same side of the hall. Just 3 doors down.
4th floor in the hotel.
Just for fun, I walked to the end of the hall and to the door of the room I had stayed in during 2001. I looked out the same fire escape window at the first skyline view I had ever had of Tokyo. I just stood for a minute thinking in silence – 18 years – amazed that I was even here again, in the same spot.
My original room in 2001.
Looking south towards Ikebukuro. The groaning city in the gathering dark.
I went back down the hall to my room, unlocked the door and stepped inside. Everything here too, was just as I remembered it – except the view was now blocked by a huge new condo development. I opened the window and looked out into the humid late summer air. That familiar smell – the smell of Japan. The station platform below was just as I left it too.
Back in Japan for the first time in 18 years.
What a thrill.
In Part 2 I describe more about the town, the other side of the station, and things to do + see. Enjoy!
My original Apple QuickTake 200 camera from 2000. A ghost from the past.
Original west side of Itabashi Station – now completely replaced by a new taller station bldg.
Original east side entrance of Itabashi Station – now completely replaced.
Main center square outside JR Itabashi Station, early fall.
Shopping street northwest of Itabashi center square.
JR Sakiyo Line train crossing, east of JR Itabashi Station.
JR Itabashi Station at night. JR Saikyo Line headed south to Ikebukuro.