Second half of the last day: Shibuya

Think this is a lamp

Think this is a lamp

We hopped onto the tube which took us to Meiji-jingÅ«mae station. Outside, we got our bearings and walked towards the nearby city park. This surrounds the Meiji-jingÅ« itself – the shrine to the Emperor Meiji.

Right by the gates, an artist had spread out a lot of examples of his work in front of a little sign that said “free”. We pawed through them and I popped three silk paintings into my rucksack when the artist himself appeared. He talked to Noriko in very fluent English (which was weird, with him being Japanese) and suggested a donation as he needed to buy supplies and materials… here we go.

I’m used to the occasional haggle like this in SE Asia but you usually end up haggling over a couple of bucks. This guy was after 5000 Yen to start and haggled himself down to 3000 – around £25. Youch. Even the street art here is expensive. Needless to say, Noriko returned her paintings and we walked on into the park.

The first thing we saw was an enormous torii, standing what must have been 25 feet tall. Beautifully carved from gorgeous, smooth dark wood and dominating the walkway. There were others within the park as well. A wall of wine casks, donated to the emperor, lined one approach to the central shrine.

Despite the throng of tourists, the area never felt crowded as it was so huge. We took pictures and Noriko chased down a couple from India so she could have her photo taken with the woman in her sari. I’ve found one thing about Noriko – she’s not afraid to ask people for their photo!

The noise!

The noise!

As luck would have it, a wedding ceremony was beginning as we were there. The parade walked slowly up from the entranceway, through the courtyard and through a doorway we couldn’t enter. Polite but firm staff ensured the parade wasn’t disrupted, but nobody stopped tourists and locals alike taking pictures and video. The bride looked fantastic in a traditional white robe but of a very different style to that used in the West. A shame we couldn’t witness the whole ceremony.

Just outside, we saw another couple – obviously just married – walking to their car. They very kindly posed for photos as their driver waited and I have to say I am very happy with the one I snapped of them gazing into each other’s eyes. Mind you, I think they were actually saying to each other “We should go now – they’ve taken enough pictures”!

We next headed into Shibuya itself, only a short walk away. For some reason there was a massive police presence just outside the park, but we didn’t feel like asking why. There’s a thing about seeing 20-30 policemen standing together that makes you think that perhaps moving on is a better idea.

It didn’t take long to walk down to Shibuya station (this one on the JR Line), right by the famous Shibuya crossing. If you’ve heard of the way people cross the road in Japan in their hordes then this is the place to see it at its best. Tourists and people with much more expensive looking cameras were amongst the crowds and dangling from any vantage point to video the thousands (I do not exagerrate) of people crossing the road when the little green man came on.

A small crowd

A small crowd

I can honestly say I’ve not seen so many people moving in such close proximity since the last time I was at a festival and a band had just finished. It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced as one huge body of people heads one way (away from the stage) and another heads the opposite (towards, for the next act). At the Shibuya crossing, this happens every 3-4 minutes. Parents – keep a close eye (or a tight hand) around your progeny. If there’s somewhere a child could get lost, it’s here.

We walked around for a couple of hours, just eyeballing the place. We popped briefly into an incredibly noisy Pachinko parlour. Pachinko is a simple enough game – feed little balls into a machine and try to get them into the holes – and very popular in Japan. The parlours are crammed with machines, all of which are noisy in their own right but the trend seems to be to pump even louder music in to attempt to muffle it.

Another shop of note was a pet-shop with a very small floor space, very tiny glass cases for the cats & dogs they were selling and ridiculously high prices. The animals were all well cute, but one poor little puppy was jumping around and smacking his back against the ceiling of his case. Others were just begging to be let out. I’d have bought them but at upwards of £300 per animal it was out of my budget.

One surprise was a very public tattoo shop. I was under the impression that tattoos were reserved for Yakuza (hence the “no tatoo” (sic) signs on a lot of the onsen), but it seems Japanese youth are getting more and more westernised as time goes on. Having said that, they’re more likely to go for small and subtle than a huge dragon across their entire back.

Misa finally turned up around 7:30 as she’d been delayed at work. My thanks to Noriko for being a wonderful host and staying around for so long! Misa mentioned there was a gathering of Couchsurfers that evening and we decided to hold on for them to arrive so we could say a quick hello.

Most expensive beer <em>ever</em>

Most expensive beer ever

This we duly did and we ended up in an English theme bar in a basement somewhere. Typically Japanese, the “menu” was expensive and people actually queued for their drinks. So much better than the normal Saturday night melée where you stand there for 20 minutes yet never get served.

I think I purchased the most expensive bottle of beer in my life. One of the export bottles (i.e. small) of Newcastle Brown Ale which worked out at over £6, and at a guess near the £9 per pint mark. Ouch. But it was worth it, just to say I’ve done it. Downing a cold bottle of Dog in an underground English theme pub in Tokyo with Japanese, French, German and Norwegian company.

You really can’t beat travelling.

The night ended back at Misa’s where she very kindly rustled up some late dinner, even taking into account my non-seafood awkwardness. We talked football for some time – she’s a mad footie nut and off to Italy to see some live games soon. I was all tuckered out, though, and had to excuse myself early on as I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My apologies to my kind host for that. It most certainly wasn’t her company!

As well as only having had a few hours’ sleep the previous handful of nights, I had to be setting off from her house at 5am the next morning. I couldn’t risk sleeping in as I had a flight to catch!

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First half of the last day: Asakusa

Mmm... cabbage

Mmm... cabbage

Today was my second and last full day in Tokyo – and Japan. Situations at home necessitated booking an earlier flight home than I’d hoped, but there’s not a lot I could do about that. I’d managed to organise a couch to surf for the evening, and Taka-san said it would be no problem for me to leave the bulk of my luggage at the hostel. This would be far preferable to lugging it around central Tokyo all day until I could meet Misa in the evening.

In fact, he went one step further. When I reached Narita station the next morning I was to call him from a payphone. He would then bring my luggage to me. Wow. Talk about customer service!

Following the directions he’d dug out for me the previous night I had my train timetable in hand. First thing was to get more cash so I could afford to pay for the tickets. Fortunately the local 7-Eleven had one of the few ATMs that accept foreign cards. Unfortunately, for some reason, it wouldn’t take my Visa Debit card. And the attached help phone only put me through to an automatic service in Japanese… However, it did accept my Visa Credit card, so I took a cash advance on that.

I used the Keisei Line to get me to Asakusa via Aoto. When Taka-san had given me the train times I had pointed out that such a thing was impossible in the UK. Where I moved from one train to another I had precisely three minutes to change platforms and trains. No way could you rely on British trains to be so on-time that you could do that. Besides, even if they were you’d have to figure out what platform you were on, which one you were trying to get to and then traverse half a railway station.

Not so here. Trains on certain times and routes always arrive at set platforms. As these two tied together, the platforms were right next to each other – so only ten metres to walk from one train to the other. And don’t get me started on the punctuality. If a train’s due to depart at 10:31, it departs at 10:31. If it’s arrival time is 11:17, it will pull in at 11:17. Awesome.

Senso-ji temple

Senso-ji temple

My journey to Asakusa was a little over an hour and cost around Â¥900 – only six quid. For the comfort, speed, convenience and reliability this isn’t bad. The only downside to this excellent transport system is the complexity. There are two main train lines around Tokyo – the aforementioned Keisei Line and the competing JR Line. Unline the UK, these “lines” own their own stations so even somewhere as small as Narita will have two buildings, often very close together, each serviced by a different company.

This makes it very important to ensure that if you’re meeting someone at “the train station”, you specify which one you’ll be at.

Also, the trains integrate with the underground system with the vehicles sharing the tracks. This means you can start from a non-underground Keisei Line station and end up at an Underground station without changing trains. And no longer on the Keisei Line as such. This makes it very confusing when you’re trying to figure out how to get back to a Keisei Line (for instance) station for your return journey.

I pulled...

I pulled...

None of the maps make this very clear, so realistically you need local knowledge – preferably from someone who understands your problem. Bear in mind that locals will have understood this issue for years and will likely be confused as to how you don’t “get” it!

Anyway, I disembarked at one of the two Underground stations in Asakusa and walked up to the torii to wait for Noriko, who would show me around for the day. Unfortunately, I was slightly delayed as I wasn’t sure what station I was at, and Noriko was held up in traffic on the bus. I didn’t have a mobile she could contact me on, but she could get internet on her phone. So I located an internet café nearby.

This was an experience in itself. Not particularly cheap (but I only needed 5 minutes – minimum stay was 30), but very nice indeed. Quiet, very much like a library with countless manga books and DVDs to browse. There were a couple of pre-wired PCs, you could use your laptop… or you could use a “borrowed” laptop which was supplied in a little bag. Bizarrely, this was the cheapest option.

I connected up, got a mail to Noriko and a reply back, then went to wait for her again in a specific place by the torii. It was very busy so needed to be sure she’d spot me.

Indeed she did and we took a walk through the torii and up towards the Senso-ji temple. Between the two is a lovely walkway bordered by traditional Japanese paper lanterns. It’s typical of the care and decoration such places enjoy and it’s very beautiful.

As we reached the steps to the temple, we washed our hands at the provided basin and stepped inside. Lovely carvings and statues, as well as paintings of dragons on the ceiling awaited us and I tried to snap a few photos but the lighting just wasn’t that great.

Just outside (to the left if you’ve walked in from the torii) is a gorgeous garden. Water features, towers, flowers, greenery, little bridges… it’s hard to believe you’re near a concentrated shopping area. It really is quite serene.

Japanese wedding

Japanese wedding

Past there and you hit the touristy shops, although unlike many other countries the “tat” is generally of pretty good quality – and with prices to match. Noriko picked up some sweets for her work colleagues and I bought the standard handful of postcards. I’d already bought stamps the previous day.

Down the street a ways, Noriko chose a restaurant for us to have lunch at. I’d simply requested “cheap” and “no seafood”. The speciality we were to try is called okonomiyaki. Obviously, I have no idea what this means but essentially it’s “cabbage pancakes”. Yeah, I know. Had I known that first I might have suggested McDonalds instead but I’m really rather glad I didn’t.

Seating is on cushions on the ground – something my Western bum still has issues with – at short tables, the centre part of which is a heated metal plate. A waitress lights the gas underneath, takes your order and returns with your choice from the menu in a big, uncooked mass. The ingredients are simple – egg, flour, milk, shredded cabbage and whatever else you requested. I went for pork and there were to thick-ish slices of bacon on the top. Cooking is even simpler – drop it onto the metal plate and use the spatulas provided to ensure it cooks right through and to flip it.

There are sauces and dressings to one side and I used a thick brown one which was applied with a brush. I have no idea what it was, but it tasted like a halfway house between HP Sauce and BBQ. In other words, it was delicious – as were the pancakes. Far, far better than I was expecting. I was really happy with Noriko’s choice!

Fed and watered (and with my eyes streaming from the smoky cooking), we walked back into the daylight and around the shops some more before plotting a course for Shibuya. This would be another area that Noriko herself hadn’t explored so we were both looking forward to it.

Continues in the next post!

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Temples, shops and onsen – Narita in a day

Contains five Buddhas

Contains five Buddhas

Narita is not a big place, so exploring it in a day was going to be easy. The tricky part is not getting lost in the windy alleyways which turn out to be fully-functioning streets. Only small. And windy. Having a good sense of direction here isn’t an advantage, it’s a necessary survival tool.

I had stayed up till 3am the night before – don’t askhow or why – and couldn’t sleep past 8am. I got up and munched on toast and sipped on tea while I talked to Max. He’s a US Marine based in Singapore who’s studying a martial art I’ve never heard of but involves killing people with pointy things. And flat things. And wavy things. Don’t piss him off. He and some Dutch guys I got talking to last night were here for a 2-week course under a Dutch sensei. At 54 he looks like your average tousle-haired Dutch bloke. But I dare you to break something in his coffee shop. The guy’s got more black belts than I have pairs of clean boxers in my rucksack.

After doing the internet thing, I popped downstairs to get a map from Taka-san. He pointed me towards the major sights and then handed me the keys to a bike parked outside. Free bike, yay! I was actually surprised there were two locks, this being Japan. This is, after all, the country where a polite “Please don’t pass this point” sign has the same effect as a 10′ barbed wire fence and gun turret in the UK.

Enclosed - one holy person

Enclosed - one holy person

I set off towards the Shinsyōji Temple which I’d heard good things about. It’s only a short bike ride away from the hostel and I was there within ten minutes. Just look for the green roof.

I parked up and started to walk around. The temple grounds contain several buildings ranging in age from 50 years to almost 300. The whole place is simply gorgeous. There’s a main gate which has only recently been completed, an older one with a huge spherical Japanese lantern hanging in it, a 3-storied pagoda, the new main hall (1968), the old one (1858), the Great Pagoda of Peace (1984) and a smattering more.

In addition, there’s a shady river walk with a waterfall and seating which was lovely and quiet when I wandered down. Tranquil barely covers it.



Several times a day, the priests/monks (I’m not sure which they are) perform the Goma ceremony. I’m assured this is not named after a waste-of-space French footballer and that the title is purely coincidental. I wasn’t aware of this when I arrived, and got to see it by chance. I’d been sat in the main hall for a few minutes (with my shoes in two plastic bags as they were too big for a single one) when many religious people wearing bright garbs came in.

It’s not the most bizarre of rites to see performed, but it’s certainly the first of its type I’ve seen. Bells are struck, drums bashed, things burned, things waved. When a fire is going, wooden paddles with Japanese script are brought to the flame and held up to it. I’ve no idea what this signifies, but it seemed to the layman like they were trying to warm up a library.

The weirdest part, again the the uninitiated, was at the end where members of the congregation passed their handbags to the priests. Each was, in turn, held in front of the flame and then handed back to the owner. I assume it’s some good luck thing, like rubbing the Buddha’s belly in Singapore.

Right time of year

Right time of year

The 30-ish minute ritual passed fairly quickly and I’d definitely recommend sitting in on one should you ever be visiting. One thing that struck me was the monotonous (and I use that in the literal descriptive sense) voice used by the priests reading the script was exactly as you’d expect from, say, a Catholic priest reading Latin. Strange how such habits or techniques cross religions.

Overall, I spent the best part of 2 hours just around the temple. Definitely worth a visit… and I’m aware it’s nowhere near the most impressive in Tokyo, let alone Japan.

I next decided to head shopping mall-wards. I blame Hans for this as he always told me he likes to visit malls in different countries to see what they’re like. The one in Narita is called Aeon and isn’t that big. However, there is something about it that sets it apart from others I’ve seen. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I figured it was down to two things:

  1. Lots of the shops don’t have glass frontage
  2. There are areas where you simply have to pass through one store to get to the next part of the mall. There’s no alternative route. Actually, in one area you had to exit a store, walk across the front of the mall and re-enter. More like being in a retail park.
Great Pagoda of Peace

Great Pagoda of Peace

Within this structure, I found my first scary Japanese toilet which sadly I couldn’t get to work for a video. I’ve never seen a bog pan wired up to the mains before, but at least it’s plastic. There were buttons down one side which I assume resulted in water being squooshed into places that water simply should not be squooshed. I pressed and prodded and poked, but I couldn’t get any squooshage. It’d have been good for YouTube as well.

I also located my now-mandatory KFC. At the current exchange rate, it was pricey but traditions are traditions so I had one. I swear the servings here are smaller than anywhere else, but the burger was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Still, I’m kind of “off food” at the moment. The joys of being able to convince my body it doesn’t need anything when the weight of the coinage necessary to fill me outweighs the weight of the food that would be going in.

Nearby was a supermarket with a million things in colourful wrappers… all coated in Japanese writing. I have no idea what I’ve put into my little cousin’s “present from Japan” package but I’m hoping she doesn’t a) die or b) go hyperactive. The chances are kind of 50/50. At least I can honestly say “I had no idea what was in it” because I can’t read Japanese.

Also in the mall is a Capcom arcade. I was expecting millions of teenagers trying to kill each other on a beat-’em-up but it was only Friday afternoon. They were likely still browsing Manga hidden in their textbooks. Instead were a few pensioners playing the high-tech version of shove ha’penny that the Japanese have invented.

And about a half a dozen guys playing some really unusual games. A hybrid of arcade machine and collectible card games. There were handful on show, from baseball and football to a fantasy war game. Cards are places on a sensitive “desktop” and moved as required. I’m assuming they have a small chip in them so the system can figure out how they’re being moved.

I cycled round a fair bit of the town centre and then returned to the hostel for a quick email check. Max came back in, as did Will – another martial arts student, this one from Holland. They were planning on going to the local onsen, as was I. Taka-san, being just awesome, offered to drive us to save messing about with bikes, cabs or buses.

It is wired... to the mains!

It is wired... to the mains!

We made it to the onsen before the Friday crowds arrived and got settled in. Onsen, in case I’ve not mentioned before, are Japanese spas. Many (most, perhaps) use naturally-heated water that comes up from heated springs very similarly to Iceland. They have certain facilites and procedures which I had read up on, but followed Max’s example as he’d been to this one before.

800 Yen got us in, and the chaps paid an extra 4000Y each for a massage. I settled for just soaking and steaming myself. Pricewise, it’s not too bad at around £6. This is from opening till closing time as long as you don’t leave.

A word of warning, at least at this onsen: make sure you go through the correct curtain for the changing room. While most places are male-only, this one isn’t. The curtains for the  gents are blue, for ladies, red/pink. Only they swap the changing rooms from day to day… Max guided us almost into the wrong one. It’s all his fault.

What surprised me, though, was that nobody stopped us. We were through the first curtain before Max realised the colour difference. The staff had seen us, but were too polite to yell at us and stop us. Good job we twigged when we did – the screams would have been a giveaway.

The spa was great. Not on a par with the Claudius Therme in Colgone, but a very different and enjoyable experience. Hot water, sauna, steam room, Turkish baths… All the facilities spotlessly clean and useable for as long as you want. I honestly don’t think I’ve been so clean in months.

I left around 7pm when the guys went for a massage. Rather than take the direct route home along the 51 I decided to meander. And get lost.

OK, Narita’s too small to really get lost in but unless you’re on the right road you will find the one you’re on bending in completely the wrong direction to the point where you have no choice other than to retrace the last 15 minutes.

I made it back to the hostel by around 20:30 and proceeded to bombard Taka-san with questions about transportation for tomorrow. He answered every one and then threw more information on top. The guy’s a legend.

It’s just gone 1am, Will and Max only got back at midnight (drunk!) and I’ve ploughed through four random beverages in a bid to make myelf tired. It’s working, and I’m heading for bed now.

I doubt I’ll get a chance to post again in the next couple of days due to the schedule, but I’m going to try and be as Japanese a tourist I can with the volume of photos the next couple of days!

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