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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The land of the rising sun

First sight of Japan

First sight of Japan

Clock up number 47, if I have my maths right. I’ve finally made it to Japan!

I ended up having to get the bus to Cairns Airport as the weather was so bad. It’s not a long walk (around 1½ hours) but in torrential rain it just wasn’t happening. Thankfully this meant I got there to be at the front of the check-in queue before the hordes of homebound Japanese tourists appeared.

I blew my remaining phone credit calling Marina at home. Despite being a call to the UK I got a staggering 50 minutes from the chaff left over from my last payment. Mobiles are far cheaper in Oz.

The flight to Tokyo Narita Airport was pleasant enough. I slept for 2-3 hours and finished the book I was reading (Mayday by Nelson DeMille and Thomas Block – amusingly enough about an air disaster), then spent the rest of the time leafing through my Lonely Planet and talking to the Aussie guy next to me. He was flying to Japan to spend time off work with his wife, who’s Japanese. He was a very useful resource for Tokyo-related information.

Immigration was quick and painless with my lack of accommodation address brushed over quickly when I said I was going to sort something at tourist information. I had looked into booking something the day before, but the only places I could find were “book my email, reply in 48 hours” which was no use.

One thing to note: the Tourist Information Counter at Narita Airport closes at 8pm. I got there just as they were packing up, so they handed me a couple of sheets with a list of accommodation details on. I had to make my own phone calls, so I needed change. It’s only 10 Yen for a minute on the payphones, but you can also use 100 Yen coins. However, as far as I could tell, there’s no way of cancelling a call and making another using your remaining credit if you use the 100s. This makes it very expensive to ring around hostels and hotels… Phone cards are the way to go but I couldn’t find anywhere selling one.

The first place I called was the cheapest, but I only got an answering machine. In Japanese. Arse. The second was much better. Taka from the Fuji Backpackers answered and told me to get to Narita train station from where he’d collect me.

I paid 250 Yen for a ticket to Narita, hopped aboard one of the frequent trains and soon enough was in Taka’s car. The hostel’s lovely. Quite small, comfy beds, communal kitchen with TV, DVD, microwave and free wi-fi. Breakfast is also included (a KL-esque tea and toast), but the shower is 100 Yen for 10 minutes!

My plan is to to this and some nearby neighbourhoods tomorrow. The cherry blossom is still on the trees in Narita (it’s vanished in downtown Tokyo) so I’ll get some good photos of that, and I’m not too far from the two train stations. I will have a chat with Taka-san in the morning and see what he recommends.

Welcome to Japan!

Welcome to Japan!

On Saturday I will meet with Noriko, one of the girls on my tour bus in Tasmania all that time ago. She has offered to show me around for the day. I am also supposed to meet with a Couchsurfer – Misa – in the evening to stay at her flat. I will try to work this out so that I can stay there, yet leave my luggage at the hostel. I would not bother, but it’s not cheap to stay here. One night CouchSurfing will a) be a great experience in this country and b) save me over £20.

From what the other guests here have told me, leaving my luggage and collecting it on the way to the airport on Sunday morning will not be a problem. Their praise of the hostel owner has been very high indeed!

Otherwise, I’ve not seen a lot as I arrived in the dark. The first view over the wing of the plane as we passed the coastline was simply beautiful. Forests and mountains with chains of electric light sparkling in the darkness. Lovely.

The thing about vending machines doesn’t seem to be a stereotype, either. You can barely walk 10m without passing at least one. And the Japanese are as polite and helpful as they’re made out to be. Always with a smile and a nod. They do tend to give foreigners a little bit of a berth, though. Whether from politeness, shyness or some small amount of xenophobia only they could say but one example was on the train from the landing area to the main terminal at the airport.

The Aussie I’d been speaking to and myself made it onto the train. It was busy but by no means packed. Passing Japanese preferred to wedge themselves into the two doors on either side than cram in next to the gaijin blocking one doorway. This is strange only in that they have no issues with squishing themselves together like very friendly sardines in the trains running at rush hour.

I think I’ll like it hear. The only downsides is it’ll be an incredibly short stay and it’s incredibly expensive. Damn the collapsed British economy – everything’s twice the price of 2-3 years ago.

At least ATMs that accept foreign cards are slightly more prevalent than they have been in the past. There’s one in the 7-Eleven down the road from the hostel and I gather a lot of CitiBanks will take them, too.

Oh, and if your mobile phone‘s not 3G-enabled, then don’t expect it to work in Japan. At least this is what I’ve read and I can’t get onto a network here. I did see a couple of American tourists with new phones on my flight who had received calls so I know that some non-Japanese phones must work. I assume it’s down to how new they are.

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