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Prepare yourself for a lot of me waxing lyrical as I simply adored this country. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left I never got bored, was enthralled and have since pined for it. It is my kind of place on so many levels. So much went on and there were so many things I found interesting or fun that my Japan blogs will probably be all over the place, especially as I can’t remember the order of everything but will try to organise in understandable ways.
So, here is how it started, straight in at the deep end in one of the most populated cities in the world (possibly THE most), Tokyo….
We had a feeling things were going to be different on the plane. It was so quiet. We were probably the loudest people on the plane and we’re not exactly loud people (when sober at least!). There was yummy Japanese food and the whole Tokyo air experience was a true delight.
My first experience, having landed in the country, after passport control, made me smile. Walking to the toilet, as I passed the entrance area there was a recorded message in Japanese and English telling you where to go for the male and female toilets (you couldn’t have gone wrong to be honest via the signs and fact they were right there). Then I had my first experience of Japanese toilet buttons. Standard on most public toilets in Japan and many in hotels and even homes – the buttons consist of back and front spray (don’t feel I need to go into any further detail). There’s also a dryer and my personal favourite, the sound button, which plays loud flushing noises so you can be discrete. I believe some places play tunes, but I sadly never had the pleasure of one of those. Best of all, in the spring cold weather we at first encountered – heated toilet seat. Oh the joy! I do not know why everywhere in the world doesn’t implement these toilets. I never got sick of them.
We were kind of apprehensive about Japan in the sense that we knew that very few people spoke English and thought it could be really hard work. Being very spoiled as an english speaker it generally means getting by travelling everywhere is a bit easier. We quickly learned that Japan’s efficiency and willingness to help pretty much wipes out any language issue.
We zipped through the airport, obtained a suica card (similar to London’s octopus/Hong Kong’s octopus) for the Tokyo transport network and quickly found ourselves on our first train, nearing rush hour. Having heard about the crazy train system and the ‘white glove shove’, where it’s so busy, station staff help you on by shoving you in basically. We thought we were going to be pretty unpopular with our big old rucksacks taking up much needed space.
We had a middle aged guy start to chat to us on the train (this is very unusual we learned). He was very sweet and had been in the navy, hence his English. He chatted to us about having been to London and Liverpool back in the day, how he was a Beatles fan and had seen Emerson, Lake & Palmer and even Pink Floyd concert at Berlin Wall. We struggled understanding him and he apologised that he spoke American English but that wasn’t our problem, it was that he was talking to us through a medical mask. Even more prevalent here than Hong Kong and all well and good and understandable, but tricky when trying to understand anyone. Anyway, he was a real sweetheart, offered us advice on the train and I was quite touched by that encounter so early in our trip.
When we had to change trains, rush hour was setting in and we did get swamped by a sea of people, but it was fairly easy to work out and the train wasn’t a complete crush. We ended up at our destination about 3 hours earlier than I had expected simply due to the lack of waiting and confusion you normally deal with when first arriving in a country.
We had airbnb’d our first 10 days and had a little studio flat, right next to Ōtsuka station on the Yamanote line. It was kind of coincidence, but I later realised that for tourists, especially first timers, being on the Yamanote line is a huge advantage.
The studio had a small kitchen, which was basically a sink, a few cupboards, a microwave and a hot water machine. The bed was futon style – no frame, but floor cushions. We discovered over time that this style, size of place is very common in Japan where space is often at a premium. It didn’t feel cramped at all. I think the only thing is being on the floor all the time. I had a really bad cough while we were there and sleeping so low is hard for that.
My favourite things, apart from the location, was the bathroom which was kind of like a prebuilt pod. Again, we came across these elsewhere and are obviously a standard building fixture.
The other thing I like was the sound of the station. Admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea, but we were right next to the tracks so you could here the trains and the announcements. I’d lived next to stations before but the trains are pretty quiet here and there’s no building shuddering, like we used to encounter in a early 1900s building next to the tracks. It was more of a gentle swoosh. Also, each station plays tunes to tell you trains are coming. They have obviously been designed to not be irritating and they really never did. Some of them, like in Ebisu were quite comical/fairgroundish. And lastly, you had the pre-recorded announcements of the station. Ōtsuka would be pronounced more like Otska. The voice, tune and woosh of the trains ended up somehow coming across to me as utterly relaxing. I wish I’d recorded it to use when I have trouble sleeping elsewhere. I can at least close my eyes and think about it to feel soothed.
Oh and speaking of the trains. They are always, always on time. It’s bizarre. I’ve never experienced the like. Apparently if a train is late (never saw it), you can get a little slip from the guard to show to your employer to prove that you are late because of the train. And I’m not talking about that they turn up roughly at the right time. They turn up and leave at exactly the right time. This makes getting about so much easier. The train network is quite complicated at first look as there are many lines, owned by different people so you often have to swap about (it makes the London underground map look like a hangman drawing), but the fact things arrive when they say they will, makes things a heck of a lot easier.
Our first night I didn’t really know what to do, Tokyo isn’t really made up of tons of tourist sites, but more different areas to explore. We ended up sleeping for a bit when we first got in and as it was getting dark about 6, didn’t want to go somewhere difficult to navigate in the dark. Decided on Shibuya just because it was the main place I’d heard of. We would go back to Shibuya a fair few times before we left. It’s a great area for shopping, eating, drinking and people watching.
The first thing you get when leaving Shibuya station is the Hachiko statue. You may have seen the cheesy (sob-fest) Richard Gere film about a dog who’s would greet his owner, a professor, at the station everynight. The professor dies but Hachiko still turns up everynight for 9 years until he dies. I watched the film on a flight years ago and balled my eyes out, so knowing this was the station I was rather excited to see the Hachiko statue. I never managed to drag Mark to the museum of Nature and Science where the actual Hachiko’s body is stuffed. Definitely next time!
The statue is a great meeting spot and this area is fantastic for people watching. Far from the suburban, almost rural station it was back in the 1920s, it is a crazy vibrant place today. The Hachiko crossing outside the station is one of the craziest with zebra crossing in all kinds of directions and is very famous. If you watch footage of it, it looks like it would chaotic, but no, this is Japan. It works. The lights change, people cross in the various directions and in order and it’s all straightforward.
Our first dinner in Tokyo and we decided to give the vending machine thing a go. We loitered around the machine outside the restaurant, trying to work out exactly what to do, but someone quickly came out to explain. We chose a ramen noodle soup set. You select the button you want, put the money in (it never rejects notes – always works) and then you hand over the ticket when you walk in and take a seat. This place was setup as a big counter around the central cooking area. I’m not normally keen on sitting at counters. This is for a couple of reasons – one is comfort. Due to my height, sitting on a stool often means I’m kind of dangling and is a pain, especially when eating. Secondly, counters facing in often means bar or restaurant staff or the person next to you will talk to you. Sounds anti-social but not when I’m eating ta. But this is Japan (I will say this a lot as this did become my mantra). The counter stools are super comfy with a step for shorties feet and nobody talks to you. You realise actually that Japan is really good for lone dining. I certainly wouldn’t have any qualms eating anywhere on my own now. It’s all about the eating and everyone let’s you get on with it.
We realised during this meal that we had a preconception of Japanese food being light and small, like it so often is in South East Asia. With Japan being known for their health and longevity and portions in UK Japanese restaurants being so small. Well this is way off. My god these people can eat. Huge portions with hearty sets often containing noodles and rice. Took us a while to adjust from eating such small portions in Thailand, but adjust we did. Of course everyone isn’t eating masses all the time but it was, as I say, something we were surprised about.
We also first encountered the shouting that goes on in many of these joints. When you leave, the kitchen staff shout something at you. It’s something along the lines of ‘thanks for coming’ but goes on a bit longer, generally when you’ve already walked out of the door. The rest of the time, you barely hear a pip out of them. You learn early on there’s no need to politely wait for them to finish. You’d never get anywhere.
Our first meal, which was centered on the hugest bowl of ramen, with a bowl of rice and a plate of gyoza on the side, was utterly divine. This was a lot of food, free unlimited water (which they top up continuously) all for £7. Who said Japan was expensive?
The strangest thing about this place (which wasn’t a one off as it was the same when we went back a week or so later) … they placed Nora Jones on constant loop. And not just Nora Jones albums. Nope. The one song, ‘Don’t Know Why’. It’s clearly their thing. There’s lot’s of things in Japan.
Another thing you find around Tokyo, and there are a far few of in Shibuya, is Love Hotels.
There’s a small area called Love Hotel Hill which I dragged Mark about trying to find, while he moaned that he was freezing to death. It was worth finding though and is right in town near the station. These are simply hotels that charge by the hour, but not in a sleazy kind of way, more in a, lot of couples have no where to go to get any privacy, kind of way. Because of the discreetness about this kind of thing in the culture, there is minimal contact with staff, so you don’t have to be embarrassed. In fact in many of them you don’t have to see a soul and can check in using touch screens.
Sadly, for me at least. Love Hotels have drifted away from the cheesy themes that they had become famous for and are now leaning towards slightly more tasteful rooms. I was gutted as wanted to find a crazy themed room but they all seemed a bit boring. Mark decided he’d actually like to go in one as it meant he could get warm and have a lie down.
Ikebukuro is an area, only a few stops from us that we explored on our second night.
I found my first Hello Kitty shop, which amazingly I go to have a good browse in, devoid of Mark’s moaning (purely because it was freezing out and was toasty in the shop)
We had a potter around the Sunshine City complex which had some cool shops and a great display on stage of drumming, Taiko, by some kids who were pretty blooming tight. There is a game in the arcades based on this drumming which is huge there – Taiko Drum Master. It took us ages to find one to have a go on. I thought Mark would love it but I wouldn’t really be that interested but actually it is incredibly addictive and fun.
You have 2 sticks and a big central drum. You pick your tune and level (you have to just guess as it’s all in Japanese) then you follow the tune/rhythm. The different symbols mean you hit the drum in different ways in different places. It’s great to see someone really good at it and it’s quite physical so is knackering after a while. I would love to do it again – was gutted we left it so long to discover it. Mind you, you need to find a quiet place to do it, in a busy arcade the Japanese kids will watch you fascinated – they’ve grown up with it so are obviously really skilled and your rubbish skills are going to look really lame. Though I must say Mark, who obviously being a musician has good rhythm, was pretty good.
Here’s a bit of footage of Mark having a go:
Here, we first encountered Pachinko. I had never heard about this before going to Japan and it is something I will never truly understand. But then I never really understood the whole pokeys thing in Australia either. Pachinko is a kind of arcade game, played with lots of silver balls – cross between a fruit machine and pin ball which the country is obsessed with. You are no officially allowed to make any money from the game but apparently you exchange your balls (the silver ones) for vouchers which you then can exchange in a shop somewhere up the road for prized. If you pick the mystery prize it’s money. Or something like that. It sounds like it would be an underground thing, judging by this description but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Pachinko parlours are huge and they are everywhere, including very salubrious neighbourhoods.
The noise in one of these places is deafening because of the sound of the balls, there is an eerie light, the air is thick with cigarette smoke and yet you’ll have little plastic whales to hold the pachinko balls. Can’t get my head around it at all.
We ended up our evening in Ikebukuro visiting two places which would become ‘go to’s for us during our stay.
The Hub is a British themed bar/restaurant you find all over Tokyo and other cities – generally found in the basement. We were attracted most of all by the sign outside which indicated cheap prices and all importantly – no service charge. A lot of bars don’t charge you to go in but you have to order a food snack for which they’ll charge you so essentially this can get expensive if you want to do a pub crawl but which also we were a bit wary of, as it wasn’t always obvious. So, the no service charge sign would often draw us in if we wanted a quick drink and a sit down.
But don’t get me wrong, it is British themed, but it is not like an Irish or English bar you will find most places in the world. This is all totally Japanese and most of the clientele is Japanese and the twists on English food and descriptions in the menus alone are fascinatingly Japanese. This first night they had on the baseball which they go crazy for in Japan. The place was packed out with groups and couples – it was not a local game but Japan versus.. Brazil I think, but I could be wrong. So the only thing remotely English is the decoration – oh and some things on the menu but watching fish and chips eaten with chopsticks is a joy (and it is something we do ourselves at some point). We also discovered, in the Hub, the delightful snack of deep fried spaghetti. Now I’m not sure if it’s cooked in water first or just straight in the oil, but then it’s sprinkled with salt and makes the most moreish snack.
After a drink or two in the Hub we headed out in search of food. We again opted for a machine style choice. This one had no english but there was pictures so we just decided to guess. This ended up with me getting a cherry lobster tempura cake on top of soba noodle soup, which was to die for!! This place was an absolute gem and also was the cheapest place we encountered. I’ve no idea the name of the place as was only written in Japanese but we found another 2 – one in Sugamo an one in Akihabara. They also do another tempura cake with pink ginger and spring onions as well as a gorgeous curry and the best katsu out there. I worship this place. A really low key place – you sit around the edges rather than a counter. You get unlimited cold or hot water and they of course shout at you when you leave.
Yoyogi Park and Harajuku
Our first sunday in Tokyo we headed to Yoyogi park as had heard it was a hive of activity. It definitely was but the bitterly cold temperatures had kept many away. The park is massive and we just scooted through the bottom area. The trees were very bare, though a few buds on plum trees were coming through. There are groups of people practising dancing and singing and various other activities. Like many other asian cities we’ve been to, where space is a premium, the parks are a great place to come to for groups.
We warmed ourselves up with a snack from a mobile van. This was basically rice wrapped in beef with cheese and mayonnaise. Sounds gross but was lovely – and very warming.
On the corner of the park we got to check out the rockabillys – they have their own name but rockabilly kind of suits for want of a better description. They dress in 50s style and dance Sundays away on the south eastern entrance of the park. They were a little lacklustre on that first sunday but when we came back a week later when the temperatures had increased dramatically, there were a lot more of them jitterbugging about. I don’t think it’s particularly true to any style. It was quiet alarming at one point to realise they were dancing to Jive Bunny – clearly not purests!
Just around the corner from this end of Yoyogi is Harajuku.
Harajuku is an area loved by teens and young people for it’s amazing shops full of crazy fashion. Takeshita is the main street which is super busy on a weekend but is full of amazing shops.
This is where you’ll find people dressed up to the nines in their Cosplay outfits. This is basically them dressing up as their favourite anime/manga character.
I just adore the style here. It is now my mission to somehow come back to Japan just to shop.
We walked along and eventually reached to Omotesando Hills area where things got pricier but just as interesting for people watching.
Or dog watching…
And as further proof how much those pooches are love, we enjoyed watching this doggy photography studio in action.
We came back to Yoyogi with Derek, who was a guy Mark used to work with and is now a firm friend and my Japan guru. He had lived in Japan for a year, having already spent a bit of time there and also had a Japanese girlfriend so had all kinds of interesting insights which I just couldn’t get enough of, like an excited kid. I loved hearing about all the oddities and contradictions. Some things had historical reasons which made sense, some is ‘just because’. I also grilled him on acceptable behavior as was so worried about offending.
We went to the shrine in Yoyogi, which is near the centre of the park. On the pathway you pass a bunch of huge sake drums. As we went to other temples, you see Sake is a big part of temple culture.
We then went, via a number of different trains, to an area called Asakusa. This had an amazing shrine which had a pathway flanked by lots of stalls selling lots of touristy stuff but most of it nice quality but if it was tack it was the best tack!! I was kicking myself that we couldn’t buy loads as we had to journey on with just our rucksacks. Mark got very into the chopstick selection. The shrine was amazing. There is some shrine etiquette which involves washing your hands before and throwing money, clapping twice and bowing. There is also sometimes a bell, on a long rope, to ring.
There were lots of school trips here and even the teenagers look quite adorable in their school uniforms.
After the temple we caught a bite to eat, which was quite fascinating. We went to a kind of western eating joint as they are cheap as chips. They are kind of like a Poppins or a Wimpey from the 80s. Everything about the place is quite 80s in fact and we found that with lots of these western style places, especially in the suburbs. The food is western food to Japanese tastes so is nothing that you would expect but of course, being Japan, it is incredibly tasty. And amazingly priced to. Western style food everywhere else we’d been cost a fortune so it seemed strange at first that the Western style is cheaper than Japanese style. Of course we quickly realised this is due to the quality of the produce used in Japanese food.
After stuffing our faces we headed back over to the west of town to Shinjinku. Shinjinku station is one of Tokyos main train hubs and it is quite mental and confusing. Knowing which exit you need is key.
The area is great for shopping and also for food and drink. It has the sleaziest drinking holes in Japan which aren’t really that sleazy. But there are places you don’t want to end up in. There are bars which basically don’t want your custom – they like their regulars, but rather than turn you away (which wouldn’t be polite), they will let you in, let you buy a drink/food and will then give you an extortionate bill which you will have to politely pay or you may, politely, pay the price. V strange. You hear stories about these places, but to be honest, they tend not to be the kind of places first time tourists head for anyway. I suppose it’s similar to the pubs in the UK that don’t like strangers. There they’ll just stare and glare at you until you feel so uncomfortable that you leave – at least you don’t have to pay a lot for that privilege though!
Derek, much to my excitement, gave us our first experience of a 100 Yen store. These are a bit like pound shops but they are big news here. People shop in them for all kinds of everyday stuff from food, to shampoo to detergent to all kinds of odds and ends. It kind of balances things out. Supermarket food and specialist things can be incredibly expensive, but quality is essential in Japan but for the every day bits and pieces people look for cheap prices so these shops are integral. They also have all kinds of interesting objects.
We had our second experience at the Hub – there are at least 2 in Shinjuku. One of them is pretty big but gets very smokey. We also discovered Happy Hour at the Hub. In the end it wasn’t much use to us as we tended to have beer and wine but if you wanted spirits or cocktails it was a bargain. I basically had a pint of G&T for bargain price. This is great for a place with fairly expensive booze. Though strangely, most places, wine is cheaper than beer!
We later ventured out for a wander and met a guy on the street who was trying to get people up to a roof top bar. If this was anywhere else in the world I probably would have run a mile – but this is Japan! So we followed this guy from Nepal up in the elevator (this entrance was like a multistory car park) and ended up in this rooftop bar (though it being winter, had the outdoor stores covered with plastic roofing) and had a jolly little experience – an englishman (and girl), a scotsman in a Middle Eastern bar, drinking Japanese beer, eating edamame while some serious gangsta hip hop blares out.
We then ended up in a different Hub which is opposite said roof top bar. Derek had to (literally) run to get his last train. And we pretty soon called it a day and headed home too.
Chiyoda is just outside of the main Tokyo station and is home to the Imperial palace, which we kind of skirted around and this amazing park.
Having not been to a city with big scale galleries for so long, I was after going to Momot (Museum of Modern Art Tokyo).
We’d left it a bit late in the day as usual, my cold had me sleeping a lot, as was feeling pretty rotten and Mark, well Mark just didn’t want to get out of bed and be dragged around!
It was a great place with lots of interesting little touches. My favourite thing was they had an exhibition on about the 1964 Olympics and all the branding (not that that word existed then) for it. From brochurs, to signs for the men and ladies rooms. There were the different fonts used and designs for cigarette packets, which of course seems crazy now. Though having been to Japan, where everybody smokes, maybe not so crazy. It was a bit of a retro geek fest for me. While Mark was very taken with a video of a performance art piece involving people chucking around cardboard boxes.
Electric Town is part of Akihabara and is where you can find tons of electrical goods, selling for great prices.
It is also an area popular for anime and manga and Maid Cafes.
Part of the the reason for going to this area was I wanted to visit a Maid Cafe and being a girl I wanted to go to one that was not too odd or full on for me.
Maid Cafes are essentially innocent places, but with an odd edge to them. They came up from the idea of somewhere for young men to go to get something to eat/hang out where him, being too shy to talk to girls, will get some female attention. Not in a lapdancing/strip joint/hostess club kind of way but by being served and talked to by giggling girls dressed in not so much skimpy outfits as themed ones. Though they are often skimpy in skirt length, that’s something not seen as kind of risque there as you’ll see really young kids dressed like it – it’s just a look!
So we were going to Mai:lish cafe which is one of the first ones and has a victorian tea room style theme to it and the maids are supposed to be a little bit elusive/standoffish with you – ideal I thought. Understandably they have some rules, one of which is you can’t take photos in there – any shy guy going in there doesn’t want to end up on some tourists facebook. It’s theme was a bit loose other than the maids had long skirts and there was tea and cake (very good tea and cake I might add). There was twinkling piano music in the background. Mark sat cringing through-out which I found quite amusing but it is a very odd concept – someone being kind of subservient and giggly.
There are lots of new variations popping up all over the city. There is butler cafe’s for girls and there’s a kind of maid’s princess cafe for girls where you go in and get treated like a princess and they tell you you’re pretty. There’s even a maids cafe in the big shopping centre, DiverCity, in Tokyo Bay which is all very innocent and all about girliness and cute deserts with hello kitty faces – I so wanted to go in there but Mark was too traumatised by his last experience. The giggling freaks him out
There are huge signs all over Electric Town for the cafes and girls on the street (freezing their backsides off) trying to get you in – in a very not in your face, polite Japanese way – mainly by standing there looking cute.
In similar, only in Japan, way, there are a bunch of pet cafes sprinkled around the city. We saw a few in Akihabaru, Harajuku and Shibuya. This is basiclaly because people live in tiny spaces so can’t have pets. So you pay to go to these cafes to hang out with the animals. You can sometimes give them food, but that’s controlled and it’s mainly love that you give them. They are very strictly controlled in terms of the hours and by all accounts the animals definitely come first. I wanted to go to the rabbit one but we never had a chance.
In Electric Town and in Shinjuku we would often see, at night, a hummer driving around, music blaring, towing a truck with these two big contraptions on. Apparently it’s some kind of thing you can go to and become a machine. Never quite figured it out.
We went to Ebisu to go to the Photography gallery. This was a fairly slick looking area that was mostly owned by one of the big beer companies so there were beer ads everywhere. We got to the photography gallery, only to find we couldn’t get any money out anywhere in that area. We were being declined by all the cashpoints and this is where I learned a big lesson that you should really check these things out wherever you. I do in most countries, but Japan being technologically advanced you don’t think it would be a problem. But it is. There are few cashpoints who will take foreign cards. 7’11, Citibank and Post Office – that’s about it. So we have not internet so we don’t know where to locate any of these so we are stuck. In the end we decide to go back to where we last got money out. This was when we were out with Derek in Shinjuku. When you’re out and about with someone, it’s easy not to take notice of your surroundings but I remember Derek saying he had trouble with this station and I specifically looked at the exit we went out of. So we jumped on a train back to Shinjuku, I found the right exit and from there was able to remember where to go (one of my few special skills). By this time it was too late to do much as so much shuts by 5 in Tokyo so we just went to the Hub where they had baseball on again. This is when we first partook of the deep fried spaghetti. Then we called it a day. Failure day.
We made it back to Ebisu the next day and the gallery was ok, but it really does depend on your taste and the exhibition they have on – Mark was a bit underwhelmed.
Who is that masked woman?
By this time my bad cough was getting worse and worse and didn’t mix well with crowded trains. Coughing fits are frowned upon in a place where people wear masks so much (to keep germs in and out). So I gave in and wore one. And I liked it. A bit too much. I became a little attached to my masked and never felt stupid because no-one bats an eyelid. Don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it on public transport. It’s like a little cocoon for your face – a bit like wearing shades, it’s like you’ve got something to hide behind. Which probably explains it’s popularity in Japan. And I hate having my photo taken but don’t seem to mind when have a mask covering most of my face – when of course I should mind the most as I look quite the loon outside of Asia.
I wanted to check out various neighbourhoods in Tokyo as I think rather than just the more touristic ones, it’s a great way to get a vibe for a city. So we went what is described as ‘further afield’ in my guidebook, which actually was just a few stops from Shibuya.
This neighbourhood had a free sculpture park which sounded interesting but we fell foul to the usual Tokyo problem – getting lost. Signposting attractions isn’t a big thing here and matching things up against pre-downloaded google maps is tricky as most things are in Japanese. The biggest tip I would give to anyone visiting Japan is get a paper map – it’s tricky enough even with one, and without it’s even harder. Even the Japanese have admitted that they struggle finding things often. Their addressing system works in numbers, I won’t go into it but it is based on prefecture, area then building number, so can be something like 32-6-4.
Anyway, we eventually, after much walking, we found the sculpture place. It was laid out over a few streets and was attached to a small shrine. It was up high on a hill and on the beautifully sunny day we had, the views were nice.
Having sussed out where we were, we decided to walk back a different way and we had an interesting (ok, just to me) walk through the suburbs of Tokyo. There were large blocks of flats, but spread out more and a lot more stand alone properties, some fairly large, well for Tokyo. The architecture was all over the place, mostly modern but lots of cute buildings. We passed a park along the way which had tons of bikes parked up with kid seats. Seemed like everyone their had them, but oddly that must have meant they all had the one kid.
The area itself was a quiet neighbourhood. There is a little river running through it though that seemed to be only a dribble at the time. I was so taken with Tokyo at this point I was eyeing up everywhere we went for potentially living in! I do have a tendency to do that when I like somewhere (Melbourne, NY – I have lots of arguments with myself about where would be best location – pointless but I often lose sleep!).
Not ashamed to be a Tourist
We needed to sort out our rail passes – exchange our orders for real tickets so we decided to head to Tokyo station, the main station in town.
It was all really straight forward, if anyone needs to do this. You find the right kiosk, you hand over your exchange order and passport and they give you your pass. The pass then doesn’t take affect until the first time you use it, when you need to get it stamped. After that you just show it to the guards as you go through.
While in this area we decided to pop to the Tourist Information place to get some maps (finally!) and details for Kyoto and Hiroshima.
For total sod’s law we couldn’t find the bloody thing. They had recently moved. It’s now in an office fairly near Tokyo station so we did a wasteful full circle trying to find it. It’s definitely worth going to, they have load of useful info there and are really sweet and helpful. We even went upstairs to their little cultural centre. It’s a new thing for them and I don’t think they’re really used to it, but they were really nice and keen to help. English not being spoken so much, we found 2 of the 3 young staff up there had lived in England. They had traditional Japanese games, caligraphy and various bits and pieces going on. I don’t usually partake in that kind of thing but they were so sweet and wanting to be helpful, that I did decide to try on a Kimono. Wow that thing is pretty heavy and it’s amazing actually, it’s almost like a corset, it makes you have good posture.
Tokyo station is not far from Ginza and I had a plan, that I hadn’t told Mark about, to try to go to one of Tokyo’s themed restaurants. It’s was friday night so I thought, having not booked, that getting there at opening time (5pm) might give us a shot. There are a ton of themed restaurants in Tokyo – from Alice in Wonderland, the Lockup and Alcatraz (both jail themed), as well as Ninja theme, I wish I’d had time to go to more of them – I particularly fancied a Ninja leaping at me.
We had a wander around Ginza for a while. This is quite an expensive area, but it is also really interesting. It has lots of specialist shops – Kimono’s (and the funny wooden flip flops that go with them), Chopsticks, Cameras, all kinds of food. They had some divine looking restaurants too.
We got to the Vampire Cafe and I was right in that they managed to fit us in before the first evening booking.
The place was suitably decked out. Very dark with red lighting, a screaming noise whenever you entered it from the lift.
There was a large coffin in the middle of the room and you get to eat in a velvet curtained booth. There was also a retro horror film-esque organ music.
I had a weird and wonderful cocktail and we ordered the 5 course set meal. It’s definitely not about the food here, but being Japan the food is of course good – they don’t do bad. The food was presented in fun ways, with bat and teeth shaped things. Oddly, our fish course was fish and chips (really good fish and chips mind) which we ate using chopsticks!
Tokyo Tower is basically a bigger, orange copy of the Eiffel Tower. That’s the kind of thing they do there, and Iike it. There were other places to go, like the new sky tower and the government building in Shinjuku which was free but I wanted to go to this place most as it was a bit cheesy.
It’s much of a muchness city view wise – a bit too cloudy for a chance of seeing out to Mount Fuji, but was a fun experience, the other tourists there were mainly Japanese and they were having a whale of a time and their giggly enthusiasm, as smartly dressed middle aged folk, was a contagious.
The Tokyo Tower mascot – well words fail me on that one.
This is such a lovely place and is a park that comes alive at weekends – families, couple, friends alike, all out enjoying it. The weather had turned at this point and was generally warm and sunny.
Mark got to enjoy a bit of street performance while I went in search of cherry blossom (no luck at this point). The place is pretty big and separated into various sections. There’s a zoo, a few museums and a lake area which has a strange marshy thing going on.
The street food in the park was amazing. We picked a bunch of stuff having no idea what it was and were rewarded well.
A walk through some older style streets from Ueno park, in the direction of Asakusa, we reached Kappabashi-dori. This is a street which sells to the restaurant/cafe trade. As well as things such as industrial kitchen equipment, knives, coffee beans, signs and chopsticks, this place has lots of shops selling the display food, so synonymous with Japanese food. I love this stuff so much and would love to have bought so much of it. I have no idea what I would have done with it but I still plan to have a good collection at some point.
Everything from drinks, to sushi, noodles, soup, even junk food gets the treatment.
Back to Yoyogi
On our last Sunday we went back to Yoyogi and discovered a whole other (massive) side to this park. When you go to the north side of the park, it is like going for a walk right out in the countryside. It’s huge and beautiful – there’s birdwatchers and people having picnics in little enclaves. Couldn’t believe this was in central Tokyo.
We actually ended up getting lost and going around in circles – fantastic exercise, but it also meant we stumbled upon (more than once – we really were going round in circles), the shrine we had been to previously with Derek and, it being the weekend, we were treated to watch the traditional weddings that were going on there. The brides and grooms parade through the shrine covered by a red umbrella and it’s really gorgeous to watch. How do the Japanese make shuffling look graceful?
We enjoyed the dancing rockabilies (more in number in the good weather) and ignored the English guy giving out leaflets about mind control!?!?
With sorry hearts, but safe in the knowledge we had a few days in Tokyo at the end of our Japan trip, we had to make our way to Kyoto. We left one of our rucksacks in our Otsaka apartment, thanks to our lovely airbnb host who said he’d look after it for us, so less laden down than usual, we headed for Tokyo station to get our first Shinkansen bullet train.
These trains are really incredible. They are so beautiful – designed at a similar time to concord I believe and certainly with similar styling, they not so much arrive asshwoosh into the stations. When you are on them, it’s comfortable, quick and the tilting is bizarre but feels very safe. The most delightful train travel I have ever and surely will ever experienced and all in this slick, white, sexy shell (although they’ve got a gorgeous new red one they’ve just launched).
This was our rail pass which was very un-technology based – if you lose this card, you’re screwed, even though it costs a lot. But at least it’s pretty and I can’t bring myself to part with it.
We were on the wrong side of the train to get a good view of Mount Fiji on the way to Kyoto but Mark did spot it and we did see it from afar. We had snacks, you could buy hot drinks and best of all the guards bowed every time they entered or left the carriage. There is nothing not to love on these amazing bullet trains.