Journeying in Japan… Part 2, Tokyo

After the culture of Kyoto we boarded the bullet train to Tokyo. Bullet trains are fast. The KTX in Korea is quick but the bullet trains, especially the Nozomi, (The Japanese have six kinds of bullet train) are rapid. It takes a mere two hours and twenty minutes to travel the 462.8km from Kyoto to Tokyo. So little a distance the Japanese couldn’t be bothered to rename the cities properly and just shuffled the letters around.

Arriving in Tokyo we immediately headed for the local transportation map. Tokyo has a complex network of subway lines and overground rail services that serve the extended metropolis. The resulting transport map is more akin to one of those puzzles where you have to follow the  monkey’s line through the mix of other lines to the correct banana. Having hopefully deciphered the correct station and line we found the correct platform (another challenge in Tokyo station) and set off to Nakano, an area to the west of central Tokyo. One successful journey  and an emergency MacDonald’s later we arrived at our hostel, Yadoya backpackers. Yadoya had some nice people but the accomodation left a lot to be desired. Advertised as a ‘traditional’ Japanese style guesthouse translated as sleeping on a thin futon on a raised hardwood floor. I guess we should be thankful there were only two of us in our room and not in a shared dormitory, as I imagined this being akin to a bunch of tramps sleeping on the floor in a squat.

Wanting to make the most of our stay in Tokyo we headed out in the late afternoon sunshine and humidity to check out the streets of Shibuya and Harajuku. Our first stop was Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most iconic and fashionable districts. Shibuya is famous for its scramble crossing, where all traffic is stopped so people can cross in all directions at once and the shopping and fashion district that shapes much of Tokyo’s youth culture. Shibuya was a good mix of commercial shopping opportunities, chaotic intersections and interesting street art. We walked around trying to take in the vibe that was around us. In many ways Shibuya set the tone of Tokyo that we would find hard to avoid during our stay, a never stopping, information overload, big screen flashing, neon experience. Luke picked up some T-shirts because he didn’t want to do any washing and I grabbed one myself. We then took a walk to Harajuku…

Whilst Shibuya is famous mostly for commercial fashion, Harajuku is famous for eclectic street fashion. The diverse and sometimes unbelievable styles visible on the streets of Harajuku has to be seen to be believed. What is considered fancy dress in the UK has been twisted and reinvented into distinct styles. The fashions of Harajuku are said to inspire designers worldwide and many designers have sprung from this area and evolved into respected designers worldwide. Sunday is the day to spy the best (and worst) dressed  in alternative street fashion but their were more than enough of the uniquely styled fashionistas on the streets and more than enough on display in the varied and vibrant stores of the dangerously named Takeshita street. Checking out but not purchasing the wares on display, we walked from the bizarre to the distinctly cool back streets known as “Ura-hara”. Neon-gothic-lolita styling gave way to trendier shops, cool cafes and art galleries. We stopped off for dinner at the Hideaway Treehouse. A small shop/cafe/bar/restaurant that had an open fronted second floor that looked out into a quirky treehouse. Obviously Wednesday is a quiet evening in Tokyo as we were the only customers in the joint. However, the quietness did not translate into a bad establishment. In fact, we ate the one of the best meals we had in Japan as the large tree that rose through the centre of our table swayed slightly from side to side in the wind outside. If you ever go to Tokyo I highly recommend this place for the experience, food and the friendly owners who welcomed us.

The next day was a long, long day but not like a long day in the sense of those terrible long days, when you have a hangover, a pile of work and your car breaks down on the way home. We just visited a lot of places. A lot.

Our first port of call, was the port! We planned to take the water bus tour around Tokyo harbour but on our arrival and checking the options and the destinations on offer we decided to pass. Instead we took a walk to the Zojoji Temple and the Tokyo Tower. Zojoji Temple is one of the Great Main Temples of the Shingon school of Buddhism. It offers an interesting insight into some of the more unusually known practices of some elements of Buddhism. Within the temple grounds there is a large section of small statues. Each statue has a small tunic, a stick of incense and a colourful windmill. Each statue represents an unborn, stillborn or aborted pregnancy. The statues are named Jizos after Jizo, the guardian of unborn children. Further back in the temple grounds six of the fifteen shoguns of the Tokugawa era also rest here. (Shoguns were the true rulers behind the politically weak emperors.) Zojoji also gives a great view of the Tokyo Tower. These days the tower is eclipsed by many skyscrapers in Tokyo and the recently completed new tower, The Tokyo Skytree.

Next up on the list was a short ride to near Tokyo station and a walk to the Tokyo Imperial Palace. As expected we were unable to gain access to the emperor or even the main buildings of the palace but the exterior area and park was a nice place to take some photos and take in the view of the modern buildings of the business district behind.

Heading back across the city we arrived in Shinjuku. Shinjuku is another of Tokyo’s main commercial and entertainment districts. Our first initial impression was the train station. Not because it is impressive or architecturally amazing but because it is busy, really busy! Shinjuku has the honour of being the world’s busiest train station. An estimated 3.64 million people use it everyday.

Outside the mentalness of Shinjuku train station Shinjuku has many varying attractions. Having plenty of time to walk around we looked about as much as we could. We walked around Kabukicho where we were introduced to the seedy side of Tokyo. Kabukicho is an infamous district full of restaurants, bars, karaoke rooms, seedy cabaret shows and brothels. The Yakuza are notorious in this area and the more illegal aspects of Kabukicho are firmly under their control despite numerous crackdowns. Alongside surreptitious sexual activities usually comes dodgy politicians and businessman; so it is unsurprising that Shinjuku is also home to a skyscraper district where numerous international and Japanese corporations can be found. We went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to gain a view of the city as the sun went down and peer across to Mount Fuji on the horizon, but only after being disappointed at the closure of Shinjuku Gyoen a large park and garden area. Later we ate some delicious noodles in one of Japan’s many convenient Japanese fast-food style eateries. We had to order from a machine, where you pressed what you wanted (noodles and a beer), paid for it vending machine style and then sat down waiting for the waitress to deliver it to us.  We took one more walk around the increasingly seedy Kabukicho (it was night-time and the pimps were out) before heading back to the hostel for a few beers. (It was Luke’s 25th birthday, he even made me buy him a can!)

The following day was friday and we planned to meet Luke’s Japanese friend Yuko who he had met on his travels in Australia and her friend Chiaki. Yuko and Chiaki kindly guided us around some of Tokyo and for an amazing evening at Yuko’s izakaya.

Heading north we went to Asakusa. Asakusa is home to Senso-ji a significant temple that is the oldest in Tokyo (it dates back to the  year 628) and one of the most significant in Tokyo. Senso-ji can be found at the end onakamise-dori, a long shopping street where the shops are now distinctly aimed at tourists. Senso-ji definitely feels like a powerful and significant temple. The temple is large and the buildings are imposing. We ate some lunch nearby and walked across the Sumida river, taking in the view of the urban landscape on the other side that included the Tokyo Skytree and the comically designed Asahi Beer headquarters. Asahi Beer Headquarters consists of two buildings; one is coloured and shaped like a giant pint of beer and the second is black with a golden sculpted flame perched on top. I say ‘flame” (as this is how it was apparently intended to appear) but it is more reminiscent of a giant golden turd.

The Tokyo Skytree was opened in May 2012 and is the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest structure after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The tower provides broadcasting and telecom facilities, viewing decks, restaurants and an aquarium. It basically has a bit of everything. I would tell you what the view is like from the top but we couldn’t get a ticket. Unlike Taipei 101 (which is virtually the same height) where I walked straight into the elevator, the Skytree has a queue. A big queue. So big in fact that you needed to buy a ticket for a certain time to join the queue. We didn’t buy a ticket as the earliest time we could enter the queue was in 4 hours time! Instead we walked around the lower platforms and went to a luxurious green tea cafe, that shockingly, had a queue.  One green tea latte with a green tea ice cream floater deposited securely in my belly, we exited the crowded Skytree and took the subway to Shibuya for some souvenir shopping and our evening at the izakaya.

An Izakaya is a Japanese style drinking establishment. You can drink, beer, sake and cocktails whilst eating plates of shared food that are brought to the table one after another. Yuko took us to her Izakaya which seemed quite upmarket due to the deliciousness, presentation and quality of the food. We enjoyed, chicken, fish (yes even me) and tempura dishes that were heartedly washed down with beers and sake. At the end of the evening Yuko and Chiaki had gone to the trouble o f making a birthday cake for Luke, which surely trumped the can of beer he had made me buy for him the previous evening.

Disappointedly Luke didn’t get overly drunk. I had rather hoped he would wake up with a stinking hangover at 7am. Luke had a plane to catch in Osaka at 4pm so he had an early start the next morning. I enjoyed a sweet long lie-in until 11am. After leaving the hostel I took the Nozomi back to Osaka and checked into a capsule hotel in Umeda district. Umeda is a downtown district near the central train station that we hadn’t visited earlier in the week. On the hunt for a hotel I checked out a few places but they were exceptionally highly priced and my stingy pockets were reluctant to part with more of my hard-earned money in this expensive land. In the end I chanced upon a capsule hotel that I had read about previously. The Capsule Inn in Osaka was the first one to be built-in Japan, so it turned out I would be staying at a historical hotellery spot. For about $30 I stayed in a 2m long, by 1.25m wide, by 1m tall capsule. As you lie back on the surprisingly comfy bed you can watch a TV with 13 channels through your earphones. The capsules are stacked two high and lined up side-by-side down a long room.  At my capsule hotel there were over 500 capsules. It also had 4 different spas as well as the expected communal washrooms, bathrooms, TV areas etc… My night in the capsule hotel was affordable and comfortable, there were no snorers in my vicinity and Iwas in a good downtown district for some food in the evening. Result.

My trip to Japan concluded with a flight to Seoul on Sunday evening. I didn’t do much on Sunday before the flight. Just check out of the hotel, wandered the streets of Osaka and read my new Japanese fictional book in the airport. I got home in Busan around 2am, tired but satisfied with my travels. I really loved Taiwan and Japan for different reasons. Taiwan is full of generous kind people , Taipei is a likeable city with charm and character and the countryside is just incredible. Japan turned out to be a week-long city break but the diversity between the cities was evident and refreshing, Japanese people were always kind and helpful and Tokyo was completely and utterly bonkers. I could never imagine living in Tokyo, my brain would explode. Taiwan, however, has a certain appeal and I would not rule out living there for a contract. Both countries are ones that I would love to visit again. There is so much to see in Taiwan if you like the outdoors and similarly we only saw the urban side of Japan. Thankfully, both are close to Korea and convenient for a long weekend should the opportunity arise…

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