Our first day in Japan was also our first day in Tokyo. We touched down at Narita airport, dazed and confused,
having slept little or not at all.
Apart from the entirely incomprehensible writing that permeated the building,
there were two main discoveries that confirmed to me how far we'd travelled. Firstly you can get a hot can
of coffee from a vending machine. Secondly THE TOILETS! They are an endless fascination. You are never
quite sure what you are going to get. They range from the most basic whole in the floor to a high tech toilet
seat offering up to 10 different functions including one for the ladies which emits the sound of flushing even
though no such flushing is taking place and thus enables japanese ladies to do their business unheard and so
preserve their modesty. I find it quite endearing. It is also possible to select your desired toilet seat temperature.
In the summer this is perhaps unnecessary but on a winter's day what joy to avoid that brief but harsh meeting
of warm buttock and cold seat. And of course, my personal favourite: A bouton than releases a jet of warm
water targeting the centre of one's posterior after the completion of one's business.
Hygiene in Japan is, we have discovered, taken very seriously. Every day we see people with colds wearing
face masks that lead one initially to mistakenly marvel and the implausible number of japanese doctors!
Also, in shops, money is rarely passed directly from hand to hand but is to be placed on a small shelf or is handed
carefully to you on top of your receipt. And no restaurant of any kind would allow you to start a meal without the
ceremonial handing out of wet towels. And in this weather we are grateful for them.
We left the airport and headed to our main base in Japan. The town of Kitano in the district of Hachioji.
We had to drive through Tokyo to get there and I admit that my 1st impression was not a great one. I found
it quite plain with dull grey houses and nothing much there to grab your attention other than multiple electric wires
that run through rooftops, across roads and in every direction. The reason that the cables are above ground, I
later learned, is to facilitate repair in case of an earthquake.
However I am happy to say that my initial feeling was entirely reversed when we first ventured into the center
of this metropolitan marvel.
We decided to spend our 1st day off in Tokyo as a group, the 4 of us. For 2 reasons. We did not yet all possess working
mobile phones (these were later rented for our benefit by Yoshiko, one of our lovely administrator ladies). And also, if you
do not speak Japanese, Tokyo can fell like a very daunting place to go aimlessly wandering around in. Every time I look at the map
of the underground I can feel a headache coming along: A mass web of seemingly endless interconnected paths meeting and
parting, the Japanese symbols serving as a further hindrance to my attempted deciphering of this snaky maze. Fortunately
you can pick up some maps with the station names written in English. You will need these.
Even for a confident Japanese speaker, the curious symbolic writing will slow you down and you will often find yourself lost in the crowd,
scratching your bald head (if you're me), staring at a map and turning it round and round in a desperate attempt to
draw some small semblance of sense from it. However, there is a happy antidote to this poisonous position : The Japanese
are the most helpful people I have ever met! If they see that you need assistance they are very quick to come to your aid. They
will politely ask you if you need help and if you do, not content in showing you the way, they will take you to your destination
themselves. I have lived in England, France, Spain and Germany and have never known people to go so far out of their way to
see that you are put back on track. In such a huge city (and it is truly massive) where so many people are running to and fro it is
heartwarming to feel that you, as an unfamiliar presence, are being acknowledged, respected and taken care of in the same way that
the Japanese take care of each other. Not only is this care apparent when one is lost and in need of help but it permeates here in every
day activities. In the way a gift is rapped, in the way an object is handed to you, in the way one is instantly made to feel welcome upon
entering a school or a shop or a restaurant. It is very engaging to watch people at work. To watch someone fold a pancake for
example. The attention that is paid to every step of the preparation. Everything is done properly. No stone unturned. No one seems
distracted or unsure.
There is a very low crime rate here, an impressive amount of trust about, and a common belief in an honest, straightforward, morally
I don't know the reasons for this effortless goodwill. Perhaps the instability of the ground that the Japanese walk on, the constant threat of an Earthquake or a Tsunami, acting as a reminder of how fragile and fleeting life is, has a profound affect on Japanese consciousness.
Other reasons for these qualities may stem from Buddhist and Shinto traditions that are kept alive and are very much a part
of peoples lives here. There is, however, a noticeable tolerance toward all religions.
In fact one of the 1st things we visited in Tokyo was the Meiji-Jingu shrine in Harujuku. We turned right at the station and came to a large steel bridge. We then turned right again and crossed a square where a couple of youths were singing pop songs into microphones. We arrived at a huge wooden gateway. One of the Shinto shrine's many entrances. We walked a while across a wide path, glad for the shelter of so many trees. It was good to come here and briefly escape the sometimes overwhelming city activity. However, one is hard pressed to find silence in Japanese woods at this time of year. The crickets are insanely loud!
The Temple itself was a wonderful sanctum of peace and prayer. upon entering its grounds one is to wash one's hands and mouth with
a ladle of fresh water to symbolise a purification process before being able to pray. We observed people's worshiping rituals with interest and basked in the serene atmosphere.
Of course before tending to the needs of our souls we had already visited Harujuku's main tourist hot spot and attended to our more
materialistic interests. A very popular shopping street is to be found right by the station. It reminds me very much of Camden in London, in the sense that it is a crowded, funky, fashionable and "buzzing" type of place. People here feel confident to dress in cute, colourful or simply bizarre attires. We saw many of the notorious "Harujuku girls" who dress like little bo peep with petticoats and umbrellas and stuff.
It's a great place to shop for comical t-shirts and trendy accessories and there are plenty of designer stores to be explored if one is in to that type of thing. There are many westerners to be spotted here as well. They stick out like sore thumbs and so, no doubt, do we.
After munching on some ice creamy pancakey type snack that is sold pretty much everywhere, and riding on the frantic waves of our sugar rush, we arrived at our next destination, Shibuya, still shamefully nursing our bloated bellies.
Shibuya is one of my favourite places in the city. This is the Tokyo that we know from the films, home to the world's busiest public crossing. An immediately impressive sight. A dense crowd of people suddenly surrounds you and great modern buildings tower above you, animated by advertisements projected on to them.
Here you truly feel at the epicentre of a tremendously technologically advanced society. We wandered around the streets, greeted continuously by unfamiliar sights and sounds, red lanterns, karaoke bars, soba noodle cafe's and sex shops. Many things that you would find in other cities as well but here everything looks different and offices, restaurants, bars and shops are often located on the upper floors of the buildings, high above ground level, so you find yourself walking around with a craned neck in order to take it all in.
By the time we got to Roppongi, our legs were aching and our feet sore. Why did I wear flip flops? But our moods were lifted when we arrived at the foot of the giant Tokyo Tower that rose before us, a majestic copy of the Eiffel tower and beautifully lit. What a view from up there! This has been one of the highlights of my tour so far. Sam went all the way to the top and the rest of us only half way but even so we marvelled at the scale and scope of this futuristic metropolis. Immense modern skyscrapers, dotted with red flashing lights, rose directly in front of us but were also to be seen as far back as the horizon. We circled round the tower, and enjoyed a breathtaking 360 degree view of Tokyo by night, lit up in all it's glory. I really recommend this!
There is something for everyone in Tokyo. It tends to all your usual needs but also to unfamiliar ones. There is such a thing as "maid cafe's", mainly found in Akhibara (north east of Tokyo). These, I think, differ from place to place and to an extent we knew what we were in for. We heard enticing tales of cozy rooms and fun atmospheres, ideal places to slurp some noodles or poke some fish about the plate. But these cafe's are quite unique for several reasons. You are served by very cute (or Kawaii as the Japanese say) young maids in colourful dresses, decorated with all sorts of girlie accessories and makeup, who strangely enough refer to you as "master". The whole business seems to try and cater to some strange male fantasy that I never expected to see manifested. We were however a little disappointed as our chosen cafe looked more like an internet spot, with a small room, unremarkable tables and not much to look at. Also we had been led to expect certain other indulgences such as a foot massage yet our feet were sadly left unattended to. Perhaps there are more swankier versions of these places where the atmosphere is more agreeable and the service more sort of, well, "foot-rubby".
We did however break out in raucous laughter every time a maid came to serve us as they are expected to perform silly songs when presenting the food, making heart shapes with their hands and repeating "yummy, yummy, yummy..." in high pitched voices.
Other major attractions in Ackibara include Japanese comics (or manga) stores and arcade centres of which there are many in a place aptly named electric city. We spent a lot of time in the SEGA building playing video games but mainly perfecting our "round de jambe" and "pas de deux" on the exhausting and highly addictive "DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION!!"
As for the manga stores it is very hard to find english translations of these comics in Akhibara. It is best to head to Shinjuku and visit a place near the station called Kinokuniya Books. On the 7th floor you will find a large collection of manga in english and plenty of other literature as well.
While you are in Shinjuku, if you are a party-goer, it is worth checking out the nightlife north of the station. There are plenty of cool bars and clubs and "massage parlours", some of which look suspiciously erotic. But it's a "happening" and "buzzy" place and there is much merriment to be had there. For hardcore clubbing, I don't think Japan is really the place to be. Alcoholic drinks here are normally enjoyed with meals and then people seem to either retire for the night or gather in a karaoke bar. We indulged in the latter the other day and it was tremendous fun but watch those vocal cords if you are performing the next day!
That pretty much concludes my account of Tokyo so far. For reports of the incredible SUMO wrestling check out Vic's post. There is still much to experience in this massive town, I dare say we've hardly scratched the surface. We are hoping to visit the Imperial palace but we won't be back here now for another month and the rest of Japan awaits so saddle up that White Horse LA. To infinity and beyond!!!