In a complete contrast to being dressed up in authentic looking Japanese robes and walking through a winter wonderland of Kinosaki Onsen, Tokyo was quite the change of scene.
Although I flew into Tokyo, I had only really seen the airport and train station in a hazy sleep deprived blur, so it was with some excitement that we were heading back. The guys had arrived a few days earlier than me, so had been filling me in on their Tokyo experience, but the enormity of the whole city is difficult to explain without actually witnessing it.
Coming out of our train station huge buildings decorated with flashing billboards advertising restaurants, arcades and anything else you can imagine all light up before me. ‘Wow, what is this street?’ I ask. They just look at me; ‘this is just a normal street, you haven’t seen anything yet’.
The Tokyo subway / train map reads like a novel, but with some luck and a small portion of skill we were able to find our accommodation. As we rounded the corner to it, a place with the name ‘Penguin Bar’ caught my eye. The motto underneath it read ‘The bar where penguins are present’. I looked on in half disbelief and confusion. Hold on, there isn’t actually penguins in there… is there?
We managed to let the bouncer/usher open the door to the bar and believe it or not, there were actual genuine penguins behind a sheet of glass at the back end of the bar! At the time I couldn’t get my head around the ridiculousness of it, but pretty soon I came to terms with Tokyo, and that ridiculous doesn’t really exist.
A truly fascinating city to wander around in, it is hard to see how anyone could not be entertained by Tokyo and its strange sights. No doubt one of the most bizarre spectacles that could possibly ever be witnessed would be ‘Robot Restaurant’. A test on even the hardest-to-stimulate humans, the barrage of music, lights, noises and strange robots dancing around for a couple of hours, along with the talented Japanese ‘robot dancers’ was unlike something I’ll probably see again (or really fancy seeing again).
The show was somewhat tainted by a couple of different groups of Aussie lads, some shouting just normal Australian shite, while the others were being a bit more seedy with their hollering. It didn’t help when someone in the crowd got pointed out for looking like Ricky Ponting (he did, in fairness), though the amount of ‘RICKKYYYYYY’ shouting in-between gaps in the show got old pretty fast. Shinjuku, the area in which the Robot Restaurant is situated, showed flashes of the seedier side of Tokyo, along with some of the more dickhead tourists, which all seemed to be Australian.
With the purpose of the trip being a sort-of stag do for Jason, we embarked on a night out to the Roppongi area in search of a few drinks (minus John, who was suffering deepthroat). It was a weekday however, and all that we located was a dingy dive-type bar where everyone seemed to be heading to. As was usually the case with a night out in Japan it was a puzzling and strange experience. We managed to stay out until the subway system started up again for the morning, thanks to all night restaurant we found and moped our way back to our beds.
We took in some of the usual tourist sites such as Meiji Jingu shrine and some of the parks, but before long it was time for the guys to head off and me to fend for myself. I found a hostel near the Asakusa area in Tokyo where I booked myself for a couple of nights and a good excuse to have a change of scenery. Japan feels even stranger on your own, possibly because you notice more things and have noone to share the strange situations with. My remaining few days were spent wandering around fairly aimlessly, though I was extremely content just taking it all in.
I hung about the Shibuya area where the world’ busiest pedestrian crosswalk is, watching rush hour come and go. A dazzling experience that makes humans resemble ants as they hoard together and then pile across the street on the green light. I took a walk down to the peaceful and serene Imperial Palace, which although you couldn’t go inside, it was a great sight with a moat surrounding its impressive architecture. It was also lined with cherry blossom trees, and although we weren’t in time to witness any of this, it made me wish to come back in the spring to catch the blossom.
I also checked out the Tokyo Skytree, which is the tallest tower and second largest structure in the world (after the Burja Khalifa). Standing underneath it was enough to make me feel dizzy and rather than paying the pricey fees of going to the top, a great budget option for viewing the city was from the World Trade Centre for a very small fee. There were stunning views out over the city as I got there as the sun was setting, The near 360 degree viewing level had me captivated for hours with a sea of lights looking back at you like a milky way of stars.
One evening I took a walk over the rainbow bridge, giving another perspective of the city from across the water. It led to a strange area called the Odaiba Seaside Park, which was filled with amusements, fairground rides, arcade machines and high-end western shops. I didn’t stay long as it wasn’t my cup of tea but I also couldn’t resist a game of Street Fighter while I was there.
Sitting down at the console I chucked in my yen to start playing, and as I had taken out the first couple of computer opponents, a message flashed up about a challenger. I wasn’t sure if this was another person, and if it was, who and where were they? I looked around but couldn’t see anyone playing any of the street fighter machines near me, and as the fight began the opponent was behaving in a very human manner. I beat him 2 or 3 times, before I heard some commotion opposite me, with one person running round to look at me. After a couple of games he finally defeated me, and as I got up and walked around I still wasn’t sure if this was the guy, as no one seemed to be looking at me. What mystery person had I just been battling? Guess I’ll never know.
One of the saddest things about being in Japan is realizing how much better it is then the rest of the world. That is quite a statement to make after spending only a couple of weeks, but the friendly, courteous and honesty of the Japanese is almost overwhelming.
At one stage I stood looking in awe at a bike rack of over 100 bikes in the street. I’m not sure why it caught my eye but as I looked harder I couldn’t see any locks on the first few bikes. As I scoured the rest of them I couldn’t see a single one locked up. In a busy street in Tokyo, here were hundreds of peoples bikes, and clearly not worried about the possibility of theft.
The same went for the subway; practically working off an honesty system (though occasionally attendants sat nearby to help anyone needing assistance), it would have been simple to walk through. While in other countries I’ll admit that I’d be tempted to jump the fare, partly for the thrill and partly for being frivolous, here I happily paid every time.
Another time we were in an Izukaya, nearing the end of our 2 hour unlimited drinking time. As we ordered some whiskeys and sake before it was up, we politely asked the waiter if he could recommend anywhere close to go to afterwards. Understanding the question, although with little English, he told us to wait a minute and hastily walked over to his manager. Next he was taking off his apron, having asked to leave work to help us, and we were led outside by an excitable Japanese waiter.
We walked a block or two and he reeled off a number of different suggestions on where to go and how to get there, and then after grabbing a photo with him he scampered off back to work. Gestures like that continued to happen throughout the whole trip, even in a city as large as Tokyo, it felt so friendly and welcoming. It got to the stage towards the end where I wouldn’t want to ask for help or directions, as I feared getting someone sacked or taking up too much of their time as they drop everything they are doing to try and assist.
On one of the days I wandered around trying to find an Izukaya that was recommended to me. I checked two or three times where I thought it should be, but it just didn’t appear to be where the map said. In Japan, and Tokyo particularly, looking along the street is not enough, it is more about looking up to find what you are looking for. A fairly unassuming apartment block could easily have a separate restaurant on all 14 floors, for example. It is a complete wonder how there is so many places to eat and yet they are all seemingly thriving with custom. With such good food and choices, perhaps they never eat at home? Who knows!
Anyway, I was standing outside what was the correct number on what I thought was the correct street, but the Izukaya was nowhere to be found. I asked two girls if they could assist and they looked confused and a bit startled, before pointing up at the building I was standing under. I thanked them and walked into the lobby, turning around to see them not moving or talking, just staring at me as I walked. I got to the elevator, located what I thought was the restaurant and pressed the button for its floor. I glanced back and still they stared on like I was a ghost, not flinching or blinking the whole time.
It was a funny moment, though I hardly got time to take it in as I was seated on a long table with a number of Japanese nearby. As I was handed the Japanese-only menu, the guy opposite noticed my confusion and introduced himself, helping to recommend a number of different dishes on the menu while also professing to enjoy practising his English. He was with a girl and it felt like I was intruding on his date, even stranger so when he flicked his phone across for me to put in my Facebook for me to add. I didn’t know adding strangers was still a thing? Apparently so!
Humorously, the next time I checked Facebook he had written on my wall to say ‘Hi I am Aki from Japanese restaurant. Thank you for today. I hope you will enjoy the rest of the days in Tokyo!!!’.
As the last day approached, I felt ready to leave Tokyo, as much as I had thoroughly loved it. My insides were crying out for a ‘normal’ meal of meat and two veg, and while the food and been delicious, if a little bizarre, I was certainly ready to hang my chop sticks up for a few weeks.
I had actually underspent my budget in Japan, which I was certainly not expecting but it was generally quite easy to find cheap food and activities, though just as easy to blow an entire weeks’ worth of budget if you chose the wrong place.
On the last night I was on a walk back from an Izukaya I had frequented two nights in a row, happily sitting in a booth by myself and trying various unnamed things off a menu, when I spotted a 24 hour clothes shop. Not necessarily a strange phenomenon in Tokyo, but it was in such a quiet area and away from any crowds it baffled me so much that I walked in. It was probably approaching 1am as I entered, contemplating who would be in a clothes shop at this time, and the business sense of having it open 24 hours?
Unsurprisingly I was the only person in the shop but I did have some yen burning a whole in my pocket, though not enough to be worthy of changing back into another country. t worked out that with a squeeze, I could just about afford to buy a pair of cords to replace my increasingly dilapidated pair. The crotch of my old pair was resembling a piece of a cheese with all of the holes, as often seems to happen with me for some reason. (Yes I know dad, I buy my trousers too tight, I’ve heard it before…). With some quick calculations I had got my Japanese souvenir and what should be enough money to see me through my last day.
There was still time for one last thrill the following day, as I ventured to use a longer, more complex route of getting to the airport to avoid the more expensive direct train, which I could no longer afford.
Confident in my map reading skills, the journey started well until the first or second transfer, when I couldn’t get my head around the schedule at one of the stops. Not any English announcements in sight, I desperately tried asking anyone who was around if this was the train I needed. Willing though unable to assist, I went through 4 or 5 people until a girl politely grabbed her phone out and looked up the information on the internet. Just in time as the train I didn’t know was mine or not pulled up, it was my ride it turned out, so I jumped on.
Coming infrequently, I would have been in some serious strife if I had missed it. Seemingly unable to catch a flight without some sort of rush or dart to the exit, I arrived in a relieved and sweaty mess at Tokyo airport, where it all began.
Fond memories flooded back of a great trip in a country that is simply a utopia. Bumping into ignorant Australian wankers in some of the more tourist places in Tokyo makes you wonder if it will remain such a wonderfully honest and welcoming place, or whether the increasing western visitors and influence will slowly degrade this. I’m pro-immigrant don’t get me wrong (usually followed by an obviously racist statement), though in all seriousness, if there is an argument to be made for anti-immigration then it’s Japan. Let’s just hope the world and its western values leaves it the fuck alone!
So long Japan – I hope to be back again some day (in the spring, for the cherry blossoms).
Regards, your newest, biggest fan