It’s a long one so maybe grab a cuppa and some biscuits first…
The long journey to Japan was made longer as our first plane to Beijing was delayed so we missed our second flight to Tokyo. We were well fed and they put us up for the night but has sealed the fate of overland travel. Trains 1 Planes 0.
Finally arrived and what a treat! The people are amongst the most polite and friendly I have ever met. The toilets are like computers which three different beday options, and an option to make sound to give you privacy. (A little aside to demonstrate the hi-tech ness!). We got the bus and there was about 5 members of staff, one to help old ladies to their seats, one to hold up signs informing you of various bus rules, one to stop the bus, one to check tickets, and one to drive. The bus, like everything, runs to the second and the people, so respectful, even bow to the bus as it drives away.
The currency here is Yen, 157 yen to the pound, and it’s a pricey country! The language originates through the use of the Chinese symbols, however over the last 1500 years instead of creating new symbols for a new word, the symbols now have a phonetic meaning so that words can be created without the “alphabet” expanding. As a result, Japan has about 2000 symbols to China’s 14,000. The writing looks part Chinese, part simplified symbols.
Tokyo is split into several districts and we were in Shinjuku district. Our hostel was a capsule hostel, a room with around 25 capsule beds. We tried to decide what to do but were too baffled and took a nap. Tokyo is one of the strangest places in that there are very few “attractions” but a lot to experience so arriving here is confusing and a bit intimidating. Going out into the street is an experience!
We made friends with our 4 neighbours, all Australian, and come evening we all went to a local Japanese restaurant. The tables had a grill plate in the middle of the table. Ordering using a combination of picture pointing and commandeering the lady on a date next table on to translate, we ended up frying first aubergine, then asparagus in delicious oils. We then used the grill to make takoyaki, small balls of batter with bits of squid and vegetable in. Our waitress would show us how to make them, and then allow us to have a go. She was so much fun, not a word of English but a sweet lady. Finally we made a few dishes which were like a variation on Spanish omelette with pork or veg or prawn, fried on the grill in front of us.
With our new friends we headed into Shibuya, a central district of Tokyo and the one with the famous Shibuya crossing featured in films. When the lights go green on this crossing, a sea of people descend on the road, however the attitude is not pushing and shoving, it’s still friendly, all in this together.
As it was Halloween people were already dressed up, all day there were nurses, pirates and more inventive costumes. We explored the streets of mainstream shops, back street shops and arcades. This is home to Shibuya 109, a huge mall, well visited by shopaholics and celebrities alike. The gaming culture here is huge, naturally, the home of gaming. The arcades are huge and filled not with tourists and children but business men in suits. They are an explosion of colour and music and cartoons.
The girls here want to look like the anime characters, big eyelashes, wide eyes (sometimes altered by plastic surgery) and the aim is to look as young and innocent as possible. They love to dress as Disney characters. The guys that are pinned up as models try to look feminine with David Bowie-esque hair styles. It's a little creepy! They have a word for cute- Kawaii and they try to be as "kawaii" as possible. (Say this in a chipmunk voice and you have about the right idea!)
For the night out we got into our makeshift costumes knowing that we would be shown up in the city. The centre was incredible, so many people and everyone dressed up. The effort in each costume was incredible. We went into a small bar and began dancing, inviting the Japanese to join us so the circle grew and grew. The Japanese are fascinated with us and really want to interact.
Ricky left the bar to stand in the street, this is where the real party was happening. Groups of people passing in costume, the best costumes just engaging in photos all down the street and group ensembles of superman, Mario characters. The street had parades of Ferraris, batman on his bat mobile, girls riding on the Vimto car (the one with the crazy bouncing suspension). The crazy thing was how inventive people were, Halloween is definitely a time to prove yourself. There was Edward Scissorhands, Instagram, backwards man, the mad hatter and my personal favourite for randomness- Mona Lisa. The atmosphere was electric, a who's who of cartoons, TV and film.
We headed to Asakusa district, the old town of Japan. Walking down the Nakamise market street you see all sort of souvenirs, people making biscuits and rice crackers and some even wearing traditional dress. It was the first glimpse into the Japanese culture depicted in pictures.
We passed through the Kaminari-mon gate to Sensoji temple. This beautiful place is so far removed from Shibuya and modern day tokyo. It is a quaint Buddhist monastery with lots of lanterns and historic buildings. People often come here to have their fortune told. They shake a wooden box and one stick comes out with a symbol inscribed. They find the fortune which corresponds to this fortune.
The children in Japan are so sweet. Lots of school trips were around this area and one girl stood and saluted us as we walked past. In the street we got stopped by some children who's homework was to ask a foreigner a question. I got asked whether I liked japan and whether I liked the food. Once I wrote them a little comment they would bow and grin.
We tried a rice cracker fresh from one of the street stalls which was tasty, then headed across the river to Tokyo Skytree. Finished in 2012, this huge tower will take over from Tokyo Tower as the new broadcasting tower. It is 634 metres and used as an observatory, but also the foot of the tower houses some shops, a planetarium and some pretty cool stuff.
We stumbled upon an robot exhibit by one of the universities. They were showing Robot 'Rosemary' who works in nuclear areas where people cannot access. They also had a Mars bot which you could roam mars virtually using nasa footage, and other amazing tech which I am really not selling to its fullest!
Fearing my geek levels were getting too low, I persuaded Ricky, Caleb and Carol to do a tour of the grounds of the Imperial Palace. I knew very little about Japan and there is so little actual evidence of an age before gaming that this was interesting.
Japan’s capital used to be Kyoto, which literally translates as ‘where the emperor lives.’ From 1603, Japan was ruled by the ‘Tokugawa Shotunate’ and the capital moved to Tokyo, then named Edo. From 1868, Japan has and still does have an emperor, and Tokyo was re-named, (literally ‘To’ means east and ‘kyo’ is Kyoto, so it is called capital to the east.)
The tour mostly talked about the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled over Japan as many separate provinces, each with a king. The main game was keeping the regional kings in line, and for this the regional kings had to live in Edo for a year with their family, then when the king returned his family would stay as an insurance policy. The stories had ninjas, samurai swords and our guide gave us a little quiz as we went round with the prizes being origami swans he had made himself! For one part Ricky had to dress up as a ninja!
After the tour we headed for some Ramen noodles, a very common dish in Japan. In the locals noodle bars you put your money in a vending machine, pick your dish and it prints you a ticket which you give to the chef. The more you slurp, the more you are seen to be enjoying it!!
After this we did as the locals do, hit the arcades. The locals prefer coordination games rather than shooting or driving, the equivalent of dance mats for your hands. They also play on what looks like a slot machine, but actually uses small metal balls and is definitely gaming not gambling. The arcades, like everywhere in Japan, are sensually busy. Lots of music and colour and every space decorated, a minimalists worst nightmare. Also in every arcade you see lots of "Kawaii booths" where girls go and dress up and get made up and pose, and choose effects to look as cute as possible. There is also a long queue for this.
We headed to the geek district, Akihabara, home to electric city. The department stores here had numerous floors holding the best in cameras, tv, telescope etc. The Japanese call their geeks ‘Otaku’ and they are catered for in a big way here. There is lots of Manga and Anime shops, arcades and antique gaming and on this day, a playstation launch party of some sort. I am all about embracing local culture, however Tokyo’s definition of culture is very different to most places and most of it went over my head.
The Tokyo Government building has a free observatory on the 45th floor, so we headed to Shinjuku to look out over the city. The lift shoots you up in less than a minute and your ears pop, but when you get to the top it is an interesting view. Tokyo is huge! The day wasn’t very clear so the distance was foggy, however the skyline nearby was quite staggering. On a clear day you are supposed to see Mt Fuji in the distance, however Tokyo gets this pleasure about 100 days out of the year.
Dinner, sushi from a little sushi kitchen near our hostel. There hasn’t been as much of it as I was expecting in Japan, I think it may be a high end thing.
We went to Harajuku, a big fashion area, the one Gwen Stephani wrote a song about;
harajuku Girls you got the wicked style
I like the way that you are, I am your biggest fan
It is the Mecca for young girls and crazy fashion with big clothes stores on the main strip and lots of boutiques and jumble stores down the side streets. It’s an experimental catwalk. It’s really fun to walk around looking in all the little stores and people watching on others outfits.
I wasn’t feeling too good and wanted to find a pharmacy. When I asked at a little juice bar one of the serving members of staff took me on a 5 minute walk to show me the closest one. Finding that one shut she took me to another. This is just the incredible attitude of people here, they can’t help you enough! I sat in Starbucks at the window whilst Ricky looked round some more, half reading, half people watching.
Japan has been great, another really different culture. Whilst it wasn’t all Sushi, Sumo and Hot springs like I hoped, it has really shown a city with a huge modern culture. I guess there is less sightseeing and more of a “come and get involved, do as the locals do” attitude. It does mean that we have spent a week here feeling like we are doing very little but being absolutely exhausted at the same time!
There is no litter, however there is no litter bins, like anywhere!
You can smoke inside, yet you can’t smoke in the street except in special smoking areas!
Hello from Japan, ever since I was a child playing with my Pokemon cards and my old Nintendo game system and not forgetting watching Pokemon and other cartoons for hours on a weekend I wanted to go to Japan the home of all things gaming and technology.
Once here we were both confused where to start as I wanted to go to some amusement arcade and spent hours on the machines but it was not what I was expecting, you won’t find any 2p machines here but you will find hundreds and hundreds of strange slot machines all full of people with literally thousands of little silver balls (used in the machines) and each row had their own ‘butler/attendant’ they would cater to the gamers every need by bringing them a constant flow of drinks and food and cigarettes, the machines even had phone chargers next to them because people were there so long!
The slots didn’t interest me because I wanted to find the shoot’em ups, on my search for time crisis and house of the dead kind of games I came across DARK ESCAPE 3D.
It was one of those games that had Health warnings all over it, do not use if pregnant, jumpy, old, pacemaker or just had lunch kind of thing.
It was terrifying, it was like resident evil when I was 10 all over again, because it was 3D the messed up creatures jumped out in your face and the seat shakes and they blow air in your face when the zombies shout at you. Safe to say the shoot button was pressed continuously until it was finished, even Lauren had a go and the screams could probably be heard outside.
I also want to mention that we went to an area in Tokyo that our hotel reception recommended that was just filled with 'Escort' establishments. We were told the men (who look like children) earn about £800.000 a year doing what they do and in fact it apparently isn't sexual. Woman just pay to spend time with these strange looking anime creature men. A lot of time..
Now back to Hong Kong for our overland trip into Vietnam!