Monthly Archives: August 2006

Tokyo day 6

This morning I went to Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics/gadget central. Not really sure what I was expecting of the place but it was actually pretty boring! Lots of shops but I suppose unless you were looking for something in particular then not the best place to hang out. I was about to leave to go see somewhere else but then stumbled across the biggest shop I’d ever seen – the wonder that is Akihabara’s Yodobashi Camera! This gargantuan store comprises nine floors of electronics, restaurants and… golf. There was even a mini driving range on the roof! By the time I’d explored the place it was already lunchtime – I’d forgotten breakfast anyway so my stomach needed something! I was actually feeling kind of dizzy too – probably day 2 of hangover, doh.

I selected a place that had very appetising pictures of their food outside, thinking that at least in the eventuality I couldn’t read the menu I could at least point out something. Ha. The menu was somewhat different – almost all Chinese characters (kanji) and only 9 pictures of non-descript foods in the whole thing! There was nothing for it but to hazard a guess, and my question of, “yakisoba?” was answered by some page turning and a rundown. All I could really hear was “oyster” being said over and over. Confused, I asked for pork, she said “yes” and that was that, lol. I’m sure spaced out English folk are not their everyday customers.

Later I went over to Asakusa to go see the temple there. There were many people (girls especially) dressed in ‘yukata’ on the way and at the station and I remembered that Rena had told me about a big fireworks display that was taking place that evening, where it is traditional to wear a yukata. I looked out for the posters advertising the fireworks but couldn’t glean much information, so continued on my way. It was around 3pm this point and as I walked along the street and down next to the river there were already a large amount of people who had arrived early for the show plus umpteen people distributing fans with advertising plastered on and many street stalls selling all types of food and drink. Rena had also said that it’s crazy full and some people had gotten crushed to death last year, so I was thinking I might head off somewhere else in the late afternoon before taking the bus to Kyoto that night. I also had to head back to my hotel before going to the station as I’d left my case behind the desk, having checked out that morning.

At the temple there were also many people and food stalls, inclining me to think it might be better to take in future cultural sites on weekdays rather than weekends! There was a long line of people queuing to make donations and pray, so I watched them for a little bit and decided to join in after a while.

Adjacent to the prayer area were some intriguing boxes. I was watching a couple shake a hexagonal cylinder, take a stick, read a number from it then take a piece of paper from the correspondingly numbered drawer. I presumed it was some kind of fortune telling, and this was to be confirmed shortly after when I was approached by a group of three Japanese girls (of varying ages) who wanted to a) help me to understand what was going on and b) practise their English! I was quite astounded that the girl was able to tell I was British from my accent – usually non-native speakers really struggle to match accents with places, and she wasn’t fluent (although, in her credit, was fairly capable). I stood chatting to them for a while, explaining what I was doing in Japan, where I had/was visiting etc., then the girl who had assumed the lead speaking role – Yukie (pronounced you-key-è) – invited me to her friend’s place to watch the fireworks that evening. I pondered it for a minute and, thinking what did I have to lose, said I’d be very happy to come. We walked around a bit more and they explained a couple of the other features to me, for example there’s a burning well in the middle of the grounds, which smoke, when inhaled, is supposed to bring good fortune to your family. Also, they explained about the fox gods and how they are not worshipped in Japan because they require constant worship and are liable to trick you any time if you cease. Interesting.

Yukie (24) and the other two girls, Sayuri (who I’m guessing was around 34) and Aiko (who was 12), had met when they were living in Australia, in Melbourne if memory serves me correctly. It was amazing what a grasp of English Aiko had having only learned it for 2 years in Australia. I’m not sure if she was related to Sayuri – they lived together but since the information wasn’t volunteered I thought it potentially impolite to ask. Aiko definitely looked older than 12 I thought, strange since most Japanese look younger than they actually are to me! Conversely, Yukie guessed my age as 28 :( I guess it works both ways, lol.

After a while, and after buying some delicious okonomiyaki (and copious amounts of water – it was baking hot) from a stall, we met their friend. An older guy whose name I couldn’t quite grasp and gave up on after a while. He led us to his place, where everyone was spectating from the roof of the apartment building. I feel I seriously lucked out here, as where we were was absolutely prime – about 30m away from the fireworks – and considering the crowds and how early the rest of the people arrive before the show is due to start to get a good spot! Awesome. I also got fed and given beer (though still didn’t particularly feel like drinking from 2 nights previously!), result.

The firework display itself was ok, not quite up to Vancouver’s festival of light, but interesting nonetheless. I think I perhaps found it more interesting observing the other spectators. They probably thought it most strange that there was a ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) in their midst on top of this apartment building in downtown Asakusa! Everyone was very polite though. In general I can’t fault the Japanese people, I thought that perhaps they’d be a bit more xenophobic.

As time drew on I became a little concerned about the amount of time it was going to take me to get home, and the girls had many concerned-sounding conversations! Turns out they were especially worried because I’d said I had to get my bus at 10.30, when in fact I meant I should arrive at the station for 10.30 to catch the bus at 11.15 (or 11.10, as it turned out)! I assured them that all would be fine, although I did sweat a little bit when we descended at the end of the show into the largest mob of people you’ve ever seen! There were police everywhere directing the flow of people – we had to duck under their barricades at least twice to ensure direct passage to the station, and even then the nearest two stations were closed off due to volume of people. It turned out to be fine in the end, although I accidentally let slip an expletive in front of Aiko-chan, who found it hilariously funny. Oops :) I said my goodbyes and thanked them as best I could at a station which name I can’t remember – collecting email addresses on the way. Yukie I thought was acting a little strangely toward me, mentioning something about speaking of feelings, but luckily she stopped short what she was saying. Run away! :p seriously though it was really nice of them to take me along like that, and even better to offer me their food and drink. Thanks guys!

Made it to the station on time and was disgusted to learn that I couldn’t use my JR pass for the JR bus because it was a discounted service. Errrr, come again? I can only get the more expensive ticket for free? What? Doesn’t make sense to me but what can you do 30 minutes before departure. In fact I made it to the station before Rena did, and she arrived running before running off again shortly after arrival. Crazy girl :) I think I managed to sleep 30 minutes in total on the bus, and started very early the next day on the beginning of the Kyoto temple trail…

Tokyo day 5

Today I spent nearly all day in bed – a primary motivation for avoiding going out drinking on this trip!! Well, I guess moderation would be ok, but last night went way, way beyond that… By the time I made it out properly (having made a brief trip out around lunchtime for basic sustenance) it was 7pm!! Dinner in a nearby Wendy’s was a very slow affair too, I felt like it could have gone either way, lol. Still, after some head holding I headed over towards Harajuku for at least a little sightseeing/making something of my day. I really enjoyed this area too, although I feel I got a somewhat incomplete picture of it being as it was Friday evening – I believe that on the weekends the streets are teeming with the fashion inspired youth, although the stores seemed rather more chic and/or trendy than nearby Shibuya. It was a veritable maze of streets and boutiques and I felt that, with my head being as out of it as it was, that there was a high potential for getting lost :D however my navigation skills didn’t fail me and I succeeded in making a succession of large circuits, taking in quite a few of the main streets. I really liked the exotic feel, trendy, hip vibe around the place and was quite sorry not to have visited at a more prime time. Damn you again, alcohol (or, devil ether, as Rich previously coined).

When I exited from the rabbit warren back to the main street (or at least one of them), I spotted a couple of dodgy looking Americans around 35 or so trying to chat up a pair of teens, but didn’t linger too long as this kind of behaviour is seemingly to be expected! Adjacent to this was an intriguing structure which I felt compelled to explore. It turned out to be one of the most amazing shopping malls I’ve ever seen, although I suppose one would be forgiven for thinking it might be a cryogenic facility on first glance due to the manner and detail of the entrances and information desks, lol. The interior architecture was fantastic and I ignored the ‘please do not take pictures from here’ signs to get some shots. All the floors were sloped and a staircase only accessible from every other floor cut through the interior facing a faux-waterfall, plus there were images of water ripples projected around the ceiling and sounds of a rainforest on repeat over an internal speaker system. It was very blue and calming. An oasis from the world outside. It was called Omotesando Hills if you want to check out their website.

Incidentally, even the toilets in Japan are high-tech. There is a control panel thing to one side of the seat with a number of different buttons (and pictures) on. I was rather surprised when I first decided to test out one of the buttons, although I guess I should have known what to expect from the picture!

After a bit more walking round like a headless chicken it was almost time to go meet Akemi again so that she could introduce me to her boyfriend, Matthieu. I thought that some of the buildings around the place looked familiar so having tried to decipher a local streetmap I thought I might have a go at walking to Shibuya rather than taking the train. I spotted Tower Records’ billboard from a mile off so using that as I guide I managed to locate the Parco mall with no trouble! Excellent. A couple of phonecalls later and me & Akemi were off to Roppongi in a taxi, having stopped briefly to check out the ‘ganguro’ girls – ridiculous bright clothes with excessively blonde hair, fake (or real) tan and panda-esque makeup. Bizarre, but had to be seen. I wasn’t bothered enough to take a photo though, I’d seen them before on the ‘net and thought that would condone their behaviour to them anyway.

In Roppongi (fortunately much less troublesome to my mind than before, although I recognised lots of the clubs from previously) we met a rugby-team full of drunken French guys, with the odd Japanese and international thrown in for good measure. To be fair they were all absolutely wasted by the time we got there, but in their credit kept my glass full of beer and my bowl full of sukiyaki.

Afterwards we went to a nearby izakaya to drop in on one of Akemi’s friends and chat some more. It was a very cosy, friendly place that had a really cool vibe about it. Somewhere I never would have found otherwise, being as it is that every bar/restaurant is pretty much hidden away in the upper floors of an inconspicuous looking tower block. This is something that’s markedly different about Japan – back home we’re used to judging bars by looking through the window at how busy the place is, what kind of people are inside etc, but due to the lack of space everything has stacked up vertically, so in any given 8 storey building there might be a few restaurants, a couple bars, a karaoke lounge and an office, for example. This makes a lot of the places somewhat less airy than in England and also means that you have to actually go inside the place before you have any idea what it’s going to be like! Anyway, the izakaya was a matted affair where you have to remove your shoes at the door. Kinda cool to feel like you’re slobbing about inside a bar, although I’m sure that’s not their motivation ;) Matthieu wanted to get something I hadn’t tried before so we ended up drinking prune wine, which was lovely! Tasted just like vodka apple, except without the vodka (or apple).

Headed back home not too late on the deepest subway line ever (and also witnessed a drunk businessman get the escalator exit entirely wrong and bundle in front of a million people, whereafter he just sat crosslegged looking back up at the contraption that had foiled him, lol) and on the way from Shinjuku station saw a guy in a suit seemingly having a bust up with a girl. I would have thought it might be his girlfriend, but the fact he was in a suit, she looked kinda young and that we were in Japan opens different possibilities. Anyway, they were having a fight about something and she was seemingly having none of it, except every time she tried to walk away the guy blocked her path. This went on for a few minutes (with me watching from a nearby street corner) and ended with the guy physically dragging the girl off wherever he wanted to go. She was quite obviously pulling back, but once again no-one batted an eyelid so, feeling somewhat perplexed, I continued on my way.

Back at the hotel decided to check out Japanese TV and, aside from the fact that they have the most bizarre gameshows ever and that the commercials are hilarious, they were showing porn on regular TV. Haha.

Tokyo day 4

Today I met Akemi again in the morning, she took me to a hotel where you can see a nice view over Shibuya although sadly the hotel ppl wouldn’t let us go right to the top floor. Random button pressing allowed us to get to one almost at the top though. Most of them were locked down so that only people with room keys could access them!!! The cheek. From the hotel the thing that sprung out at me was the rooftop half-size football pitch on an adjacent building. Lack of space dictates, I suppose.. Crazy. Afterwards she took me to her old workplace – a mall which I only discovered later caters solely for women – still, she thought I should see it! In fairness it would probably be a fairly good place to hang out on a rainy day ;)

Brunch was taken in a sushi place that had a minimum order of 7 plates (pairs of things). The food was delicious and amazingly cheap!! I felt pretty stuffed all day afterwards tho. Still, I wish such good food were so readily available so cheaply back at home.. We got kicked out in the end because there’s a time limit on how long you can stay seated in the restaurant – it’s that popular. Wow.

After iced coffees (way too hot for normal coffee this time out) I headed over to Kichijoji to meet Rena. It was a bit of a game trying to get there as my map was in Japanese, but luckily I found the right train platform, as confirmed by a nearby attendant. I was a big fan of Kichijoji – it’s a funky area with many small, traditional bars and shops. Particularly in an area called Harmonica Yokocyo. The park is also a big feature of the area with lots of perfomers scattered around it. Rena assured me that some of Japan’s musicians have started out performing here. Nearby there seemed to be quite a world influence with shops selling Thai style (hippy) clothes (reminded me quite a bit of Camden) along with very old fashioned yakitori vendors and the usual smattering of interior design stores! Seriously, if it [the vases/crockery etc] were more easily transported home I think we would have had a field day on more than one occasion!

On arrival we headed to the park and after feeding the fish for a little bit (it was war in the water) I decided it would be fun to hire a boat and go out on the lake. We were soon cruising along nicely, although it was rather thirsty work given the temperature and humidity! After teaching Rena how to row and after a few close encounters with surrounding trees/other boats/swans we headed back to shore and picked up some especially strangely flavoured ice creams. Actually I don’t think mine was that bad, but purple potato flavoured ice cream?! Weird.. Quite a bizarre aftertaste. Played frisbee on the dirt for a bit as there is by and large a complete absence of grass in Japanese parks but couldn’t last that long as it was very, very warm under the trees. We drew quite a few looks from passers by, either cuz they nearly got hit or were thinking, “what the hell are those strange people doing?” :) to cool down we went and took advantage of the air conditioning in a nearby store, aahhhh.

Later had a brief look round a few clothes stores and marvelled at the wonderful use of English on some of the t-shirts – I’d wanted to get my sis’ one for her birthday, thinking she’d appreciate it – before going to check out the Harmonica Yokocyo area mentioned above. Encountered a huge line-up of people queuing to get some kind of food – I think it was something fried but apparently it’s a speciality of that particular store and it’s always ridiculously busy! These people like their food. Can’t blame them really. We ended up first in a tiny little bar with crates for tables and barrels for seats that had a very noticable panda theme going on. Even the beer was panda beer! Then again it was called the panda bar or something like that. They were playing Jack Johnson on the stereo when we arrived and it was blissful. Another moment time forgot.

Considering we hadn’t eaten lunch we ordered a snack from the bar, however I’m not sure I was too keen on our dish of very salty, rubbery squid guts and potatoes. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.. When we left we passed a fortune teller whereupon I decided it might be cool to get my fortune read (although it would all have had to be translated, obviously), but sadly the guy was booked apart from one slot which I later missed due to being preoccupied with drinking more beer in another small, saloon type bar that was exceedingly cosy and reeked of the 60s, if I remember correctly.. I think it was something to do with the propaganda posters on the wall.. Still, the beer and conversation flowed and it was soon time to head back to central Tokyo to meet up with a huge dinner party in from Shanghai to go to the Fuji rock festival!

We arrived kind of late as I had to go back to my hotel to change first, then we couldn’t get in contact with anyone, but after hanging around in a perfume shop and remembering how much I like Davidoff’s ‘Cool Water’ on a girl we managed to get in touch from Ebisu station. By the time we arrived at the izakaya things were very much in full swing and the beer and food flowed freely! I was surprised to discover that ‘fish head’, despite looking as it sounds, was not just a fish head lumped on a plate but a huge fish head with lots of very tender meat around it. Yummy. The beginning of the end of the night came when Julien and I downed a 3 or 4 shot measure of sake, poured from a GIANT sake bottle, in one go, being the only two man (or stupid) enough to do so. Things get kind of hazier from here on, but amongst my memories of the night I also remember it being an absolute mission to find Womb, the club we were after (many drunken conversations – in Japanese – with taxi drivers and passers by in the street ensued), although we found it eventually! I had high hopes for the place as it’s pretty famous, but it was nothing like anything I might have expected. The interior is like a giant cylinder, or citadel is perhaps more appropriate, with a large circular dancefloor with 4 stories of bars going up on the side facing the DJ booth. It was pretty cool but I think everyone was probably too fucked to notice! I do remember lots of high fives being exchanged with the locals when the music kicked off though, haha.

One thing I found very strange was that people even formed a long, neat line to get drinks (from the one barman on duty). Initially I thought he was being rather rude by not serving me stood in the middle of the bar, but I guess that’s just how it is. I liked their electronic drinks menu displayed in tiny font on LCD screen at the bar though, very cool.

For some reason the guys decided we were leaving at around 3 or 3.15 to head to another club. I really have no recollection of why. We headed over to an area called Roppongi – internationally famed as the area of hedonism in Tokyo. Here we went to a club called Gaspanic, though I remember we walked in, walked around and walked out again, lol. Seemed kind of pointless. The guys then decided they were going to go home but I didn’t feel like going just then so checked out a few more places solo. I think what I saw were some of the most horrific images of wrongness/meat markets ever, with a bizarre clientele from Russian to South American, 18 to 50 or beyond. Very surreal. Still, it was an experience, even if I was mentally scarred afterwards :p

Hakone

Today we started out pretty early to head out of town to the Hakone area South West of Tokyo, where we planned to go hiking. The area is pretty close to Mt Fuji, although sadly the hazy conditions meant that visibility was quite limited, although it was a very nice sunny day. We met at 8.30 to catch a 9 o’clock train, I was rather pissed off to discover that I couldn’t use my pass to take the train there as it was a private rail line – funnily enough there was no mention of distinction between private and public railway lines at the time of purchasing and, at £240, it wasn’t exactly cheap! Also, the train was particularly busy so we could only get seats together in a smoking carriage, yuck. Still, needs must.

I didn’t have time to get breakfast so ended up buying a sandwich set on the train. Even the sandwiches were cute – little rectangles, neatly cut with no crusts, in a variety of flavours.

On arrival at Hakone station (or wherever it was – there was some confusion) we took a bus to our start point for the hike. After getting off (in seemingly the middle of nowhere) though we decided it was probably prudent, if not necessity, to get some lunch and supplies of water before we set out, except we should have stayed on the bus for another stop or two… Some running around and a conversation with a female innkeeper ensued and it was decided that we needed to take another bus to go and find civilisation. Fortunately we didn’t have to wait too long for one to arrive and soon we were in a soba restaurant in Moto-Hakone with a fabulous view out over the lake. Apparently soba noodles are a speciality of the region, lunch was pretty damn good in fairness – I had fish caught from the lake we were looking over with my noodles, yum.

The hike we did was supposed to take around 2 and a half hours, and took in various historic sites and places of beauty along the way. It started out fairly mellow, with us passing by a idyllic grassy area with trees and mountain backdrop (and random old guy hanging out), but after rounding the first lake the path took a steep turn upwards. Actually we started doubling back on ourselves by accident, then nearly fell over numerous times on rock covered stones, then eventually realised that the path that seemed to be going off into oblivion WAS the path that we actually needed to take. Parts of the path around here were very soft underfoot due to the recent rainfall and one time my shoe sank entirely into the quicksand like mud (actually I was wearing sandals), yuck. Shortly after we encountered a snake on the path, prompting Rena to jump behind me :)

The path upwards was pretty hardcore – fairly steep, mountainous (surprisingly) and rocky. And it was ridiculously hot to the point that my shirt was soaked through and my hair was dripping wet! When the path eventually leveled off and we came out into a clearing we realised we’d climbed over 700m from where we started. Not bad going. We were thankful for the rest and the creation that is Aquarius energy drink, ion replenishing amino whateverwotsits and all. From here we walked along the roadside ’til we reached a small shrine. As we walked up the hill towards it a shadow loomed out from within and as we got close we could see an imposing buddha statue starting down broodingly from the darkness. It was kinda eerie, but sitting on the steps there facing out towards the mountains and nearby lake it felt like an eternity could pass in reflection without noticing.

The lakes themselves were beautiful. The first one very much so – surrounded by forest with the walkway winding around it. The second wasn’t quite so accessible but looked like something out of a Vietnam movie! Also bumped into the first other people for a long time – a middle aged woman with an elderly couple who were walking near the second lake. We would have gone closer but were feeling pretty fatigued from the climb. Rena decided it would be a good time to visit an ‘onsen’ (hot springs baths), as we’d noted there were a few along our route. The one we visited was a special sulphourous type with milky green water – the minerals and stuff in the water are supposed to be very good for you. We got there 45 minutes before chucking out time so had to take in both baths on offer in rather quick succession! The baths themselves are sex-segregated (as you go in naked). Inside the first one I went in was an old Japanese guy rolling about in an interior bath (there were 2 pools – one inside and one out), however the outdoor pool looked much more interesting so we mumbled a hello of sorts to each other and I left him to it! The water in the baths is at 42C so I was advised to go in bit by bit so as not to overheat too quickly and die. It took around 10 minutes before I was submerged. The feeling was great after the long walk, surrounded in the open air by mountains and serene gardens, with seemingly only the birds and cicadas for company. Incidentally, the volume of noise created by the local wildlife is pretty astounding, almost regardless of where you are. You get used to it after a while surely, but sometimes it seems as if you are walking through the jungle in some exotic country! The second of the two baths wasn’t quite so cool, as it was openly visible to a carpark where there were men working. Once again, couldn’t see that kind of thing happening in England!

On leaving the onsen, feeling quite refreshed, there was still a good way to go before we reached our goal. Thankfully from this point on it was mostly downhill, and the next stop was a set of waterfalls which looked awesome in our guide book. The descent took us down a vast number of steps, which were quite treacherous in places. In fact I was utilised as a stop buffer on more than one occasion ;) at the bottom of the steps the path seemed to go left, however there was a route less travelled to the right which was somewhat overgrown, so of course we felt compelled to see what was down there. Fighting through a ridiculous number of cobwebs eventually brought us out at a small bridge right next to a waterfall. Very movie fantasy land esque. Stopped here to take soooo many waterfall pics! It was such a nice spot. The views on the pathway down were amazing too, all looking out over the falling valley, I loved it. Sadly all good things must come to an end and soon after passing a famous merging cherry blossom tree we were back out on the road. Whilst trying to avoid being eaten alive by mosquitoes we noticed just how high the mountain we’d just come down from was behind us. Sense of accomplishment. I felt really lucky to have seen this place. It’s mentioned in my guide book but that’s just information about the town, not hiking routes through the mountains! It’s good to have wordly friends :)

It was already getting late so to save time I suggested we stop halfway home for dinner in Machida. We hit another izakaya which had AWESOME bbq chicken skewers, plus you could see the chefs cooking all the food on the grates right in front of us. We got fairly merry on beer and… vinegar cocktails (not my choice), to the point where I thought ppl might complain about our counter-corner antics. Still, it was all good. Not quite sure how it got so late but by the time I got back to Tokyo the subway had already closed and I was in severe danger of missing my hotel curfew. Not quite sure why they have these but presumably because the business folk don’t want to be disturbed by the late night party people… Anyhow I scrambled around for a taxi and managed to make it back with 5 mins to spare. Phew. I think they would have probably given me some leeway to be fair, but I really didn’t fancy spending the night locked out on the street considering how tired I was!!!