Sayonara Japan

25 02 2011

It’s amazing to think that the whole time I was travelling – immersing myself in new cultures, trying new activities and flitting from place to place – I always managed to find time to update my blog but since I’ve been back in the “real world” I’ve somehow not found the time to create the last few entries. Somehow the day-to-day grind of being a feckless, unemployed bum has precluded my ability to write the last posts. Whether it be the occasional foray into looking for worthwhile employment (a tricky endeavour when despite 18-months away from the workplace I’m still not sure what I want to do – and any major change of direction results in problems such as lack of experience and skills); the (what seemed interminable) search for a new place to call my own; or even basking in the park reading a book during the UK’s recent heatwave, have all conspired to stop those final words being submitted to the interwebz. And then, of course, there has been my recent attempt to learn Java by coding a computer version of Yaniv (maybe one day coming to an Android phone near you), the game I played so much whilst travelling which has kept me busy too. Who knew that grappling with complicated GUIs using the swing class or trying to do simple things like print the output in UTF-8 format (so that I could display the symbols for playing cards correctly: ♠♣♥♦) would cause me so much pain and anguish? Maybe the subconscious reason for my tardiness is that once those last two blog entries are written I have finally drawn a line under my wanderjahre. Even now I keep reminding myself that this time last year I was sunning myself in Mancora with Andy or cursing Julia for the double-whammy of taking me on another high-altitude trek through Santa Cruz (having sworn after my Kilimanjaro experience with Hiten that I’d never put myself through that again!) AND the worse offence of continually beating me at Yaniv. But anyway, without further ado, here is the penultimate blog entry:

My last weekend at the hostel in Tokyo promised to be busy. All the dorms were full so I had to check into a single private room. If I’d expected this to be luxurious I was sadly disappointed: there was barely enough room in the little box for the mattress on the floor, let alone my luggage; and the lack of windows added to the prison cell feel. Still, at least unlike a dorm, I could leave my laptop charging up whilst I wasn’t there. After dropping off my luggage and grabbing a quick shower it was time to head to Shibuya to meet Lisa at the Hachikō dog statue. Unfortunately, everyone else in Tokyo also seemed to have arranged to meet there and it was much harder than expected to find the tall, blonde form of Lisa than you might expect in the midst of a crowd of short, dark-haired Japanese. Telfort’s risible roaming agreements had once more left me without the ability to use my mobile in an emergency but we found each other eventually and set off for some dinner.

It was great to catch up with Lisa and gossip about all the people that we knew from the previous June back in Colombia but after a great dinner of Japanese “tapas” and some fruity, sour cocktails the evening was over much earlier than I expected and it was back to hostel for the night. The care-free party animal Lisa who I knew from Medellin was now weighed down by an hour-hungry job and exhausted at the end of a long week. Did this fate await me when I went back to work for the man? I wondered. Fortunately, apart from the annoying omnipresence of overly-camp Paul (see previous postings) in the hostel lounge, there were actually some normal people there and I chatted to Stephen quite a bit. I was particularly excited when he revealed that there was an even-newer version of my camera available – the TZ20 – and since mine had been behaving erratically for some time now I decided to pick one up  in the electronic city of Akihabara. Unfortunately, after much fruitless searching, I discovered that only Kanji models were available – the English ones weren’t going to be for sale until the next month. In light of what happened to my camera a week later in India, this was probably for the best.

Karaoke - The end of Under The Bridge

The next evening I went to karaoke with a Norwegian couple that I’d met in Kyoto. Despite my best efforts around the hostel I failed to conscript anyone else to join us, although a newly arrived French couple did briefly contemplate it, and the three of us returned to Shibuya in search of a suitable venue. We probably walked past 5 before we finally noticed the words “karaoke” blazing back at us in neon from various alleyways. It was an extremely strange experience – we were locked away in our own private room – and it reminded me more of Singstar on the Playstation than karaoke as we know it in Europe in front of the general public. Unfortunately all the video footage of my wonderful renditions of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Frank Sinatra and an ill-judged Wham request (“Last Christmas” hardly the correct season either!) are now lost in time and space. I know a lot of you are thanking the Lord for small mercies at this potential assault on your eardrums.

Despite the fact that the Norwegian couple had threatened to go home with the last subway, we soothed our weary vocal chords with a few drinks in a bar just down the road from the main station. We met a friendly Aussie couple there and a couple of French expat girls who, despite joining us at our table, then spent the whole night chatting up some Japanese guys, before suddenly realising that they were way too drunk and going home early. We also chatted (often with the aid of a pen and paper and some Pictionary skills) to a Japanese girl who made Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z toys for a living. After a while in the bar, during which time we’d easily missed the last train home, we decided to head over to Roppongi Hills and check out a nightclub there. Unfortunately here too (much like the French girls and the Australian girl) the alcohol soon overcame the Norwegian girl and after arriving at our destination, we quickly made the call to head back to the hostel without even stepping out of the taxi. Considering we were going to get the last train home, however, our 2:30am finish was much better than I expected. Fortunately she didn’t need to make use of my toque as an impromptu sick bag either.

The Aussies and the Norwegian girl (all names now forgotten!)

For the rest of my time in Tokyo I went to Yoyogi Park – famed as a place where all the alternatively dressed people hang out. I don’t know if I got there too late but apart from a lot of strange Elvis lookalikes and ornate dogs that looked like they should have been on Crufts being taken for walkies, I didn’t see anything too edgy. I also decided to visit an Onsen – the Japanese hot springs. There was a big sign outside forbidding yakuza and tattoos. I never realised before that both were crimes of equal parity.

Dancing Elvises in Yoyogi park

My destination was the Oedo-Onson Monogatari: a posh onsen resort in the Southeast of the city by the Telecom Centre and, after checking in, I picked up my yukata robe and sash belt and headed to the changing rooms. I thought it might be a bit of a challenge putting the yukata on, but it came with pictorial instructions and other possible faux pas such as whether I should wear underwear beneath the robe (I should!) were explained in English next to the pictures.

Suitably garbed, I first went to visit the outdoor foot bath (fortunately, given the cold weather, they also provided additional outdoor robes) and then it was on to the main event: the single-sex springs. Here too, I was unsure if I was supposed to take the towel into the baths with me or not but the helpful attendant told me to leave it behind and so, decked out only in the clothes that I was born with, I headed into the baths proper. Whilst this might once have upset my British sensibilities, a decade of living amongst the less prudish Dutch, meant that I wasn’t particularly bothered as I strode sans vêtements into the springs. Besides, if the old saw about Asians and their magnitude is to be believed, I hardly had anything to be embarrassed about. After wallowing in various different baths of different temperatures and chalkiness I decided to splash out for a body scrub in the adjoining room. Any hopes of some cute Japanese nymphet running her soapy hands over my body were quickly dashed by the sight of my older attendant. Still, it was an interesting experience, although I think a massage is probably more fun and relaxing.

Asahi Brewery Headquarters

I didn’t do a great deal else in Tokyo in my last days. I went to Asakusa to see the infamous Phillipe Strack-designed Asahi Breweries headquarters topped with the distinctive golden flame (or is it a turd or some discoloured sperm?), followed by a boat trip down the river and then onto the tallest building in Tokyo – the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building – to view the crepuscular skyline. This was free entry, as opposed to the more popular Tokyo tower, so it appealed to my backpacker sensibilities. I was also supposed to meet up with a friend of a friend, Matt, but we never quite got our diaries in order. I did go to the gyoza place in Omotesando that he and Laura had recommended so highly – it was definitely a great insider tip, the restaurant didn’t have any English displayed on the outside and I would have walked past it on my own – and washed multiple portions of one of my favourite Japanese foods with a few beers and some sake.

Afterwards I found a local Japanese bar where I was lucky enough to find both a barman and a customer who spoke passable English and I discussed my travels with them (including showing lion pictures and Machu Picchu on my laptop). The customer was a voice actor for animé films and we talked about her experiences there. Eventually it was time for me to catch the last subway home and I headed back to the hostel for my final night. In the lounge I sat up drinking beers with Stephen and a big group of Australians. One of the Aussies was thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian and for a moment it looked like he might actually give us an impromptu performance; in the end he resorted to doing it in the Aussies’ dorm – away from people that he didn’t know – so we only heard about it from one of the other Aussies, Paulette, later. Finally it was time for my last night’s sleep in Japan. More so than any of the other wonderful places I visited, Japan is definitely a country that I want to see again – although in retrospect given the earthquake, tsunami and radiation; it probably is a good thing that my stay was shorter than I originally planned. The next day I would be flying to India for my final week on the road.

Two Gays One Cup (‘O Noodle)

20 02 2011

Japan! What a feast for the senses to the world-weary traveller. A place that I’ve always dreamed of visiting and somehow never quite made it. A Western standard of living and yet weird and foreign through root and branch. I was instantly mesmerised by the bright lights and strangeness of it all and yet intimidated by the fact that speaking the lingua franca doesn’t really help much in the Land of the Rising Sun where everything is written in Kanji and few people speak English. Fortunately a lot of the tourist information and subway signs are written in English – it was actually easier than it could have been.

The luggage took a long time to appear on the belt; although considering how long it took to walk from the aeroplane to the baggage hall this was probably not that surprising. Finally, I collected my stuff and headed to customs. “How long are you staying in Japan for?” he asked. “About a week and a half” (Not long enough by far but from here on in I was on a tight schedule). “And will you be staying here the whole time?” he said, pointing at “Tokyo Backpackers” on my immigration form. “Probably not the whole time. I plan to travel around a bit but I’m not sure where yet.” My vague answer or perhaps my unkempt (I think of it as backpacker chic) appearance triggered some suspicions on his part and so he started searching my bags. Eventually after feeling around through my dirty clothes for a while he seemed satisfied enough and let me carry on. I’m just glad he didn’t discover my zip-lock plastic bag of Malarone malaria tablets – most of which have spilled out of the blister-pack; they looked suspiciously like the meta-amphetamine pills in the anti-drugs poster at the airport.

It was quite easy getting into town from Narita airport. The staff at the counter for the Keisei line spoke good English so I soon had a ticket to Ueno for 1000¥ (12$US). It wasn’t the quickest way into town – it took 80 minutes – but I was in no immediate rush and it was the cheapest. I was amazed on the train at how many people I saw playing on their PSP’s. I’ve never seen so many in one train carriage before. At Ueno I got the Tokyo Metro’s Hibaya line for two stops to Minowa station. Even just those 4 minutes on the subway were an aural marvel – some of the announcements at the station reminded me of the strange commentary on a Bubble Bobble type game that I’d played on the Playstation and piped birdsong thronged the air at the stations. It occurred to me that my exposure to Japanese culture hasn’t been that high – the Final Fantasy games, one Manga film and copious consumption of Japanese food.

This part of the journey had been quite easy but I still wasn’t quite sure where the hostel actually was. Luckily I ran into 3 Aussie guys who’d just come back from snowboarding just outside the station who were also looking for the hostel so I joined them in trying to find it. We still managed to walk straight past it and had to head back down the road slightly but it was all good in the end. The hostel seemed a bit quiet though and I couldn’t seem to find anyone to go out to dinner with – I hoped that it was just because it was a Sunday and everyone was still recovering from a hard weekend. I got chatting to an American kid, Charlie, who seemed to have major beef with his parents. I got the impression that they were quite well-off and the only reason he was in Japan skipping a semester was to annoy them and spend their money. He also told me how he’d worked at McDonald’s for 3 months for the sole purpose of annoying them. Inevitably we got onto a discussion about the metric system and I had to explain what a stone was and the weird hodgepodge of different systems that we use in the UK. I’ve had these discussions a lot on my trip – still, it’s always a good excuse to point out that, apart from Belize, the USA is the only country in the world to still use Fahrenheit.

He was drinking some beers on the terrace and I decided to go off and get some as well. His directions for the shop weren’t that good though – I found myself wandering through a red light district of ladies bars at the end of the street. Big bouncers in dinner jackets kept trying to usher me into their club (most of them had Dreams in the name) – eventually I backed up and found the convenience store and brought some beers back. It was quite cold in Tokyo; especially after the warmth of Laos, so after another beer run and buying a Cup O’ Noodle for my dinner we headed into the lounge on the 2nd floor.

Here, an incredibly camp guy called Paul completely dominated the conversation. He was vaguely amusing at first but, after many days at the hostel, I came to realise that, as well as being crass and lewd, he was a complete Münchhausen. I quickly tired of his high tales which were designed to shock everyone in the room and would normally concern his sexual exploits that day (although I’m never quite sure when he fitted these encounters in; he always seemed to be in the lounge) or the differences between the tastes and sizes of penises of different cultures. He would even start playing gay porn on his iPad and showing it to everyone – “It’s not porn, it’s educational,” he would say. One time he even put it on the television; I was fortunate not to be in the room when that happened. I knew that if I made a comment against his salacious stories I’d probably be accused of being homophobic; eventually I coped with his endless verbal diarrhoea (which undoubtedly involved at least two guys and a cup) by listening to The XX on my iPod so that I didn’t have to listen to the XXX in the lounge. I’m sure if I’d told similar stories about any heterosexual exploits or started showing everyone straight porn on my laptop I’d have been roundly ostracised and possibly banned from the hostel.

I spent the whole of my first morning in Tokyo trying to sort out my Indian visa. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I went first to the Indian Embassy and then discovered that they’d outsourced the visa applications to another company over the other side of town in Myogadani. In the course of my travels I discovered that Tokyo has two different companies running the subway lines (Tokyo Metro and Toei) and although they intersect at regular points and you can travel between them the tickets do not work on the other lines. This resulted in a few tickets being swallowed by the machines before I’d completed my journey or having to swap them with the attendants at the gates. I resolved to get the Tokyo equivalent of an Oyster card to make my journeys easier in the future.

The map that they’d given me at the Indian Embassy was a crooked photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy and most of the Roman alphabet writing on it was illegible; the Kanji was in an even worse state so, when I initially couldn’t find the visa centre, I also struggled to ask directions of the local people. When I finally found the office it was almost 11am and it closed at 12:30 for lunch. I grabbed a ticket number, filled in the application form and then watched as the ticket numbers clicked over incredibly slowly. I decided to risk heading back to a coffee place where I’d asked for directions earlier and wait it out there for 30 minutes – there were still at least 10 numbers before mine when I returned at 11:50 and I was one of the very last people to be served in the morning session. I was lucky I did manage to get seen before lunch: it took 8 working days to obtain the visa and applications after lunchtime took 9 days – there didn’t seem to be any leeway on this even if I’d offered them more money for an express service. Fortunately, the 8 days was just enough: my visa was due for pickup on the 2nd; the day before the flight that I’d already booked to India. I decided to keep hold of my passport so that I could use it as ID and was told that I’d need to return it on the morning of the 1st at the latest – otherwise my visa would be delayed by additional working days.


Pedestrians crossing the road at Shibuya


With that all sorted I headed back to the hostel and asked where the famous square was that everyone talked about: the Times Square of Tokyo and the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. The receptionist looked puzzled at the Times Square reference but on further explanation she told me it was Shibuya. This commercial and nightlife hub of Tokyo was about a far away from my hostel as was possible; it was my first inkling that the hostel was located a bit far out. I’d first heard about the scramble crossing by Hachikō square from Happy, an Icelandic girl that worked at the hostel in Antigua, Guatemala. She’d told me that every time she crossed the road here (which she did repeatedly) she’d worn her trademark big grin – and it was indeed fun. The traffic stops at all four compass directions at the same time, allowing pedestrians to bundle across the road in which ever direction they desire – there are even diagonal zebra crossings; although when the traffic is stopped you can pretty much walk where you like.

I was starting to feel peckish at this point but although there were lots of restaurants around it was hard to know which ones would actually offer an English or picture menu. I felt quite intimidated by the Kanji and foreignness of it all. I imagined myself to be like Dekkard in Bladerunner: the last Gaijin left on planet Earth whilst all the English-speakers had headed off-world to seek a brave new world of opportunities. Finally I found a ramen bar with a picture menu and ordered what I think was a minced beef ramen with an almost raw egg that you cracked into the top and a side plate of gyoza. This was delicious and I, of course, washed it down with a Kirin beer.


Beef ramen


After dinner I headed back to the hostel and sat in the lounge. Once again, no one seemed to be in any hurry to head out on the town – I think half the problem with the hostel was because it was so far out you really needed to head into town earlier so it involved more forward planning than most travellers are used to – and a lot of the guests seemed to be permanent residents with jobs with no interest in drinking every night. Somehow, even though I had to keep putting my earphones in to block out the blue balderdash of camp Paul, I met an English guy, Alex, that night and we arranged to meet up the next day to visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace together.

Alex knew a good restaurant on the way to Minowa station which was uniquely Japanese. We walked into the restaurant; inserted our coins into a vending machine at the entrance; pressed a big button with a picture of the food we hoped to receive, and then handed the ticket to the chef. It was like freshly cooked FEBO and the food seemed to come almost as soon as we handed the ticket over: which defied all expectations of how long it should take to cook it.


The moat around Edo castle


After our brunch we headed to the Imperial Palace and wandered around the gardens and the remnants of Edo Castle there. Even though it was too early in the year for the main season, I was pleased to see that some cherry blossoms (technically they were plum) had braved the cold weather just for me.


“Cherry” blossom


After struggling to find an English book the previous day in Shibuya (quite why they translate the names of the stores when they don’t sell anything suitable for foreigners I’m not sure), I’d Googled a store near to the palace. It took us a while to find it and, contrary to the information I’d read online, it didn’t sell any English books or Japanese guidebooks. We were clearly going to have to look elsewhere in town. Alex was looking for some chopsticks for his girlfriend so we decided to go to a big shopping centre in Roppongi called Roppongi Hills. Here we discovered, much to our surprise, that it is incredibly difficult to find chopsticks in Tokyo – or at least chopsticks that looked fancy enough to give as a gift. I did at least manage to find a bookstore with a small selection of English books and bought the Girl Who Played With Fire to feed my new Larsson addiction. I decided against buying a travel guide – they were too expensive and I decided I could find out the necessary information at the hostel.

Alex asked another Gaijin there if he had any ideas where we could buy nice chopsticks and he suggested a department store in Shinjuku called Tokyo Hands so we headed over there. We exited the subway in completely the wrong place and, after wandering around aimlessly for a while, asked an American businessman (at least with the gaijin you were pretty sure they’d speak English) where the shop was. We found it and Alex was able to complete his mission to find some present-worthy chopsticks – although we both baulked at the price.

From there we decided to head up to Akihabara Electric Town – I needed a new hard drive to back my computer up with; my previous one had given up the ghost and I was worried about not having a backup of all my photos from the past 18 months, and Alex wanted to investigate some iPod ripping software. Huge stores filled with every kind of electronic toy lined the streets; I was in heaven. With my new hard-drive in hand we then got another metro back up the road to Ueno where we wanted to buy shinkansen (bullet train) tickets for the next day to Kyoto. A local guy with weird bandages all over his hands decided to help us find the subway – we weren’t immediately sure why but it became apparent as we went to board our train and he asked for some money – we declined and left him behind whining pathetically. I felt a bit guilty but I couldn’t go giving money to every beggar around – Japan was expensive enough.

Neither Alex nor I had invested in a rail pass which, if we’d applied for it whilst we were still outside the country, would have saved us an absolute bomb in rail fees; but this did at least mean that we could get the fastest of the bullet trains – the Nozomi; with an impressive operating speed of 300kmh. We booked this for first thing the next day and then headed back to the hostel to rest our weary feet after a full afternoon of sightseeing and shopping.

After relaxing at the hostel for a while it was once more time to get some food so we went to a Chinese restaurant down the road. The proprietress didn’t speak any English but we were eventually able to order some food by pointing at the pictures and enlisting the help of a guy at the bar who spoke a little bit of English. He then offered us a glass of sake each which, as is the habit of Englishmen when presented with a small shot-sized glass, we both immediately downed. From the looks of shock and disbelief on his and the owner’s face, I think we were supposed to sip it. Sensing a challenge from these strange gaijin, our new friend then bought us another sake from the top shelf. We also demolished this with a flourish – I think they expected us to breathe fire after necking the 56% proof brew and were disappointed when we sat there quite unaffected.

After our dinner we retired to the hostel and then went to bed early, ready for our trip to Kyoto early the next morning. We couldn’t have imagined how much difficulty we’d have meeting up the next day.