It was time for another holiday – the March week break. Much needed, and a trip to Japan – Tokyo, followed by 4 days snowboarding in Hokkaido – was the perfect tonic to the ever-sweltering tropics. I finished work at 3:30pm on Sunday, and rushed home to pack for the week. Luckily, I’d brought a few coats with me from England, and a bobble hat from Gunung Bromo in Indonesia, so I was prepared. A thin black jumper from Marks and Spencers in Singapore ensured at least an attempt at style in the fashion-conscious captial we were about to go to. Crystal had done a good job begging and borrowing for winter clothes from friends, so she was also well-prepared. She had never seen snow before, so Hokkaido would prove to be an even more amazing experience for her. For myself, it had been 3 and a half years since I locked the door of my apartment in Morinomiya, Osaka, where I had lived for 3 years, and headed to Kansai airport to fly back to England. Japan had been good to me, and I left with many pleasant memories, some of them bitter-sweet as any can be after a prolonged stint in another culture, but most of them sweeter than sweet. I was long overdue a visit back, and was really looking forward to the trip. We headed off in the taxi to Terminal 1 at Changi, and boarded the Thai Airways flight bound for Narita, via a couple of hours stopover in Bangkok.
The flight from Singapore to Bangkok took around 2 hours, and the flight to Tokyo from Bangkok almost 7. It was around 7:30am when we arrived at Narita, and we were quickly through immigration. Now I took out the map and set of directions that Junko (Alex’s wife, both of whom we were meeting in Hokkaido) had prepared through much research. It seemed simple enough. Take the JR Narita Express to Shinagawa Station, then change to Keihin-Tohuku line to Omori station, exiting from Sannou North Exit, and walking 1 minute to Hotel Monterey. So we did just that. The ticket to Omori cost 3,110 Yen per person, a fortune in Singapore, but in ultra-expensive Japan, this is a reasonable price. I managed to ask about the ticket, where we can change, what platform to get to, and the price in Japanese, which I was happy with. It had been a while since I’d last had the chance to converse in Japanese. Before we boarded the train, Crystal and I bought some supplies from one of the kiosks dotted along the platform. I bought a hot Georgia cafe au lait from a vending machine, and a can of hot corn soup. It tasted amazing in the chilly but fresh Tokyo air. The train came. Crystal tried finishing her soup, until I told her that in Japan, unlike Singapore, it’s OK to eat and drink on the train. The culture is completely different, and the Japanese have long been socially conditioned to be polite and not litter. Train journeys are also longer, so it makes sense to be able to eat and drink. We boarded the train and sat down in the comfortable cushioned seats. Trolley service was provided, not by a pimpled and bored looking teenager unable to string 2 sentences together or a middle-aged grump as in England, but by a cute young Japanese girl in a prim grey skirt, waistcoat, bow tie, and white blouse uniform, twittering the available fare in a high pitched shrill – cute, polite and inoffensive. I still didn’t buy anything, as the price of a bento was almost as much as the price of a bottle of beer in Singapore.
After an hour and a half, we arrived at Shinagawa station, hauled our bags off the train, and trundled towards the Keihin-Tohoku line. Waiting at the platform, we were now the only foreigners, and were joined by throngs of salarymen and women, dressed in greys and blacks, some with white surgical masks on their face to stop their colds from spreading. It’s the familiar tide of uniformality in Japan, as wave after wave of identically dressed business people swarm around, making for a very black and grey peoplescape. Still, winter fashions were on display here too for those not heading to work – knee high boots and tights or thigh-high stockings for the ladies, and cargo pants or dark jeans with scuffed dark boots or heeled shoes for the men, hair impeccably styled. Japanese people are certainly well-groomed and fashionable. Good-looking people, not that I’m jealous or anything!
We got on the train and quickly found out we were heading the wrong way, so we hopped off at the next platform and changed to the other side. We boarded the train and stood up for the journey. It was quiet on the train – talking on mobile phones is banned on the trains now – except in designated areas. The day was sunny and clear. We got off the train at Omori station, and exited from the North exit, passing small food stalls with white and red paper lanterns displaying the items on sale written in Hirigana, Katakana, or Kanji. Crystal was delighted that she could read the Kanji, as the meaning of the Japanese kanji is very similar to the Chinese meaning. Taiwanese culture and Japanese culture are very simliar, so for Crystal it was like a visiting the Motherland. We exited to street level, and walked down the street to the hotel. The cold breeze was extremely refreshing, and we were both in the mood to do some exploring. We entered the Hotel Monterey – a smart place, small and efficient. It was 10:30am. We dropped off our suitcases as we were unable to check in until 3pm, grabbed a Tokyo Subway Route Map, and headed straight back out for a day in Tokyo!
Before we went back to the train station, however, Crystal was feeling a little peckish, so we headed across the road to 7-11. There is something about 7-11s in Japan that I just love. They sell loads of great stuff you only see in Japan, such as bento, onigiri, sushi, sashimi, hard-core Japanese porn magazines featuring pictures of young girls in schoolgirl uniforms with pixellated private parts (well, the penis and vagina only – the arsehole seems to be accaptable!), manga comics, Japanese beer and sake, takoyaki and hot soups, plus you can use ATM machines, buy tickets to concerts, pay your bills, transfer money, and do loads more! Cigarettes in Japan aren’t plastered with gruesome pictures, or even warnings – and they are still promoted next to pictures of happy, smiling people, for better or worse, in the stores. Crystal got a pot filled with soup and various vegetables, and I bought a hot coffee, then we headed out into the cold again and to the train station. At the station, the subway map was all in Japanese, as is still the case in Japan – even most of Tokyo. I asked a station guard in Japanese, how to get to Hamamatsucho station, and he replied in English. I noticed many times through the trip that the level of English in Tokyo is much higher than Osaka, here people are more accustomed to seeing foreigners, and not afraid to converse with them. I was impressed. I bought the tickets, then we boarded the train to Shinagawa, and changed to JR Yamanote line, which is like a loop line around the city. A few stops later we arrived at Hamamatsucho station, which is the closest station to Tokyo Tower. From there we exited and turned left, heading down the busy street towards the tower, past salarymen exchanging business cards and bowing to each other, past ramen shops with men and women standing outside yelling the lunchtime specials. We entered the gardens before the tower, and rang the bell at the temple after making an offering to Buddha. Crystal made her customary prayer in front of the Buddha statue, and we then read some of the wooden blocks that had been tied to the a small shrine, where people write messages of love, hope, and heartbreak. One read: ‘I’m sorry……I wanted to give it another try…..I hope everything turns out well for you…..good luck, but please forget me now…..’ This kind of message was the exception rather than the rule. I remember years ago writing messages on small blocks of wood and tying them carefully to the wooden stand in front of a temple…..it’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t mean your wish will come true or your hope fulfilled. I refrained from writing a mesage this time.
We headed to the base of the tower, and bought a ticket to the observation deck on the 52nd floor. The view of Tokyo was impressive indeed from up here. We could see Roppingi Hills, Tokyo Bay, and the grey and heaving metropolis that Tokyo has quickly become. Skyscapers pierce the skyline for as far as the eye could see, and areas of greenery are severly lacking, yet the charm is still there. Older neighbourhoods can still be seen, wooden temples and pagodas dwarfed by ugly grey younger brothers. Osaka’s skyline is similar. Tokyo’s size and power is immense and breathtaking from above. Here below us is the most expensive city to live in the world, one of the fashion capitals of the world, the place which even now few foreigners can be seen, a place so creative and independent that it follows no international fashion trends but sets its own, a city that beats to a different kind of drum. I felt inspired.
After this splendid view, Crystal and I headed back down the same street we walked up before, and popped into a ramen-ya – a small place, quintessentially Japanese, with 6 seats at the counter behind which the chefs cooked up the delicous ramen and gyoza, and 2 small tables. We bought our food ticket at the small machine in the entrance, handed it to one of the ‘waiters’, and were greeted with a cheery chorus of ‘Irrashaimase!’ (Welcome). We sat down and waited, taking in the sounds, sights and smells of the place. Japanese restarants like this are loud, fun and popular with the salarymen, who sit alone at the counters slurping their ramen loudly. The food arrived. I ordered the ‘ichiban ninki’ (most popular) dish – the miso ramen with garlic, and Crystal got a spicy tonkotsu ramen. We also ordered gyoza as a side. I don’t think ramen has ever tasted so good. It was fantastic – perfect on such a cold day. Afterwards we left to a chorus of ‘arigatou gozaimashita!’, and we headed to the train station once more, for the next stage of our sightseeing tour.
This time we took the subway from Daimon (next to Hamamatsucho JR line) to Asakusa, as we wanted to see the grand temple of Senso-ji. This temple is a very popular tourist attraction, but is also still a real, working temple for the people of the working class area of Asakusa. Walking towards the temple, the area was a hive of actvity, with jinrikisha (people-powered rickshaw drivers) yelling out their services, and hundreds of people milling around. We approached through Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and past the scowling protective dieties, which are common in front of many temples of signifiance in Japan. On the right was Fujin, the god of wind, and on the left Raijin, the god of thunder. Going under the huge red lantern, we entered the chaotic Nakamise-dori, which is a busy pedestrian shopping street selling everything from tourist trinkets to Kimonos to Edo-style crafts. We bought some hot sake to warm us up, then headed towards the temple compound. In front of the temple I joined locals at the large incense cauldren, wafting the smoke towards my body, smoke which is meant to bestow health. To the left of the temple is a pagoda, the highest in Japan. Around the back is another, smaller temple, but equally famous, called the Asakusa Jinja. This is a Buddhist shrine, and senso-ji is a shinto temple, so this displays the peaceful harmony of the two religions in Japan. Walking over the stone bridge underneath which colourful koi carp swam in the ponds, we left and went for a walk down the shotengais towards the train station again. The two temples were well-worth seeing, and I found myself falling in love with the incredible culture of Japan once again.
After this shot of culture, we decided to try a shot of culture of a different kind. We caught the subway to Akihabara, otherwise known as Denki-gai (electric town). Coming here was like being transported to a new, futuristic world. Manga, motherboards, robots and a host of electronic goods are on sale here, all under huge flashing neon lights. Stereos blast out the offers in high-pitched exciteable Japanese. It’s quite an experience. Down some of the backstreets, we could see girls in cosplay and french-maid uniforms hawking ‘maid cafes’, where you go to get served by girls in maid costumes. Crystal really wanted to try one, so I indulged her, being curous myself, and we popped into one on the 4th floor of a shady looking building. We were welcomed by a groups of girls in their late teens (but looked much younger), wearing French maid uniforms with rabbit ears. A shrill chorus of ‘Irrashaimase’ followed us to a table, we sat down and were served immediately by a girl who crouched very low, looking up at us with big doey eyes. We ordered an iced chocolate each and watched the scene on display in front of us. The music was straight from a childrens TV show, and I felt like I’d dropped down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, all the Japanese maids in black, white and pink uniforms shuffling around, toes pointed inwards in the manner of young Japanese girls. It was an entertaining drink. The clientele was a mixture of pimps, gigolos, high school guys and salarymen. Some of them had a favourite maid, and had brought flowers for them. I couldn’t help laughing when a maid served drinks to a couple of guys next to us. She put the drinks down, and proceeded to chant a little poem, before getting them to make love hearts with their hands and say: ‘Pu Pu Puree!’ which they did, then briefly checked themselves, laughing at the absurdity of it all. A group of guys styled like J-pop stars to our left also saw the event, and remarked ‘tanoshii so!’ (Looks fun), and everyone burst out laughing. Most people here were regulars, and didn’t really bat an eyelid to the fairytale madness going on around them, seemingly immune to the sounds and the sillyness. I thought it was great, and Crystal loved it even more. We paid our bill at the end, and had the chance to pose for photographs. We could choose to make one of poses, including the ‘Pu Pu Puree’ one, so we chose that, but there was no way I was going to chant it. Crystal clearly wanted to, but somehow stopped herself. Another maid took a photo with a polaroid camera. It came out nice. We took the elevator down and back into the neon madness below. We walked through the streets, and it was now becoming night. We popped into a pachinko parlour , a place of absolute madness. The parlours are owned by the Yakuza or the Koreans, and are immensely popular and addictive. The game involves dropping steel balls into what looks like a large pinball machine, then turning a lot of levers and pressing a lot of buttons. I’m not sure how one wins. A few middle-aged men and women were there feeding balls into their machines when we went in, drinking coffee and smoking at the same time, oblivious to the frantic techno music blasting in the foreground. We now wondered back to the station, and decided to go for a drink and a bite to eat in Roppongi. We hopped on the subway and headed there.
Roppongi is a great place, buzzing with restaurants and entertainment options. Crystal and I wondered around a bit to get a feel for the place, then opted to head into a tiny place outside which hung a red lantern and a menu in Japanese. The door clearly wasn’t meant for Westerners, it was so low. It was the kind of tiny watering hall / restaurant that I wouldn’t dare enter usually, but I slid the door open and asked if there was room for 2 in my best Japanese. Crystal’s face may have also done the trick, and we were ushered in to cries of ‘Irrashaimase!’. We sat down at the counter and ordered 2 big bottles of Kirin, and a couple of sticks of chicken yakitori. This was the kind of traditional authentic place I loved. 10 counter seats, 3 small tables, a busy ‘chef’ chatting away in his little space behind the counter, doing a million things at once – cutting vegetables, frying tempura, grillin yakitori, selecting sake for customers. A small, smokey, busy place full of old charm that you don’t get in ‘Western’ style bars and clubs. We had a few more kirins than intended, as we were enjoying the atmosphere so much. We then ordered a sake, which I asked a couple of Japanese ladies next to us to recommend for us. It arrived hot, and it tasted great. We left, warm and fuzzy, and out into the chilly yet bright neon night.
Roppongi’s entertainment districts are full of Nigerian men trying to usher you into clubs. They speak perfect Japanese, and all seem to know each other. Others hawk clothes. It’s the same in Ame-mura (American town) in Osaka. Japan seems to be a popular choice for Nigerian men, though I’m not quite sure of the connection. Certain areas are noticeably Nigerian controlled, and it’s an interesting contrast to the rest of the city. Crystal and I wandered around, a bit hungry and not quite sure where to go. Eventually, like a signboard from heaven, I spotted a picture of an okinomiyaki on a food board. Just what we needed! We entered the traditional okinomiyaki restaurant, and cut through the smoke to a table and ordered some beer and a mix okinomiyaki. Here, the tables are hot plates, where you make your own okinomiyaki. The ingredients arrived in 2 bowls, and I began cooking the pork first, then the squid. I forgot to mix the egg and the vegetables well, however, so got scolded by the woman serving us, and she had to mix it thoroughly for me before pouring it on the hot plate and mixing it up with the pork and squid. Then we had to keep prodding the edges of the round shape and sliding our metal spatulas underneath to check how well it was cooked. It’s a bit like making a pancake. You have to toss it over too. Great fun after a few beers! It tasted great too, with fish flakes, and loads of special okinomiyaki sauce. After that, we were still hungry, so ordered a modamyaki, which is the same as an okinomiyaki only it’s made with yakisoba (fried noodles) at the base, for a heartier, more filling meal. We made this too, and it tasted rather nice, if I do say so myself.
We left the restaurant thoroughly satisfied, and caught the train back to Omori, going via 7-11 for a hot coffee. We arrived at the hotel at 11pm. We had to wake up at 4:30am, as we needed to catch a taxi to Hameda airport to catch the 6:35 plane to Hokkaido. What an amazing day in Tokyo!