Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tokyo Diary

The reason it's been so quiet these past couple of weeks is because of my visit to Tokyo. It was my first visit there and I want to try and record my first impressions. This may become a long page...

After arriving at the airport sunday 23rd August in 30 degree heat (though less humid than I had expected), we bought our bus tickets to Kichijoji. I always have more trouble with jet lag going west to east and in this case we'd effectively missed a night's sleep. Daylight does help, but you have to force yourself to stay active and fit into the normal, local routine of eating and sleeping as asoon as possible. So while trying not to nod off on the bus, we drove from Narita through Tokyo and out to the Western suburbs. Concrete jungle is probably the best description of my first impression. It looks like any major western city but much more compressed. The highway stands on pillars and ducks and weaves like a rollercoaster between impossibly packed blocks of concrete buildings, both residential and industrial. Every so often you get a glimpse of a green park, or a bridge over the river.

The bus took about an hour and a half but can take more than two if the traffic is busy. Something to remember if you have a morning flight. The hotel staff were friendly and polite and after dropping off our bags in our rooms we ventured into town.

By that time it was early afternoon and do we ducked into a narrow noodle bar for something to eat. With nothing but formal Japanese please and thankyous, we managed to work out that at the entrance was a vending machine. All the dishes are presented with photographs. Sticking a 1000 yen bill in the machine lights up what you can get for that price and after making a selection (guessing at the contents), a ticket was produced which was given to waitress. These tickets are then given to the chefs who are producing a constant stream of noodles behind the bar. Very quick and very fresh, the bowl arrives, exactly as depicted in the photo. Full marks for presentation! Chopsticks we could manage, but the slurping is a fine art that will take some practice.

After the noodles and the obligatory thankyou bows, we re-oriented ourselves, discovering the six floors of Yodabashi camera electronic store, before heading down to the Inokashira park. Although I'd seen pictures, nothing prepares you for the sheer volume produced by the crickets, beetles and who knows what else residing in the trees. Sometimes the volume will increase like some insect football chant before dying down again.

After watching some of the street artists and looking at the stalls that make Sunday afternoon here so special, we returned to the hotel. With work the coming week, I intended to retire at slightly earlier my normal bedtime, failing miserably by dropping off on the bed and waking again around midnight. Not good for the jet lag.
The weekly evenings were a treat in themselves. There were a number of parallel activities that week, resulting in us being invited almost every night for one manner or other of Japanese food, including all kinds of noodles, sushi, self-cook pancakes. So we only really had the weekend where we could explore Tokyo proper. Saturday was the main tourist trip for us, cathing the Tokyo Rapid on the Chuo Line to Shinjuku station at 10 a.m. to visit the Tokyo government buildings and observation floors they provide.

On a clear day it is possible to see Mt. Fuji, but the cold winter months are probably better for that. It does give you an idea of just how big Tokyo is and how compact compared to US cities for example. So we descended the 45 floors in the turbo lift and made our way back through the empty, airport like gangways leading to Shinjuku station, trying to imagine the bustle and pressure of the human surge during a weekday rush hour.

From Shinjuku, on to Akihabara, electric city boasting city blocks entirely composed of floors of anime and electronics. It was 32 degrees in the full sunshine by that time, as we marveled at the endless arrays of media, hobby and consumer wares.

Occasionally a girl in anime dress, often a french maid or schoolgirl would hand out flyers, some for restaurants or ice cream and some for maid cafes, designed to satisfy the master/slave geek fetish. There don't seem to be any on the main streets though, but then again with everything so close together and stacked up in Tokyo, it's very easy to miss something.

From Akihabara we took the metro to Asakusa to see the Senso-Ji and Asakusa shrine. From the metro station it is a straight line from the Senso-Ji temple exit through the crowded market (great place for souvenirs here) to the entrance, where people can find out their fortunes and cleanse themselves in incense before entering Senso-Ji.

The park around the Asakusa shrine is surprisingly peaceful even with all the tourists, although today was especially busy because the last Saturday in August is host to the Samba festival. We had to get across the road to the water bus stop and opted to skip street level and go back through the metro. Upon exiting you have the Samba street festival in full swing and on the other the river, leading towards the Asahi brewery and infamous golden "object".

On this side there were also rickshaw services available. Who would put a man through such torture in 30 plus degree heat? We bought something to drink from one of the multitude of on-street vending machines and stopped for the Japanese equivalent of fast-food at the Ringer-Hut for some Nagasaki style noodles, before boarding the water bus for the 50 minute trip to Odaiba.

The water bus looks like something from Thunderbirds, all retro fins and bubble glass. Although it looks exciting and as a boy it would probably have been the highlight of the trip, it is awful for taking photographs. The windows are just too small to get a shot without the boat's interior and the curved glass causes no-end of reflections. Still it is a good way to put you feet up (if you can find a seat) after wandering around the city.

The destination Odaiba is an artificial island built on landfill and literally means cannon fort (or something like that). Architecture is very modern, including the Fuji TV building and Decks shopping and amusement centre. But the best thing for me was the view. We arrived at sunset and the view of Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo downtown beyond is amazing and a perfect spot for couples a little closer to the water. Close by there is a replica of the statue of the liberty. I'm not sure what kind of statement they are trying to make by doing that.

After sitting through the twilight moments taking it all in, followed by a quick look at the Decks (which was mostly closed by that time), we took the monorail back over the bridge and took the train back from Shimbashi station (stopping for a little "wow" moment at the view of downtown Tokyo by night. After a brief stop at Akihabara to see the nighlights (though most of the quarter was closing down by that time), it was back on the Chuo line to Kichijoji.

Now as if all that wandering around Tokyo wasn't enough, we were on a trip to Mount Fuji the next day, courtesy of one of our very hospitable Japanese colleagues. From Tachikawa station it is about two hours drive to the fifth step (of ten), the furthest point by car. In our case parking was a problem with it being the final day of the school holidays, so we had to walk about 500m to fifth step. We stopped off at an earlier vantage point for photos, with a fantastic view over the clouds. The weather however meant there was no view of the distance and the top of the volcano was covered in clouds.

The weather was turning misty as we decided to take the walk from fifth to sixth step. There were many people coming back down the mountains who had taken the hours long trek to the top for sunrise. Not for the faint hearted. The walk we did is not advisable without comfortable shoes and later when the rain came, I can imagine that some footing would get rather slippery.

I was certainly out of breath after the half hour up that part of the mountain. Above the tree line, the place starts to look like a Martian landscape in all the mist. But there were plenty of people who ere obviously going all the way. This is not advisable without full mountaineering gear of course. We descended the way we came, back to fifth step and did some shopping at the many tourist shops.

That afternoon we enjoyed Houtou noodles (miso soup and vegetables) at a local town before visiting some underground lava flow caves. The caves were a very strange experience. With 25 degrees plus temperatures and humidity outside, descending the stairs to the caves drops the temperatures down to almost freezing in an instant, with chunks of ice greeting you at the entrance. This location was formed during the eruption 700 years ago and used as a sort of natural deep freeze until the last century.

To round the day off we were greeted with rain from the approaching Typhoon number 11 Krovahn and a traffic jam formed by the huge party of tourists out to say hello to Mount Fuji before the end of the summer season. I myself returned home last Thursday, a 12 hour daylight flight, with a terrible cold and the feeling that some part of me is still returning from Tokyo.