Sunday, 28 September 2014

Japan Trip - Part 2: Leaving Tokyo

Shibuyu - the busiest crossing in Tokyo, and possibly the world!
Plenty of room!
With space to spare!
So the journey in Tokyo continues - up until this point, I'd had my friend Oli taking me round the city, showing me all the cool places in town. The first day in the city, I'd met up with him at the busiest train station in the world, Shinjuku. I don't know how I managed it - this place was my first experience of Tokyo, and it blew my mind! People everywhere! The meeting place was the West Gate of the station, but there were about 5 of those, a big bus stop, as well as a JR train line AND a Metro... don't ask me what the difference is! The first thing I noticed was a big group of people standing together all smoking - strange sight at first, but then I realised that you can't smoke on the street, and there were designated spots in the city. Strange as I later found out that you can smoke in bars!

Zojoji Temple in Tokyo.
Beep beep!
Smoke break at the fish markets.
Heading off on my own as he went to work, I was full of hope of not getting lost and getting pushed onto a train in peak hour! Sadly, I didn't get pushed onto the metro by the guard with his little white gloves, and I also go lost several times. I'm sure you've seen it on Youtube, people cramming and being pushed into the train during peak hour - there was plenty of sardine action, but no pushing. Maybe it was a certain station at a certain time, so I only got half the treatment - luckily nobody groped me on the train (but seriously, this is a problem for women sometimes where there isn't any room to turn your head). I was trying to get to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場) and made it (after getting off at the wrong stop, but then being directed by wonderfully polite and helpful locals!). All the guidebooks (and the savvy travellers) say you need to be there at 5am for the tuna auction - apart from the fact that the trains don't start that early, the other options were waking up and getting a taxi at an ungodly hour or just camping out the front, and I did nether.

A 'stand up' sushi bar, where you can actually sit down.
It was still an experience though! Guys on small forklift-type things wizzing around beeping at everyone, huge tuna being cut up and packaged, and of course loads of tourists with cameras! It was a strange place - it felt as if it hadn't changed in half a century - bent over old ladies wrapping up fish (there were A LOT of old people working here!), frail looking wooden structures acting as storage above the shop (as well as hundreds of styrofoam boxes stacked everywhere), and no computers or tech-stuff in sight. Smoking laws were also pretty lax here, which was a surprise, and I even saw one guy cutting up some eel, fag but in his mouth with an inch of ash hanging off the end - still think it's freshest at the fish market?

After walking around the markets and seeing all sorts of seafood, hunger set in a little, and so thought I would go and get some sushi from the local shops. Forget that - the queues outside the restaurants opposite were long and wide... I guess everyone had the same idea! I decided to head further into the city and see if I could find somewhere cool to eat, preferably without a queue and millions of tourists. I found a little 'stand up' sushi bar (that's what they are called) where I could sit down (I know!) and have some local produce. For Y600 (about $6) I had a wonderfully fresh and tasty sushi lunch, as well as tea and miso soup - couldn't ask for anything better! The guys preparing the food were incredible - it was like a tapas bar, and people would order 1 thing, they would prepare  then serve it. Then do it again! I had the normal, run-of-the-mill meal (but still amazing!), but the person next to me was ordering squid which got the old blow torch treatment for 5 seconds before being devoured. There was only 1 tourist in the place, and he was hell-bent taking pictures of everything!!

Say cheese!
Zojoji Temple and Tokyo Tower.
After lunch (and 100 photos of it), I just wandered around aimlessly really. In fact, the way I went was just by choosing a tall building that looked interesting, and heading that way. It worked out really well! I found loads of little neighbourhoods along the way, and eventually found the Tokyo Tower! Although it's no longer the tallest structure in Tokyo (it was until the Tokyo Skytree was competed in 2012), it is still quite impressive. Built in 1958, it served as a radio tower but also made a lot of money from tourist going up to get a good view of the city - much like The Eiffel Tower today - and in fact it was modelled after it too (but painted orange and white to stop planed and helicopters from hitting it). I didn't go up, as there were 2 other buildings in Tokyo that I wanted to scale - 1 free and 1 not. 

My $6 sushi lunch - with miso and green tea.
Zojoji Temple.
Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリ)
My wandering around Tokyo also took me to the Tokyo Metro Building, which is basically the city hall. It is also a big tourist attraction, as it is free to go to the 45th floor and look out on the skyline. Although it wasn't a great day for it being overcast, it was free and so worth it. The lift up didn't make a sound, and it didn't even feel like you were rocketing up to the roof of Tokyo. On the other hand, there is the Tokyo Skytree, which I also visited. It is, however, not free. Only finished 2 years ago, I'm sure it's made it money back already - they charge Y2060 (about $20) to get you to the middle observation deck 350m high, and an extra Y1030 ($10) to go up to the top deck at 450m. I did the first option, as I dont think another 100m would make a difference. The views were impressive I must say - clearer weather than the day I went up the Metro building, and in a better place to see the skyline - out of the city centre looking back in. On a clear sky you can see Mt Fuji (apparently), but inside it is packed with tourists, but who can blame them! This radio tower is the tallest in the world, at 634m (more than twice the Eiffel Tower), and of course has been earthquake-proofed to absorb 50% of the shock. Still not catching me up there during a quake!

Hey - that's my boob you boob!
The view from The Skytree.
My time was nearly up in this wonderful and crazy city that is Tokyo. Before catching the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) at 300km/hr to Osaka, I needed to see some Sumo. I headed out to Ryogoku Kokugikan (両国国技館) , the Sumo arena in Tokyo. Although the season hadn't started yet, I was hopeful. I scoped out the tournament building and had a look inside at the museum, but nothing else was open. I walked around the back of the building, on my somewhere else, feeling a little disappointed, and there he was! In fact, I before I had taken a picture of the first sumo, I saw a second one! They were everywhere! Well, not quite, but I did see 4 - including one having his big sumo breakfast at a cafe - job done! Shame I missed a game, but it didn't start until after I was due back home.

Back streets of Tokyo.
Everything comes to end, and my time in Tokyo was up. I was a great few days, and I am very thankful for my friends in the city who I met up with and who made my time even better. I headed off to Tokyo station to get the 9am Shinkansen to Osaka. These trains are wonderful - 320kms per hour at top speed, and they link the whole country - something not many other nations have done, and let's face it, it's much better than flying and better for the environment. Next blog will be all about Osaka and Kyoto!

Shibuyu crossing from Starbucks.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Japan Trip - Part 1: Tokyo

Clouds at 30,000 feet.
It is Japan after all!

Ok, so I am back from my trip in Japan, and have finally had the time to sit down, work on some photos and write a bit! You must understand that Japan, and especially Tokyo, is a place that is always on the go. You can find relaxing places, but when you're on holiday here, you just don't want to waste your time on the Internet typing a blog - there is just so much out there to see and do! So, let me tell you all about my 2 week trip!

Take me to Electric Town!
First stop - the biggest city on the planet - Tokyo! This city is just huge - covering 13,000sq km and holding a massive 35 million people, there is just nothing like it on the planet! Sydney, a big city in it's own right, has only 4.7 million and covers 12,00 sq km. Sometimes Sydney feels packed, peak hour traffic in the car and the trains, but it aint nothing! The Japanese capital city feels more like 5 or 6 cities in 1, with each 'city' having it's own culture, types of restaurants and just a whole different feel to them. Most cities are walkable, but Tokyo, although flat as a pancake, is just far too big. All this said, there is no pushing and shoving, no anger at the transport system (because it's wonderful!), and no matter how many people you get on the street or in the train, everyone just gets along so well - a marvel a modern city living that nobody else seems to have achieved! Well done Japan! I must say however, that although everyone was very accommodating at the airport, I did get a fingerprint scan and a photo taken before getting in... all on a cutsie Hello Kitty-style camera!

Most popular band in Japan - AKB48.
'Maids' in Akihabara.
While all of Japan has a fascination with technology, it is most noticeable in it's biggest city. Before coming here, I had imagined that Tokyo would be like Ridley Scott's 80s cult film "Blade Runner." It wasn't far off the mark! Taxis with all sorts of screens, buttons and dials on the dashboard, the doors open automatically, you nearly expect the old Toyota to take off and fly through the city! If you want to get the real Japan, then Akihabara is the place for you! Also called Electric Town, it is the home of games, manga and the Popstar girl band AKB48. I have to mention this band first - the AKB stand for the suburb of Akihabara, and the 48 is for the number of band members... yes 48 Japanese pop stars in the same band! Imagine splitting the profits 48 ways? It is hard enough keeping track of some 5 member pop bands (1D for example all look the same to me...), 48 is a disaster. They are extremely popular though, and have their own store with merchandising (including signed photos so you can take your favourite home) as well as a restaurant with each girl having a special meal named after her - I know! The roster of this band rotates, and so far there have been 140 girls, and they have made US$128m in 2013 alone.

Vending machine for beer...
Kill Bill style restaurant.

Nearly everything has been automated here - vending machines that sell anything from coffee to cold drinks, and even ice-cream; some bars require you to order through a vending machine, for a beer or hot meal for example, drop the ticket off at the bar, then they bring you your order; and of course the toilets - spray wash (male and female setting), heating seat and blow drying... unnecessary maybe, but very Japanese. Everything also talks - huge 20m billboards on the street blare out pop tunes or the latest hair product ad; garbage trucks tell you that they are coming down the street and to be careful; ambulances announcing to the traffic that they are coming through, and would you kindly please allow me through... you have to experience it to believe it. 

Busy intersection in Tokyo.
Chillin in the Cat Cafe.
Cosplay in Akihabara.
So, heading down to Akihabara with my mate who is living in Tokyo (thanks again Oli for showing me round!), we decided to find the retro gaming store 'Super Potato,' with the aim of buying a SuperFamicon (or Super NES). Along the way we found Maid Cafe's and Cat Cafe's. Very different! The Maid Cafe we didn't go in, but go approached and invited in. Something about scantily clad, (possibly if not just) under-age girls wearing manga slash French maid outfits is a little 'dirty old man' for me, so that was a no. This was Manga heaven though - girls in Cosplay advertising card games, electronics stores and comic books stores all in one - and even weird pornographic Anime on the street.

Maid Cafe in Akihabara.
The Cat Cafe, however, was a winner! You have to pay Y1200 ($12) to get in and then buy a coffee or tea for Y300 ($3), but you then have the quietest hour you will find in the entire city! Cats are laying everywhere - on top or in a bookshelf, on the receptionist's desk, and just about anywhere they damn-well please - it is their cafe! The whole idea behind this is so people can come and relax, get some peace and quiet away from the hussle and bussle, and pat cats. Most people in Tokyo live in tiny apartments, and you can't keep an animal, and the city life is very stressful, so it works. The cats on the other hand weren't too happy about the arrangement I don't think. Cats are generally pretty independent creatures, and here they are locked inside and touched by strangers all day.

A traditional "yaki" bar - smoking allowed too!
"Super Potato"
After getting some help from a few young Japanese guys (and from Google Maps as well!), we found Super Potato. This place is tucked away, and hard to find. Plenty of people seem to find it though - it was packed with 30 and 40-somethings playing retro games! Wonderboy in Monsterland on an arcade machine, Sega Megadrives and what I had come for - a Super Famicon! Here, it was called a Super NES, but I prefer the Japanese 'Family Computer.' At only $30, it's a bargain, and you can get all the games you want. Although I didn't buy it at the time (as I would have to drag the thing around for 2 weeks), my order is in and it will be sent to Australia... so Mario Bros all day very soon!

Smoky restaurant in Shinjuku.
A trip to Tokyo wouldn't be complete without a night out in one of the busiest hubs in the city - Shibuya. It is the famous crossing - seen in the movie "Lost in Translation," and is everything you think it would be! Here, buildings are all lit up with advertising, movie screens, neon signs and of course that crossing. You need to sit in Starbucks (if you can find a seat!), sip an expensive coffee and just watch the wonder that is Shibuya crossing! After you've built up some confidence, you just gotta get in there and walk it! Although hundreds of people cross it at every green light, it is easy and not scary - no pushing, no hurry, and the cars don't seem to be in a rush to go at their green light either. After this, we headed to a cool restaurant which looked just like the one from "Kill Bill," ate some fantastic food, then headed to a Karaoke bar of course!

15 floors up for a restaurant - only in Japan!
This is only scratching the surface of this weird and wonderful city! Tokyo is a great city - the sheer size of it is enough to blow you away, and yet it isn't all that daunting. Although the train system is confusing, it works and is extremely efficient - and of course people are so helpful, kind and polite - I rarely got lost for very long! After 2 days in Tokyo, Oli had to work, so I headed out into the huge concrete jungle for myself... a brave move!

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