Tokyo Japan, June 24
Although we really enjoyed our time in the Philippines it was time to push on to the land of contrasts and contraditions - Japan! I think everyone has at least some understanding of the Japanese culture, and I would guess that many would have a similar perception of what Japan is like; densely populated with big, bright lights, tiny box shaped cars, video games, futuristic cell phones, portable handheld televsions, super fast trains, sushi eaten in small crowded hole-in-the-wall restaurants, animation, and of course green tea served while sitting on your knees at a table one foot off the floor (am I close?). Well Japan does not disappoint!
Japan has been a country of many 'firsts' for us. It started on the JAL flight from Manila. We scored seats on the upperdeck of the large 747 jumbo jet and it had a large screen that showed a bird's eye view from the cockpit. We could actually see what the pilots saw! This was especially cool during take off and landing. Another 'first' was riding the highly efficient Tokyo train system. Quite possibly the biggest train network in the world, definitely the largest system we've encountered on our trip so far.
We later learned that the Greater Tokyo Area is said to be the world's most populous metropolitan area with 35 million people. You really have to see it to believe it, it is by far the biggest city we've been to. It's not as tall as Hong Kong but the city is spread out for miles and miles with large buildings as far as the eye can see. It actually took over an hour on the Shinkansen Rapid Express train before we left the concrete jungle of large buildings and neon lights.
We spent our first couple nights in the popular Asakusa area and had a very 'cozy' room with bunk beds. When I say cozy, I really mean tiny. The two of us were unable to get into our backpacks at the same time because the room was so small! Having just come from the Phlippines the costs in Japan were a sharp contrast, and not in a good way. We were used to spending less than $15 per day on accomodations, and we had plenty of choices. In Tokyo (and all of Japan for that matter), it is very expensive and yet still difficult to even find a vacancy. The cheapest we found was $65 per night for a tiny closet with a shared bathroom!
We spent our second day in the mega city doing the standard tourist sightseeing and rode the subway to different sections of the enormous city. It was Cameron's birthday and we intended to celebrate it with a dinner of authentic Japanese sushi and Asahi draft beer. Surprisingly, it took us a long time to find a place that served sushi. Living in Vancouver, we assumed that it would be easy to find a nice sushi restaurant in the city. In Vancouver they are a dime a dozen, but in Tokyo of all places it was like finding a needle in a hay stack. Go figure?
Tired of wandering the busy back alley restaurant strips, we decided to finally ask some locals where we could find a good sushi restaurant. We eventually got it sorted out and had a fantastic meal of clam miso soup, Albacore nigiri sushi, tuna cones, a variety of unique nigri sushi, and of course the prized BBQ unagi (deee-licious!). We were surprised to see that the roll sushi is not really a popular item in Japan. In fact, sushi seems to be bigger in Vancouver than in Japan. The Japanese seem to love their grilled pork and chicken, as well as quick noodle and rice dishes. Everything seems to be deep fried and packed in a nice box ready to go. Not exactly what we had envisioned, but interesting and tasty nevertheless.
After the birthday dinner we explored more of the city at night and ended up at the Tokyo Tower. The Tokyo Tower looks a lot like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, nice to look at when it's lit up at night but basically a big ugly steel structure that brings in the tourist dollar. We noticed that on your birthday it was free to go up the tower so we decided to check out the pnoramic city views at night. Cameron went up for free and also received a Tokyo Tower pen and a birthday card. Not a bad way to wrap up a fine birthday!
Prior to arriving in Japan we had purchased a Japan Rail pass that gave us unlimited train travel for seven consecutive days (a great deal when we later saw the cost for single fares). One of our goals for Japan was to climb Mount Fuji but the mountain did not open for climbing until July 1 (and even then it was pushing it). So we decided that it was best to explore Japan first and try our luck at climbing Mt Fuji after the train pass had expired. Rather then pack up and find a new hotel every day, we decided to make Kyoto our home base for the coming week because the rail system was so fast and efficient. From Kyoto, we intended to take day trips to Osaka, Nara, Kobe and Hiroshima before heading to the Fuji region.
So with that, we left the massive city of Tokyo and boarded the Shinkansen Rapid Express Train to Kyoto!