We arrived in to Tokyo expecting a multicultural city, however we found out the hard way that this was by no means the case. Our first purchase was a Japan Rail Pass which allowed for unlimited train travel on East Japan Railway trains and we booked a reserved seat on an express train that took us right to our destination in less than an hour.
I can't quite decide whether our first mistake was through naivity or stupidity. We sat waiting on the platform that had our destination written on it with no train there, behind us there was a train waiting by the platform. 2 minutes before our train was due to leave one arrived on our platform, we responded by quickly jumping on expecting it to leave swiftly. While on the train we noticed it seemed to stop at a lot of stations so we asked a passenger who spoke very little English and he pointed to the train opposite (the one that we'd sat next to for 20 minutes waiting to arrive. Right on queue the train doors shut and we watched helpless as our actual train disappeared. In a brave move we stayed on our train knowing its destination was the same. However this train wasn't an express so it took over 2 hours before we eventually got to our station.
Walking out of the station was pretty impressive, where we were the only westerners in sight amongst almost an army of Japanese shoppers and commuters. Surrounding the station entrance were shops and fast food joints filling every floor of the highrise style buildings. Colourful signs and Japanes characters ordaned the sides of every building.
In preparation for needing to find our accomodation we had a gps position set, an address, a phone number, a few Japanese phrases and skype availability if we could connect to wifi. Unfortunately, despite being well prepared, most of this proved fairly useless. The gps led us to the middle of a road; we couldn't find wifi spots anywhere; when we could find an internet cafe we were informed that non Japanese residents couldn't use internet cafe's; when we asked people, most understood very little and even those that could were unable to work out where our apartment was from the address. All in all, where we seemed very prepared, we ended up walking for around two hours carrying our luggage through busy streets.
It finally became dark and we resigned ourselves to checking in to a different hotel. However, in our moment of need a young Japanese teen asked us if we were lost (the only phrase he seemed to know) and through converting our address into Japanese characters was able to show us where it was - about a mile from where we'd been looking.
When we arrived we realised we never would have found the tiny sign, down a tiny side street, off a small alleyway, in what looked like residential apartments. And once inside we experienced true Japanese efficiency in an apartment that was smaller than most kitchens (6' by 12') yet offered bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living space. Although, despite its size, it was actually an extremely well equiped space.
We left this accommodation the following day to go to Ben's, a couch surfing host from Belgium that has been living in Tokyo for the past year. During our three day stay with Ben we spent days visiting gardens, temples and parks such as Yoyogi park. These were all really looked after areas with a skyline of tall buildings that provide a feeling of entwinement between nature and humanity. The cherry blossom was just starting to bloom whilst we were visiting and we were able to appreciate how astoundingly beautiful the parks must be at full bloom.
These first few days gave us a great chance to get to know the local train system and to find the all important circular route. Due to the long working hours expected in Tokyo, our host was out for long periods (e.g. 9am until 8pm) and we had no way to enter the house without him being present. This gave us a great deal of time to explore Tokyo during the day. On one of the days we had been walking non stop from 8.45am until 3pm (after walking huge distances the days before) and reached an exhausted state, so in order to gain some much needed rest we rode the circular line and slept on the train. It's actually quite common to see people asleep on trains, even whilst standing!
On one of our evenings Ben introduced us to a modern slice of Japanese culture by taking us to a prison themed restaurant. This was definitely an original experience for us. The restaurant has male staff dressed as prisoners and females dressed as officers. The event begins with an officer hand cuffing one of the dinner party and escorting them to their seat in a dark room with prison bars as a door. Even the food was prison themed including Kamikaze balls, a roulette type dish with six meatball style balls and one has been spiked with chili. We shared this dish between the three of us and after 5 'safe' balls had been eaten it was up to me (Kieran) to eat the one with chili! Surprisingly, I didn't think the chili was too bad at the time, but the next day…lets just say I felt the burn!
After staying at Ben's we booked an ultra cheap hostel, literally the room was big enough to fit in the double bed and space to open the door. Very small but suited our purposes as a clean place to crash at night. On St Patrick's day we headed to an area with amazing shopping and saw the end of a parade to celebrate Paddy day. Before now we had seen maybe a handful of white Europeans whilst in Tokyo, however today they all seeped out of the woodwork, there were white Europeans everywhere! It was a nice feeling to be less of a minority for a couple of hours.
We went to a coach surfing event one evening and met lots of travelers and people who had made Tokyo their home, here we met Mauritio who offered to be our next coach surfing host. I was a little apprehensive about staying with Mauritio simply for the reason that he had fairly traditional Japanese lodgings, a studio room and we would all be staying in a confined space together. However upon arriving at Mauritio's these feelings were swept quickly aside, his personality and humour made us feel completely at ease and he left us to our own devices the first evening as he had a prior social engagement. On one of the days Mauriotio took us to a small coffee house that could accommodate 8 people to sit indoors and had one bench outside. We sat outside and people watched. Whilst we sat there we observed numerous Japanese walking their dogs but none were bigger than a chuhau in size! We also observed house wives cycling with up to three children on a bike at a time! Apparently this is a norm in Japan, with many of the bikes we passed being fitted with at least one child seat if not more!
From Mauritio's we went to stay at accommodation nearer to the airport ready for our flight the next day. The accommodation was simple and comfortable. A combined lounge and kitchen area with plenty of comfortable seats and two bedrooms upstairs which could accommodate 5/6 people. The sleeping arrangements were mattresses on the floor and to provide some privacy the beds were separated by waist height screens attached to the floor, a surprising comfortable set up. The owner dropped us off at the airport the next morning ready to travel to Thialand.