After a 20-minute walk to the station we boarded our last bus in Japan to our final destination …. Tokyo. Tokyo started life as a remote fishing village but by the late 18th century had become the most populated city in the world.
Arriving in the Capital, our first stop was the tourist information centre, which was very impressive, banks of i-pads and Kimono clad, English speaking staff - Like the "Starship Enterprise" on Sulu's "bring your family day" - On advice, we took a taxi to our hotel - not very backpacker but sometimes you just "gotta" take the easy option.
We were only here for four nights and the city is vast - like another country. We had to be selective about what we wanted to see but it seemed like we had located ourselves well in Shinjuku, for nightlife and access to the metro network.
Our first restaurant was discovered by Heather's research but still took some finding being located on the 4th floor of a narrow building in a busy neon-lit street. It was quite surreal, we sat on the floor but there was a pit under the table where our feet dropped into -effectively sitting normally. The entire wall surface was covered in Japanese film posters (presumably famous actors and movies) The menu was in Japanese (no English translation) so we pointed at dishes on other tables that "looked ok" - We survived, assisted by the recognisable presence of Asahi.
After walking through "Omoide Yokocho" ….. Narrow alleyways filled with small restaurants, which were all full but typically having a 10-customer capacity - It was also known as "Piss Alley". We finished up in an area called "Golden Gai", a labyrinth of small alleys housing about 300 bars, mostly closet sized. Our first stop was called "Champions", a Karaoke bar and after trying a few more establishments we made it our last bar as well - Heather ended a great first night in Tokyo, with a rendition of "Living on a Prayer" (apologies to Mr Bon Jovi)
Tokyo has much to offer the sightseer during the day and we spent the next few days exploring wearing out both our feet and our subway cards. The Imperial Palace was impressive, originally the site of Tokugawa Shogunite castle, once the largest fortress in the world, it is the home of the Emperor nowadays. Although the main living quarters are off limits, Heather had read a blog identifying all the most picturesque photo spots and guess what ……We had to find them all, like a photographic treasure hunt we will call "Heathers Holy Grail"- her favourite shot "Eyeglass" Bridge, so named because with the reflection it looks like a pair of spectacles …… Heather insisted on calling it the "Glass Eye" bridge.
Shibuya crossing - "The busiest intersection in the world". Pedestrians crossing in six planes and two directions. It has to be seen to be believed, up 1000 people at one time all dodging each other to get across…… mind blowing. We carried on walking through the crowded streets past all the designer shops (Heather wasn't even tempted?) cafes, bars etc. until we arrived at Yoyogi Park. It was Sunday afternoon and as we entered the park, we were met with loud rockabilly music. Following the source, we found large paved area where people were dressed in costume, dancing wildly to the pulsating sounds - I think Heather was tempted to join in when they did a line dancing routine but showed admirable restraint. As we walked through the rest of the park, things got even wackier, dogs wearing sunglasses, clothes and shoes, people dancing, performing Tai Chi and a group of people who paraded around with fully dressed Mongooses, on leads and walking on their hind legs - I am not sure the people were themselves ready for upright walking.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building free observation deck providing good panoramic views of Tokyo and beyond - Free entry. But we were not alone and queue snaked around the block.
The last day of sightseeing we spent in Akihabara, an area where all the shops, walls and hoardings are dominated by Anime (animated characters to you and me). At the first set of traffic lights, there were 12 go-carts lined up in grid formation and driven by Super Mario brothers and associated characters…..very strange. There are also cafes called Maid Cafes where waitresses are dressed in maid costumes and treat customers as masters and act as servants - we didn't go in and experience this.
The final stop on our walk was the renovated Toyko railway station, an exceptional building and we spent some time locating a suitable building that allowed us on the upper floors to get a picture that would do it justice.
The evenings were spent touring the different areas and exploring their bars and restaurants, we included a western diversion to the "Hard Rock café" in Rappongi, an area of mixed reputation, for a fix of Burger, fries and beer. Our last night saw us return to our local area (Shinjuku) and after visiting the Samurai museum, dressing up and practicing with swords we were ready for anything and the bars and Karaoke allowed us to finish in style without needing the skills we acquired in our Samurai training.
We cannot leave Japan without mentioning the toilets - My first encounter was in the hotel and as I entered the bathroom, a voice said "Welcome", music began to play and the seat cover raised. This was just the beginning, there was a control panel which controlled the function set of the loo. On the press of a button a jet of water washed the place that might need washing, with associated controls for pressure and temperature - A second jet was gender specific. There was of course a hot air drying function as well, not to mention the sound effect button which provided a selection of sounds, that would disguise any personally embarrassing noises. Finally, as I left the seat, it automatically flushed, seemingly not trusting human intervention and with a final "Have a nice day" the seat closed and my toilet experience was over.
Just to sweep up a number of features unique to japan:
Pachinko - Huge gaming halls filled with gambling machines deafening noise.
Everything runs with precision timing - never a late train, they have mastered the problem of leaves on the track and the wrong type of sone.
Modern and Traditional overlapping - Futons, Tatami mats, Onsens (usually segregated by gender), Geishas, Zen Gardens.
Every restaurant specialises in one type of food.
Neon Streetscapes in the cities.
No Tipping - Anywhere!
We learned only 3 words in a month -
Shoes always had to be removed when entering a home.
Excessively polite - Bowing on meeting, receiving and giving.
A country full of vending machines - even selling "adult goods"
Capsule Hotels and Love Hotels