Sunday, 30 October 2016

Japan Part 1 - Tokyo

This is the first part of our honeymoon travelogue (travelblogue?) of our Japan adventures. Thank you so much to everyone for your overly generous wedding present contributions to our Japan fund, you helped make it a truly memorable experience. Read on...

I don't mind long haul flights too much. When you subscribe to the provided passivation of in flight movies, a couple of glasses of red wine and surprisingly nice airline food it does ease the transition between time zones. It was slightly thwarted on this journey due to a problem with the central entertainment computer having a hissy fit and only having four films available, three of which were the new Star Trek reboot. Since I'd seen most of these before I elected for headphones, Dreadzone, book and sleep. Louise ploughed through them with the occasional "hang on, haven't we watched this one before? Isn't this the one with whats-his-name in?"

That other staple of plane travel is the gust of air that meets you as you exit the fuselage that gives an indication of what lies ahead. In this case, going from an air conditioned plane to 25C and humid was a shot across the bows.

First order of business was to pick up the best bit of paper of the holiday, our three week JR Pass allowing us almost unrestricted travel on the national rail network - only the super super express bullet trains were off limits. This wasn't too bad as we found the normal ones more than quick enough!

We certainly picked the best way to get from Haneda aiport into the centre of Tokyo... altogether now "Monorail, Monorail, MONORAIL!"

"In Japan when you are on a train you can sit at the front well not at the very front but right behind the driver and you can see all the way down the track and if you have a hat like me you can pretend you are the driver too and make the train noises and I want to be a train driver when I grow up." - James Pawson, age 36 3/4.

Not surprisingly you've got to be quick to bag the very front seat as the hardcore tourists and train fans get there first. The views are great as you approach Hammamatsucho train station with the track passing over bridges over bits of the bay and winding its way between skyscrapers. A good way to break you in gently.

Engineering aside: the monorail track itself is made from cast concrete sections joined together with what looks like partly flexible steel joints, perhaps for earthquake resistance. They've even implemented points systems by increasing the articulation of the joints over certain sections and bolting some beefy hydraulics to them.

Feeling a bit spaced out,we found ourselves a small department store cafe overlooking Yurachuko station for a coffee and sat for a while watching the Shinkansen trains coming and going - they are huge. It was so warm that we hardly noticed the drizzle when we were outside.

Our hotel was in Ginza, one of the major shopping districts in Tokyo. We took a wander around the Mitsukoshi department store, an amazing feat of endurance walking around the cookware section without buying one of the beautiful steel knives or copper pans.

That night we met up with Louise's friend Yoko for dinner. They knew each other from meeting in New Zealand during Louise's travels several year's previously. She surprised us with some lovely presents including an onsen towel each which came in handy several times during the trip. I especially like the koi carp design on mine and shall certainly treasure it.

The restaurant was fab, with lots of small private rooms that had a low lintelled sliding door and tatami matting floor - a shoes off job. Specialising in yuba and tofu we had a really good course menu dinner. Welcome since we hadn't eaten for a while! The table had a large box of soya milk heating in the middle which slowly skinned over. This firm skin (yuba) was picked out using chopsticks and eaten with soy sauce - tasty!

We were pretty bushed so didn't stay out too late. Nevertheless it was great to meet Yoko and talk about her and our travels. We'll have to try and spend longer together next time we meet.

No rest for the wicked. To abuse our body clocks even further we set our alarms for 4am to try and get down to the Tsukiji fish market in time for the daily tuna auction. However it had already finished by the time we got there! We pottered around the market itself enjoying the cooler morning air and watching everyone set up their stalls and shops before heading back to the hotel for a bit more shut eye.

Up and about and a breakfast of minced pork filled steamed buns (drooling at the memory) and off to Ueno to have a wander around the Tokyo National Museum. With so much history to go at it is hard to select representative objects for display but there were many Important Cultural Properties on show. The art on show was impressive as was the samurai armour. No photos in the many of the galleries unfortunately.

Side note - umbrellas. Everyone in Tokyo seems to own an umbrella, to the extent that large public buildings have umbrella racks outside, with each slot having a numbered key so you can lock your brolly up like a bike. More clever thinking!

The subway to Asakusa was delayed due to a power cut so we investigated the bustling Ueno market instead. Refreshed by market stall pineapple against the heat and humidity we caught the now running subway to Asakusa.

Asakusa is famous for the Senso-ji temple with it's large paper lantern equipped gate on the approach, the Kaminarimon. There's also a large market selling bits of street food and lots of tourist bits and bats. We were also "interviewed" by several groups of Japanese schoolchildren from Nagano who were there on a practising-their-English field trip. They gave us some origami birds to say thank you :)

We were also interviewed by a proper camera crew who were making a TV show about what Tokyo and Japan need to do to improve the city for the Olympics. About the only suggestion that we could think to make was a few more litter bins; they are like rocking horse poo and yet there is pretty much zero litter as everyone takes their rubbish home with them. Lousie did a good piece to camera about how safe it felt in Tokyo. No idea if we made the cut or not.

Sitting around at the temple in the twilight was most pleasant, with the hordes of schoolchildren being rounded up (very well behaved) and the stallholders pulling the shutters down. It made for a nice contrast against the crazy busy previous couple of hours and became peaceful and reflective instead.

We were a bit fried with jet lag again at this point so we had an emergency coffee before heading back to the hotel via the convenience store for some take out tea. I managed to ask where the chopsticks were in Japanese so all the language CD listening was worth it ;) Even the corner shop take out food is well prepared and blooming tasty.

Wednesday came and we headed out on the train to Harajuku on the other side of Tokyo to see the Meiji Jingu shrine where the soul of the Emperor Meiji and his consort are interred. Meiji reigned from 1867 when the Shogun was deposed to 1912 and oversaw a great deal of the modernisation of Japan including the opening up to Western trade. Befitting the soul of the Emperor it is an impressive building, however much of it was closed as it was being re-roofed. The torii gates are made from huge tree trunks and tower over the path with many offerings of bound sake barrels, wine and written prayers from the many visitors.

Next, to the reputedly hedonistic Shinjuku. It proved to be very calm (and mostly closed) on a weekday lunchtime. So we headed back to Asakusa to explore some more of the area, including the Asahi beer tower and golden... whatever it is on the building next to it.

The Beer Tower even looks like a pint in the daylight with its gold windows. Thankfully it is not all show and it houses a bar on the 24th floor with a rather good view and an excellent glass of Asahi Black.

Shibuya, famous for the "crazy crossing", the intersection where everyone crosses in all directions at once is just as nuts on the ground as the videos suggest. With all the neon and clear umbrellas it felt like we were in Bladerunner.

Most amusing incident of the evening went to the 6 guys who pulled up at the crossing all driving go-karts and dressed as the characters from Super Mario. They drove off too quickly for us to get a photo and thankfully no one dropped a banana skin otherwise it would have been chaos. A restorative pasty and juice later and we were back at the hotel, packing for the next leg of our adventures.

Tokyo is too big to cover in a couple of days, even a few weeks, but we certainly experienced a good range from crazy busy to peaceful, from new and shiny-shiny to old and traditional.

* dramatic voice *

Next time on the Japanese adventures of James and Louise in Japan.... Miyajima and Hiroshima