Tuesday 27th June 2006
"They look like Bond villain henchmen," I remarked to Claire as I stared from the plane window onto the runway at Narita airport. Hard-hatted airport workers were driving forklift trucks up to the plane as it disgorged our luggage.
Although I like to think of my self as fairly well-travelled, a bit cosmopolitan, my comment suggested that perhaps this visit to Tokyo should consist of a bit more than getting pissed in the red-light district and staying in a capsule hotel.
Overland and subway trains took us to Asakusa, a district in the North East of central Tokyo. As we emerged from the bowels of the subway station, the cool bright afternoon was a refreshing change from the heavy humid air we'd left behind in Hong Kong. We found our hotel with ease - a Ryokan down a quiet side street. Our traditional Japanese room at the top of the hotel was authentic down to the rattan flooring and paper screens. Unfortunately its authenticity extended to its lack of a private bathroom - we had to use the very pleasant but small traditional communal baths next door.
After making certain bathroom related enquiries at the reception desk, Claire and I wandered the area before eating at a Shabu-shabu restaurant. Diners cook their own food by dropping thin slices of meat into a boiling broth. We were placed in a room on our own and had to phone for the bill.
The next morning, bathed in the traditional Japanese style, we hit Nakamise-Dori, which was next to the hotel. Nakamise-Dori is a long pedestrianised market street lined with stalls selling tourist tat, Japanese sweets and assorted kitsch. At one end of the street a huge red lantern sits under Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate) while at the other is Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo and the location of the pagoda glimpsed from our room. After taking in the temple, we ambled down the busy market and were approached by school children on a field trip. Obviously with orders to stop Westerners and practice their English, they handed us information about the part of Japan they were from, told us their names, asked us where we were from, asked for my signature and then requested a photograph. We asked their teacher, who was loitering nearby, to return the favour, hence this:
Then we dived into Tokyo, starting an energetic and wide-ranging three day tour of the city. It started in Marunouchi, where we took a turn in the Imperial Gardens. It was here we first noticed the preponderance of jungle crows in Tokyo - large, fat creatures, insistently cawing and languidly flapping from tree to tree. Then we struck out for the swanky shopping area of Ginza where we mucked around with camcorders, digital camera and other assorted gadgets in the Sony Centre, which also features a Playstation 3 in a glass box, complete with ineffectual looking security guard.
From Ginza we walked to Zojo-ji temple, a Buddhist centre overlooked by the Tokyo tower. Perhaps the most remarkable (and moving) thing about this temple are the rows of hundreds of small Jizo statues. Jizo is a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva associated with, amongst other things, aborted and miscarried foetuses. Here, each of the red bibbed and hatted statues (which look more like babies than Bodhisattvas) commemorate a deceased baby, and each one has its own plastic windmill, which rattles in the breeze.
I was ambling the around the grounds of the temple, trying to take a photo of a small shrine, when I heard a shriek and an accusing shout. Claire emerged from behind a tree claiming to have been the victim of a crow attack - she had been standing around, supposedly minding her own business (a likely story) when, after only the briefest of warning caws, she was dive-bombed. It transpired that she hadn't actually seen the offending creature, but we swiftly left the temple grounds after that, wishing to avoid an Omen type scenario.
That evening we wandered the neon soaked streets of Shinjuku and ate conveyor belt sushi. It was in Shinjuku that we first succumbed to the lure of the arcades - not the deafening packed pachinko parlours, but the places full of computer games and machines offering cutesy animals teetering invitingly on ledges or large stuffed pigs ready to be scooped up and dropped into the hands of the dextrous deserving. Here I developed a passion for the Taiko Drum Master, and bashed away to various songs including the Doraemon theme tune and YMCA, while behind me, Claire addictively continued her quest to pick up as many winsome trinkets as possible.
We started the following day at the Meiji shrine, a large shrine in the middle of extensive gardens dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, which like so much of Tokyo was destroyed in the Second World War - what's there now was built in the 1950s. Then we crossed the train tracks into Harijuku and wandered down Takeshita Dori, the Tokyo equivalent of Camden market, except with more French maid costumes for sale. We eventually found ourselves at the large Kiddyland toyshop. In the course of the day, at Kiddyland and then department store Tokyu Hands in Shibuya, I ill-advisedly spent thousands of yen on assorted off-the-wall Japanese toys and other quirky collectibles. Studio Ghibli phone fobs, weird Bandai figures and armoured bears now sit in my desk in Hong Kong. I have no idea what to do with them.
Shibuya was endlessly fascinating - hundreds of shops, restaurants, arcades, bars and clubs provide the backdrop for some of the best people watching in the world. Disorientated we veered up and down various streets, in and out of shops and past a television studio where an incomprehensible game show was being filmed. We poured more coins into arcade machines and then, as night fell, found ourselves at the Hachiko crossing, the centre of it all, surrounded by bright neon clad buildings and huge blaring LCD screens.
Then, armed with a list of recommendations in the Time Out Tokyo guidebook, we decided to seek out a love hotel, Tokyo's quintessentially Japanese short stay hotels. We ended up at P&A Plaza, one of the best known of these establishments. Shuffling coyly through the frosted automatic doors, we were confronted with a wall mounted electronic menu showing pictures of the various rooms available. It was around 9pm, but many of the rooms we already taken. We chose a room, and pressed various buttons, muddling through the Japanese prompts. Eventually the machine spat out a key card. In many respects the room was like a regular hotel room - bathroom, bed, sofa and television. But in others it was not - the porn menu on top of the TV, the "minibar" of sex toys, the swimming pool...Then again, not many regular hotels have a fish tank full of jelly fish in the lobby.
The following morning was our last in Tokyo. We had reserved tickets on the Shinkansen up to Sendai in order to visit a friend of ours who is a Sensei at the university there.
The trains in Japan never leave late and they never leave early. Apparently if the subway trains are delayed in the morning, the rail operator gives out apology slips for the Salarymen to show their bosses. The Sensei told us of an occasion when he saw the rail staff come onto the platform and bow to the passengers on a delayed Shinkansen in humble apology. Therefore we were conscious that we had to be queuing for the train in the one neat lanes painted on the platforms by 3:02pm.
We headed to Ueno park, and strolled around there, avoiding the crows and visiting the Toshogu Shrine, a beautiful old (17th century - it has withstood wars and earthquakes) Shinto shrine, the grounds of which are covered in large elegant stone lanterns.
Emerging into the quiet and attractive neighbourhood of Yanaka on the other side of the park we made our way to the peaceful cemetery before heading back to Asakusa for lunch in a Korean restaurant (where once again we cooked our own food - this time marbled beef on a grill in the table) and to pick up our bags. But as we made a beeline for the Shinkansen station at Ueno we passed an arcade. In unspoken agreement we headed in, the waiting Shinkansen suddenly losing its importance.
After feeding various machines (including the Drum Master) with cash we decided to give the Purikura booths a go. In our various visits to arcades around Tokyo, large portions of the places were dedicated to Purikura and they were always full of giggling schoolgirls. One arcade had a sign at the entrance to the Purikura section declaring that only women and couples were allowed into the area - no single men. It took us a while to work out how to use the things, which included figuring out that once the initial photos are taken you head into a second booth to mess around with the images - shove hearts all over them, or a cartoon pig's head for example. The end results were colourful, jolly and incomprehensible. Obviously I would post a picture of them here, but sadly I can't get a good enough image to put on Flickr. Shame. However some selected pictures can be found here.