Posts tagged ‘japan’

The Happiest Moment of Luke’s Life

On our second day in Kyoto began with a breakfast

breakfastin the cafe next to the hostel, bacon and cheese on toast. Pretty good. Pretty cheap.

We had an action packed day planned. We headed south to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine which is somewhere you have to visit if you go to Kyoto. It’s a beautiful shrine famous for the miles of torii gates that weave in, out and around the shrine buildings. It feels like a magical place, especially when the sunlight slices through each gate and the surrounding trees. Here are a bunch of photos: IMG_1931 IMG_1949 IMG_1947DSCN0201 DSCN0233

DSCN0234DSCN0192   The photos give you an idea what it’s like but really you have to go there and walk through the paths. There are so many shrines in this complex, tiny ones and the major central ones. There are handy vending machines throughout, so you won’t get thirsty. You could play an incredible, potentially unending, game of hide and seek here.

After wandering around for hours we looked for a Zen garden that my friend in Tokyo had insisted we visit. She had visited it with her dad a week before while they were evacuated from Tokyo. She said that you pay a small entrance fee (I think about Y300), take off your shoes and walk around a building with 4 stone gardens surrounding it. She said when they went, they took their shoes off and it started snowing and it was magical.

Well, after I nearly broke into some private property thinking it was the entrance, we eventually found the place. It was the Tofukuji temple.

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It was a beautiful sunny day so if it started snowing when we were in there I would be suspicious that they had a snow machine. We paid for our tickets, left our shoes in the shoe shelf and walked in. No snow. What a rip off. Still, it was properly Zen. There were one or two businessy looking people who had brought a packed lunch and were sitting looking out over the gardens, silently eating. The gardens were designed in the 1930’s and have remained the same ever since. It was one of the quietest, calmest places I’ve been. DSCN0265IMG_1953

We then headed north to Arashiyama Park.

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It’s a beautiful area of Kyoto with a mountain you can pay to go up where there are loads of monkeys. It costs about Y500 and there are monkeys all over the mountain and signs everywhere that say things like “DO NOT STARE AT THE MONKEYS IN THE EYE” which makes the hike up to the top quite terrifying. At the top of the mountain there’s a shed/cage where the humans go inside, buy monkey snacks and you can feed them through the mesh. It is excellent.

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Luke has never been this happy, before or since

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you can see him pitying me inside my cage

Though the bigger monkeys push the smaller ones out of the way, so I deliberately made an effort to get the snacks to the little monkeys and a bigger one looked at me with such an astonished look, like HOW DARE I, that it makes me laugh to remember it. DSCN0304

The view at the top is pretty spectacular, you can look over all of Kyoto. An added bonus is the monkeys playing with the telescopes, looking like monkey tourists.

Back at the base of the mountain is a wealth of prettiness.

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A wide river populated with traditional boats you can get boat tours in, cherry blossoms everywhere – it looks like a postcard. We strolled around this lovely area but as it was dusk things were closing up. There’s a lot to see here that we didn’t have time to, like bamboo groves, a preserved street of houses from the Meiji period, fishing trips and, as with everywhere in Japan, approximately a metric fuckton of temples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were pretty tired so when we got back to central Kyoto we got dinner from a supermarket which included these weird things which were 100% texture 0% taste. IMG_1985

 

 

Philosophers Walking

We left Nara and headed to Kyoto. 

Kyoto Station is huge and futuristic, and it took us a bit of figuring out to find our way to the correct subway to get to our hostel.

I’d booked us into this place before the earthquake but due to it being cherry blossom season it was so busy I had to book us two different rooms for each night we were staying in Kyoto. After the earthquake loads of rooms became available & I could change our reservation so we had one private double room for both nights. A small reward for not cancelling our trip. The staff were very friendly, the lobby was very cool, our room was tiny but very clean & perfectly adequate.

If you only stay in these type of hostels you can travel around Japan really cheaply & safely. Most work out at around £15-20 a night per person which is pretty much what you’d pay in Western Europe but you can be pretty sure the Japanese hostels will always be clean & neat (never a guarantee in Europe or elsewhere, probably). Quite a few of these Japanese hostels have different branches across the country and offer free night offers on a loyalty scheme so you can save again.

We dumped our stuff & decided to try to catch some Kyoto culture before sundown. Free wifi helped us figure out what bus to get where. The bus has a ticket machine onboard that you buy from & we went all the way to the Silver Pavillion. By the time we got there the temple was closed so we didn’t get to see it but I had cleverly chosen this temple so we could walk the Philosopher’s Path from it.

This is a 2km canal-side path which is saturated with cherry blossom. It was so pretty I can’t even begin to tell you. I’ll just show you photos.

here is a woman taking a picture of her dog enjoying the cherry blossom

my normal clothes sometimes look like I’m cosplaying

  

 We decided to walk all the way back to our hostel & had a wonderful stroll through Kyoto along the canals as the sun set.

The hostel is near Gion which is known as the Geisha district. There’s a lot to do in this area. Loads of bars, restaurants, and shops. We wandered through a covered shopping street nearby and saw an Okonomiyaki restaurant called Mr Young Men so we went there for dinner.

This was my first experience of okonomiyaki & I bloody loved it. It was huge. I had a set meal which included miso and some onigiri (which was far too much food for me) for about £6. As an extra treat each okonomiyaki dish had names like Mr. Modern Man and Mr American. It was a really local seeming place. Dim & a bit grubby. Very authentic feeling. I’d definitely recommend it. Cheap, tasty & huge.

 There’s a pretty good okonomiyaki place in London where they cook it on teppans at your table but it’s so expensive! It’s called Abeno & is a good bet if you want to try okonomiyaki authentically but while paying twice what you would in Japan.

Nara?! Yes ra.

After our awkward night with the Canadian (it was an 8 bunk room, but just us and her in it), we spent the morning in Nara.

So far, Japan had really succeeded in putting a show on for us, weather wise, and today was no different. Clear blue skies and gentle spring sunshine. Tidy.

Nara is a delightful place, proper old school Japan. Loads of old wooden houses, a beautiful park full of deer who wander around hoping you’ll buy some deer treats from the deer treat sellers. It also boasts the home of the world’s largest indoor buddha. So, big buddhas were definitively checked off the list of things to see in Japan. BIG BUDDHAS. DONE.

The sakura was really blossoming in Nara and you can see why the Japanese go nuts over it. It’s so lovely. I never felt sexy towards a blossom before. We walked around the big park, saw a wedding happening (amazing kimonos) and got cosy with deer. We said “oh, deer” A LOT. We are so funny.

There are also some very tall pagodas in Nara which are difficult to capture well in a photograph. We had a lovely morning walking around Nara, I’ll let the photos do all the work for this post.

there’s no zoom on my camera, I was actually this close to this nonchalant deer.

this creepy looking dude was supposedly good luck if you rubbed him then rubbed a bit of your body you were having trouble with.

even in black and white the cherry blossom is beautiful

pagoda!

him indoors

deer waiting for the deer treats selling person

typical Nara street

Omotesando! Harajuku! Shinjuku!

Sunday in Tokyo.

The only place to go is Harajuku. This is a bit like the Camden of Tokyo. It’s where all the teens go and on Sunday it’s their cosplay day. Though when we were there, there were hardly any dressed up teens presumably due to earthquake/tsunami/radiation/worried parents.

toilet controls.

Before we got to Harajuku though, KD took us to Omotesando to look at the fancy shops, use a fancy toilet (let’s be honest, all toilets in Japan are fancy) and shop in the Official Japanese Souvenir Tat Shop where Luke bought a small plastic jug in the shape of a cat among other treats.

modelling the signature shorts and hat

Harajuku is excellent for fashions. Yes, fashions! I bought a pair of shorts there that have since become my signature shorts and I’m so scared about wearing them out that I’ve poured glue on the crotch. Also, I bought the greatest hat of all time, which looked especially good when I wore it to Wimbledon in 2011.

Harajuku was also where I went crazy for Japanese socks. I don’t mean tabi but a more modern Japanese obsession with inner shoe wear. I wonder if this adorable focus on socks is due to the fact that they spend so much time without shoes on. Anyway, I LOVE them. I bought all these in one day. And since I struggled to find anywhere to buy them in the UK, I started making my own versions which you can buy on Etsy.

After buying a load of cool stuff, we stopped off for some lunchtime ramen. I also had some steamed buns because steamed buns are delicious savoury clouds and I eat them whenever possible (and in this case the pair looked like boobies, so extra bonus fun).

While we were waiting for the delicious food to arrive, we all cooed over our white watches we’d just all bought for 700Y each. We were a cool white watch gang. I wore mine until it stopped working in early 2012. Luke stopped wearing his fairly quickly because he couldn’t figure out how to stop it beeping at certain times. Also in the photo you can see a little skull ring I bought for 80Y and a spirit level ring that KD bought from the MOMA shop (where we also bought more cool stuff like a door stop that looked like a paint tube). It was a very buying stuff day. I regret nothing.

After that we strolled over to the Meiji Shrine which was beautiful and serene, only a moment away from the crazy bustle of Harajuku. We saw some trainee monks scuttle about in their white outfits. I should’ve told them where they could buy a matching watch. It was really lovely in the late afternoon.

As the light began to fade we headed to Shinjuku for an evening of maxi fun. KD refers to Shinjuku as ShinCUCKOO! because it’s totally bananas. It has Maid Cafes, but mostly seems to have weird date bars where you can hire a guy/girl who looks like they might be in a J-pop boy/girl band to hang out with you/tell you how beautiful you are/pretend to buy you drinks (you buy the drinks). There are huge signs outside the bars with photos of the boys/girls you can choose. It’s super weird, but because many young Japanese are socially quite shy, they like this explicit social transaction. 

Of course we all picked a guy and had the time of our lives. AGH! Can you imagine?! So awkward. British social awkwardness meets Japanese paid-for dating. Just the thought makes me feel shuddery.

We found a small bar where beers were cheapish (400Y) and the telly in the background was playing the cartoon that is set in the area where KD’s house is. The streets have the characters displayed from lamp posts. It felt like our Tokyo home was famous and on TV! We drank a lot of beer but there are lots of toilets in Japan, so that worked out fine. I loved the toilets so much that when we returned to the UK, each cold toilet seat was a painful reminder that we were no longer in Japan.

Our plan was to find somewhere for dinner and then see if we could fit in a bit of karaoke.

TOP TIP: learn to read Japanese! Obviously that is good advice if you are good at learning languages in a few minutes. the tip is actually: LOOK UP! each floor has a different business on it and they’ll advertise at each level, sometimes with a board outside on the street. KD found us a restaurant on the 5th floor of some building. The lift opened directly into the restaurant. We had to take our shoes off and walk across a raised floor and were seated at a table that’s hard to describe. They have the same set up at Edo in Crystal Palace, if you’ve ever been there. There were a few things on the table ready for us to eat as hors d’oeuvres. One of the things was a sea snail which was much tastier than I would’ve anticipated.  The restaurant (like many) had a sort of set meal deal, with an all-you-can-drink option, which we obviously opted for. We started off on some ‘sours’ which were basically alcopops. One of my favourite moments of the holiday happened here as Luke asked KD to order him a kiwi sour (having previously had a lemon sour) and she asked the server for a ‘remon sour’. Luke then said, ‘does remon mean kiwi, then?’ to which KD replied ‘oh, no, remon means lemon, you see it’s like lemon but the l is an r. Oh. I ordered you the wrong drink.’ Cue LOLs all round.

We ordered a nabe, similar to shabu shabu – a hot pot cooked at your table. And, despite many locals avoiding sashimi due to radiation worries, we ordered some and it was SO GOOD I don’t even care if it glowed.

A small thrill was going to the toilet in the restaurant as they gave you special toilet slippers and you had to walk over a fake small river.

So, we ate a lot and we drank many remon sours. Sozzled, we stepped back out onto the seedy streets of Shinjuku and looked for a karaoke fix.

don’t remember taking these photos

KD found a guy on the street promoting a particular place and haggled us a pretty good deal. We said we’d try it for an hour and then go home (as the next day we were leaving Tokyo for Hakone). When you do karaoke in Japan, you get a booth, some tambourines if you want, a fully hooked up karaoke system and all-you-can-drink with a telephone to ring the bar to get them to bring you more drinks whenever you want. Three hours after we’d said we’d go home we were paying for 4 hours of karaoke/drinking. I think our deal was about £13/hour/pp, which is relatively cheap, but a lot when totalled together at 3am for 3 people.

It was worth every penny. I drank a million gallons of plum wine and we sang all the songs. It was the greatest night of my life. Also, I now know how to say “3 plum wines, please”  in Japanese. 

Shabu Shabu

On Saturday night we went to Katie’s favourite restaurant. A shabu shabu restaurant in Sakura-shimachi. Shabu shabu is a great meal. It’s a sort of hot pot type thing where you cook everything yourself at your own table. The hob is built into the table because, as I mentioned earlier, most restaurants in Japan specialise in one type of cuisine, so this place is pretty confident that every customer who comes in will want shabu shabu at their table. Our pot was split in two and we had a clear broth and a creamy (I think rice-based) broth. You choose what you want in your shabu shabu (beef, pork, fish, veg etc) and you then have 90 minutes to eat as much of it as you can. A lot of places have time limited all-you-can-eat/drink deals. This is because Japanese people are not as horrifically greedy as us Westerners and don’t seem to take the all-you-can-consume offer as some demented challenge. I don’t know about you but I find it very hard to leave an all-you-can-eat buffet before the point where I feel physically ill because I’ve eaten way more than I could ever comfortably fit inside my digestive system. It’s a combination of greed and my overwhelming sense of good value. If I pay £11 for an all-you-can-eat buffet, I want to make sure I eat way more than £11 worth of food, even if it makes me really unwell. I CAN’T STOP THIS.

Anyway, we had 90 minutes. You get the broth bubbling then you add the veg that will take some time to cook or will improve the flavour of the broth (mushrooms, carrots etc). Then you get your thinly sliced meat (we chose beef)and you dip it into the broth for a few seconds to cook, swishing it around. FUN TRIVIA: The name ‘shabu shabu’ comes from the sound you make as you swish the meat in the broth. You then take out your cooked meat and dip in into one of the 2 amazing sauces you get with shabu shabu. One is a ponzu type sauce, sort of soy and citrusy and the other is made from ground sesame seeds and is like a sort of sesame paste. Either way, it is DAMNED DELICIOUS.

When you run out of meat you just shout “sumimasen!” and a waiter will come and replenish your stock. It’s an incredible system. When your 90 minutes is up you can choose either rice or noodles and they’ll bring them to you to soak up what is left of the broth and you end your meal eating noodles and vegetables in broth just in case you weren’t full.

I’m sorry to any vegetarians who read this. You can get a veg version, I think, but I can’t imagine it’s as exciting. But there are plenty of exciting vegetarian things to eat in Japan – worry not! A good idea when you go places is to ask for ‘monk’s food’ as they tend to not eat any meat.

We’ve found a place in London that does a reasonable shabu shabu. It’s here: Sensuru and when you call them they say “hello, Japanese restaurant”. The actual name of the place is a mystery. On one menu inside it has written Suru, Tsenuru, Sensuru and Tsuru in different places. Tsu knows. It’s £16pp and it’s not all you can eat, but it’s not a bad approximation.

Kama Kama Kama Kama Kamakura

Saturday! (2nd April 2011)

The weekend, hooray. This meant our beautiful host was free to entertain us all day so we set off from Tokyo, using our JR Passes, travelled about 30 miles away on a train and arrived in the lovely small town of Kamakura. Kamakura is a popular day trip for many visitors to Tokyo. It’s a seaside town full of shrines, temples and most impressively, the largest (outdoor) Buddha in the world.

Before paying the big man a visit, we stopped to have lunch in a kaiten sushi (conveyor-belt) sushi restaurant. At midday the place was buzzing. We stood in line and the man in front of us put our names down on the list – he didn’t work there, he was just being nice (standard Japanese behaviour). We didn’t have to wait long before getting seated at a booth. Everybody knows the Japanese love fish. (it’s well documented in this song) At a sushi place, you can really see why. It’s so fresh! So varied! So delicious! So affordable! We ate a lot. Luke ate a sea urchin, which he wasn’t fond of, but the baby squids were amazing.

we ate all these plates and it came to about £30 for all of it.

Luke not enjoying a sea urchin.

After we had gorged on raw fish (can you ever really gorge on something so healthy?) we set off on a little walk to see the big bronze buddha, Daibutsu(Dai? He’s probably Welsh).


He’s big! That’s for sure. It costs 200Y to get in (approx £1.50) to see him. And you can even go INSIDE him, where it is like a massive echoey jelly mould. He’s survived fires, earthquakes and tsunamis. What a hunk. We then went off to see some temples and shrines with lovely gardens and amazing views across the sea.

these are dedications, you pay for a thing and write a prayer on it. Many of them had "play for Japan" written on them. SO ADORABLE. (Ls and Rs are seemingly interchangeable to the Japanese. Luke was often called Ruku)

It’s a very peaceful place. I guess it’s Tokyo’s equivalent of Brighton in a way. A seaside town less than an hour away, perfect for getting away from the hubbub of the big city. I don’t think  Kamakura is particularly renowned for it’s vibrant gay scene though. But relax in the knowledge that Take Out is OK from Woof Curry.

I also enjoyed a bottle of local cider, and tasted my first matcha ice-cream, making it a fully fledged trip to the Japanese seaside. 

We headed back to Tokyo as we had a special Saturday night meal planned, which I shall describe in my next post (oooh….the anticipation).

Good Vending!

On April Fool’s Day 2011 we woke from our hangovers to a glorious day in Tokyo.

Breakfast in the garden

Parks, pandas and plastic foods were on the menu for us April fools.

After breakfast in our host’s beautiful Japanese garden, we headed to Ueno Park. Ueno Park is a large park in the North-East of Tokyo. It has four museums, some temples, a few shrines and a zoo in it. Preeeeeetty busy.

It’s also a sakura hotspot. We were still a bit early for the cherry blossom, most of the trees were just budding, but there were a few spectacular early bloomers. We’d originally planned our holiday at this time because of the cherry blossom usually hitting in the 1st week of April. We are super sakura chasers.

early blossoming sakura in Ueno

Ueno Zoo had re-opened the day we went there, so there was a bit of hubbub going on there as people were happy to see the pandas back in action. Japan LOVES pandas. A lot of the area near Ueno park is littered with panda imagery.

One of the temples in Ueno park had a long avenue of food stalls, apparently an old tradition dating back to times when temple-goers would eat on their way back from their visit. An exciting collection of unidentifiable things on sticks, most for around 100Y (just under £1). At this point we were still a bit shy and didn’t have the confidence to buy any of the things.

Instead, we availed ourselves of the shy-person’s gift – the vending machine order system.

A quick note on vending machines.

arrogant vending machine

They are EVERYWHERE. Honestly, they pop up more frequently than every 100metres, sometimes three in a row, offering slightly different selections of drinks with names like “Calpis” and “Pocari Sweat”. They are amazing – they sell drinks (hot and cold), beer and cigarettes. Many Japanese use their mobile phones to pay for things in vending machines using some sort of chip technology. They can also use their phones as their Pasmo (Oyster card equivalent). They just hold their phone against some bit and the payment comes direct from a digitally set up account. It is brilliant. That’s also how they can ensure vending machines that sell booze/fags, do so only to adults.


It’s very tough to get thirsty in Japan. Vending machines pop up in shrines, temples and even on mountains. Convenience is a key element of Japanese life.  I wish we could have them in this country, but people would vandalise or rob them. Remember when we used to have chocolate vending machines in tube stations? God, I love vending machines.This particular vending process is slightly different.

The machine has a button
for each thing on the menu. You choose what you want, press the button, put the money in and the machine gives you a ticket. You then hand that ticket over to the person on the counter who  makes your order up fresh. I had a matcha ice cream and Luke had a banana and chocolate crepe.

I wish I'd taken this in colour because the octopus was an almost neon pillar box red.

Not far from Ueno Park is Ameyoko Market. This market sold black market American goods during the war and is now still the best place to get specialist foreign imports, especially American candy. It sells everything for good, negotiable prices – the opposite of the Ginza department stores. Clothes, accessories, seafood, candy, electronics – it has a bit of a Delboy vibe.

After our stroll through Ameyoko market we decided to walk to Asakusa, one of the most famous temples in Tokyo, which I’ll tell you all about in the next post – this one is already so full of photos.

the amount of dried squid I saw made my brain twitch at the idea of how much squid is still left in the sea

Luke enjoying a hot can of Rainbow Boss coffee.

Electric (conserving) Town!

As you can see from this Tokyo Metro map, Tokyo is a mega city. Like London, but perhaps even more distinctly, Tokyo is a massive metropolis made up of several small cities, each with their own identity, all smooshed together.

On our 1st full day in Tokyo we planned to do what everyone should do when they visit Tokyo – go to the Tsukiji fish market but due to the earthquake the tuna auction was not open to tourists and due to our late night sake fun-times, we were not up early enough to make it anyway. Armed with our Pasmos, JR passes and loads of Yen, we set out to visit Akihabara.

Akihabara Electric Town is famous for electronics and manga/anime shops. Luke had a request to buy a specific camera (a Nikon Coolpix) if if was available for a certain price. The 1st place we went had it, we bought it and the guy did an enormo bow at the end of the transaction. I like this type of capitalism.

Now, our host had declared Tokyo a “ghost town” but this photo shows what that means to a Tokyoite. It means there’s still bloody LOADS of people around.

Due to all the electricity conservation – all the shop signs and adverts were off everywhere. In a place like Akihabara, it resulted in a weird vibe. A bit like a nightclub in the daytime.

Luke saw a girl promoting something while wearing big cartoony animal gloves. He regrets not buying them. TOP TIP! Buy anything you think you really want at the time. You will not regret it.

We then headed off to the Imperial Palace. We thought we found it but it turned out it was just a very clean car park. As we’d ended up quite close to Ginza we decided to have lunch there.

Ginza is the luxury shopping district of Tokyo. There are department stores where they’ll use liquid nitrogen to keep your box of fruit fresh, so I hear. We didn’t have the funds to see if that was true as most things in the Ginza stores are maxi pricey.

It had started to rain so we dashed into a store basement where we found ourselves in a food hall. We sat down at a Japanese curry place and had a reasonably priced lunch without being able to read the menu. The exchange went a bit like this “curry?” (curry in Japanese is kare) “curry” “two?” “two”. I think it cost us about £15 for both of us.

The rain had eased as we made our way back to the Imperial Palace.  Tokyo has this incredible ability to switch rapidly between buzzing, urban metropolis to calm, ancient serenity.

The Imperial Palace East Gardens (free to the public) really illuminate that juxtaposition.

In the evening we met with a load of K’s friends in an Izakaya in Omotesando.

Having some people you know when visiting Japan can make the whole experience approx 98675 times more brilliant.It may even be worth attempting to find a pen pal in Tokyo who can show you around and order all the best stuff for you.

the fish shape is just a garnish.

In the izakaya we sat back and said “we’ll have anything” and we let the locals order for us. An izakaya is a sort of Japanese tapas bar, they serve beers (in this one the beers were poured by machines! argh! the future!) and small dishes. One thing I love about dining in Japan is how to get service. Instead of the European custom of embarrassingly attempting to get your server’s eye you just shout “SUMIMASEN!” It’s awesome.

After some takowasabi (spicy raw octopus), other mystery foods and many beers we headed off to a swish bar in Shibuya which was full of Gaijin ex-pats. It seems this is where all the westerners had been hiding – we still hadn’t seen any out on the streets of Tokyo.

Another example of the electricity saving in this night photo of Shibuya, which usually is bright enough to induce migraines. A few expensive cocktails down and then we were a drunken bunch swerving over east Tokyo looking for some place to drink. I remember some place called the Enjoybar in Ebisu, another called the Absinthebar and then a taxi back home with our constantly amiable host (who again had work the next day – she is INCREDIBLE) long after the trains had stopped for the night.

Nadia-san Hits Tokyo Town.

The shinkansen is really the Rolls Royce of train travel.

You can get a reservation (you might as well if you have a JR Pass) up to the few minutes before the train arrives. Your ticket will show your reservation and the platform has lines painted on it to show you where to stand to get on the train at the exact place to find your seats.

Inside it is spacious and sort of calm. It has a feeling a bit like being on a plane. There’s loads of leg room but not many places for big luggage. You could easily store a small suitcase in the space between you and the next seat, though. There’s a vending machine somewhere on the train and also a trolley service. Some trains even have a smoking carriage, which to my smoke-ban British sensibilities seems CRAZY. My favourite bit was the person whose job seemingly is to walk through each carriage, turn to face all the passengers (remember the seats all face the direction of travel) and do a bow before going off to bow at the next carriage. I loved that person.

I wanted to test the claim that the bullet trains are so punctual one could set one’s watch by them. So at each station I looked at the board on the platform to see what time it was due to leave and every single time the train left within 15 seconds of that time. AMAZING.

The train goes very, very fast. The scenery tends to be very developed the whole way. I think much of Japan is developed because of its geology. As far as I can tell, long island = mountains in the middle = building most of the stuff around the edges.

This is a typical view from the train. The green net thing is a golf driving range. As space is at such a premium in Japan you’ll often see these golf ranges on top of buildings. Crazy fun.

We hurtled towards Tokyo with our milk and instructions to meet our host at the “statue of a dog” at Shibuya station.

We arrived into Tokyo, and headed straight for Shibuya on the JR Yamanote line (so no need to buy any further tickets). The only evidence of the country’s largest ever earthquake and impending nuclear doom was the lack of gaijin, and a few train services which were cancelled “due to earthquake”. A considerably better excuse than “signal failure” (I’m looking at you, TfL.)

Shibuya crossing is one of the most famous images of Japan/Tokyo. A buzzing, bright, flashing example of the mega-tropolis that is Tokyo.

Due to the earthquake and the power station troubles, electricity conservation was being strictly adhered to in Tokyo. When we arrived, this is what Shibuya looked like:

Obviously it was in the day time but none of the screens were on and all the advertising lights were off.

And still, we could see no western people. Our blond-haired Dutch friend would be incredibly easy to spot.

We had a bit of time to kill so we wandered over to the Starbucks (you can see in the shiny photo) to get a coffee.

Not as easy as you’d imagine! Japanese love their coffee cold, so you have to specify ‘hot’ if you want a hot coffee. All the sugars are liquid sucrose sachets because of this. Small differences, but so weird. And then the whole place was a crazy, cacophonous melee & our first encounter with the high pitch that Japanese ladies vocally favour.

Coffees in hand we went to find the “dog statue” where we were to meet our host. I found a mural on a wall with some dogs on it and assumed that was it. Within a few minutes my face obviously giving off a “not sure if this is right” vibe, some lovely girls approached us and asked if we needed any help. I said something along the lines of us being ok, but then I said (literally, this is exactly what I said) “something about a dog?” to which they went “ahhh” and took us around a corner to where there was a big statue of a dog. The Hachiko dog, in fact.

Helpful, lovely people!

Our friend arrives, we have some mega hugs, and she decides we should hang around and wait for the rush hour to calm down before heading home. A short walk from where we were stood waiting for her is a teeny street I think called Nonbei Yokocho. It is lined with the dwttyest bars I’ve ever seen.

We went to a bar that could seat 4 people. I think this is the one. Katie seemed to know the bartender, who spoke very good English. But she’s so gregarious it sometimes seems she knows everyone on the Earth. We had a few Asahis in this tiny bar and the chat was mostly about the exodus of Westerners from Tokyo, now termed ‘flyjin‘. I loved this tiny bar. If we weren’t with Katie we would never have a)found it b)had the confidence to go in. It felt like Japanese people may have been drinking beer in this tiny booze den for hundreds of years. Another place I had this cozy, local feeling in was the Bar Al Campanile in Venice which doesn’t even have chairs but does serve a killer spritz.

Katie gave us a Pasmo each and handed me a moleskin with useful stuff in.

The useful stuff included a quick guide for use in case of quake/tsunami/fallout. Note the important last step.

The drinking of beer was very much a “survival technique” employed by us during our time in quake-hit Tokyo.

We headed to Katie’s amazing Tokyo home, stopping at a shop to get some things for dinner where we bumped into her dad doing the same thing. Only Katie & her dad were still in Japan as her mother & sister had flown home to escape the quake/nuclear problems (pah! flyjin!). Fresh fruit and veg were thin on the ground in the shop (figuratively, I mean – they were actually displayed hygienically in boxes) and instant ramen was looking sparse as well as there being no milk.

Papa Katie made us dinner before we headed out for a “nightcap” at a sake bar up the road.

Now, I don’t remember taking these photos, but evidently I did.

We tried a variety of sakes and I do remember enjoying a cloudy one.

Also, I remember they gave us free nibbles.

Then, I think we bought a Crunky each from the shop on the way home at approx 3am. 24 hour convenience shops FTW.

And then, as we stumbled into our bedroom, another reminder of the curious situation we found ourselves in – some face masks left for us in case of emergency.

Takoyaki!

We pulled into Shin-Osaka station and alighted at about 7pm, a little while after rush hour. It was still very busy.

The furthest east I’d been before this trip was Baghdad. 

That’s about 4000 miles from Japan, and about 3000 miles from London. Japan is very literally the Far East. Having been in transit for about a day and having crossed about 9 different time zones I was feeling pretty discombobulated already. Add to that being in Japan – a country that feels like it could be another planet, and I was feeling VERY discombobulated.*

What I’m trying to say is that is took us 45 minutes to find the right exit out of the station. I had printed out a map from the hostel we were staying in and eventually we managed to find our way to it. It was a 20/25 minute walk from Shin-Osaka station in the dark, so we felt pretty pleased about how we were dealing well with everything despite not being able to understand ANYTHING. When you travel in Europe (or any place that has Latin or Germanic-based languages), you can figure out what things mean as you can read the text. Not in Japan!  A typical exchange when trying to find directions: “What does it say?” “It says house with eyebrows on top, next to wiggly squiggle with legs coming out of it.”

We found ourselves here, the lovely Caminoro hostel in the area of Mikuni. It is run by a couple who have THE CUTEST BABY ON EARTH. They speak excellent English (and Spanish!), and are marvellously friendly & helpful.

We were jet lagged and exhausted so just went straight to bed. We booked the private Japanese style tatami mat room. Hey – we’re in Japan, why the hell would you not choose all the mega Japanese options?

The room was pretty dwtty. It had a little table with two chairs (are they chairs? they don’t have legs), a small dresser and all the bedding in the corner. So we transformed our little room from a living space to a sleeping space and it was lovely. I find sleeping on a futon very comfortable and I had such a wonderful sleep.

In the morning we were given a little map of the area and told places we could get breakfast.

We ventured out to the covered shopping street that we were staying on. This was properly Osakan and not touristy in any way. Though this was TERRIFYING it was also a pure thrill of feeling being thrown in at the deep end.

We found a tiny cafe type place and pointed at some photos of toast and coffee on a menu. Toast in Japan is about an inch thick. Why do they do so many things better than we do? We felt smug with ourselves for having got this far, then freaked out about how we were supposed to pay. TOP TIP: In Japan, the usual thing is to ask for the bill and then go up to a counter near the door to pay after they give you the bill.

TOP TIP: DO NOT TIP! Tipping is not a thing in Japan. If you leave a tip the staff are likely to run after you with it shouting ‘you forgot your change!’ The only place you might tip is in a Ryokan.

After totally smashing the getting breakfast thing we thought we might take a quick trip into central Osaka to have a quick look before heading to the station to catch the bullet train to Tokyo. We went to the nearest subway station. We spent 15 minutes looking at the tube map which had zero romanji on it, and poking the ticket machine which was also 100% in Japanese. Then we gave up and went back to the hostel to collect our stuff.

Me & Luke 1,  Japan 1.

There was no evidence of the enormous tragedy that was ongoing to the North except that my friend asked us to buy milk and bring it to Tokyo as it was difficult to buy there. Imagine not being able to buy milk in London. The entire country would collapse without all those cups of tea. (I’ll explain the dog thing in the next blog).

The walk back to Shin-Osaka station was much easier in the daylight and we got there in time for the bustling lunchtime trade. We reserved some seats on the 13.40 to Tokyo and embarked on the overwhelming act of choosing which place to have lunch at as there are about 40 different small restaurants in Shin-Osaka station. I tweeted asking what we should have and immediately  Josie Long & Chris Coltrane shouted the word “TAKOYAKI” at me.

typical plastic food outside a restaurant

Many, many restaurants in Japan have plastic food models of the dishes they serve displayed outside the restaurant. They are INCREDIBLY realistic. Very helpful if you can’t read a menu, and they let you know what type of cuisine the restaurant deals with.

I found us a takoyaki restaurant (in Japan, restaurants tend to specialise in one type of food. eg. ramen shop, sushi place etc). The prices seemed pretty reasonable so I opted for a set meal which included a beer, and Luke pointed at one which didn’t have a picture of a beer on it.

It’s possible we ordered too much. I don’t know what a sensible portion is. I do know that these delicious octopus dumplings have driven me wild with cravings ever since. Meg Prosser described them as “profiteroles of the sea” and they really are tremendously lovely. I am saving up to buy this from the Japan Centre. If you feel like generously donating to the Nadia Kamil Takoyaki Fund, please feel free. As a reward I will make you takoyaki whilst wearing the colour of your choice. What a deal!

The 1st thing they gave us when we sat down in the restaurant were some hot towels. In Japan you will often see this. It’s customary to wash your hands before your meal. Don’t save them at the side til the end like we did. We must’ve looked like right fannies. Fannies with filthy fingers they must’ve thought us.

A second successful meal and we left to find our platform to await the shinkansen to Tokyo.

*discombobulated twice in one blog? Oh yes, team, get on board.