Posts tagged ‘tokyo’

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. 

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.