Well that time had come around again and my 3-month visa-alarm was buzzing so we had to get across some borders pretty sharpish. After perusing the available flights out of Busan we settled on a reasonably priced, yet maddeningly scheduled, trip to Tokyo! Before we came to Korea we figured Busan was going to be a great location to act as a launchpad to the rest of Asia. We thought the airlines would be cheap and the flights plentiful but unfortunately our experiences have proved the contrary. Korea seems to be tucked so far around China’s bulging waistline that getting anywhere beyond it’s immediate neighbours is a bit of an expense, in both time and money, and seeing as it’s still technically at war with it’s closest neighbour to the North and with China not being an option for me yet, (ol’ thommy no visa) Japan was the solid leader by default. Not that we minded that.
We had already crossed the Strait to the Land of the Rising Sun back in August thanks to Tessie’s visa shuffle, but that was simply to the closest city, Fukuoka, where we spent 4 glorious days eating sushi, visiting temples and strolling along beaches. This time though we only had 2 days and thanks to the Air Busan scheduling that was cut down to 25 hours. Which actually makes it one of the most expensive trips (relative per day) I’ve ever been on. But that’s not something to dwell upon. How could we complain? WE WERE GOING TO TOKYO! As we were boarding the plane I realized that this was the first place (since our residence in Korea) that we’ve visited that we wanted to visit. That sounds harsh I know, but there are certain places that have always been on my hitlist and Taipei, as outstanding as it was, wasn’t one of those places. But Tokyo has a certain reputation. Neon lights, crowded streets, anime and weird weird stuff.
Needless to say, we were eager beavers!
We woke up bright and early on Saturday morning, stuffed the bare essentials into one carry-on bag (guess who was doing the carrying…YAHOOO) and skipped across the city to the airport. We got there in plenty of time to change some money over, send an email copy of our itineraries to parents (just in case) and score ourselves some window seats! Before long we were up, up and away heading East across the Korea Straight.
The flight was quick and easy, sunshine was beaming it’s way through the patchy clouds splitting them apart like a laser beam. We circled around Tokyo to get to Narita airport (about 35 miles east of the city) and marvelled at the sparkling Pacific Ocean licking the shore, it was a beautifully clear day and as we made our descent towards the runway, something about the clouds to the West looked odd. “Oh whoa! That cloud is so clear and detailed; Cloud HD. Its kind of slanted, and flat at the top. Hmm…” We couldn’t work it out at first but one particular cloud struck me as out of place as it hovered above the others on the hazy horizon. Then it struck me, it wasn’t a cloud at all, it was a mountain. And if my memory served me right, it wasn’t just any mountain, it was Mount Fuji. I’ve seen many photos and drawings of Mt Fuji, in fact the postcards we send from Fukuoka were of the “36 views of Mount Fuji” series by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, one of which “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” we decided to keep on our wall, but I didn’t have any idea where in Japan it was, I certainly didn’t think we’d be seeing it on this trip. But there it was, gleaming on the skyline like a mirage. After a couple of minutes we had descended too far and it was gone.
We’d researched how to get from Narita into Tokyo before we left so buying the right train ticket was simple enough and before long we were speeding our way towards the most populated city in the world (depending on where you look). Tess had already managed to make a friend, a 40-something Korean-English teacher, he had been on our flight and was very chatty. He also happened to be on our train and told us where we should visit on our 24hour whirlwind tour.
Apparently this was his 56th trip to Japan. I’m not exactly sure how this person exists but he claimed to travel abroad at least 12 times/year. Sorry….WHAT? So once a month? for how many days? I dont…how does…what? Anywhoooo this worldly lad taught us a few things about Tokyo, showed us which trains to take on the overwhelming subway system and suggested some great tourists spots. I don’t think he fully got the concept of 25hours in Tokyo, but of his super extensive list we had a pretty good idea of how to chew up this town and we couldn’t be anything but mega thankful. NOM NOM NOM!
He was quite helpful though. He knew exactly how the subways worked and gave us a few quite tips, which came in handy on account of:
My good friend Mr James Harmston, or Hammy as he was cleverly nicknamed, is a bit of a Japanoholic and fulfilled his dream of visiting Tokyo a few years ago. I figured if anybody could guide us around this capital sprawl it would be him. He made a few suggestions including what he described as the “the gaming/manga/weird shit” neighbourhood – Akihabara. This was exactly what we were looking for. Seeing as how we were basically in Tokyo just for dinner and didn’t have any time to really explore, we’d made the decision to dig in to Japan’s weird underbelly and find if all the rumours about the culture are true. Every major city is famed for having its awesome attractions, unique character and specific vibe. Tokyo’s fame come from its vibe being “all things that are weird.” Since we had such a short amount of time we thought it best to focus on eating tasty treats and ogling the sexy, pervy spectacles around us.
Hammy also suggested the brand new Skytree, a building, just opened back in May, that claims to be the world’s tallest tower (80metres taller than Toronto’s CN Tower, that now stands in 3rd place behind the Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China), as it turned out our hostel was pretty much in the Skytree so we could gaze up at it as we lay in our beds. Not that we had anytime to waste doing that kind of thing. Once we had checked in it was GO GO GO!
We left out hostel with our necks craned and our eyes locked on this looming metal “tree”. Hapharzarly making our way through zebra crossings and into oncoming pedestrians we couldn’t seem to break eye contact, that is until we caught a glimpse of gold. WHAZZAT? A big wavy golden bean! The museum and headquarters for the famed Asahi Brewery was built to resemble a tall glass of ale. The rounded off corners and shinning surface are meant to resemble the glass, and maybe I’ve been getting ripped off, but I’ve yet to drink my share of floating golden beans.
The sun was already hanging suspiciously low in the sky so we had to move quick, crossing the river into Asakusa and finding ourselves at the bustling Senso-Ji Temple. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains that skirt the city’s Western perimeter it splashed the temple and its surrounding pavilions in a magic hour glow.
The temple grounds house a large market with tones of vendors selling everything from paper hats to sushi to this:
We fought our way through the thick crowd until the scent of incense filled our nose holes. Alas. We arrived at the temple itself and made our way in. It was packed with people and reminded me of a mix of the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul and Longshan Temple in Taipei. Japanese temples have these really cool giant red lantern things swingin’ about in the doorways.
We sniffed and snapped and took in all things holy- and all things adorable! There seemed to be a gaggle of girls donning their traditional apparel and doing a mighty fine job at that.
All this jaw dropping was getting our bellies a rumblin so we decided to tuck in on some street vendors (eh?). Now if you know me, you know I likes me a good eatin’, and I’ve yet to be let down by Japanese food. We scanned the stalls in search for our next target- the weirdest thing around….then we spotted this guy…BINGO! (you’re making us sound like cannibals)
So you want to make your own Japanese street griddle cakes? I think it goes a little something like this:
Japanese Street Griddle Cake: (note we ate the vegetarian version of this)
- Pour pancake batter onto a hot griddle
- cover in shredded cabbage
- shape cabbage into a cabbagy nest
- crack an egg into the centre
- pile on dehydrated shrimp, Rice Krispies, Ramen noodles and pickle ginger
- cut in half and stand creation on end
- smoosh the to halves hard against each other
- Slap on some back bacon
- smother in teriyaki sauce, mayonnaise and fish scales
- dig in
If you can read Japanese or you know about this muddle meal then please feel free to enlighten us on how in the world this is a dish.
After the last of the sun’s embers had been extinguished in the sky we made our way to Akihabara and turned our dials to weird.
This area is exactly what I had hoped to find in Tokyo. I knew we wouldn’t have time to cram it all in, but at least we could see some spooky pervy strangeties.
In this district every building glitters with LEDs or neons blinding all those who stare too long, the place throbs with energy and music, questionably aged girls dress up as anime characters and hand out flyers or wave you over to peruse the menu they’re clutching. We walked around in the surprisingly warm evening air (come to think of it, the heat probably had something to do with the amount of lighting in the area) soaking up the sights and smells. We dipped into one of the hundreds of arcades and watched people race, shoot, dance, raft, ski, and fight each other and fumble on the thousands of Claw Crane machines that offer an ridiculous array of prizes.
I don’t know why he thinks these are ridiculous prizes….
Obviously we couldn’t come to this area of town and not venture into one of the famed sex shops. The one we wandered into was at least 7 storeys high and god knows how many more basement levels there were. It’s doors were wide open, with posters of the special offers waiting inside plastered all over the windows, and it was bopping with people of all different ages. The stuff we saw within is something we shall take with us to our graves. I refuse to go into detail but let’s just say that along with all the usual stuff you would expect to find…IN A SERIAL KILLER’S BASEMENT!! Spooky childlike dolls, build your own wonder-girl blow up sets and oh…there was also a medical section… No. Thanks.
After we had sanitized our everything, we subway’d over to the Shinjuku neighbourhood for some food! We had been told two things about Shinjuku, one; it’s fulla good restaurants and two: forget the T-Tower and the S-Tree, city hall is the place to be. Tokyo’s city hall consists of a complex of three structures, each taking up a city block. The tallest and most prominent of the three is Tokyo Metropolitan Main building No.1, a tower 48 stories tall that splits into two sections at the 33rd floor.On the 45th floor of each tower is an observation deck that is open, free of charge, to the public. Free of charge? Well that’s our life motto! When we got there though it was past 9pm and the place looked empty, we were about to turn around when I noticed a small line of people emerging from a doorway, we joined at the back and 20 minutes later were hopping into an elevator and heading for the 45th floor!
We joked about this trip being so short we were really only going to Japan for dinner, but to be honest, that’s really all we were doing, we both love Japanese cuisine so much that we considered spending the whole time in restaurants. I wouldn’t have complained. But of course you get distracted and end up seeing the sights instead. We’d not forgotten about food though and as soon as we exited the city hall we were on the hunt for some good tucker. For some strange reason, when we were in Fukuoka we had struggled to find places to eat and I’m really not sure why, it wasn’t the lack of options and I’m reluctant to use the language barrier as most places have photo menus and we didn’t have that problem in Taiwan. I think it must be a combo of language and lack of vegetarian options, plus it seems like the restaurants close early in Japan, or maybe that’s our fault for trying to seek out food so late. We must be used to the Korean culture of 24hr everything (except transit). We were determined to not repeat the experience in Tokyo but as the clock ticked on and our options looked thin on the ground we started to panic. We come all the way to Japan for one meal and we end up eating snacks at a convenience store? NO WAY!
Tess found a place that closed later than the others and when we asked the host if the had veggie options he ushered us in. He took us down a dimly lit hallway and up two flights of stairs before we actually got to the restaurant. It was a maze of dark wood walls and private rooms, we removed our shoes and padded around the walkway after our server, she pointed us into our booth where we slid under the low table and swung our legs into the pit underneath it. Each booth varied in size and was surrounded by thick wooden frames that both created an individual space but still allowed a shared atmosphere. It was set to be exactly what we were looking for. Until we looked at the menu, which took the form of a touch-operated screen at one end of our table. The idea was to select the dishes you wanted, hit send and the order bleeps into the kitchen, like online shopping but with the delivery time being 10 minutes.
It’s a great system, unless you want to make some adjustments to your meal, like removing the meat for example. Seeing as how the “veggie options” were a side salad and a bowl of rice, this was the challenge we undertook. It was too late to try and find somewhere else so we called over a server and tried to explain. She in turn called over another server with better English skills who turned us over to another colleague until we had most of the servers in the place gathered around our table trying to come up with meal options for us. It was a bit of a nightmare but you know what, it was worth it, they managed to work out what we were asking for and accommodated us in real style! We ended up with a dish called Nabe which is basically a bunch of vegetables and tofu in a big soup. They bring a gas burner out to the table and you cook it yourself, we had so much food but it was all delicious, it was exactly what we were looking for really; Something different, tasty and filling at a restaurant that’s not catered towards tourists. It was great. As was the bill.
By the time we finished up eating it was midnight. We had no idea what time the Tokyo subway stops running and we were a long way from home. We realized we’d done things in the wrong order. We should have started at the furthest point away from our hostel and made our way closer. Ah well. Luckily the first line we needed was still open, I think we caught the last Eastbound train of the night back from Shinjuku, but when we tried to transfer it was game over. We could have cabbed the rest of the way but it wasn’t that far and the night was positively balmy in comparison to Busan, plus after all that food a walk seemed like a good idea.
As we navigated our way through the Asakusabashi area something struck me as odd about the scene. It was quiet. Too quiet. And clean. Way too clean. This was supposed to be the most populated city on the planet and yet here we were on a Saturday night walking through a downtown neighbourhood, on a wide avenue lined with stores, none of which were boarded up, and yet we were the only people on the street. There didn’t seem to be any city noise, there were no parked cars, everything was unbelievably clean to the point it looked brand new. The decorative flora was pristine to the point of suspicion, but it was all real and the whole place was lit like a movie set. We didn’t feel in the slightest bit threatened like you could easily do in other major cities at that time of night when you don’t really know where you’re going. It was a bizzarre sensation. One which mirrored Fukuoka. Even during rush hour when there were plenty of people on the pavement and cars on the street it was oddly quiet. Like someone had just turned the volume down on the city.
Comically, the only other people we passed were two police officers on bicycles who had stopped another lone cyclist to tell him off for running a red light. But there was absolutely no other traffic about. Maybe there’s some curfew in Tokyo that we don’t know about…
The next day we were up ridiculously bright and early. Our hostel, the Asakusa Smile was a pleasant enough little place, we just went for the cheapest we could find as we were only there for one night and most of that would be spent out. Our room had 3 sets of bunk beds in it and when we asked at reception they said all the other beds were occupied. We didn’t meet any of our roommates though, two never showed up and the other two were already in bed when we came in and we left before they woke up.
After a sleep comparable to the blink of an eye we were up the next day. We wanted to make sure that we would be able to see everything possible on this short short morning before we had to make trails for the airport again, so up and out we were. Skytree bound. We waltzed on over to the Skytree which pretty much comprised of crossing the street. On our way there we saw this funky boat shaped club house. How and why….we’ll never know.
Also on our way to the tower we spotted this printed onto the sidewalk. This would be really awesome if it weren’t for the fact that everyone smokes so heavily in restaurants…but you’ve gotta hand it to them for some good effort. It’s like they’ve got it backwards, no smoking outdoors, but smoke all you want inside. Eh?
Ahh yes. The big bird herself. The tallest beast and yet up close it seems the same as the CN tower. But I guess your lil eyeballs can’t really understand it, all your can do is bicker nonsense to each other: I “betcha thats 10 of my houses on top of each other.” “no way man, 8. Tops.Plus a chimney maybe.” Who exactly did you have this exchange with?
We couldn’t afford to climb up the big metal tree, both in money and time, but as the day was so cloudy we decided it probably wouldn’t have been as good a view as our free view the night before. So what do you do when you can’t afford the ride? Well take a trip to the gift shop of course! While we were perusing the tower shaped liquor bottles and ballpoint pens we found a room filled with our closest friends:
It never fails. Every time I go into a giftshop….
Haha, she bashed her head so hard on those, surprisingly solid, fingers trying to get into position for this photo. Worth it though, definitely worth it…
With the last 2 hours of our trip upon us I suggested a quick peek at the original tower, the one that looks like the Eiffel Tower with war paint. 15 minutes on the subway (which, by the way, rivals London in price, there must be a way to transfer but nobody we asked knew how, so we had to pay again every time we changed lines) and we were there. Little did we know but there’s also a beautiful temple right next door!
You know those stupid “High-five” photos we sometimes take? We tried to make it a “thing”, every traveller seems to have a “thing” to take pictures of everywhere they go, most often it’s a toy or figurine of some description in fact we also have ducks (Bud and Lady Bud) which we do genuinely take everywhere with us but always forget to take snaps of them. Duh. Anyway we also tried to start high-fiving in front of famous landmarks but have been failing miserably at that too. It’s surprisingly hard to remember! (We also thought of having me down on one knee proposing as Tess either cries tears of sadness or throws up) But when we got to the Tokyo Tower we actually remembered and asked a passing gent if he’d do the decent thing and take a snap of us.
There were a lot of people buzzing about and it took a while to get a good clear shot, what we didn’t realise was that we had wandered into the base camp for a peace march and we’re standing right in the way of the start line. Everybody was watching us as we tried and tried again to take our stupid high-five photo for our stupid little blog as they stood ready to march through the streets of Tokyo, arm in arm, in aid of peace. Needless to say we were soon ushered out of the way.
At least the picture was worth it.
It also happened to be November 11th, so as the hour approached 11am Tess and I looked for a quiet spot to take a minute out of our day in respect for all those who fought for our freedom and the freedom of others in the first world war. We also remember all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those who have put their lives on the line and continue to do so in the countless wars and conflicts since.
It seems Asia has a different take on November 11th. By unfortunate coincidence this day has been taken over by the marketers of the chocolate treat Pocky which is simply a biscuity stick dipped in chocolate. Korea copied the idea with it’s own version; Pepero (빼빼로). Because the number 11 looks like two Pocky sticks, they proclaimed that November 11th would now be called Pocky Day (or Pepero Day in Korea) and everybody rushes out and buys each other Pocky. It’s a neat marketing campaign and it clearly works, it’s just a shame that it falls on such a sacred day for the West of the world.
We walked around the base of the tower, gazing up, wishing we had the time to scale the outside and get up to the top, wondering which came first, this or it’s Parisian sister. There was a small stage set up with a small man standing on it making a lot of noise directed at the small crowd that had gathered. A Pocky celebration of some sort, we didn’t stick around to see what was going on, although we may have posed in a skin coloured house with a giant thumb in a hat.
Getting to the airport was not without it’s challenges. In theory, it’s a simple train from downtown Tokyo all the way to Narita Airport, in fact there are 3 to choose from, each vary in time, cost and amount of stops. Our trouble started when we asked a handy platform guard (which seem to be at every major station, to make sure the trains arrive and depart as planned) how we get to the airport train and he told us we needed to transfer at a certain station, I forget which now, but when we got there there didn’t seem to be anything to transfer to. We asked the handy platform guard at that station only to be told that we’d just gotten off the train we needed, we had to wait for the next one to Aoto station where the airport train leaves from. What the other guy was on about we’ll never know.
So we took the next train and got off at Aoto station, feeling a little against the clock now we wasted no time in finding the (increasingly less-) handy platform guard and asked him where to transfer to the airport train (we’d been confused by this station on the way into the city as trains on both sides of the platform head in the same direction, it’s kind of disorienting). He pointed back to the platform we’d just come from. Grrrrr!! WHAT’S GOING ON?
You hear about Tokyo’s subway being one of the best in the world, but to be honest we found it confusing, frustrating and expensive. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and put it down to a bad experience but sheesh! Telling us we had to transfer when we were on the right train all along, what’s that all about?
Despite what Tess will say, we got to the airport in plenty of time, yes we were the last to check-in, but that meant no waiting around in queues. I did get questioned about why I was going to Korea and the check-in staff wanted proof of an out-bound flight before they would let me on the flight, which is kind of worrying, but no problems there, we had our Christmas flights booked to Bankok. They needed proof though, so we had to find a computer, pay for some internet time and print off itineraries. Other than that though, it was smooth sailing 🙂 right Tess?
Tokyo had always been this wondrous, exotic, bizarre, pervy, neon coloured, high-pitched music, high fashion filled ultra cool mega city in my mind. And now that I’ve been there I’ve realized its as weird and eccentric as I could have ever imagined. One thing we did find out was that Tokyo (as well as Fukuoka) is extremely clean and strangely futuristic as well as being filled with stuff from the late 70s. I can’t quite put my finger on this strange strange town, and I’m not interested in it putting its sticky pervy fingers anywhere near me. But I will tell you this; Tokyo is frigging awesome and I’d go back for dinner any day!