There's no way you could say you've seen England if you had just visited London and Birmingham, so I won't try to make you believe I understand Japan from seeing Tokyo and Osaka.
When I told people I was going to Japan, everyone said "it's really expensive", "no one speaks English" and "they only use cash, so no credit cards". All of these statements turned out to be false.
Maybe it's just me, but I found the best places to eat were Japanese noodle bars. These are canteen style food bars which sold udon (thick) noodles and rarmen noodles in a soup with vegetables or meat. Some rice dishes were also available. A filling meal could be bought for ¥450-600, and they didn't hang around when it came to serving. Some of these food places (particularly at stations) were standing room only. They were frequented by most of the locals from business men to street workers. I didn't seen any non-Japanese people at any of these places.
A great man once said: "Communication is more than just about words" (thanks Dad) and he is absolutely right: there's pointing and jumping around. But seriously, I found that almost everyone I came across knew a couple of words relating to their job. For example, the station master knew "platform" and numbers. Most of the people in the street knew a splattering of English and everyone else could signal "straight on then turn left". For all those other things I had Swifty's "Point It" book - a handy book with 1,200 pictures of every day items.
A lot of the restaurants had photos and in most cases they had made the actual meal and left it outside in a glass box so you could see what you were getting. I purposely picked things I didn't recognise (blind ordering) because I wanted to experiment with the local food.
Pretty much every sign post had an English translation underneath. The spelling was pretty bad, but it has to be said, better than mine! Most of the shopping centres were filled with British and American stores. After travelling through most of them I was surprised how little Japanese there actually was. Since the last Emperor embraced western culture in the spirit of learning, even to the point to wearing western suits, the whole country has followed behind him.
I brought ¥40,000 (£315) out here with me for 7 full days and I'm bringing home ¥7,000, and I haven't been watching the pennies. It was around ¥2,500 per night in the hostels and they all accepted credit cards. Day passes for the metro where only ¥1,000. Most of the tourist attractions were either free or ¥600-700. The most expensive things where coffee and posh cakes in western style coffee shops. One couldn't Switch a loaf of bread and a pint of milk like you could in England but who cares.
The restaurant that Koichie took me to was pretty expensive and if you ate like that every night then I can see how the cost would crank up. I wanted to do what they do, live how they live, which is why I got up early and did the journey to the tourist spots with the commuters. After a day of tourist stuff, I switched district with them. If there is one thing I'll say about communing, it's that it is eerily quiet!
I found the Japanese people warm and welcoming. The cities seemed crime free and I hardly saw any dodgy people. I didn't feel like I had to watch my bags or my back!
The whole ethos of the country is different. They are one, working and living to serve the country as a whole. There's almost no fat people partly because of the low fat diet but mostly because everyone is active. There is a job for every one - even if it is guarding a hole in the ground. You never see anyone working on there own, even in tiny shops there are 2 assistants. I'm sure it is more expensive to run an economy this way but the total cost is balanced across the whole of it. Low unemployment, people can retire at 60 but most of them stay on with a small wage from the government to sweep the streets or supervise road maintenance safety - and they do it because they want to.
On the whole, I have enjoyed my time here and can thoroughly recommend it. When I've seen the rest of the world this will be the first place I will see again. Thank-you Japan.
Here are all the journal entries:
- Japanese tour day 1 - Travelling to Tokyo, Virgin Atlantic's lovely air stewardess, Asakusa.
- Japanese tour day 2 - Tsukijishijo fish market, Amidi Budda temple, Ginza, Nissan Gallery, Imperial Palace, Japanese government buildings, real pawn sushi diner.
- Japanese tour day 3 - Imperial Palace Gardens, Emperor official gift museum, currency museum, Suitengu Shrine - Seven Deities of Good Luck, Akihabara, make friends with noodle bar family.
- Japanese tour day 4 - private train lines, Shinkansen (or Bullet Train), Shin-Osaka, Osaka, Yakuza, making more friends in a pub/noodle bar.
- Japanese tour day 5 - Osaka Castle, befriended by a Japanese tourist, Peace Osaka, resturant recommended by friendly stranger, an Englishman working there, Tenjimbashi-suji shopping corridor, Mitzumi and the mad woman, map mystry solved, Namba, Takayumi, sketch for diner.
- Japanese tour day 6 - Sycophantic Floating Garden Observatory, super effecient Shinkansen (or Bullet Train), Sanyo Fin, kimono, Koichi's chicken diner, more girls than boys, Mount Fuji.
- Japanese tour day 7 - showing people around, you again!, Odaiba, Shimbashi mono rail, Fuji TV, White Day, shopping centre, Liar Game, Menji park and shrine, Akihabara, big sushi meal.
6 March 2010
Not sure if it's the fact I've got over my jet lag or the 2 pints I had last night with Koichi but I slept in to 9 this morning. It's probably the ending of the jet lag which is typical seeing as I'm leaving tomorrow morning.
Met some new arrivals who looked a bit green so I offered to take them to the metro station and show them how to get the one-day metro pass. After breakfast they said they would just have a shower and meet me downstairs. I should have known better - an English girl and an American girl disappeared and re-appeared in the blink of an hour! Amazing! What do they do with the time?
On the way to the station I bumped into a girl I met in Osaka Castle. I love travelling! This kind of coincidence happens all the time!
Koichi recommended I go to Odaiba. This town was the last line of defence from naval invaders. Part of the name "Odaiba" means canon so there would be some history there.
Caught the Ginza metro to Shimbashi, then hopped on the mono rail. Odaiba is on a set of little islands off the south coast, so there is a suspension bridge which looks very like the one in San Francisco, only white. The bridge must have been built after the town because on one side the bridge comes down as you would expect but on the other side it turns 270 degrees looping under itself coming down parallel to the coast line. Unfortunately, there wasn't much history when I got there.
To be fair I had actually gone to see the Fuji TV (TV station) which is another tall building with an observation platform. Unfortunately it was really chucking it down again and I didn't have the heart to pay entry to see another grey skyline, so I just looked around the shops.
At the end of the island there are a set of hotels. One of the hotels was a really posh affair and was totally set up for your "White Day". You've guessed it weddings! I really don't think anyone does anything else in their spare time other than get married!
The shopping centre was having a press release for a film called Liar Game. The stars of the film were here doing interviews and there were hundreds of people screening and waving. It is a Japanese film so there is no one I recognised but the crowd was going mental each time the stars turned around.
I had seen enough and headed back to Shimbashi (the start of the monorail and the edge of the metro), then over to Shibuya. Had a spot of lunch in a restaurant next to the park - a bowl of paste with "special meat sauce" which turned out to be bolognese sauce with no meat in it! Can't grumble as it cost less than a pint of beer. The restaurant was packed but for some reason I was the only man! Heaven!
After re-energising I went over the road to Yoyogi Park. The closest thing I can liken it to was Hesketh Park only Japanese style. Loads bigger, the paths were 2 or 3 times wider; it was more like a massive coppice. It was in fact very mellow, I could easily have spent all day there. There was a huge shrine in the middle and gardens created for Emperor Meiji.
The weather was miserable so I decided to give Akihabara another go. Walked up and down the main strip and went into a couple of computer shops. It was just like Tottenham Court Road. The prices were similar too. There were plenty of nice cameras, but I don't know enough about them to make a sensible purchase. Besides, I didn't actually need anything.
I did come across another porn related craze over here. Ultra-hardcore cartoon porn. It ranged from the very disturbing under aged (4-5) stuff right the way through to adults. The shop had a video playing the most bizarre thing: a school girl (in uniform of course) getting raped my a huge monster which had its tentacles penetrating her every orifice and the really strange bit was the part where the tentacle entered her body was pixelated out. It beggared belief. I was getting peckish so I headed back!
I had really enjoyed the shrimp sushi a couple of days ago, so I wanted to try a bit more. Trekked around Asakusa, which I know pretty well now and found the alley where the restaurant was. The same chefs were working again; they recognised me from last time and welcomed me in. I went for the assorted menu. Four sets of fish meat of various colours. I have to be honest - it all kind of tasted similar but it was nice. I'm sure once I eat more, which I will certainly do, I will learn to taste the difference.
Photos on my FaceBook page.
5 March 2010
Slept in late - 7.30! Kicked around the hostel until about 9.30 then checkout and set off to the Floating Garden Observatory. It's not a garden, it doesn't float and it's not really an observatory! It's more of an observation deck on top of a 42 story entrainment building. There's a couple of cinemas on the lower levels, about 30 floors of offices and at the top 3 viewing floors.
At the top of the escalator, before you have to pay to get any higher, there are a couple of windows. I wasn't sure if wanted to pay the premium to get to the roof because the weather was a bit funny. (You know that weather condition you get in England early in the morning where it's slightly overcast and foggy/hazy and you think "ooh it's going to be really nice later"? Well it's like that, but it hangs around all day and never gets nicer.) I thought ace, I can take a few snaps from here without paying, but they have put some magic stickers on the window which makes all your snaps come out grey! As it turned out, the weather was getting a bit better so I paid up and came in. Glad I did in end because there was more to see other than the outside.
There is a "Lover's Story" which is a real sycophantic / romantic experience depending on your viewpoint. You can buy heart shaped pad locks which they will engrave with Sharon & Kev then lock on to the guard rails on the roof. All around the windows there double seats with hearts stuck to their backs. the hearts are fluffy and have Christmas tree lights glued around the edges. Around the corner there are mocked up park benches with plants around them and a stand for you to rest your camera on. The worst/best bit was the "Room of Romance"! A cylindrical darkened room with 3 pedestal sofas each had bubbled cushions on top. The 3 sofas were equally spaced around a central white circle with a projection sprayed on it. As you sat on the seat and moved you bum the projection changed and different noises were heard. The projection pattern cycled though different styles of patterns (a bit like the visualisations you get with Windows Media Player but bum directed). I think it was based on the concept of making music together.
In principle, it is a romantic place but it was just sooo over the top. If there is one thing I have noticed about Japan, it is that all the girlie girls really go for big romance. The cinemas are full of soppy films and even Yako (girl from first day flight) said she liked romance films the best. Which is, on the whole, a bit surprising because none of the men here seem to give a toss! So if you can court well (in the traditional sense) you can probably have the pick of the bunch.
With the weather being what it is here, the best time to come to the Floating Garden Observatory is after dark. The floor on the roof sparkles (it has little lights in it) which adds to the romantic experience or "star walk" as they call it. Osaka lights up a night and the postcard photos from here look spectacular. Unfortunately, there's no more time for me, so I'll save that experience for next time.
On the way to Osaka (on the bullet) I had missed the photo opportunity of the Sanyo Fin - a very peculiar building that looks a bit like a massive speaker. The train out was from 10am to 12.36 and I estimated that I would pass it going the other way at 43 minutes from leaving. You wouldn't believe it but it was dead on. The efficiency of the transport system here really puts the UK to shame. Our timetables are basically advisory estimates!
Got back to Asakusa and found a posh cake shop. They cooked up a crème caramel in front of me for ¥400 (about £3.50) and it even came with a ceramic dish and ice pack!
Got chatting to an American bloke who was being shown around by a Japanese couple. The woman was wearing the full kimono so got a really good look and asked a couple of questions.
Koichi called so I caught the metro to Omote-Sando on the other side of town where the Quantel offices are. He took me out for dinner to a gorgeous restaurant that specialised in chicken. This was the most expensive meal of the holiday at ¥6700 (about £55). Luckily my tastes are quite cheap so I've managed to save loads of money by eating in the noodle bars which are a tenth of the price!
It wasn't my imagination, there are actually more girls than boys in all of the restaurants. Apparently girls (generally) have more money than boys, because they get given money by men for their favours. It is apparently a sliding scale so the more you pay, the more exclusivity you can have with the girl. You can tell from looking at the hang bags, furs and boots.
Koichi had his 20 year service award recently and was given a really nice camera. He said he would move forward his trip to mount Fuji so that he could take me tomorrow but on checking the weather it was going it be rainy and cloudy. I put him out of his misery and said that I wouldn't go. It's 3 hours each way and although I would have liked to see mount Fuji, I couldn't let him do it.
Got the metro back and sat in the hostel chatting to Irish Tom who has been over here for 14 months! He solved the mystery of why is takes 5 people to dig a hole in the street.
Photos on my FaceBook page.
4 March 2010
Couldn't sleep past 7 so did a bit of work on the journal. Did some sums and reckoned I could be at Osaka Castle by 9 if I started to get ready. Jumped in the shower which had free shampoo and body wash.
It was raining again, but only spitting. It only counts as rain if you can't evaporate the water off by walking so I borrowed one of the hostel's umbrellas in case it turned into real rain. I think the natives thought that I was mad with an umbrella sticking out of my bag but not using it.
Walked to the station in search of breakfast - coffee and cake! then set off towards Osaka Castle. I had thought that 2 of the tourist maps were adjoining but there turned out to be a rather large gap between them - who knew?
Passed a couple of large shrines and have decided that 10 seconds delay on the camera is not enough time to set up a shot and run into position. Got a couple of good shots and luckily I'm really small in the picture so you can't see my red face and pounding heart from the run over.
I hadn't realised that NHK is on the corner of the castle, so I phone Quantel to get Koichi's number. He's a project manager friend of mine who works for Q and could give me the full tour of the TV station. Unfortunately he's in Tokyo, so I've rearranged something for Saturday when I get back there.
Not long after arriving at Osaka Castle, I got befriended by a Japanese tourist from Tokyo who liked baseball and does Kendo. He showed be the best places to take photos and made sure I went into the castle. He was terribly enthusiastic but spoke no English at all. He repeated the same phrases over and over again and in some cases said them very slowly and by the end of it I think I knew what he was getting at. So it does work!
The castle was recreated and burnt down about 4 times during its life. It is a proper castle with a mote, some land, a dry mote and at the centre a citadel structure which has been recreated to its former glory by donations made by the people of Osaka. There is a museum inside describing the Shogan history of one of the great leaders of Japan. This leader was responsible for joining the feudal lords and unifying Japan. Many of the areas and streets around Osaka (and Tokyo) are named after him and his generals. It is even said he was born under a star.
On the opposite edge of the castle is Peace Osaka a museum devoted to peace and the needlessness of war but it just felt like a massive dig at the Americans - maybe I'm just being cynical. There was some stuff about how awful the Japanese were in the Pacific Basin with the Chinese and a bit about Nazi Germany and Auschwitz, but mostly it was about how the Americans dropped incendiaries bombs on them for 3 years.
Afterwards I sat on the steps and figured out what to do next. A retired gentleman came up to me and asked if he could talk to me. He practices English for 15 minutes a day. We chatted for quite a while. His level of English was pretty poor (still better than my Japanese) but thanks to all those years of having French students to stay with the family when we were kids, I was able to put him at ease even though he was struggling. By the end we were both laughing at the same jokes. He was lovely. I got him to recommend a local noodle bar to eat in. He said we were near the metro and there was a good place there.
In the restaurant I saw a bloke eating something nice so asked him to write what it was using the sketch pad app on my Nokia N900 - that's my next meal sorted!
I had picked my next destination over lunch so entered the metro. The Osaka metro map makes the Tokyo metro map look like the picture of mutual understanding! There was no way I could manage this one - I didn't even know which one was us! I accosted the nearest person but it took him a while to match my tourist map to the metro map. He pressed the buttons on the fare machine and told me how much to put in. There was a bit of a discussion about platform and stuff but I said he could go and I'll sort it out myself.
I had spotted a smart English man who looked like he was a permanent resident. He looked like he was in 2 minds whether to help but luckily he did. It turned out that Richard was from Harrow and he had been working over here for 3 years. Although, it is possible to work in a foreign city and not speak the local lingo he said he knew enough to get by. He later confessed to doing Japanese at Uni and working for a Japanese government body doing translations. Apparently, the Japanese modesty quota had rubbed off on him. Anyway, he and his Japanese colleague were going part of the same way as me and offered their chaperone service. Richard was dressed in the traditional dark suit and had clearly embraced the Japanese lifestyle. Ironically, his Japanese friend was the tear away and was apparently always trying to get Richard to drink more and have more fun. For some reason his Japanese friend thought that English people were fun and couldn't understand what was wrong. We put it down to the female company he kept. We suggests that he get rid of his sensible short haired girlfriend and pick up one of those girls with the long died hair and the knee high leather boots which are all around and start having more fun. I'm only teasing you. It was really nice to meet a real Englishman out here.
My destination was Tenjimbashi-suji a 2.8km shopping corridor. It is about 6m wide and lined with shops. It stretches out in a long dead straight line. I'm 6'4" and I could see almost to the end without any heads in the way. It was kind of a nice feeling and one I had been looking forward to experiencing since I got here.
Walking down the covered street I met Mitzumi a lovely Japanese girl with big round inquisitive eyes. We got chatting because I was eating an apple. I know how it sounds but it was innocent - honestly! While I had the ear of a real local I asked what the slightly raised teamed yellow paving stones that cris-crossed the Japanese streets were for. She pulled out her mobile phone and used it to look up the translation. They are for blind people to follow with their sticks.
Mitzumi and I parted because she was on her way home from work and had to do some shopping of her own. While I had stopped to jot down a few notes about my encounter with her another older Japanese woman came up to me laughing. I was obviously doing something really funny because she could hardly get her words out with all the laughing. She said a few words with a bit of smiling and nodding, then just wandered off. I stayed put and continued with my notes. She had stopped a bit further down the street and then came back still laughing. She walk beside me chatting and laughing away until the end of the street. I think she was getting extra fun from listening to me say the 3 Japanese words I had learnt. I think she was trying to teach me some more, but with all the laughing I wasn't sure what to make of it.
I stopped to jot down a few more note and another (normal looking) couple asked if they could help me. I got moving as I was clearly disrupting the local flow with my unusual behaviour!
After spending another day being mostly lost I think I have figured out the mystery of the maps. It has taken me 5 days of being lost all the time to work it out, so I'm not about to just give away that information. You'll just have to work it out yourselves when you come ;)
Richard had told me that Namba was the place to go for evening entertainment. Namba is a bit like Ginza or Knightsbridge - loads of posh expensive designer shops, restaurants and theatres. I was getting pretty soar from all the walking so stopped at a nice organic coffee shop for a bit of writing and a rest.
Found another indoor shopping corridor which went all the way down to the main shopping precinct in Namba. It opened out in front of an enormous department store called Takayumi similar to the House of Frasier but filled with top brands like Gucci, D&G etc. I stopped in to just have a brief look around but then saw the sign for the loos and just thought why not?
It was almost closing time so I was pretty much the only person there. The place was still full of staff, quite literally every isle had some one on it. So as I walked down the corridor every couple of meters I passed a person on each side. As this is Japan they bowed really low as I passed by and said "Thank you very much" (in Japanese) it was like a Mexican wave of bowing - then I disappeared into the gents! Thank God the shop had officially closed by the time I came out. I'm not sure I could have coped with the embarrassment on the return journey.
By this time it was chucking it down so I was glad I had been lugging the umbrella around all day!
Walked back to the hostel and went back to the restaurant I ate in on the previous night. I showed the chef the sketch the Japanese fellow from the lunch restaurant wrote/draw for me. It turned out to be rice with curry sauce over these battered beef fritters. It was really nice. The waitress came out with with the sauce pan and gave me the rest of the gravy, which felt really homely. Washed down the meal with a beer and went to bed.
Photos on my FaceBook page.