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 splitting. 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 is 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 suite 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 entrainment. Namba is a bit like Ginza or Knightsbridge - loads 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.
3 March 2010
Luckily I’m still jet lagged so getting up in the morning is not a problem! Not looking forward to being 9 hours ahead when I get home. Had an easy breakfast and chatted to a bunch of American students who had just arrived. Packed up my bedding, changed my reservations so that I would have some where to sleep in 3 days if I come back.
It is quicker and cheaper to get the private line (Tsukauba Express) to Toyko rather than the metro and there’s one change at Akihabara. There were several strange things I noticed about the private line. Firstly, you couldn’t get one ticket straight there, you have to get one for each leg of the journey. Secondly, there were 2 escalators going up and the one on the left goes about 50% quicker!
The next challenge was getting a ticket for Osaka. I have found it easier to go to the booth for 2 reasons: you might be able to pay by credit card and the person in there might speak English. In this case both were true.
The Shinkansen is the super fast “bullet train” set off exactly on time at 10am; it is supposed to arrive at 1236 so we’ll see! There’s a couple of stops on the outskirts then we’re off.
The journey was interesting. Travelled all through the Toyko suburbs and didn’t see any graffiti on any of the walls next to the track. Inland, Japan is quite mountainous. There was a couple of minutes of black as we went through a tunnel followed by slightly longer time cutting through towns. In the rural towns there were 2 types of layout. Industrial: factory surrounded by residential surrounded by farms and Non-Industrial: houses surrounded by farms. The larger population centres are actually a mix of the two and we didn’t pass through any cities like Tokyo.
Arrived at Shin-Osaka and it took me a while to realise that this huge station was not actually Osaka, but I found the correct platform without any help. Osaka is one stop away and then you are in the metro system. Osaka has an equivalent to the circle line, the difference being there are less stops and not all trains stop at all the stations!
Got to the hostel but the reception was closed until 3, so when for a wander. I had to borrows a tourist map from the hostel but got lost on way to tourist information centre.
My sense of direction is really good. I tend to read the map find direction and just set off, I’ll only check the map if I feel things are not matching up with the map in my mind. After about 15 minutes of walking I had to check so stopped a man in the street. He was turning the map up-side-down and re-orientating it, but eventually he walked into nearby stop and asked the keeper where he was. More map turning later and the best he could come up with was the big glass building over there was ‘this’ on the map! Found a (rare) street sign which narrowed it down a bit more, but by this time the hostel reception had opened and it was time it go!
Pascal (a French man) was manning the reception. They have some silly rule about not wearing shoes inside which I keep forgetting. Personally, I thing it is laziness of the cleaning staff rather than any need to be traditional, but hey, rules are rules. Pascel was very helpful, in spite of being French, and showed me a better way to get to the tourist information centre in town. It was a straight line - along the track and through the station.
Got a couple of maps and chatted to the nice old lady in the information centre. Wandered around and looked for a coffee shop for coffee and cake and plan tomorrow’s activities.
Found a coffee shop that reminded me of colonial times. It had a more traditional diner service with a tiny gold fork to eat the cake with. It looked really expensive and to date it has been almost my most expensive meal! In the corner of the room was a stunningly attractive Japanese woman dressed in the full kimono and those little flip-flop shoes. Her hair was all pinned up and she was sitting opposite a wanky banker type - you know the sort - blue shirt with thin white vertical stripes and white cuffs. He spent the whole time shouting down the phone. What a waste! [I was later told by Koichi he was almost certainly Yakuza!]
Got back to the hostel and chatted to Karen who was a 30-something teacher over here teaching English and travelling. She was feeding me these gorgeous koala bear biscuits filled with custard cream goo. Yummy!
About 2030 I was getting peckish so left the hostel and walked up and down the street looking for somewhere nice to eat. The hostel is quite near the station so there were plenty of places. I decided the best one was in fact the one directly opposite the hostel.
The restaurant had a couple of business men types who were being waited on by a matriarcal woman. Got sort of chatting with local business man called Tarshi. He stopped in for a couple of smokes and a glass of water. I think you can only smoke in certain places and outside is not one of them! He was so overwhelmed with our conversation that he gave me a couple of sets of greeting cards. He was doing most of the chatting and pointing, so I’m not really sure how I got the present. I think he was selling them (to shops) and they were left over, but it’s the thought that counts. By this point the place had filled up and the matriarchal woman was telling everyone that I was English. I think it was kudos for her that I had come all the way from England to eat at her place, so she was making the most of it! So all I could hear while trying to eat my diner was “arr eng-u-and… Uuu.. Eng-u-ish.. uummm". A couple of smiles and nods from me meant that when I left they didn’t mind a couple of group photos with me!
Photos on my FaceBook page.
2 March 2010
Woke up early again, so booked my accommodation in Osaka and had a leisurely breakfast. Chatted to the German, his brother had arrived from New Zealand.
I negotiated the tube like a local, right to the Imperial Palace Gardens.
There is a museum of gifts presented to the Emperor and Empress of Japan on official occasions. The UK gave a commemorative lamp from the Deep Navigation Coal Mine in June 76 , Shetland lace shawl when Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Philip visited in May 98 and in May 07 an embroidered box and letter from Helen & Douglas House Hospice for Children. The Peoples Republic of China gave a very intricate full orchestra made of jade and polished wood. I thought the thing from the Netherlands looked like a massive multi-headed bong but is was actually a tulip vase - easy mistake to make! Even the modern art that looked like a green snowman given by the Spanish would have beaten the DVD box set Obara’s Administration gave us! There’s photos of the Emperor and Empress during the 60s - he looks very official and she was a bit of stunner!
The metro system is a little bit like London’s except the tube map is more geography representative. I walked to a convenient station, rather than taking 4 trains over 3 changes, and caught the metro to Mitsukoshimae (Z09) where the currency museum is. It is attached to the National Bank of Japan. I used to collect coins when I was younger so this is right up my street. It starts around 3c-4c BC up to modern day. It was fascinating.
One interesting thing is that when Japan started trading with the West they insisted that foreigners exchanged their gold and silver coins to local currency and back when they left. This was to keep Japanese money in the country (a bit like today). The gold to silver ratio was 1:5 in Japan but 1:15 everywhere else. Foreign traders were making a packet by bringing in silver coinage and exchanging it to local silver, converting it to local gold then converting the gold back to western gold!
God it’s cold. Stopped at a little coffee shop for a sandwich and a warm-up! Continued my journey on to the Suitengu Shrine - Seven Deities of Good Luck. Praying at this shrine brings good luck with pregnancy, giving birth and the avoidance of flood damage - go figure!
After a quick pray I went to Akihabara. This place is the Tottenham Court Road of consumer electronics. Next door to almost every computer shop there was a porno shop. No wonder I.T. people have a bad name. The first one I came across was 6 stories high, filled with porno movies and books. Most of the stuff you would see in Amsterdam but almost 2 of the floors were filled with what can only be described as sanitised softcore child pornography ranging from cartoon/anime to provocatively posing 6/7 yo girls in school uniforms and/or swimsuits. It was quite unsettling. What was even stranger was the fact the whole place was filled with smartly dressed business men - not a flasher mac in sight.
Along with I.T. shops Akihabara has hundreds of coin-op parlour. Strangely you have to traverse through 3 or 4 floors of those machine that have a grabber. The grabbers were grabbing anime dolls or big posters of cartoon school girls with loads of cleavage. If seems perfectly normal here.
Every 5 of 10 meters along the main street then are pretty girls with long bouncy hair dressed in school uniform enticing you into their club. I couldn’t see any obvious entrances with signs but I think it was strip/lap dancing.
Was starting to feel a bit flu-y to headed back to the hostel. Had a nice hot shower to warm up and set out for something to eat.
Japan has loads of noodle bars. So I stopped at one that looked simple. Apart from the owners family I was the only one there. They were watching a show on telly about some people eating really disgusting food - fried egg with melted cheese and bits of meat! i.e. omelet! I got chatting to the eldest daughter who was probably about 6. Her mum helped with some English words. She was very interested when I said that the fried cheese meal was something we eat in England a lot. She, very observantly asked if everyone in England was really fat to which I unfortunately had to say Yes. I was showing her some pictures on my phone of some English food, a couple of pictures of the Santa’s we built over Christmas and the snow outside my house. The rest of her family came over to see, Mum and the youngest daughter - language was not a problem pointing, actions and a couple of words created a clear understanding. By this time the restaurant had filled up and a helpful stranger offered to take my photo with them. They were lovely.
Walked the short distance back to the hostel. Swapped stories with the Germans and we to bed.
Photos on my FaceBook page.
1 March 2010
Could not sleep past 5 am so showered, breakfasted and left for the fish market in Tsukijishijo. Negotiating the tube and getting the right ticket for the right line was an enormous challenge. I messed it up and had to get a refund, which was a lot more difficult when one of you doesn’t speak English! Got there eventually.
The fish market is the main distribution centre for fish. Fish is brought in off the boats at 3am. It is then auctioned to wholesalers, who chop it up and pack it. It is then sold to shops and restaurants all around the country. Took loads of photos. Strangely, It didn’t smell of fish! I think at when it is caught it is either stored in ice or kept fresh, so by the time it gets to the market it is either frozen or still alive. It only starts to smell fishy when you start chopping it up.
Walked from the fish market to Ginza. Hidden amongst the high rises I found an Amidi Budda temple. The security guard on the front was very helpful. He knew just the right English words to satisfy his job and get the message across, so I popped in.
It was a little bit like a western church with seating in front of a shrine. The room was filled with joss stick smoke and was very relaxing. I did the traditional prayers to Amidi which involves bowing a lot and reciting a small mantra. Amidi Buddists don’t believe in a God, they believe one can find enlightenment by being nice to people. It is definitely the way too go. It’s no wonder there not big on religious wars. I think Douglas Adams put it best at the beginning of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when he was describing the time frame that Arthur Dent lived in: “Nearly 2000 years after a man was nailed to a tree for saying how good it would be if everyone was nice to each other". Enough said!
Walked to Ginza and looked at the shops. Ginza is one of those areas that every major city has. It sells top brand names and thinks that “It is - IT". Once you’ve seen one ridiculously over priced handbag/suite case/belt/glasses/etc you really have seen them all.
My feet really hurt from all the walking, so had cappuccino in a coffee shop over looking a huge intersection. All the girls we giggling at me behind the counter - it is a bit usual to be not-Japanese which makes you feel special.
Had a look at the Nissan Gallery which is exactly what you would imagine. The weather really heated up and it was actually quite nice. The Imperial Palace is closed on Monday so I walked around the wall. On the far side is situated all the government buildings - they have a Ministry for Diet! Laugh if you want but I’ve only seen one fat person since I arrived! Really!
Had lunch in authentic Japanese fast food place full of local business men and women. Used the “Point It” book Swifty lent me to ask for beef and noodles. Very nice and only ¥450.
Feet hurt a lot now! Got the tube to the currency museum but that is closed too. Went back to Asakusa. Stopped in at evil Starbucks for a latte and a rest, then back to the hostel for a lie down & a shower.
Real sushi for diner. Watched chef make it in front of me. 2 shrimps, some spicy pink slices of something - ginger I think and some crunchy shrimp bodies! The staff were really helpful and friendly. The language was a bit of a problem but we got by. The waiter knew the English for backbone and after that I stopped asking what things were. Better I don’t know ;) it was surprisingly nice though.
Came back to the hostel and the reception area was chock-a-blocked with people boozing their off licence beer. It was a nice atmosphere but by this time it was 2330 and I was flagging so time for bed.
Photos on my FaceBook page.
28 Feb 2010
Got up a 7am and left for the airport at 8am. Checked in online but still had to queue for the bag drop. While in the queue the Virgin rep was trying to sell upgrades to Premium economy for £290. I didn’t fancy that but I did go for the extra £75 to get the seat on the exit - worth it for a 12 hour flight.
Sat next to a really nice woman (although she looked like a girl!) called Yuka. She was coming home after spending the last week in London learning how the British handle social problems. Apparently Japan doesn’t really have a plan for social care, the homeless, young offenders and a whole host of other things. Britain does it best. Spent most of the flight chatting with her, watching films and trying to sleep (without much success).
Also got friendly with the Virgin air stewardess who sat directly opposite me during take-off and landing. She was a Japanese national living in London on a work visa. She spent 4 days a week flying around and really loves her job. It wasn’t just her job she liked; she loved the fact she could live in Liverpool Street (London). I gave her a little kiss when I disembarked. It was just one of those kisses that felt like the right thing to do.
Lost Yuka after customs and picked up an English bloke who was on a conference. He had been to Japan a couple of times and help me find the station. The train map looks like you’ve taken 6 tubs of paint and splattered them with a shotgun - it was a proper mess of colours.
Found the right platform, on the train which left exactly on time. In fact everything leaves on time and sets off on time. The train had heated seats. Handy because I was sitting next to the door and it was snowing!
Arrived at the hostel about 4.30 in morning UK time. As predicted there is a German waiting in my room! Went hunting for food with the German. He had been here for 2 days already and I was dead on my feet so I let him lead. Couldn’t stay away after about 7 so went to bed. Had a wonderful nights sleep. When I woke up and looked at my watch it was 9.30. Wow, I thought, that was easy, bit it was still dark outside. On checking my phone clock, it was 21.30 - had only slept for 2 hours! Bummer so back to sleep for another 10+ hours.
Photos on my FaceBook page.