Tokyo- Japan at last!!

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Japan at last!

We arrived in Narita airport, Tokyo on our (11th) wedding anniversary from Singapore on a Japan Airlines flight. One of the best airlines we have used, ever! Very efficient and comfortable even if the seats were designed for Japanese sized people. An added extra was the nose cone camera which showed everything upon take off and landing. Taking off from Singapore at night and landing in Tokyo at dawn, was spectacular.  The in flight breakfast was a bit different, rice porridge and minced pork - a lot tastier than it sounds.

Japan is somewhere we have never been to before so arriving in Tokyo was a mixture of excitement at all the new sights to see, and trepidation, at not being able to speak the language or find our way anywhere. As it turned out, when we arrived at the airport train station there was a mass of machines -  different ones for different train companies all of which were in Japanese with the exception of one sentence on the wall witten in English which said@"simplified charging system".  This was right above a really complicated map with place names in Japanese characters and another bank of machines.....  

Luckily Clive had researched directions to our hotel and so we found it without much trouble (he has his uses!). The Tokyo Metro is something else and makes the London Underground or New York Subway seem like toy train sets. Once we got to grips with it, it was reasonably easy to navigate although some of the stations are enormous (Shinjuku sees over 3.5 million passengers a day!), Tokyo station sees 4,000 trains departing every day. Fortunately we managed to avoid the rush hours (all of the subway trains have women only carriages - apparently fondling on the subway in the rush hour is a big problem!!). 

We are staying at the Andon Ryokan (a Ryokan is a Japanese guest-house) - and, although it is definitely the smallest room we have stayed in so far it is a really great place to stay (and very cheap for Tokyo).  The Japanese measure their room sizes by the number tatami mats it will hold.  This one was four mat size (one mat is exactly the same length as me so I could lie down across the width of the room with my head touching one wall and my feet the other!). The place is run by a group of young Japanese who are very friendly and extremely helpful.  The (English) breakfasts are excellent, and, although we have to share bathrooms, there is a fantastic Jacuzzi on the top floor which we have been using every day. The walls are thin and you can hear every sound, but at night everyone adheres to the requests for quiet and its really peaceful.

The people in Tokyo seem so friendly and will often stop in the street just to chat and practice their English and will always offer help if you seem lost (which has happened a lot so far). The Ryokan is in a local neighbor hood so is giving us the opportunity to experience Tokyo life as it really is with lots of very small local restaurants all around all serving their own specialties.  We have never seen cooks take so much pride in their work why anyone would consider eating in MacDonald's here is beyond comprehension - but they do!  Mind you it is hard to know when the local restaurants will open as often seems like it is when they feel like for an hour or so.   You really have to get in there when see them open.    

On our first day we visited Ueno Park, about 4 minutes from the hotel, to have a look at the cherry blossom. The blossom was great, but our lasting impression will be that of the masses people picnicking in the park. Virtually every inch of the park was occupied by families and groups of people of all ages eating and drinking ( a lot of drinking competitions going on involving what seemed like gallons of Sake!).  Everybody was having a great time. The park has lots of street theatre and we spent almost an hour just watching one guy who was a combination of a "live statue" and a mime artist. One of the funniest sights we have seen in years and the comedy was certainly not lost in translation.

On our second day we went to the Metropolitan Centre to visit the observatory on the 45th floor. Unfortunately it was raining so the views were not that great but an enjoyable experience nevertheless.  We peered in the general direction of Mount Fuji.

To get to the Metropolitan Centerer we had to go through Shinjuku Station, the busiest and biggest station an all Japan and indeed the world!  It was truly amazing and massive.  So busy !@-  apparently, over 3.5 million people pass through this station every day.   So big! -  there are 200 exits from the station.  So confusing ! - there are 16 different rail companies, all with their own ticket offices/prices/train lines and all with multiple platforms.  So glad we didn't hit there in the rush hour! Finding our way around was mind boggling but with a little help from some Tokyoites who pointed us in the right direction we managed O.K.

One one the strangest things is the silence on the subway.  It was so incredibly quiet! No one spoke (or at least they whispered) three quarters of the passengers were sleeping, some standing up! So different from Clive commuting on the London Underground.

From Shinjuku we visited a department store to pick up some sushi for a picnic in Yoyogi Park where we visited Meiji-Jingu Shrine and garden.  This is one of the most important Shinto shrines in all of Japan. The park, the shrine and the gardens are all incredibly beautiful and so peaceful.  For 500 yen you can write your prayers or wishes on a wooden tablet, hang it on a display and the priests will pray for you.  Most were wishing for health for themselves or others, world peace etc.  However, some were a little strange e.g. 'Red Sox to win the World Series' (Baseball), 'I want 100,000 yen and to pass my driving test', and, 'Good Luck to Obama for the Democratic nomination'!

Next day, we are up at 5.00 am to visit Tsujuki, the biggest fish market in the world. At least at this time the subway is fairly quiet but it is pouring with rain and a gale is blowing and we had problems finding the market (how can we not find something this big??)   Eventually, again with some help form the locals, we find the market.  It is massive with row upon row of stalls with a massive variety of fish, shellfish, crabs, squid and the most enormous tunas we have ever seen (in or out of the ocean).  It is and the place is absolutely buzzing with activity with the stall holders, who having bought their fish at the auction are busy preparing it for the restaurants and sushi bars all around the country.  It is incredible to watch these guys with there giant knives dissecting huge tuna into more manageable chunks.  The gas powered trucks they use to transport the fish around the market buzz up and down the alleys between the stalls at high speed so you really have to keep your wits about you, so as not to end up on a sushi slab yourself!

We were too late for the main auction, which is mostly off limits to visitors anyway, but we did venture into the small public area of the auction where they were sorting out the last of the giant frozen tuna using a dumper truck.  Just as we arrived the driver, who had 4 giant (approx 8 ft) tuna in his shovel, tried to execute a handbrake turn at speed and lost one of the tuna which came sliding across the floor towards us!   

After an hour or so of looking around the market, we headed to one of the many small sushi restaurants surrounding the market for breakfast. Again, only Japanese menus so we order from the pictures behind the counter and, being in Japan, we use a laser pointer to indicate our choices.  As you would expect, the fish was as fresh as it gets without it still moving and the taste was simply out of this world!  Without a doubt our best breakfast ever! 

We moved on to visit the Sony building in Ginza, Tokyo's high end shopping area (and reputedly the most expensive real estate on the planet!). This place is also amazing!  The TVs, cameras etc. are so much more advanced than anything we had ever seen (I can now understand why Japanese tourist spend so much of their time glued to their video cameras).  The new technology was fantastic.  How about a combined robot MP3 player/speakers which is a cylinder about 6 in long with ears which wanders around the floor changing direction and colour playing songs as well as any stereo? I definitely want one of those when they are available!

Believe it or not, one of the highlights of our visit to Sony was a trip to the toilets where the high tech theme is continued in the form of the toilets which, in addition to performing all the usual functions, plus automatic wash and blow dry facilities!  All with variable temperature and pressure settings!  Water music is played as you enter the cubicle and the seat is prewarmed to 38degrees.  It really has to be seen, or rather experienced, to be believed.

From the centre of Japan's consumerism, we move on to one of its most important spiritual sites, Senjoji Temple, which, although partially destroyed by bombs and earthquakes has been rebuilt and is spectacular. It was raining but even so we decided to walk back to the Ryokan and with some help from the locals we set off on the 20 minute walk.  An hour later, having got very lost (the street have no names - if ever you come to Tokyo, bring a compass!), we made it to the ryokan.  So much for or earlier complacency about our ability to find our way.   A long but exciting day.

After a leisurely breakfast, we use our Japan Rail Pass (what a bargain!) to get to Tokyo station to catch our Shinkasen (bullet train) to Kyoto.  This is definitely the way to travel in Japan.  We had reserved seats and arriving at the platform we waited at our alloted space on the platform to board the train whilst the guards (very smart - complete with white gloves!) organised the train and its passengers.  It is more like boarding an aircraft than a train and on-board there are even airline style hostesses serving drinks and food.  En route we caught our first sight of Mount Fuji.

I traveled every day to work on England's version of a high speed tilting train but this really was something special! So fast and so smooth.  2 hours and 20 mins later having topped speeds of 270kph we arrived in Kyoto.  The train left and arrived exactly  on time.  Apparently, the punctuality is such that delays are counted in seconds.  In the course of a year, ALL Shinkasen trains arrived at their destination within six seconds of the scheduled time !
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