Turning Japanese

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Japan  ,
Sunday, December 3, 2006

All our photos are available here

To quote a fellow traveller, Michael Palin, "and now for something completely different" - Japan.

The first sign that we are in foreign territory is when we try to buy our train ticket into town.  We are faced with a wall displaying a bewildering array of buttons and Japanese symbols, with only the main heading translated in English: "simple price guide".  Fortunately, I had taken the precaution of jotting down some instructions from the internet before we left Canada, so we know the right train to catch - once we decipher the instructions.

Getting from the subway to our hotel is another mission, despite having directions for that too.  By my non-scientific reckoning, street numbering in Japan works as follows.  The city is divided into many little areas, further divided into cubes comprising about 25 blocks each, given a name.  Within this little `neighbourhood`, each block is numbered, and each house, shop or apartment building is given another number.  For example, our hostel is located at Higashikomagata 2-20-10.  This means that you find the neighbourhood of Higashikomagata, then section 2, then block 20, then building 10.  Sounds easy, right? 

Problem is that the `blocks` are scattered randomly within the neighbourhood, so that block 20 is, in this case, nowhere near blocks 19 or 21.  (It`s more fun with a big backpack on.)

Check-in isn`t until 3pm and, due to our early plane arrival, it is only 9am, so we have a full six hours before we can nap.  Tokyo is, in case you hadn`t heard, a rather large city that never seems to let up.  Unlike most cities, which have a downtown CBD and then lessens in intensity as you move away from downtown, Tokyo appears to just be one great big downtown.  Every subway stop, even on a Sunday morning, is full of little Japanese people scurrying around, and every street is lined with busy shops, occupied taxis and cyclists weaving their way randomly along the sidewalks.

We pause outside some kind of noodle shop, as we are both ready for breakfast.  It has photos of the meals outside and, just as importantly, numbers, but it looks a little, how shall we say, `rough and ready`.  Boldly and hungrily, we decide to try it.  Inside the tiny little restaurant is a semi-circular bar surrounding the kitchen.  Seven or eight men, near the capacity, are standing at the bar, furiously slurping away at bowls of noodles.  A kindly-looking lady spots our confused looks from the kitchen and says something to us.  "Konichiwa!" says Jane.  "Number 7 . . . ?" she continues referring to her dish of choice, holding up the appropriate number of fingers.  The lady just smiles and points to a machine in the corner.  The protocol, apparently, is that you feed your money into this contraption, vending-machine style, choose your meal and receive a ticket, which you then hand to the lady.  She dollops the food out in no time, then you stand at the bar and wolf it down.  Perfect for the busy Tokyo salaryman on the run.  Turns out that the food (whatever it is - something with noodles) is delicious and great value at about 750yen ($7.50) for two people.

We are located in the part of Tokyo known as Asakusa.  The area is quite touristy, thanks to a couple of big temples and a pagoda.  Leading from the main road to the temples is a pedestrian street lined with all manner of little stores and stalls selling everything from souvenirs to wigs to sake to, well, more souvenirs.  One that catches our interest is an ice cream store with such tempting flavours as "sweet potato", "brown rice" and, my favourite, "full maturity melon".  I bravely volunteer Jane for the brown rice one.  It is actually quite tasty, although we decide it tastes more like coffee than rice.

In the evening, after our nap, we take the subway down to the Shibuya district.  This is the Tokyo that you know from TV, with the outrageously large neon signs.  It is packed to the gills with frantic Christmas shoppers (who knew Christmas was such a big thing over here?) and a few overwhelmed tourists.  The best bit is an intersection called Hachiko Square.  It is a 4-way cross-walk so, when all the traffic lights turn red, thousands of people spew out into the road.  If you decide half way across that you actually wanted to go in another direction, you can forget it as the human tide is too powerful to resist.  Being Christmas, decorations and festive lights are everywhere.  Combine this with the huge neon signs on every store and it is almost as bright as during the day.
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