Galavanting Gaijin

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Monday, November 19, 2012

So on the road (railway) again and off to Tokyo, we had been so looking forward to all the madness that Japan had to offer and so far had been really quite disappointed. There were no pants in vending machines in the subway, there were no amazing technological delights to play with in the shops.  So here we were in Tokyo ready for the much anticipated madness…..

We arrived at our hostel after a short diversion walking the wrong way out of the station and thereby dragging our luggage twice as far as necessary!  Once we had checked in we had plans to head out to a bar to meet our friend Simon from the China Sea crossing, however our hostel offered us free tickets to go and see the Tokyo Shock Boys, all we had to do was buy a drink.  The Tokyo Shock Boys are Japans answer to Jackass and Dirty Sanchez, so we knew we were going to be in for a treat.  We arrived at the theatre and were a little surprised to find about 60 other people sat at tables, all Japanese.  We sat ourselves down at the front table a little concerned as to whether this had been such a good idea.  The commentary of the show was almost entirely in Japanese but you don't really need a translator when it is apparent that the next trick is going to be a pair of chop sticks snapped between a man’s bum cheeks.  There were many mentions of 'Gaijin’ which is the Japanese term for foreigner so there were definitely a few jokes on us, but with the wine flowing we didn’t mind at all and seemed to be the centre of attention.  The acts went from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Live scorpians held in their mouths, beer kegs hung from their testicles, fireworks launched from their bums, milk snorted and squirted from their eyes, huge turnips chopped on their chests with samurai swords, darts thrown at bums, hot wax on their faces, vacuum packing members of the audience and lighting cigarettes from sparking power tools.  One of my personal favourites was a champagne cork opened into their forehead, and we got given the bottle, yay free tickets and free booze!  The whole evening was mad, the Tokyo Shock Boys have a strange dance that they do after each performance, basically flexing their biceps on one side then the other to a tune that would be more suited to a children’s TV show, but we were lubricated enough to be joining in by the end of the show.  As we left the venue the whole crew were out in the reception ready for photos, this was just too cool, we even had a chat with the manager about what we liked as he is planning to take the show to the UK and wanted feedback on what would go down well.  If only he knew what lunatics he was taking advice from, oops!

We needed to find some dinner so went to a bar and were handed a menu completely in Japanese.  My best Japanese left me ordering ‘Yasai’ (Vegetable) which resulted in me getting a plate of cucumber with a curry dip.  Tim and Simon did slightly better and managed to get chicken on a stick.  Not the best dinner on an already empty and alcohol filled stomach, but better than nothing!

So what better to do next on a drunken night in Tokyo than to do karaoke?  Karaoke is not like in the UK where you can empty a bar with your terrible singing, no here you get to hire a private room and it is only you and your friends that are going to endure the sounds of a cat being tortured.  We went to the closest KTV bar and managed to negotiate 2 hours of karaoke with unlimited drinks, but no beer (made no sense to us but there must be some method to their madness).  So at reception we looked at the cocktail menu, all in Japanese and each just pointed and hoped for the best.  We got upstairs and discovered we had a phone in our booth and we just phoned the waiter for more drinks.  Here we hatched the cunning plan to just order three of each of the cocktails so we couldn’t go wrong and we would most definitely get our money’s worth.  The waiter thought we were mad and at first would only let us have 3 drinks each, but soon gave up and brought us everything.  Some were terrible, some were lush, but we pretty much managed to drink them all and worked our way through every karaoke song we knew, it got desperate at times and Brittney was the only option.  Amazingly after 2 hours no one came and kicked us out of the room, but we decided to leave voluntarily, zigzagging and swaying our way down the street.

Shamefully our first full day in Tokyo was spent eating junk food and nursing our hangovers, but we can definitely strike Japanese Karaoke Bars off of our to-do list.

So with our heads clear our next outing in Tokyo was a daytrip to Mount Fuji, we opted to arrange a tour to get there just to make life a little bit easier as it is some way out of Tokyo.  The road from Tokyo to Mount Fuji is via the Chuo Expressway, had I been writing this blog a few weeks ago this would have meant nothing, but some of you might have seen the Chuo Expressway on the news when one of the tunnels collapsed killing 9 people.  Thankfully the bridges stayed put and we made it to and from Mount Fuji in one piece.

Mount Fuji is quite an elusive volcano, apparently someone who lives nearby took a note for a whole year of how many days they could see Mount Fuji from their window and it was only visible for 100 days out of 365, so we didn’t have the highest hopes of getting much of a view, also as winter was fast approaching we were not sure how far up the mountain we would be able to go as the snow was getting further and further down.

To our amazement and surprisingly to the amazement of our tour guide within 10 minutes of leaving Tokyo we had the most phenomenal view of Mount Fuji with not a single cloud in the sky.  Given the luck we have had along the way with attractions being closed or out of season, finally our luck had changed.

Our first stop was the Fuji visitor centre, where you get the best view of Fuji and it definitely didn’t disappoint with its perfectly symmetrical and glistening snowy peak dominating the horizon.

Mount Fuji last erupted 15,000 years ago but it is still considered an active volcano and it is thought that it could erupt again.  Mount Fuji is 3,776m at its peak and even in the height of summer when the temperature is 22 degrees at the visitor centre, it is only going to be around 6 degrees at the peak.  Fortunately for us the climbing season is July to August so even if we wanted to there was no chance of going up any other way than in a bus, and that suited us just fine.  The bus was able to go up to the 4th station which was 2,020 meters.  Once again luck was on our side and the usual freezing winds were nowhere to be found and we had an amazing view of the lakes which surround Fuji.

The next part of the tour was to Hakone, this is known for its natural hot spas and had originally been on our list to stay in, but the accommodation was so pricy a day trip had to suffice.  So the tour started with a cable car ride up Mount Komagatake, at this point our fairly useless tour guide started to go into melt down trying to keep us all together and to get us into the cable cars, I think she may have told us approximately 35 times that we were to get out of the cable car at the second stop, and this was with her in the cable car with us.  We were in the first cable car to the top and followed the crowds and the smell.  We seemed to be headed to what looked like a steaming garden shed on the side of a volcano with an uncanny stench of sulphur.  What this actually was a boiled egg factory.  Normal white eggs get put by the hundred into a cage and are sunk into the boiling natural sulphur springs.  When the eggs are hard boiled the shells will have turned completely black.  The Japanese believe that sulphur is extremely good for health and especially for chest conditions so they were buying them by the bag and we were more or less the only ones without boiled black eggs.  I have to confess I didn’t feel too left out.  The stench was terrible and finally the famous Japanese SARS masks had a purpose.

The final stop on the tour was a boat tour on Lake Ashi, this was quite cool as it is was a big wooden pirate style ship with wooden characters around the boat perfect for some photo opportunities.  The lake was perfectly still so this was a lovely relaxing trip, however the one problem was that the sun was fast setting and this very quickly became a night cruise.  With the sun gone, our hats and gloves came out and as the view vanished we retreated inside. What was strange was one poor Japanese man was sat on the floor with his head in his hands, I hope he never goes on another boat trip again if this was too much for him!!

The reason that Tim and I don’t really like tours is the tour guides and other guests generally drive us mad, this tour the other travellers were fairly normal, however the tour guide was terrible. Most tour guides in Japan seem to be women in their late 50’s/60’s and this guide was possible our worst yet, she seemed to have no idea what she planned to say when she started a sentence and tended to lose her train of thought half way through a sentence.  The tour commentary reached an all-time low when on our return to Tokyo we were stuck in traffic for 90 minutes (due to an accident) and after a stop at a service station to get food and use the toilets, the tour guide managed to speak for 40 minutes about how Japanese style toilets use more water than western toilets and that is why they are more common.  If you can imagine being enclosed in the bus for 12 hours with this inane drivel we were more than happy to get back to Tokyo.

The Tokyo Metro claims to be one of the best in the world, and having been on more metros in the last 4 months than ever in my life, I feel qualified to provide my opinion.  I think the Tokyo Metro sucks!  It is the most ridiculous system ever seen, with at least 3 different companies running each line. Whilst the names and sign posts are in English, the signs at the ticket machines generally were not and it was pot luck as to whether we were paying the right amount to get to our destination. On more than one occasion kind locals would help us as we stood looking gormless at the Japanese signs.  The problem with so many different companies owning different lines is that you need a different ticket for each different company so forward planning made our days like a military operation.  The other annoyance was that we had chosen to stay on the wrong side of Tokyo meaning that we had a metro trip the full width of the city to get to where we wanted to be, thereby losing at least 2 hours a day underground.  What made the tedious journeys on the metro fun was that for some reason there was something about Tim that meant no one Japanese would sit next to him. The Metro could be full to bursting point with people holding on to the ceiling and people would just look at the empty seat and stay standing.  Needless to say Tim got a bit self-conscious about this and I did nothing to help but laugh and brand him ‘too fat to fit’.

One of our many trips across the city was to the Nakano Broadway Shopping Mall where we had read on a few blogs you can still find the vending machines selling used pants.  No trip to Japan is complete without experiencing this madness so we set off.  This shopping mall seemed harmless enough but as you worked your way up the floors the stores got more interesting. There were stores selling retro toys, stores selling hand drawn cells from cartoons, sex shops, manga shops, Harajuku shops, one that just sold wrestling masks and each one of these shops had a selection of vending machines outside.  This shopping mall was an absolute maze and whilst we had found some ‘interesting’ S&M toys available in vending machines the used pants had eluded us…. That is until by sheer luck we took a wrong turn and much to our disbelief we found them, knickers in a vending machine.  Mission accomplished. 

Amazingly we found something for free in Tokyo, you can go up to the top of the Government Building for a panoramic view of the city for free, brilliant.  Through a mix of google maps and sheer luck we found our way to the building and joined the queue for the lift.  At the top we had a pretty cool view of the city by night, but to be honest it didn’t look a whole lot different to all the other sprawling cities I have seen by night.  However I was not the slightest bit disappointed by the tour as there was a toy shop at the top.  Tim played camera club and I played with toys.  Tim did however find an amazing photo opportunity, whereby it looked like we were taking a photo of each other from the outside of the building, this distracted me from the toys from all of the 10 minutes; back to the solar nodding sumo wrestlers and geishas for me.  The Government Building also contained one of the best signs I have seen on our travels so far, how to use a toilet, brilliant!

I had never heard of the Shibuya Scramble before I got to Tokyo, but having been and seen and conquered, it is one of the most iconic images of Tokyo and even features in Lost in Translation.  It is a road junction in the famous Shibuya shopping district where all the traffic lights for 4 roads turn red and what looks like the entire population of Tokyo take to the zebra crossing to cross the road.  We experienced the crossing several times, we crossed it, we sat in Starbucks drinking coffee watching it, we even snuck into a posh 5 star hotel and took the lift to the 19th floor to get a view of it - As a side note whilst on our sneaky lift tour we saw a football pitch 15 floors above the city, amazing!

We took to hunting our free activities in Tokyo and one that took my fancy was the Parasite Museum, unsurprisingly Tim was not so keen on this idea but one wet cold day when neither of us could come up with an alternative plan we decided to give it a try.  Being a lover of all things minging, I was super excited to see what this place contained.  Tim just demanded we had lunch before going in as he would probably never eat again.  As it was Tim was relieved and I was a little disappointed there were jars full of fairy horrible looking worms and growths and fortunately all the signs were in Japanese so the true horrors of what we were looking at were safely hidden from us. Tim did go a little weak at the knees when looking at some poor man with giant testicals playing host to some tropical bug. The main attraction was there in full technicolour with a full English translation, the worlds longest tapeworm at 29 feet long! Nice.  Museum gift shops are usually my favourite part of museums, with knick-knacks and replicas of the things in the museum.  This one was no different and I really had to drag myself away from the keyrings containing your very own preserved parasite!

Each place we have been to there have been things that either one or both of us have wanted to do, in Tokyo for Tim it was The Lock Up.  This is one of the first themed pubs in Tokyo and is based on a prison.  The reviews had sounded brilliant, you turn up, get handcuffed and escorted to your cell and you get various visits from escapees during your stay.  The cocktails are all served in test tubes and scientific cylinders and they even had an alcohol tablet on the menu.  How could we not visit?  Well we did visit and I was declared the prisoner and handcuffed and we then walked 4 footsteps to the smallest bench table in the doorway, the handcuffs were removed and we were given menus, not quite the prison cell they show on the website.  We ordered the craziest looking cocktails on the menu and did have a laugh trying to take photos in the dimly lit corner.  Needless to say we didn’t have any visits from escaped prisoners and the scariest moment aside from paying the bill (they sneakily charged us £5 each entrance fee) was trying to find my way back from the toilet in the dark

As a treat Tim found a cat café that I was allowed to go to, not far from our hostel.  This had some of the best cat café cats ever.  It is more of a rehoming centre than a café but the cats were just brilliant.  Possibly the fattest and largest cats I have ever seen.  One of the cats was pure white and weighed 7lb, that is a big cat.  The strange thing about the cats in this cat café was the way that they like to be patted.  They like to be patted really quite hard at the bottom of their spine right by their tail, and patting them like this instantly leads to them being spread eagle on the floor until you stop.  Funny little monkeys they are.

Having seen our fair share of red light districts around the world, we had to visit Shinjuku which is the home to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s largest red light district.  Unsurprisingly the red light district is very well disguised amongst the bright lights of the big city.  Lots of fierce looking men are stood outside innocent looking buildings which we can only assume house sex shows and the red light underworld.  This is definitely not an area for ‘Gaijin’ to get involved and I dread to think what goes on behind some of those of those doors.

We had saved our most eagerly awaited outing for our penultimate day in Tokyo as Sunday is the day that Harajuku and Yoyogi Park come to life.  Harajuku is where the young fashionable teenagers hang out, it is also known for the people that come here dressed as doll like girls, gothic lolitas or just a creature or person that they have invented.  Hajajuku was jam packed full of tourists and locals all out for some shopping or sightseeing all hoping to get a glimpse of a real Harajuku girl.  We didn’t have to wait long to see them, but getting a photo was another matter.  Eventually we worked out that standing outside the train station by a zebra crossing was our best bet and we saw some awesome costumes and even got some photos.  The other place we needed to visit was Yoyogi park, this is where the local rockability club hang out and dance on a Sunday.  We followed the signs to the park and followed the flow of people and managed to find ourselves in the Meiji Jingu, another Japanese shrine.  We could hear the noise of music and drums and madness in Yoyogi Park, but do you think we could find our way out.  2 hours and a lie on the grass with a can of Dr Pepper later and we realise that we needed to walk 50 meters in a straight line from where we had started, gutted!  However all was not lost as we were immediately faced with the rockability club in full swing, in tight jeans, winkle pickers and with some of the best quiffs since the 50’s dancing their hearts out to good old rock and roll classics.  It turns out that this park is a bit of a contender to People Park in Chengdu for madness, there were more dogs in dresses and sunglasses than I have ever seen, one person was walking their meerkat, students were singing, dancing and acting, people were plating games, blowing giant balloons and generally just having a good time.  Amazingly it was still more sane that Peoples park, but a great way to spend our final day in Japan.  The trees were even turning their famous shades of red especially for us.

Our last night in Tokyo and where better to spend it than in a Pod Hotel, we had been planning this for months and having slept in bunk beds, single beds, train beds, boat beds and mezzanine beds a pod bed was just another bed to add to the list.  As we checked in it was quite funny to see nothing but Gaijin.  Seemingly the pod hotels have become more of a tourist attraction than an overnight bed for a businessman who has missed the last train, plus this is the only pod hotel that offers double pods and allows women.  We quickly got settled and took the obligatory "help I’m in an oven" photos.  We met our neighbours Erin and Matt from Oz and had a chat with them, took ourselves out to the local mall for a box of donuts and got settled with a film for our night in the pod.  One of the strangest things about the pod is that it has no door, just a pull down curtain so if you or your neighbours are snoring or are up and about in the night you are going to hear it.  As professionals at sleeping in uncomfortable environments Tim and I put on our eye masks, put in our ear plugs and settled for the night waking the next morning refreshed and ready to head to Thailand.  When I got out of the pod in the morning, I was surprised to see that our neighbours Erin and Matt had gone and their pod was empty, which was odd as they were staying for 2 nights.  All became clear when Erin merged from a different pod, poor Matt had developed food poisoning in the night and had to move pods twice, I can’t imagine much worse than food poisoning in a pod.  Just to make it worse it was Erin’s birthday so we presented her with one of our leftover donuts whilst poor Matt watched on looking green (not with donut envy).

This was it, we had made it Jersey to Japan overland (if you can excuse the small matter of a flight from Holland to Finland – I personally blame the rubbish German train system for this unavoidable diversion).  We came we saw we conquered, except Pachinko, we didn’t conquer Patchinko (the Japanese slot machine game where you feed the machine ball bearings) because we couldn’t find anywhere that cost less than £10 each to play.  Japan has been a real experience, coming from China it was like a breath of fresh air (literally).  The toilets in Japan are possibly the best toilets in the world, pretty much every toilet in every bar, restaurant and hotel room has a heated seat and a full built in bidet and shower system.  I had a shock one day when faced with a panel of buttons I was trying to turn on the hot seat and turned on a hot air function.  Here is hoping China finds these toilets soon.  Japan was not full of the crazy weird stuff you expect and Lost in Translation could not be further from the truth, the showers are normal height and the people definitely don’t look at you like you have just stepped out of space (unless it is Tim on the Metro).  But it was an interesting experience, we discovered that school kids and businessmen work and go to school 7 days a week, across the whole of Japan you will always see kids in their school uniforms and people in business suits on a Saturday and Sunday.  I am not entirely surprised, I suspect I would need to work 7 days a week to be able to afford to live in Japan!   We even had a tiny earthquake one night when we were falling asleep and the bed shook!!

The only thing that stands between us and the sun and beaches of Thailand is a train to the airport and a flight to Bangkok.  Armed with a copy of the train times from our hostel we set off to the station, 30 minutes early just to ensure nothing can go wrong, we sit and we wait and we watch trains come and go.  Our train is at 12:30 and a train pops up on the board with a picture of a plane but it is only 12:20, do we get on it, do we wait.  I say let’s get on, Tim says no.  Tim says let’s get on, I say no.  The train comes and goes without us.  It was our train; the hostel times were out of date.  40 minutes later we get on the train with the picture of the plane.  One last train journey and one more empty seat next to Tim, “too fat to fit” heh heh heh!!

Thailand, here we come!  

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