Sunday, 28 April 2013

Odds and Ends from Tokyo

My arrival into Japan was a bit of a protracted affair. Five flights over 3 days (Rarotonga-Auckland-Sydney-Hong Kong-Osaka-Tokyo) were followed by a night at Tokyo airport to meet Helena when she arrived to spend a couple of weeks out here with me (thank god for airport showers...). After all that sitting around and waiting in fairly unexciting environments it was high time to plunge into the confusing maelstrom that is Tokyo when you don't speak Japanese! 
Tokyo is HUGE. This is from the 26th floor in the middle of the city, and there was no end of the high-rise area visible in any direction...
But before I get ahead of myself, a quick few photos of my first day - alone still - are in order. Having most of the day free between flights, I decided to see if I could get around the area cheaply to get a bit of a feel for how Japan works. Fortunately I discovered that a one-day rail pass covering the whole Kansai area (some 10% of Honshu, the main island) was cheaper than a return ticket from the airport to Osaka, so off I went. I decided to head to Himeji to have a look at one of Japan's few original castles (ie not concrete imitations, which most of them are) - and the finest one according to many sources, no less. This turned out to be a day well spent - besides catching the cherry blossoms around the beautiful castle grounds in full bloom, I felt slightly better prepared for tackling Tokyo the next day.

I learned a few things about how things in Japan work at this early stage:
  • In a country with as many old buildings and shrines as Japan, renovation works are inevitable. What I did not expect was that instead of keeping scaffolding as subtle as possible, the building to be renovated is enveloped in a temporary building. When I got to Himeji the castle's hill was marred by an enormous (think 10-story building) factory-like abomination that had me wondering how permission to build anything like that right by the castle had ever been given. I was flummoxed to learn that this was, in fact, the castle - the main keep was completely hidden from view by this giant grey cube with an outline of the castle drawn on it. Great. Fortunately, though, the remainder of the castle was still pretty stunning!
  • It is also perfectly accepted practice to rebuild ruins using modern materials in order to give visitors a spotless attraction. People seem to think that this is more important than the authenticity of what they are seeing. 
Yeah. Don't really know who thought that was a good idea...the real deal must look pretty spectacular, though!
  • People will queue for everything here, and with levels of stoicism and even delight unheard of even in England. Up to 20 minutes before a train pulls into its platform, people will obediently queue - unmoving - across half the platform to where the train's doors will be (as shown by stickers on the ground). At a bus stop I saw people queueing huddled under their umbrellas in the pouring rain, not even utilising the stop's shelter. 
  • Comic/anime-style illustration is not restricted to children's books/art. It is utilised in maps (rendering them spectacularly useless), infographics and ads targeting every age group. The Tokyo underground's mascot is a blue anime platypus who passes out with ecstasy upon seeing the benefits conferred by the city's Oyster-card equivalent in videos played on screens in every train every minute or so. 
Osaka's Pokemon Centre - frequented not just by kids...
There are a great many other oddities and idiosyncracies worth mentioning, but I'm sure I'll get to them in good time. For now, fast-forward to Tokyo! Helena and I made it into town from the airport after just two attempts to get hold of the right ticket; Tokyo is crisscrossed by trains run by 2 (3?) different companies who sometimes share stations and sometimes don't, but definitely don't share tickets. Our hotel, too, was easily found. It proved fortunate that it was near the Yamanote train line which circles central Tokyo and would prove to be our lifeline. 

It left a few seconds behind schedule once. It was shocking.
Heavy rain on our first day dampened our (well, mine, anyway...) enthusiasm for immediate exploration a little, but the ubiquity of umbrellas - we were handed two by a receptionist startled by the sight of us attempting to leave the hotel without one - helped. Still, we stayed in the local area for most of that first afternoon and evening. To our delight we found that food was cheap, quick and extremely tasty without being particularly unhealthy in the many little eateries clustered around the station area; ramen (noodles and pork/spring onions/soybeans/various other goodies in a tasty broth) in a small place with seats at the bar has remained one of my mainstays throughout my time in Japan. In general, fast food not being synonymous with awful quality and ingredients - being based mostly on rice, noodles, egg, seafood, seaweed and soybeans - makes it a pleasure to indulge in. 

Selection of Bento boxes at Tokyo station - unlike the good old English sandwich, there are enormous food courts here full of delicious-looking goodies. We spent a good 45 minutes here trying to decide on a snack...
As for things we saw - Tokyo is big and diverse and interesting enough that I could easily write a post on each day we spent there...but I won't do that. Instead, I thought it'd be easier to write a little about the things that most readily spring to my mind when I now think of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace has to top the list, with the Japanese emperor as one of those quintessentially Japanese institutions. The castle itself is off limits on 363 days a year, but a stroll around the palace gardens, where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom at this point, was very pleasant. This being one of the first places we visited in Japan, we revelled in being somewhere so decidedly un-Western. Armies of immaculately clad office workers swarm the park - one of central Tokyo's woefully few green areas - at lunchtime with their chopsticks and bento boxes, which will be filled with edible goodies pleasing not only the palate but the eyes with their precise arrangement and design. 

A little tranquility in downtown Tokyo
The next morning (I think - my chronology on those action-packed days isn't great!) we got up bright and early to go to the famous Tokyo fish market: after watching the tuna (up to 300kg) the thing to do here is to get some sushi or sashimi for breakfast - it doesn't really get any fresher! Sadly, despite getting up at 4.30 we missed the auctions as super-keen Japanese tourists apparently start queueing at 2am to snap up the limited viewing spots, so after a wander around the bustling premises we contented ourselves with raw fish - perfect for 6.30am! 

The place was crazy - far too huge, one would think, for much order to prevail (65000 people work there), but somehow things get done. Unfortunately we didn't spot any of the gigantic knives they use to fillet the tuna (apparently they require 2 people to handle them), but weaving around the enormous processing buildings around wholesalers undoubtedly sick of tourists bumbling in the way, there were tasty things of all sorts to be seen. 

The cool contraptions the workers zoom around on - the steering wheel is directly connected to the front wheel.

Akihabara, semi-informally nicknamed Electric Town, is what most people would first think of when thinking of Tokyo. Bathed in neon and covered with anime adverts the size of buildings, this is the home of cheap/grey/black-market consumer electronics, maid cafes (where cosplaying waitresses "treat you like a prince"), hentai (manga porn comics) and sex shops more generally. Slightly surprisingly, teenagers/young men were far from the only clientele; Japan's society is suffused with comics - and, apparently, with lonely men - to an extent that the two seem to combine into a passion for frankly seriously, seriously weird smut comics. 
Not actually taken in Akihabara, but the strange/slightly creepy mannequin seemed fitting...
Of course, the sex shops also catered for all sorts of tastes, but with some of their wares I was genuinely unsure how they would actually physically serve a sexual purpose...
Sage advice for visiting sex shops - exhibits tend not to be edible...

Ultra-realistic cervix - what more could a man want...?
And the plaster cast of dozens of vaginas - with the women's ages written underneath - which hung on this particular store's wall I won't even go into. 

And just to end on yet another bizarre note, our last day in Tokyo was spent at a fertility festival which seemed mostly to pay homage to the penis. Set in a usually undoubtedly tranquil shrine, this features several gigantic phalluses which are then paraded through nearby streets - and the area is absolutely packed. 

...and so the huge pink cock begins its slow, majestic parade down the streets of Kawasaki...
The crushing throng trying to get hold of the ever-popular lollipops (cock-shaped proved more popular than pussy-shaped...make of that what you will). A few of these even made it back to Cambridge, to the delight of their new owners from what I'm told!
Of course, no penis festival would be complete without its share of ladyboys...and dancing monkeys. 
"...and they think they evolved from us..."
Right - for the moment I think that's that for Tokyo. It may not seem like it, but we did see a lot of non-genitalia-based stuff as well! But parks and temples and beautiful places general civilised Japan-y things we found in subsequent cities as well - and I shall get to them in the next post. 

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