Out and about in the city
We saw a large chunk of Tokyo while we were there, and did a lot of walking (sometimes 6 hours at a stretch), but we found that the best way to get around was to use the underground system. Tubes and trains are excellent in Japan: clean, cheap, and devastatingly efficient. They always turn up, and they leave on the dot. The station signs are in both Japanese and English, so finding your desired stop is easy.
Outside of the stations, however, things were a bit different. The problem, in a word, was bicycles. They are everywhere… and by ‘everywhere’ I mean ‘in the blooming way’. See, cyclists in Japan aren’t daft – they know they’d be crazy to ride on the road with all the cars, so they ride on the pavement.
As well as a nation of cyclists, the Japanese are also a nation of smokers (which came as a surprise to us), and they have cigarette vending machines on every other street corner. Just to shake things up a bit, the councils or whoever paint big Do Not Smoke and Walk signs all over the streets. Being good, obedient citizens, the Japanese have found another solution to this light-up ban: they smoke and cycle instead!
All this makes the simple act of nipping to the corner shop quite an adventure, I can tell you. If you make it back to your hotel without being run down or burned, you are doing very well indeed!
The city itself is a bizarre mish-mash of old and new. Much of it is very urban – crowded streets, lots of tall buildings, nothing remarkable:
Tokyo street scene.
But occasionally you’d peer down a side street and see something like this:
An unexpected shrine.
One area that particularly stood out was Akihabara, which is a major shopping area for electronic, computer and anime products. Compared to the rest of Tokyo, this place was overwhelming: bright colours and lights, and so, so noisy. Apparently it is the 30th anniversary of Space Invaders this year, a factoid which made us feel our ages as we both remember when the game first appeared in amusement arcades. Time for us to start reminiscing about The Good Old Days, I guess… Anybody got a spare Zimmer frame?
There are many museums in Tokyo – too many to see in only 11 days – so we got recommendations from other travellers we met in our hotel. We were particularly impressed by the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which explains the history of the city. The place is a huge, barn-like structure, and inside they have constructed life-sized replicas of buildings (I remember a traditional Japanese house and a theatre). They also had the most intricate model villages I have ever seen – so much detail in such tiny figures. The thing I shall remember most about the place, though, was the escalators you had to use to access the upper floors. They were practically vertical! If you don’t like heights, I recommend you just grab the handrail tightly and try not to look down!
Pete in a palanquin at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. We’d been walking all day, and he decided he wanted to be carried. Unfortunately he’d forgotten to bring his half-dozen servants with us to lift the thing, so he had to get out and hoof it along with the rest of us commoners!
Oh, yes, I nearly forgot:
The one reason I really wanted to visit Japan was the cherry blossoms. The Japanese are exceedingly fond of cherry blossom. It turns up in pictorial form everywhere (including manhole covers), and they hang fake blossoms from street lamps. Pete can’t understand what all the fuss is about. “They’re cherry trees,” he says. “Blossoming is what they do!” (The old misery!) Me, I like trees, so I was absolutely delighted to discover that we were visiting at the start of the official Cherry Blossom Season. Even better, our hotel was just a few tube stops away from Ueno Park which has long avenues of cherry trees. One night we decided to go to the park to see the trees lit up by Japanese lanterns – very pretty. This was about 8.30 in the evening, so we expected things to be fairly quiet. Not so! The place was heaving. Groups of people sat on tarpaulins beneath the trees, having picnics and getting drunk. Some of them had obviously been there all day, and we saw more than one neatly dressed businessman staggering down the road with his briefcase. It was quite strange to see.
Just me and my cherry blossoms… and twenty gaziilion other tree-huggers!
And speaking of drunkards, we also discovered that talking to Aussies and New Zealanders in pubs leads to humungous drinking sessions and equally humongous hangovers. I was introduced to a pleasant enough tasting liquor called ‘Soju’. It went down easily enough, but its after-effects were so disturbing that I had to conclude that it was some local variation on metholated spirits. I later Googled it and found this description:
Soju - a South Korean drink made from rice, yams or tapioca, described by the Lonely Planet Guide to Korea as being as "potent as toilet bowl cleanser.”
Needless to say, I won’t be drinking it again!
We both enjoyed our stay in Japan very much. It is a safe, clean country with a low crime rate, so we felt that it was a good place in which to experience our first foreign culture. We now know that we can generally make ourselves understood even if we can’t speak the language, and we learned enough of the local customs to keep ourselves out of trouble.
The downside, I feel, was the cost. Things were very expensive – we couldn't check our bank balance without wincing! It was worth it though. It is a fascinating country and we would like to return later in our tour to see the rest of the country (even if it means robbing a bank or two first!) Happily our next few destinations are in Southeast Asia which is notoriously cheap, so we should be able to recoup our losses a bit.
More very soon, 'cos I now have a proper Internet connection in my room - yay!