Published: February 25th 2009November 26th 2008
So, Tokyo...Japan's mecca of technology. The Party zone. The place where it all happens. Is what they say really true about this fabled city?
I couldn't tell you.
You see, I didn't actually get to see Tokyo.
In hindsight I can laugh, and appreciate the things I saw, but at the time it was just one annoyance after another, and sometimes it was hard to see the enjoyable bits. Forgive me if the re-cap sounds a bit ranty, but thinking back to how I actually felt during that time, the main words that come to mind are overwhelming, frustrating and confusing. Thinking back on the better points of the long weekend I can say breathtaking, humbling, and interesting. There is balance, but at the time it felt as though I was sliding down a mountain, finding a handhold and then having it crumble and send me tumbling again. Mountain. Hah. Funny how THAT analogy came into play. You'll see why if you read on.
To get to Tokyo from Kyoto, you can either catch an overnight bus, which takes around 8 or 9 hours, or you can jump on one of the super fast shinkansen
, the bullet trains,
which take 2 and a half hours. Originally I had thought to head to Tokyo on the Friday night via bus, arriving in the morning and having three days to explore before catching a shinkansen home. Unfortunately, due to my lack of foresight, the Friday night buses were all booked out. I bought a shinkansen ticket (￥13,000) to get there, and a bus ticket back (which would later be upgraded to a shinkansen ticket as getting to Kyoto at 5am on Tuesday and having 3 hours to get back home and then to work was going to be too much to handle after my i want to say ordeals but let's settle for
I was lucky in my choice of trains. I got to the platform 4 minutes before the train came in, and found my carriage and seat just in time. I settled into my seat with notebook in hand (this was still during Nanowrimo
) and split my time between writing furiously and taking pictures out of the window. A salaryman sat next to me and we got to talking a little bit before lunchtime. It's amazing how far a broken language will take
you. He spoke broken english, i spoke broken Japanese, and we managed to bridge the gap. He got my attention a short time later and told me to look out the window on the opposite side of the train. I still thank my starts he was the one sitting next to me. Having to communte to Kyoto for work repeatedly, he knew when to point out the sights.
I wandered over to the window in the 'between carriages' section, and got my first look at Fuji-zan. The weather conditions were excellent, and everyone I spoke to told me how lucky I was to see it. Usually it is obscured by haze or cloud, but the air was so clear. Some of my shots were not so great, with poles and halves of buildings in the way, but I snapped a few decent pics of the sleeping volcano, and went back to my seat. I felt, at that moment, that it wouldn't matter if I didn't even see Tokyo - little did I know, that my sentiment would be answered.
*Insert rage at the server going down and losing about 200 words of text here.*
Upon arrival, I
caught yet another train to Harajuku. This was a very high tech train, with computerised display screens showing you all of the different stops, the current location of the train, and even which doors would be open. The trip was also peppered with the chiming noises and cheery announcements that have come to be characteristic of my trips on Japan Railways. I met up with a teacher and student from my school, who had travelled to Tokyo that weekend for a speech contest. We went to Harajuku, my student and I hoping to see a fashion display like no other in the world that was purported to take place there, while the teacher that was with us wondered what the fiss was about. Alas, it was the wrong day. It's SUNDAY, not SATURDAY that the cosplayers and the like come out. Some of these people will spend all week in their normal uniforms, and most are reportedly otaku
(nerdy types, often shy) who generally get picked on. Then Sunday rolls around, and they stage their rebellion by having colours in their hair, using excessive makeup and hairspray, usually sporting multiple facial piercings, and wearing the most fantastic and outrageous outfits.
I'm really sad to have missed it, as I find this outbreak of individualistic expression refreshing in a country where conformity is pressed upon the masses. My students are in uniform and at school for about 355 days a year, with no chance to express themselves in ways such as this.
Instead of seeing a freaky fashion fest, we saw faded foliage, the ground covered in delicate yellow leaves, and the trees standing so tall that a beautiful autumn light shone through. It was like something out of a fairy tale, and didn't look as though it belonged in our modern world. We walked arounf for an hour, talking and trying to find a few interesting loiking paople - this was before we found out it was the wrong day. We went into some side streets in the area, busier even than Tokyo station. A couple of new stores had opened up, and there were lines as long as 5 blocks, with people just waiting to get a chance to browse. Seriously bizarre behaviour. There was even a man standing at the end of each line with a big sign supposedly saying 'This is the end of the queue'
or words to that effect. I couldn't do it. Concert? Yes.
New gaming console? Yes. Shop full of clothes I couldn't afford? And might not even like? No. If you hadn't already noticed, i'm a bit of an otaku
After saying goodbye, I travelled back to Tokyo station to find my other train to Numazu. I was originally planning to stay with a friend who lived nearer Tokyo, but unfortunately he had a family emergency to fly home for. Another teacher, Joe, kindly offered to put me up, and so I wandered around looking for train information. Disappointed at not seeing the dolled up people at Harajuku (but having seen a lot of dolled up doggies), and frustrated at wandering around Tokyo station feeling more than a little out of place, I decided to have a time out.
Luckily I happened to pass a place that offered just that. 'Standing Sushi Bar' (who says there's no honesty in advertising?). It couldn't have been bigger than my bedroom back home. There was standing room for about 10 people, and a curved counter manned by two sushi chefs and enough raw fish to serve an army. You just
stood at the counter, told the men exactly what you wanted, and they made it fresh right in front of you. You could pick and choose your ingredients, like adding pickled ginger or spring onion to your sashimi, but i have to say that my favourite had to be the salmon and mayonnaise. grilled with one of those handheld chef's blowtorches, right in front of you. Delicious. A mug of beer, and a bowl of miso soup rounded off my meal, and I had a lovely chat with the woman next to me. Half Japanese, Half Malaysian, Adelaide-born and living in Japan with her native husband and their two gorgeous daughters (one of whom was strapped to her back in one of those adorable little baby carriers.
Having a taste (no pun intended) of home and speaking english for twenty minutes relaxed me, and I was able to go on and find my train. The immensity of Tokyp station is staggering. I thought Kyoto station was large, but sitting at the platform I could look across and see no less than 20 train platforms in the immediate vicinity. I even saw a massive sleeper train before mine came along.
Travelling by shinkansen, you don't get a feel for the size of the place, but going by local train really put everything into persepective for me. It took over two hours to get there, and I had to change trains at least three times, and get on another one on the same line.
Finally, I arrived at Numazu, and Joe met me at the station. We walked back to his and I got settled in.
Settling in here means putting your bags down. Joe's place is smaller than mine, and you can see how economical Japanese designers are with space. His apartment is about the size of your standard hotel room. You've got the bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette squeezed into one teensy little space. The kitchen is part of the hallway, and if there's someone standing in front of the fridge, you can't open the bathroom door. Cupboards are set higher than your average Japanese person can reach, and balconies and 'backyards' extend no more than two metres from the house. It;s cosy for one, and a tight fit for two, but we managed. Joe even gave up his extremely uncomfortable bed for a place on the floor with
a sleeping bag. I'm not exactly sure I was the one who did better out of that arrangement. We went and ate at Bikuri Donkey
which translated, means either scared donkey, or surprised donkey....i'm not exactly sure where they're going with that. We got to watch a bit of Predator on TV that night too. Watching Arnie speak Japanese is an experience. We even had a laughing fit when 'he' said 'Kocho Sensei!' to a man in battle fatigues. In our experience, Kocho Sensei means 'principal' which meant we had mental images of our respective school principal's running around in the jungle holding grenades and guns...enough to make anybody giggle. A fun first night, soon to be trumped by the most trying of days.
I decided that 5 minutes of gazing at Mt. Fuji from a speeding train was not enough, and planned a trip to Hakone. At the last, Joe decided to accompany me, and we set off on the trains to get there. The Lonely Planet suggests that it's a great way to experience many forms of travel, but unfortunately for us it was a weekend, and it offered a great way
to experience the joys of queuing. I think half of our day was spent standing in line waiting to get on the normal train, the switchback train, and the cable car. At one station we actually had to exit, walk 200 metres down the road, and get in line. It took at least another 45 minutes to get back into the station, back onto the platform, and another 15 minutes to make our way onto the switchback train, where we were packed so tightly I don't think i'll eat sardines ever again. I empathise with them. By the way switchback means switch back. As in, go 3 stations, stop, go back one, stop, go forwards again. It was a nightmare. I had an elbow jabbing into my back the whole time, and was becomeing intimate with another mans armpit...*shudder*. After making it that far, we tried to get some gyoza, or any food, found out thst by the time the queue had finished the restaurant would have closed for the afternoon, and we'd have wasted our time. We got some snacks from a deli, and got in yet another line to head further up the mountain.
Once up that
stage in the cablecar, I thought hooray, finally, not knowing that there was another line ahead. To go on the ropeway to the top of the mountain, we would have had to line up for an hour. Looking at the skyline, we figured we had a little over an hour until sunset, at which point the whole trip would have been worthless. Looking back in the trusty Lonely Planet guide, we saw on the map that it wasn;t that far, and decided to walk. Oh Dear. The next time I have a choice between queuing for an hour and hiking, I know which one i'll choose. Remember this is volcano country, so we walked for an hour and a half, uphill, through a sulphuric scented landscape. Not pleasant. I have to say my patience had frayed to a single strand, which was liable to snap at any moment. I think it did at several points, and I was reminded of the accidental 12km hike at Akame48...not a favourable memory. Hiking is now on my list of least favourite pastimes.
We straggled up on the hill pushing and pulling each other to the top, and got a few moments of
happiness when we saw the traffic jam. Hooray! We must be close! -We thought. The thing is, it was a rather long traffic jam. People had started getting out of their cars to get to the top before sunset. It was a race against nature. I surprised myself by setting off at a jog, before my energy petered out and i was struggling to move my legs again. I had to keep reminding myself that walking meant one foot had to go in front of the other. I crested the top of yet another rise in the road, and then turned and saw Fuji-san, closer than i'd ever been to it. The sun had already dipped down below the horizon, and the sky was an orange-pink colour. Mt. Fuji rose above it like a queen draped in her robes, and snow had started to form at the peak. It's a most unusual mountain, it's lopsided crater making it quite unique. We stared, took pictures and just kept gazing at it. At that point, it felt totally worth it to have fought our way through crowds and trekked up that winding road to the top. To have struggled so to see
it made it that much more special.
Hakone is known not only as one of the 5 major lookouts for Fiji-zan, but for it's onsen-boiled eggs. Joe was eager to head up het another hill - a short journey - to the place that sold them, but I saw something else calling me over. A bus. I thought it best to check the timetable, and make sure we could make it back without using our legs. Lucky I did. It was the last bus for the day, and due to leave 7 minutes from then. We were torn, but only momentarily. After all, I can have boiled eggs any time I like. When they're boiled in a hot spring they're black, that's all. I'm told they taste just the same. We got on the bus, and when it started to roll, it felt like the best thing since they invented banana daquiris. The only problem was, it didn't roll for long. We got caught in the tail end of the traffic Jam and it took 2 hours to get to the train station. We then caught another train to Numazu and walked to Joe's place. A terror of a
day, with a really special moment nestled in it.
Monday got off to a late start. Tired and sore from hauling ourselfs uphill, it took some convincing to get our bodies to move. I had an urge to see the sea, and Joe obliged me by climbing on his bike and leading the way. He had a spare bike so I jumped on that and we rode through the streets of Numazu to get to the oceanfront. It was quite a pleasant ride, further than I had expected it to be, but with a few bits of unusual architecture to catch my attention. There was a lot of 'on the bike' photography going on as well, which may explain the lopsidedness/blurriness of some pictures - if they make the cut for this blog - so please taqke that into account. The actual coastline was not that impressive. The sand is dark, the water was choppy, and it was too cold to even put a toe in the water. I just took some deep breaths, and let myself feel connected to the rest of the world. Standing on the shore makes me feel closer to home somehow
*violins*, it's just a swim from here to Perth, right? We rode back, Joe pointing out a bit contraption that is in fact a tidal wave wall. which supposedly comes down, and diverts the force of water somehow and saves the city. I am put in mind of sci fi novels and giant forcefields linking up the tidal wave gates, but somehow I think I could be mistaken there. Joe and I parted ways, I got back on a train, ready to...actually see Tokyo! - and I really shouldn't have been surprised when it started to rain.
I stopped in Yokohama, thinking I could get in touch with an ex student, but no luck. Looking around the station, I longed for a place to sit down and have a coffee, but everywhere was full...and had a queue. Having fulfilled my quota of lining up for the decade, I walked further from the station - keeping it in sight as getting lost was the LAST thing I wanted to do. Finally, like a beacon from on high, I saw it. Manga cafe. Yay! My preayers were answered. Any reader of Lonely Planet should know that where there is a manga
cafe, there is an internet connection. I went in, found a booth and relaxed, for the first time in days. I chatted to some friends back home, told them of my experiences, and realy just enjoyed myself. There were hot drink vending machines, you could order food, and I got some support from home, and got my bearings for the rest of my stay. It was then that I decided to change my bus ticket, not fancying a night sleeping in a chair followed by a week of work. Heading back to the station I booked a ticket caught a train to Tokyo main station, cancelled my bus ticket, got a FULL REFUND - a nice surprise - and then jumped on a shinkansen for star treatment to Kyoto. Ok, so not star treatment, but I was hot, warm, 3 hours from home, and sipping Australian wine. Travelling by shinkansen is just like being on an airplane, but with more leg room.
That concludes this segment of Things That Can Go Wrong And Do.
I hope you'll join me next time for Good Things Happening Because You Need Them To. ^_^
There are more photos below