Published: April 13th 2010April 2nd 2010
This was the first night in Tokyo, at the Sakura Hotel, after two girls literally walked me to the front door. I was in a dorm, in theory, but nobody but me was there. It's been the most expensive accommodation in Tokyo, but it was booked the same day, so I can't complain too much. And it was very clean as well.
Friday, April 2nd 2010
Today is the day I have been waiting forever: I finally go to Japan!
I am at the San Francisco airport right now. It's 11.30am, my flight is going to be at 1.05pm.
I really did not plan this vacation as much as I wanted and omitted many details. Only yesterday I went to Bank of America to change some dollars in Japanese Yen (I have 89,000 yen in my pocket, whatever that means).
I bought a tour book which I hardly read, but I am planning to read it while in Japan. And I did not brush up my Japanese, which would have been pretty handy going there, sob.
I didn't ask anybody to join me in this trip; Japan is so special to me that I want to visit it by myself. I am staying in hostels and perhaps I am going to meet some people there.
I have only two contacts in Japan: Yuji - a fun guy from Yokohama who was in California for some time - and Matthew, who's the brother of a colleague of mine and I never met before. I'd really love to spend at
That's a great idea; when you flush, the water comes out of that tap, so you can wash your hands and reuse the water for the next flush. It saves space and that's environment friendly.
least one day with Yuji, but he's in the midst of finding a new job, therefore he's not sure he's going to be available. He said it's bad time to find a job for a fresh-graduate, even in Japan and despite he's fresh from an internship in Fujitsu America.
A couple of weeks ago I purchased the Japan Rail Pass, which will grant me transportation in the island. Since I'm staying 12 days, with 11 effective traveling days, I purchased a 1-week pass and I hope I won't regret not taking the 2-week one. Trains in Japan are so expensive that a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto covers already the cost of a pass for a week. Oddly, the pass cannot be purchased inside Japan and I had to do that in San Francisco.
I only know that, once in Narita, I'll have to get the actual Japanese Rail Pass (I have an exchange order), reach Tokyo and then take a train to Kyoto. I have no idea how to do all of this, but I'm confident I'll manage to do it. The flight is about 10 hours and during that time I'm planning to review the
Look how nice this box is: this is a lunch box (bento box) that I bought at the shinkansen train station. It is wooden and it tasted delicious. I bought tonkatsu, accompanied by a big Asahi. It wasn't the best idea in the world to start drinking so early in the morning, but I soon got used to it...
language (I brought the books I used to study from).
At the moment I know only that I'm going to be in Kyoto for a couple of days, then there's a blank in my schedule and then I'm going to be in Tokyo for the last days.
I'm confident I'll manage to find an Internet connection everywhere...
As for the last Alaska trip, I'll try to write something every day and keep this travel journal updated. I'm sure it's going to be incredible!
Saturday, April 3rd 2010
Coming to Japan from the United States, you lose one day because of the time change. Therefore Friday has been eventless for me.
Once I got off the airplane, I went through the immigration and customs. I don't know if this is only my impression, but everything looks exactly the same as the US. They have the very same customs form and an equivalent waiver which granted me 90 days in Japan as a visitor. They even stapled to my passport something equivalent to the I-94 (which I do not need anymore being a green card holder).
Anyway, the entire process was fairly quick and I was
This is one of the first sakura (cherry blossom) I saw in Japan. At this point, I was on my way to Gingakuji temple
out of the terminal at 5.45 (we landed one hour before). Getting the rail pass was really a long wait, nearly one hour. I don't know why they were moving so slowly, because they had at least 4 people working at full speed. I cannot believe that in technological Japan getting the rail pass is still a very manual process and they stamp a bunch of papers before handing you the actual piece of paper.
The man who helped me handed me the pass and asked me where I was heading to. When I said Kyoto he made a strange face and he went checking the train schedule. He came to me saying "bad niusu" (bad news...). The last train for Kyoto was already gone. He was very kind and explained me exactly what to do, but I didn't have a reservation for today at all in Tokyo and it's a weekend day.
I bought a phone card and called the hostel where I'll be staying in a couple of days. They spoke English, so no problem. The issue was that - as expected - they had no vacancies. I went upstairs where they had Internet and tried
A close-up of a cherry blossom
to connect, but I was experiencing issues. Fortunately there was a tourist information kiosk which literally saved my butt. There were two women speaking very good English who helped me with a reservation to Sakura Hotel (which is really a hostel). They called and I didn't do anything.
I hopped in the 7.45 Narita Express train and got off at Shinjuku, where I took a local train. Once off the train I bought 20 mini-something (I didn't realize it was a dessert) and started walking towards the hotel using a very approximate map they printed me when they booked the reservation.
After 20 minutes of walking, I stopped two girls to ask where I was (I would have eventually found the place, but it was much easier to ask for help). Fellas, when they say that Japanese are nice to tourists, they do not tell the whole story. They walked me to a police booth, where they explained very clearly where to go. After that, they walked me all the way to the hostel, which was the opposite way compared to where they were going! I am really shocked. The conversation was interesting and their English was definitely
This is the very first temple I visited in Japan. The first of... too many!
better than my Japanese, although they said my Japanese is remarkable (they were lying of course). I discovered that Sakura means "cherry blossom".
Tonight it's Saturday night and there are a bunch of people around, but I prefer to go to sleep and be rested tomorrow to head to Kyoto. There are a number of 7-11 around (I knew that) and I stepped to one of it to buy something to drink (I was choking with the stuff I bought at the train station). Well, the name may still be 7-11, but what they sell is definitely Japanese! I bought a tea-and-milk drink which I never saw before in my life.
I'll now try to figure out how to get to Kyoto tomorrow. Anyway, the train system seems to be a lot easier than I thought and every station name is written in Romaji (roman letters) as well as Japanese.
Sunday, April 4th 2010
This morning I woke up early with the intent of getting to Kyoto as early as possible. The continental breakfast at the hostel was 350 yen, pretty much free.
After filling up with bread and tea, I packed my stuff and headed to
Look how beautiful this is. Being used to western architecture, I never witnessed anything like this in my life. You can't see from the picture, but there is an insane amount of tourists around here.
the JR station. Getting to Tokyo Eki has been really easy, but from there it took me some time to realize where to go.
I finally got to the Shinkansen (bullet train) office and asked what I had to do to reserve seats. Unfortunately, the next train for Kyoto (at 9.03am) was fully booked, but I could still take it on the unreserved cars and so I did.
The Tokyo station is comparable to one of the western shopping malls. It's huge and as clean as you can possibly imagine. Japanese are definitely the most polite people you can find in this world! I bought a lunch box to be consumed during the trip and a large Asahi beer, even though I was really not hungry. I didn't know whether consumption of alcoholics bevarages is allowed onboard and I was very proud of myself when I asked one of the officers in tentative Japanese "denwa ni biru o nonde mo ii desu ka". The young fella said something I could not understand, but it was clearly nodding.
The tonkatsu (fried chicken breast) that I bought proved to be phenomenally good. The trip to Kyoto takes approximately 2'45
You won't believe how many vending machines there are in Japan. They sell mostly drinks (but I also saw cigarettes). The drinks are both cold and hot; on cold days, hot milk and tea was the best treat ever. Most of the cans are really high quality and you cannot squeeze them with your hands. Pepsi and Coca Cola come in bottles made of aluminum and they are closeable. The western 33cl (16oz) seem to be too big for Japanese, that use mostly 22cl for sodas (but milk-tea and green tea can be a pretty big size, too).
and I was at Kyoto Eki before noon.
I tried to find a free locker (every station, apparently, has plenty of lockers for the luggage) but they were all taken. Every locker has a progressive number and I saw number... 8000, meaning that more than 8000 people had the same idea for this busy Sunday.
The solution has been to walk the entire day with my super-heavy backpack (my shoulders are really in pain right now). I arbitrarily decided to have a 1.6-mile walk my book was recommending, starting at Ginkakuji temple. In order to get there, the cheapest solution is the bus (500 yen for a day pass). At the tourist information, they told me to take bus 17 because less busy. Well, if that is not busy, I have no idea what a busy line is. Buses are relatively small and don't have many seats. When you think "no way another person can fit in here" Japanese people are able to squeeze at least a dozen in!
Definitely from today I review my idea of "busy bus". The traffic in Kyoto is pretty bad and it took forever to reach the designated bus stop. The
Two women wearing a traditional kimono on the "path of philosophy"
reward, on the other hand, has been incredible. I walked along the old canal and I was welcomed by a lot of cherry blossoms that were simply incredible. I think what I saw today has been the best sightseeing in my life (I didn't say "one of the best"). The lively narrow streets of Kyoto go beyond what I can describe. There are plenty of old buildings, temples, colors.
I paid the entrance fee for the Ginkakuji temple and... did the tourist. It took me about 2 hours to complete the "path of philosophy". My walk ended at Eikando Temple, a lot less busy than the first one I visited today. This time I actually saw the temple, not only the exterior. As expected, I had to remove my shoes. There was a no-picture sign in every temple room, so I didn't take any. The architecture is so different from what I have always seen in my life that left me speechless. From the "pagoda" one can see the entire city layout.
In more than one occasions, I bought unknown food to vendors on the street. I particularly liked a pastry I had that seemed to be stuffed
This hostel was really nice, with traditional tatami. Note the sliding door on the back. When I got there, at night, there was not too much noise at all. I wanted to extend my stay here for one more night, but it was sold out and I was forced to go to Osaka, since Nara was also completely booked. Believe it or not, not one hostel in Kyoto had vacancies for the following day.
with sweet beans. Vending machines are everywhere and I am starting to enjoy tea with milk... The weather forecast for today was 40% rain at evening, but it was a fantastic day altogether (slightly overcast in the early afternoon).
Being very tired of the weight of the backback, I decided to catch a bus and go to the hostel for which I had a reservation and where I am right now at the time of typing. From where I was, I'm sure walking would have been a faster solution, but I my shoulders were too sore and I needed a break. No Japanese people are loud in the buses (I noticed they are on the streets, though). I felt really ashamed when a huge group of italian tourists got on the bus (at least 15 of them). They were unreally loud and they kept making very poor humor. One of them was staring me, but didn't suspect I was italian since the tour-book I was holding in my hands was in English and I had a Death Valley hat.
Another thing I noticed is that nobody talks at the phone while on public transportation. Better, in Tokyo they
I had to take this picture! Memories of home sweet home!
say explicitely "silent your phone and refrain from making calls" in the JR trains. But everybody sends SMS, literally everybody. I've been observing young people; they all seem to have the same type of phone with a huge display. It's fun to see how fast they type and believe me, it's not easy to understand what they do. They seem to use a wheel to type in text; I think there is a sort of prediction when they put a few syllables, because I see them selecting the intended word from a list. I don't know, it's rocket science for me.
The hostel is pretty nice and conveniently located. Unfortunately, they don't have vacancies for tomorrow, so I booked a hostel in Osaka for two days, so I can visit Kyoto tomorrow, take the train to Osaka (30 minutes) and then visit Nara, also very close from Osaka.
On the way back to Tokyo I may stop in Yokohama, where I'll find my friend Yuji (I spoke to him at the phone today).
After putting my stuff down, I head to the city center to find a "kamera-ya" (a photography store). I finally bought a neck loop
I woke up in the morning, so Heian Shrine was not busy at all. This is the front building. Red is one of the common color for Japanese temples and shrines. Orange is another popular color.
and a decent tripod. I also had ramen in a very traditional corner store. As expected, the price was more than decent (550 yen for a pretty big serving). I had a lot of Japanese food in my life and especially ramen, but never before anything of comparable quality. And for "5 bucks"! I already foresee I am going to eat too much during my staying here.
I don't know how much I walked today, but it feels like a lot. I managed to come back with the least crowded bus I've seen since I set foot in Japan, even though I initially took it in the wrong direction...
The plan for tomorrow is to wake up very early, visit Kyoto and then head to Osaka.
Monday, April 5th 2010
It's 11.13pm at the time of typing and I'm really exhausted.
This morning I woke up early, at 6.00am. I was ready for the checkout at 6.30, but nobody was at the counter which was opening at 9.00am. This bugged me, because I had to head back to the hostel within a couple of hours.
Anyway, I walked to the bus station and went to the
Heian Shrine (2)
Main building of the heian shrine. This is one of the two towers (the other is identical, on the right).
main train station, where I was finally able to find a free locker for my heavy backpack. 600 yen for the entire day, not cheap but definitely worth it. I inquired about the trains to Osaka and gladly discovered there is a train every 15 minutes until midnight and it takes only 30 minutes.
Light as I've never been in a while, I took a bus to Heian shrine, which was already open for visiting. I was really glad to see that nobody was around. It seems that in busy Kyoto people don't flood the streets before 8.00 am. Given that sunrise is a little after 6, there are 2 hours when buses are not overcrowded and sightseeing can be fantastic. The only drawback is that every attraction that has opening hours is generally close that early in the morning.
From the shrine, I walked to the imperial palace. It was just a small distance on the map, but it proved to be longer than I thought walking. Anyway, I should learn to read my travel book, which said explicitely that walk-in visitors are not welcome and reservations are needed. From outside, very little could be seen.
I don't know whether this sing is a STOP or a yield, but look how beautiful the background is. This was shot in Kyoto, right after I visited the Heian Shrine on my way to the imperial palace.
Little disappointed, I catched a bus to the hostel to do the checkout (I had a key to a locker to return). I also had breakfast (toast and apple juice for 300 yen).
At this point, I thought I mastered buses in Kyoto, but I was remarkably wrong. I wanted to visit Shugakuin imperial villa, in the north-east of the city, and it required changing at least one bus. While waiting for the second bus, I read the description that my book was giving and... no walk-in visitors are accepted even there.
I changed my plan on the fly and decided to go to Kinkakuji temple. In theory, one bus should have brought me there. Bus stations in Kyoto are not too easy to understand. In the map, you often read a station name and see that 10 buses stop there, but when you're there, only 2 or 3 are actually stopping. Now I know why. The station is normally divided in multiple substations and they all have the same name. When you're lucky, there's a small map that shows the location of the other sub-stations and what buses pass there, but normally there is not.
This is also known as golden pavillion. I think the picture speaks for itself...
This is the most impressive pagoda I saw in my trip to Japan and it lives in Tokyo.
I figured out where to catch the bus, I waited 10 minutes (I never waited longer) and suddenly realized I was going the wrong way. Argh! I got off as soon as I could and changed bus. The ride was supposed to be long, at least 45 minutes, so I fell asleep and... went past my stop! I had to get off again and head back to my intended destination.
This sequence of mistakes cost me almost 2 hours and I was at the beginning of my tour at past 12, with millions of other tourists. By the way, even today I saw a plethora of italian tourists: we are simply everywhere (the density of italian tourists in Japan is the same as Japanese tourists in Italy, believe it or not) (in Italy the majority of the people cannot distinguish Japanese, Koreans and Chinese; I apologize for our ignorance).
Kinkakuji temple is really beautiful. I don't know how many times I said this, but I cannot help it. Every attraction I saw in Kyoto was 5 stars. The pagoda of this temple is golden and in the middle of a pond; I didn't check the pictures yet, but
This is a zen-garden. There are three different types of garden in Japan and this "stone" garden is pretty fascinating. People gather around it (on the temple, where you see those people on the right) and medidate looking at the regular waves that are purposely done in with the gravel. Pretty suggestive.
I know they will fail in conveying how amazing the scenery was.
After some icecream, ramen and several other things I reached the Ryoanji Temple, with an interesting garden made of stones. I finished this tour visiting Ninnaji temple and having several other things to eat there (there are plenty of kiosks selling typical Japanese stuff).
I managed to get to the train station (long bus ride) in a reasonable time and then walked to Sanjusangendo, another temple with a bunch of Buddha statues inside, all covered in gold. In every temple, there's a no-picture policy and of course I respected it.
It was getting late, but I still wanted to visit more of Kyoto. I then headed to Nishiki Market, in the heart of the city. This seels everything from seaweed to beans and I tried some random food which I wouldn't even know how to describe (but, as usual, it was good stuff).
Porta is a huge shopping mall entirely underground, accessible from Kyoto Eki (train station). That was my last stop and I had... dinner! (I have been doing nothing but visiting temples and eating!). Good stuff, I finally went to a proper
This is also in Kyoto.
restaurant and had tenpura, noodles, rice and vegetables.
The local train I took for Osaka was not the fastest and it took 40 minutes instead of 30, not big deal. There is a train that runs in a loop around Osaka and I had to take it in order to get to the hostel. I finally got out at the right exit after a minor mistake at around 9.45 and the description online said "3 minutes from the station". I walked way more that that and didn't find it. I asked for help and finally I realized how worthless my Japanese really is. The first person who tried to help me was a road worker, who asked me for the address or telephone number, none of which I wrote down.
Walking back to the station, a very nice girl offered me to walk me to the police station, but they were gone. She checked on her phone and told me something I didn't understand. She didn't speak any English and I could understand 5% of what she was saying. She had the idea of asking at the train station and the guy who was working there knew exactly
The colors you can see in Japan in April are something unique. After all, I am glad I visited at the beginning of April, even though this year has been colder than usual (like the rest of the world, it seems).
where it was and explained it to her. Again, she walked me in front of the hostel door. These people are nicer than every Italian you would ever find (at least in Venice) and I'm ashamed I cannot thank them in a proper manner.
The hostel is nice and I have a tiny private room with free internet, from where I am writing right now.
It's almost midnight now and I'm very sleepy, but I'll try to wake up at 7.00am tomorrow and go to Nara.
Tuesday, April 6th 2010
I wasn't able to wake up as early as I wanted this morning, I was really exhausted from yesterday. I hit the bathroom at about 7.45am and I was on a train to Nara by 9.00am.
Once I got there, I headed straight to the information kiosk, where an English-speaking lady handed me a map with all the city attractions and highlighted a suggested route which is the same as my travel book suggested. The book I bought has been pretty useless so far and if you travel in Japan you'll be able to find all the information you want at the tourist information. Detailed maps
I think that's pretty funny... Japanese humor.
with descriptions, bus routes, walks. Everything a tourist wants to know. In US one can also get maps at the information center, but with millions of advertisements; in Japan, complimentary maps are ad-free.
Anyway, I started eating pretty early, only 5 minutes away from the train station and had breakfast. The usual stuff... toasted bread with honey and butter, a small scrambled egg and a mini-salad. I ordered also "miruku tea", tea with milk, which I like more and more. Breakfast in Japan is awesome: dirt cheap (200 yen for the food, the drink was 400, twice as much) and the portions are small. I hate to dine out in America and throw away most of the food or - like I generally do - eat until you get to phisical destruction.
And whoever said Japan is expensive regarding food.. is lying!
I started walking the recommended path and soon got to the Kofuku temple, where a 5-storey Pagoda is one of the most famous views of Nara. Since I came to Japan, I've been doing nothing but seeing temples, but I never stop to be impressed by the awesome architecture.
In Nara, there's a gigantic park
One of the attractions of Kyoto. This market sells a little bit of everything. I honestly don't know what I photographed... but it looked pretty cool at the moment.
where the majority of the attractions are. In the park, deers are everywhere; whatever I was thinking of Japan before coming here was totally wrong. I was not expecting such vast open areas like I saw today in Nara. It's true, on the other hand, that it's overcrowded.
By the national museum (which I didn't visit) I got an icecream (green tea-vanilla mix). I got the idea from two screaming girls, because one deer eat their map (the scene was really funny, I wish I captured that). Those deers would eat anything! There are tons of kiosks selling sort of cookies for feeding the deers (totally the opposite of what would happen in California, where most of the budget would be spent creating signs "don't feed the deers, no feed of wildlife, etc".
I walked to the Tojaiji temple, which is claimed to be the biggest wood building in the world. Impressive, I was really speechless. Inside, there is a Buddha of insane dimensions. Oddly, pictures were allowed.
From there, I continued the walk and did a little hike to the eastern part of the city, dominated by small hills. The view from atop one of them was
Dinner in Kyoto
This stuff is exceptionally good. I love dried noodles with dipping souce and I think I'll replace the usual spaghetti with it. In the red cup, there is miso soup, which Japanese people drink beforehand and not during the meal.
not bad at all.
The Kasuga shrine was the last attraction I visited in Nara, famous for 3,000 lanterns which are lit all together only once a year.
On my way downhill, I stopped to a nice restaurant where I had soba udon and tempura, all delicious stuff.
Since it was fairly early, I tried to reach the Naramachi area, south east of the train station. On the way, I was helped by two girls that offered to walk me there. I made best use of my Japanese and I was very proud of myself. They were not from Japan though, but Taiwanese. They confessed having no problems learning Kanjis, since they are a simplification of traditional chinese characters. Argh.
I didn't actually find the temple (they left me 100 meters from it...) but I really had enough of temples. It was quite a hike to go back to the train station, but the train for Osaka was in less than 10 minutes (as usual...).
On the train, I was sitting next to a girl that was extremely nice to me. I thought she was Japanese, but she was instead a foreign student. She studies
Three-storey pagoda in Nara. There is also a 5-storey pagoda nearby, but I think this picture with the sakura was much prettier.
in Nara for 2 years and starting this year she's in Osaka. She spoke pretty much no English (she knew the counting I think) and communicating has been very difficult, although she was speaking with simple words. I was able to explain I meant to go the Osaka castle and, once at the Osaka station, she helped me asking how to get there to the personnel. I still didn't figure out where she's from, although I saw her passport (she was in Nara at the immigration office). It must be a minor state in Asia, since I never heard of it (what a shame).
Reaching the Osaka castle has been easy. The castle is amazing from outside, but the visit inside is worth only for the view from the top, which gives a 360-degree panoramic view of Osaka. The temperature inside the castle was simply ridiculously high.
In the huge park around the castle, locals gather and have picnics or just hang out. It was very nice to see what they do. I had a custard pastry and a beer before getting to the caste, another beer and some typical octopus dumplings on the way back. The octopus
One of the jillion temples I visited...
dumplings are supposedly something typical from Osaka (the only good information I extracted from the book).
After the castle, I visited "downtown", assuming it exists (to me, Osaka is a gigantic metropolis and it all looks downtown to me). The city is very busy and I was impressed by the amount of people that quitely walk the roads. I stopped for a dessert in a good-looking cafe and it did taste awesome indeed. I keep being scared by the prices and I didn't initially want to go inside, worried it would be too expensive, but the check was for 470 yen, about 5 bucks.
It took a while to get back to the Osaka station and I drunk a beer I never heard before during my walk; living in California, I guess I miss public drinking...
Instead of going directly to the hostel, I opted for a quick stop to Namba district, which is essentially a gigantic shopping mall, both underground and at the surface. I finished the day with a bean-icecream. I would have never thought beans are so versatile; sweets with beans - typical in Japan - are delicious.
I got back at the
This is the main entrance of the Todaji temple. One can access the temple directly from Nara park. Notice the deer in the middle of the picture; at the park, there are a lot of deers, which tourist feed with some crackers they buy at local shops.
hostel about 1 hour ago and had my first experience with Japanese toilets. I thought it was a myth that they squirt water, but I swear it's true. And no English instructions...
I just booked a hostel in Yokohama for tomorrow. I hope my friend Yuji will have time to hang out, otherwise it doesn't matter, I'll visit the neighborhood. The plan for the day is not clear yet, I still have a few hours to decide...
Wednesday, April 7th 2010
This morning I was really too tired to get up before 8.45am. Yesterday it was a total-exhaustion day.
I forgot to mention, but yesterday I visited a 6-storey Mizuno store (I think Gillo likes that brand, the first time I heard of it, it was from him).
In there, I managed to spend 2100 yen ($25) for... a pair of walking socks! But believe me, I am wearing them right now and they feel awesome.
Outside the hostel, I stepped in a small place for breakfast where I had my usual miruku (no tea this time) and toast, this time with the addition of one egg. I am pretty shocked to see that in Japan you
This is the oldest and biggest wooden construction in the world. Believe me, the size is phenomenal. Inside, a giant Buddha can be found.
are allowed to smoke in bars and public places and there are actually more smokers than I could imagine.
Fortunately, the place was small enough not to bug me.
I got off at Osaka station, then Shin-Osaka (I searched "shin" on the dictionary and I think it means "new" in this context). Now I am on the Shinkansen train to Nagoya. Finally, I managed to get a reserved ticket. Nagoya is only two stops from Osaka and I should be there at 11.40am.
The day is not very nice at all and it was raining tonite (or at least that's what I think, since I heard the noise). I hope that's not going to spoil my staying there.
Later in the day, I'll catch another shinkansen (bullet train) to Yokohama, where I will be staying tonite and maybe meet my friend Yuji, if he's not busy tomorrow with job interviews.
I was thinking about what to do in the next couple of days and I don't think I am going to stay in Tokyo (I'll be there only for sleeping). Since my rail pass is valid until the 9th, I really think I should make good use
This is one of the sides of the temple perimeter. Pretty colorful flowers.
of it. Probably, I'll take a couple of day-trips from Tokyo, but I'm going to ask my friend Yuji what to do, he's gonna be able to help me.
Yesterday, for the first time, I saw a homeless person in Osaka. They are definitely a rarity. One was sleeping near the Osaka koen (park), another near the hostel (shin-imamiya, the station near which the hostel is, is definitely not the best area of Osaka). Used to San Francisco (especially the mission district) this is definitely nothing. You really feel safe walking in these huge metropolitan area. The roads are in perfect conditions, at least they were in both Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. I'll confirm that at the end of the trip.
I hope that Nagoya is going to be less busy than the big cities I saw so far. I want to see the more obscure part of Japan. So far, I found tourists everywhere; I though that going to Osaka would shield me from some of them, but nothing. Japan gets an insane amount of visitors and Osaka is a damn good place to take day-trips to Nara and Kyoto and it's a lot cheaper and it's
Believe it or not, this is the mascotte of Nara. I don't really know what it represents, but that's why people invented Wikipedia...
However, I found it pretty hilarious.
easier to find an accommodation (by the way, if you ever visit Japan, do stay in Osaka). (at the type of typing this, we arrived at the Kyoto station and a big group of Italians are about to get off the train).
One last thing before I forget. Cabs are aweful and so are some of the cars around. Buses shut the engine off at every traffic light (at least they were doing so in Kyoto). I've never seen such an approach. They even shut the engine off while waiting in traffic, not necessarily at an intersection. I always thought that the penalty you pay for turning on the engine would void any gas saving having the engine off for few seconds, but I'm sure they run their calculations.
I am looking around, out of the train window, and I see a lot of hills. I would really like to go for a hike right now, but that's not the right place to do it. I would have gladly climbed Mt Fuji, but the mountain is still snow covered and the official climbing season (very narrow) starts July 1st and ends at the end of August.
There are not many Japanese flags around Japan (I live in America...), but there are quite a few here!
just got to the hostel...
So, after getting off the train in Nagoya, I asked directions for the castle at the train station. Before that, I had lunch, as I am not eating enough and I have to become similar to Buddha or a sumo wrestler. The meat and rice I had ("spezzatino" in Italian) was divine.
Getting change for the lockers has been tough. I went to the JR ticket station and they refused. They sent me to a "conbini" (mini-market) and the employee, who received me with a big smile, told me she wouldn't get change to me. That's the first time I had hard time in Japan. On the way back to the lockers, I saw a fella collecting the coins, so I could finally drop my heavy bag and head to the castle.
The directions on my (poor) book were missing altogether, so I took a cab as suggested from the station employee. It wasn't terribly expensive, about 1500 yen for a 10-minute ride.
The castle is impressive, but I think I prefer the Osaka castle after all. It has been a cold and windy day and I was hiding myself under
Kasuga Taisha (2)
Kasuga Taisha is famous for 1000 lanterns. They are lit all together only once a year; the lanterns are all around the temple as well as inside. This is just one detail.
the hood of my jacket. The castle had an observation deck, but the view was far inferior to the Osaka castle's one. By the way, Nagoya is the fourth largest city in Japan, Osaka the third, Tokyo the first (I don't know which one is the second largest).
The other attraction of Nagoya was a temple and I decided to go there. I talked to Yuji at the phone before and he told me he would be free after 5.00 pm, so I still had time. This time my (pretty useless) tour book mentioned the underground station where to get off, so I opted for taking the subway. Once again, I was very proud of myself when I asked an old man where the chicatetsu (underground station) was, and he replied to me in Japanese and I actually understood. Even at the underground station I got away with the few words I know.
The underground system of Nagoya is more than decent and I got at the intended station in less than 20 minutes. It was then a very short walk to the temple. Unfortunately I think I have been spoiled by Kyoto and Nara, so the temple
This is the famous Osaka Castle, one of the few touristic attractions of Osaka. I visited the castle inside, too, but it's definitely not recommended, except for the view from atop from where you can see the entire city of Osaka.
didn't look like an attraction at all to me. I walked back right away and headed to the JR station with direction Shin-Yokohama. I think the take-away from Nagoya is the experience of being in a less visited city where you can feel the real Japan, but in terms of tourist attractions it is pretty poor. I've read on the useless guide that it has been destroyed during the second world war and everything around there is pretty new (and it looks like so).
I slept most of the way from Nagoya to Shin-Osaka, more than 1 hour ride. Once there, I immediately realized that Yokohama is as crowded as Tokyo. It took me a while to understand how to get to the Yokohama station (Shin Yokohama is 4 stops away from Yokohama). Once there, I called Yuji that immediatly came and met me at the east exit of the station.
How different he looks in Japan! He had long hair and very casual style in America, but now that he's job hunting he got a haircut and he was very professional-looking. We had dinner in a fantastic ramen house, where I had some of the best ramen
Osaka Castle (2)
A different view of Osaka castle.
ever (not kidding).
Yuji explained to me it's not easy to get a job in Japan right now. He interviewed with Sony and Canon, just to mention a couple and he's applying for a research position. He's a smart guy and I'm sure he's gonna get a job eventually, but I can feel the burden for him, although I never had to go through that process since I was hired straight after my internship.
After dinner, he brought me to a typical Japanese bar, after we met with his girlfriend. The bar was really traditional, with sliding doors and a counter. The place has so little space that my backpack was hard to fit.
We killed a few pitchers of o-sake, but at the moment of writing I am not drunk at all. Yuji's girlfriend, on the other hand, passed out long time ago (both for drinking and for being tired).
We also had some food there. Surprise surprise: I had whale meat! Yuji was translating for me and he said something that I perceived like "oil meat". I said "sure, never had it". Then he repeated it and I understood "whale meat"! The reason why many
Downtown Osaka, near Osaka station. Osaka has nothing to envy to the most famous districts in Tokyo.
animalists hate Japan and Norway! Of course I wanted to try it! Whale meat taste really good and the way they told me to eat it was with some soy milk mixed with ginger (japanese ginger, yellow looking instead of pink) and garlic. I keep saying that and I'll never get tired of it: Japanese food in Japan is simply on a different dimension.
Yuji's girlfriend does not speak any English and I didn't do a good job speaking Japanese to her, but she seems like a pretty cool girl. She has a degree in pharmacology and both she and Yuji are much younger than I am (Yugi's 25, she's 23). One of the two "bartenders" (if one considers that a bar) guessed my age to be 30... sob, right in the center.
We spoke a lot about mangas and animations and I was amazed by the fact they know all of them! First of the north star (Ken il guerriero in Italian), city Hunter (name that I don't remember in English and Japanese), Lupin, Sampei, Dragonball, Gigi la trottola!! They know ALL of them and they both read mangas and watch animations. Fellas, Japan IS the future.
A night shot of Osaka. As in Tokyo, there are many businesses on different floors of skyscrapers; that's a nice idea! You may find a put at the 12th floor of a tall building, sometimes even an ATM or a coffee shop.
I was too late to check in to the hostel, but fortunately Yuji called and they left a back-door open for me. Yuji and his girlfriend were kind enough to walk me to the hostel's door (actually Yuji's girfriend passed out long time ago and din't have any decisional power...).
I am really sleepy and tired right now and it's already 12.30am. Tomorrow, I'll simply go to Tokyo and start to wonder around. Probably, Friday morning I am going to take a day-trip somewhere since that's the last validity day of my Japan Rail Pass, then I'm gonna stay in Tokyo. Yuji should also join me either Saturday or Sunday.
I gladly discovered that electrical plugs are the same in Japan and in America (shocking). Just a useless side information. Better go to bed, a long day is waiting for me tomorrow. I have the bad feeling the money I have is not going to be enough at all. Sigh.
Thursday, April 8th 2010
It's already 6pm, the day has gone really fast today.
I rate Porto Hostel, where I stayed yesterday, 5 stars. I strongly recommend it; when I read the reviews online
This is one of the two attractions of Nagoya. Probably, this long detour is not worth it, but I had time... Once again, I visited the castle inside, but that's just a waste of money unless you are really into Japanese history.
some people were complaining and the overall rating was fairly low, but I really don't know what those people expect from a 3000 yen hostel. The room had a giant bed and it was super-clean. Breakfast was small but really good (for once, I didn't have toast).
Anyway, checkout time was 10.00am and I definitely used every minute I paid for.
Although I was really close to the train station, I managed to get lost and walked for a little bit before getting there.
There was no train change required, but it was a local train, meaning that it would stop at every station. Overall, it didn't take long to get to Shinjuku, one of the busiest JR stations in Tokyo (I actually think the second busiest, after "Tokyo eki").
It takes a PhD to understand the Shinjuku station although it has an incredible amount of maps. I wasn't hungry at all, but decided to go for lunch. Inside the station building, I took an elevator to the 6th floor and had again something delicious. I suspect those restaurants are pretty expensive for dinner, but they are affordable for lunch. Even some Japanese that I met in the
Around Nagoya castle
There are street artists around the Nagoya castle. This was the same in Osaka, it seems pretty popular. This guy was playing with bricks, but honestly he wasn't that good...
elevator told me that. I ordered a bowl of vegetables, meat and ever-present rice. For 1250 yen, that's a kick-ass dish. They even brought me 3 different appetizers (I have no idea what it was). The chopsticks were metal and not the usual disposable ones. I start to think that I'll never find something I don't like in this strange island (yes Gillo).
It was definitely too early to check in at the hostel and I could not find a coin locker big enough for my heavy backpack, so I decided to bite the bullet and walk with it. Argh.
Shinjuku is a "town". I think the different areas of Tokyo are considered different towns, because when I walk on the street I can read "Shinjuku town". It's like Los Angeles, where Santa Monica, Long Beach, etc. are different towns but they are still part of the same metropolitan area.
Shinjuku is incredible: on the west side, there are skyscrapers, on the north side there's a huge entertainment area and on the south east the Shinjuku Gyoen Koen (a big park). My useless book has a suggested walk in Shinjuku and I decided to follow it, at least
3.45 minutes from Tokyo to Kyoto. They really look awesome! This is a popular shot, but I could not do a trip to Japan without it.
for a while. It recommended to start from the park, and so I did.
Every big city has a huge park in the center. San Francisco has the remarkable Golden Gate park, but nothing I've ever seen goes even close to this (but I've not been in New York, I'm sure it's comparable). In the park (200 yen admission) there were tons of people having fun, lying on the sun, playing sport. Looking west, the skyline was something special. Beside that, I think the park is most enjoyed by locals, who can escape the busy streets and go for a run or just to relax.
While walking towards the north exit (I started from the south), I asked an old man if he could take me a picture. He nodded and, when returning my camera, he asked me how much I paid for it in pretty good English. From there, we started a long conversation and I walked with him until I left the park. He has a son that lives in New York, but never visited him yet. He's clearly retired and he used to run a guest house and I think that's the reason why he
Here I was in Yokohama, in a typical Japanese bar where my friend Yuji brought me. Along with a lot of sake, we got tofu and a plate of sashimi. For the very fist time of my life, I got whale (that's the brownish meat at the bottom of the plate). The place is expensive, but totally worth it.
can speak English, unlikely most of the Japanese I met.
He asked me if I was married or not and when I said no he asked why. Then he said "you should find a Japanese lady"... I was trying to explain Japanese people are rare in San Francisco (well, we have a pretty big Japan town, but they tend not to mix too much, or at least that's my feeling). He's been very friendly and handed me his "meishi" (business card). He also recommended some temples and shrines around here, but I'll have to take a break from temples otherwise I go crazy.
I wanted to get to Taisojii temple, which was the next destination of my itinerary. I spent some time trying to understand where I was going, but I managed to get lost once again. A nice lady saw I was trying to get somewhere in front of the numerous street maps (every few blocks there is one) and she offered to walk me to the temple. What can I say? She admitted she didn't know it, although she lives in the neighborhood. We found the place and she left me. Probably spoiled by Kyoto and Nara...
World cup countdown
At the Shinjuku station, there's an interesting television made by Sony with the world cup countdown. I didn't know that in Japan soccer is a big sport, but so it looks.
I definitely do not recommend going there.
Hanazono shrine was my next stop. Again, nothing special. The initerary was taking me to "Alta building", but I managed to walk north instead of west, so I got really far from my intended destination. My back was really hurting for the heavy backpack full of stuff I'll never use (I swear this is the last time I make this mistake, next time I'll buy whatever I need and go lightweight) and I was in front of a subway station, so I hopped in and headed to the hostel.
I was at Ace inn by 4.00pm. The place is by far the cheapest thing you can find in Shinjuku's vicinity, but there's a reason for it... my room, which is shared with other 11 people, is pretty ugly, doesn't have lockers and has one shared bathroom. But I accept it, since I wanted to be on a budget and I really don't care where I sleep (I camp most of the weekends of the year, so this is still a comfortable accommodation compared to the usual standard).
At the hostel, I met some guys from New Zealand and at the
One of the first views of Shinjuku. I spent a lot of time there, since my hostel was in this quarter. That's one of the most modern areas of Tokyo.
10th floor, where my dorm is, I met 2 french guys and one German girl who is traveling the world (she's going to be in Thailand and a lot of other places in Asia after Tokyo and she was in Australia/New Zealand before). I don't know, on the other hand, if I'd like to do that. If I had an extended vacation, I'd focus only on one particular area. Right now, with the due amount of time and money, I'd do India and China (Himalaya).
I guess I managed to see "Alta building", but I am unsure if it was really it. The walk from Ace Inn to Shinjuku eki is no longer than 25 minutes, which I killed drinking a stout Japanese beer. Kabuki-cho is the entertainment area in Shinjuku and the amount of people on a random Thursday is extraordinary. I guess Japanese people associate "entertainment" with "pachinko"... there are pachinkos and slot everywhere. I saw a "Taito building" and stepped in to see what videogames Japanese people play. Never seen any of them. There was one dude on the 5th floor that had a deck of playing cards that he was setting on a big board.
Shinjuku imperial garden
This huge park is just in the middle of busy Shinjuku. Every big city has a park, but I found this particularly interesting, maybe not for its beauty, but just for observing Japanese people hanging out. I also met an old men with whom I had a long conversation.
It seemed one of those boring war videogames, but never before I saw those kind of long games in an arcade room.
I continued my walk squeezing through people and now I am in the "skyscrapers district". The government office is nearby, but I don't know how to recognize it. I think pictures will be completely disappointing, but that's expected. I think I'll try to shoot some other pictures tonight with the new tripod I bought in Kyoto, but I was never able to get anything good at night (although I have a "new" camera, maybe this time is going to be better).
In my ongoing effort of trying every alcoholic beverage they sell at convenience stores, I bough "Suntory old whisky". It was suspicious it comes in a can and that it's only 9% alcohol by volume. Well, now I know why. It's disgusting, it tastes like whisky with a lot of water. Maybe there is something I don't like in Japan after all...
...1.33 in the morning...
I had a good dinner tonight, not that I was expecting anything different. I tried to shoot a few pictures, but it was freezing cold and I realized
View from the imperial garden
View of Shinjuku from the imperial garden. It's always nice to see a park 360 degrees from where you stand and glance high buildings on the background...
they would not convey any message, so I kind of gave up.
I visited a manga store, but it didn't have anything in English. Also, most of the material was Japanese porn (which Is kind of funky, since I think there is some sort of censure after all).
After dinner, I couldn't help it and I went to a pool place. It was at the 5th floor of a huge building and I believe I'll go back in the next few days... The table quality was AWESOME. I mean, those are the best tables I played in a very long time, perhaps THE best tables I've ever seen. They play with aramith balls (dotted cue ball) which are very expensive. The chalk was in mint conditions (they cut it off when it's worn) and the cues were the best house cues I've ever seen. There were a lot of good players around, you could tell. I met two fellas from Holland and one of them was a player. He offered me to play him and he badly kicked my ass. He's definitely better than I am, but on a good day I may have had a go. We
Another view of "metropolitan" Shinjuku. There are endless of those building, hosting millions of stores and restaurants. After a while, you start wondering what Tokyo is about.
played for a very long time and now it's really late, I wanted to be in bed a lot earlier than this. One of the tables is definitely the "action" table and has a top-view camera, which is shown on two big televisions. Personally, I've never seen such a high standard for a pool room. Comparably, price was cheap: 360 yen every half hour, about 8 bucks an hour. You pay per person, regardless of the number of tables you're using. There was a 1 mandatory order and I got a beer and a mojito: standard price for a beer seems to be 650 yen and a cocktail was 800, only 150 yen more. Unfortunately, the mojito I had was the worst of my life, so won't definitely remember this vacation for good drinks...
One of the guys sold me his subway card, which I paid 1300 yen (there are actually 1370 yen inside). I walked with them all the way to the subway station and he checked the leftover amount. There is no discount whatsoever for using the card, it's just a lot more practical since you don't need to purchase a ticket for every run. The dude
Street fighter 4
I couldn't help it: I had to go to an arcade room in Tokyo. Here, I found a bunch of weird games. One of them had a board and the player was using a deck of cards! When I saw street fighter 4, I could not resist (I had a good go and I got to the final fight, but I got destroyed there...). This was around Shinjuku.
(don't remember his name) told me they were spending an average of 600 yen a day, let's see how much I'll spend.
Those two fellas took a 1-month vacation in Japan. God bless Europe!! What can I do with 15 off days a year? The pool player (Brian, I remember his name) knew a lot of the European pool scene and even had a couple of lessons from Alex Lely, the captain of the past Mosconi cup. I played so badly tonight that now I really feel like going back and practice, I want to pursue my dream of becoming a worthwhile player, but I see that goal going away from me.
The way back from the JR station to the hostel is long, more than 30 minutes, and a couple of black guys - definitely americans - tried to get me in a strip club. I cannot believe how much the first one insisted. I was tired and cold and I'm really running low in money and when the dude was not leaving me alone, I was about to lose my temper. I forgot about this event having a cold beer (totally unnecessary) on the way to
Hase Kannon Temple
This is in Kamakura, a little town south of Tokyo, on the coast. Truthfully worth it. I didn't take many pictures of Buddha, but here it is one.
the hostel. It's 1.47am at the moment and tomorrow morning I want to go to Kamakura, which is not too far from here, but I don't know what time I'll manage to wake up...
Friday, April 9th 2010
There were still people awake yesterday when I got to the dorm. Obviously, I went to bed last and I woke up second (another girl woke up 10 minutes before me). As I often do when I'm on vacation, I'm sleep deprived, but that's okay, I prefer to enjoy as much as I can and maybe sleep on the train. I was out of the hostel before 9.00am and I headed to the subway.
The line to Kamakura is the "Narita express", but on the other direction. It also passes through Yokohama. Changing in Tokyo has been easy and I was on the right train well before I expected. I got of at 10.30am in Kamakura, got a map at the information center and got breakfast (yes, the usual toast and miruku-tea...).
It seems that Japanese changed a bunch of capitals... Kamakura was capital for a short time, as well as Nara and Kyoto. Ironically, most of the cities
Hase Kannon Temple view
The Kannon temple is built on a hill; at the top of the hill, there is a restaurant and an observation deck, from where I shot this picture. You can see the entire town of Kamakura, once capital of Japan.
I visited in Japan were capitals at one point. Reading the history of these little towns you realize how ancient Japanese culture is. Many of the temples are 700 years old and older and virtually all of them were either distroyed by wars (there have been many internal wars as well) or by natural forces (earthquakes and tsunami).
My useless book indicated 4 major attractions in Kamakura: Hasedera, Daibutsu, Zeniaraibenzaiten and Engokuji temple. Obviously, it didn't propose an itinerary, so I had to make one. A beautiful local train, which seems to split the town with houses 10 meters left and right of the tracks, brought me to Hase station. From there, getting to Hasedera is simple. I followed the suggested itinerary and saw the ocean from an observation deck at the top of a hill (nice view).
On the way to the Buddha statue, my second attraction of the day, I got a pretty good italian icecream. I was really impressed by the quality, it's a lot better than what I normally get in America and the price wasn't too bad (300 yen for a small cup, which was not small at all). The Buddha statue is
The last temple I visited in Kamakura. I got there through a hiking trail... that was fun, but exhausting. Fortunately, I had a great Italian (!) lunch on the way.
unbelievably big, but I've been exposed to so many majestic things that I was just staring at it and thinking "yeah, this is impressive". If I saw this statue the first day in Japan, I would have had a different impression, no doubt about it. I paid extra 20 cents to get inside the statue, because I was hoping to get to the very top, which is not the case. Those are the worst 20 yen I've ever spent and if you go there... don't do it!
Now there's a fun part. In order to get to the next temple, there was a hiking trail which I decided to take. It started with a long staircase (and I mean long) which was going all the way to a ridge. After a couple of minutes, there was a fork. The right side was narrow and it didn't look like a trail at all, the left side had more stairs and I stirred left. After a few minutes I reached a summit where there was a small tower from which I could see the ocean. I continued on what I thought was the hiking trail, which was becoming pretty tough. At
Studio Alta, Shinjuku. This is a famous place and it's the meeting place for many youngsters. I noticed that sometimes the televisions are off, I don't know why. This may not look like, but it's pretty impressive.
one point, there was a rope to continue! And it was extremely slippery, so I had to grab everything I could to prevent falling (I almost fell twice).
When I finally got back to civilization, after descending a long staircase, I read a sign that was saying "hikingu koosu wa arimasen deshita", meaning "this is not a hiking trail". Baah!
After asking directions, I managed to get back to the very same point and this time make a right. I did a lot of up and downs and I don't exaggerate when I say today I covered at least 400 meters up (I would be curious to see the topographic map of the area). Damn if I had a compass at least I could realize which way I was going. Tonight, if I find a cheap compass, I'll buy it, it will be useful even in Tokyo. The "real" train was quite beaten and it was fun to hear and say "konnichi-wa" (good afternoon) to people crossing on the other direction.
At any rate, the next attraction was truly disappointing. From the description I was very excited and the entrance is through a tunnel carved in solid rock.
Ginza, Yonchome intersection
Chome means "block". In Japan, they number the blocks (it took me a while to understand it) but inside a block it's total anarchy, since the buildings are not numbered in a logical way. I wouldn't be a post-man in Tokyo...
There is a natural spring where you are supposed to "wash" your money and wish for financial success. I didn't do it and I didn't find it interesting at all. The name of the place is Zeniaraibenzaiten, keep it in mind if you ever go there... On the other side, that's the only place I didn't pay for today.
At lunch time I stepped into a cafe, called Cafe Mozart. The food selection was limited to 3 or 4 courses and none of them was Japanese, but I thought I could give a break for one meal. I got "broccoli and bacon pasta" and I have to say I was impressed by the way they did it. The pasta was "al dente" (not like in America where they overcook it a lot) and it was salted correctly. Even Europeans like French and Germans make elementary mistakes in pasta preparation and most of the time they screw up the salt part. So I give a 5 star to my lunch. As a plus, they did actually play mozart music. Quite expensive (1100 yen) compared to a traditional Japanese place.
It took me a while to figure out how to
Nissan Hibrid car
At Ginza, there is the Nissan auto salon. At the ground floor, they were showing this zero-emission car. This is still a prototype, but I think in the future we may see cars like that in our crowded streets.
get back to the trail for Engakuji temple, but I eventually found the way. While visiting Engokuji temple I though I've seen enough temples for the next several years. Honestly, the only think I want to do now is go to Tokyo and live some metropolitan life, even though there are some more shrines that I'll visit in the metropolis. The difference is the contrast between the old Tokyo and the new Tokyo, which cannot be found in small towns like Kamakura.
I randomly got on the right train, to Shinjuku, and now I'm writing from it. I made a big mistake and I slided my pass at the station (the one I bought yesterday from the dutch dude), as opposed to using the JR railpass. Now I don't know what happens if I don't slide it on the way out. So I have the option of paying a trip I shouldn't be paying for or I'll have to make myself clear with the station personnel.
I'm going to get off at Shibuya in 20 minutes or so. Hopefully, I'll still enjoy some daylight. The weather has not been particularly good and today it's not a clear day.
This is the famous Kabuki-ka. Kabuki is a traditional Japanese show. Unfortunately, every act (sold separately) was sold out for the day, so I decided to pass.
The temperature is also lower than I expected. This should help my picture taking, because my friend Gianluca, who introduced me to photography, told me that shooting a picture on an overcast day is simpler than with a clear blue sky. Hope it's true...
...late at night...
As usual, it's now 1.43am. The hostel closes the doors at 2.00am and reopens at 4.30am, so I had to be back at a decent time. Alternatively, you can inform them you are late and they leave the door open, but I won't need it.
After I got of at Shibuya I sorted out the ticket problem (I scanned the metro-card but I was not supposed to, because I have a JR pass). At the station, the man was not concerned at all and it took him one second to clear it out. I wanted to follow the recommended tour of Shibuya, which started off the busy Shibuya shopping district and was supposed to end at the Meiji Shrine. I was able to complete almost all of it, but I was late for the Shrine. I am not terribly sorry about it... since - as I said - I had enough
This is the famous fish market in Tokyo, where I had the freshest sushi of my life. Some of the small restaurants have an insane amount of people waiting in line and, honestly, I selected the one with the shortest waiting list (still gorgeous).
of temples and shrines, but I'm planning to go tomorrow.
On the way to Yogoji park, I saw a nice sport center which was used during the 1964 olympic games (useless information got from my useless book). There was some sort of event tonite, because there was a farily long line of people (I think it was some skating event).
Anyhow, my Shibuya tour ended at the young people fashion district. I was checking the prices and they are definitely higher than US, at least twice as much, so I opted not to buy anything (but I'll eventually buy some t-shirts). I went back by JR train to the Shibuya station and visited a couple of department stores, which are literally everywhere in Tokyo.
I must confess I understand why people are crazy for them: they sell every sort of goods and they display them in a very professional way. I visited a gigantic 7-storey hardware store (Tokyo Hands) and finally bought a small compass (it is neat, it has a clip and now it's clipped to my wrist-watch). Everything is overpriced by a margin and the small compass was 900 yen (it's worth nothing and the
This is the view from atop Sunshine city. It's a skyscraper with an observatory at about 300 meters! From the top, you have a 360-degree view. There's also a bar and from there I wrote part of this blog.
compass is highly inaccurate).
I went for dinner not because I was hungry, but because I needed to sit for a little while. For the first time since I arrived, I got Udon. The place was neat: the Udon are only 350 yen, then you can add whatever you want in a sort of buffet. I had "egg tempura", I didn't know you can prepare tempura with an actual boiled egg, but it was delicious. I added a lot of tempura to my udon and I also did another round... just because I wasn't hungry...
On the way back to the station, I had a massage. I really needed it and it was good. 4500 yen for 30 minutes, not expensive either. There are a bunch of those places in Tokyo and I perceive it to be very common practice.
Tonite I completely run out of money. In Tokyo, there are REALLY FEW ATMs. Fewer than you think. One is at the Studio Alta building, but I could not open the door with the card. I could not do anything with no cash, so I took the train to another station (Ikebukuro) to get some o-kane and
Tokyo metropolitan government
The western part of Shinjuku is also known as "skyscraper district". That's where this gigantic building is located; the "metropolitan government" offices are here. Believe me, it's bigger than it looks.
fortunately the HSBC's ATM worked perfectly. Back to Shinkuju, I found another billiard place and practiced for an hour. I was sick of colors and people...
Maybe yesterday I was in the pool hall early, but today they truly bugged me for getting me into strip clubs and bars. They must have recluted a bunch of african-americans that are particularly annoying. The same guy that bugged me yesterday, stopped me today. I think everywhere you go in this world you'll find annoying people and Tokyo, a 12-million people metropolis, is no different.
Saturday, April 10th 2010
I confess that this morning I went to Meiji Jingu just to scratch it off the list, I wasn't really feeling like visiting another shrine. But it was conveniently located near the subway station and that was missing to complete my Shibuya itinerary, so I did go for it. Quite a bunch of people and nothing impressive. My suggestion is: if you are in Tokyo, enjoy the urban life. If you want temples and shrines, visit West Japan (Nara, Kyoto) which makes a lot more sense.
There's Asakusa though that I didn't see yet and it's supposedly beautiful. In that area,
This was shot in Marunouchi, near the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Later in the day, I saw people actually getting a ride in it. Probably not unique in the world, but definitely the first time I've seen something like that.
there are some temples and II don't think I can avoid them... But at least I have to stop taking pictures! Many years ago there were the first digital cameras. Gillo was the first of my friends that bought a serious compact digital camera, a Nikon coolpix (yes Gillo, I remember). On our visit to Budapest, Gillo did nothing but taking pictures of churches and statues (quite a lot in a former communist country). I remember even insulting him, saying there was no reason to take pictures of such things. And here I am, quite a lot older than then, doing the same. Life is ironic.
I hopped to the first subway and headed to Ginza. Now I recognize all the names I read on the Japanese workbook we were using in the class (I took Japanese evening classes for 2 years, I am a complete failure). Ginza was often mentioned in the dialogues.
It was 10.35 when I got to the subway station, just to discover that nothing was open until 11.00am. Well, some shops were open, but the majority was still closed. I wanted a waffle (they looked much too nice) so I waited with another
Tokyo imperial palace
This is a very typical shot. The bridge is open only once a year, for the Emperor's birthday; the castle on the background is the imperial palace and is also closed year-round but that one day.
man until 11.00am in front of the door (the wait was really 5 minutes, since before that I was just taking a look around).
On my list of TODO things I had the Sony building. There are several floors with showrooms and the top floor has a store. I checked the... audio showroom (I felt kind of obliged since I am an audio engineer for Dolby) and I must say the quality does not disappoint. They have a bunch of iPod-like mp3 players that I never saw in America, but they are also a lot expensive (35000 yen). Headphones were also pricey, but the definition was certainly higher than the standard.
There was a floor with 3D, but - coming from a group that worked on 3D for about a year - I was sick of that stuff and skipped it altogether. If Japan wasn't as expensive as it is, I probably would have bought an MP3 player and a nice pair of headphones, but I am not willing to spend $500 for two pieces of consumer electronics. Altogether, it's worth visiting.
Kabuki-cha is a theather were they play Kabuki (a kind of Japanese opera) and they
This tower is as tall as the Eiffel tower. It has two observatories, a big one (clearly visible) in the middle and a smaller one on top. It serves also telecommunication companies.
have several shows a day. The complete show is expensive ($200) but you can see only one act for a reasonable price (10,000 yen). Unfortunately, it was sold out. The useless book said something like "make reservations in advance"... I must give it credit for it. I might give a try to book something online tonight, because I'd really love to see Kabuki before I leave Japan. I wanted also to see a sumo match, but there's nothing going on in early April.
I took a fairly lonk walk to Tsukiji market, a huge fish market that supplies the entire city of Tokyo. The fish is actioned every morning (really early) and by 9.00am everything is done. Tourists are no longer allowed to see the auction, but a number of tiny restaurants service fresh fish are all around the market. And that's why I went there. There was a very inviting one, the line seemed short and I had 10 people in front of me. A nice lady said "waiting for the restaurant?". When I said yes, she showed me a huge line that was going behind the corner!
All those restaurants seat no more than 15-30 people
I saw this picture on my travel book and I wanted to have the same view. It's nice to see the temple and the tower in the background... or at least I think so...
and that's why the waiting time is so long. I wanted sashimi, but I found a place serving sushi with a decent waiting time, so I went for it. Also, I had to try sushi before leaving Japan (now I'll have to try sashimi, I might even go back to the fish market just to try it).
I knew sushi was expensive in Japan and I paid 3500 yen (40 bucks) for a generous portion. I didn't know most of the fish but you could tell a light year away how fresh that was. The tuna almost melted in my mouth.
I don't want to say this is the best sushi I ever had, but if it was not, it's one of the best (once I spent $150 with a friend in a sushi restaurant in the bay area... that was good, too...). Definitely, for $40 that is the best bang for your buck.
Right now it's 2.35pm and I am atop "Sunshine city", at the 60th floor of a skyscraper where there is an observatory. The 360 degree view of Tokyo is shocking. I have never seen a city this big in my life. If you look
Sensoji temple, Asakusa. Being in the metropolitan Tokyo area, this is particularly busy. I was there with my friend Yuji, who gave me interesting information about Japanese culture.
at any direction, you don't see the end; tall buildings seem to be clustered in several parts of the city. Looking at the map I think I identified Shinjuku, where I am staying.
There are several pictures around the observatory and some of them are the skylines of major cities in the world. I saw New York, Las Vegas, Lima, Dubai, just to name some. nothing like this, at least nothing big like this (Dubai looks beautiful in that picture though).
Before coming here, I went to the Toyota auto salon, a modern 8-storey building presenting all the new models. At the 1st floor, they have an accident simulator (actually, it's a simulator for their new radar-technology that warns you if you are about to do something unsafe).
The flow of people seems never to stop. Every subway station, every corner, every shop is crowded with silent people that walk fast. I've never seen so many people walking and typing at the phone at the same time. Yamile, a friend of mine, used to live in Tokyo and she told me how people here live their frantic life. In a city like this, you will never see
Japanese people believe that smoke will bring you good luck, that's why all the people around it try to "grab" as much of it as they can. I did the same, hopefully it will work.
the same person twice unless you arrange it. You'll never find the same clerk twice and most of the people are just too busy to pay attention to you.
I always said I would love to live in a big city once in my life. I don't think I could live in Tokyo, that's too much for me. There are people who go to Las Vegas and hate it, saying there are too many people and too much noise. Tokyo is not Las Vegas, but the continuous bombardment of lights and strangers cutting your way can be oppressive. Parks are a good escape, but there are no spots where you can have some privacy. But not all Japan is like this; when I was hiking yesterday I didn't meet many people and locals over there seem to have a much more relaxed life.
On the side, I understood that "chome" means block. Apparently, in every district they number the blocks (smart idea) so you can say "3-chome" and people know what block you're at. Normally, on the back of business cards, the is a little map of the "chome" showing the exact location of the business, because there's
A night shot in Yokohama. This was after we had a good buffet-dinner. Even buffet in Japan is high quality and doesn't leave you nearly as full as you may think.
no logical way in which buildings are numbered (they are apparently numbered according to their age, which is absolutely crazy).
Yet again I stepped into a coffee shop because my feet feel very tired. After leaving Sunshine City, I tried to find the Ikebukuro entertainment hall, where they play "Rakugo" (comic storytelling using gesture). I spent at least 30 minutes in vane, then I gave up.
There was a part of Shinjuku I didn't visit yet. Before that, I decided to withdraw some more money, because historically they blocked all my cards whenever I travel abroad (security protection, sometimes it's very useful). The Alta building still didn't work, because I discovered that Visa is not that common in Japan and only few ATMs are usable. A Visa-enabled ATM was really next door, but difficult to find (and, surprisingly, not 24-hours).
Having that done (other 30,000 yen on my budget, bah) I hopped into the Oedo subway and got off in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. What a kick-ass skyscraper that is! I tried to take a few pictures, but they do not show how big it actually is. I had to go quite
Another Yokohama night shot. Here, we were walking to a nice bar where I drunk Japanese whiskey (not that disgusting water whiskey I bought in the can).
far to be able to photograph all of it and having a decent perspective.
Then I walked to "Electric street", where a bunch of electronic stores are. I was impressed by the size of Yodobashi camera (and by the prices).
I am now in Roppongi, but there's nothing special about it. Just shops and restaurants. I took the wrong subway and so did an old lady that will visit Europe in 2 weeks. She was very kind to me and she gave me some croissants and cheese-bread, which served as my dinner (early to say, it's only 7.10pm...).
I keep buying beer at groceries stores and drinking it on the road. Yuji told me it's not illegal, but I am starting to think it is. On a "Lawson station" (similar to 7/11) I saw a sign "no smoking and no drinking", but it didn't say whether it was in the store (which is obvious) or outside. Anyway, I passed in front of many cops with the beer and I didn't try to hide it and they never told me anything. Maybe it's simply not reinforced. I just don't want to be the unpolite westerner, but my understanding is
Japanese people from Tokyo seem to love department stores. There are tons of them and they have all sort of goods. They all look beautiful inside and this picture is just an example.
that Japanese people are not ashamed of getting drunk at all.
I spoke to Yuji on the phone and we are meeting tomorrow at 3.00pm at Asakusa. He mentioned that last Wednesday, so I didn't go there by myself. I think his girlfriend will follow us; she's cool but she speaks virtually no English, so I'm afraid she is going to get terribly bored.
One funny detail about Roppongi is that there are tons of foreign embassies; I think they wanted to put all of them close to each other. I'm not going to the Italian one because it's not nearby. They even have a San Marino embassy! (surely more efficient than the Italian one...).
It's disappointing that I don't find public internet access easily. I thought that every coffee shop at Internet available, but that's not the case. I am at Tully's coffee and I am not sure whether they even have the restroom, argh!
...very late at night...
For some reasons, from the dorm I can get Internet to work, but not from the hall.
It's late, it's already 2.30am and I'm about to close my eyes. Nothing interesting happened tonite; I wanted to
Japanese people call it "o-sake". I got two different types, just in case, then I went to the hostel and started to write this journal. That sake seriosly kicked my butt and I was really hangover the following morning!
do some shopping, but the only thing I bought was a pair of underwear (they look pretty comfortable...). I ended up playing pool in the same place I went yesterday. After playing for a long time by myself, three young locals came to me and asked for a game. One of them speaks pretty good English.
The youngest of all is called Naoto and I couldn't help not thinking about "tiger mask"! After all, it was a good night, but my feet are really starting to bug me.
I discovered that many of the snacks you find at the convenience stores are good indeed and I love the fact they are SMALL. After one of them you don't want to beg to die. In the underground today I counted the number of fat people around me: the ratio is 1 to 20 and among young people even less than that. These numbers are also better then Italy...
Sunday, April 11th 2010
My traveling without a plan around Tokyo made me spend a fortune in transportation. I am pretty sure I already inserted 3000 yen in the prepaid card and the balance seems to drop quite
This is the hostel where I stayed 5 nights. It is famous for the "wooden capsules", but they were considerably more expensive than the dorm and, being on a budget, I opted for the latter. That was the last view of downtown Tokyo for me.
dramatically at every ride. I believe the average cost of a ride is more than 200 yen from what I can observe.
At any rate, this morning it was a leisure one and I woke up at 10.00am, when half of the people were already off the bed. I really needed to get some good rest and finally I got it.
I had an appointment with Yuji and his girlfriend at Asakusa at 3.00pm, so there was still plenty of time to wonder around before meeting with them. I elected my first destination to be the imperial palace.
Normally, all city maps you get at the airport are totally useless. At Narita they gave me a guide called "Tokyo, handy guide" and that is the most valuable resource. Every page shows a different district and the attractions in it, with a very clear map. There is even a small thumbnail of the attractions and a bunch of discounts (mostly for museums though). At the moment, I visited almost all the areas of the Tokyo metropolitan area.
The imperial palace is in the Muronouchi district. I got off at the Otemachi station and started to walk following the map and the compass, although the orientation in this case was really easy because of the nearby river.
The Marunochi building is a huge skyscraper, but I couldn't get a good picture of it. Another thing I wanted to see is the Tokyo station (from outside). It's a very nice red-bricked building, but it is under construction right now and it was completely covered. Pretty bad delusion, but it is what it is I guess...
I continued to the Imperial Palace and I got there in a few minutes. There is no way to get inside the imperial palace (actually there is, but only twice a year). The outside garden can be visited for a fee, but I got enough of gardens and temples, so I decided to pass. There's a very famous picture of a rock bridge and the castle on the background; I got to that spot and... made the same shot as millions of other tourists, then I called it mission accomplished.
It was still far to early to go to Asakusa and I decided to check another area: Shiodome. That area is next to the Tokyo bay and some of the attractions include a restaurant ship and a water bus, but I decided to skip those. My main argument for going there was to see the Tokyo tower, a 333-meter red tower which is pretty spectacular. There's an observatory at 250 meters of height, but the view would have been similar to Sunshine City, so I passed.
On my way to Akabanebashi station I stopped in Roppongi for a change and I had a quick sandwitch followed by frozen yogurt, since I figured that I would have a very good dinner with Yuji in the evening.
I didn't spend more than 20 minutes in Roppongi and I was soon on my way with a semi-full stomach (I've been eating so much that in order to really satisfy my appetite I would have to eat for hours...).
In front of the Tokyo tower there's a tiny park that seems to be extremely popular and today there were tons of people having picnics. Young people seem to have very good time and I was observing their way of partying; food and beer seem to be the common denominator. There was one guy juggling with a crystal-looking ball and that got my attention for some reasons.
The Zojoji temple is a minor attraction, but I wanted a picture of it with the tower on the background, so I walked there in about 10 minutes. I don't think I shot a good picture at all, because the lower part of the tower was definitely too dark although the weather was a little overcast.
Now it was about time to go to Asakusa and the weather got suddenly better (this was the first time in a while that I removed my jacket). I got off at the Kuramae station, south of the Asakusa station, since I still had 20 minutes available. From there, I crossed one of the many bridges on the Sumidagawa river and I walked north to the Asahi Brewery building. Surprisingly, there is no brewery at all in that big building, but just a lot of restaurants and shops. The building is supposed to be a beer glass with an adjacent big golden object, but to be frank I found it pretty ugly...
It was easy to meet at the A3 exit at the Asakusa station after a brief phone call to Yuji. When I met him and his girlfriend, I proposed to follow the itinerary that my useless book was suggesting which - for once - made quite a lot of sense...
The Sensoji temple has a number of visitors proportional to the population of Tokyo and I wasn't very comfortable having so many people around. Being there with Yuji was a different experience, since he told me many things I couldn't find on books.
For the first time I actually followed the ritual of cleaning your hand on a fountain that is outside of every temple. He told me you first wash your hands, then your mouth (you spit the water afterwards). That's because you need to be clean before going in front of God.
Once inside, you throw some coins in a wooden container with a sort of grid on top, which I also saw at every temple. You are supposed to make a wish when you do it and for the first time I did it.
Then the "fortune", meaning the horoscope which I also did in Kyoto. This was a little different; there was a big chest of small drawers, all with a number. You have to draw a stick from a box with a little hole, then open the matching drawer and get your horoscope. The numbers are in Kanji, so it may be kind of difficult.
Yuji and girlfriend had both bad luck, and I got "extremely lucky". Yuji just today got a job offer from Sony! So I really think the horoscope is wrong! Anyhow, I also discovered what are all those papers hanging on a wooden structure in every temple: if your horoscope is bad (only if) you just take the paper, roll it and put it there.
If I knew all of this before, I think I would have paid more attention to those details. But it's good I got them now rather than not having that information at all.
The tour of Asakusa was completed counterclockwise, but most of the shops were either closed or about to close, so we decided to leave.
At his point of the day, I had "only" two beers and I was also getting hungry. I asked Yuji what he had in mind and he offered me to go to some areas of Tokyo, but I have been pretty much everywhere at this point. Then he suggested to hang out in the Yokohama area and I gladly accepted.
He brought me to a district called Sakuraji-cho. The first thing you see out of the station is a huge panoramic wheel and a bunch of interesting skyscrapers which are all hotels. Definitely a nice area, I shot pretty good pictures over there.
We had dinner in a Japanese-fusion place and - quite incredibly - the dinner was buffet. I never thought I would have buffet in Japan! Unlikely the American buffet, at the end of the dinner I felt brilliant and not overfed (even though I probably was). They had a lot of fried food (sardines, tofu, vegetables) as well and noodles (which I didn't get), rice, salads, delicious onions, etc. The desser was also good, but not as good as the main courses in my opinion.
With a full belly, we had a walk to a nearby tower which has a very stylish bar in the basement. I tried Japanese whiskey (the real thing, not that crappy drink I got on a can a few days ago). And we had good conversation time.
I made it back to Yokohama with Yuji and gf, then I got a rapid train to Shibuya. From there, I was able to catch the last train to Shinjuku, but then I had to walk to the hostel. Not one single night I got back to the hostel with the subway!
I am very glad I met with Yuji; having somebody to tell you how things work in Japan is invaluable. Many of the corporations customs which I knew are actually changing a lot and I think even Japan is moving on from its traditional way of doing things.
Yuji will start working next April, one year from now. I find it impressive that a company had such a clear path they can offer you a job a year away. American companies don't even know if they'll be around in 3 months! Everything that is driven by brain-dead investors is doomed to live in fear and uncertainty, but Japanese companies seem to be immune to this, at least to some extent.
Well, he's going to be working for Sony and that is one of the most stable hi-tech companies I can name. He's going to be a researcher and doing something he really likes: what a score! In addition, he's 25 and he has 1 year in front of him that he can invest for his hobbies, traveling, etc. This is an unique opportunity which I never had and... I'm terribly envious!
Tomorrow (I mean today... it's past 2) is going to be the last full day in Japan for me. The plan is still very unclear, as usual, but I don't mind just doing some shopping and hang out in this area.
I found the break room at the hostel, it's on the 9th floor and it's not bad at all. They are showing baseball on television, funny to me that they like this sport. They seem to like soccer as well and in more than one commercial and at one station I saw the countdown to the world cup. Do they even play?
Monday, April 12th 2010
This morning, when I woke up, I immediatly understood the weather was not going to be great. When I went to the little shared bathroom the window was open and I was shivering for the cold. I looked outside and saw a gray sky and a steady rain.
I was really hoping I would get away without a single day of rain, but I think I was asking a little bit too much. Traditionally, everybody told me that April is an excellent month in Japan, but this year is somehow different. The girl I met in the airplane the first day (she's from Chiba, now I know exactly where it is) said it was snowing at the beginning of April, definitely unusual for South Japan.
This year California has been very rainy too, due to "El Nino". This will also negatively affect all the trips to the mountains that are planned for the summer, since the snowpack in Sierra Nevada is going to be a lot thicker than last year. But I tell you, today I really felt miserable because of the rain.
I was pretty demotivated to do anything; the cold was really penetrating in my bones and my feet have been wet through the entire day.
At the hostel - for some reasons - they provide umbrellas (kasa in Japanese). I didn't take one, hoping the rain would give up soon. Well, it's 23.36 right now and the rain didn't stop for one second today!
I decided to visit the comic store in Shinjuku, Kinokuni-ya. I printed the rough direction from Internet and finding it has not been easy, as usual. Obviously, Kinokuni-ya is a department store and when I finally found it I went to the basement and found... a supermarket! It took me a moment to realize the comic books must be somewhere else...
After wondering around the basement for a few minutes, I found a sign that said "Kinokuniya books", but I still couldn't get there. It was only after the help of an associate at the supermarket that I found the right way.
Kinokuni-ya bookstore is a 6-storey business, where all the books are well displayed in the traditional Japanese way. One entire floor is dedicated to "foreign books", which basically translates into "English books". One big section was "Learning Japanese for foreigners" and looking through those books made me feel like studying again. I think I'll print some flash cards and read them during my spare time, but before I'll try to get the ham-radio license... obviously after I finish watching all the Dragonball episodes...
At any rate, my beloved Manga section wasn't nearly as appealing as I was hoping and after few minutes I left the store searching for food. The 14th floor had some restaurants, but way too expensive for me. I ended up having lunch at an udon place, where I actually had ramen... (as usual I picked some random items from the vending machine).
By 1.00pm I was completely wet and didn't feel like doing anything anymore. I wanted to do some shopping, but I didn't know what to buy. I really wish I went home yesterday, I really mean so. Just to kill some time and get warm, I went to the usual billiard place and played for almost 2 hours. The pool hall is around Shinjuku-sanchome, maybe 1 Km from the actual Shinjuku JR/subway station, but one can get from one station to the other staying completely underground.
Tokyo has almost as many shops and stores below see level than above, that's absolutely insane. All those stores are pretty nice, but they sell stuff I would never buy and they are WAY too expensive for me. It's true that I spend the majority of my money at REI, but at least I buy "american" goods in an american store; most of the Japanese department stores and boutiques sell foreign items, which are way overpriced because of their origin. For this reason, I really didn't feel like buying anything.
My stamina abandoned me pretty early today after I started playing pool and I suddenly decided to go to Ikebukuro, a nearby station, just to see if it was any better. Shinjiku to Ikebukuro is only 4 stops by JR, but I had the great idea to take the subway and... pass 15 stations before my destination! Not too bad, so I found the time to sleep a little bit.
I got some more money at Ikebukuro and it is still in my wallet. Even there, I didn't know what to buy. I went to a "Bic Camera" and saw a bunch of pretty digital cameras... which I don't need and would be cheaper in America. I eventually went for a 30-minute massage in one of the millions "relexation places" you find along the Tokyo streets.
After going back to Shinjuku, I still spent some time visiting deparment stores, but I got quickly tired of wasting my time that way. I thought the best thing to do was to go back to the pool place and practice and so I did. After all, one should do whatever is appealing during a vacation. I spent more than 5000 yen (50+$) for the two visits at the pool hall and I had only two beers and a whiskey. But the quality of the table (I reiterate) was truly amazing.
Food at this point was completely superfluous, but I still managed to go to a "foreign" Japanese-style fast food where I had fried pork with rice (very good). Not still satisfied, I had a warm pastry with cream filling.
I walked back to the hostel for the 5th night; except the first day, I never took public transportation to get back to the hostel, but today it's a lot earlier than usual.
On the way to the hostel, I bought a bottle and a can of o-sake, which I both killed while writing this blog and surfing some web.
It takes about 2 hours to get to Narita from here; my flight is at 3.40pm, meaning I have to be at the airport at 1.40, meaning that I have to leave Shinjuku by 11.40 in the morning. That might give me some time to do the final shopping with the cash I still have, but I really don't feel like, regardless of how the weather is going to look like tomorrow.
I never thought I was going to say this, but right now I really feel like going back to San Francisco. If I could go back in time, I would either go back one day earlier (maybe two) or I would have spent some more time in the inner Japan, even though the weather has not been helping me too much.
Expect the first few days, which were pretty warm, I always had to wear my jacket and the sky was never blue. Being in a big city with bad weather for an extended amount of time is frustrating. Even in our home town; you simply don't notice because you work.
While walking the busy streets I was trying to get to a conclusion: what is Tokyo? Do I like it or not? What was the best part of the trip to Japan?
I must confess that after all the o-sake I had and after such a bad-weathered day I may be a little biased, but here it goes.
I would never live in Tokyo. Period. I remember talking to Yamile, who lived here before. I remember talking to many other people who visited Japan for business and they all told me the same: you have to see it in order to understand if you can handle it or not. Well, in the past I even though about applying for a job in Japan, but this is too much for me. I was born and raised in the inland of Venice, with a population scarcely above 100,000. Venice, although very famous, is a small town and I grew up in suburbia to some extent. I later moved to San Jose, which is also a big dorm town. Now I live in San Francisco, but even the busiest spot in San Francisco does not compare to Tokyo.
My friend Fausto once asked me if it was true or not that in San Francisco you never see the same person twice. That's false, there are many bars with regulars. In Tokyo, I don't know. I could not even find the same store twice (although, I must confess, I am not known for my orientation...).
What is Tokyo anyway? For Japanese people, Tokyo is the small district around the Tokyo station; for the rest of the world, Tokyo is the big metropolis that encompasses many districts such as Shinjuku, Ginza, Asakusa, just to name same. The majority of the buildings in Tokyo are not "beautiful", but they are practical. Underground stations are sometimes cities; Shinjuku-eki is probably as big as most of the minor town in Italy and the amount of people at every given time is definitely higher.
The only common theme in Tokyo are shops and restaurants and I honestly got sick of them. The massive amount of people around you, the noise, the heat that all those humans body produce become unbearable after a while. Do not visit Tokyo for the temples, because Kyoto and Nara are far superior. The imperial palace is not any better than Nagoya's one or Osaka's. The department stores are incredible, but not for me.
Japan is an incredible place and when I think of it my legs shake. It has an ancient history and I respect these people truthfully. Every time I speak about Italy with American people they always point at how ancient Italian history is, but I don't recall many buildings dated before 1000 A.C. In Japan, most of the temples are older than you can possibly imagine. This is the most conservative country in the world for some aspects, but at the same time it's the most technological advanced.
Kyoto is the prettiest big city I have ever seen in my life; Nara is totally worth it as well. Osaka is a big city, but an excellent hub. Nagoya, I could have skipped, but I enjoyed it after all. Yokohama is very liveable and I recommend it; Kamakura is a nice little spot, but nothing incredible. Tokyo is impressive, but I would not spend more than 4 days here, especially considering what the rest of Japan offers.
This vacation has been an eye opener; going back to San Francisco, one of the biggest metropolitan areas of California, will never look the same. Only London was able to have such an impact on me many years ago (I went to London when I was in high school and after my high school graduation, in 1998). It was fun to try to speak Japanese, but I still have a very long time to go.
After all, this has been real fun time. Thinking of going to work... tomorrow... is so strange now that I'm used just to be by myself and go around. I must say it has been nice to be by myself, but I didn't meet as many people as I was expecting. Partially, because I didn't invest much time trying to know anybody, as usual...
I am definitely done with shopping for some time, even though I bought only a pair of socks, a pair of underware and a t-shirt during the whole staying here. I wanted to copy my home keys (they had some beautiful keys in a kiosk at the station) but they were 800+ yen! Any beer is at least 650 yen in a bar and spirit 800 yen. Food, compared to drinks, is really cheap (except sushi). If you are on a budget, you can still make it, don't be intimidated by Tokyo. I spent a little over $1000, including hostels, food, transportations and extras.
In the common space at the hostel, where I am right now, there are quite a lot of people. It's nice to hear people talking so many different languages around you and I could jump in and try to make some new friends, but my mind is tired. After updating the blog, I'll probably surf some more web, which will slowly integrate me to this useless routine of killing time. I feel desperatly out of shape and all the drinks and food of these days didn't certainly help me...
Tuesday, April 13th 2010
The vacation is really over right now and I'm writing from the airplane. I was trying to sleep, but they woke me up for lunch, argh.
Yesterday I drunk a lot more than I thought and the sake did not really help me to get out of bed this morning. I went to my room at 5.00am and I spent a lot of time talking to the hostel crowd. Everybody there seemed to have a lot of time, definitely a lot more than me. I spoke to these two girls from London and they were coming from New Zealand and Australia and their trip continued after Japan.
The cheapest way to get to the airport was subway followed by Keisei line; the Keisei train is really slow and it made me laugh comparing it to the Shinkansen. It seems that the connection to Narita is weak after all, but starting this July they'll have a new bullet train to Narita's airport (I think from Ueno). It will get you to the airport in 37 minutes, at least it is advertised so. Knowing Japanese people, I'm sure it's going to be a nice and frequent ride, but also expensive.
I still had 70,000 yen in my pocket and wanted to get rid of it: definitely not a problem. There's a Japanese brand called Uniqlo (even though it does not really sound Japanese... but Yuji told me it's a Japanese brand; it probably stands for unique look or something similar) which does really awesome underware and I bought 5 items for... 50,000 yen. They are silk-dry and if you are going to Japan I definitely recommend it (you can buy 2 pairs of underware for 990 yen, just to be clear, or a good pair for the same price).
With 20,000 yen I bought lunch (a good bento-box) and some items at the oriental bazar (chopsicks, chopstick holder and a keyring).
All the money is gone, I have less than a dollar in Japanese currency. Also the IC card for the subway is empty, but I didn't surrender it (I think I would have got back 500 yen) thinking already about my return.
The security at Narita was a breeze and there were far less people than I expected; it literally took me 5 minutes from the check-point to the gate and I didn't undergo the american paranoid checks where you have to remove your shoes and now get into the body scanners.
I am going to be in San Francisco at 9.16am and from there the slow Bart will take me home. That train will definitey remind me how far behind America is on public transportation and unfortunately I guess this trend will not change in a while.
This concludes my long account to my trip to Japan; I feel happy and refreshed and you can bet I'll be back, speaking a much better nihon-go...