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April 18th 2013
Published: April 18th 2013
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We fly from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur (5 Hours) with Malaysian Airways as part of the first leg of our mammoth journey to Japan. The food is good as is the service – however, the airhostess seems to have taken a liking to C as we are plied with red wine and whisky & peanuts (which the others did not get), so much so that when we arrived in KL, C was a bit worse for wear and can’t recall getting off the plane or (!!) the transit 3 hours when we had Burger King – her staple hangover cure – while M enjoyed some Malaysian Street Food as well.

The next leg (Malaysian Airlines again) sees us depart at 11 pm for a night time 5 hour flight to Narita airport Tokyo. Snacks are on offer. The entertainment channels are better and while C is out with the fairies M watches a bit of Life of Pi (he really can’t see what the fuss is about having failed to finish the book and the film doesn’t do it for him either!) and then he checks out a bit of Argo – the Oscar winner – which looks more promising but we run out of time so he doesn’t see the ending.

Arriving at Narita airport the contrast to India is immediate. It is the epitome of minimalist, functional design, orderly and spotlessly clean. The formalities take a bit of time (surprisingly) but everyone is so polite and the folks who work here are immaculately turned out so you don’t mind too much. The one thing that you notice straight away is the many local folk who walk around with face masks over their mouths. Seems really odd to us in a country that is so spotlessly clean. There are a whole host of reasons for this we learn from the guide book – none of which refer to any possibility of cleanliness OCD? In some places there are authority notices on washing your hands and putting your mask on – bizarre!

Before we go any further we must pay tribute to our Japanese friend Shelley Iwata who lives in Vancouver and who took time out to construct the most amazing no nonsense short guide to travelling Japan with a host of tips on where to go and what to eat etc. We owe her a great deal and will make it up to her when we meet her next year in Vancouver. Thanks Shelley – you’ll make a fantastic Japan guide.

We catch the Skyline Train express to Asakusa where we are staying – a surprising Y1240 only and it takes just 1 hour for the 60km ride in. It’s a bit overcast which adds to the feeling that the countryside is as grey and dull as in the UK this time of year. There’s nothing to write home about and the houses look like grey boxes – not a brill start. They say Japan is The Land of the Rising Sun – somehow nobody told the weather guys as the first few days are cold, wet and windy – a shame as the cherry blossoms are being washed away.

We arrive at Asukasa station and make our way to the Toukaisou Ryokan (Hotel) not far away. It’s really nice and clean and centrally located for the neighbourhood and its attractions. Cost £45 per night – much more than India but a lot less than London. The amenities are good & the folks speak English which helps. Included is free hot water (whenever) & Japanese Green tea with a lovely tea set in the room. There’s piping hot water all day for showers and air con (thankfully so we can warm up). TV is only Japanese stuff so not much use to us. The big downside or challenge for M is the Futon bed and the low table with cushions for seats – not best for old creaking legs and bones. However it’s comfortable.

Asakusa is one of the old style Japanese neighbourhoods, which has held onto its charm. It’s relatively low-rise and is great for travelling into and out of central Tokyo. It has quite a few attractions which people from Japan, Korea and China come to visit especially the Senso-ji Temple.

Sensō-ji, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, is a Buddhist temple. It is one of Tokyo's most colourful and popular temples in Tokyo. The legend says that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Senso-ji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo's oldest temple. You get to it through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), the outer gate of the Temple and the symbol of Asakusa and the entire city of Tokyo. A small street called Nakamise, leads from the outer gate to the temple's second gate, the Hozomon. The street is filled with stalls selling typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukata and folding fans and various traditional local snacks.

Buddhism is the main religion here by far and they seem to have a million different sects or strands and each one has a Temple to some deity or reincarnation of Buddha. This may explain why there seem to be a million Temples and Shrines here.

The Sumida River is close by – within walking distance - and is lined with Cherry Trees. Unfortunately due to the poor weather and rain the blossoms haven’t lasted as well this year so the area is quiet. River cruises from here go down to central Tokyo and back.

The Sky Tree Tower with an observatory at different levels (which you have to pay to go up to) is 2 stops away on a private railway track or free on the Hop on Hop off Free Shuttle that does a loop of the neighbourhood and looks like a Panda bear in front. As the weather is murky while we’re here we decide to leave a trip to the tower for our return and hope we get clearer skies then. We also decide to give the Tokyo Tower a miss. It’s a mock-up of the Eiffel Tower in Paris painted red and white and doesn’t look anywhere near as impressive from the pictures we’ve seen.

In front of the Sky Tree Tower near to where we stay one can see the very large golden coloured Asahi Flame (Asahi being the famous Beer Brand) on the top of a building. Unfortunately given its shape it is commonly referred to as the Golden turd locally (as that’s what it looks like – see pictures).

There is also the Drum Museum on the main straight where you can go and try your hand at drumming the various ceremonial drums of Japan and an amazing and very helpful Information Office which has an observation deck 8 floors up which is free.

We are fortunate to have the Rox Department store near our hostel – we think it’s Walmart (Asda Branded food a give-away). There is a supermarket in the basement which makes eating less expensive in Tokyo. We try the Sushi, Teriyaki, Gyoza (awesome) and Noodles which are fab washed down with Saki or Asahi beer (we weren’t impressed with Kirin beer when we tried it).

A covered shopping arcade area, 2 mins from the hostel, has a lovely Izakaya (Hoyou) - a local Japanese pub which serves Tapas Japanese style. We venture in and the folks are really helpful and one guy speaks a bit of English so we get by with a host of seafood tapas which are awesome washed down with warm sake. We also find a Mos Burgers. It’s a burger chain with a Japanese twist. They have burgers with teriyaki pork, shrimp, normal beef burgers, and some which are placed in a bun made of rice, barley and millet with a melt in your mouth pork cutlet. We have tried them a few times. There are also many places for cheap eating serving gorgeous Ramen noodle soup which a pretty filling dish with an assortment of toppings. However, what is a surprise is that quite a few places close really early (between 8 and 9 pm). The streets in Asakusa get deserted as well – so we assume that only the hot spots of central Tokyo attract the night owls.

Mind you, if you need a quick drink or snack and can’t be bothered to walk more than 5 yards, the Japanese have a solution. Vending machines! Everywhere!! They sell all the different sorts of drinks you might like – including beer and schochu, as well as snacks. Every parking lot, street corner, underground platform etc has them! They even have them on the highways we discovered in a random corner all on their own!

The Tokyo underground is a terrific transportation system and quite easy to navigate. It’s also pretty inexpensive with day travel cards which can save you a fortune. They are clean & easy to use once you become familiar with the different lines and charging structure. It is well signed so folks don’t get lost and at various points give you an indication of distance to the next train intersection. Also mobiles are rarely used (at least not as phones) and discouraged at certain points in the carriages. Even in rush hour (which we find also happens at 10pm – late working or bar closing – we’re not sure) when the carriages are packed, it’s orderly with no pushing. Such a contrast to Delhi!!

Fortunately we decide to try Ueno which is 2 stops away on the Ginza Line on the weekend. It’s Sunday and rather cold. What we hadn’t appreciated was the fact that the Park (Ueno – Koen) near the station is the main area for good Hanamis or Cherry Blossom picnics/parties by Tokyoites! We find that it is full of local families and mainly young people enjoying booze fuelled picnics under the Cherry Blossom Trees. This is an important time for the Japanese celebrating the start of spring. It’s all quite spectacular & a lot of fun from the looks of it. It’s also big business for advertisers – many firms add a touch of blossom to their products adverts at this time of year. Within the park are various Japanese Temples, the Tokyo National Museum, a Royal cemetery (Kaneiji Temple cemetery), Tokyo Zoo, and a host of Street food sellers making it a great place for a weekend outing. We try the Squid (pretty big) which is fab and some pork skewers.

Just across from Ueno station is Ameyoko Street Market – Camden revisited we feel – which has a great range of stalls selling cheap clothes, to fresh fish and veg and fancy brand stores. It scores twice for us – a pair of warmer track bottoms for C (cheapy stall) and a fabulous quirky restaurant we go to on our last night (Isomaru Suisan) where we have scallop and squid which we BBQ on a table top grill served with a donburi rice bowl with sashimi. Plus a glass of the local brew – shochu mixed with lemon and ice. Awesome.

One thing we notice in the eateries and markets here are the size of the seafood. We see the largest octopus, squid & scallops we have seen anywhere in the world. Hopefully not nuclear reactor induced. They also taste fantastic and as so much cheaper than back home.

Over the next few days we visit quite a few of the local neighbourhoods :

Yanaka neighbourhood near the Sendagi Tube station – a quaint little suburb, where we go to Yanaka Ginza, a street full of food stores and local quirky shops. We get tempura squid, aubergine and teriyaki seafood aswell as an awesome vanilla/choconut icecream! The area is also full of Temples (over 70) and has a marked out walking tour – though it’s easier if you can read Japanese – which we can’t! There are also many cemeteries with family shrines or tombs – which are spotless and very structured. These are a feature all over Japan we find.

Harajuku is the fashion district. Teenagers go for a definite look of their own and the little kids (who are sooo cute!) are dressed as if on a Gap fashion shoot! Fashion is big in Tokyo. We go there just to people watch.

Shibuya is famed for having the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. It’s essentially a shopping area filled with department stores & expensive shops. We find it a bit grim (partly due to massive reconstruction works near the station). Perhaps it looks better at night with all the neon lights (as does most Japanese towns and cities we discover later!).

Shinjuku is Neon Lights central including some aspects of Tokyo’s answer to Soho (though we didn’t make it to Roppongi which we are told is more seedy). We come here a couple of times as the Citigroup ATM is here but it also has designer stores and is less chaotic than Shibuya. This area stays open late into the night in contrast to Asakusa which largely seems to close by 9 or 10pm.

We decide to postpone our visit to the area where the Imperial Place is (near Tokyo station) until our return but go along for a quick look one afternoon. It’s too late to go inside the grounds – which are all you are allowed by appointment, but we walk through the nearby public parks and peer into the compound when the gates open. It’s ok – some traditional Japanese style buildings but some seem very modern which surprises us. The Palace is open to the public on only 2 days of the year. The surrounding area looks like NY City with high rise office blocks and hotels, and is packed with joggers doing a route around the palace.

Because the weather isn’t brilliant and we are returning to Tokyo for a few days at the end of our trip, we spend a lot of time in the Ueno Japan Railway (just called JR) offices/Information centre which provides a fantastic service sorting out our travel plans - they help us organise how to get to various places in good time with well-timed change overs etc. We have bought a 3 week JR Rail Pass in India (only tourists can buy them and they have to be purchased abroad before you get here – but they get you substantial discounts on your train travel). The JR pass allows us to book all our trains and get allocated seats, which makes travel here so much easier. Once we have the pass authenticated at the information office (you have to have your passport with you) we go ahead with the bookings of trains, which is all very efficient and done electronically. The Tickets are in Japanese and English with the train number, carriage number and seat number allocated so all we have to do is show it to a member of staff and they tell you which platform to go to. One thing – the trains are always on time!

One of the benefits of the JR pass and all this planning is that it makes us rejig our plans to various smaller towns or villages to visit them on a day trip basis staying at a main city nearby where the hostels are more in supply and less expensive. We are surprised at how much hostel/hotels cost in some of the tourist places like Shirakawa – go or Tsumago etc. Circa Y10,000 per person! Ouch!

A feature of Japan that we find quite endearing – though very odd – is the piped music on the street. We notice it one day as we walk along and realise it comes from speakers on the lamp posts. Generally it is calming and gentle Japanese or Classical music(or Il Divo if you are lucky says C as we did in Yanaka) – so we wonder if it’s intended to induce some kind of soporific effect to avoid pavement rage! Because another feature of Japan is all the cyclists on the pavements – come shine or rain (when they cycle with umbrellas in hand!) – with no bells and going at startling speed, especially the older folk!

In contrast on the roads all is calm. Traffic is well disciplined, there are no car horns except in an emergency, no Jay walking – even if the road is clear for miles (boy and do these guys have patience for lights to change, they deserve a medal) – and when the green man lights up it stays on for plenty of time to allow pedestrians to cross. And all the cars/buses/lorries are spotless.

A few more observations about the Japan experience (so far):

The toilets are awesome! Even the toilet seat is warmed electrically and the bottom washing device (beautifully sign posted by the seat) is electronically controlled for warm water and ejection speed – wow, these guys think of everything!

It rains quite a lot while we are here but a nice touch at most of the places we stay is they provide free umbrellas & at the stores they have plastic covers for them for when it’s wet & dripping so the floors don’t get wet and slippy.

One thing we learn early on is that Japan is an all cash society and in most places you have to pay cash only upfront. Credit Cards are rarely accepted and sometimes if they are there is a 5% surcharge. In Tokyo there are Citibank ATMs that allow withdrawals of significant sums of money per transaction (up to Y41, 000 a go) very handy in this type of environment.

You can eat very healthily in Japan (sushi, sashimi, ramen soup bowls etc) but we are surprised at the amount of fried food they have and in particular very fatty pork! Tastes awesome though.

Smoking is banned in many places and on the streets – on buildings and pavements are no smoking signs. And then in contrast, we find designated public smoking areas – outside!! Areas designated for smokers with ashtrays and fag machines. The art of compromise!

We also find that here and throughout Japan they provide a lot of public conveniences or toilets – all free and all spotless. At every station, near most temples and tourist areas, shopping malls – everywhere.

We are surprised to see some women still wear the traditional Kimonos. Quite often they are mature women who seem to be of the “ladies that lunch” genre but there are also young women office workers etc. Seeing them all dressed up waiting for the train home is quite surreal. By contrast the men seem to go for uniform black suits and dark ties – unless they’re young in which case the grunge look is de rigeur.

Generally, there is an absence of diversity of peoples – other than travellers. There doesn’t appear to be a large muslim or black community. There are a few churches but basically the primary faith is Shinto or Buddhism. Easter is a non-event here – it doesn’t even get a mention.

We are surprised to see some homeless rough sleepers setting up their cardboard homes in shop fronts at night in the under covered market area. Many of them look very well and tidy and we wonder if they are homeless from the Tsunami – 2 million were made homeless and homeless shelters are erected in many parks.

The Police have a presence everywhere through local Police boxes. It’s quite an understated presence though and feels more like an assistance service than a policing activity. Though we do see them reprimanding a young cyclist who appeared to be riding a bit recklessly.

One thing we notice about Japanese design, is that it’s all about straight lines, things are quite simple and very functional. The houses and buildings – especially outside Tokyo tend to be grey, beige or brown and look generally very dull, though the roof tops of some of the more fancy houses are more traditionally Japanese old style roof line and tiles. Gardens are often manicured with many Bonsai trees/shrubs and look neat and impressive. We assume the insides are equally immaculate with minimal furniture and everything slick and functional (based on our observations of many hotels, guest houses and temples). We are surprised that there aren’t more PV panels on roofs for energy supply. The weather in summer especially would support it and as they seem to be very proactive on gas cars and recycling, this seems to be an omission.

Everything is clean! Cars, lorries, trains, roads, pavements (shopkeepers clear up any litter though there is hardly any). Even building sites; we pass a couple and they are spotless and well organised. At the end of the day all the equipment is left tidy – even the diggers parked tidily in a row.

Another quirk of Japanese life is the Love Hotel. An interesting business where couples who want to hang out together and get personal can hire a room for a few hours or all day. The whole transaction is done anonymously with computers showing the rooms you can choose and pay the cash into the machine – the couple need not see a person. It’s almost an acceptance that people have relationships legit or not and they should be afforded the comfort to enjoy themselves – interesting insight into Japanese thinking/philosophy or entrepreneurship gone mad!! Take your pick. The hotels themselves are easily identifiable and aren’t in any seedy back alley – they are part of the neighbourhood or main street.

We go off to Tokyo railway station for our travel down south and see the Shinkansen trains (bullet trains – or super express trains as they are commonly known). They are pretty futuristic in style and the front & back have engine rooms that look really sleek and fast. In fact when we do travel in them (and most trains we use) they are fast, very comfortable (better than first class in the UK or elsewhere) and spotlessly clean. The toilets and general amenities are also pristine, including laptop charging points for all seats, and a map of the amenities displayed on the back of each seat table. They also have a sealed smoking cabin for those that can’t manage without – and unlike others we’ve come across they are bright, open and completely devoid of cigarette smoke smells. And as you’d expect, the trains are always on time and manage precision placing on the platform for entrance to each marked cabin. The cabin staff are incredibly polite and turn and bow to all passengers as they leave the cabin. And at shikansen main stations a crew of cleaners go aboard before you to make sure all remains spotless.

Tokyo has many stations but the larger ones (e.g. Tokyo Central and Shinjuku) are designed almost like cities underground. Extremely clean and well sign posted on many floors. It feels like the start of the underground society in the making though it gets a bit claustrophobic after a while.

And so after 5 days enjoying Tokyo – and looking forward to coming back here for a few days at the end which will also include day trips to Hakone (Mount Fuji viewing) and Nikko (temple site) – we head off early for a long day’s travelling by train to Nagasaki.

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