Tokyo: A journey too many

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Asia » Japan » Tokyo
September 12th 2009
Published: September 16th 2009
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Day 434: Sunday 6th September - A new country, but no excitement

Today is a potential turning point in my journey. The day itself is a long day and a long journey from Hong Kong to Tokyo via the Philippines, but it is more for my change in emotional state that I will remember the day.

The day starts at 8am with an hour long journey through Hong Kong to the airport, which includes an exorbitant charge of 60 Hong Kong Dollars (£5) for the last section of about 10 minutes on the underground. It is an anomaly as for the rest of Hong Kong’s underground the fares are around a pound. I even check with the station attendant that the ticket machine isn’t having a laugh at my isn’t! My flight is not until 11am but I require a good section of the two hours before my flight just to check-in as the girl on the counter insists on giving me a printed itinerary when I say I haven’t got a copy. I was trying to save trees!! Whilst I may have been environmentally conscious over my flight ticket I can’t say that I’m particularly proud of the carbon footprint I left with the flight itself. Indirect flights between Hong Kong and Tokyo are actually cheaper than direct flights so I decide to fly via Manila in The Philippines, to save about £100. Look at the flight path on the map - The Philippines lies to the south of Hong Kong and my final destination, Tokyo is a long way north.....mental!

My first flight to the Philippines takes 2 hours and then I get an interesting transfer through Manila airport when an official takes me past all the security checks and immigration officers and straight to the departure gate - great stuff. I have an hour stopover in Manila and then the flight to Tokyo is a further four and a half hours. By the time I reach Tokyo it is 12 hours after I left Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong and I presume I am towards the end of my journey. I assume incorrectly as it is 3 hours until I reach the comfort of my hostel in Tokyo.

It must take a good hour at least to get through Japanese immigration due to a combination of a few flights arriving at the same time causing a huge queue and the over-efficiency and under-effectiveness on the part of the immigration officers. And then I have my first experience of Japan’s rail/underground system. Confusing in a word, mind-boggling would be another. I start with trying to buy a ticket from Narita airport to Tokyo city. Well there are about a 3 different ways to do this journey and naturally I choose the cheapest and probably the most confusing. Just buying a damn ticket is a challenge. The machine is not in English so I blindly press every button on the machine hoping something will happen! Nothing. So I try another, still none the wiser. Thankfully a kind Japanese girl on her way back from Taiwan comes to my aid and points out that you have to put money into the machine before you can pick the destination. Every other underground/rail system I’ve used in the world is the other way around - select destination then pay money - the bloody Japanese!!

It is an hour’s journey to Aoto in Tokyo’s suburbs but the Japanese girl keeps me right and tells me which station to get off at. From Aoto I cross the platform and straight on to another train with the help of two Japanese men who tell me that the train is going to Asakusa. I get this journey without paying which is a bonus but I make a mistake by getting off the train one stop early. Thankfully I wait only a few minutes for the next train to Kuramae and I’ve finally reached my destination and paid a bit less than I should. Except I haven’t reached my destination, I still need to find the hostel and I struggle to work out the map. With the help of a Japanese girl who points me in the right direction (I was walking in the wrong one) I eventually find the hostel about half an hour after I got off the metro (and I later discover it’s only a two minute walk from the metro station). I can only say at this point what a debt of gratitude I owe to the Japanese people. Japanese tourists may be a pain in the proverbial but the real Japanese are extremely helpful and friendly. They will go out of their way to assist a westerner if they perceive that they need help.

That’s the journey, but it’s my state of mind that’s the biggest issue. I don’t know if I’m tired from the journey or its one journey too many but I arrive in Japan without any excitement. Usually when I get to a new country I’m excited about what lies ahead but not Japan for some reason. I survey the queue in Narita airport waiting for immigration clearance and I see a mix of businessmen and tourists. The tourists are no doubt excited about seeing the country, for the businessmen it is just a job. My state of mind lies between the two. I’m not overcome with excitement nor have I the monotony of seeing very little of a place except the inside of an airport, my hotel room and some office. But it does feel like I’m going through the motions. Is it because I’m going to Tokyo, another city on top of Guangzhou, Macau and Hong Kong and I’m not a city person? Is it because Japan is big on temples and I’ve seen too many temples to be excited about another one? I don’t know but I do sense a malaise over my travels.

Usually when my mind has drifted towards home and seeing friends and family again I haven’t got beyond the well that would be nice but then I’d miss travelling stage. This time though I’ve got to the second stage of the process and started to think about an exit point, a stage when it would feel the right time to return home. I’ve got a date in mind but we’ll see if it gets to the third stage and making a definitive decision or whether it was just short-term travel weariness or a deeper need to return home. The opportunity to travel the world is too amazing an experience to do if your heart isn’t totally in it. This feels a bit different to prior bouts of homesickness, I am tired of being continually on the move, I need to stay in one place for a while and I’m questioning if my heart is still in it. If I decide it isn’t then I’ll call it a day for sure.

One final point to add is my first experience of a Japanese toilet. Now these are no ordinary toilets, they have several electronic buttons on the side. Of course there is no English but that doesn’t stop me pressing every button to see what it does! Several produce jet of water of varying angles and pressures. I love it, who needs boys toys when you can get your daily fix of fun sitting down to do your business!

Day 435: Monday 7th September - Sleeping in a capsule hotel

I only just manage to wake from my slumber minutes before I have to check out. I was definitely exhausted maybe that explains my current mood? I have to check-out as K’s house, my hostel has no availability for tonight. I’ll be back tomorrow, and spend tonight in a capsule hotel but more about that later.

The afternoon proves to be a day sorting things out rather than sightseeing. My first job is to find an agency to get a Chinese visa for me. I could go to the embassy myself but it is out of the way and without onward tickets and hotel reservations and wanting a two month visa I expect awkward questions which using an agency will avoid. The staff at the hostel are extremely helpful and not only do they tell me the name of an agency but they contact them to check that they can do Chinese visas and also print me out a map. Beyond the call of duty.

Finding the agency isn’t a problem, it is only a few blocks away from the main Tokyo railway station. As I’m in the area I pop into the station and exchange my exchange order for a Japan rail pass, dating it to start in a week. At least that’s one job out of the way which took no time and was straightforward. I wish I could say the same for the visa. It is entirely my fault as when I turn up at the agency I have left my stash of passport photos back in the hostel. Not one to normally overlook such things, and well versed in the procedure to get visas I put in down to tiredness post yesterday’s long journey. The agency staff point me in the direction of a nearby shopping centre where I can get some photos taken. I find the photo booth no problem but I am put off by the 800 Yen (£5) charge which is more than double what it would cost me to go back to the hostel so I decide on that course of action.

Going back to the hostel a few stops on the underground and then returning the same way should be no problem but this is Tokyo. Maybe as Tokyo is the world’s biggest city in terms of population I should have expected no less but I kind of counted on Japan being a developed country and all to have an efficient metro system. It is efficient, trains come on time and regularly but it is so bloody confusing. Here are my issues after the first 24 hours:

1) Having to pay before you select your destination - see above on my first experience of this.

2) There is plentiful English signage, however not always when you are trying to decipher metro/train maps working out how much it is to your destination and how many stops before you have to get off. Pray that a helpful Japanese person comes along.

3) Tokyo has two private companies running its metro system. Lines of both companies use the same station. You need to make sure you buy a ticket for the right line and the right company.

4) Transferring between lines of even the same company is still a mystery. Every time I try to do this I have to buy another ticket as the machine swallows my ticket. The hostel staff say they are different coloured exits to go through if you want to transfer but even they aren’t sure which ones are which and they are locals!

5) Each metro station has so many exits that you need a map of each metro station to navigate your way to choose the right one. They’re vast these Japanese metro stations. Tokyo metropolitan area may have a population of 35 million people but they could all safely live underground in the metro stations in the event of a war and a bombing campaign!

6) The above 5 points refer to the metro, that’s without the various train lines that run to/from/around the city. The metro map is a real spaghetti junction. Forget any other city’s rail transport system being complicated, they are no match on Tokyo.

Thankfully there always seems to be a helpful Japanese person on hand just as I’m about to get overwhelmed in confusion by the above. I have an issue with (3) above on the way back to the hostel when I buy a ticket at a station but for the wrong line. The station guard not only informs me of my error but he refunds me my money. He had no need to do this. In my country, I’m not sure a foreign tourist would have got their money back, probably just a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘sorry there’s nothing I can do’. In Southeast Asia you’d have probably been given further misleading advice on how to squander yet more money! The Japanese are so kind-hearted. However after squandering about a pound on every journey so far (without transfers) I have come to the conclusion that it will be cheaper and hopefully not as confusing to get a day pass. Which one to choose though - there are 3 different ones!! I’ll ask at the hostel.

Back at the agency armed with passport photos I go through the formalities of filling in the application form. The form is entirely in Japanese/Chinese so there’s no way I could have filled it in at the embassy itself. Maybe the forms there are in English, I’ll never know? I did have second thoughts of going to the embassy though. It was the cost of using the agency that had me having these thoughts. 15,000 Yen (£100) to get a 3 month Chinese visa! It only cost me $45 US (£30) to get a 1 month Chinese visa in Vietnam. I ask about a 30 day visa but I am informed this will cost 12,000 Yen (£75). In some respects paying this much for a Chinese visa should come as no surprise. Everyone I met in China who got their visa in the UK paid £100 or more, it’s just after paying such a reasonable price in Vietnam I was expecting something more along those lines. That’s the cost of using an agency in a developed country though. They tell me it will take just 3 days which is no problem as I have a week in Tokyo. It seems a bit contradictory paying for a visa and thereby committing to further travel with my current state of mind. I satisfy myself that it is on the way home as I’m heading west from Japan.

I could go sightseeing but decide I haven’t the energy for it nor am I in the mood. Instead, I decide to continue to make progress on my ‘things to do list’. Next priority on the list is to sort out Mount Fuji. I enquired at the hostel when I went back and a guy told me that as the climbing season is finished (season = July+August) so all the mountain huts are closed. He says it is still possible to do a night time climb and summit at sunrise but advises me to check in a number of sports shops in a certain part of the city. I take the metro to this part of the city falling foul of issue no (4) above several times. It proves to be a wasted trip as none of the staff in the shops speak English but they still are able to convey the message that the mountain huts are now shut.

My trip to the sports shops may have been a fruitless one but it has got me running on this one and I want to get to the bottom of it. As always the answers lie on the internet. Back in the hostel I find out that I can still get a bus to the 5th station (halfway up Mount Fuji and where most climbers start from) and even better I find that all the mountain huts are still open from the side of the mountain I want to climb. I try to call one of the mountain huts near the summit where I would like to stay overnight only to find he doesn’t speak English. The staff of K’s house are on hand to help again. Not only do they ring the hut for me and book me a place for Thursday night but they also go on-line and book me a seat on the bus for Thursday morning also. Nothing seems too much trouble. I’ve stayed many places in the last year but I am struggling to think of staff as helpful as these.

With a prior booking in K’s House for Tuesday/Wednesday, tonight in the capsule hotel and Thursday on Mount Fuji now booked, I decide to sort my accommodation out for my return to Tokyo on Friday. I’ll be back for 4 nights but unfortunately availability in K’s House is not good so I ask them for a recommendation in the same area and book four nights there. I’ve realised already that it pays to book accommodation early in Japan which I guess is part of the reason capsule hotels exist.

And so on to my capsule hotel experience. After a productive if not the most enjoyable day I walk up to the capsule hotel in the Asakusa district, 10 minutes away. I may not be getting over excited about the sights in Japan but the experiences I am looking forward to. The first uniquely Japanese experience (discounting the metro system of course) is the capsule hotel. You may have seen these on British TV but they basically consist of you getting a ‘room’ to sleep in with the approximate proportions of a coffin!

At the check-in I have to take off my flip-flops and I am given some garish green plastic slippers to wear which are at least 3 sizes too small! I am also handed a towel, a face cloth and some pyjamas. A lady accompanies me to the second floor where I store my large rucksack and where a common area of sorts is situated. I stop there for a while to help an Israeli couple out with accommodation in the city. My capsule is on the fifth floor, there are 4 floors for men only, 2 floors for women only and then a public bathing area on the ninth floor which is further divided by the sexes. After checking out my capsule which is situated in a room with about 30 other similar capsules and is indeed in coffin sized proportions - 3 foot by 3 foot by 7 foot but has a TV, a alarm clock and a light inside and a locker outside(what more could a man want!!!!!!!!!!!) I venture up to the ninth floor.

The fact I go to the public baths is twofold. One because there are no showers on my floor, just toilets and washbasins so this is clearly where it is intended you go to freshen up. Secondly, out of intrigue. It sounds relaxing which is just what I could do with. Quite what the protocol is though I don’t know and the Japanese are big on doing things a certain way. I take the lift in my swimming shorts under my pyjamas which I decide is a safe bet, with washbag tucked under my arm. There is a Japanese man already in the men’s public bathing area and is sat on a foot stool, showering wearing absolutely nothing. So I do the same, sit on another of the stools naked to shower. Until I decide that this stool business is ridiculous and stand up. There is a red hot bath to relax in after showering which I jump in to relax. The public bathing area overlooks the river and the view of the Asakusa skyline is a bonus as you sit in the bath.

After eating I return to the capsule hotel and decide on an early night. I change into my sexy pyjamas and climb into my coffin and draw the curtain on the outside world and another day. Except I can’t sleep, my mind is on overdrive thinking about home and thinking through when to draw the curtain on my around the world trip. My thoughts are still along the lines of yesterdays and I can see an exit point. I know it must seem strange to others to be talking about an exit point when I could return home tomorrow if I wanted but after travelling for over a year I want to end on a high, on a highlight. I can see it in my mind’s eye but whilst I am at second base (the when) I am still not at the third (making the decision to return) and nowhere near the fourth (actually seeing it through and getting on the plane).

Day 436: Tuesday 8th September - Nikko

I’m awake before the alarm goes off in my capsule. The sound proofing isn’t great and I can hear people moving around outside and alarms going off in other capsules. A capsule hotel isn’t a place to hang around, they’re not the most homely of places but after finally drifting off last night I got a good night’s sleep. I didn’t wake up to the sound of Japanese drunks or businessmen who’ve missed the last train entering the capsule hotel (the usual people who use such hotels apparently). Indeed, the capsules on my floor are largely empty and show no signs of being slept in, maybe the room was about quarter full last night? It was a classic Japanese experience, one I’m glad I had but one which I’ll not be repeating. For the same price you can stay in a much more homely hostel so that’s where I’ll be returning.

I drop my bag off back at K’s House and walk back up from where I came this morning, to Asakusa station to take a train for the two and a half hour journey to Nikko. I need to get out of the city. Tokyo is making me feel claustrophobic. There are so many people, space is a premium and personal space seems less than elsewhere. It takes just over two hours to reach Nikko, the train splits in two on the way and by luck rather than design I happen to be in the right carriage. My visit to Nikko starts off on the wrong note when I get my map orientation wrong and turn left rather than right out of the train station to visit the world heritage listed temples and shrines.

Scattered among hilly woodlands, Nikko is one of Japan’s major attractions. The first temple in Nikko was founded more than 1,200 years ago. However, in 1616, the dying Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu made it known that his final wish was for his successors to "Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan." As a result, Nikko became home of the mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Nikko is intended to awe, a display of wealth and power by a family who held supreme authority in Japan for two and a half centuries. Most of the buildings are extremely gaudy and ornate, with multicolored carvings and plenty of gold leaf, and show heavy Chinese influence. The temples don’t really do it for me but the setting does, the temples and shrines are set in a magnificent forest of cedar trees covering the entire area.

I timed my visit for a weekday on purpose to avoid Japan’s tourist masses which my guidebook warns flock to Nikko at the weekend. Despite being a pleasant change from city life, the crowds are still here in mid-week. I’d hate to see what a weekend is like. It takes a few hours to walk around the grounds, Japanese gardens, temples and shrines before I’m back on the train to Tokyo once more. On the walk back to the hostel I stop for fast food Japanese style. You select your meal from a window display and buy it using a vending machine (vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo - 6 million!!) and then take the ticket into the café and tell the lady which noodles you want. It’s cheap, quick and the foods more nutritious than western takeaway food.

Some other observations of Japan after a couple of days here:

• This country is expensive. It probably is no more expensive than I remember the UK being but my point of reference isn’t the UK as it is over a year since I was last in my homeland, it is Southeast Asia and Southern China, which were cheap in comparison.

• The Japanese are so respectful of traffic lights. They wait for the green man regardless if there is no traffic. My mindset at the moment is the Southeast Asian way of crossing the road. Namely if you judge you have a greater than 50% chance of your life still being intact just go for it! I’m sure the Japanese are looking on at this disobedient foreigner and shaking their head in disgust.

• The temperature is nice again, warm rather than hot, comfortable walking around rather than uncomfortably humid it is like British summer weather. It’s nice to be finally out of the tropics.

• How stylish are the Japanese? It doesn’t matter how old you are are whether you’re male or female, they all seem to dress well. Because of their style high marks for Japanese women. Behind Argentinian women, but I might just have to give them second place!

Day 437: Wednesday 9th September - Exploring Tokyo’s cultural past

Three days in Tokyo and I haven’t seen any of the city yet beyond my immediate neighbourhood and a few underground stations. Yesterday’s break from the city served its purpose and now I’m ready to start to explore Tokyo. Deciding where to start isn’t straightforward. Tokyo lacks a natural centre, instead there are several districts in and around the centre which I am going to visit over the next few days.

I decide to have a day getting to grips with Tokyo’s historical past. I take the underground to the Imperial Palace, the home of Japan’s emperor and imperial family. You can’t visit the palace itself but you can walk around the gardens and wander around the outskirts which take a while to get around. I then take the subway to the Ueno district of the city which is famous for its museums and galleries. I limit my museum visits to one in the area and choose the Tokyo National Museum, Japan’s largest. If you love Japanese art, you will love this place but I don’t and find most of the exhibits not that interesting. The Japanese exhibits include: laquerware, swords, sculptures, paintings, pottery, calligraphy, costumes and archaeological objects from the past few thousand years.

After a couple of hours skipping through the numerous galleries I get the tube to the Edo-Tokyo museum which takes you through the history of Tokyo. The city that is modern day Tokyo was established four centuries ago as Edo. The museum covers the history of the metropolis, starting from the days when it was selected as Japan's new capital Edo all the way through the Kanto earthquake and firebombings of World War II. It’s much more to my liking than the National Museum.

In the evening I get dinner with one of my roommates (Adam) but reluctantly have to decline the opportunity to watch the England game with him as it will not start until 4am local time and I need to be up early and fresh ahead of climbing Mount Fuji. As it is I don’t get to bed too early as I get talking with an English girl, Jessica who I arrange a night out with in Tokyo on Saturday when we’re both back from Mount Fuji (she is going a day later). I also have to turn down a night at the karaoke. A group of people are going from the hostel and I am tempted but I know it will turn into a late one and probably a messy one and you can’t afford to climb a 12000 foot mountain hungover. As it is, I see them in the morning returning from the karaoke via the fish market as I’m leaving so it was probably a wise decision.

Day 438: Thursday 10th September - Climbing up Mount Fuji

I start the day on the wrong foot as I have mislaid my key. I left it on top of the clothes I’m now wearing but in between going to bed and waking up they’ve disappeared. I have to forfeit a 1000 Yen (£7) key deposit as I have to get to the bus station in Shinjuku across the city. (I actually find my key when I return from Mount Fuji tucked in the inner lining of my hiking pants, it’s been with me to the summit of Mount Fuji!).
From Shinjuku station it is a two and a half hour bus journey to Kawaguchi-ko’s fifth station, 2300 metres up Mount Fuji. I get an early lunch and start climbing Mount Fuji at 12:30pm. It takes me just four hours to climb Japan’s highest peak as the walk up isn’t that difficult. I’d been told 6 hours is par but I don’t know how as I take a few rests and I’ve never been the quickest. As it is out of season (the season is July/August) there aren’t that many people on the mountain, but I guess I must be walking quite fast as no one passes me on the way up apart from when I rest.

I had intended just climbing to the 8th station, sleeping there and then summiting for sunrise tomorrow but I walk straight past the hut I’ve booked into and so I decide to continue for another 45 minutes up to the summit. It works out better as I have the summit virtually to myself. I see only a handful of other people on the summit as I circle the volcano’s crater which takes another hour. The weather has been kind to me today, I have had clear views across to two of the five lakes which surround Fuji and it is only on the summit with strong winds when it gets very cold. With the light fading I make my way down to the 8th station where I find my hut this time around just as it is beginning to get dark.

The only difficulty with Mount Fuji is the altitude. You feel it harder to breathe as you ascend but it is only when I stop to rest and sleep in the mountain hut when I really start to feel the effects. I realise I’m dog tired as I eat dinner and I struggle to sleep at above 3000 metres altitude. But then I guess I am allowed to be so tired, at 3776 metres Mount Fuji is the third highest mountain I’ve climbed, it is just that it isn’t the third hardest I’ve climbed. Some of the peaks in the Lake District are tougher despite being only a quarter of the height.

Day 439: Friday 11th September - Climbing down Mount Fuji

Everyone but me gets up in the early hours to reach the summit for sunrise but having met the challenge of the mountain there’s no way I’m dragging myself out of bed to do that again. I do get up to see the sunrise from the 8th station and then promptly go back to bed again. I wake up again at 8:30am and after a disappointing breakfast I’m on my way. The huts are basic and not up to the standard I would expect for Japan. Japan is expensive but especially so on Mount Fuji. You pay 500 yen (£3.50) for a small bottle of water is you don’t carry enough (I make sure I do); you pay 1000 Yen (£7) for a crappy meal; and in my opinion the worst you must pay 100 Yen (70 pence) to spend a penny which I simply refuse to do.

Going down is even easier than going up. Usually I find the going down as hard if not harder than going up as it kills my knees but they have designed the descent route so there are no steps and on the soft gravel it is kind on your knees. With the weather not being as good as yesterday I don’t stop much and it takes me just an hour and a half to get down from the 8th station. At the bottom I have an hour and a half wait for a bus to Kawaguchi-ko during which I get talking to an Australian (Ben) and a Japanese guy who are studying in Tokyo. I pick their brains about what to do in Tokyo and they don’t uncover anything that I hadn’t heard of before and they confirm what my thinking: that Tokyo has no unmissable sights.

After an hour’s bus journey it is lunchtime by the time I get down to Kawaguchi-ko. I decide against getting the next bus back to Tokyo and instead walk part way around one of Fuji’s five lakes - the one with the same name as the town - to get a photo of Mount Fuji. With it being early autumn I can’t replicate the classic postcard shot of a snow-capped Mount Fuji but with a band of cloud three-quarters of the way up, it is nevertheless a worthwhile walk to see the mountain from a different perspective. I’d love to have timed my trip when Japan’s most venerated peak, deferentially referred to as Fuji-san was at its most picturesque and covered in snow but alas it wasn’t meant to be, and maybe if I had it would have been inaccessible to climb.

I’m too exhausted to do anything when I return to Tokyo apart from say goodbye to the awesome staff of K’s House and change hostels to the less homely Sakura Hostel a quarter of an hour walk away in the next district, Asakusa.

Day 440: Saturday 12th September - Enough of Tokyo’s culture, finding what makes the present day city tick

Having gone to bed early exhausted after returning from Mount Fuji I get a crappy night’s sleep. A group of German’s or German speaking guys return to my dorm after midnight and proceed to make a load of noise. You learn to be tolerant when you’re sharing your living space with others that you don’t know well, but on this occasion they push it too far. Over the course of the next two hours they keep talking and then get up at 3am and start getting ready. Another guy in the dorm comes back drunk and tries to climb into bed with me! It’s all too much and I lose my rag in the end. Between 12:30am and 4am I don’t think I sleep a wink and when I do eventually wake up I feel only marginally more awake than I did when I went to bed.

When I get up I take the metro across the city to Shinjuku and once there I walk to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. Hoping to get a view across the city, I take the lift up one of the twin observation towers. Unfortunately the weather is grey and wet in Tokyo (typical British Summer’s day!!) and the visibility is poor. I walk back in the direction of Shinjuku station and decide to do the walking tour described in my guidebook as Shinjuku is meant to be a great place to get a sensory overload of Tokyo. People are busy shopping in the streets but otherwise I don’t feel it gives a great overview of the city.

I’ve been in the city almost a week now and I’m struggling to say that I’ve found anything I would say is ‘cool’ about this city. The capsule hotel experience was an interesting one but ‘cool’ would be stretching it and in a city which is a cauldron of technological innovation I expected to find some ‘cool’ things. That soon changes when I visit the Sony Building in the Ginza district. Four floors packed full of Sony’s latest products, some of which are yet to be released. It is great to play with the new products (cameras, video cameras, TV’s, PC’s, games consoles, audio equipment etc) and dream about kitting my house out with all this new stuff. I would if money was no object but it is and I’d much rather travel than have a house full of the latest technology especially when in less than a year it will only be replaced with something newer and better. My favourite innovation is the console for a camera which has artificial intelligence and can detect movement and take videos whilst you just get on with what you’re doing (that would be great for a party). I also like the GPS system which allows you to put all your photos on a world map. That will have to be purchased before my next trip. But it is hard to pick out favourites, it is all uber-cool.

Ginza is one of the main shopping districts in Tokyo and I wander down the main street full of Saturday shoppers out browsing shops containing the most exclusive brands. Shopping here would be expensive and it has a distinctive snob value. Not interested in shopping I take the tube up to Akihabara, the district which is home to Tokyo’s electronic town. This is a street packed with huge stores which stock any electronic item you may be interested in. It is also home to stores which have numerous floors dedicated to video-games. It is packed with teenagers playing games consoles, shopping for manga (Japanese comics), the latest anime film or the latest electronic must have. This place oozes energy and is a great place to see Tokyo’s youth culture. It is also a good place to people watch and spot wierd goings-on. You may expect it to be just a boys haunt but there are also a significant number of girls. Quite a number of these are standing on the street doing marketing dressed in maid’s outfits. In one of the buildings I find a fifth floor dedicated to maids - clothing etc and a cafe where the waitresses are dressed in sexy maid outfits. Now there’s an idea - maybe Chippington Manor could do with an extension and a maid’s only floor!!!!!

On the way back to the hostel I stop at Senosi-ji temple in Asakusa. This is supposed to be one of Tokyo’s best temples but holds little interest. I wait around in the evening for Jess to turn up at the hostel for the big night out in Tokyo. She never turns up though (she sends me a message later to say that she stopped an extra day at Fuji to climb the mountain), and so the night out is canned. I am disappointed at the time as I was looking forward to experiencing Tokyo’s nightlife. My disappointment is short-lived though the next day I meet some English guys in Yoyogi Park who work here and who tell me that you can expect to pay 1000 Yen (£7) a beer (not even pint-sized) and up to 3500 (£25) Yen cover charge to enter some bars/clubs. Add in taxi rides when the subway shuts down at midnight and you are looking at a night out costing easily over £100. It’s just not worth it - that money would last a week in India for example.

Day 441: Sunday 13th September - Yoyogi Park - The quirky side of Tokyo

Opting for a night in at the hostel last night I got talking with Gabriella an Anglo/Dutch/Hungarian woman who now lives in London. The great thing about travelling is you meet people that back home in your routine-led life with its relatively narrow boundaries, you never would. Gabriella is one such person, and she asks if she can join me today on my planned day out to the Shibuya area of the city. I am happy with the company and Gabriella’s gregariousness mixed with a touch of eccentricity and an interesting background make for an interesting day.

The remainder of the interest is provided in large doses by the quirky side of Tokyo’s personality. After coming out of Shibuya station, one of the world’s busiest and witnessing the madness that is Shibuya crossing - a mass of people rushing in every direction, we walk up to Yoyogi Park. Before entering the park we stop at Jingu-bashi where the Cosplay-zoku - the costume play gang - hang out. Mainly teenage girls, the Cosplay-zoku assemble at Jingu-bashi every weekend (particularly Sunday afternoons) decked out in goth make-up, kimono-punk gear and pose and preen for your photographic pleasure. Weird definitely, but great fun to observe the freak show.

Meiji-shrine offers a short deviation from Tokyo’s quirky side. There are several weddings going on with the participants wearing traditional Japanese dress but otherwise Tokyo’s temples and shrines aren’t worth seeing. After getting a quick drink and an ice-cream (@ £2 an ice-cream my almost daily ice-cream fix is definitely on hold in Japan) with the English boys we’ve met in the park we walk through Yoyogi park stopping to observe the weird and the wonderful and all the bizarre subcultures showing off to each other and the gaggle of photographers. Amongst these are the Elvis impersonators, groups dancing to 50’s and 60’s music, various dance troups led by choreographers....and so-on. It’s great fun looking on and seeing people enjoying themselves in all these peculiar ways. Yoyogi Park on a Sunday afternoon is a must for any Tokyo itinerary.

After the park, Gabriella and I get on the metro to the Tokyo Tower. It is modelled on the Eiffel Tower, but costs 800 Yen (£5) to go up and I’m not that bothered to see Tokyo’s night skyline - it can’t compete with my recent visit to Hong Kong after all can it?? One of the lads we met in the park offered to show us the view from his 13th floor apartment but he doesn’t show up so we content ourselves with a stop off at Ginza to see all the neon lights on the way home.

Day 442: Monday 14th September - Watching Sumo wrestling

I save the best day in Tokyo to the last. Yesterday was a good, enjoyable day but this tops it. It starts early with a visit to Tokyo’s fish market. Four of us leave the hostel together at 5am - Gabriella, myself, Pesh a guy from Hertfordshire from my dorm and Amanda a Chinese girl - for the trip across the city to Tsukiji. We miss the auction which starts the day off at the market as it takes an hour to get there on the tube. Still, it’s great to wander around the stalls displaying the freshly caught fish, seafood and bizarre sea creatures, dodging the motorised carts speeding around the market and fishmongers going about their daily business, and even the flying fish! The sights, smells and sounds make this market which must be one of the biggest in the world and it is well worth dragging yourself out of bed at dawn to visit.

Gabriella, Amanda and I get a breakfast of the freshly caught seafood but we pass on the sushi which looks as it looks like the bill will run to several thousand yen. Our cheap option of tuna steak, salmon and some other unidentified fish is still a good way to finish off the visit to the fish market.

Next up it’s a dash across the city to get tickets for today’s Sumo wrestling. On our way to the stadium we see a few wrestlers going for a early morning stroll and cycling wearing kimono’s....brilliant! Pesh has already got a ticket and he comes along with me and I manage to get a seat next to him. I agree to meet him later in the afternoon back at the arena. The action officially starts at about 9am but the best contests don’t start until mid-afternoon so I leave him and Gabriella to go back to the hostel whilst I continue my mad dash across Tokyo, this time to pick my Chinese Visa up. My 3 month visa has been granted as anticipated and everything is now in place to continue my trip to China after Japan - visa and ferry ticket.

It is still only 9:30am and I have half a day to kill before the Sumo wrestling. I’ve seen all that interests me in the city so my decision boils down to two choices. I could return to the hostel to catch up on some sleep or I could visit Kamakura, an hour to the south of Tokyo. My week long Japanese rail pass has now started so I can get to Kamakura for free so I decide for a rushed trip there. If I’d had to pay for the transport I would have probably given it a miss as I know my trip will be rushed and constricted to just a couple of hours.

It is 11:30am before I reach the first of Kamakura’s attractions, and the main one, the Daibutsu Great Buddha. It is a giant seated Buddha, measuring 11 metres in height and weighing 120 tonnes. It is pretty impressive but there’s nothing to see apart from snap a few photos and get on my way. Kamakura was Japan’s capital between the 12th and 14th centuries and a large number of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the countryside surrounding the seaside town. I escape the crowds and walk through the forest along the hour long hiking course which comes out at Jochi-ji temple. This is supposed to be the fourth ranked (how they decide their ranking I don’t know??) of Kamakura’s five Zen temples but is disappointing for the entrance fee charged. I also visit the first ranked Kencho-ji on my way back to the train station. This is much better and gives me a taster of what I imagine Kyoto to be like. I have to hurry my visit as I have a train to catch to get back to Tokyo in time for the sumo wrestling.

I make it to the Sumo wrestling in time to see the last few second tier Sumo contests before the Makuuchi (top-ranked) bouts start at about 4pm. Pesh has been here a couple of hours already and fills me in on what I’ve missed and I read the guide to get an overview of what’s left to see and what the basics of Sumo wrestling are. The guide says there are 82 winning techniques, I would simplify these into one: push your opponent out of the ring before you fall outside the ring and avoid falling over inside the ring. It is that simple and the bouts last seconds - I think the longest lasts 20 seconds.

Shortly after I arrive there is a ceremonial entrance of the Makuuchi wrestlers all wearing their ceremonial aprons and then the Yokozuna Grand Champions make an entrance into the ring. To make watching the 21 Makuuchi bouts interesting, Pesh and I each choose one of the wrestlers to cheer on. Most of the time is taken up with each wrestler going through a series of symbolic movements and salt tossing inside the ring. This usually takes the full four minutes allowed before the wrestlers finally grapple and slap at each other and seconds later the bout is over. We use this four minutes to pick a wrestler, give him a name - Asahi (the Japanese beer because of one wrestler’s beer gut), man-boobs (self-explanatory), boobs in different postcodes (self-explanatory) and Glutious Maximus (because of one wrestler’s particularly toned butt - I know it is wrong to look at a man’s butt but it is hard when you go to the Sumo Wrestling and all they’re wearing is a pair of big pants!!!) are four I can recall. We spend a lot of the four minutes as the Sumo wrestlers are preparing to wrestle laughing at the names we’ve given the wrestlers and encouraging our chosen wrestler. It is all good fun and it adds to the spectacle down below in the ring.

The only mistake at the Sumo wrestling is to pay 4900 Yen (£35) for a reserved seat. It is only the second day of the two week long tournament and it is a weekday as well so the arena is only part full. We could have paid 2100 Yen (£15) for the cheapest seats and moved around to a better seat. Towards the end we leave our seats and do this and nobody challenges us. After the day’s action finishes at 6pm Pesh gets the tube to take some Tokyo night time shots. I would go with him but the early start and the busy day has caught up with me.

I decide on an early night but end up talking with Amanda and Gabriella back in the hostel. Amanda seems to think after a week in the city I am a sage on Tokyo and should advise her on where to go. The thing is it isn’t that easy. Tokyo doesn’t have any unmissable sights. Its temples are second-rate, its museums aren’t in the captivating bracket, the Imperial Palace is off-limits. The most rewarding day trips to Nikko and Kamakura can easily be scratched from a tight schedule. Tokyo isn’t my favourite city, nowhere near. Yet, Tokyo has a quirky side, the side I saw over the last three days is what I would recommend. See technological innovation in the Sony building, teenage energy and everything from the electronic age in Akihibara, the weird and wonderful subcultures in Yoyogi Park on a Sunday, get up early and brave the Tsujiki fish market and if you’re lucky the seasonal spectacle at the Sumo stadium and the shopping looks good too. That would be a good trip to Tokyo in my opinion, a city I’ve grown to like but not love.

I started this blog and my trip to Tokyo saying that it had been a turning point in my trip. The last few days have been good, sharing your experience with others always helps to improve it and in some ways can define it. Macau, Hong Kong and the start of Tokyo I was all on my own, but being back in dorms in Tokyo has made it easier to meet people. Nevertheless, this has been a turning point for sure. It started with a bit of homesickness, moved on to thinking about going back home, working out the when and now it has progressed to making that decision. The decision is made, nothing is in concrete, things can yet change again but I’m sure that my plans have changed and I will return home early. It is a bit ironic in the week that England have booked their ticket to next year’s world cup in South Africa that I have changed my mind about the end destination of my trip but it is just one of life’s many twists.

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