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Lost In Transportation
By Mikey
Saturday, 16th October 2004 04:33

Tokyo is big. You get an idea of just how big when you find out that the airport is actually over 40 miles from the city centre. We found this out while we were flying there and it caused us a little concern at first. You see, we hadn't counted on it taking so long to get to our lodging for the night from the time when our plane landed. Booking our stay had been fun in the first place. I called from Hong Kong only to find that many of the places we chose were full and the one with any space at all only spoke Japanese. It was an interesting conversation and one that I didn't really want to repeat but we had said that we would be there at about 6pm or just after. At 6pm we had only just cleared customs and had at least an hour on the train before we got there so another call was needed just to reassure them that we would turn up. The language barrier proved too much this time as the lady thought that we wanted to stay with them and I wasn't able to communicate to her that she was already expecting us. So we just went there anyway.

The train journey from the airport to Nippori, the area we've been staying in, took just over an hour on a very shiny train. Just before we boarded it, all of the seats swivelled around so that we'd be facing the direction of travel - brilliant! By the time we got off the train though it was raining reasonably heavily and we had to try and work out which of the three station exits we wanted. With the help of a nice ticket counter man we ended up outside the Suzuki Ryokan pretty quickly but still a bit wet. We found what we thought was the front door but it was dark inside. The door wasn't locked and I stepped in briefly and called out a couple of times, but not loudly. Claire went around to the other side of the building and found the real front door and I left hurriedly. I may have been in another part of the ryokan or I may have been in someone else's house, I don't know for sure.

Ryokans are a slightly more traditional place to stay than the big, glitzy hotels. Our room was traditionally decorated with tatami (reed matting) and we had futons to sleep on, quite comfy ones I might add. The lady I had spoken to on the phone showed us around and we picked up what she was saying from the odd word of English and the exaggerated miming.

The rain that had got us a little wet on our way from the railway station to the ryokan (about 20 metres) stayed with us for much of the following day. We got up quite early (early for us that is) as it had not been clear the previous night if the ryokan included any breakfast facilities. Since it did not, we headed to the station and caught a selection of trains that got us to Tokyo central station. As it turns out, one train would have done it but mastering a city's mass transport system can be tricky without being able to read Japanese or find English signs to help. (There are some English signs around, you just have to look hard for them.)

We couldn't find much by the station at all and the few places we did see had a "lucky dip" feel to them and we wanted to settle into Japanese cuisine gently. After a 20 minute trek in the rain and the cunning use of an underground station to avoid a downpour, we found a sandwich shop on the edge of the Ginza shopping district. (Ginza is apparently world famous although that information must have skipped my part of the world.) Shortly after our sandwich we tumbled, dripping slightly, into the Sony building for a brief stop to stare at all of their shiny new toys. (Most buildings in Tokyo have a contraption by each door that you stick your wet umbrella into as you walk in. The umbrella is then covered by a plastic bag thus preventing it from dripping everywhere. They must get a fair bit of rain here.)

To start off with it was just DVD recorders and big televisions of dubious picture quality that we saw coupled with a colourful array of Sony's next generation of digital cameras. We tried to play with a PSX but might have broken it and so we ran up another level. That's when things got interesting. We saw a rather nice LCD projection television that was connected to a "Blu-Ray" player (the next thing after DVD) and the picture there was more real looking than the smiley Japanese people standing next to it. I know some people who would have loved to have half and hour playing with those nice toys. Only very slightly further on we found a whole load of Aibo robots and spent a while playing with those before moving on. Perhaps not a normal tourist activity but then Sony are a huge Japanese company and it would almost have been wrong not to have a quick look.

Before leaving the Sony building we asked about an internet caf?as it seems quite difficult to go for more than 24 hours without checking our email. The guard there drew on a map showing us where to go, it was easy, not very far at all. However, a strange old man who was nearby at the time insisted on guiding us there. It was quite surreal. When we parted ways we found that we were standing in front of an Apple store. Bemused, we sheltered from the rain for a minute or two before asking one of the staff where the internet caf?was. We were then directed up to the 4th floor where a whole row of shiny, new iMacs were waiting to be used by people wanting to check their email.

A significant amount of time later, we emerged into the rain again and went to explore one or two of the large department stores over the road. We weren't interested in shopping as such, it was the food floors that we wanted to see. Japanese department stores tend to have lots of stalls in the basement floors that sell sweet things and lots of savoury dishes too, all for takeaway enjoyment. We had quite a few samples on the sweet floor of one shop but the savourty stalls didn't tend to do that many tasters. In the next store, more of the same except that we actually bought something this time. I've no idea what it was called but it was a sort of mini swiss roll with cream in it and the nice lady gave us a free one, which was nice of her.

Since it was now dark and still raining we thought we'd see if there was anything on in any of the nearby cinemas. We settled on Two Brothers, a film about two tiger cubs in Cambodia. We both enjoyed it even though the lady who sold us the tickets had tried to warn us about the possibility of the showing being cancelled because of a hurricane or something like that. It's possible that she was saying something about trains not running after 10pm because of a hurricane but we couldn't read the notice she was pointing at and she only knew the word "hurricane" so we were clutching at straws a bit.

Between buying the tickets and watching the film, we walked from one end of Ginza metro station to the other (about 1km, all underground) to try a restaurant we had spotted earlier. It was closed. Just opposite though we found another restaurant that wasn't. It was a novel dining experience for me. We were led to a small cubicle big enough for four people to sit in around a table that was sunk into the floor. Around the table, at corridor floor level, was a bench that we sat on. Two of the walls of the cubicle had bamboo mesh windows that looked into other cubicles but they were situated high enough up that we couldn't see anyone else. The doorway was covered with a curtain as soon as were seated and it was quite dark too. Fortunately they had a menu with English on it or we would have had to resort ot pointing at pictures of food. Not all Japanese food is served raw or cold and some of it resembles the dishes of other asian cultures a bit but with some noticeable differences. One dish that we had that I will mention was beef and asparagus. It was delicious. The asparagus was only very slightly cooked and hence quite crunchy still, and the beef was very, very thin and wrapped around the asparagus stalks and then the whole thing was either grilled or fried and treated to a little bit of salt. I would have been happy eating that all night.

After working our way back to the cinema for the film (I had to duck on a couple of occasions for low hanging signs in the metro station as the Japanese are, by and large, shorter than everyone else), watching the film for two hours and then leaving, we discovered that the rain had stopped. Thinking that the hurricane must have had other plans for the night, we took an indirect train back via the area of Shinjuku.

Shinjuku is Tokyo's main business district and supposed to be worth seeing at night. I was a bit disappointed to be honest. It could well have been quiet because of hurricane warnings or we could have been mislead a bit by our Lonely Planet book. It was obviously written by several people as it recommended Shinjuku at night in one part and then Shibuya in another. We walked around for a little while and then headed back to our Ryokan.

The following day we headed for Ginza first thing in the morning to find some breakfast. A Subway Club fit the bill nicely and left us very close to the Apple store again. By the time we finished there though it was way past midday and we were running short of usable daylight. We walked to the Imperial Palace to have a wander around the gardens there. Although it was a Sunday there was quite a bit of traffic around still and it was then that we realised something about Tokyo. It was a lot quieter than we expected. The cars made virtually no noise and emitted no obvious plumes of smoke as they drove along, hence there was no smog over Tokyo that we could see. The Japanese people too were far quieter than we had expected. Our views of the Japanese people had previously only been based on tourists that we saw in other countries and there they seemed to be quite noisy. In their own country they seem a lot quieter.

The rain had held off all day, which was nice of it, so walking around the palace gardens promised to be fun. Unfortunately they closed about 45 minutes after we got there so we didn't get too long after all. As they started ushering people out, we decided that we'd head towards Shibuya to see what it would be like after the sun went down.

Our guidebook (we don't like Lonely Planet books in case you hadn't already guessed) suggested only a very small number of places to eat in Shibuya and the one that we managed to track down was closed on Sundays. Shibuya seemed to be a bit of a disappointment really but then we discovered that we were on the wrong side of the station. The bright lights and the people were on the other side.

As we walked around the station we saw a small fast food bar that looked appealing and so we gave it a try. In Japan fast food is not plastic, pre-packaged and rubbery, it is food cooked quickly. The idea behind the place we went into was that you chose your dish from a vending machine and paid for it (fortunately there was an English menu too) and were given a ticket in return. You then sat at the bar when a seat was available and gave the person behind it your ticket(s). Moments later your food turned up. Many fast food places in Japan use this idea but this place specialised in food that you cook to your liking in a very hot skillet. We both ordered a sort of beef hamburger with vegetables and rice, it arrived sizzling a few seconds later and we waited briefly for it to cook before tucking in. Delicious! I also tried a Kirin beer, not bad but not amazing, it won't make the list I think.

After our delicious dinner, we had a wander around the busy district of Shibuya. Most of the things we expected to see in Tokyo were there. Games parlours, shops, lots of people and bright lights and neon signs everywhere. Disappointingly there was a McDonalds for every day of the week but we weren't there for those anyway.

In the evening we, mostly me really, watched a replay of the Japanese Grand Prix on the television in our Ryokan. The coverage was quite amusing. As I recall, Takuma Sato of Japan qualified well and finished in fourth, even leading for a lap or so I think. Every time anything happenned with either a Toyota, a BAR Honda or preferably Takuma Sato, they were all over it. Forget that someone else won or that someone else overtook another car or dropped out for some reason, the default view was Takuma Sato. They love him. That's a lot of pressure, poor chap.

Our third day in Tokyo was very similar to the previous one in many respects. We started and ended it in much the same way as the previous one with Subways, email in Apple stores and dinner in the same place because we liked it so much. What we did differently however was going to an area called Komegome to see the Rikugien gardens. Japanese gardens can be very beautiful, especially at the right time of year. Unfortunately we were many monts too late for blossoming trees and about a month too early for the autumn colours. The gardens were still very nice though. Part way around them we heard some music being played very loudly from one side of the gardens. We wandered over to investigate and found that it was a school next to the gardens just over the other side of the garden wall. Several dozen girls played their instruments and danced around, that's a lot of flutes.

Yes, we were bad and went to Subway for breakfast again on our last day. It was a nice looking day at first, there was almost some danger of the sun coming out. Naturally we went and checked our email just afterwards and walked past a stall selling CDs of an Eagles tribute band on the way.

We wanted to find a Japanese crafts museum next but it took a bit of tracking down. It turns out that our guidebook had mispresented it a bit though so we didn't stay very long at all. Instead we walked around the area for a while until we found a five storey pagoda and a temple that were worth a quick look. It was here that most of the tourists seem to visit too partly because of a rather nice market right next to the temple. We had a thorough walk around.

As we were finishing up at the market, the good weather disappeared and the bad weather returned slowly. By the time we got off the train to hunt for one of Tokyo's big museums, it was raining quite hard. Fortunately the museum was close by and our umbrellas kept most of the rain off us. Unfortunately, the museum wasn't admitting people and we were thwarted. They may have been closed completely or just closing soon, it wasn't obvious which. While we stood under some shelter examining our guidebook, we discovered that we had come to the wrong museum! Doh!

One confusing combination of trains and a short walk in the rain later, we arrived at the right museum only to be thwarted by museum closures again! Obviously not our day that day.

We consoled ourselves by going back to the same restaurant that we had visited on our first day in Tokyo and eating some more of that lovely asparagus wrapped in beef again. Then we went back to our Ryokan to pack.

That night was far too hot and the mosquitos were out in force and determined to bite us. We had a choice, hot room with windows closed or cool room with windows open and insect bites. We opted for the latter but the constant buzzing of the mosquitos as they tried to find somewhere to bite us kept me awake long past the time when the trains stopped at 12.30. At 2am, just after a short earthquake (only my second ever experience of one), we discovered the air conditioning. We closed the windows, killed the remaining mosquitos and had a good three hours of sleep before we had to wake up again and go to the airport!

We had sensibly bought tickets for the train to the airport a couple of days beforehand otherwise we would not have been able to get on the 7am train at all, it was full. We had to run with our bags to the train station from the Ryokan as the rain was falling quite hard at the time. Luckily for us we had chosen somewhere to stay that was right next door to the railway station.

Tokyo wasn't quite as I had imagined it would be but I still liked it. The Japanese people were also quite different too. I am glad though that we only did a few days in Japan. Our original plan called for two weeks there and that wouldn't have been enough to do the country justice. When we come back, we'll probably time our visit a little better and hopefully stay for about three weeks and not just two.

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