Tokyo

Tokyo.. Arriving at Tokyo I found out that I’m not actually staying in Tokyo but in Kashiwa, a small satellite town of several hundred thousand inhabitants. However, the connection to Tokyo is good with a fast train taking you into down town Tokyo within almost 20 minutes. Tokyo is large and confusing, in so many aspects. It didn’t help that my smart phone died a day before I left and my constant companion gps+googlemaps suddenly was no longer available to me. When I was sightseeing with others, this was not much of an issue, I simply let them take the lead, but when I was by myself it became a measure challenge.
My first night in Tokyo was spent in Akihabara the ‘electric town’. Though I don’t remember so much the electric as the maid-bars, the casinos and hentai stores. By this I don’t mean to say it’s a shady place, quite the opposite. Literally. Akihabara is lit by a thousand neon light advertisements, which make the night bright as the day and while this is unusual for someone that comes from a country that has clear legal limitations for the brightness of advertisements, it is not what struck me most. It’s the noise. Every advertisement seems to be supported by some type of music or spoken message and, of course, you want yours to be louder than your neighbours. There’s a cacophony of noises going on that is insane and when you enter one of the gambling places it becomes unbearable. A starting air plane makes less noise than the music playing in those places.  It’s a special kind of hell. I assume the noise level is so high that it is impossible for you to actually tell whether there’s someone sitting and playing at the next slot machine or not. But it makes me wonder why people would stay there out of their own free will.
That’s another thing that I’ve been finding weird in Japan. The noises and sometimes lack thereof. Every store will play music in Japan. But not just one type, there will be at least three or four different sources of music competing with each other and while you can only hear one source in some parts of the store, most of the time you’ll have an overlay of three or four songs. For a country that’s famous for their ‘zen gardens’ this seems to be a very contradictory thing to do.
The evening in Akihabara was fun though, the forest of neon lights is definitely a must see and this is also were we got thanked for visiting Japan. It was great fun. The next day I set out to do the ‘main sights’ of Tokyo.. As it turns out Tokyo is shopping heaven but has few truly touristy spots to offer. One that’s definitely very touristy is the Sensei-ji temple in Asakusa (pronounced A-sak’sa). There’s long lines of stalls leading to it where you can buy anything from Geisha costumes to ice cream and the temples itself is completely overrun. I didn’t spend much time there, as it did not talk to me at all. The next stop was the Meiji Shrine, which touched me. It is probably the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen in Tokyo. It’s set in a large, large forest in the middle of Tokyo, the entrance is shown by huge gates, called torii. Right away at the entrance of the woods I knew what I had been missing.

This lion-dog seems to be proportionally challenged.

This lion-dog seems to be proportionally challenged.

Both in Tokyo and in Kashiwa; There’s a total lack of animal noises. No birds, no rats, no nothing. It’s eerie. It was another first for me: To be in a city so huge that the animals have gone into hiding  (because for sure the rats where there, but I didn’t see or hear them). Entering the forest of the Meiji-Shrine the birds return and sing their song. The gates are made of dark cedar wood and lead the way to the shrine itself. You walk through a forest of giant cedar trees for about 20min (if you stop for pictures a lot) before reaching the temple itself. It is the typical low-roofed temple building you would expect, with a large, open area at the front. That area is perfect to be on the look out for traditional clothing. The Japanese still like to dress up traditionally, especially when visiting shrines and there’s little that’s cuter than a tiny girl showing off her kimono there. I had a blast just watching and listening. You can’t hear the city when you’ve reached the temple. It’s just birds and trees.

After taking in the old Tokyo, I wanted to see some of the new Tokyo as well. For that I went to Shibuya, well actually, I went to Shibuya first and walked to the Meiji temple and from there to Shinjuku. In retrospect I can recommend everyone to please, please, please do it the other way round. Shinjuku is Tokyo’s largest railway station with an estimated one million passengers DAILY. It has over 30 exits and three separate “southern” areas alone (not to mention the western, northern and and eastern regions): “New south”, “south” and “south west”. It took me over two hours to find the subway line that was supposed to get me out of there. But there’s on thing one should definitely do in Shinjoku and that’s the sky scrapers. They are amazing, from the Metropolitan Government Office one can have a look out onto the city from the 45th floor and gaze at the other sky scrapers that have cropped up around it. It’s all very new and modern and chic. It’s absolutely worth a visit, even if it’s hard to grab an adequate picture because you are behind windows that reflect a lot and that’s pretty much all I had time to see in Tokyo. If I had had more time I probably would’ve picked a different day for the skyscrapers, as the covered sky makes them look pretty drab. From what I’ve seen it’s an interesting city and you can probably spend anything from a day to a year visiting sights there!

Nikko

Nikko.. well the title is a bit misleading because this post will hardly be about Nikko. Instead, it will focus on the surrounding events. We made a big mistake, but we didn’t know it was one until we were in way too deep. Way way to deep. We booked a tour to Nikko with a Japanese tour organizer. It advertised some Ut-carving in the morning and then an afternoon in Nikko. Nikko is really most famous for the mausoleum of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, he also built the predecessor of the highway leading us there that day. But the site is much older than that the first shrines and temples were supposedly built there almost 1500 years ago. We visited only the mausoleum, which itself contains at least three temples and the world famous three monkeys that hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. It’s one the list of UNESCO world heritages and, there’s no denying it is pretty. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


Nikko.. The trip to Nikko began at 7:00am with a pick up bus, so far so good. We want to get their early to make the best of the day. Once we had everyone collected we set off towards Nikko, about 180km away and roughly two and a half hours by bus according to the guide. Then the guide said the first confusing thing “We’d be stopping every hour to get out and move a bit”. Personally I would have preferred to just drive through, make it a 2h drive and be done with it, but ok. So we stopped for 20min at some abandoned fuel station to ‘move our feet’.
After this information was dispensed the lady set off onto a non-stop monologue. It was hilarious, infuriating, unique and depressing all at once. She talked to us (not with us) about her marriage, rice crops, the water cycle, Japanese river and, eventually, also some things about Nikko itself. By that time it was 10:30 and we were meant to arrive to the Ut-carvings. Ok, none of us had been eager to do this, but we were willing to endure it if it made us get to Nikko and, in fact, it was quite fun. After a short introduction on how to hold the device, we started carving out the lines which had been drawn onto the plates for us. I’m obviously very much not gifted, but at least I tried, no?
Then came the first big disappointment of the day. At 11:30 we were done with the carving and eager to get to Nikko. However, our guide veto’d this. The plan said two hours wood carving and we would be doing two hours wood carving. Those who no longer wanted to carve could go outside and look at the foliage of the trees. Finally the time arrived at which we were to go to Nikko. From here earlier ramblings we knew that the restaurant was just ten minutes from the site itself, so we had high hopes to be able to sneak in early and get a bit more time at the site itself. No deal. There was a set menu deal which we were supposed to eat and only after we’d done that would she go to get the tickets. Finally at ten to two we were standing in front of the large areal and she informed us that she was going to give us the tickets now and we’d all meet again here at 2:45 to drive back home.
This caused a minor revolt among the Europeans who’d come to see the shrine, not just wave at it from the distance and after my attempts to mediate for a later departure time failed sinister plots were devised in which we’d jointly return one hour later than supposed to. In the end we did rush though, because we’re not as sinister as we’d like to believe ourselves and while we did take the time to see everything we did not take as much time as we’d have liked to and arrived back 10min late at the bus. I think 90min would’ve been good to visit the mausoleum (without looking at any of the surrounding temples, which would’ve been fun as well), 50min definitely wasn’t enough. Our Japanese guide was a bit besides herself when some Chinese tourists did not return. They took much longer than us, though not because they decided to visit the shrine extensively, but because they got lost in the town while buying souvenirs. Finally we all were back in the bus and arrived home before 4:30. A full two hours before the schedule said we would be back.
This was the first and will be the last time that I take a Japanese guided tour. I think my interests and the average Japanese sightseeing don’t go well together.

The Sake reserves to be donated to the gods. Gods are thirsty

Taking the subway in Tokyo

Is easier than one thinks…

First the little screen shows you that the train is arriving

Then it shows you were you are and which exits are available to you

And finally it tells you that the doors are opening and reveals which station you are at and what the next station will be:

Or not, if you’re looking at the wrong screen:

(The top picture shows you where to queue for which line)

Japan

I’m going to japan. Who would’ve thought.. Not me, at least not the me three days before the scheduled flight. As always things got very hectic at work and I was considering, once again to drop it all and just stay in the safe comfiness of my bed for the two weeks that I was supposed to be travelling to Japan.  So preparation was non-existent and I’ve walked completely unprepared into a world that appears insane(ly amazing). There are so many things that are so different here, that it’s hard to grasp it all and for the first few days one feels like an alien. As if we’ve discovered a new planet and are looking at their inhabitants with amazing disbelief. At least I did. It’s been the strongest cultural shock I’ve ever had. Also because communication is very limited.

There’s the fun things, like the toilets. When we landed, my colleague ran to the toilets to have his first ‘japanese toilet experience’. I followed only to discover it was a ‘normal’ toilet. Our hotel, then, had the real deal. It even opened the lid when you opened the door. I spent a couple of minutes pondering the wonders of the toilet. In particular how it is possible that the toilet lid opens automatically at every entry if it doesn’t close automatically upon exit and why the spray thingie is different for men and women. One thing I found out the experimental way is that the waves shown don’t symbolize water, they symbolize air..  The flushing is usually a completely different interface.

Or, the other day, I bought a little rice cake wrapped in nori(seaweed leaves), upon opening, I discovered the packaging was such that you automatically removed a fine plastic sheet between the nori and the rice. Keeping the rice from making the seaweed soggy. Ok, I can see how this would be hard to pull of with a Jelly-toast, but wouldn’t it be awesome if it was possible?
There’s the strange things (to me, obviously) like the train personal bowing to everyone every time they enter or leave a train car and they pass through every minute. In general there’s a lot of bowing involved in daily life and an amazing friendliness. One of the first nights we went out, we entered a less touristy place where a group of elderly gentlemen were having dinner (and a lot of sake).

Immediately one of them jumped up, walked over to us and said in perfect English “Thank you for visiting Japan”. He then proceeded to have us try their food so we could see if we liked it (we did. A lot!) and helped us order with the cook who spoke no English at all.. Unfortunately they left soon after before we finished ordering and it got a bit more complicated. But we had great food and lots of fun.
And then there’s scary things like the notes displayed everywhere warning you about upskirting and the apparent need for ‘women only’ train cars during rush hour.

One thing that may be scary to some, but made me feel right at home is their relationship with alcohol. When they party, they part hard. At the end of a ‘happy hour’ with all drinks for free we were asked by the host “Did you drink as much as possible?”, which is quite a different concept from “As much as you wanted”. It was a fun evening though and even though I definitely didn’t drink as much as possible, I drank as much as I could enjoy!

One thing I’ve been tremendously enjoying is the fact that Japan is smoke free, smoking in public is forbidden with the exception of restaurants and bars and the smoke boxes, which look a bit like prisons. It seems weird coming from a country where it’s basically permitted to smoke everywhere except for restaurants. But it is so much more enjoyable and the smoke in the restaurant becomes much less bothering if you’re not constantly exposed to it elsewhere. There are much more rules to follow, smoking in public is forbidden, as is littering, solicitation and probably a bunch of other things I’m unaware of. However, as a tourist, you have a sort of immunity. Nobody expects you to know how to behave and people are very forgiving. They’re also very helpful, even if this is often limited by the amount of Japanese I speak (and their amount of English). Unfortunately they’re also not always prepared for the foreigners huge feet or gigantic height. I’ve been banging my head daily in the ryokan.


In the cities, things are usually very clearly labelled and you get arrows on the street or signs telling you where to go and stand. (See also the next post about the metro).