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Monthly Archives: September 2008

I’m back!

Not from Tokyo, I’ve been back from there for aaages. No, I mean the summer has ended and I am back at work and thus regular blogging service can resume.

As promised here is a tale of my travels in Tokyo.

Tokyo Day 1

Fewer worse starts to a trip I can conceive of.

As I explained previously, I had opted not to take the Shinkansen, the lightning fast bullet train and symbol of Japan, to Tokyo but rather a bus.

My wonderful girlfriend Fran had made the bookings and all the arrangements. We were to catch the bus at 9.30 in an easy to find location in Sannomiya. I was packed and ready to go by about 11 in the morning and I was very, very excited.

And so, we boarded the subway to Sannomiya and emerged at Sannomiya subway station with about 30 minutes to make a 5 minute journey.

Whereupon I realised that I had left my luggage on the train and it was now speeding its way underneath the mountain.

A despair the likes of which I have never known before descended upon me. I was not going to get my bag back, I would be unable to go to Tokyo, my entire holiday that I had been eagerly awaiting was ruined, Fran’s too as she would have to spend 5 days alone in Tokyo or else not go either. I had in a single moment of stupidity ruined months of planning and anticipation.

God bless Fran then for being eminently practical and sorting the whole thing out. Whilst she tried to stall the driver I waited in the tunnel trying to spot my bag on a returning train. When delaying tactics could no more work I went to Lost Property who located my bad in Tarumi, at the opposite end of the tunnel. As I sped forth to Tarumi (at this state just relieved to have potentially gotten my stuff back) she arranged for the driver to pick me up at one his scheduled stops….in Kyoto.

Long story short I got my bag in Tarumi, came back to Sannomiya, got the fastest non-shinkansen train to Kyoto and arrived to find myself lost and unable to locate the south side of the station where I was to meet the bus.

This was because the south side of the station was inexplicably labelled as the West Exit. Why on earth someone should want to call a south facing exit a west exit was immediately obvious to me. It was to confuse me and make me late for the bus and ruin my life. Fortunately the bus was so hideously held up in traffic that my compass based confusion mattered little and I eventually found the bus and settled into the embrace of not quite sleep but decidedly not awakeness that is the best I can manage when I am called upon to sleep upright in a chair.

So yeah. A plan which initially consisted of get subway to bus, get bus to Tokyo. Became, get subway to bus in Sannomiya to leave Fran, then subway to Tarumi, then subway back to Sannomiya, then JR Rapid to Kyoto to meet bus and Fran. There are decidedly less stressful ways to travel.

I would also like to take this moment to profusely thank the lost property service in Japan. They were excellent. They took a detailed description of my item down to the time when the train arrived at Sannomiya. Cross referenced this with a schedule to work out stations it could possibly be at and did all the necessary detective work to find it almost immediately. What’s more they did it with courtesy and politeness despite the sight I must have presented. A near hysterical shrieking gaijin trying to answer questions when he only understands half of them. It is just one more example of how patient and generous the Japanese people are and how all-round excellent the service is here.

I was also very, very happy that my bag wasn’t stolen. It almost certainly would have been in Britain.

Once I got on the bus though it wasn’t a bad way to travel. The seats were surprisingly spacious and comfortable for a long distance coach. There were absolutely no lights and a total silence policy. The only acceptable forms of entertainment were sleeping, listening to one’s i-pod veeery quietly or, in my case, discretely playing gameboy until my eyes hurt and I reluctantly attempted to nod off.

Despite not actually sleeping and being woken from my doze at periodic intervals to wander bleary eyed into a service station to pee (long distance coach with no toilet, an epic design flaw if you ask me) I was actually completely refreshed and wide awake when we finally arrived in Tokyo for….

Tokyo Day 2

Alas the reason I may have been so fresh and relaxed is that I had spent 3 more hours dozing on the bus than advertised. We were meant to arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning, however, partly due to bad traffic in Tokyo and partly due to my antics *cough* we actually arrived well after 10 o’clock. This had entirely thrown our plans into the air so Fran and I dumped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and set off in pursuit of any form of sustenance we felt our stomachs could handle. We plumped for gourmet hot dogs in Ginza and very nice they were too.

With a couple of hours of time to kill before check in we wandered around the Ginza (the guidebook always mysteriously referred to it with the definite article). I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t that impressed. Considering it represents some of the most expensive real estate on Earth and has more money passing through it in one day than say, Jamaica has seen in its entire existence it was singularly unspectacular. Sure the buildings were nice, tall things with lots of glass and polished marble and lovely art deco architecture, but they reminded me of nothing so much as the financial district in Leeds. Ginza was nicer but considering the difference in economic status Ginza should have been on an entirely different planet in opulence terms.

It was also punishingly hot and not especially attractive from a pedestrian viewpoint so at the first opportunity Fran and I ducked into the enormous Sony Building.

The most attention grabbing thing about the Sony Building was the small aquarium just outside it. Aquariums are not typical street furniture and so this one had drawn quite a crowd of gawpers, all gasping at the pretty fish. I am entirely unashamed to say I was one of the gawpers. I have a curious love of aquariums and can happily spend hours looking at pretty fish swimming about. In particular I was quite pleased with a pair of fantastically ugly conger eels, both of which I had initially taken to be rocks until they unexpectedly moved, scaring me and most of the other gawpers.

Apparently the theme of the building this month was “Sony Aquarium” so all the technology demonstrations were somehow themed around tropical fish. The biggest attraction was a series of enormous screens filed with multi-coloured cartoon baby turtles swimming around merrily. A smiling woman offered Fran the chance to make her own baby turtle and being a girl, and thus being capable of finding anything with the word baby in it to be automatically cute, she accepted. Fran created a tiny purple and tan turtle named Squishy that said “wai!” We watched him swimming merrily along for about 5 minutes and then watched him for 25 minutes more whilst we waited for the computer to randomly select him to say “wai!” Which he did, which made Fran happy, which made me happy.

I also had a good luck at the high definition televisions all showing underwater footage. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Sony makes some bloody good televisions. Don’t tell anybody but I think this hi-def thing might just catch on as well. The footage was stunningly gorgeous. It was absolutely captivating. In fact it wasn’t so much the footage itself as the sense that none of us there had seen something quite so real looking before. Hi-def looks more real than reality itself, it’s twice as sharp and infinitely better lit than anything you’ve ever seen before. It actually has the unsettling effect of making everything else for the next half hour look disappointingly crap. You have to strongly resist the urge to try and turn the contrast up on the faces of loved ones.

Up on the 8th floor the guidebook promised free VR games. Although VR is crap I was not going to pass up the chance to have a go for free. Sadly these seem to have been replaced and what we saw was a hi-def 3D film about fish. Quite a nice hi-def 3D film about fish though.

The final bit of technology that stuck with me was this thing.

If I recall correctly it was called a rolly or something similar. It is basically a speaker that dances to MP3’s that it plays. Since the actions synch to the music and since it avoids rolling off the table it must be a sophisticated bit of kit but it is fundamentally pointless. All this technology for no purpose.

I want one. No, I do. Fran and I watched it do about 3 songs utterly entranced by it. And don’t lie, you want one too.

We followed up Ginza by retrieving our bags and making our way to the hotel in Ueno. Despite arriving a good half hour after check-in time the hotel informed us that we wouldn’t be able to use our rooms for another hour. By this stage I was hot, very, very sweaty and unwashed for about a 36 hour period. This was not news I wanted to hear. I resisted the urge to make a scene though because the staff were so lovely and because, well, what would it accomplish really. Still Fran and I weren’t up for much more than drinking cool drinks in an air conditioned café until we were allowed to shower.

The hotel was distinctly unremarkable, although like all Japanese hotels it did come with a free Yukata and slippers.

Refreshed from our showers we headed to Ueno-koen, the largest park in Tokyo and apparently a very popular one. Ueno-koen is filled with museums and we were headed out to see the National Museum, apparently the only one worth visiting.

The National Museum was excellent and well worth a visit. We only had enough time to attend one of the 4 halls that comprise the museum but this one hall was an astounding visit on its own. This hall comprised an overview and sampling of all the major arts in Japan; from Buddhist sculpture to kimono patterns to stark ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

I was especially pleased with the ink paintings. I’m always impressed with the suggestive power of ink works, how with only two colours and a few stark lines an artist can evoke something much greater. Fran found them cold and harsh but I consider them to be remarkably powerful. I’m not usually one for fine art (I prefer sequential art) but I can happily admire Japanese ink works for hours. The Buddhist sculpture selection was also really informative if a bit lacking in actual works. Fran preferred the softer ukiyo-e prints and the kimonos. However, both of us enjoyed the museum overall and I strongly recommend it. It’s definitely geared towards those like me who no nothing about art and is very helpful in its contextual information and its explanation of artistic devices.

Finishing up at the museum we hit up a restaurant Ueno is very famous for ……. which specializes in unagi, or eel.

Eel is very popular in Japan during the summer as it is said to help provide stamina to cope with hot days. During summer months it is absolutely everywhere, from street vendors to school lunches. I like eel but I don’t eat it very often because it’s kind of pricy and usually pretty underwhelming but I was eager to try it prepared by the experts. I was not disappointed. Fran ordered the basic eel bento and I ordered a set that came with what I had assumed to be soup but was actually some kind of eggy dipping sauce. After some brief experimentation with the sauce I set it one side and focused on my unagi. It was delicious, tender, delicate, sweet but not too sweet and with a really rich flavour to it as well. Happily stuffed full of unagi we retreated to our hotel for an early night and to watch the Olympic opening ceremony.

We needed that early night, as tomorrow we were headed to Tsukiji.

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