Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tokyo – part I

Almost a week ago, we began our nine-week trip with Yann and Emilie through Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and China. After arriving in Tokyo, our first task was to navigate the train system from the airport. This turned out to be a good introduction to the city – we would learn over the next few days that although the system is huge and appears complicated, it is efficient and easy to use. This is Tokyo in a nutshell; it is big and bright and energetic, but there is order behind all of the chaos. Everything is as organized and efficient as possible, every rule seems to be followed down to the letter, and the people are very helpful and polite.

We found our hostel without any trouble and settled into our tiny room. In fact, the entire hostel was completely crammed. The owner has turned her house into a hostel by converting every available space into sleeping compartments using plywood and two-by-fours. Our room was about seven by nine feet with stacked bunks three feet wide. Between the beds was barely enough room for one person to walk; usually we would shimmy along sideways. And that was it. There wasn’t enough room above the beds to sit up straight, so doing anything besides sleeping in our room was out of the question. Unfortunately, every other public space in the hostel was just as packed, and we were constantly having to step over and bump into strangers. The three toilets, two showers and one kitchen were shared by fifty guests – one night Antonia got up at 2 am to use the washroom and had to join a line of three other people. We don’t want to complain, because we had managed to find the cheapest hostel in a very expensive city. And it wouldn’t have been too bad, except that some other guests (and staff) would converse into the wee hours right outside our room, preventing us from ever getting a decent night’s sleep (did we mention that our walls were made of plywood and only went three-quarters of the way to the ceiling?). Maybe we are just getting to be old curmudgeons, but our sadness at leaving this wonderful city was tempered by our eagerness to leave that hostel. Here’s a picture of our room taken by Yann:

Then again, maybe we are just spoiled Canadians used to having as much space as we desire. There are so many people in Tokyo – over 35 million, in fact – in a relatively small space. The trains and subways are almost always packed to capacity; the streets are constantly teeming with people. Our hostel, where every single corner was put to full use, is just a microcosm of the city. But again, the stations and streets are so clearly marked (in English as well as Japanese) that there is no disorder in the apparent madness. Tokyoites have learned to live on top of each other, and all of the rule-following seems to help. The subways are packed to the brim, but no one seemed to push. Everyone is quiet on the subway, too, especially in sections where the elderly are given priority and cell phones must be turned off. Even a group of adorable preschoolers who joined us on the train one day were totally quiet and perfectly behaved. No one jaywalks. So maybe our hostel is an example of the necessity of these well-respected rules in a very crowded environment and what happens without them.

On our first morning, we stopped at a convenience store where we could buy tickets for the popular Ghibli Museum, which features anime art, and we had a delightfully confusing experience trying to acquire them. When we inquired at the counter, the clerk did not speak much English, but understood what we needed and pointed to an automated machine in the corner while explaining, “pushpushpushpush.” We were able to select English on the machine, but after a few steps into the process, the English mysteriously vanished and we had nothing to guide us except our guess at what information they might need, and some instructional posters on the wall, also in Japanese. Our guesses sometimes turned out to be hilariously incorrect, but somehow we ended up with the tickets, and instead of being frustrated, we were only amused by the confusion.

We then headed to Asakusa, a neighbourhood home to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, and a marketplace in front modelled after those that existed in front of the temple in Edo times.

After walking through some of the narrow alleyways, we caught a water taxi to the Ginza neighbourhood to see where the fanciest Tokyoites go to shop. It was interesting to stroll along one of the most famous shopping districts in the world, especially because all of the very upscale shops are housed in extremely tall, architecturally-interesting buildings. James even earned the right to brag that he has shopped in Ginza, since he had forgotten one of his two pairs of pants back in Canada, and was able to find a replacement pair at H&M (which thankfully had identical prices to the Canadian locations). We also had a fun lunch among slurping businessmen in a ramen shop, where we encountered our first restaurant vending machine. Many restaurants have these machines at the entrance for customers to select and pay for their meal before they sit down. This one was beyond our comprehension, though, so the wait staff took pity and let us order the old fashioned way.

In the afternoon, we headed to the Ghibli Museum, but owing to our inexperience with the metro system, we got off at the wrong station to change trains (we cannot place blame on the system for this error, since it was astonishing that this was our only hiccup during our stay). The mistake was a lucky one, though, because we got to walk through the Akihabara district toward the correct station. Akihabara is the electronics, anime, and gaming centre of Tokyo, and we were awestruck as we walked among the neon skyscrapers plastered with anime scenes. Girls dressed in anime costumes handed out flyers to the hoards of nerds and gamers passing by, inviting them to dine in a ‘maid cafe,’ where these girls wait on them and refer to them as ‘master.’

When we finally found our way to the Ghibli Museum, we enjoyed the whimsical nature of the displays and the atmosphere that encourages patrons to become lost among the art and demonstrations of animation history, despite the fact that information was only provided in Japanese. We got to see a film by the beloved Japanese anime artist Hayao Miyazaki that plays exclusively at the museum, and then watch children climb on a huge plush replica of one of the featured characters.

Afterwards, we successfully navigated our way to the Shinjuku district for some camera supply shopping. The downtown core is the site of the busiest train and metro station in the world, serving about 3.5 million people every day . Shinjuku is a main destination for nightlife, and also houses the red light district. We were delighted by the nighttime scene of more hoards of people and more neon skyscrapers, with the over-ground trains constantly pulling into the station and dropping off increasing numbers of Tokyoites going out on a Friday night . In fact, the best thing about Tokyo overall was simply people-watching in each one of the fascinating neighbourhoods – we have never seen a city like it.

Shinjuku is also famous for its small yakatori restaurants situated one after the other in tiny alleys criss-crossing the larger streets of electronics shops and arcades. Like everywhere else in Tokyo, people in these restaurants are squeezed into every possible corner; every nook and cranny is used efficiently. These eateries are most popular with the businessmen finishing a long week of work, and they were filled with men apparently blowing off some steam with several glasses of beer with a selection of the yakatori grilled skewers on the side. After being tempted by the wafts of smoke billowing out of each restaurant, we finally found one with space for four and a vegetarian option. We sat down to a fairly expensive, but delicious meal of skewers and beer, and had a great time sitting amongst the locals and watching the chefs grill right in front of us. Only Yann was brave enough to order the special, which included various unidentifiable organs from unidentified animals. We shared some of our delicious grilled tofu with ginger paste, green onions and soy sauce.

We couldn’t leave Shinjuku without a quick stroll through the red light district to spot some of the famed love hotels that we had read about (rooms are rented by the hour), as well as eerie buildings without any windows, which we soon realized were arcades. Some house traditional video-game type machines, but others are more similar to casinos with slot machines-type games. This type of gambling is apparently illegal in Japan. To get around this small inconvenience, prizes are awarded to winners instead of cash. The prizes are then  sold back for the money that would have been won.  There are no clocks or windows in these buildings, giving an odd look to many of the tall buildings downtown.

Before heading back to our tiny home away from home, we visited the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Towers for a view of the city at night. We were amazed to see that the intensity of the lights did not diminish between the downtown centre and the boundaries of  what we could see from the observation deck. We would have a lot to see in the next few days.

1 comment:

  1. sounds like you guys are having a great time! looking forward to reading about your adventures. stay safe!