Monday, 12 May 2014

... Crouch Like Tigers, Hide Like Dragons: Tantalizing Tokyo

My Thai Airways A330 flight from Bangkok to Narita Airport, Tokyo was in a plushy and seemingly new aircraft. This is probably a good thing because we literally, with fair warning from the Captain not long after take off, bounced all the way to Japan. I didn't undo my seat belt once. 3 turbulent flights in 2 days, there's definitely something in the air in these neck of the woods. Granted this plane's engines didn't sound like they were about to pack it in either so my over active imagination ran a little less wild. After a rather confusing serving, albeit good, of a vegan sandwich when I really wanted dinner (that came at "breakfast") I popped a gravol, inflated my camping pillow and contorted myself into a position an Olympic gymnast would be proud and went to sleep for a few hours. Admittedly this was with my travel hat over my face to block out the light which I'm sure got me lots of confusing stares, namely because all I really needed to do was turn off my personal tv. "But the travel map.....!"

We landed at Narita almost half an hour early. May be one can assume that each time we hit a "bump" we gained more momentum and bounced our way there? Customs was quick even with a security check upon collecting baggage. Lots of thanking you for your time and apologies that they are holding you up is kind of nice when you're sleep deprived and in dire need of a shower. 

NRT airport is actually a fair distance from downtown Tokyo (I believe Haneda is closer). So to get to downtown Tokyo I took the "high speed" Narita Express (N'Ex) train, ran by the East Japan Rail (JR) company, directly from the terminal. For holders of a foreign passport you can get a one way ticket called "N'Ex Tokyo Direct" for half price of what it originally costs. Too bad that they can't do this as a return deal mind you but at least this ticket is ¥1520, on the way back to the airport you must pay the regular pricey fare of ¥3100. The trains run about every 30 minutes stopping at a handful of stations and it would take me about 90 minutes to get to where I needed to be. There's also the Keisei Skyliner, which may or may not be cheaper, I couldn't really figure that out plus would have had several changes to make. I decided my brain wasn't functioning well enough to deal with having to think about that. I had a bit of time to wait so I got breakfast from a strategically placed Starbucks right at the station entrance. Despite a reserved seat, the train wasn't full and sheer exhaustion made me fall asleep on & off whilst half sitting on one bag and hugging the other.

For my digs in Tokyo I was using Air BnB. I had, a few months back, booked the spare room of a very nice Japanese lady and her little chihuahua Honey. The dog admittedly sold it more than the fact her really nice apartment was on 10 minutes away from Shinjuku, a "city" within a city. Teruko was lovely. She met me at my final destination train station and gave me a big hug then we walked and talked like we had known each other for years. I knew I had scored big time with finding this gem of a place, before I had even stepped into her building. 

After a shower, a cuddle with the dog and giving my host her gift of green tea chai from India, it was time to head out to explore for the day. Sleep is overrated anyway, right? I headed back to Shinjuku then got onto the Yamanote line to Shibuya. The city is blessed with one of the world's most efficient public transportation systems and once you have an idea of where you want to go it really is very easy to navigate. Tokyo's train network is so exceptionally thorough because multiple operators run competing lines. JR controls two of the most useful lines, the above ground Yamanote (loop) and Chūō (central) lines. The 13 colour-coded subway lines are run by Tokyo Metro or Toei. What this essentially means is that you may find yourself having to exit the ticket gates from one line and enter the gates for a different line when transferring. Despite this fact, I found it was a pretty seamless process thanks to plenty of English signage. 

If you plan to pack in a lot of sights in one day then you may want to get an unlimited ride day pass. This is good in theory if all your sights are on the rail line covered by that pass. There's a one day combination ticket but after doing a bit of maths I figured it would be cheaper to get a Suica card, which can be used on all lines including buses and is rechargeable in increments of ¥1000. Train station vending machines and also some convenience stores accept Suica. You need to pay a ¥500 refundable deposit to get the card, which you'll get back whenever you return it at one of the station windows.

I was fully expecting my short stay in Tokyo to be nothing short of a mind-blowing experience, but one that, if I allowed it to, could also blow my budget. However, there’s actually an abundance of things to do and see in Tokyo which won’t cost you a single yen (bar transit to and from).

Shibuya has few sights, but makes up for it with sheer presence. As you exit the station you’ll first hit Shibuya Crossing, made famous following one of my favourite movies Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Shibuya Crossing is remarkable for the amount of people attempting to cross the intersection without anyone losing an eye.

It is a typical Tokyo scene of blazing neon lights and enormous video screens, which sometimes display live videos of the street scene and if you're lucky you will even see a stroller full of incredibly furry adult cats. It is arguably one of the coolest yet zaniest intersections I think I have ever clapped eyes on. There's definitely an energy about it and I must admit on more than one occasion I thought "I’m. In. Tokyo!"

Meiji jingū, one of the city’s top attractions, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor who opened Japan to the West. It is so wonderfully serene with 120,000 trees that it is hard to believe it is right in the middle of a city of 13 million. There's an impressive 40-foot-high torii gate at the entrance to the 200-acre park that is made of 1,500-year-old cypress, and a second one like it closer to the shrine itself. You stop at the cleansing station where you dip into a communal water tank and purify your hands and mouth before offering up a prayer.

If you like you can write wishes on little pieces of paper and tie them onto the prayer wall, or be like a local: toss some yen into the offering box near the enormous taiko drum, bow your head twice, clap twice, and bow once more. If you're lucky you might see a traditional Japanese wedding taking place here too. 

Right next to Meiji jingū is Harajuku. This is where you will find all the tiny, eccentric shops and secondhand stores from which the young un's put together their amusingly absurd head-turning looks. You can't but help be somewhat impressed even if you personally wouldn't be seen dead in that kind of attire. It's eye candy at its best and worst. There is definitely nothing mainstream about what you see as you wander down Takeshita-dōri, and that is what makes it so much fun to visit. It would have been more fun if my guidebook wasn't stolen by someone who had the nerve to deny it after I confronted him. With my handwriting scribbled all over it, he did what he could best do under the circumstances I guess and ran off. With my SLR camera wrapped around my neck, not to mention any possible safety issues, it only took a nanosecond to realize it wasn't worth the chase. It's only a book at the end of the day but I was a bit gutted as it had been a gift. 

For the briefest of moments I almost headed back to the apartment in Higashi-nakano, but that would've been letting some lowlife scumbag win. I kind of had an idea of what I had planned to do for the day and where they were located so I headed back to Shinjuku train station, which I must mention is apparently the World's busiest handling at least 3.5 million passengers daily. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, also referred to as Tokyo City Hall or Tochō, has free observation decks which provide good panoramic views of Tokyo and beyond. The 243 m tall building has two towers, and each houses an observatory at a height of 202 m. It had been the tallest building in Tokyo until it was overtaken by the Midtown Tower in 2007. On a clear day, famous landmarks such as Mount Fuji, the Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine and the Tokyo Dome can be seen from the observatories. I could see part of the range where Fuji is but alas it wasn't quite clear enough to see the mountain itself. I wasn't too disappointed having flown past it during a previous visit to Japan over 10 years ago. There's a great tourist information centre here too and this is where I picked up some leaflets and maps to reacquaint myself with the city. Across the road from the building is Central Park and at one end of that the famous Park Hyatt used in Lost in Translation. 

Riding the Tokyo monorail (yep these guys have got everything covered) on the Yurikamome line I headed out towards Odaiba. This island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay is linked to the city by the Rainbow Bridge and you can actually walk over the 918 m long single-span double deck suspension bridge to or from Odaiba. The bridge is usually white but there are lamps placed on the wires supporting the bridge, which are illuminated into three different colours, red, white and green every night using solar energy obtained during the day. It didn't take me long to walk across it, that is probably mostly due to the fact that I think I was blown across it. It was pretty windy but worth the trek for some great views. 

Odaiba was developed mostly during the 90's and is very different to the rest of Tokyo that I've seen thus far. It's as though you've stepped into a science fiction movie. The buildings are much larger, you can sunbathe on a man-made beach and there's even a to scale copy of the Statue of Liberty, an amusement zone, onsen (hot springs), arcades and a museum devoted to futuristic technologies.

By now I was starting to feel hungry and admittedly tired. I decided to head back to the neon metropolis of Shibuya to see what I could find, or at least Google. Genki Sushi was about a 2 minute walk from Shibuya Crossing near the 109 building. It was busy (a good sign) but I got a seat with no wait. A great thing about this place is you can order everything from a touchscreen at your table in English and there are pictures of all the sushi so it's really easy to see what you are getting. You order up to 3 items at once and the sushi then arrives via a fast and efficient service on a conveyor belt system that's like a train and even stops in front of you. You then hit a button to send the empty "train" back. The shockingly affordable menu offers a variety of sushi and everything tasted really fresh. You can get your nigiri fix for around ¥1000. For every ¥1000 you order, you can play rock/paper/scissors to win a prize. How awesome is that?! I won and had a choice between a sushi pencil topper or a 10% off coupon (results may vary). This place has a fun atmosphere, adds that touch of Tokyo flair and filled my tummy with yummy sushi!

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