First stop on my Asia adventure was Tokyo – land of technology, anime, and sushi. I arrived at 9am after an 11 hour flight in which I achieved a grand total of 3 hours sleep, exhausted, confused and desperate to find my way to my hostel and my bed as soon as possible. After a fairly smooth passage through immigration, I managed to find my way over to the train station where I was confronted for the first time by the Japanese rail (JR) and subway system. Thankfully, two years living in London prepared me well for following the transport system and I have subsequently found it pretty easy to get around, but in my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged state it was all a bit much. Eventually I found a manned ticket office and the lady there was able to sort me out with a ticket and pointed me in the right direction for my train. Which I missed by about 30 seconds (typical!) and had to wait 40 minutes for the next one.
When I finally made it to the hostel I was relieved to find how nice it was and how friendly it was. I got settled in my room as quickly as possible, briefly made friends with my new bunk-buddy Jenny, and then promptly went for a nap. A few hours later I awoke feeling a little more refreshed, although still very jet-lagged. That evening it was all I could manage to go out and explore my neighbourhood for about 30 minutes and buy a pot noodle from the nearby seven eleven. I came back to the hostel, figured out how to make my pot noodle and almost immediately made friends with a lovely Australian couple, and a somewhat rowdy group of Americans. From there there was wine, whiskey and laughter for the rest of the evening, until the hostel common room closed at midnight. Exhausted, I collapsed into my bed.
Unfortunately, jet lag decided to wake me again just 5 hours later. I spent about an hour optimistically waiting to fall back to sleep but I finally concluded that this wouldn’t happen, so I got up and showered and went down for breakfast. I’d made plans the night before to head over to Electric City with my new American friends first thing, so at 8am we left the hostel in search of the famously bright, bustling, technology centre of Tokyo. This took us far longer than it should have. After wandering up and down the same street a few times we got directions from a construction worker and his pointing and gestures were enough to help us find our way. This was when we found out that all the shops in Electric City don’t open until 10am. Finally I found a city that seems to work on my kind of sleep pattern, and I’ve lost that pattern to jet lag. Either way, Electric City was amazing – high rise building plastered with anime characters, bright tv displays and cartoon characters. When the shops finally opened, they were almost entirely multi-storey video game stores and arcades, and we enjoyed watching some local Japanese school kids showing off their impressive skills on the weird, complicated arcade games.
Around 11am, I parted ways with my friends and jumped on the Yamanote JR line, which circles the city – I hoped this would help me get my bearings. I hoped off at Shibuya to see the busiest crossing in Tokyo (apparently), and then walked up to Yoyogi park to take a little break from the bustle of the city. Yamanote park, in the early stages of the Autumn foliage, was absolutely beautiful. I took a stroll round the park and then went to check out Meiji Shrine, next door to the park. This was considerably more touristy, but still a nice break from the city and the shrine itself was quite pretty. It was interesting to see a few Japanese parents leading their young children around the shrine in traditional Japanese Kimonos. I wondered if I could take a photo or whether that was rude. I concluded that my Japanese wasn’t good enough to find out.
I got some food at the Meiji shrine visitors centre (Fried chicken and red bean rice dumplings – not bad!) and then caught the subway over to the Imperial Palace. On the way I made a brief stop off in Roppongi Hills, where I’d been informed I could get a good view of the city, but it turned out to be a shopping district with an observatory (I feel the term “hills” is somewhat misleading), and since the weather had now clouded over I decided not to pay to go up and just got back on the subway instead. The Imperial palace was significantly less disappointing. I arrived late afternoon at the perfect time to view the impressive Japanese architecture and beautiful gardens as the sun set in the background. I almost got run over by an elderly Japanese man, but otherwise it was a pleasant stop off on my first day out around Tokyo.
I got back to the hostel around 6 as planned, so that I could meet back up with my new hostel friends and head out for dinner. My new friends were a group of 7, and they had sorted out a reservation at a nearby restaurant (which they promised me was not sushi!) so I was happy to just follow them. After a fair bit of wandering about and debating directions, we found the restaurant – a small side door off a quite street – and were shown to our table on the 4th floor. We had the whole floor to ourselves! We ordered a beer each for 170 yen (just over 1 GBP) and some food – I ordered some “sauce flavoured” noodles, which turned out to be lovely, and far less questionable than the chicken pizza one member of our party ordered. We also had dumplings which were delicious, and I watched in awe and disgust as one guy ate a bowl of octopus. He told me about eating a live baby octopus the day before. Very cruel, and apparently not particularly safe – if you don’t chew it well enough it can end rather badly!! All in all, dinner was nice, and relatively inexpensive, and afterwards we headed back to the hostel, stopping at the Seven-Eleven for some more alcohol on the way.
I had one specific mission for that evening – find someone to come to the Robot Restaurant with me the next night. After several drinks, a lot of laughter, a small amount of acoustic guitar, and far, far too much wine, I finally found some people who said they were up for the Robot restaurant. Liz and Sam were both English as well, so we had a good chat and agreed to make a booking for the restaurant at 8pm the next day. This all had to be arranged in advance as I was making a day trip to Mount Fuji during the day. Satisfied that I had achieved my goal (and finished my wine), I went to bed.
My last full day in Tokyo was a bizarre day. A day of “only justs”. I’d been anxiously checking the weather forecast all week for this day – good weather meant a stunning view of Mount Fuji, bad weather meant a day spent being rained on, and a waste of 60 quid. Unfortunately for me, the latter transpired. The weather was awful. As soon as we left Tokyo the rain began, and it became clear quite quickly that we would not be able to make it up to the Mt Fuji 5th station half way up) as planned due to snow on the mountain. Each stop we made we all bundled out of the bus into the rain, desperate to salvage something from the day. But Mt Fuji was nowhere to be seen – hidden in cloud all day. The day continued – a boat ride on lake Ashi (wet, windy), a cable car ride up a nearby hill (misty, cold). Eventually, we all got back on the coach again to go home. As we were waiting for two infuriating passengers who were perpetually late and constantly talking over the guide, the weather finally cleared up. As we were driving out of Hakone, Mt Fuji appeared from behind the clouds. It was a stunning view of the sun setting behind the mountain. But the tour guide wouldn’t stop the bus for even a single photo. Hmmmmph.
The coach ride back was spent worrying about whether I would make it back into Tokyo to meet my friends at 7pm as planned to go to the Robot restaurant. There were two accidents on the expressway into the city and we spent an infuriating amount of time crawling forward in traffic. We made it back just about at 7 and I jumped on the subway as quickly as I could to get back to the Hostel. Of course, sods law dictates that this was the most unsuccessful journey of my trip – getting lost trying to find the subway station, having to wait 10 minutes for a connecting train, getting stuck in big queues at the station. I made it back around 8pm, found my friend Sam who was planning to join me and we ran out of the hostel in the hope of making it to the restaurant in time. We knew this was a long shot – our reservation was for the 8:30 viewing and we had been advised that if you didn’t arrive 30 minutes early they would assume you weren’t coming. But, determined not to be defeated, we missioned it across Tokyo. We arrived back at Shinjuku station at about eight-thirty, and decided we might as well keep trying. But the streets were packed with people and street-food vendors, and the restaurant proved much more difficult to find than I’d expected. We walked in circles for ages. Around 9pm I said we should keep looking for another 10 minutes before we gave up. Amazingly, a few minutes later we found the place, and even more amazingly, managed to get a seat at the 10pm showing on a Friday night with no reservation.
The next 2 hours were the most bizarre, amazing, seizure-inducing, crazy hours of my life. Even the waiting room of the robot restaurant has to be seen to be believed. Everything is gold, glittery, multi-coloured flashing lights. Scantily-clad women drive beer carts around to serve drinks. Men in robot-costumes on wheels scoot around. We bought a couple of drinks and entertained ourselves with the amazingly cute interactive robotic dinosaur Pleo, who was sat on our table. Finally we were called up to the actual restaurant. We picked up our (fairly basic) meals and sat down to enjoy the show. The show defies description. More scantily-clad girls, robots, dinosaurs, lasers – everything you can possible imagine, and a whole load of stuff you would never imagine in a million years. It was amazing, insane, intense and fantastic. I am SO glad I didn’t miss it. The best 2500 yen I have ever spent.
Dazed and confused, Sam and I caught the last train back to Asakusabashi where our hostel was, and I went to bed. Tomorrow I would have to catch the bullet train to Kyoto. But that is a story for my next blog post.