Monday, 31 January 2011

A random evening and a very brave dog

I have been meeting people from Couchsurfing most days here in Tokyo and it has been a real lifesaver. From my experiences so far, Japan is a very difficult society for a foreigner to penetrate. I am constantly aware of my outsider or 'gaijin' status as I tower over everybody on the street and am faced with the language and cultural barriers.

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Saturday sounded promising. Someone posted on the messageboard that she was going for a night out and did anyone want to come? Of course I did and she told me to meet her at 8 at the Hachiko statue. It is worth mentioning Hachiko for a moment, as it is not every day that a dog gets a statue in a prime location in the middle of a major city. Hachiko used to meet his owner every day after work at the station. When his owner died at work suddenly one day, Hachiko continued to wait at the station each day for him to return. This lasted for nine years! Very impressive and ranks him up there with Bobbie The Wonderdog of Silverton, OR as one of the bravest dogs of all time, earning him a place as one of the eight most faithful dogs in history. Incidentally I've now seen statues commemorating three of these dogs!

Well our guide for the night couldn't make it, so meeting at Hachiko I found a mute Frenchman (MF) and a seemingly slightly agressive, though friendly Russian girl (SATBFRG) - Not really a recipe for a great night out in Tokyo, but I was determined to press on.

Of course, none of us knew anywhere to go and faced with a wall of indecisiveness, or in the case of the mute Frenchman, a wall of silence - I took the lead and led us to Freshness Burger, where I could enjoy a ginger milk tea and a 'Beans Burger'

Well I only knew one bar, so it was back to the Beat Cafe I had visited the previous weekend. The Beat Cafe is the size of a large cupboard, but we managed to grab a seat at the bar before it completely filled up. In the corner a group of boorish Brits played drinking games and I tried to ignore them. The DJ was an be-hatted older guy who played some great music from his laptop, strongly stipulating - no requests!

As the night progressed I talked to the French guy a little in a mix of English and French. In turns out he's recently been ranover and used his compensation to come to Japan and learn Japansese and he was a very nice guy. That's the second coolest story of what to do with compensation I've heard - The first being my friend Dean who used a chunk of his to buy a load of kickass CDs to donate to his local library.

I was really enjoying myself at the bar, it was packed and fun, and struck up a conversation with two Japanese girls, one of whom who had just flown in from Stockholm that afternoon. A group of Canadian English teachers from Seoul also befriended me and began to buy me a few drinks!

The one unfortunate thing about Tokyo is that it doesn't have 24 hour public transit. It seems quite an omission in a city of this size and dynamism. So approaching 12, people are faced with the decision, go and grab the last train or stay out until the early morning.

Well I was having a great time, so I decided to go for it and stay out for the first time on this trip. MF decided to join me, but SATBFRG, frustrated that I didn't know anywhere else for us to go (I hate being in charge of a night out), and was ignoring her a bit, bailed and went to get her train leaving me with my new 'friends'.

I guess there is a danger when you do this of your night going south and soon the Japanese girls left and the Canadians got progressively drunker. They decided to go to another bar and we followed them. It turns out that Japan were at this moment playing Australia in the Asian Cup final (the equivalent of the European Championships) and we got to the bar just as extra time was starting.

Well Japan grabbed a late winner and the bar went crazy (in a polite Japanese way) - Now somewhat regretting my decision to stay out all night, MF and I hit the streets and found ourselves in the midst of quite hearty celebrations. Awesome!

I was looking for somewhere to hang for the next few hours so set off to find a 'Manga Kissa' - a 24 hour internet cafe where you hire a booth with dvd player, computer and all the comics you could ever want. Oh and the key is it is a darkened room with a very comfy chair, ideal for snoozing. MF and I hit our respective pods and I told him to give me a knock at 6am, before dozing for a few hours.

On the way home there was limited carnage on the streets and the early morning trains were a mix of people going to work and people on their way back from a night out. I slept most of the next day, blowing my plans to go to the Parasite Museum.

À bientôt!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Yanaka

Most tourists go to Asakusa, but it is actually the area of Yanaka that has the highest concentration of temples in Tokyo. Perhaps it is the fact that they aren't quite as beautiful as the ones in Asakusa, perhaps it is because the area is largely unremarkable and is wedged in between the railway tracks. But during my visit I saw very few other tourists.

Previously I'd picked up a walking tour guide from the central tourist office and planned to follow it. But first, it was time to go to the graveyard. The cemetery in Yanaka is pretty damn huge. Next to it is a temple which I had a look around before going to hang out with some dead people.

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Some of the gravestones were pretty massive, standing at around twenty feet high. A tad excessive I'd say!

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In the spring this is a prime cherry blossom viewing spot, but now it was a bit barren and chilly. That didn't stop three old guys just hanging out, one of them playing some kind of flute.

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On to the temples and shrines and it was cool to just walk around what is mainly a residential area and check them out.

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One in particular though, I won't forget. I heard some chanting as I went towards the building and it soon transpired there was some kind of ceremony happening. About 15 guys in suits sat one one side and on the other were the two people conducting things. Of course I don't know the exact words for what was going on, so I will just try and describe.

Well I was mesmerised by what was going on and stayed there, at a respectful distance, for about half hour. It seemed the two guys in robes were blessing each person in turn, there was a very lengthy and precise way of doing this involving chanting, flowers and some kind of font at the back. It was awesome to see.

The whole time I was the only person watching. The area was silent, save for the hum and noise from Nippori railway station below.

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Further along, the map took me through the centre of a school where it just happened to be time for sports. Gangs of kids ran around, some sprinting, some doing a long run, some doing press ups and sit ups. There was baseball practice going on, so I watched for a while, being English and all. One kid sat on his own, somewhat disconsolately. I wasn't really sure why or if he was waiting for someone but I did manage to get him to crack a smile.

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Then I went on to the shopping area of the district. It seemed quite a working class and old fashioned area, far removed from the neon of Shinjuku and Shibuya. There were lots of stalls selling different types of food and people doing their shopping.

Turning the corner I saw a sign saying 'Tourist Information - English". Wow! I'd hit gold here and I went to enter the building. Sadly it appeared to be closed. As I was about to walk away a guy ran up to me and explained that this shiny new tourist office wasn't open yet - it was actually opening tomorrow! Talk about a bad beat.

All those leaflets and brochures taunted me from behind the glass.

He was very nice though and we chatted for a few minutes about this area and the UK. He gave me a tip as to where to get some sushi, which I ate on a bench enjoying the mix of tast fish and the chilly winter air.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Sunday in Tokyo

In Tokyo it is statistically more likely you are going to run into a giant pink cat pulling a suitcase, than in any other city in the world. FACT!

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Saturday, 22 January 2011

Tokyo nights - 7, 8, 9 and 10

As my sleep schedule has adjusted I've been going out more in the evening. Four nights in a row I went out to different parts of Tokyo to meet people from Couchsurfing.

On Wednesday I meet Yuki in Korea Town and she gives me a tour of the neighbourhood. There is tonnes of merchandise for the latest Korean pop artists that seem to be pretty big over here, as well as the smells from Korean food.

I soon discover Yuki has similar taste in music as me, as well as being a big football fan. She is going over the the UK in March to catch a Premiership match and of all places, she has chosen to spend a few nights staying in West Bromwich. Now I think it is safe to say that West Brom puts Tokyo to shame when it comes to a plate of faggots and peas, but I'm struggling of thinking what else? I'm certainly experiencing cultural differences here in Japan, but I'd love to hear how Yuki gets on with the Black Country accent.

We take a lift to the top of the Tokyo Government Building where you can see great views over the city. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji and by night the city is illumiated below us.

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We eat Japanese pancakes and then go to a meetup with about thirty couchsurfers from all around the world The bar is a kind of lame cowboy theme bar, but the company is good and I hang out for a while and swap travel stories.

Thursday sees me take the train over to Roppongi. This is known as the district where westerners congregate in Tokyo and contains a lot of bars and developments. I meet J Lee and Sumit from couchsurfing and we go for ramen (of course). Next it is on to Superdeluxe to see a man and his organs.

Morgan is an eccentric old British guy who has been playing at the venue every month for the past seven years. His show consists of freestyle improvisation on keys, organ, percussion and vocals - sampled and looped, distorted and made into what is actually a great show! I managed to get about 15 people from Couchsurfing to come to the show and I think they all enjoyed it!

There is no time to stick around and we hotfoot it across town for an English language comedy night. Sadly the venue is a pretty crappy ex-pat bar with overpriced 'English food'. Even more worryingly, as we get there late, there are only tables free at the front, always a danger for a stand up show.

It is a mix of open mic and more established performers and the quality varies wildly. There are a few Japanese guys performing and their mastery of the English language is also variable, however they more than make up for it by the visual style of their humour and sheer unbridled enthusiasm!

Friday night I organise dinner at one of the most famous ramen shops in Tokyo. It is a small joint in the district of Ikebukuro - which translates as 'pond bag'. It's a mixed area, with lots of discount shops, department stores, cafes and slightly ugly urban sprawl. It is not really on the main tourist trail, but it does have one amazing attraction - the fire station.

Ikebukuro Fire Station is home to an interactive museum about dangerous things. You can practice putting out a fire, learn to escape from a smoke filled room, and the reason I was there, experience a force 7 earthquake!

The instructions were all in Japanese of course, but we got to watch a video of what to do before we moved on to a fake dining room. The drill was simple, as soon as you feel a tremor, rush to turn off the cooker, prop open the door and hide under the table with a cushion above your head. The room shook, A LOT! It was even a little scary, but not quite as scary as the formidable Japanese lady shouting instructions at us and telling us what to do!

After that drama it was onwards for some filling ramen. I've learned that the way to tell a good ramen shop is by the size of the queue outside and Mutekiya had a big queue! We waited for about 45 minutes to be seated but it was totally worth it. The big bowl of ramen was delicious and the bonus was sitting at the counter and watching the staff rush around the cramped restaurant.

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Next it was off to a traditional Japanese bar or izakaya. The bar itself was really great, with dirt cheap drinks and many tables of drunk Japanese business guys, but this was a bar with a difference.

I've often wondered what the gaming company Sega would do in response to the latest next gen consoles. Well it seems they have decided to respond to Nintendo literally and come up with... well... the wee!

Four bars in Tokyo are being trialled with the latest in gaming, a computer game in the toilet, the twist being that you control the game with your stream of urine!

The game I played was this one here:



There are three others which measure power and accuracy. In one game you compete against the guy who pissed before you and two characters on screen squirt milk out of their nose at each other (!!!!!). Another and slightly more disturbing game is where the more you hit the target, the more the skirt of a schoolgirl like character on screen is raised. So wrong and so very Japansese.

I'm proud to say that I trounced my male drinking companions and posted the highest score. Sadly ladies cannot take part as they are only in the mens toilet.

Saturday night I had instructions to meet at the police box outside Shibuya Station at 6:45pm. We were going to something involving robots, but that is all I knew.

A note about the police in Tokyo. The reality is that there is very little crime here and it is quite possibly the safest capital city in the world. Therefore the complex address system here means that police spend most of their time giving people directions. In every neighbourhood there is a police box with one or two cops and invariably they will spend most of the day handing out maps and showing people the way to various locations.

When we get to the robot place, it becomes apparent that disappointingly there are no robots there, just a photography exhibition with a fun name. Still it was a good exhibition with five photographers having five photos each, taken on the streets of Tokyo. I liked the enthusiasm of the photographers, some who were exhibiting for the first time and the cafe was a cool veggie spot in an interesting neighbourhood.

Next a few of us go to Shibuya and the Beat Cafe - this is basically a Britpop bar in the middle of Tokyo and I really liked it. It is tiny, seating maybe 25 people and you have to go up a non-descript stairwell to get there. But inside it could be 1996 all over again. Repeats of Later with Jools Holland play on the TV, Britpop music is on the stereo and there is all manner or items around the bar. It was a really interesting crowd mix and I will go back for sure.

On an evening out in Tokyo you tend to go home about midnight and get the last train or have to stay out until the first morning train about 5:30am. There are no night buses and taxis are extortionate. What people do when they miss their last train is to go to a manga cafe. Here you get your own little booth with a comfy chair, internet access, snacks and pick of the comics library. You can relax and sleep whilst you wait for sunrise. Some of them even have showers. I've not had to do this yet, but maybe before I leave I will get to experience it.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Tokyo Day Six - Sumo!

One of the things I really wanted to do when in Japan was to watch some sumo wrestling.

There are six big basho (tournaments) each year, three of them in Tokyo. Fortunately one of them is on right now and I got the chance to go and see it.

Seats at the front are in high demand, but they keep a small amount of back row tickets to sell on each day of the two week event.

Early in the morning I took the trip out to the sumo suburb of Ryogoku and got in line. There actually a lot of foreigners in the queue, probably the most I've seen in one place so far and I chatted to some other Brits whilst we waited for the line to move. Ryogoku is known as sumo town and lots of 'sumo stables' are in the area where the wrestlers live and train. On the way from the subway I walk past a couple of wrestlers on the way to the arena, wearing traditional dress and wooden sandals.

On a large tower outside the arena, a guy sits at the top banging a traditional drum signalling the beginning of the sumo for the day. He plays it again at the end of the day.

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From talking to people, it seems that sumo is not as popular right now as it was a few years ago. There have been a few big scandals involving gambling, violence, drugs and organised crime, that led to several top wrestlers being forced out of the sport. Therefore I had no problem getting myself a ticket to see the event.

Starting just before 9, the matches continue all day, beginning with the trainee wrestlers and progressing up the ranks. As the day continues, you can see the improvement in both physique and skill until the top division matches later in the afternoon. Some of the early matches are size mismatches, with one wrestler having bulked up a lot more than the other. However, just occasionally the small guy manages to win which always got a big cheer from the crowd.

For lunch the cafe on the ground floor was serving chanko, a traditional stew eaten by wrestlers in large quantities late at night to help to put on weight. Well as I was in the home of sumo, I considered it rude not to try some and got a small bowl for less than £2.

This particular 'chanko' I found not very tasty at all. The broth watery, the vegetables overcooked and with a lack of any real discernible taste whatsoever. I thought to myself, how do sumo wrestlers manage to eat enough of this to put on enough weight?

After my disappointing lunch I took a stroll around the merch area and checked out the vast range of sumo products available. There is also a sumo museum which educates about the history of the sport.

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As for the bouts themselves, before and after each one there are a series of rituals that the referee and both fighters go through before they begin. Plus a guy comes on and sings before each fight. After watching for a while I got into the flow of the way it all worked and sat back with a book, a bit like as if I was at a cricket match.

Most matches were over in less the twenty seconds. Occasionally though, a match lasted longer with both fighters evenly matched and in these matches the crowd really got into it, cheering and shouting and getting quite excited (for Japanese standards at least!)

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My favourite part was when the wrestlers were grappling at the edge of the ring and got a bit unsteady. The judges and crowd sit really closely, so there is always a moment when the wrestlers are unbalanced and seem about to fall, when the crowd and judges quickly scatter out of the way! Even better though is when one guy seems certain to lose, but somehow manages to turn the tables and hang in there. These are the most exciting matches of all.

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Later in the day, the professional guys in the top two divisions fought and there was a service to hire a radio to listen to English language commentary. Well I have to say that I've never been so entertained as when listening to an Australian man called Gary rambling into the microphone. Gary reeled off endless statistics, talked about the different fighters, their strengths and weaknesses and explained some of the technical terms of the sport. It certainly helped me to understand what was going on. Thanks Gary!

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The most famous wrestler at the moment is the Mongonlian, Hakuho. He had a 9-0 record in this tournament and quickly dispatched his opponent.

It was really great to get the chance to watch sumo and I'd certainly recommend it for anyone who visits Japan.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes)

There is one kind of Japanese food that as far as I'm aware, has not really made it over to Europe. Okonomiyaki is probably best described as a cabbage pancake, or perhaps pizza. It is a very odd thing indeed. Okonomi means favourites, so I guess you are meant to put all of your favourite things in the mix.

I went to an Okonmiyaki cafe in the Shibuya district. It was a small place with perhaps eight tables. Each table is fitted with a hot plate, a bit like at a Korean or Mongolian BBQ place. The radio pumped out 80s hits and Yuki (my culinary tourguide) and I, got on with the task in hand.

First you start off with your bowl of ingredients. Cabbage, an egg and batter type stuff that you have in tempura. It is customary to have a meat, so I went for pork.

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You mix up the ingredients in your bowl and then put them on the hotplate using your mini chisel, creating a patty type structure.

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With one side cooked, it is time for the flip, as if you were making an omlette. There is a certain skill involved but I passed with flying colours.

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I would say you probably do four or five minutes on each side before it is ready. But wait, here is the strange bit, before you eat it, you need to add some more things. Firstly you spread mayonaise on top. Then you add something which is similar to Worcester sauce. Then finally sprinkle on some finely chopped seaweed

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Basically I liked it, the cabbage, egg and meat mix was tasty and I certainly enjoyed the novelty factor of eating a cabbage patty to the soundtrack of New Order. However, the somewhat bizarre mix of Worcester sauce and mayonaise was something that I didn't understand and to me, they really didn't go together. If I had it again, I would choose one OR the other - but I'm not sure if this would be in the full Okonomiyaki spirit.

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Monday, 17 January 2011

Tokyo Day Five: More temples, maids and a great view

Monday morning I wake up at 5:45am to play poker. Sunday is the big day for online poker tournaments and here, 14 hours ahead of the American east coast, that means Monday morning. I grind poker on my netbook whilst drinking a hot can of coffee, today choosing the 'Super Relax Blend' (some may be pleased to know that my obsession with canned coffee is now past its peak) and eating a tasty instant noodle snack.

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Poker doesn't go very well today and I finish disappointingly early. It usually happens that way.

After freshening up, I head out to Asakusa, the area I got lost on the way to a few days earlier. This time I take a direct train. This area contains several preserved shrines and temples and is firmly on the tourist trail. The temples are beautiful and I wander around and hang out. It is much warmer today and more pleasant to be outside.

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There are several rituals going on which I observe. Firstly people can purify themselves with ladles of water. Then there is a small fire which people add to, creating smoke. People waft the smoke on to parts of their body. Wafting actions vary from the halfhearted, to the intense and concentrated. You have to get the smoke all over you and that includes your legs, face and so on - at least if you are dedicated to it and not just making some half hearted attempt to purify yourself.

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There is a street market and I wander around and find a most excellent hat stall. Now I've already discovered that my head is larger than almost any Japanese person, but this shop has it covered with sizes progressing s, m, l, ll, lll and llll. With a trial and error I discover I am lll size and pick out a nice new hat. The old lady running the stall is, well lets say overbearing, hovering an inch behind me and making an audible intake of breath when I take one down from the shelf. She issues me with a piece of crate paper to put in the hats when I try them on and watches very closely to make sure I use it. I make my purchase and head back to take another look at the temples before heading back to the station.

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Next stop is Akihabara 'electric town'. This is the place you come to buy every single computer or electrical part you can think of. There are shops dedicated to telescopes, fridges and much much more.

A worrying trend in this neighbourhood is for 'Maid Cafes' I've read about this, and sure enough, on the street every so often there is a girl in some sort of maid style outfit, handing out flyers and trying to tempt you into their establishment. I believe they are just cafes where the staff dress as maids and nothing untoward goes on. Even so, I find it all a little odd and don't partake, with the young girls who dress to look even younger, making me feel more than a little uneasy.

Instead I go on the hunt for food. I've marked down the addresses of a couple of noodle shops I'd like to try, but after pounding the streets for 15 minutes or more, I know they are really close, but I simply can't find them. Finding somewhere specific is so confusing here in Tokyo. I do however find the Post Office which is the only place foreign bank cards work in the ATM machine.

I end up opting for Freshness Burger, one of the most popular Japanese burger chains. Upon entering I spot the guy at the counter swiftly flips the menu over to the English side and he greets me with a cheery "hello". I order a veggie burger, pay and he tells me to "take a seat and I'll bring that shit over to you Sir!". You don't get that in Wetherspoons.

After that it is on to my third and final neighbourhood of the day, Shibuya. Well I don't really go exploring around the area too much, instead I go upstairs from the station to Starbucks, order a smoothie, take a window seat and spend a couple of hours enjoying a panoramic view of THAT pedestrian crossing. It is an awesome view and a great place to people watch to end the day.

Tokyo Day Four: Fish on a stick, hipsters and Phil 'The Power' Taylor-san sleeps easy tonight

"I just couldn't settle in Italy, it was like living in a foreign country."
- Ian Rush

Not to put too fine a point on it, Japan is very different to the West. It's the things you can't quite put your finger on, the subtleties, as well as the obvious things of course. And when all the minor subtleties add up together, well that's quite major and very obviously something new, intriguing and confusing. Often confusing.

First stop of the day is Setagaya Boro-Ichi flea market. It is a 430 year old festival that only happens twice a year and the write up on the Time Out website promises me all kinds of traditional antiques and a feudal procession. Well if there's one thing worth trekking halfway across Tokyo for it is a feudal procession and I make if over there via three trains and a light rail. At the station I meet Leona from Couchsurfing. She's a Californian who is living in Tokyo, teaching English to Japanese businessmen. She's been here several months and already knew some Japanese before arriving.

We take a walk around the market but in truth it is somewhat of a dissappointment. Not so many antiques and far too much of the usual crap you see at a flea market anywhere in the world. I do manage to pick up some wooly gloves, but it is uncomfortably packed and I'm not having a great time in the crowds. I do get to try a hot non alcoholic sake though, which is quite tasty.

The market is HUGE, but every part of it is packed with people. We scout around most of it, but sadly no feudal procession in sight. Perhaps they found a bargain on a watering can or one of those waving cats.

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We adjourn to the food area where Leona buys a fish on a stick and I go for the far less adventurous baked sweet potato, which is delicious.

As Leona heads off to a cafe, I decide to go on to the Shimo-Kitazawa district. I've read it is a kind of interesting area to hang out in. It's quite an annoyingly complex route on public transport, but looks about a mile and a half or so to walk, so I go on foot. My Tokyo street map proves invaluable as I walk down side streets and alleys towards where I want to go. Approaching I see the railway station and cross the tracks, but still no sign of anything dynamic, just a sleepy residential neighbourhood. Then I turn the corner and there they are. Everywhere.

Hipsters!

Suddenly there is a wave of angular haircuts and oversized glasses. It seems this is the hipster place to be. I duck into a number of clothes stalls, but simply cannot find a hat to fit my head, much to the amusement of the babyfaced, too cool for school shop assistants. Chastened, I retreat to a cafe, picking the one which is playing the best music, I take a seat at the window and read my book in the chilly afternoon sun.

Finally for the day I head over to the Shinjuku area. In truth, I'm getting a bit tired now and it is quite cold, but I have not yet been to this area so I go and check it out. It is the busiest train station in Tokyo and therefore one of the busiest in the world. I walk around the area, which is basically downtown Tokyo and immidietly drawn to a large video arcade. The arcade takes up eight floors, each with a theme. One has the grabby cuddly toy games, another has loads of dancing games, driving games and one for pachinko of course. The top two floors are the ones that blow my mind.

Firstly there is a floor dedicated to electronic horse racing. There are several 'courses' in the room, some just one video screens, the rest with little 3d horse and jockey models on rails. The peoploe playing the electronic horse racing games are really into it! The bets seem quite complicated and people cheer or look disgusted as each electronic horse race reaches its climax. I'm fascinated.

The top floor is the killer though. Gangs of teenage boys in groups of four or five are enthusiasticlly playing electronic darts. There are 12 boards in the room, all of them but one in use. From some of the wayward shots, I would wager that the next world champion is not likely to hail from Japan, and if one of these kids was taking part in the World Championships at Lakeside, the darts might well actually end up in the lake. However, the lack of darts skills is more than made up for by the sheer verve and enthusiasm in which these kids throw their arrows.

As commentator Sid Waddell might say:

"There's only one word for that - magic darts"

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Tokyo Day 3: Temples, ramen, beer, photography and a minor car accident

Up early again I head out a little after 7am, this time to Ueno Park. It is in the north east of Tokyo, three stops on the metro from here I'm staying. On the way I grab a bento box for breakfast and eat at the station whilst I wait a few minutes for my train.

I've read in a couple of places that it is the height of rudeness to eat and walk at the same time in Japan, though I have seen a couple of people doing it. There are also signs around that I've seen telling people not to smoke and walk.

The park is beautiful, a big expanse of green in the heart of the city. Even at this hour of the morning there are two guys with clipboards sitting at each entrance, presumably counting the people who come into the park. The park has some activity, with a mix of joggers, dog walkers, old men strolling and a few tourists.

Ueno Park contains several noted museums and a zoo, but I entered at the south end where there are a handful of temples and traditional Japanese buildings. The first one I visit is on an island in the middle of a giant pond, with tall reeds and lots of wildlife around. I visit two more temples and enjoy the architecture and the peacefulness. I believe that these particular temples were largely reconstructed after being bombed during WW2, but it doesn't detract from my enjoyment.

After 9, the park fills up a little, a baseball team practices and crows swoop around. I take a slow stroll out of the park and back towards the station. In the shadow of the railway tracks is a huge, slightly grubby shopping arcade where traders set up for the day. I'm sure later these streets will be packed, but for now it is not so busy.

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I plan to visit Asakusa and see some more temples, but I make my first schoolboy error of the trip. I open my map and plot a route from where I am now to where I want to be and start walking. It's a nice stroll and I am enjoying being in the Tokyo streets, but after twenty minutes I figure I should be somewhere close and I have no idea where I am. After some confusion, I recheck my map and realise that the pages I was looking at are two separate maps, there is no join in the middle, so now I had no idea where I was!

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Abandoning my plan, instead I duck into the first station I see, scan my Pasmo card (an electronic transport card) and jump on the first train that comes along. It is going to Ebisu, so I dig into my bag and see what the guidebook has to say.

Edisu is home of the Tokyo Photography Museum, so I plan to make that an afternoon stop. It is also the home of Sapporo Breweries and the name of the area actually derives from a brand of beer Yebisu, that was brewed here at the turn of the 20th century.

Arriving in Ebisu, it seems to be an interesting mix of shops and cafes for the middle classes. It is approaching lunchtime and Lonely Planet highly recommends a particular ramen joint. I feel somewhat lame going with LPs recommendation for my first ramen experience, but ordering food can be so confusing that I decide to go with it this time. Trouble is, I cannot for the life of my find this place.

Tokyo street addresses are highly confusing. They don't use the system of a street name and number. Instead it is done in blocks and building numbers - which often don't go in sequential order. Thankfully I'd purchased a Tokyo map before I left the UK, or I'd have been completely screwed. But I am still struggling with pinning down exactly where some things are.

Most ramen places and indeed most restaurants as a whole, are identified only by a Japanese sign and plastic models or photographs of the food outside (a bit like in Benidorm!), along with strips of cloth hanging above the door.

I memorised the Japanese characters I was looking for in the name of my place, but couldn't find it anywhere. Just as I was about to give up hope of finding this particular one, I turn the corner and see a queue of 20 people outside a small building. This is the place!

I wait for about fifteen minutes before I get seated. on the counter next to the kitchen. The restaurant holds about 30 people and the place is frenetic, with staff rushing around all over the place. A basket is provided to put my jacket in and a jug of ice tea is on hand.

There are only 4 or 5 varieties on the menu and each you can add things to. After a little communication, I guess they are used to English speaking people, I go with a light broth. In a couple of minutes, a steaming bowl is placed in front of me with a smile. Thinly sliced slivers of pork float on top, along with chopped spring onions and thin noodles. Fresh garlic is provided in a bowl and I crush some and sprinkle on top.

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It smells divine and tastes delicious too. Etiquette dictates that slurping is fine, so I slurp away and enjoy the frenetic atmosphere inside and the chance to warm up. I polish of the bowl all too fast and it leaves me craving more. And at £6 for a big bowl, I'd say it is great value. Next time I vow to try a darker and spicier broth.

It is a short walk to the photography museum which is located in this weird huge shopping/leisure complex. To get there I get to walk on a skywalk, one of those moving platforms you get in airports and Las Vegas!

The museum has three exhibitions on, but the 3d one doesn't interest me, so I just purchase tickets for the two photographic shows. Their themes are 'snapshots' and I spend a pleasant couple of hours enjoying the work of Japanese and international photographers.

By far my favourite is a section by Paul Fusco called RFK Funeral Train. It features pictures taken from the train containin Bobby Kennedy's coffin in New York in 1968. The pictures are stunning, you see the faces of groups of people as the train passes through their neighbourhood and past their homes, cheering, crying, shocked, passive. It's an amazing piece.

Next it is onto the beer museum, which despite my faint hopes, turned out to be decidedly lame. It was free so I can't complain, but the main idea is I guess to get you to buy all kinds of beer themed tat, as well as take part in the 'beer tasting' - which is basically an overpriced bar.

I did get to find out the secret of the success of Yebisu beer that allowed them to get so popular in the early 20th century. Simple. Get the Germans in! German brewers were brought over to Tokyo to master the brewing process and get the right taste!

By now I'm getting tired, so I take a trip back to my neighbourhood. On the way back to my room I witness a small car accident. It is a light incident, with small damage to three cars and no apparent injuries. This doesn't prevent an impressive response from the Tokyo emergency services. Within five minutes, four or five vehicles show up, with about 6-7 police and 6-7 fire crew. Perhaps it is a slow day at the office, but this level of manpower seems a little excessive?!? Within no time the police are re-directing traffic, taking statements and getting things organised. The fire crews are...well... not doing anything at all really, but at least they are here just in case and I get a smile from the nice firelady.

Another day in Tokyo and by 9pm I'm falling asleep...

Saturday morning in Ueno Park

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Friday, 14 January 2011

Life in Tokyo: Days 1 and 2

For no apparent reason, I'm spending a month in Tokyo. I feel really lucky to be able to take a random trip like this to somewhere I have never been before and thought I may never get the chance to go to.

I got a great deal on a flight from Birmingham to Tokyo via Amsterdam and everything goes well. I get my vegan meal on the plane (trust me, go vegan when you fly, you always get extra salad and fruit, plus you always get your meal first which is my favourite thing ever!). I get to Watch The Social Network again and it is just as good second time around.

Arriving sleepy in Tokyo, I have the friendliest bag search of my entire life, with the customs guy laughing at everything I say and my four guidebooks, as he inspects my bag thoroughly. He is highly amused by the six Dairy Milk chocolate bars that I have brought along to give to people I meet or stay with. When I arrive in the US I am always tired and scared of saying the wrong thing and being turned away or getting back roomed, but arriving in Tokyo is a pleasure.

I manage to work out the best train to get to my hotel and am on my way. I had trouble trying to figure out where to stay but I went for a hotel with hardly any reviews which is in the middle of a tourist free suburb - Arakawa. A strange choice perhaps, but I can get my own room for little over the cost of a bed in a hostel. They have wired internet in each room, a kitchen, a communal Japanese bath and it is not too far from a train station - a ten minute walk through the sleepy suburb.

I worried about the lack of reviews, but after spending a couple of nights here, it seems to be completely fine and I'm very happy with my decision. I have little energy when I arrive so after a short stroll around the area, I retire to my room, going to sleep at about 8pm.

You are given flip flops when you arrive for walking around the hotel with and when you go to the bathroom there are special toilet flip flops you wear. It takes me a while to move around at more than a shuffle.

Day Two

As my body clock is all wrong, I wake up at 4am. I kill a bit of time reading and waiting for the sun to rise and the trains to start running.

At 6am I head off towards the Fish Market. I walk through Arakawa neighbourhood to the station and check out the surroundings. It's unremarkable, but the great thing is that even at 6am there are three convenience stores en route that are open.
Japansese convenience stores, 'combis', are awesome, you can buy all kinds of stuff in there and they are on ever corner. I buy myself a kind of roll of rice with a tangy curry sauce in the middle. Of course, I had no idea what is what going to be, but I was pleased with my gamble.

With minimal confusion, I manage to buy my subway ticket and I am on board with the very early morning commuters. The train is crowded but not too bad. I have almost already been tricked by the gates at the subway stations here. There are ticket barriers but the doors are open and sometimes you have to go through a couple to get to the platform.

Yesterday I made the fatal mistake of trying to just walk through one. There is a sensor that closes the gate at the last possible moment, meaning I walked into it with a clunk. Then a guy came and shouted at me, politely of course.

The subway is quite confusing with lots of private lines with their own stations and tickets. You can get an oyster type card, but I haven't figured out how to go that.

The fish market is crazy. The powers that be have decided that at the moment, members of the public aren't allowed into the tuna auction itself, but in the market next door there is still a lot to see.

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Little carts zip around everywhere picking up and dropping off orders, meanwhile traders show their wares and prepare them. Generally it seems to be more of a wholesale trade, I guess to restaurant chefs and so on, but a few traders sell to individuals and I pick myself up some fresh tuna for lunch later.

It's pretty crowded in there and you need to be careful not to get run over by the trucks. At one point I take an evasive step back and bump into a giant tank of live crabs!

Outside there are a little alleyways with sushi restaurants. One in particular has a large queue of tourists outside at 7am. I guess that is the one in Lonely Planet.

After hanging out for a bit longer I take a walk into the Ginza area. I guess it seems to be the high class shopping type area which is just waking up. There are not many people around but the window cleaner is pleased to see me.

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It is pretty cold outside so I decide to have can of coffee from a vending machine. There's a massive choice on offer and I decide to go with the Aromax Premium Gold. The can is lovely and warm and I use it to warm my hands for a while before beginning to sip.

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It is still before 9 and after taking a stroll through a small park, the only thing I can find open is the atrium of the exhibition hall, a huge and quite cool glass structure. So I take a seat and eat some convenience store sushi for breakfast whilst watching the steady train of commuters on the way to work, queueing one by one for the escalator.

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At 11, some museums and galleries open, so I check out a couple of cool little photography galleries, one upstairs in a high end camera store and the other downstairs in a department store. I walk further around the neighbourhood and eventually get tired, so retreat to Starbucks (yeah I know) and watch the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop on my netbook which I enjoy very much.

In the afternoon I have my first couch surfing meet up of the trip. I meet a girl called Akane at the coach station. She has just taken a five hour coach trip and is in Tokyo looking for work, she has a train booked to Saitama and two hours to kill, so we go for a coffee in a Japanese coffee shop this time and talk about our respective travel experiences and lives.

"There is no anti-social behavior in Japan" she tells me, "because you will be shunned by society and your family" - Whilst that is perhaps not entirely true, it does say something about the role of the family within this country. She is currently working one day a week and looking for more work. It seems Japan doesn't really have unemployment benefit and it falls on the family to support their unemployed relatives. Akane is not a fan of the social welfare systems in places such as the UK, where she lived for a while and Sweden, where she studied for a year.

At 6 I get a little sleepy so I head back to my hotel, stopping at the convenience store 'Lawson' on the way home to pic up the all essential noodles in a cup and edamame beans for snacks.

I again turn in early, but not before I upgrade to a bigger pair of flip flops for the larger footed gentleman.