Japan: crazy Tokyo

My flight was due-in to Tokyo Haneda airport at the unsociable hour of 11pm and the last train to the backpacker district where the reasonably priced accommodation was, was 11.40pm which meant that I hadn’t booked a place to stay in case I was held up and missed the last train, in which case I would stay in the airport :/ Fortunately the plane was early and I breezed through customs and so caught the last train to Asakusa in the north-east of central Tokyo.

What I didn’t realise is that all hotels and hostels close at 11pm in Tokyo and very few have 24h check-in, so I was very lucky to meet a Swiss guy on the train, who said I should stay at his hostel as it was unlikely I would find anywhere else at 12.30am. As there was a spare bed in his room he said he would let me in and I could kip there. So I got lucky as I may have had to spend the night in a 24h McDonald’s!

The next day I moved to the capsule hotel I had booked for my second night and left my bag there whilst I went out exploring Asakusa.

Capsule bed.  Complete with your own TV and radio.  Cosy:

Asakusa is a historic area of Tokyo and home to its oldest temple: Sensō-ji, so I went to check that out along with hundreds of Japanese school kids.  Outside the front of the temple is an incense-well where the smoke apparently cleanses your soul so the Japanese make sure they have a good waft of it.

Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple:

From the side:

Pagoda next to Sensō-ji:

The other more modern and controversial symbol of Asakusa is the “Asahi Flame” or known by some as “The Golden Turd”:

After escaping the hustle and bustle I marched a km or so in the direction of a huge structure I could see towering above the other sky-scrapers.  It turns out it was in fact the newly constructed Skytree, the highest tower in the world! (Not the highest building, which is in Dubai).

Tokyo Skytree, 634m:

Although I couldn’t go up it because it was fully booked until July, I had a look around the shopping mall below which was an experience in itself.  You are surrounded by bowing, smiling, shop assistants repeating a Japanese greeting which equates to “Welcome honoured guest!” over and over again.  The busiest shop I went in sold plastic display food, for extortionate prices!  A 50cm high ice-cream sundae would set you back about £400. Ouch!  In the food section I saw two real mangoes

I really don’t understand why anyone would pay £400 to look at a giant plastic ice-cream sundae.  It would just make me hungry!

More reasonably priced bowl of noodles, just £16:

Some interesting Japanese figures.  The pink mickey-mouse looking fella is wearing a Sex Pistols album cover which is one of the more popular British cultural icons here, along with the Union Jack, which is everywhere…

Fruit.  Unbelievably expensive. £12 (1,400 yen) for 2 mangoes.  Equally shocking, £12 for 6 puny looking satsumas.  I’d rather get scurvy:

The next day I had arranged for the first time to couchsurf at someone’s house.  My host Hiroshi lived with 6 other lads and said I could arrive anytime and someone would be in.  I never could have imagined my first couchsurfing experience to be so amazing.  The house was more of a social club, with 4 other couchsurfers staying there and other friends of the group often kipping on a spare Japanese futon.  The door was never locked, which amazed me in central Tokyo, which meant I could come and go as I pleased.  It was ideal.

In the afternoon I headed out to Shibuya which is kind of like 5th avenue in NYC or Piccadilly in London, and home of most-trodden road crossing in the world.   Apparently 40,000 people an hour cross the road at the scramble crossing.

Shibuya.  Loads of people crossing the road:

Smoking area at Shibuya.  For such clean people the Japanese don’t half like their smoking.  But if you want to smoke then you have to smoke indoors (!) or in specific smoking areas, mainly near train stations:

After a couple of days in Japan, I could summarise Tokyo by the following two words: culture shock!! It’s the craziest and most amazing place I’ve ever been, and really has to be seen to be believed. Just a few things that struck me on my first days:

  • The people are so friendly and polite it’s unreal, even though it’s a huge anonymous big city.
  • It felt the safest city I had ever been.
  • Jay-walking is unheard of here. On my first day I had to laugh when I saw a woman sprinting (maybe for an appointment or to catch a train) and suddenly stop when she came to a traffic-less road, to wait for the green signal to cross, at which point she started sprinting again.
  • English-speaking ability is pretty low among the general public which leads to a lot of embarrassing gesticulation (get your chicken, pig and cow impressions sorted before you come).
  • Cleanliness is of high importance here, and everything is spotless. Instead of flyers, tissues are given out with adverts on them.
  • When you order your food in some cafes, you buy a ticket from a vending machine and take it to the counter.  For that matter there are vending machines everywhere.
  • Helpfully,  pictures and even plastic models of food are very popular, which makes ordering food a tad easier.
  • It’s expensive! The pound/euro/dollar have all fallen by 50% vs the yen in the last 5 years.
  • Tokyo doesn’t feel so packed and suffocating as I expected; in fact the roads are very wide and not too busy.  It doesn’t feel claustrophobic at all.

Decide what food you want, insert the cash, press the picture, get a ticket, give it in, get your food, eat!

For those ignoramuses amongst us who didn’t bother to learn any Japanese (me), they have plastic food displayed outside that you can point to: 

Tokyo blog to be continued…..too much to report in one go.

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