Japan: cultural immersion in Kyoto

I was expecting an awesome trip for the 7-hour overnight bus from Tokyo heading west to Kyoto, as things in Japan, I had come to expect, are generally awesome.  However I was slightly disappointed with the rather cramped, stuffy bus sat next to a larger (albeit extremely polite) gentleman.  Nevertheless we arrived on time and I had managed to get a few hours of kip.

Kyoto used to be the capital until a few hundred years ago and has managed to retain many of the traditional temples, shrines and grand official buildings that were constructed in the lavish glory years.  Strolling around the east area of the city it feels like you’ve stepped back in time, and many locals and tourists enhance this by dressing up in traditional clothing.

Before entering a shrine you go and take a sip of water from the fountain and then wash your hands as demonstrated by this traditionally dressed Japanese:

Traditional Japanese graveyard.  Even the gravestones are designed to save space:

This Buddha was HUGE. Use the tiny figure to the right as a size reference:

The purpose of the Buddha statue:

Kyoto is also the best place to spot one of the rarest creatures on the planet: an authentic Geisha.  Geisha girls are dwindling in numbers but their practice is still alive and their services are procured by high-rollers for about £1,000 an hour :-0!  For this you can expect a fan-dance, some pleasant chitter-chatter and your tea poured.  Sounds a bit of a rip-off to be honest but it’s all about honour.

I managed to pap this Maiko (trainee Geisha) as she was out doing a spot of morning shopping.   Shortly after this she shuffled her way into a Geisha parlour.

This pair were doing a photo shoot.  Probably weren’t actual Geisha’s but they looked cool anyway:

Not sure what this dude was but he was chanting something and looked really mystical:

One of the nights in the hostel a group of university students came in to teach us how to do origami.   By now this type of friendliness and willing to go-out-of-your-way to help out strangers was become the norm.  I really got into that paper folding and made loads of different bits and bobs.

With the super-happy teacher, Mari, after having completed my first lily:

I got slightly addicted and ended up making loads:

The next day I hired a bike and decided to do a tour of the out-lying sights.  Just outside the town there were some lovely sights of tree-covered rolling hills and wide sweeping rivers.  And the shrines and temples aren’t restricted to the inner city either.  One of the most revered sights in Japan is Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pagoda.   Originally built as a villa by a powerful statesman it has since been converted to a Zen Buddhist temple and is an awesome sight to behold.  Unfortunately 30 minutes into my cycle the heavens opened so I didn’t catch the pagoda in the bright sunshine which would have added to the spectacle, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.

After a few more stops at various shrines and temples I was soaked to the bone so decided to call it a day.

That evening a group of us headed out from the hostel and Mari convinced us to partake in one of her’s and most Japanese girls’ favourite past time: Purikura.  To you and me photo booths are generally exclusively used for passport photos but to young Japanese people they’re a cracking friday night out.  You can dress up, do your make-up and even straiten your hair in the Purikura place,  so you can look your best for your ‘photo shoot’.  Then its the turn of the photoshop software to make your skin airbrushed and pale, eyes bigger and rounder and smile whiter and shinier.  The final step is to graffiti the photos up whichever way you choose.

On this one I went for the Doraemon onesy (gadget cat from the future) and afterwards the guys put a bow-tie and glasses on me.  We chose eye size extra-large:


After the excitement of the Purikura we headed to an Isakaya which is a traditional Japanese pub.  For me, these places have one great aspect and one terrible aspect.  The first is that for £13 it’s all you can drink until 5am in the morning (which considering it’s about £6 a pint in Japan is an amazing deal!), the second is that you are confined to your own personal room, which is a bit weird as pubs are generally there for socialising and I don’t really know why people don’t just go round to someone house – there’s not even any music!  Not to say that the company wasn’t good, it was, it’s just you can hear people in the next cubicle having a laugh, but can’t see them or talk to them.

My final day in Kyoto I took a trip to Fushimi Inari which is an amazing series of thousands of Toriis (Japanese-looking archways which signify the start of a shrine).  You can walk through a couple of miles of these orange toriis passing shrines and scenic lakes along the way.  There’s even a lake with tons of turtles swimming around towards the end of the track.


Really cool to walk through:

One of the shrines:

Afterwards we decided to head for a bit of Udon, which are these really delicious thick stodgy noodles.  But first I spotted this pup which I was tempted to kidnap:

Udon, served here with raw-egg, springs onions, some Japanese sauce, chicken tempura and tempura bits. Unbelievably delicious and one of the cheapest options for eating out in Japan:

The next day I caught the bus back to Tokyo.  This time I had stumped up an extra few hundred yen for the ‘Theater’ bus which offers a personal screen with a catalogue of movies, live TV and the Pièce de résistance, old-school Sega games such as Golden Axe!

On returning to Tokyo I checked back in with Tadashi and Hiroshi who had hosted me at their place in my first week; as they had offered me a futon for my last night in Japan.

My evening flight wasn’t until 11.30pm meaning I had one last day in Tokyo, and so I decided to stroll to  the nearby Tokyo Dome which is a 55,000 baseball arena coupled with a huge entertainment complex.  On arrival I realised there was a game being played and after some uncomfortable conversations with several officials who although incredibly polite were terrible at English, I ascertained that it was a university tournament.  As I had covered most of the other places on my Tokyo itinerary I decided to check it out and wasn’t disappointed.  The game of baseball I could take-or-leave; the high-light was the team’s supporters.  Despite the stadium being about 99% empty each university had its own band, troupe of cheerleaders and uniformed fans.  The most interesting/funny thing about it all was how organised and rehearsed everything was.  When one field was in bat, their fans would kick up a real hullabaloo, with singing, dancing, chanting and band-playing; meanwhile it was etiquette for the other team to sit-down and shut-up.  Then when that team was out, it would switch round in an instant, even if it meant cutting short the song.  There were also some very interesting rituals performed by wailing, suited, arm-waving guys at the start and finish of each game.  It was all very entertaining and I definitely recommend watching how the Japanese have made such an American cultural experience their own.

The teams line-up and bow:

It was hard not to giggle as a group of uniformed-and-bandanered Japanese university students hum-singed the chorus to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ whilst banging green cones to the beat:


And after the victory it was the winner’s ritual.  At the end of this, the guy turns to the opposing fans and does the exact same thing:


After catching a couple of the games there was only time for one last huge bowl of noodles before saying cheerio to the guys that had been so accommodating and helpful by letting me stay with them.  It’s hard to explain why Japan was one of my favourite countries, after all I hadn’t been to any breathtaking beaches, mountains or jungles, but it’s just a really fantastic place to be; I guess this has to be put down to the people, which you’re probably getting sick of me saying, but are so unique, friendly and charming.


Japan: Harajuku girls, arcades and musical loos

The next day I decided to get a travel card for the Tokyo Metro and take in various neighbourhoods that were famous individually for something or other.  The first was Akihabara, or Electric Town as its known.  This is where to head if you want to buy the newest gadget to hit the market or indeed just about anything you can imagine that involves electricity.  Any ideas I had about picking up some cheap Asian electronics were quashed when I went in one of the supposedly cheapest megastores only to find even the Japanese-made electronic brands were selling at about 25% higher than the UK rate.  I later heard that Tokyo had nothing on  Hong Kong and Singapore in the respect, but nevertheless was interesting to browse the seemingly endless rows of headphones, digital cameras etc..

The area also has its fair share of arcades which themselves are a cultural experience.  Seemingly another area of sexual segregation these places were like 18-30 clubs for geeks.  There are rows upon rows of young men puffing away on cigarettes whilst bashing furiously yet controlled on 3D beat-em-ups, space-invader type games, fishing simulators and footy games.

One of the many video arcades in Tokyo Electric town:

The lads in Tokyo love their arcades. And cigarettes:

One thing I found hilarious and slightly worrying was the phenomenon of hostess (and host) bars.  These places, which are widely accepted socially, offer men (and women) the opportunity to chat to girls for about £35 an hour.  One of their marketing techniques (like many business in Japan) was to hand out free tissues with their advert on:

After leaving Akihabara I headed to Ginza which is like Bond Street with all the expensive brand names like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani etc….  It was here I stepped into a really swanky department store and found probably the best toilet I’d ever sat on.

Ginza. Posh:

Ginza department store loo.  You could eat your lunch off it:

Man clean. Woman clean. Music. Obvious stuff really:

However, other than loos, I had come to Ginza to check out the Sony tower which showcases all the newest Sony gizmos for free.  I had a go on a camcorder which recorded in 3D and a headset that played DVDs straight to your brain.  What’s nice about this place is the staff, like everyone else in Japan, are super friendly and even though they know you’re not buying anything they do everything to help you out and make sure you’re sorted.

Later I headed back to Shibuya to check it out at night-time with all the lights on and the hustle and bustle of people meeting with friends or going for a bite.

Cross-street at night:


The next day was Sunday, and I’d been told by multiple sources that I should check out hip-and-trendy Harajuku where, on Sundays, certain girls from the sleepy suburbs of Tokyo come into the centre and go a bit mental with Cosplay; parading up and down the high street.  These Harajuku girls have been made famous in recent years after Gwen Stefani nicked a few and made them dance with her in all her recent videos.

The doll look is in:

Cheeky pose:

The following day was my last day in Tokyo and there were a few more places I wanted to check off the list before catching my night bus to the cultural centre of Kyoto.

I’d met a very lovely Japanese lady called Kokoro at the couchsurfing place I was staying and in true Japanese style she offered to take me to the Imperial Palace and show me around.  The Imperial Palace is next to the financial centre of Tokyo, Nihombashi, and as she was married to an investment banker and had various fingers in pies herself, she knew the area well.  Unfortunately the Imperial palace was closed but I was able to get glimpses of the traditional Japanese architecture.  Nevertheless, the area surrounding the palace is a large open park which overlooks the gleaming towers of Nihombashi, and therefore pleasant for an afternoon stroll.

Wide-open spaces, overlooking Nihombashi, financial centre:

Kokoro was very interested to hear about my history in finance and was suggesting I should try to get a job in Tokyo; this was very tempting as I was falling in love with the place and its people.  Again, surpassing any normal concepts of hospitality for a random tourist she took me to the top of one of the towers in Nihombashi and treated me to a traditional Japanese lunch at a very swanky restaurant!

My next stop was to take the driverless train over the rainbow bridge to the commercial area of Odaiba.   Here there are various malls and attractions such as the Toyota Megaweb where you can test-drive Toyota’s newest cars (but only if you have an international driving license grrrrrr..).

Rainbow bridge over to Odaiba:


Not quite right with the translation here but amusing nonetheless:

Before I caught the night bus I ascended to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to have a last look of the lit-up sprawl of Tokyo:

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.

The route: