Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Day Four - Around Tokyo some more

Sunday morning and I was checked out of the Capsule Hotel quite early, but I left my bag there with the intention of checking back in again. At about 9am the streets around Tokyo were still pretty much deserted, as shops don't open until 11am. As I wandered around looking for a cafe for breakfast I came across a group of couples who were laughing and taking photos of a drunk passed out dude. I felt sorry for him so went up to see if I could help, and he wasn't Japanese - he was a foreigner. I tried asking him the name of his hotel but he just didn't understand a word I was saying, or if he did he couldn't respond. His face was cut but the blood had dried, he smelt of piss and he his suit was totally covered in mud and what smelt like shit. I couldn't get the name of his hotel out of him or anything so I just left him to sober up.

As I had breakfast I could keep an eye on him from the cafe and when I finished I went over again and gave him a cup of water. By now he was up on his haunches and as I asked him his hotel name again I saw (and smelt) piss trickling out from under his pant leg. Sorry mate, can't help you any further!

Since it was Sunday I headed to Harajuku, to see the hipsters hanging out there. I ended up getting there way to early at like 10am when the shops were still opening so there wasn't much of a scene. So I went to the nearby Emperor Meiji Shine and observed religious services. It was a huge 175 acre forest right in the middle of the city so quite a nice bit of greenery.

Entrance to the Meiji Shrine

Inside the Meiji Shrine
After the Meiji Shrine I headed to nearby Harajuku gardens to again look for some of the odd folks who are supposed to hang out there. But it was only midday so it was still too early for them, so I wandered around the gardens, enjoying the late autumn heat (felt like summer still!), watching the hundreds of cyclists and listening to the crows cawing while killing time.

Cyclists and crows
Finally the Tokyo Rockabilly Club appeared. These guys are pretty cool - a bunch of Elvis-quaffed rock n rollers who skull beers and play rock music from their stereo and dance around in a circle - not busking or anything, they do it just because they like it. Although they dress like they're from the 50s, the Japanese rock music they listened to had more of an 80s blues style, similar to Argentine Rock Nacional.

The Tokyo Rockabilly Club
With no sign of the infamous Harajuku girls, I caught a train over to Shinjuku to go up the Tokyo Metropolitan Building again, to get a decenct view of Tokyo during the day.
In the day the view was awesome. On a clear day you can see Mt Fuji from up there but there was no chance of that with all the smog today. But still, well worth it.

The Meiji Shrine's 175 acre forest from above

In the base of the tower I was surprised to find a great tourist information booth, where they had free Tokyo maps in English. I hadn't been able to find a free tourist info map of Tokyo anywhere, and now that I was almost at the end of my trip it was ironical to finally find one.
Outside the Metro building a kids concert was taking place. Hundreds of schoolkids with little drums were participating in a giant group concert, and I spent about half an hour listening to them. On a full drumkit sat a kid who looked about 9 years old and he did an awesome 3 minute drum solo.
On the train back home I stopped off in Harajuku again to see if the Harajuku girls doing their cosplay thing (fancy dress role-playing, where they dress up as cartoon characters and such). By now it was probably too late, as there was only a small group of teenagers dressed up, who were running around taking photos of each other, and they were followed by at least 40 tourists (mostly Japanese tourists) who were photographing their every move. The whole thing felt like a tourist trap and I didn't bother taking a photo.
Back in Shibuya and after checking back in to the Capsule I headed out for dinner and treated myself to a nice restaurant. I ordered steak and it came out with a little clay oven with hot charcoal inside, so that I could cook the meat at my table.

Cooking dinner

That night I went to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red light district to check out the scene. It was absolutely pissing down with rain and the Nigerian touts were out in force.
I got talking to one and he was genuinely friendly, since the rain wasn’t helping their business at all. With the 3000 yen in my pocket (NZ$45) I wasn’t going to get much of any action. All I could get was one hour in a strip club and a drink included. But I would have to leave after an hour! So I didn’t bother, and I headed back to my capsule.
The next day was Day 5 and I was planning on heading down to the beachside town of Kamakura for a quick look, before catching my afternoon flight. But the summer weather of the last few days had left, and it was quite cold and wet so I gave up on that idea, and with nothing else to do I headed to the airport 5 hours early and waited for my flight. Bit of a boring way to finish the trip!

So all up it was a great 4 days. To anyone heading to Tokyo, I would highly recommend an early visit to the Tokyo Metro tower to get a good view of Tokyo and to get a free tourist info map. It's a shame I didn't get to see Kamakura but I got to see a good chunk of Tokyo itself.

Here’s a video from my trip – check out the Tokyo Rockabilly club at about 3:00, and the kid doing the wicked drum solo at about 3:30.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Day Three - The capsule and the game

For Day 3 we had scheduled a bike ride around Tokyo, with a bike tour company. But at the last minute I decided not to go - it sounded too expensive for what it was Y10,000. By now I'd gotten used to prices in yen and I was thinking, man that's like 3 decent dinners in a restaurant or 3 nights accommodation in my hotel, just for riding a bike around for a day?

It was just as well I didn't go on the bike tour, because that morning I had to find somewhere else to stay. You see, I only booked my first 2 nights in the Sakura Inn so that if I didn't like it I could go somewhere else. Turns out I was totally happy with where I was staying, but I'd forgotten to tell them that (since we'd been so busy the first two days), and now my bed was booked by someone else. D'oh!

Reception phoned around their other two Sakura hotels for me and one of them had a room available - but it was miles away from the city center and since it was a Saturday and game day and our planned big night out, I wanted to be somewhere within walking distance of where we would be going out. And since I liked Shibuya so much I wanted to stay somewhere there.

I borrowed a copy of the Lonely Planet and the only cheap accommodation listed in Shibuya was one of the infamous Japanese capsule hotels. In these you don't get a room, just a capsule in the wall to sleep in. I was mentally picturing something like a cadaver drawer in a morgue... bit since it was cheap at around Y3000 and a true Japanese experience, it sounded great!

So I dragged my suitcase onto the subway and across town to Shibuya, then up a few hills until I finally found the capsule hotel. Yes, they have a room. Great! Oh, but you can't stay here - tattoo. Huh? The guy on reception had noticed my tattoo peeping out from beneath my Tshirt, and they have a no tattoos policy, as a way to prevent yakuza gangsters from staying. Yep, that's me all right, a Japanese mafioso. Dammit. I asked the guy at Capsule #1 if there was another capsule hotel in the area, and he gave me some vague directions. Well they were vague to me cos I didn't know my way around at all. So I asked him to write the name of the hotel on a piece of paper so that I could ask people in the street where it is. Off I went again and the usual suspects of waiters and restaurant touts had no idea where Capsule #2 was located. Finally I showed my sign to a truck driver delivering kegs of beer who scratched his head as he read out its name - "kapuseru hoteru" (see, it sounds like "capsule hotel") and he showed me where it was, about ten meters from where we were standing. Since it was around midday no one was at reception (check in time is 5pm), but after wandering through the hotel (and getting a peep at the capsules themselves!) with my shouts of  "Sumimasen" (excuse me) I found a cleaning lady who ran off up the street to find the receptionist. This time around I'd put my jacket on to cover up my tattoo, and the guy said I could stay there, but I would have to return after 5pm. Fine, can I leave my suitcase here? But on seeing the size of my suitcase the guy changed his mind and said that I couldn't stay, as my suitcase wouldn't fit inside one of their lockers. God dammit. So I was back out on the street again.

I weighed up my options which were to 1. head way the fuck back across town to the other Sakura hotel where I still had a booking, or 2. take the hit tonight and stay in a more expensive hotel near where I was standing, and then try get in the Capsule hotel #1 (with their larger lockers) the following morning, when there would hopefully be a different guy on reception. I decided to go for option 2. Now, the only hotels that I'd seen in the area were "love hotels". These are usually fancy rooms (often with a kinky theme, e.g. Arabian nights) that you can hire either for a short stay of an hour or two, or for the whole night. They have similar hotels in Argentina. I was about to walk into a love hotel when the receptionist at Capsule #2 ran out into the street and yelled out to me, saying that he'd called the owner and I could stay there, so long as my suitcase has a lock. Finally!

So he signed me in and did his best to explain to me the long list of rules, which I understood fine. Basically, you check your belongings into a locker on the ground floor which is also where you get changed. They give you a towel and a toothbrush and a little boys pair of baggy shorty pyjamas (hey, one size fits all) to wear around the hotel. The capsules are on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd floor, and there is a bathroom on every floor and a sauna and TV room in the basement. Boom!

The row of capsules
At that point I went and checked out my capsule and it was pretty sweet. There was a little 14" TV in there, a lamp, radio and alarm clock. At the feet end was a little blind. It was about as wide as a single bed and about the same height, so it was really just like being on the bottom bunk of a set of bunk beds. And with the blind closed it would be nice and dark and quiet too. I reckon they'd be great in a hostel instead of bunk beds.

My capsule
By now it was 1pm so I'd wasted the whole day just getting a new hotel. After lunch I went and met Mike and the others at our rendezvous point at 3pm to head to the rugby game. They'd just finished their bike tour which they all enjoyed. The rugby game was the centerpiece of the trip, we were going to watch the All Blacks vs. the Wallabies (that's NZ vs Australia) in Tokyo. An exhibition match.

We headed towards the rugby stadium and for much of the way we were walking against the crowd, as a game had just finished at the adjacent baseball stadium. Mike had met some dudes on the flight over and they were saving some seats for us so that we would have a bit of a kiwi section in the crowd. When we got there they'd placed blow up sheep on our seats to mark them as reserved, which was pretty funny.

Part of the Kiwi contingent
The guy closest to the camera is a Kiwi who's been living in Japan for 20 or so years doing importing and exporting. He speaks the language of course and has a Japanese wife and a kid. He had heaps to tell us about life in Japan which was really interesting. He explained how rugby has practically no coverage at all in Japan - baseball is of course the national game. That was a bit of a surprise to me because many top NZ players relocate to Japan in the twilight of their careers to play rugby... but they are actually just corporate run teams, e.g. Nissan or Toyota. The games get no media coverage at all and the results are just bragging rights for their CEOs. "Hah, we beat Toyota last week". He said he'd been paying attention to the media all week and hadn't read or seen or heard a single mention of the All Blacks playing in Japan. We were sitting in the cheap seats at around NZ$100 but the prices went up to about NZ$1000! Man, it's not like it's the World Cup final or anything. Not only that, but the finals of the national baseball league were being played that night too, so he thought it would be a miracle if the stadium filled. Fortunately it did, so they must have given away a bunch of tickets or something. Of course the crowd was mostly Japanese and mostly supporting the All Blacks but there were some Oz supporters too.

Our view during the game

The first highlight was the ground announcer reading out the NZ players name's. He sounded well excited which was helping to hype the crowd up. "Conlad Smi!" Then the haka, which still gives me goosebumps live (but the cynic in me is sick of seeing).
Another nicety was the cute girls walking around selling beers, so you didn't have to go all the way to the bar to get them. Why don't they do that in NZ?
The game itself is a bit of a blur... NZ won of course, the girls sitting behind us weren't paying attention at all and were just yacking the entire match, and the big screen for some crazy reason wasn't showing replays. Or the director had no idea about rugby because when they finally would show a replay, they wouldn't show the important part of the action but only the lead up to it - that was infuriating!

After the game we headed back to the hotel for showers etc and then headed out on the town. The girls were tired from the bike ride so it was just the guys out again. We’d heard plenty of dodgy stories about the Roppongi district – seedy nightclubs and even seedier Nigerian touts who try to lure you into their clubs. And other stories about being led in to a place, having a drink and then being presented with an inflated bill and the heavies when you try to leave. But since we didn’t have to worry about the girls being hassled, we decided to check it out and leave quick smart if it felt dodgy.

Well the rumours seemed to be true. The streets were crawling and the Nigerians were out in force, walking alongside making conversation, and they would be quite persistent and often hard to shake. It felt dodgy enough so we headed back to Shibuya, my favourite part of town.

Since it was Halloween there were plenty of people wandering around in Halloween costumes. There were heaps of foreigners (probably English teachers) dressed up and running around being dicks. Mike and Alexey called it a night as they had to catch the last train back, and because we didn't really know where to go out. I ended up staying out and I met a Chilean and a Peruvian dude and hung out with them speaking Spanish. They were part of a larger group of foreigners and those dudes, lead by a Asian-American dressed as Michael Jackson, knew where to go out. Turns out there was a whole street of clubs just around the corner from my capsule! "Michael" organised us a group discount of only Y3000 (NZ$45) just to enter the club... but I didn't have that much cash on me (and to be honest, wasn't keen paying that much just to get in to a club) so I hung out in the street with other randoms just people watching, before heading back to my capsule at about 3am.

Inside my capsule with the blind down

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day Two - Around Tokyo

Day Two and it was up bright and early to go meet the others at their hotel for a whole lot of Tokyo sightseeing. First up was the the Ikebukuro shopping district to check out the electronics markets. Well despite Japan being the home of so many famous electronics companies, thanks to global free trade agreements the prices of cameras, laptops, and PC parts were about the same as what we would pay in NZ - in fact it seemed even more expensive than in NZ. Yay free trade! So none of us bought anything.

While we were in Ikebukuro we headed to Namja Town which was a weird theme park but all indoors. It was pretty much empty cos it was a weekday which was fine by us, but I imagine that on a weekend it would be packed with schoolkids. The only reason we were going there was to check out the Miracle Fruit Cafe. I knew nothing about this but Mike had told us about it and it sounded worth checking out. The promise was that after eating the miracle fruit, it changes your tastebuds so that sour things taste sweet. Apparently they would give you lemons to chew on and instead of being sour they tasted sweet.

The Miracle Fruit cafe

So we rolled up and bought a miracle fruit each, which turned out to be a tiny red berry almost like a nut.

The miracle fruit
To accompany the miracle fruit, we also bought a platter of lemons, limes, strawberries, grapefruit and pickles(!). A pre-miracle taste of the lemons etc confirmed that they were sour, as lemons should be.
Our instructions were to chew on the miracle fruit until it disappears. It was quite pleasant to begin with and took a couple of minutes chewing to dissolve it. Towards the end it started to taste horrible once we started chewing on its seeds.

Getting ready for a miracle
As for the results... well they were varied. In my case, if I were to chew on an unripe lemon (which these were) I would screw my face up and shiver cos of the sourness and the tartness, bleh. With the miracle fruit the sourness was replaced with a really strong sweetness, but the tartness was still there, so I was still screwing up my face and shivering, bleh. Twas the same for the lime and the grapefruit. The strawberries were much improved.The pickles actually tasted worse post-miracle - instead of having a mild pickly flavour, they seemed to taste even picklier. Of our group I think my reaction was possible the strongest when it came to rejecting the unripe lemons cos of their tartness - wheras Alexey was fine with it. He was happily ploughing through the lemons without complaint. Wikipedia.

The Windows 7 whopper at Burger King

From Ikebukuro we headed right across town to Ginza, the rich part of town where all the luxury shops are. Gucci, Dior, Armani, they all have outlets here. While the girls went shopping we went and sat in a bar and people watched.

Dior's outlet in Ginza

As with electronics, according to the girls luxury goods were on a par with NZ prices.

Finally we headed back across town to Shibuya. This part of town was famous for shopping, fashion, and it's scramble crossing. Once again, while the girls went shopping we were happy to sit and people watch in front of the crossing watching all the people, like a good bunch of tourists. It's funny cos I've seen Asian people photograph the scramble crossing on Queen St many times and now we were doing the same thing here.

I confess - not my video
Shibuya was my favourite part of Tokyo, with its huge TV screens blaring ads and music videos, scramble crossing, people everywhere, and energy. After a few more hours of people-watching, we ended up going to a yakitori bar and hung out there eating chicken skewers and drinking beer while sitting on beer crates, as you do. It felt like the start of a good night - but unfortunately the main thing preventing Tokyo from becoming an all night party city is the fact that the subway trains finish around 12:30am... so you either have to leave at that time, or pay shitloads for a taxi home, or stay out all night til the subway starts again in the morning. We opted for the first option and were lucky enough to catch the very last subway train back to our hotel, after a very long day. Boring huh. But we had ticked off many of our to-dos for Tokyo.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Day One - Auckland to Tokyo

We flew out from Auckland on Thursday at 9:30am, had a good flight over, my first ever international flight with your own entertainment centre so I spent most of the flight playing with that. Also on the same flight as me was Alexey and his girlfriend Leanne, friends from Auckland. Another mate Mike flew over the previous day with his girlfriend, Sky.

Leanne, Me and Alexey

Air NZ only served a breakfast at about 10:30am and then nothing until like 7pm NZ time, when he had dinner, so by then we were all starving. Also on the same plane was NZRU's Steve Tew, Jock Hobbs, commentator Tony Johnson and Adrian Cashmore. "Cashie" spent the entire flight standing at the back of the plane with a bunch of other rugby looking dudes drinking Steinlagers. They managed to drink the plane dry of Steinlagers. By the end of the flight they looked tiddly but weren't rowdy, although one of the other dudes looked was rolling around quite drunk saying "I love you man".

First glimpse of Japan


We arrived about 4:30pm local time and were out of the airport not long after 5. Being couples, the others were staying at a nice hotel and me being the 5th wheel I decided to stay at a hostel as it would be cheaper (although still NZ$60 per night). Finding a hostel in Tokyo is not so easy but I found one on the net that was reasonably close to the other's hotel.

I had written directions on how to arrive at the hostel which involved riding the train from Narita airport for about an hour until the Oshiage train station, then changing to the Oshiage subway and riding for about 20 minutes until Jimbocho and then walking about 3 blocks to the hostel. I wasn't feeling too daunted because I figured it would be daylight still so I would find my way around but I started to get a bit worried when it was already pitch black at 5pm while I was still riding the first train.

On that first train ride 2 of the stereotypes of Japan I had were cancelled: 1) that Japanese people are small - they're not, plenty of guys were taller than me, and 2) that Japanese chicks dig white guys. I thought everyone would be staring at me on the train but no one gave me a second glance. No girls sat next to me to "practice their English" like everyone said they would. Not even any eye contact. Admittedly most of the passengers were on their daily grind home from work.

First train ride

Everyone told me to take cold weather clothes, but I was right in thinking it would be hot over there (I'd been keeping an eye on the daily temps beforehand). The ride on the train and at the stations was quite hot and stuffy and I was only in a T-shirt, yet I noticed the Japanese were all wearing longsleeves, suits or fur-trimmed jackets as if it was already winter. I guess they're more used to the humidity.

Buying a subway ticket for the first time wasn't easy but by about the third time I had it sussed like a pro. All you had to do was find your destination station on the map on the wall and alongside it would be the price in yen, and then you'd buy a ticket from a vending machine. Y130 (NZ$2) would be about the cheapest and Y260 (NZ$4) about the dearest.

Once at Jimbocho station I was relieved to find that although it was pitch black at night, the street itself was well lit up with all the shop fronts, lights from buildings and car headlights. There were plenty of people on the street, shops were still open (most shops open from 11am to 10pm) and I found my way to the hotel easily.

Once checked in I had a quick shower and headed straight to the other guy's hotel cos I knew they'd be waiting for me to head out for dinner. Their hotel was only 2 subway stops away and I got there just as they were heading out for dinner. The first dinner that night Mike took us to a cheap place he'd found the previous day. It had the feel of an American diner, extremely brightly lit and patrons eating at the counter. There were no waiters at the restaurant; to order you would choose your meal from a photo of the meal on the vending machine, buy a ticket for that meal and present the ticket to the cook behind the counter.

Vending machine for ordering at the restaurant

Service was real fast and the meal was good value at around NZ$8 for dinner, which consisted of a hamburger patty with an egg on top with rice and a side salad.

After dinner we took the subway to Shinjuku which is kind of a business district, and I was still buzzing from the excitement and the fact that although it was around 10pm on a Thursday night, there were still heaps of people on the street. Suits on their way home from work, kids in school uniforms and girls loaded up with shopping bags. i.e. everyday people doing their thing at 10pm at night, an hour when back home most married couples are in bed and the only people still out on the street are likely to be people going out to get drunk. And the streets were so bright it still felt like daytime. People on bikes would ride around without helmets or lights.


We were rushing to find our way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, so that we could go up and see Tokyo from the free observatory at night. On the way there we passed a big group of kids hanging out away from the street in in front of one of the government buildings, listening to hip-hop and breakdancing. We managed to get the last elevator up at 10:45pm, but to be honest, the view wasn't very good at night. Yeah you could see a lot of city lights but to me it was a let down, especially since we didn't have our bearings and didn't know what to look out for. And because of the lights from the gift shops inside the observatory reflecting off the windows, I couldn't get any decent photos. At about 11pm the fatigue hit me (22 hours awake straight) so we headed back to our hotels.

Other first night impressions: the streets are real clean, spotless, and they have a nice finished feel. Lots of marble everywhere especially in the subway stations. And half the taxis fleet is from the 80s (although still in immaculate condition). I'd love to know how many kilometres they've clocked up). And although they’re from the 80s, the doors on those bad boys open and close remotely. Pimpin!

80s taxi