Finally. One of our number finally got off their keister and made it to the holy land. Follow Ants’ exploits as he ventures deep into the heart of the technological dream.
Part 1: Arrival and Nakano, Tokyo
We spoke about this briefly (or not so briefly) on the recent podcast, but barely scraped the surface of this once in a lifetime trip. It’s important to note that before going, I had literally never left the UK in my entire life, so whilst the more well-travelled amongst you may scoff at some of my words as being that of a Noob, it is aimed at others who like me had never bothered, been able to afford it, or have been just plain scared.
I spoke about my fear of flying, which stems from a severe phobia of heights and mild claustrophobia. And hurtling through the sky at 600mph. What I didn’t mention is that this would be a re-occurring theme throughout the holiday. To experience all the cool stuff, there had to be an element of terror attached. Another thing I didn’t mention was my first experience with an airplane toilet resulted in a panicked squeal when the motion detecting flush went off unexpectedly. Not my finest hour, but it did aid with the evacuation of my bowels.
When we arrived at the hotel, I had been awake for 30 hours, but felt like I needed a sheep dip. I showered, which woke me up, and then we only had a couple of hours to kill before meeting up with the tour group that would be with us for the next ten days. We walked down the roads, staggered and dizzy from a combination of flight wobbliness and the array of tall buildings with signs assaulting the senses. By just turning down a small alleyway, we discovered the huge shopping complex that Nakano is famous for. As we walked around we saw enticing looking restaurants, coffee shops and collectibles from the creepy anime bullshit store. It was exciting to see such variety in one place. The same area later in the evening seemed transformed, with an array of lights attracting the attention to the multitude of eateries and bars that were invisible in the light of day.
Hating seafood, it took every fibre of my being not to retch and spit it all over the table, discreetly spewing the concoction into a napkin and shuffling off to the toilet for disposal.
After the obligatory meet ‘n’ greet, we went back into the shopping area for our first meal in an Izakaya. Our meal was shared as plates of food were brought out in regular intervals. Having not eaten as well as not slept, I was hungry by this point and initially disappointed with the salads that were being placed before me. I needn’t have worried as meat courses started to come out, worrying the vegetarians in the group as we were not told what it was we were eating. I mistakenly thought there was a ball of rice on one plate, which was in fact, fish eggs. Hating seafood, it took every fibre of my being not to retch and spit it all over the table, discreetly spewing the concoction into a napkin and shuffling off to the toilet for disposal. This didn’t deter me, as I tucked into a variety of teriyaki, rice and pork dumplings that followed until I was surprisingly full, causing me to turn my nose up that the final course of French Fries. With my first experience of ‘authentic’ Japanese cuisine finished, I was glad it was so enjoyable. One of my apprehensions before going was that “they only eat sushi and shit, there.” This was thankfully untrue. Food in Japan is seriously awesome. There is so much effort put into presentation, even the unpalatable looks delicious – food tastes just as good as it looks. As we later found out, Japanese chefs spend years training in cooking one particular dish and it shows in both appearance and taste.
We saw how Japan stayed so clean, with teams of people sweeping up from the previous night’s bustle.
It was an excited early-morning wake up the following day. The kind of excitement I thought had been left in my childhood reserved for Christmas. My friend was the same, so we ventured out into the area to look around whilst the streets were empty. We saw how Japan stayed so clean, with teams of people sweeping up from the previous night’s bustle. We overheard a lock-in at a karaoke bar, drunken screeching and laughter filling the air, making it tempting to join in. It again seemed like a different area to the evening before and the daytime before that.
Later we wandered around various districts in Tokyo, taking in the sights whilst the tour guide took care of providing us with the various travel passes that we would need over the next week or so. Our destination was Shinjuku and this was the first time I experienced in real life the sound of cicadas, a common background in many animé and Japanese films. They can be deafening in parts, but strangely calming. We were then taken to a gift shop on the top floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. Looking out of the windows (taking care not to get too close due to vertigo), it gave a sense of scope of Tokyo. The city never seemed to end, rolling over the horizon in a way that I’ve never seen before, including London. Tokyo itself actually absorbed several other cities over the decades and is the most populated city in the world at 38 million people.
Unfortunately, those 38 million people all want to travel too. This was the worst part of the journey for me. Many times the trains/ subway were very cramped, being seated was only an option in the evenings. Thankfully, the people employed as ‘pushers’ were not required, sometimes the trains are so full that these rail employees have to shove people in like an over-packed suitcase so the doors can be closed. Needless to say, as a mild claustrophobe, this wasn’t pleasant, but people worse than me would be in total meltdown. The trains are all very well air-conditioned though, and with the temperatures around 35 degrees and 90% humidity, that part was very welcome. In fact everywhere had impressively cold air conditioning indoors. The 7/11 type stores are literally always a minute away from wherever you are standing and provide the sweet cooling relief as well as the uniform snacks and beverages that serve as a convenient excuse to ‘get out of the hot’.
We later visited the fashion district of Tokyo, Harajuku, not a place I’d recommend to anyone with a fear of crowds. It was heaving. It was impossible to see the other side of the street through the throngs, so we contended ourselves by taking multiple photos of shop signs saying “Fuck off foreigner, don’t photo”. The fashionable clothes on sale seemed to largely be focussed on heavy metal wear, the kind that gets you beaten up in the UK. After this it was time for a break, so we went back to the hotel to shower and cure ourselves of ‘inner cheek dampness’ caused by lots of walking in the heat.
One of the two friends I went with needed to buy a new pair of trainers, since it was apparent there would be a great deal of walking about on this holiday. After arriving back at Nakano, we looked in a shop called ‘Dragon Beard’. Usually I don’t give a shit about trainers, but was soon swept up in the talk of hand-made and exclusive to Nakano and proceeded to drop a tenth of my spending budget on two pairs of sweet new kicks. It is a re-occurring theme with many goods for certain varieties being exclusive to one particular area of the country, like Pokemon, but way more expensive. Kit-Kats apparently have a similar thing going on with certain flavours. I also spend the equivalent of £15 on Kit-Kats thirty minutes later.
The bar was tiny, literally smaller than an average living room. It could have fit 8 people in maximum
After eating, my friends and I decided we were going to have a drink and check out the drinking culture in Tokyo. We wandered round the night-time version of Nakano and walked into a bar at the end of the street. We panicked, initially thinking we had wandered into someone’s living room by mistake. The bar was tiny, literally smaller than an average living room. It could have fit 8 people in maximum. We would later find out this is very common, most bars are around this size, which can aid mingling, possibly the reason people open them. We soaked in the ambience for a while with a few whiskies and then decided to look for somewhere larger, which we found this further along in the form of ‘80s Jukebox’ bar. This was a much more sizeable venue and offered table service too. Slips were on every table to make requests for music, all of which was pretty awesome stuff (all western, but not all 80s) and buoyed on by this and the numerous cocktails ordered by simply guessing and pointing, we came up with the notion that the next stop would be a karaoke bar.
The only problem with this plan was that actual Karaoke bars are very rare. What is common, is the karaoke booths, rooms with a karaoke machine in them that you hire by the hour. All have different sets of house rules as we found out days later, most drinks are included with some. We spoke little Japanese, could not read it and were pretty drunk, so we took a gamble and went in. We had a giggle, but singing with two other mates has a shelf life of approximately 45 minutes. Yelling out to a midi version of Sad but True by Metallica hammered home the point that none of these places have the ‘proper’ music. They all sound like Megadrive approximations of your favourite songs. Still, it’s all part of the experience.
As we staggered out of the booth, we made our way quickly back to the hotel as it had begun to rain…
Continued in Part 2