I have realised that I have not posted on here in a while. This does not mean life has become monotonous in China, but it does mean that I have been a little too consumed with work to post about our weekend adventures around Zhejiang and neighbouring provinces.
However, after an energy-sapping 22 week term, we have now arrived at a holiday and we will be visiting a few selected places in India over the next month. Yet, I had a week before Nicki’s school broke up for Chinese New Year, I decided to go it alone in Japan for a few days.
After attending the school’s annual gala I left Ningbo for Shanghai in the mid afternoon, comfortable in the knowledge that I had 6 hours before my flight. This became a bit of a drama when my train was delayed an hour and then I had miscalculated the distance to Shanghai’s Pudong airport from he Hongqiao station. This meant I arrived at the airport 20 minutes before my scheduled departure. I had conceded that my flight had been missed since the check out desk should have been closed.
As luck would have it, and as is customary in China, my flight was delayed for an unspecified and reasonless length of time. This time, and this time only, I was thankful.
I eventually landed in Tokyo at around 2am local time. I did not expected to be interrogated by the customs officer who asked me lots of questions about Japan that I did not know the answer to. He said that the next time I come to Japan I should know more about the places I want to go. I agreed with him and he let me in.
Eventually I made it to my capsule hotel at the airport in time to agonise over the last 20 minutes of Arsenal’s defeat to Chelsea. The capsule was big enough to roll over in but small enough to limit the use of my legs. Still, I was comfortable.
After a few hours sleep I decided to wake up as I knew my experience in Tokyo was time-limited and that there were unlimited things for me to see and do. I stumbled to the bathroom to find myself in some kind of spa/onsen. It was a communal bathing area were the only requirement was that I was naked. I took advantage of the hot bath before heading to more conventional bathing facilities: showers. This was a male only area but there were still more than a dozen make-up desks with a hair dryer and lighting complimentary to every complexion. This first washing experience in Japan convinced me that Japanese people are both cleaner and more vain than their Asian counterparts. The washroom wonders didn’t end there though: the famous Japanese bidet made going to the toilet far more pleasurable than God intended or any experience squatting over a hole.
The Tokyo transport system is fantastic and I was able to reach my capsule hostel in the lively area of Shinjuku in no time. From there I was able to start my exploration of Tokyo.
My first stop was the Shibuya crossing as I wanted to see it before anything else. It is basically a giant crossing where you admire hundreds of people adhering to the red man/green man rule by walking across the road in unison at when the green man lights up. It sounds pathetic but it is genuinely impressive. I also thought of this as an iconic image of Tokyo as it’s usually the first thing they show on the TV when Japan is mentioned.
Close to Shibuya is a goat themed cafe. Since The Melting Pot is obsessed with goats I did not want to miss the opportunity of having a selfie in a city cafe surrounded by goats. It took quite a lot of time to find but when I did I was disappointed. It was much less a goat themed cafe but more a normal cafe with a novelty goat left in a small cage outside. I decided to have my hot chocolate in a bunny cafe near the cosplay area of Harajuku instead.
I was quite impressed with the independent stores in narrow lanes in this area, and I soon found the bunny cafe on the 3rd floor of one of buildings. Unlike the cat safe in Seoul, this was small and had the capacity of about 6 people. There were already 2 couples inside petting a rabbit. I was welcomed in and felt instantly judged as an oddball for being a single man in a rabbit restaurant. Still, I bought my hot chocolate and rabbit food and shared some petting time with a couple of rabbits.
I the made my way back through the streets of Harajuku and back towards Shinjuku where I explored the lively are before dark. I intended to book tickets for the robot restaurant later that evening but at £50 before food I felt it might have been a place where company was warranted.
On my first night I headed towards the nearby Golden Gai alleys for a drink. On route I was approached by a few men asking if I would like to enjoy some of the girls they had locked away somewhere. It’s hard to comprehend an openly sexual atmosphere when you rarely see any affection between couples in China. Once I made it to the Golden Gai alleys I initially bottled going in any of the bars. The area has nearly 200 bars in 3 small streets, most of which seating less than 8 people. As I speak absolutely no Japanese I didn’t want to risk walking into one and getting turned away. instead I decided to go for dinner first and then return later.
I had dinner in an area affectionately known as ‘Piss Alley’. It was now dark and lit only by the lanterns on the street and the light that made it through the curtained doors of the tiny restaurants. The sound of the trains passing over the overground tracks above really gave the area a downtown vibe. I made my decision to enter one of the tiny places and sat between a middle aged man and a middle aged woman at the bar. The man, oddly wearing a sunhat, was immediately chatty and keen to speak to me in English. He recommended I try Hoppy, which I later found out wasn’t beer even though it tasted like it was. The owner gave me a bottle and a glass and then a small jug of what he described as ‘spirit’. I had to mix the spirit with my Hoppy and soon found out that I was too generous with my spirit.
The man soon asked me what I feel about Japanese toilets, as if it was a discussion every Japanese man has with a foreigner and then went on to ask about what life is like in China as he said ‘they are still becoming civilised’. The lady beside me then recommended food to eat. I asked her how people feel about foreigners eating in this area. She said some don’t mind but a lot of the older generation like to eat there and don’t like their peace being disturbed with English speaking voices. I can understand their point and didn’t want to be part of the problem, but I certainly felt welcome where I was.
After a few drinks there I was confident enough to to return to the Golden Gai alleys and try out a bar. I chose one and had a whisky before retiring for the night.
The next day I headed straight for the fish market in the morning. It is a massive place, unsurprisingly full of fish. However, the market outside of the market was far more vibrant. There were streets of restaurants selling the very fish caught and bought from the market that very day. I could not miss the opportunity to try some but didn’t want to queue for an hour outside of the restaurants people had been recommended online. Instead I found a pleasant looking sushi restaurant with no queue and watched the chef roll the sushi himself and deliver it to me. It was really nice, and definitely fresh.
I was now in the west of the city so I used the metro line to reach the Sumo stadium. Unfortunately for me, the most recent sumo competition had ended the weekend before (and the winner was lauded on the TV every time I saw a screen). This meant I could not enter the arena, but I was able to walk around the museum made in honour of the most famous and successful sumo wrestler who had suddenly died a few months earlier. During this visit I started to grow in my appreciation for sumo wrestling as a sport. I have come to realise that it isn’t just a couple of fat men holding into each other’s massive nappies. I mean, it is that, but it isn’t just that.
From the sumo arena I went to what I believe to be the strangest area in Tokyo: Akihabra. This area is known as the electronic city because of its wealth of arcade and electronic games. I first entered Saga and watched over people playing arcade games with playing cards. One of which was a football game where you had to use your collector cards to pick your team. It looked fascinating.
One thing that struck me almost immediately was the representation of girls everywhere. There were men everywhere but they were all seeking to win toy plastic dolls of young girls from the grabbing machines, many dressed as school girls. I know that anime is very popular around the world, but I was beginning to see that I knew existed, but didn’t appreciate its popularity. In fact, I soon came across and adult anime shop selling very explicit cartoon strip books. I understand that these exist everywhere but cannot get my head around why the female characters in these books need to look so young.
I had been recommended the weirdest thing to do here: visit a maid cafe. When I asked why it is weird I got ‘you’ll see’ as a response. I nearly bottled it but decided not to leave Akiharaba without visiting one. When I walked in I realised that my waitress was basically a live version of the dolls the men had been pursuing in the arcade. She was dressed as a French maid, sat me down and told me that I was her master. She only spoke to me when she was on her knees and even asked me to sing a song and blow a candle with her. I was out of my comfort zone and, as I was by myself, felt like I had become a man like those I had been judging for the past hour. She left me for a while but returned with bear ears that she put on my head before skipping away with a giggle.
I scarpered quite quickly to the elevator back to the road, only to find myself in an adult DVD shop with ‘relaxation’ rooms. Curiously I browsed the DVDs, and I now want to unsee some of the images on them.
The area was certainly entertaining and it made me want to collect something again. If not Pokemon cards then maybe I should start football stickers again?
Thankfully, most of the things I saw in Akiharaba are actually in good taste and I am sure that anime and manga comics and shows are usually fun. It was, for many different reasons, somewhere I will never forget.
For dinner that night I headed to a local area in Ebisu for some ramen noodles. I found a quite bar where I enjoyed some food and whisky before retiring for the evening in anticipation for my bullet train in the morning.
Tokyo is a spectacular city, and I think I only just touched the surface. I would recommend it to anyone and should probably have spent more time there in hindsight.
I had previously booked the train at 6am from Tokyo station and didn’t regret it until I had to venture across the city to make it early in the morning. The purpose of getting such an early train was that I knew the morning was the best time to see Mount Fuji from my window. I had even made sure I had mountain side seats on the carriage. This meant that my tiredness was soon forgotten when the super-fast bullet train made its way parallel to the mountain. It stood snow capped in its majesty as if dominating everything around it. I was then glad that I had travelled on the early train to see it and slept as soon as the mountain was out of sight.
Kyoto was my destination city and I was surprised to find it far less populated and less vast than I had anticipated. This meant I was able to easily navigate myself to my hostel. Unfortunately, I remained unwashed from the day before and the hostel refused to let me shower before my 3pm check in time. I made the decision to explore the city without letting anyone know my secret (although anyone that saw my bed hair would have known I was unwashed).
As I walked casually around the city I spotted the kaleidoscope museum on my map. Intrigued I decided to search for it and ended up being the in,y visitor in the museum. The woman who ran it insisted I tried every kaleidoscope before putting a film about kaleidoscopes on for me. Without word of a lie, I enjoyed it. (Photos were banned)
It was then getting late so I was finally allowed back to the hostel where I could shower and relax with some sushi for the evening.
The final leg of my journey began the next day, with a hike up a mountain to see some macaque monkeys. I have had problems with the heel of my right foot recently, which has limited my hiking, but I was not troubled on this short climb.
As I walked along the mountain path I stumbled across a few monkeys play fighting in the path in front of me, and others climbing trees and chasing each other. I was half expecting to see monkeys in pens but had not expected them to be roaming freely on the mountain side. At the top there was a rest area which held the secrets for keeping the monkeys in close proximity without penning them in: food and warmth. Here there were many more monkeys rolling about and causing mischief. It was quite a strange experience and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, it was me that then entered a cage to feed monkeys who were free on the outside. It was odd to see free monkeys hanging on the bars of a cage that I was in, with their arms outstretched for a piece of apple I was holding.
This was my last experience of Kyoto as I climbed back down and headed back to the train station for my afternoon bus to Takamutsu, where my flight would be returning to Shanghai from.
I wrongly thought that was the end of my trip. However, Takamutsu had a lot to offer in the food sector and I strolled the quiet streets late at night for my fix of tradition. I found a small traditional restaurant serving udon noodles and the owner wanted me to catch up on the latest sumo whilst I ate and drank sake. Stereotyping.
I was quite smug at myself for booking a flight home with a day to spare before India but it has now turned out to be a blessing. This is because I currently sit in a hotel room because my flight was cancelled due to the weather. This means that packing for India tomorrow night will be a rush.
In all Japan was everything I expected and wanted it to be. The people are nice, the toilets are fantastic, the food is great, and most importantly…the air is a lot cleaner than in Hangzhou.