Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Sunday April 28th – Tuesday April 30th 2013: Tokyo

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We arrived at Tokyo Haneda airport at about 5am on Sunday morning and it was already light. Customs and immigration were extremely efficient so we found ourselves with over an hour to wait for the next ‘limousine bus’ (1000 yen per person) to Shibuya. Given the choice of that or an 8000 yen taxi ride we bought our bus tickets and settled down with a coffee.

The bus service was great even before we got on it. We noticed the people waiting  for the bus before ours forming an orderly queue to get on. There was a luggage handler to put luggage into the underneath of the coach (which is what a ‘limousine bus’ turned out to be) and he bowed to each person in turn before finally bowing to the driver as the bus doors closed. Fabulous.

Many of the main roads into Tokyo seemed to be elevated above the main street level – our bus journey gave us the sensation of swooping into the city while peering down at the various streets and waterways and staring up at the vast residential tower blocks.

The bus helpfully stopped for its final stop at Shibuya Mark City, on top of Shibuya station and directly underneath our hotel, the Shibuya Excel. We really had chosen a fantastic location; not just because of the great transport links from the station, but also the crazy district of Shibuya right around us.

After dropping our luggage at the hotel and ascertaining that we couldn’t check in until midday we headed out for a wander. The streets were pretty quiet apart from groups of young and totally hammered Japanese youth staggering around presumably on their way home from clubs and bars in the area. We meandered all the way up to Harajuku where we marvelled at the hilarious shops on Takeshita Street Takeshita-dori

Plastic food outside a crepe stall, Takeshita-dori

Plastic food outside a crepe stall, Takeshita-dori

and I spotted a random slogan t-shirt in a closed shop that I coveted immediately. Unfortunately we were still too early for Harajuku Sunday Madness at Jingu Bridge so we headed instead into the nearby park to visit the Meji shrine.

Randall at the entrance to the Meji Shrine park.

Randall at the entrance to the Meji Shrine park.

We had a delightful walk in the park around the shrine along with early morning walkers, joggers and cyclists. The shrine itself was fairly quiet and unassuming although there were obvious preparations going on for a wedding, which would have been fun to see if we’d arrived a little later.

We continued our walk with the idea of getting a coffee (it was now approaching 9am and definitely coffee time) in Shinjuku on the other side of the park. On the way we found a huge group of teenagers – at least 200 – mostly dressed in robes and/or school uniform looking as if they were preparing for an archery contest. It would have been great to see what happened but they looked as if there was still a great deal of milling about to be done before actually getting down to anything interesting so we headed onwards.

Sun28-3

Looking towards Shinjuku from the park.

Next up we crossed a bridge and spent about 20 minutes looking at the most beautiful Koi carp and terrapins swimming around the pond and stream we were crossing before finally reaching the exit of the park on the Shinjuku side.

Koi Carp pool

Koi Carp pool

At this point we were obviously looking a bit dazed as we peered at a streetmap because a kind Japanese gentleman asked if we needed help (at least I assume that’s what he said as it was in Japanese). He insisted on accompanying us as far as Shinjuku where we said goodbye to him at the station and headed up to the ‘sun terrace’ between Yoyogi and Shinjuku stations, a mini- food court and outdoor mall serving the hotels and office blocks exiting on to the raised terrace above the road. The best we could manage at that time was Starbucks which at least gave us an insight into local differences (green tea frappuccino anyone?) and a sunny outdoor spot for people watching; notable examples being the girl dressed and made-up as a Dresden Shepherdess and the whole group of people out two by two with one blindfolded and the other not.

Somewhat refreshed we wandered back the way we had come

Street vending machines, selling the famous 'Pocari Sweat'.

Street vending machines, selling the famous ‘Pocari Sweat’.

and through the park again

Sake barrels for 'tribute' to the shrine. Opposite were loads of barrels of French wine for some reason.

Sake barrels for ‘tribute’ to the shrine. Opposite were loads of barrels of French wine for some reason.

Sun28-9

all the way to the Harajuku Bridge  from where we took a different entrance into the park, this part – I had been informed – being ‘where people from Tokyo go to be weird’. We spotted teenagers practising dance routines, groups of musicians practicing pieces, a yoga class or two, some strange game involving about 40 teenagers in a big circle that we could not figure out at all, and a kids’ baseball practice session. This was on top of the walkers, speed-walkers, joggers, dog-walkers (dogs all in little jackets / sparkly jumpers etc) and lots and lots of blind runners and their Achilles Guides. Oh yes, and the Free Hugs.

Sun28-10Free Hugs!

After soaking that up for an hour or so we headed back to the hotel for check-in and a nap. The hotel really *was* in a great location and our room was even a decent size with free wifi (we’d been warned that both were hard to come by apart from the very high-end places):

View from our window

View from our window

The famous Shibuya crossing, directly below us.

The famous Shibuya crossing, directly below us.

Shibuya crossing is a ‘Scramble Crossing and took a bit of getting used to, but quite an experience (especially watching it from 18 floors up!)

Sun28-12

Sun28-11
Waking up in time to be really hungry, we took advice from ‘Time Magazine’s Top 10’ and headed one stop along the train line to Ebisu where the area around the station was apparently lined with izakaya  or traditional ‘hole-in-the-wall’ informal eating and drinking joints identifiable by the ‘noren’ or plastic strips over the doorways. After wandering about for a bit soaking up the atmosphere and rejecting various establishments (too many tourists / not enough people / too modern) we found our perfect izakaya; full of Japanese people, wooden and slightly ramshackle, with a table having just become free in the ‘front’ – the tiny plastic-enclosed veranda outside the izakaya proper so with a view of the street as well as into the place. We’d been resigned to using ‘the pointing finger’ but it turned out that their hand-written menu had mostly been translated, possibly by a friendly customer, into scribbled almost-English so it wasn’t too tricky at all. The two phrases I’d copied into the front cover of the phrase book: ‘Osusume’ (whatever you recommend) and ‘Nama biru onigaishimasu’ (Draft beer, please’) seemed to do the job and we ended up with an amazing feast!

Outside the izakaya

Outside the izakaya, we’ve just spotted our table!

Handwritten menu with varying degrees of translation.

Handwritten menu with varying degrees of translation.

HUGE oyster!

HUGE oyster!

Amazing sashimi

Amazing sashimi

Quite stuffed, we walked it off by following the railway tracks back to Shibuya through surprisingly low-rise residential areas, then ended with a nightcap at a buzzy hole-in-the-wall bar run by an expat Turkish guy.

Having had a long and action-packed day on Sunday, on Monday we got up somewhat late (okay, lunchtime) and after the inevitable 10 minutes or so playing with the toilet settings:

Complicated toilet-ness

Complicated toilet-ness

…we managed to get out of the hotel and go in search of food. I’d had my heart set on a kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi place described in the guidebook but we couldn’t find it so settled for what looked like a popular-with-the-locals diner sort of place and turned out to be a fun ‘cook at your table’ canteen with a helpful English menu including cooking instructions:

How to cook your own...

How to cook your own…

The unusual sight of Randall cooking.

The unusual sight of Randall cooking.

My ENORMOUS scallops teriyaki

My ENORMOUS scallops teriyaki

Yummy! also Messy!

Yummy! also Messy!

Randall's bacon and cheese mochi

Randall’s bacon and cheese mochi

Opposite the diner was a huge DVD and book store amusingly called ‘Book Off!’ – we loved this sign outside:

Engrish!

Engrish!

After lunch it was time to make some train reservations. As we were travelling on JR Pass  but during Golden Week we’d been advised to reserve, however some of our chosen trains turned out to be local trains and non-reservable. Still, we had our Tokyo-Kyoto Shinkansen reservation sorted for the next day, so all good.

Then, after buying some socks (I forgot to pack any) in a local Uniqlo and going on a bit of a mission to find Randall a ‘Venti’ coffee, we headed to Akihabara ‘Electric Town’ to try and find a way to get Randall’s 3G hub working on a local SIM card. This proved to be tricky which we found surprising as it has been straightforward in all the countries we’ve travelled in before. We didn’t really have time to explore Akihabara as we were quite tired and it was very busy Golden Week but suspect we may go back, even if only to buy some crazy manga-character key-rings or something.

Back at the hotel we changed into slightly warmer clothes (socks!) and headed out into Shibuya to Nabezo which was recommended by Lonely Planet as the place to try out Shabu shabu , a kind of Japanese meat fondue. For a fixed price we could eat as much as we liked for a 90 minute period so we stuffed ourselves with the vegetable buffet whose contents we tipped into the boiling broth on our table and the delicately sliced pork and beef that we cooked by dipping it briefly in said broth:

Broth and veggies boiling away on the table, with the thin slices of meat ready to go.

Broth and veggies boiling away on the table, with the thin slices of meat ready to go.

Fishing out some seaweed (yum)

Fishing out some seaweed (yum)

Randall cooking, again!

Randall cooking, again!

Happy and messy.

Happy and messy.

Yum!

Another walk was called for so we wandered into the streets of Shibuya…

Randall with shouty neon billboards.

Randall with shouty neon billboards.

…almost immediately coming across what looked like an informal jam session but on the street (not busking – no money being collected) with a group of really great young musicians playing and singing a jazz/hip-hop fusion: Sanabagan

Street music

Street music

Finally we took a little self-guided tour of ‘Love Hotel Hill’:

We think these are instructions on how to enjoy your Love Hotel!

We think these are instructions on how to enjoy your Love Hotel!

Where to pick up supplies for your 'rest' at a Love Hotel

Where to pick up supplies for your ‘rest’ at a Love Hotel

Pink and alarming entrance to shop.

Pink and alarming entrance to shop.

On Tuesday we managed to get up early (5.30!!) in order to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market – the main wholesale fish market in Tokyo and thus for most of Japan. We didn’t bother trying to see the tuna auction as you have to be in the queue from 4.30am, but after a few false starts trying to find the correct entrance to Shibuya station to be able to get onto the Ginza subway line, we managed to catch the 6.01 train out of Shibuya. We’d planned to get out at Shinbashi and walk rather than changing to the line that goes right to the market. As it happened, as we were leaving the train I spotted a chap in wellies carrying a wicker basket so cunningly suggested that we follow him. He scampered out of the station and onto a waiting public bus indicated Tsuikji so we decided to do the same. It turned out that we didn’t have change, but the bus took notes up to 1000 yen; I say the bus took notes as the whole money/change thing was carried out by a mechanism with no input from the driver. Very civilised.

The market was as manic as the Bombay Sasson Dock Fish Market but in a different way; very much more mechanised, with porters zipping around on propane-powered mini-trucks/carts at great speeds. We’d had a good look around and seen (amongst assorted slithering and flopping aquatic life) a chap slicing up a huge tuna, before a market security guard spotted us and showed us a ‘no tourists until after 9am’ sign. By this time it was still not quite 7 but we felt we’d seen the best of it so we graciously bowed out.
We’d intended to have a sushi breakfast but as all the recommended places were inside the market we thought we’d wander into the centre of Ginza – the nearby business and retail district – instead. This proved to be somewhat disappointing; we thought that Japan being all industrious etc there would be things open at all hours, particularly in the business district, but as it turned out there was very little going on and nothing open. We finally found a Starbucks (free wifi) open from 7am and managed some breakfast there.

After breakfast we walked along the Ginza main drag to another station and through a bit of complicated public transport business (Subway then private railway managed to get ourselves to Tokyo Bay . We’d thought to take a river bus as a kind of scenic tour of the area (which is a kind of London Docklands but with more of a working port) but there didn’t seem to be any running so we instead took the monorail back into Shinbashi – this was a decent second best as it did a tour of the bay area, including a fly-by of the literally ‘ship-shape’ Tokyo Maritime Museum and the Tokyo Statue of Liberty before swooping back into the city, high above the streets between office blocks and apartment buildings. Another subway got us back to our hotel in time to check out at 11.

At this point Randall declined to join me on a mini-shopping trip to buy the t-shirt I’d spotted in Harajuku on Sunday:

Comedy slogan t-shirt

Comedy slogan t-shirt

…so he headed off to the park to chill out while I stopped at the weird vending-machine noodle bar on Basketball street for lunch, which (once I had figured out the ticketing and ordering system) turned out to be great:

Tue30-1

Ramen, vegetables and gyoza.

and then headed up to Harajuku to poke about the shops. As it turns out I’d like to come back but with quite a bit more spare cash! (hello, Bettie Page cardigan in Hysteric Glamour for £250)

We met back up at the hotel to pick up our bags and headed to the station to catch our connecting train to Shinagawa, from where we would get on the Shinkansen to Kyoto.

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Written by helenbcn

April 28, 2013 at 11:01 pm

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