We are in Tokyo after having found a discount airfare and the ability to buy one of our two tickets on frequent flier points. It’s autumn and the weather is fine and cool and there are gold and yellow autumn colours everywhere. We are staying at Shinjuku which makes it easy to get around as we are only 200 metres from Tokyo’s busiest station. Over 2 million people pass through it every day!
So far, we have spent four days exploring this city. We found a very easy way to do it through the Tokyo visitors centre which is located in the Tokyo Government Building across the road from our hotel. They publish a series of walking guides to the major districts of Tokyo so it is easy to catch a train to the starting point (always a station) and follow the walk, seeing all the major attractions, and then onto another station to finish. We have found that we can easily fit one of these tours into a leisurely day.
This is a very interesting place – it’s certainly in Asia, but its not really Asian – it’s actually different – it’s Japanese. We’ve made a number of observations in our travels that are interesting:
1. There is no CBD in Tokyo. The city sprawls over a large area and has a number of regional centres centred around the railway network that serve as a number of city hubs. Each has its own character. Shinjuku, where we are staying is a district of offices and skyscrapers. Our hotel room, for example, is on the 38th floor and we look over to the much taller Government Building.
2. Tokyo is expensive, but it doesn’t need to be. I noticed that the standard rate for our hotel room is $450 per night. We are paying much less than that as we booked a special deal over the Internet. In fact, we are paying no more for this nice room than we would for a hotel room in Sydney. A meal in the hotel restaurants would cost over $100 per head ($8 for a cup of coffee). Instead we walk a hundred metres or so down to the shopping area near the station and pay between $9 – $13 for a meal of noodles, rice or tempura. We also get something of the local atmosphere for free! The hotel has a convenience shop where we can buy a bottle of Australian Wine for $10 so it’s back to the room for a tipple after dinner. However, we hit the jackpot today because in the food department of a department store we found cantaloupes on sales at a price of $160 for two!
3. On the first time we came to Japan, we noticed that people openly stared at us because we were foreigners and different. Now, there is none of that. We see quite a lot of western people on our walks, so perhaps local people have become used to us.
4. It’s actually very easy to get around the major cities in Japan. Although it took us a little while on our first day to find a map of the train system with English names, most signs are bi-lingual. The train system is easy to navigate if you know what line to catch and where to change trains. (We haven’t worked out how top buy a transfer ticket from one railway line (company) to another yet, so up until now, we have been buying separate fares for each sector).
Fares are really quite inexpensive. The other day, our train trip from Shinjuku to Euno (30 minutes) cost $1.90. Even in some of the out of the way restaurants in which we have stopped for lunch, they have English menus, or in one case, enough English to explain the choices in the Japanese only menu. Almost every restaurant has a display of its dishes made out of plastic by the entrance, so if it comes to the worst, all you have to do is to take the waiter out to the front door and point to your preferred selection.
5. People here are very helpful. On a number of occasions, various people have asked if they can assist us while we have been looking at our map or the railway timetable. One man was even prepared to go out of his way and escort us all the way to the station that we were trying to reach (20 minutes away).
6. Tokyo has become a ‘non smoking city (of sorts). People can still smoke in restaurants, but smoking on the street and in office buildings is not allowed. Each building has a defined area that is roped off where smokers must stand.
7. Everyone wears black or dark coloured clothing. If you want to stand out like a Macaw, just wear a bright coloured coat or jacket! When the pedestrian lights change at an intersection, all you can see is a swarm of black figures crossing the street in either direction. Some older women can still be seen in their traditional Kimono in the streets although we see a lot of very beautifully dressed women around the hotel because it has a large function centre and wedding facility. One night as we were catching the lift to our floor, I noticed a very dignified and elegant woman assessing my height. I gave her a smile in return I received the very slightest of nods and the faintest upturn of the mouth. Very exotic!
8. This seems to be a very ordered society. In many places, crossing attendants or police direct pedestrian traffic and it is a mortal sin to disobey their directions. Every underground office car park has an attendant that will usher you past the entrance, or stop you if there is a car coming. Signs everywhere provide instructions as to how to do things.
9. Mobile phones are simply an extension of the individual. The Japanese decorate them with baubles that dangle from the phone in great quantities. There are shelf after shelf of these phone decorations in the stores. Whilst phones are banned on the trains, everyone is either sending / receiving text messages or watching video as they travel.
10. It is easy to get access to money, as every post office has an ATM linked to the Cirrus / Maestro networks. Unfortunately, post offices close on Saturdays and Sundays, but Citibank branches have 24 hour ATMS.
11. The Japanese have a real fetish about cleanliness. For example, it is frowned upon to blow one’s nose in public (much to my difficulty). Toilets are spotless and there is not a piece of litter anywhere. In the coffee shops, you are provided with a pair of tongs to select the individually wrapped cookies or cake. The Japanese, then eat them with a spoon or fork so that they don’t have to touch them.
Anyway, back to our travels and walking tours.
On our first day, we slept in and just spent the day looking around this area of Shinjuku. There is an observatory on the top of the Government Building that provides a good view as far as to Mt Fuji although it was too cloudy to see it on the day that we were there. There is a busy shopping area around the station and we spent some time exploring and gathering some of the items that we had been requested to take back home.
On our second day, we managed (after a little initial difficulty) to find our way on the train to Asakusa. This is an old area of Tokyo and has the oldest temple in Tokyo (built in 628). It was fascinating to stroll through the back streets and see little Japanese inns and tiny shops selling interesting things for which we could not understand their use.
One area was full of gaming parlours and was written up in the Lonely Planet as a place where the mafia (Yukusa) are prevalent. While we didn’t notice anyone with a missing part of their little finger, we did see a lot of police in the neighbourhood. Slot machines are illegal in Japan so the substitute is a game called Pachinko. In the Pachinko Parlours, there are banks of gaming machines with ball bearings falling through them. The skill (luck) is to catch as many ball bearings as possible. The noise is deafening. Somehow, these ball bearings get changed into prizes such as soft toys which are then exchanged into money – but it is not really gambling!
Our third day saw us travelling to Akihabara, the heart of Tokyo’s electronic industry. Across the plaza from the station is the famous Yodobashi Camera store. This is a building as big as the the Myer Bourke Street store and has nine floors of electronics – PC components in the basement, phones and computers on the ground floor, software on the second, cameras on the third, printers and copiers on the fourth etc etc. It was like being in heaven! Jill was bored out her brain within three minutes, but I could have spent al whole day just looking around. We did make the time useful by buying Jill a pink mouse for her computer. From ‘Electric City’, we walked onwards to find one of the least expected sites in Japan – a Russian Orthodox Church. A little further on, it was upstairs to a little restaurant for a great lunch and then to the Kanda area where there are many shops selling musical instruments and books. Finally, we reached the moat and gardens of the Imperial Palace where the Royal Family live.
Today, we caught the JR Line around its circle route to Shibuya – one of Tokyo’s great fashion areas. It seemed that we went from one fashion extreme to the other. At first, we began by walking down the very ‘ritzy’ Ometesando Boulevarde which is full of designer stores and upmarket fashion shops. It is a little like being in Paris – a broad tree-lined road with distinguished stores along its entire length. Everyone as very elegantly dressed.
At the western end however, we moved into the area around Takeshita Dori (St) and Yoyogi Park which is favoured by Tokyo teenagers (mostly girls) as a fashion area. Some of the fashions are just unbelievable and could only be found in Japan. It seemed to be quite OK to stand in the middle of the street and take photographs as people walked past. It was as though this was expected and part of the rational behind the weird outfits.
Tomorrow is another day and we will see what we can manage to fit into our time.