Trip Start Dec 04, 2011
10Trip End Jan 12, 2012
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Where I stayed
Without doubt the worst day of the holiday by far all thanks to United Airlines. I arrived at the airport at 4am to check in for my 6am flight to LA only to be told that this had been rescheduled to 9.30am in October. When I asked why no-one had bothered to tell me the woman at the check in counter just shrugged and told me airlines do this all the time. I pointed out that normal airlines with a concept of customer service had the professionalism to notify their customers when they did this, which only succeeded in eliciting another shrug. As a result I arrived in LA just as my connecting flight to Tokyo was taking off.
I contacted the QANTAS desk as soon as we arrived and was told that the next flight they could get me on using my frequent flyer points wasn't until the 9th which means I would have arrived in Tokyo on the 10th and lost 2 night's of accommodation I had prepaid (almost $700) plus only have one day to look around Tokyo
I had a glass of champagne in the Relax lounge to celebrate and read the LA Times (at last an English newspaper – I’ve been almost completely out of touch with what’s been happening in the world for the last three weeks, but really I guess that’s what holidays are all about). I had a pizza in the terminal after clearing immigration and a couple of rum and cokes at the bar opposite ($8 with an option to upgrade to doubles for another $3, which I took up of course). Flight was full but not bad for 11 hours in economy. We had beef linguini and a Caesar Salad for dinner and I had a few reds and finished my book before dropping one of the last of my Thai sleeping pills. These things really work as even curled up in my little seat with no leg room to speak of I still managed to get 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep, waking when they turned on the cabin lights in preparation for breakfast
Caught a cab into Shibuya - another advantage of flying into Haneda is that it’s only 10 kms from the centre of Tokyo and while still an expensive taxi fare (about $110) nowhere near as bad as the one from Narita which is 65 kms away and costs over $300.
It was almost midnight and the streets were quiet as we drove through central Tokyo to the hotel. It’s seemed clean and organised and structured, and the Bruce Cockburn song "Tokyo" kept playing over and over in my head; "Oh Tokyo, I never can sleep in your arms..."
The Cerulean Towers is a lovely hotel and my corner room on the 30th floor has great views over the Tokyo skyline to both west and north. I dumped the bags and asked reception for a map and directions to the closest place I could get a bite to eat and a drink. The girl suggested a place called Syoyo and marked it on the map for me.
It was past midnight now and the streets were very quiet and empty, but I still managed to find a few places open. I wandered into a little karaoke bar which consisted of a tiny kitchenette and one half-moon-shaped table surrounded by a banquette where a couple of old Japanese guys were taking it in turns to sing, not surprisingly, Japanese songs.
The lady who ran the place was really sweet – I don’t think she got many tourists in as she bent over backwards to make me feel at home
I had a Cuba Libre at a bar called Rooney’s which is just a few doors further along the street and down a flight of stairs. It was quite cool with a half dozen young Japanese sitting around drinking and talking quietly while a Juventas game was playing on the TV’s scattered around the bar.
The night was cold and clear as I walked the 10 minutes back to my hotel – much like a winter’s night in Melbourne and much more comfortable than the snow and sleet and sub zero temperatures I’d been fantasising about
I left the curtains open last night so I could watch the city lights in bed and consequently woke as soon as it was light. It’s a beautiful day - cloudless blue sky and clear enough that I can see the snow capped summit of Mt Fuji on the western horizon through my window.
Went out for my first orientation walk. The little strip of restaurants I discovered last night was not the one the girl marked on my map – I turned left when I should have turned right. This morning I headed in the right direction (which in fact was right). Just a few doors down from the hotel there’s a little Japanese cafe, complete with plastic replicas of the food in the window, each of them with a number.
There’s a type of vending machine inside the front door where you order
Around the corner there’s a quiet side street with a few bars and restaurants, which may be Syoyo, or maybe not. Still, worth a look later on today. One of the restaurants had a cage outside with a couple of goats in it. I asked the girl who worked there if they were for eating. Happily she just laughed and said they were pets. They were very friendly and liked being patted, which I did for a few minutes while she cleaned out their cage.
A little further on is a 7 11 (there’s supposedly one in the hotel as well but I couldn’t find it last night). I bought a flask of Japanese whisky and a couple of cokes for room cocktails and a selection of cold meats whose origins remain a mystery as the labels of course are in Japanese. The total cost was 1,218 yen, or about $15.
Checked out the restaurant and bar on the 40th floor which has great views and a selection of good cheeses including a Roquefort and a Forme D’ambert
I asked one of the girls at reception the way to the Meiji shrine and she pointed it out on the map, suggesting I take the train from Shibuya station as it’s only one stop away, but as it’s apparently only 20 minutes on foot I decided to walk there and get the train back. Apparently the busiest part of Shibuya is along the way and is filled with izakayas so I might use this as a planning trip for the bar crawl I’m planning for later in the day.
I crossed the pedestrian walkway (which is the only safe way to cross the expressway that runs in front of the Cerulean) and headed in the general direction of Yoyogi Gardens and the Meiji Shrine, walking through some narrow pedestrian-only alleyways lined with little eateries and bars. I stopped at one called Standing Sushi Bar, which is exactly what it is – a little preparation area with a glass cabinet filled with fresh fish surrounded by a horseshoe shaped counter where you stand and eat you sushi. I ordered a couple of pieces of anagi (conger eel) and a white fish which I can’t remember the name of, both of which were good. I asked the guy if they sold sake, thinking this might be a good place to come back to this evening
I walked on a bit further and found another Standing Sushi Bar. At first I thought I must have somehow walked around in a circle but on closer inspection found that this was a different place – there must be a chain of these in Tokyo. I was still a little peckish so I ordered some aji (Japanese jack mackerel) and octopus with mayo on top seared with a blow torch before serving. Once again, very fresh and tasty.
I was standing on the footpath looking at my map when a guy stopped and asked in broken English what I was looking for. I told him I wanted to go to the Meiji Shrine near Yoyogi Park. He said he was going there as well and so we walked the rest of the way together. When we arrived at the front gate (which looks like something out of Rashomon) he gestured for me to wait then ran over to one of the people manning the entrance then returned with a brochure explaining the site in English. This is just one example of how friendly and helpful the Japanese have been in the short time I’ve been here. They really are a lovely people. I had an Asahi at the café near the entrance and read the brochure before going in.
The shrine and the park surrounding it was very crowded as apparently I arrived on Coming of Age Day, an annual holiday held on the 2nd Monday every January to celebrate everyone who turned 20 over the past year
They were also selling Ema from a little stall in the shrine’s courtyard. These small wooden plaques are used as votive offerings – people write their wishes on them and hang them on a wall for the kami (spirits) to review and hopefully grant. I bought two for 500 yen each, writing my wish on one and retaining the other as a souvenir. Most of them are in Japanese, however I saw a few in English, French and I think Thai.
A girl asked me to take a video of here on her iphone filling one in for her teacher’s upcoming wedding which I did, then asked her to take one of me hanging up my ema. Walked back to the room and checked my flight home for Wednesday (I don’t trust anyone else to do it for me after yesterday’s debacle) then had a beer and updated the journal. (They charge for wifi here – 1,050 yen a day which I thought was unusual for a 5 start hotel.)
It’s 4.15 now and already the horizon is pink with the onset of dusk. It was a perfect day weather wise – like one of those clear, crisp winter’s days you get in Sydney
The restaurant hadn’t opened yet so I had a Martini at the bar which has sensational views over Tokyo on three sides. At 1400 yen, possibly the most expensive drink of the holiday so far, but worth it to watch the sunset over Mt Fuji!
I decided to concentrate the bars on this side of the expressway on the assumption they would be quieter than the ones in the centre of Shibuya. The first place I tried was a little local establishment with 4 tables and half a dozen stools at the bar. There were two guys working the kitchen and a girl waiting tables and a couple of guys eating at the counter. I think it was called Ramen Nishiki but as no-one spoke English I couldn’t confirm this. I ordered a plate of fried dumplings - like gyoza but different – with salad and mustard on the side, and a little flask of Nihon Suyu sake for 450 yen. The sake was hot and sweet and quite good. One of the guys at the counter finished his meal and lit up a cigarette so I asked for the bill (850 yen) and left.
Goku Ton is a traditional Japanese restaurant with a wooden bench along the counter and thin cushions to sit on
The next bar was called Sakura Gaoka. Sheena Easton’s Morning Train was playing on the sound system but I stayed anyway and had a Myers Rum and coke for 520 yen. Both guys working the bar were friendly and spoke a bit of English – one of them had actually visited Sydney – so I chatted to them and took a few photos.
A couple more drinks at a bar called Fujiyu Honten Dining Bar (which had tables but no chairs) followed by a nightcap at Kong which was playing the complete works of Jim Iriquois on video disk. I finished the night off with a cheese plate at the Cerulean bar – Forme D’ambert, Epoisse and something called Peppoli (I think). By this time I’d started to nod off so decided to call it a night.
I had brunch at Kojimachi Curry which is right next door to the ramen restaurant I ate at yesterday. I have no idea what I ordered, but it was very good. Some kind of battered rissole with a tasty curry sauce and rice.
One of the guys at Sakura Gaoka last night recommended I visit the Buddhist temple of Senso-ji in Asakusa so I decided to make that my tourist attraction du jour. The train from Shibuya to Asakusa only costs 230 yen and the trip takes about 30 minutes. The temple is only 15 minutes walk from the station down Nakamise Dori which is a pedestrian only street lined with souvenir and food shops. I stopped at one for a caramel ice cream (300 yen). I'd been searching unsuccesfully for some postcards since I arrived and finally found a place here that sold them for 90 yen each.
Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple and was built in 645AD. The story goes that two brothers were fishing in the Sumida River and when they pulled in their net found a golden statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon (also known as Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy).
You enter through the Kaminarimon or "Thunder Gate” which has a massive red-and-black paper lantern hanging over the top of the stairs to suggest thunderclouds and lightning
There are a number of places where you can get your fortune told for 100 yen by shaking metal canisters full of yarrow sticks until one pokes out of a small hole in the top. Each stick has a number in Japanese script engraved on it. You then open the draw with the corresponding number and take out a sheet of paper with your fortune written on it. I drew “Bad Fortune” but as I didn’t read the instructions first I thought this didn’t count so I tried again and got “Best Fortune” which I was much happier with.
There are quite a number of structures in the complex and some interesting rituals. One involved buying little rolls of paper, setting these on fire and then wafting the smoke in your face. There was also a fountain with dippers that people were using to wash their hands – I saw something similar at the Meiji Shrine yesterday.
Caught the train back to Shibuya and bought a slice of strawberry cream cake from a place called Crazy Corner across the road from the station which I’ll have for desert when I get home from dinner, which I’m about to head out for now. Dropped some postcards at reception on the way out – the guy at the desk said he would post them for me so I left him enough money for the stamps (70 yen per card).
First drinks at a bar called Wide Open - a Kanpai Cup which was served in the jar with no glass (800 yen). It was only 5.15 so not surprisingly the only person there beside me was the barman
My next stop was Abbott’s Choice, an Irish bar, where I had a half pint of Guinness. The barman was painstakingly shaving ice into perfect spheres to put into drinks which seemed a little anal to me. After that I found a place downstairs below street level called Tomocha. There was a little language difficulty at first as the menu was in Japanese and no-one spoke any English. I ordered a green tea instead of a sake but this was soon resolved and I got a couple of sticks of chicken yakitori as well which came with a spicy paste served on a wooden spoon. Very good.
Not sure of the name of the place I stopped at next but I sat at the bar and was given a little bowl of black shredded seaweed to nibble on while I drank my sake. I also ordered three pieces of unagi sushi which was delicious. Had another sake at a place called Gin Jishi which had a French flavoured menu and acid jazz playing on the sound system. At 940 yen a drink it was quite expensive so I moved on to an izakaya called Hagaya. This was a real local place with a few suits sitting around the horseshoe bar drinking and chatting, one of whom offered to translate the menu for me
Cloudy this morning, the last of my stay in Tokyo and of my whole holiday. The concierge confirmed my flights home yesterday and booked the limousine bus to pick me up at 12.50pm to take me to the airport - at 3,000 yen a much more reasonable option then the 23,000 yen it costs to get a cab there! Time for one last look around Shibuya.
I found a packet of crab sticks in the fridge left over from my shopping spree at the 7 11 so decided to eat these before heading out for my real breakfast. They’re individually wrapped in little plastic cylinders and actually very tasty. Had the ebi soba again at the place next to the Cerulean which was just as good as the first time. Also asked the lady who confirmed my flight yesterday to find out when it opens – not till 5pm as it turned out, so I rebooked the shuttle bust pick up for 3.20 which gets me to the airport at around 5.15.
I checked out at 11am, left my bags in storage and walked to Cinetown where I saw Fright Night in 3D in English with Japanese sub titles. It was actually pretty good for the genre with a cast that included Colin Farrell as the vampire and Toni Collete as the mum next door. David Tennant (one of the recent Dr Whos) was also in it. As my diet was blown long ago I took in a hotdog, a tub of ice cream and a couple of Krispy Kreme donuts. I still had an hour to kill before the Limousine Bus left so I just wandered around the back streets of Shibuya looking at the people and the little alleys with their flags and lanterns, izakayas and noodle shops
The bus to Narita passed through mostly commercial industrial areas, including the port, so not a scenic drive. After two beautiful days in Tokyo – clear blue skies, crisp but not overly cold - it started to cloud over before I left and began to rain about half way to the airport. Once again it seems the good weather is following me around as apart from a bit of drizzle one day in New Orleans, an hour of rain in Barbados (which fell coincidentally while I was having an hour massage at the hotel spa) and a little more drizzle in San Juan Chamulan (which I think was just actually a result of me walking through cloud as the village is at such a high altitude) the weather has been perfect for the last five weeks, even in the places it usually isn't this time of year.
I’m sitting in the QANTAS lounge now at the bench along the window that looks out onto the tarmac nursing a Suntory and Coke. Gate 82 (from where QF22 will soon leave to take me to Sydney) is right next to us and the plane is already at the sky gate, so it appears there won’t be any delays due to the late arrival of our aircraft.
This has been a great trip – one of the top three or maybe four of my life. Every place I’ve been I’ve enjoyed, and some places like New Orleans, Oaxaca and Puerto Vallarta I could quite happily live in.
It’s also been exciting because everything was brand new - I’ve never visited any of the cities I stayed in before and four of the five countries I travelled through were for the first time as well
The opportunity to experience, however briefly, a range of disparate and unique cultures was obviously fascinating, and this in a broad sense covers just about everything from architecture to history to food. Travel is essentially sensuous in that it appeals to all the senses; the stench of raw sewerage wafting up through the grates in downtown Mexico City, the cool smoothness of an obsidian mask at Teotihuacan, the sound of church bells marking time in Oaxaca and San Cristobal, the spectacular colours of a St Lucia sunset, the blend of spices and technique that make each cuisine unlike the others, but all still delicious in their own way, all these things will stay with me for the rest of my life.
So, the highlights. The food, with some exceptions, has been excellent, and in a few cases outstanding. The Tlayudas at Los Danzantes were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before, the bowl of ramen with ebi I had for breakfast at the little noodle shop near the Cerulean Towers was wonderful and the grilled lobster on the beach in Barbados was simple, elegant and delicious. But for overall taste and innovation, dinner at GW Finns in New Orleans has to take first place - and their lobster ravioli was nothing short of extraordinary.
Best tour is also a tough decision
Best hotel is also a tough one, but based on overall value for money this has to go to the Gran Hotel Cuidad de Mexico. Sensational location with a balcony overlooking the Zocalo, gorgeous deco interior capped by the spectacular stained glass ceiling and all the comforts of a 4-5 star hotel for less than $140 a night.
As to the best tourist attraction, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve always been interested in pre-Columbian culture so visiting the ruins at Monte Alban and Teotihuacan were a dream come true. The gorgeous deco buildings in South Beach were also marvellous, as was the natural beauty of Barbados and St Lucia, but for me the trip to San Juan Chamulan and the opportunity to see at first hand its strange syncretic religion was a unique experience and unlike anything I’ve ever seen or done before.
And the Oscar for best city goes to…. New Orleans!!
The only downside I see is how I'm going to top this next year!