Tokyo (Japan part 3 of 3)
Trip Start Oct 20, 2008
19Trip End Oct 20, 2009
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Groggy & crusty-eyed we were spat off the overnight bus in Kyoto and set off to find a hostel we'd earmarked. We walked & we lugged. We walked further, checked & twisted the map then lugged back. We asked around - some pointed left, others right & one woman said it was "broken". We continued to chase our tails until Fi randomly ducked down a tiny alley & found a cloth 'cat-flap’ rising 3 feet off the floor & between 2 breezeblock walls. Rather strangely (& frankly quite rudely) Fiona poked her head in & pulled back a tiny sliding door – only to reveal what she called “the inside of a store cupboard”. Hopelessly lost & with aching shoulders we checked the map again. Suddenly, a milky-white old man emerged from the flap babbling Japanese (no doubt looking for the burglar who’d just tried to break in). We asked him for directions to the hostel & you’ve probably guessed by now but this was in fact…it!
We checked in at the ‘store cupboard’ reception (one at a time) & having to shuffle 360 on the spot to reveal a steep, narrow staircase behind us. As is the norm we were split up into male / female dorms. Each dorm being about 3m x 6m with 8 bunks and a sink squashed in. The old man slept in the dorm with us & sat around all day watching TV.
We checked out some of the 1600 Shinto & Buddhist temples dotted around the city and wandered into Gion, a traditional area of the city famous for its mysterious Geisha girls & teahouses.
After feeling like we’d been walking forever we decided to try & the very Japanese pastime of visiting ‘the bathhouse’ 5 minutes walk into a residential area from our hostel. We said goodbye to each other again (separate bath areas) and, as we’d been told in Beppu, stripped down to the birthday suits. Trying to discretely follow etiquette I sat on a small stool & washed under taps surrounding the room. Next, into a hot communal bath – then cold shower – then joined a naked man doing dips in the sauna. With my vision clouding over from the heat I wandered out trying to hold on to consciousness & dignity and into what I thought was a cold bath. Eager to get in I plunged my foot over the side ready to immerse myself. Instantly, a bolt of pain shot up my leg & jolted my entire body. Who installs an electric bath for chrissakes!?
The next night we watched live sumo on the TV with the milky old man in the impossibly small common area & told him we had tickets for one of the days in Tokyo. Happy with this he brought out his 4litre plastic bottles of Whisky, Brandy & some Korean Paint Stripper & then proceeded to carry out some Sumo moves on me in what was probably the puniest Sumo match ever!
With an 11-hour bus ride to Tokyo we arrived around 8pm. The bright lights flashed below us on the lofted expressway. A rollercoaster on top of a skyscraper, huge animated advertising boards & endless streets of shops, people & neon all flew by – we were going to love it! The largest city on the planet, 4 times the size of London & with 30-odd million people flying around the best way to approach our 7 days was really to wander the streets & see where we ended up.
The 3rd day there it was my birthday & after a one woman chorus of Happy Birthday with crabsticks for candles failed to raise an eyebrow amongst the sullen laptop gazers in the hostel ‘common room’ we went out for the day visiting the photography museum, the parasite museum(!) and the Sapporo Beer Museum. I had arranged to meet up with Jon, my good mate at university who I’d not seen for nearly 11 years and who’d been living out there for 6 years or so teaching at an international school. He had kindly arranged for us to stay at his colleague’s flat – the Scouse PE teacher, Matt, for our last 5 days in Japan while he dealt with his newborn twins. Staying at Matt’s place was great, a chance to recharge in comfortable surroundings, (not least having our own double bed) and he made us really welcome.
So that night we met Jon at Shibuya – by the busiest crossing in the world (1000’s crisscrossing from 6 sides). We had a quick drink & joined Stef, Jon’s girlfriend, and after eventually coaxing Fiona into the glass elevator went for dinner & Mojitos in a 15th floor restaurant. The strange, camp and heavily French Maitre’D was ridiculous, revealing each dish with a flourish & a humble retreat. After the meal I was presented to the whole kitchen staff as the birthday boy & received a chorus of bows like a visiting dignitary. Humbling retreat ourselves we piled into a neon pink 24-hour Karaoke place & belted out soft rock classics until 3am.
Over the course of our remaining days we visited Ginza, Shinjuku, Yo-Yogi Park (where the manga-inspired goth kids hangout all dressed up), got horribly lost somewhere & went on a staff night out with Matt & Jon not failing to notice the obvious layers of politics that inevitably follows socializing & working together in this alien, leviathan of a city.
Our last major attraction was to see the Sumo, which was luckily in town whilst we were there. A 15-day festival (8am-6pm everyday) steeped in religious ritual & symbolism where each fighter has one fight, one round every day in their division. We took our seats in the enormous arena where you could bring your own grog & food & watched fat men first perform age-old rituals then grapple each other in nappies on the large slab of clay in the centre. Great fun! The rules were very simple – get the fat man opposite you out or down by any means possible. Of course, healthy & safety rules dictate that kicking & closed fist punching are no longer allowed.
All in all Japan was ridiculously impressive from the impossibly efficient Metro Service always to the millisecond to the lack of crime & cleanliness the whole place seemed to work like clockwork. The culture of respect for each other and, probably more importantly, each other’s space meant the toilet cleaner had the same pride in their work as a doctor and people could decorate lampposts & pavements with potted plants without fear of vandalism. Obviously without a socially acceptable outlet to ‘let off steam’ when things go wrong they go really wrong but the government had a novel way of cutting down on the about of businessmen jumping in front of subway trains by heavily fining the families they left behind. Even a suicidal maniac couldn’t live with the shame & suicides dropped dramatically! Anyway, this has gone on long enough (and I never even mentioned their stupendous toilets and half-hour ‘love’ hotels with waterproof televisions!?)
Our flight to LAX from Narita, Tokyo was going to take 11 hours but meant us getting there 8 hours earlier than when we had set off. However much we thought about the implications of time & space in crossing the International Date Line one thing was certain - It was going to be one long Monday…..