One angry old man against the world
This holiday was number of years ago and the only holiday in many years, but I thought my ramblings may still be of some use to those thinking of holidaying there, although the prices in the ‘scanned’ brochures may have changed some.
I have always been fascinated with all things Japanese and saved for many years for this one month, it was the best holiday of the few I have had in my lifetime.
Most of the photographs are from a friend who also visited there later the same year. –Spikey
The flight out was something of a nightmare, on arrival at Paris, no one told me that there was a transfer bus; I was told to follow the transfer signs, which I did. I finished up in the main hall where I asked a guy in uniform where my gate was, I was told to follow the ‘J2’ signs. I walked the whole length of the airport and had to go through customs again before arriving at my gate to find it closed 15 minutes before the time on my ticket. I was refused entry by a very belligerent woman from AIR FRANCE who sent me to a desk where I was told I would have to wait for another 11 hours for the next flight, I was not the only one caught out by this disorganised airline, about a dozen others were in the same boat. On mentioning jokingly that my luggage was on its way to Japan, the woman behind the counter said “Oh no, it will be taken off this flight and put on the next one.” To which I replied, “If you can take my luggage off, why can’t you put me on?” Which almost started a riot among the other passengers.
To pass the time, I located a complaints form and told them what I thought of their airline, needless to say, I would never fly with Air France again, assuming I get the chance of another holiday.
It was a 12-hour flight plus an additional 7 hours for time difference, so I didn’t arrive until 5PM the following day and after going through customs, it was about 6:30 local time before I boarded a train to Tokyo. Strange thing was that it was already dark outside; I was too knackered to do anything when I got to the hotel, so I had a shower and went to bed.
I was woken at 4:30AM by a delivery truck and it was beginning to get light so I couldn’t get back to sleep, not that I slept very well anyway. People seem to start work real early in Japan and as my view from the hotel window was of lots of offices, it was something I studied a lot. The truck that woke me was delivering to a shop on the corner called AM-PM; the place never closed even on Sunday and sold the most delicious sandwiches, but more on that later.
My first trip was to a place called AKIHABARA, also known as Electric Town. To get there I had to travel on the underground, an experience that even on my last day I still found amazing, so efficient and so well organized yet cheap. How its done I know not when the London underground charges ten times as much and claims to be losing money and no the Japanese one is not all subsidised, three quarters of it is private companies and they wouldn’t do it if there were no profit.
Anyway, Electric Town; on leaving the station, I spied a large crowd waiting outside a very large electrical store; they were waiting for it to open, so I joined the queue. When I got inside, I found an enormous place with each floor as big as 4 football pitches, each one dedicated to a particular type of product. Like; one floor was all TV and Video another all computers, yet another for games and game machines. The place was so vast that by 2-o-clock my feet were so sore I thought of returning to the hotel, but then I discovered that the top floor was all small restaurants so I had a meal and a rest and continued my exploration. I didn’t buy anything although tempted, apart from a couple of electrical adapters to Japanese for my shaver and various chargers. I returned to the hotel totally knackered and decided to go again tomorrow.
I went to Tokyo station to look around for the place they always show on TV when they show Tokyo, the one with all the pedestrian crossings that go in all directions and the giant video screens. Couldn’t find it, came back to the station intending to get a ticket to Akihabara, but this was the JR Line and they made no concession to foreigners, everything was in Japanese, the ticket machines, the station displays, (its the only line I saw that does this,) so I decided to walk, it was only a couple of stops. The JR Line is all up on stilts above ground, so it was easy to follow. This was when I discovered how courteous and disciplined the people are, all major road junctions have traffic lights and the red/green man system for pedestrians, people wait for the green man before crossing and drivers seem much more tolerant, no honking or bad manners. The main roads are enormous, their idea of a lane seems to be the width of two cars and I didn’t see any bad parking even on the small back streets.
On arrival at the same store, I went looking for a particular MP3 player that I had seen on CLICK and other ‘TECH’ TV programs. Sony stuff seemed to have the most shelf space, but talk about being spoilt for choice, there were hundreds of different models from different manufacturers, I just didn’t know where to begin. Many had headphones connected so I began to listen to them and very good they were too. After a while, I began to discern differences, some were clearer, some sharper, some with better bass. Then I found the make I was looking for, IRIVER and they had 5 models on show, I listened to the one recommended and it was indeed very good, but they had another model that had many more features, the bass was better and was only slightly more expensive, so I brought that instead.
It rained, and when it rains in Japan, it chucks it down. I discovered that the hotel had a couple of computers connected to the NET, you had to pay for the use of them of course and at 350 Yen per half hour, was not exactly cheap, but at least I could contact home, which I did. By midday I was getting really hungry, the hotel had a couple of restaurants but they were very expensive, so when the rain eased, I popped out to the AM-PM shop on the corner where I discovered a great selection of sandwiches and ready meals that they heat up for you in microwaves behind the counter. (I discovered later that they were called ‘Bento Boxes.’)
Because it was in the office district, I soon discovered that midday was not a good time to shop there; it was packed with people all buying food. Someone once told me that if you are looking for good food, go where the locals go. After my meal, I saw why the place was so popular; the food was absolutely delicious and very cheap, the sandwiches started at 170 Yen (just over a Euro, exchange rate 1:166 at that time) and were the freshest I have ever tasted and the ready meals started at 300 Yen. Most of those were local type meals, so I have no idea what I was eating, apart from rice and noodles, the rest was a mystery, but a pleasant assault on the taste buds. (I still used to dream about those meals after many months back home.) My friend said that because the food was so healthy, I would lose weight; problem was that because it was so gorgeous, I found myself eating more of it. They also sold some sushi dishes, but I preferred the local stuff, it was cheaper and tastier anyway.
(Sorry, I reduced the image size, and now the prices are unreadable. But that grapefruit is 920 Yen and the middle and lower shelf are like a 1000 to 1500 Yen.)
According to a local map that the hotel gave me, just around the corner was the Zojoji Temple, so I decided to take a look. The Temple was situated behind an impressive gigantic wooden gate, well back in its own grounds surrounded by loads of shrines, big and small. Shrines are a very Japanese phenomenon; I thought at first that they were just devoted to various Gods, but it turns out that a shrine could be for anyone if enough people want it. I read in a free ‘English’ paper that a shrine in one town behind a theatre was to a woman who was poisoned by her husband many years ago, the method and duration of her death was so horrific that the local people took up a collection for a shrine to be built for her. Over time various stories grew up about her being so angry about her death, that anyone who passed her shrine and did not give a prayer suffered much bad luck. Such that the whole cast and crew of the theatre would go to her shrine and give prayers before each performance.
Back to Zojoji; the main Temple was massive with lots of smaller temple like buildings, one of which was another Temple; the others I think were accommodation for the monks. Behind the Temple was a graveyard with the most impressive marble gravestones I have ever seen, I assume that past monks or top bods from the Temple were buried there. Each gravestone has pockets with long wooden slats sticking up that creak and slap together in the wind to frighten off the evil spirits, all very creepy when you first experience it.
Went to Jimbocho, the book district, found a great shop I’d been told about and marked on my map, they sold manga, and I brought three books. Before that, I got myself lost, now I pride myself on having a great sense of direction, but having cut through some back streets as a short cut, I arrived at a main road that did not look right on my map, (the double curve was not on the map). Most main road junctions have a “You are here” type map, so I walked to the nearest crossroads. I stood in front of the map board, comparing it with the maps that I had and became more and more confused. The Japanese do not favour the western system of North always pointing up, and their street maps are angled to match the road they are sited on. The names of the roads were in English and Japanese, but the large-scale map I had did not show any names for the roads. I stood in front of the map board, rotating the map I was carrying, trying in vain to find some kind of match, when a young Japanese man of about 19 or 20 came up and asked if he could help in perfect English. This was one of many surprises for me, the kindness and helpfulness of the Japanese people never failed to amaze me for the whole month I was there. I knew where the place was on my map, pointed to it, the guy said it was three blocks down that road (pointing), I walked three blocks and there it was.
The Rappongi district is famous for its nightclubs and most of the embassies are sited there, so I thought perhaps the place they always show on TV would be there, it wasn’t. I saw lots of very expensive buildings used as embassies, funny how countries that always plead poverty in the West can find lots of money to spend to impress in the East. As it was during the day, I didn’t see much of the nightclubs, but what I did see was impressive. Beautiful architecture, a road system that made much of Europe look like toy town along with people who are well mannered, helpful and accommodating. If I could live anywhere in the world, then Tokyo would be my first choice. (I’m not sure the extremes of weather and temperature would be to my liking through.)
It was raining again, so I went for a walk around the hotel and discovered a laundry room on the second floor with washers and driers (a hundred Yen each and a free iron) which is very reasonable considering the hotel laundry service charges per item on the list in my room (from 300 Yen for a vest to 3,000 for a suit). So I spent the morning doing my laundry. By midday the rain was easing, so I went to the corner shop and bought a couple of warm up dishes (called ‘Bento Boxes’), one was with noodles and the other with rice. I have no idea what the rest of it was, but it was bloody delicious. After lunch the rain had stopped, so I went for a walk around ‘Shiba Park’ a small park I had seen next to the Zojoji Temple. When I got there, it was full of firemen, hundreds of them. It seemed to be some kind of competition, with small groups of about six who took turns connecting a small pump to a hydrant and rolling out hoses towards a large tarpaulin which was hung from a tower, starting the pump and hosing water at the tarpaulin. The whole thing was watched, timed and filmed by some sort of committee of judges. Although they all wore the same uniform, I noticed that the badges were different for different groups. Each group effort was cheered heartily by all the others; I didn’t see any of the jeering or nastiness that you see in the west. I don’t know if it was part of the training or some kind of competition, but everyone seem to enjoy themselves. All in all, a very refreshing attitude from grown men.
The map that the hotel had given me showed that the port was not too far away so I took a walk down there. On the way, I stopped in a little coffee shop, had a cheese salad sandwich (I think that’s what it was, I just pointed to it) and a coffee. Their coffee is like the home variety, very nice. The sandwich was delicious, and covered in some kind of mayonnaise. As I got close to the port, the wind began gust quite violently and it was the first time I had seen any rubbish blowing about, mind you in that wind, I guess it was not surprising. To get to the quay-side, I walked through some kind of naval school. It had a massive mast in the centre of the courtyard, all rigged out as a traditional square rigger (old sailing ship). All around the yard were picture tiles of knots, signal flags, semaphore signals and other nautical stuff, it brought back lots of old memories, especially the knots. The quay-side was on a very large inland port, it must have been 2 or 3 miles in any direction and very choppy in the strong winds. To my right was the famous rainbow bridge and the exit to the sea. Now I always thought of the Humber Bridge as an elegant piece of engineering, but this one is truly spectacular. I took lots of pictures, but the arse-hole who stole my laptop at my home airport got all of those.
According to the map, the Ginza district was within walking distance too, so I went there. From the hotel I walked three blocks east to a main road shown on the map, which turned out to be like a motorway with wide foot paths and tall buildings along each side which got taller and more expensive looking as I got closer to the famous shopping district. Having only London’s Bond Street and Oxford Street to compare it with, this place was a hard smack in the face; I have never stood amid such wealth and opulence. The number of expensive cars on the roads and I’m talking Lamborghini’s, Ferraris, rollers, etc. Lots of women dressed like fashion models entering and leaving shops that looked like they would charge a $100 just to look in the window. This place really stank of money. Even the little police box on a large road junction, looked like something out of a Hollywood film set, shiny black marble with lots of gold inlay, (it was probably brass but it was sure well polished).
I cut down a back street to find it full of art galleries; most of them seem to be advertising old masters for sale. I thought most of the well known old masters were in big museums, but a lot of these places claimed to have them for sale, maybe one or the other are fakes, but they seemed to be doing alright judging by the expensive cars parked outside the galleries. Working my way back through the back streets, I discover a massive covered market selling nothing but sushi. I watch the locals buying and purchase a few of the more popular dishes which I enjoyed back at the hotel. (I discover later that this idea of a market dedicated to just one theme seems to be very common in Tokyo).
A damp and drizzly day and as my feet still hurt from yesterdays trek and as it was a Sunday, I decided to have a rest day. Spent the day typing up these notes, but as the laptop was stolen at the airport, I’ve got to do them all again. (Luckily, I had the dates and where I went on a sheet of paper, or none of this would exist.)
Went back to Jimbocho, the book district, it seems that in Japan, it’s not just markets that are devoted to one item or theme, but whole areas. The main book district is spread over about a square mile where every other shop sells books, but in the surrounding area, for up to another mile, I found isolated book shops down back streets and alleys. I discovered that in some places certain types of books were sold, for example; I found one whole street of shops dedicated to antique Japanese books and manuscripts.
I brought myself a small back pack because I thought it would be handy for carrying around purchases, food and drink, (and it proved to be very useful).
MacDonald’s seem to be everywhere these days and Tokyo was no different, but directly across the road was a Japanese version of the burger joint which I thought I would give a try. The Burger was brought to me in a room upstairs, it was on a large tray with a side salad, real chips (big and chunky, not the tasteless dry sticks you get in MacDonald’s), and the whole thing was not only extremely tasty, but cheaper.
One end of the room was partitioned off and sealed in glass for smokers (they can’t even smoke in the street except at designated street corners with a red box painted on the pavement and large ash receptacles which are emptied and brushed out daily). Talking of cleaning, everywhere seems so clean, even public toilets are spotless and sweet smelling, I never saw any litter apart from the garbage blowing around on that windy day at the port.
Went to Edo Castle, in the East gardens of the Imperial Palace and I have never seen such well kept gardens. The whole garden and castle are on an island surrounded by a 100 metre moat with only 3 bridges. There isn’t much left of the castle except some very impressively large earth and rock battlements with lots of pictures on boards of what it must have looked like, I think it must have been easy to defend from such heights. I took lots of still pictures, none of which I have of course.
One of the bridges led to another park called Kitanomaru Park which contained a number of museums; the one that interested me was the science and technology museum where I spent the rest of the day. The place was full of kids of all ages on school outings and they were actually enjoying themselves, lots of hands on exhibits made to make the principles easy to understand and fun. The directors of English museums could learn some important lessons on the layout and presentation of science from this place, each floor was dedicated to three or four related sciences, each in it’s own large room open to a central hub with services like food and drink, toilets, seating and escalators to the floor below and above, all in the central hub. Each room contained a university student who’s specialty was that subject, he/she was there to answer questions and to work on his/her own thesis in a private room of his own, not just good planning, but in my opinion plain common sense.
Decided to have a look at the Imperial Palace, but discovered that I was only allowed in the grounds. I tried different gates until I found a guard who spoke good English, he explained that it was possible to apply for a tour, but it took two weeks to process the application and it might be a month or more before I could be fitted in. My disappointment must have been visible and he must have taken pity on me, because he asked me to wait, went back into his office, and returned with a large coloured pamphlet all about the Palace. So I had a good look around the grounds and surrounding parks, finding lots of buildings containing art collections donated to the public by various emperors including the current one, a tradition dating back a couple of thousand years.
I noticed that there were a number of tramps around the gardens, some in groups, some individuals sleeping on benches etc. I asked back at the hotel about it and it seems that the Emperor had refused to let the police clear them out and the grounds had become a kind of sanctuary for the homeless. It seems that not just the people, but even the police respect the word of the Emperor.
Another rainy day, so I sent some e-mails and did my laundry.
Went back to Akihabara (the locals call it electric town), discovered a large covered market selling nothing but tools (electronics related) and electronic components. Spent several enjoyable hours wandering around it, I wish we had something like it at home. I even found a shop selling old glass valves, something I haven’t seen in fifty years, each shop seemed to specialise, one selling all resisters, another nothing but transistors and the selection in each shop was enormous. If I required something out of the ordinary in the UK, I usually had to send away for it. This market had it all, fantastic, the more I see of Japanese life, the more I envy it.
Something I noticed that did seem out of place was the habit of shop keepers and stall holders shouting, often very loudly, to sell their wares. A bit like ‘club row’ and ‘petticoat lane’ in the East end of London years ago. (Of course I haven’t a clue what they were shouting; it could have been insults for all I know.) Electric town seems to stretch North of Akihabara station, spreading East and West for a mile or more, so for an electronics and gadget freak like me, this place was paradise.
Yet more rain, I sat at the window watching the locals charging about. The hotel is situated in an office district, so there were lots of office workers braving the weather to get to work. I noticed that there was no fixed start or end time, there were surges at 7, 7.30, 8, 8.30, 9, 9.30, and 10 in the morning and a similar spread in the evening from about 4 onwards, (although some seemed to work very late.) I soon learned not to use the trains during these times, as they were packed, which explains the staggered times; if everyone started and finished at the same time, the transport system could not cope.
My room was on the ninth floor near the cross-roads, so I had a good view into a large number of offices, many of which still had people working when I went to bed. I also saw that most of the roofs had wire fencing around them, at first I assumed it was to keep out burglars, and then I noticed that the barbed wire on the tops faced inwards; it was to keep people in. I enquired about it the following day; it seems that Japanese office workers have the highest suicide rate in the world. (Maybe it’s not the paradise I thought it was?)
I have never been to Disneyland, and as they have one on the N/E outskirts of Tokyo I decided to go. It’s certainly well hyped, the closer I got to it on the train, the more advertising I saw. As soon as you leave the station, it’s like stepping into Disneyland, Disney tunes piped from hidden speakers everywhere, lots of pictures and mannequins of Disney characters and it’s still a half mile walk to the main entrance. The first shock was the price, even though I managed to convince the girl in the ticket office that I was a senior citizen, it still cost me 5,100 Yen which was thirty odd Euros (at these prices they could certainly afford all the hype). I was surprised how popular the place is with these charges, I was there just as it opened and with a dozen ticket offices, there was still big queues.
It’s certainly impressive when you get inside, the colours, the music, the atmosphere; it’s easy to see how they have a lasting effect on impressionable young children. You enter through a parade of shops selling over priced tat, food and drink, (I was very thankful that I brought my own in my new back pack). The end of the street opens to a vista of a large sculpture of Mickey Mouse in the foreground and the towering Disney castle in the distance. The site is split up into sections; the section I had just entered was full of themed rides like the Donald duck roundabout, the goofy theatre, the Mickey Mouse train ride and so on. Branching off of this centre section were various ‘towns’ i.e.; Toon town, Western town, medieval town, etc. I guess there is nothing really new; in Toon town, for goofy’s house read ‘the crooked house’, for the two chipmunks (I can’t remember their names) read ‘the tree house’ and so on. Western town was a bit more inventive with a trip on a river paddle steamer and Indian canoe’s for hire, but most of it could be found in any large fair or seaside amusements park.
I didn’t go on any of the ‘rides’, the queues for them were horrendous. Within an hour of my arrival the place was packed, and this is no small playground, by my estimation, there must have been close to half a million people in the place and if you multiply that by the ticket prices, the place makes millions of Euros a day and this is just one of many sites around the world. The highlight of the day was the parade which was quite good but then it could afford to be, although the music piped through large speakers hung in the trees was a bit too loud for my tastes. I left after the parade which was just after midday and was amazed at the numbers of people queuing to get in, no wonder Disney is a rich man.
I had seen the Tokyo Tower many times, walking to the station, from the nearby parks or any street facing the right direction, because of its height it’s difficult to miss. I learned from the literature that it’s the highest tower in the world, higher than the Eiffel tower. I had gone for a visit earlier in my stay, but it was some kind of national holiday and the queues were unbelievable so I thought I would try again today. I got there just as it was opening and entered with just a few dozen people, they had a special offer for old farts like me of 950 Yen all in, that was for both observatories and the attractions in foot town (a large five storey building between the feet of the tower). I decided to go up to the observatories first before the crowds arrived and the views were fantastic, particularly from the upper one, (250 metres). They claim you can see Mount Fiji, but it was a bit misty, so no such luck, but I could see for a good many miles, the whole of Tokyo was laid out below and I could see ships out at sea.
A warning to anyone who suffers from vertigo, the first observatory has large areas of glass floor, the views are stunning, but I can see problems for those afraid of heights.
Foot town was interesting, the usual souvenir shops and restaurants, including MacDonald’s of course, but unusual things too, like a trick art gallery, waxworks, aquarium, Guinness book of records museum, a jewelery shop selling rough stone and polished crystal, a hologram gallery (its amazing what they can make into a hologram) and a music shop where the owner was obviously a keen collector, with tee shirts, tapes, CD’s, and Video’s of famous artists concerts from around the world. He even had tickets, posters and programmes from old shows including a lot of Beatles stuff. I had intended to go back and buy a few bits, but I never got around to it unfortunately.
According to the maps I had, there was a large science museum on one of the man made islands in Tokyo bay. The islands could be reached by boat or by monorail, as the mono rail went over the Rainbow Bridge; I decided to take that route. The train cost 700 Yen, but was well worth it, it could climb gradients that no normal train would touch and the bridge was fantastic up close, multi-layers of roads, rails and footpaths, not that I would fancy walking, it’s so long that I think the footpaths are probably for maintenance or emergencies.
The museum was part of a large university and a fair walk from the station (Fune-no-kagakukan) through a modern, well kept campus with wide tree lined pedestrian only walks. The museum was a very large glass and steel structure that was visible in the distance down a long walkway between student quarters that would not be out of place in any well to-do area of any modern town. When I finally reached the main entrance of the building, I found to my extreme disappointment that the place was closed; a small printed notice in half a dozen languages informed me that the museum was closed on the first Tuesday of every month.
When I got off the monorail, I had seen a maritime museum shaped like a ship, next to the station, so I went back there. Now I like ships, so I may be prejudiced, but I spent a very enjoyable day in this place. They had a large pool with lots of different ‘radio controlled’ boats on it, for just a few yen you could ‘play’ for 15 minutes at being ‘captain’ of a tanker or a destroyer, great fun.
The top floor was like the deck of a ship with all the usual super-structure including the ‘bridge’ which looked out over the river, with the rainbow bridge clearly visible up river. Being an avid ‘button presser,’ I soon discovered that much of the instrumentation was functional, including the radar. This part of the river was the main shipping access to Tokyo Harbour, so was very busy and I enjoyed comparing the radar image with the visual image through the ‘bridge’ window.
In the back of the bridge ‘room,’ I found a fully working, sit in, ships simulator, with a layout of buoys up river, under the rainbow bridge and into the main harbour, then spent the next hour ‘piloting’ the ship into the harbour.
I decided to return to the science museum and I was amazed at how popular it was, people were queuing to get in. It only cost me 500yen (about €3) to get in, but it was well worth it. The place was full of kids on school outings as before and they were really enjoying themselves, something I don’t remember on school trips when I was a kid, (particularly to museums.) I’d been given an interactive pass on a cord which I hung around my neck, and whenever I got close to a display or a monitor, it would activate it and any text or speech would be in English, that alone knocked spots off the science museum in London. But even displays with no text or speech were animated in a simple to understand sequence that explained quite complex processes. An example was a complete corridor of working models explaining ‘undersea exploration,’ its history, types of vessel, pressure to depth ratio, navigation, sonar, etc., culminating with a full sized submarine that you could enter and explore. Needless to say, it was crawling alive with excited kids, so I gave the inside a miss, although the outside was well posted with information all about it.
Almost half the second floor was dedicated to space exploration; they even had a complete mock-up of the Japanese section of the ‘space station.’ Unlike the other science museum (Day 13,) this one had the professors of the subjects on hand to answer questions; I somehow couldn’t see any arrogant British professors doing such a ‘menial’ job. The one in the space station even opened a glass display for me to take pictures, all of which were unfortunately stolen at my home Airport.
One professor latched onto me, I think to improve his English (which was very good,) but when he discovered that I understood something of modern ‘micro tech’, he bombarded me excitedly with his research on ‘micro carbon tubules,’ I think he was glad to have someone who would listen. (I have since seen this research coming to life in electronics and computing.) I spent the whole day in this place and I don’t think I was bored once.
I went back to Jimbocho, the book district and bought some more ‘manga,’ then; because it was only a couple of miles to Electric Town from there, I decided to walk. On the way, I began to hear this weird chanting and as I approached a major street junction, saw a procession of guys dressed in ‘odd looking’ traditional garb coming from the right towards me. They were carrying lots of drums of various sizes, one so large it took 8 men to carry it, 4 guys were also carrying a large bell which was struck at precise moments during the chant. I have no idea what it was all about, but the slow chant and the slow shuffling gait of the procession was mesmerising.
Everything stopped around me, including all the traffic, people stood in silence with bowed heads until they had passed, it was all very moving, so much so, that I forgot the camera around my neck until they were almost past. I took a number of pictures, but much good that did me. I asked back at the hotel about it, but couldn’t tell them exactly where it was I’d seen it, evidently, this was a special day of celebrations that were taking place everywhere, half a dozen in that general area alone.
It rained again, and when it rains in Tokyo, the roads turn into rivers. I can’t see Japan ever suffering from water shortages judging by the amount of rain they get. I did my washing and sorted my e-mails; I also rested my feet from yesterdays walking.
I went to Ueno where I’d been told they had a rather good zoo. The place was much larger than I’d expected, more like a large park, with lots of open area type ‘pits’ for the animals. The place was so big; there was even a monorail to get from one part to another, it was suspended high in the air which afforded some spectacular views, I can’t remember what it cost, but I don’t think it was expensive. The shape of the place was a bit like a dumb bell, with a large lake at one end, the lake was home to a great many species of water bird and none of it was fenced in, so I assume they were well fed to keep them there.
They had all the usual animals from all the usual continents, but they also had some very unusual ones too. American beavers, which I’d never seen before, some really weird species of monkeys and many species of odd looking birds that made some very weird noises which, according to the cards, many were local to the inland mountains and forests. They even had a few bison, which American films do not do justice to, those things are really enormous.
The idea of putting animals in very large steep sided pits, complete with a selection of their normal environment, I thought was much more preferable to the tiny cages used in many Western zoos, plus the animals looked happier and healthier. I spent an enjoyable day in the company of animals that I didn’t feel sorry for.
According to the map I had, there was a small park (Kyu-Shiba rikyn Gardens) right next to Hamamatsu-cho station, I had walked past it a number of times, but not seen it because of lots of road works, they had erected large hoardings to keep out the dust and noise. Now the Japanese small park is like a work of art, and this one was no exception. Most are free, but this one had a small charge, I can’t remember how much, but I think it was just a few yen. Stepping into this place, from the noise of the traffic and the road works, was like stepping into another world. The tranquility and the spectacle, hit you like a wave of some magical balm, and washed away your problems.
The large ‘boot shaped’ lake took up about a third of the space and sparked in the sunlight, but the garden around it was so neat, not a blade of grass was ‘out of place.’ The trees, bushes, rocks, statues, even the paths seemed to somehow fit together to make this place ‘special.’ Now the Palace gardens were exceptional, but this place was somehow ‘superior,’ then I understood why, as I began to notice the gardeners dotted about. There must have been at least half a dozen of them, yet a place this size warranted one, maybe two. Now the small charge made sense, it was to pay for the attendance of so many gardeners, and these guys were good. I watched one guy pruning a small bush; he would step back, walk slowly around it, move in and make one snip with his shears, then move back and walk around again. When he was finally happy with his work, the bush resembled a sculpture fit for any museum.
I went to Kamakura to see the ‘Great Buddha,’ very impressive, a seated Buddha about 60 feet tall. The bronze castings were highly detailed and I was mulling over how they could have done it, when I discovered that for a few yen, you could go ‘inside’ it. You went down some steps and through a tunnel under the foundations, up some more steps to emerge inside the vast bronze. Sunlight was streaming through some vents high in the back of the shoulders, these looked like later additions and I soon realised why they were there: It wasn’t so much for the light, but for the ventilation, it was close to midday and the metal had been warmed by the sun.
The atmosphere in there was like that of a very hot green-house, my clothes began to stick to my skin. As my eyes became accustomed to the dim light, I saw a spidery metal ‘fire-escape’ type of staircase winding its way up around the inside of the ‘skin,’ and people high up above me. I climbed part of the way up it, but as I got higher, the heat became unbearable, so I descended again.
Although it was a long train ride to get to, the journey was an adventure in itself. Part of the way there, you have to change onto a ‘local’ line. This ‘local’ line is like mobile history, a real ‘train buffs’ dream. The ‘train’ looked to be at least a hundred years old, the carriages were all carved and painted wood and it swayed and creaked alarmingly all the way there. It was only one track that split into two at the stations so that trains could pass one another, not that I remember seeing any other trains. Talking of ‘train buffs’ I seemed to remember seeing some really old trains ‘parked’ at the back of Ueno Station when I went to the zoo (day 24.)
I went to visit the Sensoji Temple at Asakusa, it is accessed through the Kaminarimon Gate into a long street lined with small shops, that according to the guide books, dates from the EDO period. From the Kaminarimon gate hangs the biggest paper lantern you’ll ever see, but once through, the scene is an assault to the senses, the crowds, noise, colours and smells combine into a ‘holiday’ atmosphere.
The small shops are delightful, selling everything from paper fans to home made sweets, traditional kimonos to pottery.
The temple is the oldest in Tokyo, said to have built in 628 and the main entrance is enormous. The inside is dim and mysterious with the chanting of the monks and noises of strange sounding instruments, it was all very eerie. One surprise for me was the numbers of young people about, I think it’s very important that traditions are kept alive, and that can only be done if the young take an interest.
Outside were many different shrines and the tallest pagoda I’ve ever seen, there was also a fortune telling stall; a large pot of straws was shaken until one fell out, inside was a ribbon with the ‘fortune’ on it, this was tied to the branch of a nearby tree, (not sure why,) but it seemed to be very popular. On the way out through Nakamise – the small shops – I brought a few bits and pieces for presents to take home.
I finally found the place with the diagonal pedestrian crossings and the large TV screens on the buildings that I’d been looking for, it was at Shibuya which seems to be the main ‘hang out’ for the ‘hip’ teens of Tokyo. I’d promised my friend that I would bring her back some silk and had been told that the best shop for silk was here. The Japanese silk was very expensive, so I only bought a few square meters, but they had lots of Chinese silk which was much cheaper, so I got lots of that. This shop was across the street from a massive tower block called 109, which I’d heard was ‘just for young women,’ being the curious bugger I am, I had to have a look. Each floor – and there were many – contained lots of separate shops selling everything from clothes, make-up, and accessories, through to mobile phones and jewellery, in fact everything a girl could ever want. I was told by a shop girl I got chatting to – she spoke good English – that girls come from all over Japan and even the rest of the world to spend whole days there. I saw girls as young as 3 or 4 excitedly learning the noble art of ‘shopping’ and the only other men seemed to be bored husbands or boyfriends being dragged around by misty eyed girls and young women. This place was very popular and some floors were quite crowded with eager consumers, (I never did understand the female obsession with shopping, but this place showed it in overdrive.)
Got up early to do my packing as this was the day of my flight home. The Hotel informed me the day before that there was a coach service to the airport, as it was only 800 yen and it guaranteed to get you there well in time for your flight, I had booked a seat on it. The trains were cheaper, but the guarantee was more important to me. It left the hotel 10.30am, but as Narita airport was on the other side of Tokyo and my flight was just after midday, I began to get worried when it stopped at a number of other hotels on the way, but we made it with about 30 minutes to spare. At Check in, I had one large suitcase that was just under the weight limit, a small suitcase and my backpack which I had intended to take on as hand luggage, but the girl at the desk said I could put the small suitcase in the hold. That was foolish on my part to agree as I’d put everything of value in it. The fight home was uneventful, I made sure there was no screw-up on the connection at Paris this time, but when I got home, they claimed to have ‘lost’ my luggage. When I finally get them back three days later, they’re still locked up, so I don’t check them: Big mistake, these guys are obviously experts at opening suitcase locks and closing them again without any keys, that when I do discover my losses, the delivery van has long gone. The claim I put into the airline was a waste of time and effort, never heard from them again. So the moral of this tale is dual; ‘always keep your valuables close and don’t fly AIR FRANCE.’