Monday, November 02, 2009

PLANET JAPAN- DAY 1

AOG, Tokyo

We arrived in Tokyo at around 11.25 AM (9 hours ahead of Madrid), tired, slightly jetlagged, and anxious to see the city.

But first things first. Get through customs. It was one thing to see Japanese people wearing face masks on the plane, but we were not prepared to see the airport staff wearing them too. And the customs officer. And tourists from other parts of Asia who were waiting in line with us.

As we waited, a few customs officers asked us the same question again and again: had we filled out the declaration form? We said yes to all of them every time.

We also noticed that if you belong to the local Asian version of the EU, you are a "priority passport". I wish we had that in the West.

Once through Customs, we went to pick up our luggage, which was tidily waiting for us next to the belt. We then had to go through another control. A very friendly uniformed man (I am not sure if he was Japanese customs, police, or what), asked where we were from. When we said Spain he very politely asked us to open our suitcases.

Funnily enough, he didn't look at what we had packed, but instead he looked for hidden pockets, or false compartments in our luggage, whilst practizing his Spanish, which I thought was odd, but cute. This feeling will accompany me throughout our stay in Japan: odd, but cute.

We left with our luggage intact, and faced the culture shock which is Japan's Narita Airport Arrivals Terminal. Although most businesses have signs in English, the most obvious signs are in Japanese. We had to get from the Airport to our hotel somehow, and the choices, though many, were, at first, and for a long while, hidden to the naked eye.

Amidst an ocean of cell-phone rentals, car rentals, soft drink dispensers, taxi agencies, mass transit signs, etc, we tried as best we could, to make sense of it all.

We chose to take the Airport Limousine, a service which leaves you at your hotel's doorstep. A bus. The next one heading to our hotel left two hours hence, so we took the next limo service to Shinjuku Station. Which left one minute from the time we paid for the tickets to leave the desk and get to the bus. Which we did.

First impressions

We made it to the bus, and walked in. Culture shock does not cover it. The vehicle, though new, looked weirdly 1960s. All the seats had white croched seatbacks. The kind of thing somebody's grandmother would knit for her grandchildren....and in Japan, for their bus.

The inside of the bus was not what I would call comfortable for a Western person. Small, cramped, and hardly any room to place a backpack.

Alas, this mattered little since half my butt was hanging off the seat so as no to further intimidate the poor Japanese lady sitting next to me who was, by any account, minute, dainty and extremely polite.

The first thing which amazed me about our journey into Tokyo was just how green Japan is. Although it was built up all the way into the city, nature is everywhere. And it is very lush, even for November.

My overall impression of the country is that, above all, they don't wish to inconvenience or trouble anybody.

The highway is a perfect example of this. Given the lack of space in this country, many people live near, or facing, the roads. So in Japan, whenever you approach a built-up area, they build walls to isolate the sound, and insulate the population behind it from the sound of traffic.

Sound is a recurring theme in Japan. I'll explain in further posts.

Tokyo

I never expected the entry into Japan's capital to be so impressive. All I could say was...New York, eat your heart out.

The amount of skyscrapers was amazing. Their design, impressive. But then, so was the road we were on. In some places, it appeared that we were five or ten stories up in the air as we twisted and turned into the city's grid.

We could see into people's homes, but we really had no time to do much of that, since, curve after curve, the view only got more amazing than before.

So amazing, in fact, that it took us a while to realize that we were so high up, navigating in between tower blocks, gardens and, believe it or not, feudal Japanese moats (Imperial Palace grounds- no I could not believe they built a Highway next to it either, but there it was).

When we got off the bus at Shinjuku Station we were overawed. But our journey had just begun.

Hotel

We walked to our hotel, only a couple of blocks away, and checked in as we wondered about the pungent smell on the streets. Cabbage and poo. Yes. Those two. It is a recurring smell, so it must be something to do with their plumbing system. However, that is not to say that all of Tokyo smells like that. It does not. But once in a while, on a downwind...

We asked for a room as high up as possible, and we got one on the 14th floor, facing the skyscraper in front of us. No, we did not have a great view straight ahead, but we did have a good view to the side...once we asked the cleaning lady to show us how to open the window.

Our room was rather small. It would have been smaller had my partner not had the sense to investigate online and realize that hotel rooms in Japan are small and book the larger option. Larger means the bed fits a bit better and is not pressed next to the wall.

However, it did not mean the room came with a closet to store our clothes or a chest of drawers, so for the duration of our stay, we had to live out of suitcases and we had to ensure the room was tidy before the cleaning staff arrived. There was, however, a bar and a couple of hangers behind the door and next to the full length mirror which faced the bathroom.

Although this is not the smallest room I've stayed at (that inglorious title goes to the Hotel I stayed in the last time I was in Amsterdam for Madonna's concert in 2006), it was very small indeed.

Somehow we survived, is all I can say.

Harajuku: Cosplay Girls

Once settled in, we were starving, and before heading off for Yoyogi Park to catch the Cosplay girls (and it had to be done on the day since they only gather on Sundays,- or so we were told), we had to eat something. Too in shock to actually try anything Japanese yet, we walked into our corner McDonalds and had a quick lunch. We soon found out that in November, it gets dark around 5PM in Tokyo.

We walked to Shinjuku Station (which is massive) and went to buy a ticket for the train/subway/whatever which would take us to Harajuku Station (which is smaller and, oddly enough, designed to look like an English mock Tudor cricket hut, the kind found in any park in the UK).

Ah, but what are these Cosplay girls you may ask? According to our guidebook, they are people (mostly girls) who don't fit in at school. Social outcasts. Nerds even. They like to dress up like their favorite Manga heros and heroines, and then go to Harajuku and pose for the tourists. Taking their picture was one of the easiest photographs I took in Japan.


"
Cosplay" (コスプレ pronounced "kosupure"), is short for "costume roleplay". See Wikipedia article here.

However, it isn't only young school girls who like to dress up....


How do you say "attention seeking" in Japanese?

Anyyyway....

We walked towards the park and came across buskers, people passing by, families on a day our, and a group of Rockabilies with their children in tow who loved it when we asked to take their picture.

Afterwards, we decided to explore the area a bit further.

We had a coffee in a European-looking coffee shop along Omote-Sando street and found the avenue in question to be very pleasant.

We came across the Zara store, and Muji, before heading back. The former, more expensive than in Spain, the latter, cheaper than in Europe. Tired to the point of extinction, we thought we'd head back for dins-dins and a drink in the town.

What else can one do after a day of jet-setting and international glamour?

Exactly.

Nightlife: Ni-Chōme, day 1

Tokyo's gay neighborhood is in Shinjuku. It is known as Shinjuku Ni-chōme (新宿二丁目), which stands for something like "District/Ward Two" ("Ni" means Two in Japanese).

There are about 300 gay bars in this area, making it the largest concentration of gay bars of any neighborhood in the world. But you wouldn't know it from looking at it. That is because in Japan, not everything is what it seems.

We had dinner in a nice Noodle Bar, accompanied by a Japanese-Canadian guy (though he might have been American) and his Canadian lesbian friend. It wasn't so much that they ate with us, it was more like their conversation invaded our table as it bounced off the noodle bar's vapor-filled walls and percolated through our hot green teas.

She kept droning on and on about her partner, how she was unhappy because she was not "the one", not even after 5 years together, and how she did not know (or wanted to either) how to tell her that they should separate. I couldn't but feel sorry for the absent partner. What an awful partner she had! Imagine being bad-mouthed all over Tokyo! Sorry, but no.

And he mostly provided moral support and never ever questioned her about anything, though he did have time to speak ill of Japanese men now and again.

After dinner, we had enough energy to try one bar out, so we went to Advocate's Café.

The local drunken drag queen "disasterpiece" which we had seen once we arrived in Ni-Ch
ōme had made her merry, chicken-yellow-split-ends-hair-off-the-shoulder-camisole-number-can't-walk-in-heels, way over to the bar.

We ordered a couple of drinks and sat in the only table which faced the street.

It was raining, and a few guys passed by. Some smiled. Most did not care about us.

The umbrella to have this season is definitely the transparent plastic, white handle one everyone seemed to be sporting.

We finished our drinks -not before being pestered by, and ignoring, the aforementioned local sad queen-, and headed back to the hotel -but not before trying to find one of the bars on our list.

In Japan, bars (and most everything else), are not necessarily at street level. Once you work out how the address system works (we did, but only on the 4th day), you realize that you must forever be entering buildings and taking the elevator up to whichever floor the place is situated in.

We did find our bar, Gregorios, but it was shut for the night.

It was cold and we had a full day ahead, so we treated ourselves to a cab ride home.

780 yen later, we were at out doorstep. Fatigued, thrilled, shocked, overwhelmed.

Oh yes, we liked Tokyo. We loved it!










1 comment:

Timbo said...

Fabulous...fun...exciting...God I hate you!!! (not really)