On February 2015 I had the chance to visit Tokyo for a business trip. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I spent the last three days visiting Tokyo, a surrounding city, Kamakura and a nearby island, Enoshima.
Day 1: Tokyo
It took my partner and me around 14 hours to get from Barcelona to Tokyo. That is, 4 hours from Barcelona to Moscow, 2 hours of waiting for the next flight, and finally 8 hours from Moscow to Tokyo. Not being used to long-distance travels like this, it was a bit tiring. The second airplane, however, provided the typical embedded computer to watch movies and TV shows, and play some custom video games. The selection of movies was fair enough, and the TV shows were kind of recent (it was even possible to see True Detective!). The funniest thing, however, were the guy entering each game to spam the common chat; and the trivia game of cities around the world, where “the most popular sport in Madrid is bullfighting”. Hmmm… Nope.
Anyway, time passed and the night came. The time was measured in the number of industrial, tasteless, typical aeroplane foods one was served. Some sleeping time, wake up, eat, sleep… Notion of time lost; then the night suddenly became day and apparently it was time for breakfast. An hour or so before the arrival time we were handed some immigration leaflets to fill. This reminded me as the ones to enter the United States, long time ago; but here they just asked if you were smuggling something (some kinds of food, maybe money), if you were deported from Japan previously and few things more. But… To Caesar what to Caesar belongs. The immigration form of the United States was way more creative and funnier to fill, as I remember it also asked about any attempt of assassination, drugs, and everything else you may think of.
Few hour laters we got to our destination: Tokyo (Narita). The differences are immediately noticed. For instance, you start seeing indications with pictures almost everywhere. Your brain starts getting saturated with a lot of information. But I will come back to that later on. Before retrieving the luggage, we had to queue for the immigration checks, where again you lose some more privacy. This time, they ask for a picture of you and your fingerprints. Bleh. Once in the big space in the terminal, time to get the suitcases, pack and move to the city. We used the train (¥ 3000), but it had a 50% discount on it (note that this only work when travelling from the airport to the city!).
Then… The city. Tokyo is definitely big. And that statement is definitely obvious, I know. In the metro station we got a PASMO card for integrated transportation (metro and some kinds of train). I couldn’t stop thinking here about the multipass card. Anyway, this card allows to fill any quantity you like in the machines, and works by proximity to the ticket machines. Important: for those travelling due to work (or anyone that must justify their expenses), ask for receipts every, every time; specially for tickets. This is because the machines that validate the tickets will swallow your ticket. Say bye-bye to your money otherwise.
We left the suitcases in our hotel in the Ochanomizu area and went for some lunch in a nearby small tavern with good prices. Unfortunately, the curry chicken would be the starting point of a series of stomach-aches. But that’s another story.
After the lunch we decided to have a look at the imperial gardens (the gardens surrounding the imperial palace)? Unfortunately, it was almost closing time and we could not visit that. But we took back some pictures of the bridges, lakes and swans.
When it was time for dinner, we picked a restaurant full of locals near to our hotel and asked for two portions of giozas. By this time I was still trying to accommodate to the city. As a nice addition to the day, we started (tried to) a brief conversation with two local women, probably a bit happy by that time. This one was kind of fun as a first contact with the Tokyoites/Edokkos .
Day 2: Tokyo
The second day we had no time to visit, as it was time to start working. However, at night we got a glimpse of traditional Japanese food. The menu contained three starters (pictured below) and a long series of different small dishes.
After the dinner we moved to the Ginza neighbourhood in order to have a taste of a real tavern. On the way to it, we passed by several pachinko rooms. I had some curiosity to see it from inside, but finally rejected the idea due to the deafening sound that could be heard even from the outside. Anyway, we got to see a traditional tavern. This place was really crowded and had small room for new people, so we had to sit in two tables. All the walls were covered in wood and a lot of signs were stuck on them. For eating there we got a type of beans, broth, shrimps and small fishes. And sake, sure. The bathrooms were traditional, which was a negative surprise to me; as I am not their biggest supporters.
Day 3: Tokyo
Again, work during the day and free time during the night.
In the morning we had breakfast as usual in our hotel in the Ochanomizu area; as we did the day before. The breakfast was pretty similar to the one offered the day before; though minor changes were present. In fact, the contents of the breakfast resembled very much to other hotels in the area; which is kind of monotonous. The breakfast offered slices of two different kinds of bread (white, wholegrain), two different kind of juices, margarine and jam, boiled eggs, some random hot soup and some other two kinds of random food (ranging from scrambled eggs and sausages to other more traditional meals).
During the night, we crossed Ginza again before getting to Daimaru shopping mall; which was huge and integrated somehow with Tokyo station. We focused on looking around the lowest level; where there were small theme-based stores here and there. In these stores you could get almost anything, from products of Studio Ghibli, Pokèmon or the Jump magazine to their very own, unknown-to-me products. I saw there stuff like a yellow octopus with black robe and mortarboard (apparently, that’s part of an anime called Assassination Classroom… Oh well). There were also a lot of eggs with eyes and grinning and dancing bananas (and, strangely, one bad-mannered clerk in the supermarket). I couldn’t help thinking I had arrived to a very different planet… And I was.
After one shopaholic hour and some sake, Ghibli and Pokèmon products, we reunited again with our hosts for dinner. As they covered every day to show us their gastronomy, this time they reserved another traditional restaurant. This time it was not a succession of small dishes but a succession of big ones, to share. The waiters brought wooden platters with a large selection of raw fish on top of it, then dishes with cooked fish, chicken skewers and so on. I really lost the count with the endless new dishes they brought to the table! Almost everyone ended the night absolutely full. Of course, Japanese people does not eat this way on a daily basis; or they wouldn’t be so thin .
Day 4: Tokyo
The third and final day of the meeting, we got up really early (around 5 in the morning) to have a look at the Tsukiji (fish market) and do some sightseeing on the way. While we walked we captured another glimpse of the streets of Tokyo during the day. We saw the façade of the Kabuki theatre and different shrines on the path to the market.
The market had a lot of movement, as it was full of local workers who were driving forklifts to move big boxes of fish from one to another place. We, the gaijin were a nuisance to their frantic displacements. We got to see a big box of maguro (tuna), but they requested not to make pictures. Whatever.
After visiting the fish market, our group divided in two. The first group went to a small restaurant located in a backstreet in order to breakfast fresh sushi. The other group went to visit the coast of the city to have a look at their own statue of the liberty, the rainbow bridge and to have a look at a representation of a huge Gundam robot.
Then, for dinner we were lead to another traditional restaurant; this time, one of those where you are requested to remove your shoes and sit in the floor, while putting the legs on a rectangular cavity in the ground. Ew were offered a broth (to be cooked by the commensals), several samples of raw fish and different kinds of gelatinous food. Finally, they offered three kinds of sake. But really, what it surprised me the most was that they provided some kind of crocs to walk to the bathroom; and also that they provided free mouthwash!
To end the night we decided to take some pictures of the Tokyo Tower, which is inspired in the Eiffel Tower and visit the Roppongi neighbourhood, place of any kind of nightlife and dubious reputation. You can find there from karaokes to nightclubs, and there are a lot of people in the street trying to draw you into one or another local. Apparently the area was know some years ago for high presence of Yakuzas, and now for cons and robbing. Definitely, a charming area to visit. After having a look at the place, we headed back to the hotel but ended running from one to another place in the station, to finally find ourselves stuck in the metro station; as it was the closing time and the indications inside this station are dreadful. Hint: get in time to the station so you are able to find out which transport to take.
Day 5: Tokyo
On Saturday, we visited the Tokyo Sky Tree. This one is the tallest structure in Japan, with 634m; though you only get up to 350m. Although that height is more than enough to have a view on a good part of the city. In fact, I guess one can have a good look on the city, but I cannot say for sure as the horizon looked still cramped with buildings.
After taking countless pictures of the city, it was time for my colleague to depart. I moved from our current hotel in Ochanomizu to another in Nihombashi. The hotels were not really far between one from the other, but finding the new one was kind of hard due to confusing signalling and also the lack of elevators in the metro stations. A tip for the future traveller: if you carry heavy, big luggage try asking the metro personnel for any possible elevator available for use. Since my suitcase was on the verge of the limited dimensions for the airplane and had considerable weight, I used an elevator that was connected to a nearby building. However, in most stations I had to carry it upstairs and downstairs. Before travelling here, I though they would have these kind of stuff sorted, but it’s not and it’s quite a nuisance for tourists.
While searching for the new hotel, I stumbled upon a couple of different shinto shrines, guarded by their own guardian foxes, the Komainu. Although a bit rough, the are in these small shrines spread across the city is interesting.
In the end, I got to the new hotel and left the luggage in the room. As a side note here, the size of the room is relatively small and all the three hotel rooms I saw seemed to follow the very same pattern: a narrow corridor, the bathroom to the left and the bed on the end. The corridor is narrow for those with big suitcases. The beds are comfortable, however; and all the rooms had top-notch technology WCs. Specifically, the number of options on their toilets is something that fascinates me. The basic options provided by this kind of toilets are the “bidet” and “spray” functions, as well as the water pressure. When some is pressed, an external cylindrical structure appears on the back on the toilet and sprays hot water following a trajectory defined by the function. The ones I found in the hotels only offered these two options, but the ones I saw in offices and restaurants also provided music and opening and closing of the cover.
After leaving the heavy luggage burden in the room, I headed for Akihabara Electric Town. This area contains a lot of electronics and video games, as well as anime and manga. There’s huge movement in the streets, and almost every shop contributes to the noisy atmosphere. In fact, this area is kind of crazy; as everywhere you look, there are bright signs and distractions. Oh well, it sounds like an old person talking here. But really, the place is hysterical. It feels like being in a disco everywhere along the place; but instead of drinks you buy electronics and anime. Even better, some of the anime/manga/merchandising shops have music to full volume, and sometimes you can hear that high-pitched Japanese girl voice trying to smash your eardrums. My advice for those who want to visit Akihabara and are not feeling high is to take it easy and visit only a part of the neighbourhood. I think it takes at least one time to get used to the place. Of course, I speak from the perspective of a newly arrived tourist that is not used to the flashing buildings and the loud noise of some shops.
In the diverse buildings of Akihabara you can find different merchandising of the latest animes and mangas from Japan and you can see stuff like a tank-shaped cat (with a cannon going out of its head), a yellow octopus teacher (described before) and so on. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any poster there; only figures and plushes, comics and books, music and similar.
Day 6: Kamakura
After all the previous day in Tokyo, I wanted to have a taste on different regions from Japan; preferably more traditional and also quiet. My first idea was to head for Kyoto. However, the travel takes between 2-3 hours going with the Shinkansen; and it makes little sense for a single-day trip.
Instead, I headed for Kamakura, a former capital during the Kamakura shogunate (s. XII-XIV). You can go by train and the length of the trip is less than an hour. This is a small city but kind of popular due to the proximity to Tokyo and all the temples that it hosts.
One of them is the Daibutsu, a temple containing a giant Buddha. Besides the giant statue, the temple has a ritual water basin in the entrance, a garden and inscriptions here and there, in stones and commemorative plates for the trees planted.
Another temple is the Hase-dera, where apparently people place small statues to remember unborn offspring. Kind of awkward. Couldn’t visit it, as it was not possible to enter from half past four in the afternoon. As a final place to visit, I walked to the the nearest train station to get to the Enoshima island.
This small island contains also a number of shrines, some of them marked with the Hōjō family crest; which you may have confused with the Triforce if you played any of the Legend of Zelda video games . The way to go in this island is basically up the hill, to get to the temple there. As with other temples, there were fortune telling structures, chests, tied ropes and ritual water basins (more information on the shrines here). You may even find a dragon next to a pond!
Day 7: Tokyo
The final day I saved for walking around the city and visiting the famous Asakusa temple, which is devoted to Kannon a goddess representing mercy in the buddhism. The compound consists of two doors with the characteristic red, big lanterns hanging from the top and different statues to the side, a pound with koi carps, diverse shrines, some towers and finally, the main temple. Between the entrance to the place and the temple itself there are a lot of stands lined up that sell food, clothes, accessories and any other kind of merchandising.
Inside the temple, people pile up to throw coins as an offering to a wooden structure; and probably take one of the O-mikuji or folded pieces of paper that predict one’s fortune. In this sense, it seems similar to the fortune cookies, but in the context of a temple. Inside the main temple, and separated by a grid, there was a person praying next to a smoky pot, probably burning incense.
After that I walked around the nearby areas and visited the nearby, calm streets in Asakusa; then a university campus and finally a last visit to Akihabara to buy some stuff in Sofmap, a national reseller of electronics and other stuff; basically a big mall.
Here concludes this brief trip to Japan. This is obviously not intended to be a guide to follow (as this travel was not fully dedicated to visiting Japan nor Tokyo), but a summary of my experience; which hopefully is of interest to a future traveller.