By any definition, Tokyo is a big city. Counted as an urban area
alongside Yokohama (4million) and middling Kawasaki (1.2) plus all the rest of the continuously built up area, it comes in at over 30million inhabitants. It goes on as far as the eye can see in all directions, with the obvious exception of the Tokyo Bay area. Although the entire coast area of the bay is, of course, built up. Perhaps oddly for a city of such size, fame and importance, there is actually very little in the city that is a true "tourist" attraction. Most cities have an iconic building or feature (or more than one) that instantly springs to mind when mentioned – the Eiffel Tower, Atomium, Colloseum, Statue of Liberty, St Basils Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Peoples Palace, Parthenon and Opera House and Bridge, for example – but Tokyo lacks that one specific feature that you instantly think of. But what Tokyo lacks in instantly recognizable features, it more than makes up in depth and variety of images.
Like the rest of the country, if not more so, it is a mass of
contradictions. I have already mentioned how I instantly fell in love
with the city after randomly coming across this guy...
...in Harajuku on my first full day in the city. Harajuku on a Sunday is like that. Hundreds of punks, goths and dozens of people dressed in alternate looks, either going about their normal business or simply meeting up with friends and enjoying themselves. Harajuku itself is also home to the Meji Shrine, one of Tokyo`s major religious sites, and astonishingly, one of the countries few free Shrines and temples. Whilst the area was in a lovely forest, and the temple itself certainly attractive enough, the thing I remember most is the wedding parties. Several traditional weddings were taking place, and the wedding parties were all stopping in the main square to have their pictures taken. Fair enough, but it was a bit sad (I thought) that so many random tourists – both westerners and Japanese – were also barging in their way to take photos of the happy couple, generally getting in the way of the real foreigner, and turning their "big day" into a tourist snap event. They must have known what would happen, getting married in an open and famous temple on a weekend, but even so, a tad odd.
I had earlier walked around the Imperial Palace grounds, again free,
and been a tad disappointed as they had consisted as much of simple
grass lawns and trees than much of anything particularly spectacular.
Admittedly in such a overgrown and jam-packed city (and, indeed,
country), finding the space for an area of pristine lawn is a major
achievement, so I suppose it`s not without merit. The funniest for me
was before entering. I was looking at the back of the Palace from its
main available view point when a Japanese guy came up, and asked in
good English if I could take his photo. No problem. Until I realised
that what he actually meant was that he wanted to take a picture of me in front of the Palace. To this day, I have no idea why. In other
parts of Japan, maybe Gaijin – foreigners – are that unusual to be
photo worthy (and certainly worthy of regular pointing and laughing by kids. I just point and laugh back, which they seem to enjoy, but
confuses the hell out of them), but certainly not in Japan, and I was
far from the only Gaijin present at that point anyway. Oh well.
I spent a night in Roppongi Hills, paying a chunk (not well planned,
as some are free, although I didn`t know it at the time) to go up to
the 53rd floor of the new tower block to its 360 viewing platform. The only single person their, I felt instantly conspicuous at being alone amongst all of the courting couples, and somewhat out of place, but it was worth it. At night, the view over Tokyo was even more impressive than a later one I took during the day from the Metropolitan Govt building (looking for Fuji as much as anything. Still not even a glimpse or suggestion of it`s existence). At night, the sheer amount of lights make the city disappear even further into the distance. The Yokohama tower, 30mins away is visible, as are an array of lights around Tokyo Bay proving it to be a continuous built up area, even though it`s not so visible during daylight. The views were amazing, and the sheer scale of the city, opened up in front of you were just plain scary. Anybody visiting Tokyo, really should go for a night panoramic view somewhere as a high priority.
Roppongi Hills Tower
Tokyo Tower at Night
I was staying in a hostel in the Asakusa area, in the North East of
the city, right across the river from the golden sperm building
(that's sure as heck what it looked like), which is actually the Asahi brewery. Asakusa is one of the more bohemian and traditional areas in itself, and I spent some time wandering through the Kaminarimon Gate, along the enclosed Nakamise market street and around the Sensoji temple area, Tokyo`s largest temple, and the Asakusajinja shrine. Whilst the temple – and preceeding gatehouse – was indeed very impressive, they were very similar to all of the other temples and shrines I have come across in Japan, and I think that I`m starting to get - well, something. Not sure if it`s really bored, blasé, or something else – about Japanese temples, as they all seem extremely similar to me, despite the beauty of the general design. Even the 5 story pagoda seemed nothing special, being perfectly reminiscent of one I`d seen at Nara amongst others. The vending machine offering 1 litre cans of beer, bottles of wine, sake and litre bottles of whiskey (!) was an eye opener though!
As the hostel was within spitting distance (depending upon your saliva dexterity and distance training) of the pier, it seemed daft not to take a river cruise down the Sumidagawa river – hands up who knew that Tokyo was on a river and what it was called before they read that?! –The trip gave another perspective to the skyscrapers and skyline of the city, weaving past many of them before finishing near one of the central financial and business districts, but not before weaving past some odd looking buildings squeezed into strange shaped plots, and also giving me the first real look at some of the homeless population.
I already knew that Tokyo had a large and surprisingly thriving
homeless population, but wasn`t entirely prepared for the logistics of it. Perhaps not unsurprisingly in the capital of the worlds second
largest economy, the homeless people in Tokyo were amongst the most
organised and prosperous I`m ever likely to come across. They had
either blue tarp shelters or genuine tents, pitched along the
sidewalks and banks (often under elevated freeways or bridges for
protection), many of them astonishingly large, and all of them
uiniformly well kept. It was not unusual to see them pegging out
washing, and to have new bicycles (or even scooters) locked up
outside. And one guy was listening to an ipod whilst typing on a
Some of them even run small businesses from their tents, or so I have read. Homeless, maybe, but living in more spacious
accommodation than many Tokyites have, and in a more central area,
whilst not having to pay all the normal bills and transport costs.
Being homeless in Tokyo is arguably even a clever decision, especially given the numerous (and spotless) public toilets and drinking fountains around – and that is true for the whole of Japan, although curiously, finding a hand dryer is astonishly difficult right across the country – and availability of Onsens and the like for bathing.
I spent some time trawling around Akiharbara, the now world famous
electronic discount area of Tokyo, with hundreds of shops selling
gadgets and gizmo`s of every possible size, shape and variation,
including those to fill needs which you wouldn`t even have dreamt
existed, let alone that you needed filling before seeing them. More
amazing to me than the large and export aimed shops (oddly, electronic equiptment is not particularly cheap in Japan, despite so much of it originating here – it`s main point is that it is on the cutting edge, and gadgets are tested locally before being set on the world) were the vast alleys and boutique filled shops of hundreds of smaller retailers, selling all manner of assorted odds and ends, spares, accessaries, and obscure cables, fittings and DIY odds and ends for every conceivable – and most unconceivable – need, kind of like a Maplins megastore of extreme proportions.
Took several trawls through Shinjuku, the "new" centre of Tokyo on its Western side, with a large entertainment and electronic district,
alongside the Metropolitan Government buildings (comparing those twin
towers to London`s City Hall gives you an idea of the enormosity of
the place) and concentration of other skyscrapers. It`s probably here
more than anywhere else in the Metropolitan area that Tokyo is most as expected and envisaged. It was to me. Claimed as the busiest railway station in the world (including metro), which may or may not be the case – several others claim it – it`s certainly hugely busy at all times, and the sheer number of people around makes your head swirl! On top of that, the sheer noise levels, constant shouting and screaming by shop keepers/salespeople (with megaphones), trying to lure you into their shops with numerous special offers, and endless confusion and movement can`t help but get to you of affect you. Amongst other things, I managed to get myself a bag (a 26l jobby) which should finally replace the sadly departed Karrimor which died before the trip, and whose lack of a useful replacement has taken me through 4 bags on this trip to date! With luck, my bag problems are now no more. Is that a corner changed, we wonder? Or more accurately, we hope.
Although a 4am finish isn`t necessarily the most conducive time for
getting up at 5am to go and look at fish, I managed more or less,
providing that you substitute 5am for 6.20… The Tsukiji fish market is another thing which I think should feature highly on any future
itinerary. The main wholesale market for the Tokyo area, and place
where all of the previous nights catch gets sold off and then shipped
out to the restaurants and shops to be turned into Sashimi, Sushi, or
other fish products. It`s huge, mad, and chaotic. But get there early. By 8 or 8.30am, there are as many tourists in the market than traders, and the majority of the frenetic activity, and certainly the largest and most colourful of the fish have long since been taken away. I made it by around 7am, which was already a bit late, but in time to see some of the huge tuna (over a metre and half long, carried by 4 or 5 men, and cut using chainsaws), and any number of colourful and amazing looking fish and other marine life - barely dead, and shortly to be turned into the freshest seafood and sushi in the world. How there aren`t more accidents of the crazy motorized carts used to move fish around at high speed, I don`t know, but watching them zip around alone was enough to fill you with awe. I`ve been to wholesalers before, but the sheer scale, speed, ferocity, noise and atmosphere of Tsukiji was just astonishing. I bought a couple of bits, and then some really fresh sushi from a stall on the fringes, and retired for one of the freshest – and fishiest – breakfasts I`m ever likely to have.
Whilst I decided against visiting any of the numerous museums in the
area, I did take a trek around Sendagi, Yanaka Ginza (where in the
middle of all the hustle of the city there is an oddly quiet and
undisturbed shrine, the Nezu Shrine, hidden away in the back streets)
and then through Ueno park, one of the largest central parks and
Tokyo`s oldest. Ueno park includes a zoo, amusement park and many
other things, but I was mostly taken by the huge reeds and water
lilies in Shiriobazu Pond, as well as the ginormous carp. Even more
impressive, was the virtual city of homeless people in the park,
cunningly camped out between the trees and bushes, so in places barely seen at all, whilst rarely intruding wherever they were. More tents and blur tarp "houses", but again spotless and well kept, and showing signs of unlikely prosperity!
I also finally crossed off another one of my "must do when in Japan"
list, by spending a couple of nights sleeping in a coffin. In
actuality, they are called capsules, and are found in capsule hotels,
but they may as well be paid coffins. Developed in the 70`s, they are
yet another uniquely Japanese idea, and one which perhaps
unsurprisingly has taken its time to be adapted elsewhere around the
world. Often located in entertainment districts or near to stations,
their original – and still oft used – concept had been to provide a
cheap and simple place for drunk businessmen to spend the night after
they had missed the last train home. And this is still their primary
role, meaning that only a few (and often only at weekends) accept
women as well. Whilst most capsules (and hotels) differ in details,
the general idea is uniform. Like in so many Japanese buildings, you
leave your shoes by the door and change into some slippers. Then after being assigned a coffin, you go to the changing room where you leave your bags in lockers, and – normally – change into the provided
pyjamas (which generally resemble kind of two piece green hospital
outfits). Towels and basic toiletries – I got some soap, a razor, and
a toothbush with toothpaste cunningly already applied – are also
included for your use. You can either then shower/bath or take
advantage of vending machines and the basic communal facilities if you wish, or head straight to your pod.
Pods come in two different varieties, end loaders, where you go in
head first, and side loaders, where one end of a side is open, and you go in that way, as I had to. My hotel had two layers of pods, although some have more, with about 20 end loaders on one wall, and 6 side loaders on the other. In the pod, which is a plastic moulded design, you have a Mattress, sheet, pillow and blanket, plus a console moulded into the side near your head, and a TV affixed to one corner of the ceiling near your feet. The door is covered up by a simple wooden roller-blind style door, which keeps out a surprising amount of noise and cool air from the air-conned hallway. The console contains the controls for the TV (I had one channel, plus three pay per view, almost certainly porn, although I didn`t try them out), a radio receiver, controls to dim the lights, and an alarm clock. Simple, but effective.
Whilst I expected the coffin to be small and cramped (or
claustrophobic), in reality it wasn`t all that bad – It was, at a
guess, almost 2 metres long, so more than long enough for most gaijin, and probably a metre wide and high, meaning that you could sit up quite comfortably to watch TV etc if you so desired. My floor never really filled up, so a very decent nights sleep was had (one of the generally quoted problems with the capsules is that you can be easily kept awake by stumbling or snoring drunken Japanese, due to the open plan arangment), although I was disturbed by a number of alarm clocks going off at unseemly hours of the morning...
In addition to the capsules and expected toilets/sinks, there are
showers, often a bath or onsen to soak in, smoking areas, and in a
number of cases, common areas with more TVs and inevitable assorted
vending machines. Although times vary, most have check in times of 7
or 8am onwards (and don`t get crowded until 12 – 1am) and check out by 9 or 10am, after which prices for extra 15mins rise dramatically.
As an experience, I would highly recommend it, and whilst conditions
and individual nights obviously vary wildy between hotels and nights,
for Yen3000 (about 15gbp), it was an excellent nights sleep and not too expensive. And I`ll sure as heck stay in another one before I leave this country.