Sunday, June 08, 2008 Japan Japan

To go to Tokyo

Bullet train at Shin Osaka [Enlarge]

We thought the best use of our seven day rail pass would be to have two nights in three different places in Japan before travelling to our final destination on the seventh day. For our second and third two-nighter stops we chose the modern capital Tokyo and the ancient capital Kyoto.

Expecting the city to be busy, we pre-booked our accommodation. There aren't many bargains to be had in Tokyo, but we found a good place at USD 30 per person, per night (GBP 15.42). It was a long way out of the centre, but very close to a subway station.

After living in Seoul for a year, we thought we'd never again find it difficult to get around in any busy city. But we were wrong. Unlike Seoul's tightly integrated transport system, Tokyo's metropolitan transport system is privately owned by more than a dozen different operators. There's no common fare system—They can't even agree on a single map format! So you end up seeing endless completely different maps of the same city. It is almost impossible (at least when you've just arrived here) to work out the best way between two stations, or how much it's going to cost to get there. Even some residents just buy the minimum-price ticket and top it up at their destination, because it's easier than buying the right ticket beforehand.

We finally worked out how to get to the hotel. Our room was actually a rooftop apartment—clean, but a little shabby. The shy member of staff who checked us in offered us one end of a very long LAN cable to give us our advertised free internet access. The cable went out of our room under the door, across the roof, under another door and disappeared.

TV Asahi, Roppongi [Enlarge]

To say there's lots to do in Tokyo is an understatement. We only had a day and a bit here, so we couldn't do much. We randomly chose to go to the Roppongi area on the first evening and ended up on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower, in a gallery which was holding a Turner Prize retrospective (a collection of Turner Prize winners and nominees from every year since the prize started in 1984). If you're not British you may not have heard of the Turner Prize. Basically it's a famous prize for modern art which always gets the media in a spin asking "Is it art?"

It was quite amusing to watch the Japanese trying to make sense of the works. As they looked at say Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided (a cow and a calf sliced in half longitudinally and suspended in formaldehyde), or even the 2001 winner The Lights Going On and Off by Martin Creed (an empty room with the lights going on and off from time to time), you could see them trying desperately to understand this mysterious European culture which could make works like that and what it all means. They didn't realise it's all a big joke by the British. (At least we assume it is...?)

Incidentally, walking between two halves of a pickled cow was quite an unusual experience.

We're finding it much harder to find food here than we did in Korea. It's not that there's a shortage of restaurants, just a shortage of reasonably priced ones. The language is a real problem too. We know Hiragana, one of the three Japanese alphabets, from some Japanese lessons we took several years ago, but that's not enough to accomplish anything. The most widely used alphabet is Kanji (Chinese-style characters), of which there are thousands. We have no hope of getting anywhere with them in one week. Our illiteracy means we have a choice between dragging the waiter outside to point at the plastic models in the window, or leaving the whole thing to chance—a potentially interesting, risky, disgusting or expensive move depending on the chef's sense of humour. Or going to McDonald's instead.

We are however big fans of Japanese convenience store food. Rice wrapped in fried bean curd is much yummier than it sounds and a steal at 198 yen (GBP 0.94 / USD 1.83) for three chunky parcels. But in our view Seoul still has the edge on Tokyo for delicious, cheap, accessible restaurants.

Tokyo Imperial Palace [Enlarge]

Tokyo is even more crowded than Seoul (we didn't think that was possible), but it is actually more pleasant because it's much more organised and ordered. We haven't once been bumped or barged into the gutter—in fact we haven't seen a single ajumma yet! Cars even stop at pedestrian crossings too! Speaking of which, one must see destination in Tokyo is the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. It's at Shibuya and is apparently correctly known as a pedestrian scramble by crossing designers. It's outside Shibuya station, where two JR lines, three Tokyo Metro lines and three private railway lines meet. It is surrounded by huge shopping malls and department stores. That makes for a lot of people. Every time the lights change, a few thousand people want to cross the road. There's a brief video clip at the bottom of the post.

We spent this afternoon riding a tandem around the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Get this: it's free! You just write your name on a piece of paper, and they lend you a bike! Imagine that happening back home.

After the cycling, we spent a while eating a convenience-store snack in the park in front of the Palace. All the time, sirens were wailing and helicopters circling overhead. We assumed this was normal for Tokyo, but this evening when we checked the news on the internet back at our hostel, we discovered there'd been a violent massacre in the Akihabara area of Tokyo—only a couple of kilometres from where we were. Sadly there's a darker side to this highly ordered society.

Tomorrow we'll be back on the train again, this time to Kyoto.

Map of Day 561

Day 561
Hiroshima to Tokyo

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Anonymous said...

Great to see you back on the road.
How about a short video and sound track on Youtube, so we can know what you sound like ?
jimmy k

Glenn Livett said...

Thanks for the comment Jimmy K. Sorry, but we don't do video of us because being British we are shy and retiring.

However we're happy to give you an idea what we sound like... One of my students in Seoul once commented that if she closed her eyes in class she thought she was being taught by Hugh Grant.

And Isla talks like the Queen, circa 1953.