Things I’ve loved about Tokyo

So this is it then! My time in Tokyo is at an end, so what better way to celebrate with the things I’ve most enjoyed about my time living in this great city? Hopefully I’ll be able to return sooner rather than later.

The trains
Quite simply, the trains are fantastic. Quick, regular, and on-time. Compared with the London Underground (what is it, £4/480yen a single journey these days?), also pretty good value, being able to get pretty far on even 200yen on the JR lines. Added to that, heated seats in the winter, which although when you first sit down feel like a sweaty, fat guy must have just got up, and air con in the summer.

I should say, off-peak travel is fantastic. Rush hour travel can be a bit of a nightmare, and thankfully with my job I don’t have to ever use the trains first thing in the morning when it’s at its worst, but breathing space is often at a premium! But all the Japanese I’ve spoken to are utterly bewildered at the thought of peak/off-peak pricing; different prices for the same journey? You must be having a laugh!

The train guards on the platform
Simply for the hilarity they continue to bring me every time I see them point along the platform at the train leaving the station, before turning and pointing in the direction of the arrival of the next train. Sometimes they even point both ways down the platform when a train’s not even close. I have no idea why they do it, but it constantly makes me smile.

Staff in shops
The difference in service between Japan and Britain is simply staggering. When you enter a shop, all the staff welcome you in. When you go, even if you don’t buy anything, they all thank you for having a look around anyway. The assistants seem genuinely pleased to help you, and go above and beyond the call of duty (especially in games of charades when something’s been lost in translation). Compared to England, where it often seemed to me the assistants seemed to prefer you to be in any other shop but theirs, it’s something I’ll miss immensely.

Accepting money
Sort of coupled with the last one, no one bats an eyelid if you pay for anything with a 10,000 yen note. 10,000 yen is about 80 quid, and even if you’re just buying a chocolate bar they don’t care whatsoever. Buying a paper with a 20 in England will get you, if not a comment, then a disapproving condescending look. And don’t even consider buying anything with a 50 back home.

Izakayas
Japanese style pubs. Focused more on the social side, rather than the race to get pissed. Order lots of small dishes of food (edamame beans, sushi, sashimi [sushi without the rice], fried chicken, random parts of chicken or beef on a skewer, chips) to nibble with your beer.

One downside is the lack of smoking ban, which I never really realised I’d appreciated so much. It was strange coming home with my clothes stinking again due to people smoking around me; restaurants do have no-smoking sections, but it’s often just the end of the restaurant nearest the door.

The food
Delicious, fresh, completely different from everything in England. Still get cravings for pie and sausage rolls every so often though!

The girls
Say no more.

The quirkiness of the supermarket packing system
No trolleys, no conveyor belts, no self-service checkouts. Everything’s basket-based: use one to do your shopping, when you pay the assistant takes your food, scans it and puts it in a second one, you take this second one to a table away from the checkout to pack your bags at your own pace. In Seiyu supermarkets, they even have different coloured baskets for each function!

Convenience stores
They’re so bloody convenient! Open 24 hours, buy drinks, snacks, if you’re Japanese spend all day in them reading comics for free. Pay your bills, pay for bus tickets, gig tickets, train tickets. If you don’t have a credit card, buy something off the internet by printing out the voucher and pay for it at the convenience store. Photocopying, ATMs, the list goes on and on.

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12 months in Tokyo 東京 (Part 2)

And now the second half of my collection of photos from around Tokyo.

Yoyogi Park, formerly Athete's Village at the Tokyo Olympics
Yoyogi Park, formerly Athete’s Village at the Tokyo Olympics
Pikachu advertising something outside an electrical shop
Pikachu advertising something outside an electrical shop
Festival in Kawagoe
Festival in Kawagoe
Little boys helping pull the cart, Kawagoe
Little boys helping pull the cart, Kawagoe
The Yokohama Stadium, site of the 2002 World Cup Final
The Yokohama Stadium, site of the 2002 World Cup Final
Snow at Kami Shakujii station (where I live)
Snow at Kami Shakujii station (where I live)
Snow! From my window
Snow from my window
More snow from my window
More snow from my window
Random Scalectrix game at Haneda airport
Random Scalectrix game at Haneda airport
Tokyo Sky Tree, the gold thing is the Asahi Brewery
Tokyo Sky Tree, the world’s second largest structure (the gold thing is the Asahi Brewery)
Tokyo Sky Tree
Tokyo Sky Tree
At the Baseball, Jingu Stadium
At the Baseball, Jingu Stadium
At the Baseball, Jingu Stadium
At the Baseball, Jingu Stadium
Nihombashi, the bridge that marks the traditional centre of Tokyo
Nihombashi, the bridge that marks the traditional centre of Tokyo
Nihombashi, unfortunately ruined by two low-flung flyovers!
Nihombashi, unfortunately ruined by two low-flung flyovers!
Inside the building where our work Christmas Party was (we were on floor 37!)
Inside the building where our work Christmas Party was (we were on floor 37!)
Kaminarimon gate, Asakusa
Kaminarimon gate, Asakusa
Through the Kaminarimon gate, looking towards the Senso-ji temple, Asakusa
Through the Kaminarimon gate, looking towards the Senso-ji temple, Asakusa
Traditional Japanese street
Traditional Japanese street
Senso-ji temple, Asakusa
Senso-ji temple, Asakusa
Pagoda at Senso-ji temple
Pagoda at Senso-ji temple
Tokyo Dome
Tokyo Dome

12 months in Tokyo 東京 (Part 1)

With my time in Tokyo almost at an end, here’s some photos of places in the city I’ve been lucky enough to go to while I’ve been here. Part 2 will contain even more!

Imperial Palace Tokyo
Helen in front of the Imperial Palace
Imperial Palace Tokyo
The Imperial Palace
Imperial Palace Tokyo
The Kyu-Shiba-rikyu Gardens, Hamamatsucho
Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower
Prayer Cards at the shrine
Prayer Cards at the shrine
Hie-Jinja Shrine, Akasaka
Hie-Jinja Shrine, Akasaka
Hand cleansing at the shrine
Hand cleansing at the shrine
Takeshita-dori, Harajuku
Takeshita-dori, Harajuku
Meiji-jingu shrine, Harajuku
Meiji-jingu shrine, Harajuku
Condomania Condom Shop Harajuku
Condomania Condom Shop Harajuku
Tokyo from above (Metropolitan Government Centre)
Tokyo from above (from the Metropolitan Government Centre, Shinjuku)
Tokyo from above (Metropolitan Government Centre)
Tokyo from above at night (from the Metropolitan Government Centre, Shinjuku)
Shinjuku railway bridge
Shinjuku railway bridge
Shinjuku Kabukicho entrance
Shinjuku Kabukicho entrance
Mount Fuji from Mount Takao (Takao-san), 90 minutes out of Tokyo
Mount Fuji from Mount Takao (Takao-san), 90 minutes out of Tokyo
The city from Takao-sanThe city from Takao-san
Yakuo-in Temple, Takao-sanYakuo-in Temple, Takao-san
Stairs from Yakuo-in, Takao-sanStairs from Yakuo-in, Takao-san
One of the flashcards from schoolOne of the flashcards from school

Kyoto in a day 京都

Arriving at Kyoto station bright and early at 9am, I shoved my bag into a locker and went on my merry way. I had made a plan of action the day before of key things I wanted to see, but wasn’t really sure how long everything would take so it was tentative at best.

I got an all-day bus pass for 500yen (remarkably good value at about 4 quid), and headed first to Sanjusangen-do 三十三間堂, literally the hall of thirty three lengths, which Doug had said was must see. Inside were 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy; a giant statue in the centre, surrounded on each side by 500 human sized statues in ten rows. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside, but take a look at the google images.

From Sanjusangen-do, it was a 10 minute walk to the foot of a hill, and another 15 minutes up the hill to the famous Kiyomizu-dera temple 清水寺. Built on the site of a waterfall (the literal translation is “pure water temple”), the original temple dates from 798, with the current buildings from the 1600s, and juts out 13m over the hillside. Surviving the 13m jump was said to bring good fortune, but isn’t allowed any more. I was offered a free guided tour by some students from the University of Kyoto, but as I was in a rush (and sadly they probably weren’t) I had to turn them down as it would have eaten into my day.

As such, I had a quick whizz round, took some photos and went back on my way down the hill to the city again. By this point, it was only about half ten, and I had lots of time to spare (I was planning on leaving at around 3 or 4ish), so I added an extra stop to my tour, Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Temple 銀閣寺. In getting to the Silver Temple, I probably spent more time on the bus than I had in either of the two temples I’d already been to!

Although not actually made of silver, I think it got the name in contrast to the Golden Temple it was modelled on, the Silver Temple was the retirement home of a 15th century shogun. It was a very impressive building located in beautiful gardens, which also included some very nice sand sculptures.

Owing to the time on the bus, it was pushing 12 when I left, so I thought I’d get to my main interest of the day, the Golden Temple, firstly before it got too late and secondly before the battery in my camera ran out. Going from silver to gold was theoretically pretty easy, but in practice a bit less so as the bus unceremoniously stopped and chucked everyone off halfway, so again I must have spent over half an hour getting across town.

Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺, the Golden Temple, was the retirement villa of another 15th century shogun, and its top two levels are completely covered in gold leaf. After paying the entrance fee, it’s thrust upon you over the lake, and it’s a hustle and bustle between the tourists to try and get the best pictures. Again, it was very impressive, I thought it would look incredible in cherry blossom season. The path follows round the back of the temple into the gardens, though these weren’t as impressive as in the Silver Temple. There were the obligatory tat stalls, and then we were shepherded back out into the driveway!

That concluded everything I’d particularly wanted to see in Kyoto, and it was lunchtime, so I thought I’d head back to the station area to get something from there, though that provided challenging in itself, and spent what must have been an hour on the bus trying to get back there!

After a quick bite to eat, my 6 hours in Kyoto were up, and I headed back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen.

Hopping around Kansai 関西

Wednesday I met mum and Will at Shinagawa station where they were validating their rail passes. If you come to Japan as a tourist it’s fantastically good value to get a JR Pass; you get unlimited travel on JR (Japan Rail) trains for a week for about £200. It sounds expensive, but as I’m not here as a tourist, I couldn’t get one, and my return ticket to Osaka set me back £170 in one go. It sure is bloomin’ expensive travelling around Japan!

I was meant to be staying with Doug and his friend, but due to an unforeseen communication mix up, it turned out they’d booked to go to Kyoto first before Osaka, and mum and Will the other way round. On arrival at the hotel in Osaka therefore, we sweet talked the receptionist into letting us have an extra bed in the room (or what seemed like just swapping from a twin to a triple) and a crisis was averted.

On Thursday, we actually went 40 minutes out of Osaka to the historic town of Nara, which used to be the capital of Japan before Kyoto (which was in turn the capital before Tokyo). The overwhelming feature of Nara was its big park with lots of roaming deer, scattered about which were many more temples and shrines.

The best of these was undoubtedly todai-ji 東大寺, the biggest wooden building in the world, which houses a fantasticly large 20m high Buddha, which has been there since the year 752. Inside the temple we were accosted by some visiting schoolchildren from Chiba who had an English assignment to talk to some foreigners and have their photo taken with us. It was all good fun, indeed by the time we’d left the Buddha hall two more groups came up to talk to us, so there’ll be three photos of us on the wall of their classroom come next week!

We headed back to Osaka for a little rest, and in the evening went 30 minutes in the opposite direction from Nara to Kobe, to have a walk around the harbour before lunch. Probably most famous for the 1995 earthquake and Kobe beef, there’s not really much to do there as a tourist apart from shopping, but it was nice walking around the harbour, we found a little exhibit about the earthquake and a submerged street they’d left to show the extent of the damage. Still, we had a pleasant evening and meal before coming back to the hotel to prepare a plan of action for sightseeing round Osaka the following day.

Friday we had a bit of a lie in for a change (9 o’clock!), and bought a tourist pass from the hotel which gave us unlimited use of the metro and free entry to 27 local attractions.

Our first stop was Tsūtenkaku, (what I thought was Osaka Tower, but a quick Wikipedia tells me otherwise), towards the south, which was apparently designed to look like the Eiffel Tower (don’t think it did really). Whilst enjoying the views of the city from the top, we were once again accosted, this time by a TV crew! They homed in on mum and asked her questions about the tower; she said “oh no I don’t understand, my son speaks Japanese he’ll talk to you”, so I got dragged in as well! He asked me what I thought of the tower, and showed a picture of how it looked 100 years ago, apparently with what was meant to be Arc de Triomphe features at the bottom (again dubious). We were certain that this was gonna be a Japanese “let’s laugh at the stupid foreigners” programme, but after the same quick Wikipedia it seems the tower was built in 1912 so could have been a genuine programme!

Nevertheless we made a hasty getaway, and onto another couple of shrines (after a while they all look pretty similar so unless there’s something remarkable about them I’m not gonna say much more) before the crème de menthe of Osaka sightseeing, Osaka castle.

It was pretty impressive. There were two moats, the grounds were lovely, and by this stage it was about 30 degrees so we were joking about the chances of air con inside the castle; this being Japan though, of course there was! Inside were some photos and pictures of 17th century battles the castle was involved in, but the main draw was again the view (and the breeze!) from the top.

Despite the lie in, and probably because of walking around in the heat for many hours, by now we were knackered again, so had a bite to eat and headed back to the hotel for a nap. We had one final thing on our checklist, the floating garden observatory (and yet another view of the city).

We timed our visit for dusk, so we could see the rooftops in the light and the dark, and it was a very good view. I’m not quite sure why it’s called the garden observatory as I didn’t see any plants, but it’s a circular walkway connecting the tops of two 40 floor skyscrapers, and commands a great view of the city.

And that was our 3 nights in Osaka! The next day (and the next blog) would/will see my 6 hour dash round Kyoto!