Paul and Rita's World Tour 2006/7 - Japan


 Tokyo (again)
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Japan has long been on our list of places to visit, but this will be our first time.  Previously we've not quite made it because we didn't have time, or it didn't fit in with our flight plans, but there was always the cost consideration.  We've always heard how expensive things are in Japan.  But in recent years we've seen surveys that rated London as the most expensive place to visit these days, so we thought it was time to bite the bullet (pardon the pun) and go! 

History:  Japan has had a colourful past, initially settled by migrants from Siberia, Korea and even Polynesia as early as 10,000 BC, it has come a long way since then and is now a curious mix of the ultra modern and old traditions.  Language: Japanese.  Population: 127 million.  Monetary unit: 1GBP = 220 Yen, as at 6/11/06.  Toilet situation:. Outlook: Good.  What we found: Plenty of western style toilets, although occasional use of squat toilet required.  They have some amazing electronic controls attached to some of their toilets, not sure what they did but I think the main option was for a bidet style wash.  Toilet paper provided usually, but not all the time. 


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9th to 10th Nov 2006 - Tokyo
11th to 13th Nov 2006 - Kyoto and Nara
14th to 15th Nov 2006 - Tokyo


Thu 9th November, 2006

Great flight to Japan, over 13 hours long and no great films to watch and we had to pay for our beer and wine, but time seem to go quite quickly.  Our first glimpse of Japan as we approached Narita airport from the sea was very interesting, very cultivated with small hills covered in trees and then large industrial sites sprawled out besides the rivers. 

The immigration process was extremely quick and efficient, less than 15 seconds I'd say, and as we'd not checked in any luggage we were soon in the arrivals hall getting some yen from the ATM.  I've probably said this before, but a good tip when you first arrive in a strange country (I'm not saying Japan is strange, just new to us) before you stick your credit or bankcard into a machine, it's best to work out roughly how much of the local currency you need. 

We had booked accommodation online at a backpackers place in the North of the city, not something we usualyy do but going into big strange cities where you're not sure what to expect, it can be a good idea.  I'd got directions from the hostel website, which seemed quite simple and they were.  No problems buying our tickets over the counter, picked up some complicated looking maps of the Tokyo subway and train system, and off we went to experience the joy of the Tokyo commuter network.

We've always been led to believe by books, TV and what people tell us that Japan, and Tokyo in particular, is a very busy, crowded place.  So our first surprise was how clean everything was, even the tracks on the underground was spotless,  not something we'd normally associate with a congested city. The second surprise was how quiet it seemed to us, it was about 5pm as we neared the centre of Tokyo after our one hour train ride, and, although a few people had to stand on the train, it was far from crowded.

Our directions to the hostel told us to take the Keisei line to Aoto station and change there for Asakusa, where we should take exit 2b, (which has a lift whereas exit 2a doesn't) and then gave a little map showing directions to walk to the hostel.  There were six exits at Asakusa station, but when we got off the train and were confronted by many signs, mostly in Japanese but with some English, it was simple to find exit 2b and we were soon stood outside at exactly the right spot to continue our directions to the hostel.  This may not seem such a big deal to some people, but having struggled  to orientate oneself at many complicated stations before,  I was amazed by the simplicity and usefulness of the system.  Why doesn't everybody do the same, so simple yet so effective.  Ok, I know, I've gone on long enough about it now.

For the price, our hostel was amazing value for anywhere in Japan, let alone near the city centre of Tokyo.  It would have been even cheaper if we'd gone for dorm beds, but for 10 quid a night each we though the double room was great value.  We had a small room with bunk beds, but at least it was ours, and there was only one toilet for the 5 rooms on our floor, but that didn't seem to be a problem.   The dividing walls of the rooms were just plaster board, which meant you could hear a mouse fart from the opposite end of the floors, but, again, for the price we couldn't knock.  And so another myth about Japan, it being sooooo expensive to visit, was gradually fading away. 

Our body clocks were a bit screwed up by now, we'd set off on Thursday at 11am from Chicago and after a 13 hour flight had arrived on Friday at 3:30pm at Tokyo.  To overcome the jetlag we decided to try and stay awake as long as we could until late in the evening, then hopefully our body clock would be so confused that it would just assume that was the normal time to go to sleep.  I've tried this on a number of occasions in the past, normally with some success, and it worked to some degree here, except Rita was up and about by 5am the next morning, I lasted until 7am..

Friday 10th November

As we were both up so early, we thought this would be the ideal time to go see the Tsukij (not sure of spelling, but to use US President Nixon's words, who's gonna know?) fish market, one of the must see tourist things to do in Tokyo.  Caught the underground from Asakusa, expecting it to be really busy again as it was 7:30am, but it was still not as busy as we expected, although there were a lot more people standing, all in smart suits and most apparently asleep or studying the insdie of their eyelids in great detail..

The fish market is huge.  No wonder they're predicting that the worlds stocks of most fish will be exhausted by 2050, the Japanese are eating it all!  The lines of stalls went on for ever, with so many types of fish I couldn't even guess the name of.  There was a lot of tuna, mostly frozen, I guess from the big factory ships, being cut up with electric band-saws. Next to the saw tables were big bins of tuna fish heads.  Tuna is used a lot in sushi, I think, it's one of the cheaper options.  There were also tons of squid, crabs, prawns, and fish of many different colours.  And most amazing of all, there was no smell, because it was so fresh I guess, and there was plenty of water being sloshed around to keep the pathways clear of debris.  What an amazing place.

As many of you know, I'm not a great seafood lover, don't get me wrong, I like fish, it's just eating them I have a problem with.  Some of my best friends are fish!  I said that for effect only.  One of the traditions of going to the fish market is to go and eat some ultra fresh sushi from the little bars around the market.  And I DID.  We had a small plate of tuna sushi with some wasabi (a type of horseradish) and a little salad.  Rita wasn't feel too good due to jet lag, so I ended up munching my way through most of it, helped down with a small bottle of sake.  Well, when in Rome....

The sake helped enormously, but having consumed most of the bottle it left me a little light headed.  The trials of travelling, what we have to put up with, I suppose.

Wandered (staggered?) up the main street towards the posh shopping area of Tokyo, Ginza.  Rita spotted some famous name shops and we walked past them all.  No time for expensive window shopping on this tour.  Did make it into a large electronics store though.  To be honest, I wasn't that impressed with the range of gadgets on offer, not quite sure what I expected but we're all led to believe that the Japanese shops are full of the next generation of gadgets that are going to take the world by storm.  If that's the case then dont expect any big storms in the near future.  There are thousands of models of mobile phones, surprisingly large in size, I thought things were supposed to be getting smaller, and most of them only work in Japan.

Once Rita had dragged me away from the electronics (actually Rita was as interested as I was) we walked around to the Imperial Palace and various gardens in the area.  You can't see a lot of the Palace, and what you can see is not terribly impressive, but it was only re-built in 1968 after being bombed during the war, and I guess the Emperor is entitled to a little privacy.  Got some nice big fish in his ponds, though.  I wonder if he's a fisher man and catches his own fish. 

On the way back to Asakusa by subway, we stopped off at one the markets at Ueno, a mixture of stalls underneath the railway lines and many shops lining the street nearby.  Spotted an Indian curry house, The Samrat, on our way round, stopped by for a mediocre curry. Well, it would have been rude not to!

Back at Asakusa, we decided we had to investigate the strange building with the large gold object on top.  Looked like a golden turd to me, but that might offend some people so I wont mention it.  Turned out to be a restaurant called the Flame D'Or, French for Flame of Gold, of course.  Oh, I see it now, it's supposed to be a big golden flame on top of the building.  The strange thing was, it's not a French restaurant, it's owned and run by one of the big beer brewers in Japan, Asahi.  Better just test the beer for quality while we're here.  Not bad, bit largerish, but drinkable.

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Sat 11th November, 2006

Rita was up mighty early this morning, claimed she couldn't sleep due to jet lag, but I think she just wanted to try and get on the laptop before me!   Checked out of the hostel and got the subway down to Kyoto Main Train Station.  I would like to say we went straight there without a hitch, but having worked out a route on the slightly complicated subway map, we got on an express train which shot through the station we wanted to stop at to change trains at.  To cut a long story short, we had a brief tour of several downtown subway stations we hadn't planned on, but eventually made it to the central station only a little later than planned.

The Shinkansen, known to the rest of the World as The Bullet Train (one uncharitable friend of mine, whose name shall remain anonymous,  suggested they dont call it The Bullet because they would have problems pronouncing it, they would have to call it The Burret)  is still one of the fastest trains in the world after 30 years, and no trip to Japan can be complete without at least seeing one in action.   We started booking onto the 11:53 super-express service to Kyoto, but the booking clerk seemed to get very carried away with swiping our credit card and printing out loads of tickets.  Not sure why, but eventually we had to sign 4 credit card slips and were given 4 tickets for the 12:20 train.  We checked the values and they added up to what we expected to pay, but why couldn't he do it on one piece of paper. The four tickets were 1 each for the basic fair to Kyoto, plus one ticket each for travelling on the super-express.  For a super efficient country, this didn't seem too efficient to me, especially as he took so long issuing the tickets, we had to change from catching the 11:53 to the 12:20. 


  More to follow.

Sunday 12th January

Explored the temples of Higashi Hongan and Nishi Hongan, and also the markets and covered arcades in the city centre

Monday 13th January

Train trip to Nara and the World Heritage sites of Toduiji park.

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Tue 14th November, 2006

Caught the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, tried to find a cheaper alternative but they were going to take 8 or 9 hours and would only save us 30% of the cost of the Bullet, so didn't see the point.  Manage to get a limited view of Mount Fuji on the way, the top was covered in cloud but the shape was clearly that of Fuj, confirmed by the hostess on the train.

Back in Tokyo, returned to the Khaousan-Tokyo hostel, where we go a smaller and noisier room than before, but it was ok because it was cheap!  Spent the rest of our time in Tokyo,  checking out the the electronics shopping area, and also the Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa area.

Thursday, caught the subway and train out to Narata airport and got our flight to Taipei.  

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Continues in Taiwan

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