“…that every man will do his duty.”


It says a lot about the bewildering mess that is Tokyo mass transit that I still can’t work out how many different railway systems there are. I know there are at least two entirely separate metro companies running separate networks; there’s also JR East’s system of overground lines, including the crucial Yamanote ring line which pretty much any journey of decent length will make some use of, and god only knows how many separately run private lines, like the one we took to Shimokitazawa. All of these systems operate their own sub-stations with their own ticket barriers, exacerbating the already mazelike nature of the larger rail terminals, and all require separate tickets to be bought from separate machines. With enough different services to exhaust the spectrum, some lines just reuse colours used by others; confusion is avoided on maps (wait, no it’s not) by having several totally different, non-overlapping maps up on station walls. Sometimes.

Comparing my experience in Tokyo to London and Moscow, I can safely say to anyone who thinks that public transport ought to be run by competing private concerns rather than a unified system administered by local government: fuck you.

The upshot of all this is that, knowing the train journey down to Yokosuka-chuo was long and likely to be expensive, and having saved a day on my JR East Pass precisely in order to offset this, I was annoyed but not surprised to find that the line south was run by yet another train company. So we coughed up and got on a southbound train, which wore lovely red livery and was very comfortably furnished in an old-world-charm sort of way, and it rocked and rolled (I’ve been on rollercoasters which tilted less) through miles of Tokyo urbs. The mixed skyline of low houses and tall blocks just went on and on, and never really fell away; twenty minutes out of the centre, a comparable London journey would have you looking over uniformly low terraces, and a comparable Moscow journey might still have a skyline full of blocks of flats, but they would get more run-down and post-apocalyptic-looking the further you went, until the big grim tower blocks were half-abandoned and attended by shanty towns of corrugated-iron shacks with MiG-17s in the garden.

The train stopped an awful lot, and we noticed at one station that it was waiting a very long time for a connection; after more closely examining some timetables, we realised we’d boarded the very slowest option, and as luck would have it a swish blue Limited Express appeared on the scene and zipped us the rest of the way down. Yokosuka is home to a big American naval base (when looking at the peninsula on Google Maps ahead of time, I was slightly surprised to find that the first ship I saw was not a fifteen-thousand-tonne pre-dreadnought, but a hundred-thousand-tonne Nimitz-class supercarrier), and its influence on the town was very clear – lots of places advertising foreigner-oriented services in English and with US flags, and lots of strapping foreigners with short hair, some in US Navy uniforms. A hotel with a miniature Statue of Liberty on the roof was named the “Goddess Hotel”; Fran informed me that the Japanese call her the “Goddess of Freedom”, which the owners had obviously literally translated into English in order to attract American punters, bless ‘em. We filled up on gyuudon at a Yoshinoya branch, and pushed on to Mikasa Park.

The Mikasa is the world’s only remaining pre-dreadnought battleship, the very last survivor of a breed of armoured battlewagons made abruptly outdated in 1906 by HMS Dreadnought. It and Admiral Togo occupy a very similar position in Japanese history as the Victory and Nelson do in British – flagship and admiral at their most famous victory at sea. The Battle of Tsushima Straits was Japan’s naval apotheosis, one of the great kerb stomps of naval history, and the only one in which modern battleships actually achieved anything. At Tsushima, Togo sent his own “England Expects” with the Z flag that flies now from the main mast, signifying “The Empire’s fate depends on the result of this battle, let every man do his utmost duty.” (I don’t know quite how just the letter Z conveyed all that: either Togo spread the sentiment some way ahead of time, or the Japanese navy used a very jingoistic codebook.) The exhibition made the comparison quite explicitly, with plenty of references to Nelson and the Victory – a display on the gun deck (it also referenced John Paul Jones and the USS Constitution, an entirely unwarranted sop to the Americans who presumably visit it a lot. They are not on an equal footing.)*

The ship had been gutted since; between Washington Naval Treaty requirements and WW2 desperation, the engines, weapons and most of the armour had been stripped bare, and few of the fittings are original; after the war the battleship was used as a dance hall, among other ignominies. The capital turrets with their 12-inch guns are made of plaster; the QF 12-pdrs on the weather-deck batteries had fake barrels in original mountings. Most of the internal structure is totally gone. So it’s not a preserved museum ship as I’m used to them; but, from the huge gold Imperial chrysanthemum at its bow, past the bridge’s authentic rangefinder and compass binnacles and the reconstructed funnels that tower above the armoured citadel, right back to the little 2.5-pdr guns in the admiral’s stateroom at the stern, they’ve tried pretty hard. (In the latter, next to a 1904 picture of Togo with a balloon-back chair, a similar chair sat with a typewritten sign talking earnestly about how Mikasa preservers had found it at an English antiques market.)

In a gallery on the main gun deck, a space the engines would once have filled, an excellent set of model ships, artifacts and displays told us all about the battles of Tsushima and Yellow Sea, and a Japanese staffer, a cool ex-MSDF dude, talked to us happily about it all. The history was decent, albeit with a definite jingoistic tinge; apparently, the Russo-Japanese War was one of national independence and self-defence, rather than a naked land grab by two wannabe-imperial powers; riiight. (Japan, you don’t need to feel self-conscious, everyone was doing it. It was cool at the time! Besides, you got up to far worse in the thirties and forties…) And apparently the Japanese victory at Tsushima not only directly aided Finland and Poland, suffering under the Tsar, but did something nonspecific to ease race relations in the United States. ([sic]: “in the United States, it led to the retraction activities of the racial discrimination by the black man”. Me neither.) A deck below that was full of exhibits about tsunamis, including a wave machine which you used to knock down little plastic houses, and a rather unnerving animated film about survival involving a lot of schoolchildren running uphill.

I took scores of pictures, and bought a little die-cast battleship at the gift shop; then we went back into town for our train, catching a hazy sunset glimpse of Mount Fuji along the way. A detour to Ikebukuro got another Hatoful Boyfriend book for Katy and Fran treated me to fancy ice cream at a Baskin Robbins; then it was back to Ueno for a dinner of chicken and egg on rice (BUT WHICH CAME FIRST?!) and the sad and sorry realisation that this would be our last full day together for a long, long time.

But hey, we got to spend it on a battleship.

* Nick P, if you’re reading this, no. Victory and Mikasa led battlefleets in the defining naval victories of their respective eras. “Old Ironsides” won some single-combat duels in a pointless sideshow war. Which you lost. Yes, you did, status quo ante bellum and we burned your capital down despite being up to our shoulders in an apocalyptic twenty-year war over things that actually mattered. Shut up.


but you’re my teacher!

We practically fell over the famous Asakusa temple complex on our first day in Tokyo, having missed the hotel and overshot all the way to the banks of the Sumida River. Since it wasn’t our hotel, we didn’t pay it much attention. But this time, we knew what we were doing, and strolled through the shady tower-block canyon beneath a cloudless blue Boxing Day sky. At the river crossing, we got a clear sight of the vast new Tokyo Skytree – a novelty for both of us, as it was still under construction last time Fran was in Japan. I know on paper it was taller and far larger than Ostankino Tower, but it somehow felt less impressive; I think it must have been due to seeing Ostankino in low cloud, which accentuated its height, whereas the Skytree was set against clear sky with no frame of reference. We watched barges and ferries on the sunlit river for a while.

Past the great Kaminari Gate (meaning “thunder” – the giant wooden statues flanking the gate were of thunder deities), the approach to the temple was a calculated tourist money trap, a huge long avenue of red-painted market stalls – we tried hot, soy-saucey rice crackers (sembei), little ricecakes (kaminariokoshi), which are specifically an Asakusa specialty, named for the gate, and moulded red bean paste sweet things (ningyoyaki), which were delicious. The temple itself was much more workmanlike than Meiji Jingu, but no less impressive: house-sized paper lanterns dangling in arches, huge green-painted bronze bells and stacks of sake barrels, a little pagoda and statue garden off to the side, the immense temple roof itself. Hanging from another arch were a pair of car-sized sandals; a sign nearby informed us that they had been made not far from Tendo, and between them comprised two and a half tonnes of straw to make. A huge bronze cauldron full of burning joss-sticks billowed fragrant smoke through the crowd, who wafted it into their faces appreciatively.

We were both hunting for Christmas/New Year presents for friends and family, and secured a few in the sprawling markets; down the back streets, in a vaguely hungry search, we found both an amazing little china shop maintained by an old lady, where I bought a cup for Emma K, and a sort of Japanese greasy spoon; encouraging signs as to the place’s quality included us being the only non-Japanese people there, and a bunch of the Japanese customers being salarymen who looked like they a) came regularly b) could definitely afford much fancier food. We ordered spicy beef on noodles (tantanmen) – very nice, and about as hot as Japanese food gets. After returning to the hotel to dump the day’s spoils, we took a slightly convoluted train trip across town, to the Studio Ghibli museum.

It was a decent walk from Mitaka station, down a very long, straight double avenue of trees, atmospheric as anything in the blustery cold. The Museum itself was rammed with tourists, but charming – it shared a sort of calculated high-quality opulence with some of the more eccentric noble houses I’ve visited, that certain feel of being commissioned by someone with a lot of money and an idea of exactly how they wanted things to be, with little iron spiral staircases and wonderful warm, wood-panelled decor, stained-glass Totoro windows, and a play area which was just a room containing a massive stuffed catbus. Miyazaki’s office, plastered with amazingly diverse reference images and gorgeous work-in-progress watercolours, was a high point, as was a display of amazing interwar comics featuring all manner of cool pop-science machines. There was a library, an exhibition full of illustrations from old European fairytales, and a life-sized statue of the Castle in the Sky robot on the roof (sadly, no Nausicaa props, but the head of a god warrior would’ve been a stretch). In the basement was a little cinema, in which (attendants sitting us in the aisles with a pleasing disdain for health & safety) we watched a short film about an elderly couple feeding the mice who lived in their house so they could win a sumo match with another set of mice. It was even more fantastic than that sounds.

Then, after a chilly walk back to the station, we trawled Tokyo for more presents. I had promised Caroline “something sexy”, but the novelty condom store in Harajuku (don’t ask) was a disappointment; a manga shop in Ikebukuro (“We could look in the yaoi district!” “There’s a yaoi district?” “Well, there’s a yaoi street. A long one.”) was however perfect, providing me with a volume of godawful yaoi manga for Caroline, the requested fancy artbook for Emma L, and a Hatoful Boyfriend artbook for Fran. Then, after a decent dinner down a side street (based solely on its picture I went for something which had beef and onions; the beef turned out to be tongue, but the accompanying gyoza were so good I didn’t complain) we found our way back to the station through the endless, seething crowds and lights.

following yonder shuriken

To say the people of Tokyo are keen on shopping is an understatement; at times I did wonder if the city had begun as a shopping centre which burst its banks and grew so big that people ended up living there. From the tiny tech shops of Akiba, through the bijou department stores of Shibuya, to the sprawling malls at Ueno Station, whose lower shops spread into the subway system like roots, you can always find someone selling you something.

But there are shopping districts and shopping districts, and Ginza is the latter. It’s a rogues’ gallery of the Big Brand Names, the sort of place where luxury boutiques and “flagship stores” (whatever the hell that means) pop up like measles. There’s so much money there the English slogans actually make sense. Crass architectural bling predominates; the place was completely flattened in the war, and has been left with none of the (comparative) restraint that unbombed pre-war buildings impose on, say, Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue (the Wako building, about the only building there that predates the USAAF turning Tokyo to dust and ash, is admittedly splendid). The shops are adorned with very expensive-looking, elaborate facades; they’re generally tall buildings crammed into very small plots, so underneath the surface detail are all boring space-maximising cuboids, but, like everyone on the streets, they’re really well dressed.

We explored the Sony store, a cornucopia of merchandise and cool future technonsense; there was very little in the way of 3D kit (good; good riddance) but plenty of other fun toys, with plasma screens you could hide a 4×4 behind, a camera with incredibly impressive wobble compensation set on a mechanically shaken platform, and giant rainbow walls of smartphones with ridiculous two-word colour names.

Some time before coming out to Japan, I had made an effort to be a good boyfriend and find an appropriately Nice and Romantic joint to treat my fair lady; some quiet, classy little candles’n’flowers sort of thing, you know. Through hitting up various Japan-savvy friends (I seem to have loads of them these days) and earnestly googling things, I found something called “Sweets Paradise”: an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. The first review online said “90 MINUTES OF CAKE!!!!!!!”. It seemed perfect. And according to Fran’s phone, there was a Sweets Paradise in Ginza.

The phone lied; we went to its coordinates, but there was no cake.* So we found a train to Shinjuku, an area we wanted to visit anyway, and after spending ages trying to escape the World’s Busiest Station ™’s labyrinthine and totally unintuitive interior, popped out of an exit directly across from a sign saying SWEETS PARADISE. After a brief queue, we put 1400 yen a head in the ticket machine and were granted unlimited access (for 70 minutes; 90 must have been another branch) to a basement diner-y place full of overly well-dressed young Japanese women (with unreasonably good figures, given the setting), bustling staff in dungarees, kitschy, tasteless diner décor, and kitschy-but-totally-not-tasteless cake. Unlimited cake (and unlimited pasta, potato wedges and popcorn in between plates of cake). Seventy minutes later, we pretty much couldn’t move. Yum.

After which we Did Shinjuku, which is for all meaningful purposes the heart of Tokyo. It was very interesting – and very Japanese – but there’s only so much you can say about that sort of area: endless shops and shopping centres, dense city blocks riven by tiny alleys stuffed with arcades and curio shops and glowing vending machines, giant, glittering skyscrapers, the odd building that was actually genuinely imaginative and attractive, all lost in seas of people and swishing eight-lane freeways. It was a bright, dry, blustery day, and didn’t feel like Christmas at all. As we headed back to the station, the sun was going down, and the lights of the city were beginning to wink on.

Christmas dinner was at a place called Ninja Akasaka – a restaurant which was advertised as being ridiculously, shamelessly gimmicky and over the top. We went there. IT WAS. The entrance was practically concealed, just a square doorway in the side of another building; that led to a small wood-panelled room, and after the receptionist checking our reservation was satisfied, she shouted out a command and a ninja popped out of a hidden door and, opening another hidden door, led us along a narrow winding passage, summoned a drawbridge with ninja magic and took us across it to a dark model ninja village to our table. I say “table” – it was a little hut for two with sliding doors, set against an imitation rock wall, in which a hole led to a cave through which a misty, mysterious stream flowed. Staff in ninja costumes ghosted through the alleys and the bamboo walkways overhead, connecting another level of ninja huts full of customers. I had no idea how big the place was.

Everything was incredibly silly, but played absolutely straight. Our starter was shuriken (throwing star) crackers with shuriken-shaped pieces of pate; after that, our ninja waitress Kasumi set bowls of salad before us, and then presented each of us a box with mist seeping out – opening the box, which was full of dry ice smoke, yielded an eggshell which that looked like an egg, felt like an egg, but when cracked turned out to contain the other half of the salad, jelly and shrimp and some other tasty seafoody stuff. Then the master ninja came to give us a magic show – just coins and cards, nothing elaborate, but very nicely executed and cheerful. There followed some of the most delicious steak I’ve ever eaten, a cheesecake shaped like a frog, and REAL ENGLISH TEA for dessert.

A good Christmas.

*If you’re inferring a Portal reference here, go to hell.

the low city

The vague pencilled-in itinerary we’d developed suggested Ueno Park, with its attendant zoo and National Museum, on Monday. That morning the internet reminded us the zoo was closed on Mondays, and also for the rest of that week, but since the internet also told us that this was the last day the museum would be open we saddled up for an amble through the park anyway. Our wandering found a shrine sat out on a lake causeway, with various food stalls unlimbering and setting up (we resolved to come back for lunch), and a very Chinese-style temple with a pagoda and an avenue of stone lanterns. Shortly after that, we came to the gates of the zoo, which to our surprise was… actually open.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, kids.

You can find zoos anywhere, and I’m generally more of a sucker for good wildlife photography than actual wildlife, but the unique draw of Ueno was that it reportedly had Pallas cats, little housecat-sized Mongolian things which look like grumpy wizards and which have been a staple of Fran and I’s online interaction. But it was also a big, well-established menagerie, with a really surprisingly impressive collection: lions, tigers, the third component of the inevitable “oh my” joke, gorillas, elephants, giraffes, an enormous hippo (next to a pygmy hippo born on the exact same day as Fran), giant tortoises and anteaters, heavily-merchandised pandas, and a polar bear. Space was at a premium, and most of the animals really looked as though they needed larger enclosures, but caged animals always look like they need larger enclosures. Or no enclosures. They did at least look well-looked-after.
The rumoured pallas cats were there, and exactly as good as advertised, prowling around judgmentally and perching on the side of their enclosure like balls of rancorous fuzz. It was wonderful.

We strolled back to the lake shrine, which was very picturesque in the clear cold sunlight, and tried out an assortment of stall food – two kinds of dumplingy things (oden?), which were nice but not really worth the 800 yen they cost me; grilled chicken balls on sticks (yakitori), mini-okonomiyaki-things drizzled with superb Japanese mayonnaise, yaki soba, and a rather fatty but quite nice beef kebab thing. I considered a “hurricane potato” – a potato somehow cut into a single unbroken helix and grilled – but I was stuffed by that point, and 300 yen seemed steep for what was really just a (very, very) glorified packet of crisps. Fran had a chocolate banana.

I noticed quite a few homeless dudes around, mostly pushing trolleys (not shopping trolleys, the low-floor flatbed kind) piled with blankets and the components of makeshift cardboard homes. I’d already heard stories about salarymen unable to afford rent just sleeping in manga cafes, and seen the carefully constructed cardboard shelters at the roadside, lined with tatty quilts and attended by tea-billies over tiny gas stoves. Tokyo has been feeling the pinch like everywhere else.

We wandered on to the National Museum, pausing for a while to watch a very cheerful, earnest street entertainer performing a selection of impressive diabolo tricks while a member of the public cranked his barrel organ (his little daughter jumping up and down excitedly behind the skipping-rope-delineated health’n’safety boundary). It was really nice not feeling in any hurry, no strong obligation to be anywhere or do anything; we had the whole day, and we could spend it as we chose.

The lobby of the museum’s main building had a grandiose, monolithic, intensely Thirties look to it, and at my request Fran asked a uniformed guard when it dated from (we already knew the museum had been established in the 1870s, under the Meiji emperor). He explained happily that the original building had been wrecked in the 1923 earthquake, and had indeed been rebuilt in 1938; so I was vindicated, the guard seemed to enjoy being able to explain to an interested customer, and Fran enjoyed being able to understand what he was getting at. Everybody won.

The building was vast, but the collection actually on display was a study in calculated minimalism, opening with an captivating piece of Jomon pottery perhaps five thousand years old. (The prehistoric Jomon culture apparently never learned to work metal, or farm – but their corded pottery was advanced and fascinatingly intricate, and quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, leagues ahead of Single Grave Culture corded pottery.) Everything had been picked out for impact, and rather having a building cluttered with stunning artifacts (no matter how many they had), they gave you the space to contemplate each piece on its own. There were theatre masks, swords and armour, beautifully patterned garments, scrolls of paintings and calligraphy, sculptures, tea sets. Lots of the middle-history stuff felt very Chinese, and some of the earlier Buddhist iconography very subcontinental, with that smooth, languid style of male beauty I remember best from Sinhalese art in Sri Lanka – but the more recent late-Shogunate items, and the very oldest artifacts, had a quite uniquely Japanese feel to them. We definitely got our money’s worth.

It was dark when we got out, and getting quite chilly in the exposed thoroughfares of the park, so we went briskly back to Ueno station, past loud, obnoxious, unexpected Christian preachers. A short Ginza line ride to Tawaramachi had us sipping Freshness Burger raspberry cream chais and plotting our next move; we pondered just eating there, but the evening was young and Fran remembered a particularly fantastic donburi place in Shimokitazawa (we hadn’t seen it the previous night, but hadn’t been looking), so we hopped back on the train to look for it. Sadly, though we scoured Google Maps and the narrow Shimokitazawa streets for some time, the place seemed to have shut down in the three and a half years since she last ate there – so we spent Christmas Eve at a MOS burger, and I chomped down a burger accompanied by proper English tea, to slight ridicule from Fran but complete, honest enjoyment from my tastebuds.

sixty seconds over shibuya


Tokyo does “busy” rather well. Shinjuku station, serving the de facto city centre, is the busiest station in the world (having experienced it, that may just be because people find it impossible to escape), and Shibuya crossing the busiest pedestrian junction in creation, an unbelievable sea-of-heads swirl. Shibuya is a fashionable shopping district (of which Tokyo seems to have a bunch), an iconic, overused-in-introductory-shots cityscape; the skyline was rimmed with corporate logos and billboard photos of overcoiffed hipsters, while ground level had Engrish shirts and hats with silly slogans, various arcades and karaoke places, and a shop full of kittens and puppies in transparent tanks which seemed to be there mostly to induce rubbernecking and murmurs of “kawaii!” in passers-by. Down a side street we found an excellent ramen place and chowed down on big bowls of noodles for a mere 500 yen each.

We located a place named the “Hotel Diamond” to spend the night (weren’t due to check into the Agora Place until the following day), but as it wouldn’t open for overnight stays til 10, went back to the junction to kill some time, wandering amusedly through endless department stores full of gimmick shops with godawful pseudo-chic Engrish (and cod French. Flench?) names, selling pricey clothes to heavily made-up young women with dyed rah hair. Watching the crossing from the Starbucks (shut up) overlooking it was fascinating: the crowds gradually massing on the pavements as cars swished past, building up until bursting point until red switched to green and they surged across the road like a sudden spring tide, leaving the pavements almost empty. It was hypnotic, and, with a Fran and a swamp-coloured green tea thing, a thoroughly enjoyable way to pass the time. Noticing a couple of American chaps trying to get a clear shot through the windows, I temporarily gave up my hard-won window seat for one of them, and while he was videoing the one-minute crossing cycle it we chatted to his mate about our respective homelands and careers and how cool Japan was; this wasn’t the last time I shared a certain strangers-in-a-strange-land camaraderie with fellow Westerners (who were mostly Australian).

The next morning, we realised how close Harajuku really was and decided to walk there rather than getting the metro. This turned out to be an excellent idea; the crowded evening streets are definitely something to behold, but they’re equally interesting beheld in the cold light of morning, with time enough to take it all in. Past a huge stadium with a swooping roof and foundations like a Japanese castle, spying a bizarre Disneyland house across the railway tracks, we came to Harajuku. If Shibuya is Oxford Street (and Ginza is some nightmare hybrid of Knightsbridge and Canary Wharf – no, I’m reaching, we don’t have a Ginza at home), Harajuku is Camden – the self-styled “quirky”, “eclectic” place for young people to dress up and be seen, though with fewer giant plastic monsters, drifting clouds of marijuana smoke, and pretences at being something other than an ultracapitalist money-sponge. Sunday is meant to be the day all the lolitas and rockabillies and cosplayers amass on Jingu Bridge to fill up tourist photostreams, but there were barely any that day – it was admittedly pretty perishing cold. Fran knowing her way around, we gave the big main road a miss and instead strolled down the easy-to-miss-but-central Takeshita Street, which is where all the actually fun stuff happens, amusing ourselves with the array of outlandish clothes and accessories on sale (I found a fake College of Law shoulder flash in a Claire’s – why I have no idea) and sharing a chocolate cake-stuffed crepe (seriously).

There is some dissonance in having the huge, stately and revered Meiji Jingu shrine complex just across the tracks from a district hawking loli fashion and Santa costumes for dogs, but it was very convenient for our purposes. Past the massive cypress-wood torii, the long, broad approach to the shrine was crowded yet strangely serene; something about the overhanging trees and the quiet in the air. We passed massive stacks of consecrated barrels containing Japanese sake and French wine, little water fountains with ladles for self-purification, and a bunch of people dressed up for a Shinto wedding (there’s a Japanese fashion among people who can afford it to have two ceremonies – a traditional Shinto-style wedding, for classiness, and a Christian-style white wedding with a big messy reception, for fun.) The shrine, which was rebuilt after being pounded flat in the war, commemorates the Meiji Emperor, who was significant in dragging Japan kicking and screaming into the late 19th century; it’s large, grand and really rather beautiful, with big Chinese-style roofs and imperial chrysanthemums everywhere. Under a spreading tree decorated with ropes and paper lightning bolts, visitors had written messages on little prayer-board things in a dozen languages ranging from plaintive to comical.

It was a rather grey, miserable day, so we gave the 500-yen ornamental gardens a miss; on the way out we bumped into Chris, Fran’s fellow ALT, with his family, and it was really nice to see him again and say a proper goodbye. We also passed a bunch of young ladies in entertainingly outlandish costume (at last!) on the way to the station, where we boarded a train to… the Pokemon Centre. I will say nothing of this save that Fran was prevented from buying a complete set of Eeveelutions by suitcase space alone.

The Centre was in one of those big windswept soulless dockside regeneration areas that could be in any big ex-port city in the world; on the train ride in I saw a snatch of little Chinese-looking houseboats on a river, but beside that it was all just plate glass and overpasses – all except an ancient and absolutely gorgeous landscape garden, which we took a wander around in. It had a very artificial but very artful style, laid out to be attractive from every angle, and the rather dissonant sight of skyscrapers reflected in the koi ponds and monorails whispering about above the treetops accentuated rather than detracted from it. Having taken many photographs, chilled out on a bench, been gaped at by many carp and shocked an older Japanese chap with Fran’s Japanese abilities (that happened quite a lot), we found a little coffee shop to get out of the cold and wind. Embodying our respective stereotypes, I had a Royal Milk Tea and she a Mango Tango Cream Swirkle; then, after a change at Ueno where we photographed a Muji for Hazel, we were off to Shimokitazawa to meet Eluned for a dinner of okonomiyaki.

What I saw of Shimokitazawa was much more like the other Far Eastern urban stereotype (though I guess that stereotype is more Chinese than Japanese) – narrow, cluttered, crowded streets between two- or three-storey buildings, full of people trying to sell you things. And unlike the slightly disingenuous, quirkiness-repackaged-for-mass-markets stylings of Harajuku or the straight up shopping counter that was all of Shibuya, it felt very genuine and quite laid back. The okonomiyaki place was all smoky and bohemian, with hand-drawn instructions for making various dishes and a refreshing apathy towards health and safety; I had to take care to avoid scorched knees. Okonomiyaki is… hard to describe; you get given a table with a hotplate, and a bunch of salady seafoody eggy stuff in bowls, and have a go at preparing your own sprawling quiche/omelette thing at your leisure. It was very tasty, but surprisingly unfilling (accompanying blocks of tofu were surprisingly filling, but not tasty). We went for drinks after that – umeshu and warm sake – and had a good ol’ relaxing evening out of the cold. It was nice to see Ned doing well – she’s on what appears to be a Japanese version of the GDL, an intense one-year language course, but I have little doubt in her ability to do it.

Once the jug of sake was empty, we walked back to the station through the chilly night air and began the long, crowded ride back to Asakusa, which due to the great unnecessary silliness of Tokyo railways involved changing, once more, at Shibuya.


shine, electric city, shine

I’ve talked a lot about Japan in terms of Stereotypes and How They’re Wrong. Which is a bit unimaginative, perceptually loaded and (worst of all) boring. But one stereotype in particular is very big, very pervasive and very wide of the mark: that the whole country is a glittering hypercity, a futuristic techno-paradise where everything is cutting-edge, full of singing toilets and manga and robots and Engrish and general Really Weird Zany Stuff such as you’ve seen all over the internet.

And that simply ain’t so.

There are indeed cool futuristic toilets (with heated seats and something which “cleanses the posterior”) but there are also squat loos little more than holes in the ground; adverts for very fancy tech are commonplace, but everyone carries flip phones like it’s still 2006. Everything is fairly modern, but not always advanced (the nineties called, they honestly don’t want their fax machines back) and definitely not always efficient – how enlightened, sensible and user-friendly the Tokyo rail system just plain isn’t is another post all on its own. Nor is it a playground of Weird Stuff by any means – there are admittedly cutesy cartoon animals absolutely everywhere, Engrish is so common I barely noticed it after a couple of days, and advertising is quite a bit more over-the-top than at home – but it’s all much more staid and cheerfully materialistic than wacky. (You get some pretty kooky shit in arcades and hobby shops, but where is that not true?) In a lot of things – the prevalence of uniforms, the emphasis on Social Roles, how absolutely nobody seems to dress or act “casually”, the whole general sociopolitical zeitgeist of civilised properness – Japan more resembles Victorian stereotypes (if not Victorian truths, but I wasn’t around then to compare, were you?) than the permissive futuristic dreamland of cyborgs and short skirts dreamt of in weeaboo corners. Above all, it’s just a normal, functional place populated by normal people doing normal things. People are people everywhere.

But you can forgive some stereotypes of the bizarre cyberpunk otaku Mecca when you visit Akihabara (Akiba for short), because it’s pretty much exactly like that. Tech shops piled high with current and last-gen gear line the crowded streets, buildings rising above them rammed with utterly geeky specialist stores brimful of specialised equipment, collector merch, hobby stuff and weird sex toys. Mascots in go-go boots and teenage girls with frilly mid-thigh hemlines thrust flyers for electronics shops and maid cafes at you and the rest of the anorak crowd; walls and windows are plastered with posters and endless frowning/pouting/forlorn oversexualised anime girls with tiny mouths, prehensile breasts and giant limpid eyes. Great neon signs and plasma screens flash psychedelic advertisements down at you from the first storey to the thirtieth.

One electronics shop was a stratified computing history lesson; the top floor was current/last-gen kit, but going down took you through horrible blocky nineties laptops and CRTs, then eighties proto-laptops, pagers and kit so outdated I didn’t even recognise it, through giant racks of resistors and semiconductors all the way to a basement that was full of fist-sized transistors and honest-to-goodness valves. It was a museum, except everything still worked and everything was for sale (lord only knows who buys it.) Slightly more modern outlets elsewhere furnished Fran with a replacement camera battery for an appalling number of yen, me with a second-hand camera for only slightly more and a little MP3 player with accompanying 8gb microSD card for money equating to about a tenner.

Despite the male-gaze-centric advertising and the bounty of body pillows and lewd, expensive figurines, the place felt surprisingly wholesome; it’s somewhere real people go to buy things, rather than a porn ghetto for shutins, and has very little in the way of nerd stench and stereotypically-creepy unwashed types (maybe they were all in the maid cafes already, getting served tea by catgirls). There isn’t a whole lot of mystique or silliness to it, just an incredibly broad and esoteric set of wares. Akiba is the sort of place I enjoyed intensely even as an outsider who can’t read the signs; if I had been born Japanese, it would probably be paradise.

one fish two fish blowfish blue fish

On my last day in Tendo, Fran had to go out for an enkai (annual office party – expensive, fancy, and pretty much compulsory in spirit if not in letter), so Mindy took me out for the sights of Friday evening Tendo. After a short traipse across town, discussing travel and history, we came to a foot onsen (hot spring); it was rather surreal having my feet stuck in hot water while the air around the rest of me was cold enough to warrant an overcoat, but not unpleasant. It seems to be just a general thing people do; other visitors at the time included a young Japanese couple, a scruffy-looking older dude, and an extremely smartly dressed salaryman type glued to his smartphone. (On the vague hope of going to hot springs, I had packed the genuine onsen towel which Eli got me for my birthday, and put it to its proper use.)

Chris joined us and we went on to a sushi place, which had both the fabled little conveyor belt and a touchscreen food-selector thing where you could order specific dishes to be delivered on a little shinkansen train. I gorged myself on various fish-and-rice-themed bites, tiny burgers and unlimited green tea (tea was literally on tap. Truly, this place is paradise). Sushi is jolly nice, but it’s not something I’d eat every day – which is fine, because it’s also not nearly as ubiquitous as people seem to think.

Following sushi, we went to a proper onsen, a full-body geothermal bath in the time-honoured tradition of Japanese people and macacques. This was in the basement of one of Tendo’s hotels, for a cool 500 yen, and resembled a very hot, rather elaborate hotel swimming pool rather than the classic image of a rock-bound open-air pool – but given that it was mid-December, I wasn’t really objecting. It was all pretty classy and hygienic: you had to thoroughly shower down before entering the pool, and the changing room thing was fitted with fancy mirrors and grooming equipment (clearly intended for the class of visitor who’d be staying at the hotel rather than the hoi polloi, but as the hoi polloi I didn’t mind). I didn’t feel particularly awkward stripping off and showering down in public, which I think may owe a lot to the sheer foreign-ness of it all; without any sort of social context, I was genuinely not bothered by the exposure or the glances of various sweaty naked Japanese men. It was seaux spiritual and cultural and political.

We got up on Saturday morning for Tsubasa 136, rolling along endless snowbound valleys and little tunnels, through gently descending hills and sharply rising skyscrapers to the heart of the absurdly large thirteen-million-man metropolis that is Tokyo. The original plan was to leave our stuff in coin lockers, which we found after minor drama in navigating the bizarre maze of conflicting ticket barriers (soon to become a recurring theme) on the way into Ueno station, but the price of a locker which could accommodate Fran’s huge suitcase was so staggering we decided to just head to the hotel and leave things there. After a hunt made unnecessarily long and complicated by the shortcomings of iphone mapping software, which involved us trudging all the way to the river before doubling back five hundred metres, we finally found the Agora Place Hotel.

Pleasingly, having unloaded our baggage, we found that there were two excellent amenities pretty much on the hotel’s doorstep: Tawaramachi metro station, and a branch of “Freshness Burger”, where we adjourned for lunch. Although Freshness shared a lot with the costlier British burger places (Rocotillos/GBK/Selly Sausage sort of thing) in terms of atmosphere (and price!), the burgers did not; there was a polished, processed, artificial quality to both the bread and meat, but they were still pretty damn tasty, and the accompanying raspberry cream chais were weird but almost impossibly delicious.

Refreshed, full and substantially less burdened, we set off to explore.