Dan in Japan: Day 1

It’s 8.30 am in Tokyo, Japan. The sky is clear and a deep blue, and it is much warmer than it is in Seoul. It was minus 7 when I left Korea yesterday, and it’s around 10 degrees in Japan. I’ve had a good sleep after flying in last night, but I’m groggy as I step on to the balcony and take in the view towards the centre of the city.

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It’s been an intense couple of weeks. Firstly, I have finished my job at the university. When last I wrote, I was in a bind over whether I wanted to remain in Korea or not. At the end of October I resigned, and a month later I gave notice on my apartment. The last few weeks have been filled with clearing out and packing up my apartment, selling off my stuff and working out a travel plan. Add to that a virulent stomach bug that hit me over Christmas and you can see why I might be pretty knackered.

I booked my ticket a week ago. I’d had a plan to come to Tokyo around this time for a while, but somehow kept putting off the actual booking of tickets. To my mind, that made what I was about to do all too real, and psychologically I guess I felt that booking tickets would mean I would actually have to do it. But now I’m here, and luckily I’m able to stay at the home of my cousin who lives and works here, saving me the cost of a hotel.

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Flying sucks when you’re tall

I arrived at Narita airport at around 6 pm. Once I’d got my bags I went to the Visitor Center and arranged a bullet train ticket to Kyoto for January 2nd. I couldn’t find a way to do it online, and since I’ve booked my hotel in Kyoto and the first week of January is quite a big holiday in Japan I want to make sure that I’ve got the means to get there. Since I miss the 7.12 pm airport train to Shinagawa station, I plump for the 7.46 and get myself a local SIM card while I’m waiting. I had enquired about pocket wifi systems but all the desks renting them out tell me that they are sold out for the day. A local SIM with unlimited data (well, until you hit 4GB usage, that is) for 14 days costs 5,500 yen, or about 55,000 won.

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Arrival at Shinagawa station

My cousin and his family flew off to Vietnam this morning. I only saw them for a couple of hours after I arrived last night. Since I was pretty busy during the preceding two weeks, I had no plan whatsoever for how to spend my five days in Tokyo. I don’t even have a clue about what areas of the city to visit or where they are in relation to each other. Luckily, Jack and Vicki have hosted friends and family several times and are now dab hands at guiding people around the city. Vicki produces a tourist map and a set of highlighters and sets about planning me. I end the night with a good idea of what there is to do and how I can get to the different places.

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I look at the map again as I munch on some toast for breakfast. Today I’m going to head to the nearby Roppongi Hills to take in a rooftop view of the city, and then move on to Shibuya to see the famous crossing in action. Following that, it’s a short walk (it seems on the map, anyway) to Meiji Shrine and Harajuku, and if there’s time I might even get to Shinjuku.

First I have to find my way to Roppongi Hills. This is a large tower block in the local area. I get directions from Google Maps and I make my way out into the streets of Tokyo, which are decidedly quieter and more orderly than those of Seoul. Eerily quite, even. No loud, busy crossings or filled with the constant streams of traffic that choke the streets of Seoul. It’s an interesting contrast.

I find my way to what I think is Roppongi Hills, but turns out to be another building nearby that houses a book shop and a Starbucks. I decide to stop in for a coffee and try to log onto the free Wi-Fi. I didn’t come totally blind to Tokyo – I read about some things, and one of the things that I read about was that Starbucks is pretty much the best place to get Wi-Fi. Surprisingly, given Japan’s technologically advanced reputation, many places do not and will not offer Wi-Fi, and the free Wi-Fi signals in the area require a registration by email, which means, ironically, that if you cannot connect you cannot do the registration required to be able to connect. I want to make a FaceTime call, so I figure I’ll try it in Starbucks, but for some reason I cannot get the login page to come up so I just use the data from my SIM.

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I move on to Roppongi Hills. As I find the front of the complex I see Tokyo Tower rising up over the  in the distance. I saw the tower in the cab from the train station last night, and I knew it was close to the flat. Vicki had told me that the view from the Hills is her favourite, rather than that of Tokyo Sky Tree on the other side of the bay, because you get a great view of the tower right from the Hills. I head inside and buy my ticket, and then I get in the lift and ascend to the 52nd floor.

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When I emerge from the lift the tower is right in front of me. There are people sitting in sofas that face the windows, so my desire to get a selfie at the window wanes. I’m always self-conscious about taking selfies in public. I wander around a little anyway and take some pics. The sun is coming right through the windows, which rise up a couple of storeys. I can see why Vicky likes the view. From here you can see the bay and the runway at Haneda airpot, with planes taking off and banking across the bay.

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I follow a corridor into another section and look down at the buildings spanning out. There aren’t many people here, so I attempt some selfies with the view behind me. The sun is coming in at just the right angle to create a lens flare across the picture, but oh well. I continue to wander and pull up a seat at the window to take some more pictures. It suddenly hits me that there, right on the horizon and clearly visible, is Mt. Fuji. For some reason I didn’t know it was so close to Tokyo. It’s quite a sight, and I’m suddenly wowed. (Vicki will tell me later that Fuji likes to hide herself, and she has never been able to get such a clear view.)

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I decide to pay a further 500 yen and go up another couple of floors to the rooftop viewing platform. From here I can get an unobstructed view of the vista, but again the sun is just at that angle that it causes lens flare if I get a selfie with Mt. Fuji in the background.

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Back down to the street and time to head to Shibuya. It’s one subway stop away, but by glancing at the map it looks walkable. I stay on the street and decide to head down the road that leads to the station. Google Maps tells me it is a 34-minute walk. Can that be right? I pass a bus stop which has a sign in English that says “For Shibuya Station.” I hang around for a moment, wondering if I should talk one, and then the bus comes. I decide to get on.

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Smallest seats ever. Tiny. I can barely get my knees in. Never mind, it’s only three stops, and it’s all a straight road. I want to ring the bell, but the English announcement says that Shibuya is the final station so I guess I don’t need to.

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I exit the bus and immediately feel lost. The station seems to be undergoing some rebuilding work. Footbridges criss-cross the streets. I have no idea if I’m in front of or behind the station. I decide to head up a busy-looking road and see plenty of little restaurants dotted about. It’s lunchtime now and I’m getting hungry and fancy ramen noodles. I see a small shop and I step inside and get the staminamen noodles. I am placed at a bar that extends down the wall of the restaurant facing the wall. A couple of other single diners are slurping away and glancing up at the wall. Must be a Japanese thing – is it shameful or something to eat alone?

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The noodles are great. While eating I’ve browsed the map and got a better idea of where the crossing is. I head back to where I got off the bus and walk through the construction and then I am out of the Hachiko exit. There is a small square with a dog statue in the middle and a crowd of people taking selfies with the dog. The story goes that the dog, Hachiko, would come to the station every day to meet his owner, a professor, from the train. After the professor died, Hachiko continued coming to the station every day for the next ten years. A statue was erected, and now it is a popular meeting place for people coming out of the station. I hear a Japanese tour guide telling his group that this statue is very, very famous in Japan.

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But Hachiko is not what I’m here for. I want to see the famous crossing across which people pour in all directions as they get across the street. It’s right by the statue, and already a large crowd is crossing the road. Phones are held aloft and several Go-Pros are bobbing about the heads of the mix of local people and tourists. It’s actually a lot smaller than I imagined, but it’s fun to watch.

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I get in the crowd and await the changing of the lights to green. I’ve heard that the view from the Starbucks across the road is good, and I can already see that the window seats are crowded with people holding cameras and phones. The lights go green and suddenly people start to move in all directions. It makes me think of a battle in the Lord of the Rings movies, where two armies march towards each other and then bam! they meet and mingle. Tourists stop in the middle of the melee and I see one guy advancing with a Go-Pro and excitedly yelling, “We’re doing it! We’re crossing!” Perhaps he is doing a live broadcast.

I head up to the second floor of the Starbucks and take in the view from above. You don’t need to buy a drink to head up there, however. I take some photos and videos and a time-lapse movie and then I head back down to cross again and get some pictures from the street level.

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I make my way up to Meiji Jingu after wandering through Shibuya itself, which is a shopping district I find akin to Myeongdong in Seoul. It’s a short walk – about ten minutes in all – and then I find myself at the shrine. There is a large torii gate at the entrance and a long path through some trees. As I arrive, a loudspeaker announces that the gates will close soon and that visitors should make their way to the nearest exit. There is no ticket office and no officials are stopping people from entering, so I trudge along the path with a crowd of other tourists. At the end of the path is a wall of sake barrels, which I immediate know I’m going to have a selfie at. There is another torii gate to the left, and as I turn the sun, which is lowering at this point, as it is about 4 pm, shines through the trees. I set my camera to a longer shutter and attempt to get a sunburst through the trees.

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The shrine is nice when I get there a few minutes later. Sadly, I don’t get to spend much time there as an official waves me on, saying in pidgin English that it is closing soon. I dash off a few pics while he keeps waving me and other tourist out of the site, and make my way back out the way I came.

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The exit is across the street from Harajuku, so I make my way over there. I’m expecting to see Harajuku girls everywhere, but sadly they are not to be seen. No one is in crazy outfits or has bright pink hair or anything like that. If anything, Harajuku is normal – it appears to be another Myeongdong-esque shopping street. By now the sun has gone down and the wind is cold. I shuffle along the street with all the other people and then turn into an interesting-looking street on the left, which turns out to be Takehsita Dori. It’s crowded and fun, with shops and lights and crazy cafes. I don’t make it into the owl forest, but I wander along the street anyway. It seems the thing to eat along here is crepes, as there are several places selling them. Vast menus boards are on just about every corner and people are wandering along eating them.

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Takeshita Dori done, I cross the street and wander around some of the lanes over the road. The streets are narrow and not that crowded, which is a surprise in contrast to the main road. I stop for a coffee in a small coffee shop. It has Wi-Fi, so I am able to check out the map and some other information I need.

Time to head for the subway. I won’t get to Shinjuku today, which lies to the north of Harajuku. It’s a simple subway journey from where I’m staying, so I figure I will go there tomorrow. Now I’m hungry, so I decide I will go back to Roppongi, which is near the flat, and eat there. At first I am confused by the subway map – I can’t make out if I have to make one or two transfers. I downloaded a subway map to my phone and that says two transfers. I follow that and descend to the platforms. Unlike in Seoul, there are no screen doors between the train and the platform, and the carriages are smaller than the trains in Seoul. Like in Singapore last summer, I kind of expected a cleaner and more sterile train, but that isn’t the case. It’s also quite quiet on the trains, despite it being, I guess, rush hour. I was expecting to see people getting shoved onto packed trains by guards, but oh well.

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Back in Roppongi and I’m on the hunt for food. I’ve read about this area being a great place for restaurants and bars. It appears to be the Tokyo version of Itaewon, from what I’ve read. It is not as packed with pubs and restaurants as Itaewon, though; everything seems to be more spaced out. I follow the map in the direction of a couple of places I’ve read about. I end up outside a British pub, wondering if I should go in or not. The special of turkey burger with cranberry relish advertised outside swings it for me; since I was sick with a stomach bug on Christmas day, my Christmas dinner consisted of a probiotic yoghurt and a leftover sausage roll I made for a friend’s Christmas eve pot luck dinner, so despite feeling guilty about not eating Japanese food, I relish the burger and decide that I am justified in having it.

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A pint in another British pub rounds off my night. (I was lured in by a sign on the window saying draft beer was only 360 yen – it was, but only 200 ml. A full pint was 880 yen.) Again I notice that single drinkers are placed at a bar that faces the wall, and I decide this must indeed be a Japanese thing. I set the map directions back to the flat and only get lost a couple of times on the way back.

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So ends my first day in Tokyo. A long day of walking, and a day in which I found that Tokyo wasn’t really what I expected. I didn’t see the neon lights and the people are friendlier than they are made out to be, but there were no Harajuku girls to be seen anywhere. But still, I’m intrigued by what’s to come, and I have a good night’s sleep in anticipation of the exciting things to see on the rest of the trip.

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