I’m surprised when I wake up that I am not aching all over. Yesterday I did 27,500 steps around Tokyo in my Loake Burford boots, and I am fully expecting to be stiff and aching but I’m feeling surprisingly sprightly.
My plan today is to go over to Ginza, Tokyo’s upscale shopping area, to have a look around and, truth be told, see the Apple Store. The store in Shibuya is undergoing renovations and so I wasn’t able to go in and look around. Although I’m not buying anything – I’ve actually been selling off some of my Apple gear that I don’t need – I always enjoy having a look around one, since there has never been a store in Korea.
First I have to find my way to the Azabu-juban subway station. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the flat, according to Google Maps. I set off up the street and follow the blue dot down the hill and through a park. When I get to the area, though, I decide to have a wander around, as it’s a nice little area. The streets are narrow but it has an eclectic charm, and I enjoy looking at the patisseries and boutique shops and restaurants.
Through one street I see a sign for the subway station. It’s not the entrance I was looking for on the map, but I don’t expect that matters. What also attracts me is that there is a temple right next to the entrance, so I make my way towards it to have a look around. Since people are praying and bowing, I don’t take pictures and I try not to intrude on their ritual. I get some pictures of the lanterns instead, and then I make my way down into the subway station.
Tokyo’s stations, I’m finding, are actually quite big and the transfers are long. Much longer than the Seoul subway system, which seems very organised and easy to get around compared to Tokyo. I need to get onto the blue line at Azabu-juban, but it seems that I have come into an entrance that is closer to another line, and it is a long walk along several corridors and down several escalators before I get to the tracks I need to be on.
I am to make one transfer, and this is also a long and complicated process. I go up more escalators, and I have to walk the entire length of a completely different line to get to some stairs that will take me to the platforms I need. The transfer signs give distance readings, and it is almost an entire kilometre from one line to the other.
When I emerge from Ginza station I find myself on a wide, crowded and busy street. It’s a bit of a contrast to what I have experienced before. I see the Apple Store across an intersection – it has a large revolving Apple logo on the roof – but I dodge down some side roads to take a look around before I head to the main boulevard. Here I find several interesting shops and cafes, though most of them are full. I stop at a Starbucks and I get a piece of quiche to tide me over, as I have no idea where or what to eat in Ginza.
The Apple Store is manic. It is completely crowded with people trying out the computers on the first floor. I take a lift to the second floor. If there is any one thing I am looking for, it is a screen protector film for my phone. Although I have recently had one put on in Seoul, the top right corner has started to come away already, which bugs me every time that I see it. A staff member gets me a film – unfortunately, it is matte, which I don’t like – and produces a machine that puts the film on the phone. I’m amazed – it fits perfectly and is sealed tight. In Korea, a young studenty type at the reseller store puts the film on for you, and it’s not always exactly lined up with the contours of the phone.
Apple store seen, I mooch around the streets for a while. I find Ginza reminiscent of Gangnam in Seoul; wide streets with upscale stores and boutiques. It’s nice, but it doesn’t feel very Japanese-y yet, despite the large Japanese flags hanging along the street. I decide to head back to the subway and make my way over to Shinjuku instead, which is a straight shot on the subway – no complicated transfers here, thank goodness.
Shinjuku is the main administrative and entertainment area of Tokyo, which is something I only realise when I google it on the subway. The station is the largest station in Tokyo and officially the busiest train station in the world, with 3.4 million people passing through each day. It is so vast that there are 200 exit points from the station. I follow the signs for a main exit, however, and emerge on the street outside the station.
As I walk along the street, it only now feels that I am in Tokyo. Here are the neon signs and the twinkling lights and the crowded streets and manga-esque characters and signs. I walk past a large building covered in cartoon characters. I pop inside and am overwhelmed by the noise and the twinkling lights. Hundreds of people are playing games and the noise is deafening. It’s quite a sight.
I come back to the streets and walk around some more. Each side road is dripping in neon and crowded with people. It feels at once familiar – Seoul has similar areas – but also completely alien. I find the famous Godzilla statue poking over a hotel. Apparently the hotel offers rooms with a view of the statue, and it is very famous in Japan.
I keep wandering the streets. I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but there are a couple of places of interest highlighted on the map. I turn into a street and I find the famous robot restaurant. A crowd of people are waiting to buy tickets for the first show of the day. I’m not sure yet what the robots do – is it one of those places where there are robot waiters? Outside a loud jingle is playing and lights are flashing – Robotto, robotto, restaurant; Robotto restaurant, open! goes the chant. It’s insanely addictive.
I wander back to the main street. To my left appears a torii gate between two buildings, and there are lanterns along the path. I walk along, snapping some photos, and then it opens out into a large shrine complex. Again, people are actually worshipping so I am mindful about taking photos of them. It’s extremely pretty, though. It is only later that I learn that this is Hanazono Shrine, which is one of the most historic shrines in all of Japan.
The sky is darkening now and the lights on the trees in the streets start to come on. It’s not as cold as last night, but it feels wintry with the blue and white lights. I have one more place I want to look for before I eat, and that is golden gai. This is a small network of streets that contain so-called ‘tiny bars.’ So small are they that the number of patrons they can fit are in single figures. Many of them rely on regulars that come often, and are therefore not generally welcoming to new people or tourists coming in. Most also charge a cover charge of around 600 or 700 yen just to sit inside. I’ve read that if the door is closed, you shouldn’t try to go in. I see several places with their doors closed, but there are just as many with signs in English saying tourists welcome and they they don’t charge a cover fee.
Since it is dinner time most of them are full already, so I merely peep in. The streets are not well-lit, so it was tough to get a picture of the alleyways, but several of the bars had interesting artwork or murals outside. One that stands out is a poster of the Nina Simone album Baltimore, the title song of which is one of my favourite songs and was a song I listened to often when I was in Myanmar in 2015; every time I hear that song I’m taken back to my time Bagan and Ngapali.
I’m hungry now. I find a bar that isn’t too packed, given that it is Friday night in the capital’s busiest nightlife district. I squeeze into a small table in a corner and I get a bowl of chicken and rice, which is really tasty. It’s happy hour, so I get a couple of beers too. There are about 10 or 15 people in the bar, as it is quite small. Eventually it feels I’m being stared at a bit, as I am one of the only foreigners in the. I swig up quickly and move on.
Out in the streets the beer has hit me a little bit. I suddenly feel a bit woozy and it’s strange to be walking through the glitzy streets in a city that I don’t know. It’s Friday night and I kind of feel like another drink, but most of the places I pass are full and it’s not really fun to sit on your own.
Never mind. I have only one more destination to look for, and that is “Piss Alley,” or Memory Lane to the Japanese. It is a tiny alleyway just behind the main station building, and it is crammed full of more tiny restaurants which, just like golden gai, can only seat a few people at a time. It’s an interesting spectacle – much more so than golden gai, which is like a wide avenue compared to this lane – and I walk along several times taking photos and videos.
Since I’m back at the station I decide to get on the train and go back to the flat. I enjoyed Shinjuku overall, despite my feelings of weirdness after the drinks. I finally felt like I was in Tokyo thanks to the neon lights and the glitz and the crowdedness, although I think it would be more fun if you were in a group so you could enjoy the restaurants and bars a bit more.
I still fancy that third drink, though, so I get a couple of cans of Asahi from the convenience store back in Azabu-Juban, and thus ends my Friday night in Tokyo.