Posts Tagged Tokyo
Disclaimer: UPS is the nickname of one of my friends visiting Japan. This post has nothing to do with United Parcel Service.
UPS and I got up early in the morning, and met The Penpal at Mishima station in order to go to Tokyo for the day. I love having a chance to introduce my girlfriend to friends from home. I was hoping to get a chance to do that on a large scale over the Christmas holidays, but she was unable to get the time to travel to Canada.
I wasn’t worried at all about UPS meeting The Penpal. He is one of those friendly people who can have a conversation with anyone. We took the shinkansen from Mishima to Shinagawa, talking the whole way. By the end of our hour long trip, The Penpal and UPS were talking like old friends.
Our first stop of the day was Shinjuku. It’s always impressive to show off the tall buildings around Shinjuku station. Today was Sunday, so we got a chance to look at the buildings without the usual mobs of people crowding us. It was almost a bit spooky to see how empty the streets were. We walked in the direction of the Tokyo Metro Government Building, making sure to pass through the NS building to see the world’s largest water clock. I filled UPS in on my adventures coming to this building two years ago for NOVA new employee orientation. Even though it had only been 2 years, it felt like a whole lifetime ago.
As we left the NS building and continued towards the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, we saw a strange sight; a small ramen stand in the middle of an empty courtyard surrounded by people. As we got closer, we noticed TV cameras, and standing in line for ramen was comedian Hard Gay. They were filming something for one of his TV appearances.
As someone who has lived in Japan for over 2 years, I am now used to the idea of a muscular, leather clad comedian named “Hard Gay”. It took some explaining to get UPS to understand what he was looking at, and I promised to show him some Youtube videos later. UPS took out his camera to capture the moment, but one of the producers came over and asked politely in Japanese not to take pictures. I translated for UPS and he put his camera away, although in retrospect this would have been a good opportunity to forget Japanese and get a picture of Hard Gay in action.
We eventually got to the Metro Government building, and went to the observation level, located 202 meters above street level. We spent about an hour taking looking at the never ending sprawl of the Greater Tokyo area in every direction. We also got a picture with the cute mascot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation (TOEI). I don’t know why every business and government department in Japan feels the need to have a cute mascot, but maybe that’s because I am Canadian.
We could have spent a lot more time in Shinjuku, but had to keep moving to take advantage of UPS’s short time in Japan. Next stop: Meiji Shrine.
Today’s column is a few months overdue. I had the best intentions to write about my Japaniversary when it happened, but life got in the way. Anyway, here goes.
I have officially been in Japan for 1 year (and 2 months). The last year has gone by entirely too quickly. I have managed to meet about a zillion people, work in a completely new job, see many interesting things, and do things I never imagined before. It has been a great year, and I am looking forward to (possibly) another year in this great country. Of course, with the good comes some bad as well. So without further delay, here is the official “Drinking in Japan first year in Japan Highlights and Lowlights List”, presented in alphabetical order.
- Australians – I have never seen so many Australians in my life. They are generally really cool people. They are like the Canadians of the Southern hemisphere, if Canadians lived in a warm country. Maybe Canadians are the Aussies of the Northern hemisphere, who knows.
- Drink Bar – Many “family” style restaurants have self serve drink bar with free refills. Great for hot days!
- Food – The selection and quality of food here is unbelievable. Everything tastes good!
- Japanese people – Japanese people are great! Overall, they are very friendly and helpful to visitors, and are really fun to party with.
- Kamakura – There is a GIANT Buddha here. What more do you need?
- Karaoke – I LOVE karaoke! I love that most karaoke is in a private room with friends, and that you can get food and drinks delivered.
- Koban – A Japanese police box. Instead of having a few centrally located police stations, there are many small police boxes scattered throughout the cities. The police are able to patrol a familiar area, and are great for giving directions to lost travelers. The Koban system works really well for densely populated areas.
- Kyoto – You can experience Japan’s history in a city where you can’t walk down the street without tripping over a temple or shrine.
- Mt. Fuji – Impossible not to like. A snow covered Mt. Fuji is beautiful.
- Nikko – Probably the most breathtaking place in the country for sightseeing. Allegedly there are monkeys there too.
- Niku man – (niku = meat, man = steamed bun) Chinese steamed meat buns are sold for 100 yen each in convenience stores and are a great snack. You can also get pizza man, curry man, and bean paste man.
- Shinkansen – A.K.A. the bullet train. Cruising across the country at 250km/h rules!
- Tokyo Nightlife – Wow. There are so many places catering to everyone’s liking, it is really impossible to see it all. I haven’t even scratched the surface of all of the options.
- Skirts – Skirts are popular here, and they are great. Seriously great.
- Skylark Express – What can you say about a restaurant that serves you hamburger steak, rice, soup and a vegetable in 60 seconds for five dollars?
- Students – One of the best things about being a teacher is actually seeing someone improve over time. Giving a level up recommendation to a student is one of the highlights of my job.
- Visitors – I had two sets of visitors this summer which both provided incredibly fun times and great memories.
- Winter – A winter without snow and with temperatures that stay on the happy side of freezing are okay by me.
- Yen – Japanese money is worth a lot in other places.
- Yokohama – It’s big, fun and has everything Tokyo does, but a completely different feel.
- Being illiterate – It is a shock to go from being an intelligent, functional person to being almost completely illiterate. It is frustrating to have trouble doing basic everyday things. I am improving, but it is still difficult.
- Crowded trains – There is not much more uncomfortable than being wedged into a train that is 200% over capacity while trying to carry a bunch of bags.
- Garbage collection – The rules for garbage collection are annoying and difficult to understand. Garbage must be separated into about 500 categories, each with their own collection day. And there is always one cranky neighbour making sure you are doing it right.
- Getting lost – Only the largest streets have names, and most seem to have been designed completely at random. Someone’s mailing address is no help at all when it comes to finding anything. With my meager Japanese skills I can ask for directions, but understanding the answer is still challenging.
- Hangovers – Cheap alcohol, all you can drink, the Japanese party spirit, and my rubber arm make for some serious overindulgence. I have had 2 of the worst hangovers in my life here.
- Japanese style toilets – I am still scared to death of these things, and have managed to avoid them for any “serious” business.
- Kids classes – I still don’t feel completely comfortable in a classroom full of children.
- Loneliness – Being far away from home can be incredibly lonely. It sucks knowing that your friends and family are enjoying life as usual while you are stuck in a small room on the other side of the planet. No matter how much you fit in and how many friends you make, it’s jut not home sometimes.
- Missing Last Train – Last train comes way too early, and if you miss it you are committed to an expensive taxi ride or staying out till first train.
- Movies – I like Japanese movies, but without subtitles I am lost. Watching Jackie Chan movies is nearly impossible because only Japanese subtitles are available.
- NOVA Usagi – Man, I really hate that thing!
- Size – Streets are narrow, rooms are smaller, clothes are smaller, cars are smaller, everything is smaller. It’s a big adjustment for me, and I am not even a particularly large person.
- Summer – Too hot, way too humid.
It’s been a good year, and thanks for reading!
(partial rewrite of original post)
Had my first taste of Tokyo nightlife on Thursday (and Friday) with Marshall. The plan was to go to Shibuya, meet up with Mississippi Mike and his friends, and catch the last train home. Naturally we had a few drinks before we left, and got a “traveler” for the train. For the record, drinking beer on the train is legal, but generally frowned upon by other passengers.
We arrived in Shibuya with no idea of where to go and way too many options, so we decided to wander around the major streets and see what looked interesting.
1st stop – The Oil Bar – We went in entirely because of the name. Oil Bar was is a small pub that played hair metal. We were pleasantly surprised that the staff spoke English very well. It was a good to get a beer and make a plan for the evening. No communication yet from Mississippi Mike.
2nd stop – GasPanic – Depending on who you talk to, GasPanic is either famous or infamous. It is most well known as a popular place where foreign guys go to meet Japanese girls. There is no cover charge, and all drinks are 400 yen. There is a large sign on the wall informing customers that you must have a drink in your hand at all times to remain in GasPanic.
When we arrived it was very crowded, but welcoming and fun. Many beers were consumed, tequila shots were downed and chased with more beer. We met a group of Canadians and managed to have a conversation (as well as you can in a noisy bar) about hockey and Japanese women. Marshall and I left just after midnight feeling very good, and started heading for the station in order to catch the last train home. As we had the station in sight I finally got a text from Mississippi Mike to let us know that he and his group has just arrived in Shibuya.
Depending on your destination, the last train to leave most stations in Tokyo is around 12:30am. The first train starts around 5:00am. If you miss the last train you can either get an expensive taxi ride home, or decide to stay out all night. The beer and tequila in our system helped convince us to turn the evening into an all nighter.
3rd stop – Womb – Apparently one of the best dance music clubs in the world, not just Japan. The whole place was huge, but since it was Thursday night (technically Friday morning), the main dance floor was not open. It would have been cool to see all four floors open and busy. Cover was 1500 yen and drink prices were obscene, especially after coming from the economic GasPanic. Our group danced to live DJ music until the they closed down at 4:30am.
The trip home – This part was not very fun. Shibuya is a confusing place when you are sober and not exhausted. Nobody remembered the way back to the station, and for some reason everyone broke up into small groups going in different directions. All of the groups kept walking in circles and running into each other. After about half an hour, Marshall and I finally found Shibuya station, but due to our diminished capacities we could not find the Keio line. We finally gave up and took the Yamanote line to Shinjuku, switched to Odakyu line, fell asleep on the platform, then woke up to catch a train back to Noborito. There is nothing worse than seeing the sunrise after too much partying. I got home at 6:30, about 9 and a half hours before I needed to leave for work.
Despite the trouble getting home, good times were had by all.
Had a beer with the trainees again. Also learned a whole lot about the gay scene in Japan. Don`t ask, I won`t tell!
During the post work beers at Kiosk, the subject of conversation turned to the gay scene in Tokyo. It turns out that one of the new teachers was openly gay, and somehow knew that one of the senior trainers was also gay. A few of us were surprised about the senior teacher because we didn’t know he was gay. He wasn’t hiding anything, the subject has just never come up before.
There is a bustling gay scene in Tokyo in the Shinjuku Ni-Chome area with around 300 bars and clubs catering to all tastes. There are also some other popular areas in Ueno and Ikebukuro. In my experience in Japan, the subject of homosexuality is largely ignored, and it isn’t a big issue like it is in Western countries. It exists, but people generally don’t talk or think about it often.
It was interesting to learn about a side of Japanese life that I didn’t know about previously.
On departure day I woke up early, enjoyed my last free shower for the next year (more to come on this), and waited for my parents to pick me up and take me to the airport. My parents live outside of Winnipeg, so they spent the night in a hotel in order to take me to the airport. We didn’t want to take any chances on missing an international flight, so we got to the airport around 6:00 for my 7:30 flight to Vancouver. I didn’t expect anyone else to be there, but my friend Junk (not his real name) surprisingly showed up to see me off. My parents, Junk and I sat around enjoying my last Tim Hortons coffee for a very long time. For any non Canadians reading this – Tim Hortons is a hugely popular and succesful coffee chain in Canada. There are more Tim Hortons locations than McDonalds.
My parents were both excited for me, but also nervous at seeing their son travel to the other side of the planet for a year. When the time finally came I hugged them both and made my way through security. Looking back I could see them waving good-bye until I was out of sight.
Having never traveled by myself before, I was more than a little nervous. The first flight was easy enough – Winnipeg to Vancouver with a brief stop in Saskatoon to pick up more passengers. In Vancouver I had a 4 hour wait until my flight to Tokyo. Since Vancouver airport was huge, I was worried about getting lost and went almost directly to the international departure area. As soon as I entered, I started feeling like I had already left the country. My gate was between two other flights to Asian destinations, and I was one of the few white faces in the crowd. As I waited, I listened to bits and pieces of conversations in several different languages, trying hard to focus on any Japanese I could recognize.
When the flight finally boarded, I found myself sitting next to two young Japanese ladies, likely students. (To this day I can’t accurately guess Japanese people’s ages). I learned something valuable that day – Japanese people have the ability to fall asleep in any moving vehicle at any time. They were both soundly sleeping before take off. Being an excited Canadian guy who had never traveled solo before, I found myself unable to sleep for the entire flight.
The flight was about 10 hours long, but felt much, MUCH longer. By the end of a 10 hour flight the air is stale, the seats are uncomfortable, and you just want to get off the damn plane. I spent the last 30 minutes glued to the window, watching the land getting closer. My first impression of Japan from the air was that everything was really crowded and all the cars were driving on the wrong side of the road. What I thought was crowded was nothing compared to what I was about to experience once we landed.
On July 16 the wife was going to visit an old friend in Odawara. I was going to catch up on some internet time, and then meet up with her at Odawara station at 5:00pm. From there we were going to Tokyo for the night. Since we were planning on looking around Akihabara, I booked a business hotel not too far away.
During the day, the in-laws took me out to their favourite curry restaurant in Numazu. Japanese curry is like a stew with meat and veggies in a rich delicious sauce, naturally served with rice. The restaurant’s lunch special was beef curry, salad, dessert and a soft drink for 980 yen. After taking one bite I could understand why the in-laws liked this place – it was one of the best Japanese curries I have ever eaten. Rich, creamy and a little spicy. Yum!
I took the regular Tokaido line from Numazu to Odawara, giving me an hour to read (always bring a book). I met The Wife and we got a ticket for the Romance Car to Shinjuku. Unlike my experience a few days earlier, this Romance Car had no children running up and down the aisles. In Shinjuku we followed the signs to the subway line. Subway signs in Tokyo can be very misleading. Sometimes you will see a sign that indicates that the subway entrance is just up ahead, but what they really mean is just up ahead after 500 meters of tunnels and probably a few flights of stairs.
After waiting for a very rare train delay that featured continuous updates and apologies from the good people at TOEI subway, we made a quick subway ride across Tokyo with one transfer and got out at Kuramae station. Our reservation was at APA Hotel Asakusa Kuramae, which described itself as close to the station. In previous experience, “close” to the station could be anything from right outside the station entrance to a 15 minute walk down unnamed side streets. Fortunately this hotel was, in fact, actually close to the station, and cross from a 7-11 as an added bonus.
We checked in and went to our “double room” to drop off our bags. I have stayed in business hotels in Tokyo and Osaka before, and they are usually very small. However, this was, in fact, the SMALLEST hotel room I have ever seen, not counting my stay in a Capsule Hotel (story to come in the future). It was literally too small to take proper pictures. The main room space was about 2 meters square. It had a bed just smaller than queen size and a small desk. Under the desk was a small fridge that you could probably fit 3 beers in. A flat screen TV was mounted on the wall. The Wife and I were both traveling with backpacks, which went on top of the “desk”. There was literally no place for a suitcase if we had one.
The bathroom was one of those ubiquitous all in one units that can be found in small Japanese hotels. It was a molded plastic one piece unit with a toilet, small sink, and small, deep bathtub. A dial on the sink distributed the water between the shower and the sink, but not both at the same time. I am not a tall person (about 170cm or 5’7 for you Americans), and I was able to stand and put my hand flat on the ceiling.
For the record, there are “normal” size hotel rooms in Tokyo. You just have to be willing to pay much more for them. Our room cost 9400 yen for one night, breakfast included. It was close to popular tourist areas and a one minute walk from the Tokyo Metro. Like most business hotels it was a clean and quiet place to sleep, and nothing else. For 1000 yen extra we could have watched the entire catalog of PPV movies until checkout time. Don’t get me wrong – the room was okay, it was just really, really small. Hobbit small.
Once we got over the hotel shock, we went back to the station and made our way to Akihabara. Our late dinner was at Gyu-Kaku, a yakiniku restaurant where you cook at your own table. We stuffed ourselves on beef, pork, chicken, scallops, and a few veggies as well. If you are in Japan and like meat, eat at Gyu-Kaku. You will not regret it. English menus are available!
We rolled ourselves out of Gyu-Kaku and took a quick walk around the station planning out our shopping for the following day. During weekends in the daytime, Akihabara is packed with people and is difficult to move around. Tuesday evenings are not very lively, so we had a unique experience of being able to wander around without bumping into people everywhere. Despite being a fairly quiet, slow night in Akihabara, we were well aware that we were in Japan’s geek paradise, full of anime stores, video games, maid cafes, model shops, and porn porn porn everywhere. Seriously, so much porn.
At this point the food and long day started to kick in, and we returned to the hotel. We got into the bed only to discover that our “bed” was actually futon on a frame and not a mattress. I had been sleeping on a thin futon on the floor at the in-laws house and had been really looking forward to a soft, spring filled mattress. The futon was okay, but was a bit lumpy in places. Since I was less likely to get up in the middle of the night for the bathroom, I had to sleep against the wall. There was almost no space between the foot of the bed and the wall, so the only way I could have gotten out of bed was by crawling over The Wife, or by waking her up and making her move. Fortunately for both of us I was asleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow and didn’t move until morning.
As I drifted off into sleep, I found myself, for the first time ever, being thankful that I was not a tall man.