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Travel blog I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast, but I'm intercontinental and I eat French toast (Beastie Boys) | | | Photos available at www.istockphoto.com/georgeclerk

Tokyo and Nikko

JAPAN | Saturday, 8 November 2008 | Views [7492]

Konnichiwa! I foolishly arrived in Japan knowing only one word in Japanese, and since that was 'sayonara' ('goodbye'), it wasn't exactly the most useful starting point for a conversation! But though English isn't very confidently spoken here, people are generally very willing to try and communicate using sign language and pointing etc., and generally are very helpful and patient with gaijins ('outside people') like me.

I had a week in Tokyo before starting the clock ticking on my three week Japan rail pass. For the first three nights I stayed at the excellent "K's House" hostel in Asakusa, sleeping in the smallest bedroom I've ever been in - the room was exactly the same size as the little bed, plus just a slither of carpet to step on to. Because I hadn't realised that my first weekend in Tokyo was a Japanese national holiday, my next accommodation options after that were limited to four nights in a capsule hotel, or a bed in a dorm further out in Ikebukuro, which I went for.

The distance from central Tokyo didn't really matter, since the city's rail network is so good - Ikebukuro is the second busiest train station in the world (second to Shinjuku, one overland stop down), and once I had the hang of the Tokyo underground, getting around the city was very easy and quick.

Shinjuku station at rush hour is a sight to behold, and trying to buy a ticket and find the right platform seemed an impossible task at first, but somehow was actually pretty easy, and there was never even any queuing. Incredibly, even at rush hour there's a lot less hassle and shunting than somewhere like Kings Cross at the best of times. It must be a marvel of planning and people-flow design with an average 3.64 million people passing through every day (thanks to Wikipedia for the stats!).

Tokyo's underground has some great signs, including a picture of people partying and drinking on the train, with the stern caption 'Do it in the pub.' But my favourite was this one - no translation needed!

A shinkansen (bullet train) leaving Tokyo

While in Tokyo I went to Ginza, the ultra-posh shopping district full of flagship skyscraper shops for Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton etc, plus trendy galleries and art 'spaces'. On the last night me and Aussie 'KD' went into one and found ourselves at the opening do of an arty film poster exhibition, complete with the chic French artist, plus glasses of champagne being thrust into our hands!

On the same night we managed to find the GoldenGai area near Shinjuku, where a network of narrow streets are crammed full with tonnes of miniature bars - most with space for only three or four customers. We ended the night in Rappongi, the expat 'playground' of Tokyo, which was a disappointment, the only place where you get hassled on the street - by pushy club promoters and prostitutes.

Harajuku's an area full of indie shops and restaurants, and is where the hip Tokyo kids hang out. It's now famous for the 'Cosplay-zoku' girls, mainly troubled adolescents who get glammed up to the max and parade about at the weekends. Gwen Stefani brought them to international attention with her song 'Harajuku Girls'.

Harajuku's also home to a troupe of 50s american style dancers, the Takenokozoku (I think), who spend their time gyrating around like the Fonz, and slicking back their quiffs.

iStockphoto sales have been going well recently - October was the first month when I earned more from photos than I took home in a month's salary from my old 'proper' job at HSBC, but unfortunately the tax still has to be paid on the photo royalties.  But I knew it would be hard keeping my wallet in my pocket in one of Tokyo's eight story camera shops (they sell everything techie - a lot more than cameras)... I managed to only buy what I came for - a tiny pocket camera for taking snapshots of things, which I've often missed out on when it involves wielding a heavy and conspicuous SLR.

Suntory - 'The boss of them all since 1992'

One thing that you're never far away from in Tokyo is a vending machine. The Japanese take them to another level, with hot coffee or soup in a can being available, as well as food, disposable cameras and all sorts of other things.

Tokyo International Forum

As close as KD and I got to the Imperial Palace in the centre of Tokyo

My first foray outside Tokyo was to Nikko, where I stayed in the spartan but excellent Daiyagawa hostel, run by a very friendly old woman with an excellent sense of humour. Here I met a German chap called Klaus who lives in Osaka, and has an unbelievably apocalyptic view of world future. For instance, on China... "No, no there is absolutely no doubt. Of course, the streets of Beijing will be a bloodbath within a few years... China will become a barren desert, nothing more. No question" Most other countries had similar, grim futures! But otherwise he was a very nice guy, and good company.

The path wasn't very well trodden!

We spent a day escaping the bus-tour crowds by hiking in the hills above Nikko, eventually making it up to the Yashio-no-yu Onsen. We stopped for lunch at Chuzenji-ko where a wonderful old lady served us udon noodles, and told us - with Klaus translating - "I like to give good service; I am happy when my customers are happy; I like to drink milk."

For somewhere that's famous for being expensive, travelling in Japan is not actually that bad, though apparently ten years ago it was. Even in Tokyo, hostels cost roughly the same as Australia or NZ, and food isn't much more. The Tokyo underground is a fraction of the cost of London's, but I did get a shock when having to pay for the half-hour local bus ride down from the onsen back to Nikko - it was ¥1650 - over £10!

The next day we joined the multitude of schoolchildren and retirees and looked around the impressive ancient Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples of Nikko.

One shrine is covered with carvings of monkeys in poses supposedly designed to teach children about life's lessons. This one is thought to be the origin of the phrase 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil'. Incidentally, inside the shrine was a sacred white pony, donated by someone in New Zealand!

From Nikko I was on the way to Kawaguchi-ko near Mt Fuji this morning, the plan being to photograph Fuji-san complete with its trademark hat of snow and all the autumn trees. But the already bad weather got worse as I went west from my connection in Shinjuku, so with the forecast looking worse still, I decided to cut my losses and spend the day travelling on to Nagoya. The consolation is that Nagoya has a futuristic Robot Museum, so watch this space for (hopefully) stories of amazing robotic inventions!

This was by far the best laundry I've yet used, complete with washing machines and super-fast dryers that talk to you, a 'sneaker washer and dryer', a selection of magazines to read, trolleys to cart the laundry around, and even a loo with a heated toilet seat!

Mr Average Salaryman, from a Japan Tourist Board introductory booklet to Japan

All photos © George Clerk.  All rights reserved.  Licenses available at www.istockphoto.com/resonants or contact me at photos@foogaloo.com

Tags: japan, nikko, rail pass, tokyo



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