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Mark's World Tour 2007-08

Day 161 & 162: My last day in SE Asia.... and on to Japan!

JAPAN | Monday, 14 April 2008 | Views [929] | Comments [1]

Monday 14th & Tuesday 15th April

We were told to be up got breakfast at 07.30 or risk losing out on food that morning as we had a tighht schedule to stick to on the way back to the mainland. It was a much better day than the one before, with sun and a blue sky greeting me as I left the cabin after a restless sleep, and I was still quite tired. A few of the bunch who had stayed up until 03.00 stumbled into the dining room, still clearly drunk and it didn't look like their hangovers were going to take it easy on them either. Still, they had a good night by the sounds of the slurred reports that we got.

After breakfast, we hung out on the top deck and got some sun. Those in the group who were on a 3 day/2 night trip were dropped off at Cat Ba Island while the rest of us stayed onboard and set off back towards Halong Bay. We had an early lunch at 11.30, and the food was again pretty good, and it had been generally a lot better than I expected. The mealtimes were always a good way of getting to know people better. Most of the people on the group had been very easy to get along with, just the right blend between young and old.

We got to Halong City around 12.00, the boat navigating its way through the crowded bay as another busy day was already well under way. In some ways, I was jealous of the people heading out on such a fine day, but I was also glad to be heading back to Hanoi and get myself together for the trip out to the airport and on the plane to Tokyo. I was glad that I had come on this trip, not for the sights of Halong Bay itself, but for the people I had met and the fun we had over the two days.

We got on the bus at 12.45 and left for Hanoi. The journey took about three and a half hours and Hanoi looked quite different in the sunshine. It seems like a decent place to stay for a few days. Once back, I checked my email, hoping to get a positive response from one of the hostels I had contacted in Tokyo before I left for Halong Bay. Alas, I got a few replies but all of them regretfully and politely told me that they were all booked up. I started to consider falling back on Plan B: going straight to Osaka to stay with Pete and Kumi and keep my time in Tokyo to the end of my Japanese trip.

Even though I had nowhere to go once I got to Tokyo, I was nonetheless starting to get very excited about moving on to Japan. I had really loved SE Asia and it had a greater impact on me than my time in India. The people had been lovely and I had had some truly wonderful times, and met many new friends. Japan promised to be something completely different and I felt myself extremely lucky to be leaving one amazing place for another.

After some food, I headed down to get the airport shuttle service out to Hanoi. I thought of all the good times I had had in SE Asia: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. I took it all in as we rode through the traffic, trying to take on board the sights and sounds of the place for one last time. In this sentimental mood, I even thought I might miss those damn motorbikes and tuk-tuks! I got to the airport at 20.30, had a 'Glasgow Shower' (sprayed on some deodorant and blew my nose), changed into my jeans and got my rucksack in better order before relaxing in a cafe for an hour. I checked onto the flight at 22.00, got through security and waited to board the plane. By 23.30, I was sat back in the comfortable surroudings of the JAL plane.

The flight took about five hours and I didn't get any real sleep, although I tried to rest as much as possible. I woke up to see the sunrise over Japan and was able to look down onto the land below; the outline of the coastal areas is so distinct that I was able to locate exactly where we were using the map in my guidebook (yes, despite my reservations about the LP, I think there is still enough in there to justify bringing it along!). As we approached Tokyo, I saw Mount Fugi in the distance, its summit breaking through the clouds. It really was one of the most incredible sights I had ever seen, the various formations of the clouds and the changing early morning sunshine creating an impression that we were about to enter some magical place. Maybe I had conditioned my mind to think that Japan would be some sort of fantasy land, but the reality of this entrance was truly stunning and I couldn't take my eyes off it until the crew came around with breakfast.

We landed onto the airstrip at Narita Airport almost before I knew it due to a blanket of fog that seemed stuck to the tarmac, so much so that the ground appeared out of the blue and we were there, in Tokyo. We landed at 06.30, ahead of schedule and making up two hours on time difference between Japan and Vietnam. It felt great to have finally arrived in Japan and I was ready to absorb everything (even the inflight recorded video messages had been different, with amusing cartoon characters used to demonstrate safety and security).

Apart from the signs written in Japanese and English, it was just like any other modern airport. It was fairly quiet with few people about and we got our baggage almost as soon as we got to the carousel in the terminal. A very polite and friendly customs officer checked my bag and asked whether I had any prohibited items, after which I was free to go. Having nowhere to stay, I asked for help at an information desk and they were able to sort me out with a dorm bed in a hostel in central Tokyo (it couldn't have been any easier in the end, they just asked how much I wanted to spend and they called and made a reservation). I had already bought my 'exchange order' for the Japan Rail Pass (having done that in Bangkok two months earlier), so got that sorted and boarded the Narita Express to Tokyo station in the heart of the city.

The train was very comfortable with a lot of leg room and it passed smoothly through the countryside and into Tokyo, taking about an hour in total. The first impression that I got was just how big the place was. The term 'sprawling metropolis' was created for places like Tokyo. I sat beside a Japanese guy who spoke good English which surprised me as I had been told by a number of people not to expect many Japanese to have a lot of English. It turned out he used English in his job as a tour guide and translator, and he was on his way back from taking a group of Japanese tourists to Israel. He seemed like a nice guy and was able to give me some help in pointing me in the direction of my hostel.

The map of the Tokyo Metro and rail network looked quite confusing but I felt confident that I would be able to get to the hostel without any problems. It proved to be fairly straightforward in the end. On my way there, I was stopped by an elderly Japanese man who asked me where I was from and then quickly started a conversation by asking me how the Irish and Japanese economies compared, which was completely random and I told him that I didn't know enough about either of them to give him a decent answer! As we spoke, it seemed like he just wanted to practice his English – or even just to speak to anyone – and I was more than happy to stand there and chat to him for about half an hour. In the end, he was giving me tips about how to chat up Japanese girls which was a bit bizarre but quite funny too.

I got to the 'Sakura Hostel' in the Asakusa district of Tokyo (north east of Tokyo station) at around 10.00. It was a modern place, clean and well run, and I was happy with what the people at Narita Airport had arranged for me. The first thing I did was get a shower and do my laundry as I was starting to fall into the 'smelly traveller' bracket. It took a while to get everything cleaned up and put away and I didn't leave the hostel until about 14.00, at which time I headed out for my first jaunt around Tokyo.

It was a beautifully fresh, clear spring day, a very welcome change to the sometimes stifling heat that had taken over Cambodia and Vietnam over the previous month. The hostel is situated beside an old Buddhist temple called Senso-ji, and there were quite a lot of tourists milling about, primarily Japanese but with a few foreign faces dotted about (although the ratio was remarkably different to what you might normally see in SE Asia). It felt like a very safe area and the lack of hawkers and people pushing things on you was nice (although I wasn't really conscious of it at the time, I was just busy enjoying it all).

There were several things that stood out immediately on arrival in Japan, and they all had to do with efficiency, cleanliness and order: the trains ran like clockwork, the stations and streets were spotless, and, as a pedestrian, you always felt like you belonged in the big city too, and not a pointless obstacle for the traffic to get around! One of the quirkier aspects relates to the employment of security and safety men, dressed in funny blue uniforms and hats who protect the general population from potentially dangerous hazards. For example, an area of one of the Metro stations was under repair and, although it had a small barrier around it to prevent people from hurting themselves on it, a security man, holding a luminous orange baton, was also stationed there to direct people away from this pitfall, because the sign just ain't enough! Maybe they have a litigious culture to rival the likes of compensation-crazy Derry, but I thought it was a bit over the top, but also amusing. This demonstration of 'pubic consideration' endeared me to the place all the more.

I took the train to Tokyo station, going on the Yamanaote 'loop-line' which circles the city centre and is operated by Japan Rail and so is free of charge for holders of a JR Pass (to which only non-resident tourists are entitled to). It turned out that this line serviced most of the major districts in Tokyo that a tourist might want to visit, so it saved me a lot of money when getting about, while it also meant that I didn't have to decipher the maze-like subway network. I wasn't sure where I wanted to go to, so I just wandered about, seeing where this approach would take me.

I was also very hungry but wasn't too confident about picking a Japanese place to eat, feeling a bit intimidated by the sheer number of places, and also in how to go about ordering food from restaurants that looked rather different to those I had been used to in SE Asia. In the end, I had a Big Mac meal and didn't feel guilty about it at all! It might have been a shame that my first meal in Japan – a land with such a unique cuisine - was at the Golden Arches but it was also easy, familiar and I hadn't had one in so long that I was actually craving it. And it was very nice too.

I spent the afternoon wandering the streets of the commercial district in 'Central Tokyo', bought a nicely presented Japanese phrasebook, and called into a very good tourist information office and picked up a lot of useful stuff there. I walked around, my eye caught by the huge buildings, neon signs, the designer stores, and above all, the stunning women. In many ways, it reminded me of Manhattan in New York, but it was much more appealing than that, and a lot more stylish from what I could see (the people really do value their appearance more than anywhere else I have been). Aesthetically, Tokyo is very impressive, with design – in architecture, advertising, fashion, etc. - clearly playing a central role in everyday life.

I had dinner in the district of Shinjuku, all lights and department stores, scoffing down a bowl of ramen and gyoza, which cost about $7 (the same meal would cost about four times as much in Wagamama at home). I was starting to get tired, not surprising since I hadn't slept in two days and been quite active since my arrival in Tokyo. I took the subway back to the hostel around 21.00 and could barely stay awake as the jetlag began to kick in. The ancient shrine by the hostel was now free of the tourist throng of earlier in the day, the peace and quiet of the evening making for a pleasant sight on the stroll back. It wasn't long before I was in my bunk bed, conking out shortly after the light went out. It had been a long day but I was feeling very positive about my trip to Japan and very lucky to be there.




Dear Mark
I am certainly enjoying your journals of all your travels. However, I was wondering when you were going to include your escapades involving monkeys, dwarfs and poontang?

  mark o'connor May 22, 2008 11:48 PM

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