18 August, 2005
Tokyo Desu Ne
It's been a while, mostly because I've been travelling over summer...
Firstly to see my family in Perth, Australia, and secondly to visit Japan - which is long overdue, I've wanted to go for as long as I can remember.
What a holiday! What it wasn't, was relaxing! Tokyo is the most exhilirating, busy, claustrophobic, fascinating, exciting assault on the senses one could expect!
I flew in to Tokyo on the Saturday, and my best friend met me at Nippori station with her brother (who lives there) and his Japanese fiance. Having only managed 2 hours sleep (at a push) on the plane from Perth, I was feeling and looking fabulous (please insert incredibly dry tone here).
After dropping my luggage at their flat via the subway (complete with men pushing people on to the trains with white gloves) we descended on Ueno Park, where a jazz festival was playing. The park itself was spectacular, with the centrepiece being a lake/pond full of lotuses. We sat at a small bar here as I was about to chew my own arm off, and had my first of many (and I mean MANY) yakitori, and a cold Asahi! (or maybe it was two, I'm not actually sure, as the rest of the holiday was pretty much a blur of beer)!
Of course, after a couple of beers I could have been convinced to go anywhere that night, so it was decided that we would meet some friends of them at the fireworks or "Hana-Bi" in Matsudo, of the Chiba Prefecture. My experience of fireworks has, I have to say, been somewhat limited... i.e. the Australia Day Skyshow on Perth's swan river which lasts for, oh, something in the vicinity of 15 minutes and usually ends with a number of tinnies being thrown and maybe a brawl or two. The Matsudo fireworks were a *slightly* different experience.
We were seated on a blue tarpaulin almost directly opposite where the fireworks were being fired from, and I have NEVER seen anything like it. Lasting for an hour and a half (I kept saying 'What, there's more?'), the display was incredible.
Stupidly, and perhaps because of the utter high I felt after the firework disply, I agreed to go on with the gang to karaoke... yes, really. By this stage it was about 10pm and given how exhilirated I was feeling due to the display (ok, probably boosted considerably by the amount of beer I'd drunk) we descended on the local karaoke bar. You might be thinking of a small little hovel somewhere that has a karaoke machine in the corner, but no... just the opposite.
Karaoke in Japan is literally an institution, it appears - and this first bar we went to (yes, there was other karaoke nights later) was an institution itself! I don't know how many separate rooms there were, but after about a 45 minute wait (yes, it is THAT popular) we were installed in a small private room, that seated all of us (6 adults and a child) with a video screen, 2 microphones and a veritable LIBRARY of songs to choose from. Given that my best friend and I were the newcomers to this whole event, we weren't the first to jump in here, and took our time to choose a few numbers and hopefully retain our coolness. (yeah, right). I'll leave more about karaoke till our foray later in the week, when any 'coolness' we may have had quickly abandoned us.
Even though I had only slept for 2 hours in the last 2 days and drank enough beer to make my belly appear distended, on our way home it was suggested that we call in to the local 'Izakaya' or Japanese style pub and of course, I said yes.
So, several more beers on and one of us slumped on the table asleep (the Japanese fiance no less, even though she is more of a beer monster than I) and I felt my chair jump across the floor. At first I thought someone had pushed my chair accidently, and when I turned back to my friend, she was looking at me with the same expression, i.e. "why'd you push my chair!?"
Her brother sitting across the table from us was smirking considerably at our bewildered expressions before informing us that we had encountered our first Tokyo shudder, or earthquake. I had a feeling this holiday was going to be a good one.
Started with a hangover. And a sore liver (actually I woke at 5am because my liver was burning, but anyway).
Some friends came and picked us up in their people mover and we drove to Kamakura, which apparently was the capital of Japan before the Edo period - and was incredible. Near the sea, it is an older Japanese centre and very beautiful. After a quick spot of lunch, we went to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.
This Shrine is reported to be the most famous of the "Hachiman Shrines"; which are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami of war, which used to be particularly popular among the leading military clans of the past.
"Shinto gods" are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some shrines.
We then drove on to see the Great Buddha, also in Kamakura.
This bronze statue of Amita Buddha was cast in 1252 A.D. !! In 1498, a tidal wave swept away the great temple of the Buddha, leaving only the foundation stones. In the 500 years since then, the holy statue has been exposed to sunshine, storms, and snow. The latest repair was done in 1960- 1961, to strengthen the Buddha's neck and to make it possible for the Buddha's body to move freely on the base to prevent a damaging shock to the statue in case of an earthquake. The statue is 13.35 meters tall, and weighs 121 tons.
My best friend and I ventured in to Harajuku with her brother to check out this crazy area we had heard Gwen Stefani sing about all over her bloody awful solo album.
Actually, there were some incredibly fashionable and cool areas around this part of Tokyo, but the main street of what is known as Harajuku was not particularly one of them, in my opinion - Takeshita Street (tacky street as we renamed it) seemed the equivalent of Camden markets. Omotesando seemed a bit like Bond Street, but the *super cool* area was Urahara street, where young designers and stores like Bathing Ape sat side by side. I literally could have spent a fortune here, if it wasn't for the fact that at 6'1 I was a giant and nothing fit me!!
I haven't as yet mentioned the toilets, and feel it is a fitting time.
Due, I'm assuming, to the overwhelming modesty of the Japanese, the toilets were a sight to behold. My particular favourite mechanism was the button that made a flushing sound, so that the sound of your own tinkle was disguised. Ingenious!
Our only other trip outside of Tokyo was to an area called Hakone to the West of the city, in the mountains surrounding Mount Fuji. To get here we had to take a train called 'The Romance Car' which was, as it's name suggests, romantic.
Hakone was another amazing place. The mountains were amazing, as were the trees that covered them. Upon arriving and checking in to our hotel, (my friend and I stayed in a Japanese style room complete with tatami mats) we ventured out to see the hot sulphur springs at the top of some of the mountains, in an area called Owakudani. To get there we had to take a train, cable car and ropeway but it was well worth the visit.
Approximately 3000 years ago, Hakone's volcano erupted for the final time, creating what is today called 'Owakudani', roughly translated as "The Immense Simmering Valley".
Even today, white steam continues to rise from various pockets across the face of the mountain, enveloping the surrounding area in the distinctively strong stench of sulphur. In ancient times, the area had been known as Jigokudani ("The Valley of Hell"), but when the Meiji Emperor came to Hakone in the year 1873, the valley was renamed Owakudani.
According to popular legend, if you eat a hard boiled egg which has been boiled in the sulphur (the shells turn black) you will add 15 years to your life. Suffice to say, my friend and I ate them!
The evening at the hotel included an Onsen, or hot spring bath.
Bathers enter the onsen changing room, disrobe and head to the shower area with towel in hand. The onsen water is communal, so patrons must shower and give themselves a good soaping before entering the hot spring. Only afterwards may you enter the sacred bath waters.
Wearing your towel on your head, as many Japanese do, is optional.
The next day we caught a bus up to Moto-Hakone and walked along the Ancient Cedar Avenue, where the trees were planted in 1618. The trees were amazing, huge and this entire area was beautiful.
Which kind of finishes the highlights of my trip to Japan... but I did promise to mention karaoke at least once more before I finish this blog entry. I've decided however, that pictures speak louder than words....