Posts Tagged ‘Japan’
Wednesday 22.09.10 – day 3.
Today was by most accounts a mellow day. Wedding arrangements were heating up, what with the big day coming up on Friday, so we were to relocate and leave Tokyo. The GG and his Clan had opted for the bullet train*, leaving me in the company of The Lady and the BB. Every man should be so lucky. Jet lag struck somewhat evilly at 4am, then again at 7am – it’s a curious sensation when your body is going “..okay. It’s …different, I guess, but I’ll go along with it” and your brain goes “HAHAHA! I am BAL-ZAZZAMON, the DESTROYER OF WORLDS! FEED ME CHOCOLATE, PUNY HUMAN!”**. However, some sleep was eventually wrangled before checking out of the Chisun Grand Akasaka and meeting up with the BB, who had generously agreed to squire us about town. I’d spotted a strange and interesting-looking thing in the guidebook – the back garden of a hotel. I am fully aware that this sounds a little bit weird, but we were in Japan, it was in the guidebook and the ladies were up for it, so off we went.
Meanwhile someone had during the night set Tokyo from ‘hot’ to ‘Let’s see if we can fry the tourists alive’. Good fun. We ambled along in the blistering sun towards the Hotel New Otani. We found it easily enough, wandered through its slightly kitchy mall-section, through and past the chapel and out the entrance to the garden which somewhat incongruously had a number of staff hanging out and smoking.
We ducked out onto a paved courtyard walled in on three sides by towering hotel walls. On the fourth side there was a little path that led up a hill.
We followed the path. It twisted and turned, up and down. As we picked our way into the garden the hotel kind of faded away. We found the most adorable red bridge (pictured, left) that led to a restaurant. We looked at the prices on the menu, had a brief discussion as to whether we should eat there “now” or spread our
food budget over “the remaining days” and then retreated in a dignified fashion. I suspect their main target audience wasn’t ‘moderately broke artisty types’. We wandered further into the garden – and found a waterfall by a pond. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye – something orange – and pointed this out with boyish enthusiasm to The Lady and the BB. The BB then explained to me that what I was looking at (pictured, right) was in fact carp – most likely of the Koi variety. These are prized posessions in Japan, apparently – so much so that wealthy people (who can afford ponds) can spend up to 50.000 yen on a single carp if its pattern is pleasing to the eye.
I’ve never been one for fish tanks and such but sitting down by the pond I found myself strangely relaxed and serene. My conclusion is that I am indeed into fish, only on a larger scale. So now all I need to do is become a millionaire, move to a sub-tropical country and get my own pond and I’m all good.
We wandered around the gardens for a spell, then decided that we’d go get ice cream to commemorate the fact that the temperature was crawling up into the high 200.000°c or thereabouts. Our charming host knew of something she could show us, so off we went.
Tokyo has convenience stores everywhere. They serve as food outlets (Sushi? Bento? Yes please), banks and general insurance against ever getting caught short. The same goes for toilets and vending machines. If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that in Tokyo you are very rarely more than 50 metres away from a convenience store, toilet or vending machine. We’d heard stories of vending machines for various things but this time around we only saw the garden-variety drinks ones.
Moving from the garden and to a convenience store where I narrowly avoided having Green Tea Haagen-Dasz, we walked a bit up the road to the Temple of the Fox***. The old and the new of Japan struck me again – we walked up a steel-and-glass canyon, past a building site and suddenly we
were on a tiny square of land where the buildings were made of wood, the stone statues of countless foxes gazed on us from a forest of red banners and all manner of people went about practicing their faith. Old ladies pottering about, a cool scowling Japanese dude with a prayer bead walking between tiny fox shrines, a water fount with a spout carved like a fierce dragon. Completely different world, two steps away. I retained my track record of having the manners of someone who has very little manners while The Lady was ever-sensitive and mindful of local custom. It is quite fortunate that I haven’t embarrassed us yet. Jokes aside though, it was a fascinating peek into non-touristy, ‘real’ Japan. It’ll be interesting to see the bigger temples as well.
After this lovely visit we shuffled through what I’ve come to think of as the ‘Restaurant Block’ in Akasaka, looking for lunch. Our leisurely schedule more or less included ‘see garden, see temple, lunch, airport, fly, sleep’. So now debates as to what to have for lunch ensued. We decided to make full use of having a Japanese guide so we asked the BB to take us to something good and local. She narrowed her eagle-foodie-eyes and picked out a restaurant. We followed in an obedient fashion and were rewarded with what I like to call The Sushi Of The GODS.
Sweet lord, they know their fish. I remember when I heard first of Sushi and my teenage self went “..eh, raw fish? I think not. I’ll just . have my steak. Medium rare, if you don’t mind”. Little did I know.
I’m trusting my readership is aware of the delicacies of Sushi (mostly raw seafood on rice) and Sashimi (just raw fish, without all that rice nonsense) – if not, go get you some. By the time I’d gotten past the tuna and salmon I was fighting not to pull a Harry and Sally. Needless to say, I wolfed down my Sushi (the one pictured on the right was The Lady’s) and had to be restrained from ordering another helping. For food geeks, the bowl on the far right contains Miso Soup and the yellow.. thing.. in the centre is some kind of unholy offspring of baked egg and savoury custard, made with soup base. The texture took some getting used to, but the comfort level of that little bowl of yellow gunk was quite high up on the list of anything I’ve ever tasted. I bemoaned my lack of language when exiting, but tried my best to convey my pleasure via stroking of my belly, nodding and smiling. Despite my new-found love for Sushi it was time to go get suitcases and head to Haneda Airport.
I reckon this might be the time to talk briefly about national stereotypes. I knew of Japan, you see – I’d heard of the country, was aware that they made technology and bowed a lot, had a rigid corporate culture and a spot of bother during WWII. I’d found when preparing for the journey that I had a certain amount of stereotypes in my head – one of which was that the Japanese were terribly efficient.
I look forward to seeing and learning about the country – but I can tell you one thing right now, dear readers.
If the way they handle domestic flights is any judge of their efficiency, I want them on my side when the proverbial hits the fan.
Some people ask me what Icelandic comedy is like. I usually respond that one of the best examples is that we defiantly call our budget airline Icelandic Express**** in the face of standard delays of hours, days, lifetimes.
When we looked at the departure board for domestic flights in Japan , there was one delay advertised. The delay – for the flight from Osaka – was advertised as 5 minutes. I don’t quite know how to describe this, but half an hour after they opened the gate the plane was in the air. There was no sitting and waiting, no faffing about, no calling for passengers. Just a process that was so clean and crisp that even two weary western travellers couldn’t even put a dent in it.
The flight was short and somewhat bumpy, after which we found ourselves in the city where BB was born – Nagasaki. This was to be our home for the next three days, and as we hustled onboard a coach I promptly fell into an open-mouthed and spectactularly ungraceful sleep as the ladies chattered about lady things. There may have been a wedding mentioned, but I wouldn’t know.
We got to Nagasaki Station and BB saw us to the door of our hostel, the Akari. We were quite happy to find an air-conditioning unit in working order, promptly cranked it down as far as it would go and fell asleep. Tomorrow would be used to explore Nagasaki.
Next – A Serious Day, with a serious museum and some serious Chinese.
* We’re taking one later in the journey. Looking forward to it.
** Why are you looking at me like that? Doesn’t everybody’s brain do this?
*** There’s probably a Japanese word for this that a proper cultural/smart traveller would know. I’m not really either, so I don’t.
**** Much like the rest of Icelandic comedy, this is only really funny to Icelanders.
Tuesday, 21.09.10. Day 2.
Fortified by a random but tasty Japanese lunch, me and The Lady set out to meet our travelling companions back at the hotel. The entertainment had been set, tickets bought and whatnot. We got to meet up with the second half of the GG’s Clan, just recently arrived after a murderous journey – and off we went, all nine of us.
Destination: Nihon Sumo Kyokai.
That’s right, people – we went and saw us some wrasslin’.
Now I won’t lie to you, dear readership. One of the random, useless statistics I am fond of spouting is that Icelandic men are the world’s third tallest. At just a shade over/under 6 foot, depending on mood and lunar position, I also like to think of myself as a tall man. When the spirit is upon me I even stretch as far as thinking of myself as a Big Guy.
The GG had sourced us some very nice tickets in the front row of the balconies, which meant that we saw the wrestlers at maybe twenty-five to thirty metres’ distance. That didn’t matter so much. Them boys were still huge. To put things in perspective, at 6’0” and 113kg, I’m average height and middle weight for a Sumo Wrestler. Intrigued by all of this, I set to spongeing up information. The Groom knew a bit about it and the Bride filled in the gaps, translating patiently* whenever I said “..ooh! What’s happening now? Who’s he? Why’d he do that? Who’s fighting who now? What do the banners mean?” and the like.
A very pleasant afternoon ensued with some casual munching on snacks, chatter, picture taking and the delightful, ceremonial nature of the Sumo wrestling. I say ‘delightful’ – most of it is.
There is a ring, the Dohyo, with two paralell lines. This ring is considered sacred. It is presided over by a referee dressed like Lady Gaga meets an epileptic fit, only classy and with dignity. Then the caller enters the ring, announcing in ceremonial chant the names of the wrestlers about to do battle. The giants then enter the ring, scattering salt ahead of them. This is done to purify the ground and their spirit before they do battle. Crouching down face to face they then show eachother their palms, signifying a fair fight. After considering whether to start they usually stand up, stretching, chest-thumping or getting the crowd involved. After a brief moment of this it’s back to crouching positions on either sides of the paralell lines. All of this is ceremonial, gentle, purposeful and oddly serene.
And then the fists hit the floor, signifying the start of the fight – and sumo wrestling stops being all of those things.
My education and various hobbies mean I have a decent understanding of mobility. I’ve played football and basketball, danced, ponced around, worked out and stretched, pushed and pulled and generally hopped about for a good part of my adult life. This means that when I saw the first wrestlers move I got a brief buzz of pure, happy fear.
In the pictures they may look big, fat and unwieldy… but they’re fast. Oh dear lord they’re fast.
Basically, a sumo wrestling match is what I imagine WWIII will be like. There’s an explosion of power, maximum sustained brutality for a short period and then it’s over. The average length of a match between two wrestlers is somewhere in the region of 15 seconds, which means that whenever the fight lasts longer than that, every second becomes super-tense. And let’s’ face it – if you’re 6’3” and around 150kg, you really don’t want to be operating at maximum speed for much longer than half a minute. So the afternoon kind of gently melted away to the tune of ‘fat people fighting’, as the BB charmingly put it. Slowly but surely the stakes increased until the resident badass entered. His name is Hakuho and he wins at Sumo. A lot. When we saw him he’d been unbeaten for 50-something matches, going for the second-longest unbeaten record since 1936 or so.
He dispatched his rival wrestler in what I can only describe as a businesslike fashion, which marked the end of the afternoon’s entertainment.
We jostled onto the JR line along with a lot of other Sumo fans and headed for home, not quite sure what to do with ourselves. In the end GG’s clan decided to go eat and crash, half of which having been up for an ungodly amount of hours and leaving the children to fend for themselves, as it were. A desire for Ramen noodles was formulated and acted upon, the BB and GG leading me and The Lady into a fantastic maze of streets that seemed to have more restaurants than houses. Eventually we settled upon what can only be described as a Ramen Joint, had some beers and waited for the Best Man to return from his manly jaunt to the Electronics shopping district. Yes, Tokyo has a whole district for that sort of thing. No, I didn’t go. Why? Because I have an income, none of which is disposable. I also suspect that while I don’t currently think I need any electronic equipment, Tokyo’s sodding district full of it would have rectified that misunderstanding.
However, my Ramen was** good. The Lady had moderate luck with hers, but carried on undeterred. Meanwhile discussions were held on the aim of the evening, and a decision was made.
The Hills called us.
Roppongi Hills, to be exact.
In spirit whic should be familiar to travellers anywhere words that no-one will quite admit to saying, like “Look on the map. It’s just around the corner” and “The guide book says it’s really close”*** prompted us to go on a walk from Akasaka to nearby Roppongi, specifically to Tokyo View which is a floor dedicated entirely to viewing Tokyo. The fact that this was a) on the 52nd floor of a sky scraper which was b) in a shopping complex did not c) deter us at all, so off we went.
On the way we passed a hastily assembled German beer garden, random sculptures and a tank full of Fugu fish. As you do.
Wandering in pleasant company through sweltering heat proved a nice way to digest a completely laughably sized portion of noodles and navigation through the streets of Tokyo went surprisingly well, leading us to Roppongi Hills relatively swiftly.
At which point navigation gently stopped going so well, started going quite badly and eventually stopped going at all.
I’m going to need to tell you a little bit about Roppongi Hills. It’s not going to be much, because this is already well south of 1.000 words. Suffice to say – if you have a lot of money and live in The World, Tokyo is a really good place to be. If you have an awful lot of money and are in Tokyo, you could do worse than go to Roppongi. Wikipedia calls it a mega-complex and they’re not far off. We found the Mori Tower, just about – and found out that we were 20 minutes late to go up to the viewing floor. We then decided we should go find a drink somewhere – and that’s where it started getting interesting. See, Mr. Mori didn’t believe in straight lines. Or three dimensions. After going up three and down two escalators, five sets of steps and in all four directions without ever making a 90°turn I had no idea whatsoever of where I was and only a vague recollection of my own name. It was like being stuck inside Candace Bushnell’s head. In the end, after wandering through the 6th floor restaurant-and-bar-section of a seventy-two star hotel (and feeling for all the world like 9-year olds skulking around in hospital corridors where they had no business) we ended up exiting through the third-basement level parking lot and going downwards, much to the surprise of drivers wondering what the hell these foreigners were doing in a place that didn’t have any pavements. Eventually we found the right subway line and shambled home, having been on foot for a good two and a half hours. Sleep beckoned; so did relocation. We went to sleep ready to bid a temporary farewell to Tokyo.
Next: Oh carp! The temple of the Fox and a terrifying encounter with efficiency.
* or so I imagine. She may have been cursing me under her breath. Or translating everything subtly wrong to plant me in trouble with the border police. I do not know.
** Were? It feels wrong, implying we ate a group of some sort of Ra-men (I’m biting my knuckle and fighting the urge to add some sort of Egyptian pun here).
*** That might actually have been me, though.
Monday, 20.09.10 Day 1
We have arrived.
After a journey that theoretically started 28 hours ago on another continent, we are in Japan.
I am writing this at a red writing desk designed for a diminutive Hemingway, listening to the purring of my new best friend – the air conditioning unit. Because – who knew? – Japan in September is h-o-t. It is also more humid than I think I‘ve ever experienced – a fish swam past my head at the airport. We have met up with the Blushing Bride and Gallant Groom, along with GG‘s clan. The Best Man came via Dubai and navigated through the friendly Tokyo subway system on his own, which is an impressive feat. Thai food has been consumed; it took us a while to realize that we were actually eating it with chopsticks, which they apparently don‘t bother with in Thailand. But as they say – when in Rome…
Now it‘s time for sleep, though. Tomorrow holds fresh challenges and potentially some naked man-flesh.
Tuesday, 21.09.10 Day 2 – Turning Japanese
Last night we listened to quite a lot of intricate descriptions on the horrors of jetlag. The Clan and the GG had apparently been waking up at 4am for no apparent reason since they arrived – the brain going “No! Hang on! It’s day-time! Why have you turned the lights off outside and set your clock to late? This is nonsense! I’m awake! Awake, I say! Fetch me my trombone!” After this we went to bed dreading the night a little bit and proceeded to sleep for 13 uninterrupted hours, the kind of deep sleep that is only marginally north of a coma. Personally I think they could have had a rehearsal for a marching band next to my room and all I would have done would have been to dream of a bloody civil war between Mecklenburg and Vor-Pommern. When we eventually stumbled out of bed we found the GG in his room and stated our intentions – we were going exploring on our own and reconvening for that afternoon‘s entertainment at the hotel at 1330.
After his blessings we wandered out of the air-conditioned lobby of the Chisun Grand Akasaka – and Tokyo hit us.
I don‘t know what the temperature was. I‘ve stepped out of an air-conditioned car into 42°c in Death Valley – it wasn‘t that hot.
We sauntered down the street towards the local shrine. The area we’re staying in – Akasaka – is lively without being crowded. The streets are narrow without being cramped. According to Lonely Planet Tokyo it’s fairly business-y; judging by the number of shirt-and-jacket types cramming the local sushi joints I’m inclined to believe them.
As we reached the end of the street we got our first taste of Tokyo Proper. A massive four-lanes-each-way motorway that took a good 15 seconds to cross offered a view of tall buildings that varied marginally in size and shape but shared a uniform look that said “We’re here for business”. Between them was a commanding set of stairs with a gently sloping automated walkway off to the side, leading up to a Torii gate. We did the requisite amount of touristy gawping, then proceeded to make our way up the stairs.
As we reached the top, we saw the temple. The noise of the city melted away in the trees, overtaken by crickets. Silver and blue faded into green, black, white and red. We peered into a courtyard that had, somewhat incongruously, people setting up for a concert. The folding chairs looked somewhat out of place, to be honest, but as a first taste of Japan it was entirely satisfactory.
And speaking of taste – it was lunchtime.
Feeling buoyed by the experience, we decided it was time to be adventurous. We’d seen a couple of places for food on the way to the shrine and thought we’d probably find somewhere nice to have lunch*.
It bears mentioning here that I am a cheap and easy dinner date. I eat most things, sometimes in abundance. The Lady, however, is a discerning gourmet and connoisseur who knows no worse sin than to waste a meal on sub-standard food. This means that when on vacation in the city with the most restaurants in the world, a great number of them need to be inspected and considered.
In the end we settled on an auspicious, yet modest basement restaurant near our hotel. From what we could gather it promised to feed us noodles.
Again, we took seven steps and were suddenly removed from the hustle and bustle of central Akasaka, finding ourselves in the middle of a modest number of Japanese people happily tucking into their lunch.
The waitress nodded cheerfully at us and guided us into a corner with a barrage of Japanese. I gave her my best befuddled tourist look, asked “…English?” in a hopeful fashion and received a embarrassed smile, shake of the head and a menu for my troubles.
Two things worked in our favour.
We were buoyed by the newness of it all, so we were very brave.
Secondly, the menu had pictures.
After some conferring we beckoned the waitress over and pointed to the two things we wanted – soba noodles for The Lady, some kind of pork for me. She nodded enthusiastically** with several interjections of the word ‘hai’ and jotted down our requests with terrifying efficiency. I was thirsty so I flipped to the back page of the menu, pointed to a large water bottle and raised my eyebrows. She looked at the picture and read the Japanese letters.
I shook my head and thus narrowly avoided ordering a whole bottle of Sake to wash down our lunch with.
After riding the wave of bravery we were duly rewarded with a hearty lunch that had lines like “What’s that green thing?”, “Does this go in that bowl?” and “…I’m not sure but it’s very tasty.” Considering what we were to see, it was just the right start to the day.Next – Watching the mountains and running to the Hills.
* Japanese dining establishments have some special characteristics***. These will be covered at a later date.
** For ‘enthusiastically’, substitute ‘like a meth-addled squirrel stuck on fast forward’ if you’re less diplomatic than I am.
*** Actually, EVERYTHING in Japan has special characteristics. In order to get anywhere with this, I’m forced to skip some of them. I haven’t even mentioned the toilet seats. I will, though.
On september 19th* me and The Lady packed our bags and headed east.
Now, if we’d been going to, say, Catford, this would not have been remarkable. Denmark marginally moreso. Russia would have been an adventure – but we went a good deal further than that.
We went to Japan.
The next couple of posts will be an attempt at describing the journey we took, the wedding we attended, the things we saw and the food we ate. This might take a while.