Tokyo - Land of the Rising Sun

Elmo does Tokyo!


Japanese Terry Wogan??
Japan is bonkers… good bonkers. Tokyo is a cacophony of technology. Before you even enter their air space you realise you’ve taken a comfy front seat on the information aerial highway - Japan airlines have cameras on the nose and belly of the planes so you get a birdseye view of takeoff and landing via your seat screen. I’m not sure if seeing the airport shrink to a dot, birds stuttering and flailing in an effort to keep up, as the craft shreds through the atmosphere, is for the nervous flier, but I sent my elbow into overdrive nudging a weary Dom to check out every millisecond of it.

July is HOT in Tokyo, not to mention also the rainy season, so it was no surprise to learn that our visit coincided with the arrival of a typhoon (an Irish mammy might argue that a typhoon is natures way of tumble drying the clothes on your line, bring it on!).

Amid the high winds and lashing rain we departed from the airport on a bus. There was one tip friends repeatedly told us of Tokyo, “don’t get a taxi from the airport”. For some reason the taxi takes the same time as the bus (90 mins) but cost 10 times the price! Downside, the bus doesn’t drop you at your hotel. The ignominy of walking 5 mins in the rain, how dare they ;)

Tired, wet and hungry, we lobbed our bags into our hotel room and hit the streets of Tokyo, now soaked in darkness, to find some food. It wasn’t dark for long, a turn here, cross the road there, down the right, round the corner, and the 24 hour city emerges, people strolling along, revellers and randomers. We found a nice spot to eat and shuffled in.

Much to my delight all the stereotypes were there like players on a stage. To my left a group of Japanese business men were drinking hard and sporting ‘manbags’, to my right a gaggle of young women on a girls night out intermittently burst into giggles which were immediately hidden behind well manicured nails. Beside me a family ordered family style, and behind them an awkward date unfolded in silence, flushed teenage faces hidden behind very large mobile phones.

As good as it looks
I love Japanese food so happily defered to suggestions from the waiter, and sat back to people watch. As the players left the stage we gathered ourselves and headed back into the night.

When it comes to paying in Japan it’s not a bad idea to have some cash with you, a surprising number of places either don’t take foreign cards or are cash only.

the drama of it all
To get cash you need to go to ATMs in the 7-11 convenience stores. My first time doing this my card timed out cos I was too busy staring at the rows and rows of adult men standing at the shop’s magazine stand reading comics (some the size of phonebooks… the comics, not the men!). I realised these guys weren’t swapping Dandys and Beanos, the manga anime comics in Japan are noted for two things; their talented brush strokes and scantily clad females. Observing the silent communion of lusty leering made me decidedly queasy, I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.

Despite the heat, or in fact because of it, women everywhere were shading themselves with parasols. Even top department stores sold skin whitening creams. Unlike a lot of the Western world a tan in Japan isn’t in fashion, it seems the whiter you are the more delicate and refined you supposedly appear (clearly they hadn’t been to Ireland!).

The Imperial palace technically marks the centre of Tokyo. It’s worth a stroll around and gives you a chance to get your bearings in peaceful surrounds. It’s close to the business district which is like any financial hub anywhere. If you’re in the area, check out, Kitte, it’s a new shopping complex in the old postmaster building in the Marunouchi district. Kooky shopping for the Japanese middle class. I picked up some Japanese jelly shaped like a trout and some salmon crackers,beats a sambo from O’Briens!

The main shopping area is the Ginza district with departments stores etc, if you’re not a shopper I’d give it a miss.

While loping around the city I noticed a curious thing, despite the glaring sun, no one was wearing sun glasses. I asked some Japanese friends why this was so, there didn’t seem to be a definitive reason, one suggested it was cos their eyes are shaped differently, another thought it might have to do with the fact gang members distinguish themselves by wearing sun glasses. With my baby strapped to me, flapping around town in my flip flops and Gucci shades, I looked every inch the badass Irish mammy of the Yakuza (Japan’s mafia).

the Olympian takes to the rings
Tokyo is massive, you can’t do it all on foot. The metro underground is good because it goes everywhere but it doesn’t have great wheelchair access (pain in the face if you have a stroller). We built up some serious muscles carrying herself up endless flights of steps. Elevators do exist but only in newer stations. Once on the train evvvvvvveryone from teeny tots to pensioners are glued to their mobile phones. All in all it reminded me a little of the New York subway, the platforms can be quite narrow in places, so no room for horseplay!

Putting the 'toil' in toilet
The city is a cross between Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. Screens everywhere that talk to you, from inside the train stations to the pound shops crammed full of little video screens activated when you walked past shouting about products, ambulances that speak to pedestrians in between the nee-nahs, you even need a degree in Computer Science to use the loo!

Temple of Doom
But Tokyo is not just one big microchip, there are quaint parts to it like Asakusa, home to the Senso-ji Buddhist Temple. The entrance is a tremendous red gate known as the ‘Thunder Gate’. The temple is an active one so you’ll see people chanting in a swirl of incense, throwing coins as offerings. Tourists swarmed the worshippers taking photos but it kinda seemed inappropriate so I just nicked a few coins instead (nooo, I didn’t!).

Neon rain
You can’t leave Tokyo without heading to Shinjuku at night. The area lights up like Time Square on acid. It’s your classic Toyko album shot. The rain swept us into a little tempura place. I had no idea there was a protocol to eating tempura, but we were duly put through our paces by an elderly lady who schooled us through the right combination of tomato radish and wasabi salt to accompany our fish.

One particularly rainy day I spent the morning ensconsed in our hotel staring slack jawed at Japanese TV game shows. They are very physical, very colourful and as with everything in Tokyo, not quite of this planet!

D’ye know, if I wasn’t Irish, I think I’d like to be Japanese. They are such a wonderful people, you will not find people more sincere, thoughtful, caring, respectful, happy and downright nice as these folks. The english words ‘happy’ and ‘thank you’ appear a lot on nicknacks, clothes, etc, these sentiments sum up the country perfectly.

I was very lucky to have a Japanese friend who lived in Tokyo. It had been 15 years since we met. We said we’d meet each other at Shinjuku station. The station makes Grand Central look like a bus stop in Skibbereen. I was panicked I wouldn’t be able to pick her out of the crowd, then I remembered I had a big Irish head on me, something told me she’d be juuuust about able to single me out ;) Hugs and squeals later we all boarded the train to Rumi’s home in Machida city (a suburb of Tokyo).

skimmed milk, no sugar, please
From owning a restaurant, managing nursery schools and living in a Buddhist Temple, Rumi and her family were incredibly hard working and so so kind. They made us feel very welcome, laying on an impromptu tea ceremony and taking us out for a traditional slap up meal. Having watched the meticulous tea ceremony, Dom and I had no idea that we would be called up to re-enact the ceremony. It was like a challenge from the Amazing Race. Start again, 3 taps, 1 scoop, bow, bang it on your hand, wave it around, noooo, all wrong, start again.

There was a funny moment when a family member bowed at me, in turn I bowed back, then she bowed and tapped her head, in turn I bowed and tapped my head, she repeated, slightly starting to laugh, I thought maybe she was saying my bow needed to be lower so I kept bowing lower and lower all the time tapping my head. 5 minutes later I’m like a jack in the box doing sun salutes when Rumi points out they are saying to mind my head as I leave through the door! Mortification.

The Japanese do lots and lots of bowing which I was impressed with, manners cost you nothing and get you everywhere. I mightn’t come from a culture of bowing but Irish people are experts at the short nod, which can mean everything from howaya, thanks a mill, good luck, I'm off, you’re off, can I get the bill, can you get the bill, another round and so on. Bows, nods, we’re all on the same page (well, usually, see previous paragraph, still mortified!).

It was really interesting to see the Temple that Rumi’s in laws call home. The altar was ornate but otherwise it felt very homely and casual. The kids from the local school were coming there to have a sleep-over in the Temple that night. From what I can make out Japanese people are not particularly religious, but when (most people) are born they are linked to their local Buddhist Temple (Buddhism came to Japan from India a long time ago) and also to the local Shinto shrine (which is an indigenous belief system).

On a high from a fantastic day spent with Rumi (her little twins are precious) we came back to our hotel only to be rudely woken up by an earthquake. I ran to the hotel lobby, rollers in my hair, Nora Batty slippers on, fag in one hand, hob-nob biscuit in the other, to find out where the evacuation point was (I’m kidding about my appearance but I did barrel down to the night concierge to find out what the hell was that). With a bemused look on his face the concierge did some googling and told me it was only a 3.5 earthquake, nothing to even comment on!). Shaken not stirred I returned to sleep.

 wedding in Meiji Jingu
A lot of people have heard of Harajuku, made famous by that Gwen Stefani song. It is the epicentre of Tokyo’s pop culture, teenagers hang out dressed like Barbie dolls. A smear of shops line the tree studded street of Omote-sando and girls with pig tails, short dresses, and socks with platform shoes teeter by.

Ready, Steady, Go
I was very keen to go to Shibuya station, this is the home to Tokyo’s famous ‘Scramble’ crossing (imitated years later in London’s Oxford St). Stroller gripped tightly, throngs of people heading towards us we braved it and launched ourselves into the neon jumbotron madness. You get to one side and want to do it again! Who knew crossing a road was such fun.

We met dom's brother in law’s sister in law twice removed third cousin half sisters aunt for lunch in Tokyo. She lives and works in Tokyo so it was really interesting to hear about her life there. Dom asked intellectual questions about her thoughts on the move of Japanese politics to the right and the current policy of building up the armed forces. I had my own important hard hitting Q's...why doesn't anyone wear sun glasses? What's the deal with the face masks? (avoid pollution and also people don't want to get sick from contagious colds and miss work. I noticed people don't cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze so I'm down with the mask wearing).

She was a delight and kindly brought us for a traditional lunch where we sat on the floor. Róisín was delighted that we had finally succumbed to her 3 month old logic of why stand when you can sit down, why sit down when you can lie down (she might be on to something!). Like Singapore she was a big hit in Japan. We didn’t see many other blue eyed, fair haired babies so she was quite the exotic specimen.

We had to be a little bit more mindful of Róisín as smoking is quite prolific in Japan. A jarring “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment struck when a chap beside us in a restaurant lit up a cigarette. I was physically shocked, followed by revulsion, fury and contempt (all micro expressions lasting 5 seconds) within minutes we were out the door with mini-me and her tiny lungs tucked under her Dad’s arm. Nobody puts baby in the (smoking) corner ;)

For a more relaxing experience head to the Park Hyatt hotel, if you’ve watched Lost in Translation (even if you haven’t) you have to go to the hotel for a drink. The views are spectacular, you expect Godzilla to come bounding across the building tops at any minute.

Pricey drinks in flash hotels aside, you don’t actually have to spend a lot of money to enjoy Tokyo…

Roppongi is worth a stroll around in the evening. Full of bars, restaurants and every walk of life floating by. If you get a cab there look out for the doily seat covers, every cab has them, Hyacinth Bouquet (Bucket) eat your heart out!

One of the top recommended sights is the famous Tsukiji fish market. I couldn’t identify most of the slippery googly-eyed articles but I was assured they are very fresh and tasty.

who takes the first bite

If you want a cheap and cheerful curry in a an unusual setting, go to The Curry Lab in the Toyko Tower (Tokyo’s answer to the Eiffel Tower). The amount of ‘Hello Kitty’ paraphernalia on sale in the tower is alarming!

Another spot worth a visit is Electric town, Akihabara, after World War II it became a black market for radio parts and ever since has been the go to place for gadgets. It was the Japan I'd seen on TV, lots of electronics everywhere, tons of arcades with kids playing futuristic games, reams of bookstores selling anime manga comics, explosions of neon, once again video screens everywhere talking to you. Go, to be overwhelmed and over loaded.

Tokyo is one extreme of Japan, having read Memories of a Geisha I was very keen to visit a more traditional setting. We jumped on the bullet train to Kyoto...

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