Round 3 around Japan (part 1)

After a few weeks of mostly work and no play it was time welcome some more visitors from England, two of my friends from Uni, Taz and Rosa. The visiting party was meant to be 3, the absent being Max, Taz’s traveling buddy, who unfortunately caught dengue fever when they were in Thailand, a few days before their flight to Japan. So I met Taz alone after a day at work on Thursday, at Hamamatsucho station where the shuttle ends from Haneda airport, and then headed into Ueno. We didn’t waste much time and went straight to an izakaya to drink, eat and, most importantly, catch up. We exchanged our experiences of traveling over beers and food. Although the night caught up quickly on us and we headed to an internet cafe for somewhere to stay. Normally these internet cafes have a huge library of manga and dvds you can chose to use, however the place we picked seemed to specialise in porn. Walls and walls of porn. As we checked in we were each given a basket, seemingly to fill it with as many naughty dvds as we could muster. However we were there for the sleep. The booths we stayed in were mainly taken up by a huge 40inch TV for which patrons could use to enjoy their basketful of porn. The next morning we got up and met Rosa at the train station. We dumped the heavy bags and headed for our first destination, the Studio Ghibli Museum, the pinnacle of Japanese animation. The museum is really special. It is like a fantasy fun house, with every little detail very Ghibli-esque. Its mainly filled with innovative ways to animate using crazy contraptions mostly allowing a hands on experience. There are spiral staircases leading you up to the roof where a giant robot from “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” awaits and several rooms set up to look like the creative spaces of Hayao Miyazaki, all covered in beautiful illustrations and tools of inspiration. You also get to watch a Ghibli short film that is unique to the museum, staring a creature made out of bread with an apple for a nose. The only thing I will comment is that there is a certain lack of Totoro, only a big one by the entrance, and the Cat Bus is only for kids to play on. No fair. After our fill of Ghibli we had a superb Japanese style late lunch, and later headed into Akihabara for a quick tour. We did a little gaming and browsed “electric town” and the “Otaku” (geeky) collector stores marveling over the array of manga figurines. Although fatigue hit us all and we settled for going back to mine to relax and get some grub.

The following day I had quite a long day at work so nothing much was accomplished in the day apart from the girls catching up on sleep that the had lost from the jet lag. They came to meet me when I was finishing up with work and briefly met Teru. We then headed out for some ¥105 sushi. I got them to try uni (sea urchin) and natto (fermented soya bean) with most unentertaining results, as they both didn’t mind either so much. For some reason I was feeling adventurous with the more neo-sushi, such as, meatball, hamburger, and bacon, which again only turned out with a disappointing outcome. However, cheap sushi is always good because you can eat lots, so if you don’t like something it doesn’t matter, just get something else. The next morning (well when we got up, which actually was nearing afternoon) we headed to the mountain town, Nikko, home of the Tōshōgu temple complex. I really like this area as all the temples are nestled among towering trees and it is really peaceful. We arrived pretty late so had to power sightseeing before things closed. Tōshōgu is pretty impressive. It is lavishly decorated with gold and intricately designed with twirling patterns merging into dragons and other godly deities. You can gain entrance to one of the main halls to bear witness to a rather spooky phenomenon. A monk in various places around the room hit a pair of wooden blocks only producing the expected sound, although once demonstrated under the head of the dragon painted on the ceiling above did it produce a eerily long and echoing sound, like he secretly wacked up the reverb level. I had heard of this before, but did not realise how baffling it actually is.  We just about managed to squeeze all the sights in just in time. We found a nice cafe and got some tea and cake, taking refuge from the heavy rain until the place closed and it was time to head home.

On Monday, we met up with Teru, his wife, Kumiko, and one of my students for a nice lunch. After eating we got into the discussion of kanji and they tried to make some good kanji names for Taz and Rosa. Among the good ones we found there were also the hilarious ones. We tried one for Rosa’s boyfriend, Josh, which can be 女手, read Jyoshu, translating to “lady hands”. For Taz, whose full name is Tazuko, a Japanese name thus allowing many possibilities, one of which is 他頭壺 roughly translating to “strangers heads in pots”. One of the more interesting ones. When lunch was over, we said our goodbyes and headed into Tokyo. We tried to go to the Edo history museum although we managed to pick one specific days that it was closed so then decided to have a look around Asakusa area, to see Sensoji temple and wander the bustling streets. We later went to Shibuya and thought it wise to have a little break from walking so we ducked in for a coffee in a “cat cafe”. It pretty much is no more complicated than that. It is just like any other cafe where you can buy drinks and relax reading a magazine or whatever, although it is just full of cats. The place is packed with scratching posts, cat beds and various other things for the cats leisure. There was one chatty old man that I got talking to and he told me that he had 6 cats at home, which made me wonder why he had the need to come to a cat cafe. It is pretty calming chilling out stroking some cats. I highly recommend it.

After our cat time was up we got our drink on. I took them to the cheap izakaya I know in Shibuya. Only ¥120 for a beer. Our plan was get a bit drunk and stay up partying as we had planned to go to Tsukiji fish market, the biggest in the world, to catch the notorious tuna auction. After our warm up at the izakaya we headed for a club. Once in a queue, I said “has everyone got their I.Ds?”. Taz’s face dropped. The bouncers at that club clocked on she didn’t have any I.D so we were forced to go elsewhere. Rosa had two forms of ID, so we tried getting Taz in with one of them. Suprisingly, a bouncer fell for this and let in two “Rosa Marvels” with the same birthday one after the other. Despite our success of getting in somewhere, the club was terrible. Small, lifeless, empty and most of all bad music. However, we decided it best to work very hard and liven up the club by dancing like fools and embarrass everyone by forcing them to join in, with actually quite good results. It turned out to be a good night. Although it wasn’t over yet. When it reached about four, we left and jumped in a taxi to Tsukiji. After the taxi dropped us off we eventually found where we needed to be. Each of us got a special little bib to wear and we waited with everyone else that had turned up to see the tuna auction. I believe that we were the only ones there that were drunk, hadn’t slept and looked pretty disheveled. To keep my sanity I got talking to this old American couple for ages. They were both university lecturers of finance, so I can only imagine what crap I was talking to them about at 4.30 in the morning.

After waiting about an hour for our turn, we were led into the auction area, which was a thin little sectioned of area right in the middle of the tuna warehouse. There were, unsurprisingly, a crazy amount of tuna, and some took me by surprise at how incredibly big they were. All the buyers were walking around inspecting the catch of the day by scrutinizing the section of exposed flesh near the tail. When the auctioning started everything seemed to speed up. The auctioneers, spoke with such a crazy rhythm with such speed and animation, it almost brought a theatrical aspect to the auction. One auctioneer threw his arms around, waving his bell about, and jumped up and down on his little box so much that it almost look like he was dancing. One of the buyers looked so upset at not winning his bid, his mate had to rub his back for comfort. Each fish got dragged off after the winning bid was made, by someone brandishing a ice-pick thing that effortlessly stuck into the fish. After the auction was over we were led back to the entrance, although through the utter chaos of the market. Everyone was rushing around on these tiny one man flatbed vehicle things without the slightest bit of concern for the trail of tourists. It was pretty spectacular as we really got to see the inner workings and liveliness of the market. Although, by this point everything felt so much more surreal due to our lack of sleep. So after the tour was over we made sure we got the train straight home to get some well deserved sleep.

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