Returning to Hiroshima and Tokyo

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The Great Buddha in Kamakura

It’s been almost a week since my partner, Theo, returned home to England. We spent 4 intense weeks travelling around Japan, and it’s taking me some time to sort out all of the happy memories in my head. In the mean time, the new semester started at Kobe university, with new students and teachers, and… extra work. At least the fluffy sakura blossoms are helping me feel positive about coming back to my studies.

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Deer whisperer

Hiroshima is a bit far from Kobe and quite expensive to get to, but I knew I had to take Theo there, both for the history of the place and the beauty of Miyajima. It was harder to figure out the logistics without guidance this time, but I managed to get a decent deal, and so we took a bus there, which goes 4 hours one way, and costs about 8000 yen overall. Again – absolutely worth it. I picked a lovely flat to rent through AirBnb, so we had lots of space and comfort for a low price, which I learned really matters on a trip. I described how much I love Hiroshima in an earlier post, and my opinion hasn’t changed: it’s still a cosy town with tragic but inspiring history, and Miyajima was stunning even though we went before the sakura began blooming. I’ve been looking forward to cuddling some more deer and so has Theo, who turned out to be a real deer whisperer: they spent a good half an hour cuddling a particular deer who even put its head on Theo’s chest a few times. In addition to covering the things I saw last time I came, we went to the Hiroshima castle, which offers a great view of the city, and a small exhibition about the older history of Hiroshima.

It was a good call to do a lot of travelling at the beginning of our holiday, because we started getting tired about halfway through, and I caught a mean cold just before we left for Tokyo. Well, despite being surrounded by a fascinating new country, Theo and I agreed that there’s nothing better than lazy days spent together watching TV and cooking tasty food! ūüôā

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Good old Tokyo skyline… with the infamous “golden turd”

Tokyo was just as big and confusing as I remembered. It remains a great place to visit and (I assume) terrible to¬†actually live in. We started in a rather strange place: Kabukicho, which I did not visit on my last trip. It certainly made for a funny first impression on Theo: the crowd was younger and rowdier than anywhere else, quite unusually for Japan. Kabukicho is known for being a bit “seedy”, which was our impression too – the “girl bars” (where men go to be attended by young women) alone are an uncomfortable sight. We had a great time though. After gobbling up a¬†vegan burger each, we headed for karaoke, which was so much better to do with Theo, as we know and love the same songs – with my other friends who listen to different music I just ended up falling asleep!

After that I got to do something I’ve been excited to explore for a long time now: looking for the infamous “love hotels”. They get funny media coverage in the West, which turned out to be completely exaggerated. These days love hotels look just like normal ones, and offer the same services; nothing like the outrageous theme park-like rooms you see in Western articles. The only difference is that they offer visit times of 3 hours, 5 hours, and a full night. Most Japanese couples use love hotels as a way to get some privacy, because they can’t afford to move away from the tiny flats they live in with their parents, though that is changing nowadays, so love hotels are on the decline. It was a fun and fairly normal experience, where we paid an average normal hotel price for a luxurious, huge room with a Jacuzzi! I think that it’s much cheaper than mainstream luxury hotels because many tourists feel shy about the label of a love hotel and so do not choose to stay in one. Well, I enjoyed the cheap-ish comfort, and I’m glad we explored the infamous Japanese phenomenon.

In contrast to the day before, we spent our second day in Tokyo in the Tokyo-Edo museum, which was as fun as last time. That day we discovered that the accommodation I booked through AirBnb was absolutely terrible, unfortunately. It was cheaper than a hostel and offered private rooms with locks, but was dirty and felt like a prison. Next time I will know to pay a bit more for a better stay. Even if it was just a place to sleep in, it did bring the mood of the trip down. It is noteworthy that this was the cheapest private room I could find in Tokyo, for only £18 per night, so we could afford the whole week.

It rained quite a lot while we were in Tokyo, which was annoying as we wanted to see temples and parks, and the sakura was beginning to bloom. We did manage one great rainy day though: shopping in Akihabara and its outrageous Don Quixote; a few turns at the games in the arcades and a cute purikura session; bowling in Tokyo Dome and dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant.

And we certainly made up for the rainy days: visiting Sensoji, walking around Ueno park, exploring my beloved Tokyo National museum, contrasting Meiji shrine with Harajuku, checking out the hipster vegan cafes around the city.

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One of the magical tiny temples

The best day might have been the one when we went to Kamakura, which is just over an hour by train from Tokyo, and is the ancient warrior capital of Japan. I’ve not been there before, so it was extra exciting. We spent a couple of hours hiking through the neatly laid out trails and cute tiny temples, finally getting to the giant Great Buddha statue. The best part was that you could go inside it – I’ve never seen a statue from the inside before! We finished the day with people watching on the windy beach. I’d say Kamakura is a must do on a trip to Tokyo.

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The view

I noticed that Tokyo was very foggy in the spring, in contrast to the crystal-clear views it offered in December. We decided not to bother with the Sky Tree this time, and took the free entry to the Metropolitan Building instead, which still offered a decent view of Tokyo. Definitely a thing to keep in mind – Japan offers the best views during the winter.

And that was about it for Tokyo. It was lots of fun, but also chaotic and tiring. We managed to miss our plane on the day of returning to Kobe, which was horrific as I’m the kind of person who is never late to anything, but I sorted it out and we even managed to make the most of hanging out in the airport waiting for our new flight. See, it’s all about who you’re travelling with: Theo and I balance each other out so that we’re organised but not stressed, and can make each other laugh in any situation. I definitely enjoyed travelling in Japan with my partner more than alone or with other people.

I’ll be back with a few more exciting stories from Theo’s visit to Japan. For now, I’ve got to get a start on those daily kanji tests that are just around the corner…

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We saw a tradition wedding at the Meiji shrine

Instant Ramen Museum, Arashiyama, and the Golden Pavilion

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Adorable monkeys and a sublime view

It’s been lovely to relax into a pattern where I don’t need to know what day of the week it is or to set an alarm. I haven’t been complacent, though.

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The instant ramen tunnel

The bit of time between my trip to Shanghai and the arrival of my partner Theo was one of those liminal spaces where I finally had time to truly relax, but felt restless instead. It’s also been quieter around the dorm, since many students are moving out. I did, however, get a friend to come to the Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka with me. It was a cute little place, where we learned about how the idea was created and how it evolved into the extremely popular product of today. The best part, of course, was combining a few flavours ourselves and putting them into a noodle cup we got to decorate. We topped the day off with finding the tastiest sushi restaurant around, at the top of the Yodobashi Camera building in Umeda, which I really recommend. A day out in Osaka is also incomplete without popping into one of the arcade areas that you find on every corner – it’s so fun to watch regular gamers bring special gloves and take their hobby seriously and competitively.

And suddenly I was at the airport, greeting Theo, overwhelmed that they are a real person after all. I think having a long distance relationship warrants a separate post, as it’s quite an interesting and complicated thing that we dealt with well so far, and that more and more of my friends are finding themselves in.

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Theo making a friend

I’ve been in a mad rush to show Theo all the awesome places I’ve been to. We’ve also done a couple of things that are new to me too, such as visiting the wild monkey park in Arashiyama. We are both very interested in animals and their rights, so this was a real treat. You rarely get to see wild animals living happy lives in England, and certainly not monkeys! The park is up a small mountain near the train station, managed by a group of people who make sure the visitors do not bother the monkeys too much. The adorable animals ran around right next to us, though we were asked not to touch them and not to make prolonged eye contact, because in monkey language that’s akin to picking a fight. We also went into a small cabin with windows covered by nets, from which we were allowed to feed the monkeys – for once the humans were the one in a cage! Definitely a great day out, especially topped off with a stroll in the sublime bamboo forest.

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Us embracing the tourist life

Another new place I visited was the Golden Pavilion, otherwise known as Kinkakuji, in Kyoto. It was surprisingly confusing getting there, even though Kyoto is not far from Kobe – mostly it’s the busses that are a pain. It was worth all the trouble, of course. The Zen temple is breathtakingly beautiful and one of the most unique constructions I’ve seen in my travels. Theo also shares my love for Kyoto already – there is some special atmosphere around the city. Kobe and Osaka are lovely and unique, but they are not quite Kyoto.

And the travel carousel spins on. We just got back from Hiroshima and are off to Tokyo in a day. I’ve been loving the chance to see Japan from a fresh perspective, and not even catching a cold is enough to stop me from enjoying the long-awaited adventures with my partner.

A glimpse of Shanghai

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Classic view of the famous Bund

China is a huge contrast to Japan, and made me appreciate the country I’m currently living in, while enjoying a holiday in an exotic place.

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The delicious tea

We started off with spending a couple of days at Diana’s place, which is on the eastern outskirts of Shanghai, near a huge lake, and¬†is a bit of a resort. Diana took us to a nearby ancient town called Zhujiajiao, otherwise known as the Water Town. It features a large area filled with thousand-year-old houses, currently used for a bustling market. Immediately I was submerged in foreign scents, and amazed at all the fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen before. We rested in a tea house that served chrysanthemum tea with actual flowers floating inside, and it was probably the best I’ve ever had.

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Just another mind-blowing view

Central Shanghai was nothing like Diana’s serene childhood home. People often think of Tokyo as a futuristic city, but they’ve clearly never seen Shanghai! Never before have I been surrounded by such a crazy range of shapes and heights of buildings. It’s breathtaking just walking around the centre. English colonialism also left a mark, so walking near the river takes you past a building that makes you feel like you’re in Liverpool. There is some Soviet architecture scattered here and there as well. Somehow it all works together as an amazing city with a truly unique feeling about it.

The city centre is pretty small and you could cover it on foot, though we greatly benefited from the cheap tour bus that takes you to all the key places. You know the one: the red double-decker you can see in most cities around the world. It was absolutely useless as a source of information, because the recording was boring and glitchy; however, we got to ride around for free for 48 hours which was convenient. Alternatively, the underground is one of the cheapest I’ve ever been to, and easy to navigate.

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One of the tea houses in the area

One of the highlights was definitely the Chenghuang Miao Temple and Yuyuan Garden. Both are wonderful landmarks based in the same touristic area. The temple was big and impressive, full of people who came to pray to the various gods. The garden was simply stunning: artificially designed half a millennium ago, it is still full of natural features, and feels like a romantic, fairy-tale maze. Definitely the place I would recommend visiting the most in Shanghai.

We spent lots of time simply eating, which is what most people recommend to do in China anyway. They’re not wrong. The food is often delicious and very varied, making you appreciate the differences between the cuisine of the many regions of China. I did rather suffer as a vegetarian though. Practically every time I ordered a dish that was supposed to not¬†have meat in it, I would still get bits of meat. Also, every restaurant in China seems to have an official statement about the place’s cleanliness, on a scale of “happy face”, “frowny face”, and “angry face”, and only very few places had a “happy face” rating, which was worrying. I’m pretty sure several of our boys got a slight¬†food poisoning and were uncomfortable for days. People also talk about how cheap it is to eat in China, which is true for some places, but others have the same prices as London’s mid-range restaurants, which is way more expensive than the¬†food you can get in Japan and South Korea.

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The Water Town

One thing I’ve learned from my trips to South Korea and China: think twice about going on a group trip. I’ve travelled on my own to many European countries and felt lonely, so I thought it would be ideal to travel in a group in South East Asia. It certainly was safer. However, different people have different holiday habits, and we all ended up disagreeing about our agendas, which turned out unproductive. I still had a great time and only grew to love my friends more, but I also regret not being able to do the thing I usually prioritise when going to a new city: seeing as many cultural sites as I can. It is actually possible to have a perfect travel buddy, and I’ve met mine: it’s my partner Theo, and it works because we know each other very well and have the same holiday preferences. But unless you have a person like that, it might be worth the personal challenge to make your own way through a new place.

Still, China was wonderful, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The closest comparison I can make is maybe Russia. South Korea and Japan are both very different from China, and I’m very keen to learn more history about how that happened.

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Inside the Yuyuan Garden

3 days in Seoul (and the DMZ)

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Gyeongbokgung palace

I started out my spring holidays with a bang – by travelling to South Korea for a few days.

All these months I’ve been hearing a lot about a cheap airline many people living in Japan use. It’s called Peach and it’s a bit of a sham. Their normal prices are actually quite expensive, and the only way you can get a good deal is by subscribing to the website and waiting¬†for sales. But even with the sale prices I recently found cheaper tickets from other airlines. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this back in December when I booked my tickets to Seoul – oh well. The plane was averagely comfortable at least (unlike the dreadful Air China).

The area of Seoul we stayed in is called Hongdae and is famous as the place for young people to hang out, full of hostels, bars, and quirky shops. I’m glad we chose it, as well as the comfy hostel we stayed in – Able Guesthouse. In the evening, especially on weekends, you can walk down the main road and watch a dozen different wannabe Korean idols sing to groups of squealing girls. It’s surreal and hilarious.

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Creepy view of North Korea

The absolute highlight of the trip for me was also the first proper touristic thing we did: an organised trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) just north of Seoul, which was a 45 minute bus ride. It is the space between North and South Korea, a rather large piece of land, containing over 2 million landmines and more than 20 secret North Korean war tunnels, only 4 of which have been found so far. To this day, South Korean soldiers work in the area to keep looking for the tunnels and be prepared in case of attack. There are several tour companies you can go with; all of them are associated with the military. We used a half-day tour from a company called Koridoor, which was very helpful and cost us 36$ each.

The tour started at 8 am in central Seoul, from where they took us to the DMZ. We got some background information on the decades of war and tension between North and South Korea, and then we got to go down into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which left us only about 100 m from North Korea. It was a claustrophobic and sobering experience. From there we went to the Dora Observatory, to see a panoramic view of the border of North Korea. You can spot the fake villages, abandoned factories, and even some skyscrapers of the nearest city. At certain times of day both Koreas play music of their choice, and we got to hear a haunting melody emanating from behind the wall. After that we went to Dorasan station, which is a symbol of the hope of unification, because it would be the last South Korean station before a train would enter North Korea. We also got lunch which we paid a bit extra for: the traditional, delicious bibimbap (see below for me gushing about food). The tour concluded with a visit to the Imjingak Park, another symbol for peace, built on the place war prisoners were released after the Korean War. This was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, and I’m now a little bit obsessed with gathering information about North Korea, especially as the threat it poses grows with every day.

On a lighter note, the food in Seoul was incredible. It was very cheap compared to Japan, delicious, and most importantly for me – there were many vegetarian options! The only challenge was the spiciness, and on the very first day the three of us managed to thoroughly burn our mouths, but by the next day we were enjoying the food with a renewed enthusiasm. I’m a picky eater, but to my own surprise I ended up liking kimchi a lot! It’s a great snack while you wait for your main meal. My favourite dish is definitely bibimbap, which contains a pot of rice with fried vegetables, with a fried egg on top. Healthy and filling!

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In Bukchon

In terms of cultural tourism, we managed to go to Gyeongbokgung palace, where we got a free tour from an extremely smart 14-year-old Korean boy, which lasted a whole hour, as the place is huge and bursting with history. We also visited Jongmyo Shrine, which is a World Heritage site, that to this day performs ancient imperial rituals. My favourite was the Bukchon village – it’s an area between two palaces, full of ancient houses that people live in to this day, and is simply stunning. Also many Koreans wander around the centre in the traditional clothing called hanbok, which grants them free access to palaces and shrines, and adds a special ambience to the city.

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Myeongdong

In contrast to historical sightseeing, we also did plenty of shopping. Seoul is famous both for cheap and bustling markets, as well as for high streets lined with fashionable shops. The market we popped into is called Insadong, where I got hold of many affordable souvenirs. Then we kind of went crazy about all the Korean beauty shops – which there are more of than any other kind of shop in the main shopping area called Myeongdong. My friend Nick had to buy an extra suitcase to carry all of his new possessions home… Again, stuff in Korea is cheap and great.

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Us, looking so happy and oblivious…

I also have a kind of embarrassing anecdote about the very first day there. In Korea barely anyone speaks English, much fewer people than even in Japan, so sometimes it was a challenge to get by. When Elena and I kept trying to catch a taxi to go to the Gyeongbokgung, the drivers just kept making an “x” hand gesture, but eventually one took us in… and ran into a wall of policemen. There was a protest! I love protests! So of course we joined, without any idea of what it was about. I figured something was suspicious when we only met fairly old Korean people… but they were so delighted to see us, random white girls, there, that they gave us blinding smiles and free flags and wanted to take pictures together. Once I got to the hostel and found wifi, I checked the news and… of course. I, the very liberal, politically engaged Maria, managed to stumble into a protest organised by the Korean Conservative party, in attempt to keep the corrupt President from impeachment. I’m still mortified. I really care about politics, ok? Moral of the story:¬†don’t join random protests. It’s probably about something dodgy.

I mentioned before that we took the taxi around town, and that was another amazing thing about Seoul. The taxis are extremely cheap! Sometimes cheaper than taking the underground,especially if you split between a few people. The underground is also not bad, has station names in Latin letters, pretty easy to navigate. Both Gimpo and Incheon airports have a dedicated underground line which makes it quick and easy to get there.

Well, this more or less sums up the frenzy that my 3 days in Seoul were. I was glad to go back to Japan by the end, it does feel like home after all these months.

Wrapping up the semester

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Last days with this class, as everyone will disperse around the university for next semester. I’ll miss them all!

Coming from England, the Japanese academic calendar is very confusing. Christmas is not a holiday, the year is divided into semesters and not terms, and it actually ends now – in February. The biggest holidays are about to start: mine are from this week, February 8th, and until April 6th. I get almost 8 weeks!

The longest holidays taking place over spring and not summer makes a lot of sense here in Japan. I only caught the tail end of the summer weather when I arrived in October, but even that was unbearable: hot, humid, rainy. Apparently in the summer the Japanese try to escape the heat by going on holiday¬†to nearby countries, and generally don’t like the season very much. In contrast, spring is famously the time to drink in the park, under blooming¬†cherry trees, with your friends and colleagues.

First I had to survive the end of the academic year though. Technically the year abroad results don’t matter to my final degree outcome as long as I pass. Also, this may be the end of the year for the Japanese students and some international students, but my real final exams for this year are not until July.

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Celebrating surviving the exams at an izakaya

However,¬†I’m used to trying hard in my subjects. I was panicking about kanji as usual, and the disappointed ¬†faces of my Oxford professors haunted me as I barricaded myself in my room to revise. Back in November I only got 38% in my kanji exam, and I was convinced that I was about to do even worse this time.¬†Spoiler alert: it turned out fine. After the November disaster¬†I came to terms with the fact that I’m just gonna have to put extra effort in, and created a huge Anki deck that I used every other day since November. Anki is a program perfect for creating your own flashcards or using other people’s decks, and I really recommend it. It paid off! I got 70% on this exam which I didn’t even dream of. ŤČĮ„Āč„Ā£„Āü…

Other than kanji, I had a grammar exam and a reading exam, and they¬†went smoothly. I also have until Friday to write two huge essays, which is not so good. One is in English, about travel and sacred spaces in Saigyo’s and Basho’s writing, and I’m enjoying the research immensely. The other I have to write in Japanese, and it will be about the history of the foundation of Nara – Japan’s first capital. I really missed writing essays, it’s what this year lacks for me compared to the Oxford course, though I wish I had more time for the research.

Finally, our class divided into groups of 3 to each give a 20-minute presentation on any topic. My group spontaneously decided to translate the 1999 Simpsons episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo”, which was actually banned from being shown in Japan, because it involves a scene with Homer throwing the Emperor of Japan into a used sumo thong bin. To an English person, a similar scene with the Queen would not be a big deal, but the Japanese are not used to dark or self-deprecating humour, and the faces of my Japanese teachers as they watched this scene during my presentation were priceless. We tried to explain the controversial Simpsons jokes and turned our little talk into a fun and successful discussion about cultural stereotypes.

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Desperately making memories with those who are about to leave

And that’s that for my first semester in Japan. It’s actually only been 4 months since I’ve arrived, but of course it feels both much longer and much shorter than that. I had to say goodbye to some of the wonderful friends I made who are going back home; I also got to encourage some Japanese and international students who are entering a new academic year or even a new course. There is an atmosphere of relief and exhaustion around the university; even the dorm parties have been quieter lately; it’s not unusual to see people in tears as couples formed here¬†are having to say goodbye.

But… it’s the long-awaited holiday time! Planning what to do with 8 weeks of freedom has been a painstaking process in itself, as there are costs, dates, and travel partners to consider. And at last, I’m off to Seoul in just three days! No kanji for me for a little while.

Guns N’ Roses in Osaka

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The guitar god himself

It was a Thursday morning, and I was sitting in class, trying not to doze off. I was flicking through my planner and noticed a note I left for myself ages ago: Guns N’ Roses were gonna be here in Kansai, on January 21st and 22nd. I knew about this from way back in November, but with all the Christmas plans it seemed ludicrous to spend so much money on a gig. Now it was January, I just got a fresh instalment of my JASSO scholarship…

So I went ahead and bought a 19,000 yen (¬£131.50) ticket to see one of my favourite bands. Two days away from the show. I’ve never spent so much money on a gig or bought a ticket so spontaneously, so I was shaking all day.

I’m no stranger to going to rock gigs back in England. I’ve been with friends¬†and alone, and always queued for hours outside of the venue, to stand in the very front rows and get squashed by the mob, struggling to hear the band play. I love that kind of stuff once in a while. But I also heard that Japanese rock gigs are very, very different. My former guitar teacher is in a rock band and they toured Japan before, and came back confused: the crowd is very welcoming, but eerily quiet, dutifully clapping at the end of a song, and making no move to start a moshpit. This may not be so weird to a pop music fan, but it’s far from what you experience at an English rock gig. So I researched and tried to psych myself up for a different kind of show.

And different it was. I went to the one on the 21st in Osaka, and the very first strange thing for me was that doors opened at 4 pm. Apparently that’s the thing with Japanese gigs: they either start early enough to finish before the last train, i.e. midnight, or, if it’s a club night, then they will start at midnight and go on until the first trains start running. It makes sense and I really didn’t want to sit in a McDonald’s until 6 am waiting for the first train, but it also felt weird to go to a gig so early.

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The view was pretty decent despite how huge the venue was

The venue was Kyocera Dome, and it was awesome. It’s a huge complex of shops and restaurants, normally used for the extremely popular baseball games, though many concerts also take place there. I assumed my ticket was for non-assigned seats so I got there as early as I could (around 4:30 pm, no thanks to confusing rail lines), and discovered I actually had a seat number. So I jealously stared down at the tiny area designated for standing (most of the ground floor was seated), and went to wander around the venue. The merchandise cost¬†slightly ridiculous amounts, such as 1500 yen (¬£10) for a poster.

In fact, the¬†concert ticket prices in Japan also really surprised me: they all cost between 10,000 yen-20,000 yen (¬£70-140) on average, including small and lesser-known bands. In the UK I paid maybe ¬£40 to see the fairly popular¬†30 Seconds to Mars at the London O2 venue; but such legendary bands as Guns N’ Roses would cost upwards of ¬£150 for the cheapest ticket. So Japan charges too much for small bands and surprisingly little for very popular bands. I guess I got a good deal. Oh, and standing tickets bizarrely cost more than seating ones, though it’s not so often that there is a standing area at all, it seems. Also, the ticket selling system looks¬†very convoluted, where you have to either go to a convenience store at the exact time the tickets go on sale, or pay to join a fan club, or be lazy like me and grab a ticket off viagogo.com for a slightly higher price.

The show started exactly on time, at 6 pm, and the opening act was Babymetal. It’s a Japanese band where some speed metal is mixed with a bunch of girls dressed up in gothic lolita style, singing pop songs. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend checking them out. I couldn’t stop laughing through the 5 songs they played, in a good way. For many Japanese people this is a hugely important band and half the crowd seemed to be there as much for Babymetal as for Guns N’ Roses.

Guns N’ Roses were also surprisingly punctual, considering their reputation. They came on maybe 40 minutes after the warm-up act. Then again, their recent reunion with Slash seems to symbolise more focus on the quality of the performance, and less on the rock-star reputation. All I can say about the show itself is: this was the best rock performance I’ve ever been to, and my only regret was that I wasn’t downstairs with the standing crowd. The audience was not as bad as I expected, there was some movement in the crowd, and many of the people in seated areas stood and eagerly clapped along. By the end of the gig there was even a bunch of drunk young¬†men swinging around a bottle of Suntory Whisky and yelling standard concert chants¬†down at the band. It was a good atmosphere, which was very much thanks to the band’s electrifying presence. And, as my friend John said, towards the end you just kind of sit there thinking “and here goes Slash again, doing a solo that shouldn’t be humanly possible without breaking a sweat”.

After that people quickly dispersed, some probably to off to clubs to continue the party, others to get trains home. It was a great time and I don’t regret a single penny I spent on the ticket, though I don’t have much interest in going to another concert in Japan. Getting a ticket is just too much hassle; the atmosphere for the rock gigs is also not quite as intense as in England. Definitely an experience worth having though!

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 3)

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Ueno

It’s almost the end of January, but I’m back with some more anecdotes from my trip to Tokyo.

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Meiji Jingu

On the third day of the trip I managed to pop into another famous Tokyo shrine: the Meiji Jingu. It’s quite a contrast to Senso-ji, because it was founded as recently as 1920. It is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912. Unfortunately, the temple was partially destroyed in the Tokyo air raids during World War II, but it has been rebuilt in 1958. Meiji Jingu is the go-to shrine for famous foreign visitors, such as George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and many others. I loved that the shrine was surrounded by woods, so that you feel separate from the bustling city, and can find a bit of peace and quiet for a change. Well, aside from when it’s January 2nd and hundreds of people are visiting the shrine, creating a crowd akin to those at a pop concert… still, it was a very pleasant visit.

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Takeshita Street

Leaving Meiji Jingu, it takes about a 10 minute walk to get to the polar opposite of the shrine:¬†Harajuku, and especially Takeshita Street. It’s Camden Market multiplied by ten and injected with a heavy dose of crazy Japanese fashion! Think ‘kawaii’ cuteness, gothic lolita, and cyberpunk shops side-by-side. Again, the crowd was crazy, but I loved seeing some of the trippy stuff in Harajuku, and got to try the famous pancakes (I got the chocolate and banana ones and definitely recommend it).

In the same day we managed to pop into an area of Tokyo similar to London’s Brick Lane: Shimo-kitazawa. It’s full of trendy second-hand shops and hipster cafes. We got there after sunset, so shops were already closing, but still spent some quality time browsing around. I wouldn’t prioritise this place as a thing to see in Tokyo, but if you have the time it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Koto demonstration

On the 3rd of January I popped into the Edo-Tokyo museum and got lucky because it was open for free that day. Most Japanese museums charge a small entry fee, though some prices, like that of the Samurai museum, are quite steep. The museum itself is charming and full of explanations in English and reconstructions of all sorts of things like a kabuki house. There was also a koto music demonstration! I was really impressed because most visitors were Japanese, which is not something you see in European museums: those are normally full of tourists, whereas here in Japan the locals seem to be more active in going to galleries and museums.

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Pokemon Paradise

By this point I caught a mean cold, courtesy of my friend who brought it all the way from England, but still managed to walk around Tokyo and enjoy the city itself. I spent some time in the two famous ‘otaku’ (pop culture fan) areas: Akihabara and Ikebukuro. I mentioned in a previous post that Akihabara is more male-oriented, with maid cafes and adverts featuring anime girls in suggestive poses. Ikebukuro did indeed seem to have more host clubs (mostly female-oriented establishments where you pay for chatting and drinking with an attractive male), and anime goods from more girly shows.¬†I also had a quick look at the Pokemon mega-centre in the Sunshine City shopping centre, which was lots of fun.

John’s aunt was kind enough to take us out to a shabu-shabu restaurant at some point, which turned out to be a fantastic time. Shabu-shabu is a partially self-serving dish, where you get a hotpot and some broth, and then you mix and match meat and vegetables that you want to cook. Finally, as a vegetarian, I got to eat a delicious meal without any trouble! I had my separate veggie broth and revelled in lots of tofu, mushrooms, and greens. Certainly a recommended experience.

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Ueno Park

I also visited the Tokyo National Museum. You can find it in Ueno Park, which is a giant area full of various museums and galleries, as well as a zoo. It’s the perfect place for family-oriented fun. As for the museum I went to, my nerdy self had a fantastic time, as some of the exhibits are directly relevant to the historical topics I learned about last year at Oxford. For example, they had a beautiful copy of the poetry collection Kokin Wakashu from the 12th century, which is a particular interest of mine. There was even some pottery all the way from the pre-Japan time, the Jomon era, which took place around 10,500-300 BC!

On my way from Ueno I popped into Ameya Yokocho, a shopping area that was recommended to me many times. Maybe it was the setting sun, or my persistent cold, but I didn’t really get why Ame Yoko is included in every tourist guide. It’s a place full of somewhat suspicious little stores selling cheap goods; there was also a food market. I guess it might feel more authentic than the polished feel of most of central Tokyo, but I’d rather spend time in the ‘false’, futuristic and pretty Tokyo. After all, if I want dodgy little Japanese shops, there are plenty of those in Kobe!

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Busy-busy Shibuya

My final stop before going home was Shibuya. If you picture Tokyo in your mind, you probably think of that famous giant crossing, surrounded by LED screens with endless adverts. That’s the one in Shibuya. Shibuya is An Experience. It is indeed full of people madly dashing across the road, which was interesting to be part of. There are lots of Western shops there, but I was more curious about Japanese fashion. I went to the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre, full of female-oriented stores (it has a male-oriented counterpart next door). It was terrifying. Whenever you go into a Japanese store you get accosted with repeated shouts of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome); but it was multiplied by the fact that early January is the time of mega-sales here. The more they yelled at me, the faster I backed away from the shops… There are around 12 floors in Shibuya 109, full of clothes, shoes, and make-up. Prices range from affordable to ridiculous. Unfortunately, I’m still disappointed in Japanese fashion: you either get exactly the same kind of sweater and blouse across all the different shops, or you stumble into an overly frilly-and-lacy store glorifying the image of a young girl. Yes, oriented at middle-aged women. I don’t really get the hype around this stuff. Shopping in Japan still feels like a hellish experience, even though back in London it’s an activity I do with gusto. Oh well.

And that was about it for my time in Tokyo. It was an intense week full of fun and happy moments. Tokyo is huge and there is so much more to see, but I think I got a good feel of the city. It is and isn’t what I dreamed of for all those years. Tokyo has many quirks and is a vibrant place to live in. It’s also a typical¬†city, and those who live in it complain that it’s too large and too expensive. The same thing can be said about London, I guess. A capital city is often fun to visit but hard to live in. I’m looking forward to coming back to Tokyo for some more sightseeing, but also I’m really glad that I actually live in Kobe – a much less stressful place surrounded by nature!