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

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!

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 2)

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Second gate to Senso-i

The New Year’s Eve was intense for me and my friends, ¬†9 young adults struggling to move or do anything the morning after. Some didn’t even make it out until sunset.

But in Japan it’s more traditional to go to a temple in the morning or afternoon of January the 1st – to make prayers and celebrate the way we did at midnight. This is called¬†hatsumode,¬†and I found out just how many people follow it by visiting Senso-ji temple that day.

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Kaminarimon’s giant lantern

I’m a Londoner, and yet the crowd was still a total shock. In a very Japanese way, police officers directed¬†the crowd through crossings and passageways, creating currents of people. It was just Matt and I who made it all the way to see the temple, and we queued for a very long time to get to it. (Ha! British queuing is nowhere near as extreme as Japanese queuing!) Senso-ji is worth it though. It’s arguably the most important temple in Tokyo, famous for several reasons. For example, as you approach it, you come across a huge entrance gate called Kaminarimon,¬†¬†with a giant paper lantern suspended from it. More importantly, Senso-ji is an ancient temple, originally founded in 645 AD, though it has since been bombed and rebuilt. Once we finally made it to the temple grounds, Matt went to buy himself a new¬†goshuincho:¬†a book with plain pages, used for collecting stamps and calligraphy when visiting¬†a temple or shrine. These books cost around ¬£10, and each stamp is an extra ¬£2.50. It’s a wonderful idea and a memorable souvenir, so I enjoy looking through Matt’s collection (he’s almost finished his second book now!); though I decided that it was ¬†a bit pricey for me personally.

Senso-ji is located in Asakusa, which is an area of Tokyo that has for centuries provided entertainment, and is dotted with shrines. Today it is a very touristic place, full of restaurants and exciting shops that sell stuff from vintage toys to real katana swords. It was probably my favourite part of Tokyo.

In contrast to our visit to the temple, Matt and I headed off to the very modern area of Tokyo called Akihabara, to meet up with the rest of our friends. One thing let to another, and it was spontaneously decided that we would go to one of those famous maid cafes! Akihabara is the perfect place for this purpose, as its many shops are aimed at male fans of pop culture, whereas Ikebukuro caters more to a female audience, and offers butler cafes instead. (Unfortunately, LGBT+ is hardly recognised in Japan even today, so it’s almost exclusively hetero culture that makes it into pop media).

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Posing with Yurari-chan. Note “Licence of your majesty”

All I can say is… it was the cutest nightmare ever. We went to a cafe called “@home”, and queued for a little while. Most of the other patrons were middle-aged men who came alone, specifically to chat with the cute young maids. This surprised me, as I expected the maid cafe concept to be more of a tourist attraction, rather than a real cultural phenomenon. The food and drink was unsurprisingly¬†expensive, but each of us got a set that consisted of a drink, a dessert, and a picture with one of the maids, which turned out to be a reasonable price (I think it was around ¬£15-20). Not everyone in our group spoke Japanese, and the cafe offered good service in English. All of the women were dressed up in cute and quirky maid outfits, the kind you’d find in a Halloween shop. The women also spoke in high-pitched voices, acted over the top, and were noticeable trained in making it seem that they are interested in you. The guys were addressed as “master” and us girls were addressed as “princess”. The most awkward bit was probably when we had to make a “spell” to charge up our drinks with “moe power” (which is an anime-related term for having feelings for a fictional character, so the relevance was lost on me). To be honest, I felt weird and uncomfortable during the whole thing, and bad for the women working in the cafe. These women also have to take part in many photoshoots which are then sold to the primarily male customers. I could go on a much longer rant about why this whole maid/butler cafe concept is not very healthy, but instead all I will say is this: it was a wonderfully weird experience and I would definitely recommend it, even if simply for the feeling of utter bewilderment it offers.

This was just my second day in Tokyo, and yet I¬†was already overwhelmed with how different it is from the Kansai-region cities I’ve been to. 2017 sure started with exciting stuff.

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Yodobashi Camera: capitalist paradise and one of the most terrifying places I’ve been to

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 1)

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Breathtaking view from the Skytree

I’ve been obsessed with all things Japanese since I was about 10, and Tokyo of course was at the forefront of that obsession. I remember when I got to visit New York a few years ago, and it was a little underwhelming, because at that point I hardly cared about America – I was still spending my time watching and reading about Japan. So, even though Tokyo really is just another metropolis, it gave me many fuzzy feelings to simply walk around the concrete jungle, and to visit the areas I heard so much about. It sure made for a lovely New Year.

I will break writing about Tokyo into several posts, so that I don’t dump too much information on you in one go.

The trip started with the infamous night bus journey, the¬†cheaper alternative to the Shinkansen (bullet trains) that cost a small fortune. Taking the train from Osaka to Tokyo gets you there in about 4 hours, but it costs around ¬£300 for a return ticket, so that wasn’t an option for me. I booked a night bus ticket instead, which was still a bit pricey since I travelled during a peak period. It cost me around ¬£97, which made a huge difference to a student on a budget. And during the rest of the year they are even cheaper! Back in England I travel by Megabus quite often to visit my partner in the North of England, so I’m used to¬†a stuffy, smelly, cramped bus. Here in Japan I booked with Willer Express: the bus they provided was spacious enough, and I managed to get some sleep during the 10-hour journey. It was about 9 of us, all travelling by bus, and most of my friends found it comfortable enough to bear with, so I definitely recommend the night bus as an alternative to the bullet train.

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Tokyo Tower

Still, I was pretty delirious when I got off the bus at around 9 am, on December 31st, right at the bottom of the Tokyo Tower. We had to sit down for a coffee to let it sink in that finally, after all the anticipation, we were in Tokyo!

One of my classmates, called John, has an aunt living right in the centre of Tokyo, in Shinjuku. She was extremely kind (and brave) to let 9 young adults stay at her place for New Year while she was away visiting England, and I’m so grateful to her – hostels in Tokyo are unsurprisingly pricey! As we got there towards the afternoon, we all collapsed on the beds, the sofas, the floor… and had an indulgent nap. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and we needed energy to stay up.

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Mount Fuji over Tokyo

We managed to crawl outside before sunset, and spontaneously headed straight for the Skytree. Some statistics: the Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting and observational tower; the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest construction in the world; it is 634 m in height. It’s also a cheesy touristic destination, and although I normally avoid those, it was a surprisingly great thing to do. We got there just as the sun was setting, and discovered that the general queue for the 2000 yen tickets (¬£14) would take about 3 hours. Knowing that we wouldn’t have the time to come back, we decided to splurge for the fast-track tickets for 4000 yen (¬£28), which gave us access to the higher platform at 450 m, and I do not regret a penny of it. The view was breathtaking. We arrived at the top just in time to see the red glow of the setting sun frame mount Fuji, creating a sublime view. As the sky grew dark, I watched the various areas of Tokyo turn their lights on. I couldn’t have had a better introduction to the city. I think it was at that point, while counting the lit-up bridges (there must be over a hundred in Tokyo), and straining to see the edges of the metropolis, that I realised I already loved the city.

I would have stayed in the Skytree for longer, but, unfortunately, human beings have to eat. We regrouped with our friends and headed to the nearby part of Tokyo called Asakusa, and picked a presentable-looking restaurant called Watami. As usual, I struggled to find a vegetarian dish, and had to do with a boring margherita; but the company and the wine made up for that.

Right next to the restaurant, it turned out, was Tokyo’s most famous temple: Senso-ji, and we tried to get in at around 11 pm. However, as we got momentarily distracted by some souvenirs, the queue to enter the temple grew so long that the street normally walkable in about 15 minutes was at a complete standstill. The Japanese have various traditions based around New Year’s Eve, some of which are to ring the large bells inside the temples after midnight, and to give prayers for fortune in the coming year. We had no chance to get into Sesno-ji to do that, so an urgent scout for a smaller temple was in motion.

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The temple from the outside

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View from the inside

We were successful just in the nick of time. I couldn’t possibly remember the name of the temple now, but it was gorgeous and welcoming, even though we were practically the only foreigners there. We were given numbered pieces of paper for the queue to pray, and mine was 92. Yup, this was a small, hidden temple, on New Year’s Eve – still very busy. I feel like it was quite an honour to take part in the prayers on such an important holiday for the Japanese, even though I’m not at all spiritual. When my turn came, I had to go up to the altar, bow, make a prayer, toss a 5 yen coin in for luck, and take a careful sniff of some incense. Then we were led through a maze-like layout deeper into the temple, where we queued to ring the giant bell, the vibrations of which I could feel down to my bones. I was tipsy, surrounded by friends, taking part in a beautiful spiritual ritual, and I was very intensely happy.

The magic wore off quite fast and the exhaustion caught up with us, so some headed home while others stayed¬†out to party. Luckily, Tokyo runs some of its metro lines all night on New Year’s Eve. Even though I more or less collapsed when I got home, it was undeniable that this was one of the best New Year’s Eves in my life.

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The large bell I got to ring!