Friday, September 16, 2005

I love Japan

Well I'm back from what has been a really amazing trip, and Japan has totally blown me away. I covered 20 parks and just under 70 rollercoasters in 12 days, quite a pace but not as tiring as other trips I've been on. On top of that I also made sure I did a ton of sight-seeing, either staying out late at night or getting up at the crack of dawn and seeing places before the coach left in the morning. I was really pleased with the amount that I got to see but I do have reasons to go back. Rather than write a boring day-by-day report, before I went out I had a list of missions that I'd like to try to do. Here is how I got on.

Buy a gadget from Akihabara.
This is the electronic shopping district in the North-East of Tokyo and the plan was to buy some gadget from there. The problem I had was that the itinerary didn't leave us enough time to get there when the shops were open. What I had to do was hit it in the evening and hope the shops would be open. At the start of the trip there were ads on the TV for both the new Gameboy Micro and the special edition white PSPs. As the latter had only been released in the UK a week earlier this would have been great to get. The other problem this threw up was that both were being released on the day before I flew back so if I was to get them it would be on the last night. So on the last night I jump the train and make my way up there. Alas when I go there all the big shops were closed but I did go for a walk and came across the strangest department store. A poster at the entrance showed 4 girls dressed as French Maids. It was only when I got to the top floor that I realised that was how the girls dressed. It was their work uniform, very weird, but cute ;) The shop itself was packed full of everything from the normal souvenirs to crash helmets, assorted manga to food. I managed to get my mother a Japanese Doll that she collects and myself a blue gameboy micro. The only PSPs I could find were in a gambling machine and I wasn't going to risk that. So 1 out of 2 wasn't bad.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Visit a Japanese Bath
One of the hotels on the southern coast had a spa next door with a discounted entry to hotel guests, so myself and a couple of friend decided to give it a go. There is a whole routine around baths which needs to be followed and I knew some of them but not all. You are not allowed to wear your normal clothes in one, you have to wear this robe and leave your shoes at the door; our robe was a rather girly looking sunflower design. The sexes are seperated which meant I had to say goodbye to the 2 women with us as they went off to their baths. You need to cover your modesty with a towel. We only realised this when watching the others who were naked; the norm for the locals but very strange to us Westerners. It took a lot of psyching up to proceed beyond this point. You clean yourself before you get in the bath. This is totally different to how we bathe in the West. In Japan the bath is for relaxing in. You have to scrub yourself down at this little stool/shower combo before getting in the bath. We had a selection of baths to try; a hot one, 2 warm ones (1 indoors and 1 outdoors), a freezing cold hot tub and a sauna. We thought there may have been a set order but watching the others showed this not to be the case. The sauna was especially hot. I'd made the mistake of going in with my glasses on and in about 30 seconds they were too hot to touch and were melting on my nose. We managed about 10 minutes in there before needing to escape. I managed to do the cold tub, my friend chickened out after dipping his foot in. Having swum in an Alpine lake before I was used to this. Oh, the other thing you don't do is submerge your head, there are big ladles that are used to do that. In all I think we spent about an hour in there and came away really relaxed and pleased that we'd managed to get the courage to do it.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Visit the Imperial Palace
This is situated in Ginza, the big shopping district in the East of Tokyo. Like a lot of the attractions it closes at 5pm so when I got to it, it was already closed. Most castles and stately places are lit up at night, not so in Japan; it was pitch black and I couldn't see anything but dark trees. Somehow I managed to get past the first line of security to the palace but was quite rightly turned away by the second.

MISSION FAILED

Visit the Meiji Shrine
This is the largest temple in Tokyo and is in the centre of the city. To get here I had to get the first train of the day up there and then get back before the coach left for a park at 7 a.m. It was really strange being out and about so early but as I got to the temple it was nice to see locals on their way to pray. I didn't intrude in their prayers and I made sure I gave the place the respect it deserved. The place is magnificent and has a lovely calming feeling around it. Large Tori gates lead the way to it and they're impressive on their own. A large tree in one corner of the courtyard was covered in blessings that would be read by the monks later that day. The prayer process seemed to consist of washing your hands and mouth at the entrance then making your way to one of several temples in the complex to make the prayers. Candles can be lit or coins dropped into wells.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

See a Sumo match
There were preliminary tournaments taking place in Tokyo while we were out there but I was unable to get a ticket for one. I ended up watching some of it on the TV back at the hotel, which is a cop-out really. That is now different from watching it at home. There seem to be a lot more foreigners in the sport than I recall too.

MISSION FAILED

Play some bemani games
These are video games that don't rely on joysticks to control but have the player dancing, playing the guitar, hitting drums etc.. I was supposed to have a DDR challenge with another club member but quite surprisingly the number of machines was quite small. The most popular bemani game was one that involved banging Japanese Drums. This was quite a lot of fun. Very straight forward to play; you either hit the drum or the rim, softly or hard in time to the signals on the screen. We nailed the easy levels quite quickly but medium and hard were much more of a challenge. By the end of the trip I could drum to "Toxic" by Britney Spear's quite well. The strangest bemani game I played was a martial arts exercise game where you had to copy the moves on the screen and your moves were picked up by infra red beams. When they kicked, I had to do the same. It soon got very tiring.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Play Pachinko
DDR isn't commonplace in Japan, Pachinko is. It's a sort of weird gambling game that involves shooting metal balls into a hole which reward you with more balls if your aim is good. Once you have amassed a lot of balls you can then trade them in for a trinket which you then take elsewhere for a proper prize, or cash (this gets around the law that says gambling is illegal). When we were staying in Osaka there was a parlour across the road, which as you approached was very quiet but as soon as you opened that door - CHING CHING CHING CHING CHING CHING. It was the loudest place I think I'd been in. I have no idea how people can stay in there for any length of time and looking at how some players had crates of balls piled up it's obvious some of them had been there a while. I didn't see any of them wearing ear plugs either. So I had a quick game and was rubbish at it, primarily because I didn't want to give myself any reason to stay in there longer than I needed to. A shame though as the girls who worked there were wearing a really sexy blue outfit.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Go to a Japanese nightclub.
Before going out to Japan I did a lot of research into the nightlife that Tokyo had to offer and my aim was to hit at least one club whilst out there. This never actually materialised. A friend who had been to Roppongi on the first night said it was a bit seedy and full of westerners. The trip was supposed to be about immersing myself in a new culture so the last thing I would want to do is spend it in the company of some drunk ex-pats. The place is also full of hawkers trying to get you into their venues which made it sound like San Antonio in Ibiza or Magaluf. In the end I decided not to bother going, and to be honest I'm pleased as I got to see a lot more of the city instead.

MISSON FAILED

Sleep in a capsule hotel.
This didn't happen for 2 reasons; firstly the plan had been to do it after the club as there were plenty of them in the Roppongi area. Secondly the hotels we were staying in were amazing, and easily amongst the best hotels I've ever been in. I was quite happy where I was. I've never been in a hotel that offered a selection of 5 different pillows including one that was extremely heavy; great for hitting your room mate when he snores.

MISSION FAILED

Go up the Tokyo Tower
The Tokyo Tower looks like a red Eiffel Tower and offers some great views of the city. A group of us decided to do this on the first night as a welcoming to Tokyo. The viewing galleries are in 2 parts. You pay money to go most of the way up an from there you can then pay more to go to the higher viewing gallery. It was here that we noticed that dating plays a big part of teenagers' lives in Japan. They really go into the courting thing, impressing the girl by taking her to places like the tower.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

...to be continued
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