Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo12th May 2012
When the pilot came over the tannoy at 3:30 this morning, pleased as punch with himself to tell us that we were going to arrive into Tokyo Haneda airport 40 minutes early, I must be honest and say I did not share his glee. I think arriving in a strange city at 0420 is never a good thing, no matter how early the flight is landing!
Anyway, land we did. You would think at this time in the morning that it would be quick to pass through immigration... no chance! I suppose it was only a ten minute wait – but by this time I was irritated, particularly with the people at the head of the queue, who seemed to forget why they were there, and not move to the next window as promptly as I would like. I realise I am now Swiss!
Once through the formalities, we found an information desk, which offered bus, train and hotel information, and we asked about tickets to Asakusa, where our hotel is located. The lady at the desk looked slightly startled and ran off to find a folder with information in it. After much rustling of maps and sheets filled with Japanese script, she asked us for 600 yen each, and went off in another flurry of activity. Eventually she produced two of the tiniest train tickets I have ever seen, gave us information (which proved to be wrong) about the next train, and scuttled off. Perhaps she didn't really work there??
We each had a cold coffee (didn't mean to have it cold, that's just how it was, and we couldn't argue with a vending machine – although clearly I had a go!)
We returned to the railway station to catch the phantom train that we'd been told went directly to Asakusa from Haneda. I do still believe that this train exists (I spent about 20 minutes later in the journey trying to make sense of the “trainline” which has more branch lines and limited express sections than the Northern Line in London) but it was not going to show up just for us!
So, we caught a train to Shinagawa, where we needed to change. At this point, we became Gaijan magnets. One particular American couple stuck to us like glue. And they were irritating. The bloke had “researched the journey from Haneda to Narita carefully on the internet because I didn't want us messing around in Tokyo, and with all this luggage?” He was right – there was a lot of luggage. I was starting to think, even though he was annoying, maybe I could forgive him, because he was old. The next thing he said puts him in the category of legends we have come across in our travels. “I tried to hire us a rickshaw – but they said they didn't come out to the airport”.... Now, I've just checked on Google Maps – Narita is at least 50 miles from Haneda, and I think that route includes motorways. Poor rickshaw driver!
We reached Shinagawa quite quickly, and carefully avoided sitting anywhere near rickshaw man and his charming wife. Shinagawa station was busy. Our platform was relatively quiet, but the opposite platform was heaving. Let's just remember, this is at 6:30 am on a Saturday morning. There was a higher density of hard hats than of Gaijan. So why were Mike and I perpetually surrounded by people speaking english? Rickshaw and wife followed us up the platform shouting about their need to get to Narita, whilst the platform guard ran away from them also shouting – but he had the benefit of a loud hailer, which meant he was roundly more successful in the shouty stakes. We dodged them, only to come face to face with a bunch of four fat Americans.
The train to Asakusa was busy, but not horribly so. I resent that the train driver believed it was too busy to allow me to sit down on one of the foldy out chairs near the doors. (the chairs seemed to be locked in an upright position because of the crowds. Bad form!)
On the train there were a remarkable number of people who seemed able to just fall asleep where they stood. I think it is a national skill that is probably mostly hereditary. However, no matter how completely asleep they may appear, they all jump up as soon as the train stops in their chosen station (or they are all very good at hiding their disappointment at missing their station!)
One girl surprised both Mike and I by appearing to be the source of the stench of gin throughout the rail carriage. She didn't look that drunk, but she certainly smelt it.
As the train pulled into Asakusa (well, probably about ten minutes earlier) I started trying to get my rucksack on my back (no mean feat, as it's quite heavy!) An elderly man who also had a (much smaller) rucksack pointed to Mikes bag and said “youw must have wery big rats”! (OK, he didn't, that was what Hatori-Hanso said in Kill Bill. Train man actually said “you have wery big bags”, but that's not so much fun, is it?)
In Asakusa, we navigated our way out of the station, heading towards Kaminari-mon Gate. We passed a couple of bamboo poles that had been tied together in a sort of arch. I decided this must be Kaminari-mon (one of the largest and most impressive gates in Tokyo). It wasn't.
We made our way to the Ryokan Asakusa Mikawaya Honten with very little help from me. On arrival we were delighted by two things. Firstly the receptionist spoke English and secondly, our room was ready! One thing that made me unhappy was that we were permitted to wear our shoes into the hotel.
The room is small. I think it is a 5 tatami mat room (which is quite large). There is room for Mike, me and one rucksack or me and two rucksacks. It's a shame, but I think Mike is comfortable sleeping in the hallway. The room feels a bit like being Alice in wonderland. Even the door is miniature.
After a shower, Mike and I had a little kip, with the TV tuned to a twenty-four hour cookery programme. Remarkably, we were both able to sleep quite well through the incessant babble. I know we could have turned the TV off, but the remote was out of reach (that is really remarkable in a room this small!) and after an unresolved argument about who opened the window, and who let the cat out, we both just learned to live with it.
At about 9am, we ventured out into Asakusa. Now, we have stayed in this area (and we thought for a short spell perhaps this Ryokan – but now think not) the first time we were in Japan. We already have a lot of photos of the temple at the end of the street – but we went back and took more photos anyway – but none of the classic temple view. If you want to see them, we shall have to revert to a more conventional photo album (remember, when we used to take photos with film, and have them developed, before carefully arranging them in a real life book!)
We left the temple complex, and made out way up the very busy Nakimanki-dori (spelling?). This street is lined with all sorts of shops selling assorted crap that you never knew you needed until you saw it (typical tourist area). I avoided the need for a kimono, umbrella with a handle shaped like a panda's head, ANY of the food (more on this later), mobile phones, charms to attach to your mobile phone, hello kitty trinkets, and finally an orange hat, which I confess, I did nearly succumb to.
After another kip, we ventured out in search of lu-inner (lunch & dinner combined). I had decided that I wanted tempura (what's not to like? Battered and deep fried everything! It is just possible that there is a tempura restaurant here that specialises in deep fried mars bars). We found a nice looking place, and, despite the restaurant showing no signs of English (even the numbers of the prices in the window display were in Japanese) we went in... to find that one of the waitresses was fluent in English, and they had an English menu.
After we had finished our tempura (which was very good – again, how could it not be?? deep fried stuff??) I got chatting to the waitress, who told us that this is a famous soba bar.... brilliant, we had just eaten the thing they were least proficient at! I also learned a new word – suki – meaning it's good or I liked it. I felt somewhat coerced into using my new word to express my appreciation of the food (although it was good, and I did like it!)
After dinner, in an attempt not to go to bed at 5pm, we went for a walk along the river, where I took a crazy number of photos of the SkyTree. I may use them unpredictably over the next few days. I quite like this one though – a reflection in another building.
There was a path all the way along the river, which was pleasant. There was, however, a shortage of benches to my mind. Eventually we found a cool bench, however. It was part of an art programme. There was also a camera obscura through which you could see a bad image of the SkyTree. Don't know what value this gave you really, as the Sky Tree was clearly visible straight across the river.
Anyway, the bench. See, I was being practical. I just wanted to sit somewhere in the sun and journal. Unfortunately, my bench was viewed by the local children as more of a climbing frame. This is Mike sitting on the bench, you can see why the kids thought they had climbing frame rights. Anyway, after a mini war, Mike managed to drag me from my perch, and we wandered slowly back to the Ryokan.
We found another spot in the sun to sit and journal, but it was very busy, and I kept getting distracted by things like these two children posing for a photo in front of... yep, you guessed, the SkyTree. Very cute. See, they learn to flick the v's from a very early age.
We headed back to the Ryokan, where I sat writing this, whilst Mike went for a (very slow) run. He blames the traffic lights.