George Carter
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Japan ­’08 – Day 1

| Friday 18th July, 2008

We learned about the Japanese and forms.

On the plane, we were handed a form to fill in, containing name, date of birth, passport number, a questionnaire on whether we were bringing swords, drugs or doubtful things into the country… if you’ve travelled outside the EU, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

We landed.

We were told that our forms were very nicely filled in, and now could we fill in another form with exactly the same information on, please, ‘k, thanks? Both were required.

Then to the extremely friendly and welcoming immigration desks. They even took our pictures so they could remember how much fun it was meeting us. Baggage reclaim, customs and into the arrivals hall without a hitch.

Here’s where we could exchange our “Japan Rail Pass Exchange Order” for a “Japan Rail Pass”. Once we’d filled in a couple of forms. The pass was already paid for, and had all our details on. We just had to fill out a couple more forms with the same information on. Transaction done, seats reserved on the Narita Express – Narita to Tokyo in 90 minutes – and out to the station.

Forms out of the way (and, indeed, I don’t think we encountered another form all trip thankfully) and in to Tokyo.

I was incredibly snap-happy with the camera – mainly because I was trying to convince myself that I was half-way round the world. It was all like a picture-book going past the train window… a five-storey pagoda here, rice paddies there, concrete jungles filled with electric wires, everything you expect from Japan.

And it still didn’t sink in. I was IN JAPAN! After about 15 years of wanting to go, I was HERE! IN JAPAN!

We disembarked from the train and followed the excellent directions to the hotel – addresses don’t work in Japan, so you have to have directions. En route, we walked past our first plastic-food shop; restaurants typically display plastic versions of their food outside in the window, so you can see what you’ll be getting when you enter.

We checked into our hotel, had a little rest and then went out in search of food.

The Japanese restaurants looked a little intimidating, so after a little wandering, we settled on a Mexican place. The food looked pretty familiar, so we thought it’d be a good bet. What we hadn’t thought of, naturally, is that if the proprietors are Mexican, and they’re in Japan, they probably won’t speak a word of English. This turned out to be the case.

But with pointing, miming, and my Japanese skills we managed to get fed and watered at reasonable cost, despite not quite understanding what the deal was with drinks and half-price food.

Now, Finland does not have a drinking culture. Sure, people go out for drinks, but the prohibitive tax curbs it somewhat.

Japan most certainly does have a drinking culture.

This particular Mexican place, hands you a complementary tequila on entry. You know how some places might hand you a menu, or a place-mat, well this place gave you a tequila.

In fact, whenever Japanese people came in (the majority of clientele), the chef would demonstrate how to do a tequila slammer.

H points out that it’s worth getting there early, since the food quality must deteriorate significantly as the evening draws on and the chef becomes more inebriated.

Another thing handed to us – as in every single establishment we visited – was a facecloth. Sometimes a proper terry-towelling one, sometimes a wet-wipe. Sometimes hot, sometimes not. “Facecloth” is a bad term, because we learnt that you should wipe your hands (and not your face) with the cloth, and keep it on the table (not your lap) for wiping fingers, mopping spills and so on. Very civilised.

After dinner, a hop on the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku and a night-time trip up to the 45th floor observatory of the Metropolitan Government Building.

I should talk about the Yamanote Line for a minute. It’s a one-hour loop around Tokyo, trains every two minutes, stations two minutes apart. It just works (well, I’ll elaborate on that in the Day Two report).

With our Rail Passes, travel on the Yamanote Line was free. Walk into the station, flash your pass to the manned gate, pick a direction, jump on train. The ease of travelling around Tokyo really helped to improve our trip.

Anyway… the Metropolitan Government Building was found through miles of underground tunnels from Shinjuku station (the busiest railway station in the world), the lift entered (with buttons for 1st, 2nd and 45th floors only), and Tokyo viewed from on high for the first time.

If you’ve seen Lost In Translation, you’ll remember the red lights on the corners of buildings. Rather than flashing, they smoothly fade on and off. Very hypnotic.

Worrying about the last train time, we headed back to the hotel around 11pm and went to sleep.

Day One. Success!

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