George Carter
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Japan ’08 – Day 2

| Sunday 20th July, 2008

“Oh my god, I can’t believe it!” said H, “I’ve never been this far away from home!”

Today was the day to venture out. See Tokyo. Feel the heat and humidity. Hear the dentist-drill insects in the bushes. Contrast the rush of the city streets with the peace of the gardens.

Onto the lovely Yamanote line for a trip around the north of the loop to Hamamatsucho station. On the way, we passed 鶯谷 Uguisudani station. It was here that my Japanese really came to the fore…

tani – 谷 is an easy character to recognise… it means valley.

uguisu – 鶯 is not a character I’ve ever seen before. However, it’s made up of elements I recognized… two hi 火, or ‘fire’ characters on top, then a lid, then a tori 鳥 or ‘chicken’. Uguisudani is therefore the valley of the flaming chicken sheds. Easy!

[editor’s note: more on “uguisu” right here]

The platform tones around the north end of the loop were notoriously samey – it wouldn’t be until later days, we’d enjoy the delights of The Third Man at Ebisu, the one with tubas somewhere, and other such fun.

From Hamamatsucho it was a short, but slightly confusing walk to the Hama Rikyu garden. The Japanese really don’t do “north”, and any map you care to look at could generally be oriented in any direction. They do always point out which way you’re facing on a “you are here” note, though.

The garden, the first of many, was an oasis of calm within the bustle of the city. Trees around the edge cut most of the traffic noise, and water, rocks and plants are all used artistically to create a wonderful ambience.

Even the looming skyscrapers around the perimeter fail to dent the tranquility of the garden. In fact, in a way they accentuate it.

After an hour or so enjoying the peace, it was back into the city to our first temple. In this case, the Zojoji temple in Shiba park. Proximity to a Japanese temple can be determined in two ways:

  1. The smell of incence, gently drawing the passer-by to pause reflectively on the country’s most holy ground.
  2. The surfeit of souvenir shops, peddling tat.

Zojoji was big on number 1 and low on number 2. Other temples and shrines varied in their proportions.

One particularly poignant part of the temple contains Jizo statues – a deity appointed as a guardian to children, particularly those who die before their parents. There were hundreds of statues, each representing a still-born or aborted child…

Looming over the temple is the Tokyo tower – a replica of the Eiffel tower, except for being 30 metres taller and being painted in the Japanese ‘tall structure’ regulation red and white. Views from the top were amazing… Tokyo went on in all directions for as far as the eye could see. Of course, this was helped by the 98% humidity and smog, meaning that the eye could see only approximately two miles. The sign above the window promised a view of Mount Fuji, a mere 97km away…

…and it was here that we were reminded that Japan is very active tectonically. A seismograph is not exactly what you want to see when umpteen metres in the air…

We had a rest stop at our hotel, the wonderfully informal, yet comfortable Sakura Ikebukuro (I realise I haven’t mentioned that yet), then went out for dinner.

After the failure of Strategy I last night, we decided on Strategy II – to go to a Japanese place where we don’t have to speak Japanese; the Vending Machine Restaurant. These things were all over the place, and theoretically very simple. Look at the plastic food in the window and find something that looks ok…

It looked like pork, so I turned to the guy next to me who was also perusing the window, and asked “すみません、これは豚肉ですか” (roughly translated to “Ixcuse may… iz zis pork?” (I’m simulating my assumed bad accent here), to which he replied “Yessu. Rawst park.” and entered. We followed them inside.

Once inside, having noted either the squiggly symbols on your dish of choice, or more likely the number written in a circle next to it, you approach the vending machine, deposit your cash, and press the appropriate button.

An electronic voice speaks the order in the kitchen on the other side of the establishment and gives you a little ticket. What could be easier? We reached the counter handed our tickets over to the chef, who inquired…

“cn23$toeiGFmtpoeitu43908,503-498fux03149u-=45£$%EROI£Rd23?”

Or he might as well have done. I can speak my limited Japanese quite nicely, but understanding an unsolicited query at a million miles per hour is another thing.

Luckily, our new roast pork friend translated for us… apparently, there’s a choice of two types of noodle (soba or udon). There’s also the choice of hot or cold noodles.

Anyway… what arrived looked – and tasted – pretty good…

Neither of us are slouches with chopsticks, but it was here that we realised the Japanese generally do not do food. It’s a minor inconvenience to be got out of the way as quickly as possible. In the, maybe, ten minutes we were eating, countless people came, slurped and gulped, and left. Later we would see “Standing Sushi Bars” where you don’t even have to waste time sitting down to eat.

After our dinner, it was off back to the station. We bumped into an Irish bar, and decided to give it a go. It was very… un-Irish. They did Guinness, of course, but the atmosphere was very unlikely. There was a waiter almost hovering most of the time waiting to see if we wanted another drink, or maybe some Bantry Bay mussels. We didn’t.

After a pint each, we set out, once again, for the station. We bumped, once again, into a pub. This time, the Hobgoblin. Exactly the same chain we go play table football in nearly every Thursday night. However, it was getting late, and we could always save it for another day. This turned out to be a GOOD MOVE™

A long, long time ago, we decided that it was always a good idea to go for that last extra drink. The reason being that if we hadn’t, we would have been involved in a rather unfortunate stabbing incident right outside our house rather than arriving shortly after it was all over.

That idea was well and truly quashed tonight, but we didn’t know this yet. We walked past the Hobgoblin to Shibuya station, leapt on the wonderful Yamanote line and started heading towards home.

On arriving at the ever-amusingly-named Takadanobaba station, we noted that there didn’t seem to be much around this station and we were glad we weren’t getting off here.

The train remained in the station for slightly longer than the usual 27.4 seconds and an announcement came over the tannoy…

“rJHTAnmPoYer8983498r felkj34 f3lj4k2£$R VDF^%ERWF sdf vvdff43f4^EG!*TRET(ER*VCCf werwe fg”, he said.

Some people left the train.

We waited.

Another announcement…

“RbvsheWER8983498r FELKJ34 F3LJ4K2£$R VDF^%ERWF SFD VV SDFF43F4^EG!*TRET(ER*VCCf WERWE FG”

Everyone else left the train.

We picked up the gentle hint and left the train. Going down the steps of the station, we discovered an information board, stating:

“YAMANOTE LINE SUSPENDED”

We were stuck – luckily only two stops from home – in the middle of Tokyo, in the middle of the night with no map. Had we had that extra drink, the rail line would have broken while we were seven stops from home.

I did my best to keep my brain oriented with the direction we had been brought in to the station, and we went adventuring through the backstreets. Half-following the rail lines (and noting the split where another line went in completely the wrong direction for us), half using street maps which, while accurate, gave no idea of the big picture, and half using our wits alone. It was like exploring the jungle, but in the middle of a city. Fortunately, Tokyo is a very safe place, and at no point did we feel in any peril.

I think it took about 40 minutes to find our way back, not too bad, really, and when we arrived back, the reasonably-priced hotel bar was, fortunately, still available.

A lucky escape, and one of many times on our trip when we NEARLY DIED!


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