Scraping in on a little adventure and lucking out on my Tokyo airbnb host!
I spent a little over three weeks in Japan, flew in and out with Air China via Beijing. Beijing airport has a soft play area with a television that plays Tom & Jerry episodes (I spent all my time here). I have been through here before and the transit system is not the best. Make sure you have at least 2 hours between each flight to get through passports and security again!
The trip involved a sub trip South to an island owned by Japan called Okinawa (Jet airways for cheap internal flights), exploring the well-known cities such as Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, and Tokyo, skiing in Nagano, and white water rafting in Shikoku. The final stop on this trip was in Tokyo.
If planning to go to Japan, you need to book accommodation in advance, as it fills up quickly. If you’re not claustrophobic, I’d recommend a night in a “pod”. I’m sure you’ve seen the drawers that resemble coffins that people can climb in to sleep. It is certainly an experience.
When: April 2015
Where? Tokyo, Japan
With whom? Alone
As mentioned above, it’s well worth booking accommodation in advance as hostels and lodges fill up very quickly. I looked in February on the usual www.booking.com and hostelworld.com, but alas, everywhere was fully booked. I took to Airbnb and found a reasonably priced option in a good location, and I was excited about meeting the host, Hiroshi, who seemed friendly and was a student in Tokyo.
Tokyo is a concrete jungle rammed with people. Very few Japanese people speak English, and Japanese is so integrally different from any Latin-based language that it’s so difficult even to pick up numbers, especially as they tend to vary based on what you are counting. The lack of any thorough verbal communication, of course, makes for a very interesting experience. I arrived early in the morning on the shinkansen to the sight of masses of people squeezing themselves, and being squeezed onto other trains about to depart. There were people who had been employed to push the commuters into the train so that more can board! What would they put as their job title on their CV?
The metropolis is full of weird things: I had my heart set on a cat cafe, and if you are a person who remotely enjoys the company of cats then this should be at the top of your bucket list. I have frequently described my time in the cat cafe as the best hour and a half of my life. I bought tupperwares of cooked and shredded chicken which brought the kitties to me like a moth to a flame. They gave me affection and attention for as long as I had more food, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from a cat. If I had a cat I would name in Chairman Meow.
I have read that there is more of Tokyo to explore underground than there is above. Each metro station has miles of underground malls to explore where you can buy all things stationery, everything Disney, chopsticks with fans attached to them, butter graters, and square watermelons. What more could you want? It was in one of these malls that I found myself some okinomiyaki. All of my friends who had ever been to Japan and all of the travelers I had met whilst there had raved about this okinomiyaki, and the proceeded to describe it unconvincingly “it’s like an omelette..” I have to admit, I’m now a culprit of this too. It is like an omelette/pancake but there are more toppings than the stingy westerners will give you, and you can have anything you want as a topping, even an egg. It’s one of those things that have to be sampled, so put it on your bucket list right underneath the cat cafe.
From street level, it was difficult to appreciate the sheer magnitude of Tokyo, and I had read as much in my research pre-trip. The skytree is one of the many skyscrapers that make up the cityscape but towers at a whopping 634m above the ground, so as you can imagine, gives you an excellent panoramic view of the city. The grey expanse of buildings went on for miles, as far as the eye could see, all the way to the horizon. In every direction. Hopefully that gives you an idea of how stupidly big this city is. I timed my visit with sunset, so that I could see the city in the daylight, have a great vantage point to watch the sunset, and see the transformation of the grey plane into a city of bright lights.
Hiroshi, my wonderful Airbnb host, had invited me on a night out with his friends. I met him and his friends at a local restaurant near to where he lived in Shinjuku. It was very popular with the locals, and we ordered some snack bites to satisfy our hunger and umeshu, delicious local plum wine, to complement our food. We joked about the differences in culture; they were telling me all about how safe it is to leave your wallet on the table and pop to the loo, to return to find your wallet exactly as you left it. The group laughed about the Kanji symbols that constitute the Superdry tag line and how it means absolutely nothing; “jibberish”.
Our next stop was Shibuya, the main nightlife district. If you have more time, also check out Rapongi. Those of you who have ever used a diagonal crossing, Shibuya is from where it originates (there’s also one in Wimbledon)! The six of us piled onto the metro as the most efficient and reliable method to get around the city. When tubes/trains/buses/general areas are crammed full with people, it is always really unpleasant for me; I am 5ft1 or 155cm, AKA armpit height. If you want to make my life a little more enjoyable, please wear deodorant. As we stepped out of the metro station and into the busiest area I had ever seen, I stopped for a second to take everything in. We had entered the metro well after dark, yet now I appeared to be in broad daylight. The lights from the Shibuya lit up the street completely that you could be completely unaware of the time of day. There were advertisement boards, moving boards, and so many boards in Kanji and therefore illegible to me.
I was led by the group of friends who had kindly let me scrape in for the evening around the corner to KaraokeKan. We paid our cover charge and were ushered into a small pod with a table in the middle and TV screen lighting up one end of the room. We used the ipad in the middle of the table to select songs and took the microphone to sing our hearts out. Of course, we ordered more umeshu as well, all done via the ipad.
For a country full of people with very little knowledge of English, the people in it knew a lot of Western music that had been sung in English. When it was my turn to select the next song, I was worried: if they don’t know it, nobody is going to enjoy the next three minutes. Should I go for something modern? Something classic, surely they’ll know Queen? After much rushed deliberation I opted for Frozen, and I cannot express exactly how much this was a hit. Phew. With locals and tourists wailing along with the poorly translated lyrics I was glad that each karaoke booth was soundproof.
Info: I used www.airbnb.com to book my accommodation in Tokyo. This was because the rest was all booked out but it ended up working really well for me. I would recommend making sure you can communicate in some way with your host, as that way you might get taken on an adventure like I did. I went in March/April time, which is cherry blossom season. It’ shard to predict as it only lasts a few weeks and depends on the weather. I got lucky as the cherry blossom followed me up the country as I made my way North.
Product of the week: If you were unconvinced by square watermelons or chopstick fans, then I can recommend Therm-a-rest Trail Lite camping mat. It might seem like a weird recommendation on a post that involves no camping, but this made my night’s sleep much better on more than one occasion. If you’re invited to a home stay or are in certain hotels, it is not uncommon to have to sleep on the floor on bamboo mats. With the extra padding of the Therm-a-rest which takes a few puffs to inflate, is light and compact, my boniness was no longer digging into the hard floor.
Tip of the week: When travelling alone, I always make an effort to have a semblance of a smile on my face (normally it looks quite stern/grumpy), as I feel much more approachable that way and more likely to meet people!
Other places to visit nearby: One of the great things about Japan is its extensive public transport system. You can get almost anywhere very efficiently on a shinkansen, and it’s well worth investing in a JR pass, which gets you on most of the shinkansens for a one off fee (although even this is not cheap). If skiing is your game then head north to Nagano. Hokkaido is famous for snow but it is so far north and filled with tourists. Nagano had amazing powder and plenty of pistes with only a few hours to travel outside of Tokyo.
The Osaka skyline from Umeda Sky Building.
The Osaka skyline from Umeda Sky Building.
Osaka is a great city to visit: there’s plenty to do here too. It’s known for its whale shark in the Kaiyukan Aquarium. It was a baby when I went so it must be massive by now! There’s also a unique building called the Umeda Sky Building which gives you a fab view of the city.
Kobe was one of my favourite places. It noticeably feels smaller than the other cities but has a great feel to it.
I’ve been white water rafting a number of times but my favourite time was my first, in Japan. Shikoku is the island South of the mainland, and connected by a huge suspension bridge. Happy Raft was so much fun and Mark was fantastic at varying the day: we got out the boat and floated down one of the tamer rapids, jumped from tall rocks, played spinning games and did a wheelie. It was a fantastic day! The company also has guesthouses to stay, all bookable through their website!