An Education In Tokyo
If ever there was a trip years in the making it was this one. As part of my job, I have to continuously educate myself in an effort to keep up with an ever-evolving field, and how better to do it than at international conferences that combine my pursuit of further education with my love of international travel. Back in the Gold Coast, Australia in 2017, I learned about a future conference in Tokyo, Japan. I had fun dressing up in a sarong and posing with a ninja in front of a banner declaring the dates in 2019. I put the dates in my phone for future reference, eventually having the joy of booking my flights and securing the time off work. And yet I somehow booked the flight to Tokyo for the wrong day despite 2 years notice. I had entered the wrong dates in my phone’s calendar and used this to book my flights instead of checking the official conference website. Unable to get another day off work to leave on the correct date, I headed to Tokyo at the end of September 2019 having missed the first day of the 4 day conference. My flights had been frustratingly expensive because the conference planners had decided to set the dates to coincide with the 4-yearly Rugby World Cup which that year was in Japan, and I found myself in a middle seat (my most hated airline seat), sandwiched between a Welsh rugby supporter and an Australian rugby supporter. Both big lads, I felt rather sandwiched, and as the drinks started flowing with them and a bit of banter passed across me, I envisaged being stuck between a drunken brawl. Thankfully everyone behaved themselves and we landed in Tokyo, and I was hit by the complete madness that is Japan.
Everyone always tells you that Japan is a culture shock, and it most definitely is. I’d barely got off the plane before I saw my first robot, and although I had researched the public transport system in advance, I was still overwhelmed on reaching the transit hub that serves Narita Airport. For my particular plans, the much lauded JR Pass was not going to be worth the expense, so I obtained a top-up travel card that was the perfect companion for my trip. Armed with a pocket wifi that I had collected at arrivals, these two things were my best friends and were so handy for negotiating the train and bus system both locally and nationally. As a first-timer in Japan, they were a Godsend. Boarding the Narita Express into Tokyo, I booted up the Wifi, plugged in my destination and got real-time connection recommendations to get me to my hotel. The closer to the city centre it got, the more packed the train became, and I witnessed the first of what would become very normal train journeys crammed full of people. It was pitch black when I stepped out of Yotsuya station, somewhere in the middle of the city. It took a few wrong turns for the GPS in my phone to work out which way I was walking, but finally I arrived at my hotel and bunkered down for the night.
For your average tourist to Tokyo, Yotsuya has little to promote it, and indeed I felt surrounded by locals there, but it was within walking distance to the Hotel New Otani Garden Tower where my conference was being held. For the next 3 days, my days were filled with hours of lectures in opulent conference rooms, but during the breaks the hotel had one delight out the back: the most glorious of gardens, complete with waterfall and koi. Whether during the day or after the sun had set and the garden lights came on, it was a joy to wander round. Unlike other conferences I had been to, when breaks meant an all-you-can eat buffet and no need for dinner at the end of the day, this one was very regimented with its portion sizes, and I often left in the evening still hungry. But the bento boxes that were provided at lunchtime were both cute and delightful, and like the snacks at tea break, were an intriguing introduction into the world of Japanese cuisine, where textures were bizarre, tastes were unrecognisable and the visual appearance gave no clue as to what was being eaten.
That night, I wandered around the streets of Yotsuya getting hungrier and hungrier. I had tried to learn Japanese for several months ahead of this trip but found it to be one of the hardest languages I’d ever tried to learn. In the end, I felt ill-equipped to both read and speak the language, and felt mightily self conscious at the thought of going into a restaurant to order food. I’m both introverted and shy which doesn’t help, so sometimes it takes a bit for me to build up the courage to instigate an interaction with someone, and I was conscious of the fact that I would be overly reliant on English to communicate, something which I hate doing in countries where English is not their first language. It was also a Friday night, the end of the working week, and so the locals were also out in numbers. After traipsing round a wide arc around my hotel looking for somewhere suitable, I gave up and headed inside a 7Eleven to grab food from there. What I discovered was that the local Marts, be it 7Eleven or FamilyMart were actually fantastic places to eat from, with tasty ranges of sushi, sandwiches, meats, snacks and drinks. Here I was introduced to the array of flavours that foods I was used to in one choice only whilst at home came in such as the myriad of Coca-Cola flavours and KitKats. Among the snacks were dried foods I didn’t recognise and things that were a total novelty to try. And thanks to a Japanese travel forum on Facebook, I commenced a love affair with the 7Eleven’s humble egg sandwich, a divine concoction that was a staple food source throughout my trip.
Despite the next night being a Saturday, I was determined to be brave and pick a restaurant to eat in. I paced up and down the main street of Yotsuya, perusing menus and arguing in my head which one to go to. Eventually I plucked up the courage, and headed up the narrow staircase to a small room full of booths, half-filled with Japanese men. My presence was acknowledged by the waitress and I was presented the menu which was only in Japanese. Thankfully it was a picture book like is often the case there, and I was able to point at a beer and a bowl of wonton soup, and rapidly I was presented with both. Not a word of English was uttered the whole time I was there which was both exciting and unnerving. The waitresses attitude was a little intimidating but the food and beer were so delicious that it was easy to overlook it. I silently watched as the others around me ate, taking the opportunity to subtly people watch, a past time which I love to do, especially in foreign countries.
After the final day of the conference, I took my last wander around the hotel grounds before grabbing another 7Eleven dinner to eat whilst watching the Rugby World Cup on the TV. I’m not a particular fan of rugby, but I live in a rugby nation, and seeing as I was in the host country, it seemed only right to pay attention to the matches. I had an early rise the next day for my first proper day of my Japanese holiday. I had to do a hotel switch due to my current hotel being booked out for the rest of my Tokyo stay, but despite no longer being tied to this part of the city, my research had shown that Yotsuya station was really handy as a travel hub for my needs, and so rather than moving elsewhere, I opted to stay in the neighbourhood. In fact my next hotel was within sight of this one, simply across the road and along a block or so. Having eased myself into the perceived chaos of Tokyo life over the last 3 days, it was finally time to get out and explore and I couldn’t be more excited.