MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Tokyo”

Tokyo Delights

I might be a bit spoiled for good coffee in New Zealand, so I’m often left disappointed when I’m desperate for a good brew abroad. The coffee in Tokyo hadn’t thrilled me so far, but that didn’t stop me parking up in a cafe in Shibuya on my last day in Tokyo to have breakfast. My legs were still a bit achy from being on my feet for 14hrs the day before, but that wasn’t going to stop me from another day of traipsing the streets of one of the World’s largest cities. Just down the road from the cafe was the infamous Shibuya crossing, the World’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Rush hour had passed but there was still plenty of activity with people regularly piling out of the train station and jostling across every time the traffic halted. It drew quite a crowd of onlookers, and I joined them initially before wandering around to look at the Shiba Inu artwork on the station wall and the dog statue in the square. I’m not entirely sure what the significance of the dog statue was but it seemed to be rather revered.

 

When it was time to cross myself, I got swallowed up by the masses that crossed with me but what I couldn’t believe was the amount of people that would stop in the middle of the crossing to get their photograph taken. And it wasn’t tourists. It appeared to be locals on proper photo shoots. I’m not sure if they were modelling clothes or something else but it was intriguing and astounding in equal measure. The people were never fully finished crossing when the traffic lights turned green again so the vehicles would just start to push through the stragglers. It almost seemed like a well-orchestrated dance move that everyone was unwittingly taking part in. I guided myself on a walking tour of the Shibuya streets. I could just imagine what this place would be like at night all lit up, but the businesses didn’t really interest me during the day time. There were signs confronting me everywhere I went though, and after to-ing and fro-ing through the neighbourhood I eventually found myself back at the junction.

It was a short train ride to Harajuku station to visit Meiji Jingu. Once out of the station, I headed into the expansive park and was swiftly greeted by a gigantic torii gate. It was a lovely tree lined walk from there past beautifully decorated saki barrels and more torii gates to the shrine itself which was a hive of activity. Locals and tourists alike mingled together as people gave thanks and prayer either within the halls of the shrine itself or on the prayer walls outside. Without fully understanding the culture, it could be easy to get ‘shrined-out’ in Japan – the amount of shrines around the country is incredible, and I made a point of limiting my visits to them so as not to get complacent or bored with them. But here, I did get a little caught up with the vibe of the place and it was quite humbling as I found myself becoming introspective and silently taking stock of where I was. I even bought a wooden prayer piece to hang by the prayer tree with my wish for my friends and family.

 

There was so much to look at on site, with little interesting pieces of detail on the buildings themselves and strung round the trees. At one point a stir went through the gathered crowd and what looked like a wedding party appeared: a group of people in traditional dress accompanying what I think was a bride. They garnered quite an audience because of their garb and I felt quite sorry for them as loads of strangers rudely started taking their picture without even stopping to think whether it was appropriate or not. I watched them pass, the gathered audience dispersing shortly after and I headed out the side entrance of Meiji Jingu to walk the quieter path through the trees back to the entrance.

 

Almost directly opposite was a broad tree-lined dual carriageway that cut deep into the city again, leading me back to suburbia. Just one block down there was a mall with a striking mirrored frontage, escalators leading up into it from where I wound my way up to the Starbucks on the roof to take a look from the rooftop terrace. Although it’s probably more polite to purchase something while you are there, it is actually possible to just go up and visit the terrace without spending money, and from there I could see down to the hustle and bustle below. It wasn’t as dramatic as the traffic and people of Shibuya Crossing but it was still a nice perspective of the streets immediately around.

 

Another part-block down the road I found myself at Cat Street, a quaint street full of boutique shops and eateries. It was a mix of architecturally eclectic buildings and unlike anywhere else in the city, there was a gorgeous historic-looking brick building. I felt a little self-conscious in my clothes wandering through there, and having planned on eating here, I couldn’t find anywhere that looked like it had space or was affordable. I spied some funky street art on the wall as I walked and before I knew it I was at the far end of the street. I could see on Google Maps I was within walking distance of Shibuya Crossing having almost completed a large circle, and I was once again very grateful to have organised a pocket wifi unit to allow me to access the Internet on the move. It had been essential to me navigating my way through this immense metropolis. I happened upon a lovely place to have lunch as I continued and devoured a huge meal and plenty of drinks to balance out the amount of walking I was doing.

 

I’d read about a rooftop area above Shibuya Crossing which I was keen to get up to but found it a little confusing to work out how to get there. Eventually I worked out that I had to go into the department store type building directly opposite the main station entrance then head up to the food court. Even there the sign wasn’t immediately obvious but at the far side of a burger joint, a heavy door led outside to a metal staircase that led up to the roof. A machine released a token on paying the entrance fee, and then I was able to pass through the barrier and look down on the busy crossing below. It would no doubt be more impressive at night time but I also suspect the viewing area would very busy at night also. As it was, I just had to share it with 2 couples and we took our turns to stand in the prime spot and watch the dance of traffic and humans.

 

Floor by floor I headed downstairs through the department store, briefly mulling over the Japanese fashions, the weird mannequins and pop-culture shops. On the ground floor I popped out in a Hello Kitty store and couldn’t help but purchase a small kimono-wearing plushie. I don’t usually buy much more than fridge magnets when I go abroad, but Japan has such quirky and World-famous pop-cultures that it was really difficult not to buy a few extra souvenirs. I’d already bought a Totoro plushie at the Ghibli Museum, so even though I was 36 at the time, I bought it a friend. I’m still waiting to reach the age where I outgrow buying soft toys. I burst back out into the sunlight, purchase in hand and crossed the Shibuya Crossing yet again to head back into the large and bustling train station.

 

I cut across the city to Roppongi to visit the Tokyo City View and Sky Deck. There is no shortage of observatories in the city, and as I couldn’t visit them all, I decided that I’d rather have a view of the Eiffel-Tower-like Tokyo Tower rather than actually go up, and its distinctive orange colour made it an awesome building to witness on the skyline. I had arrived at the City View a little before 3pm and it was a gorgeous sunny afternoon. This particular observation tower has an inside viewing area with floor to ceiling glass windows, and an outdoor viewing area on the helipad on the roof. I’d highly recommend getting the ticket for both. I took my time enjoying the view from the comfort of indoors. I really loved the view from here and far preferred it to that from the Tokyo Skytree. The view south-west was hazy and I squinted my eyes in an effort to make out the distant peak of Mt Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain.

 

By the time I’d done the full circumference of the building inside, I found myself at a cool little self-service coffee station. Little pods of filter coffee of varying strengths, tastes and origins sat within gumball-type machines which could be purchased with a coin. Then you could watch the machine filter it through into your cup. It was a novelty that I took full advantage of, despite normally only having 1 coffee a day and having already had a disappointing one at breakfast. This turned out to be the best coffee I had in Japan, and I parked up at a bench with a window view of Mt Fuji to enjoy it. Afterwards I did another full circuit of the viewing area before cutting into the middle of the tower to reach the escalator up to the roof.

The rooftop is completely exposed and as such you have to lock all your belongings away in lockers, taking only the bare minimum with you and only what you can wear or attach to yourself. When I stepped outside onto the platform and realised the angle of the sun was getting low, and the shadows were stretching out, I quickly came to the conclusion that I wanted to stay here till sunset. I didn’t care about going anywhere else that evening, I didn’t care that this meant spending multiple hours here, and I didn’t care that this was to be the last of my daytime sight seeing. This was the place to be. As the sun continued to lower I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji which was now much clearer on the horizon. A wisp of cloud hung around its midriff just like I’d seen from Kawaguchiko a few days prior.

 

As the sun lowered, the sky turned from blue to peach then yellow. The shadows grew ever longer until the sun finally dropped below the line of cloud that sat above the hills on the horizon. The peach returned in the sky and then it deepened to purple as the sun sunk further to the west. I couldn’t stand still, there was so much to look at in every direction as the colour palette changed and the moon crept higher and the city lights blinked on below me. Mt Fuji dominated the horizon to the south-west, remaining visible as a silhouette for a long time. As the colours faded to black, the Tokyo Tower showed its true colours. It simply glowed orange, a beautiful beacon on the city skyline and I couldn’t get enough of it, photographing it repetitively from every possible angle and frame. I spent about 2hrs on the roof before I could tear myself away and head back down.

 

I had one last experience to have in Tokyo before leaving it behind the next morning, and that was to experience Shibuya at night. I retraced my steps on the metro system to the huge Shibuya station and as I crossed the pedestrian bridge within the station which has a large window looking out onto the crossing itself, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The square below was absolutely mobbed. By now 7pm I was amidst the commuters heading home at rush hour, ever watched by the throngs of tourists that had descended on the place. It was standing room only and once outside myself, I struggled to move through the crowds, eager like everyone else to get a vantage point of what turned out to be utter madness when the pedestrian lights turned green. The people moved in giant waves, and with four points to the crossing it seemed inevitable that people would get swept in the wrong direction, but somehow it just worked. I finally was able to hop up onto a low wall to watch the chaos enfold in front of me.

 

Once in the maze of bright lights of Shibuya I was again struck by the constant noise and brightness of the night here. The sensory stimulation was insane and I was torn between following my stomach and wanting to just watch the city life play out in front of me. I found a cute little place to have delicious ramen, one of my favourite Japanese dishes, and one which was readily available throughout the country, and once satiated I headed back out onto the streets once more. I played a bit more in one of the many arcade halls that litter the city, feeling joyful and stress free like a little kid. Eventually it all just got a bit too much, and nearly 12hrs after I’d left the hotel that morning, and once more with pained swollen feet and legs, it was time to limp my way back to my bed. I could easily justify many return trips to Tokyo to see more but I was satisfied with my attempt to do the city justice on my first visit. But all good things come to an end, and as there is so much more to Japan than its biggest city, it was time to move on.

The Lights and Sights of Tokyo

It wasn’t difficult to appreciate how big Tokyo was. With each day’s explorations involving a multitude of train connections as I skipped around the city, there was no denying the scale of the place. But a lot of my movements had occurred under ground in the vast network of Tokyo’s metro system, so I was looking forward to getting a bit of a raised perspective of this immense metropolis. There are plenty of observation decks to choose from, and I decided to make the Tokyo Skytree my priority. Not only was it a distinctive building in itself, but its location meant it was well placed for an impressive vista.

There was a haze in the sky evident as I reached the upper observation deck at 445m (1460ft), but it was still possible to see for miles. When I visited in October 2019 there was a temporary display about space travel and astronauts. It was a slightly random theme, and was heavily dotted with Snoopy & Friends characters but it was actually interesting and it filled the gaps where there wasn’t a viewpoint. But it was, at the end of the day, the view that made it worthwhile, and in every direction, Tokyo life played out below me. A mishmash of skyscrapers and lower buildings interplayed with each other, and on close inspection some historic building or shrine could be seen dotted amongst the more modern developments. Snaking through this urban landscape was the large sinuous Sumida and Arakawa rivers. The observation deck also snaked round and up as well to a final height of 451.2m (1480ft), the highest publicly accessible point in the tower.

 

I took my time at the upper observation deck before going down to the lower observation deck at 350m (1148ft). Following brunch in the cafe, the viewing areas in this lower observation zone spanned 3 different floors and were a bit more broken up. The difference in height from the upper observation deck gave a slightly different perspective of the city, and more detail was obvious such as the random giant golden bean that was nestled among some skyscrapers. There was also a glass floor here, as is often found in observation decks like these around the world, offering a vertigo-inducing view of the street below if you are afraid of heights, or a chance to scare other people by jumping up and down on the glass in front of others. I spent about 2hrs up the tower making it worth the entrance fee for me.

 

After the obligatory visit to the gift shop on the way down, I decided to take a wander around the neighbourhood. The Skytree is next to a canal so I followed this watercourse for some way to get a different perspective of the tower itself as well as to nosy around the nearby area. At a total height of 634m (2080ft), it was difficult to get a photograph that fitted the full scale of the tower in, but that didn’t stop me trying. After a while it was time to get moving and head on to the next part of the city to discover: Ueno Park.

 

As often happened in the underground rabbit warren of Tokyo’s metro system, it was a bit confusing which station exit I wanted to get where I was aiming to be. Sometimes it could be blatantly clear, and other times it was a complete guess and trial and error. Ueno park is a huge greenspace within the city containing a few museums, a zoo, shrines and a large pond. As always it was blisteringly hot to walk around it, but the park was very busy with locals and tourists alike. At the southern end there were multiple sculptures, and a couple of water features next to which a band was playing. I watched them briefly before making my way deeper into the park, following the side road past museums, eventually finding myself at a giant blue whale sculpture outside of the National Museum of Nature & Science. Beyond here was the impressive looking Tokyo National Museum at the top end of the park. Despite the respite from the heat that these museums would offer, I had neither the time nor the interest to go into any of them. Instead I was much more interested in the large market that was taking place in fountain square. Row upon row of wares ranging from teapots and cups to chopsticks and fabrics filled the square and it was really popular. I would have loved to have bought all sorts of pottery from there but in the end I settled for a few sets of chopsticks that I have made good use of since.

 

About halfway back through the park, on the far side from the road I’d cut up through, was a shrine and pagoda. Although I was keen to absorb Japanese culture during my stay, I feel that I missed out a lot on the significance of some of these places that I visited. I wasn’t always interested enough to read the signs, and sometimes the English signage could be somewhat lacking, so mostly I just admired the architecture or the gilding. Finally I happened upon a set of torii gates which led me down a pathway round the side of another shrine, and once across the road I was met by the large Shinobazu pond.

 

The Shinobazu pond was transected from the Shinobazuno pond by a series of bridges. The lower pond was a mass of floating water plants which hid the water below it. In what few gaps there were, large fish could be seen at the surface. As much as this pond felt like an oasis, it was completely surrounded by suburbia, and skyscrapers filled the circumference, the sounds of the city ever present. Once at the southern end of the pond, the plants offered a natural frame to the view of the Shinobazu no Ike Bentendo shrine and the skyscrapers to the west. It was a beautiful juxtaposition between an urban landscape and nature.

 

I cut round the pond and followed the dissecting causeway that split the pond in two, past weeping willow trees and people on pedal boats, eventually finding myself at the shrine in the middle. There was some sort of service taking place that I couldn’t make sense of despite observing for a while, so eventually I left, continuing to head towards the northern end of the pond where there was a plethora of giant fish and red-eared sliders hanging out on the rocks. The Ueno zoo is situated here and as I looked back towards the centre of Tokyo I could see the very top of the Tokyo Skytree sticking up above the trees. Between the ponds and the main part of the park, Ueno park offered plenty of variety of things to pass the time, and I’ll definitely return here if I ever make it back to Tokyo.

 

But there was still so much ground to cover and so much sightseeing still to fit in. Although it was now well into the afternoon, I still had a few hours of daylight ahead of me. My next stop was within walking distance, and already at the northern end of the pond it was just a 15 minute walk to reach the Nezu shrine. Initially walking through a typical city landscape, nearer the shrine down back streets there were a few traditional buildings present. After a short while I found myself at a giant torii gate marking the entrance of the shrine grounds. Following the long entrance path, there were a variety of buildings at the end and a plethora of torri gates lining the various pathways around the property. A couple of women in traditional kimonos were doing a photoshoot, but otherwise it was a very quiet place with hardly anyone there. There was a large koi-filled pond and the main shrine building itself had some gorgeous gilding on the roof.

 

I was both knackered and hungry by the time I reached Rikugien gardens an hour before it closed. Not only did the garden have an unexpected entry fee but it was also fully walled and gated, meaning it closed ahead of sunset which caught me off guard. I had grabbed some snacks at a nearby convenience store and found myself a spot to have a picnic overlooking the central pond. This was such a peaceful place with gorgeous shrubbery and a cute little boat in the middle of the pond, and was one of my favourite gardens to visit in the city. I felt rushed though, having to work my way round it all before it closed for the night, and sadly by the time I reached the final garden on my list of places to visit, it was already closed.

 

The Koishikawa Korakuen gardens was in an interesting part of the city. Stepping out of the Korakuen station I was immediately met with the large structure of the Tokyo dome and intriguingly an inner-city rollercoaster. After discovering that the gardens was closed, I walked round its circumference and round the edge of the Tokyo Dome, the forecourt of which had a host of entertainment centres including the aforementioned rollercoaster, but also a giant swinging dragon boat ride. Dusk was pushing on as I continued to wander around listening to the screams and chatter of the people enjoying themselves.

 

Because Tokyo doesn’t sleep there was no rest for the wicked. Taking the train to Shinjuku, one of the most active parts of the city at night, I started my night time adventures at the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Governmental building. The view was of a mass of city lights spreading out in all directions. I bought myself some sake and takoyaki at the cafe and proceeded to get myself nicely merry on the strong liquor. Takoyaki are battered balls of octopus but the highlight of them is the fish flakes that are sprinkled on top and that appear to dance, the heat causing them to flutter on the plate. At 202m (662ft), this observation deck was far lower than the Tokyo Skytree and its location within a built up part of the city meant the view wasn’t quite so interesting, or at least at night time it wasn’t, so after walking round a couple of times, and despite it being over 12hrs since I’d left my hotel that morning, I was ready to experience the chaos of nighttime Shinjuku.

 

Japan is a barrage on the senses at the best of times, but especially at night, where lights and sounds bombard you from every direction. Shinjuku was chaotic and highly stimulatory but also very fun to walk around. The crowds here were crazy and I discovered a plethora of games halls which I loved, spending far too many Yen on arcade games, the likes of which I hadn’t played since I was growing up. The Japanese seemed obsessed with these arcade halls with large complexes of them on nearly every street corner in this hub in the city. I stumbled across the infamous Robot Restaurant (which has since closed down) and there were eateries and bars galore down every turn. Every surface of almost every building was covered in neon signs advertising things I couldn’t make head nor tails of, and eventually the constant stimulation added to my increasing tiredness. That didn’t stop me from getting an ice cream pancake but after sitting down to eat it I struggled to get back up again as my feet were in quite a bit of pain from walking all day. It was after 11pm when I returned to my hotel room, over 14hrs since I’d left that morning. My legs were throbbing and my feet swollen, but I’d had a thoroughly enjoyable day. It wasn’t hard to get to sleep which was just as well as I’d be doing it all over again the next morning.

Tokyo’s Art Scene

Back when my trip to Tokyo was just a future dream, there were two places that I knew would be an absolute must for me to visit, and I made sure I booked them both ahead of time to avoid any disappointment. After a couple of days spent out of the city, it was time to do Tokyo justice and get and about. A few years ago at my local International Film Festival, I watched an animated movie called The Red Turtle, that had me in tears. It was the first Studio Ghibli movie I’d watched from start to finish and I loved it. I hadn’t watched any others since, but I knew of some of the main characters and most popular movies from the Studio, and I was well aware of Totoro, one of the most famous characters. Despite not being well versed in the movies, a visit to the Ghibli Museum was something that I was really keen to do, but required a good bit of forward planning. Gaining access to the museum requires a ticket that goes up for sale 1-2 months prior, and they sell out fast. Thankfully, I had been given a heads up by a friend who had visited the year before, and I set off from my Yotsuya hotel in October 2019, armed with my ticket.

I was by now very comfortable with the train network around Tokyo. Yotsuya was well connected, and with my pocket WiFi and transport app, negotiating the route I needed to the suburb of Mitaka was simple. It was already blistering hot when I got off the train at the other end, and I had about a 15 minute walk from the station, all the while wandering through residential streets in a part of Tokyo so different to where I’d been so far. Every now and again, I passed a sign counting down the distance to the museum, a grinning Totoro popping up above it. Arriving at the museum, I was greeted by a fancy big building and a giant Totoro in the bay window as I entered the grounds. The entrance ticket was allocated in time slots, and I’d secured the first entry of the day. As the queue slowly moved around the building, the building itself became more colourful and was covered in large swathes of ivy. Eventually it was my turn to get inside and was handed my entrance ticket, which included a reel from a Studio Ghibli movie, and after being pointed in the direction of the entrance, I was set free to explore.

 

You are not allowed to take photos inside the museum, which I respect, but despite only knowing a handful of the Studio Ghibli movies, I was absolutely enthralled with the place. Downstairs had various rooms with props and artwork on display, and towards the back was a small cinema that showed the most delightful short movie. Spiral staircases led upstairs, and I went into room after room of artworks and videos displaying how some of the movies had been made. I spent hours there, making sure I saw every thing there was to see, even queuing in the busier rooms to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. In one corner, a spiral staircase led up onto the roof, where I was immediately sweating in the intense Tokyo heat. Standing tall to greet me was a giant robot statue, representing one of the characters from the movie Castle in the Sky. It was impossible to visit this place and not buy something at the gift shop – there was some serious money changing hands here – and I left at lunchtime, satisfied with my morning.

My second must-do of Tokyo was also pre-booked to a time slot, but I had a few hours to get there so I decided to walk to a further away train station to allow me to visit Inokashira Park. The heat meant that every day of walking left me with painful and swollen legs, but it was hard not to make the most of Tokyo’s expansive parks by exploring every square inch of them. The Ghibli Museum sat at the most southern end of it, and I cut through sports fields where locals played tennis and ran round a track. The dominant feature of this park was a large lake which I reached after passing through wooded areas and statues. The reflections on the water were divine, and a series of bridges criss-crossed the water. I made sure to cover as much of the perimeter path as I could, circling round the long length of the lake before crossing back and forth across a few of the bridges to make a sort of figure-eight. I was surprised to see some cormorants, a species which I also see back home in New Zealand, and there were a few ducks and a heron to add to the bird life. It was possible to hire paddle boats, and even although it was a weekday, the place was full of locals, from mums out with children, to retirees out for a stroll, and workers taking a lunch break. I’m sure there were other tourists there too, but I felt like I was seeing the real Tokyo, away from the usual tourist hubs nearer the city centre.

 

I had several connections to catch to push me around and across Tokyo to the Aomi region within Tokyo Bay. In hindsight, I would have loved to have explored this area more in depth, but as it was, I arrived with just enough time to walk across the open complex at Tokyo Teleport station, where I was greeted by a giant multi-coloured Ferris wheel. Instructions in hand, I headed into the mall and almost immediately found myself inside a giant Toyota showroom. Looking down on reams of shiny cars, I cut across the galley and found myself directly under the Ferris wheel, watching it spin past me as I headed to the building next door. I was excited to get inside and see what all the fuss was about, with 3hrs prior to closing to make the most of it.

 

From the first photos I’d come across online, I knew immediately that teamLab Borderless was a place I had to visit, and I was not disappointed. This place blew me away, and I could happily go back again and again. Effectively a giant warehouse divided into rooms and floors, there’s no set path through, and its up to you to find every access doorway to every room – and boy do you want to make sure you see it all! Essentially an interactive art gallery, this place goes well beyond that, and it simply needs to be experienced. No photo or video could ever do this place justice. The first room was immense, and was a series of walls that displayed an ever-changing artwork of flowers. The place was effectively in darkness aside from the light created by the artwork, and it meant that some of the doors to different rooms were almost hidden. It made it a bit of a game to work out where each of the rooms were, and I’m fairly confident that I got round every single one of them. The place was packed, but it did make it easier to spot some of the room openings, however a few of the more popular rooms had long queues to get into them, and due to this, it took me the entire 3hrs to get round the place.

 

The whole place was an assault on the senses, but one that I very much enjoyed. Music played everywhere I went, and the lights and moving images led you round corners and down corridors. One of the most beautiful rooms was a large space with a high ceiling, in the centre of which was a raised area to get some perspective from. The art work moved across the floor and up the walls, and it was simply mesmerising. Everyone in the room became part of the art as the colours swept across their bodies. It was divine. The door out of here was quite well hidden but it wasn’t long before I found myself in a room of flashing rope lights and a mirrored floor. I went through this room a couple of times, because it was so pretty, but out the far side in an alcove, the vision of a bird dramatically flying across the space took my breath away.

 

Making sure I saw everything occasionally involved doubling back a bit, but I didn’t mind seeing some of the rooms more than once. I walked through fields of lillies where leaves fell and sat in a room with waves crashing around me before I realised that there was more than one floor. My first queue started at the bottom of the stairs and slowly led me upstairs to one of the most famous rooms at teamLab Borderless – the room of coloured lights. I’d seen the most photos of this room online and it was clearly very popular. The queue to get into the room was longer than the allotted time allowed inside it, but with a galley window to look inside as you waited for your turn, there was plenty of time to get a feel for the place. The room was a deep red when I first entered, eventually turning to a mix of pastels before I had to leave.

 

Upstairs was even more interactive than downstairs. As I entered the main area upstairs I was greeted by humpback whales swimming across the walls and geckos crawling across the floor. It was possible to draw art here that could be incorporated into the moving images, and at the far end I was greeted by a room full of giant air-filled blobs that changed colour as you walked through them. There were climbing poles to traverse, and moving platforms to try and cross, before I found myself in what could probably have passed as a kids room but was instead mainly visited by adults: a giant room with planes, cars and boats moving around, that could be manipulated by moving the objects across the floor and walls. The large slide just outside the city room made me wonder if upstairs was supposed to be for kids, but there were hardly any kids there, and every adult I saw was taking great delight in interacting with the artwork, myself included.

 

I watched the humpback whales frolic across the room before heading back downstairs to visit the last few rooms. There was another long queue that left me standing among a corridor of falling flowers, the colours dancing across my face and including me in their movement as I stood there. It took 20 minutes to get into this last room where I had to lie down on a large hammock suspended in the middle of the room. This was the only artwork I was underwhelmed by, and not really worth the wait, but when I came out I was close to the entrance and had just 15 minutes left before the place would shut. I walked round the flower walls I’d seen on arrival and headed back to the dancing rope lights once more before stepping outside into the darkness of the Tokyo night.

 

The reality is though that Tokyo isn’t really dark at night. The sky may look dark if you look up, but that is because it is hard to see any stars with so much light pollution from the city itself. If Tokyo goes to sleep, I don’t know when it does, because it always seemed so busy, bright and brash in the hours of the night, just as it did during the day. The colourful Ferris wheel was still turning as I walked below it once more, but this time I decided to wander around the Toyota warehouse as I passed through. Aside from the standard Toyota cars on display, there were some space-age models and some artistic body work on display too.

 

I visited Tokyo during the Rugby World Cup, and with the New Zealand All Blacks playing that night I decided to be social and visit one of the RWC hubs to watch the game in public. The crowds were massive but sadly it wasn’t set up that well so it was really difficult to see the screens through the throng of heads in front of me. A little dejected, I decided to head back to my hotel to watch the game there. Only my second hotel didn’t have the TV channel to watch the RWC. My initial hotel had, and I’d been able to watch the Scotland match a few nights prior. I was gutted to miss out on the experience, but I had acquired some merchandise at the shop before leaving that night. Sadly the All Blacks didn’t bring the cup home that tournament. They were outplayed several times, and that night’s match was one of them. But it was time to take my throbbing, swollen legs to bed ahead of another Tokyo adventure the following day.

Kawaguchiko

Still not content with staying in Tokyo, and with legs still aching from the previous day’s 8hr hike, I had another day of walking ahead of me. But my first challenge struck before I even got out of the city. I’d based myself in Yotsuya, initially because it was near where my conference had been on those first few days in the country, but secondarily because it had turned out to be an easy base for transit around the city to where I wanted to go. I’d arrived at my new hotel in darkness, so waking up that morning I’d finally been able to experience the view from my small balcony. It was hot and stuffy and I was surrounded by a sea of buildings stretching out for miles.

It was by now a familiar saunter to the train station and I headed west a few stops to Shinjuku station, one of the larger transit hubs in the city. Despite having studied station maps online at my hotel, I stepped off the platform and very quickly found myself in a maze of artificially-lit corridors. There were signs everywhere, and a sea of people to sweep you along in the wrong direction if you weren’t careful, and I was also in a hurry, trying to make a connection. I needed to get to the bus terminal, but after following the signs, they sort of petered out and I ended up having to backtrack a bit and experiment a little before eventually I found a sign pointing out onto the street. It turned out I had to cross the road and enter another a building, and as a result of getting lost in the Shinjuku maze, I had missed the bus I had planned on catching.

The bus terminal was crowded, and my next challenge was finding the one I wanted. Unable to speak Japanese beyond basic pleasantries, and always feeling guilty about having to speak English, I chose to use a ticket machine over a person. However, it quickly transpired that I couldn’t pay with my prepaid card and so I had to go to the counter after all. But it turned out my destination was so popular that the next bus was fully booked, and I had to wait for the one after that. It felt like an age before I was finally onboard, and leaving the city behind. Although I’d already been out to a national park, this trip felt different, and from a bus, it felt a bit more immersive, and the scenery a bit more interesting to travel through. It was a 2hr drive into the Fuji Five Lakes, and I was super excited when Mt Fuji, the country’s highest mountain appeared in view with a ring of cloud below its summit. From that point onwards, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, and finally, after a detour to Fuji-Q Highland theme park, I was deposited at Kawaguchiko bus station.

The walk from the bus station to Lake Kawaguchi led me downhill through winding streets of shops and businesses for about 10 minutes, until finally I found myself staring out at a gorgeous lake with rolling green hills on the far side. Paddle boats shaped like swans lay stacked up in the foreground and just past them, a paddlesteamer was berthed, loading up ready to take day-trippers across the lake to Oishi. It felt so different to Tokyo, and I immediately loved the place. The foreshore was easy to follow, mainly on a separate path away from the road, and in the glaring sun, I started the anti-clockwise walk around the lake. Understandably given the scenery, I became rather snap happy. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. The lake itself had a gentle ripple on the water, and the reflections of the surrounding landscape and the blues of the water and sky against the green of the hills created an amazingly scenic location. Then, after a few curves of the lake had been passed, I looked back and realised that Mt Fuji was poking up in the background, and the smile on my face grew wider.

 

Mt Fuji remained in view as I continued to circle round this end of the lake. The cloud continued to swirl around its top, sometimes obscuring the summit, other times sitting just below it like a collar. When I’d initially booked my trip to Japan, I had thought I would hike up Mt Fuji, but upon researching the hike, I discovered that there was a short official hiking season, outwith which the hiking huts were shut, transport to the hiking routes limited, and indeed it wasn’t recommended to hike it at all because of safety concerns. There was no snow on the summit whilst I was there in October 2019, so in reality I probably could have done it, but I had opted for common sense and following advice as it was over a month past the end of the hiking season. But also in reality, I didn’t actually have time in my two week trip to Japan, and frankly the views of the mountain were probably more appealing to me than the views from the mountain would be.

I neared and then passed under a row of accommodations that would have great views of Mt Fuji from their balconies, and I continued to follow the path round towards the broad expanse of the Kawaguchiko Ohashi bridge that cut across this end of the lake, transecting it. The whole lake is huge, and there was not a hope of covering the full circumference of it, so the circle that was created by the bridge and the eastern foreshore was enough of a taster that day. Before I cut up to the bridge itself, I found myself down at the lakeshore near the legs of the bridge, sitting among some locals who were fishing, eating my lunch as the clouds swirled across my view of Mt Fuji. Looking under the bridge, I could see through not only to the far side of the lake, but I was able to watch the paddlesteamer chug across, peacefully sailing across the calm water.

 

Crossing the bridge, I didn’t know where to look. The view in both directions was divine, and I jogged back and forth across the road as I wandered, taking a ridiculous amount of photographs, and sweating in the incessant heat. To my left was the foreshore I’d just walked round as well as the dominating outline of Mt Fuji. To my right, was the large expanse of lake and the gorgeous rolling mountains that stood tall beyond it. In fact I took so long to cross the bridge that the paddlesteamer was making its return journey from the far side, and I was able to watch it return to the original pier I’d passed it from earlier that day. Reaching the far side of the bridge, there were more locals fishing and the path immediately turned into a park, skirting round to Oike Park where there was a small shrine, and some statues nestled among the trees. Flying overhead a large bird of prey caught my attention which I later discovered was a black kite.

 

The final section of the lake continued to give me views across the lake before it cut back to streets. From this angle I could see the ropeway that went up the nearby mountain, and as I reached the street that would lead me there, I spotted the same black kite perched atop the roof of a nearby building. It was nearing lunchtime by the time I made it to the Mt Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. The queue was frustratingly long and also in direct sunlight making for a slightly unpleasant experience. It was possible to hike up the mountain but I didn’t have time for that, and so the ropeway was going to have to be worth the wait. It was a slightly disorganised affair to buy a ticket from a machine, which was a surprise considering how organised Japan usually comes across for absolutely everything, and when my time finally came to board the ropeway I was incredulous at how many of us they squeezed on there. It was roasting, and despite the open windows, there was little air circulation in the cabin, making it a little unpleasant to breathe. We were crammed in so badly that I couldn’t actually move. For the entire ride up I was stuck in the position I was in, unable to shift my weight or even lift my camera up to my face to take photos. I don’t get claustrophobia but with the lack of personal space, the inability to reposition myself and the stiff, hot air, it was hard not to get a little panicked, and I couldn’t wait for the ride to be over.

 

But it was all soon forgotten once I’d spilled out at the top and saw the view. From the top station I had a gorgeous view across the lake and then once I’d walked round to the entrance of Kawaguchiko Tenjozan Park, I could see across to Fuji-Q Highland theme park and Mt Fuji behind it, albeit now hidden behind some clouds. I treated myself to a matcha float complete with foam rabbit, before swapping my trainers for hiking boots and heading into the trees. The initial track up to Mt Tenjo was packed, with most of the people that had taken the ropeway up heading here, as it was only a 10 minute walk to the summit (1140m/3740ft). I was expecting an awesome view but in actual fact the trees were so tall here, that it was mostly closed in, apart from a gap that allowed Mt Fuji to be seen, framed by the tall trunks of the trees. I could see on my topographical map that a track from here led off across the nearby mountains, and I had my sights set on nearby Mt Shimo (1302m/4272ft).

 

There was little view as I walked deeper into the tall forest, following the ridgeline as it undulated and gradually gained further altitude. I had little respite from the heat and my energy began to wane. It took me longer to reach the road crossing high up the mountainside than I’d anticipated, and after an hour, I found myself at a lookout just shy of 1300m (4265ft). As with my hike the day before, I’d brought some 7Eleven dried squid, a Japanese snack that I ate a lot of whilst out and about. It was just the taste I wanted after all the sweating and it gave such an energy boost. That being said, I spent a lot of time eating whilst studying the topographic map, arguing in my head whether I wanted to push on to Mt Shimo. I’d learned on the hike the day before that a summit doesn’t necessarily equal a view, and where I was sat was specifically marked as a viewpoint. Indeed I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji from where I sat, and I reckoned the summit push would add at least another hour roundtrip. With it already being after 2pm, I made the executive decision to let the summit go, and once I was satiated, I pushed back down the gradual slope, to return to Mt Tenjo.

By the time I reached the gap in the trees at Mt Tenjo it was 3.30pm and the summit of Mt Fuji was visible once more. Back at the cafe I bought a snack that was translated as raccoon balls. In the 5 days I’d been in Japan, I’d eaten a lot of unrecognisable foods in a multitude of new textures that I’d never experienced before. I’m fairly up for trying a variety of cuisine and love to experiment abroad, so I was intrigued to see what raccoon tasted like. I still have no idea what exactly it was that I ate, but it didn’t appear to have any meat in it at all, but it was food and it was edible so I hoovered it down all the same. The sun was lowering towards the mountains at the far side of the lake but still the crowds came up the ropeway.

 

I discovered that you could go up to the roof of the cafe where I could see down towards the lake as well as Mt Fuji, and where I could do a bit of people watching as I ate. I hovered between the rooftop and the viewing area below for a long time, getting my photo taken against the backdrop of Japan’s most famous volcano, and watching as people put prayers on the local prayer wall. A bell hung within a heart-shaped frame that was great for framing Mt Fuji, and again I took a lot of photos as the shadows got longer. I started to realise that the mountains beyond the lake would lead to an earlier sunset, and I still had to hike down the mountain back to the lake. After an hour of soaking up the view, I started the descent through the forest. The track switch-backed downhill, occasionally providing views of the lake. A few side tracks led off through gardens, but I stuck to the main track, by now sore on my feet and tired.

 

I reached the lake at dusk, and I sat watching the lights across the lake twinkle on as I swapped my hiking boots for my trainers once more. When I had bought my return bus ticket, I had had to select a specific bus to catch. I left the lake in plenty of time to slog back up the hill to the bus station, and as I reached the road across from it, in the darkening night I could just see the summit of Mt Fuji looming above the station roof. Locating my bus stop, I waited impatiently for it, tired of being on my feet, and always a little unsure that I was in the right spot. The time came and went and by now there was a crowd of us waiting. Eventually the Tokyo bus arrived and everybody surged forward, ignoring the Japanese rule of queuing. But the driver wouldn’t let us on. The bus that had arrived was the one after ours, and there was no way he was letting us on the bus. His English was broken but his message was clear: our bus was delayed and we just had to wait. Confusion and frustration rose when the same scene played out with the next bus. I was shattered, and just wanted to get back to Tokyo, a nearly 2hr drive away.

When the third bus arrived, I was overjoyed to be let on, but immediately concerned to discover that I was the only person that the driver let onto the bus. There were those that had waited as long as me, by now, nearly an hour, and I was immediately doubting that I was going to end up in Shinjuku. I could see some of the other passengers getting riled up and the language barrier was clearly causing some problems. But all I wanted was to sit down and get to Tokyo, so as much as I couldn’t understand why no-one else was being allowed on, I stayed rooted to my seat and watched the drama unfold. Within 5 minutes, in pitch darkness, we were on our way, leaving Kawaguchiko behind. I followed our route on my GPS until I was satisfied we were heading towards Tokyo and felt I could relax. We pulled into Shinjuku bus station at nearly 8.30pm having made good time back to the city. The city lights were shining bright in what is one of the popular night-time spots in the city. I was tired and hungry, but couldn’t completely ignore all the lights and sounds, so took a detour as I crossed between the bus station and the train station to get a brief view of the goings on. Back at my hotel in Yotsuya, I was excited to discover a vending machine that sold beer, a complete novelty, and another of those oh-so-Japanese things that I loved so much. I loved my choice of fruit beer so much that, like the dried squid, it became a regular consumption on my travels around the country.

The Three Peaks

Despite having barely explored any of the World’s second-largest city, rather than stay in Tokyo for my first proper day of my holiday, I chose instead to head out of the city into the surrounding countryside. I love hiking and think of Japan as a hiking country, so I’d researched some hiking trails that were within my means and geographically attainable. Within easy reach of the city was Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, the location of a full day’s hike. From my hotel in Yotsuya, I train-hopped my way to Mitake station from where I caught the local bus to the base of the Mitake-Tozan Cable. If I’d been really inclined, I could have walked from the station, and I always could have hiked up instead of taking the cableway, but the hike before me was going to be long enough, so it wasn’t hard to put aside the notion that I had ‘cheated’. Although the main forms of public transport in Japan are relatively cheap (especially with the top-up card I possessed), there were plenty of touristy transports around that were a lot more costly. Although there wasn’t much to see aside from forest on the way up, the hillside was so steep that at no point did I regret taking the cable up rather than walking.

 

The views at the top of the cableway were of the surrounding hills rolling off into the distance. There were several people in the immediate vicinity having ridden up together, but we were all quick to spread out and it wasn’t hard to feel like I was far away from city life. In fact there was a series of trails leading through the small village that was nestled among the trees, and my plans for the day were to head beyond and into the mountains. In researching the hikes I would be doing in Japan, I had read that it was important to make note of the lettering for the places that would appear on signs as it couldn’t be relied upon to have English translations. Across the day’s hike there was a mixture of signs that included English and those that didn’t, so I was regularly checking the maps I’d downloaded onto the phone to make sure I was heading in the right direction.

My route for the day was to lead me across three local peaks: Mt Mitake (929m/3048ft), Mt Otake (spelt Ohtake or Odake in some places – 1266.4m/4155ft), and Mt Nokogiri (1109m/3638ft), emerging at Okutama, an anticipated 6hr hike from my research. It was just before 10am as I left the cableway behind and followed the paved pathway that wound through the village on the flanks of Mt Mitake. It was a hot day for a hike, and after the initial flat section, the road began to cut up the remains of the mountainside, past old-fashioned buildings towards the Musashi Mitake Shrine. At the bottom of the steps a large torii gate framed the staircase that led up to a series of buildings. This was the destination for almost everyone else I saw that day, but from here, a bilingual sign pointed me towards the forest and the mountains that they grew from.

It didn’t take long to reach the first of many track junctions. I headed along a short ridge to reach a lookout where the neighbouring mountains appeared hazy. Retracing my steps to the junction, I followed the sign saying Rock Garden, immediately beginning a descent of around 200m (656ft), starting with a long set of stairs and the occasional section of tree roots to negotiate. I was among giants: tall trees that grew far above my head but there was little in the way of bird life to see or hear. I was passed by another solo hiker, but otherwise I was out here on my own. Another junction was reached with a bilingual sign and then it was just a short while later till I found myself at the bottom of Nanayonotaki waterfall which cascaded down a rock face in the middle of the forest.

 

I paused here briefly for a snack, leaving it behind when a couple of people arrived, and having reached the lowest point on the hike, I acknowledged I had to climb back up the hillside again as I was presented firstly with a steep metal staircase, and then a maze of tree roots with a rope to cross. Once back on the main path again, I was following the sign for the Rock Garden once more, arriving at a conglomerate of rocks by 11.30am. Deep within the forest it was a little dull but still hot. I could see the clouds were covering the previously blue sky but the canopy high above me was blocking some of the light too adding to the perceived gloom. Atop a giant boulder there was a shrine and a statue, and it was necessary to use a rope to climb on top to take a look. I had initially thought that this was the rock garden, but actually it was further into the forest, and the trail headed into thicker vegetation that hugged the curve of the mountainside.

 

A few streams trickled through the undergrowth and the path cut across them, large stone steps helping to keep my feet dry. It was peaceful if a little eerie being out in the middle of nowhere on my own. The deeper into the forest the trail went, the more boulders appeared around the trail and I could appreciate why the Rock Garden got its name. I passed several other people at a picnic spot, but I opted to push on to Ayahira waterfall, which I was able to enjoy by myself while taking a snack break. Stone steps led away from here past a giant rockface as I continued to regain the lost altitude up the hillside. Eventually, by 12.20pm I found myself back on the original track that I had left behind near the Mitake Shrine.

I think I had assumed this trail would have been spectacular for views, but actually the forest canopy was so well developed that there was little to see other than the forest itself, so as I continued along the rising ridgeline towards Mt Otake, there was just the trees for company. Other hikers had been few and far between once I’d left Mt Mitake, and the trail became a little uninteresting. I was still very hot and sweating profusely and I was glad for the occasional trail junction to break up the monotony. Eventually I reached a section that involved chains to help negotiate a rough area where the track jumped up suddenly at the side of some large boulders. Beyond that there were some gnarly tree rooted sections as well.

Suddenly I found myself at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading through a torii gate to a shrine. The trail led me up through here and then beyond the buildings the track became quite rough and threatened to trip me up. I have to admit, I was eager to reach the next summit, and was looking forward to getting a view of something other than the forest, so I was glad to finally break out of the trees at 1.30pm to an opening where a group of men were taking a break from their own hike. The sky had become uniformly grey in the time I’d been in the forest but I could still see rows of mountains spanning the view in front of me. I’d brought some dried squid with me, a 7Eleven special, and started a love affair with it at the summit of Mt Otake. It was just what I needed to give me a bit of an energy boost and I ended up making sure I had some with me for every hike I did for the rest of the trip.

 

The topographical map on my phone made it look like Mt Nokogiri was halfway between where I was standing and Okutama. In the blog I’d read when researching this hike, I’d read that this descent from Mt Otake to Okutama would feel never-ending, so I didn’t hang around at the summit for long. Leaving the other hikers behind, I set off into the forest once more, almost immediately losing the view of the landscape again. It was a gradual and undulating slight descent along a ridgeline for 1.5hrs to reach the third peak of the day. This time though, the summit was within the forest and there was only a small sign to announce that you’d made it. By now just past 3pm, and having been hiking for 5hrs, I was starting to appreciate that the 6hr estimate for the hike was rather off. But in my head I had just another 1.5hrs to go, based on my assumption from the map on my phone, and although I was getting tired, it was a time that I could muster up some energy for.

Oh how wrong I was. After an hour of walking across the undulating ridgeline, I was not only aware that I’d barely dropped any altitude, but having been tracing my hike on a tracker app, I was dismayed to see that Okutama was still several kilometres away. Even when a break in the trees offered me the first glimpse of some houses in the valley below, again the map showed I was still some distance away. Suddenly I could appreciate where the comments from the other blogger had come from, but as I stood there mildly miffed with my choice of hike, my attention was grabbed by a sudden screeching sound that shot across the valley. I had no idea what it was and in the middle of a forest up a mountain, it was slightly unnerving but I found out a few days later that it was the call of a bird of prey (possibly a northern goshawk).

 

I got a slight puff of energy again as I started to descend away from that first glimpse of Okutama, but after a brief descent, the track starting heading up again, involving metal stairs and chains, and I have to admit that I started cursing out loud. It was nearly 5pm, and I started to realise that I had just roughly an hour of daylight left. Any second wind I’d gotten quickly dissipated and instead I spent the eventual descent down the mountainside rather deflated. Finally the descent began to be more consistent, remaining in the forest the whole way aside from a brief reprieve where some pylons cut through. By the time I reached the very margin of Okutama at 5.45pm, it was dusk, and the light was fading fast as I cut through what was left of the forest, finally reaching the main road that would lead me into town.

 

I watched the train leave for Tokyo without me, having not quite made it in time, the hike eventuating as an 8hr hike instead of the 6hr trek I’d anticipated. I hadn’t even enjoyed the second half of it, having been frustrated with the length of it, and the lack of views. The forest was pretty, but with little to break up the monotony of it, it had rather detracted from the hike in the end. To top it off, it was now pitch black and I had to wait half an hour for the next train. Okutama is a small settlement, but despite that, I initially couldn’t find the train station platform, somehow ending up on the wrong side of both the track and a fence, and having to back track my weary legs to try a different road. When eventually I could board the train, it was empty, a complete shock compared to all the train rides I’d done so far in Japan. It was after 8pm by the time I reached my hotel in Yotsuya, picking up my luggage from the original hotel, and walking the couple of blocks to my new hotel on the other side of the road. I slumped onto my nice pristine bed just in time to catch the end of one of Scotland’s Rugby World Cup matches. My feet were throbbing and my calves resembled elephant legs from the heat, but I could only hope they’d have settled by the morning as I had another day of walking ahead of me.

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.

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