When we booked 5 nights in Japan it seemed like such a long way into the distance we didn’t even consider weather that would be enough time. Now we’re at the airport and it turns out that we could easily stay for a bit longer. The stamp in our passport says we can stay till the end of August, if only! We’ve got more places to see before that return date that’s looming comes and smacks us in the face in 3 weeks time. Despite our flying visit, we managed to explore a decent amount of Tokyo and a little of the surrounding area. We found a wonderfully clean and efficient city, so huge and so busy it’s astonishing that it copes so well. Perfectly fusing western and eastern culture every corner had a little surprise around it, weather it was a traditional shrine, a huge technologically advanced sky scraper or a tiny alley filled with bars and restaurants decorated with paper lanterns, exploring the city was one of the highlights of our trip so far.
We have done our exploring over the last few days not only on foot, but in a variety of different vehicles. For me he highlights of our Japanese jaunt was a tour of the city in go karts dressed as characters from the Nintendo computer game Mario Kart, booked on a complete whim after we met some aussies who told us they were doing it, we drove in a group of 9 go karts for an hour on the streets reaching speeds of 35mph amoungst regular car while pedestrians did a few double takes and many stopped to take photos of us while we were waiting at traffic lights. Suzanne’s scepticism about dressing as the fictional green dinosaur Yoshi and dodging lorrys for an hour quickly dissipated as we laughed and cheered at the at the novelty of it as we watched he cityscape whiz by before returning our karts and returning to the reality where we weren’t Japanese created computer game characters.
Slightly more technically advanced was our ride on the famous bullet train heading back from a day trip to my Fuji. Travelling at 200mph these thing were definitely worth their name. We were lucky to see a couple of direct trains fly through the station while we waited for ours that was stopping at some of the smaller stations. The first was surreal, it barely seemed to make a noise as it ripped by with all 10 carriages coming and going in a blink before we’d even thought about getting our cameras out. Luckily we were more prepared for the second and just about managed to capture it digitally before it shot out of sight. Once on our train there was no obvious sign of how quick we were going if you didn’t look out the window, in fact the only sense of movement we really got was the lean as the train hammered round corners. It took us 40 minutes to get back to Tokyo, the drive out that morning had taken over 2 and a half hours, not bad going I guess.
The day out that day had been semi successful, we just about saw the summit of Mount Fuji for a brief period in a break in the clouds, perhaps we were quite lucky as our tour guide told us that only about 50% of people get an uninterrupted view, however we definitely had a better view of it when we flew into Tokyo. Despite struggling with cloud cover we still saw lots of beautiful scenery as the day trip took us out on to rural lakes via boat and up mountain ranges on a cable car. The mountainous land is covered by pine trees and was very green and luscious. We were just glad to be on the tour at all given we almost missed it. Choosing to be picked up from a location we thought was closest to our apartment we arrived to find it was the wrong place. Que us running across Tokyo, not really knowing where we were going, trying to get to the bus’s actual departure point before it left while in blind panic. Luckily we were early enough to our first attempt to meet the bus that we didn’t miss it at our second attempt!
During the rest of our exploration we visited huge and beautiful shrines to both Buddhist and Shinto deities. Apart from the colours of the buildings (red for Buddhism and black for Shinto) they both all looked similar in style and practice. Many of the prayer and blessing rituals appeared to be the same, in fact our tour guide for the Mount Fuji trip said that many Japanese actively practice both religions depending on the occasion. At the largest Buddhist temple (Senso-Ji) both Suzanne and I took the opportunity to be given fortunes; I was afforded good fortune, according to the sheet of paper I was given, which I was encouraged to take with me and refer to in the future (while staying humble about it) however Suzanne wasn’t so lucky and received a bad fortune. Custom dictates that to give you the best chance of reversing your bad fortune you must tie the paper to rack near the temple to leave it behind, which she did no all one can do is wait and hope – right?
We also got to see some lovely Japanese gardens, one at the imperial palace and one at the national gardens. Both were landscaped just has we’d imagined with the plant life interspersed with ornamental ponds and typically architected Japanese tea houses. Both gardens were very green with little other colour, a rainy season in the next few weeks apparently delays flowers blooming till later in the summer and unfortunately we didn’t quite time the trip well enough to coincide with the blossom.
After extensive exploring of the first garden we ventured into one of the tea houses for traditional Japanese green tea. It was a bit of a surreal, the tea house was set up so that everyone faced the centre of the room while sitting at tables placed around the edges. We were served by a lady in a kimono who bowed after serving every bowl of tea, not being sure of the proper etiquette we just nodded elaborately. The tea and accompanying sweet were interesting, the bright green liquid was certainly nicer than any green, peppermint or fruit tea I’d ever tried but I don’t think I’ll be swapping out my English Breakfast when we return to normality! The sweet was a soft doughball that had a sugary centre, the middle was definitely nicer than the outside, and was to be eaten with a solitary stick. It was actually easier than it sounds as the dough was so soft and sticky that it clung the stick almost annoyingly.
As you might expect eating things with sticks was pretty much the norm of the whole week. We made everyone effort to abide by the culinary culture. On our first full day we spend the evening in the Golden Gai neighborhood of the city – a tiny (in Tokyo terms) area of about 4 narrow streets filled with tiny bars and eateries that each sit only between about 4 and 20 people all around the bar area where food and drinks are ordered from and served to. We visited two bar for a few drinks as well as eating at a restaurant specialising in skewers. Things were going very well, using chopsticks, getting the food almost exclusively into my mouth, dipping it into the tray infront of me which I had filled with soy sauce. That was until the waiter came round and took my tray of soy sauce away and giving me a small dish that was empty. Before I could explain that I hadn’t finished with that batch of sauce he said that the tray I’d be using was actually and ash tray. Whoops. I thought I was just eating a lot of smoked food …
Not letting that set back knock my confidence, we also ate out at a traditional sushi restaurant and a traditional noodle restaurant. Both with much more success, although ordinarily a conveyorbelt of rotating raw fish would be enough to put me off food I started cautiously and worked my way up from boiled salmon, through cooked shrimp to raw tuna. Coated in enough wasabi I actually quite liked some dishes and found that the taste wasn’t as strong as I’d feared. It also gave me good practice using chopsticks, and by the last night when we had noodles I had no difficulty eating with them although I still used the bib provided just incase! We finished the stay with a couple of glasses of Sake in another tiny bar where it was just us and the bar man. It took a couple of goes for him to understand my pronunciation of the Japanese rice wine but we got there in the end!
We’ve just taken off from Tokyo’s Narita airport with a good 20 hours of travel time ahead of us, it’s already been more successful than the trip from Australia to Japan where I had a California Wine Country corkscrew confiscated at security and then lost my drinking bottle somewhere in Guangzhou airport. As with the rest of he city, Tokyo’s airport must be one of the most efficient we visited! Barely a queue in site as we were waltzed strait through security to our gate and boarded the plane.