Last Day in Tokyo

As the title says…my final day in Japan and I’m back in Tokyo for the flight home. It wasn’t too easy getting back in time from Sapporo and so I really want a memorable day, as if to make it all worthwhile (obviously, missing my flight home would be pretty memorable too, but I’d like a good memorable day).

Some ideas I had when last I was here:

  • trek out to Mount Fuji
  • travel up to Sendai
  • wander down Omatesando

These ideas hail from a time that seems so distant now. I’ve done “all” the beauty spots and “all” the temples, seen some odd things like breweries and travelled on a lot of trains. I’m too tired for Mount Fuji and my feet are too knackered; I’m too fed up of trains to get to Sendai (two hours on the shinkansen). What I haven’t done is a serious day of shopping. This I had notions of leaving towards the end, when I wouldn’t have to carry all of the purchases too far…

The obvious choice is Omatesando. The guide book treats it as a sort of Grafton Street of Tokyo (ergo, Japan?; the world?!?!); a tree-lined avenue with all the pretty aspirational shops such as Prada and Gucci, it looked very promising when I got here late one night earlier in my trip. A damn nice place to wander around during the day for a tired tourist and perhaps good t-shirt hunting ground, too. When the sun goes down, there’s Tower Records in Shibuya.

First, I take the Yamanote from Tokyo to Shinjuku to see Yodobashi Camera, allegedly the biggest camera shop in the world. I’m not convinced, however: it’s clearly smaller than the Osaka branch and – with its kanji-only signs – not particularly geared for tourists (no tax-free section, either). I don’t stay here very long but Shinjuku is still an awesome place to wander around for a little while – the tiny little streets around the station I completely ignored last time are fascinating.

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After this, it’s onto the main business of Omatesando. Harajuku is the relevant stop on the Yamanote; this is just two stops from Shinjuku, in the hip south-western part of the city. Looking like something from the countryside, it’s an odd station for Tokyo. You wouldn’t think is just two minutes walk from one of the biggest shopping districts on the planet.

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Once here, it’s mostly window shopping, with some notable exceptions that make it all worthwhile:

  1. I pick up a wonderful super-fun-happy Japanese-English t-shirt declaring “lets all in fun”.
  2. I discover on one of the side-streets the best t-shirt shop in the entire world: the floor contains racks with just one example of each design whilst the walls are covered floor to ceiling with tubes containing the same designs in each size. This sweet shop-style store is the single most efficient route to t-shirt hipness I can imagine and I buy out half the shop, earning me a free t-shirt book and a wonderful problem for packing later tonight in the process.
  3. In one of the few places in the whole of Japan with no English-speaking staff, the Kawai shop have great trouble understanding the word “trumpet”. I mime playing such an instrument and some bright spark figures it out – “trumpeto!”. A completely different word, obviously. Anyway, this initial confusion notwithstanding, they have a brilliant selection of sheet music and I finally pick up the complete trumpet orchestral repertoire for a song, at just 2200¥. The only problem is that, soon, I will know how to write all the great composers’ names in kanji.

All these Trev-friendly shops are clustered at the southern end of the street. After this I just admire the funky shop fronts.

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Finally, at the very very top of Omatesando (and just after a brief visit to Starbucks to collect their Tokyo mug) is the architectural highlight, the Prada store.

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You cannot but go in and investigate, but this place makes Brown Thomas look like a 100¥ shop. I become dangerously attached to a spectacular woolly jumper which the shop assistant describes as “very cute”. At 80,000¥ (almost €500), I can’t disagree. Similarly attractive t-shirts priced at €150 stay similarly on the rack.

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Thus ends my trek up Omatesando and my last daylight in Japan; with t-shirts, music and weird and wonderful buildings it was more or less exactly what I wanted.

Next destination is Tower Records, Shibuya, but I pause briefly in Spiral Records which is just full of funk and soul records. They allows you to try most of them on their Denon CD player listening posts. This I do and I make a souveneir purchase before descending down towards the subway.

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Sapporo – Tokyo

On reflection, I realise I’ve never taken an internal flight at all – not even in the states. Naturally, this owes, at least in part, to my slight train obsession. This time, however, I simply don’t have time to indulge that passion – an entire day on the train was “fun” once but I can’t do it again without sacrificing my last full day in Tokyo.

So, I swallow my pride and book an internal flight from Sapporo to Tokyo. Miraculously, a flight with Air Do at only 24 hours notice costs only 17,000¥ (about €100). The surcharge alone for the 16 hours overnight train from Sapporo is about 22,000¥. I don’t feel so bad and now I console myself with the knowledge that at least the trip is noteworthy, in one fairly major way, for being the busiest air route (domestic or international) in the entire world (easily beating even Dublin-London) with about 25 million passengers per year.

Time to build a new shinkansen perhaps…?

Anyway, it was surprisingly easy to book this over the phone but trying to spell “Trevor” in an Irish accent to a Japanese speaker is an exercise in patience and international relations.

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As is customary, after a very nice and very leisurely day I still somehow end up in a bit of a panic when the “express” airport train turns out not to be so fast at all. I encounter another strange bit of Japanese time-keeping when querying the rail attendant about this:

I thought the train only took 36 minutes?

Yes, 36 minutes, express!

But 8.10 to 8.58 is 48 minutes?

(check in time for the 9.20 flight is 9.05)

That’s right, 36 minutes!

(she ushers me proudly but quickly towards the platform)

When I arrive I have, by my calculations, a full 4 minutes in which to check in. Never in my life will I negotiate any airport with such fluidity as I have tonight (although this is more a reflection on the good people at New Chitose airport than myself): I check in with 1 minute to spare.

The staff and airport are a study in composure: my baggage is processed in seconds, there’s no passport control (I forgot about this) and it’s a quick walk to the gate. I suddenly see why internal flights are so popular.

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90 minutes later, back in Tokyo, I take the monorail from Haneda airport back to Tokyo Station, briefly passing through the most impressive bit of infrastructure of the whole trip: at one point, the monorail is suspended about 100m in the air above a regular rail line which, in turn, passes over a road which – unless I was mistaken, as it was dark – ran over a car park. And there was a river nearby, too.

Definitely back in Tokyo!

Hokkaido Bound

I’ve had this strange compulsion to reach Hokkaido – having ventured to Nagasaki in the very south-west, it seems only appropriate and somehow fitting to reach the very north-east. Coast to coast, as it were. It is a three-week long trip and I did buy this rail pass, so what else am I going to do?

Riding the shinkansen is a little odd: it is the fastest train in the world (or thereabouts; certainly the most extensive/fastest) but it really doesn’t feel like it. The track is so smooth and the engines so quiet that the air conditioning is considerably noisier than both. Ocasionally you feel a burst of acceleration when the turbo booster (or afterburner, warp engines or whatever these things have) engages…but you still only get a slightly higher pitched engine noise for its troubles.

However, when you venture off the beaten track a little to where the shinkansen doesn’t shine, you realise just how fast it is. It’s as if its speed cannot be observed directly; it must instead be inferred from slower, inferior trains. Or something like that.

A trip to Hokkaido certainly requires you to leave the comfort and regularity of the shinkansen behind. While the Nozomi 700 blazes through the 1174km from Tokyo to Fukuoka in under 5 hours, it’s at least 11 hours from Tokyo to Sapporo – with two changes along the way.

Starting this morning from Kyoto I figured I could reach Hokkaido today, but not Sapporo (the main city). Instead, I could spend a night in Hakodate and then head for Sapporo. The guide-book lists a number of interesting diversions at Hakodate (more than Sapporo, as it turns out) so it’s a day or so in Hakodate then up to Sapporo for another day before returning to Tokyo and, soon after, home.

Anyway, all today’s travelling required three separate train journeys, for a total of 11 hours:

  1. Kyoto-Tokyo
    Three hours on the Hikari super-express. When I arrive, the track is miraculously near Yaesu North, the one part of Tokyo Station I’m familiar with. It’s funny how I cursed this vast labyrinth of a station before but today it’s kind: I find a (big) locker for my (big) luggage, then the replacement ipod cable and USB 2.0 hub I need in, literally, 30 seconds of arriving before a quick lunch and espresso prior to searching for track 23.
  2. Tokyo-Hachinoe
    Almost three hours on the Hayate super-express. At 16 carraiges, this is surely the longest train ever. Soon I realise it splits in two at Morioka; a wonderful sign disembarking at Hachinoe says “dead heading train” (de-heading, i.e. splitting, train?).
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  3. Hachinoe-Hakodate
    Yet another three hours on a local service. This is notable for passing through the Seikan Tunnel. According to the Rough Guide this is – at 54km – the longest underwater tunnel in the world (over 200m below the sea separating Honshu and Hokkaido in parts) and the second-longest tunnel of any type. It took 40 years to build and, as if to commemorate in some small way this effort and the train’s progress through it (took us about 40 minutes) the train has the cutest little graphic I’ve ever seen:
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Getting back to Tokyo actually presents a minor problem; it’s either an overnight train (16 hours!) or an internal flight (boo). Indeed, the long journey time between Tokyo and Sapporo has led to terrible under-use of the Seikan Tunnel (after all the effort building the damn thing) and Tokyo-Sapporo to become one of the busiest air routes in the whole world.

We’ll see…

UPDATE 16/8/2007: this was a distance of 1417.6km.

Park Hyatt, Tokyo

After a couple of days of vigorous templing, I decided it’s time to see the other side of Tokyo: the modern, hip side. The rich side.

This means Shinjuku. Specifically, west Shinjuku.

West Shinjuku is not for shopping; it’s not really for food or casual browsing, either. So why go there? It’s the financial capital of Tokyo (ergo, the world…almost) and the administrative centre of the city; this has led it to become the skyscraper district of Tokyo with a host of notable buildings, such as government centre, and some unusual distinctions such as Shinjuku station, the busiest in the world.

All of this makes it well worthwhile spending a day wandering the streets as a tourist, gaping upwards at the skyscrapers in the way that Irish holiday makers accustomed only to Liberty Hall must.

The first I encounter is no less than Park Tower, better known perhaps for its Park Hyatt Hotel where “Lost in Translation” was filmed.

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This was a bit of a treat for me…as mentioned previously, that film is undoubtedly one of the principal things that made me curious about Japan. I was debating how to go about snooping around when I realised that its New York Bar is just a regular, normal bar whose entry fortunately requires you negotiate through much of the hotel.

Once there, it’s clearly also the bar from the film: bandstand, the bar with the funky lamps and the outrageous views of Tokyo all present and correct. The path is similarly familiar. Amazingly, the sets in the film were all unadorned: lifts, entrance and hallway really are all that nice.

Like something from a movie set…the only thing missing is Bill Murray and Scarlett herself.

Anyway, I bask in the atmosphere and order some chips – “duck fat French fries” – and an espresso. At 1600¥ they’re the most expensive thing I’ve bought so far and absolutely wonderful.

The service is impeccable and the waiters speak perfect English. They also don’t mind me taking a tour of the bar and some panoramic shots (it’s early and the place is not busy). No wonder Scarlett’s character spent most of her time staring out her window. This is the best view of the city and must be amazing on a clear night.

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Before I go I call into the bathroom and see something unique even in Tokyo: automatic toilet seats. Choose from any of all three possible configurations. Nice.

Tokyo International Forum

It’s been a few days now and I’m kind of getting my bearings. When it comes to the area surrounding the hotel and Tokyo Station, I’ve realised that – including the time taken to navigate the two stations – riding the Yamanote between Tokyo and Yarakucho takes far more time than simply walking there.

The corollary of this is that it’s also just a short walk to the Maranouchi Building and the Tokyo International Forum: the former sports a Belgian beer bar in its nether regions while the latter is a fairly spectacular piece of modern architecture housing an exhibition centre, cinemas and many other cultural delights.

Both stay open late so make for a perfect combined after-hours activity having returned from Nikko.

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It doesn’t really show here but the International Forum building is modelled on a ship’s hull. You enter into a vast seven storey oval-shaped glasshouse which contains a small visitors’ information booth and entrances to the cinema and exhibition halls.

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Even though it’s late and nothing is open, the public area is diversion enough. The upper levels feature a network of walkways which afford wonderful views of the ground floor.

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These upper levels are eerily quiet (although I spot a few youngsters lurking in the shadows) and the walkways a little un-nerving…but a sign assures me in wonderfully understated Japanese language that:

modern materials and superior craftsmanship together made this unique design possible

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Anchor Steam Beer

I have to say I didn’t expect to find American micro-brewery beer in Tokyo but I’d never turn down the opportunity…

A hot tip from the Rough Guide for a western-style restaurant in Roppongi Hills (“Roti”) worked out pretty well.

This was a lightish beer and not very strong but…very tasty (as I’ve said before, I don’t know how to review beer apart from light/dark, weak/strong and nice/manky). Went very well with my burger and chips; the highest compliment I can pay a beer.

Wish I’d kept the bottle cap now – this review is even crapper without a picture of it. Anyway, something to seek out next time I’m in San Francisco.

Flying to Tokyo

Although there are no direct flights, it’s straightforward enough getting to Tokyo from Dublin. I flew via Paris with Air France, reaching Paris yesterday evening on a dinky little Cityjet plane.

We flew out across the city and got a wonderful view of the city centre, Poolbeg, Sandymount Strand – all the way from Howth to far beyond Dun Laoghaire, in fact, laid out before us like something from a next-generation edition of Google Maps.

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The flight direct to Tokyo, however, would take something a little more…(Jeremy Clarkson voice)…substantial.

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My first time on a Boeing and it’s nothing less than a 777. Not that I could tell you anything about it of course other than it’s really big (80m long?) and next time I want to fly first/business/god class and sit in a couch at the front of the plane – whatever those tickets cost, it’s worth it. Wow!

Anyway, extraordinary engineering aside it wasn’t the nicest flight ever: an overnight long-haul flight demands a good sleep enroute which is always very hard on a plane. On the plus side however, the food was good, plentiful, included a free bottle of wine and accompanied “Blades of Glory” very nicely.

On arrival in Narita airport, things (and people) are quick and punctual, as they always promised everything would be in Japan: immigration was unexpectedly brisk for us non-Japanese (450 Japanese vs. 25 foreigners) and baggage and customs a mere formality prior to collecting my Japan Rail Pass and boarding the 7.13 Narita Express to Tokyo Station.

And it did, indeed, leave – as promised by all the guide books – at precisely 7.13.

Tokyo Story

I’m not quite sure how it happened.

They said I was crazy; I said, “hey, I’ve got five weeks here, how often do you have that!”. Actually, no: everybody said it was a good idea. Except the Dublin taxi driver.

Five weeks free in the middle of summer. I had procrastinated as always; an idea would present itself if only I thought really hard about thinking about it. I eventually began to weigh up the options with just 10 days to go. Interrailing in Europe looked interesting and very cheap, at least for the railing part. However, I can tour Europe anytime. I keep all my stuff there anyway.

Something else…

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It was probably an idea seeded unintentionally by my girlfriend. It may have been the desire to see the last remaining “big city”. It was quite possibly the cheap flights with Air France. It was definitely a good idea.

In the words of the taxi driver on the way out,

Tokyo?! What the fuck is in bleedin’ Tokyo??

Well, as I watch live Wimbledon at half past midnight, I dunno yet either apart from some very crowded trains, unnecessarily bright lights and some very cheap and good fast food joints (giant jars of free pickled ginger!)…but I like what I see.