Nara

45 minutes on the express local train from Osaka brings you to the town of Nara, capital of Japan prior to Kyoto in 794AD.

Nara is home to two principal attractions: the Todai-ji (in the town itself) and Horyu-ji (around 10km) away. These two temples/shrines would be worth seeing anyway but that they also house the largest and oldest (respectively) wooden structures in the world make them – and the town of Nara – a must-see.

Nara appears a typical Japanese town – garish shops, noisy Pachinko parlours and messy overhead cables – providing little evidence of the treasures and havens of tranquillity therein.

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Of course, being a typical Japanese town, it has at least two train stations, numerous bus lines (including a very handy loop line) which all run on time and cheap and delicious food on every corner…

Sega World

It’s the same Japan, alright.

You can’t see it in this photograph but this appears to be a complete “racetrack simulator”, complete with pre-race inspections of the horses, betting slips and 3D panoramic photo-realistic races. What you can see is that this is probably the biggest arcade game in the world.

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While not as elaborate, this machine (“lotto simulator”?) is probably the loudest game in existence.

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Osaka Aquarium

Soon after I arrived in Osaka after a very enjoyable spin on the shinkansen I was little bit frazzled; my hotel was near Osaka Station, not Shin-Osaka station. That would be a whole different station altogether, with different roads coming out of it and everything.

Soon I was cursing every piece of unnecessary clothing in that suitcase…after just a little bother locating the hotel even once I had arrived at the correct station (somewhere in Osaka there’s a very amused/bemused taxi driver), time was running a little later than I’d like. So it was some delight that I discovered that one of the major attractions in Osaka – the Kaiyukan aquarium – opens until 8pm each night.

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An escalator at the entrance whisks you up to the eighth floor where the tour begins proper.

Otters are first. They lie around on the fake landscape; they’re cute; they run around the place. You try, hopelessly, to take pictures.

You then enter a corridor which guides you around the museum. In fact, this is the only aquarium’s only corridor; it winds around the building, descending continuously: some tropical fish are next and then, having descended just a little, you’re back at the otter tank. Only now, you can see them swimming around.

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This trick – allowing you to view the inhabitants at all sorts of depths and heights – continues with the penguins, fake coral reefs and – in far and away the biggest tank – the centre-piece tank which contains sharks, stingrays, big fish and big shoals of little small fish.

After all this excitement there’s just some time for some fun figures (they used 1.5 times the world’s annual output of acrylic glass for the tanks) and fun fish: 3m long crabs and colourful jellyfish.

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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.