Japan – Leaving Tokyo and Heading South

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Tuesday, 26 April 2016.

I left Tokyo six days ago, heading to the first stop of my southern trek across Japan, to the mountain town of Hakone.

Hakone is south of Yokohama, which is in the same prefecture, of Kanagawa, and east of Mt. Fuji, which is in the Yamanashi prefecture. It is an area well-known for its onsen, or hot springs, and due to its close proximity to Tokyo makes for a popular destination for the city-worn traveller and local.

After a much-needed break and relaxing time spent in the onsen, and a much more taxing time spent hiking, first with three girls from Israel and then the next day with two girls from Switzerland, I left for my next stop, Mt. Fuji. The views along the ridges, and from the peaks, of Hakone were fantastic and you really get to see Mt. Fuji and the surrounding areas from a sublime vantage point.

I had planned and intended to go to the five lakes district, on the northern side, of Mt. Fuji. However, after studying the train and bus lines, I discovered that I would have to back-track to Yokohama in order to get to my hostel. On leaving again, I would have to, instead of going around the western side of Mt. Fuji towards my next stop in Shizuoka, go back to Yokohama and then take the main Tokaido line back past the main stop of Hakone, Odawara, and only then after a few more transfers would I reach Shizuoka. Suffice to say, it would be quite a detour from my plan of travelling in a continuous direction and not back-tracking or taking the same route twice, if possible.

My research led me to the city of Fuji, which is just about in-between Hakone and Shizuoka. Being on the southern side of Mt. Fuji, I would be able to behold the majestic mountain, at a relatively close distance, and still be able to travel easily to my next destination.

And so I did. After exploring Fuji, and beholding the Mountain, and the beautiful waterfalls and forests of Fujinomiya, at the Shiraito falls, I reached Shizuoka in less than an hour by train. Shizuoka is different to the other cities of Japan that I have as of yet seen. There is a lot more green, forested, areas, in and around the city. They are also underground tunnels, instead of crossings, that pedestrians used to get from one side of the road to the other, on some of the main roads. This is a new sight to me and adds an agreeable difference to the city and its unique character.

Tomorrow I will explore more of Shizuoka, and search out the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, where the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great shogun of Japan, is buried.

– Starr

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Japan – Never Alone in Tokyo

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In Tokyo, you hardly are ever alone.

There is always someone, ahead of you or, behind you.

There is always someone, walking across the street from you,
or suddenly appearing out of nowhere, on a bike or from a building.

In Tokyo, you probably are never alone.

Japan – More Peculiarities of Tokyo

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Update: 21/04/2016 – I added a bonus section to the end of the article, with some more of the peculiarities that I observed in Tokyo during my two-week stay there.

Monday, 18 April 2016.

Here are a few more peculiar things that I have experienced or seen in Tokyo.

Disclaimer: I might have mentioned some of these before.

In Tokyo, there are not many public bins around. The only ones to be found are next to vending machines or outside of convenience stores but they are mostly only for the recycling of bottles and cans. If you want to dispose of anything else, you will have to carry it along with you, until you happen upon the unicorn of bins, the magical general purpose bin. Keep note of that bin when you find it, it might the last one you see for a while.

Most public restrooms do not have any hand dryers or paper towels. So you invariably end up wiping your hands on your pants, leaving unsightly wet marks, but things could be worse.

The majority of the people of Tokyo are very fashionable and dress very well, in a manner of different and unique styles. The men also seem to be quite concerned about their hair, with the majority of men’s hygiene products in stores consisting of hairsprays, gels, and shampoo.

Chopsticks. You can eat, and do eat, most everything with chopsticks. It’s clean, it’s easy, and oh so efficient. It’s biodegradable too.

Firetrucks are a common sight around Tokyo. There appears to be a lot of fires around these parts, I was recently near one myself in an area called Golden Gai. You notice the firetrucks, not because of their siren, but more because of a loud announcement made, via a loudspeaker, to get out of the way presume, as the fire truck speeds past you.

On trains, mobile phones are the number one distraction, with sleeping coming in at a close second place. People hardly speak to each other on the trains, nor give each other any direct attention, although there are more of the odd stares at foreigners, but this is, of course, a global custom and one that people would experience anywhere else.

As for the vast train line network of Tokyo, after being in Tokyo for about two weeks you should be able to understand and navigate your way around the train lines. And if you are the adventurous kind, you might even be able to take a nap on the train.

– Starr

Bonus round:

Ice coffee is big in Tokyo. Whenever I am at a coffee shop it seems if all the locals order ice coffee. Maybe it cools them down from all of the busyness of Tokyo or perhaps it just tastes better that way. Cold coffee from vending machines and convenience stores also comes up as a peculiarity to me. In South Africa, we also drink ice coffee but people generally buy the hot version more often. Although cold coffee from a can is a foreign idea to me, I am getting used to it.

Man-bags are a common sight in Tokyo. Not the Indiana Jones satchel kind, but the big bags that women generally carry around. The ones with short handles that you carry on your forearm or under your arm, close to your body. This fashion may have originated in Europe, and although not all businessmen use them or men use them, but it is biggish in Japan and a somewhat common sight on the trains and along the streets of Shinjuku and Ginza.

Japan – Living in the Future Past

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In Japan, I feel connected to both the near future and the ancient past. You can feel it when you walk the neon littered streets, pass by the high-tech arcades and towering electronic merchants, or when standing at a small stone shrine, set within nature’s own tranquil form, built many centuries ago. The spirit of a time-honoured tradition and respect for nature, and for one another, is always felt when coming into contact with a person from Japan. The ubiquity of technology permeates every subway, vending machine and heated toilet seat. The future is embraced here, whether it be for folly or for the betterment of all. The past is remembered, through every temple and shrine, communal gathering and festival, and passed on with every bow.

Japan – Walking and Cycling in Tokyo

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Saturday, 16 April 2016.

I have now been in Tokyo, and Japan, for just about two weeks. I left my second-last hostel in Tokyo, this morning, and headed towards the Star Inn, a few kilometres away. I decided to walk, instead of taking the train, as I had a few hours to spare before my next check-in.

I awoke to the news that there had been another earthquake in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu. This second earthquake registered at 7 on the Richter scale and caused much more damage to the buildings and roads than the first one had. 40 people were killed in the both earthquakes and around 2000 more injured. Being from South Africa I am not used to earthquakes, but even here, where it is more common, the people are still shocked when it does happen. I feel saddened for the people of Kumamoto, and hope they recover from this tragedy. I will have first-hand experience of the extent of the damage, as my journey takes me south, to Kyushu, and to Kumamoto.

Continuing my walk to Starr Inn, I crossed the Sumida River, walking past Tokyo Skytree, I came upon a park where a craft and food market was underway. It was great walking amongst the stores of local artists and food peddlers, and it gave me a sense of how it must have been in the ancient past. Walking there, among the friendly and jovial people, I got a sense of the more relaxed and rural lifestyle of Japan. I am sure to encounter more of this spirit when I start travelling south, next week.

The night before, I rented a bicycle and cycled down from Ueno, past Ginza and central Tokyo, to an area near Roppongi, where I partook in an International Speed Dating event, organised through Meetup.com group. It was great fun, but quite tiring because you only had 4 minutes to talk to a girl and then you had to quickly move on to the next one. It felt like Tinder on a bullet train. There were about 50 people in total and I was fortunate to have matched up with a very nice girl, a nurse, from Yokohama. I shall visit Yokohama in the coming week, to explore the city, to see the land, and to meet up, again, with the girl from Yokohama.

– Starr

Japan – Tokyo Massive

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Thursday, 14 April 2016.

If you are looking to get lost somewhere, to rid yourself of the mundane and familiar, to break free from your daily routine, then Tokyo is the perfect place to be.

Although, everything in Tokyo is made to its most compact and efficient form, everything is indeed big in Japan, specifically, distance wise. It is easy to underestimate the distance between two districts by looking at the railway and subway map, it is better to also consult a standard map in order to gauge the actual scale and distance between places.

The toilets are a treat. From heated seats, to warm water bidet, it has functions that I have yet to figure out.

Sleeping on trains is a common sight, and I have closed my eyes for but not too long, for the fear of falling asleep and missing my stop. The locals must have some sort of internal alarm, due to habitual use.

I am not sure if it is just me, but whenever I stand still I sway slightly as if I am on a train. It might only happen when I am in a small space and I can only assume it is an after effect of being on the trains so much, coupled with prolonged air travel. I wonder if the locals still suffer from this peculiarity, probably not.

Bicycles. In Tokyo, bicycles are big. Not physically big, except maybe for the baskets in the front and baby seats at the back, but more like big as in “big in Japan”. It seems to me that half of the population, if not all, rides a bike to get around. There are even bike garages, where rows of bikes are parked, apart from the sidewalks that are lined with bikes, in the busier areas. An even more fascinating occurrence is that people leave their bikes, albeit mostly with a wheel lock, trusting that it will still be there when they return. I have tried this myself, after renting a bike for the day, and even leaving it on a busy Shinjuku evening, and found it right there where I left it, along with the hundreds of other bikes parked along side it on the pavement.

– Starr

Japan – Tokyo, My First Days

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Thursday, 7 April 2016.

I find myself writing this, sitting in a small laundry in the Nakano ward, on a raining Tokyo day, now, into my fifth day of my three-month tour of Japan.

Only now have I managed to get some time to write about my first experiences in this totally foreign, yet, to me, innately familiar, land. To say the least, from a South African, and more specifically a Cape Townian perspective, every here is different, and I love it for that. The trains, the subways, the streets, are constantly found with a multitude of people in them, at most times of the day, going to and fro on their way, to who knows where I cannot venture to say. The people are fashionable here, but diverse in every way, from the black suited salarymen, to the short dressed women of different ages, and the quirky, yet stylish, hipsters who follow trends from both abroad and local, the anime scene being a unique, and surprisingly not too common, one. Foreigners, or gaijin, are spotted every once in a while on a train or in the streets, but are definitely a minority here, and it adds to the novelty and experience of being in a foreign land.

I arrived in Japan late at night and my first goal was to get to an area called Kanda and then to the Capsule Value Kanda, a capsule hotel that I had booked for the night. Finding the hotel was not as easy as I had thought, with most street names being in Kanji, the written form of Japanese, but after discovering free wifi in the Metro I managed to get some idea of where I was and was to go, but not really because it only worked in the Metro, underground, and as soon as I emerged into the streets of Kanda I was once more clueless to where I was. Fortunately, for a foreigner, the Japanese are very helpful and I was accompanied right to the door of the hotel by a friendly girl, who went out of her way to help me find the place, this at 10:30 at night. We did, however, walk up and down the streets for a while because even the people of Tokyo do not quite know where everything is, it’s just so vast and intricate.

My stay at the capsule hotel was a pleasant one and there I had my first experience of a Japanese-style washroom, which I would assume is much like it would be at an onsen, a hot water spring. The washroom consisted of a large tub and a row of three small stools, with a movable showerhead opposite each one, and three large soap, shampoo, and conditioner dispensers. Whilst sitting, you go about your business cleaning yourself, whereafter, if you have the time, you can enjoy the bath. I had no time to test out the bath, as I had slept in a bit and my checkout time was looming. I would leave that experience for my stay at an onsen, in Hakone, during one of my later stops.

Next, on my second day, I made my way to the Yodoya Guesthouse, in the Nakano ward, or Nakano-ku in Japanese. Navigating the subway and train stations was becoming progressively easier and less confusing as I went on. A good move is to purchase a rechargeable Pasmo or Suica card, to make transport payments much more convenient. All you do is swipe your card when entering and exiting a station, and the fair is automatically deducted based on where you started and ended your journey. Although the train system vaguely began to make sense, once you emerge from a station you are again faced with bustling streets, uncipherable words, and no familar landmarks with which to orientate yourself. That said, you have no idea where you really are. As you surface, with hundreds of other commuters, and even more people on sidewalks, or waiting for their turn at a crossing, little restaurants and small bars line the streets, with convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart scattered in between them. Besides the, somewhat, regular sight of western franchises like KFC or Starbucks, what is found at almost every 500 metres apart are vending machines selling soft drinks, beer and canned coffee. One of the canned coffee brands features a business-suited Tommy Lee Jones, for a brand called Boss. The canned coffee is not bad if you are in of your caffein fix, albeit a bit on the cold side. I have, however, seen a hot option on some of the vending machines, although I have no idea how they might heat it in.

At the Yadoya hostel, I met a Serbian-born German, living in Spain, who had apparently drunk way too much the previous night in the Golden Gai area, in Shinjuku, after he had met some British travellers. He joined me in exploring the Nakano Broadway centre, which is a famous spot for all things Otaku. Otaku means geek in Japanese, but perhaps with a much more obsessive and focused edge. The next two days we explored together, visiting the Golden Gai, again, the Imperial Palace and the Ueno Zoo. We also joined the rest of the travellers at the Yodoya hostel for an annual picnic in a nearby park in Nakano, called Hinami, celebrating spring and the blossoming of the cherry trees, known as sakura.

A few other things that have stood out for me so far is that a lot of people ride bicycles here, both young and old. The bicycles are mostly ridden on the sidewalk, where everyone walks but none of the bicycles ever seems to collide into any pedestrians. And some of them really pick up some speed, especially the women! Similarly, everyone here seems to always be eating or drinking at any of the thousands of small restaurants and bars found knitted together in the main streets and side alleys of Tokyo. I wonder if anyone ever cooks at home or if it is just because everyone is happy to be out and about because of the weather becoming warmer. Efficiency is also another distinguishing feature of most of the systems I have encountered in Tokyo, and I can assume the whole of Japan. From removing your shoes when entering a home or a sleeping area, to standing in queues when waiting for a train, and keeping your trash with you to dispose of at home or at a not-too-common bin, everything they do makes sense and works for the betterment and consideration of everyone else, except maybe for the weirder side of Otaku and some of their more vulgar fetishes, but that I might try to explain another time. Oh, and last but by far not the least, the women in Tokyo are very cute and most beautiful.

– Starr