Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tokyo Travels - Part 2

The City
I didn't see Tokyo as having a single CBD, but rather multiple CBDs consisting of multiple wards all with their own nuances and towering skyscrapers. I decided against going on any tours, but relied entirely on the Lonely Planet guide. The benefit of this I thought would be that could explore the city at my own pace, while walking around I was able to stumble across museums or galleries tucked away in backstreets and out of the way areas. The beauty of the transportation system is that once you're familiar with it, you're less apprehensive about getting lost in the city. For example, take a wrong turn down the street, eventually you'll come across another subway station where you'll be able to travel back to familiar areas. The first ward I'll blog is Shibuya.

A quiet time on the street
Ground level
Apparently the main train station averages 2.4 million people through their turnstiles on a weekday and on more than one occasion I'd popped out of an exit only to find I'd have to walk 15 minutes to navigate the streets back to my desired area (believe me, although the street is busy, getting out of the subway is a good idea). Most people head towards exit to Shibuya crossing, which was featured in Lost in Translation and epitomizes the neon and pedestrian onslaught that hits many parts of Tokyo. At times overwhelming, but spectacular to experience.

I counted 8 different crossings where waves of pedestrians make their way across the street. On one particular day, rain provided a spectacular scene with umbrellas filling the intersection as sides converged on each other not unlike a scene from Braveheart. Navigating through the throng of people is a skill the vast population has mastered, despite having unbearable high heels, large shopping bags or being engrossed in the latest mobile phone game or text.

Here's why transparent umbrellas are great!

The bright lights engulf the senses as soon as you emerge from the subway, and I was quite happy on a number of nights to walk through the maze of streets taking in the sights and sounds of the vibrant night. The most popular spot to meet is outside the main subway entrance where a statue of Hanchiko stands - a dog who's owner died but continued to visit for 10 years in the 1920's. (Remind you of a Futurama episode?)

Tepco Electric Energy Museum
Tepco is an electric company in Japan, so some exhibits and videos are a little bias towards the services they provide, however a 1/3 replica of a nuclear reactor was a highlight as were some of the other hands on experiments. A futurist kitchen and various sources of electricity are also displayed and there is an English handout on each floor. As it was with most of Tokyo, the staff are friendly and courteous and even went to the extent of a mini tour, complete with a competitive mind game which two people pressed their heads against a sensor which controlled the movement of a ball (apparently depending on how relaxed you were). Despite being on holidays I still lost the challenge. There weren't too many other museums or cultural places to see in Shibuya, but there are plenty of other destinations that will fill this need.

Other sights included the Tobacco & Salt Museum (strange combination!), Love Hotels, Tokyu Hands (A one-stop shop for anything, including a plastic shaped banana case. But they're all different shapes and sizes I cried to myself!) and countless other retail stores and restaurants.

Love Hotel...

A good spot to end the day for some food, drinks or some shopping, Shibuya fit the pre-trip view I had of Tokyo...

To be continued...

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tokyo Travels - Part 1

I think its natural to feel a little depressed after a holiday. Particularly if you're overseas, the last thing that you want to do is come back to the day-to-day grind of work. For 2 weeks I experienced the bright neon lights, fantastic food and people of Tokyo, and at Gold Coast airport, the reality hit home that my holiday was over. This trip was hastily planned, as the time off was planned well before any travel. The choice of Tokyo was a difficult one, with the option of the US considered also with a strong Australian dollar and cheap fares. Despite being in Tokyo for the duration, there was more than enough to see and do for the the trip. (Update: Tokyo was Oct/Nov and I have since been to Kyoto and Osaka Dec/Jan which I will eventually blog also)

The trip from the airport to my hotel provided the first challenge for me. Not knowing the language and travelling solo for the first time, my heart pounded through my chest as I made my way down through the airport. Despite reading extensively in the week leading up to the trip and having my trusty Lonely Planet guide as my companion, the enormity of situation finally dawned upon me as I stepped out of the plane.

Through customs, the officer smiled, making a shaving gesture over his head as my passport photo only remotely resembled my current appearance sans hair. Strangely devoid of people, I made my way to the train station which is conveniently located beneath the airport. Like much of Tokyo, there are people willing to give you a hand, and through some well spoken English, an attendant directed me to the correct ticket to purchase for the journey to my hotel. In the initial planning, I had hoped to take the lazy way out of catching a taxi to my destination, however after finding out that costs would be in the range of $350AUD I decided to take my chances with the train. Despite it's reputation of being complicated, after a few days I couldn't live without the reliability of the subway and I was soon confident using it to traverse through the city. English signage at stations and trains is excellent, and, even without this, a grasp of the alphabet and numbers will be enough to guide you through the initially daunting subway.

A 40 minute travel into Central Tokyo station into a sprawl of people and an electric atmosphere and I knew (even in the train station): "I'd arrived in Tokyo". Again, following signs through the station, I was directed to the taxi rank, and my first real experience of the city (I hadn't previously set foot outside until that point). Tokyo taxis are immaculate, with shiny, polished exteriors, mini tvs and well presented drivers. (I'm not sure where else you'd see the drivers donning full suits). Magically, there's no need to open or close doors, as they spring open as you approach. Obviously controlled by the driver, it's a neat little add-on to the taxi experience, but perhaps explains the price of the average ride.
Having printed out a number of maps guiding me to my hotel in the event of getting lost, unfortunately I couldn't convey the exact location of the hotel and the taxi driver drove me close directing me as best he could down a street to where I expected to find my hotel. At 10pm at night and in a quiet business district, I wandered around for about an hour and a half walking aimlessly, knowing I was in the proximity of my destination, but clueless to the direction to go. After purchasing toothpaste (after it was confiscated by Australian customs for being over 100g) the friendly attendant directed me down the street to the location of my hotel. Walking up and down the street I still couldn't locate my hotel, so flagging the help of a passer-by I was helped to find the exact location (which happened to be just a block away).
Later in the journey I realised my mistake, whereby maps on the street are a literal picture where north is anywhere on the map rather than upwards.

Taxis are abundant throughout the city, however with the price starting at around $8 without leaving the curb it's an option not often taken. For the 2 weeks, I entered a taxi twice, with the second time being after a long night of drinking. Trains will cease operation at a certain time (around midnight), and will stop at the closest station rather then at the end of the line. On the second occasion I made the bold decision to walk home well after the train service had ceased, but unfortunately veering off slightly and getting lost (perhaps from a drunk walk), I had to resort to a taxi. The driver, perhaps sensing that I'd had a few to drink, offered me a mint to finish the night. It's not something I'd experienced in Australia, and after speaking to some locals, it's not often something that happens in Tokyo either!

The train network is daunting, and looking at the railway picture above, it can be hard to decipher to say the least. The train lines are owned by different companies, but are integrated well. I recommend purchasing one of the pre-paid cards which allow you have a large balance which is automatically deducted at the point of exit. There are "Fare Adjustment" terminals which allow you to start your trip, paying the balance at the destination prior to the gate. A great example of this was my final trip to the airport, where I only had 300 yen left on my card. I wasn't prevented from boarding the train to start my journey, however I was able to add the balance at the airport and finish off the card so I didn't have any residue yen on the card.

On my first entry into a train during a workday I noticed that the entire carriage was made up of women. Not bad for a single man travelling, but, realising that I was in one of the "women only" carriages I quickly stepped out prior to the train departing. Until 9.30am, some trains adopt women only first and last carriages due to the increase in assaults. Having experienced a packed train, (Meaning you cannot turn in any direction in the train) I can understand the benefit for women having carriages devoted to them. All the passengers are quiet, and like a well trained army, inch around to allow another few passengers on board. There are no complaints or yelling, everyone knows this happens and cannot be prevented.
Having had experiences at 9am and 10pm where I'd narrowly missed trains, I soon realised that timetables were not required. Trains arrive every 4 minutes during peak hours and throughout the day, which makes it a convenient, efficient way to travel.

By far the best way to experience the city was on foot. A plethora of sights await the patient traveller, whether it's a hidden temple, museum, or as simple as seeing people go about their daily lives, a wealth of priceless moments can be missed by sticking to the train and main tourist sights.
To be continued...

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Where am I?

This poor old blog has been neglected badly like that plant you're meant to look after when a neighbour goes on holidays. I'll be posting some stuff from my 2 recent trips to Japan soon and anyone who's out there (unlikely) who's reading this may get some material to put them to sleep!