I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Every day's a holiday

Hmm, I should listen to some Mordred.

So, quite obviously every day was a holiday (day) for me, but I didn't half have a knack for being in a country/place where something big(gish) was going on. Back in Australia there had been the Steve Irwin memorial (it really was an enormous event); in Auckland it was the tail end of Heritage Week; Singapore had been preparing for Deepavali; Hong Kong celebrated its National Day and commenced a week-long public holiday; and in Japan it was sport-tastic. On the day I arrived the Tokyo Open was being played -- not one of the majors but Tim Henman got to the final. Sunday was Japanese Grand Prix day, and then Monday was a national holiday: Health and Sports Day.
temple water garden

Oh, there was also the small matter of typhoons affecting Vietnam the day before I flew directly over it (that was a turbulent one), North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and Japan's new Prime Minister giving it the large one in the media, saying how he wanted to rip up their pacifist constitution and start getting all nationalist and stuff, even taking pre-emptive strikes against the aforementioned North Koreans, etc etc. Was that it? Hmm. Oh, I think the day before I arrived in Tokyo there were typhoons causing loads of flight problems, and the day after I left Singapore the government ordered everyone to stay indoors because a vast smoke cloud from Indonesia or Malaysia or somewhere was engulfing the island.

Anyway anyway anyway. Health and Sports Day. Starting off with breakfast I arrived a bit later than on Sunday and found the restaurant to be full. Had to go sit in a little side room off the side to wait for a seat to come up, a few other people in the room too and one of them decided to talk to me about my shoes. He recognised them(!) and was considering buying a pair himself so I did a bit of sales spiel on him. He apologised for the quality of his English despite it being superb, the silly arse.

A public holiday which meant the daytrip I wanted to take out of town might be mad busy, so I'd resolved to go and bloody see Tokyo properly today. However I did want to go away for the day so I started off heading to Shinjuku station to buy the ticket. Shinjuku station is mental -- 3.4 million people use it a day. I assume that's an average and weekdays are worst, but it was pretty damn crazy when I got there. The recommendation had been to get a map of the station just to be able to work out where to go, and this was advice I ignored. Instead I'd just vaguely remembered the location of the desk and was going to wing it.

Turns out winging it was simple. I guess the guidebook's scaremongering about the scale of Shinjuku station isn't specifically meant for Londoners, or someone who uses Waterloo on a regular basis. It wasn't all that scary really... anyway I found the desk and bought the ticket, then went off for a wander. Shinjuku's not just a station but a vaguely touristy area (including some apparently shady bars, but I didn't spot those) and I walked towards what I think is the tallest building in Tokyo, the municipal government building. If it's not the tallest it's getting there, and anyway it's supposed to be one of the best vantage points to get a view of the whole city, and it's free to go up there. Truth be told though my inability to find the entrance wasn't exactly stressful, because I was less than enamoured with the idea of going up yet another huge tall building for a gawp at whatever city I happened to be in. Let's face it: I'm scared of heights and that's not going to change.

Anyway, I found a vending machine that sold Diet Coke, some discarded porn mags on the floor next to it, and a nice park to walk around. A few fountains, a bunch of statues, and people doing their washing, loads of makeshift clothes lines and stuff. I thought that was pretty cool really, people heading down to their local park on a nice day to read their books or just meditate on life while waiting for their washing to dry, using the public space because the density of the city meant there was precious little space to do so at home. Then a few minutes later I realised that wasn't what was happening at all, the people doing their washing were homeless and living in tents made out of tarpaulins in the park. Eek.

Right. Time out here. I'm getting really fucking wound up atm. Someone keeps phoning my home phone but it only rings once each time. Actually not quite each time: once it went all the way to answerphone, but they didn't leave a message. FFHS though, just fucking stop ringing me you fucks.

Ahem. Back to Tokyo. A slow stroll through this Shinjuku park was very pleasant and I took a few photos, especially of the shrine and its gardens. I didn't manage to get as good a photo of the main shrine as I'd liked because some selfish woman turned up to bloody worship. C'uh, I ask you. Couldn't she see I was trying to take photos? Heh.

Back to Shinjuku and on to Roppongi. Getting there was nowhere near as easy as it should have been. IIRC the stations are on the same line so I figured it would be simple, at at Shinjuku I followed the signs to that line. Ended up though in some not-quite-Shinjuku station, but nonetheless there was an English sign saying which platform to use for Roppongi. Got on the train on that platform and got kicked off at the next stop 'cos it turned out this line is some kind of not-quite-circle line, there's a station where trains terminate in both directions but the circle isn't quite completed there: to carry on you have to change. And this station is right by the park I'd wandered around, bah. And finally the first stop on the second leg was... Shinjuku! Grr. Maybe it is a complicated station after all.

Roppongi is a district full of two things, bars and embassies/consulates. I was just aiming to explore, but in particular there was a bar called Rock Factory that I wanted to find so I could return there in the evening. It seemed to be the only thing approaching a metal bar in the whole city, according to the English speaking internet anyway. I did manage to find a sign on the main drag that pointed to it, saying the entrance was just down a side road behind Subway, but I went along that road and couldn't find it. Probably in a basement or something, I dunno.

Roppongi was a good district though. Back in Shinjuku I'd realised just how non-cosmopolitan Tokyo was, as I could barely remember running into another westerner other than that guy near the Emperor the day before. Sting's "Englishman In New York" came to mind, as I muttered to myself "New York? New York??? Try bloody going to Tokyo you tantric cunt". Anyway Roppongi shattered it a little bit. Probably because of all the embassies and stuff, a lot of which seemed to have residences attached to them, but there I saw a whole bunch of non-Japanese folk hanging around. I also saw a road about to close, some military types standing near an intersection waiting for summat. My map said the Russians were on that road so I'm guessing it was them.

I walked a long way almost into a different district whose name I can't remember, because I could see the Tokyo TV Tower and wanted to get a photo of it. Unlike that fella at the end of The Untouchables though I couldn't get a good shot, and turned back when it became apparent the view was getting worse not better. Having a bit of a thirst on now I took the safe option and went in the Hobgoblin pub. A genuine Hobgoblin, serving Hobgoblin and done out like every Hobgoblin I can think of, I got served my pint by an Englishman and settled down to watch BBC World or News 24, not sure what it was. There was only one piece of news though, 'cos this was the day that North Korea went NUCLEAR. Pfft. The Japanese were leading the charge with the angry responses and I was thinking, look, can't you just bloody wait until I'm not here before starting a war? Sheesh. Then it occurred to me that maybe the road closures meant the North Korean embassy was nearby and there was a hoo-ha expected. (Actually that's a lie, that possibility has only just occurred to me while writing this)

Roppongi has a boozer called BOOZER. Heh. It also has a place called the Venus Cabinet which I perhaps uncharitably assumed was an example of bad English, and that they'd really meant Venus Cabaret. Who knows?

Back to the station and on another tube I headed towards Ueno. The Hobgoblin had actually been a really handy tourist information centre as it goes, being the only place I'd found that had a bunch of pamphlets and maps and stuff all in English detailing cool places to go or what stuff was near what stations. I should have gone there on day one :-( but better late than never, innit. By now I was a master of the subway system and the journey to Ueno was simple, and I even allowed myself a snigger or two as I kept being confronted by locals who were studying maps and getting confused and rushing off trains as they realised they'd gone the wrong direction etc etc. Hah!
stage 4

Mind you I was on occasion operating more by luck than judgement. The biggest problem with the subway system that I had was finding my way out, back to ground level. Not that exits were hard to find, more that they were way too numerous. Each station tends to have exits marked by numbers. Then when you get closer they are subdivided into letters. So you go to exit 4, then the signs start saying 4a, 4b, 4c, 4d, ... and then in one place -- it might have been Ueno actually -- they got subdivided further and I was having to pick between 4a1, 4a2, 4a3, etc! But I just winged it again and came out directly opposite the entrance to Ueno park which is what I'd been looking for.

Jesus, Ueno park was packed! I know it was a bank holiday but my word, it was crazy. So so packed, but I could understand why: it was really pretty and there were a bunch of museums and a zoo and fountains and stuff, and of course it was a public holiday so people weren't at work. I did head towards the zoo but when I got there there was only 1 minute left before the stopped selling tickets, half an hour before the place shut, and I wasn't really in the mood for that much of a lightning trip around. So instead I explored the whole park, taking many fountain photos and a few of the Rodin scultures outside the museum of Western art. It might be really good and stuff but Rodin's Adam doesn't half look like, in 80's playground vernacular, a spazz.

Ueno took quite a while actually, by the time I finished there it was just starting to get dark. At the station I considered trying to get an overground train to Tokyo station (despite not knowing if they were even on the same line) but once again the machines confounded me, and then I thought about going in the Irish pub in the station but decided against it. So back on the subway it was and this time to Ginza.

The Tokyo subway was starting to wind me up a bit actually. Not because of the maps and confusion or anything like that, far from it in fact. I was impressed with the system in place because it was actually pretty easy to get to grips with. Pick a colour or letter, and a number, and it was easy to get there. By number I mean station number: as well as a name each station was numbered in sequence and those numbers are visible everywhere, so if you want to go to T9 just change onto T, find out what number you're at and go the right direction. Simple. No, the thing that annoyed me the most was that EVERY SINGLE TIME I stood up I hit my head on the handles used by people who stand. Bloody things were way too low. I blame it on the Japanese being short people. 'cos they are, actually. Whenever I was in a crowd I was almost always an inch or two taller than everyone else, and I'm not exactly tall.

Oh, there are women-only carriages on the subway too.

Are any of the symbols in Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese punctuation? I kept seeing a bunch of text in both Tokyo and Hong Kong that had a '!' at the end, or a comma in the middle. It seemed out of place but really, did the inventors of these silly writing systems not bother with punctuation? I can't believe that. Can I? Hmm.

Ginza was cool. I thought perhaps the shops would be shut, or shutting, but instead the place was ram packed. The main road in Ginza is a huge shopping centre full of neon signs and stuff. I was just happy to soak in the atmosphere, which I did. Turns out the day before I'd not quite made it to the proper centre of Ginza so I wasn't on home turf either, and as it goes I was feeling pretty happy with myself at this point. I'd managed to "get" Tokyo, visit 4 different places and have a great time exploring without running back to the safety of my hotel room. I'd had something to eat and drink (albeit in an English pub) and was being proper touristy, go me. The only downside was that I'd already booked my daytrip for the following day, just as I'd become comfortable with Tokyo itself. D'oh! Not to worry.

Introspection aside I thought I'd go back to the safety of my hotel room. Back to Ginza station I briefly thought about going in the Lion Beer bar for a pint first, changed my mind, and then spotted a sign to the Sony building. So I went in there. I dunno if it's their HQ or anything but it's a curious place, just a showroom for Sony gear but you can't buy it. Although maybe you can buy it in the LIFE PLANNER CLINICS they have. Like a self-help guru, these places seemed to be populated by Sony experts who could help you sort out your entire life by providing you with Sony goods for every room in your house, and on the move too I guess. Bit freaky that.

The Sony building also has a pub in it, an Irish one. I went in there and had a Guinness, which wasn't bad actually, and a plate of nachos. A tiny plate. And it cost me 5 pound 63. Eek. The barman was making ice for drinks by constantly chipping away at a huge block, and there were 11 customers and 7 staff (one barman, 6 waiters). Bit overkill that, although I guess the pub was a bit empty. Mind I don't think you could fit more than about 30 people in there, it's not a big place. Paying involved being shephereded to the till by the door, rather than paying the barman or waiter. While sat at the bar I'd been trying to hide the cover of my guidebook a bit, make it look like I was just reading any old book. The complete idiocy of this did occur to me though, what was I thinking? I was hardly likely to convince anyone I was a local just by hiding the book FFHS.
beer menu

After the Cardinal I really did go back to my hotel. The Marunouchi's main reception is on the 7th floor but they do employ people to greet guests off the limosuine bus and relieve them of their luggage. Indeed, I spotted a Japanese bird taking it up the tradesmen's entrance when I got there.

This bloke Chris's brother lives in Tokyo and online for a bit I asked Chris if he had any advice for places to go drinking. In particular I said I was going to Roppongi and was after metal. Turns out the advice was (a) don't go to Roppongi (b) there are no metal bars (c) oh, thanks for letting me know about Rock Factory, that sounds interesting. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the plan I'd made, that combined with my inability to find Rock Factory in daylight meant a hasty change was required. The Internet to the rescue, I ended up deciding to go to Popeye's.

Popeye's is in a district called Ryogoku. Apparently the only reasons to go to Ryogoku are the Sumo stadium/museum, and this pub. Unfortunately it's the other side of a river from where I was, just outside of the areas covered by any of the maps I had. A little more disconcerting than going somewhere by train without a map, I looked at the directions on the website and once again thought, ah fuck it, let's just give this a go eh? Truth is I wasn't even sure the place would be open, since it's shut on Sundays and I equated Sundays with public holidays. In for a penny though.

Down to Otemachi station and I instantly got on the wrong train. Not going the wrong direction as such, I in fact got on the totally wrong line. Quite a mistake to make that: the lines don't share platforms like the district and circle or whatever. Heh, go me! Thankfully it was an easy mistake to rectify, change at the next station and I was on the line to Ryogoku. Came out of the station and there was nothing. I was expecting to be at the train station, ie that the tube and train were in the same place, but no, they're not. I was not only outside of the maps, but outside of the map I'd remembered from the website. But I could see train lines and figured they could be followed.

Follow I did, down an unlit side alley next to the lines and past lockups and bike racks. At the end there was a load of lights, 'cos there were eateries and gambling houses (pachinko places) and gaudy neon and Ryogoku train station. Result! Still not really sure what direction I had to go in though, I took a guess at the main road of left, then on the next side road spotted some lights. Wondering if that could be the pub I walked and hey presto, it was. So there I was in a seemingly shady-ish suburb of Tokyo, outside of the maps I had, on a dark side road standing in front of a pub whose premises comprised the ground floor of a block of flats. It was like being in Stockwell but thousands of miles from home. Had I done the right thing here?

I so had. This pub was fucking superb. No-one spoke English but they seated me at the bar and handed me an English beer menu and kept me watered for the next 2 hours or so. They served masses of Japanese microbrews as well as a few foreign beers and I sampled, I think, 5 different ales. They were all really nice and the price wasn't as horrifying as anywhere else. Again with the waiter service, I pointed and gestured and he shouted and shouted. The place was full and the atmosphere was great. When I finished the last one and paid up I muttered the word "Domo", my sole attempt at Japanese all trip so far and the waiter's eyes lit up like I was some total hero. Perhaps I'd expressed a little more gratitude than I'd meant (I thought I was just saying "thanks") but he was so pleased to get a word of Japanese out of me, I got this total "don't go! or at least, come back soon!" vibe from him and the other staff, who were all saying goodbye (or "fuck off"?) to me too. They let me keep the English beer menu and also gave me a 50% off beer voucher should I go back. Popeye's, I salute you.

Managed to get back to Ryogoku tube station but was too pissed to get a diet coke out of the vending machine, instead getting some kind of fizzy water. Second attempt worked though. Got the wrong train and just generally had an arse of a journey home because I was drunk, but I was also on a massive high for having enjoyed myself so much that day and that night in particular. A fucking blinding day, that. Only thing I was worried about was having a twat of a hangover and/or sleeping too late to go get my train to Hakone the next day.

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