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

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

He is the one and only

I dunno if it was foresight or luck, but the room rate I'd sorted out for Japan included breakfast. Thinking back I reckon it was more the former than the latter, 'cos being so worried about being able to communicate I figured it'd be safe, that I'd be guaranteeing myself at least one meal a day, huh. So on Sunday morning I went down to the 8th floor and ate. A small buffet of fresh fruit and croissants/danish pastries plus a glass of juice and a cup of tea, it wasn't the most filling thing in the world and I would have liked something hot but, meh, it was nice for what it was.

So this was my first full day in Tokyo. My excursions around the local area last night had got me vaguely acclimatised and orientated, and I knew the Imperial Palace was just 2 blocks along. Figuring I could put off having to deal with any language issues a bit longer by going for a wander around that -- it is after all a legit tourist attraction -- I wandered up and was confronted by masses of crowds. Not sure of the precise event but there was a race of sorts going on. It wasn't martialled well enough to be a marathon, in fact there were no stewards or things stopping you from crossing the race at all, and you had to pick your spot to get through to the actual palace. So I did that, took a few photos of bridges and moats and things. After 15 minutes or so I realised it had been a mistake to leave my hat indoors 'cos the sun was beating down, so I headed back to the hotel via a vending machine for something to drink and Tokyo station, 'cos I'd decided to try and buy a travelcard-esque ticket.

At the station there were a bunch of police. Just kind of milling about as if in preparation for something, looking like they might be cordoning something off imminently, but for the moment it was just milling. I crossed past them and then instantly the cordon came out. A crowd, no bigger than 60 or 70 people I reckon, were semi-excitedly hanging around, obviously the sort of spontaneously-formed crowd who just happened to be in the right place at the right time when something was happening. Just what that was, though, was a mystery to me, but I hung around anyway.

A big Japan flag was unfurled and attached to one side of the covered entrance to the station. A couple of American lads came out of the station and saw the crowd, came over and asked me what was going on. Explaining my ignorance they went off and asked a policeman, and came back to tell me that apparently the Emperor was about to show up.

Now AIUI the Emperor of Japan is revered like a God. Japan is the only country that has an Emperor too (I'm not including John, Emperor of Kebabs from that place in Carshalton that Kevin used to drive us to), and sure enough along came a big motorcade. A bit of cheering, but no whooping, from the crowd, and applause from those people not clutching cameras. 3rd car in and out came an old bloke, who waved to the crowd and elicited a bit more volume in the cheering and applause departments, and a lot more snapping from the cameras. The fucking Emperor of Japan was off to get a train (I assume) and I happened to be there when it happened. I dunno what everyone else thinks about that but I think it's pretty mental and at least slightly cool.

What wasn't cool was my inability to buy any tickets for transport. There were loads of machines in the station forecourts and they operated in English, including audio. Unfortunately for my embarrassment the English audio was about 5 times louder than the Japanese version, I jumped out of my skin when it started chatting at me. But it offering English was no help anyway, because all I could make it do was offer me tickets based on price, a kind of "how much do you want to spend?" thing. Um, well, y'see, I don't know. I want a ticket that lets me get any train and tube I want. I couldn't make the machine sell me anything though, not even a single or return to a specific station, so I gave up in a huff and went back for that hat.

Hat retrieved I tried a different tack, and got the lift down into the basement, where there were eateries and a route to the subway station (as opposed to railway station). Got there and gave the ticket machine a go and bingo -- out came a pass with JPY3000 of credit loaded on it for rides on the subways, all lines regardless of the operator (there are private lines and Tokyo Metro lines, y'see). And to top it off, on the back there was a map of the network.. all in Japanese. FFHS. Oh well, I had a map in a book and also picked up a leaflet with a load of English in it, which was handy. The only thing was not having the faintest idea how much JPY3000 was worth in terms of journeys, but I assumed I'd find that out in due course, for example when the ticket stopped working.

Anyway, ticket in hand and map in pocket I ventured further than walking distance from my hotel for the first time since landing. I'd heard about AKIHABARA, a district full of electronics shops and stuff. I didn't want to buy anything, although the temptation is always there, but figured it was good for a gawp. And it was, fucking hell, Some 8 floor shop absolutely teeming with people and stocking the most astonishing array of electronics I've ever seen. Couldn't understand a word of any of the descriptions although I did get a demo in English of one of the cameras by an assistant. For some reason I'm always on the lookout for cameras, even though I never buy them because I realise I neither genuinely want nor need one, FFHS. Anyway, I explored that place for a while and then got back on the tube with no destination in mind.

Glancing at the map and working from a vague list of district names worth visiting in my head, I figured a station with the word "Ginza" in it must be near to Ginza, even though it wasn't Ginza station itself. I came out of whatever it was and found myself standing in front of a theatre called Kabukiza, a cool looking place where the kabuki shows last 9 hours or something daft. Picking a direction at random I ended up walking for 20 minutes or so through an almost deserted city area, all businesses and skyscrapers with nowt going on. I crossed over a bridge and used the force, rather than a map, to decide where to go next and 2 minutes later was in a seedy district full of bars and odd shops and dancing clubs. Fucking result, I'd found red-light city. My walk slowed a bit since I was now in the middle of an area with life and I took a few random turns here and there while still attempting to keep going towards my hotel, or so I thought.

Turns out I thought right. More and more life, shops, bars, fewer whorehouses, and I reached a big trainline that I surmised was heading into Tokyo station. Crossing under it I saw BIC Camera, another huge electronics shop that I'd spotted the night before when wandering looking for a beer. So now I knew where I was, how to get to Ginza, and how to get back to the hotel. Result. I explored BIC Camera for a bit which was like a scaled down version of Akihabara, then walked back to the hotel, on the way managing to find the pub I'd been after the night before. Turns out it was on floor -1, the basement, rather than the ground floor as I'd thought it was. Made a note and went back to the hotel.
easy to understand tube map

It was about 4.30pm by now IIRC. Because my sightseeing of the Imperial Palace had been cut short I thought I'd give it another go, although with a backup provision that I was heading to the boozer if the wind didn't die down. Got to the grounds and had to keep hold of my hat with both hands 'cos it was so gusty, so the pub called. A Belgian place called Antwerp Central, I sat at the counter and got handed an English menu so I could order in the time-honoured ignorant-foreigner way: pointing. The weakest beer on the menu was Stella, 5.2%. Eek. I had 4 beers (only one of them a full pint) in 2 hours or so, as well as a plate of chips. Fucking pathetic really, consdering the couple next to me.

Without being able to understand a bloody word anyone was saying I can't be sure my interpretation of the situation is accurate, but this is what it looked like to me: two colleagues, the bloke trying to impress and pull the bird. Either his attempts at impressing were by showing off his drinking prowess, or he was super-nervous, but either way this guy -- who had arrived 15 minutes or so after me -- had had 7 different Belgian beers by the time I left. So that was about 1h45m. He wasn't showing any obvious signs of being wasted until he returned from the bogs and failed to get back on his stool until the 3rd attempt. Dear lord, he must have been a fucking mess. It was only 7pm 'n all, and this is a bar that opens until 5am most days! I would have stayed a bit longer to keep watching but I was a bit pissed meself.

Back at the hotel I didn't do much. Even though I'd managed to go to a bar and have some drinks and summat to eat, I was still feeling pretty intimidated by Tokyo in all honesty. Most of the day had been spent wandering around shops or city areas, getting a drink at regular occasions from vending machines (no human contact required) and getting wound up at myself but doing nothing about it. The thing about being an obvious visitor is that things are piss easy to do if you just bite the bullet. Go and point, no-one actually expects you to understand the language or culture. Indeed my guidebook explicitly said "as a foreigner you will be forgiven almost anything", and since I'd avoided murdering their living God I figured I was probably safe enough -- but the truth is I just didn't have the bollocks. It was far safer to just go hide in my hotel room for the evening and do nothing, and that's what I did. I may have popped out a little later to buy a sandwich from 7-Eleven, but that's not exactly hardcore is it?

Perhaps Monday would be better.

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