Tuesday, 25 January 2011

An Impromptu Day in Tokyo

Sorry, it's been a while! I arrived back in Japan on the 6th of January, after spending a few days back in the U.K. over Christmas. I was originally meant to fly out there on the 23rd of December. I had booked a hostel for the night, and paid for my shinkansen tickets in advance (as it is cheaper to do so), ready to head up to Tokyo on the evening of the 22nd after work, and to fly out the next morning.

Alas, it was not to be quite so easy. The U.K. had been covered in snow for a few weeks (and by covered, I mean a couple of inches, which to the British is a blizzard of epic proportions, just as a persistent temperature of 25C is considered an "Indian summer") and so a lot of flights were delayed or cancelled. The day before I was due to fly, the flight company emailed me and told me that my flight had been cancelled. Gripped with panic, I set about trying to call both company and travel agency. As it was around 4am in the U.K. at this point, I had little luck. Eventually I decided to spend the rest of my worldly wealth on another flight, if I could find one. I was lucky enough to find a flight with BA for the 24th for a relatively reasonable cost. Warned that this flight could also be cancelled due to the weather, I went ahead and booked it anyway. Shinkansen tickets and hostel reservation still standing, I decided to head up to Tokyo that night anyway, and book a second night at the hostel. Jenny was going to be coming with me anyway, she herself not flying out until the 24th. This left us both with an unforseen day together in Tokyo, to fill in whatever way we saw fit.

The Khaosan Ninja hostel is 5 minutes away from Bakurocho station. However, we could not find a single train that was going to Bakurocho. Perhaps we were blind, but it seemed that this particular station was only frequented by trains once an hour or so. Heavy suitcases making us irritable, we decided to head to Asakusabashi instead, which is only marginally further from the hostel. Somehow we failed to find anything resembling a lift or an escalator at our destination, and were pleasantly surprised when a couple of Japanese passers-by offered to help us carry our massive suitcases down the (massive flight of) stairs. Using Jenny's iPhone (I'm becoming less and less convinced that I don't need one), we found the hostel. It's a small, friendly place with a beautiful common room (with kitchen, dining and sitting area), and the company own a few hostels around Tokyo. You can see the Khaosan hostel website here.

Now, I've been to Tokyo a few times, but I have never quite managed to reach Odaiba. I had attempted it alone the last time, but found Shimbashi station to be the most confusing maze known to man. Well, I say maze... it is more of an open expanse, so spacious that you lose any sight of where you were going to. From there, the station leading to Odaiba is a massive walk away with no clear signs informing you that, at some point, you have to take a lift as the station is quite high above ground. Alone and tired the last time, I had reached the station, taken a look at the cost to get to Odaiba (around 390円) and turned around impatiently. This time, we were not going to be put off by the price. As predicted, Jenny and I managed to get very confused at Shimbashi station (on the Ginza line). We walked around, up an escalator, down a lift, before realising that we were walking back the way in which we'd come. Eventually we found the sky-line that leads to Odaiba, Tokyo's man-made island.

It was a clear blue day, and gliding onto Odaiba felt like sliding into a dream. Something about the perfect blue sky, the buildings across the still water, the manufactured nature of the entire island has the feel of a film set or computer game. The streets in Odaiba itself reminded me of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, although luckily nothing else did. The photos won't do the place justice... it felt so surreal, and yet in a way gave me a chilling vision of human-crafted future... a symmetrical, pristine utopia, all sense of true nature and history buried under a cold, efficient city. This is something that I feel from Japan quite often, and it gives me the urge to run into a natural, untouched forest and hide in a tree, as if modern society will never catch me there. Yes, I thought this while we navigated using the iPhone.

The main attraction on Odaiba (to my knowledge) is the Sega Joypolis - an indoor theme park, with rollercoasters and a lot of 3D, virtual-reality style rides. We started off on a small, bumpy rollercoaster. Firmly strapping us in to our seats, the tiny, but fiesty, female assistant demanded "you have something in your mouth?" to our bewildered faces. Satisfied that we didn't, she let us proceed with the side. Somehow, the ride made me feel less dizzy than I had been to begin with. We also experienced some virtual white water rafting, jungle trekking and driving. On the first floor of the park (it has 3, everything is confined into quite a small area) a random boy band were performing. I'm sure that they are quite famous, and from the hoards of screaming teenagers, pretty popular. When we tried to photograph them, though, we were told to put our cameras away.
Fuji TV Tower

After Joypolis, we walked around Odaiba a bit more. The best views are to be had just walking along the elevated balconies outside the shopping centres, as these are lined with shops and restaurants to one side, and on the other side, an unreal view - calm water, skyscrapers, clear blue skies and the Statue of Liberty. Wait... what? The Statue of Liberty? That's right. Odaiba - for no reason that I know of - has its own mini Statue of Liberty. It's situated close to a bunch of American shops, which caused us to wonder whether we had been thrust into a teleporter and had our memories erased. What I did not realise until just now was that there are replicas of the Statue of Liberty all over the world - take a look at the Wikipedia article!

As it got later, we headed into Roppongi. The second aim of the day was to catch as many Christmas lights as possible, as Japan do love their decorations. After grabbing some food we met up with a friend of Jenny's and her friend, who was able to guide us to a small German Christmas market! I was overjoyed at first, because I normally go to Manchester's German Christmas market every year (repeatedly) to feast on mulled wine, hog roast, macaroons, cheese, bratwurst, stollen and other healthy things like that. Mostly, though, it's the atmosphere that draws me. I spent a few happy minutes walking around this one, before being slightly disheartened that while it was tiny, the queues certainly were not. Had I wanted some mulled wine, I would have had to wait forever, and I didn't think my friends would have been too happy about that.

We wandered further and found a carol concert! The singers were from Finland, and they sang a collection of Christmas songs in various languages, including English. It was enchanting. One girl in particular had the kind of voice that makes your heart swell and your skin tingle. We watched the entire thing, edging slowly closer and closer to the front, as bored people got up and left in between songs.

Then, we explored more of the lights. Roppingi uses approximately 32472348263463246 rope lights, as every tree I saw was smothered in them. Tokyo Tower, visible from Roppongi, was putting on a light show of its own, although the only spot that gave a really good view was in the middle of the road. So, for a while we went to cross the road when the lights changed, stood in the middle, took pictures and came back. Go on, here are some pictures of lights:

Behind Tokyo Midtown (still in Roppongi) we found an amazing little light show. Otherworldly music played, while a small shooting star "landed" in the middle of the ground. Smoke billowed from the ground, while spirals of light formed. Soon, the whole field was an entrancing blue, while lights whizzed through the trees. It was all very enchanting, although definitely not actually Christmassy. Somehow, I ended up with a Starbucks drink in my hand... I suppose that without a mocha or gingerbread latte in your hand, you're just outside in the cold surrounded by lights and music.

Luckily, my flight showed no signs of being cancelled, and so we went back to the hostel and I tried to catch some sleep before the morning. Coming up next... reverse culture shock! Read about what happened when I went back to the U.K....

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