So we packed tropical. For white sandy beaches, rainforest treks and baking urban jungles. Turns out, February is winter in Japan. So it is safe to say we didn't quite think this through. But despite the subzero temperatures, we had a ball. Japan is awesome. We arrived late in the evening, just after 11pm. And I went to the toilet. It's how I knew from the get-go that Japan is awesome, because their toilets are awesome. They have heated toilet seats, little hoses that automatically wash your butt and butt-dryers. And they flush automatically. And they have flashing blue lights that serve some unknown purpose and look damn good doing it. We headed for the trains as I bored Sinead with my love for Japanese toilets and stood looking confused at the Tokyo train map. Tokyo has a pretty extensive train system, and lines have express, rapid and local trains; this makes the map a little hard to wrap your head around at first. We knew the last train was soon approaching and weren't particularly keen to endure an expensive taxi ride so we rushed over to the ticket machine. The ticket machines are pretty decent and by that I mean they can be set to English. Not that it mattered because a friendly station attendant hurried over, asked us where we were going, changed the machine back to Japanese and out popped two tickets. With a big smile he waved us towards the ticket barriers and scurried off to save two poor blokes carrying all the baggage. Ticket barriers in Japan are not actually barriers. The barriers only appear if you don't enter a valid ticket or scan a valid transport pass. This is genius and there barely any queues. The London Underground and the like could certainly learn a thing or two.
I had taken pictures of every train map as we hurried towards the platform, preparing to count down the stations, concerned it would be the last sign I'd see using the latin alphabet. My fears were, naturally, unfounded. The trains had announcements in English, screens in English, train station signs in English. We barely had to try. Trains are funny in Tokyo, if you need to get on and it's busy, you just turn around and step backwards onto the train and shuffle backwards, squeezing yourself in. It's the done thing. What's not a done thing is eating or drinking on the train.
We reached our station and jumped off. Then we realised we had no idea where the hotel was, just that it was close. We stared at a local map in the station for a while before checking for WiFi (always check for WiFi) and, this being Japan, there was free station WiFi. Japan is pretty sweet in that regard: there is a lot of highly available, fast WiFi. Sinead and I barely had to talk to each other! We could just do as everyone else does and sit on our phones.
We'd booked a night at a capsule hotel because we're tourists. I don't know what I had been envisioning, something crazy like you get in your pod which is all LEDs and touchscreens and shiny white walls, which is then picked up by a robot arm and slotted into a wall full of the same pods. Like in The Matrix. When they rescue Neo from the human battery farm. Anyway, it wasn't like that. It was just a bunkbed set in the wall with a curtain in same-sex dormitories. To be honest, it was all very nice. The place was pretty cool, offering a whole bunch of activities and events, craft beers and several cool areas to chill out. They even gave us pyjamas, which were these cool gown like things. I miss my gown-like pyjamas.
We'd booked several nights at an awesome little Airbnb in the Koenji district run by a lady who loved to travel and offered a frugal, cheap place for backpackers to stay. Perfect. I don't think Koenji is a hugely touristy district and several people did ask us why we were staying in Koenji but it was a pretty cool place, full of tiny little restaurants, hidden away bars and whole-in-the-wall coffee shops. I'd read a few blog posts and guides about things to check out in Koenji, although apart from one place, everywhere we tried to find didn't exist anymore. I would highly recommend people check out https://www.gotokyo.org/en/index.html, it is packed with great information about things to do in Tokyo. And go to the tourist information center in Shinjuku, across from the station in the same building as the bus terminal. They are awesomely helpful in there. Anything you are trying to organise (in Tokyo, how to get somewhere from Tokyo or what to do elsewhere in Japan), they will help. And they have one of those creepy humanoid robots that will greet you as you come in! Anyway, Koenji. Yeah, so quite like a lot of places in Tokyo, there are mostly small places. And these places have cover charges and minimum orders, so for people on a budget and with limited time, it isn't ideal. People will set themselves up in bar for an evening, making the cover charge meaningless really, but if you want to go from bar to bar, to see as much as possible, it sometimes made it a little hard. Sinead has written up about our culinary experiences in Japan here, and boy were they good.
We spent several days exploring Tokyo in the snow. That's right. The snow. But we were an equal match. We wore all our shorts, and all our t-shirts. And socks for hands! We went to Edo-Tokyo museum, which was really good fun actually. Tokyo has a rich history (mainly of being destroyed and rebuilt...Multiple times) and is pretty fascinating. It is pretty cheap to get in. The building is absolutely bonkers, sitting on top of four giant pillars and you have to ride a really long escalator across multiple levels to get to the top. They also offer free volunteer tour guides. Our tour guide was good fun, with a debatable mastery of English tongue as well as (what sometimes appeared to be) a patchy knowledge of Japanese history... but plenty of enthusiasm to make up for it.
We went to the Tokyo fish market and despite getting there a little late got to enjoy the hustle and bustle and dodge crazy guys driving their weird little mini forklifts. It felt like being in Yangon again. We went to one of the beautiful gardens and saw some of the years first cherry blossoms, which already had people doing little photoshoots with them (at peak times you have to actually book time with the trees to take photos!). We explored a green house full of... plants. Mainly because it was cold and we needed to defrost. But you know, the plants were cool too.
We had a lot of fun exploring. Tokyo has so much to see. There are huge skyscrapers with cute parks and residential areas nestled in between. Massive advertisements adorn the buildings, huge screens showing the latest and greatest. It is also a very clean city, one of the cleanest I've seen. You aren't allowed to smoke and walk (they have designated smoking areas for that), and you don't see many people eating and walking. I definitely felt like I got some strange looks when I did just that.
We spent quite a few evenings tucked away in little bars. We went to one called Maid in Wonderland where you went up a staircase to be greeted by a mirrored door adorned with bar taps. The bar was tagged onto a hair salon and had three stools. The menu was all in Japanese so we picked random beers. I somehow managed to pick sparkling saki, the only thing on the menu not a beer. The friendly barmaid/salonist spoke no English, but her friend arrived who produced google translate so we proceeded to chat away via google translate and a lot of gesturing.
We ate well, but not always out. We went to the supermarket a couple of times and the big ones do a lot of freshly cooked food for pretty reasonable prices. We snagged a very generous, delicious and most importantly reduced (!) sushi plate with gyozas and noodles. We also got this chicken curry dish that turned out to be really squidgy tofu in a weird gravy sauce. Cant win 'em all, I suppose. We also munched through our fair share of budget ramen pots; cheap and cheerful.
Our Airbnb in Koenji was an oldfashioned place, all wooden with matted floors. The toilet seat was heated, naturally. I would just sit on the toilet to warm up. A warm butt maketh a warm heart. Says so in the scriptures. The toilet also served as the sink. Hear me out. When you flushed the toilet, as the tank was filled, it acted as a tap to wash your hands with. Genius! And these turned out to be everywhere in Japan. We had a small heater in our room, which we would huddle around each evening for warmth and curse each night as it would stubbornly refuse to restart after the frequent powercuts (not across Tokyo, just in the house).
We moved on to another cheap Airbnb across town for our final night in Tokyo. We dropped off our bags and spent the day in the National Museum of Nature and Science. It was a cool place with loads of exhibits and interesting tidbits. Unfortunately we chose to go on a Saturday so it was jam packed full of small children. There was a little market in the park outside the museum that we wondered through. It was full of great smelling food and games; the shuriken throwing was a popular one, god knows how sharp the things were, they certainly looked pretty lethal thudding into the targets. Our airbnb was in the love hotel area. And by in the area, I mean slapbang in the middle. Lovel hotels are hotels where you rent rooms by the hour and the rooms are themed etc. It's a big thing. Popular with young couples living at home and stuff, amongst others. Popular for sure. Also quite expensive. Not that it mattered, for the rugby was on that night. And Sinead was ready and raring to go. We'd tried to find a place showing it but nowhere nearby would be open for Ireland game (not even the Irish pub!). So we were watching it with beers and ramen pots in our room. We'd missed the last game due to poor internet so we were excited to get our first game. Sinead got a little overexcited at Irelands victory and managed to take a tumble, sprawling across the hall taking the standing mirror with her. It somehow survived so we propped it up and scurried back into our room, hoping that the owner would not watch the CCTV from the video camera that had been so carefully balanced atop the mirror.
We'd decided that, even though we were only in Japan for a few days, that we wanted to see Mount Fuji. We booked a couple of bus tickets (you can reserve them online but only to final stop even though the bus does stop along the way, it was a bit confusing) so got up early the next morning and headed to Mount Fuji! We were staying in Shidoyoshima at a small hostel. It was a cool little place, and weirdly we were the only ones staying there. Was a pretty traditional affair with sleeping matts on the floor but very comfortable. So we jumped off the bus to be greeted by crisp mountain air, virgin snow on the ground and the wonderful Mount Fuji filling the view. We were also standing at the side of a highway. I was in my vest and Sinead was desperately trying to get all her layers back on. Our bus driver looked a little wary for us but pointed us in the direction of the stairs down from the highway before departing with a friendly wave. We walked the twenty minutes to the hostel and the friendly dude that ran it gave us some maps (really good ones!), let us know some good places to eat and drink (of which there were apparently a lot) and rented us a couple of bicycles so we could go and explore. We decided to go to Lake Kawaguchi, one of the big lakes at the foot of Mount Fuji. I borrowed fluffy scarf that he'd lent me after learning we had been wearing socks as gloves and with our spirits high, we set off. It was pretty cold. So we caved and bought some cheap gloves from a little shop then carried on! It was a pretty steep climb and Sinead had chosen an oldschool bike that wasn't particularly good at hills but had a pretty little basket, but we made it. And boy was it worth it.
There is something I can only describe as serene about Mount Fuji. Maybe it is to do with how it stands solitary, capped with snow. It is just mesmerizing. Many Japanese artists most inspired works have been of Mount Fuji and you can understand why when you stand before it.
The lake is a beauty, sparkling in the sun and we cycled around her entire circumference, a distance of around 20km.
We stopped halfway at a cafe for a bite to eat and an icecream. In the bitter cold. But it was a gorgeous icecream. Softwhip that was half vanilla, half blueberry. And everyone was having one, so we couldn't refuse.
Some of the ride was on the road that followed the lake but plenty was along the path at the lake's edge. It was very quiet, midwinter I suppose, and despite the wind and the occasional car, the lake had a certain stillness to it. It felt like the world was holding its breath up there.
We headed back to our hostel where we sat in front of the heater with cups of tea wrapped in our duvets, because despite our new fangled gloves, we were bloody cold. Frozen to the core may describe it better.
I had a mini nap and Sinead drank more tea, thus revitalized we headed out to look for dinner. What we hadn't realized is how little cash we had left. We wandered the streets desperately looking for an ATM late on Sunday evening. They are not big on ATMs in Japan. Despite being super techy, a chip'n'pin is a rare site. You have to sign for things. Weird. But after more stumbling around we found a 7/11. Good places 7/11s. Love 'em. They had an ATM, and thus saved we went to find food.
In the morning we got up early and headed to the Cherry Pagoda.
This temple is one of the famous spots for getting photos of Mount Fuji with temple in the foreground. And the cherry blossoms I guess. It was cool. There were a few other early risers, mostly old Japanese men ready to continue hiking up into the hills.
We had planned to go for more of an explore, see some of the waterfalls, but Sinead fortunately discovered that our carefully laid plans for getting to Haneda Airport would be rather useless considering our plane was taking off from Narita Airport. So alas, we were left with less time than we had originally thought.
We went back to the hostel, packed our things, thanked our host profusely and went on our way. We walked the scenic route to the local train station, got a strange train that went one way then went back the other way much to our confusion and thus arrived in Kawaguchiko. We had some surprisingly tasty udon noodles before boarding the bus back to Tokyo.
We were both gutted not to be able to spend more time exploring Japan but as we boarded our plane out I could almost hear our wallets breathing sighs of relief. Until next time Japan, ki wo tsukete.