Drifting through the Tokyo underworld.

Shinjuku night

Yaaay…back in Tokyo!

We caught a late afternoon shinkansen back to the capital. The return half of the ticket had been for around 8pm but we just couldn’t wait that long, we just wanted to get back to the excitement of the big city nights. At the shinkansen counter they changed our train ticket without penalties and before we knew it our sleek train was slipping away from boring old Kyoto. Most of the people on the train were businessmen or groups of schoolchildren.  Walking out of Shinjuku Station the rays of neon were as refreshing as feeling sunlight at the end of a thunderstorm. I glanced up at the Alta Studio screen, supposedly the world’s largest t.v. screen and they were showing a news article about the discovery of a teenager’s mutilated body which i’m guessing was the case of the Sasebo schoolgirl murder. Alot of people were looking up at the screen, some had been stopped in their tracks, one man who was watching the screen while waiting at traffic lights sniggered and said something to a companion. I imagine this was the story that was holding the Japanese in it’s grip.

Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant

We wandered through Kabuki-cho, it was dare I say, refreshing, when groups of African touts approached us to try and get us into some establishment so that they could get their commision. After checking into our hotel we hit the streets, ate Italian at a nice place with the original name of Italian Pizza Cafe on Yasukuni-dori then went to the futuristic show at Robot Restaurant which had mixed reviews, poor food and great entertainment. The Robot show was fun, kind of like a safe go-go poledancing nightclub which would now and again be invaded by huge robots, gigantic bunny rabbits being shot out of cannons, cyborgs fighting with teddybears, girls in bikinis wailing out strange childlike music. Sadly, every quarter of an hour the theatrics would stop so that they could sell drinks. Bizarre, but that is what Japan is like.

Robot restaurant

Robot Restaurant

Our flight back to Europe was leaving from Haneda Airport in the south of the city so for our last two nights in Japan we stayed in Nihonbashi which was closer to Haneda. I had originally planned to stay in Nihonbashi for the whole duration of my stay in Tokyo but I guess the lights of Shinjuku had been too intense to ignore. Still, I had two days to wander around this historical area, the original core, in ancient times known as Edo. One overcast afternoon I crossed the blue, iron arched Eitai Bridge and stopped to peer into the murky brown Sumida River. As I stared across the river bank towards the skyscraper condominiums of Tsukishima a futuristic glass Himiko water bus slid past underneath, it was then I realised I couldn’t help but feel affection for Eitai Bridge. An old, lost relic trying to hold on as it’s surroundings raced on into the future. Once a famous spot where you could see Mount Fuji, the view preserved in the form of Ukiyo-e woodblocks, it seemed now the ninety year old bridge was out of place, almost like an elderly person being exposed to rap music, unable to grasp what it was all supposed to mean. Once the Sumida River had been the heart of the great city, lined with wooden shacks, boatmen would ply their trade, there were animation zones where you could see puppet shows and exotic animals, crude peep shows and all forms of raffish tricksters. Much later in the 18th Century Cherry Blossom trees had been planted ascending the river in the minds of the population. The water was once described as pure enough to make tea. Now the only precious flowers that appear along the river bank are the forgotten moth-eaten homeless, scaveging for food through the trashcans and sleeping under the iron girders.

I realised Eitai Bridge had survived through the horror of the mid 20th Century when the bridge itself had been newly constructed after the Great Kanto Earthquake of ’23. The earthquake occured around midday when people were preparing lunch causing a firestorm which sucked houses and people into the air and turned the river red. One horse was seen running through the streets, maddened by the flames it jumped into the boiling river, as did many people. Men working on the nearby foundations of Edo Castle discovered hitobashira, or Pillar Men, when the foundations had been disturbed due to the earthquake. Pillar men where most often volunteers sacrificed alive within the structures of bridges and buildings thought to give the structures extra strength, sometimes hitobashira were chosen as for example the first man to walk across a bridge wearing a certain form of clothing, so they were not all volunteers. Once a one-eyed woman with a wooden leg had offered to become hitobashira with the condition that her son would be made a samurai. After becoming interred her wish was never granted and she is said to haunt the area at night. It was hard to believe that after all that Nihonbashi was once again reduced to cinders by a swarm of B-29 bombers, the napalm cluster bombs resulting in fatalities on par with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The greatest decimation was in Koto and Chuo (Nihonbashi), a working class area exactly where I was standing. On the night of 9th March 1945, exactly seventy years ago, it’s estimated over 120,000 people were killed in one raid alone. I stood there thinking of the horrors of war and one photo in particular I had seen of the Tokyo firebombing, the charred remains of a woman and baby lying in a street gutter.

The area of Nihonbashi has been reincarnated as a business district with wide boulevards and traffic clogged intersections. As I watched the smartly dressed workers with their lunches and smartphones rush to the glass and chrome office blocks I couldn’t help but feel admiration for this city and it’s people. It was here that I understood what Tokyo is and was, maybe not the most beautiful city on Earth but one which had refused to give up and had risen again and again to fight another day, a true shooting star across the face of our planet.

Mount Fuji at sunset

Good Karma!! My biggest wish in Japan was to see Mount Fuji and it came true at sunset from the top of Tokyo Tower!!

There were so many things to see and do in Tokyo but rather than rush from location to location we just drifted through the streets and absorbed the city ending up in highend stores with their ubiquitous jazz music, pristine gardens, purikura photo booths, shrines dedicated to foxes, gaming arcades, bars the size of bathtubs and miles and miles of tunnels connecting one metro station to another.

One thing that was on our list was to go to Tokyo Tower, the cities own version of the Eiffel Tower, only painted bright orange to conform with aviation laws, built in the fifties when Japan was going through a French phase (when is Japan not going through a French phase??). A new addition to the Tokyo landmark scene is the Tokyo Skytree, higher than the Tokyo Tower although we heard that the views were not as spectacular. Plus the Tokyo Tower looks like the Eiffel Tower with carotene poisoning while the Skytree is nothing but a big torch stuck upright in a residential neigbourhood. We got to the orange tower at sunset. I had given up ever being able go see Mount Fuji and felt I must have had too much negative karma but from the corner of my eye I noticed a large mountain looming in the distance, I knew it must have been Mount Fuji but asked an attendant and she confirmed it was my beloved mountain. I just stood mesmerized, the sky went from blue to candyfloss pink to an intense crimsom before turning jet black. It was the highlight of my trip to Japan and I grudingly admit that for once in Japan I was truly…impressed.

It’s strange how Japan turned out for me, while I thought modern post-war Tokyo could never have compared to somewhere as ancient as Kyoto in the end I preferred the scarred futuristic capital.


Observing Tokyo. October 2014.

Nishi Shinjuku

 Walking in the darker part of Shinjuku.

Tokyo, or should I say it’s entertainment district Kabukicho really lives up to it’s nickname Sleepless Town. I got out of bed last night to get something to drink and glanced out of the window. It was almost 5am and across the street on the eighth floor was a woman sitting in a chair getting her hair styled! Who on earth goes to the hairdressers at 5am, or even more importantly where else would you find hairdressers even open at that time? The street ten floors below was filled with cars stuck in a traffic jam, drunk people staggering along the street, someone lay unconscious in a doorway and what’s even more compelling it was only a Monday night. Even the birds in Kabukicho don’t have a chance to sleep as here the sky never gets dark, the blaze of neon lights up the sky, the land of the never fading sun.

It was around noon when our Lost in Translation drama started. One thing that is very odd about this mega metropolis on level with London and New York is that unlike those cities you can’t even get a sandwich to eat. All the food displays in the windows are just plates of rice or noodles with a bit of meat on top. We also noticed on many dishes they just can’t resist adding the piece de resistance, a shrivelled shrimp, which became an in-joke between my boyfriend and I “…look over there, there’s another shrimp!!!”.

My heart sank as this was nothing but bad news for me. I went to restaurant after restaurant pointing to the menu and saying in Japanese “i’m a vegetarian” and they would always apologize and say they weren’t a vegetarian restaurant. This was so frustrating because I was asking them if they have any vegetarian dishes and everytime they assumed I was asking if they were a restaurant for vegetarians. How more lost in translation can it get? My patience cracked when someone produced a map and drew a circle on the other side of Tokyo and told me there was one vegetarian restaurant there. Eventually we found a buffet place. They had margherita pizza but the rest of the dishes had meat or more argh!…..shrimps.  More madness in the buffet place you could only get one slice of pizza at a time. I burst out laughing when my boyfriend took the whole pizza section out of the buffet area and we had the whole pizza to ourselves. Some Japanese people were glancing over but who cares, if you don’t get it and refuse to become a world metropolis catering to foreigners then food terrorism like this will continue!

Japanese cuisine

I’m not asking for much, just a ciabatta mozarella pesto and a cup of tea… Spot the shrimp!!

After lunch we met an old Japanese friend who we knew from Amsterdam. I was excited, now was our chance to slip below the surface of Tokyo into the hidden world of Japan which few foreigners would ever see. He took us through the streets of Kabukicho to…….an Irish bar? I knew he thought we might be dazed by Japan and decided to take us somewhere familiar but we didn’t travel across eight time zones to go Irish. After drinks we said our goodbyes and decided to go it alone, we were tired of being lost in translation.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu In Yoyogi Park…all to ourselves!

We just wandered through Shinjuku feeling completely isolated as if we were aliens peering into a strange abstract world. We made our way towards Shibuya and through evergreen Yoyogi Park and as I noticed mosquito bites on my arm I tried to work out if it was this park or another park that was experiencing the dengue fever outbreak. We noticed two massive torii gates and walked through the trees until at dusk we came to Meiji Shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Tokyo. I guess we got there at the right time as it was almost deserted, just they way I want holy places. It was really nice but in the back of my mind I wasn’t as impressed as seeing the temples in India or S.E. Asia, after all Meiji Jingu was built in 1913 then rebuilt in concrete post WWII.  What impresses me the most is the date of iconic structures, the older the better. Even though the shrine is precious to the Japanese people it is still an infant within the greater picture.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu Tokyo

Back in Shinjuku what I imagine were fortune sellers set up little lonely stalls lit by candle. On a street corner was a tall, skinny transvestite with auburn cropped hair wobbling about on a pair of 12 inch high heels while handing out flyers. A foreign couple, maybe European or Australian started snogging at traffic lights which caused a commotion Japanese style, i.e. quiet, expressionless, side glances. Illuminated trucks with huge billboards drove past advertising scantily clad girls. All the while the most suffocating, crushing feeling of impersonal formality pervaded to a backdrop of mass consumerism. A man in a uniform rushed over with a little silver tin and told my boyfriend to extinguish his cigarette in it and pointed along the street to a designated smoking zone. How ironic is that, a place where every restaurant is full of toxic cigarette smoke and you can’t smoke outside?

Anyway, even though we’ve just gone through one of the most ironic days of our lives I think i’m going to like Japan. It’s not like India or Iran where curious people rush over and invite you to their homes or just want to talk in general. The Japanese are not accessible and this could ruin my stay in this country, only time will tell.

Tokyo’s Terrible Typhoon. October 2014

“Cabin crew resume your duties but please be careful!!”. The plane had been thrown around like a ragdoll for the past twenty minutes and the pilot was obviously concerned. I had even been amazed that our flight had taken off from Dubai as planned, Typhoon Phanfone was scheduled to hit Tokyo around the time we were due to land.

Hindu Kush

The Hindu Kush through Emirates grubby windows…just before the blinds were snapped shut!!

The flight from Dubai had been weird. We left DXB around 3am although I had planned it that way as I wanted to watch the sunrise above the Hindu Kush where we would be flying over. What was weird was the way the cabin crew treated us. As the sun rose a steward had demanded that all of the blinds be shut. I, for one, would not close the blinds, I wanted to see the peaks of the Hindu Kush, one of the most famous mountain ranges in the world. Another passenger started arguing with the steward and refused to close the blinds, other people came to the passengers defence. I can now see why cabin crew act like this, it’s not to help passengers sleep (they all have free eyemasks handed out with the Emirates night kit), it is just to make the plane seem dark so that passengers will sleep and in doing so give the cabin crew less work. For me it would be the last time I would ever book a flight with Emirates.

Once we were allowed to open the blinds we were above northern China, the landscape seemed a scarred rust yellow. Last time I had flown over China it was the southern regions on my way to Hong Kong (and ironically also into the path of a typhoon) and all I can remember were endless green mountains. Just before reaching Japan we had an amazing view over Seoul and parts of North Korea.  It was when we reached the islands of Japan that things changed, we could see nothing with low visibility and white fog, it would remain like this until a few seconds before landing when runway lights appeared. My first impressions of Japan at Narita airport: dark and depressing, super polite airport staff. Narita was also a surprise, the arrivals area where we were funnelled through to passport control and customs seemed very basic and dated, I had imagined a sleek Tokyo, especially at Narita!

We took the Narita Express train to Shinjuku, translated as New Town, an area that had become the new center of Tokyo after WWII leaving Ginza in it’s shadow. After the tsunami of 2011 the Japanese government has been trying to attract foreign visitors, we felt the benefits straight away, flash your foreign passport and you get the N’Ex (Narita Express Train) into town for half price. It was on the N’Ex that I noticed the futuristic Japan, on an electronic LED display in the carriage was a timeline of our journey and was showing our exact point plus connecting lines. A woman came through the carriage with a cart selling snacks, I was amazed at her voice which my boyfriend and I nicknamed “baby voice”. Baby Voice was to follow us all over Japan.

By the time we got to Shinjuku Station the streets were literally flooding with the torrential rain. We walked through the train station and got a taxi to our hotel. I read so many times about the maze that is Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest travel point, and how many a traveller had gone into it’s labyrinth never to be seen again. Nowadays with Google Maps I just followed the yellow signs to the East Exit, no big deal really.

We had decided to stay in an area called Kabukicho, nicknamed as Sleepless Town it is Tokyo’s red light district. Why? Well I had this nagging perception that with Tokyo you have to be careful where you base yourself, I imagined some areas like Asakusa and Ikebukuro to be a bit deserted at night and as I thrive on chaos and noise it could only be Kabukicho for me.

Yasukuni Dori

Sleepless Town

The taxi driver drove us along Yasukuni Dori, a long famous boulevard surrounded by a sea of flashing neon. As I stared out onto the deserted soaked streets I tried to remember what I knew about Japan and realised it was very little. I had tried to read about Japanese history, religion and culture but it just didn’t click with me, there was ofcourse geisha, sumo and Monkey Magic a seventies t.v. show I used to love. I sat through Japanese cinema and most times turned the movie off half way through bored to tears, all except one movie called Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu. What a contrast with my trip to Iran and my obsessions with Iranian New Wave Cinema and everything else that comes with Persian culture. I had wanted to fly to Osaka and stay in Kyoto, Japan’s historical city but it was my boyfriend who decided we must stay in fashionable Tokyo. I was not expecting much as this city had been practically reduced to rubble with the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and then again with the fire bombings in the war. I imagined Tokyo as a larger version of Hamburg and Rotterdam, only clad in neon, exciting yes but sadly lacking in historical sights.

Our first evening was uneventful apart from a pair of my shoes falling apart while walking through the ankle deep flooded streets, it was too soon after the scorching sand dunes of Oman for them to survive. While we were fighting against the elements I nudged my boyfriend and told him to look at a woman infront of us who was dressed in high heels, a mini skirt and knee length stockings….she was basically naked and we were in the middle of a typhoon! We popped into a smoke filled cafe and sat there, a teenager of about 13 years old was bent over unconscious on a chair, other people looked about expressionless avoiding eye contact or staring into smartphones. Why would someone just fall asleep in here, where are his parents? Maybe there were travel delays due to the typhoon that we didn’t know about. So that was that, our journey to Japan…oh and I forgot to mention the terrifying sirens at 10am the next morning when we took a direct hit from Typhoon Phanfone, the sirens were scary enough but it was the shouting through a loud speaker that made it all so freaky.

I recorded this from our hotel room, the shouting on loud speakers freaked me out!

Half an hour after Phanfone hit blue skies appeared and it was the end of our depressing Japan, from now on it would be incredible!