Japan: Tokyo, the things that stood out for me… 4


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By Jen

… HOW COOL THE TOILETS ARE.

I said in the last blog post that I wouldn’t do another post about toilets; I won’t, but this really has to be at the top of the “things I noticed” list. On both trips to Japan, apart from getting to try on a kimono, warm toilet seats have been right up there.

They are state of the art. My computer is less complicated. Just brace yourself for the spray the first time round if you set it to “strong”.

To avoid any further loo pictures, here’s me having a kimono fitting on my last trip. There is a separate post about that. It was fascinating, so many rules and rituals, and a very very special experience.

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.….THERE’S A LOT OF TWEETING IN THE SUBWAY

Not as in tweeting, the thing I haven’t quite worked out with hashtags and 140 words maximum. Tweeting. The sound of birds is played over a PA system in the subway. Maybe the sound of nature keeps everyone sane, or happy?

Tokyo has one of the busiest subways in the world. Shinjuku station is the busiest  – used by an average of more than 3 million passengers a day. There are 200 exits and 36 platforms. I think I can be forgiven for getting lost a bit. Picking up a map in English helps.

Getting from Narita airport to the centre of Tokyo is easy using the subway. Use the JR line Narita Espress (on the Toei-asakusa line which is part overground, part under, cost 1240 ¥, about £7.25, it takes around an hour depending on final stop). Alternatively take the TCAT coach to Tokyo Central Air Terminal (cost 2900 ¥, about £17, it takes an hour and a bit, sometimes longer depending on traffic).

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…. HOW POLITE EVERYONE IS.

There’s a lot of bowing and nodding and moving out of the way. It’s usual to greet people with a bow, which can be a nod to friends and peers, right down to a 45 degree bow as a sign of the utmost respect. A bit awkward looking if you are over 6 foot.

 

Business life is VERY formal. Business cards rule. But don’t expect ladies to be let in or out of the lift or a door first: it’s generally a bit of a free for all, unless you are someone’s guest.

.…. HOW MANY PEOPLE WEAR MASKS.

Japanese people wear masks for two reasons – because they have a cold and they don’t want to be passing on their bugs (it’s a no-no to blow your nose in public); or because they have allergies. LOTS of people have hay fever. Nearly everyone it seems. Mainly it’s caused by the cedar pollen. You can even buy oh-so-cute masks for babies.

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….. HOW BEAUTIFULLY PRESENTED THE FOOD (AND EVERYTHING ELSE) IS.

The food is very pretty. Lunch is not a cheese sandwich in a plastic bag. Lunch is a bento box. It’s devastating to destroy it be eating it.

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Midori in the Mark City (West) Mall at Shibuya crossing was recommended to me (thanks Mayu) as some of the best sushi in town. If you’re ok about waiting more than an hour to get in the door, then go for it. After about 45 minutes you graduate from standing to a seat outside the door. The food was great, and it’s got a good atmosphere – the chefs all shout out greeting to everyone who has worked their way to the top of the queue. There are set menus and individual sushi dishes. And of course, there’s sake.

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…… HOW IMPORTANT CHERRY BLOSSOM IS TO JAPANESE PEOPLE.

Cherry blossom season, or hanami, is loved by Japanese people not just because it’s beautiful, but because it’s symbolic and signifies new beginnings. The new school year starts at the beginning the April, work contracts run from April to the end of March, as does the tax year, new recruits start work at the beginning of April. Spring starts.

The blossom period is only about a week long so people go a little bit crazy: hanami parties, picnics and sake under the cherry trees. Thousands of people congregate in parks of cherry blossom. It started on my last day in Japan, I was very lucky. It was a mild day and the blossoms appeared all around the city. There are daily update reports on the news of what percentage of flowers are open.

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….. THERE’S A SLIGHT OBSESSION WITH CUTE, IN PARTICULAR CUTE ANIMALS.

Whilst I sobbed my eyes out on the plane watching “Twelve Years a Slave”, the Japanese businessman in the seat next to me giggled his way through Tom Hanks’ “Big” and all the cartoons available on the inflight selection. Animation, for little and big people, is big business.

As is the cute cat and dog industry. Space is at a premium so few Japanese people have pets. But fear not, you can hire a dog for the afternoon, or visit a cat cafe to cuddle the cats.

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I got the sudden urge to cuddle a cat too so I set off across town to Shibuya crossing. Shibuya itself is worth a visit. 5 busy roads converge and up to 2500 people cross the road at a time. To me the area is “Tokyo” – flashing neon lights, throngs of people. Sit in Starbucks and look down at the thousands of ant-people making their way from one side of the road to the other. It’s become so famous lots of people cross back and fore (and back and fore, and back and fore) and stop to take photos in the middle. It featured in the great film Lost in Translation.

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I was getting quite excited as I got nearer the cat cafe. The one I was heading for was called Hapineko (neko is cat in Japanese). Find the 109 building – stand in the middle of Shibuya crossing looking up the streets until you see a building with a massive 109 written at the top.

Take the road to the left, pass “Royal Host” written in English) and on the left hand side you’ll come to a men’s clothing shop called Sawasaki – walk slowly and ask as you get closer, it’s beside a big Karaoke place. Peep carefully into the doorways until you come to this sign – it’s called the Cratos building.

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By the time I started climbing the stairway to the 3rd floor where the cat cafe is located I was more excited about seeing a cat than I’ve been in a long while.

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It was shut.

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It was being cleaned. Or the cats were being cleaned. The sign was a little unclear. But it was definitely shut. This is a Flikr photo of the inside taken by iriskh who made it to Hapineko on an open day.

 

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I recovered well from the disappointment. It might not have been the same had I been this lady…….

….. THERE ARE LOTS OF BARELY-LOCKED PARKED BIKES.

There aren’t many bikes which are locked, even the ones in the street overnight. The ones that are have locks that look like you could bite through them with your teeth. We had Matt’s bike lock cut from the campervan bike rack whilst we were sleeping in it in Portugal…… Tokyo in general felt pretty safe to me. I felt ok travelling in the evening as a single female on my own – within limits – and that could not be said about many cities so large.

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….. HOW MUCH MORE THE KITKATS MANUFACTURERS PREFER THE JAPANESE MARKET TO THE BRITISH ONE.

How else can you explain the fact that in Japan you get green KitKats (green tea flavour) and pink KitKats (strawberry flavour, which come into the shops to coincide with cherry blossom season)? In the UK we just get brown ones. Nice, but a bit boring in comparison.

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.….THAT YOU CAN SMOKE IN RESTAURANTS BUT NOT ON THE STREET.

Smoking is not prohibited in restaurants or hotels. With the ban in many European countries having been in place for a number of years, it’s noticeable when you walk into a restaurant or hotel room. What’s more noticeable are the hordes of people crowded into tiny smoking shelters or designated smoking areas at the side of the pavement.

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Tokyo is vibrant and full of contradictions. Super-formal on the one hand, crazy on the other. A very memorable place.  These are Omikuji lucky tokens – tap it out of its bamboo case, if it’s a lucky omen take it home, if it’s unlucky tie it to the grid to let it go.  Fingers crossed I will get back to Japan one day.

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