Saturday, 13 December 2014


So only six months into my trip to Japan, I reached Tokyo. It took nearly six hours by shinkansen, which I managed to while away moderately comfortably - it would have been pretty comfortable, since the shinkansen allows more room than any train (any vehicle, in fact) I've ever been in, except that I had a suitcase taking up most of mine. The first half was blissfully quiet, though people sat next to me for the second half, making it much more cramped. Still compares fine with anything in Britain, though!

Sadly, it turned out I was on the southern side of the train, which meant I missed out on the views of Mt. Fuji along the way. Okay, that's not entirely true - I caught a few glimpses and was suitably impressed, but there was no opportunity to get a nice photo. Still, I got a few of the general countryside.

Since Tokyo is hideously busy and expensive, I managed to find a place in Kamata, one stop south on the Shinkansen followed by a shortish local train ride. The hotel itself was, crucially, within suitcase-dragging distance. I'm really pleased with how that all worked out, suitcase included - so far I've only had to shuffle a bare handful of things between my various bags, mostly inevitables like used clothes that need washing and then adding to my suitcase. I've also managed to keep even my rucksack pretty light, so it's really only the suitcase that's unwieldy.

All my stuff waiting for the shinkansen.

Obligatory generic Japanese city photo on first arrival!

The hotel is convenient, clean, friendly (though corporate) and more spacious than I imagined, which is great. Having spent a lot of time in hotels where "inside" overlapped very closely with "in bed" on the Venn Diagram of Locations, I'm enjoying the room to actually move around the furniture, a very sizeable desk and a rather lush bathroom (despite, inevitably, a bath about 3' long that I could barely sit in, let alone lie in or actually use to bathe).

By the time I arrived and checked in it was gone 4pm, but I wanted to actually see some Tokyo tonight, even though it'd be getting dark before I got off the train. To be honest, my plans for Tokyo are a bit vague. Some parts of Japan have obvious Things to See, but honestly what Tokyo is mostly famous for is, well, being Tokyo as far as I can tell. There are well-known districts, but other than the Imperial Palace, no landmarks that really jumped out at me. I mean, it has plenty of temples, but I've seen a fair few already and I'm going to spend four days in Kyoto, historic city of Japan - there's not really much point spending my time temple-spotting here. So what I want is to see some bits of Tokyo, basically, and experience the city itself.

From what I could tell, one of the places that I've actually heard of and is quite simple to reach from my hotel is Akihabara. This is the famous electronics district of Tokyo, in theory, although to most people it seems to be mostly known for being a nerd haven. Alongside the electronics shops, all kinds of hobby shops have grown up - music, games, collectibles, models, comics, books, and a lot of things providing supporting services. These include a venue or two for musicians, the odd Maid Café, clothing shops that aren't very trendy but aimed at a youngish crowd, and a lot of restaurants.

I dumped my stuff and set out, enjoying the fresh and blissful sensation of carrying only a single small bag. My first challenge was getting there. In theory, it was simple, because it seemed that a single line would connect my station (Kamata) and Akihabara. I had a map and everything. I quickly realised that this was going to be more of a problem than I'd anticipated.

For those struggling to make out the map: it is entirely and exclusively in Japanese. Not just "Japanese", but kanji. Meanwhile, I know the names of various places in Tokyo, but do not know the kanji for them! Fukuoka always provided an English transcription of the name, but Tokyo has no patience with such cossetting notions.

The second problem, it turns out, is that this map only shows the underground railways, not the main Japan Rail railway. Or something? I confess to still not really understanding how railways work in Japan. Anyway, this means that my station, highlighted in red with an arrow, appears not to connect to Akihabara at all! You seem to need to take at least two different lines to get there, neither of which is the name of the line I am clearly instructed to take by Google Maps and my guidebook. What? I try matching up the real map I'm carrying and the map here, which is always a nightmare with subway maps, and am baffled by the stations simply not existing, apparently. Eventually I work all this out and decide to trust my luck that the railway line does still exist.

I'm in luck; it does. I'm really glad I checked this on Google Maps though, because it takes about half an hour, and if I hadn't known that before hand I'd have been getting quite nervous trying to work out if the train really would go where I wanted. As it was, I knew roughly where to look on the route map when I stepped inside the carriage, and was content. Eventually, I arrived.

You can immediately sense the difference between Tokyo and Fukuoka. That is to say: the pavements are much wider. It's nice being able to saunter along and gawp a bit without feeling rude.

It's kind of like this everywhere. The "Vanilla" thing is actually a van travelling round, apparently just advertising. What it's advertising I'm not really sure.

This shop seems to sell models, and the papers are all catalogues and model listings. They looked like mostly figures of characters from popular manga or anime (comics and cartoons, broadly speaking). I didn't like to be intrustive and it's a very crowded place, so not much detail here.

I'm not sure exactly why this dedicated cutlery store is here, but it sells a terrifying array of knives that I'm certain the British government would ban on the spot. In the case to the right you see a rack of chef's knives, each of which looks like it would cheerfully sever an arm.

I don't know who decided that the best way to sell slightly odd clothing was to have a suit of armour, a model gorilla and (I think?) a hadrosaur in the shopfront, but I salute them.

It's not exactly a sightseeing spot as such. Mostly people are just interested in going into the actual shops, although a few presumably have some well-known status and people in the know may be impressed by them. Me, I didn't feel much need to go into places. Mostly I just don't have any space, so even books or dvds would be beyond me at the moment. I've also got quite a lot of books already, and would very clearly have no idea what I was doing in most of the non-book shops, and attract attention as one of a very few foreigners, so I didn't fancy that. Yes, what a wimp I am.

For me, mostly I was just interested in the ambience of the place and in people-watching. I knew this was a busy part of town, but also it's not really part of the nightlife districts, so I guessed (correctly) that it would be fairly peaceful and civilised, whereas some areas would be all clubby and intrusive. That being said, there were a lot of restaurant barkers standing everywhere, mostly dressed as schoolgirls - one of the few Japanese habits that I find rather off-putting. Unless they were actually schoolgirls doing a part-time job, but everyone wears work uniforms here, so I can't imagine you'd just be turning up in your school uniform.

One interesting thing for me was achieving familiarity. Compared to a lot of people I'm very ignorant of stuff about Japan, but I've heard a lot about Akihabara because the first manga I actually read properly was Genshiken, the story of everyday life in a university geek club. So I've heard some of the names, had a good idea what the place was like, and had also seen it drawn quite a bit. This was quite fascinating, because I definitely recognised certain types of people from the manga. Fashions have presumably changed in the past few years, but even so a lot of the people I saw in Akihabara were distinctly sharing tastes with the Genshiken characters, rather than conforming to the fashions I've mostly seen in Japan. Similarly, there was a sort of indefinable nerdiness about many of them that I sensed, presumably much as wolves know their own kin. This was really intriguing for me, and I've have loved to get some photos of the crowds, the fashions and the more intriguing individual outfits, but that would have been intrusive and I didn't.

I had stiff legs after all that time on the train, so I walked from Akihabara up to Ueno and back to take in the full experience. Walking back to Kamata () was a bit too much even for me though, at least on a first night!

Here was an intriguing little side street, which I immediately went down. This proved to be something of a mistake, because this is clearly a point at which Ueno starts blending into one of the seedier districts. Although there were a number of intriguing restaurants, there were also an awful lot of what seemed to be lap-dancing establishments, unspecified things with suggestive names, and people trying to tout massages at me. I finished inspecting the street out of sheer curiosity, but left quickly.

This is one of those Maid Cafés I mentioned. It always sounds quite creepy to me, but I know they're actually somewhat popular with women, which leaves me confused. In fairness, it's not that I necessarily think they're sleazy (although sometimes...) but I'm uncomfortable in general with subservience. Cleaners at university and work always made me deeply uncomfortable, and I'd absolutely hate employing anyone myself. I suppose what this is really saying is that my ideal cafe is one where the staff sit around reading, occasionally asking me if I'd like a cuppa as they're getting one themselves.

This is all how I was led to believe Japan would look all the time, everywhere. Not pictured: five or six young women scattered along the street, wearing approximations of school uniform and touting for business. I did not pause to establish what exactly that business was, in case I found out. Also, it's nigh-impossible to ensure that your conduct clearly distinguishes "sociologically-interested party" from "schoolgirl-ogling strip-club-seeking foreign pervert", and even in a big city I never plan to visit again, I care about that perception.

I found this artistically pleasing, nothing more.

Tiring for the moment of glowing lights, I headed back to the station to examine the east side of the district. After considerable exasperation trying to work out exactly how to get through it (there is an honest-to-goodness secret passage, you can't simply walk through, because some genius decided to install ticket gates all around the station rather than at the actual platform entry points) and discovered this shop.

Intriguing! It might be 8C in Tokyo right now, but that's hardly going to put me off ice cream. I have bought it in winter and eaten in on the seafront, as breezes from the Atlantic whip a faint scattering of snowflakes in my face.

I selected the black sesame mochi ice cream. I've had good experiences with black sesame glutinous rice balls, so it seemed a solid choice.

Looks admittedly like a ball of grey putty, or perhaps a kind of roofing compound. Tastes great! Take the chance, if you get it.

I did wander through a couple of more general shops, selling gadgets and music, but I didn't exactly get the full Akihabara experience, from what I understand. Thing is though, unless you're actually shopping, that's not going to happen. I'm glad to have finally seem somewhere I first read about nearly ten years ago.

I can't help noticing that I'm finding it more interesting to investigate places I heard about a bit in Tokyo than their London equivalents, which I've heard a lot more about. Plus, despite the aforementioned railway confusion, I found it considerably less stressful and alarming going to a completely unknown place in a notoriously busy and hectic city in a foreign country where I barely speak the language, than going to most places in London even for a third or fourth time. This probably says something significant about me, but I can't say I know what, exactly.


  1. Tokyo seems to be...nice but confusing...I probably would not like to stay there for long. Akihabara looks like a fun place, but I enjoy randomly discover a game shop in the middle of nowhere rather than being trapped in the nerd land.

  2. On the note of maid coffee, this type of things (ie, AV movies) make me dislike Japanese culture to some extent. I am disappointed to see in 21st century, there are still cultures advocating gender imbalance and promoting social classes..

    1. It was a bit uncomfortable, definitely. I did sometimes find the social structure got to me, though it actually seems a lot more egalitarian in many ways. The hierarchies seem more relative than in the UK, so class seems less of a thing, a lot is just about current role (customer/staff, superior/subordinate, sempai/kouhai, older/younger) and varies between different interactions. That's probably better on balance. However, gender seems a lot more of an issue than it generally is in the UK these days, and that makes me sad.

      I think you could do a version of the Maid Cafe that didn't bother me as much. If you instead set it up as a sort of Mansion Cafe, like, where it was about the atmosphere, instead of all about maids. So you'd have people playing the servants, but not gender-specific, and a more realistic style where they weren't fawning all over you. Because I'm pretty sure actual maids don't generally do that.