I’ve been to the future and everyone speaks Japanese.
Japan is my first real Asian experience and I loved it. I’ve wanted to come here for a long time but it never happened, and despite a couple of doubts we had while in Colombia (Mostly about cost) we took the decision to spend roughly two weeks here as our first port of call in Asia. The summary for Col is Japan is awesome is a really unique and fascinating place unlike anywhere I’ve been before. The contrast of coming from Colombia to Japan also adds an extra level of culture shock. After 11 nights, here’s how we got on.
Part 1: Airbnb Prefecture
The Greater Tokyo Area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. (37 Million!!) We arrived expecting to have to battle hordes of people to cross every street and generally be overwhelmed. We were wrong. Our Airbnb in Iriya was in the quietest, most relaxing neighbourhood I could imagine. It was like a small town with low-rise housing complete with kids walking to school (With matching backpacks) and mothers on bikes cruising the sidewalks. Apart from the main road there were almost no cars, and the was a peace and calmness to the streets. The constant noise of the Colombian cities seemed very far away. The place is just so organised and well run that the number of people doesn’t matter. Everything works so well and so efficiently it’s like a utopia straight out of Star Trek The Next Generation.
The journey from Bogotá to Tokyo was 25 hours so we spoiled ourselves with an airbnb flat for the first four nights to help us get settled. It was the right call. We hand a spacious flat (By Tokyo standards) with everything we needed and so many little details that made our life easier (green tea, beer and chocolate, pocket WiFi device and a washing machine). This was our Base to explore all the weird and wonderful things Tokyo had to offer and we were delighted. Our host was very nice and communicative via messenger, but in real life he was our first lesson on the language barrier here. Face to face he really struggled with English and only after a slightly awkward check in did the messages and tips started flowing via messneger (With the assumed help of Google Translate).
Ueno Park was just down the road and we we sat by the lake beside a Buddhist shrine and just relaxed and soaked up the atmosphere. The calmness was so surprising and we were immediately happy with our decision to come to Japan.
Afterwards we explored Ameyoko, a former black market along the train tracks was our first real introduction to Tokyo. Everything from food, to traditional Japanese clothing was on display. The merchants aren’t shy either so some Latin American style hawking of goods us feel more at home. We ate our first (Of many) ramen after struggling with an automatic ordering / payment machine, and some street Takoyaki (Octopus balls). Happy out! We also arrived at the beautiful Asakusa just in time for a Matsuri festival.
My personal highlight was the nerd paradise of Akihabara aka Electric Town. Cosplay girls on the street, retro gaming shops and so many manga figurines and arcades with UFO catcher machines. It was like my gaming childhood memories were on steroids with big flashing neon lights.
The Tsukiji Fish market was another great experience. It’s an enormous wholesale fish market where auctions of enormous red tuna happen every morning at dawn and within the grounds you have restaurants with some of the freshest and best sushi and sashimi in the world. There’s an outer market as well which is more like the Boqueria in Barcelona only with way more free samples. We ate our way around the stalls and shops and considered having breakfast there every morning until the end of the trip. The tuna we tried melted in our mouth. Unreal.
Real Japanese People
Julie studied with two Japanese students in Lisbon, all there to learn Portuguese and we had the pleasure to meet up with both while in Tokyo.
Yasu and his wife Miki met us for an Udon lunch in Shinjuku (The biggest bowl of noodles I’ve ever eaten). They have a new baby named Lui. Yasu, having lived in Portugal and with plans to move to Brazil he has a good balance of the local Japanese culture with a view of the outside world as well. We met up with them later for a picnic in the park and a brief throwing and origami session too.
Miki (Another Miki, not Yasu’s wife) also studied with Julie in Portugal but also spent time growing up in the US. She travelled to Tokyo to hang out with us for the night and showed around the Meji-ju and the trendy shopping district of Harajuku. Here we did possibly the most Japanese thing ever where we spent a good 40 minutes in a Purikura photo booth complete with Japanese school girl costumes and everything. Our inner 13 years old Japanese child had a field day. She also introduced us to Daiso, the Japanese Pound Shop where they have everything under the planet at the cost of ¥100.
PART 2: Couch Surfing Prefecture
To keep the costs low and in an effort to get a more local experience we (Julie) contacted a lot of hosts on couch Surfing. We were accepted by Tomo, a Japanese dude who works for Vice Magazine with a great profile. Turns out he was in Thailand until June, but that wasn’t going to stop him from sharing his place with travellers. He lives in a small one bedroom flat in Hiro, a neighbourhood filled with embassies, white people and French boutiques. We arrived to the flat collecting keys from the letter box to find our fellow couch surfers, two Dutch girls. We quickly learned that Tomo was so nice he accepted a lot of people into his place. There was also a French dude, an Italian dude and two Australians girls. Honestly it was fine, we had our own corner in the living area, and were paying absolutely nothing in a country where cheap accommodation is practically non-existent. While we obviously didn’t get the hanging with locals side of Couchsurfing, we did have good fun with our fellow travellers and spent a lot of time hanging out with Nas from France in particular. The more nights we spent, the more people arrived and on our last night we were 11 people including a father and daughter from Slovakia and a Polish couple who weren’t very happy with the set up and annexed our corner while we were at Karaoke. It was a generally good experience, but living in a community in with such a small space and so many people was challenging after 4 nights.
The highlight was our big Tokyo night out with the frisbee crew. Organised by Niji, about 14 of us, mostly expats started with a diner in Shibuya. The locals ordered rounds and rounds of tapas for the table. The food was great quality but the madmen have an open bar. You literally pour your own drinks, from beers, to bottles of sake, whiskey and loads of flavoured syrups you can add to the mix. The drink is a curse, as the old saying goes. Before we got cut off I made sure to get two big glasses of Sake into me before heading to Karaoke. This would prove to be problematic.
Upon arriving at Karaoke (which was kind of like a dingy hotel) we discover they serve pitchers of cocktails, also unlimited. Pure madness. The highlight was wandering into other karaoke parties and singing and dancing with random groups of Japanese who seemed to enjoy having three Europeans along for a song or two. At this stage i was feeling quite tired and emotional and a disco nap in the lobby did me the world of good. By the time our time slot was up I was feeling myself again but Julie was now the one in need of a disco nap.
I definitely remember singing Aerosmith – Don’t wanna miss a thing and Kendrick Lamar – Drank (With a bunch of Japanese Americans). All in all a fun and very Japanese experience. We even made a small after party in a dance bar next to the Shibuya Scramble. Good times were had and the next day was not the most productive.
Edo Tokyo Museum
I learned most about Tokyo and it’s history from the Edo-Tokyo museum which goes through from when Japan was ruled by the Shogun (A military leader / chief warlord), when the emperor was restored to power and then World War 2, and the fallout and recovery to the modern Japan we know today. Absolutely fascinating stuff. The whole city was destroyed twice during both the 1923 earthquake and the bombing campaign by the Americans during World War 2, giving us the modern metropolis we know today.
One last highlight from our Couchsurfing days was tea in Hamarikyu Gardens. It’s green, beautiful peace and quiet surrounded by the modern shiny glass and steel of present day Tokyo. There’s a tiny tea house on the lake where you can sit on the floor, shoeless and take in the view.
Part 3: Frisbee Prefecture
Our Third Neighbourhood was Ebisu, south of Shibuya, a very cool and lively hood. Our host was Doug, a frisbee player who’s played the famous Boracay Open tournament with such familiar Irish faces as Alan Pierce and Jen Cooper. Coincidently he played against me in Worlds in Dubai when Japan Mixed played Ireland Mixed, and also Julie at World’s in Lecco where Iku played Corocotta. (The frisbee world is tiny). Doug has been in Tokyo for 11 years so he knows the place pretty well and has a beautiful apartment and hosted us for our last three nights in Tokyo. The difference from our couch Surfing gaff was like night and day. We’re very grateful to Doug.
We got some Ultimate under our belts too playing Wednesday night pick up and meeting most of the Karaoke gang (And Kristin who has also played with all the Irish Asians), and a Sunday training / Scrimmage day with Kuru as preparation for a big tournament in Nagano in a couple of weeks. It gave us a really good flavour of the mix of expats and local players in Tokyo and was a lot of fun.
Our impression really was that we had been transported to the future. Everything worked so well. The only flaw we could see was the challenge of the local Japanese culture. From speaking with Yasu, Miki and others we got the feeling that the culture can be very closed and there is a lot of pressure on Japanese to follow the system, conform and be successful in your traditional academic and work life. Openness in general is not something the Japanese seem to have mastered. Definitely something I’d be interested in reading up on or hearing other opinions.
We spent our last few days eating as much food as possible and soaking up the experiences in Shinjuku, Golden Gai, Piss Alley, Shibuya and Jiyuaoka before catching our bus to Kyoto.
The food deserves its own post really. The variety, quality and level of service was always amazing. I would go back tomorrow for the food alone. Check out the fotos below for a quick idea.
- Our top tip for keeping it cheap came from Eliza which was to go to supermarkets late and night and buy all the half price sushi and sashimi. Japanese like their food to be super fresh.
- I Don’t know if everyone is just tired, but so many people nap on the subway.
- Some streets were so clean they felt like fake streets in a theme park.
- People wait for the traffic lights, we did too at first but then embodied “Thug Life” and started breaking lights all over the place.
- There is silence on metro, even when it’s full. Scary.
- Julie tried on clothes in Uniqulo and was asked to wear a mask so the clothes wouldn’t touch her face.
- Everyone wears masks. It’s very strange at first but then you get used to it.
- Google translate is the best, you can use the camera on your phone to look at Japanese text on say a menu and translate it on your screen. We’re living in the future.
- The Japanese aren’t afraid to give you a fair shoulder on the street.
- There are Vending machines every where. However there are no bins anywhere.
- High balls seemed to be the drink of choice, lots of whiskey and mixers.
- Bowing, gotta love the bowing. So simple but such an effective way to show appreciation.
- Be prepared to hear enthusiastic welcomes and goodbyes everywhere you go. arigatou gozaimaaaaaasssss.
- When Japanese people are intrigued by something the make a very profound Hooooooow sound. It gets more exaggerated with Alcohol.
- After spending months of speaking Spanish in Latin America the feeling of being completely fucking lost with the language is rough.
- There is Free WiFi pretty much everywhere, but it’s never easy, you always have to pray your browser will find the log in page and then check 10 boxes and an email addresses before it works.
- Convenience stores also deserve a whole other post. We had most of our breakfasts in family mart or 7 Eleven. So many crazy snacks and tasty ice teas and coffees
- Tokyo is full of tiny tiny vans.
- Everything is covered in plastic, everything!
- Julie went to Hooters in Japan. The staff were too cute to be sexy.
- Ufo catcher machines, fascinating black holes for money.
- Doug paid his taxes to a specific area in Japan and in gratitude they sent him a few kilos of tasty fresh asparagus.
- I will never be satisfied with a regular toilet again, Japan have mastered the bathroom with intelligent toilets. We’re really centuries behind.