Thursday, August 23, 2018

Japan - Hakone Round Trip

Today I woke up at 5:30. I didn't even set an alarm, but the sun streaming through the windows woke me. I thought of sleeping a bit more, but I wanted to leave at 7. However, as I was getting ready, I remembered that while Tokyo was a big city, most things weren't open 24/7. I checked online, and as it turned out the ticket office where I could purchase the Hakone Free Pass only opened at 8. I should have bought the ticket the day before, and it did occur to me at one point, but I promptly forgot. It turned out that the one hour delay was a good thing, because my stomach was a bit all over the place. It was complaining over the mixture of random foods I've been eating. 

The night before I decided to take my backpack on the excursion instead of my usual bag. My backpack was actually one that was specifically designed for travels with a laptop, and it was what I would usually use to carry it around. Many people questioned why I took a laptop, and that was because I couldn’t upload videos from my camera any other way. A strange restriction, as with the WiFi on my camera I could transfer pictures, but not videos. Also, I could do a lot more on my laptop, than just on my phone. However, my backpack needed to be repurposed for the excursion, and I took out everything that I used on planes, and instead filled it with what I needed for an excursion. I also took a light blanket I got in Turkey, that was specifically for use as a beach blanket, but would also be good in case I needed to sit on the ground somewhere. I was going to an onsen, but as people were naked there, I didn’t need my bikini. What I did put in was a raincoat, as they promised rain. I hoped it wouldn’t come true, or just be very light, as if it was too cloudy, then I wouldn’t see Fuji-sama. A nice light rain would have been welcome to cool things down a bit.

I gathered everything, and set off to the station. It was very sunny and hot already, even though it was just 8am. However, in the distance I spotted some dreaded black clouds. Hakone was quite a way away, so I hoped it would be clear there. I did think of rescheduling, but that would have completely upset all my plans. I scheduled some things for specific days because it was a weekday or the weekend, so that would have meant totally reworking everything, and I just wasn’t prepared to do that. Thus, I hoped for the best, and walked on. I decided on a different route to the station than what I looked up, and it actually turned out to be longer, so I vowed never to go that way again. There were a lot of people on the streets going to work in the typical Japanese office attire. I remembered that it was on the news a while ago that in spite of the heat Japanese salarymen refused to wear short sleeved shirts and no tie, so the president himself appeared in such an attire to show that it was okay. Business women also didn’t wear short skirts, but very nicely cut longer skirts, and often not straight, but fuller skirts, not unlike 50s America. In Hungary, during the summer sometimes offices tried to keep women from wearing sandals, but most people just ignored that policy, and companies ignored them not keeping the policy. At one of my workplaces it was brought up once, and then my colleague said that then we’ll protest the rule and stop working. As about 60% of the company was women, the men quickly shut up.

I found the Hakone ticket office at Shinjuku station easily enough, thanks to the guys at Ninja Food Tours showing it to me. I would have hated to try to find it in the massive station. It was actually not far from the dango place. When I stood in line to get my pass, I also noticed that they sold many other passes as well. Therefore, if you are planning a trip outside Tokyo, it would be a great idea to check if there’s one that suits your plans. As I wanted to return to Japan for sure, I made note of it for next time. Most of the passes would only be available for foreign visitors, so a passport was required. In fact, in Japan it was good to keep a passport, as all sorts of tax-free shopping was also only available, if you had your passport.

As I waited in line for the ticket, luckily a new ticket window opened up and I was guided to her. She asked me a few questions, but didn't even ask for my passport. I guess I'm very obviously not Japanese. I did have to fill in a form though. Now it wasn’t clear to me from the website what train was included in the ticket. The Romancecar wasn't, but it could be added on for 1000 yen. I chose that option, as it got into Hakone half an hour earlier than the express. With the ticket I got an information booklet. 

I found the train easily, as I just had to walk straight down to the right of the ticket office, put my ticket through the reader to activate it and the train was on the left. When I sat down I got an aisle seat, but there wasn't anyone on the window seat, so after a while I just scooted over. A feature of the Romancecar is that it has huge windows, so that was nice, as I could observe the outside better. I found the seat itself very comfortable, and had a nice relaxing 90 minutes. There was some background chatter from the other excited passengers that were looking forward to having a fun day. Most of the schedule involved sitting on public transport, so it was a good change from yesterday's walking. My feet were hurting still, so I was glad to have a rest. Most people said that you would need 2 days to do the round trip, but I carefully planned it for one. I did want to pass up most of the extra sights. There was an open air museum that only looked interesting if you had a partner to take pictures with. The geological museum I gave a pass as I was never a big fan of geology. I wanted the day to be rather about enjoying Japanese nature and an onsen at the end of the day. 

As I was waiting for the train to start, I went through the information packet I got. Sadly, most of it was in Japanese. There were English bits, but not all. I've read that the Japanese tourist office was trying to get more foreign tourists into the country, and especially the countryside. However, a key element of that should be better English literature. 

We arrived to the last stop in Hakone station, and I changed trains to the Hakone - Tozan line. That runs with a very special car, and NHK World did a feature on that train. It’s a special train in many ways. The train uses a special type of rail designed for mountain railways. It uses 3 switchbacks, when the train reverses direction in order to climb the 445m height. It’s not uncommon to feel the pressure change, and my ears popped too. In the NHK special I also saw how there are three breaks built into the train, one of which is a manual break, so it’s very safe. There are newer, and older cars, and when I got on, I saw that it was an older car. It had a certain charm to it. Finding the train was actually very easy, as the train left from the opposite side as to where the Romancecar arrived.

As I was waiting for it to start, another blonde woman sat down next to me. This was such a novelty, I began chatting with her. She was a very nice woman, and as it turned out, she was visiting her next sister-in-law, who was Japanese. She was also with her, and she didn’t speak much English, they were using Google Translate to understand each other. I again thought about the wonder of modern technology, and how it could help these two women understand each other better than ever before. The Japanese woman was going to move to Florida with her husband, and I wondered how much of a culture shock she was going to have when she moved there. In a funny way, it felt to me like I understood her better than her own sister-in-law. I wonder it it was due to me knowing so much about Japanese culture, and my overall openness to other cultures. We actually ended up travelling together all the way to the town of Hakone, and that was a lot of fun too.

Talking on the train was a bit harder, though, as the train itself was very loud. As we sat on the train, it started to rain, which was sad, though also interesting, as we climbed higher the mountains were surrounded by white clouds hanging onto their edges. At that point I knew I wasn’t going to see Fuji-sama that day. That saddened me, but it also gave me motivation to return some day and do the trip again.

We changed onto the cablecar, and I had to show my Hakone Pass again. It went from Gora Station to Sounzan Station on a very steep slope. The car itself was very modern and comfortable. As we waited for it to start, I noticed the multitude of people and languages I could hear. Beside Japanese, there was Spanish, English, German, and I saw Europeans, probably Southern Americans and Northern Americans, Indians and people from other parts of Asia. It was like the whole world was visiting Hakone. The train quickly rose on the steep slope, and soon we were exiting the train.

There was a clearly marked path to the Ropeway, and after another check of the Pass, I was boarding the ropeway. Everyone on it was deadly quiet as they boarded. The cabin swung with the wind, and we were pulled into the clouds. It was mysterious and a bit scary, but I had faith in the technology. We passed over fumes coming from the sulphur vents. The site was yellow with the sulphur, with dead tree trunks jutting out of the earth in places. It made me think of a post-apocalyptic site, and could be a serious inspiration for one.

We stopped at Owakudani, and had to get out of the cabin. That’s where the geological museum is, and people were wondering about the site in the air filled with sulphur. Frankly, sulphur makes my stomach turn, so I didn’t hang around for long. It was quite a sight though. It looked like mines, and I do know that there used to be sulphur mines in Japan, and some of the equipment did look like they were doing some mining now. Sulphur is used in gunpowder production among many other things. I remembered gunpowder, as a Korean drama titled Hwajung took partially place in Japanese sulphur mines. 

I asked my companions if they wanted to go on, and so we did. The second leg of the ropeway journey was supposed to have a view of Fuji-sama, but with the clouds hanging so low, it didn’t. That was again a bit sad, but the view was still amazing of the lake. It was hard to do a video, as my small camera kept focusing on the raindrops on the glass.

At the Togendai Station we had some time until the pirate ship came, that would take us through Lake Ashi. There was a small restaurant there, and also a shop and opportunity to use the restrooms. The ship came and we were first in line. The rain temporarily stopped, so we went up to the semi-opened area, but not all the way to the top, as the wind was blowing. The weather was okay for a while, but it got progressively worse, and we were getting wet. My companions went up to try the top deck, and I was actually a bit worried about them, as the wind was really strong by that point. My original plan was to get off at Hakone Checkpoint, check out the museum there, walk through the forest to Hakone town. However, with the weather being that bad, there was no point in going to an open air museum, and walking in a forest while not even being able to walk upright. So instead, I was planning on taking the ship to Hakone. What I didn’t check because of my original plans, was that we had to change to a smaller ship that took us into Hakone, so if the staff didn’t warn us, we would have stayed on. So a smaller, blue ship took us into Hakone, where I parted from my companions.

In Hakone, my plan was to walk to the Hakone shrine, and for a while it looked like the weather was clearing up. However, it started to rain again, and as my stomach rumbled, I decided to look for a nice restaurant. I went online, and looked for what had good reviews around me. I first walked around some shops though, as Hakone was famous for handmade wood things. There were some pretty nice things, but I ended up just going to this good-looking chicken restaurant. Karatto is a very nice place and I highly recommend it. I even wrote a very nice review for them. While I was eating, I was chatting with my mum, so it was almost like we were having lunch together. I enjoyed my lunch so much, I wished I could have eaten more, but the karaaGe plate I ate was so perfectly proportioned, I was completely full. When I paid, with a card, I might add, I exchanged a few sentences in Japanese, with this older man, and I was very happy about it. First time ever!

My plan was to go next to Amazake-chaya Tea House. So I went to the bus station, but the bus that a lot of people were waiting at was going to the train station. I had to ask around, but I was directed to the right bus. The buses were running very rarely, so I had to wait a while. The wind and rain was picking up again, and I tried to stand in the station. The bus station was right next to the boat station, so I was standing in the area where you could get boat tickets, as it was in front of the stop for my bus. As I was waiting for the bus, I realised I really didn’t want to go to the teahouse, but I really wanted to be in the onsen, with my feet and back in hot water, turning into a prune. So when the bus finally got there, and then started, I just decided to stay on and go straight to Tenzan Onsen.

The bus went through a beautiful forest with trees so tall, you could barely see the top. I was paying attention to the stops, and got off at the Okuyumotoiriguchi Bus Stop. I walked down from the road, and over a bridge. There were several buildings there. I know you can also stay at the Onsen, and I wished I was. Before the entrance inside a small structure was a ticket machine. I pressed the button that had the discount for the Hakone Pass. Not a huge discount, but every little counts. I entered the Onsen, and inside was a place to take off your shoes. My back was hurting a lot at that point, so I had a difficult time even taking my shoes off. The older man behind the counter said that I’d feel better after the bath. So I put my shoe in a box, and I could lock it in there as well. I showed my ticket, and also got a small towel. I totally forgot to put one in. It would make a great souvenir too. 

Inside I walked on those lovely bamboo mats, and I went straight to the women’s bath. I followed the sign for woman, and found the changing rooms. There was also a place to dry your hair with a could of hair dryers, and toilets. So I got naked and put my stuff into one of the lockers. I could put the key around my wrist, and I went to wash myself down. It was a bit weird to sit down on a little stool with my naked body. I’m very germophobe, but I pushed that part down and washed myself. I think I should have used the bucket and not the shower-head, but the bucket seemed too complicated.

Once I was clean, went outside to the pools. The atmosphere was beautiful. It was in an area surrounded by stone walls. There was a main pool with white water built from rocks. It was under a canopy of leaves, which with the rain was really great. I headed to that pool first. I was very careful getting in with the different rocks, and once I found a nice place to sit in, I relaxed and spent some time just enjoying the warm water and the quiet. I wasn’t the only foreigner in there, so at least I didn’t stand out. In fact, some of them had tattoos, and I have read before that this was an onsen that allowed them. The water wasn’t too warm, it was actually very comfortable. I looked around, and observed the little statues scattered about. There were also wooden areas to sit down and cool down a bit. Outside there was no drinking fountain, but there was one by the washing area, and some people filled their water bottles from there. Once I felt the tension in my back ease, I got out to explore the other pools. There was also a small wooden house, which I suspected to be the sauna. I went in, and it was, and as expected, too hot for me.

Outside there were two pools side by side. I got into the one on the left, and it was hotter than the first pool I went into. I spent a few minutes there, but it was getting too hot. The pool beside it seemed even steamier, so I only put my hand in, and it was too hot even for that. It was a shame, as that pool went into a cave. Instead, I tried the small pool in the corner, and it smelled of sulphur, but not too much. That was actually delicious for my back, and it had a cute statue in the corner. I stayed there for a while, but then I was itching to try the last pool, where quite a few of the foreign girls were also bathing. I listened and determined they were German. That pool wasn’t too hot, but it wasn’t that special. I went back into the sulphur one, but it was getting a bit too much, so I chose a place where I could just sit in from the waist down. As I was sitting there, I started up a conversation with an Asian-looking girl, but she turned out to be actually Australian. She had quite a number of tattoos. We chatted about all sorts of things, but at a low tone to not disturb the other bathers. She was travelling with her boyfriend, who was enjoying the men’s bath.

After a while we both decided to get going, and I cleaned up, dried my hair, and got dressed. I checked with reception when the next bus was coming, and I had some time. So I checked out the little gift shop they had, and also had a lie-down in the rest area. A cute thing was that since we were barefoot, and the toilets had tiles, for each toilet there was a special toilet slipper that you could slip into. I found that so Japanese, as they are so good at paying attention to these little things.

Outside I barely had to wait in the little waiting area, and the bus came. As it went down to the train station, it started to rain again. However, when I got to the station, it stopped. A couple of people were in a hurry, so I figured the train would go soon. I reached the platform with my Hakone Pass, but the train there was a Romancecar again. A man was selling tickets for the train to go to Odawara, the main station, where people could get onto the Hakone Express. However, I was getting hungry, and was ready to take the Romancecar back all the way to Tokyo. I was supposed to use a machine to get that ticket, but with all the menus I got a bit confused. The guy stepped over to help me, and he pressed all the buttons for me. He was a lifesaver, as the train was about to leave in a few minutes. I thanked him, and quickly hopped on. I found my seat while the train was already pulling out of the station. I relaxed into my seat. I was very thirsty, so I waited for the trolley to come. I got a bottle of water there. The price wasn’t so bad, 130 yen. A bit more expensive than in the shop, but not exorbitant. I chatted with my mum on the way back. There was barely anyone in that cart.

When I got off I decided to have a nice lunch. In Tokyo the streets were a bit damp, but the air was warm, and it wasn’t raining. I was in the mood for some takoyaki, so I went to the shop where I ate with the Ninja Food Tour. I got 8 balls, and the guys looked at me weird that that’s all I was having. I told them I wasn’t very hungry, and I really wasn’t. So I quickly ate, and paid. Then I walked towards my Airbnb, but took a route I haven’t tried before. What did I behold? A Scientology building! Now I’m very interested in all sorts of belief systems, but frankly, Scientology is one that I think of as one of the weirdest, and I also don’t have a good opinion on the group itself. I won’t go into my thoughts on it. I took a picture of the building. I thought it was very flashy, and quite interesting, if only it didn’t house what it did. I also passed some interesting murals under an overpass.

Here is my original plan, if you want to give it a try:

7:19 - 9:16 Shinjuku Station to Hakone-Yumoto Stn.
9:37 - 10:16 Hakone-Yumoto Stn. to Gora Station
10:21 - 10:31 Gora Station to Sounzan Sta.
10:33 - 10:57 Sounzan Sta. to Togendai Station
11:20 - 11:45 Togendai Station to Hakone Sightseeing cruise
12:00 - 13:00 Old Tokaido and Hakone Checkpoint
13:00 - 13:45 Hakone Checkpoint museum to Hakone Shrine
13:45 - 14:45 Hakone Shrine
14:54 - 15:10 Hakone Shrine to Amazake-chaya Tea House
16:10 - 16:28 Amazake-chaya Tea House to Tenzan Onsen
16:30 - 18:10 Tenzan Onsen
18:20 - 20:35 Tenzan Onsen to Shinjuku Station
19:16 - 21:34 Tenzan Onsen to Shinjuku Station

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Japan - Tokyo - Harajuku and Shibuya

I woke my first morning in Tokyo with a slight hangover from the two doses of alcohol the night before. It was mostly my stomach rebelling, so I took some times getting ready, warmed up some bottled coffee in the microwave, and had some food. On the phone I reviewed the path I wanted to take to the Meiji shrine. The plan was to walk that day, because I wanted to explore Shibuja, which didn’t seem that far. The next day I planned on going to Hakone, and in the three days after that, going around Tokyo. That way I could get a 72-hour metro pass, which was very economical.

I gathered myself and was on my way to the Meiji shrine. I really enjoyed that I could take the internet with me, because that way I was less likely to get lost. My path took me through the business district of Shibuja. I marvelled at the beautiful skyscrapers. I passed a gorgeous hotel called the Keio Plaza Hotel. There was a group in front of it leaving, and I was kind of envious that they got to stay there. On the opposite side there was the Citizen’s Plaza, which was decorated with signs for the 2020 Olympics.

After that I passed an interesting statue of a beautiful woman. It was in front of the Bunka Gakuen University, and it was the Saint of Wisdom and Charity. The university used to be a women’s private university, and according to the plaque, the same statue stands in front of the German University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt, its sister institution. It was quite a surprise to see such a statue in Japan.

I turned down a small road, and walked down a very residential area. Finally, I reached the Shrine. The Northern part was under reconstruction, so I only went to the main area. I walked through the park. It was nice to be in the shade on such a hot day, but surprisingly I didn’t see any benches. I reached the main part of the Shrine, and some parts were under renovation there as well.

The name of the shrine brings to mind even in those who are not well-versed in history an emperor called Meiji. This shrine was indeed founded to commemorate him. His great achievement was bringing Japan into the modern era after its period of isolation. He was also the emperor who moved from Kyoto, the traditional imperial residence, to Tokyo, then Edo. The Japan we have today would not exist without him. The shrine was founded in the area where he and his wife used to walk a lot in the iris gardens. You can still see them in the garden area, but they didn’t bloom when I was there.

I entered Meiji Jingu through the gates on the Western side, where only a few people lingered. I arrived to the main courtyard. There were a lot more people there, but I can’t say it was crowded. There was a place to put wooden cards around a tree, and that seemed to attract the most people.  There was no inner sanctum to enter, so I took some pictures and videos, and went through the Eastern gate. There was a hall there that seemed to have some sort of a reception, so that was closed off. It was a good thing though, that I went there, as I saw two shrine maidens in their red and white attire and snuck some pictures of them. There was also a charm seller there, the usual fare. I consulted my map and found that I should exit through the Southern gate, as the garden was that way. I went back and felt that I needed to take a cooling brake before I went on. Around the courtyard there were seats in the shade, so I sat down and tried to rest. Near me, there were some Spanish speaking people talking really loudly. Now as this was a sacred space, people were not supposed to do that. However, they didn’t realise their error, and I didn’t correct them. Still, I wondered what would have happened if I went into a Catholic Church and acted that way.

Once rested enough, I went through the huge Southern gate. There were some charm vendors again, but I ignored them and headed to the garden. As I was walking along the wide path, I noticed a strange woman. At least, I think it was a woman, sometimes it can be hard to tell, as she looked very gender neutral. She had a sword on her back next to her backpack and was walking in an odd way. When you get used to everyone behaving a certain way, people like that definitely stand out. I tried to keep a safe distance from her. She gave the impression she could unstrap that sword any minute and start using it. I found the garden entrance and she went in as well. I let her disappear through a path, and then went and bought my ticket. I didn’t need one for the shrine, but I did for the garden. 

Inside the lush vegetation gave a good ground for some very loud wildlife. I got a map with my ticket and following that wanted to visit Kiyomasa’s Well. The map said it was a power spot. I read up on it, and it said that people who put a picture of the well on their phones experienced good luck. So here's a picture. There was also information on the well’s history. It was said to have been dug by a samurai in the 15th century. On the way I passed the spot where they usually have flowers, but my pamphlet informed me that they bloom in June and July. What seemed to be happening was some replanting work. I passed a gazebo that must be very pretty during the blooming season, and went on. I reached the well, which was really a wooden circle with water coming up, and did my video. I didn’t feel any particular power, but the mosquitoes were out in full force, and then my strange modern samurai was also approaching, so I decided to leave.

I headed towards the teahouse and the lake. The teahouse was closed, but the lake was very pretty with the blooming waterlilies. I had another small rest, hoping that by water it would be cooler, but it wasn’t. I walked all the way to the end of the lake, where another gazebo stood. I was supposed to be able to walk on from there and take another exit, but the path was closed, so I went back to the entrance. I was ready to leave, when I passed barrels on both sides of the path. On one side they had wine casks that had been blessed. They were from France there to symbolise the good relationship between the two countries. On the other side they had sake barrels. 

The path ended in the service area. There was some building going on, probably to improve things. The area had a big souvenir shop and a cafeteria. The toilets were nice and I cooled myself with the water. My eyes met with that of a Spanish woman, and we smiled at each other. From there there was a path to Harajuku Station, but the area around there had a lot of construction as well. 

My next goal was to visit the Johnny's shop that was near there. Johnny’s Entertainment Group is the group behind many of Japan’s biggest boy bands. Almost all of them are massively popular, and often have following not only in Japan, but in other countries as well. However, the group itself seems to mainly focus on its Japanese fans, and doesn’t seem to branch out much outside, especially not outside Japan. The furthest most groups ever get is Taiwan. The group I was interested in was their biggest hit, and one of the oldest with 19 years behind them, Arashi. Their greatest appeal to me has always been that their songs make me happy, even though I don’t understand their lyrics. Plus their concerts seem like great fun on video.

I crossed the street and there were a lot of girls standing around the small green area there. I went down the little street and found a guard at the shop. There was also a sign with terrible English. The situation was that basically you had to wait where I saw the girls for entrance, and the whole process was going to take about 3 hours. This to me was insanity. I thought of what to do, as being a huge Arashi fan, I definitely wanted to go in, but I was also getting very hungry and was not in the mood to stand around for hours. I got online and investigated the surrounding area. I found that Harajuku was the centre for otaku culture, especially a street not far from where I was. They also had some crazy food, so I decided to check it out. 

The street was very interesting. There were many people, and the shops either sold crazy coloured food or clothing. I went around some shoe stores, as I was looking for a more comfortable pair of sandals. I did find some cute ones, but not comfortable enough. I ended up not trying the food as most appeared to be sweet, and I was in the mood for savoury. I also saw a group of young people, presumably a band passing out flyers, but they also seemed to have a lot of fans as well. I shot a picture of them. 

I reached the end of the road, and turned right to make a circle. As I was walking, the woman from the restroom earlier passed me, and we both smiled at each other. It was funny to come across the same woman twice. 

I went back to the street where the girls were waiting, and wondered what to do for lunch. There were several places on that street as well, but they were more like cafés. I had a look at my phone for ideas, and that's when I saw an Ichiran Ramen place in Shibuya. That was where I was heading next, so I decided to go for that. A bowl of ramen would be perfect.

The walk from Harajuku Station was not a pleasant one. To save money, I had scheduled that day to be on foot, but my determination did waver as it was incredibly hot. I got some fresh cold water from a convini, and soldiered on. Before the restaurant, there was the huge Tower Records store. I went in, and browsed the stacks in the pop section. I was way behind in the latest bands, I realised. I used to be on JpopAsia all the time, but not anymore. I left without buying anything.

I walked right passed Ichiran Ramen, as I expected something on street level, and it was on basement level. Google Maps directed me back, and I found myself in another queue. The most annoying thing about Japan is that basically there are lines everywhere. Sure, you expect it at ticket counters and the convini cashier, but not at restaurants and other shops. It wasn't even really an option to go somewhere else, as queues were everywhere. So I just waited and I arrived to a machine, where I could select my food and pay. I had to get at least two items. I could have selected a menu option with 5 or 3 extras into my ramen, but I can’t eat mushrooms, and nori is not very healthy for my thyroid problem, so I just selected the basic ramen, and a bottle of their branded tea. I could always use more to drink. I paid cash, of course. Once I was done, I proceeded to another waiting area, where it was for a table. I also got a questionnaire with a pencil in two languages about the kind of ramen I wanted. Strong or not, spicy hot, garlic, meat, etc. They had the recommended middle ground circled and I went with it. 

On the wall there was a simple indicator as to which tables were available, and a single one was quickly green lighted. I passed through a curtain and inside I found kind of small booths for one person. Not unlike my cubicle during my stint as a help desk agent. However, the back towards the kitchen was open, and they asked for my tickets from there. The machine gave me two tickets and I also handed in the filled in form. A person took it. I couldn't see their face, just the middle and the hands. I read that this is so that you only focus on the food. In my booth there were also small cups and a tap for water. Strangely, no napkin. I could hang my bag on a pin behind me. 

Of course, people who didn't come alone were chatting, there was a woman feeding a baby a few cubicles down, but me in my own little cubicle was all alone. I waited for a bit, but after a few pictures I got out my Amazon app and was reading. I love that app, as I can carry many books, travel guides, even a guide that I pieced together from Wikipedia and other sites. All that on my phone.

My ramen and my tea arrived. The person passed them through the opening, said something in Japanese, and then brought down the Bamboo blinds, leaving me to my food. I first drank some of the cold tea, as the ramen was steaming hot. The taste reminded me of the herbal teas of Herbalife from the 90s. A bit sour, but not unpleasantly so. I got a huge spoon for my ramen and chopsticks. I blew on it furiously, and I couldn't wait to slurp my way through the first Japanese ramen of my life. I remembered the one I made at home years ago from cooking chicken stock and adding flavouring from a packet. I got the pasta from the packet as well. This ramen was a bit like that it used a meat stock as well, not fish. Obviously red meat though. There was plenty of pasta in it, some pork meat, and that delicious flavourful broth. The bowl contained just enough food to fill my belly. I did slurp. Once I saw a drama, where the woman didn't dare slurp. She was a timid woman, often unsure of herself, but on the other hand clever and hard working. Really smart people often underestimate themselves, as they are aware that they don't know everything. So when she managed to finally slurp her ramen, it showed her strength growing. I can't remember which drama it was, I watch far too many, but thus I slurped. It felt good. 

Once my bowl was empty, and my stomach was ready to burst, I quickly left, keenly aware that there was always a line for the tables. My next destination was Shibuya Crossing and the Hachiko statue. I actually know a person who has an Akita, and she told me she wished she could visit the statue as well. I have read up a lot on the story, and it touched my heart. The love and acknowledgement that surrounded Hachiko was so Japanese. So as I reached the Crossing, my first thought was to find the statue. I did so easily, as there were many people milling about. Taking a picture of it, however, was not so easy. Most people had help, so it took me a while to finally be able to stand next to it, and using my selfie stick, take the picture. 

I also decided to use my selfie stick to do a live Facebook broadcast of me crossing the Shibuya. However, what I didn't know was that with the selfie stick plugged in, it didn't record the sound. I managed to find the setting to correct that, but that was after the broadcast. In spite of that, doing the crossing was an elevating thing to do. I've seen it so many times in pictures and on TV, it was difficult to comprehend that I was walking there. I wanted to jump with joy, shout and scream that I was living the dream. 

Truth be told, until I passed through immigration in Kansai Airport, I didn't dare believe that I was actually going to be in Japan. I've had a lot of struggles in my life. Probably a lot of people had more, but that doesn't negate mine. To have such a huge dream come true was hard for me to grasp. Walking through Shibuya crossing, however, solidified in my mind that I was somewhere I wanted to be, but would not dare to hope to ever be.

Once on the other side, I set out to explore Shibuya. There were a lot of shops and restaurants everywhere. A guy was singing on the street, trying to make it. There were big trucks cruising on the road, side covered by a band's poster, blaring out the music from the latest album. Hachiko themed local bus drove by. There was a coffee shop with a line, people posting selfies with the cups. It was almost like at Universal, but much more of a mixture. I just wandered around, taking it all in. My goal was the Tokyu Hands store. It was kind of a huge department store focusing a lot on handicraft, but in general it had everything at a good price. I wanted to see if I could get some souvenirs. However, when I got to the store, it was closed! I was very disappointed, but I went on. 

I was wondering what to do. In my schedule I have put Ebisu Garden Place as the last thing in the day. It was a place known for Doumyougi waiting for Tsukushi there in Hana Yori Dango. It was my favourite drama of all time. The main male character was played by Matsumoto Jun, a member of Arashi, so it was also what got me into the band. There are lots of remakes, but I've never seen any other version, and don't intend to. To me, that was perfect. However, Ebisu Garden Place was quite a way away. I wouldn't just have to get there, but also walk all the way back to my apartment. For the time being, I decided to stay in Shibuya. 

What I did instead was to check out a mall called Shibuya 109. Inside it was 9 floors, but each floor rather small. Definitely not the sprawling avenues of shops I was used to in a mall. Instead, the small shops were almost on top of each other. You only knew where one started and the other began by their individual styles. They were all quite different, though most seemed to go for the cutesy female vibe, and that was just the clientele that was everywhere. Lots of girls in all sorts of very Japanese styles were milling about. From the conservative long skirt and blouse combination to the black boots and miniskirts ones. It reminded me of the anime Paradise Kiss, which was about young fashion designers and how a young girl finds herself while she becomes a model. It's one of my favourite growing up stories, and I loved the music. 

While I found the fashion on display on the people and in the stores fascinating, I didn't even try to look around. With my body, I knew I was already extra large in regular Japanese stores, so I doubted there would be anything that would even remotely fit me. I was even having a hard time in European stores. Truth be told, I'm fat. I did try a shoe store, but apparently even my feet were too fat. 

Once I had my fill in looking, I went outside. I was very much in need of a coffee. I wanted to go to a Starbucks. I have been to one in several countries, so I wanted to check one out in Japan. There was one just by the Shibuya crossing, but I thought it would be very crowded, and on my map I saw one in Shibuya Station. I walked there, and on a list of eateries, there was the Starbucks. I started to look for it, but the layout of the station was quite confusing. As I wandered around, I passed a shop with lots of bags. Now I have been looking for a bag for quite some time. It was not supposed to be big, nor small. It was for travelling, so I wanted pockets. Water resistance was also preferred, and that I can throw it over my shoulder. It also had to be cute and light in weight. One would think the list would not be so difficult to achieve, but I had looked through and dismissed hundreds of bag. The main problem with them? Ugliness. Seriously, there are bag designers out there with ridiculous tastes. However, in this particular shop the bags seemed to have a functional simplicity while also displaying colours. I walked passed it, thinking they would be too expensive for me.

I expected the Starbucks to be somewhere around there, but it wasn't. I sat down on a bench, trying to figure out on my phone where it would be, and to have a little rest. As I sat, I thought about the shop. If there was a bag that would fit what I was looking for, I would be willing to pay a bit more for it. So I returned to it, and found actually a whole lot of bags that I liked. I settled for a blue one made of a water resistant material. It was light, and had a great feature for travel. The zipper for the main pocket was towards me, not the outside. That way it would be harder to get into. The shop assistant tried to find me a bag that was untouched, but the one on display was the last piece, so I took it. It was waiting for me. It wasn't even terribly expensive. The brand is Anello, and as I researched it, it's a popular Japanese brand. I was so happy with my purchase, I sat back on the bench and changed bags. It was slightly smaller, but looked great. 

I went outside, around, back in again, and suddenly, I found the café. It was in the proper food court area, which had many eateries all around. The Starbucks was on a sort of half floor. It was pretty full, but I went straight to the counter. Luckily, they spoke English, and I could ask for my favourite caramel coffee with soy milk and I also got a cookie. An interesting thing that I’ve never seen in any Starbucks, but I really loved was that with the soy milk request I got a card that said I asked for it. The guy behind the counter said that I was supposed to give it to the barista, and it was to make sure that they made my coffee with soy milk as requested. I was really happy with that set-up, and thought that it should be something that they did at every Starbucks, or even at every café. The reason for this was that when I was in Turkey, I had a coffee at a Starbucks there. However, some hours after I had all the symptoms of having drank milk. As a lactose intolerant, that’s not nice. It was made worse by the fact that on that day I was flying home. I don’t know if they just ignored my request, didn’t understand it, or just made the coffee in a contaminated container. However, this is why if I had a deadly allergy, I would never eat anything I didn’t make. However, in Japan, they eliminated the chance of any misunderstandings with the simple solution of the card. My coffee was actually ready very quickly, so I had to stall a bit to get a picture of my soy milk card.

I found a seat as someone just left. The Starbucks reminded me of the one I first tried in Munich. At the time there were no Starbucks in Hungary, it was 2009. The first one actually opened the year after, in Budapest. The one in Munich was full of students hitting their books, and having a conversation. This Tokyo Starbucks was similar with a lot of people on laptops, working or studying. I watched them, and also had a conversation with my mum on Facebook Messenger. We once again marvelled at how great technology is, as we could have a nice conversation while we were halfway around the world from each other. My mum often remembers at times like this that when she moved to the US in the 80s, she couldn’t get a letter to her mum for 2 months, and it took 6 months until she could call her on the phone. She even had to go through an operator, as there were no direct international calls at the time. People who never experienced such a separation probably can’t fully appreciate what technology has made possible for us.

When I have consumed everything, I said goodbye to mum, and went on my way. Only later did I realise that I was probably supposed to put my mug and things somewhere, but in most places there was someone to take them away. Oh well, it was too late. However, as I wandered through the station, I realised that there was an overpass not far from the Starbucks, that had a perfect view of the Shibuya Crossing. I made a quick video of the people passing. I thought of what to do next. The sun was going down, and it was getting late. I decided to postpone the Ebisu Garden Place to a day when I would have a metro pass. Instead, I found that there was another Uniqlo shop nearby, so I decided to get more of their built-in bra tops, because they would be very comfortable for my travels. They were also made of a cooling material, and I thought in the relentless summers that would be a great thing to have. Afterwards, it was time to head towards the apartment, as it would take a while. There was also a Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku, so I made that my target. The walk would be about half an hour. On the way I passed the Johnny’s shop again, which was still completely full. I was quite annoyed by this, as I thought there would be a better way to organise the whole thing than just have people stand in line for hours. I walked on to the Takashimaya Store in Shinjuku, which housed the Tokyu Hands. By the time I got there I was pretty exhausted. I walked through a mostly residential area, with lots of small houses. Everything was very neat, and luckily as the sun set completely, it was somewhat cooler.

The Tokyu Hands was on an upper floor, so I went through the first floor to find the elevator. It was full of luxury brands, and reminded me of some of the department store dramas that I watched. Smartly dressed pretty young women sold high-end products like beautiful bags and watches, two things that I tried to ignore, as I can be quite easily taken by them. When I found the Tokyu Hands upstairs, that too, was closed. I had no idea what was going on with these stores, but apparently it was not my day to visit one. I went outside and found a bench. I was exhausted and my back hurt very badly. I was also very annoyed, because the day had not gone as I planned. It hadn’t been a bad day, but I was in so much pain with my back, and so hot and exhausted, it was all a bit much. I took a deep breath, rested on the bench, and decided to get some dango at the place from yesterday, and a beer at a convini. Beer is actually very good for all sorts of muscle pains, and if you like it, I highly recommend it for any traveller. That was what I did with the rest of my evening, and went to sleep quickly, as in the following day I was going to Hakone, and that was going to be a busy day as well. However, I was looking forward to checking out an onsen there, and thought that the hot springs would be great for my back and also the rest of my body.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Japan - Travelling from Osaka to Tokyo and Shinjuku Food Tour

I got up pretty early to get ready for the trip to Tokyo. I packed everything, and had cup noodles for breakfast. That way I would be full for longer. I also packed some snacks that I got. I got my suitcase together, packed up the trash and took it down with me. I went to the nearest metro station and looked around for the elevator. I found it easily and navigated to the train station through the metro. I was getting quite good at Japanese public transport. However, as per usual, I got a little bit lost once I got out of the metro, and asked for a local's help. 

I found the ticket machines for the Shinkansen, and tried to buy my ticket on it. However, it asked questions like place ticket or not, and a couple of other things, so I eventually gave up on it. I also wasn't sure you could use a card on it. Behind me, was the ticket office. It said so in big letters. I went there instead, deciding that it was safer to get human help. I got the attendant I didn't really want to get, a stern-looking older guy. His English pronunciation was very hard to understand, and I had to ask him to repeat several times. I think he thought I was a moron, but really, Japanese accents can be really hard. 

The thing is, when you start to learn a language, and how near the new language’s sound system is to your own or ones you learned previously is very important. I actually studied this at university, as I have an MA in TEFL. Oh, and BTW, foreign countries don’t accept my 5 years of schooling, but they often do accept a 6-week course you can take anywhere. Back to languages. I’ve learned that in Japan, they only start learning foreign language at the age of 12. However, that is very late. There are several windows that determine how well you can learn a language, and how strong your accent will be. The first window closes when you’re about 7 months. Your brain prepares you for reproducing sounds, and also the languages you hear until then, will always feel familiar. For example, I always felt warm towards Spanish. I was born in Texas, and while my parents didn’t know anyone speaking Spanish, I have always theorised that maybe some nurses in the hospital spoke it around me, or someone else. Then the next window is around when you’re 7 years old. Your brain finishes acquiring your native language until then, and makes a primary language center in your brain. However, you can cheat it by learning several languages the natural way, by listening to them. No formal training required. After 7 things start to get difficult. Your brain and your system of sound production have basically finished establishing the main sounds you will produce, and forcing your body to produce sounds not learned by then will be difficult, increasingly so as the years progress. You will have less of an accent in languages with similar sound systems, like if you learned Spanish early on, you will have less of an accent in Italian. Funny thing is that Japanese and Hungarian sound systems are very similar. Of course, it also helps if you have musical hearing, or other natural talents. However, Japanese only starting on a language with a very different sound system like English will have very strong accents. I also noticed that they instinctively want to pair consonants with vowels, even if in the language there is none. That’s how you get my favourite “Japanese” expression, dobulu dato (double date). So if Japanese as a whole wanted to improve their English as a nation, which is beneficial for individuals, then they need to start as early as possible, preferably in kindergarden. That was my little two cents on language learning.

My attendant at the ticket sales, however, probably learned English as an adult, and was therefore struggling a lot with the sounds. I did manage to get through, though with pointing and repetition. As it turned out, I did need to buy a seat ticket. It wasn’t that much more expensive, about 1000 yen, which is 7 GBP. The trains left every ten minutes. I didn’t want to get the next one, as I dreaded rushing, maybe getting lost at the station and missing it. The one after that only had middle seats available, it said so on a screen. I hate sitting in the middle, and on planes it makes me anxious, so I wanted to get the one after that. There were no tickets for the side that would have views of Fuji, but I could get a window seat on the other side. I got my ticket, and I went into the station after putting my ticket through the gate. I got some water, and then went up onto the platform. All the seats below were taken, and I much rather preferred sitting outside anyway.

As I was waiting, I examined my ticket. That was when I realised that the guy gave me a ticket for the train 10 minutes later than the one I asked for. It was lucky that in Hungary cashiers give out tickets for the wrong train all the time, so I’m used to always checking. Actually, in Hungary once I saw a ticket, where the woman asked for the 5pm train, and got a ticket for the 5am train. When it was just a few minutes until the train was coming, I got up and found my line. There were markers as to which coach stops where. I was getting my camera ready, when a station attendant corrected me, because I was holding the camera in the wrong direction. The beautiful train pulled gently into the station, and I entered it. I thought of putting up my suitcase, but there was no way I was going to lift it, so I just left it next to me. The seats were very comfortable, kind of like an airplane. My body comfortably slumped into it, and I checked the window sill to marvel at how clean it was. There was a table and at your arm a sort of little table under the window. A guy sat down next to the isle, and I got out my camera. I did a video as we pulled out of the station. I was kind of sad to leave, because I really liked Osaka. It also signalled that the first part of my Japan trip was over, and that a week from then I was going to leave. However, I was excited to go to Tokyo finally, the city I’ve seen on so many dramas.

As we left Osaka behind, I saw people getting bento boxes out. At the station I saw several being sold, and most of the ones on the train did look to have been bought. The boxes looked very pretty, and soon the train filled with the smell of food. A couple of people were also drinking beer. I hadn’t brought a bento box, but I did have some snacks, so during the journey I ate those, and had bottled coffee. Otherwise I took in the scenery and sometimes read a little. The scenery was okay. The train passed through green hills and cities that looked grey in the harsh sunlight. For a while we also passed the sea, and a city that was at a river delta. I did spot the bottom of Mount Fuji through the windows on the opposite side.

There was a girl in a uniform pushing a cart around, and I remembered the time when we used to have that on trains in Hungary. Eventually everyone just stopped buying things, as they were a lot more expensive. Another thing I noticed was that when we pulled into a station the attendants on the platform always greeted the train with a bow. 

We arrived into Tokyo, but took a while to reach Tokyo station. I leisurely got off, passing cleaning women dressed in pink, ready to board the train and clean. I had gathered all my trash in a bag, and stopped at the recycling bins, like so many others did as well. I took the elevator downstairs, and tried to find the red metro line, the Marunouchi line to take to Shinjuku, where I rented an apartment. The problem was that I would find a sign, follow it, but then there would be a crossing of ways, and no more signs. I found a map, and tried to follow it, but I realised I went the wrong way, so I returned to the map. As I was trying to find the right way in the maze of corridors, two Japanese women were also talking and pointing, and they mentioned the line I wanted to take. So I just outright told them that that’s where I was going as well, and I’m totally lost. Thankfully, they spoke English. One of them went off to try to get directions from someone, and I chatted a bit with the other woman meanwhile. The first woman came back, and she said she got directions, so we followed her. It actually turned out that one of them was from Tokyo herself, but as she didn’t frequent the station, she had no idea how to get around either. It didn’t help that the place was massive.

Miracle of all miracles, we found the red line! They already had one of those pre-paid cards, so I wanted to find a ticket machine, but couldn’t see any. There was a tourist information centre next to the entrance to the metro, so I went to the counter and asked them. It was well-hidden behind a wall to the side. I got my ticket, and went into the metro. I got out at the right station, but couldn’t remember which way I had to go. I had an idea, but I wanted to double check. I had previously walked around on Google, but that had been some time ago. Not wanting to wander around with a suitcase and a very heavy backpack, I saw a Family Markt and went inside to use the WiFi. I found out that I was right in my determination, and walked to the apartment. I checked in all right. It was a bit shabbier than I would have thought from the pictures. I realised that the problematic bits had been cleverly covered, but it didn’t really matter, as I intended to spend most of my time in bed while in the apartment. The microwave and the fridge worked, so that was good. With the apartment came a pocket WiFi as well, which is a great little gadget. You can connect anything with a WiFi to it, laptops, phones, and take it with you everywhere. You can rent such things while in Japan, but as I knew the apartment would have it, I didn’t get one for myself. Now, I connected my phone to it, and from then on I would have internet everywhere. That is actually a must, as you can’t download an offline Google map in Japan, and getting around in the busy, maze-like city without GPS is incredibly hard. Plus you can post on Instagram from anywhere. I would even chat with my mum online while walking, send her pictures and videos real time. It would be like she was with me!

I had previously booked a tour to take me around Shinjuku and show me the best places to eat on the Ninja Food Tours. I booked directly with their site. I was a bit afraid that the tour wouldn’t happen as they needed at least two people for each date, and being a solo traveller, that can be a problem. Luckily, they confirmed my reservation, so it was a go. I booked it for my first evening in Tokyo for several reasons. I knew that I’d be tired from travelling and the previous day, so I didn’t want to do anything too strenuous. Also, I figured if I knew the best places to eat around my apartment, it would be easier to go somewhere close in the evenings. 

I used the GPS to find the rendezvous point, and it was very hard to watch where I was going, because I kept wanting to look up at the tall buildings, the billboards, everything. I went under an overpass, and saw a few homeless people. Then I arrived, and didn’t see anyone. I double-checked the time, I was on time, then the location, that was correct too. So I decided to wait. A guy came out of the cinema behind me, and asked me if I was there for the tour. I told him yes, and he let me know that they were waiting inside, as it was so incredibly hot outside. I went inside myself. We were apparently waiting for a group of people. They didn’t arrive for a while, and weren’t answering any calls, so I started off with one of the guys. We walked around the Golden Gai, he talked about the history of the place, we talked about other things, and then arrived to our first food destination. It was a standing takoyaki bar. We met up with the other guide there, apparently the other people never showed. I got some water from a pitcher on the counter, and I got to eat all the takoyaki balls. It was my first time, and I really found it delicious.

Next, we went to a sushi place. They gave me water in a beautiful glass. Then I had the sushi. The fish was so fresh, I had the urge to poke it to see if it would move. There were pieces with different marinade as well. We moved on after a few pieces. 

After that came some okonomiyaki. Now there are two styles. I’ve had the Osaka style, and they were taking me to a Hiroshima style okonomiyaki place. While in Osaka they mix the ingredients, in Hiroshima they layer them. To start with, I had some grilled octopus. Then they asked me if I wanted some alcohol, and of course I did. I had a few things to choose from, but I ended up picking something they said they drink in Tokyo. It’s a beer-flavoured drink called a Hoppy, mixed in with some sort of a strong liquor. The liquor in this case was Shōchū. I liked it a lot. We shared the okonomiyaki, and I was already getting pretty full. A funny thing was that on the toilet door there was a picture of Perfume being there, the girl group whose CD I bought in Osaka.

On the way to the next place the guys asked me how I was with non-traditional chicken meat. I told them that in Hungary we eat all sorts, especially liver, which I love. We also have a blood sausage, that is one of my favourites. They were a bit weirded out by that. In the UK, I’ve also eaten stuff like kidney, and other parts. In the yakitori, grilled chicken skewers, place we ate some liver, kidneys, neck, shoulder, and other parts all deliciously seasoned. They also served a side salad and a rice thing that was grilled with soy sauce. I also had another round of the Hoppy mix. Once I was practically bursting, we left. 

We had a nice walk, went through “Piss alley”, an alleyway lined with small eateries and thus called because there was just one toilet for the whole street. Not anymore, I can testify. At Shinjuku station I had dango. I always wanted to try it, and the one I had had a sauce of honey and soy sauce on it. Very delicious, a good mixture of sweet and sour. That was the end of the tour.

They asked me if I had any questions, if they could help me with something in Tokyo. They had previously explained that Shinjuku station was one of the biggest stations in the world. Two days from then I wanted to go to Hakone, and knew there was a place to get the Hakone Freepass. So I asked them to show me where the ticket counter was, as I didn’t want to go looking for it in that huge place. They did, and we said goodbye. I went outside the closest door, to observe where I was exactly. 

Night had fallen already, and the billboards were even more mesmerising than before. I felt the buzz of the alcohol, and called mum to chat about my day. I went into a convini to buy some things for breakfast, and other foods. I got quite a lot, and then went home.