Disclaimer: this post contains a lot of toilet talk, and public nudity.
Next on the agenda: Tokyo. Japan has always been on my bucket list so I was ridiculously excited when we touched down in Tokyo. We also managed to arrive at the most popular time of year: the two weeks where the cherry blossom is in bloom.
We were tired after our flight from Hong Kong, but we both emerged from the airport bogs with a smile on our faces. The toilets from the future didn’t disappoint! I’ll let the photo do the talking. Unfortunately the music button didn’t play music, just a very deafening flushing sound. Amusingly, this stopped very abruptly when you pressed stop, so it was pretty pointless because everyone would know what you were up to because it didn’t sound like water. The toilet seat was heated too.
Anyway, I digress. We got off the plane at 7pm and didn’t get to our Airbnb for 3.5hours due to wandering around, trying to get the shuttle bus to the subway, trying to understand the subway signs, queuing for tickets then realising we were in the wrong queue and then queuing up for a machine that was entirely Japanese then finally just asking an assistant to get the tickets for us. The first train was about 90 minutes then we had to go through a load of palava trying to get the subway to the station near our accommodation. Nightmare. Finally we were queuing for a train when a friendly local stepped in to help and said he was going to the same stop. It was around 10pm at this point and the trains were still rammed with commuters. We were like “why isn’t everyone home yet?!” Our new friend explained that it’s perfectly normal to work from 8am to 10pm in Japan, and usually 6 days a week. That was fairly mind blowing. There’s even a word in Japanese -Kagoshima- For working yourself to death. How awful. The workers aren’t joyless as you’d imagine though! Many of them stand in big groups, chatting and laughing.
We got to our stop and then walked until we found our airbnb. We were like “that was NOT close to the airport as advertised!!” We later realised there are two airports in Tokyo. Whoopsie. We got our key out of the safe and let ourselves in. We carefully opened each door and discovered we had the place to ourselves. Our room was a traditional Japanese… The walls were lined with paper and we slept on mats on the floor. It was surprisingly comfortable though!
We needed food so we wandered out and found a local supermarket. On our way we had our first run in with what we’ve now named “the silent killers.” The silent killers are people on bikes who cycle really quickly on the pavements. They’re extra terrifying because they appear out of nowhere, usually wearing a surgical mask. They will also cycle behind you whilst you walk silently saying nothing until you notice them. Anyway, we soon learnt to check both ways before stepping onto the pavement. The supermarket was basically fascinating. I loved seeing the magazines that appeared to be in the racks with the spines on the wrong side, but really it’s because the Japanese read right to left. All the little snacks were really interesting too. There was a fridge full of bottles of tea and coffee that were hot! Tom enjoyed discovering the Japanese whisky was cheap.
After a really good sleep we woke up and had a Japanese pot noodle for breakfast, complete with chopsticks. They were delicious and put the British ones to shame! We headed out towards town. The architecture on the outskirts of Tokyo could only be described as… Grim. If someone had dropped me into the town and I had no idea where we were, I’d have suggested Russia or North Korea. Grey buildings. Children playing in concrete playgrounds. Electricity wires everywhere.
But then we saw a beautiful shrine surrounded by cherry blossom, and then began to follow the blossom along the canal and it was just BEAUTIFUL!
In Japan, the blossom is hugely celebrated. (The locals call it Sakura.) there was a lovely atmosphere, people smiling, slowly strolling under the trees and taking photos. As we got closer to town, it got busier and the blossom got thicker. There were sight seeing boats going along the river. We walked for about an hour and a half, eventually reaching an area full of food and alcohol stores put on by the local cafes and bars. Tokyo was in full Sakura festival swing! We bought a bento box (Japanese lunch box) for lunch and I entertained a local by applying soy sauce to everything… Apparently I was only meant to put it on the fish and putting it on everything was absolutely hilarious!
We were in a more urban area by that point so we decided to head towards the world famous Shibuya crossing. This is the crossing that you’ve probably seen photos or videos of : everyone crossing from everywhere in every direction. Personally, I can’t cross the road in Kendal without doing a silly dance with the person opposite so I was slightly intimidated. We watched a few crossings, took some photos and then head across. I discovered the best technique was to pick someone who looked local and just follow directly behind them. I managed it without falling over or making a tit of myself so I was quite pleased!
Next we wandered around a few shops, and then headed towards a shrine. We were crossing the road, and I was looking at a tall building opposite. On one of the floors I sighted some rare English writing which read…… “Cat cafe.”
I was so excited! I refused to go in the shrine until we’d been in the cat cafe. We excitedly headed up the lift to the fourth floor, where we were handed a pair of slippers.
(In Japan, everyone insists on you taking off your shoes and wearing the offered slippers, which I find absolutely hilarious because they’re all one size, too small for my size 7s, and absolutely RIDICULOUS hanging off the front of Tom’s size 13s! I get an immense pleasure out of watching him politely shuffling about. HA)
In we went to see the cats. They were all beautiful pedigrees, including a cat with teeny tiny legs, and a sloping spine to compensate, so I felt a bit sorry for him. The cats were acting exactly how you’d imagine cats who’d had enough of humans would… Sitting on high platforms, being entirely uninterested in any strokes or cat toys and purely interested in food. It was fun none the less, and I especially enjoyed watching a Birman cat sat on a platform watching the door and then leaping out as soon as it opened. Maybe they’re not so stupid after all.
All this cat cafe business made me come up with my ultimate business plan. Open a cat cafe in Leeds, where all the cats are stray, or unwanted, and then people can meet them at the cafe and adopt them!!! How awesome would that be?!
After the cafe we went to have a look at the shrine, but unfortunately it’d closed, so we went to see the teen street instead. It was interesting to see lots of people dressed up. We’d been walking for well over eight hours, and had put off taking the subway, but decided to risk it on the way home because we were knackered.
A note about the Japanese railways
The subway in Japan is basically a nightmare for tourists. In the station there are locals sprinting around, and bewildered travellers getting in the way. You’ll look round for a good five minutes before you find an English map, and then you won’t be able to find your stop on the map. This is because each railway company has their own map and their own train timetable. It’s a bit like wanting to get a train from Leeds to Kendal, but needing looking at separate departure boards and maps for east coat, virgin trains, transpenine etc all separately, with each one having their own separate entrances to the subway. To buy a ticket, you can put the machine in English, but the tickets are sold by distance, not by station name….
It’s just a pain in the arse basically. It’s fine if you try to stay patient, but I found it really frustrating because we’re on such a tight schedule in Japan that I felt like we were wasting precious time figuring out the subway when we could be sight seeing. On top of this, some of the stations were so full of people!! One of which, around rush hour I had never seen so many people in one place. We had to go up some stairs and we were packed in like sardines. I literally thought to myself “if I fall up these stairs, I am going to be trampled to death.” It’s terrifying. I’m not good at crowds as it is.
We don’t have data on our phones and the wifi is rubbish, so we were pretty stuck. Taxis are very posh and according to the lonely planet, they can cost 200 quid for a short journey. If you walk you just waste hours and hours of valuable time.
RANT OVER. sorry.
We headed back to our Airbnb, and got into bed. I was taking a while to fall asleep when the doorbell started to ring and I could hear men talking and banging loudly on the door. I decided to wake Tom up who was snoring with his earplugs in and eye mask on.
We were terrified. This seems ridiculous in hindsight, but to put it into context…. We weren’t expecting anyone. We had the only guest room in the Airbnb. We were aware that someone else lived there, but why wouldn’t they have their key? We couldn’t get on the wifi to contact the owner.
We assumed there had been some kind of double booking, but we don’t speak Japanese, so what could we do? We couldn’t exactly let anyone in because we didn’t know who the hell they were. We hoped they’d got the wrong address and waited. Then we heard a van pull up. I’d heard horror stories about people who pull up in a van, knock on the door and then rob you and drive away in the van…. This all sounds so ridiculous now, but we had no idea what to do, we didn’t know if we were in danger, and we were in such an unfamiliar place and so scared! We were just praying they’d go away and leave us alone. We didn’t dare leave our room because all the lights were automatic and they’d know we were in.
Tom made me put “112” into my phone and we crept together downstairs. Tom told me to stay upstairs and I was like “hello! I’ve seen far too many horror films for that!” My legs were shaking like jelly.
Turns out it was the two people who live in the other room. The place had only one key that we were meant to return to the key safe. The van was the locksmith, they were about to change the locks!! We felt very silly and very relived and very apologetic.
We spent the next morning arsing around trying to activate our rail passes for the rest of our time in Japan. Took ages. We then headed to Akihabara, a street famous for manga and anime ( Japanese cartoons and animations) this was pretty much nerd heaven and was great for people watching. We found a crazy photo booth that made your face look like a cartoon. It was absolutely hilarious and we edited the pictures afterwards.
We then headed back along the canal where all the blossom is, the Sakura festival. It was packed with people, and such a good atmosphere. I love that Japan celebrates the arrival of spring. This is something I think we should do at home. I hate winter! It’s only good bits are Christmas and new year.
We wandered around trying different foods. We drank a few cans (everyone was drinking) and then we invented a game which we call “the Japanese breathalyser” it determines your level of inebriation. If you can still eat chips using chopsticks then you pass. If you can’t you fail. This carried on for a few hours until we got back to our Airbnb and then the people we’d locked out the previous night arrived. We went to buy a huge bottle of sake (Japanese rice wine) to apologise and the guys heated it up in a small pink sake kettle which I found hilarious. The evening was spent mostly shouting at eachother. Their English was limited but miles better than our Japanese and we had a really good time!
This day took the title of one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had. Tom was in a similar state… We weren’t sick but just felt like absolute DEATH. Sake is a killer!!!! The morning was spent moaning, then we dragged ourselves out of bed and headed towards a big onsen we’d read about in the travel guide. An onsen is a big Japanese spa. They’re a massive part of Japanese culture, and a top recommended thing to see when you’re visiting the country.
The journey there involved yet another confusing subway trip and then a stomach churning monorail. Then finally we arrived. We knew that we would be using huge communal bathing pools that are split by gender, and you have to go in NAKED. In the manner of “do one thing each day that scares you’ we decided to go for it. It helped that we were so hungover that we didn’t really care.
We were ushered into changing rooms and handed a big yukata: Basically a cotton kimono dressing gown and a sash that went round the waist. I read the instructions carefully and I’m so glad I did because it said “keep your underwear on.” Thank god I read that one! We emerged out of our separate changing rooms and found each other in a big kind of indoor shopping street. I later learnt this is modelled on an old Japanese town.
We wandered, then went outside to the foot spa, which was really lovely. Hot water looks with steam coming off them. They looked so atmospheric. It was really cool that everyone wanders around barefoot in the big kimono.
Then we bit the bullet, said goodbye, arranging to meet eachother in half an hours time and went into our separate onsens. I’d read the etiquette carefully in the lonely planet beforehand because I was terrified of making some kind of social faux pas. In the changing rooms I went and peered into the pool to check everyone was naked. I had this nightmare scenario in my head that I’d stroll out naked, head in the air to find everyone sat in their bikinis staring at me. But no… they were definitely naked!
On the way in I was handed two towels, one big one small. I took everything off and wrapped myself in the big towel and tried to go into the pool, then I was like, oh wait, no one else has this big towel with them. So I put it in my locker and headed out. So brave, yet so hungover.
The first thing I reached was a big tub of steaming water. I knew from the travel guide to wash myself here – not doing so would be very offensive so I’m glad I realised! There were buckets in the water so I started sheepishly scooping some and throwing it at myself. Then two Japanese women came over and threw the whole buckets over themselves so I did likewise. The onsen was made up of about eight indoor shallow hot pools. I quickly chose the closest one and slid in, realising I was still holding the small towel I’d been given. I saw a sign that said “do not put towels in the water.” I looked round and saw that everyone else had balanced them on their heads. This was one of those surreal moments where I was thinking “why am I alone and naked in Japan with loads of strangers and trying to balance a towel on my head!?”
I eventually relaxed and enjoyed the hot water. I went into another pool, trying to build up confidence to go to the outdoor pools. I went for it. There was a moment when I had a feeling of “oooh! I’m naked outside!” Haha!
It was a real privilege to experience the bathing culture. There weren’t many travellers there, it was mainly locals. They gathered in groups of friends, chatting and laughing like we would over a cup of coffee. It was fascinating to me because I just cannot imagine sitting around naked with my friends and it being totally normal and not hysterically embarrassing. It was getting close to 5pm, our meeting time so I found the showers. These were bizarre because it was like a dressing table – a little seated booth with a mirror where you shower off.
I came out and found Tom. We compared notes whilst we had some noodles. We decided to head back to the Airbnb. Easier said than done. We’d spent our last cash at the onsen, (no card reader) and couldn’t find a cash machine that would accept our cards so we couldn’t get home. A few hours of wandering then we found a free shuttle bus and sighed a sigh of relief when we found a cash machine in central Tokyo. Then back to the Airbnb and to bed.
All in all, Tokyo has been one of the most fun and fascinating we’ve been so far. Even just going to the toilet is fun! It’s also been one of the first times when English hasn’t gone very far and we’ve begun to find travelling more taxing. But it’s all part of the learning curve. It’s important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.