Last known location: London, England

Fish and football in Tokyo

The next stop on our trip was Tokyo, and we made the short journey from Hakone on the Thursday. I did manage to lose my rail pass on the bus to the station, which would have been a very costly mistake, but after emptying my rucksack on the back seat of the crowded bus it turned up in the pocket of my other trousers! Gem managed to make friends with a woman at Odawara station, who ended up sat in the row in front of us on the train and proceeded to insist on sharing her lunch with us. She presented Gem with half a dozen bits of very fishy sushi. A bit too fishy for me it turned and i very nearly failed to keep it down, which would have been pretty embarrassing, so Gem had to finish off the rest. I polished off the very sticky rice cake and solid sweet potato cake instead!

We were in Tokyo by lunchtime, and then had to negotiate the relatively complicated Metro system, which includes two different subway companies, normal trains and various private lines – the map ends up looking like a plate of spaghetti, but we made it to our hotel without too many problems. Our room was tiny, with just enough room for very small double bed and an all-in-one self-contained bathroom cubicle. Accommodation in Tokyo was very expensive though so we were happy enough!

Our hotel, in Asakusabashi, was close to the river so thought we’d explore our local area a bit and wandered up along the banks to Asakusa Park, and then to Nakamise-dori, a shopping street that sold all sorts of sweets, snacks and tourist-ey bits and pieces. We stopped off for a snack and a beer at what we thought from the menu might have been a Korean place. We ordered two large beers, based on what we could see on other people’s tables and the woman returned with two litre jugs, which I at least was happy with!

Tokyo is obviously a huge place, and there are several different districts to explore. The next day we started out in Ginza near Tokyo station. We had a look around the Tokyo International Forum, a very modern building which has high walkways across a huge atrium – I chose not to get too close to the edge! Gem was on photo duty for once! The surrounding area was full of designer shops and department stores, but we haven’t got much room to carry anything else so didn’t bother with much shopping. We did have a look around the Sony showroom though, which had lots of impressive hi-tech demonstrations you could try out.  We discovered our “ideal” TV would be a £3,000 Sony 3D model, but explained to the saleslady it wouldn’t really fit into our bags!

Next we headed over to the Shinjuku district where we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices, which are 2 very high buildings that offer a 45th observation floor.  It was completely free (a rarity!) and we got really good views of the city; lots of skyscrapers but a fair amount a green space, too.

Afterwards we walked to East Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s nightlife hotspots.  We accidently ended up in the red light district and Dan was being eyed up by lots of girls.  I felt a bit out of place so managed to drag him back to the main road and through some food stalls towards the Hanazono Shrine.  There were hundreds of people queuing to get in so we gave it a miss and carried on through the neon haze.  Shinjuku is famous for it’s huge neon signs and TV screens and reminded us of Piccadilly Circus and Times Square, but on an even bigger scale!

We stopped for a drink at an “English” pub which was part of a chain we’ve seen in a couple of other Japanese cities.  It was fairly authentic and seemed quite popular with locals as well as expats.  Rather sweetly there were instructions on pub “etiquette”; things like ordering and paying at the bar, how a “round” works, and what a pint is.  We didn’t stay for too long, and walked back to the subway via the Golden Gai, several alleys full of tiny bars, consisting of a bar and about 6 stools, that apparently don’t welcome strangers.  A lot of the doors were firmly closed, but a few looked a bit more welcoming.  We didn’t want to risk it so headed home in preparation Saturdays excitement!

Saturday was “football day”, which started with a trip out to Saitama, just outside the city, for Urawa Red Diamonds vs. Gamba Osaka. Urawa are one the best supported teams in the Japanese league and apparently regularly get crowds of 45,000+. We’d bought our tickets a few days before in Kyoto, and had gone for the cheapest ones (¥2,000 or about £15 each). This allowed us entry to about one third of the stadium, mainly at either end, and the seating in these areas was unreserved. When we got into the ground, this seemed fine. Although we’d come out in the busiest part of the stadium where the hard-core fans seemed to be congregating, there were plenty to seats to seen with about half an hour before kick-off. On closer inspection though, these had all been unofficially reserved by attaching a bungee cord, some string, or anything else people could find around the seats that they wanted. Unable to find any seats at all we had to enlist the nearest steward, who didn’t speak any English and didn’t really help us. After trying our luck sitting in a classier area with reserved seating, and failing at that, we eventually found some seats right at the top at the other end of the ground. All this had stressed Gem out slightly and the tickets had also gone missing from her possession as well, but fortunately we didn’t need them again!

The Urawa fans were pretty vocal and were also expert at synchronised jumping up and and down, so the atmosphere was pretty good. The football itself wasn’t though, and after a pretty shoddy display the home team were beaten 2-0. After the final whistle they were met with stoney silence from the home fans who stared blankly at the players when they did an undeserved lap of honour!

That evening was part two of the football extravaganza, which involved finding a pub showing the Arsenal-Tottenham game. After a bit of research the night before we found  that The Aldgate pub in Shibuya, another neon-covered entertainment district, would be showing the match, so we headed there. There were a few expats there for the game, as well some Japanese football fans, mainly supporting Arsenal. I was very glum at half time, with Spurs 2-0 down, but after a fairly amazing comeback for a 3-2 win I perked up enough to treat Gem to another karaoke session at Big Echo, one of the major chains. We were slightly better than on our previous attempt in Osaka, but still very glad no-one was there to hear it!

On Sunday we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and headed over to Ueno Park.  The park fills a really large area, and has a pond, lots of fountains and even a baseball field.  It’s a very popular Sunday spot for a lot of visitors and locals, and we got the chance to watch some impressive street performances by acrobats and dancers.  We also ended up doing some dog watching – they all seemed to be out in parade in their funny outfits.  Gem thinks it’s cute but I’m not such a fan!  The park also contains a Tosho-gu Shinto Shrine which is considered very important in Japanese culture.  Unfortunately it was being “maintained” so we didn’t get to see the best of it. We did, however, stop to read some of the wishes people had left hanging, written on small pieces of wood.  My personal favourite is above!

After Ueno Park we walked to nearby Ameyoko Market.  This is apparently one of Asia’s biggest bazaars, and it was certainly rammed with people and stalls selling everything from salmon to sandals.  We spent a while walking through the very busy streets but then gave into our tiredness, grabbed a coffee and went back to the hotel!

On Monday we got up at what felt like the crack of dawn but was actually just after 6.  We were going to Tsukiji fish market – another famous Tokyo institution – and all the action takes place before 8am.  It was really chaotic, with lots of men driving little tractor type things around stacked with containers full of fish.  15,000 restaurateurs and food sellers from in and around Tokyo go to this market to get their fish supplies.  There were loads of stalls and even more fish; we saw everything from massive tuna to tiny shrimp like things.  We did feel somewhat in the way at times, because it’s obviously a place where people are doing business and there we were with our camera with no intention of buying anything!  To rectify this to some extent we headed to one of the many sushi restaurants surrounding the market and had a very tasty – and fresh – sushi breakfast.

That afternoon we caught the metro over to the Harajuku district; a very fashionable and trendy part of town.  Again, it was full of people and there were loads of shops and cafes.  We bumped into some America guy doing some filming with a camera crew but Gem says she doesn’t know who he is so he can’t have been that famous!  We ended up visiting the Togo Shrine, which was found in honour of Admiral Togo, a much revered Japanese naval hero.  Unfortunately we didn’t really get a close look at the shrine itself because 2 weddings seemed to be taking place within the grounds and I think we were trespassing a little bit!  Gem had a good nose at the weddings, though.

For our last night in Tokyo we went over to the Shinjuku district for a final neon-hit.  It was slightly less manic than the Friday, and we stopped for a drink in a Japanese beer hall, before stopping at Yakitori Alley for dinner.  This is a really narrow alleyway near the station with little yakitori places consisting of a counter, a grill and a few stools for customers.  Delicious food though, if a little more expensive than we’d expected!

With only a few days left in Japan we’re heading down South again, this time all the way to Hiroshima and Fukuoka before we leave for Vietnam.

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