18/06/2013 - 27/06/2013
After originally planning on spending four days in Tokyo, we somehow found ourselves nine days later only just boarding our bus to Kyoto. On the face of it this may seem excessive, however it soon became clear on our ninety-minute journey to our hostel from the airport that we had underestimated the size of this city. As we whizzed past endless waves of streets, houses and offices, we really did feel like two very tiny needles in a very big haystack.
Our first two days were spent very leisurely after the non-stop journey around New Zealand; we met some lovely people in our hostel, explored the local area and visited a Japanese 'onsen'; a bathhouse where you get naked and chill in a spa for about £7. The hot water soothed our limbs, and just when we thought we were going to doze off we woke ourselves up with a dip in the cold pool. We also took advantage of Japan's low prices and went for a meal, Y100 wine and coffee beer.
After recharging our batteries for a couple of days, we finally ventured out into the great unknown of Tokyo. We started in Shibuya, site of the famous scramble crossing, where every few minutes every pedestrian light goes green and all hell breaks loose, with everyone crossing in a different direction and fighting to reach the kerb. There's a Starbucks overlooking the crossing that makes the perfect vantage spot to sit and watch this hypnotic proceeding. We explored the gigantic shopping malls that tower over the streets of Shibuya, and had our first ever sushi experience; tempura shrimp are a new personal favourite. It was also a new kind of dining experience; instead of interacting with a waiter, we used a touchscreen to order our food, which then whizzed out of the kitchen on a small conveyor belt. So far, so Japan.
Apparently the must-do activity on a Sunday in Tokyo is to head to Harajuku, and so we did, unaware of the bedlam awaiting us. Takeshita Dori, the main shopping street, was absolutely rammed with extravagantly-dressed teenagers, each one seemingly eager to make a bigger statement than the last. Walking down the street, we were so rammed in that we felt like we were queuing for something, except we didn't know what. We fought our way to the end and continued our exploration around a few of the less crowded streets, stumbling upon the Oriental Bazaar, before finding some much-needed peace at the Meji Shrine.
The shrine is accessed through a huge Japanese-style wooden torii gate, under which a wide path winds through quiet parkland and overhanging trees. The shrine itself is about a 15-minute walk down this path, thoroughly encased in the park, giving it an air of tranquility even when busy.
The next day we visited one of Tokyo's oldest and most popular temples, the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. It is fronted by a huge red gate with a lantern hanging in its centre, which leads to a short street packed with quaint little shops. The temple itself is impressive; a bold structure painted red and black, with beautiful lanterns hanging all around it. Not bad for a temple that was originally constructed in the year 645.
Akihabara is a surreal experience; we spent an afternoon there and it really has to be seen to be believed. The electronics district of Tokyo, as well as selling questionable technological good by the barrel, is home to countless arcades, with games to suit every taste. From dance mats to gun warfare, crane games to zombie annihilation, we saw it all. A personal favourite was Japan's version of air hockey, where the machine spits out twenty or thirty pucks simultaneously and the players are left scrabbling to hit them in any direction possible. I still couldn't say if I scored even a single goal.
After a day spent sheltering from an incredible ten-hour rain storm, we spent our final day wandering around Ueno Park, a sprawling respite from city life that features a lake, several museums and even a zoo. We discovered several small shrines hidden among the trees, and a group of huge trout in the river.
That night we boarded an overnight bus to Kyoto, slightly relieved to be escaping the bustle of the city and yet aware that we had still not experienced even half of what this giant city has to offer. Still, we were looking forward to our next destination, and settled into our coach seats with the wise words of a Japanese businessman still ringing in our ears; "I think you will like Japan...but I am very drunk....".