First of all, apologies for the absence... I have spent the last 10 days or so in China where the leaders of the People’s Republic have a ban on a few (social networking) websites, most notably Facebook, and one of these being my beloved Blogger/Blogspot. I know you have all been anxiously awaiting an update on my travel adventures so, again, very sorry!
We left if off in Oz... After c. 2 weeks in Australia I got on a c. 10 hour flight to the country of the rising sun, the same country which has recently been struck by a devastating earthquake/tsunami and by an out-of-control nuclear crisis emanating from Fukushima power plant. Next stop: Japan. As I have pointed out in previous posts, and similarly to what I described about Australia, Japan was very much one of these “crown jewels” in my itinerary, a destination around which I decided to carve my trip around. Prior to making this decision, I had received plenty of input from friends and acquaintances alike on a country that, for some reason, everyone regarded as truly fascinating. I thus had extremely high expectations... Would they be met?! Read on to find out! J
Before getting into the knitty gritty of my stay in Japan, let’s address the title of the post. To those who have travelled to Japan in the past, it may prove a familiar set of words or at least may ring a few bells. I first heard this phrase on my 4th or 5th day in Japan, in Hiroshima more precisely. After having spent roughly 2 hours visiting the Atomic Bomb Memorial Park (excluding the actual Museum, where I would spend a further 4 hours or so!) and as I worked myself around the various monuments erected to perpetuate the memory of the tragedy that followed the dropping of the a-bomb at 8:15am on August 6th 1945, I was approached by a group of young students (I would say they were still in primary school). In unison, they pronounced the following words (the title of the post): “hello, do you have a minute?”... Not knowing what this whole deal was about but relying by this point on my curious instinct, I told them: “Yes, of course I have a minute”. What came next was a totally inspiring and fascinating cross-cultural exchange that I would encounter, and in which I would be a primary actor, on various other occasions during my stay in Japan. In turns, and very politely, these children all introduced themselves and then took out a notepad where they had some common / day-to-day phrases written down in Japanese along with their respective English translations. These included introductory statements such as what school they came from or what city they were based in as well as questions related to my nationality, my stay in Japan, my country’s typical dishes, etc. Upon asking me where I was from, they showed me a map they had on one of their flashcards and asked me to point out where on earth (literally speaking!) this was. When I pointed to Spain, they were all in awe and repeated the word “Espain” a few times with a grin of total fascination on their faces. Then, on a separate flashcard, they showed me still pictures of 6 different Japanese comics (or manga) and asked me to identify, in first instance, and then to point to my favourite manga series. Without a doubt, and although some will disagree, I had to go for Dragon Ball Z ! ! ! After another couple of questions, including them asking me to sing / perform a famous Spanish song (I will not actually reveal the song I went for as that would truly ruin my reputation and end the young and prosperous life of this blog!), came picture time. The 4/5 students, two of their teachers and myself posed, quite evidently showing off our best “victory/peace” signs (see below pic for further visual details), with smiles on our faces for a few shots taken from a variety of cameras (including mine!). Then, we did a round of bows (a very honourable and respectful greeting gesture in Japan) and parted ways. I was blown-away by this episode as I could have never imagined something quite like it anywhere else in the world, let alone Spain, Europe or the US for that matter. It demonstrated, to a large extent, how inviting and welcoming Japanese people are towards foreigners and how intrigued and puzzled (in a good sense – that of exploring, learning and discovering) they are by our presence in their country (and even maybe by our existence all together!)... far from being repelled by those aliens, what surprised me was how welcoming and thankful they were of my (and others around me) visiting Japan, particularly within the context of the recent nuclear “havoc” (as labelled by Western media) which emerged in March of this year. One of the many examples highlighting the polite and gracious nature of the Japanese folk.
I arrived in Tokyo on a rainy Tuesday afternoon (June 6th to be precise) and after landing at Narita airport, headed directly to the hostel I had booked for the next couple of nights. Before leaving Australia, as I mentioned in my previous post, I had given some thought to the preliminary itinerary I was hoping to follow in Japan. This included a couple of days, initially, in Tokyo, a trip via Shinkansen (or high speed train) all the way to Hiroshima and working my way back up to Tokyo with various stops along the way – Himeji, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, etc. This would all be topped by 4 days in Tokyo towards the end of my trip as I was due to fly out from there to Beijing. My arrival in Tokyo took a while as the airport is close to 100km outside of the city, so by the time I got to my hostel it was almost dark! The hostel was located in the Asakusa district which is slightly outside city centre but still conveniently located. For those of you who are unaware, Tokyo is a massive city – quite possible one of the biggest in the world and no matter where one is based, it will generally take a while to get to most of the main spots in the city. Fortunately enough, I had with me a Japan Rail (JR) Pass, which is similar to the Interrail Pass in Europe and allows for unlimited travel on the JR Network across Japan. JR also runs certain metropolitan lines in most of Japan’s big cities so depending on where one goes, travel can be free with the JR Pass. Right after getting to the hostel, which had a special 50% off promotion due to the current earthquake/”nuclear” crisis, I settled in and asked one of the blokes at reception for a place to have a quick and cheap bite of something typical from Tokyo. He recommended a Ramen (or thin noodles in a soup) place close by and I didn’t hesitate a second. For 700 Yen (c. 6 Eur), I enjoyed a fabulous meal! Afterwards, and on the way back to the hostel (which was only c. 15 minutes away), I stumbled into Senjo-Ji temple and its surrounding park. Given that the sun had only set a couple of hours earlier, the whole temple complex (consisting of c. 10 buildings) was lit up, thus providing a truly amazing sight and a great first “encounter” with a Japanese temple or shrine. The carefully planned lighting infrastructure highlighted the temple’s grandiosity and beautiful colours. Senjo-Ji, as a temple, is a Buddhist place of worship. Shrines, on the other hand, are Shinto – the other main religion in Japan. Just a note though related to “religiousness” in Japan as was pointed out by one of the locals I discussed the topic with. Although most people in Japan would ascribe themselves to either the Shinto or the Buddhist faith, this is more an identification of their spirituality rather than a strong and unconditional faith as we may understand it from other monotheistic religions, such as Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, etc. The fundamental reason behind this “écrémé” version of their religions lies in the incompatibility of an all-governing, flawless and undisputed faith and one of Japan’s overarching civil principles and ideals: Intellect. The latter is one of the most respected and admired values one could possess in Japan. Interestingly enough, to most Japanese, demonstrating to have a deep intellectual capacity is opposed to being an “all-in” religious believer / practitioner because it would entail relying on unproven facts and principles versus using one’s intelligence to rationalise their existence and make decision based on this. Quite interesting... Maybe something many devout religious practitioners in the world should give some thought to. Anyways... my first night in Tokyo was rather uneventful as I preferred to rest up ahead of the next day, which would be packed of sightseeing and exploring the huge megalopolis. I was quite lucky to have a great Lonely Planet guidebook on the city which I borrowed from my friend Coca, who is a true expert on the country – as he has been three times in the past, and which provided plenty of insights into the places I should see/visit.
First thing in the morning, I went over to Ueno Park, which was relatively close to my hostel (about a 25 minute walk). This park very much resembles any big park inside city centre. There were people all over the place, jogging, cycling, walking their dogs/kids, etc. Ueno is also the part of town where the main Tokyo zoo can be found, so plenty of school kids on day trips could also be found in the area. I mostly walked around the park and checked out a few temples / shrines in the area (this, let me tell you kind of becomes the norm for the first few days one visits Japan. Some temples / shrines are more impressive than others but end of the day, apart from a select few – Meiji Jingu, Senso Ji, etc. – they are all very similar). After Ueno, I decided to go to the Imperial Palace, previously stopping in Akihabara (the electronic/manga district for a stroll + lunch), in the hope that I could visit its interiors... but much to my surprise and disappointment, no visitors allowed on the premises. After this, I wandered around the Ginza area, which is the Tokyo equivalent of NYC’s 5th Avenue or Paris’ Champs Élysées, with all the fancy stores and brands having a prominent (or at least trying to have) a representation. After that, I crossed the city all the way to the West side to Yoyogi Park, where I was aiming to visit one of Japan’s most famous shrines (Meiji Jingu), and which, according to my guidebook, is the most beautiful in Japan. The shrine is particularly impressive as it is located in Yoyogi park, where one is overtaken and almost fully covered by majestic trees which lead the way to the shrine. On the way to the shrine, one also walks under humongous wooden torii gates which anticipate, even if just slightly, the sights that are due to follow. I was very impressed by Meiji Jingu... what I wasn’t aware of was that I would be returning a few weeks later, only to witness a very special religious ceremony. One thing at a time though! After that, I headed over to Shibuya (which is only one subway station away) as I was due to meet up with a Couch Surfing friend, Haruka. We met at 6pm and she took me around the busy districts of Shibuya (home of the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world) and Shinjiku (here we even went atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government tower, where we witnessed a fabulous 360-degree view of the city. Following our long walk where we talked about our respective travel experiences, our future plans and during which I “bombarded” her with questions on her everyday life in Japan, her thoughts on the country’s future, her views on the current “nuclear” crisis, the role of religion in day-to-day life, etc., we enjoyed a very nice dinner and beers at a popular hangout. Given that she had class at university the next morning, we parted ways just before 11:30pm and I also went back to my hostel. I was quite tired from having gone around the city the whole day and wasn’t excessively repelled by the idea of resting up as the next morning I would be catching a train all the way to Hiroshima, c. 1,000km to the South West.
Early next morning I caught a Shinkansen train bound for Osaka, where I had to change onto another one bound for Hiroshima. One of the only limitations of the JR Pass is that one is not able to catch the super fast and direct Nozomi (yes, like that eccentric, overpriced but yet very fun Japanese restaurant in London) train which runs straight to Hiroshima. In spite of the layover (which was less than c. 20 minutes), the journey to Hiroshima was very smooth. I spent most of the 5 hours drafting up my post on Australia and reading. After arriving at the main railway station, I headed over to the Atomic Bomb dome, or one of the only buildings which wasn’t fully annihilated in downtown Hiroshima as a result of the atomic bomb and a true icon of the city/country’s struggle post WWII, where I had a rendez-vous with Mi-Ko, my couchsurfing host. She arrived quite promptly accompanied by Juuso, a fellow surfer from Finland who was also staying with her, and we went out for dinner to a ramen place close by. We had, according to Mi-Ko, the best ramen in town (we also enjoyed some yummy Gioza – or the Japanese equivalent of dumplings/perogis) and had a great introductory conversation. I gave them a bit of a download on my latest adventures in Tokyo and Australia and they both gave me some preliminary tips on Hiroshima. After dinner, we went back to her place (situated a mere 15 minutes by foot from the A-bomb dome, and we had a quiet evening during which we chatted most of the time about many many things. I also met another surfer, Roy from the Netherlands, who was also staying at her place (yes, a total of three people were staying with her!).
Following Mi-Ko’s advice, the next morning I woke up early and went over to the Atomic Bomb Memorial. There, I ended spending about 5 hours. Firstly, going around the park itself which was designed around the dome (i.e. one of the only buildings which wasn’t destroyed with the explosion) and then inside the museum, which is packed with pictures, personal objects of survivors, replicas of pre-WWII Hiroshima, where I could get a tangible grasp of the tragedy the people of Hiroshima went through on that dreadful morning of August 6th 1945 and for many years to come amongst the crumbles of what it formerly was and due to the effects of radiation. After having visited the Aushwitz-Birkenau concentration / extermination camps back in February and as reported here (http://ad-infinitum-pv.blogspot.com/2011/03/karol-wojtyla.html), going to Hiroshima further added to my first-hand discovery of some of WWII’s, and contemporary world history’s for that matter, most famous, yet most horrific and tragic, landmarks. After leaving the museum I headed towards the Hiroshima castle which, although being completely destroyed as a result of the bomb, was completely rebuilt. There, I could also see a few trees (yes... trees!) that “survived” the bombing and which seemed to be quite popular amongst Japanese tourists as everyone was trying to get their picture taken. On the way to the castle though, I was approached by two pleasant and friendly elderly women who began by introducing themselves. Just when I thought this would be yet another Japanese-foreigner curious cultural encounter, they began asking questions about my faith, my thoughts about religion, whether I believed in “God All Mighty”... all this in the most proper English. They handed me a brochure and before I had time to read any of it, they asked me to read a passage of what I thought was The Bible. The passage itself covered things such as love, peace and all the shebang... but I did pronounce in the c. 30 seconds I was reading the word Jehovah about 5 times... Yes folks, these gentle and nice old Japanese women were indeed Jehovah’s witnesses... Upon finishing reading the passage I made sure to quickly say goodbye by making up some random excuse. When I had walked about 50 metres, I chucked the brochure in the bin... Not the first time I am approached by these types of individuals. The most interesting, though, was when as a Camp Otterdale Counsellor I was offered a “Book of Mormon” by one of my campers, because he thought my many questions on the “group” (to call it something mild and politically correct) implied I was, in some shape or form, interested in the movement... In the evening, Mi-Ko, Juuso (the Finnish couchsurfer) and myself went to a local restaurant to have Okonomiyaki, which is some sort of pan-fried mixed vegetables pancake topped with a special sauce and Japanese mayonnaise. This Okonomiyaki was made Hiroshima style (vs. the other type which is Osaka style and which I would have a few days later) and also included noodles (ramen style) and pork bits. DELICIOUS! We had a great dinner out and after a while we went back to Mi-Ko’s place for some drinks.
The next morning, at around 9:30am, I headed to Miyajima Island, which is know forms its “floating” Torii gate and the deer that populate its small extension and interact, without any fear or hesitation, with locals and tourists alike. It is also home to one of the most famous shrines in Japan, Itsukushima Shrine, which is painted in a vivid red tone. I was lucky enough to arrive to the island rather early so I caught both the low tide and the high tide (the latter in the afternoon before leaving). As you can see from the pictures below, I managed to see both the “on land” and the “floating” Torii gate. Quite cool if you ask me! I also climbed the island’s highest peak – Mount Misen – at c. 600m above sea level. This took me about 2 hours (!) so I opted for the 1,000 Yen cable car on the way down. The fact that it started to rain was also one of the factors which lead me to that decision. Once I got down, one final look at the shrine, the gate and the deer and I took the ferry back to Miyayima-guchi (literally Miyayima gate) to catch the train back to Hiroshima. It must have been c. 5pm when I got back to Hiroshima and when I arrived to Mi-ko’s she mentioned her and Juuso were heading to Matsuyama Island (c. 3 hours by ferry) for the week-end and I couldn’t stay at her place that night. I thus checked myself into a local hostel. I met a couple of British guys from Warwick University and LSE and another bloke from New Zealand with whom I partied that night at a local trance (!) bar to which we were invited by the hotel receptionists. Beforehand we had enjoyed a nice dinner at a restaurant nearby where we had another Hiroshima specialty (I unfortunately cannot remember the name!) consisting of ramen-style noodles which one was meant to dunk in a spicy sauce/soup and then “sip” away as loud as possible. A note here regarding eating noodle dishes in Japan – making a loud suction sound is, by all means, not regarded as an ill-mannered practice... much to the contrary. Don’t get mad Mom, but you know what they say: “When in Rome...”
I woke up with a slight headache the next morning (not, in any way – obviously –, related to the excessive amount of low-quality sake I had put into my system the previous night!) and got on a train to Osaka which would take c. 2 hours. On the way, I stopped for c. 1 hour at Himeji where one can find one of the most impressive castles in Japan. I did know it was under maintenance and covered by a massive scaffolding so I only got into the castle “compound” but didn’t bother going into the castle itself. I returned to the Himeji station and hopped on another train bound for Osaka. In Osaka, I had made arrangements to stay at Amber’s place, a couch surfing host from Connecticut who is currently teaching English in Osaka to local children. We met at the tube station close to her place and had a very pleasant and interesting conversation on the way to her place as well as there once we arrived. Afterwards, we both headed out as she had a meeting with some friends and I decided to check out the area around her place. I found myself eating at a great local Izakaya (or Japanese-style restaurant) where, obviously, no one spoke English. I had a great meal and one of the bar tenders even gave me a free copy of his “debut” album as a singer... normally 1000 yen (as was advertised in the restaurant) but he gave it to me for free... I’m guessing because I was a foreigner. Didn’t understand a word of what he said though! J Later on that night, Amber and I went over to a bar where she was meeting a few friends. There, we ran into two other couch surfers that had gotten in touch with Amber but whom she unable to host, Josh and Ashley (I would end up travelling for most of my remaining time in Japan with these two guys) and after a few drinks and a shisha (which Ambre particularly enjoyed) we went to one of the biggest clubs in town (Giraffe) for one hell of a party... which ended Spanish-style, at c. 7am! Loads of fun though! Being surrounded by ecstatic Japanese people losing their customary calm and introvert temper was a very interesting experience!
Next day, as you can probably imagine, I took it slow... Woke up at 2pm and didn’t head into the city until the late afternoon. I did go to the Osaka castle (pic below) and took some great pictures of it at night. It was unfortunately raining the whole night so I was pretty much soaked by the time I got home. Nothing much happened that Sunday but I recharged my batteries for the following day.
I had agreed with Josh and Ashley to go to Kobe the next day (only 1 hour away by train). One of the main reasons was to try to have some Kobe beef (world famous for its amazing taste yet prohibitive price) at a local restaurant. Before lunch, we visited the 1995 Kobe Earthquake Memorial and explored both the Harbour and the Chinatown area (one of the biggest in Japan). For lunch, we managed to find a really good deal at a nice restaurant packed with locals. Instead of the 6,000 yen (c. 50 eur) per person for a full Kobe beef Teppanyaki (i.e. with our own cook in from of us making everything on the pan/grill) meal (i.e. with rice, salad, miso soup, etc.) we paid just over 3,000 yen as it was a special lunchtime promotion. The meat was splendid! The mouth-watering expectations wer surely surpassed. Having every piece of beef melting in your mouth like butter is an inexplicable feeling! Not sure, though, if from now on I will accept any invitations to eat overpriced Kobe beef in Europe, the US or anywhere else given that I have had the real thing. In the evening, and after climbing Mount Rokko (this time by cable car) and enjoying some nice views of the Kobe bay area, we returned to Osaka, rested up a little and went out for dinner. I really wanted to try Okonomiyaki Osaka style (the other main type in Japan) so I took the guys to a random restaurant we ran into and ordered one for each. I must admit it was great (the guys liked their first experience a lot!) but I have to say I will forever remain loyal to the Hiroshima camp J. In the evening I met up with Amber and her friends at an Izakaya close to her place for a few beers. There I also met her friend Tony, a guy from Utah who is also an English teacher, who was due to be my host on my final night in Osaka. We had a great time and even shared an interesting political conversation with all their friends. It was particularly interesting to hear the various, and somewhat diverse, points of view from an all-American crowd. I gave them an update on the socio-political climate in Spain... quite evidently paying a special tribute to the “indignados” movement.
The next morning I, once again, met up with Josh and Ashley to go around the final bits of Osaka. We went to the observatory situated on one of the city’s tallest buildings, tried to visit the Instant Ramen (i.e. cup noodle) Museum (was closed on Tuesdays unfortunately) and just wandered around the city for a while. In the evening we parted ways as I had to take a train to Kyoto. I would be meeting up with them there the following day as they had one more night to spend in Osaka. I got to Kyoto in the evening and after getting to my hostel, I grabbed a quick bite and set off to explore the nearby area. I didn’t get too far as I was rather exhausted and left most of the sightseeing for the following days.
On Wednesday, I decided to go over to Nara, which is situated about 1 hours South of Kyoto and is famous for Nara Park where deer run around freely (similar to Miyajima) and where one can find a temple with one of the biggest Buddhas in the whole of Japan. So I went there for the day, was once again surrounded by school children of all ages from all sorts of places and had to, hopelessly by now, endure the poor photographic skills of the random people I asked to take pictures of me with my camera. Sideways, limbs chopped off, focus on another person, etc. One of the few disadvantages of travelling by one self: asking stranger for photo shots. Sometimes, not such a good idea. Regardless, I very much enjoyed Nara. I also enjoyed a very tasty sushi platter I bought from a street vendor for a mere 400 Yen (c. 3.5 Eur). Delicious! I returned to Kyoto mid afternoon after sleeping the whole train ride back (here, very much in concordance with the Japanese habit of falling asleep on the train, subway, bus, etc.) just in time to check out some of the interesting sightseeing attractions the city had to offer. Some others, though, I inevitably had to leave for the next day. That afternoon, I visited Japan’s tallest Pagoda (or tower temple) and a Buddhist temple where I witnessed ongoing celebrations of the group founder’s 775th birthday. A massive deal as the festivities had attracted huge crowds. As a former imperial city, Kyoto was also known as a spiritual hot spot in Japan. This was particularly interesting and I could take some unique shots of some of the religious services. Not that they were inspiring from a personal standpoint (I haven’t turned to Buddhism like Richard Gere quite yet!) but it felt like a unique opportunity to witness a religious service I was not familiar with until then. Afterwards, I returned to the hostel and ran into Ash and Josh, the guys I had hung out with in Osaka. We also met an Aussie guy, Mitch, and after some banter we headed out for dinner. Following our dinner and on the way back to the hostel, we decided to stop at an Izakaya for a few drinks. Turned out it was “happy hour”/”happy day” and all drinks were half price. We stayed there for a while, and if I tell you that we ended up with a photo shoot behind the bar and mingling extensively with the whole staff once the rest of the guests had left... you must imagine how many of those cheap drinks we must have had. By the way, Ash and/or Josh, if you are reading this, I’m still waiting for your iPhone photos!!! ;) Upon returning to the hostel we had a few more drinks and then called it a night after decided it could be a good idea to rent bikes the next day to go explore the city.
Early wake-up (c. 10 am) but unfortunately for us, it was raining... at so it would remain for the whole day! We did, nevertheless, rent out the bikes at the hostel and equipped with our very masculine umbrellas took off. First stop: Golden Temple. Literally, it is a golden temple. Not entirely sure how the effect is provided or if it is real gold or just gold coating... but the optical effect sure is achieved. Impossible to actually check as the temple itself is surrounded by a pond, thus making it inaccessible. After a few photos and a few random “encounters” with Japanese school children coming to us with their: “hello, do you have a minute?” we headed over to our next destination: the Imperial Palace. It didn’t take us very long to get there but much to our disappointed, there were no more tours of the Palace in English scheduled for that day. Given that the entrance to the Palace is dependent upon being in a prearranged tour (i.e. no “independent visitors” as they put it on their signs), we could not go in... We did bike around the wall surrounding it. Second Imperial Palace I tried to visit and second disappointment. Our final stop of the day was at the Kyoto Castle (I believe it had a proper name but cannot recall right now), which we quickly toured on our own before heading back to the hostel to protect ourselves from the pouring rain. That evening, I had made arrangements to meet up with a Japanese girl from Kyoto, Aki, who had contacted me on couch surfing and who was interested in meeting up as she was planning a trip to Spain in the coming months. The rest of the guys tagged along and Aki + her friend Sue (guessing this was her “westernised” name. Sue, by the way, had spent some time living in British Columbia, Canada so her English was more than decent) took us to an all-you-can-drink bar for the first couple of hours. We had an amazing conversation as she was extremely keen to learn about Spain, its culture, its people, its food and so on. A real pleasure to have been able to provide insights, even if only a few, into that! From there, we went to a restaurant close by and had a typical Kyoto dinner. Very enjoyable – Top notch! The girls left us as they had to catch the last bus home but we tried our luck venturing out looking for a club as, by that point, we were quite in the mood for another few drinks. Not sure why Thursday nights are not too big in Kyoto but we didn’t manage to find anything decent... so back to the hostel.
After a slow start on Friday morning, I said goodbye to the guys (Ash and Josh I made arrangements with to meet up in Tokyo a few days later) and got on a train to Mount Fuji. As I had to be in Tokyo that evening to meet up with Mamen, a friend from uni, and a few of her friends, my plan was to stop at the Fuji station for a quick 1-hour layover and try to get a glimpse of the perfectly-shaped volcano which most Japanese consider to be sacred. Unfortunately, cloudy day which covered the whole upper part of Mount Fuji. I guess I will have to return to Japan in the future to check it out as it is still on my list of to-do’s, potentially even climbing it, who knows! I got into Tokyo at c. 6pm that afternoon and checked in at the same hostel (Sakura Hostel in Asakusa) I had been in a couple of weeks ago. Here, just an explanatory note before getting into the evening. I had received a note via Facebook after a post I had put on my wall re. my departure from Osaka from one of my good buddies from my ML + London days, Philipp from Germany, who mentioned he’d be in Tokyo on a business trip for the week-end and wondered if there was a chance we could meet up. What a fabulous coincidence... of course we met up! I actually went to his hotel and met him and his father (who was there on business with him) for a drink. What a change to have a gin and tonic in a fancy 5-star hotel bar vs. what I have gotten accustomed recently. J Afterwards, we met up with Mamen and her friends it the Hiro-o area (close to Roppongi) and, following a few cheap drinks, went over to a Karaoke for a few hours of quality entertainment. Most definitely one of the highlights of my stay in Japan. I had a blast singing everything from classics such as Radiohead, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles to the most commercial tunes like Rihanna and the like. This non-sense did prove, though, that I’d have no future as a singer! A very fun night which ended at c. 5am at a nearby Spanish (??) bar called “Guapos” where we had our last drink of the night (my favourite type of Spanish beer by the way: Estrella Galicia). It took me about 1.5 hours to get back to my hostel and while in the taxi back I agreed with Philipp that we would meet at 12pm at his hotel the next morning. Just do the math to see how much I slept that night.
Knackered from the previous night, I arrived to Philipp’s hotel one minute after 12pm (and then Spaniards have this reputation of always being late!). We got on the train to Shibuya as I wanted him to see the famous and busy crossroad. From there, we also checked out the Roppongi area but had to return to the hotel as he had met up with his dad to go see a shrine (which at that point I didn’t know which one it was). It turned out they wanted to see Meiji-Jingu. Given that I had already been, I took enormous pleasure in acting as their “guide”. While we were walking around the shrine, we were lucky enough to witness, first-hand, a Shinto wedding service taking place right in front of us. Superb... the bride and groom looked great and everyone was dressed up in their special attire (Japanese/Shinto) for the occasion. Took plenty of pictures and videos of that special and unique moment. In the evening we returned to Philipp’s hotel as him and his dad were due to meet with their Japanese business partner and his wife for a nice Teppanyaki dinner (the one where a party as a cook all to themselves cooking on the pan/grill). They were kind enough to invite me to come along and I was very pleased to accept the invitation. We went to a fancy restaurant, enjoyed a fabulous meal consisting of plenty of quality seafood and meat topped with a two bottles of remarkable white wine. We spent the whole dinner exchanging views on Japan and Europe, how Japan had changed since Philipp’s company first entered the market. I was also questioned about my trip, my plans, my career, Spain, etc. All in all, a superb experience. After dinner, Philipp and I went to the hotel to have a few drinks at one of the many fancy bars and went on for a while on the usual stories, our memories from our time together in Madrid, NYC, London, etc. Had a blast that night. We parted ways close to midnight as they were due to catch a plane back to Germany the next morning at 7am. I returned to the hostel and went straight to bed.
I still had a few things on my list to do in Tokyo before I left, one of which was to explore Roppongi Hills properly and go to the Tokyo tower. I did both of those (yes, I did go up the tower... and even got a lame certificate for going up to the first level – c. 150m – up the stairs! It’s all about staying in shape) and then met up with Mamen for drinks and dinner in a nice little district West of Shibuya. Very trendy part of town where she took me to a nice little hidden alleyway bar. Then, we went to have dinner to this amazing Izakaya. We had an amazing conversation on everything, but mostly just updating ourselves on what we had been up to since uni, what plans we had for the near future and where we saw ourselves heading. Given that she is working directly under the responsibility of the Diplomatic mission in Tokyo (although she focuses on economic/commercial matters), we also exchanged some views on that as I have some experience in the field and have pretty much lived and breathed in that environment all my life. She also asked me if I would be mentioning her in my post on Japan... Well, here you go!! How could I not?! ;) After one last drink, we parted ways and I returned to the hostel.
The final thing I was aiming to cover in or around Tokyo on my last day was either Kamakura or Nikko. Nikko, to the North is rather close to Fukushima (c. 100km) so I opted for Kamakura, which is a small town about 1 hour outside of Tokyo in the South West, which I had heard was also as impressive. So there I went the next morning. I spent pretty much the whole day there and was particularly impressed by the huge Buddha statue. This one was the biggest in Japan (I was told) and was hollow on the inside so one could go in and “hang out” inside the Buddha. Good vibe... I also visited a famous shrine and got back to Tokyo at around 6pm. When I got back to the hostel I ran into Ash and Josh who were very much in the mood for joining Haruka (my Japanese couch surfing friend whom I had met a few weeks back) and myself for dinner. She was as always, super cool and took us out for a beer or two in Shibuya. We also grabbed something to eat in the area and enjoyed a nice conversation. Funny story from that evening is that there was a group of completely drunk Japanese guys sitting at the table next to ours. They began to engage in a conversation by asking Haruka, in Japanese, how she had met us, where we were from, etc. and slowly got roped into our conversation. At one point, I was taken by surprise when one of the guys said, out of the blue, that I looked like Orlando Bloom and that I was quite handsome (don’t misinterpret here... In Japan, for some reason, it is quite normal for straight men to give compliments like these to other men so I was “flattered” I guess...). Given that the two most typical look-alikes I get are Charlie Sheen (sweet Jesus...) and Jack Sparrow, I guess Orlando Bloom isn’t too bad after all! Hehehe. After that pleasant evening the three of us returned to the hostel and made it an early one. I had to wake up at 5am the next morning to get on a plane to Beijing.
It’s been c. 10 days since then and now I am actually writing this in a sleeper-train on the way back to Beijing after an interesting couple of weeks in China. That will have to wait until next time though. For the time being, enjoy the pics. I did take c. 1,500 so have tried to pick out the best / my favourite. And if you haven’t noticed yet... I LOVE JAPAN!