[top Tokyo

Defying Garuda tradition, the plane arrived on time. Going through customs there were a few problems, as I had confused "embarkation" and "disembarkation". Why couldn't they put "arrival" and "departure" on their forms, like everybody else? Once in the terminal building, we had to get a phonecard so that we could ring the hotel, as their fax had requested. Phonecards cost Y1,000 and we only had Y10,000 notes, so we got in this long, slow queue at the currency exchange counter. After twenty minutes, we got to the front of the queue, only to be told that they change foreign currency, not local. Why they couldn't just oblige was beyond me. So, our first half an hour in Japan was spent tracking high and low around the terminal, trying to think of a way to break up a Y10,000 note. All the banks had long queues and we didn't speak the language anyway. Eventually, in desperation I went into a cafe. The cashier spoke no English, but by using sign language and writing down symbolically what we were trying to achieve, we got our note broken down into smaller denominations. We bought our phone card from a machine and rang the hotel.

Under Narita Airport is a railway station, with trains running into Tokyo, which is about one and a half hours away by high speed express. They must have got the land in a cheap deal to put the airport so far from the city. We had Japan Rail passes to get, but the office which issued them was closed. Eventually, we found a place to get our passes and tickets on the next Narita Express.

The train was very comfortable and fast, and we got into Shinjuku Railway Station okay. Then the fun started. We had to catch a subway train on the "Maranouchi Line" to our hotel. We knew that the subway went through Shinjuku Station (at least it did on the maps), but we couldn't find any signs. We asked a guy at the ticket counter and he gave us a long and detailed set of instructions - in totally incomprehensible Japanese! We were back where we started. Another guy took sympathy on us and tried to help us. His hand signals gave us our first clue. Shinjuku Station is so big that we had to go down onto a platform, up another set of stairs, back down onto the platform, and up yet another set of stairs. We found ourselves in a giant concourse, with about a billion people going in all directions. By reading maps around the place1 we found our way to the subway line. We then had to get tickets from the ticket machines. This may sound easy, but when the instructions on the machines are all in Japanese, the only available method is good old trial-and-error. This is extremely stressful when there is a queue of people behind you. As it turned out we got tickets, but for the JR lines, not the subway. We discovered this when we went down a flight of stairs to find a bank of subway ticket machines. Eventually, we got everything sorted out and successfully travelled the few stops to our destination, Shin-Nakano Station. We came up in the middle of suburbia. After all the previous travails, we found the hotel without problems. However, all the above was done humping our luggage around with us.

The hotel, the Inn Shin-Nakano Lodge was a very small place, with a tiny lobby. When we came in, the owner, whose name was Mr Inoue, greeted us with a lecture about taking our shoes off. We knew we had to do this, but we had got the protocol wrong. The entrance had a "dirty" side and a slight step up to the "clean" side. You had to remove your shoes on the "dirty" side without touching the floor with your socks. You could only touch the floor on the "clean" side. The process involved backing up to the "clean" side, taking off one shoe, putting the socked foot on the "clean" side, then removing the other shoe and backing wholly onto the "clean" side. The shoes were left on the floor, or placed in a special storage cupboard. He got out a brush and cleaned the bottom of our bags. We took off our shoes (the right way), registered and went up to our room, with the lecture about taking off shoes continuing, in case we hadn't got the message: "Japanese custom, not western custom". "In our house, Inoue-San, we also take our shoes off, because we have wooden floors which we don't want to scratch." He wasn't listening. "Yes, Japanese custom, not western custom".

Photo: Tokyo hotel room

The room was fairly small, with basic western furniture, but it did have a shower and western toilet. We got another lecture about foot etiquette at this point, this time in relation to the bathroom. He was very proud of the room's carpet, which was in very good condition. We were told to only walk on the carpet in socks. A pair of slippers were provided for us to use in the bathroom. We were never to get on the carpet with wet feet (as if we would, anyway!). Mr Inoue also controlled the flow of hot water to the shower. We could only have this precious commodity between 6.00 and 10.00 at night and there was a special intercom to be used for asking for the hot water to be switched on. When we had finished our showers, we had to push the intercom button again, and the hot water got switched off. The room had a TV, which was coin operated. Y100 gave us one hour of viewing. However, the ultimate was the sleeping arrangements. The beds were okay, but the "pillows" were onion bags filled with beads made of plastic tubing!

Photo: Onion bag pillow

Mr Inoue also wanted cash for the room, so after checking in, we went in search of some more money. It was 2.00 by this time and we hadn't eaten since 5.00 in the morning. We were exhausted from carrying our bags all over the place and couldn't find a bank which took our ATM card, despite searching through every branch in Shin-Nakano's main street. It seemed that the banks in Japan all had fairly elderly people, perhaps employees they couldn't get rid of, whose job it was to greet people coming into the branch, point them to a teller, or perhaps assist them with complex tasks, like putting their ATM card into the machine. At one bank, a kindly "greeting lady" rushed off to get a young English speaking clerk to help us. He explained that their bank did not offer draw-down facilities on Visa cards (something which we have been able to do in banks all over the world). However, he rang Citibank for us and I spoke to a guy there. He gave us directions (via the first guy) on how to get to Citibank's Shinjuku branch. By this time, it was well after 2.00 and banks in Japan close at 3.00, but we got back on the subway and headed for Shinjuku.

Shinjuku is one of Tokyo's main regional centres, with lots of commercial buildings and shopping centres. Other ones were Ueno and Ikebukuro. The regional centres date back to the feudal days, when they were the last staging post of travellers headed for central Tokyo on foot. Shinjuku Railway Station is a point at which about seven different surface and subway lines intersect, which is why it was so confusing to get around. When we arrived back there, we had to repeat the morning's procedure in reverse. I figured that the only way to cross it was to use a ticket to get back inside the JR part of the station, since the subways are not run by JR. Although we had our JR rail passes, I suggested that we use the tickets we had wrongly purchased in the morning to retrace our steps, which we did. We got to the other side of the station, where the Narita Express had dropped us in the morning, but when we tried to put the tickets through the machines, bells started ringing, presumably because we hadn't actually gone anywhere with the tickets. We went to the ticket counter, where the same guy who had attempted to give us directions in the morning took our tickets! He had a really perplexed look on his face and muttered something in Japanese2 as he took the tickets! We must have broken the monotony for him!

We eventually found the Citibank branch and drew a fairly sizeable amount of money out, using both my company's Visa card (I was due some salary about then, anyway) and our ATM card. That anxiety allayed, we spent the rest of our first day in Japan wandering around Shinjuku's department stores and shops, looking in particular for a towel. Mr Inoue charged Y1200 for towel service and Jacqui wasn't going to take that in the neck, so she went out comparison shopping for a towel (we already had one with us from Australia, "just in case"). First things first, we found a cafe and had a very good "lunch" (at 3.00!) of ramen. Our food only cost us about Y450 -500 (A$5) each and was served by some very enthusiastic young staff. This enthusiasm was a novelty to us at this stage, but we later grew to become accustomed to it. Almost universally, whenever you walked into a shop or restaurant, the staff would cry out a welcome of "Irashaimase!" As soon as we sat down in a restaurant, they would bring the menus, accompanied by a glass of either cold water, cold tea or hot tea. Refills were readily forthcoming, all at no charge. The serves were also larger than we were expecting, after experiencing Japanese restaurants in Australia. That night, we went back to the Shin-Nakano district for dinner. We had a delicious gut-stuffing feed for only Y600 each (about $8). For desert, we bought a huge, crisp apple from a local 24 hour deli, (for about $2) and shared it between us.

We had our showers on returning to the hotel. It was novel, to say the least. The nozzle was on the end of a short hose, not long enough for a tall man to hold it over himself upright. If I got it above about shoulder height, the pressure was no good and the flow stopped completely. It stopped anyway after about 20 seconds, because the tap consisted of a spring-loaded button, which you had to constantly press with your foot to keep the flow going. As a consequence of all this, showers had to be taken squatting on our haunches, nudging the button with our knees all the time to keep the water on. It wasn't the lap of luxury, I thought, as I dried off standing on the regulation bathroom slippers before hitting the onion bag and watching the last of my Y100 worth of TV, but here we were, in Tokyo, on $98 a night.

After days of travelling, we were now ready to see the sights of Tokyo. Both of them. Tokyo is really just a huge sprawling metropolis, with not much to offer the "tourist". We consulted "Japan for Budget Travellers", a pamphlet from the Japan National Tourist Organisation. We were on a budget, so this was for us. Unfortunately, their idea of a budget was to take a "reasonably priced" morning bus tour for about $100! They did outline a self-guided tour and being dedicated explorers of foreign and inhospitable places we thought we would give it a go.

The usual confused pandemonium ensued as we tried to find our way through Shinjuku Station, and then repeated itself at Tokyo's central station. We were headed for Ginza, the famous shopping district, which reputably has the most expensive real estate in the world. We wandered around there for a while, looking in the shops. Jacqui went into two department stores' souvenir shops and bought some things. This was our first encounter with "Elevator Ladies"3, a phenomenon which has to be seen to be believed. They are all pretty young girls, immaculately made up and dressed in very smart uniforms, including hats and gloves. When you get in the lift, they bow low, with their hands on their knees. Once in the lift, they go through a routine similar in many ways to military drilling, with set hand movements right down to thumb placement. All the time, they speak softly in a high-pitched squeaky drone. I don't know what they actually say - it could be "O-oh, another couple of western water buffalo - do you think the lift will carry them?" It's more likely something such as "Welcome to my lift, we are immensely grateful that you are shopping at such-and-such a store, here are the marvellous attractions that you can find on the next floor..." When the lift reaches a floor, they go through another routine, arms alternating between being stiffly at attention, or raising sideways as the doors close. The overall effect is quite robotic. As you leave the lift, they bow low again, still droning away in their squeaky spiel. This has to be one of the most boring jobs around, and yet they give only an impression of dedication and enthusiasm.

Leaving Ginza, we caught another train to Tokyo Tower, which was built in 1958 to be 13 feet higher than the Eiffel Tower. It's looking a bit jaded these days. Before going up to the observation deck, we had lunch in it's cafeteria. This was a steamed egg and meat arrangement over rice (known as katsudon). The cost was a bit steep at $10 each, but it was delicious. The lifts to the top were controlled by no less than five bowing and squeaking ELs, for three lifts, plus another one inside each lift! The view from the top was okay, but there was lots of smog and Tokyo is not really a very panoramic city like, say, Sydney or Hong Kong.

Photo: Cafe style meal

From the tower, we got our bearings to the next railway station, which was about one kilometre's walk away. Along the way, we passed along a nice leafy street through Shiba Park. All along one side of the street there were dozens of cars parked, all with men asleep inside, either slumped over the driving wheel or sprawled across the back seat. Further on, we were passed by a political candidate in a van. His message was being put out over a PA system by - yes - another squeaky-voiced girl (possibly an EL on her day off), while he sat in the front, grinning and waving stiffly to the passers-by with a white-gloved hand.

A strange phenomenon began to become apparent by about this time. People avoided sitting next to me on crowded subway trains. If the seat next to me was the last on the train, they were still reluctant to take it. If a vacant seat became available nearby, people would move to it. Sometimes, they would even stand up when I sat next to them. We both noticed it, although it didn't happen to Jacqui. Did I smell? Should I tell them that I shower regularly? It remained a mystery until later in the trip when we asked some Adelaide people living in Japan, Ian and Amanda. I was relieved to hear that it is commonplace and wasn't just me! Apparently, there are two possible explanations - (1) a perception that Westerners are bigger and take up too much seat and (2) they are terrified that I might ask them something in English, or try to talk to them in some other way. Japanese people never talk to strangers on a train and would be most embarrassed if a Westerner tried to talk to them. Once, on a subway I was standing next to a girl who was reading a brochure on Sydney. I was tossing up whether to say something to her about it when she got off. This was lucky, because she would, I am told, have been mortified if I had said anything to her. It just "isn't done". Our friend Michiyo4 from Osaka, who is well travelled (she has even been to Adelaide), said she makes a point of sitting next to Westerners to try to dispel the Westerner-avoidance trait a little.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which presents the history of Tokyo. It is a huge, white monolith, looking something like a squatting dinosaur, because the whole building is raised several storeys above the ground level on four "legs", with an extensive plaza area underneath. Inside is a massive display area, bigger and higher than Adelaide's Entertainment Centre, filled with such things as whole two-storey buildings, bridges, boats and other displays. Much of the explanatory texts were in Japanese only, but I bought a book to read later. After going through everything, I went to sit in an audio-visual auditorium while Jacqui went back to the museum shop. One of the four (!) uniformed girls minding the entrance door, said "Sir, this is in Japanese only". I only wanted to get the weight off my feet, so I said "that's okay"5 and barged in. One of them came over and gave me a pair of 3-D glasses. The show turned out to be an educational one for kids, part cartoon, part film. The cartoon overlay stood out from the rest in 3-D.

We left the museum just before closing time and caught a train to Akihabara, where all the shops sell the latest Japanese electronic wizardry. The sort of stuff we might see in Adelaide in five years' time! Most notable to me were compact global positioning systems and the biggest range of tiny digital mobile phones I had ever seen. This made me think that if all the big name electronics companies in Japan sell the things, why aren't they also available in Australia? Why do we only have at best a score of models to choose from, most of them much larger sized than those available in Japan?

We had been in Tokyo for two days, and had made a few observations that people living there for years might not notice:

Photo: With a typical selection of vending machines

It had taken us about one day to cover the major "sights" of Tokyo, so we decided to cast our net further afield. Several people had suggested that we not miss a viewing of Mt Fuji, which is some distance south of Tokyo. Having consulted the tourist brochures, we decided that this could be combined with a visit to the Hakone area, which is a mountainous resort area close to Mt Fuji. We rose late and set off. In Shinjuku Station on the way to Tokyo, we came across a private railway which goes direct from Shinjuku to Hakone. In Japan, there are numerous private railway networks, however they did not accept our JR passes, which are issued by the government-run network. Hence, we had to take a Shinkansen7 from Tokyo Station to Odawara, which was a stop on the long line south to places like Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima.

The Shinkansen trains travel at speeds up to 275 kilometres per hour. When they got going, they felt amazingly fast and the scenery flashed past almost before the eyes had a chance to focus on it. They were very quiet and comfortable and the ride wasn't rough at all. The seats could recline back if you wanted a snooze. When another train passed the other way, you could see quite clearly through its windows to the landscape beyond, the two were passing so fast. There were girls coming along all the time, pushing trolleys of food and hot drinks. As they entered your carriage, they would bow and say something (perhaps "sorry for disturbing you"). At the other end, they would push their trolleys through the door, then turn around and bow again before leaving! We discovered that the JR passes permitted us to reserve seats in "reserve seat" carriages, which many Japanese avoided because they had to pay extra for the privilege. The non-reserved carriages were always crowded, sometimes people even had to stand up. There were also "green" or first class cars, which we were not allowed to use.

Photo: Railway station "Bento Box" stall

We got to Odawara (described in the brochure as "the gateway to Hakone") in no time at all, it seemed. Once off the train, we did our famous impersonation of stunned mullets. The brochure assured us that tours - half day and full day - of Hakone could be obtained from Odawara Station, but search as we may, we couldn't see any signs saying in big English letters "Get Your Hakone Tours Here!". We left the station and wandered towards a bus stop, but there was nothing there to help us. Our anxiety level rose a little, because we had travelled all this way to a suburban station and would be completely wasting our time if we couldn't find a tour. We hung around the outside of a shop which looked like it might have been a tour shop, then decided to go in. None of the girls in there spoke English, but they were very kind and directed us to the other side of the station. One of them even came with us and helped us get back through the ticket gates.

On the other side of the station, we found a JR ticket office and decided to ask there. Our anxiety level had increased again, however our luck started to change. A girl in the ticket office couldn't speak English but may have guessed what we were after because she gave us a pamphlet and circled what must have been a particular tour, starting at 11.15 (it was then about 11.10!) She pointed us in another direction and we went over to another office. Nobody there spoke English either, but when we showed them the pamphlet with the circled tour, they seemed to understand. They took Y7,700 off us, I wrote my name down for them (which they rendered into Japanese) and they gave us two purple strips of plastic to pin to our shirts. The tour guide was there, ready to leave, so she took off for the bus with us tagging along behind like sheep - I think with more than a little mirth from the office staff.

There were two old Japanese couples and us on the tour (in a full-sized bus!). When the bus got under way the guide started giving out information in a constant stream of cheerful Japanese, which didn't stop all the time we were travelling in the bus (ie. the next five hours). She asked where everyone was from, just to get acquainted, and when I said "Osutoraria", they all got excited.

The bus took a windy road up into the mountains, gradually leaving the built-up area. First stop was at a place called Gora, which had a well-known "French-style" garden. The guide was at pains to tell us how long we had there. She would write down on her notepad the time we were scheduled to leave. I think she was a bit anxious that she would lose us.

Photo: Pirate ship, Lake Ashi

The bus continued climbing through the hills and villages, until we reached a boat terminal at Lake Ashi. This time, she had written down in English what we had to do. Like many Japanese, she was too embarrassed or shy to try speaking English, but she could read and write a little. These instructions related to catching a boat on the lake. She had tried to write down a joke about us swimming if we missed the boat, but maybe she thought the better of this and rewrote a more standard note. We got some lunch in a cafeteria by buying tickets from a machine and giving them to the cook. The guide hovered nearby in case we couldn't work the machine. We both had noodles, and very tasty too.

The boat turned out to be a launch made up to look like a pirate ship, complete with sailing masts and plastic life-sized pirates. All the Japanese posed for photos next to the plastic one-legged pirate captain. There were other boats on the lake, built to look like ducks. While we were standing on the deck a middle-aged Japanese woman said "Welcome" softly as she walked past us. I looked up to see where the English had come from. She smiled, embarrassed, and said "Enjoy your stay in Japan".

The boat pulled into Hakone-Moto, where the bus met us again, the guide keeping one eye on us to make sure we got off. Near the dock was a rebuilt checkpoint, where in feudal times the Daimyo, or warlords, had to show passes to get out of Tokyo. They had to be there half the year on the Shogun's orders, and their wives had to stay permanently as the Shogun's hostages, so they wouldn't misbehave. There were sword displays by a guy dressed as a Samurai and another fairly pitiable display by a guy with a trained monkey on a rope. Both of these thrilled our guide, who must have seen them on innumerable occasions previously.

Our main objective was to view Mt Fuji, but this wasn't possible because the weather was so foggy. Apparently, this is quite common and as a matter of fact there are only a few days of the year when Mt Fuji is clearly visible. The tour finished at a coastal resort called Atami, where all the souvenir shops had dried fish for sale. The Japanese have a real "Catch 22" lurk going - If you go on holidays, or even on a day trip, you have to buy presents to give to your family, friends, workmates, cats, dogs, neighbours, etc. In fact, just about anybody you can think of. It seems to me that they could spend so much time on shopping for these gifts that they would have next to no time for rest and relaxation! Not only that, but the gifts could end up costing so much, they could outstrip the cost of the original holiday.

Our trip back to Shin-Nakano included getting onto a spur line of the subway and having to backtrack to catch a train on the right line. For all the time we were in Tokyo, we never managed to decipher the Japanese which would tell us which branch of the line we were headed for. We had take-away sushi and sashimi for dinner, which tasted too much of horseradish and made me feel sick. We washed it down with the usual giant apple from the local deli.

The next day was our last in Tokyo, so we tidied up a few "loose ends" of places we hadn't been to. First off was the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. Walking there from Ueno Station, we saw quite a few down-and-outs sleeping on park benches. Some had a few meagre belongings piled on rickety old trolleys. Even in a rich country like Japan, there are still some poverty-stricken people.

The museum held a range of historical artefacts in three buildings - one for Japanese things, one for archaeological exhibits and one for Chinese and Korean exhibits. We mainly looked through the Japanese building, which contained things like official letters, scroll paintings, kimonos and the like from past times. Of particular interest to me were the Samurai swords and armour. In the museum shop, Jacqui bought four woodblock prints for Y35,000. Our heated discussions on how to get these valuable items home in one piece generated much mirth among the shop assistants and as we left we could hear them chattering and tittering in unison about the experience. It made their day!

From the museum, we returned to the railway station and caught a JR train to Asakusa, where there is a famous temple.8 The route from the railway station to the temple was via a covered street, with perhaps half a kilometre of tourist shops, selling all manner of souvenirs to suit any taste (Dried fish, lollies and sweet cakes for the Japanese, tacky dolls for the Westerners. We got the dolls, since you can't take dried fish back to Australia9). While I waited for Jacqui outside one shop, I saw a woman leave her infant child outside on his own with a packet of lollies while she went in to look around. You couldn't imagine something like that happening in Australia these days.

Photo: Ginza by night

We started to get hungry, so we hunted around for somewhere to eat. For us, this was no easy business and involved weighing up a variety of factors, such as price and attractiveness of the restaurant's plastic food display. Buying restaurant food is easy in Japan - you just take the waitress out the front and show her the plastic version of whatever you want. If there was no plastic food, or at least photos, then we didn't eat there! We eventually selected a place after a comprehensive search which took about half an hour and covered all the environs of the souvenir shop lane. Inside, there were a small group of Americans, who asked their Japanese guide deep cultural questions - "Where is Tokyo's Hard Rock Cafe?" and "Does Tokyo have a Planet Hollywood?". There were also a couple of Hong Kong Chinese eating there. It must be very hard for people such as this to travel in Japan if they don't know any English. The locals would always be mistaking them for Japanese. Overall, the temple's surrounds were more interesting than the temple itself. We keep on going to temples wherever we travel in Asia and I'm yet to know why.

We boarded a train and returned to Ginza for the third time. Jacqui wanted to see a woodblock print gallery, but all we had was the address, which is not very useful in Japan. We knew what block it was on, but despite walking all the way around that block, we couldn't find it. Eventually, we gave up and headed for the Imperial Palace. You can't actually go in this because it's the Emperor's residence, but you can walk around part of the walls, the moat and the entrance gates. This occupied quite a bit of time because of the size of the place. After some extensive walking, we arrived back at Tokyo Station and headed for Ikebukuro, another shopping district like Shinjuku and Ueno.

We emerged from the subway station into a Seibu department store's basement, which was a food hall which had a vast array of goodies from all over the world. The wine shop had some Aussie stuff - eg Jacob's Creek for Y950 - about $A11.50. We were also able to try some samples of the food. We discussed the possibility of having our dinner there, subsisting entirely on free samples! We had some saki also, which Jacqui liked. At one food display, she said, "Try this", and popped something in my mouth. It was liver and I almost puked. Gagging, I hunted frantically for somewhere to spit it out, but there was nothing10. She found a sample of something more palatable to put in my mouth and dilute the liver, all the while saying "I don't know what you're carrying on about, it's lovely!" Eventually, I got it down, rather than bringing up the berley in front of all those people.11

We went for a walk outside and found some cavernous underground shopping arcades, which seemed to go on forever. On the way back to the train, we encountered groups of people handing out small tissue packs with advertising on them. Jacqui took great delight in collecting as many as possible, eventually getting 12 packets from the one place. She also satisfied a long-term craving for grilled eel.

Back at Seibu, we bought a whole lot of French pastries and tempura to have for dinner, then got on the subway back to the hotel. Near the hotel, we found a footpath vendor of yakitori, who spoke some English. Jacqui kept pointing to different yakitori and asking "What's this?" The vendor responded, "Pig's heart....pig's tongue....pig's intestine....pig's head" We joked that we should have asked "Any with just pig in it?" We got the traditional giant apple for desert. We ate our collection of delicacies in our room, then went to the local laundromat to do a load of washing. During the "wash" cycle we did a walk around the back streets. During the "dry" cycle, we sat and read the manga comics lying around in the laundromat. These are comics which seem to be read by just about everybody in Japan, regardless of age.

1 Traveller's tip: it is helpful to know the Japanese characters for "YOU ARE HERE".

2 Like "What are you trying to do with these tickets? You haven't actually gone anywhere with them!"

3 I'll call them ELs from now on.

4 Whom we call "Mich"

5 I should have been better prepared and said it in Japanese.

6 "So what?", I hear you say, "they have drink machines in Australia", but these are for things like coffee and tea, hot and cold, with/without milk, weak/strong - you name it.

7 Better known as the "Bullet Trains" in the West.

8 Like the Hindu temples in Bali, the Buddhist ones in Japan all looked pretty much the same after a while, with minor variations.

9 Rats! I was really looking forward to tucking into a hearty dinner of dried fish when I got home, too.

10 The Japanese strong point is not bins. Frequently, we had to carry our rubbish around on us for some time before we found one.

11 Although, perhaps Japanese think this is standard Westerner behaviour. After all, even George Bush got into the act, parking his tiger all over the Japanese PM's lap.