Japan Lifestyle Photography Tokyo Travel
Lima Does Japan // Tokyo - The City of DreamsSunday, March 27, 2016
Japan. Yes I did it, and actually I'm still reeling from the fact that I did it. We all have bucket lists, places we simply must v...
Japan. Yes I did it, and actually I'm still reeling from the fact that I did it. We all have bucket lists, places we simply must visit, things we absolutely must do, sights we must see. But in reality, how often do we actually go for it?
From the age of 16, when my Dad put me and my younger sister on a plane by ourselves to India, with a transfer in Dubai, and coming out the other end, arriving in Delhi, I just knew I could do this travel business by myself. The first place I simply had to visit was Egypt, as I had been fascinated by Egyptology since my school days. So at the age of 23, with my partner, we went on our first holiday together, and he had little to no travel experience, but we made it. And thus, the bucket list began.
In the period since, we've been on some pretty amazing holidays: India, Nepal, Turkey, Barcelona, Dubai, Israel, Palestine, and most recently, Norway. But I'd been saving Japan for my 30th, something to really soften the blow! We hadn't actually been on a two-week holiday since Nepal back in 2011, so I was ridiculously excited. We thought two weeks in Japan should just about cover it, but really, we could not have been more wrong. We barely scratched the surface.
Most people recommend visiting Japan in late March through April to make the most of Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season, and as much as I would have loved to have experienced that, I always find that high season for tourists makes for a frustrating holiday. Everything's just that little more expensive, an awful lot more crowded and much more rushed. So we chose mid-March, to coincide with my birthday, and to avoid the influx of tourists.
But what did we expect from Japan? Well, we weren't really all that sure. We expected it to feel a little more futuristic than the UK, for trains to actually work properly, for there to be a lot of kawaii cuteness scattered throughout everyday life and of course, the toilets that Japan is so famous for. Upon landing, we realised how clean everything was. There were staff at the airport to welcome people to Japan, in Japanese!
We landed at Narita Airport, about 45 miles east of Tokyo itself, quite late, and took a train in to the city. Our first dosage of Japanese awesomeness were the train seats. They all had a lever underneath you could use to rotate them 180 degrees. It doesn't sound that cool upon reflection, but it's one of things you just have to be there for! Anyway, the train left on time, and arrived on time - shocking!
Pink Lanterns in Shibuya
The language barrier in Tokyo, and Japan in general is huge. I really wasn't expecting it to be quite as big as it turned out to be, and initially it can actually be quite stressful. In terms of finding your way around, most signage is in Japanese, which is of course difficult to read if you don't speak the language! The best advice I can give is patience, because if you take your time, you'll see that there will be English language signage somewhere.
Also, the people in Tokyo speak very little English too. Not just random passers-by, but also the people you tend to come across often whilst on holiday. I'm thinking Taxi Drivers, Station Staff, Waiters and Shop workers to name but a few. Again, at first it's quite stressful, but once you've picked up a few basic Japanese phrases, and figured out how to best communicate despite the barrier, it actually becomes quite fun.
I really grew to love the Japanese attitude to language. They're intensely proud of their culture and heritage, and their language forms a big part of both, and it really tells. It actually made me happy that there's such a low emphasis on English, because why should it be any other way? Everywhere else I've travelled to has been easy to communicate, because English has been so prevalent, but not in Japan. Make no mistake, it will take you right out of your comfort zone, but I absolutely loved it.
My tips for communicating, aside from learning Japanese, would be to talk slowly and restrict yourself to just a few key words. Long, complicated sentences are not likely to be understood, and you'll get nowhere. As we were leaving Tokyo to head to Hiroshima, I had a conversation with an old lady who spoke literally no English, whilst I spoke literally no Japanese! It was a series of hand gestures, nods, shakes of the head and body language, but we understood each other, it was a beautiful moment, that got me a bit teary afterwards!
The Yamanote Line - Like an old friend
Ticket Barriers - Tokyo Style
Japan has long had a great reputation in terms of public transport. And I have to say, it is a reputation that is well deserved. Whereas in the UK, our trains and buses seem to be in a permanent state of decline, with timetables withering away and rarely being kept to, you get the sense that the opposite is true in Japan. For example, there were trains from Kyoto to Tokyo running every 7 minutes. That's a 16 carriage bullet train, on a journey lasting about 2 and a half hours. My single carriage tram in Manchester turns up every 6 minutes, for a 20 minute journey.
That aside, travelling around in Tokyo and Japan in general is an experience. The stations are often huge, with multiple entrances and dozens of platforms. They all have ticket barriers, and shockingly, there's always an information desk, staffed seemingly at all hours. There's an awful lot of pride taken in the appearance and running of the vast and various networks, everything is clean, everything works and there's always staff around to assist. In comparison to the tube, or the metrolink in Manchester, it seems like a utopian system.
It's not always this busy...
Buying tickets for the Tokyo Metro or JR Lines (think Overground, but much more popular) can be a little difficult though, as the ticket machines only accept cash or Suica cards (think Oyster), none of them accept debit card at all, all of them can switch from Japanese to English language, but not all of them tell you how much you need to pay to get to your destination, which makes it handy that there's always somebody around to ask.
In Tokyo, the Yamanote Line will feel like an old friend after just a couple of days. It's a bit like the Circle line in London, running around central Tokyo in a big circle, with stops in all of the major places. There are so, so many other lines though, the maps look practically indecipherable, though I'm sure after a month or so, you'd be fluent in Tokyo Metro.
The Pride of all Tokyo Taxi Drivers - The Door.
Taxis in Tokyo are a really good way of getting around when we're talking short distances. Similar to London really, moving longer distances your better off getting on the train or metro network. One thing to note about Taxis is they aren't all that expensive for these short journeys, maybe a 1000 yen (£6) for a few miles. All of the taxis I came across have self-opening and closing doors, and the drivers don't like you opening or closing them yourself! Also don't expect the drivers to speak great english, so have your destination mapped out on your phone. Because they also don't seem to know where things are!
As for getting out of Tokyo, the Bullet (or Shinkansen) is your weapon of choice. We bought a JR Pass ahead of travelling out, giving us unlimited travel for two weeks on most JR Shinkansen lines. The best way to describe it really, is like the concorde of trains. Except instead of there just being three, there's shit loads of them, they're gargantuan, they're unbelievably fast and ridiculously comfortable. They'll carry you all over Japan, and they leave from Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station.
DAY TO DAY LIFE
The Famous Shibuya Crossing
I had visions of Tokyo being a city that never sleeps, so was shocked to find that restaurants close, for the most part, at 11pm every night, with last orders being anywhere from 10 to 10:30. So arriving at our Airbnb place at 10:30 did us no favours whatsoever. There was nothing open, and despite being within walking distance of Shibuya, one of Tokyo's busiest wards, it was deathly quiet. Something to bear in mind, make sure you don't leave eating til too late, else you may not eat at all!
Despite being known as the place for technological innovation and invention, Japan is remarkably a cash-based economy. Whilst in the UK, we're almost shocked into silence if a place doesn't accept card, it's more likely to be the other way round in Japan. This makes ATMs particularly valuable, but finding one that will take your card isn't always so easy! Most convenience stores will have one that takes International Cards. If you go in and can't see one, just look for the machine that looks more like a photocopier, and that's probably it!
The ATMs themselves are just Japan all over. It's all touch screen, except the keypad used for pin numbers and typing in the amount for withdrawal is styled like a 1980s keyboard. And of course, every time you get something right, like your pin, it plays a little tune or sings you a song. If you can't see a button on the screen saying 'English' you can safely walk away, as it won't service your card. It doesn't sound right to say it, but the ATMs were a pleasure to use, entirely because of all those little tunes!
Another aspect of day to day life in Tokyo in particular that I found interesting is the number of people falling asleep on public transport! No matter how crowded or noisy it may be, there's always somebody asleep on the train, guaranteed. It's like a contagion spreading throughout the carriages though, because as soon as you see someone else asleep, you instantly feel sleepy yourself - difference for the tourists is, we have no idea where we're going to wake up!
VENDING MACHINES & TOILETS
There's no Escape!
Vending Machines. I have never seen so many vending machines in all of my life. In fact, there are a mind boggling 5,520,000 vending machines in all of Japan. And just so you can be confident that wasn't actually a typo, that's over 5 MILLION vending machines. Just to put that into perspective, there are more vending machines in Japan, than there are people in Norway. The vast majority of these vending machines sell drinks - think water, energy drinks, coke, ice tea, iced green tea, iced coffee etc. And honestly, I didn't see any selling anything else, but I do know there are machines that sell things like alcohol, cigarettes, toys, umbrellas, skincare products, used underwear - you know, the usual.
It feels like you can't walk down a street in the cities without seeing a vending machine, and I struggle to recall one. You also find them in the most unusual of places. In Kyoto for example, we walked up a small mountain to one of the most important shrines to the Shinto god of rice (only 233 metres to the summit) and at each of the stops along the way, was a vending machine selling an array of cold drinks! The most amusing thing is you can be out in the countryside, with an amazing scenic view, you get your camera out, take a photo, and somewhere tucked away in the corner, you'll see a beaming white vending machine.
Air-con? Nope. Toilet Controls? Yep.
Toilets. My oh my. The toilets. Before I tell you about the toilets in Japan, I have to let you in on something. The first thing I look for in a hotel or holiday rental, is the toilet. It has to be clean and the bathroom has to look special. I always feel that if a toilet or bathroom is well-cared for, then the rest of the place will be too.
So, when we touched down in Japan, and headed for Border Control, I popped into a toilet on the way. And despite this little stop-off costing us about 200 places in the queue, it was worth it, if only for my first experience of a Japanese toilet. The seat was heated. Heated. There'll be no frozen asses in Tokyo, thank you very much. And then there's the buttons! All labelled in Japanese of course, but with icons or pictures to help you figure out what each button does. Let's just say you'll probably leave it cleaner than when you came in.
All throughout Japan these toilets are prevalent, in fact I only came across a few 'normal' toilets in two weeks! I even saw them being sold in an electronics store, where they had a Hello Kitty toilet seat! Imagine being sat on a Hello Kitty seat and taking a dump - oh, and some of them talk to you when you press the buttons, and others play relaxing sounds - perfect for long Sunday afternoons with the newspaper.
Halal Ramen in Asakusa
But enough about toilets, and on to the causes of toilet - food! If you're a carnivore and/or love fish, Japan is a dream. Tokyo has over 200 Michelin starred restaurants in its vicinity, so you can be sure that wherever you eat, it's likely to be good, at a minimum. Even if you're not a big fan of fish, it's not such a big deal - it's not like every dish is laced with it. It is a big deal if you're vegetarian, or if you're after Halal food.
That's not to say it's impossible, because it isn't. It's very possible, but you may struggle to just walk in to a place and expect to be able to eat something suitable for your diet that also tastes nice. The greatest thing about Japan is the people though, and they are always eager to help, so if you are veggie, or even vegan, you can be rest-assured they will do their best to accommodate you.
Candyfloss in Takeshita Street - Harajuku
The issue for vegetarians is getting across the fact that you don't want to eat meat, as I said the language barrier can be tough, so it's good to learn a few basic words in Japanese to help make these conversations just a little less fraught! Some places will have English menus, many do not, so it's always difficult to know what your order actually contains, so make sure to check with the staff.
If you're after Halal though, you'll be pleasantly surprised to know that there are quite a few places you can go to eat. I'm not sure on the detail of the Muslim community in Japan, but it seems as though there are more and more halal places popping up all over the country. In Tokyo, the Asakusa and Ueno Park areas even have a Map made specifically for the Muslim traveller, advising them where they can eat - so you will not face a couple of weeks eating plain boiled rice. Our favourite restaurant was called Gion Naritaya in Kyoto, just a few minutes walk from the Geisha area - traditional Japanese ramen, with halal chicken. Amazing!
Posing with a Harajuku Girl
Put simply, the Japanese people made this trip. Despite the fact that Tokyo is a huge mega-city, you never once feel unsafe. I didn't ever feel intimidated by anybody, I didn't feel that anyone was looking at me in a judgemental way, I felt at home with the Japanese - I just wish I spoke more of their language! Even with that language barrier, I cannot stress just how polite and helpful the Japanese are.
One man, instead of giving us directions, actually walked us to where we needed to go. Then he said 'I'm sorry, I need to go that way now' and walked off in a completely different direction! Never before have I experienced such a willingness to help out a random stranger. Also in Japan, there are so, so many 'rules' that make up etiquette. I was reading about it and watching YouTube about it beforehand, and thought it was all a little overwhelming. But when you arrive, and see it in practice, it just feels like basic common decency.
For example, public transport is often very, very quiet at all times of the day. There's probably about as much noise in a packed rush-hour metro, as there is on an empty 2pm metro heading out of the city. You won't often find drunken yobs shouting at people or spilling their beer everywhere, you won't find people on the phone embroiled in a huge tiff with their partner or brashly talking about how they're confident of success in their job interview. Instead, you'll find people considerate about your personal space, no matter how busy, talking amongst themselves in hushed tones, smiling at you if your glances fleetingly meet.
Outside Hiroshima Station, an elderly lady, dressed as a Geisha (might well have been one), approached us and offered to take our photo! After she did that, she told us all of the best places to go and things to do - just unsolicited niceness. We always see the Twitter account talking about 'Very British Problems', showing how polite British people are, but when you meet the Japanese, your high estimation of the Brits as being polite will drop considerably.
Everyone needs a teddy bear...
Kawaii is a difficult subject to talk about for this post, because I fear you may not believe me. Because in Japan, it seems that everything is kawaii, and whilst I'm sure not everyone likes it, I'm also sure that people from all walks of life certainly do. The preconception about Japan might be that it's only teenage girls that are in to the Kawaii culture, and whilst they may be the only ones who go to almost obsessive lengths to live a Kawaii life, I'd actually say that Kawaii is an important part of Japanese culture itself.
To experience it, all you need to do is walk along a normal street in the city centre. You will not be able to walk 20 metres without seeing something cute in a shop window. Whether it's a shop selling cute things, or a shop using cute things to sell - it's inescapable, but it's also refreshing. Because let's face it, life is so serious, particularly as you get older. You just cannot be as carefree as you were as a child, you have responsibilities. In the UK, the biggest escape from this seriousness is Alcohol, but in Japan, the biggest escape is Kawaii.
Most adverts are Kawaii, and believe me, there are a shit load of adverts in Japan. Even during our first week where we had no TV, it was plainly obvious that advertising is a big part of life here, and Kawaii is a big part of advertising. It seems almost every big company has a ridiculously cute, cuddly mascot with an even more cute voice peddling their wares.
Kawaii Cake - Nicolas House, Harajuku
When riding public transport, not only will you see printed adverts stuck to the ceiling with little cartoon characters offering what looks like insurance of some sort, but you'll see them taking over the information screens too! And then, just when you think it can't get cuter, you'll arrive at the next stop, the doors will open and from out of nowhere you'll hear a carnival-esque jingle over the tannoys, announcing your train's arrival. I imagine it makes the daily grind feel much less of a grind, even if just for a few seconds! My favourite was at a stop called Oimachi - they played 'Part of your World' from The Little Mermaid!
Performance at the Kawaii Monster Cafe
I can't not mention the Harajuku area of Shibuya, Tokyo. Famous for it's Harajuku Girls who dress in a way that can only be described as Princess Peach from Super Mario. The famous street in Harajuku is Takeshita Street, a long, slender lane filled with all manner of retailers selling the most Kawaii clothes in Tokyo. Some say it's over-rated, but for me, there were an awful lot of shops with good quality fashion and accessories to try out. Just make sure to venture out of the main street, that way you'll find some hidden gems.
The cutest little kitty in Japan
Also in Harajuku, we visited a cat cafe! It was much needed, as I was missing my own babies - but they had about 15 or so cats, all seemingly premium breeds (I can't be sure, as I'm not fussed by these things). What was interesting is that most of the visitors were Japanese, and they were really gentle with the cats. The cats didn't seem that interested though, so I started doing what my cats love, getting my nails out and giving them a good scratch! The cute little kitten everyone was after, climbed on to my lap and fell asleep. This prompted a wave of cameras to come out and start snapping - it felt like my very own photoshoot, except I wasn't the star.
Takeshita Street in the Rain
As with any mega-city, there are always millions of people in the catchment area with plenty of disposable income, and these people need somewhere to spend such disposable income. Tokyo is heaven in that regard. I have to confess that whilst I did go shopping quite a bit, we didn't go to all of Tokyo's main shopping areas - I honestly think it would take months to achieve that anyway. We hovered around the Shibuya, Shinjuku, Odaiba and Asakusa areas, but in reality these areas are all massive, and I'm certain we didn't get around to any more than a quarter of the shopping areas within.
It might be starting to grate a little, but shopping in Japan is also an experience! A couple of things that really stand out are Shibuya 109, which is a department store just a short walk from the world-famous Shibuya Crossing - over 1000 people cross it every time the lights go green! Inside Shibuya 109 there are 7 floors of shopping covering most budgets, from cheap and cheerful through to top-end high street.
All of the stores have one thing in common though, and that is the girls that work within them. They're all dressed in their own interpretation of Kawaii, and seem to have developed an interesting sub-language all of their own, I think they were talking Japanese, but imagine Dory from Finding Nemo's whale language mixed with Japanese and you're close. It almost felt like birds performing their mating call, but more likely they were saying 'Come in, look at my stuff please'. I should have asked really.
The Bright Lights of Shinjuku
When it comes to more general stores though, a few really stand out from the crowd and for different reasons. Amongst my favourites were Bic Camera, Don Quijote and Wants. Don Quijote is open 24 hours, so if you have the urge to buy eyeliner or octopus tentacles at 2am, this is your place. Bic Camera probably started off just selling Cameras and accessories, but now they seem to sell pretty much anything you could ever want - except clothes. The absolute best thing about Bic Camera was not the Hello Kitty Japanese-style toilet seat though, it was the music.
There must have been countless studies in to what type of music is most likely to encourage people to buy things, but it seems Bic Camera have read them all and thought 'Fuck that' and just made something more similar to Nyan Cat. Instead of making people feel comfortable and at ease, you kind of feel entranced and frenzied at the same time. Even weirder though, it actually works and you end up buying things you don't quite remember wanting to buy. EVEN WORSE (or better), whilst walking around the city, the tune randomly pops in to your head, and you want to find the nearest outlet!!! And even, even worse I'm in the UK now and I miss Biccy-biccy-biccy-biccy-bic-Cam-er-rah!
This is not a person, it's actually a robot at the Miraikan Museum.
Home Decor Inspo!
Even The Biscuits are Kawaii
Senso-ji, Asakusa: A temple amongst high rises.
Anti-social kitty is feeling... Anti-social.
Exhibition at the Miraikan
Golden Dragon Parade, Asakusa
Street Art, Harajuku.
Dog with Pink dyed fur...
As you may have guessed, people take pride in their pets in Tokyo! Whilst not all of them have dyed hair, a fair few of them do! On our travels we saw an awful lot of dogs in particular, all of them looking pristine. There seem to be Dog Grooming shops all over the place!
Pretty Shop Signage
A wall of Cats
Historic Monument to Gundam at Diver City, Odaiba.
Guitar, meet Acid House.
Artificially Intelligent Seal Teddy Bear - So Kawaii!
The streets from above
I won a prize!
The streets are very safe...
Globe made from thousands of tiny LED screens
Street Level Advertising
A room with a view
Harajuku Mental Clinic
This way for the good stuff...
Angry Cyclists Lane
Frenzied Gaming Arcade
Tokyo from the SkyTree - everlasting.
So that concludes my post on Tokyo, I really hope you've made it this far, enjoyed the read and the photos. I'll also be doing a post for Kyoto, Hakone & Hiroshima, Tokyo Fashion and Tokyo Shopping. There are so many photos to share and so many stories to tell, I hope I've done Tokyo justice, because it was simply mind-blowing!