Hein (fub) wrote,

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Big in Japan

Well, I turned out to be less big in Japan than I had expected. Everybody always says how the Japanese are small and tiny (and how the women are flat-chested), but that turned out to be incorrect. Well, there are small and tiny Japanese people, but I didn't tower above them as I had been promised. This already became apparent at Schiphol, where we certainly were not the largest people in attendance (even excluding the other Dutch people).
Let's start at the beginning, because that is always a good place to start. We had packed all our stuff the day before (good thing we bought a pair of good suitcases, it turned out we wanted to take some 36 kilos of luggage with us). We were very tired, but we stayed up late and got up early, because that way we could sleep some on the airplane. Sleeping on the way to Japan would be good, since the trip would take 10:30 hours and we would arrive on Narita Airport early in the morning. When I was in Australia in '98, I was plagued by jet-lag which severely diminished my pleasure in the experience.
We had arranged for a trein-taxi to pick us up at 9:10, so we could take the train to Schiphol at 9:50. Turned out the taxi came 10 minutes early (prompting a bit of last-minute panic: shutting down computers, grabbing the last few items of luggage etc) and delivered us at the station way too early: we got the train of 9:20. After a speedy and uneventful journey, we arrived at Schiphol at 11:00. We checked in our baggage and went to grab a quick bite (delicious panini at the Italian-styled cafe 'Per Tutti') before going through customs and the security checks. We did some shopping (the collection of Gameboy Advance games was pretty large, but we managed to restrain ourselves and walked away with only Zelda: A Link to the Past) and settled down for a rather long wait. At a certain point Peter Jan Rens sat opposite of us in the lounge, and Ingeborg later told me that he had an animated conversation on his cellphone about his ideas for a new program...

When it was time to board, we made our way to the gate. It was already pretty crowded there, and I found out that not all Japanese people are small and tiny. Boarding went smoothly and at the designated time, the plane took off. We had to taxi quite a distance to our place of take-off, and a lot of people had gathered outside of the gates to the runway to wave the plane off. Why would anyone do such a thing? It's not like you can see the people on the plane waving back or something.
And so a tedious ten and a half hours began. The stewardesses looked well after us: we got enough drinks, the food was reasonable and they always smiled. It was better than when I went to Australia with Cathay Pacific (the first leg of the trip was a 13-hour flight to Hong-Kong). We arrived at Tokyo Narita International Airport without delay. We had to wait a bit for immigration (though that didn't give us any problems), but the baggage-claim went very smoothly.
It all seemed unreal: suddenly we were in Japan! I had been so pre-occupied with the wedding that I had payed only limited attention to the honeymoon (it had all been taken care of, so it didn't need any more immediate attention from us). The wedding was all that was on my horizon, but now that that had passed, I hadn't realised the trip to Japan would be right after it. Well, of course I did know that, but it was still all a bit of a shock when one day you wake up in a hotel in Elst and two days later you're walking the streets of Tokyo.

It took me a few tries to exchange our vouchers for bus tickets to the closest hotel that was served by the airport limousine service (no, that's just a normal bus, not a stretched limo). I kept trying the wrong desk (I must have had all of them) before I struck gold. We had to wait half an hour before the bus took us into Tokyo. I had to fight my jet-lag: the sun shone in my face and the movement of the bus made me really sleepy. I did sleep some (and Ingeborg did too) before we got into Tokyo proper. Seems like zoning regulations are unknown in Tokyo: commercial buildings stand intermingled with residential apartment blocks. Big apartment blocks with tiny apartments. And lots of people on the street.
It was hot. 32.2 degrees and a high humidity. I was sweating profusely, but luckily the bus was airconditioned or I would have melted before we even got to Tokyo! We decided to walk from the drop-off hotel to our hotel (a semi-budget operation called 'The Asia Center of Japan'), which took us about 20 hot minutes. Check-in went smoothly, we were presented with the vouchers for our trips and the train tickets and we went to our room.
Which is small. Not cramped, but small. It does have a shower and a bath which is pretty deep -- deep enough for us to sit in nicely submerged without too much sticking out above water. We took a quick shower, turned up the airconditioning and rested a bit. When we were feeling courageous again we went out: we wanted to go see the Meiji Shrine. At the front desk, we were given some advice by the team boss. Turned out he knew we were from The Netherlands, and that Tozai sent them a lot of clients. He had payed Tozai a visit when he had been in Amsterdam himself, we chatted a bit about that. Then he gave us a handy map of the subway system ("ostoeblieft") and some directions on how to get to the nearest station. He advised us to walk the last bit to the Meiji Shrine, because that particular street was pretty nice.

Street leading up to the Meiji Shrine

Street leading up to the Meiji Shrine

And he was right. It is a wide lane with trees on either side. Broad sidewalks and lots of up-scale shops (Louis Vuitton, Armani, Boss etc.). The side-streets were pretty nice too: we walked down one that turned out to contain a small shopping street with boutiques for young people's fashions. Weird clothing, fun people to watch, a fun stroll. When we went back to the main street (we did want to go to the Meiji Shrine, after all) we passed some eating establishments which looked interesting.

Second torii leading up to the Meiji Shrine

Second torii leading up to the Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine is beautiful. It is situated in a large park with tall trees that provide a good bit of shade. The Torii on the way (three in all) are huge and beautifully crafted. The shrine itself is spacious, and crafted of cedar wood. It smells delicious and the din a bustle of the big city beyond the park is almost inaudible. Shrine maidens and priests perform their various duties, there is an atmosphere of peace and quiet contemplation -- only broken by the many flashes of the photo-cameras of the Japanese who paid the shrine a visit. They didn't seem to appreciate the beauty of the place, only to make pictures of it (and perhaps of appreciate the place later, through the pictures).

Entrance gate to the Meiji Shrine

Entrance gate to the Meiji Shrine

We bought a votive plaque (ema) and wrote a wish on it which we hung on a board around the tree to the right of the main shrine. We stayed for a bit to drink in the beauty of the place some more, and then walked back to the busy city at a leisurely pace.

It was 18:00 by that time, and we had gotten a bit hungry. We went back to the street with the interesting dining establishments. We looked at the menu of a ramen-place, but we couldn't decipher it. Luckily, the staff had a picture book with English descriptions of the dishes. We took a seat at the bar (we could see the dishes being prepared by the cooks), near the airconditioner. We also got a jug of iced water (I read somewhere that this is standard in Japanese restaurants, they don't expect you to order something to drink), which was very welcome. The ramen was delicious, and it replenished all the salt and moisture lost due to sweating. Refreshed, we decided to head out to the Tokyo Tower.

Tokyo Tower by night

Tokyo Tower by night

The Lonely Planet guide wrote it off as a tourist trap, so we didn't want to go up (tomorrow we have a tour which will take us to the top floor of the World Trade Center in Tokyo, which is even higher), but I simply wanted to see it. What a desillusionment. The Tower doesn't look like much: it is stuck in between uninspiring office buildings, it has a large concrete building underneath it, and the elevators run in a concrete tower constructed 'within' the Tower itself. I did take some pictures though, just for good measure. No monster appeared, and the world didn't end while we were there. My advice: go there if you want to see it all, but steer clear if you have limited time.

We've managed pretty good for our first day. The subway system doesn't hold any secrets for us anymore, and we're pretty confident we can navigate it without getting lost. The highpoint of the evening was when a semi-drunk senior salaryman plunked in the seat next to Ingeborg on the subway, looked us over and gave us a tourist map of the subway system. He and Ingeborg chatted for a bit (he wanted us to see it all, he didn't have any particular recommendations of one thing over the other), which was pretty neat. Most people here are either very busy, going from one place to another, or completely slacking off and not paying attention to anyone. This guy got a good middle ground.
The hotel has some 24-hour convenience stores within walking distance (hmmmm, Pocky!), which is good too. The staff of stores seem to all participate in a little play for your sake: when you enter the store, they all mumble something in unison, and when you leave you are thanked profusely. It's become such a routine that it isn't even pronounced properly anymore: they just mumble something that sounds like 'Arigatou gozaimasu'.
Speaking of staff of stores: it seems that a lot of people are just waiting for something to happen. At the chique stores, there is usually a handsome, well-dressed young man or woman tending the door: all they have to do is open the door for customers. They just stand there all day, waiting for a customer to come to the store. Service is top-notch (and you're not even expected to pay a tip!), but it is all very expensive exactly because of these mind-numbing jobs that cost money and don't really add to the product being sold.

Now it's time for bed, we'll decide what we're going to do before our afternoon tour at breakfast.

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