Hyper Japan madness

Earls Court London
Earls Court London

I had the day to myself so thought it would be good to find something interesting to do. We have been in a spell of hot weather recently but today things are a bit cooler. A quick look at http://ianvisits.co uk came up trumps there was an exhibition all about Japan at Earls Court. I have become very interested in all thing Japanese since Helen and I spend a week there a couple of Yeats ago.

I dropped Helen and Gladys off at church then headed straight for Berkhamsted station, but my timing was not great as I was between trains so had to wait 20 minutes for the 09:39 which was on time. Earls Court is easy to get to BT tube, Google maps offered a couple of options I went for Victoria then Piccadilly. Despite being cooler it was still hot and getting hotter. Entry was £15 and there were no queues.

Japanese pop stars

I was not sure what to expect but was quite surprised when I got into the hall. There was a food area which was expected, a gaming area, Japanese crafts and lots of demos. What really surprised me were the people taking part in Cosplay, lots of people (mainly late teens or early twenties walking around dressed as Manga/Anime characters. It was a bit like I imagined a Star Trek convention would be. I did a quick tour around to get the general layout of the place then started again but in more detail.

The games area was quite interesting seeing all the latest games from Nitendo and Sega, but that is not really my bag any more. There were some martial art demos and I hung around to watch some of the Kendo fighting, which was good. In another corner there was a professional wrestling ring which was fun to watch. Other spectacles weree Japanese pop artists singing their songs I was surprised at the number of your people singing or clapping along there is clearly a Japanese sub-culture going on in the UK I also so a Japanese male performer in a pink kilt, being very energetic on strange running up and down very enthusiastically which impressed me given the temperature in the hall,

Cosplay people

There was a good amount of stall but most of them were of no interest to me : Swords and knifes, Cosplay accessories, games etc,  of interest were some of the crafts, t-shirts, and food. Two stall in particular stood out the Bonsai stall which was next to a Bonsai exhibition, which had some trees that must have taken years of care to get them looking so good, and a Japanese puzzle box stall where you could buy wooden boxes that have panels that slide in various ways to eventually allow the box to be opened. I saw a couple of good t-shirts but noting that gave me the desire to part with money. I did buy some octopus balls or Takoyaki as they say in Japan, which I had some how missed when I had visited. They were very hot but tasted great.

By about 13:30 I had had enough so headed back to to Euston to catch the 13:54 back home to watch the Tour de France, but things did not quite work out well. When I got home I put on some washing then switched the TV on but we seemed to have no power or we had partial power I could not work out was was going on. Some appliances where on (or at least had a display) but other not. After some investigation I measure the voltage in a socket we only had 50V, and a quick check with next door they were out too. So I went up to Hillside for a coffee. It turns out the TDF was on live later as they wanted a time that suited TV viewing figures, so I got to watch it anyway.

Tokyo, Japan the journey home

Turd topped Tokyo building

Had a goods night sleep woke up with plenty of time to spare, so had an opportunity to catch up with the Japanese soaps on the TV and make a coffee. The taxi was booked for 07:30 we were in reception at 07:20 time to check out, we had not spent a dime at the hotel facilities, at £20 for breakfast who blames us. Helen popped to our favourite convenience store to pick up some bun sticks for breakfast on the train. The taxi was waiting so we left the hotel at 07:25 for the 10 minute journey to the station.

The station was fairly clear, and we were down at platform 4 by 07:40 for the 08:00 train. I had some credit left on my SUICA card so I used one of the vending machines that are everywhere. I chose what appeared to be a black coffee one. It came out hot which was unexpected, so bought another one for Helen one that looked white, however Helen reminded me that no caffeine was allowed before the flight to help the relaxation process. We had plenty of time to spare at the airport in fact the check desks had not opened. After a short wait premium economy were called forward, and we checked in without any hassle.

Helen insisted on going to a smoking room at the entrance to the terminal for what she thought would be her last cigarette in Japan, whilst I busied myself getting more footage for the Japan video. Security and immigration, where they checked that we had left the country, followed they were swift and efficient, Narita does not seem to be a very busy airport but it does have extensive facilities if only Heathrow was so easy to use.

Cat from Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

We had and and a half to waste in the terminal building so we wandered around and looked at the relatively few shops compared to other airports I have frequented. Helen found the only bar, which was more of a small food establishment, to have a glass of wine, while I went and had a look at the origami shop, and managed to buy some colourful origami paper the remaining credit on my SUICA and some loose change, the final odd yen went into the UNICEF collection box. Helen was please to find a couple of smoking rooms close to our gate. They are quite strange places, there is a sliding door to get you in which closes to seal the smokers in, then there are two or three columns punctuated with an ashtray the continuation of the column above the ashtray serves as an extractor for the smoke, we wouldn’t want them the breath any in would we.

The very cold north of Scandinavia

The flight was called bang on schedule and we settled down with a small glass of champagne, while we waited for us all to get on board and the plane to be loaded, the plane left the gate about 5 minutes early. After a smooth take off, which took longer the the small planes I am used to, we hit some mild turbulence as we rose through the clouds. Once at cruising flight the entertainment system came on but I was disappointed to see that it was not an on demand system like we had on the way here but a scheduled watch with a choice, just like watching tv. Then as I typed away on my iPad I was handed a Samsung galaxy tab to watch movies and stuff on demand, which is better than on the way here as the video quality is better.

Meal one consisted of pasta with a tomato and pepper sauce, with a salad on he side, followed by apple strudel and custard. Helen reckoned that the meal represented more portions of fruit and veg than she had eaten all week in Japan, I went one portion further and ate Helen’s apple strudel, which had two portions, apples and sultanas. I watched a couple of films one called Savages which had John Travolta in and was about a couple of drug deals who get in too deep, it was quite violent. The other film was Lawless which was set in prohibition times and was about bootleggers which I enjoyed. I got three quarters of the at through a documentary about Bob Marley when the battery ran out on the tablet and it refused to charge. A new power supply was supplied and I was able to finish off the documentary which was very interesting, I have always liked his music but I didn’t know much about the man, but I do now.

Pocari Sweat my favorite

Some details about the flight. First we headed north up Japan then turned west just south of the Dzhugdzhur mountains over the Aldan plateau, then south of Verkhoykanschiy. Next there was a couple of thousand miles of nothing no towns marked on the map display. We were so far north that we were flying where the sun does not rise. Eventually we hit the very north of Scandinavia and as we turned south the sun appeared again and we were able to see some land. The coast looks very cold, and has very sparse habitation a real wilderness.

What were the highlights of the trip? The thing I will remember the most is the earthquake, and the little noodle bar we were in when it happened, the locals just shrugged it off but for me it was a once in a life time experience. Shrines and lots of them, it was really nice to get out of Tokyo for the day to Kamasuta and see at lead a little bit of the country side. The transport system in my opinion second to none, it just has to be that way how else are they going to transport such a volume of people without it all just grinding to a halt, I am sure there are places where at least 6 systems are layered on top of each other, I saw three layers of trains over a road above a tube station that servers two lines. The cyclists here seem to be a law unto them selves they cycle the right way and the wrong way down 6 lane high streets when they are not cycling on the pavement, all while holding and umbrella, talking on the phone and smoking. The friendliness and politeness of the Japanese themselves always trying to out bow you and never accepting to be the first through a doorway, always smiling. In the country on the little walk we did the all the people we passed said hello. The brown eared bulbuls which were everywhere especially where there were Ginhko trees with their fruits that smelt like dog poo.

The flight continued down the west coast of Scandinavia then across the North Sea then in over Suffolk where a few 360 degree spins were needed to get into the correct landing slot. Then we were back in blighty. Immigration and customs were a doddle after a very short wait for luggage. The taxi was only a few minutes away so I grabbed some bread for breakfast and we headed home.

So that’s it the end of a great weeks holiday, in a far away place.

Final day on Tokyo

Train and river in Tokyo

The bird we could not identify yesterday turned out to be a varied tit which is quite a common in Japan.

For the last day we were to make the most of our short time left. The plan was to take in some shrines, a market, a park, and possibly some shopping. The shrines were close to the hotel so we walked, Yushima Suido, looked quite old and was dark and just a little run down, the next one, Kanda Miyojin Sama, was one of the famous ones, very old but had been rebuilt in reinforced concrete in 1923, after an earthquake, it is very colorful and is linked to the famous fish market, and other markets. It also has a small horse in a pen. We saw a couple of nannies caring for six toddlers who they were pushing around in a wheeled play pen that looked well engineered. It was standing room only for the kids who all looked to be enjoying themselves. From there we headed towards the market on foot and by a stroke of luck we ended up in Akihabara and had to endure looking at camera and technology shops this holiday lark can sometimes be very hard work, in fact we needed an early coffee break.

Tokyo City skyline from the the imperial palace

The Ameyoko market was easy to find, it sells just about everything from fresh fruit and veg, through fish, died goods, watches clothes you name it they sell it. We wandered around taking it all in without being tempted to purchase then jumped on a train to Tokyo station to have a look at the International Forum, building.

The forum building is an impressive piece of architechture all glass and metal beams all built into the shape of a boat. It’s main reason for being is conferences, concerts, some shops and place for tourist to look at. It must have been quite an extravagance as in the vast atrium the is a lot of space that could have been used for offices in such a populous city. Next we went and had a sit down in a park before heading into Ginza to find the Tokyo metropolitan police museum, which although all the exhibits were in Japanese was quite interesting. In the foyer they had some how managed to get a helicopter, which I sat in while Helen took my picture. It was getting cold so Helen decided we needed something to eat so we headed deeper into Ginza to find something. We chanced upon an Italian that sold picollo pizzas which went down well with a small beer, whilst Helen looked for a department store in the guide book. The department stored turned out to the equivalent of Harrods or Selfridges quality goods no doubt but also over priced. Helen purchased a couple of presents in the traditional Japanese department, then we headed of to have another look at Asakusa, we had liked the shops there an the shrine is the most impressive we have seen albeit a little bit touristy, but then that it’s a what we are.

A local shrine in Tokyo

From the shrines we walked through some shopping arcades and then came across a area we had only touched on during the week it is a whole district devoted to kitchen ware. The shops don’t just specialise in kitchen ware they tend to specialise in one aspect for example we looked around knife shops, bamboo goods, metal good, cookers, plastic goods, it seemed that there were no general kitchen shops. I overheard a western looking shop assistant explaining the different types of knives in French, which was very interesting. By now we were all shopped out, so we headed back to the hotel one Metro and a JR East train. We went to our favourite noodle restaurant and I had a dish with tempura prawns and the obligatory noodles in broth, and Helen had fried tofu and noodles.

Back at the hotel we packed and got an early night alarm set for just after 06:00.

Thursday in Tokyo

Akihabara, Taito, Tokyo, Japan

A mixed bag is planned today, we got the train to Akihabara to take another look at radio city, buy we were a bit early, so we jumped back on the train to Meguro where we want to have a look at a nature park in the science and nature institute. At Akihabara there was a crowded smoking area where the sign said “This is a smoking shelter and should not be used of other purposes”, another sign said manners station I wander what trains pass through there.

The park was easy to find using the local maps by the road that we have find so useful. The park is a very tranquil place in such a busy city. They allow only 300 people in at at time, it has been pretty untouched for many decades. We kept or eyes and ears open for bird life and to got good views of a brown eared bulbul, a flock of great tits, a brown for which we have yet to ID, and we heard some bird making a racket but could not get any view of it.

Nature reserve Tokyo

Back at the station it was coffee time do we popped into a Starbucks at the entrance to shopping centre, where the carols were blaring out over the sound system. Helen had a doughnut and I had a cinnamon roll but with marron glace in it, which was lovely. The japanese get through a lot of sweet chestnut goods. Helen deserted me in search of a manners station, while I blogged and finished my coffee. However Helen came back unfulfilled yet optimistic that the pachinko parlour next door allowed smoking so I could gamble away a few ball bearings whilst Helen fed her habit.

Pachinko is the Japanese equivalent of the fruit machine gambling is forbidden in Japan so they circumvent the law by selling you ball bearings which you pour into the machine which is like the old pinball machines. I could not figure out what to do so I asked the attendant who tried to explain but then just gave me a breaker of balls which he poured into the machine and said service. Whilst Helen was smoking he loaded up another machine for her. I struggled to under stand the game, there was a thing you twisted which adjusted the speed at which the balls were launched into the playing area, points seemed to be awarded for different holes and pressing one of the three buttons cleared the score or possibly banked the winnings who knows whether we won anything. Next stop was Shinjuku.

Cemetery in Tokyo City

The manic crossing was not manic it was mid week and the fun happens at the weekend. I passed a second hand camera shop and spotted a 35mm f2 lens for the bargain price of £180 which is about one third the price of a new one here, and it turns out £50 cheaper than second hand in the UK. We wandered around the district taking in the sights it is a bit like the area around Piccadilly circus. Next on the list was to visit the HQ of Soka Gakkai we said to a friend who is a follower we would drop by and pick up some literature. They were very welcoming and after some confusion at reception we were sent up to meet someone who spoke English and who furnished us with what we came for, including time stamped visitors cards. We needed a sit down so we find the nearest green space which was just next to the national stadium and in front of the memorial picture gallery the building is unusual architecture. We tested for a while then walked past the stadium to the national garden to see what that was all about. It is a big stadium you could get glimpses of it through the entrance gays. We reached a station and stopped for a coffee.

The national garden closes at 4 o’clock so we had to walk around the edge of the park. We were aiming for a metro station to catch a tube to Jimbucho the book selling area, we wanted to try to get a Black Jack manga comic for a friend. After walking into two soft porn shops which looked like they sold manga a kind gentleman in a bookshop pointed us in the direction of a manga shop on the second floor of a nearby building, we would have never found it ourselves. It was not a long walk back to the hotel so we decided to walk back and drop into a good establishment on the way. We ended up at the place we are at on our first night. We both had fried tofu in a broth with noodles, which really hit the mark. A friendly man struck up a conversation with us and gave us some recommendations for choosing for our last day.

Kamakura on sea

The seaside at Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

Yesterday we bought tickets to Kamakura which is a popular sea side resort just out side Tokyo not only is it by the sea but also has lots of shrines. It is very popular at weekends we are hoping that it won’t be mid week in the autumn. We left the hotel fairly early, 08:45, and launched ourselves into the weekday rush hour, at Tokyo station we asked where we should get the train, it turned out to be the Narita express train but in the other direction on a local slower train. The train was packed when we got on but after two stops we got a seat and settled in for the ride which would take 57 minutes. On the way we travelled for quite some time the number of parallel rail tracks was at times 12. We never seemed to to be in the country side despite arriving at Yokohama which is the second largest city in Japan.

Most Japanese commuters either have their nose in a book or their mobile phone, if they are not asleep, on the train to Kamakura we were sat opposite a guy with two iPhone fives and a standard Japanese flip out phone. We passed through a lot of suburbs mainly apartment buildings, but some houses too, many of them had metal framed parking facilities where the cars are parked automatically. You just drive the car in a slot at the bottom and the building does the rest moving the car to a free slot somewhere.

Helen had a fag while I figured out where to go and what to do. There were some rickshaws outside the station but Helen made it clear we would not be trying them out. The obvious thing to do was to jump on the local electric train to Hase stain then walk the hiking route back via the shrines, including a giant Buddha. At the station we picked up a map and walked down to Yuigahama beach where I picked up a shell which was different to the ones you see in Europe, then it started to rain so we jumped into a Hawaii themed coffee ship for coffee and a freshly made doughnut. By the time we had finished the rain had stopped but it looked like we might get some showers layer too.

Shinto shrine Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

Shrine one was the Hase-dera 200yen paid for work the Suica cards, intetesting shrine seemed to be from Shinto from the decoration. There were warning signs about the class of the red kites, I spotted red and black ones. Next major one was the Buddhist shrine with the giant Buddha. I paid the 20 yen to go inside which was a bit of a squeeze and you had to watch you head, being taller than most people found here I had to be especially careful. Next we hit the hiking trail through the woods which was interesting we heard lots of birds but failed to identify anything new. The trail took about an hour and was very steep at times but the step were well maintained, almost everyone we passed greeted us with a konnichiwa. Eventually we hit a metal road and then the shrines started again first was a water one where you could wad money intake hope of making making from it. We ate our grapes we had with us while a brief shower passed through.

Back in a town at the end of the trail, we went through a tunnel the other side was a Starbucks, so we stopped for coffee and lunch all the sandwiches had meat in them so it was cinnamon buns all round, there is nothing like cake for lunch. Interestingly some one was employed to find tables for you which was nice but we had already endured half the queue only to be sat down so I could then join the queue again!

100 Yen shop Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

We headed into town and had a wander down a shopping street, we came across a 100 yen shop we bought some more head phones and Helen got a portable ashtray on a key ring. Even in Japan their is a market for pound shops. We had a look at a general grocers which had every type of vegetable and fish you could imagine, mostly dead but quite a lot still living.

Back at the station we caught a train back to Tokyo station. The trains all have seats running down the sides facing in, except in green class (first class in Japan) where they face the length of the train. Most commuters spend their time in the seats half asleep, at first I thought it was because they work or study hard, but it turns out that the heaters in the carriages are under all the seats and they get very warm. Even Helen nearly fell asleep.

As we got into Tokyo proper we could not figure out where we were on the map, turns out we were on the wrong train, so we jumped off at Shinjuku and fessed up at the ticket office, whilst Helen tried to sneak out via the ticket barrier, I talked to the station employee who did a calculation on his calculator then waved us both through. It turns out we could get on our local line from Shinjuku which is the station where they employ people to squash the commuters in but much to my disappointment and Helen’s relief our train did not need any of that malarkey.

Shrine temple at Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

Back at the home station we looked for something local to eat, after looking around we saw a nice looking place trouble is the menu had no pictures and was in Japanese, a guy inside was beckoning us in so we asked if they did vegetarian food he said yes so we gave it a punt. We sat down and the waiter suggested he recommend what we eat, so we explained I eat fish and Helen did not and let them get on with it. The place had maps of France on the wall and bottles of wine so Fugu fish was probably not on the menu. When the food came I asked where we could get Black Jack comics (for Mr Pearce), and we got him to write it down, turns out we are close by.

When the food arrived, a green salad was followed by a sort of potato salad with egg in it which had a hint of Japanese spice about it. Helen commented that it was the best food she had eaten all week and we had only had the starter. Next came raw fish for me it had a sort of soy sauce with possibly vinegar and was a bit spicy, it went down a treat, and not something I would have chosen myself. The place is called Zappa should you be passing it is an excellent place to eat. Next stop back to the hotel for another early night after a long day on out feet, and with so much to do in on the next two days.

Raining hello kitty and Kishu inu

Our room at Hotel Niwa, Tokyo

Late start again, I think it is the jet lag, in the middle of the night we wake up then fall asleep only to wake up at 09:00 feeling tired. That would be late evening at home, so our body is saying time for bed but we need to get up. Helen insisted on some fruit and veg in our diet so last night we bought a couple of bananas at one pound each for breakfast, as well as a small jar of instant coffee.

We headed off at about 10:30 the plan to go to a kite museum, and then play it by ear from there. When we got to the station it was a bit more challenging, we could not figure out which way to go turn put we were true trying to navigate with two different maps one for the Metro and the other for JR East train company. We spotted that we could get to the electronics district from the station so we jumped on the train and got off at Akihabara, which is the Tottenham court road of Tokyo, but multiplied up about 100 times, shop after shop with separate floors devoted to different kit, computers, cameras, peripherals, tablets, phones etc etc. We choose one store and did all the floors officers were reasonable bit not out and out bargains the main thing was the choice. We popped thorough a short of bazaar shop which had lots of small stories selling specialist products, plugs, chips, radios, transformers, wires etc etc. Helen soon got bored, but did make a purchase of some more headphones for the flight back. We spotted a coffee shop for a rest and a fag break for Helen then headed back to the station to find the more museum, it had started to rain.

Tokyo stock exchange

We figured out the train to a station near the kite museum, but spent some time walking in heavy rain try to find the museum, which is located on the fifth floor of a building which had a restaurant on the ground floor which was owned by the guy who put together the collection. The museum is full of kites with little explanation but there was kit collectables from all over the world, and it only cost 200 yen to get in. Whilst in the warmth of the museum we consulted the guide book the nearest attraction was the Tokyo stock exchange, where for free you could have a look around the exchange and the museum. We arrived dripping wet from the rain we were the only people without an umbrella. We passed through security with even though we set off the metal detectors. The museum was small and explained the history of the exchange. We passed through the actual exchange observation deck, then Helen spotted a coffee room with a smoking area a coffee to have a fag, I had a coffee from the vending machines which offered a wide choice .

We bought some souvenirs from the reception then left. It was raining stop we consulted the guide book an decided the next destination should be the communication museum in the NTT offices, it was shut on Mondays like many of the museums, so we went to the Tokyo station. At the station we figured out the best way to experience Japanese food. They have food halls which serve all shoes of different specialties we went to an soba noodles restaurant and had a lovely bowl of noodles in a broth came with tempura prawns. We decided that on future nights we would head out to a similar place to eat, lots of choice an they are used to foreigners. When we had finished eating Helen noticed some people smoking so asked for an ashtray, she was disappointed to find we had been sat in the no smoking area, foiled yet again!

As we had eaten well and it was early evening we went to a large building with shops and bars for a look round and a beer heading back to the hotel. Turns out to be a building full of posh shops selling stuff we neither like r could afford, so we want back to the station to get the train back. We jumped on a rapid train which did not stop at our station of choice, se we got off two stops later and crossed the platform onto the more local train for another stop then got off at our station, or so we thought. We are sure we got the name right but it was not the station a quick lookout the map outside and we figured there was only a five minute walk to the hotel. We went through another interesting district with more food establishments, it seems there is no shortage of restaurants in Japan. We stopped off at the seven eleven for some breakfast bits then retired to our room with the hope of getting u a bit earlier and a bit less tired.