Cross another city off the list of places-I-must-see-before-I-die. When I was placed in a city within reasonable travelling distance of Tokyo, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to wait too long before heading there to check it out. Having discovered on Saturday what a trip from Togane to the beach entails, Sunday was about determining what it’s like to get from Togane to Tokyo.
Trey told me there’s a bus that goes there directly, but I was just as curious about the Japanese rail-system as I was about Tokyo itself so I decided to make my first trip there by train. I checked the schedules online at a site called hyperdia, and decided that the 10:31 train would be my best bet. I’d have to changeover once in a city called Soga, but from there it would be a straight-shot in.
After riding my bike to the station (which took about 4 minutes) and locking it up, my first problem was figuring out how to get a ticket. As far as I could tell there were no live human beings working there, either because it was Sunday, because there was another building I wasn’t aware of, or because they just don’t have people working there. I went up to the ticket machines and attempted to buy a round-trip ticket for the day, but they only offered a small list of destinations—all nearby cities—and none of them was Tokyo. I stood there scratching my head for a minute and was about to go ask someone for help, but it turned out I didn’t have to. An older Japanese man came right up to me and said in English, “Would you like some help?”
“Please,” I said, and explained that I was new in Japan and this was my first time taking the train. I told him I was an ALT, and he turned out to be an elementary school teacher in Narita. So this super-friendly English-speaking dude helped me through the whole process, which involved going to a different machine and calling for an operator, then explaining in Japanese that I needed a round-trip ticket for the day to Tokyo. The price showed up on the screen, about ¥2100 (just over $25), I put my cash in and as though there was a man living inside the machine, it took my money, printed out my tickets, and gave me an arigato gozaimashita.
I chatted with the teacher for a few minutes, telling him I was from New York which turned to the subject of the hurricane that’s currently blasting my friends and family there right now. Everyone in Japan is aware of it, as they’ve even got Japanese reporters in Manhattan to cover the story for their TV news reports. We also talked a little about the differences between JET and Interac, as the school where he works in Narita has JET ALTs and he says he thinks JET has better working conditions for its teachers. I wouldn’t know.
The train was right on time, and I stepped aboard and sat down for the 20-minute journey to Soga. Compared to the Deutsche Bahn, these trains measure up nicely. The seating is all along the side as opposed to rows like in Germany, but the seats are just as comfortable and the trains run just as fast. They stop for less time in each location, but other than that there’s no substantial difference. I do have a feeling they’re a bit more efficient than in Germany, as while the Deutsche Bahn was once famous for its efficiency, they’ve been slipping in recent years (which I judge both from my own experience and from talking about it with Germans). Every train I took throughout the day was exactly on time, but we’ll see how they operate in bad weather. I’m sure the efficiency falls apart pretty rapidly whenever there’s an earthquake.
Changing trains in Soga was not nearly as confusing as I’d feared it would be, as the train to Tokyo had LED-screens on the outside flashing the words “To Tokyo” in both Japanese and English. In fact the entire Japanese rail-system was incredibly user-friendly, with everything clearly marked and easily-readable schematic maps posted everywhere. The train to Tokyo itself had each stop announced in both Japanese and English, as well as LED-screens above the doors constantly letting you know what the next stop would be in kanji, katakana, and roman letters.
I was tempted to take some pictures from the train but I held back. We did pass through some very cool scenery though, including Tokyo Disneyland. I don’t foresee myself ever going there, but I suppose there are plenty of pictures online and everyone pretty much knows what Disneylands look like anyway.
The last few stations were all underground, so I only got to see the outskirts of the city on the way in, though the outskirts were certainly urban enough in their own right with skyscrapers aplenty, quite in contrast to Europe where everything is low to the ground. Japanese cities are far more in resemblance to American cities than Europe, with very little mind paid to aesthetics and almost no statues or fountains to be found.
We arrived in Tokyo station, and its monstrous size felt like a microcosm of the city itself. It took almost ten minutes just to get up all the escalators and finally emerge outside. Incidentally, just as driving is on the left side here, escalator-etiquette is also reversed. Because on Japanese highways the right-lane is the fast-lane, those who stand still on the escalators do so on the left while the people on the right are moving. They also really stick to that, as while you’ve often got some jackass standing still on the left side of the escalator in America (or even in Germany), every single person on the right-side of these escalators was moving.
So I finally got outside, took my first pictures, then headed off in the direction of the park. I was flying with absolutely no plan whatsoever, as while the original plan had been to meet a really nice guy I’d met at ALT training in Narita named David and have him show me around, he cancelled on me at the last minute because he had to do a one-on-one lesson with a guy who had an upcoming job interview in English, and besides that he had no spending money anyway. So without David I was left to my own devices, which I wasn’t upset about at all because I’ve probably solo-travelled more often than I’ve travelled with company anyway, and I felt it appropriate that my first time in Tokyo would be through my own eyes alone.
It was an absolutely gorgeous day and the park seemed like a natural first destination, so I moved in that direction until I spotted an empty tour-bus parked on the side of the road. Having had great experiences with bus tours in London and in Rome, I figured a bus tour of Tokyo might be a good way to start me off. I went up to the driver, asked him in Japanese if he spoke English—he could not—then proceeded to strain my Japanese skills to the limit to get the information about the tours. Luckily he had a flyer with all of the information, so he gave that to me and gave me some rough directions on how to get to the office where I needed to sign up.
I headed off in search of this office but I couldn’t find it. I found a few information boards with maps of the area and the locations of interest clearly marked, but the tour bus office was not among them. There was, however, one circle that marked the Tourist Inquiry Office, so I decided that would be my first destination. At the very least, they could tell me how to get to the bus-tour office.
The tourism office was in a giant building filled with shops and restaurants on the bottom floor and various other businesses in the floors above. The tourism office itself was actually on the tenth floor, which I suppose helps keep the place nice and empty most of the time. When I got there I was instantly greeted in English by the two ladies who worked there, the only two other people in the room. I’ve never seen a tourism office so empty before, but I was rather pleased because the ladies could focus all their attention on me.
All I did was ask them how to get to the office to sign up for the bus tours (it turns out it was marked on a small map in the flyer the bus driver had given me—I am an idiot), but they were eager to give me far more information and suggestions about where to go. They gave me free maps of Tokyo and Japan, circled points of interest in Tokyo and showed me brochures with pictures of what I could find there. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by how friendly Japanese people are, but these women were among the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve yet come across. They even gave me free postcards and a little paper-crane as a “welcome to Japan present”.
They said they were the only Tourism Office like this in all of Japan, and I think I believe them. They gave me a flyer with their phone number and said I could call them any time if I had questions about Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan. I thanked them profusely before leaving, making sure to use the Japanese, and they told me “gambatte” which has no real English equivalent but carries the same basic meaning as “go get ‘em!”
One of the areas they suggested I go to was called Asakusa, where there was apparently a temple and a shrine located in a big shopping district, as well as boat tours along the river. I could head there, check it out, then take the boat tour down to a small island in the harbor where there would be more awesome things to see including some kind of dancing robot. Seemed like as good a plan as any, so I nixed the bus-tour idea and decided to do that instead.
I was a bit wary of having to figure out the Tokyo subway system, and it was kind of a pain. The subway map is a mess—easily the most complicated subway map I’ve ever seen—and even though I was supposed to go to Ginza station to take the Ginza line, the first “Ginza station” I came to was only for a different line. But I certainly don’t mind walking around awesome cities, and I got to go down a pretty cool street that was blocked-off from traffic and where I spotted a film-crew of white people shooting some kind of film (perhaps Lost in Translation 2).
But I eventually did find the right station and the right machines to buy a ticket to where I needed to go, the simplified maps posted everywhere marking exactly how much you had to pay to get to each station a huge help, not to mention the English option on the machines. [Side-note: screw France. They give you an English option on the ticket machines in Japan, but you French assholes can’t even give your tourists that simple courtesy?]
By the time I got to Asakusa my stomach was in desperate need of something inside of it. There were restaurants all over the place, but I just wanted something quick, easy, and guaranteed not to make me sick so I went to KFC. I know, I know. But I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to sample the genuine Japanese cuisine in Tokyo, perhaps even with people who know the best places to go.
After eating I went to the river to snap a few photos and find out about these boat-tours, but it turned out there were only two of them today and they were both happening after 4:00, by which time I was planning to already be on my way home.
I followed the signs to the Senso-ji temple, a very familiar name and a place it turns out I would have put near the top of my list of things to see in Tokyo if I’d remembered it was there. There was an awesome gate leading up to it, and I decided to take the obligatory photo of myself in Tokyo in front of that, going up to a pair of cute girls and asking them to do it. I asked them in Japanese but they replied in English, and afterwards they asked me in English if I could take a photo of them. They must have been tourists too.
Incidentally, one of the most noticeable things about Tokyo is that it is absolutely swarming with beautiful women. That seems to be pretty much true of Japan in general, and I know I’m going to have a hard time living here. It was nice and easy in Germany because while there are certainly exceptions (and long-time readers of this blog know there are exceptions) the vast majority of German girls are completely undesirable. Most guys love having lots of gorgeous women around, but only because to them they exist as possibilities while to me they’re just objects of unquenchable desire, and I hate desire. Living in Hannover I was lucky enough to rarely experience it (maybe only three or four times a day) but in Japan it’s been about fifty times a day and in Tokyo easily in the hundreds. It’s no wonder the Japanese are so into porn.
Anyway, back to the story. Between the gate and the temple was a long walkway of souvenir shops, ice-cream stands, and what-have-you. It felt like the center of the Tourism Universe.
I’ve been behaving like a Japanese tourist ever since I got here and snapping photos of every little thing, which in certain places (the supermarket, for instance) makes me feel very awkward. But here I was surrounded on all sides by fellow tourists with their cameras also snapping photos of everything, and it made me much more comfortable.
There were plenty of white people around for sure, but most were still Asian. I’m sure plenty of Japanese people who don’t live in Tokyo come to Tokyo for sight-seeing, but I’m certain there were plenty of non-Japanese Asian tourists in the crowd as well. You could spot the non-Japanese Asians whenever they were simultaneously walking and eating food at the same time, which is rather frowned-upon here and which I’ve refrained from doing myself.
I saw a sign for “Ice-Cream Burgers” and decided to stop and try one (after my lunch I was kind of having an ice-cream craving anyway, and this sounded interesting). It turned out to just be a small wad of ice-cream between two wafers, and while it was tasty it was a bit overpriced at ¥300. I’m sure I could have done much better for myself at Baskin Robbins.
I finally reached the Senso-ji Temple, got another picture of myself in front of it, took more photos of the surrounding area, and went inside. It felt very weird in there, but comparable to a cathedral in Europe. It’s supposed to be this holy place, and you’ve even got people praying there, but they’re surrounded by assholes with cameras taking flash-photos of everything, and now I was among those assholes. I only wish I was a bit more versed in Japanese history so I could have appreciated it more. I’ve only read one book on Japanese history and the bulk of it was focused on the 20th century.
Outside there were some awesome Giant Buddha Statues (daibutsu) and a little pond with awesome fish. It was a lovely little area, and would have been quite peaceful if it weren’t for the theme-park right next to it. The sound of screaming kids kind of spoils the atmosphere just a little.
I walked along the outskirts of the park and came across a performer putting on a little show for the kids, and used my camera to take a rare video which I shall now post here in lieu of a description.
A bit further down I spotted a Dippin Dots vendor and stopped dead in my tracks. Although I’d just had some ice-cream I absolutely had to indulge in some Dippin Dots, as they’re one of my all-time favorite edible substances and I haven’t come across them since 2006. When I was young the rarity of them tricked my brain into thinking they were the best stuff on earth, to the point where I actually fantasized about becoming a Dippin Dots vendor myself so I could eat them whenever I wanted. So having found to my delight that they exist in Japan, I got myself a cup of banana split and ate it right outside the shop (wouldn’t want to do it while walking), discovering that they’re not nearly as delicious as they were in my memory.
I checked my phone to find that it was 2:30, which I thought would give me just enough time to do one more quick thing before going back to the station to take the 4:00 train back which was my plan. I could have stayed longer but I wanted to be back to have dinner at home, and the longer I spent in Tokyo the more money I’d be wasting on things like Dippin Dots.
One of my favorite things to do in big cities is to go up to observation decks on tall buildings to get an aerial view. There was a giant tower right across the river but I wasn’t sure if it was open to the public. Because I was short on time I didn’t want to go all the way there, so I called the Tourism Office at the number they’d provided me with and asked them about the tower. It was called the Tokyo Sky Tree and it was, in fact, still under construction and won’t be open to the public until next year. I thanked them for sparing me from a long disappointing walk.
I decided to head back to the area near the main station and check out that park that had been my original first destination. I took a different route back to the station than I had coming from it, got a few more photos of shrines and Buddha statues along the way, and after a bit of wandering eventually got back to the station and managed to figure out how to buy a ticket back. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been because for some reason not every machine sells tickets for every line.
On the map of Tokyo the Tourism Information ladies had given me, it looked like the nearest station to the park was called Shimbashi, so after a twenty-minute ride I got off there and left the station, attempting to figure out which direction the park was in. I thought I figured it out but another glance at my clock revealed that there wouldn’t actually be enough time to get to the park and back to the main station with enough time to figure out how to get to whatever platform I needed to get to, so I just wandered around this area a little and took in the scenery.
When it was 3:30 I figured I should start walking back to the station, and since there were no information boards around I went to a little food stand and asked the guy there in Japanese which direction was Tokyo Station. Luckily I know the Japanese words for “far”, “30 minutes”, and “walk”, so after he kindly came out onto the street to show me with hand motions and words like “lefto” and “straighto”, I decided I’d probably be much better off heading back to Shimbashi station and hoping I could get from there to Tokyo station in time for the train I wanted.
I bought a ticket without really knowing what I was doing, but I asked a guy who worked there which train I needed for Tokyo station and he told me Platform 5. Luckily enough, the train came just a couple of minutes later and Tokyo station was just two stops down. I entered the station and went up to the Information counter. I showed one of the women who worked there my ticket and prepared for another Japanese explanation of where to go, but she spoke English so it was an easy process. She not only told me which platform to go to and how to get there, but she looked up all of the information about connections and wrote it down for me. I’d actually be taking a slightly earlier train than the one I’d looked up, and changing over in Oami instead of Soga, Oami being just two stations away from Togane.
Although the train was packed when I got on it, I was miraculously able to get the last open seat and I stayed there for the whole 72-minute trip to Oami. There were lots and lots of people coming in and getting off at each station, but the overall trend was a gradual thinning-out of the crowd the farther away from Tokyo we got. I successfully changed trains in Oami, confirming that I was taking the right train by asking one of the guys on it, and ended up back in Togane at 5:25 and my apartment at 5:30.
So having now officially journeyed from my apartment to Tokyo and back, I can safely assume that I’ll be doing it quite often. It’s not difficult at all to get there (it’ll be even easier if I take the bus), the cost is very affordable, and the time it takes is very reasonable. It takes just a little bit more time to get from here to Tokyo than it did to get from where I lived in New Jersey to New York City, and a little bit less time than it took to get from Hannover to Berlin.
It wasn’t the world’s most exiting trip ever, but this was just a taste. Tokyo hasn’t seen the last of me.