bigpumpkin in tokyo
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Saturday, September 07, 2002
Weather turned out much better than expected: while it was raining when we woke up, by the time we'd had breakfast it was petering out. Headed for the station and our starting point for the day: Shibuya. We were originally only intending to hunt down some presents to take home with us, but with the improved weather situation we decided to take in some sights as well.
The entrance to the Meiji-jingu shrine was promising, and its extensive, forested grounds were a sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle outside. This place is dedicated to a former Emperor; the original shrine was destroyed during WWII. There was a wall of big things of obscure significance on the way in, like a giagantic abacus or some sort of game.
The shrine itself was quite impressive, and some of the details were very nice indeed. I particularly liked the place where you wash your hands, the interior courtyard, the doors to the shrine and the main entrance, with its carved gates. There was also a big sacred tree in the courtyard, where you can leave prayers to be read on your behalf, for the princely sum of 500 yen a day. Everything is immaculately maintained by sweepers and white-robed monks.
The other main attraction was the garden, which featured a large pond, overgrown with water-lilies, that the emperor had built so that he could indulge his fondness for fishing. Given the number of koi in it, he can't have had to try too hard. I really liked the garden, which was actually more of a forest - with immaculately maintained paths, of course. There were lots of butterflies and dragonflies, and I could have sworn I spotted something that looked like a hummingbird. We were particularly fascinated by the spiders: this green one was the first that we came across, then we watched a golden one building its web and finally found a large banded one on an enormous web between two trees. We also found mushrooms of various types all over the place. The sound of the insects was practically deafening at times!
The rest of the day involved a frustrating and tiring search for shops recommended in my Lonely Planet guide. The only one that we found in Shibuya was a bit tacky, but it did have some good ceramics and the occasional interesting nick-nack. We then went back to Asakusa to check out the shops on the Nakamise-dori that we saw last weekend. Again, most of what they were selling was tat, but there were a few good stalls, notably one specialising in chopsticks, which sold them in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The stupid address thing prevented us from finding any of the other shops on my list, so we gave up and looked for somewhere to eat, only to find that the restaurant recommended in the book no longer existed. Aaaargh! Fortunately, we spotted a nice little Thai/Vietnamese place and ended up having a really great meal again. My dessert was spectacular: baked apple and banana served in a carefully arrange banana skin with ice cream, chopped nuts and chocolate drizzled all around it. Yum!
As I write, there's a thunderstorm going on a few miles away; I keep catching a blue flash out of the corner of my eye and then hearing a big rumble four or five seconds later. It may bode ill for tomorrow, when I was hoping to visit some more gardens. Oh well...

Friday, September 06, 2002
Bloody marvellous, innit? You work your socks off all week thinking about the cool stuff you're going to do at the weekend, and when it arrives, it's a complete washout. Seems we caught the tail end of the typhoon that's been harrying Okinawa, which means serious amounts of rain and the promise of storms and more rain tomorrow. If it all clears up by Sunday we may be able to salvage something of the weekend, but it doesn't look promising. Arse!
Managed to get completely soaked on the way home from work, and couldn't face wandering around looking for food, so we fell back on a familiar haunt: the Dubliners. No live music tonight, but the food's pretty good. I had an enormous vegetable salad (sent the first one back 'cause it had tuna on it) and a pizza too. Am now completely stuffed. Think I can safely skip breakfast, and probably lunch too.
Managed to send postcards (only two I'm afraid, so don't y'all get your hopes up) with minimal fuss, but Tez wasn't so lucky. He all but forgot to address his poistcard, and ended up writing it in tiny letters in the one corner. The lady at the PO found this very entertaining and took it to show all of her colleagues. Doh!
Tokyo is a very different place in the rain. Everybody runs around with umbrellas of all shapes and sizes. Most shops and restaurants have a bucket for you to pop your brolly in before entering, and many of them have a special device that wraps it up in a long plastic bag for you, tio stop it dripping all ove rthe floor. There are several racks of umberella locks outside the hotel too: you slot your brolly in a little collar, snap it shut and remove the key. Ingenious, but not designed for compact umbrellas like mine: I couldn't get the thing to close around it at all.
It's none of your wimpy English rain here, either: you get torrents of water running down the street and staircases turn into waterfalls. They're obviously used to this here, what with the umbrella thing and all, but it does seem to make everything that bit more chaotic, especially on the train. And some people take it a bit too seriously: we saw one bloke walking his dog, and the poor mutt was dressed up in its own raincoat, complete with hood buttoned under its chin!

Thursday, September 05, 2002
Another long, hard day at the office. Finally tracked down an ATM, which was lurking in a little vestibule at the post office. It even had a button that caused it to patronise you loudly in English. Marvellous.
Not sure if I have mentioned the big fruit thing already, but here's an example, together with a pound coin as a point of reference. Yes folks, that's a big apple. Other big fruit I've come across so far: peaches and plums. Bananas are, unfortunately, normal sized, and pumpkins are not only small, but green. Tragic. As you can see from the piccie, they treat their fruit very well here: it comes with its own little padded jacket. Bless.
We couldn't be arsed with an adventure this evening, so we went back to the Malaysian place that we liked last week. They remembered us, naturally, and we had another top meal. After the brain-draining day that we've had, we were just going to head back to the hotel and crash, but something made us take a bit of a stroll and somehow we ended up in The Dubliners. This was definitely a good plan: a couple of glasses of Jamesons / bottles of cider really took the edge off. It didn't exactly come cheap, mind: two drinks cost 1250 yen, which is over 7!
We'd picked a good night to revisit, though: they had a band on. It was a four-piece called Orphans and the sign by the door said they'd be playing 'Celtic music'. There was a guy on fiddle, another on guitar, a third on the bodhran and a wee lassie on vocals and tap-dancing (y'know, the whole Riverdance thang on a slightly smaller-scale). They were all awesome, especially the drummer, and to make things a little more interesting they were all Japanese. The guitarist also treated us to a virtuoso Spanish-style solo which melted seamlessly into an Irish-Spanish fusion piece with eth others that really rocked. The girl had a good voice (and interesting diction), and her foot-thumping performance was most entertaining. It was all an unexpected bonus, and just what we needed to unwind a little. Maybe they'll be back again next Thursday...

Wednesday, September 04, 2002
Well, the whole laundry experience was disappointingly straightforward. All I had to show for it (apart from some nice clean clothes, of course) was note about some stubborn stains on my trousers (no tittering at the back there) and a slightly more mysterious one about a t-shirt: I didn't actually give them a t-shirt to wash and they didn't return one. Curiouser and curiouser...
Work wasn't quite as frustrating as yesterday, and we found a top new place to buy provisions AND a convenient post office at lunchtime. Woo! We went to an Indian restaurant in Takandanobaba for dinner, accompanied by our new American colleague, Jeff. The food was excellent and the menu full of reassuringly familiar dishes. The waiters were not dissimilar to those that I have encountered in Manchester, or, for that matter, anywhere else. OK, so they did speak Japanese, which was slightly disconcerting, but no more so than hearing an Indian waiter speak with a Scottish accent in Stirling. The naans were suitably vast, the curry was hot but tasty and the portions were more than ample. Needless to say, we sweated buckets.
Jeff's more than just a visitor here in Japan; he is relocating here on a more or less permanent basis. He's just completed what sounded like a whirlwind trip around Asia and obviously has the American penchant for grand tours (my stereotypes speaking again), having 'done' Europe previously as well. He's been here for three weeks already and nobody told him about the addresses yet, so we felt pretty virtuous when we clued him in on the whole local area map thing. Sounds like Japanese apartments are as dinky as their hotel rooms too: he said his was 300 square feet, which certainly ain't huge.
It's great to check the stats for my website and see how many of you have been following my adventure. I think I had more hits yesterday than I've had all year. Stick with me for more exciting piccies at the weekend (I hope), and more embarassing social gaffes (I hope not). I'm at the halfway mark of my trip now, and I can't honestly say that I'm sorry. It's been a blast and all, and I am really looking forward to this weekend, but living in a hotel's never been my idea of fun. It's not that it's uncomfortable in any way: it just isn't home. Eating out in restaurants is great once in a while, but when you do it every night the novelty wears off surprisingly fast.
Still, I mustn't grumble too much: I've had a thoroughly excellent trip so far, and I'm determined to make the most of the second half. Who knows, we may even justify the confidence that our Japanese chums seem to have in us. I do miss dear old, rainy old Manchester though...

Tuesday, September 03, 2002
After yesterday's culinary misadventures, today's food was a distinct improvement. I had no fewer than four slices (doorsteps) of toast for breakfast (somewhat excessive, I fear), and only paid the usual price. I was still feeling rather delicate at lunch, though, so we wimped out and went to Starbuck's for a ciabatta sandwhich. Not really the sort of thing one should do in such an exotic location, but don't worry, I'll make sure it doesn't happen too often. Hoping to find a decent soba place tomorrow.
To compensate for this lapse, we decided to set out on an epic quest this evening: attempting to find a restaurant by address alone! This is no mean feat in Japan, as I think I've already explained. Street names are rare; you have to locate a place from 3 numbers that indicate its district (chome), block and building, either by wandering around in the general vicinity or by locating a local area map (usually in the middle of a chome). We toured the back alleys of Nishi-Ikebukuro for quite a while before finding a map, then discovered that the restaurant was only a stone's throw from where we'd started out! Typical...
The restaurant was a Chinese place called Rohlan, which was recommended on the website, because it has a special veggie menu as well as a normal one. Unfortunately the menu in question was only in Japanese (and kanji) and the staff spoke about as much English as I do Japanese, but I still managed to convey what I wanted ("Err... tofu... yasai... gohan?") and ended up with a very nice meal indeed. We even got a complementary bowl of soup (featuring ginger, seaweed and sesame in my case) and endless cups of tea. Hoorah!
Work was rather bewildering today, but we did at least have someone to talk to: an American guy called Jeff has justed started working for Aplix over here, and has been assigned to our 'team'. I think his learning curve is going to be a bit steep for the next couple of weeks...
I did a bit of sock-washing last night, but there's no way to avoid it: tomorrow morning I'll be forced to try out the hotel laundry service. Wish me luck...

Monday, September 02, 2002
Back to work - boooo! Actually it was a welcome rest for my aching feet, and we actually made quite bit of progress, so I mustn't grumble about it. No, today it's food that I must grumble about. First I order two rounds of toast for breakfast and only get one, then I buy a 'double cheese' focaccia for lunch only to discover that it has small pieces of bacon in it, and then I browbeat Tez into checking out an Italian restaurant (he's not keen) and get served seafood as part of my fritto misto di verdura. That's 'verdura' as in 'vegetables'. And the worst thing is that they may actually have been the porcini mushrooms that I originally thought they were, but now that I have the idea in my head I'm convinced that I'm having an allergic reaction. Maybe a large pot of Japanese tea will help...
My other adventure today involved buying something to wash my dirty clothes with, which is not easy when all of the available products have their names written in kanji. I eventually found a bottle with a picture of a sheep and a woolmark on it, and decided it was the safest bet. Tez had a related adventure: he tried out the hotel's laundry service. A little lady came to pick his clothes up this morning and squatted on his floor (the Japanese seem to like squatting on the floor) while she sorted his shirts into 'business shirts', 'casual shirts' and 't-shirts' (no collars allowed). When we got back this evening he found a wardrobe full of freshly laundered clothes, plus a detailed note (with diagrams) apologising for the stain that they failed to get out of one of his t-shirts. It turned out to be his tie-dyed t-shirt...
Possible food-poisoning aside, the meal this evening was quite entertaining, if only for the insight it granted into another culture's interpretation of the Italian experience. The food was more haute cuisine than the rustic fare I was anticipating, and the other diners obviously enjoyed the exotic thrills of serviettes and cutlery. The immaculately arranged espresso cups in a cabinet were more evocative of oriental ceramics than Italian, and the waiters were more than a little camp. They were also immensely (and justifiably) proud of their 'home-baked' bread rolls and took every opportunity to offer us some more. I didn't say no - it's the only decent bread I've had since we've been here.
Right, must be off to wash my socks. Blimey - an early night. What is the world coming to?

Sunday, September 01, 2002
A more leisurely start today: breakfast at 10:15 (mushroom omelette - top!) and out by 11. Our destination: Ueno. Our first port of call: the zoo.
I'm generally pretty ambivalent about zoos: I love seeing the animals, but I hate seeing them all caged up. Ueno Zoo manages to evoke both extremes of sentiment. It's just celebrating its 120th anniversary, so it's certainly not designed with the animals' comfort in mind. Very few of the poor beasties had enough space and we noticed far too many of them circling their cages pathetically, or scrabbling frantically at exits. To be fair, I think many of them were distressed by the heat (it was absolutely roasting in the sun), but others were truly pitiful.
There was a huge range of animals to see. We started off with cranes and moved swiftly on to monkeys and lemurs, followed by more monkeys, goats, sheep, ducks, geese, flamingos, squirrels, bats, bush babies, snakes, lizards, giant tortoises, giant salamanders, crocodiles (or were they alligators?), slow lorises (lorii?), yet more monkeys, eagles, condors, vultures, prairie dogs, dhole, tigers, lions (baby lion cubs fighting), giraffes, tapir, okapi, a spectral tarsier (top name, top animal), gorillas, black bears, brown bears, llamas, bison (very sad-looking), rhinos, hippos, deer, otters, beavers, sealions, meerkats, kangaroo rats and the obligatory elephants. There were unexpected animals, such as the polar bear and penguins (king penguins too) and there were stupid looking animals. There was even a giant panda, but it was practically impossible to get anywhere near him. There were evil little children banging the glass, and equally evil parents letting them get away with it. There were also big crows everywhere, and some kind of huge locust-like insect that makes a colossal noise that sounds like a siren. And more big butterfiles. Did I mention the monkeys?.
By the time we'd seen everything we could find, we were knackered. We had a bit of a rest, then pottered around the rest of Ueno park, taking in a blue whale replica outside the Natural History museum, a Gates of Hell replica outside the Western Art Museum and a statue of a man and his dog (significance unknown). There was a really cool fountain in the middle of the park and a random temple or two. Heck there was loads of stuff, but we were really suffering in the sun and our feet were killing us, so we jumped on a train and headed for Akiharaba.
This is perhaps most famous for it Electric Town district, which was, of course, our destination. Tez was getting increasingly jealous of my camera and wanted one of his own. The guidebook pointed us at Laox, one of the scores of electronics shops that line the main street, selling the latest and greatest gadgets at supposedly knock-down prices. Actually, electronics stuff isn't much cheaper than in the UK, but the choice is bewildering and many of the stores (Laox especially) cater for the tourists by offering tax-free shopping. Tez finally settled on a camera (I bought some headphones and batteries - big spender!) and tried to pay for it. In vain, as it turned out. He's just been on the 'phone to his bank about it, and it seems he was the victim of a random security check. Basically, the credit card company refused to authorise the transaction, despite Tez supplying his name, address, 'phone number and mother's maiden name. All of this nonsense took numerous 'phone calls and the best part of an hour to unfold, during which time we wandered off for a drink and a look around I ended with me paying for his goodies with my credit card... which was immediately authorised. In the end we found the experience rather amusing, and returned to Ikebukuro in good humour, pausing only to ponder some of the strange symbols on the tops of the skyscrapers.
Dinner was great fun; we had discovered a yakitori place about five minutes walk from our hotel and summoned up the courage to go in. Yakitori means skewered chicken, but that's thankfully not all that restaurants of this type serve. They specialise in barbecuing food on skewers, and some of them (not this one) settle the bill at the end of the evening by counting the number of skewers you have discarded. Tez had various bits of meat, most of which he enjoyed; I had green peppers, shitake mushrooms and welsh onions (that's leeks to you and me). We had various condiments to dip stuff in, including some wonderful wasabi (a variety of horseradish) that made our nasal hairs tingle, and a bowl of rice to add some bulk. All of this was prepared and served with great gusto by the cooks and waiters, who shouted out at every opportunity, especially when someone entered or left the restaurant. We sat at a counter drinking wonderful Asahi Super Dry beer, and watched our food being cooked over flaming charcoal. Marvellous!

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