For the first few days of the new year I bummed about with Jasmine and Rich trying to decide what to do for the next 2 weeks. Richard`s mates Austin, James and Roxanna were over and he was going to bring them to the North of Thailand, into Cambodia and then to an island. Since I had already been to Cambodia and Ko Chang island and was pretty sick of Thailand by now I decided to use another passport page and swan off to a different country. My options were Burma, Japan or the Philippines. Richard claimed Burma wasn`t that big a departure from the other South East Asian countries and the Philippines could be easier got to from Malaysia. Also I was tired of the constant heat and my hands had an uncomfortable heat rash developing. Japan was the clear winner - I booked a flight for Friday.
I spent the next few days pouring over the LP guide and researching on the internet. Japan wasn`t a country I just wanted to breeze into expecting everything to be easy. Luckily, the research paid off. You can get a Japan Rail Pass which gives you virtually unlimited rail travel in Japan for 7 days and saves you a good deal of cash if you`re going a long way. The catch is you can only get it outside of Japan. Ingenious. On Friday I headed down to Silom road to buy one from an airline company, traded in some books, packed my bags and got the bus to the airport. The flight was due to leave at midnight but of course was delayed until 3am, also the goons at the airport were holding everyone up by asking them if they really had enough cash to go to Japan - I convinced them by waving a huge wad of dollars and 5 credit cards at them while exclaiming loudly that I wasn`t a stinking gap year student (despite my appearance).
I arrived into Narita airport at 11am local time on Saturday morning and got my visa without problem while the jolly customs official had a great laugh at the lack of luggage I was carrying. “Just that for 10 days!” he exclaimed. There wasn`t much defense except that I`m a greebo and happy to be so if it means I don`t have to lug ridiculous 50Kg backpacks around with me. Especially when I was planning on visiting at least 4 separate cities. I got loaded up on local currency from the ATM and got my first Japanese train into town. I made my way to the Asasuka area in the icy rain and checked into a youth hostel. The temperature was about 3 degrees and since all my warm clothes were in the Landy, I was having a whale of a time. I was determined to suck it up though and refused to buy a hat or gloves. We`ll see how long that lasts.
After checking in to a dorm full of stinking gap year students with ridiculously big rucksacks, I headed out to check out the metro system. It is disappointingly easy and bears more than a passing resemblance to London underground. I came up in the Shinjuko area which is supposed to be where the life is. Unfortunately it was pretty dead. I found one bar (one of the few which don`t charge 3 quid entry) and had an expensive beer (3.40). Japan it not a cheap country to drink in. The barman explained that it was holiday period and that alot of people were away for the weekend. This was later confirmed to me in an email from Jasmine who claimed there was a vast number of Japanese tourists at Angkor Wat. Didn`t help my Tokyo night life experience though so I headed back to the hostel for some well-earned kip.
The next day I walked up to the Senso-Ji temple for my first experience of Japanese religious life. It`s not quite what I expected. People were there in droves, filed in, threw some coins down a pit in front of the icons and legged it. I reckon the average time spent in the temple was about 20 seconds. Maybe I`m jaded after seeing the wonderous temples in Bangkok and Angkor but to my eyes the temple itself was pretty rum - a simple wooden structure with no delicate ornamentation. I`d have to try a few more before I condemn the Japanese temple experience altogether but this wasn`t a promising start. I hit the metro with an all day pass and headed to the Akihabara area. This is where people go to buy electronics and there are a vast number of gadget shops. Being a gadget fan, I was happy pootering about here but most of the stuff is Japanese only and prices are not much different from the UK. From here, I metroed to Yoyogi-koen park. The was another temple here so I had a brief look at Meiji-Jingu (Tokyo`s most splendid shrine according to LP). More of the same I`m afraid. This however, wasn`t the reason I came here. The park on Sundays becomes home to those famous kids who dress up to freak out the norms and sure enough there were quite a few of them scattered around in various freaky manga type outfits. More entertaining though was the group of dancing Elvis` who jived away to a pumping Elvis live album. In any other country these people would be ridiculed but the Japanese are just too polite so they get away with it.
Hungry now, I tubed to Shibuya which is where all the young rich kids come to be seen spending huge wads of cash. I discovered the joy of travelling in Japan is that restaurants have plastic versions of a good number of dishes in display windows and you can just point at one. They do insist in babbling polite platitudes at you though even though its clear you have no idea what they`re saying. The rich kids were out in force, immaculately dressed and made up. It wasn`t expecting it but nearly every Japanese girl wears makeup. Aside from department stores there wasn`t much to see so I legged it to the Ginza area. This is the Kensington of Tokyo, filled with expensive boutiques and designer outlets. I spent some time in the Sony building checking out the new devices. They had a good split-screen display showing the difference between DVD and Blu-Ray and I`ve got to admit there is a sizable difference in quality. That done, I wandered around a bit until I concluded that the place was only good if you wanted some expensive curtains or an Armani suit. Tired, I tubed back to the hostel and made plans for catching a sumo match and departing from Tokyo in the next few days.