Japan 2013: Sushi and the Sniffles
My wife and I returned to Japan for a fortnight earlier this month. The following post is about our holiday, while the next, which should follow on Friday, will focus on the gaming side of the trip (purchases, Akihabara, Street Pass etiquette etc.).
Our most recent trip back to Japan was a bit different. Firstly, we were visiting in winter, as opposed to the tail end of summer. This meant that our suitcases were stuffed full of Uniqlo heat-tech and extra socks, instead of t-shirts and sunglasses, and we were treated to a whole different menu than in previous visits (Japan takes its culinary seasons very seriously). Unfortunately, a mix of cold weather and the powerful germs of a twelve hour flight meant that the wife and I both spent half the holiday feeling unwell, battling a cold with MJ, flu-like symptoms. Secondly, while some of my best friends still reside in Japan, the ranks have thinned considerably over the last three years, as people have either returned home or moved onto new adventures, which meant our trip was slightly less social than in previous years. Lastly, our accommodation was different to past returns. While we did stay with family for a considerable portion, we also spent time in hotels in Tokyo and also much further afield. This all made for an interesting and worthwhile return, but one that was not without its disappointments.
The holiday started poorly, thanks to an awful flight with Virgin Atlantic. I have done the London-Tokyo, Tokyo-London haul about a dozen times, but this one ranks as one of the worst. I will eat pretty much anything, but the slop they served-up was inedible. On top of this, the in-flight entertainment system was broken, which meant I had to spend far more time staring into space - about six hours - more than I had originally planned. The one saving grace was that the flight was only a third full, so there was plenty of space to stretch out while losing the will to live.
To Virgin's credit, we did eventually land. Japan's main airport, Narita, is one of the most tourist friendly in the world, at least among those that insist on taking fingerprints and retinal scans of every single foreigner that passes through customs. By the time we had arrived at our destination - it's roughly an eighteen hour trip, door to door - we just wanted to eat and crash, so the holiday didn't get started until the next day. Once all our errands were out of the way (booking a short trip, buying pre-paid sims for our old phones etc.), we spent the first full day visiting our old stomping grounds in Asakusa, Tokyo. This turned out to be one of the best outings of the two weeks, as we stopped by the local temple and market, had a few drinks and did some Puri Kura (glammed-up photo booths). We were the oldest people in the arcade by at least ten years, but fuck it, we were on holiday!
|A massive lantern|
We ended up in a yakiniku (Korean BBQ) restaurant, where they foolishly offered me a ninety minute, all-you-can-drink menu for ¥500 (£3.50). My wife was very impressed by my quaffing of eight beers and a small decanter of sake in such a short space of time. She loves it when I do super value. This was of course capped off by three hours of all-you-can-drink karaoke. It would have been longer, but I fell asleep, mic in hand, during a lifeless rendition of Muse's Knights of Cydonia.
Friday night was a chance to have a few quiet drinks with a couple of friends, in preparation for the almighty piss-up scheduled for the following night: shabu-shabu all you can drink and eat. This is an old favourite, and the only acceptable reason for visiting Ikebukuro, which is by far my least favourite major hub in Tokyo. Bloated, rowdy and full of meat, we then headed to karaoke for some nine man/woman screaming. As any regular will tell you, anything above five singers soon creates a logjam of song selections; by the time your choice appears on screen, you probably can't even remember your name let alone the lyrics of the song you are about to perform. Still, we managed to get in a few classics, and I even unveiled my first solo, all-Japanese number, Oh My Julia by Checkers, which some of you may remember from Ouenden 2 on the DS.
The following night was a family affair, as I heroically drank through a shocking hangover, as it would have been rude not to. A lovely meal was capped off by, you guessed it, karaoke, where I was schooled in the ways of Enka which, for the lack of a better description, is a genre of pop-like ballads sung in a more traditional Japanese style. I did feel like a bit of a twat doing Beastie Boys Check it Out between songs from the Fifties, but the more mature and non-English speaking audience seemed to appreciate it anyway. Tragically, this was the third and final karaoke session of our trip. Disgusting.
|Giant Enemy Crab|
A day later, and we were on a bullet train headed to Matsushima in Miyagi prefecture. Matsushima is located along the same coastline that was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but the hundreds of pine covered, tiny islands that litter the bay had saved the town from inundation. We took a boat trip between the islands and then spent the night at an onsen (hot spring resort). We hired an open air, private bath which looked out onto the bay, where I spent a good half hour flashing local fisherman and tourist boats. No onsen trip is complete without a spot of public nudity.
With my genitalia no longer on display, we sat down to a slap up dinner. I lost count of the number of courses that appeared on our table, including a whole crab, which is the most confusing of delicacies for a child of land-locked countryside. I did my best with the provided scissors and scoops, and even sucked down some brains, but I can't say I understand all the fuss about boiled crab. As per usual, I made a point of eating as much Japanese food as possible throughout our trip, scoffing everything from tonkatsu to raw horse meat, and avoiding western food at all costs.
Unfortunately, we both started to feel rather unwell come the end of our stay at the onsen. We should have probably just headed home the next day, but we decided to make the most of our time in Tohoku, going ahead with a pre-planned day of sightseeing. We took a long journey on a local train to Hiraizumi, which is home to a number of temples, including UNESCO World Heritage Site Chuson-ji. There was snow everywhere and I was drugged up to the eyeballs, but it made for an interesting detour, albeit one that nearly killed me.
Taking in the cultural highlights of Hiraizumi
Back at the in-law’s place, the next three days were a complete write-off and more than a tad depressing. The local area was not ideal for us, and being ill did not put me in the best of moods. It is a typical over-flow town for a larger city in Chiba, full of old buildings and older people. It is just far enough away from Tokyo that a very small but constant minority will openly stare when they see a non-Asian guy walking down the street, which does get on your tits after a while. The hour long train commute from home to the tip of central Tokyo, including three transfers, was enough to put us off visiting the city while feeling under the weather. Aware that we were just wasting days shivering in front of the TV, we decided to be proactive and move to Tokyo for the final three nights. We booked a business hotel, which was small, clean and affordable, and perfectly situated, just a two minute walk from my favourite place in the city, Akihabara.
Relieved of the inconvenience of long train journeys, and both starting to feel a bit better, we made the most of our final few days in Japan. As much as I love to see the in-laws - that's not sarcastic by the way, as they really are lovely and always make me feel very welcome - we should have moved out much earlier and spent more time in Tokyo. Although a croaky throat meant that karaoke was a non-starter - what a fucking waste - we were better able to catch up with friends in the evening, without having to worry about last trains and falling asleep on loop-lines. Our location also meant that I had plenty of opportunities to raid the local video game shops, the fruits of which I'll share in my next post.
We took a short day trip to Kamakura, an old capital of Japan, just south of Tokyo. Located by the sea and surrounded by hills, it has a unique feel, almost European with its long, straight avenues and boutiques. However, it all becomes very Japanese once you visit the temples and other sites of cultural interest which are scattered throughout the city, the most famous of which is the Daibutsu, a giant bronze Buddha dating from the thirteenth century. It is really quite impressive and instantly made me think of Sagat’s stage in Street Fighter 2, which I'm sure was the architect's intention. We visited a number of museums and places of interest in Tokyo on our final day, topped off with some last minute game purchases, a pint in our old local and then some tasty ramen.
While the trip could have gone more smoothly, it was still great to see family and friends and spend time in my favourite city. The excitement of that first extended weekend, and the freedom and convenience of the final three days made the trip more than worthwhile. As far as our long-term plans, the fortnight offered closure while also serving to confuse. It is clear that we have both moved on from certain aspects of our life of old - I resided in Tokyo for just over four years from 2005-2010 - and that it would be a huge mistake to move back and expect to pick up where we left off. I also felt more detached from Japan than ever before, and was more critical of things that I had been willing to overlook in the past. However, my love of Tokyo has not diminished. It is a fairly ugly metropolis, especially in the winter, but it has all the character in the world and continues to surprise, almost nine years after my first visit.
I don't know when we'll next be back in Japan, but I have a feeling that it won't be any time soon, at least not as visitors. We would probably need something tangible (the promise of a job etc.) to draw us back as residents and give up what we have in England. That being said, Japan is just as much our home as here, so we will never completely rule it out. On top of emotional ties, the lack of karaoke satisfaction during this latest trip already has me pining for the authentic Japanese experience, so perhaps we will be back sooner rather than later. I wonder if Virgin is doing any last minute deals?