Japan part 4, many months delayed!

This post details my time in Tokyo and returning to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur in January 2013. It has taken a long time to find the time to finish off the writing, but it is finally ready. So without further ado, the post begins in earnest:

The trip from Kanazawa to Tokyo was nice, if a bit long. At the station where we changed to the Shinkansen, we had an hour wait, because the first train to pass was very full for rush hour. Commuting inter-city must be a pretty arduous routine, but people in Japan seemed to do it.

While we were waiting at this station, I decided to go explore, so I exited the station, and found a hypermarket. Things were very cheap, and I picked up some fruit.

Once on the train again, and getting to Tokyo, it was time to plan the route from Tokyo station through the metro system to our hostel. Tokyo is a bit annoying in that there are two separate metro systems, which do not share ticketing systems. I solved this by getting a stored value card, Amos chose not to. But it still makes for an additional decision layer about how to get from A to B, because the starting fare is quite high in each of the systems, so you want to try and make your entire journey with one of the systems.

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The hostel in Tokyo.

 

Our hostel (https://www.facebook.com/Nui.Hostel) was in Asakusa, and was very very trendy. It had a bar on the ground floor, and we slept in dorms again. The next day we slept in a bit, and then walked to Akihabara, the electronics and Manga district of Tokyo. This high-colour octane fuelled district is certainly an assault on the senses, with all the audio-visual advertisements blaring into the street. But we were both actually more interested in the electronics shops, or more precisely, the radio parts shops, which sold everything from bare USB plugs (attach your own choice of wires to the pins) to solar cells and battery packs.

Akihabara. The visual assault here displayed is complemented by an audible assault of advertising as well.
Akihabara. The visual assault here displayed is complemented by an audible assault of advertising as well.

After a few hours in Akihabara, we took the metro to Ginza, an upmarket, slightly Francophile, shopping district. The Main Street had several flagship stores from international brands, but we were more interested in the surrounding blocks, where there are a lot independent galleries… And very nice bakeries.

Ginza. A chique shopping area.
Ginza. A chic shopping area.

Next ward on the list was Shinjuku. Up to now, we were wondering where Tokyo hid its skyscrapers. I thought they might not have many, because of earthquake risks, but turns out they have quite a few, a lot of then clustered in Shinjuku. We went here mostly for the free observation galleries at the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The building is composed of two tall towers, and each one has a viewing gallery at the top, providing great views over what, from here, seemed an endless city. (The greater Tokyo Bay Area, with some 35 million people, is commonly considered the most populous metro area in the world.)

The view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings.
The view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings.

Afternoon had rapidly become evening by this point, so we headed out onto the street again in search of food. My guide book mentioned a street next to Shinjuku station that had many small noodle bars and related eateries for quite cheap prices, so we headed there, following the mass movement of people in suits emanating from the buildings surrounding: rush hour had started. To add to the confusion, the pavement we were following suddenly became a tunnel, rendering our sense of direction, flimsy at best, almost void. We trusted in the fact that everyone else must also be walking to the train station, and eventually did make it to the street we were looking for. And well worth it it was. The atmosphere of the street was completely different, narrow, with traditional Japanese shop fronts on each side, decorated with cherries and lanterns. The noodle bar we ended up by served superb noodles, prepared half a metre away across the counter. They were served in seconds, and enjoyed in minutes (there was a queue of people behind each seat waiting for their turn). And cheap.

The food street in Shinjuku.
The food street in Shinjuku.

Hunger satisfied, we decided to go to Shibuya, home of one of the world’s most photographed intersections. Five roads meet, and pedestrian crossing is facilitated by the iconic “scramble crossing” where all motor-traffic is stopped for around a minute, letting pedestrians cross in any direction. This is also a very good venue for shopping, so Amos and I split up, I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the (warm) Starbucks overlooking the intersection, and bought new headphones. After meeting up again, time was getting a bit late, and weather was quite cold, so we headed back to the hostel for the night.

The famous five-way intersection in Shibuya.
The famous five-way intersection in Shibuya.

The next day, we explored our surroundings in Asakusa a bit more. We started off by walking north towards the Senso-ji temple, Asakusa’s most famous landmark. Inside the large gate was a street full of souvenir and worship related stalls, leading up to the temple itself. The temple was pretty, but what I remember most was the lady performing with her trained monkey. I am in no position to judge from an animal cruelty point of view, but she was not treating the monkey badly during the show at least, merely encouraging it to walk on stilts, jump long distances and generally interact with her. A good show I would say.

The gate of Senso-ji temple.
The gate of Senso-ji temple.
The performing monkey doing an impressive leap.
The performing monkey doing an impressive leap.

After this, we walked to a very curious street, which specialises in plastic food replicas for menu displays. A restaurant would, to illustrate their menu, buy plastic replicas of the dishes they serve, and place them in their window, so as to show what potential customers can get inside. Along this street replica sushi, noodles, vegetables, rice, sweets and fruits were available, both B2B and as souvenirs. A lot of the models were extremely accurate visually, down to the matteness and shinyness of the individual parts of a maki roll for example.

Our next target was the Tokyo Skytree, which opened recently. This is a broadcasting tower designed to replace the famous Tokyo Tower, and is also the second-tallest free-standing structure in the world. It is technically not a building, as it does not have inhabitable floors all the way up, and it is indeed much taller than a lot the tallest skyscrapers of the world, but it is beaten by the Burj Khalifa, which, in addition to being a free-standing structure, is in fact a building. We walked across the river to get there, and realised that its height really does skew your perceptions of how close it is. Standing below, looking up, we were suitably impressed, but did not take up the opportunity to go up to the observation deck, as the price was quite high. Instead, we eat at the food court in the adjoining shopping centre, and walked back. All this walking made me quite tired, so the rest of my day was spent relaxing at the hostel.

Tokyo Skytree. It is huge.
Tokyo Skytree. It is huge.

The next day we decided to go to Tsukiji Fish market, where every morning a large fish auction of the day’s catch is held. A small audience is allowed for the auction, but arriving early is recommended, and so is checking whether there is actually an auction that day. Luckily we did check, and realising that there was no auction, went there mid-morning. The market was very empty, and thus looked all the more massive, with dozens of lorry parking bays and imposing warehouses. But the reason we were here was for the sake of the sushi. This being a fish market, several sushi shops have opened on the premises, including some of Tokyo’s best, according to several travel websites. We didn’t feel like paying the prices of the best ones, so wandered into the outer reaches of the market area, and found a nice sushi shop where we sat at the bar, and ordered from the menu to the sushi chef immediately on the other side of the bar. That was very cool. Best fish in their selection in my opinion was a red tuna. So fatty and delicate that it literally melted in my mouth.

This is the way to order sushi. Can't get any closer to the preparation than that.
This is the way to order sushi. Can’t get any closer to the preparation than that.

Amos was due to leave later that day, so back to the hostel we went. After he left, I sat for a while and realised how exhausted I had become from our tour of Japan, and really didn’t feel like staying for four more nights in Tokyo. This is the disadvantage of becoming so good at “covering” a city in a day, as we had been doing with the rail pass, I almost felt like there was nothing left to do. So on a whim, I changed my ticket to Kuala Lumpur to that same evening, cancelled my hostel bookings for the next few days, and headed for the airport. These changes were surprisingly inexpensive, the only thing that was expensive to change was my KL to Singapore flight, which I had booked separately.

The flight to KL was overnight, with AirAsia. Considering their budget airline status, it wasn’t too bad. Comfortable seats is all you really need for an overnight 7 hour flight I can conclude. I can’t even remember whether they served food. Arriving in KL early in the morning, I took the bus to KL Sentral, the new railway station which is not at all Central in my opinion, had breakfast at a local Indian restaurant, and explored the colonial district by foot. Compared to Singapore, the colonial district of KL feels much more authentic somehow. But anyhow, I headed back to the railway station for the afternoon train to Singapore, tickets for which I purchased when I arrived in KL.

Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. One dazed tourist confused by climate transition back to tropical.
Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. One dazed tourist confused by climate transition back to tropical.

The train from KL to Singapore is basic, but nice. Above all, it is cheap. My departure was delayed for about an hour though, so I settled down for coffee and a sandwich at the station. When the train eventually did arrive, I boarded, and the train took me to Singapore at a leisurely 80 km/h in around 5 hours, making the distance feel much longer than it actually is.

The view out of the train. They were upgrading the line, building double tracks and electrifying it.
The view out of the train. They were upgrading the line, building double tracks and electrifying it.

My final disappointment of the month-long holiday was arriving in Singapore by train. Firstly, overland arrivals from Malaysia have zero duty free allowance of alcohol. This surprised me, since airport arrivals have a decent duty free allowance. So deciding to play by the rules, I declared my Japanese bottle of Honey Umesu (a mixture of Sake, Lemon juice and Honey), and a friendly border guard took it upon himself to figure out where and how I was actually able to pay the import duties for this. This led to what can closest be described as an impromptu tour of the checkpoint,before finally finding the office, paying, and formally being let into Singapore. And I say checkpoint, because for unfathomable reasons (a silly diplomatic spat with Malaysia), the train goes no further than just across the causeway. This meant that, having travelled at 80 km/h into Singapore, I had to take a 40 km/h bus the three kilometres to the closest MRT station, where I could then again travel at reasonable train speeds. Honestly, I was shocked that the train did not continue just that little bit further to facilitate a better impression of entering Singapore. But back in Singapore I was, starting on my second semester of exchange. The second semester I didn’t actually leave Singapore at all, thus the lack of blog posts regarding travels. But I am now back in Denmark, have been for a few months now, and just thought it might finally be time to finish off this series of posts detailing my long winter holiday.

Author: jpamills

Website: www.jpamills.dk

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