When you’re a textbook example of a (slightly educated) bumpkin from Polish countryside somewhere in the south, Tokyo may definitely appear overwhelming. While ‘bursztynowy świerzop’ or ‘gryka jak śnieg biała’ no longer can be found in the place where I grew up (idyllic stuff our national poet wrote about few centuries ago), nonetheless time flows more slowly here, and there’s not that much going on, which greatly contrasts with the Japanese metropolis. During several days there I’ve probably seen more people than in half of my lifetime. What shocked us, however, was the small number of foreign tourists around us. I mean, there was a bunch of them in Asakusa and another quite large gathering near Hachiko statue in Shibuya, but these weren’t the hordes we expected to see on every corner (more than 20 million tourists visiting Japan yearly). Fact: Japan is just a such a homogeneous nation that the Japanese folks make up for the great majority of people there. That’s one thing Japan and Poland have in common – larger cities have some expat communities, but overall it’s Poles everywhere. As such, the hosts (locals and the domestic tourists) dominated in most places, and we were lost in the crowd (or actually we kind of stood out, towering over quite short Japanese folks).
Even though I read that one should not randomly ask questions people in the streets so as not to inconvenience them, I did that on some occasions and everyone was incredibly helpful. Those were some easy questions asked in broken Japanese (‘xxx doko desu ka?’), so I don’t think I made anyone feel that uncomfortable – I did not ask for a ride to another part of the city or for money, usually just some simple direction questions, so I’m pretty sure they’ll be alright after those close gaijin encounters.
While I was slightly dazed by Tokyo, my world-savvy trip buddy was ecstatic about the city, with all its neon lights, commotion, people. On the other hand, you could walk away less than 5 minutes from an extremely busy spot, and you’d find yourself in an oasis of calm – a neighborhood temple, a quiet narrow alley. All these pieces created a unique jigsaw puzzle, with each element being worth seeing – in Tokyo alone you could easily spend 2 weeks, a month, a year, and you’d still not be able to fully explore all of it.
On the second day we travelled to Odaiba. I was tempted to go there to see the miniature of the Statue of Liberty (might as well tick it off as seeing the real deal) and the Gundam figure, but the latter turned out to be disassembled few weeks before our arrival (‘you did 6 months worth of research and planning and didn’t even know that?!’). The ride on Yurikamome line, which connects the island with the rest of the city was particularly pleasant as you go over the Rainbow Bridge, making loops in Tokyo Bay, getting astounding view on the city. When we arrived, I asked some oji-san if the statue is in that direction by pointing my hand, he started gesticulating vigorously. We thanked him, walked away like 50 meters from the station, and he was running after us making sure we’re going the right way – fascinating.
We spent the afternoon in Akihabara. The mecca of nerds proved to be a really colorful place. There were girls in uniforms on every step, who were passing out fliers and inviting people to maid cafes, and gaming and anime billboards anywhere we looked. I was constantly fighting with myself whether I should go to a maid cafe as well.
Quadratic Japanese cars
In the end we gave up on the idea, thinking it would be too awkward – we ended up in AKB Café for a dessert, where kind, cute girls also wore school uniforms and served food inspired by the members of the ultimate jpop wonder, AKB48.
I reckon that the band with all its subgroups consists of more than a hundred girls, new singles come out basically every month, and the graduation system in the group equals constant member changes, and when a girl reaches certain age (or isn’t popular enough or got caught up in some controversy), she gets a goodbye concert and a new person fills the spot immediately.
Obviously as it’s Japan, half of the patrons were 40-something dudes, which I’d rather not dwell on. Soon after receiving our desserts and free coasters with images of AKB48 chicks, the staff organized a mini-event on the tiny stage – 2 teams fought out in a relay race of sorts, which involved pushing a plastic egg with a spoon around the stage – while before the game started, the remaining people gathered in the café had to choose which team they will root for. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, and don’t quite remember what was at stake (perhaps something like choosing the next song to be played in the restaurant), but the emotions on stage were running high, when the 40-year-olds fought with the egg.
The next day, Saturday, was possibly one of the busiest of our journey – all sources were predicting rainy Sunday, so we had to see Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku over one day, when the sun was shining and we were in good mood.
We started out early in the morning close to Shibuya Station at the memorial spot of my idol, Yutaka Ozaki, rock n’ roll star, who tragically died in 1992. Regarding the station, few days earlier I’ve watched a video and a tourist was asked to find an opposite exit and it took him like an hour. We wanted to go from Ozaki’s spot back to Hachiko, and we also got lost, though getting back on the right track didn’t take us as long as the dude from Youtube. I liked Shibuya. We didn’t look for a place to see the famous crossing from the above (crossing the street is not that exciting), but we did walk through it together with the crowds. I paid a visit to Tower Records to check out Japanese music CDs and buy some souvenirs.
For the lunch we chose a conveyor belt sushi bar. After 7 or 8 plates I was pretty much full, while spending very little – for the same amount of sushi in Poland, I’d have to rob a bank, and the food would have been far worse.
Powered by this new-found energy we went to Harajuku. Meiji Jingu with its torii gates was located in a small forest (!) at the very center of Tokyo, and it was one of the coolest places we’ve seen. You can relax there and zone out in the shadows of majestic trees (though those big, black croaking crows were kinda creepy). It turned out that at the temple area two marriage ceremonies were taking place.
We absolutely couldn’t see anything magical in Takeshita Dori – the shopping street with boutiques and fast-food spots – a place popular among young people was crowded beyond belief, and I think that even if we were young enough to enjoy cute stuff it offered, the majority of things sold there could probably be bought in less jam-packed locations.
In the afternoon we had a little walk in Shinjuku, among the sky-scrapers. The view on Tokyo from the Metropolitan Government Building was fantastic. We just stood there in awe, overwhelmed, like I mentioned in the beginning of this post. We were exhausted, but there was a sense of accomplishment as well.
Saturday’s dinner was a true feast. I’ve had the best meat ever in Asakusa neighborhood. On the second floor of a tiny building, next to a grill with charred wood (in Poland firefighters would long cover us with foam and water), we were frying thin fatty pieces of beef and pork, while sipping bottle after bottle of sake. It was a pricey dinner, but worth of every yen.
The weather forecast did not lie, and the next day was awful – raining all the time. We went to Ueno Park and Asakusa for a stroll, but we had absolutely zero motivation to walk in the rain. Pretty bad day, but we’ve had decent weather for almost the whole stay in Japan, so we’re thankful to Mother Nature she did not torture us much.
On Monday the actual travelling was supposed to start, as we were driving deep into the country. A road trip to Matsumoto, followed by a night in a ryokan with onsen in Okuhida, way up in Japanese Alps was next on our itinerary.