Archive for January, 2010

What to do in Tokyo: a beginner’s guide

There are lots of things to do in Tokyo, obviously. But, having spent the Christmas holidays doing some of them, I thought I might as well write about them here, in case it’s of any use to anyone who might be visiting.

The reason I was doing things in Tokyo is that my sisters were visiting from England, to celebrate New Year’s Eve – and their birthday, two days later – in Japan. They flew into Narita airport on December 27, early in the morning – which, incidentally, is the best time to arrive in Japan, I think: if you can keep yourself awake for the whole of that first day and go to bed at a normal time, it puts you in a good position to minimise the impact of jetlag. (I normally go for a run to get myself through the inevitable afternoon slump; then I’m so tired by bedtime that I sleep right through till morning.)

Day 1: Shinjuku

When they arrived we got a bus from the airport to their hotel in Shinjuku. Narita airport is a couple of hours away from central Tokyo, and although you can get a train, it’s cheaper and simpler to get the Limousine bus – especially if it stops at your hotel. Since the traffic was good, we arrived at their hotel in Shinjuku about an hour and a half later. And Shinjuku is, in my opinion, the best place to stay in Tokyo: it’s got a good mix of shopping and sightseeing, a decent nightlife, and it’s well-connected by train and bus to other parts of Tokyo and Japan.

After a few drinks in the hotel bar while waiting for their room to be made up, we started our tour of Tokyo by taking lunch at a family restaurant – an aspect of Japanese culture that is unfairly neglected by most travel guides. We ate in a Denny’s across the road from the hotel, but other family restaurants include Gust, Coco’s, Royal Host, and, my favourite, Saizerya (my favourite because it sells really cheap wine). The family restaurant is, of course, a western import, but it’s one that Japan has made its own – a perfect microcosm, then, of Japanese culture. Also, a perfect place to get some delicious food, and usually pretty easy on a potentially jetlagged (or hungover) stomach: hamburg steaks, pizzas, noodles and so on.

After Denny’s we made our way over to the Park Hyatt and had drinks in the 47th floor lobby – which is a little bit expensive, but well worth it for the amazing views of Shinjuku and the Tokyo sunset, and so that you can say you’ve been to the place they filmed Lost in Translation. Finally, we ate and drank at a fairly standard izakaya. Izakaya are, according to all my Japanese friends, the Japanese equivalent of a pub, but that would only really be true if pubs were tapas bars: somewhere you go to eat a series of small, mostly sharing dishes while drinking booze. They can sometimes be difficult to find, because of the way you have to get an elevator from the street to reach them, but if you’re visiting Japan, they’re well worth the risk of getting off at the wrong floor and finding yourself in a hairdresser’s or something less salubrious.

Day 2: Asakusa

On the second day we started out with lunch at a tonkatsu restaurant at the top of a department store. Tonkatsu is basically breaded pork cutlet, like a schnitzel. Like the family restaurant, it started out as a western import but has now been wholly Japanified, and they put other stuff in the breadcrumbs too (one of the specials at the restaurant we went to was the currently-big-in-japan-camembert katsu, for example) and it’s served with shredded cabbage and brown sauce. You probably know what a department store is, but unlike British equivalents like Debenhams or House of Fraser, in Japan they’re more like mini-malls, containing lots of different shops. You will find them above every major train station, and pretty much every single one houses a basement full of amazing food stores – cakes, sweets, souvenirs and speciality foods – and a top floor full of restaurants. And not just overpriced sandwich shops or food-court takeaways, either – although they often have those too. Some of these department stores are home to some of the best restaurants in the area; actual, bona fide, sometimes haute-cuisine, restaurants.

After finishing off our tonkatsu (which wasn’t quite haute-cuisine, but pretty delicious nevertheless), we moved on to Asakusa which is where all the temples are. In fact, there are so many temples that it’s also where all the tourists are, and there are so many tourists that we actually bumped into some people off our bus to Shinjuku (who I only remembered because they’d left a bottle of whiskey on the bus, which I had handed in to the driver).

Our original plan was to stop off in Akihabara – the electronics district, famous for its second-hand game stores and maid cafes – but we’d got off to such a late start that we just admired it from the train. When we got to Asakusa we ogled all the food stalls on the way to Sensouji temple, watched an off-duty Sumo wrestler say a few prayers, wandered past a rickety old amusement park, and enjoyed some beers while sitting on upturned crates in a cute little shack near the river.

From there we headed to Roppongi, which is where all the foreigners hang out. It was actually my first time in Roppongi, and I really don’t know much about the place, but it seemed pretty swanky to me – especially when we got to our destination, an opulent karaoke club called Lovenet, where all the rooms have themes. One room has a Jacuzzi, for example; others have glass walls; ours was themed like a sweet factory, so we ate our full-course meal off a glass-topped table full of sweets while drinking as much booze as we could.

Day 3: Shibuya

On the third day, we went for ramen in a dingy but delicious counter in Shinjuku and then shopping in Shibuya, which is where all the young, cool kids hang out – particularly the 109 building, which is like a horrific mistranslation of Top Shop over several floors, but also fairly full of hot totty (among all the fashion freaks and the weirdos). There are about a million other department stores of course, but there are also some cool little alleys full of fashion stores. After exploring them, we checked the football scores at a Manga Kissa, a brilliant mistranslation of internet café that involves unlimited drinks, internet, games, comics, magazines and, if you’ve missed the last train, showers. Then we took pre-dinner drinks at an English pub where we drank beer and snacked on that traditional English snack, deep-fried spaghetti. Dinner itself was yakiniku, which is where they bring you lots of raw meat and vegetables so that you can cook it on the barbecue grill embedded in the middle of your table.

Like Akihabara, Harajuku got forgotten amid all the food and fashion, but if we’d got up earlier, we would have gone there to check out all the crazily-dressed hangouts and sample the more upmarket stores of Omotesando.

Day 4: Disney Sea

We spent the fourth day at Disney Sea. There are two Disney parks in Tokyo, and they’re expensive, but a lot of fun, just queuing up, eating and soaking up the atmosphere. Disney Sea has the added bonus of making alcohol available in its restaurants. Like I say, there are lots of queues, at about an hour for most rides, and two or three for the popular ones. There are a couple of ways around them, though. The first is that some rides have a separate ‘single riders’ queue, for parties that don’t mind getting split up. For some reason nobody seems to use it, so we managed to cut a two-and-a-half-hour wait for the Indy Jones ride right down to about ten minutes. The second is the ‘fast pass’ system: at certain times during the day, certain rides issue a limited number of fast pass tickets. If you manage to get one, you can come back later and skip the queue (so we managed to cut another one-hour queue down to fifteen minutes, for example).

Day 5: Kamakura

Day 5 was New Year’s Eve. We spent pretty much the whole day recovering from all the walking and drinking at Disney Sea, but come the evening we were ready for a few drinks at another izakaya before heading to Kamakura. Kamakura is an hour or more from central Tokyo, but it’s even more full of old temples than Asakusa, and, in addition to lending its name to a character from GI Joe, has also given its name to a period in Japanese history after some shoguns set up there in the twelfth century or something. From Tokyo, I think you can get a regular railway, but there’s also the Enoshima Light Railway which, last time I went, had trains with wooden floors and houses about a foot away from either side of the train – though this time they seemed to have gotten rid of the traditional trains. We got off at Kamakura and made it to the biggest temple, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, just in time for the midnight countdown. Then we ate and drank at the many stalls that set up around temples during various festivals: bananas on sticks; strawberries on Ritz crackers; takoyaki; fried beef; chicken karaage; fried beef (with some red wine thrown in for free along with some compliments on my use of Japanese, even though all I’d asked was how much the red wine was); and a hundred other foods.

We also visited Hongaku-ji temple, which is devoted to Ebisu, the god of trade and good fortune (and jeans, apparently). And then we wandered down towards the seaside town of Enoshima and my favourite temple, Hasadera, where they had laid out hundreds of candles on the floor.

Days 6 and 7: the end

Since the next day was New Year’s Day, and since we spent New Year’s Eve traipsing round temples till six in the morning, we spent Day 6 doing pretty much nothing, apart from a delicious traditional meal at a tofu restaurant at the top of a different department store. Then on our last day we spent the afternoon in the Park Hyatt again, this time going up to the bar from Lost in Translation for some even more spectacular views over Tokyo (albeit surrounded by weird-looking foreigners – I don’t think there was a single Japanese person drinking there other than my wife). Then we finished our seven-day tour of Tokyo at a tempura restaurant and then far too much red wine and sake at the nearest karaoke booth.

It’s a shame they only had seven days, or I’d have taken them to see the slightly fashionable Shimokitazawa, or the less fashionable but easier to shop in Machida. But then this blog post would be even longer and more boringer. Every cloud has a silver lining, right?

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Comedy Gold in the school gym

Today, I had to be rescued from beneath a barbell.

Anyone who knows me knows I like to WORK OUT. Not because of my rippling one-pack, obviously, but because I like to tell anybody who will listen. The reason I like to WORK OUT is not because I’m self-obsessed, or because I have a thing for rippling male torsos, but because I used to be fat and it’s unhealthy to be fat.

Since coming to Japan, I have been WORKING OUT in the school gym. It’s got a few exercise benches, several barbells, a couple of dumbbells, and several poor-quality gym machines. I only ever use the dumbbells, because I WORK OUT on my own, and if you’re working out on your own it’s not really safe to use barbells in case you get stuck under one. But we’ll get on to that in a bit.

Occasionally – when it rains, for example – the gym will be full of the baseball team, which sucks because it means it’s difficult to get on the dumbbells. Usually I improvise a rubbish workout with one dumbbell, or use the poor quality multigym equipment, but it’s never very satisfying and I always leave feeling unjustifiably bitter.

More usually, however, there are just one or two other students using the gym. There are about three regulars, all of them in their third and final year at the school. Today, two of them were in the gym. One of them is in several of my classes and, as far as I can tell, has only opted to study English into his final year as a way of getting out of other, more demanding lessons. He seems to resent the fact that I’m intruding on his time/space out of lessons, and speaks to me only if I ask him if he’s finished with some equipment, and only ever in the most cursory, polite way. The other seems very sweet and always gives me a big smile, greeting me when I arrive and saying goodbye when I go. That’s probably because I don’t teach him – although I may have accidentally loudly announced, while standing next to him, that my muscles are bigger than his the other week. I can’t recall for sure. I was a little bit flustered at the time, having just been asked by one of my female students if she could touch my muscles. Consequently, my Japanese grammar and comprehension went out of the window, and I can’t really be sure what I said.

Anyway, mostly these three regulars just use the gym to improvise a game of baseball with a small broom and a ping-pong ball. Today, the two of them were working out – one of them using the dumbbells. Like I say, normally I’d just improvise an unsatisfying workout, but today I didn’t want to, because the only exercise I have engaged in for the last two or three weeks is boozing and eating too much. So, instead, I decided to use the barbell to start my WORK OUT, as always, with a chest press.

In case you don’t WORK OUT, the chest press involves lying flat on a bench, and pushing a weight up into the air – normally with someone standing over you in case you can’t lift it and get stuck under the weight. I decided that, since I didn’t want to irritate my student any more than my mere presence already had, I wouldn’t bother with someone standing over me. I’d just stop before I got too tired, and besides, I’ve seen several students lifting without someone standing over them.

Now, the thing about the chest press is that it’s probably my weakest exercise. I have lately been lifting about 50kg, about 8 or (at a real struggle) 10 times. But since I’d had spent so much time not WORKING OUT over Christmas, I resumed my regime the other day, lifting just 40kg about 15 times. Today, I decided to keep the weight at 40kg, since I’ve had a cold for the past couple of days. And I just went ahead and lifted.

It was the first time I’ve ever lifted a barbell. It felt weird! I had to lift very slowly just to keep it steady. After about eight lifts I was starting to feel tired, but I really didn’t want to admit defeat so I struggled on for a ninth lift. And I just about did it. And the other day I did 15, right? So why not try another one? So I did. And I got about half-way and had to stop. I mean, I had to. There was no way that weight was going any further. Unfortunately, the bracket where I needed to return the weight was about an inch higher than the weight. And so I pushed with all my might. I mean, I really pushed! And the next thing I knew, the barbell was resting on my face, just below my nose. And the two students were running over to help me lift it off my face. At which point I sheepishly thanked them and continued my WORKOUT, with a bit more care and a sore nose.

And that is how I came to be rescued from beneath a barbell.

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