“Welsh onions” – Shinjuku
Not that you’ve necessarily been gagging to hear, but Tokyo was fantastic – easily one of the most interesting and worth visiting cities we’ve seen to date. If it wasn’t so far, we’d have booked a return visit already, perhaps supplanting our long-time favourite, Singapore.
The delay in writing has been the result of flu. Both of us were poleaxed by it last weekend, 36 hours before heading for home. Individually, Di succumbed first, with me about 18 hours behind her.
Between bouts of sleeping, we sat in our hermetically sealed, air conditioned hotel room and did nothing other than mope and yet more sleep. By Sunday morning, it was clear that the walk back to the bus terminus at Shinjuku station that we’d done on arrival, was now way beyond our abilities and a taxi ordered to get us to the bus stop, bus and airport.
Fortunately, the next hurdle; the bus to Narita went off like silicone. Made all the better by getting a sizeable pensioners’ discount. Check in, immigration and the security formalities came next, the pair of us like zombies, just wanting to get on the plane and sleep (more).
Twelve hours to Dubai, three hours wait for our Cape Town connection – sounds like a drug deal – not – and another nine hours in the air, saw us arriving on time with just the baggage, customs and drive home left to endure.
That was Monday. I’m writing this eleven days later, both of us are finally past the worst – still largely incapable of any kind of enthusiasm, exercise or appetite. Independently, we’ve both been out during the intervening week and a half, both arrived home exhausted, ready for little more than to sit and stare at the ocean outside.
On Monday, we both agreed that if we didn’t go out and get some shopping, we’d starve. So, we did a big pre-Xmas shop, the fridge is full to bursting and all we need (apart from our kids to show up and surprise us) is the energy to eat and drink it all.
I’m not sure if we’d ever have gone to Tokyo if Emirates hadn’t written to me a couple of months ago, offering a whole e-mail full of bargain-priced flights to just about everywhere. Having recently returned from Laura’s wedding, we weren’t much interested, that was until I followed the link in the e-mail and found yet more budget city flights.
“How would you like to go to Tokyo as a kind of joint Christmas present?”
Moments later, the booking was made, hotel reservation done and the anticipation started.
Outbound, we flew to Dubai and then on to Tokyo’s Narita. It was smooth, easy and on arrival, we opted for the Airport Limousine (a bus), which dropped us at Shinjuku Station – about 800m from our hotel.
Street scene, Tsukiji Market
Checked-in, baggage dumped in our room and in seconds, we were out on the streets of Shinjuku to explore and find something to eat. We found the latter in a yakitori – chicken grilled on tiny skewers over a charcoal fire – bar (izakaya) about 250m up the street from the hotel, pretty much the first place we tried.
Fed and watered, I paid, expecting a massive bill – this is Tokyo after all – and was very pleasantly surprised. For lots of yakitori, a couple of side dishes and beer/wine, I got a bill for a bit less than R300.
That set the pace for the rest of the trip.
Autumn trees, Yoyogi Park
Our travel days easily fall into a new city routine; I wake early and go out to photograph, Mrs P sleeps. I’m usually back around 07:30, we deal with the daily ablutions and head for a good breakfast.
The Best Western we were staying in fitted that need perfectly, with both European and Japanese buffets. Grilled mackerel, deep fried chicken and rice porridge for breakfast was a novel experience and begged to be tried. Other days, toast, marmalade or a couple of boiled eggs held a bit more appeal.
Usually, by around 10:30 we’re ready to depart, having agreed a destination for the day. Shinjuku is huge and it’s only a matter of minutes into Yoyogi, Harajuku (the Carnaby Street of Tokyo) and various nearby suburbs. Other days, we braved the Metro for Shibuya and it’s famous scramble crossing, Ueno, Ginza and the Imperial Palace.
Grown up fishing, Shinjuku
Fortunately, we’d finished our must-see list as the flu struck. We still missed returning to a couple of places that just cried out for more time and exploration. For every one of the twelve days we spent in the city, we ate in bars, restaurants, izakaya, markets and street stalls. What we ate was often a bit of a mystery – most Tokyo-ites will attempt English, but ordering food can be a lottery. We ate what we got irrespective. In the main it was fantastic.
I bought some kitchen knives in the the Fish Market at Tsukijki – there are hundreds of stalls selling sea food of a bewildering variety and shoehorned between their stalls, a vast variety of cutlers, offering knives for just about every occasion. That was after a street stall don lunch – a bowl (don) half filled with rice, topped with a variety of raw sea foods (mainly tuna), gari (pickled ginger) wasabi and soy sauce. It might have been chilly sitting out on the pavement, but the food was fab.
Getting around the city is pretty straightforward. That said, the Metro map was a complete mystery, until unravelling it to get to the Imperial Palace became a motivation. In sum; the station you are in lies at the centre of the map and the place your wish to get to (when you finally find it amongst the coloured lines) is shown with a number on it.
That is the fare in ¥ (yen), usually between 170 and 330, depending on distance.
Use the ticket machine, press the English button (you’ll only need to do this once as the process is actually, very simple), select two people and the fare, chosen from the map above. Ticket machines accept anything up to ¥10000 (R1000) notes and give change in notes where appropriate, instead of a million small coins. Along with your change, two tickets pop out of he slot. You’re now good to go.
The Tokyo Metro goes just about everywhere and the odd station it doesn’t serve, is accessible on the JR Yamanote line, a Japanese version of London Underground’s Circle Line.
And, that’s about it. Tokyo is a fanastic, exciting city and now, we’ve recovered somewhat are already planning a return to see Spring in the city in 2016.
One final note; our pre-departure research told us that the Japanese are not great credit card users and so, I drew a not particularly large sum of Yen to tide us over on arrival. It was planned to cover the first few days travel, sightseeing and meals until we figured out how to draw more cash. As it turned out, ATMs are readily available in the many 7/11 stores around the city, so we needn’t have been so concerned.
Better still, instead of lasting a day or so in what we expected to be a frighteningly expensive city, our cash lasted almost ten days – providing you don’t plan to eat and drink in top-end of restaurants and bars, Tokyo is no more expensive than Cape Town.
That was a surprise.