Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 1)

30 Dec 2014 – 03 Jan 2015

After a disproportionately exuberant farewell gathering at the Baron all afternoon on Sunday, there was the usual up-at-4am dash to the finish line to get last minute ducks in rows – and perform other essential activities like packing (which had been procrastinated over for days because of the complexity of the warm vs bulk trade-off of winter- and ski-wear options).

Miraculously, everything was done and ready by our agreed-upon 10.30 collection time. Michele, accompanying us to Japan, was to leave her car at the airport while we’re away, which made life very simple thanks to the long-term carport parking across the road from ORT International Departure entrance.

Coup de gras was the radio dedication of Turning Japanese by The Vapours (“I really think so!”) and Big In Japan by Alphaville, that Michele had smsed in to her DJ mate to wish us a bon voyage on-air.

Both of our (Emirates, obviously) flights were very full and our online check-in the day before had warned us that we weren’t sitting together on either flight. We managed to negotiate to be in a row of 3 together on the flight to Dubai, but only Christian and I were together on the second flight (a minor detail since most of that 11 hour flight was spent sleeping, thanks in some part to our Dubai Airport splurge on R130 pints of Heineken).

Arriving in Tokyo, Narita International Airport was a bit overwhelming… especially since Lixi and Roro’s flight from London had been delayed so they’d missed their connection to Tokyo – and it was Lixi who’d done all the major prep (including a 38-page itinerary!) thereby earning unofficial Group Leader status.

Nonetheless, English and helpful people were aplenty so we soon had a plan and a train ticket for the Airport Express that would take us to Ueno Station where we could catch a taxi for the short ride to our digs.

Except we managed to get on the wrong train!

Fortunately, our error only had minor consequences as the train we were on did the same route as the Express, but stopped. At. Every. Station.

Our mistake had been pointed out to us by a lady sitting next to us on the train, who then asked to see our travel arrangements and gave advice on the subway vs taxi options for getting us from Ueno to our local subway stop (from where we had on-foot directions on our accommodation booking itinerary). Thinking we’d reduce our risk by taking a taxi, the lady guided us to the taxi stop and hailed a driver for us.

I’d been warned by our host that our (“truly Authentic! Live as the traditional Japanese do!”) house was off the grid when I’d asked (on Lix’s instruction) for Google coordinates for our Awesome Itinerary, but hadn’t considered that our driver wouldn’t be able to find it either. Plugging the address into his GPS got us close enough, but we ended up trawling the neighbourhood with his Japanese GPS lady sounding increasingly frustrated as she tried to convince us our destination was a park!

500 Yen later and no closer to home, we decided to get him to drop us at the local subway and call our host to come and get us. Turns out we were only a couple of hundred metres from the station, and located in a small alley parallel to the park.

Relieved to be nested, we happily removed our shoes (on instruction) in the little entrance hall and bowed to enter through the small sliding door and into the house. The small lounge is spartanly furnished with straw floor mats, a low coffee table, several cushions and a floor lamp. The lounge leads onto a tiny kitchen with barfridge, single utility table, double hotplate, small sink and, entertainingly, the house’s only shower! …which made more sense when we discovered that the “bathroom” (a loo with a basin cleverly designed on top of the cistern so that water used in the basin automatically gets used to flush the toilet) was also in the kitchen! The whole living area is about the size of my dining room at home and you can touch the ceiling on flat feet.

Up the steep and narrow staircase took us to the sleeping area: a long room with 5 futon mattresses laid out in a row. The room could be subdivided into 3 rooms using the curtain between bed 1 and 2 and the shoulder-height sliding door between bed 3 and 4. Most walls had the same sliding doors, so it was fun sliding them to see what hidey-hole treasures lay beyond. Interestingly the house is an almost 1:1ratio of living:cupboard space. Disappointingly, most were cupboards with bedware or empty for us to store our stuff.

Our host – whose name we’d already forgotten so we’ve renamed him Jeff – lived in a small room off the lounge and reminded us that we were to be very quiet in the house. The house’s owner had told me that several times on Airbnb,  which I’d interpreted as “no loud parties”, but Jeff advised that we were to keep so quiet that in fact pure silence was to be observed upstairs. Turns out that the authentic Japanese paperthin walls combined with the authentic Japanese grumpy old man neighbour and the very-real prohibition on subletting in this traditional Japanese neighbourhood had gotten out landlord into some hot water already.

We assured Jeff that our intention was to use the house for little more than sleeping and to illustrate told him we were heading straight out to experience Tokyo. He gave us advice, directions and a map, setting us off toward Ueno, where we were apparently destined to find food and drink aplenty. So, feeling rebellious at our flagrant disregard for the no-strangers-in-our-hood rule, we hit our streets and discovered that it was an easy walk to all the action.

We kicked off with a celebratory beer (“The Brew”) from our local 7Eleven, next to the subway station entrance where we’d met Jeff. The challenge was juggling the icy cold beer between hands so as not to get either hand too cold, since it was a crisp 3 degrees Celsius out. Easy task for us, so we rewarded ourselves with another from the next 7Eleven, trying a Kirin this time.

Jeff had certainly advised us well; there was loads of life in the few blocks he’d pointed out. We had a bit of a wander, pouring over the big pictureboard menus outside most of the eateries, considering our dinner options… and, predictably, were lured into an Irish rock bar (The World’s End, opposite Ueno Station) for a Guinness (and a tot of Japanese whiskey for Christian and Michele). Great pub, bigger than many we’d passed but still little more than an inflated passage with about 50 seats.

We ended up only eating at around midnight, having struggled to choose what and where to eat among the countless little restaurants that were still open and pumping. Deciding to try lots of things, we ordered shrimp dumplings, fried basil dumplings, barbecued pork and a noodle hotpot. Everything was amazing! Christian ordered a second round of dumplings and Michele a “Magic Pudding” creme caramel dessert and, with drinks, the whole lot came to R328!

Delighted at our feeding, we went on the hunt for a celebratory Jagermeister. Beside the road-level restaurants and bars, there were loads more upstairs, with stacked neon sign markers outside the stairwells to indicate what was where. We soon learned that, presumably since space is at such a premium, “sitting charges” often apply, which will act as good as any other filter to help us narrow the options moving forward in a city where we’re so overwhelmingly spoilt for choice.

We found the Jager – at a ball-busting 1000 Yen (R100) each, (sort of) softened when it turned out to be a veritable tumblerful, easily a triple or quadruple shot each! A good nail in the fun coffin of an unintentionally extended welcome night in Japan, we started heading for home and (one more nightcap en route later) were in bed by 4am (a very respectable 9pm home-time), with many stories under our belt for our travelmates’ arrival, due for around lunchtime.