Our first taste of the futuristic side of Tokyo was the district of Akihabara. Known colloquially as Electric Town, Akihabara was originally an area full of shops selling white goods and electronics but it has since evolved into a paradise for anime lovers and arcade enthusiasts with plenty of maid cafes thrown in. We arrived off the subway and were met with a neon stereotype of what I imagine when someone mentions Tokyo. Huge cartoon faces smiled down at me as crowds of tourists and hasty Japanese swept around us, this is definitely not a place to dawdle. We entered the first arcade we saw – a Sega arcade spread over 5 floors. Some of the games were familiar from UK arcades (street fighter, time crisis, house of the dead, etc…) and on the first two floors there were only claw machines but then we descended into the dimly lit basement. Large groups of men huddled around cabinets showing complex battle scenes, the man seated in front of the screen seemed to be controlling the game with a set of trading cards. He had them face down on a small table and was sweeping them around in groups. As the cards moved, groups of corresponding characters on the televised battlefield marched around too. His hands were trembling, I assume he was doing some pretty tricky stuff to attract this crowd. We watched for a while but it was so confusing we retreated to the claw machines, simple pleasures for simple minds!
This is where Rosanna spotted a fluffy stuffed cactus. Ever since we entered our first arcade in South Korea Ros has been teasing me that all the boys were winning toys for their girlfriends in these arcades and I hadn’t won her anything. “Rosanna, I am winning you that cactus” I said. I succeeded after only 4 attempts. He has become our travelling companion and dangles from Rosanna’s bag – I named him Tokugawa. He looks like a Tokugawa I think, ferocious and regal.
At lunch time we had a brush with one of the more frustrating aspects of Japanese culture. We wanted to go to a themed cafe of some kind so we looked online and found one nearby that had excellent reviews. When we arrived there was a sign on the door saying you need a reservation and a link to their website where such a reservation can be made. However we could see through the doorway that there were plenty of free seats so we asked the waitress at the entrance if we could please have a table for two. She enquired whether we had a reservation or not and when we said we did not she pointed to the web address and asked us to make one. We started the process on Rosanna’s phone before getting frustrated with how ludicrous this was, there were empty tables in plain view! In the end we left and went to the Gundam Cafe nearby which didn’t require reservations and appeared to have more people in.
We went to two bathhouses whilst in Tokyo, one because it was recommended by our hostel and the other because it was recommended by a friend. They were both very nice, with multiple hot and cold baths and the electric bath which I never saw anyone use. It’s a bath with a slight electric current running through the water and it’s horrible. I’ve only seen it in Tokyo and the few Japanese people I’ve mentioned it to elsewhere in the country have trouble believing it’s a thing. Maybe it’s to trick foreigners. I tried it once and then leaped out the second my backside touched the water, to the amusement of several local bathers.
In Jakotsuyu bathhouse I made probably my worst faux pas so far, it still haunts me. You are given a towel to carry around the bathhouse and clean yourself off with – for that reason this towel is regarded as filthy and tainted and must not touch the bath water at any time. Ignorant of this concept I stepped into the cold pool after a very hot soaking session and was desperate to cool off. I dunked my towel in the bath, swirled it around and then placed it on my head. Unsatisfied with the temperature of it I wrang it out (into the bath) then dunked it again. Nobody said anything, I can only assume they were screaming inwardly. I wish someone would have told me to stop – but that would also be rude. If there are any Japanese people reading this, the next time you see a foreigner swirling a towel in the bathwater please tell them. Or, hypothetically speaking, if they are at a noodle restaurant and fill a cup with what they think is barley tea, please tap them on the shoulder and say “No, you twat, that’s dipping sauce.” BEFORE they try and drink the whole thing in an effort (and here’s the irony) to be polite.
We don’t have a photo of the bathhouse so here’s me buying delicious chips from a chip van.
The Honda Welcome Plaza.
I wanted to see a robot in Tokyo. We investigated the Robot Restaurant but it’s very expensive (around £50 each!) and the video we watched of it online made it look more like a strip show than a robotic demonstration. I did some googling and discovered that there is a free demonstration (much more attractive price point) of Honda’s most advanced robot at their showroom so we headed there. We were half an hour early but the showroom was air conditioned and the coffee was cheap so we hung around the shiny new cars and display of classic superbikes. The show was incredibly Japanese – the woman taking us through the demonstration bowed to us to start off with then introduced Asimo the robot who came on and also bowed to us. It sung a song in sign language, ran around the stage, jumped on one foot and then both robot and hostess walked into a cupboard and waved as the shutter slowly closed in front of them. If this is the most advanced humanoid robot then I’m not too worried about a terminator style apocalypse, if it happens it will be done in such a respectful manner that I doubt I’ll mind.
We went to Shinjuku primarily to have dinner with a college friend of Rosanna’s. The area is full of bars, companion cafes, strip clubs and other, more unusual “red light” establishments. We were there to visit the Capcom Bar, a bar full of figurines, pictures, music, food and drinks all based on famous characters from Capcom games. The food looked hilarious and was surprisingly tasty. One group of diners ordered a dish which came with a dimming of the lights and a serenade from the staff. Based on the looks on their faces they had no idea this was going to happen and they were not happy about it. We thought it was great although I’m glad it was them who ordered that dish and not me!
When we cleared our plates the waitress confirmed we had indeed finished eating and declared “STAGE CLEAR!”, after desert was completed she announced “GAME OVER!”. It was a little ridiculous and a lot of fun.
There are a lot of places we visited that I haven’t mentioned in either Tokyo post:
Shibuya crossing is one of the weirdest tourist attractions I’ve been to, a busy crossing that is only famous because it is busy which makes so many tourists go there that it is very busy etc… At any one time while we were there I’d say 60% of the people using the crossing were there just to cross it.
Bunkyo Civic Center offers expansive views of the city from its 25th floor viewing area, and because it’s an administrative building for the city you can access it for free. There’s even a metro station on the -2nd floor (can you say minus second floor? What’s the correct nomenclature for underground stories, 2nd basement maybe?).
The Meiji Shrine is nice, especially if you want to escape the tower blocks. Its broad walkways that wind through dense woodland will make the city seem instantly miles away as if by some feat of prestidigitation (I learned that word on this trip. It’s a great word, had to crowbar it in somewhere).
Soranoiro is a ramen restaurant in Tokyo station’s ramen street. It is special because they offer vegetarian and vegan ramen. Although you might find ramen without any meat in it they almost all use pork broth. At Soranoiro they make a carrot based broth that is gorgeous, and if you pick the right dish then the noodles themselves have paprika rolled into them. As the japanese would say – “oishi!!!”.
Full Tokyo pictures can be seen here: