The Meiji-jingu Shrine

Luckily Japan isn’t quite as expensive as I’d heard. Or at least Tokyo isn’t. You can survive quite comfortably in the city for about $40 per day, but if you want to do more than that your cost of living increases rapidly. Staying in a gaijin house (basically a Japanese-style house full of foreigners, most of them working in the country) will cost $25-30 per day and another $10-15 per day will buy you two large bowls of noodles and some munchies.

Travel is another problem. I’m supposed to meet some people in Osaka on the 25th, and then want to travel on to Hiroshima and possibly visit Kyoto on the way back. The train fares would be a minimum of about $240, and taking the shinkansen (which we know as ‘bullet trains’) would be more like $400. I want to save the money, but they’re so much more convenient that I may just load up my Visa card. The big problem is that they go direct, but on the normal trains you have to change five times to go from Tokyo to Osaka. I really don’t fancy that with all my gear. Ah well, my worst-case budget allowed $100 per day in Japan, so I’ll still come in under that. I hope…

Well, here I am in Tokyo, and I’ve done pretty well for the first two-and-a-half days. In fact I think I’m still around my $50 per day budget so far. This is, of course, because I haven’t done too much. The day I arrived I didn’t get to the house until 8pm (more on that later), then stayed up ’til 4am talking to people. Heavy rain came down overnight and poured until late the next day, and I was up chatting until the early hours again. I’m told that there’s a typhoon near here and the rain we’re seeing is the extreme edge of it.

I’d planned to be climbing Mt Fuji tonight, but after checking the weather forecast and talking to a couple of guys who’ve already done it (they agreed with the Japanese saying `a man is wise to climb Mt Fuji, but a fool to do it twice’) I’m going to leave that until I get back from Hiroshima, climb up during the day and stay overnight at the summit to see the sunrise. That’s another trip which will be fairly expensive (the huts at the summit charge about $40 for a mattress for the night) but it’s one of the things I really wanted to do when I came here. As I may never return to Japan I’d better at least try to do it this time.

Instead, therefore, I’ve been chatting to one of the American guys who’s staying here and catching up on this writing business. I couldn’t understand why I seemed to have spent so much time in front of this computer until I did a word-count. So far I’ve written about 35,000 words in my journal and 20,000 words in these update messages. Phew, at that rate by the time I get home I could have written a couple of novels. This is also why I haven’t written too much personal email, I’ve been so busy with the rest of it!

BTW, in case you’re wondering why some of these messages are in straight chronological order and go into tremendous detail whereas others are chatty and jump around a lot, that all depends on how much time I have and how far behind I am in the journal. If I’m in a hurry and I’ve already written the journal entries then I just censor^H^H^H^H^H^Hedit them down and mail them out, otherwise I write this from scratch and then edit it and expand it for the journal. I’m hoping that the messages I’m sending aren’t too long for people as I’m sure I’m often going into far more detail than I should. Let me know if I’m boring anyone. Sorry too for the garbage which appears in some of the emailed messages, but that’s so that people reading the Web version have some explanatory links to follow, or special formatting – if you’re using Netscape mail then you should also see them.

One of the really nice things about this country is that ordering food is a breeze. In Hong Kong or Taiwan, for example, the menu was usually in Chinese and the staff often didn’t speak English. Here the staff usually don’t speak English but even the cheap noodle shops usually have menus with pictures and most places have plastic replicas of the food they sell on show in the windows. In the worst case you can pick something you like the look of and copy down the kanji to show to the staff. Japan is also full of vending machines (from ‘Pocari Sweat’ to rumored machines dispensing used high-school girls’ panties) and one restaurant had the bright idea of setting up a vending machine with pictures of all the dishes on the buttons. Put your money in, pick the dish and hand over the ticket when you sit down. Neat. Of course the result of this is that I’ve eaten a lot of things I didn’t recognize, but that’s half the fun.

I’m thinking of starting a guide to 7-11 stores around the world. Unlike some American chains they have a very different selection of goods on offer in different countries (as do the other store chains like Circle-K). In Hong Kong there were a lot of munchies like potato chip plus many kinds of preserved fruit and other fairly Chinese food. In Taiwan they added very nice hot dumplings and tea eggs. Here in Japan they have shelf after shelf of those things that I can’t recognize, with labels that I can’t decipher. I guess I’ll try some before I go and see if I can work out what they are.

I’m staying in ‘Marui House’ in Ikebukuro, which isn’t a bad place for a short stay. The long-term residents have a lot of complaints, but so far it’s been fine. I have a small Japanese-style room with a futon and fan, with a shared kitchen and bathroom down below. As far as I’ve seen there are no cockroaches and according to one of the residents the only rat they ever saw turned its nose up and scampered away after a brief look. It’s far better than the place I had in Hong Kong, and only costs a little more ($26 per night).

The main business in the surrounding area seems to be strip shows, the sidewalks are full of advertising boards showing cute Japanese girls wearing part of a school uniform or bikini. With a $50-150 cover charge I’m sure they’d better be good…

The flight to Japan was, well, different. I had a couple of scares before I took off. Firstly I checked the exchange rates between NT$ and ¥ and mistakenly worked out that there were ¥60 to $1 rather than ¥110, and then when I went to check-in China Airlines wouldn’t give me a seat because I hadn’t reconfirmed it. This is bizarre, as only one airline has ever wanted me to reconfirm any flight, and none has ever expected me to reconfirm the first flight on a ticket. Luckily, after a long wait while yet more school kids interviewed me, I got the last seat on the plane (literally, right at the back) and just had time to change my remaining money and get to the gate before it took off. There was no safety demo (not that I really bother watching any more, but that’s still unusual) and several ‘Remove Before Flight’ tags were still in place. I considered liberating one as a souvenir but thought better of it. The plane was full of yet more astoundingly cute Taiwanese girls, both as passengers and crew. Sigh

On the plane I was faced with only the second sushi meal in my lifetime and I still couldn’t remember whether I was supposed to eat the black bits surrounding the rice or not. The rest of the trip the Taiwanese kid in the seat next to me was staring at everything I was doing on the computer and was particularly impressed with Doom. I noticed that most of the people returning from the toilets behind me also slowed down for a surreptitious look at what this strange gaijin was up to. I was starting to feel even more like a cyberpunk and scanning through the guidebook I wondered if I should make a stop in Chiba, where several of Gibson’s characters hung out. Unfortunately I doubt that the genetic engineering shops have been built yet.

Immigration took over an hour, and then when I walked through customs with a rucksack and a passport with recent stamps from Thailand they were not impressed. They questioned me for ten minutes, then checked all my bags and even my shoes. This was completely bizarre as they failed to look in most of the places where I would have put things if I had wanted to smuggle something in. Perhaps they were just bored. Anyway, I chatted about Sumo for a few minutes with one of the customs guys and then they gave up and let me go. Just over two hours after the plane landed I was finally in the arrivals hall.

The monorail and train ride to Ikebukuro added another hour or so and then I spent another half-hour just looking for the right exit from the station. It’s so large and the signs are so confusing that finding my way around was pretty tricky. Eventually I escaped and arrived at Marui House soaked with sweat and ready for a shower and change of clothes. Again I’d read that Japan should be cool, but it wasn’t. Not as bad as Taipei though.

Sunday after the rain stopped I headed for Yoyogi Park where the Tokyo freaks hang out. I was planning to visit the Net Cafe near there if I could find it, but had arranged to meet a net.friend at 7pm so had little time. I was sidetracked on the way by the Meiji-jingu Shrine, one of the best Shinto shrines in Japan. It was very different to the shrines I’d seen in China and the rest of Asia, but quite pretty. The cloudy sky rather let it down in that respect.

One interesting thing about the shrine were all the prayers which had been left there. People write them on wooden blocks which they then tie onto frames under trees. There were hundreds there wishing for everything from money and good jobs to boyfriends.

Yoyogi Park Rockers

The Park was entertaining but quite empty. Outside the gates some Japanese rockers with a boombox were giving a very impressive dance display, and inside the rollerbladers were showing off. The real weirdoes were hanging out on a bridge over the railway line. One girl was putting on a very strange dancing display and another kept stripping down to her underwear so that people could be photographed with her. The punks seemed quite normal in comparison.

I returned to Ikebukuro station to meet my friend, but didn’t find him. As I said it’s a really confusing place and I suspect that we ended up at different exits. I told him to meet me at one particular exit, then later discovered that there are two exits which are both signposted with the same name. Aaaarghhh… He’s off to China now so I guess that’s the last chance.

Instead I ate then returned to the house. Another American guy had just moved in and two of the Australian girls (are all Australians that tall, or just the ones who travel?) returned to tell us all about their experiences in Yokohama the night before. They’d met a couple of Japanese guys who’d taken them to a car show. The cars and vans all pulled into a car park and then showed off their stereos. They played loud music while the passers-by danced to it. Another car was fitted with a remote-control suspension so that the owner could stand back and make it ‘dance’ along. Must be something about Yokohama and cars as I’m supposed to go to an X1/9 owners’ club meeting there the Saturday after next. That will be nice, as I’ve only seen one X1/9 in the whole of Asia, a red one parked near my friend’s house in Taipei. That will probably make me nostalgic for mine though, sniff.

My Red X1/9. I had a black one too.

(For those who don’t know what an X1/9 is, it’s a tiny little two-seater Italian sports car. In many respects it’s half a Ferrari, basically the same design with the engine behind the seats and a lift-off roof, but two-thirds the size, with half the engine and half the performance. Very cute and a lot of fun to drive because it’s like an adult’s go-kart, just think about moving the steering wheel and the car turns. Or if you’re brave like me, you can steer with the gas pedal instead. Fun!)

Their friends turned up to take them out again and we were invited to see their ¥8,000,000 ($80,000) Chevy Astro Van. This was like no Astro Van I’ve seen before. Aside from the three cellular phones and GPS sattelite navigation system the entire trunk area was full of speakers and amplifiers. I couldn’t work it out exactly, but from the brochure they showed us the system appeared to be at least a thousand watts and required its own power supply seperate to the van’s battery. The large one-farad capacitors hidden away in one corner were also a little disconcerting. We all admired it from a distance just in case they turned it on by accident.

All in all, Japan’s a very interesting place so far and I have an itinerary that I think I can afford. Fingers crossed…

P.S. At 2am the rain is pouring down outside so heavily that I can’t hear myself type over the noise it’s making. I’m sure glad I’m not half-way up the mountain tonight…

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