Sunday, 28 February 2010

Lunar New Year in Tokyo

Over the past four years or so I've been lucky to have been to some great places such as Vancouver, Hong Kong, Thailand, Beijing, Seoul, London and Daegu. Only kidding, London's a dump. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend four days in Tokyo.

The first thing you have to come to terms with is that in such a short space of time you can only, just, scratch the surface. Tokyo is huge and even if I lived there for a number of years I still don't think I could say I know the place. There is a lot to see and discover. Tokyo is also grand. Things operate very differently from both England and Korea.

February felt like a decent time to go to Japan. Not too cold and certainly not hot, however from my research April/May would seem to be the best time to visit due to the famous cherry blossoms. If I could make the trip again then I would wish to go during Spring.

There are two airports in Tokyo, Narita and Haneda. My wife and I were unable to get a flight from Daegu, Busan or Incheon that arrived at Haneda (Narita is new like Incheon but is further from the centre than Haneda) so we had to fly from Gimpo which is in Seoul. Haneda airport and Gimpo are similar but are limited which made me appreciate what a great airport Incheon really is and fully deserved of those international airport of the year awards.

We arrived in Japan at around 3pm and took a coach to Shinjuku where we were staying. The trip should have taken an hour but due to traffic and roadworks took nearly two and by the time of our arrival we were both fairly tired - we had to get up early to make our train from Daegu to Seoul. Our hotel was the Shinjuku Washington. The price was not so bad but the room was very small, but that's Japan where space is at a premium.

We figured we'd spend our first night relaxing in the Shinjuku area. At this point I must say that Tokyo really is full of neon signs. Living in Korea for four years has left me to a certain point immune to how they look to people who have never been to Asia. Tokyo is on a different scale to Korea though for neon, it's ubiquitous in the shopping and bar areas and is as striking in person as it is on TV and in images.

We spend a few minutes becoming familiarised with the area surrounding the hotel and then headed for the bars and restaurants. Surrounding the pachinko parlours and stores that seemed familiar to me were some bars that were pretty small, though I don't think they were the Golden Gai bars that I had read about, perhaps next time.

We went into our first bar and I had some fantastic Japanese beer. People who know me will know I detest Korean beer. It is pound for pound the worst in the world. For many years I'd liked Japanese beer but this time I got the chance to sample a great deal. Here is my ranking scale of Japanese beer brands based upon my findings. 1 Suntory, 2 Kirin, 3 Sapporo, 4 Asahi. I didn't try Orion, again, perhaps next time. Of course each company brews many beers, of which I got to try many but Suntory (which is known more for it's spirits) on tap was my favourite with Kirin running it close. If I ever ended up teaching English in Japan I'm pretty sure I'd end up an alcoholic, though a happy one at that!

After sampling some bar food we headed off to eat a more substantial meal. We tried to eat different food every time we ate and sampled many dishes during our four days, but we didn't even scratch the surface. There food is a lot more expensive than in Korea and in smaller portions but like Korea many people seem to eat lots of side dishes. Japanese food has similarities with Korean but the preparation seems to be more delicate and thoughtful - maybe that's an illusion glimpsed on a happy holiday. After drinking more beer we headed back to the hotel ready for a busy day to come.

The next day, Sunday, was Valentines day and we planned for a great day. First we headed to the Shibuya area and started off in what may or may not have been Yoyogi Park. After a while we ended up at the Meiji Shrine. This may have been the highlight of the trip. Certainly we greatly enjoyed ourselves. I must have taken two hundred pictures. Here we saw some nice scenery, interesting buildings and also three or four weddings taking place. The place was busy yet quiet and peaceful. This is definitely one of the places any visitor should go to in Tokyo.

One of the more famous areas seems to be Harajuku. This is an area famous for its shopping and fashion - Takeshita Street (that's a real street). As this was a Sunday we got to see some of the more 'different' fashion statements that come out of Japan, i.e. youngsters dressing up in clothes that nobody else would wear. We got there a little late and I think we missed the more bizarre elements. I could not stop myself from thinking some of these people were attention seeking losers, probably from rich families. Nevertheless, they are free to dress how they like.

Later we spent some time in Omotesandō primarily window shopping. Here we got to see some very expensive things but I managed to pick up some fairly inexpensive souvenirs. It was at this point that my feet started to ache from all the walking I had done. Later we headed back to Shinjuku and went for a nice meal to celebrate the day.

On the Monday the weather took a turn for the worst. It rained almost all the entire day which limited us for the things we could do. To try and make the best out of a bad situation we headed to Odaiba, a large man-made island. Here we spent most of our time window shopping again is some nice, yet uneventful malls. This was perhaps the low point for me.

As day turned to night-time and the rain started to lessen we headed to Shibuya again. It was here that we saw for ourselves the famous crossing area where four cross-walks merge and hundreds of people cross the road simultaneously. It was still raining though so most of my pictures we disappointing but the feeling is one of "wow". This is definitely a place of Tokyo that I want to see again. It's very impressive at night I wonder how it is by day. We found another bar and ate and drank and enjoyed being where we were.

The next day we were very limited because of our flight departure time. We stayed in Shinjuku but headed to a different area where we again relaxed and went shopping. When our time was over we headed off to the airport. In truth I didn't want to head back and it took me a few days to readjust to like back in Daegu and being back at work. Tokyo is a great place but like I said we could only scratch the surface. The see a lot more of the touristy places I'd say you need about seven days or maybe more.

There are many differences between Japan and Korea, too many to mention here. Being my third time I had been there the differences continued to stand out though not as dramatic as before. I will mention some without trying to put down Korea too much. Japan/Tokyo is without a doubt cleaner. There is more grass, more parks and places to enjoy some nature. Traffic seemed to be more patient and respectful of pedestrians. Everything in Japan is FAR more expensive and the sooner you accept that the sooner you can move onto enjoying the place. Architecture, what little I've seen is more interesting. There is a lot of choice, compared to life in Daegu, Korea. There I could buy, look at or do a lot of things I can't here. Life there is different that's for sure. Perhaps Tokyo cannot be compared to the rest of Japan, it being a mega-city of sorts. I intend to go back. There is so much more to do.

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