Wednesday, 29 May 2013

My unforgettable adventures in Japan: Day 1

Tokyo April Fool’s Surprise

A trip to Japan fulfils a childhood dream and so much more. This is my journey to self-discovery and redemption. Welcome aboard!

By Nila Sweeney

After nearly ten hours flight from Narnia, otherwise known as Sydney, I excitedly peek through the window as the Qantas plane slowly came to a halt. I was almost dismayed not to see much but a few airplanes,  and then realised how silly it was to expect anything else. This is an airport, of course there's really not much to see, I muttered to myself chuckling at the silliness of it all. 

Surprisingly, I felt quite refreshed. I’ve forgotten how quiet and considerate Japanese passengers are! I’ve gotten so used to the rowdy Aussie crowd that seemed to invade every flight I’ve taken recently. It was certainly a very welcome change from the last flight I took going to Manila where I endured an excruciating 8-hour flight with a couple of drunken Australians sitting in front of me.

I took my first breath in of the Japanese air and instantly regretted it. Why are people wearing masks? Was there something nasty in the Japanese air? I found out later that they were protecting themselves from the Beijing smog. Yup, I thought it was a joke too, but my Japanese friend assured me that on a bad day, they get the smog from Beijing. Hmmmm..

So I proceeded to the immigration lane where I queued up for more than an hour. I was beginning to wonder if the famous Japanese efficiency has been replaced by the love of paperwork. Nevertheless, I waited patiently, even as the Indian woman behind me kept on complaining about how she's going to miss her train. Really? This is Japan, lady! Trains come pretty frequently, I nearly blurted.

The upshot of the long wait was that my bag was already waiting for me when I got out to collect it. So far so good! 

Next stop, I needed to get a temporary SIM card. Well, what do you know; I can't actually use my own phone in Japan! So I rented one, except that it's an older style phone which means I can't browse the internet. Oh well, that would do, I thought to myself as I nervously tried to figure out how to send a text message. 

Next, I went to collect my JR Pass. I bought the JR Pass voucher before I flew out of Sydney as it wasn't for sale in Japan. 
Narita Express

After collecting my JR rail pass, I took the Narita Express train to Tokyo and excitedly settled in my seat as the train zoomed out of the airport. I peered outside and saw my first cherry tree. Wow! They're everywhere! I almost jumped out of my seat when I noticed the amused look by my fellow passengers. In my broken Japanese, I told them, "First time in Japan" as I slinked back in my seat, feeling slightly embarrassed.

Before long, I arrived in Tokyo and into my friend Tomoko's apartment in Gotanda, Shinagawa where I'd be basing myself as I go gallivanting around Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. 

Gotanda is a hip residential and commercial area just a few train stops to the city centre. It was a perfect base.

Gotanda, Tokyo

I thought I'd know what to expect when using their toilet. Hmmm..Let’s just say it was very interesting...and weird. Really weird. 

I was almost too embarrassed to come out. Was Tomoko secretly giggling behind my back as I tried to figure these things out? Tip: you can use the toilet roll!

So the long-awaited Tokyo adventure began. After getting a lowdown from Tomoko on how to navigate the Tokyo transit system, I was set for the day.

The great thing about getting a JR pass is that you can use it in any JR train line, which is quite prevalent in Tokyo and other cities. You can't use it to ride the subways though so if you don't have JR Pass, get the pre-paid train ticket that you can top up at any train station.

I made my way to the local JR train station and headed down to Meiji Jingu Shrine near Harajuku and Shibuya, both known for their teenage culture and shopping. It’s interesting to see the traditional and the modern part of Japan coexisting side by side quite happily. 

The tall gate of the Meiji Jingu Shrine was quite imposing and the forested walk was equally impressive. Apparently, there are a total of 170,000 trees along and around the Shrine. Needless to say, it was breath-taking. The Meiji Shrine was bustling with pilgrims and the faithful, but it was surprisingly serene.

Meiji Jingu Shrine, Harajuku, Tokyo

Meiji Jingu Shrine

After exploring the temple for an hour, I headed back to Shibuya as I was getting pretty hungry at that point. Of all the restaurants I could have chosen, I've walked into one that actually served westernised Japanese food.  Too late, my stomach has pretty much taken over my brain. I have to eat. 

“Real” Japanese food was indeed literally just a couple of minutes away. A Japanese food festival was being held in one of the citys’ biggest department stores. Despite having just eaten, I went for a second helping. I was in food heaven!  Finally, I had my fix.

I explored Shibuya for another hour, admiring the vibrancy and energy of the place. It’s really like a small version of New York’s Time Square. 

Shibuya at night
It was a lot of fun crossing the road. So I did it twice and contemplated doing it the third time but I thought better. Starbucks has the best view of the crossing, but it was like a war zone out there, so I decided to check out the back streets instead. Shibuya is definitely a shopper's paradise. It's where all those hip young things and a lone tourist from Australia hang out.

I went back to my friend's apartment and rested for a while before I decided to go out and explore the neighbourhood. Near Tomoko's place was Meguro River where hundreds of cherry trees were still in bloom.

The cherry blossoms were on their last leg and the petals have started to fall but considering I haven't seen so many cherry blossoms in one place before, I thought this was paradise! I happily spent an hour taking pictures, admiring and marvelling at their beauty. I felt almost spiritual. One of my childhood dreams just came true! I was mesmerised by the way the petals fall out, just like snowflakes as they gently and gracefully sway with the wind.

Meguro River, Gotanda

The evening was a different experience altogether. Tomoko and I joined a bunch of Tokyo friends and fellow travellers at the New York Grill in Shinjuku and enjoyed the best vantage point of Tokyo. I was kicking myself for not bringing the camera. Oh well, another time.

After dinner, Tomoko and I went to meet up with an old colleague at a bar in Roppongi,  famous for its active nightlife. We went to a trendy bar which I later found out to be controlled by the Yakuza. It was surprisingly laid back, which made me suspicious even more.

A few more drinks and I was ready to hit the sack. I only had a few hours’ sleep since I left Sydney the night before so I was getting really tired. 

But I was so happy and excited to see my old friends and to see my first cherry blossoms. I savoured the moment and thought about the people who made it possible for me to be here. I felt the luckiest person in the world to have my whole family behind me. I missed them dearly and wished they were here with me too.

After packing my backpack for my trip to Osaka the next day, I was finally ready for bed. As I laid down on my futon bed, I have a big smile on my face and thought to myself, 'life is good' as I slowly drifted to sleep, dreaming about cherry blossoms and bullet trains.

Second instalment coming up in my next post:-) 

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