Tuesday, 21 July 2015

iPad Postcard reflections from a city break in Tokyo

My older teenage son, Joel, is very passionate about Japanese culture, rather strongly it holds a central position in the gaming and cosplay internet culture <link>.  So when the offer of use of a suburban Tokyo flat was made at Easter Joel was desperately keen to make a visit happen, even in the hot and steamy summer period.  This blog contains the edited highlights of my daily iPad postcard download of activities with a selection of the more interesting photos.  

Day 1

First stop was Pokemon enter in the Landmark Plaza in Yokohama. We visited last time, nothing more than a glorified stuffed toy and plastic stuff shop of the huge (currently ailing) Nintendo franchise. On the opposite side of the mall was edgier, with Totoro, a green fluff ball in a store that also sold Moomin bits. I guess when I was younger (30 ?) I did buy up silly Asterix peripherals....nothing much different. Joel liked the manga and the 'One Piece' art work. Junk spend thus far pretty modest.

We found, after some looking, a Watson's convenience store with the Lioppi terminal needed to book tickets in advance for the Ghibli anime museum. The English menu was not fully on spec, so we asked for help again, only to discover all slots were sold out. Top of the list for next time then ? Odd that you can't just buy it on line, in UK you have to buy via a designated travel agent, which sounds expensive for a £10 ticket. But an interesting USP for Japan fans looking to soak up the culture without Jonathan Ross or Richard E Grants semi humorous telly talk. 

The supermarket check out also provided a rather counter intuitive lean process experience, we had to unpack our trolley onto the moving band and received our paid for goods back in another basket with a bag on top. Beyond check out there was an area to pack your own bags.  A process that optimised the scanning staff members efficiency, but rather missed the customer convenience you can get in the better supermarkets, where they will offer to help you pack your bags.  Of course tip chasers in US will carry your brown paper bags stuffed full to your car, interesting to see such variation in a general, global concept.    

On arrival at entertainment island, lots of glass towers, much like Canary Wharf in steaming heat, we spotted Pokemon lab, a must see location if you are thirteen. "If you grow up with it, you never leave it." Turns out this was an interactive quiz in Japanese to discover the character in a Poke-ball. Joel cracked the character after just one clue.

You never get lost for long in Japan, just stand around looking hopeless and people just come over and help, often in flawless English. So although the Poke lab experience was quite modest (& dull for me to be honest) the rest of the entrance ticket was for the science museum, good that most of this was in English and we had no agenda.

We spotted a clever model of the internet and some 3D printing bits. The big data tracking our movements around interactive exhibits and making them into music was cool. Can see why we need even bigger computers....Joel wanted to pay the premium add-on for the space dome thing, I struggled to stay awake lying back in the dark with 3D glasses on.  +8 jet lag is tough.

"Lunch" was at DiverCity around 1800 behind a huge power ranger in the food mall, if only all food malls could be this exciting, clean and civilised. We watched our yaki soba being fried on a large hot plate with a two egg omelette joining the noodles together, a smattering of smetana or sour cream on thinly sliced shallots topped off the flavoursome mixage. We finished off our visit to entertainment island with a stroll down the Decks mall. Many global brands around, much of the merchandise really was not very different.

Our after dinner stroll was down the infamous electric town of Akihabara, we deliberately arrived late as the impact of tech logos is magnified with the cover of darkness.  This had an enormous wow factor and we gorged our eyes over huge, air conditioned stores with vast ranges of the latest and coolest kit.  

I was struck during our numerous train journeys with the in train advertising, which dangles down unprotected. I am sure it would be ripped off anywhere else. The place is so clean, but it is hard to find bins, everyone must take their rubbish home.

Without much of a clue what the words say you begin to look for meaning in the images, the soft focus front of shot Suntory branded whisky glass being presented by a traditionally dressed lady who cocked her head slightly, whilst her free hand gently caressed the in focus but cut off bottle top.

The Kirin Grand beer offer for a Galaxy Hop, a session IPA ( which should mean you can drink more due lower alcohol) and feel a zing of sour down the sides of your tongue thanks to the preservative high levels of hops, that will get your beer "fresh" to India by boat. Hence India Pale Ale. Another offer called Aroma looked like a dark beer with a good smell ? (I tried this later - it was good) The grand Kirin label 'craftmanship' seeking to offer the illusion of small scale beer styles that is often referred to as craft, not sure CAMRA would like this. English reading from the left, Japanese from the right. Even a hand stop notice nearly hidden and too small to notice, we assumed an alcohol warning.

Day 2

After a frenetic start running on adrenalin, our second day was at a slower paced, that was very rainy and steamy. If you come from UK hot rain is nothing to get worried about, no umbrellas for these intrepid travellers.  Very little sleep achieved due to the time change, amazingly we woke at 1000 after just 4 hours sleep.

We hit the Edo-Tokyo museum, an impressive full size wooden bridge greets you on entrance, lots of interesting models of life in the original settlement.  We got a good sense of the historical evolution of the city, even experiencing the 26kg yoke bucket load of the night soil (human dung) rice farmers would have carried out of the city nightly.

We bailed on plans to visit the Meiji shrine due to tiredness, deciding to visit the sky bar in Asahi tower in Asakusa and have a craft beer in the little resto on the steps, with some kobe beef, wedges and steak.  Some great views and nice cold beer.  
We then looked around the mall under the Skytree, an iconic telecoms tower, the themed shops were fab and particularly the gift food level. We bought some T-shirts, then realised it was a store of global clothing retailer Uni Qlo. Joel was keen on the sweets, they had very innovative packaging. Nano blocks must be Japanese, tiny lego, cheaper here by half, I have been buying some online for team building classes next term, the choice of models is much more international compared with Lego Architecture which is rather US centric.

Got lost on connections en route home, ended up sitting in a rush hour train, thankfully air con and big standing spaces made for a decent ride. I had some slight minor murmurs as my credit card was not swiping.....but it worked on big super market splurge for our sumptuous take out tea, which included some tomato beer, had to try Red Eye, not sure I am a convert.....

Day 3

Slept well over night, finally getting to sleep before midnight. Lots of random noises and traffic stuff going on as we are just above a junction, albeit in a quiet area. Heavy rain over night too. 

Plan was Ginza, but decided that we had more and more interesting things to do in Shinjuku. Hit the Meiji shrine in Harajuku first up, which I didn't remember, was not exciting enough for me, but Joel loved. We lingered long and even read the prayer messages, which were quite inspiring, weird, funny. Perhaps religion has something after all ? Engendering positive reaffirming feelings for collaboration, community and ever improvement ? 

The park trees en route were interesting, a chain retail shop we saw a few times called Urban Research uses house plants for a jungle feel and I can imagine living in a concrete jungle and walking into a shop that is green and plugs sustainable cotton clothing could be a quite powerful inversion.  Sanctuary.  Haven.  Emotional connectivity with the space that might help overcome the premium pricing ?

We then headed for the government tower building, 45 floors up and a free panorama view. We got there via an interesting subterranean walk way covering many blocks, like Canada, but to avoid heat rather than cold. 

Popped to post office to send card to Joel's school, decided not to buy more commemorative stamps. Headed towards the Toto toilet show room, but this had moved and we just gave up at this point. Looked in BIC camera shop, monster technology, pretty impressive. 

Got to the Shinjuku gardens, but it was 'close', as they say here. Tried to find a traditional place for Joel to eat, but he was not happy so eventually we settled on a top floor dept store food court thing, where there were the noodles he wanted cost 780 JPY, about £4.50, pre purchased via a ticket machine in foyer. No drinks, just water. Salary man lunch spot. Joelo happy. 

A few things caught my attention this trip (I have been to Japan quite a few times already)

1: Starbucks "drip" coffee, so much more literal than the more usual 'filter' term.

2: No smoking outside, but you need to find smoking rooms or restaurants, we walked out of one that had smoking inside. Strange. 

3: Night soil, from Edo ancient Tokyo, farmers would extract human waste in buckets, think dung and Baldrick or horrible histories, using wooden buckets balanced on a yoke. Good for rice paddy. 

4: Speak instant Japanese, just add a 'u' ...e.g. Birru, receiptu... global terms abounded and made communications easier.

5: Conflating questions into single words: conflate

e.g. "Excuse me my jolly good man, how do I get to Kamata from here please ?"

Becomes "Kamata ?" 

Our absent host Andrew (works in Hong Kong) recommended an excellent travel ap that optimises the train connections, but of course Vodafone no worku heru. Thus, after a while the written instructions for navigation fail due poor writing and/ or change of location..... You kinda need to be connected to make this stuff work. Red TM or brown F ? TY or something else ? Lots of confusing variants of Tokyo, Toku, Tofu... Limited transliteration and trains that run as stopping and express across all the coloured lines. Nightmare network, but if you can handle three and four connections you can get anywhere across town quite quickly, due crazy frequencies in operation, even on backwater routings. Now AC on a train, isn't that nice ? 

On the trains you have to turn mobiles off in the priority seating area, and may not have volume going on the phone, thus no public calling, what a rule that would be. Let's make it happen !  There are campaigns all around encouraging no rushing and in rush hour you see orderly queues forming to board trains, of course on board there are screens giving updates and journey reports, plus ads.....workable on the British rail network ? 

Day 4

Running out of steam a bit on the wandering around and being amazed at everything. Had heavier trousers today, but felt five degrees hotter, really steamy. Still too uptight to wear short shorts around town, standards of decorum and all that. Trains and streets buzzy as it was the weekend... premium brand zone Amote Sando was the lunch stop, like Regent Street, just with a Dyson shop !

 All too global for us, though there was a side street thing going on that could have been fun, offering vegan organic beer.  Joel not keen on experimenting with pot luck authentic resto experiences, so we had KFC, but interestingly he pondered the health equation of the food, that tasted nice, but was very fatty. Big bone of contention was chicken on a carcass, no boneless filets here, in fact just one leg, three breasts and two necks, which were better than they sound despite needing to pick through bones. 

Day 5

Joel was great as we hooked up with some aspiring MBA locals Yuto and Mariko for a bit first in Starbucks in Shibuya and later down the road. We had seen some cool stuff in a large and high brand-less Muji store, yes we have it at home, but this had lifestyle stuff and touristy bits for the kids. 

Colleague Donna would have been chuffed as i finally read the detail on the pink women only stickers in some of the train carriages. It seems there are train carriages that are not for men before 0930. Not an issue for us, we don't get up early enough. I was however wondering if this is not sexist ? BA tried to have segregation, called family seating, back in the day in Saudi, but was challenged legally. No outdoor smoking, silent mobiles on trains, no rushing for trains, women only carriages.....umm. 

Joel likes the mall experience, he finds the department store less exciting. We did find some interesting crafty bits though in one. I have blisters from walking. Finally we can navigate the trains without a detailed script of change stations and lines. He has bought numerous tacky tourist trinkets, I remember wondering why my folks rarely did. I got six postcards and a prayer motive for my office. I am thinking of writing "hard working students" as my prayer. 

Downer of the day was a poor attempted purchase at the only real Apple shop. Took forever, and then they added a third to the price because the one shown was with contract. Made little saving on the home price it was not worth buying. No six coming home. Not sure the Apple church works as a sales location, lots of flapping around, waiting, waiting. Unimpressed. Bad Apple. 

Day ended with final visit to our local Olympic supermarket, Pokki sticks and a six pack of the tomato beer, not sure anyone will like it, but it is a novelty item I will inflict with fun. Pokki for chums, beer for mere acquaintances ? Do you think it might sell on ebay back home, alcohol rules not withstanding ? Bidders reserve your tin now ? 

Day 6

Silly 0410 start to catch first and surprisingly full train of day to Haneda,....an amazing new international terminal that was stunning.  Film strategy may be tricky, as strategically I picked my top three movies outbound, but likely to sleep well due lots of short nights. I found jumbo box sets of Japanese special Kit Kats, hard to find in regular shops... Wasabi, pink sakura and green tea for fun ?

Hopefully a cracking holiday experience for Joel, I have enjoyed the creative stimulation from coming out to one of the most different places in the world and to have my first grown up city tour with Joel. 

Ginza, Imperial Palace, bullet train Shin Kansen, Kyoto, Fuji-san all left undone, perhaps for a return visit when Jonah can come too ?