So, Japan. We had a brilliant time and very easily could have spent much longer (other than, after 16 days, we were exhausted and, of course, missing our Ponzu). I very much expect we will return. It was an unusual trip in many ways, with my being half-Japanese, but never having been to Japan, with my studying the language, but autodidactically so reading and writing much better than speaking or listening. Until recently, I thought it would probably be one of the most alien places on earth that I could visit, but with my endeavour to learn the language, I started watching so much anime and Japanese television that somehow I felt almost pre-acclimated to the culture and that, combined with being able to read a lot of the writing around me, made it seem oddly familiar rather than strange.
We arrived at Narita late on a Saturday night and knowing our hotel, Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, was on the Airport Limousine Bus route, we decided to travel into Tokyo that way rather than via one of the trains. The coach ride was long, but smooth. There was no traffic and at first, driving through the darkness, it almost seemed we were in the middle of nowhere rather than on the outskirts of the world’s most populated metropolitan area. Slowly the buildings started growing in number and then in size. Driving on the rolling and curving flyovers from the elevated perspective of the coach, the roads devoid of other traffic, it almost seemed like we were flying through the buildings rather than driving amongst them. A very quiet, almost magical introduction to what is actually, obviously, a bustling city.
The hotel, when we arrived, was lovely. I managed almost the entire first interaction in Japanese, only failing to understand a sentence about leaving our shoes at the entry of our room so as to keep the tatami mats clean, which was then kindly explained in English (of course we would have done so anyway, as we do not wear our shoes inside, but they weren’t to know).
Our room was beautiful and quite spacious, not nearly as small as we’ve heard most in Tokyo are. In addition to the sleeping area, with an exceptionally comfortable futon on a low bed-frame, it had an elegant small sofa and a cute legless chair in front of the mirror near the TV and fridge area. We were surprised there were no mini bar items in our fridge, but soon found that was because there was a vending machine in an alcove across the hall, filled with a selection of super affordable drinks including water, coffee, green tea, other soft drinks, as well as alcoholic beverages like beer, whisky and soda, and umeshu! Way better than a mini bar, which we tend not to use anyway. Of course, it would turn out this was only the tip of the Japanese vending machine iceberg.
We settled in and then went in search of food. It was quite late, about 10pm, so we didn’t want to go far and wanted to make sure we got somewhere before last orders. We found a Yakiniku (bbq meat) place just down the street and though it was hidden down a stairwell, we decided to try it. So glad we did; the atmosphere was great and the food was super delicious. It was the kind of Yakiniku restaurant in which you grill your own meat over charcoals in the centre of your table (a great favourite of ours!) – if you’ve never tried it, you should seek one out if you can. BBQ Wagyu on night one – couldn’t have a better start.
The entry to the restaurant:
We’d forgotten to change the time on our phones so woke an hour later than expected and missed breakfast. Oops. Our first mission of the day was to figure out if I could get the Zeiss Batis 2/25. I was a bit too nervous to try Japanese over the phone so we decided to ask the concierge if they wouldn’t mind calling the store to confirm for us before we took the train out to Nakano. The girl we spoke with at the front desk was amazing, she not only called and confirmed, but even told us what exit to take at Nakano Station! I got very, very excited that the lens was still there waiting for me (my Japanese emails had worked!)
Nakano was a cool district, filled with people shopping and eating. Not at all touristy and the locals seemed amused by the two of us walking around with cameras. Now, as most of you know, in the UK and in Singapore there are a lot of photographers, so people are used to seeing them out on the prowl, that day was our first hint that, though it might be counter-intuitive, it might not be entirely the same in Japan.
We found フジヤカメラ店 (Fujiya Camera Store), which actually turned out to be two stores, one small vintage camera store on one side of the street and a big new retail camera shop on the other. I explained who I was and they went to the back to retrieve the lens! Five minutes later it was purchased and on my camera.
One of the test shots:
Afterwards, we wandered for awhile before finding a place to eat. We decided on a small place that smelled good from the street, was busy inside, and looked to be more a meat restaurant than a seafood one (I’m allergic to shellfish). Once inside we were a bit bemused to find out it was mostly a chicken restaurant that was famous for its chicken tataki (seared on the outside, raw in the middle)… I’d read that chicken could be (and was) eaten this way in Japan even though as a Westerner, at the thought of it, all you can hear is the voice in your head screaming ‘salmonella!’ …So, when in Rome and all that: we ordered the tataki. A friendly guy at the bar, right across from our table, leaned over and recommended another dish, chicken hearts; we’re not normally offal fans, but again, we were explorers on our first day in a foreign land, so we ordered it. The chicken tataki was very… chewy. Lol. The flavour was nice because it had been cooked over charcoal, but texture-wise I wasn’t entirely convinced. The meat inside was surprisingly dark, not like the pale chicken we are used to seeing at home. I expect it may have been a special kind, maybe the famous Nagoya Cochin? The chicken hearts were ok, but not something I’d go out of my way for again. Luckily, Nick enjoyed both dishes very much! I liked the sauces that came with them – there was a fabulous yuzu paste which I need to try to find at our Japanese grocery store.
On one hand, visiting Japan in the summer means the weather is hot and unpredictable (when you’ve been living in Singapore, that doesn’t really signify), on the other hand, it means matsuri (festivals)! If we were going to visit in the summer, I desperately wanted to go to a matsuri. Having watched a fair amount of anime, I knew that it was quite usual for some people to attend in traditional clothing, light summer kimonos called yukata, and that there would be lanterns and stalls selling food and hand-crafted goods. Everyone would wander the streets, eating, drinking, shopping, carousing, just generally being merry. Sounds good, right? So, pre-travel, I looked up what Matsuri were scheduled for so late in the summer and soon found we had but one opportunity to attend one and it was in Azabu Juban, a trendy neighbourhood in central Tokyo, on the evening of our first day. Done. So from Nakano we went back to our hotel for a rest (well, I rested, Nick went back out with the camera for awhile) and a clean up before heading to Azabu Juban.
When we boarded the train from Shinjuku (handily located right next to our hotel) we knew we were headed in the right direction because there was a girl in a yukata beside us. By the time we reached Azabu Juban Station, there were many more and a few young Japanese men in yukata as well. Awesome. There was a mass exodus from the train and, once above ground, we realised the scale of the event. The streets were packed with people! Elbow to elbow, modern fashion and yukata, young and old, drunk and not quite as drunk. In the very centre of the madness of this throng, a man stood on an elevated surface with a megaphone and a sign asking people to stay to the left. Even in what appeared chaos, the Japanese instilled order and, because of this, the ocean of people flowed.
We made our way to a crossroads where we got could get enough space to take a few shots and, having done so, Nick went off in search of drinks for us, primed with the sentence ‘2 beers please’ in Japanese. While he was gone, a couple of eccentric characters appeared to my right and greeted one another exuberantly. I couldn’t help but smile and when they noticed, they struck up a conversation. When they realised I was foreign, they got very excited and were so welcoming. I practiced my Japanese and they their English and we had a lively conversation before they had to run off and meet another friend. Brilliant.
Some images from that evening:
All in all, a very successful first day as far as we were concerned!