I’m writing this one about a week late (have I been here a week already?!) as it’s not easy to find writing time as I move around. It took a day or two to relax into being here... I was so apprehensive before getting off the plane, knowing I wasn’t going to be able to read anything or speak to most people! I pretty much expected to get well and truly stuck at some point, and it did happen a couple of times (cue mini-meltdown in a loo somewhere), when I was trying to get somewhere on public transport and was totally clueless as to where I needed to go! But on both occasions it was all sorted a few minutes later :) Fingers crossed for the next few journeys...
So I arrived into Tokyo (Haneda airport, to the south of the city) at 11pm on Jan 28th and went straight to a “capsule hotel” in the domestic terminal – I was NOT tackling the city at that time of night! There was a bit of a hiccup when I realised all the ATMs in the building were “off duty” for the night – they close at 11pm! I wasn’t aware machines needed R+R?! Fortunately I could pay for my accommodation by credit card.
The capsules are simply very narrow rooms, about the width of a bed, with minimal space at the side (not really enough for a big rucksack like mine). The walls are very thin! I actually went for the “first class” option, which has a three-foot-wide space alongside the bed where you can put your stuff down, a place to lock valuables away, a little table and toiletries. It was VERY comfy, with a fantastic bathing area near reception (loads of space, spa bath etc). I’ve since realised that Japanese people tend to pay enormous attention to personal hygiene and love to take a long bath every night – no complaints from me! I’ll tell you about onsens at some point :)
The only downside to the capsule space (even first class) was that you have to be really quiet; there’s just a screen drawn across the front of your “room”, and this door isn’t lockable. Also, you can’t set an alarm for morning as that would wake others up, so the reception staff come and knock for you if required. SO you hear every sigh and rustle and zip noise made by about 12 people around you, or in my case worry about keeping people awake with rustling of my own! I can highly recommend trying a capsule though; first class was 6,300 yen or about £40 – one of my very few hotel stays on this trip and well worth it for the buffer zone it provided between the plane and the city.
Next day my first destination was a hostel to drop off my huge bag. SO it was time to tackle the train! I was a bit perplexed at first but it’s actually not that complicated, especially if you’re familiar with the tube in London – escalators all over the place, steps, barriers, colour-coded subway lines, etc. Thankfully it was all in English as well as Japanese – phew! Once off the train I started making my way to the hostel, and realised that in Tokyo the streets don’t have names! Rather, the blocks have numbers (on the map, anyway); I’d sort of noticed this on Google maps but tried to ignore it at the time! Anyway, there were other landmarks to follow so I made it :)
I spent that afternoon wandering around Asakusa (north east Tokyo), enjoying the busy, bright shopping street full of schoolkids, the view of the Skytree tower, and lots of new sights, sounds and smells! I actually went hunting for some old-style buildings I’d heard about, in the Mukojima and Kyojima neighbourhoods. I’d read that they have some classic examples of Japanese urban permaculture in action, such as vertical gardens and rainwater harvesting systems. Interesting though my wander was, I didn’t find anything that looked particularly eco-friendly! Never mind.
The Sensoji Temple, one of the most colourful Buddhist temples in Tokyo, was very close by, and something I know people travel great distances to visit, so I headed there next. The legend says that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Sensoji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo's oldest temple. It was a truly impressive sight, even in the dusk and drizzle!
I noticed a lot of people lighting a cylindrical stick (of paper or card), driving the unlit end into the ash in this cauldron, and then wafting over themselves the cloud of smoke it gave off, and rubbing it into their hair! Apparently this ritual is intended to bring luck, and someone who rubs the smoke onto their head can expect to become more intelligent! So for anyone thinking of going on Mastermind, Sensoji might be a good place to visit beforehand!
As I wandered around the city, my main impressions were of a great deal of colour, laughter, lots of bikes, lots of people wearing masks (not to protect against smog, as I’d assumed – there’s no smog – but rather to contain cold germs). Toilets take comfort and cleanliness to a whole new level, noodle dishes are copious and phenomenally good for just 500 yen or so (about £3), and people on the streets were SO kind and helpful to me, rushing forward to help whenever I got stuck, and making sure I could continue safely on my way. I’ve never felt so safe in a capital city; even walking home from the Natural History museum at 8pm-ish I felt supported, not threatened.
The next day (Jan 30th) I headed to my first eco-project, so I’ll pick up the story there next time :)