On Easter Sunday I headed east, back to Tokyo. The weather was poor, and so there weren't many good opportunities to take photographs that day, though I was pleased with this picture of the Tokyo Skytree doing battle with a five-storey pagoda for dominance of the clouds.
I spent some of the time shopping amongst the stalls near the Kaminarimon Gate, some in Shibuya, and some (less productively) in a Starbucks trying to get Internet, having been assured by a waiter that yes, they did have wi-fi for customers there. It turned out that to get Internet in a Japanese Starbucks one first has to register online… which rather defeats the purpose, but is useful to bear in mind for future journeys. If ever you are travelling to Japan and think a Starbucks connection might be helpful (they are ubiquitous there), here is the link to register. While I’m on that subject, something else I’d highly recommend getting before travelling there is a Japan Rail Pass, which can only be bought outside Japan and gives you unlimited use of the trains in a selected area of the country. Ticket inspectors take one look and wave you through with a "Hai douzo!" Since the rail system is every bit as good as its reputation, it's a godsend.
Before I stop giving helpful links, let me give a shout-out for Inside Japan Tours, the Bristol-based company through which I arranged this whole trip. They were great - and I'd absolutely recommend them to anyone in the UK who's thinking of doing a similar journey.
In the meantime, though, it's better if we wait for the weather to clear. Let's duck into this cosy little ramen place near my Asakusa hotel. I've been meaning to talk with you about toilets, a continual source of fascination and, to an extent, alarm, on my trip.
Most Japanese toilets (apart from the traditional ones that are basically just holes in the ground) come equipped with a control panel that looks as if it would be more than adequate to land a 747. Sorry for the blurriness in this picture, but you see what I mean:
The seats are heated – at least in the places I stayed in, not all by any means posh; there's an integral bidet, and several other options that for a long time I dared not explore lest one turn out to be an ejector seat. (The only thing that is still generally left to manual operation, oddly, is the flush.) Using the toilet in Japan made me look at this scene from Thermae Romae in a new light, identifying afresh with the hapless Lucius. But it was only as I was getting ready to leave Narita Airport on 7th April that I discovered the button that works the "Otohime" (Sound Princess) device, something I'd actually been looking for in Akihabara. This feature allows you to play a recorded sound of a toilet flush (with adjustable volume) to cover the noise of your own exertions, thus avoiding embarrassment for yourself and a distasteful auditory experience for your neighbours. No more waiting for the sound of the hand-drier to camouflage nature's design faults!
Across the river from Asakusa Station is this building, which I sincerely hoped would turn out to be the headquarters of the Nippon Toilet Corporation, for surely a magnificent Golden Turd is the only fitting tribute to Japanese ingenuity in this area. (Such was not the case, alas.)
By the morning of the 6th, my last full day in Japan, the sun had once more shown its face and I took a river bus down the Sumida, admiring the skyscrapers (but you know what skyscrapers look like, right?). This woman, who was my neighbour on the boat, kindly let me practise my Japanese on her, and we had a nice chat about family, visiting Japan, visiting England, the weather and suchlike topics of universal interest. As we rose to disembark she took my hand and shook it in a friendly way – the one and only time such a thing happened to me during my visit. So acclimatized had I become to bowing in the six days I'd been in the country that I actually felt as if my personal space were being encroached upon. (She was of course doing it to put me at my ease…)
That's a measure of my extreme suggestibility, I suppose, but the truth is I've never been a huge fan of handshakes, and had been happy to get away from them for a week. They've always seemed a slightly unhygienic form of greeting, though of course vastly preferably to the kissing habit that's blown in from the Continent over the last generation or so. Bowing, by contrast, feels wonderfully expressive and flexible. Not for the first time, I found myself murmuring, "They order these things better in Japan."
The river bus took us as far as Hamarikyu Gardens, an area of grass, woods and bridges that was set up by the shoguns so that they could use falcons to hunt wild ducks (which I didn’t know was a thing one could use falcons for – it sounds a bit too easy to be fun). It was very pleasant, but what struck me most was the juxtaposition of the gardens with their picturesque ponds and bridges looking like something off your granny's dinner service, and looming twenty-first century Tokyo just behind it. That's Japan for you.
My plan was to walk to the Imperial Palace, a journey that took me through a complicated area of temporary passages and building work. I was a bit worried about losing my way, but noticing a crocodile of suited office workers going to lunch, I decided to follow them. They took me via a series of underpasses and shortcuts to a plaza shaded by office blocks, where about a hundred salarymen (and a few women) were eating their bentos, Subways, MacDonalds, etc. I was feeling hungry and joined them, finding a one-person seat from which I could people-watch with my onigiri, yakitori and pickles (and very nice they were). It was a non-holidayish aspect of Tokyo life I was pleased to have had a glimpse of.
Refreshed, I set off in the direction of Ginza, which is the Oxford St equivalent, I suppose, full of smart shops with an exclusive clientele –
- but also some cheaper places. I picked up a few souvenirs (a kabuki face mask for my daughter, for example), and was tempted by the wasabi Kit Kits, to say nothing of the green tea and rum'n'raisn, but did not succumb because, well, Nestle=evil.
From Ginza the Imperal Palace is but a short walk. However, I only went into the outer gardens to enjoy yet more cherry blossom, before returning to Akihabara, which seemed more my scene and which I had an urge to revisit. The Tokyo Anime Centre was closed, alas, but I consoled myself by acting on this flyer, which was being handed out by a young woman in a maid costume.
I've always been a little curious about maid cafes, especially since watching Stein's Gate, where an Akihabara maid café is a central location, but I admit that it was the adorably moe sleeping bears on the flyer that won me over. And I suppose I wondered whether it might make an interesting contrast with the Kyoto tea house of a couple of days earlier.
It did. To get to the café required going up four floors in a tiny lift, on exiting which I was greeted by a young woman dressed as per the picture, in a room that was very bright and pink and plastic indeed. At that point – in the middle of the afternoon – the only other customer was a young Japanese man, though he soon left, and for much of the time I was alone with the maids. (A little later a European family appeared at the lift entrance, took one look and fled in something resembling panic.)
I ordered a green-tea sundae, which was beautifully decorated to look like a turtle (and also delicious), though being served it involved joining my waitress in clapping my hands, reciting the charm, "Oishii, oishii, moe, moe CUTE!" and swaying from side to side while forming my fingers into a heart, as illustrated. After that, though, she not being run off her feet, I had a chance to chat with her about maid cafes, and thence about Stein's Gate (which she knew well – she showed me pictures on her phone of the café on which they based the show's "Mayqueen Nyannyan") and thence inevitably about Madoka and the respective merits of series and film. Part of the package was that I got to have a Polaroid taken with her, which I did – but sadly it must have fallen from my bag at some point, because I certainly don't have it now.
A few hours later I was back in Asakusa, eating at Sometaro, a sidestreet okonomiyaki place that was recommended in my guide book. This was a sit-on-the-floor-and-cook-it-at-your-own-p
A sudden hubristic desire rose in me to reply with a flourish: "Speak it? Madam, I am it!" But I just managed to restrain myself, and instead waved them companionably into the restaurant. I felt a little as if I were passing on a baton – a baton made of okonomiyaki and topped with bonito flakes. Somehow that made things easier.
It also occurred to me that my frustration with all the people who've insisted on speaking English to me just because I'm obviously a Westerner would have been far, far greater had I happened to be French. That too was a great comfort.
And that brings me more or less to the end of my voyage. All that remains is for me to get up early on the 7th and catch my flight - and watch a Korean in-flight movie about Admiral Yi in which the Japanese appear only as bloodthirsty villains. But I'll do one more post with some summary thoughts, and with a few more details (as an aide-memoire for myself at least) about the food, which was such an important part of my stay but has only had a cameo role so far.