After a brief stopover in Kuala Lumpur (brief enough not to warrant adding a Malaysia tag to this post), I touched down in Japan shortly after dark and was immediately pulled off to one side by customs agents, who proceeded to administer the most thorough search of my possessions yet. Possibly travellers arriving from India are assumed to be harbouring stockpiles of bhang lassis, as everyone else (most of whom boarded in Malaysia) just breezed through. After that, a frustrating hour or so was spent trying to work the airport ATMs, all of which kept declining my (in-credit and not stolen) card. This deadlock was resolved once it became apparent that there is a (sensible) Y50000 withdrawl limit (still thinking in rupees, I had miscalculated my exchange rates).
Finally armed with a fistful of yen, I stormed the train booking desk, impressed the staff with my command of pidgin Japanese (aided with a phrasebook sneakily printed off the internet back in Mumbai) and jumped on the cheapest train for the 70 km into central Tokyo. Deciphering the urban metro system instantly (signs are bilingual), I made it to my hotel just before the reception closed and managed to get a tatami (mat) for the night. The following day, I had to transfer to the excellent Tokyo Backpackers (most hotels book out for New Year) – but I’d finally made it to Japan!
The presence of almost-forgotten rich-world luxuries (like reliable electricity, hot water and pecan danish pastries) aside, Japan bowled me over straightaway. Even the seediest areas of Tokyo are spotlessly clean, there is a reasonable amount of greenery, bicycles are abundant and – paradise – there isn’t anybody hassling you to buy something every twenty seconds. Everything seems to be unattainably hip, and I think I stand out from the other gaijin (outsiders, most of whom seem to be here on big-budget breaks or business trips) by slouching around in my well-travelled cargo trousers. Perhaps I’ll start a new trend.
Japan enjoys the status of world leader in toilet technology, and some of the high-tech contraptions I’ve seen so far justify this. Most of the control panel is indecipherable, but thankfully the heated seat tends to be on automatically in winter. The bidet function is labelled oshiri (honourable buttocks), and operates a small robotic arm and warm water jet (uncannily accurate and probably laser-guided). Oddly, the flush is activated via the usual handle on the cistern.
Although I was prepared for having a difficult time finding vegetarian food, it’s been a significant challenge so far. Meat or fish are in everything, from dashi (stock used in just about every noodle dish) to onigiri (rice balls). Thankfully, all convenience stores stock some animal-free foodstuffs and I’ve had a fun few days writing down all the kanji (Chinese characters) of various unidentified staples and getting the hostel staff to translate them for me. This helps to avoid surprises like buying what appeared to be an egg sandwich and was actually custard and fresh strawberry.
So far I’ve wandered round much of downtown Tokyo, including Ueno, Roppongi, Shinjuku, Ginza, Shiodome and otaku (anime fan)-oriented Akihabara. The whole place is pleasantly quiet, as most people are at home spring cleaning, visiting shrines or paying their respects to ancestors for the New Year celebrations. It also means that most museums are closed. On New Year’s Day I took in some fresh air at Takao-san, a mountain and shrine on the western outskirts popular with locals, and attempted to work out the various Shinto rituals going on. The following day, I joined thousands of loyal subjects at the Imperial Palace to wish the Imperial Family well on one of their two annual appearances – the enormous crowds were incredibly well choreographed and not at all like the riotous mosh pit I was half-expecting.
Tomorrow I set out on the long road to the deep north, though how far I get will depend on the routes of local trains as the seishun 18 rail pass can’t be used on express services. Tokyo will be visited again, though, as there are two essential things I’ve not yet done – Hombu Dojo and the Studio Ghibli museum.