Thursday, 3 November 2016

Konnichiwa Tokyo!

Our journey began in Wellington where we caught an early morning flight up to Auckland. Our connection was an hour and then it was time to say bye bye New Zealand and hello Japan! After a year here it seemed like a sad farewell, but at least we had somewhere exciting to go to next.

We flew with Air New Zealand and they were awesome! Good leg room, great entertainment, awesome food and a pretty smooth flight. The flight was long though, 10hrs and we barely slept, so that by the time we arrived in Tokyo that afternoon at 5pm, we were exhausted!

We landed at Narita airport, which is a good hour and a half bus ride from central Tokyo. So our journey hadn't ended just yet! And we were about to experience our first travel hiccup. At customs they ask on your boarding card to have a place of 'residence' in Japan, so say your hotel or something. However, we were couchsurfing in Tokyo and had no idea where our hosts apartment was, other than the district, which we thought would get us by, but nope, we needed an address and telephone number. So we both got refused at customs until we had that address. I'd thought on the plane maybe we should have just written a fake one down as we had access to trip advisor on the plane but we didn't think it would be an issue; we thought wrong!

To add to the problem, the customs officers didn't speak much English, or understand, and our WiFi wasn't working so I couldn't even look up the address/message our host. Luckily one of the information clerks managed to help me connect to the WiFi, however by this point we had found our tickets to show proof of onward travel, which after much Japanese discussion between the clerk and the officials, seemed to be enough, and they let us through - phew! We were the last ones through customs and the last ones to collect our bags lol!

After that small stress it was then time to find and buy our bus tickets to Tokyo. Luckily the clerk's there knew enough English to understand and send us on our way to Tokyo Station a half hr later.

Upon arrival we were supposed to meet our couchsurfing host. For those who don't know what couchsurfing is, it's a website where local people can host you in their house/apartment, for free! It's great because not only do you save on accommodation but you meet local people and some even show you local things and places if they have time. Sometimes it's a bed in a shared room, a couch, a private room, but when it's free you don't really care what you sleep on/in, as long as the host is nice and accommodating. Usually it's a short-term stay, such as one or two nights, however we were staying with our host, Takahiro, for 5 nights, which was extremely nice of him to allow us to stay so long. It was actually our first time couchsurfing the official way and it was Taka who contacted us a month ago and offered us somewhere to stay, which was super nice of him.

So we waited about an hour for Taka to finish work and to find each other in the crowds of rush-hour Tokyo Station, which in itself is an experience, a good place to people-watch. So many business men all smart and with their brief-cases, and women all dressed up - Tokyo is a very fashionable, well respectable place already.

Taka met us after work, and we had some quick introductions, he was 24 had studied in California, was originally born in and from Hiroshima, but had moved to Tokyo for work. He worked in IT/data systems/servers for Amazon, right in Central Tokyo, in Shimbashi. Before going to his apartment we went for a meal. He took us to a Ramen restaurant in the Tokyo Station area.

Now, eating in Japan was one of the things we were anticipating the most. Everyone knows how we love to eat and my travels are mostly about the food, with a little culture lol. We both LOVE Japanese food so we couldn't wait to try as much as we possibly could while we were here. So the place Taka took us to was a big part of our first experience. Most restaurants in Japan are small, intimate affairs, think like a Sushi train restaurant, a tiny shop, with a round bar-like table, the kitchen either in the middle or to the side, with some bar stools, and you've got it. You can fit around 8-20 people max in most restaurants - the local ones. Also, because the Japanese are always on the go and work non-stop, everything is quick, efficient and easy - if you know Japanese! It was probably a very good thing Taka was with us, because for our first time, we wouldn't have had a clue! Mainly because, most of these restaurants opperate on a vending machine system. This means, outside the restaurant is a vending machine, with the limited menu on (there's no messing around with Japanese food, it's simple, yet so tasty, with just enough dishes to be a big enough menu without having to spend ages wondering what to have).

You put your money in, then you press the option you want, whether you want small or large, and it prints you out a receipt. You then take this inside, show the waiter, you choose a stool and your food is served to you a few minutes later. Simple, quick, efficient. It was delicious and an awesome first experience. Ramen is a type of noodle, and it's served in a either a clear or creamy broth, hot or cold, with meat (normally pork), a boiled egg, a boiled quails egg, and some veggies and some dried seaweed. However every soup differs but they are all delicious and have the same basic ingredients. It is however, going to be so hard getting used to HAVING to use chopsticks for everything - there's not really any knives or forks, you can find soup spoons though!

We all got to know each other over dinner and then we headed back to Taka's apartment as by this time it was nearing 10pm. Taka lives in a district called Shimbashi, two stops from Tokyo Station and basically in a very central location, both in terms of transport and sights. His apartment is 5mins from his work and from the station and it's a really nice area. His apartment was small but for the 3 of us it was fine. We would be sleeping in the main room, on traditional Japanese futons (mattress on the floor), and he would be sleeping in the kitchen/entrance way. But apparently this suited him, even though it felt strange kicking him out of his room, but he did this all the time as he basically never has a night without couchsurfers. He thoroughly enjoys hosting people and making new friends from around the world and prefers this to living on his own, so it suits us and it suits him!

Upon getting back we basically all went to bed. However Taka said that tomorrow he would show us some of Tokyo, as his job is super flexible. Hid wages are based on performance, not hours, so if he works well, and only does an hour at home, it's the same as if he has to work 12hrs. So it really was an awesome job he has! He can even earn more than his manager sometimes, if he puts the effort in.

We slept for around 11 hours, which was amazing! The next day Taka had to do an hour of work from home, so while he did that we explored the local area, just walking around, trying out the vending machines (instead of shops they have drinks, ice cream and cigarette vending machines on basically every corner, station - you name it, there will be a vending machine! Again, proof of Japanese efficiency, all you do is put money in while u wait for ur train and bam, you have what you need, or you swipe your Suica card, which is basically like an Oyster card - not only can you use it for the trains, subway and buses, but it works on vending machines and local Family Marts, 7-11's, and sometimes even restaurants, the bonus part? It's useable pretty much nation-wide! Brilliant idea! It's a bank card and a transport card! So this was the first thing we brought.

We met Taka for lunch at a very local Udon restaurant. This one you didn't require use of a vending machine, but you went in, ordered your type of soup (hot/cold, fish/meat, thick/thin broth etc), the noodles inside the soup were Udon (thick noodles), and then you select the type of Tempura you want - the choice is fresh in front of you and you just pop on your plate. Tempura is to describe anything battered, so fish, vegetables, meat, potatoes etc. I chose Prawn tempura with a hot fish Udon soup (a type of flaky dried tuna) which was delicious! Pierrick chose the large pork udon, with Tempura squid, which was also delicious, all of this was 500¥ (around $7nzd).

Japan can be cheap, if you go to the right places, or buy from the supermarket/100¥ store or family marts. But it can also be expensive for things like accommodation and travel - for example, it's around 30-40$ a night in a hostel, and one way on the bullet train - the worlds first high-speed rail - can be as costly as $300. Luckily, before we came we purchased a -14day Japan rail pass, which allows you unlimited travel on bullet trains, local trains and ferries for 14 days - from the day you decide to activate it - without a reservation (meaning you can just rock up to a station on the day and hop on a train.) This cost us $600 each in advance - so it's quite a saving really!

Yeah, back to it! So yea, we ate lunch and then did a day of sight-seeing with Taka as our guide. We went to the Rikugi-en gardens, where we were lucky enough to catch the one out of 3 days in the year, that they host a free Japanese Matcha tea-making session in the old Samuri's house. A lady kindly showed us the correct way of brewing Japanese tea, which is all dependent on the temperature of the water and the time to stew. The first cup has to be cooler, so you transfer water from the kettle into a large cuo to dispell some of the heat, and then into another cup. You then need one teaspoon of Matcha tea leaves per person, in a teapot and pour the cooler water in. You leave this for exactly 30 seconds and then you pour the water a little at a time into each cup, so a third in each cup, then you go backwards and pour another third in each cup, and so forth, until all the liquid is equally portioned out. You can use the same leaves for another two cups. However with each cup the water is allowed to be hotter, so you pour only into the one cup to cool the water down, and then into the teapot and the last cup you can pour the water from the kettle straight into the teapot. The tea also increases with taste and colour with each pot that you make. It's quite a delicate procedure - and as the woman said, tea is the 3rd language, so it must be practised and performed as well as one speaks!

After this we had a walk around the gardens and then we headed to Harajuki. Which is an area for Japanese fashion, weird and wackyness, cosplay and all manor of extreme! Harajuki is not a street though as most people believe - it's an area and in it is Takeshita Dori (street), which is where the main action happens. It's buzzing, it's loud and it's colourful. You can find all the strange, fluffy, colourful and wacky fashion madness that is known as Japanese. Plus huge rainbow candyfloss, wacky Crepes, huge cuddly toys etc. You name it, they probably have it...and more! In fact, they will probably have it, but it won't look like anything you imagine!

We then walked on through to the neighbouring district of Shibuya. Most people will know Shibuya, mainly for the Shibuya crossing, you know, that famous one where you can cross in any which imaginable way, where 5 roads all meet, and there's lights, many zebra crossings and people and madness! Yea that one, and it's just as you imagine it to be - organised chaos! It's actually something that Japan, I'm beginning to realise, is great at - organised, timely chaos - everything is on time, the crossings are so big, even though you have to wait for them to turn green, there's plenty of time and plenty of ways to make sure you can go in the right direction! And they are big enough to fit the amount of people that need to cross it - like I'm talking a trucks length is their width! I've never seen anything like it. It's totally different from New Zealand where you wait for ages for it to turn green and then you have only 2 seconds to cross before it's red again!

We viewed the crossing from the 2nd floor of Starbucks - an apparently very popular place, just not for its coffee! We walked over the crossing a few times, just to experience it and take some selfies.

We then walked through the bright lights and chaos of Shibuya shopping district, photographing the lights and the strange toys you can buy. It really was everything I'd imagined about Japan; bright, loud, busy, strange, wacky and amazing!

That night we had booked for a traditional all-you-can-eat japanese BBQ meal, and thanks to Taka's work colleague, got it for 1500¥ instead of 2500¥. It is basically a mini coal BBQ on your table and you have unlimited orders for meat, vegetables and rice and noodles for 100minutes. They bring them out fresh to your table, and you cook it yourself. We had plenty of helpings of beef, pork, chicken and even pig tongue, (a local delicacy) which was actually yummy! Our first day in Japan was complete and boy had it been good. Special thanks to Taka for being a wonderful guide and for taking time to show us around.

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