“I look forward to your travelogue.”

A friend wrote this comment on one of my many photo updates I did on my Japan trip. I have to say, though, I will try and this blog post will surely lack the wit this friend has in his oft-published travelogues. I have always wanted to visit Japan. Those who know me knows of my penchant for anything Japanese. Some think this fascination is likely shortlived due to my love for a particular all-girl rock band from Osaka, but this fascination began when I watched Shōgun (based on a James Clavell novel) on RTM as a kid back in the 1970’s. My first jaw-dropping moment of seeing an undubbed mecha anime videoclip at CK Tang in Singapore sealed the deal further, especially when my first anime was the lesser known, and badly dubbed, Blocker Gundan IV Machine Blaster broadcasted on RTM every Saturday afternoon. At the same time, we also knew a family (the mom’s Japanese and was my late mom’s friend) who lived nearby in Taman Tun. When I was 18, I then had a girl penfriend from Chiba whom I met in KL, but I only wrote her for a couple of years. All these, on top of the stereotypical gaikokujin‘s fascination for anime, pretty much laid the foundation for my, umm, obsession for Japan.

Thus far, I have read and seen many a thing about Japan, which helped me a bit in understanding her people and their culture, and I’d like to think this had made my trip a tad easier. A Malaysian friend living there was telling me over a ramen lunch at a cafe in Tōdai[1], that it was somewhat challenging to determine what can he really show to people especially when all they’d go is “Hey, what’s good around here?”. I guess the same applies to any ill-informed visitor to any country, but when you come back from Kyoto complaining about how small a Japanese steak meal was, you should have bought a return trip to NYC instead. Well, on the subject of food, you would’ven seen from my previous blog snippets how I’ve enjoyed what I could on this trip – and that’s including one trip to McD’s one night. What? WHAT?!

This is not a Kudo blog post if I don’t write about this next subject – “What do you think of Japanese women?”

I almost choked on my okonomiyaki when my friend asked me this question. The only Japanese female friend was the aforementioned penfriend, and my answer to this question is unfortunately negatory. Not trying to sound diplomatic here, but I am sure they are the same anywhere on this planet. In general. The ones I spoke to at length on this trip, which did not include the phrases “How much is this?” or “I’d like this one, onegaishimasu” were only four – two maids at a maido kissa and two others who work at the BAPE boutique in Shibuya. Sorry to disappoint you lads, but, apart from being Japanese, they are like any girls you’d encounter anywhere else. However, due to my location in the 5 days I was in Tokyo, I was virtually surrounded by trendy Tokyo-ites who are chou[2] fashionable. I was waiting for my friend in front of GAP Harajuku slap bang right in front of the Omotesando exit of the JR station and I had a great time people watching, and I have to say pretty girls were aplenty. Ginza, on the other hand, had a different flock of women, reminiscent of the ones I saw in Paris. What else can I say here but if you have read/seen photos/videos of Tokyo-ites, fashionable or otherwise, that was pretty much it![3]

Shopping in Tokyo is just fantastic. If you have money, that is. I think the same can be said of shopping in London or Paris, but they don’t do discounts here as they do in, say, Low Yat. I think an ostentatious show of opulence would be getting myself measured up for a Brioni suit at Takashimaya in Nihonbashi just north of Ginza, and get them to courier it to me in Kuala Lumpur for that function I will be attending, before jetting off back to Manchester the day after. So not happening, that. If you do want to shop in Tokyo, though – buy stuff that is not available anywhere else. I did, however, buy the cheapest pair of UNIQLO selvedge jeans, though – because I wanna say I have shopped in Ginza. Heh.

Traveling about was not a problem at all, only if you keep your wits about you, even if you don’t speak a word of English[4]. Being a seasoned London Underground user, then Tokyo trains are easy, as was the public transport system in Kyoto. Tokyo Metro is somewhat extensive but you need to know the existence of the other private subway lines run by Toei, which means you need a day pass for both lines. However, buying the Metro pass suffices as far as I am concerned. I had the JR pass which allowed me to take any JR lines in Tokyo, but my advice is to only buy it if you plan on taking the shinkansen during your Japan trip as the JR pass isn’t cheap. With walking about the city, I have to say my bearings got a little off at times with Google Earth on my iPhone. Getting lost adds to the charm of traveling, I know that. However, I am also a believer of not wasting time if I know where I want to go. I’d rather get lost in, say, Ueno, but not get lost on the way to Ueno.

I was walking in the subway at Roppongi musing to myself that all that’s left for me to visit after London, Paris and now Tokyo, was NYC[5]. And whilst thinking about these cities, I realised how relatively safe Tokyo was. Yup, I’ve read it on my half a kilo Lonely Planet book[6] but one has to experience it. I saw women walking on their own with their mobile phones carrying Gucci totes really late at night. Even as a bloke, I would really leg it even if I was in Bayswater, but then again, I am an irritatingly overcautious person. My mind was completely at ease walking around with my camera at night. Just a quick note on the camera here – I had resorted to shoot with the X20 in Tokyo as opposed to the Canon 550D, 24-70mm lens notwithstanding. Nevertheless, I was mindful to keep my wits about me as I would when I travel in any other large city. Hopefully, my recent running activity would be of use if an assailant or kaiju pops up out of nowhere.

Central Shibuya was really alive in the middle of the night but my friend and I chose a more sedate activity. We went to Saizeriya, a chain Italian eaterie, that opens all night (this Shibuya branch opens until 8:00 AM) filled with young Tokyo-ites and gossiping secretary/office lady-types. Unlike the Malaysian mamak, the food was cheap and the drinks were bottomless. You can even have a kip if you want to, like this guy at the table behind us, provided that you have ordered food. I was told that you sometimes get the homeless sleeping at the 24-hour McDonalds. Tokyo does have her share of issues with the homeless and the destitute – but their presence is not as conspicuous as other large cities. In fact, their makeshift domiciles (like the ones I pass by every night under this bridge near my hotel) were very well kept!

The politeness of the Japanese was second to none. This is the norm, not a ‘smile-for-the-tourist’ campaign ensconced in some directive handed down by the ministry. From the delightful conversation with the driver on my pre-dawn taxi ride to Tsukiji to the sweet old couple in the train to Shinjuku, I never encountered any form of brusqueness in what limited discourse I had with the Japanese. It was indeed fascinating to hear a non-stop apology on the tannoy at Shibuya JR station when a train is late[7], or to see a Tokyo Metro staff at the top of the stairs verbally apologising to all the passing passengers inconvenienced by a broken down escalator. I appreciate that this culture of politeness can show a different facet to one’s daily interaction with other people in general especially at the workplace, as compared to what I am used to in the West[8]. Just a basic example to illustrate this point, one does not simply refuse a request outright, but would go, “I would be most delighted, but…”. I personally think if I ever were to work in Japan (fat chance), I definitely need a lot of adjusting.

Looking back, there were many a things that in hindsight that I didn’t do or see. I only entered one temple in Kyōto. I didn’t see Tōkyō Bay or the レインボーブリッジ (Rainbow Bridge). I didn’t get close to Tōkyō Tower nor did I try しゃぶしゃぶ in Shibuya. I didn’t get to be bowled over by the sight of a life-sized Gundam in Odaiba. There was also the missed opportunity of finding Pinball, 1973 at the bookshops in Kanda. You would probably why did I do a repeat of Akiba, Ochanomizu and Meiji-jingū, coupled with the daily visits to one section of Shibuya almost every night. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter. I got to make an informed decision whether I should have bought a guitar, or reached to a conclusion that I didn’t need another MACROSS Valkyrie jet or Azunyan figure. And I got to see and do what I wanted in these cities on my terms. No offence to my friend who would have been my travel mate, but this solo trip was hontou ni SAIKŌ DESU!

Japan was charming to the very last and I savoured every minute when I was there, even to the last moments when a very heartfelt doumo arigatou gozaimashita was given by the two bowing JAL flight attendants at the aircraft’s door on my return at KLIA.


This post was written in KL, reeling after a roti canai-teh tarik combo at Jaipur, TTDI.
[1]Tōkyō Daigaku – pretty much the Harvard or Oxford equivalent in Japan.
[3]To have an idea what people in Harajuku is like, I recommend this superb site – Tokyo Street Fashion.
[4]I guess this works in cities that have lots of foreign tourists like Tokyo and Kyoto, though.
[5]MY big four – after I have done these then you can tell me “Hey, Croatia’s actually very pretty – why don’t you go?”.
[6]Which I was a tad disappointed with.
[7]This rarely happens. I experienced this just the once and it had to happen on my return train ride to Narita.
[8]Being polite in Japan 101 – read this and this.