I have arrived in Tokyo after a long journey halfway around the world, a city like no other, beginning and end of all my adventures here in Japan. It is here that it starts, and it is here that my journey will eventually end in one year’s time. Now it is time to familiarize myself with…
No, let me assure you that I’ve actually arrived on the right continent. Japanese people are just… very Japanese. But more about that later.
First, let me tell you a bit about Tokyo. Tokyo – or 東京– translates into “The Eastern Capital”. Formerly known as Edo (江戸, Estuary), the city was renamed to Tokyo when Emperor Meiji (明治天皇 Meiji-tennō) officially moved the seat of government there from Kyoto (京都, Capital City) in the west. However, even before that, it was already the inofficial seat of government since the time of the Tokugawa (徳川, Benevolent River) Shogunate, which started in 1603. During that time, it was effectively the Shogun living in Edo who ruled the country, even though the Emperor living in Kyoto was the official head of state.
One historical fact worth noting at this point is the time of Japanese isolationism, or Sakoku (鎖国, "closed country"). Starting in the 17th century, the Tokugawa Shogunate enforced a series of policies that prohibited Japanese from leaving and foreigners from entering the country. Any Japanese who broke this law, even by accident, were henceforth exiled from their home country, and foreign ships attempting to enter the country were met with fierce opposition. Limited trade happened during this time, mostly with China and Korea, although the Dutch East Asia Trading Company was also tolerated. Either way, all trading was restricted to special harbours, and the crew of foreign ships were not permitted to leave the harbour district. This era of isolationism eventually came to an end when in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy steamed into the bay of Edo with seven steam warships, which became known to the Japanese as Kurofune (黒船, The Black Ships). With his superior firepower, Perry enforced the first of a series of unequal treaties that opened Japan up to trade with the USA, and by extension the rest of the western world. This triggered a chain reaction leading to the Emperor reclaiming power from the Shogunate and issuing in an era of technological modernisation. This era, which became known as the Meiji Restoration, was a time during which the Japanese sent their emissaries to the far corners of the world in order to acquire knowledge. Modern medicine, for example, was imported largely from Germany, which explains why German terminology is abundant in modern Japanese medicine, and why Japanese medicine students have to take German as a mandatory subject. Over the course of not even a century, Japan caught up with the western world at record speed, turning it into one of the world’s leading industrial nations.
Today, the Greater Tokyo Area – which covers an area about the size of Montenegro – is the most populous metropolitan area in the world with a population of 38 million people and a population density of over 2,500 people per km². By comparison, Montenegro has only a little over 600,000 inhabitants and a density of 45 people per km².
Location-wise, Tokyo is situated pretty much in the centre of Japan, sitting squat in the middle of Honshu (本州, Main Island), the biggest of Japan’s four major islands.
Now, as we already established, Tokyo, like Narita Airport, is Mega-Freaking-HUGE, so saying I’m somewhere in Tokyo doesn’t really say a lot about my actual location, so let me be a bit more specific. I am actually located within one of the main city wards of Tokyo, specifically within Koto (江東, East Bay), which is somewhat reminiscent of Venice due to its large number of channels. Actually, this ward is mostly reclaimed land, some more recent than others. The “island” I’m staying on is maybe 50 or so years old.
And finally within Koto, I’m staying in the neighbourhood of Shiohama (塩浜, Salt Beach).
Since we’ve already scratched the surface of the topic now, let me tell you how Japanese addresses work. You see, unlike in western countries, most streets do not have names here in Japan, and even when the streets do have names, you won’t find any addresses like “65 Miller Road” in Japan.
Instead, a typical Japanese address, like that of the place I'm staying at, looks like this:
That roughly translates as:
135-0043 Tokyo-to, Koto-ku, Shiohama, 2-17-7, Ooizumi Mansion
Now, how is that structured? The first parts are pretty straightforward. Postal code city, ward, and neighborhood.
It’s when we get to the numbers that things start to get interesting.
The first number designates the chōme, which is essentially a further subdivision of a neighbourhood. Shiohama for example consists of two chōme, which coincide with the two islands it consist of. As such, the entire island I live on is Shiohama 2-chōme.
The second number is the city block (街区 gaiku), which indicates where in the chōme, a building is. Fortunately, the attentive stray can still figure those out thanks to the occasional block plates that are roughly the equivalent to road signs here in Japan.
This would for example indicate gaiku 1 (or 1-ban for short) of Koto’s Kiba neighbourhood chōme 5.
It’s after that that things start going from interesting to fun.
The final number designates the building.
The logic by which that number is assigned is also quite straightforward: It’s a running number based on when a building was built (or possibly rebuilt). Unfortunately, that means that 2-17-7 doesn’t necessarily have to be next to or even anywhere near 2-17-6 or 2-17-8, which can make trying to find a building with just an address and without internet quite a nightmare.
That’s why most places hand out very detailed maps of how to get to their place, usually including landmarks and stores to help with orientation.
And if that's not enough, you can still get to a local police box and ask for help.
Whoops! Got the wrong picture there. They actually look like this here in Japan and are called Kouban (交番). There’s usually a friendly Keisatsukan (警察官, police officer) inside (unless they’re currently patrolling the neighbourhood with their bicycles), who’s happy to help people out. In fact, with an address system as complex as that of Japan, that seems to be one of the primary duties of a Keisatsukan.
Now that you know where I'm staying, let me tell you a little bit about the place I’m staying at…
The Ooizumi Mansion
This locale with its lofty name is actually a rather humble share house which I share with about 20 other people. As I mentioned before, even getting there can be quite tricky if you don’t know the way since you have to navigate through a veritable labyrinth of backroads.
The name Ooizumi Mansion (大泉マンション) can be translated as “Big Fountain Mansion”, which is kinda funny since there’s no fountain anywhere within a kilometre of the place. From the outside, the Ooizumi Mansion is little more than a slightly orange building at the end of an alley, next to a gravel square that is generously labelled a “park”.
But before we get to that, let us start with a short tour of the place.
The freaky narrow stairway is especially treacherous. Even I with my advanced stair climbing skills can’t ascend or descend it at a rate greater than one stair per step. In fact, I already slipped once trying to carry down my laundry. Fortunately, the freaky narrow stairway is so narrow that I got stuck after sliding only a few stairs.
On the upside (quite literally), we do have a nice terrace at the top of the freaky narrow stairway. Most of the time, this is just used for drying clothes…
…but you also get a nice view of the neighbourhood from up here.
And once again, here’s what qualifies as a “park” here in Japan.
As for the other people living in the sharehouse, unsurprisingly, they’re all younger than me. What’s slightly more surprising is that they’re exclusively from Germany, so the only language I hear here in the Ooizumi Mansion is German. I find that just the slightest bit disappointing. As for what they’re all doing… for the most part they sit around doing stuff on their smartphones, watching movies, or reading mangas. Occasionally, it gets really noisy too, which is all the worse since the walls might as well be made from paper for all the isolation they provide (they’re actually made from wood though).
Which brings us to the next point: After New Zealand I’ve kinda come to expect as much from island nations on tectonic fault lines, and I was right. Here in Japan, too, it’s freaking cold inside the houses. Insulation is pretty much non-existent, the windows are single-glazed, and instead of huddling together for warmth, each and every building is free standing on all four sides, quite unlike the western way of building. As a result, there are teeny-tiny alleys between the buildings which were never even meant to be negotiated (at least by humans), and mostly serve as corridors for external plumbing and other stuff. I guess during the hot months, that’s really great for ventilation, but right now, it’s not exactly helping keeping out the chill.
Fortunately, all the rooms here have air conditioning, which can also function as heating, so It’s not quite as chilly as in New Zealand. It’s not quite as ecological as having properly insulated houses, and thanks to the Underworld Kitchen not having a door, all the heat from the AC drains up the Freaky Narrow Stairway like, instantly, but I guess it’ll do for now.
And now that I’ve somehow settled in, it’s time for some …
With some time to spare on my first morning, I decide to go on a quick stray to explore the neighbourhood.
There’s a lot to be discovered as I stray through the narrow streets of Shiohama. For one, there are no sidewalks in most of the back roads, so you pretty much just walk on the streets. Fortunately, there are not a lot of cars around anyway.
Also, there are these cute little ramp-lets to be found in front of pretty much every single driveway so that the cars don’t have to climb the exorbitantly high 3cm step from the road without an uncomfortable bump.
And here’s how the Japanese Garbage Separation System works (at least in Tokyo): Everyone simply separates all their garbage into colour-coded boxes that sit around at the side of the road, and on specific collection days (Mondays for incinerables, Wednesdays for plastics, and Fridays for all the stuff that actually gets recycled like PET bottles, cans and glass), the garbage trucks drive through the streets and pick up everything.
My stray takes me across a single-lane railway line that passes uncomfortably close to the houses. Also, can you tell? Japan uses a significantly smaller track gauge! Unlike in most of the world, where the railway track spacing is 1.435m, the tracks in Japan are only 1.067m apart. Since this track gauge is used pretty much through Japan’s entire railway system, that makes this the largest contiguous narrow-track system of the world.
Not far away from there, there’s a large stylish pedestrian’s bridge spanning one of the broader channels.
One thing that helps with navigation is the fact that there are maps just standing around all over the place. One word of caution however: Those maps are not necessarily north-oriented. Rather, maps in Japan are always oriented so that the direction you’re facing while reading the map is at the top. That does have its advantages, but it is one of those things you need to know in advance lest you get hopelessly lost.
A little further along the way, I come across an interesting solution for a traffic-light free pedestrian’s crossing.
One of the landmarks to find the way to the Ooizumi Mansion is the Central Driving School (中央自動車学校, Chuou Jidousha Gakkou), which is worth pointing out for one important reason: Unlike in most western country, where people learn to drive in live street traffic, the Japanese first have to complete quite a substantial number of driving classes on a separate training course. As a result, one does not simply open a driving school in Japan. You need to own a plot of land large enough to set up a proper training course, and with land prices being what they are here in Tokyo, that’s definitely nothing an ordinary person can pull off. In fact, I am pretty certain this driving school is more of an governmental institution than a private enterprise.
Speaking of cars, the traffic in Tokyo is so extreme, that the city eventually decided to expand its road system into the third dimension. As a result, there are high roads all over the place, built over regular thoroughfares – sometimes even on multiple levels – or channels. In fact, those roofed channels are a popular parking spot for boats, since it means they’re out of the rain, making them something like public boat houses. Those high roads server as expressways to get from one part of the city to the other, and using them costs a certain fare based on the distance travelled.
But anyway, as I continue by stray, I come across my first Shinto Shrine (神社, Jinja, “House of the Gods”). Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan, and one of two widely practiced religions in this country, the other being Buddhism. Shinto (神道) means “Way of the Gods”, and is an animistic religion revering an impressive number of deities and spirits known as Kami (神). Similar to many Native American religions, every aspect of nature can be the host of Kami, such as trees, stones, rivers, but also animals and people. Unlike Christianity, Shinto has no supreme authority or written rules, making it a true folk religion, with the rules of the religion being whatever people agree it to be at any given time. As such, the nature of Shinto is perpetually changing to keep up with modern times, which explains why up to this day 80% of Japanese people regularly participate in Shinto rituals or pray at Shinto Shrines. Since Jinja are literally all over the place, it’s quite easy to drop by one, offer up a short prayer for whatever one has on one’s mind, and seal it with a humble donation (5¥ and 50¥ donations are said to be especially lucky since those coins have a hole in the middle). The donations, in turn, are used to pay for the upkeep of the shrine together with good luck charms and other services. Since Japan has no religious tax, that effectively makes every shrine either a charity or an enterprise. Also, I think I should point out that many Japanese identify both with Buddhism and Shintoism at the same time. The idea that following one religion would prohibit one from also having a second religion is foreign to this part of the world.
This particular shrine is sacred to the goddesses Din, Farore and Nayru, who created the earth from chaos. Then, when their work was done, they ascended to the heavens, leaving behind the Triforce, an object of great power that…
…whoops. That was the wrong script, forget what I wrote in the last paragraph.
Actually, this shrine is sacred to Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows, such as water, time, words, speech, eloquence, music and knowledge. Originally a Hindu goddess by the name of Sarasvatî Devî, she was introduced to Japan via Buddhism, and by now even has a place in Shinto mythology. The fact that her emblem resembles the trademark symbol of a certain popular video game franchise is purely coincidental.
Moving on, I come across a Fugu Fish restaurant, and make a mental note never to eat there. Since Fugu fish is highly poisonous, one needs a special licence to be allowed to serve it, and even as it is, there are still people who get poisoned and even die from incorrectly prepared Fugu. So thanks, but no thanks.
Not far from there, there’s another locale which I guess qualifies as a park in Tokyo, although it feels more like a walk- and cycleway with occasional hedges, trees and flowerbeds. At least it’s guarded by cute squirrels.
Also, befitting the fact that I just finished Persona 5 before coming here, I come across an interesting Persona statue that might as well be from the game.
It would seem that much like New Zealand, Japan has a foible for unusual sculptures. Must be an island nation thing.
On my way back to the Ooizumi Mansion, I also come across the last remnants of winter (don’t let it be said that it doesn’t snow in Tokyo)…
…as well as the first heralds of spring.
I also come across this thing. Can you guess what this is? There’s actually multiple of those scattered throughout the city.
It’s actually a golfing range where players can practice their strokes from a two-story range and try to hit various holes distributed around the area.
The huge netting is to make absolutely sure that no ball ever escapes, no matter how strong or skewed you hit it.
After that, it’s about time for me to return to the Share House. Since today is my first full day in Japan, there’s something quite important to take care of, namely…
Unlike in New Zealand, where this sort of things was absolutely unnecessary, things are significantly more strict and formal here in Japan. As such, Alex takes me and the other new arrivals on a hike to the Koto City Office in order to get our current whereabouts registered. Since it’s quite a distance away, I figure that means I'm simply getting a lot of walking done today.
On our way, we pass by the Shiohama Train Depot, which I guess is one of the places where the Metro, Subway and JR Trains are maintained. I’ll tell you more about the public transport system later.
It is there that I come across what must be the world’s smallest engine. Just to clarify: This is not a front view, but rather a side view of the almost cubical engine.
After that, it should take us maybe half an hour to reach the Koto City Office…
…where we fortunately get some help from Alex in filling out the not exactly foreigner-friendly forms.
With that having been taken care of, we drop by the Japan Post Bank where we all open accounts, and a few days later, I am a proud owner of a fully functional Japanese bank card.
Getting a Japanese Cell Phone number turns out not to be quite as simple. Unlike in New Zealand, where I pretty much got a working SIM card on our first day, here in Japan, the whole process should take me a total of three weeks, and involve another visit to the Koto City Office to get a confirmation of residence and mailing it to IIJmio, the cell phone company. Only afterwards would I finally Finally FINALLY get a working SIM card. Good thing I am used to not having a cell phone anyway, otherwise I might have been really screwed.
So much about the formalities. Now, I'm sure you’re already itching to learn about…
The True Reason
10-Feb-2018 should be a very special day for me. One that I’ve been looking forward to ever since I started planning this adventure, and one that I would remember for the rest of my life.
I didn’t plan for today to be that day, but it just kinda happened for one reason or another. It was the day I first…
But let us not get ahead of ourselves here. I’ll tell you the whole story from the beginning, and it starts with me embarking on a 5-hour Geocaching stray around Koto.
I’ve tried looking for Geocaches on my earlier stray around Shiohama as well, but didn’t have any success finding them. I am already beginning to suspect that Geocaches here in Tokyo are significantly harder to find than what I'm used to from New Zealand. But today should start with an invigorating success for me, as I check out the target location for the first Geocache, a little red pedestrian’s bridge across one of Koto’s any channels.
Cleverly hidden though this one may be, I eventually notice the one thing that is out of place, and subsequently discover my first Geocache here in Japan. Yay!
Moving on from there, I pass through the Fukagawa Gatharia shopping centre, which among other things is the location of the Ito-Yokado department store, but also has a nice fountain and garden. Fukagawa (深川) is the name of the little channel across which the little pedestrian’s bridge ran, and means as much as “Deep River”. A lot of places in this particular vicinity are named after it.
As I head further to the east, I cross another channel, this one sporting a mighty flood gate to ward off Tsunamis (津波, “Harbour Wave”). It’s only slightly reassuring, considering how this particular flood gate is actually inlands from where I live.
The next island I set foot on is actually a compound of three islands that were eventually joined together: Furuishiba (古石場, “Old Stone Place”), Botan (牡丹, “Tree Peony”), and Etchujima (越中島, “Middle Cross-Over Island). In particular, my way leads me through the Furuishibagawa Water Park, and those of you that are into etymology might have been able to figure out by now that kawa/gawa is the Japanese word for “River”, making 古石場川 or Furuishibagawa nothing less than the Old Stone Place River. And while we’re at this, I might as well mention that the Japanese Name for the Old Stone Place River Water Park is 古石場川親水公園, or Furuishibagawashinsuikouen. Let no one say that German is the only language with a foible for excessively long words.
One particularly nice sight are the murals that were painted by local kids to enrich the boring stone walls of the suspended park with vibrant landscapes and fantasies.
While walking through this quite picturesque park, I discover yet another Geocache, hidden in plain sight, yet once more disguised in the most ingenious of ways.
It is only when I read the name of the next Geocache on my list that I realize what sort of momentous event is just about to happen. That sensation can best be compared to that time when I travelled to Israel and stepped out of the fully air-conditioned plane into the 40° hot desert climate: A shock like running into a wall-that-is-not-a-wall. Only this time, it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long, long time. Of course, I can’t be fully certain until I actually get there, but I’m reasonably sure that today is going to be the day. My fur is standing on end, my whiskers are twitching. The time is now.
It is with this sort of anticipation in my heart that I set out towards my next milestone, walking at an accelerated pace, barely being able to contain my excitement, for the name of that Geocache is…
Kurofune Inari Shrine
It is at this point that I’ll probably have to provide a good deal of exposition.
Since the time of my awakening, I’ve been reading scores of books about foxes. Biology, behaviour, mythology… You name it, I’ve read it.
In western mythology, foxes are generally not held in the most favourable light. Tricksters at best, messengers of the archetype of evil at worst.
In Japanese Mythology, they are guardians.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, they can still be tricksters, and have been known for taking the guise of beautiful women to rob careless men of their essence, but let’s start from the beginning…
The wild foxes of mythology, the cunning tricksters, bound to none, following their own way, they are known as Nogitsune.
It was a rainy and stormy night when a pair of foxes was far away from their den and in search of shelter. They came to a shrine of Inari, goddess of rice and prosperity. “Please, will you not grant us shelter?” the pair of them pleaded. “I shall,” spoke Inari, “And in return, you shall henceforth serve as my guardians and keep the rice fields free of vermin.” Thus was their agreement made, and ever since, the foxes and their descendants served as guardians of Inari, and were henceforth known as Myobu, their fur taking a pure white colour as mark of their covenant.
Times changed, and Inari eventually became the most revered deity of all. These days, it is not uncommon to think of Inari herself as a fox, or have common foxes being referred to as Inari (稲荷 “Rice Bearer”) instead of Kitsune (狐 “Fox”). Was it farmers who went to pray at Inari shrines in the olden days, it is mostly businessmen and store owners these days, as Inari has become associated with financial success as well, and many shrines dedicated to another deity and even Buddhist temples have a little Inari shrine somewhere on their premises, that is easily distinguished by the pair of foxes flanking the altar, with him on the left and her on the right, sometimes holding a scroll of teachings or a Star Orb (星の玉 “Orb of Stars”), an implement that is quite precious to foxes.
All of that adds up to Japan being the Mekka of foxes such as I to visit and pay my respects to the one deity on earth to actually open her heart and let us foxes in. Her name is Inari, or if we are to be formal O-Inari-Sama (お稲荷様 “Honoured respected Inari”)
Anyway, with all that having been said, now let us pay a bit of attention to the structure of a Shinto shrine. The most telltale trademark of a shrine, and comparable to a belltower in Europe, though not visible from quite as far away, is the gate called Torii (鳥居, “There is a bird on it” (apparently because birds like roosting on the Toori)), which is often red and made of wood, and always has the characteristic shape with the two crossbars at the top. This symbolizes the entrance into the spiritual realm, and it is customary for one to bow when entering, as well as to turn around and bow when leaving.
Then, there’s the main altar, which consists of an enshrined spirit (not usually visible), and sometimes a rattle-bell on a corded string.
In order to pray, you bow twice, rattle the bell in order to make your presence known to the spirits, then say your prayer, and bow once more afterwards. If there is no rattle-bell, you simply clap your hands twice instead. For those who are not familiar with the process, some of the bigger shrines even provide instructions for how to pray both in Japanese and English.
Afterwards, it’s customary to leave a donation in the donation box in front of the altar. 5¥ and 50¥ coins are thought to be particularly lucky because of their hole. Since there is no religious tax in Japan, these donations help pay for the upkeep of the shrines, along with merchandise in the form of good-luck charms being sold.
Also, particularly at Inari shrines people regularly leave offerings such as Inari Sushi and Aburaage (油揚げ “Oil Frying”, effectively fried tofu), the favourite foods of folkloristic foxes, or drinks.
Another way for the Shrines to finance themselves is by selling fortunes. That one is a bit too deep into the superstition pot for me, but if it helps pay for these wonderful shrines, I suppose I can live with it. Anyway, here is what you do: Basically, you buy a sealed fortune, and if you don’t like it, you discard it and buy another one. If you do like it, however, you can tie it off at designated places in the shrine for the spirits to read and fulfil. Random fortunes come on straps of paper, while more expensive custom wishes come on wooden plates.
Shinto is big on purity, as such, it is customary to symbolically cleanse yourself upon entering a shrine. To do so, there is a basin with water and little scoopers you use to draw water from the basin. You then clean your hands as well as your mouth before proceeding to the altar.
Finally, something that can be found all over the shrines are Shimenawa (標縄 “Enclosing Rope”), corded ropes with paper straps cut in an unique way that ward off impurity and evil. They can sometimes be quite long and thick, but most are limited to more practicable dimensions. Those who visited me in my fox den in recent years might even have noticed that I put up one of these in my very room.
Anyway, with all that having been said, let us get back to the Kurofune Inari Shrine. You might remember the first bit of that name from the very start of this article: The Kurofune were the black ships, and referred to the steam ships which Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy used to enforce an end to the era of Japanese isolationism. I can’t tell for sure why this shrine was named this way, but with Tokyo having reclaimed land from the see for at least a century now, there’s a good chance that this shrine was once near the seashore, and that this is where the black ships were first seen from, or possibly where they made landfall. Who knows?
I didn’t find the Geocache I came to look for, but I found something so much more valuable: The first Inari Shrine I ever visited in my life, and the very reason why I came to Japan. It should only be the first of many I would visit during my journey, but this little shrine, hidden in a back road of a backwater district, crammed between two houses, so humble, yet so glorious, and discovered entirely by accident, should have a special place in my heart for the rest of my days.
But now, let us move on, for this stray is far from over. Next, I arrive at the delta of the Sumida River (隅田川 “River at the Corner of Ricefields”), the smaller of the two rivers that divide Tokyo (the other being the Arakawa River (荒川“Wild River”) to the east), and in fact define the western and eastern boundaries of the Koto district in which I currently reside.
There’s a nice park with some actual greenery at the riverbank, and I notice that the people here have a really humorous way of reminding owners to pick up after their dogs.
Also, there’s this cute little bike lane mini roadway system that I’m not sure what to make of. It might be art… maybe?
Subsequently, I’m off to look for a Geocache on a small island in the middle of a bridge that is literally called “Island in the Middle” (中の島, Nakanoshima).
That little island is pretty much entirely a park, and I would like to take this opportunity to point out how Japanese people like to illustrate their signs a lot more than those of the western world, which not only makes them easier to understand, but also gives them a more friendly feel and motivates me more to actually do as they tell me to do.
Another interesting thing to be found on this little islet is a curious parkour underpass, which I naturally do not hesitate once to brave. I bet it’s even more interesting at high tide.
Once I’m off the island, my way leads down a straight road ¬– which is a lot less dull than it sounds, because unlike in Germany, the sidewalks here in Tokyo are really something (and they vary with each part of the city).
Also, unlike western cities, which merely have a car park problem, Tokyo also has a bike park problem, which leads to many innovative solutions such as diagonal bike locking stations where you pay by the hour to park your bike.
…and then there’s this thing which I like to call the “Pokémon Syndrome”…
Subsequently, I cross over to the island of Toyosu (豊洲, “Bountiful Sand Bar”), where I stumble upon something that can only be described as a pedestrian’s overpass junction.
Not far from there, there’s a railway line which clearly was not meant to be…
…yet most befittingly, there is also a runaway train that has escaped its tracks. I wonder if they once were one? Probably not.
One way or another I soon find myself in LaLaport, where you enjoy the view of one of Tokyo’s artificial fjords while reclining in comfortable… concrete… deck chairs… of sorts…
A little bit further on, I find another classical Japanese solution to problems of transit: What do you do when you need to establish public transportation in a place, the ground level is already packed, and digging a subway is no fun because there’s water all over the place? Why, you go up a level and build a fully automated guideway transit system about ten meters above the ground cause why not? The Yurikamome Line (新交通, “New Mingling Traffic”) here is a perfect example of this. Even the stations are just hanging above the streets like the gardens of Semiramis.
Next, I take a short break at a busy crossroads to relax to the sight of the amazing dancing fountains erupting from the sidewalk. Better take care to not accidentally walk into them, since they are not cordoned off or anything.
And with that, my stray gradually comes to an end. However, there is one more thing I must yet do. In order to replace the assets stolen from me in Bangkok (see Book 2 ~ Chapter 1 ~ The Journey to Japan), I am going to visit a local hardware store, and have planned my stray accordingly so that I arrive at one near the end, right about, now.
One thing of note here is the typical Japanese concept of job creation schemes: Japan has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world, which is largely due to the fact that the Japanese government is big on creating relatively pointless jobs, such as traffic coordinators at carpark driveways or pedestrian’s crossings. Another personal favourite of mine is the detour person, who fulfils the same function as a detour sign by telling every single person who passes by to go that way.
Another thing to point out is that here in Tokyo, it’s normal for bicycles to drive on the sidewalks, since cycling on the roads is only allowed where there are specifically designated biker’s lanes. As such, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has come up with interesting barriers that slow bikers down, but are of little consequence to pedestrians.
And just like that, this stray comes to an end as I return home to inspect my spoils. Somehow, I ended up buying a bit more than intended. In addition to a new jeweller’s screwdriver set (which took quite some time indeed to find), I have procured a comfy cushion since the chairs in our sharehouse are spectacularly unpadded, and then there was this one towel that I simply could not pass up. Especially not on this momentous day. It shall be my cherished keepsake forever.
After all that walking, it’s now time for some well-earned…
When I came to Japan, I was fully expecting to be eating mostly rice.
I was wrong.
While it is true that I start of the day with Onigiri (お握り “Grabable”), mostly triangular rice balls wrapped in sea weed and filled with a variety of different things – such as red salmon, pickled daikon radish, mandarin, walleye, chicken, shrimp, apricot, tuna, pickled cabbage, etc…
…and the supermarket has more kinds of rice than you can shake a stick at, in denominations ranging from 1kg to 10kg…
The one thing I should end up eating more commonly than anything else would be noodles.
Noodles in Japan are a bit different than what we are used to in the west. When we hear the word “noodles”, we most often think of Italian-style pasta, made from wheat flour and egg. While these do exists in Japan (in the “Italian Food” aisle of the supermarket), the traditional types of noodles here are Soba and Udon.
Soba are made from buckwheat flour and do not include egg. They are usually quite thin, and can be a good deal stickier than comparable pasta such as capellini.
Udon, on the other hand, are quite thick and made from wheat flour. Like Soba, they do not include egg, and are much softer than pasta. In fact, they are like the illegitimate offspring between pasta and spätzle that was disowned and hired on a ship to Japan in shame.
One popular lunch option is the wide variety of noodle packages that you can prepare within 15 minutes using just a Nabe (鍋). A Nabe is a sort of hybrid between a frying pan and a pot, and the most commonly used cooking implement here in Japan (a frying pan, by contrast, is called フライパン (Furaipan)). There’s one thing to keep in mind, however: Just because the packaging shows all sorts of tasty stuff, that doesn't necessarily mean any of that stuff is included in the package.
Most of the time, it’s just the noodles and sauce, and a list on the back tells you what else you need to prepare the dish. At least that’s my theory, because with only five years of Japanese on my record the only things on the backside that I can actually comprehend are the pictures and the numbers.
My initial approach to this conundrum is to simply eat the noodles as-is, or maybe add a little Shouyu (醤油 “Soy Sauce”) in the rare case when I realize I grabbed a pack of noodles that doesn't have any sauce inside…
…but I eventually start pimping up my noodles with things such as bacon and fish cake.
By far the most popular quick meals in Japan, however, are cup noodles.
Those come in a wide variety, the most common ones being Raamen (Chinese style noodle soup) and Udon. The one thing they all have in common is their preparation: Pour boiling hot water into the cup, wait for about three minutes, and done. Sometimes you can add extra things from a flavour satchel, for example if you want your meal to be extra spicy, but most of the time, all ingredients are already in the cup in dehydrated form. Some varieties of cup noodles also include disposable chopsticks, and most convenience stores have a spot where you can draw hot water, so you can literally go into the store, buy cup ramen, and then start preparing them right there and eat them on the way back to work or school. An absolute necessity for busy businessmen and students here in Japan.
Speaking of convenience, let’s get back to the Onigiri for a moment. One common problem with those is that the seaweed, which is naturally crunchy, starts getting soft and saggy once it touches the rice. That’s not a problem with freshly prepared Onigiri, but it kinda makes the store-bought ones lose an edge. But fear not, for here comes the Japanese spirit of invention with an amazing way of wrapping the Onigiri in a double-layer system of plastic that keeps the seaweed separate from the rice right until you unwrap it, and while I don’t approve of using plastic with such reckless abandon, I still have to marvel at the pure genius of this way of wrapping.
In the evenings, I mostly cook for myself, making portions for two days.
Gamm Ligeral, my favourite recipe, still works over here. However, I have to make certain adjustments to the ingredients. For one, western style dehydrated sauces simply don’t exist over here. Instead, sauces are sold in pre-prepared form in bottles, and with me not having any experience with this kind of sauces (plus not being able to read 90% of the kanji even if they were written in a legible font), picking a sauce is pretty much hit or miss. Fortunately, the first sauce I pick – which turns out to be Sukiya sauce, as in Sukiyaki – ends up being quite tasty, so I don’t mind having bought enough for twelve meals (the smallest denomination available). By the way, I love how some products have “helpful” English subtitles such as “Seven Premium is ever evolving”, “More tasty, more affordable”, and “Sauce for designated purpose”. Well, at least I know it’s a sauce now, thank you very much. I could probably have bought salad dressing by mistake and would not have noticed until preparing dinner.
Next, there’s the matter of mushrooms. While champignons can be bought over here, the much more commonly used option is Shiitake, which is a lot like champignon, but has a stronger flavour. I for one find it quite delicious.
Another kind of mushroom is Enokitake, a long, ribbon-like kind of mushroom, that I am not quite sure how to prepare at first.
Eventually, I decide to just chop it up into, well, ribbons. However, I find that I don’t enjoy it quite as much as the Shiitake.
And then, there’s the Eringi, or as I like to call it, the Omega Death Shroom.
This one is so big that two of them are easily enough to fill a pan.
Apart from those kinds of dishes, I also like to prepare variations of good old Naleiayafero featuring Japanese Hinohikari (“Light of the Fire”) rice and Italian tomatoes…
…or spontaneous creations such as soba sausage stir fry.
So much for eating in. Now let me tell you about eating out here in Japan.
Eating out in a foreign country the language of which you only barely comprehend can be scary, so I kinda stalled eating out to the point where I skipped lunch entirely and went straight to dinner during my last stray. However, a few days later, I should come across a place which would finally give me the push that I needed: A cute Udon shop in Shinjuku.
What’s so special about this one you ask? To answer that, let us take a closer look at the menu.
I already mentioned that Aburaage – or more specifically, the sweetened version of it, Inari-Age – is the favourite food of foxes, yet I haven’t tried it so far. Two very famous meals among my kin that include this delicious ingredient are Kitsune Udon and Inari Sushi. I’ve vowed to eat both of these as soon as I get the opportunity, and with opportunity pretty much jumping in my face here, I no longer have an excuse to stall any longer. So in I go, and naturally I make a fool out of myself right away by waiting to be seated, because this is not that kind of restaurant. Instead, you order your food at a terminal, where you also pay right away…
Fortunately, an attendant takes pity on me and shows me what I have to do. At the very least, my Japanese is good enough to make my intent known with a simple きつねうどんを食べたいです (Kitsune Udon o tabetei des “I’d like to eat Kitsune Udon”), and she subsequently shows me what I have to do. After ordering, all I have to do is take a seat pretty much anywhere and place the coupon I got out of the terminal in front of me. By now, the order has already electronically been sent to the kitchen, and the coupon serves only the purpose of letting them know where an ordered dish goes. In the meantime, I am served a complimentary chilled drink with free refills, which should eventually identify as Matcha (抹茶 “Powdered green tea”). The practice of serving free Matcha is commonplace in diners in Japan. Also, as a rule, the Matcha is always the opposite temperature than the food, meaning that in soup shops you get cold Matcha, while in Sushi shops you are served hot Matcha.
Soon enough, my Kitsune Udon arrives, and I am faced with a new conundrum: With what I supposed to eat them? No implements were provided, neither Hashi (箸 “Chopsticks”) nor cutlery. And yet, as I look around, I notice that everyone else seems to have matching Hashi, leading me to the conclusion that the Hashi must be hidden around here somewhere, ostensibly within arm’s reach. And indeed, I eventually find them deviously hidden inside a wooden box with an opaque top, making it impossible to see them from the outside.
With that final obstacle out of the way, I can finally enjoy the Kitsune Udon. Time to taste if the tales are true.
They are. The Inari-Age is sooooo good, I already know that I'm going to miss it when I leave here. What’s more, it’s peculiar sweet taste is somehow nostalgic, like I’ve tasted it before, a long long time ago, barely remembered. I don’t quite know what this means, but one thing is for certain: I’ve found a new food to add to my list of personal favourites. In fact, now that I’m primed, I am starting to notice cup-noodle versions of Kitsune Udon in the supermarket, and although they are not as tasty as the genuine article sold in proper Udon-ya (-ya is a suffix for shops and restaurants in Japanese), they’re still pretty damn good, and very affordable. In fact, I soon enough find out that both Kitsune Udon and Inari Sushi are considered poor people’s food, since Aburaage is a pretty cheap ingredient. I don’t mind that though. It’s tasty, and that’s all that matters to me.
I would eventually eat out on other occasions too, but not during these first few days, so I’ll let this be a story for another time. Instead, let me now tell you a tale…
Of Unicorns and Liberty
The next day, on 11-Feb-2018, I should go on another stray. This one would take me all the way down to Odaiba to see… unexpected things. The entire stray should take me about 6 hours and cover approximately 12 km.
Odaiba is a large entirely artificial island in the bay of Tokyo. However, you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it. One way or another, I decided to walk there, and although it’s quite a distance away, the varied sidewalks of Tokyo server to make the journey interesting and diverse.
I’ve actually been part of the way already yesterday. Back then, I turned around in Toyosu. This time, however, the new part of my journey begins precisely at the quite definite final stop of the Yurikamome Line.
My way leads past the Shinonome Unga (東雲運河 “Daybreak Canal”), home of the legendary Sky Duck Water Bus…
…and along pedestrian-friendly (?) sidewalks.
By the way, there are lots of places around where I could rent a コミュニティサイクル(Community Cycle)…
…that is, if I were able to read the instructions.
A bit further down the road, there’s my village*…
* not really my village.
…and a beautiful view from Fujimi Hashi (富士見橋 “Mt. Fuji Viewing Bridge”). I can’t actually make out Mt. Fuji though. In fact, you can’t see Mt. Fuji from Tokyo except on very dry days, similarly like how you can’t see the Alps from Munich most of the time.
And speaking of bridges…
We have already covered that with the exception of a chosen few, roads don’t have names in Japan.
Bridges, on the other hand, do have names.
Big or small.
Every last one of them!
And I mean it!!!
I suppose that would make bridges a handy orientation point. I’ll have to keep this in mind.
But back on track, I next pass by the colourful Tokyo Sewerage Museum…
…and then I finally arrive on the beach of Odaiba, where much to my surprise I find a sort of bicycle festival in full course.
By the way, this festival was brought to you by…
I don’t understand the entire point of the festival, but it obviously involves a biking parkour across the beach and through the nearby park. It doesn't seem to be a race, so I assume that they’re either doing it for fun, or that time is measured individually for each participant.
Eventually I move on along the beach of Odaiba, which I imagine must be quite busy during the summer months.
My next stop is Daiba park, which once used to be a fortified island in the bay of Tokyo. Nowadays, it is connected to the mainland by the artificial islands of Koto.
Nowadays, this peninsula is a pedestrian’s park. Among the first things I notice on this island are peculiar pines, the purpose of which does not reveal itself to me. I wonder, could someone explain to me the pedestrian peninsula park’s peculiar pines’ purpose?
Looking out towards Odaiba from here, I get a great view on the noteworthy Fuji TV headquarters with its telltale Sphere Observation Room Hachitama ().
…while on the other side, there’s the great Rainbow Bridge spanning the bay of Tokyo, all the way to Minato on the other side.
From there, I make my way back towards the heart of Odaiba. Along the way, I come across some very stylish doggies, that are indeed a good example of Japanese dog fancy. Dogs in Japan are usually more cat-sized, and are usually wearing clothes – at least during the colder season. Apart from that, it’s not uncommon to see pooches with dyed fur or stylish accessories. For many people, having a dog is a cheaper alternative to having children.
And now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for…
…aka, how in the name of the Divine Dragon did I end up here???
The answer to that is quite simple: I walked.
I am, in fact, still in Odaiba, as you can see by Rainbow Bridge and the Daiba park peninsula in the background. It’s just another typically Japanese thing to build replicas of cool things and have them standing around in prominent locations, like this 1:3.68 scale model of the Statue of Liberty. And really, why shouldn’t they? It’s a nice statue, and it’s not like this is the only replica of it.
Moving on, I cross the elevated シンボルプロムナード(Shimborupuromunaado, “Symbol Promenade”) in front of the Aqua City mall, and as I sit down for a short breather on one of the benches, I am surprised to find my first wild mammal here in Japan scuttling about behind and beneath the benches.
From there, my continued tour of Odaiba takes me past the entrance to the 東京港トンネル (Toukyouminato Tonneru, “Tokyo Harbour Tunnel”), a roughly 1km long tunnel running beneath the main entrance of Tokyo Harbour. I suppose with Rainbow Bridge already in place, they figured why not make a tunnel for a change down here just to keep things interesting.
Now, normally I’d say the following sign is fairly redundant, but ever since my father took me to the bicycling exhibition in a certain German museum last winter, my understanding of what can be done with a bicycle if one sets his or her mind to it has somewhat shifted. I can only imagine some crazy Japanese person trying to climb this staircase step-by-step on a bike.
And now, we are finally approaching the heart of hearts of Odaiba. The Japanesestmosterestest of the Japanese, and I am not speaking of the Flame of Liberty (even though it fits the theme with the last landmark)…
…no, I am talking about this thing.
A must-see for boys and girls of all ages, this is…
And it’s a 1:1 scale model too! I guess if any Kaijuu (怪獣 lit: “Mysterious Beast” or more like: “Giant Monster”) attack, we know where to come.
Subsequently, I continue on my way, this time through a pedestrian thoroughfare, where I suddenly find myself in a photo-standoff with a Japanese guy.
Photos and smiles are exchange, and we’re both on our way again. This area has some really interesting architectonical curiosities, such as what I’m simply gonna call the π-towers…
…and then, there’s this alternate explanation of how I might have ended up near the statue of freaking liberty.
My way, however, does not actually lead me into that station, which is in fact not a Metro station despite its being underground, but rather a station of the Rinaki Line, one of the suburban train lines of Tokyo, but more about that later. No, I am bound for the Odaiba-Kaihinkoen Eki (お台場海浜公園駅 “Bountiful Sandbank Seashore Park Station”) of the Yurikamome Line. All stations of this line, by the way, have those characteristic sliding doors that seal off the track until the train has arrived.
That has been one of my goals for today: Riding the Yurikamome Line, which as a matter of fact drives right across rainbow bridge, and then makes a characteristic 270° helix that is a great point of reference since it is marked down on pretty much every single network map. And of course, since the entire ride is remote controlled, that means people can sit right at the front. As you can imagine, that is not only quite popular with kids but gives me a great view of the ride. Welcome aboard!
From there on out I ride the various lines of the Tokyo Transit system back to Kiba.
All the way to Kiba?
No, not quite all the way to Kiba. Due to regaining a part of my stamina during the train rides (and quite possibly also due to botching another insanity check), I decide to get out one station earlier, in Monzen Nakacho (門前仲町 “Gate Front Intermediary Town”), and decide to walk the rest of the way from there.
Not a bad decision as it would turn out, for it would inadvertently lead me to yet another shrine, this one being rather hard to miss.
This one is the Tomioka Hachiman Miya (富岡八幡宮 “Abundant Knoll Hachiman Shrine”). In fact, it looks like there was a Matsuri (祭 “Festival”) or maybe a flea market today, but everyone is already packing up.
Either way, it is an impressive shrine. This one is dedicated to Hachiman (八幡), God of the Eight Heavenly Banners, Archery, and patron of warriors. Today, he is venerated by hard workers and those who practice or desire discipline. I can imagine he is also quite popular among martial artists. The trademark symbol of Hachiman is the three-fold Tomoe, representing the three-fold division of people, earth, and sky.
Finally, I also get the chance to take a peek inside the sanctuary. That’s actually alright for me to do, even if I do feel a bit nervous about it. What is not allowed is to actually go inside. That is a privilege reserved for priests and pariticipants of special ceremonies.
After that, I finally set out on the way back home, but not without hitting the shops for supplies first, which I guess makes this the ideal time talk a bit about…
Stores & Shopping
When you’re talking shopping, you’re talking money, so here’s a bit about the Japanese currency system.
The official currency of Japan is the 円 (“Yen”, internationally often written as ¥). It is the third-most traded currency in the world after US $ and €. Its current course is about 130¥ for one €, which makes converting from € to ¥ a simple matter of “multiply by 100 and then add about a third”. It’s also a good way to think of ¥ as ¢, seeing as how it doesn't have any decimal values. 1¥ is simply the smallest possible denomination, which makes dealing with this currency refreshingly straightforward.
The Yen was first established through the New Currency Act of 1871 during the Meiji Restoration with the goal of creating a unified nation-wide currency based on the European system. Prior to that time, every feudal lord issued his own money for the districts he governed, which as you might imagine made free trade a bit of a hassle.
The Kanji円 also means “circle”, which dates back to the early days during which Yen existed only as coins. Originally, the system was a lot more complicated, featuring denominations of 1/1000 Yen called “Rin”, 1/100 denominations called “Sen”, and ranging up to 20 Yen coins being the largest unit of currency. The concept of denominations was eventually dropped in 1953, and 1¥ became the smallest unit of currency. As of 2000, there are a total of 6 types of Yen coins:
While they certainly are nice to look at, and while the hole in the middle of the 5¥ and 50¥ coins is certainly a cool thing, they suffer a few design issues making them a hassle to use. The most critical of those is the similarity between 1¥and 100¥ coins, which are the same colour and almost the same size. Combine that with the fact that you constantly need 100¥ coins and constantly get 1¥ coins and you end up with a system where you always search for the elusive 100¥ coins among the dozens of 1¥ coins in your purse. The 5¥ and 50¥ coins are also pretty easy to mix up in the dim light of a wallet, but since you don’t need those all that often, this isn’t so much of a problem. A curious note about the 1¥ coin though: Because it’s made of aluminium, it’s not actually light enough to float, but if placed carefully on a steady surface of water, it will not sink because of surface tension.
Moving on to the bank notes. Those were introduced in late 1872, barely two years after the introduction of the coins, and were originally issued in denominations ranging from 10 Sen to 100 ¥. Currently there are only three notes in circulation: 1,000¥, 5,000¥ and 10,000¥, with 1,000¥ being the most common, and 5,000¥ the least common. There’s also the rare 2,000¥ note, which was only issued during the year 2000 and is quite a rarity. I for my part have yet to see one.
But now back to shopping. The majority of shopping in Japan is done in Kombinis (コンビニ “Convenience Store), the three biggest chains of which are 7-11, FamilyMart and Lawson. Those stores sell pretty much everything you need to survive: Food, drinks, stationery, bathroom and kitchen supplies, magazines… You could easily survive in Japan by only visiting Kombinis. Most importantly, the Kombinis are open 24/7, and also feature an international ATM which you can use to withdraw cash while the banks are closed at night. I suppose this system co-evolved: With ATMs at Kombinis being readily available at all times, banks never had to set up outdoors ATMs or 24/7 areas. Conveniently, you can even set these ATMs to English and use them to withdraw money from your overseas account.
What’s more curious is the fact that those Kombinis seem to thrive this close to one another. You usually don’t have to walk more than 100m to get to the next Kombini in most areas, and there are places where Kombinis of different branches flourish literally right next to each other.
The next convenient curiosity are the 100¥ shops where you can buy everything – or almost everything – for 108¥. That is, 100¥ plus 8¥ tax. One thing to be wary of in Japanese stores is that all prices are pre-tax unless noted otherwise. But anyways, those 100¥ shops like Daiso are really useful if you’re on a budget and need to get basic supplies for cheap. Chopsticks? 108¥. Cup? 108¥. Dishwash? 108¥. There are a few items that cost more than 100¥, such as umbrellas, but those are located in special sections of those store and have a price tag. Everything that doesn’t have a price tag is always 108¥.
One of those is conveniently located inside the Ito-Yokado shopping centre, which makes that mall my N°1 port for all my shopping needs – even if it’s a good deal farther away than the nearest Kombinis.
Another thing to get used to is the concept of a barrier-free mall: Unlike most other malls, which have all their stores separate, this and only this mall (I’ve been to other Japanese malls by now) has all its stores next to one another without any division, meaning you can just walk from one store right into the next one. This makes it a bit confusing trying to figure out where to pay, though some stores use special floor tiles to visually distinguish their area. Honestly, Ithink that even if you paid at the wrong counter, the profits would still get redirected to the store from which you actually got the article thanks to product codes.
Okay, 100¥ store aside, the actual reason why I come here to do my shopping is this store:
The Foods Market is effectively a supermarket, with the added note that it exclusively sells food and drink. No stationery. No bathroom supplies. No magazines. Food and drink only. That’s not a big deal, but it can trip you up if you’re used to buying toilet paper and dishwash with your groceries. Here, those are sold in a separate store directly across from the Food Market. My main reason for coming here is that unlike in the Kombinis, where you can only buy pre-made meals, you can actually buy ingredients to make your own meals here, such as the iconic Daikon (大根 “Large Turnip”) club.
Another unusual thing are the shopping carts. Instead of normal shopping carts, here, you pretty much get a rolling pedestral for your shopping basket. Kinda defeats the purpose of a shopping cart if you ask me, but oh well…
The checkout system is also a bit different. Instead of a conveyor belt onto which you load your purchases, you just put your basket on the counter, and as the cashier scans your goods, he/she transfers them to a yellow “checkout basket”. Beyond the cashier area, there are tables with plastic bags where you then transfer your purchased goods from the yellow basket into either the provided bags, or bags you brought yourself.
That, or you could just use the self-checkout option, the machines of which are conveniently also outfitted with an English interface (though after a couple of times using them, I quickly feel comfortable enough with the Japanese interface as well).
Another typical Japanese thing of note are the Microwaves at the exit. Suppose you just bought food and want to eat it right away? Feel free to use the provided microwaves for a quick tasty meal to go.
Moving on to one of the most common stereotypes of Japan: Vending machines, also known as 自動販売機 (Jidouhanbaiki, “Self Functioning Market Selling Mechanism”).
While it is true that they are everywhere, I feel that at this point I have to clear up a common misunderstanding. Most people believe you can buy pretty much anything at those machines. However, after examining a statistical sample of vending machines all over Tokyo, I can safely say that this is simply not true. Given, there are vending machines for all sorts of stuff, but vending machines for drinks still outnumber all other types combined 19 to 1. Out of 88 machines I documented, 84 sold drinks, 1 sold food, 1 sold ice cream, and 1 sold cigarettes, and that only covers my first few days in Tokyo.
There’s one particularly noteworthy thing about the drink vending machines, however: You can buy both cold and hot drinks from them. Even smarter: Both kinds of drinks are sold at the same machine, and the waste heat from cooling the cold drinks is used to heat up the hot drinks. Ingenious! You can tell whether a drink is hot or cold by looking at the price tag: Cold drinks have a blue tag, while hot drinks have a red one.
Now then, whit shopping out of the way, it’s about time we take a closer look at…
The Tokyo Transit Techniques
Getting straight to the point, Tokyo’s railroad transit network looks like this:
Now, if your first impression of this is “a jumbled mess”, you are only half wrong. It is actually a highly organized mess. Unlike in Germany, where almost all rail traffic within a city is run by a single company, Tokyo’s railroad transit needs are served by no less than 30 operators running a total of 121 lines. The networks are highly interconnected, with many stations co-owned by several operators. However, most operators only provide maps of their own Networks, not displaying any other lines, which can make getting from A to B without an appropriate app on your phone quite a challenge. Fortunately, if you’re spending most of your time in Tokyo, odds are that your primary means of transportation are going to be the Metro, which is operated by only two companies. That makes it easier to keep an overview.
Another thing to get used to is that the lines have names instead of numbers. For example, Kiba, the station where I get on and off most of the time, is part of the 東西線 (Touzai Sei, “East West Line”). You’d think it would be tricky to think of unique names for 121 Lines, but I guess after coming with names for a total of 882 stations, that one most have seemed like a breeze.
Anyway, about the fares… Basically, you have two options: Either you calculate how much you need to pay using these very comprehensive charts and then buy a ticket for exactly that amount from the vending machines (which fortunately come with an English-option)…
…or, you can just skip the hassle, and get a
The concept is quite simple: You charge it up just like a normal cash card. Then, when passing through the ticket gates while entering the station, instead of inserting your ticket, you touch your wallet with the Pasmo Card to the sensor. Later, when getting off the train and leaving your destination station, you pass through another ticket gate and touch the sensor there, and the correct amount will be deducted from your card automatically, showing you both the cost of the trip and your remaining balance. There are also transfer gates when changing between lines of different operators. These effectively give you a discount since they take into consideration that you did not only just get in at that station, but rather already travelled for some distance. A rough estimation of how much a trip by Metro is going to cost is 180¥ for the first station, and 10¥ for each additional station, so the transfer gates effectively save you 170¥ per transfer.
Once you’re actually inside a Metro station, there are a couple of things to stand out. If the station happens to be a station of the Tozai Line, the first thing you will notice it that it’s freaking long. With 10 cars per train, it is over 150% as long as Munich’s subway trains. In fact, I am pretty certain that some stations are longer than the distance to the next station.
The next thing you’ll notice is the twittering of the birds as you walk around. This is not because there are some actual birds around, but rather an acoustic ambient track broadcasted via speakers. Also take note of the barriers at some stations that are there to prevent suicides.
Getting to the next reason why the confusing Tokyo Transit system is actually cool: Stations of a Line have numbers, which makes it incredibly easy to make sure you get off at the right station even if you can’t remember names like “Takadanobaba” (高田馬場 “High Field Horse Place”). Plus, by means of subtraction you can always tell exactly how many stations you still have to go before you need to get off.
As for inside the train, the newer trains have screen systems that make those of Munich seem like static billboards. Not only do they display relevant information such as schedules, delays and transit options right on time and in multiple languages, but they also entertain passengers with all sorts of wacky Japanese commercials. On a less cheerful note, the delay cause “Passenger Injury” usually means “Suicide” or “Attempted Suicide”.
And we’re not out of cool yet! At the platforms, there are informative billboards showing you exactly which wagon you need to board so you can get off right at your desired exit at the target station. A simple idea, yet highly effective for minimizing passenger jams.
At times, the stations can be quite deep underground, especially in Koto, where the Metro needs to run below all of the rivers and canals. At Kiba Station, for example, just getting to the platform can be quite the odyssey (detour-person notwithstanding).
Also, you might have noticed the arrows on the floor. Those are a form of crowd control, telling people which side of the hallway to walk on for optimal traffic flow in rush hours. They’re also found on pretty much all the stairs.
Meanwhile, the bigger stations also have bigger arrows to guide the passengers to their desired line.
And with bigger stations I mean stations that are so big they include at least two stops of the same line.
This level of complexity makes it feel almost like I'm inside the Alpha-Complex at times. Speaking of which… do you think I should be worried about these things?
Apart from the Metro network, there are also a number of above-ground railway lines through Tokyo…
…as well as bus services, which I must confess I have not tried out to this day, mostly because the railroad network is tight enough that walking is usually faster than going by bus, but also because figuring out the bus routes is a skill I have not quite mastered yet. And by the way, that’s not a typo on the bus there. A Non Step Bus is simply a bus that is accessible to handicapped people.
That concludes the topic of transportation for now. Next up is something that might have stumped many a Japan traveller so far, namely…
The Bathroom Factor
Japanese toilets come in two shapes: Hi-tech…
The classic toilet is quite simple to use, and no different from going behind a bush in the woods. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that you have to face the hole. Some of these even have a handlebar to hold on to while crouching.
Hi-tech toilets, however, can be quite overwhelming with their many buttons, and may pose a hazard to the unwary traveller.
[Coming Soon: Picture 192 ~ Toilet Hazard]
The many features of this type of toilet – also known as a washlet – include water jets and spray to clean anus and/or vagina, air dryer, seat heating, as well as a function to simulate a flush sound. The latter is the result of a particularly embarrassing excrescence of human culture: Females who were ashamed of the natural noises made by their bodily functions were continuously using the flush, wasting water to cover those sounds. Talk about vanity. Anyway, here’s a short manual about the most common buttons.
That’s quite a lot to memorize. Fortunately, many of those have descriptive pictographs, and really, you only need those two:
Now then, equipped with this knowledge, I consider myself ready to brave my first Japanese toilet, only to find myself faced with a predicament. Or can you find the flush-button on this one?
The answer is simple: There is none. That is because some of these toilets are simply old western-style toilets outfitted with a washlet frame. However, the flushing mechanism is still separate, and hidden behind the seat cover.
Another interesting modification is the combination of toilet and washbasin: After flushing, the water that is used to refill the toilet tank can be used to wash one’s hands. The main problem here is that said water is always as cold as it gets, which makes this doubtlessly ecologically sensitive option a rather unpleasant experience during the colder months.
And finally, like many western toilets, many Japanese toilets also have the option to differentiate between a small and a big flush. However, instead of separate buttons or panels to press, Japanese toilets often have a lever or dial that you can pull into two ways. The direction of your pull determines the size of the flush: 大 (Ooki, “Big”) or 小 (Chiisai, “Small”).
Coming back to the washbasins for a moment, there’s one thing there that can also cause some confusion: Some faucets have a handle that you need to push down instead of up in order to draw water. This is another case of poor design, as it caused many a household to flood when objects dropped on the handle during an earthquake, pushing it down and causing the basin to overflow if the plug was in (or if falling objects pushed it closed). As a result, this kind of faucet is in gradual decline, but you can still run into the elusive reverse faucet in bathrooms here and there.
So much for the infrastructure. Now, let’s wrap up this chapter with…
A Stray in Shinjuku
The 13th of February 2018 should be the final day of my arrival. Today, I am taking part in a placement test at the Kudan Institute for Japanese Language and Culture, where I will be studying Japanese for the next 5 weeks, as well as an interview at Hello Work for finding a part-time job in Tokyo. This should take me to the busy district of Shinjuku, and naturally, I would find an opportunity to include a short-but-meaningful stray into the experience.
Shinjuku is officially the single most busy train station in the world. Used by an average of over 3.5 million people per day, this transportational megalopolis features 36 main platforms in the main hall, another 17 platforms in connected stations, as well as over 200 exists to the city distributed through its network of tunnels and terminals. Also, it has a freaking bus terminal on its roof.
The average of 3.5 million people per day mean that over a hundred thousand people pass through the station each hour, and assuming a person stays in the station for about ten minutes on average, that means there are about 20,000 people in the station at any given time. During rush hours, I imagine it may be as much as 100,000, though right now, the hallways are almost completely empty by comparison.
After finding my way through the labyrinth of hallways, I finally emerge into the canyons of Shinjuku after about ten minutes, and find myself in the heart of the keep of commerce and Japanese pop culture.
One thing I approve of right away is that smoking on the streets is prohibited…
Instead, there are designated smoking areas where smokers can go about their business. As I continue living here in Tokyo, I should also notice this commendable system installed in many other parts of the city.
From there, it is only a short walk to the Hello Work office, where I have a preliminary interview with the help of Alex, and first job opportunities are sampled for me. Most of them involve kitchen duty in restaurants.
Afterwards, I am free to go my own way. Walking along the road, I soon figure out that the Japanese people must have had the same idea as the New Zealanders regarding how to stop substation graffiti.
Subsequently, I come across Inarikio Jinja (稲荷鬼王神社 “Inari Ghost King Shrine”), an Inari Shrine, albeit without any foxes…
…but this lack of vulpinity should be more than compensated in the near future as I continue on my way to find a rather big Torii drawing me in.
This is the entranceway to the Hanzono Jinja (花園神社 “Flower Garden Shrine”), another large Hachiman Shrine…
And while I will admit that it is a beautiful shrine, the true value of my discovery lies not in the Hanzono Shrine itself, but rather nearby.
The Itoku Inari Daimyoujin Shrine (威徳稲荷大明神 „Virtue and Authority of the Great Gracious Deity Inari“)! Without a doubt the foxiest shrine around! Foxes greet you at the lanterns at the entrance already…
…and then again as you emerge from the tunnel of Torii.
The altar finally is a whole skulk of foxes.
This is easily the most positively excited I’ve ever been in a long long time, even if the access to this shrine is kinda perilous for people of European stature.
A fitting finale for my arrival in Japan. Tomorrow, the daily routine of living, learning and working would begin. But today is special, and another memory that I would forever carry in my heart was made.
The way back leads me to the nearby station of Shinjuku-Sanchome, which is one of the many branches of Shinjuku Station. There, I have to traverse a long, straight underground tunnel which is not uncommon for the metropolis of Tokyo.
And then, all that’s left is the way back to the Ooizumi Mansion, where I cook myself some variation of Gamm Ligeral with Shiitake and Hinohikari rice in preparation of the next day. Tomorrow, I’ll start attending language school, and with any luck, I’ll have a part-time job soon. And even if that doesn't work out, I still have my freelance software developer job to keep me busy, so I guess things will be alright.
But what would tomorrow bring?
Join me and find out in the next chapter of the Travelling Fox Blog, to be revealed in April-2018.