Tuesday, March 30, 2010

These boots are maid for walking

On monday morning our party disbanded. Two of our number pushed still further west to Hiroshima while myself and my sleeping partner got an early-ish shink to Tokyo. He continued straight back to Yamagata, as he had work the next day. I, on the other had, had taken tuesday and (somewhat unnecessarily) wednesday off, so I intended to spend some time in the capital.

My plan was to get an overnight bus back that night, so my first task was to sort that out. Finding the bus stop wasn't easy (it was about 100m down the street from the vast, many-exited Tokyo Station), and once I located that it wasn't immediately apparent where to buy tickets. I eventually ascertained that this could be done at a nearby 7-11. Japanese combinis (convenience stores) offer a remarkable range of services: you can pay your utility bills there; you can buy tickets to concerts or sporting events; you can even have parcels sent there for you to pick up at your, well, convenience.

Unfortunately the tickets were sold out. It was a holiday monday, and evidently lots of people had the same idea as me. I wasn't unduly concerned, as I had a backup for this contingency: a different, albeit slightly less convenient night bus. This bus left from Shinjuku, on the other side of central Tokyo, so I hopped on a train.

I eventually found the bus ticket office in the world's busiest station, and negotiated the kanji-heavy touchscreen terminal to discover that this bus was also fully booked. Now I had a problem. I grabbed a Coke (in Tokyo, you are never more than five metres from a vending machine) and sat down to consider my options. Of course, I could just get a shink, but after the previous night's fleecing I was feeling even stingier than usual. Besides, that would mean making my already brief time in Tokyo even shorter. No, I thought, while it's not strictly true that 'crisis' and 'opportunity' are the same word in Chinese, I'm going to make the most of this crisitunity. For the same price as a shink, I could stay in a capsule hotel and take a slower form of transport back the next day. I found a capsule hotel that was recommended by both my Tokyo Rough Guide and my Lonely Planet, and reasoned that it must be reasonably good, or at least the best of a bad bunch. However, it was back on the side of Tokyo that I had just come from, and check-in wouldn't be open yet. So, I headed out on foot to nearby Harajuku.

Harajuku, as popularised by Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls, is Japan's capital of youth fashion. There is a railway bridge where cosplayers congregate, and that what I wanted to see. If you don't know, cosplay is a contraction of 'costume play', and is the curiously Japanese pastime of dressing up in a very elaborate outfits and posing. Usually these outfits will be attempts to emulate the outlandish get-ups of anime or game characters, although in Harajuku many people are simply making bold fashion statements. The slightly troubling rorigosu (Lolita Goth) look has been popular in recent years.

I knew that the cosplayers hung out there on sunday, but since this was a holiday monday I was confident that there would still be some luminous hair or ludicrously oversized swords on display. Imagine my disappointment where there wasn't a single cosplayer on the bridge. There were some kids whose garb could be described as impractical, but it was nothing sillier than you would see on a saturday on Cockburn Street.

As I had now killed enough time, and my bag was weighing heavy on my shoulder, I traversed Tokyo once again to check into my capsule hotel in Asakusa. I paid my 3000yen (which was fast becoming the standard price for things on this holiday) and got the key to my capsule. Actually, that's not true. I got the key to a small locker, the capsules being secured by nothing more substantial than a roller blind. The capsule itself was more spacious than I had imagined; at roughly 2x1x1 metres I could comfortably sit up inside it. As there wasn't a whole lot to do inside my windowless chamber, I checked out the facilities of the hotel.

Each floor was single sex; some capsule hotels are completely men-only, but in this one floors seven and eight were devoted to women. Each floor had communal toilet facilities, and on the top floor were showers and a large onsen-style baths. Thoughtfully, a towel and slightly surgical-looking yukata were supplied in the capsule. On the second floor was a single computer for guests' use, and various machines vending food, drink, and mobile phone charging opportunities. The whole place felt a bit like an easyJet flight, in that they were looking to squeeze more money out of you in any way they could. For instance, there was a TV in every capsule, but if you wanted to watch it you had to feed coins into a box. If your tiny locker was not big enough to store your stuff, you could either pay for supplemental secure storage, or leave it in a room that was covered in so many multilingual warnings about this being at your own risk, that it made the activity seem about as safe as tucking into a bacon-and-ale pie in Tehran. However, they did have free Wi-Fi, further demonstrating that every upmarket hotel that charges for this service should feel deeply ashamed of itself.

I made use of the internet access to catch up on my email, and figure out how one gets from Tokyo to Akayu using conventional trains. I also devised the fun game of stealing electricity to charge my Archos, since my capsule did not feature a power socket. I was the techno-ninja, my USB hub was my throwing star, and any unguarded socket was my unsuspecting victim. Top tip: Western-style toilets usually have sockets beside them to accommodate the high-tech heated seat / bidet accessories.

As the sun started to set, I went for a stroll along the banks of the Sumida-gawa, checking out the under-construction Sky Tree and the impressive Asahi building, though this has been slightly ruined for me since someone pointed out that the golden flame sculpture atop it looks a bit like a giant dog turd. Then I got on the subway to head for Akihabara. However, due to a cock-up with a ticket gate while attempting to change lines, and my unwillingness to buy another 160yen (£1.16) ticket on principle, I ended up walking the last couple of kilometres.

While there hadn't been any full-on drunkenness during our time in Osaka or Kyoto, there had been a great deal of casual drinking. Our sole female member set the tone on day one, when she bought a bottle of black coffee (that's a normal thing to do in Japan) and miniature bottles of Kahlua and vodka, drank half of the coffee, and then poured in the liquor. Since then, we had been pretty much unable to walk past a convenience store after lunchtime without popping in to grab some kind of booze. The low point came in Kyoto when I bought a cardboard carton of truly rough sake for 100yen (72p). This might sound like the behaviour of a vagrant, but in our defence I'd say that we all rely on our cars to get around in Yamagata, so we are usually denied the joy of a cheeky lunchtime pint. Thus, on holiday and sans vehicles, the temptation of afternoon boozing is too much to resist.

Yet another facility that Japanese combinis invariably offer is a lavatory. It seems rude to use the toilet without buying anything (there are signs in Japanese that very probably tell you not to do that), so it's very easy to get into a self-perpetuating boozing cycle. I was in just such a loop as I walked towards my destination.

Now, Akihabara gets barely a paragraph in my guidebooks, but as far as I'm concerned you can forget the Imperial Palace; this is Tokyo's number one attraction. Akiba, as the cool kids call it, is also known as 'Electric Town', and is the world capital of otaku culture. If you want anything related to computers, games, electronics, anime or manga, this is the place to get it.

I felt a surge of excitement as the garish neon came into view. I spent about an hour wandering around, with a childlike grin on my face and a can of whisky highball in my hand, just soaking up the atmosphere. I popped into Namco's flagship arcade and after playing some Japanese Guitar Hero knockoff for a while, found the retro section and nostalgically played all the classics of my childhood: Bomberman, Puyo Puyo (aka Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine), Street Fighter 2... good times.

The other conspicuous feature of Akiba is all the girls standing in the street dressed as French maids and handing out flyers. They are promoting maid cafes, a relatively recent innovation in Japan's proud tradition of slightly creepy oddness. These are much more innocent than they sound - the maids generally just serve food and drink in a super cutesy, super subservient way ("Yes, master. Anything for you, master", etc). Some more inventive places have expanded their repertoire to include massage (which is not a euphemism, as it occurs fully clothed) or playing games with the customers, but there really isn't anything more salacious than that going on. (I seem to be defending the honour of Japanese women a lot lately.) This makes marginally more sense when you consider that this country spawned geisha and hostess bars - the notion of paying money just for some charming company is not questioned here. I suppose maid cafes exist to cater for the needs of shy nerds who want female affection but are intimidated by the idea of actual physical intimacy. Sound like anyone you know?

I went to a maid cafe with Danny back in '07, but I chickened out on this occasion. I thought that going alone, and for the second time, would be crossing some kind of line; I would be rapidly slipping down the slope to becoming the kind of guy who goes to maid cafes. So, I contented myself by merely collecting as many flyers as I could, each one being invariably accompanied by a cute "Thank you" in heavily-accented English. My favourite flyer augmented its cuteness with Dali-esque surrealism, featuring photos of a man with a horse's head enjoying the maids' services.

I treated myself to some more sorely-missed international cuisine at a Turkish kebab van that a found. I opted for the 'biggu boi' (big boy), but I'm sorry to say it was about half the size of a small doner from Tony's Fish Bar. This is a problem I've had in other countries; it seems no-one makes kebabs as big as the Brits do.

My feet were really starting to ache from all the walking, so I decided to call it a night. Back in Asakusa, I supplemented my meagre kebab with the worst curry rice I've ever experienced, but on the plus side I did find an alcohol vending machine - a dying breed these days due to the obvious scope for abuse by underagers. After a soak in the bath (which offered the rare exhibitionistic opportunity to stand stark naked on a ninth-floor balcony in a heavily urban area), and another round of Electricity Ninja, I turned in. Capsules have no real soundproofing (I suppose suffocation might be a problem if they did), and I have heard tales of people being kept awake by drunken salarymen rolling in at all hours of the night. This was part of the reason why I'd been so intent on drinking all evening. However, my floor-mates all seemed to behave very considerately, or maybe I was just sleeping like a log after five days of strenuous sightseeing. Either way, I got a decent night's sleep.

First on the agenda for tuesday was the task of securing my train ticket home. I hit my second travel-related brick wall in 24 hours when the guy at the ticket counter informed me that the first train on my planned itinerary didn't exist. A normal person would just have asked how him how to make the trip without using the shinkansen (he could speak decent English), but I just ran off to try to find an internet connection and figure out what was going on. My attempts to steal free Wi-fi failed (the ever-flaky Archos seems to have a whole colony of bugs related to connecting to unsecured wireless networks) so I ended up buying an expensive coffee in an internet cafe (no maids). It turned out the usually excellent Hyperdia.com had given me a bum steer, recommending I use the super-luxury Tokyo to Sapporo Cassiopeia liner, without flagging up the extorbitant cost involved. It turned out that the actual cheapskate route, at five trains and seven-and-a-half hours, was even more of a round-the-houses rural crawl than I had thought.

My plan for the day had been to take in the Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba, the super-modern man-made islands in Tokyo Bay. As I had wasted an hour on this train debacle, and now had to leave an hour earlier than I had planned, I decided it wasn't really on. I reeled in my ambitions considerably, and settled for a trip to Maguro Bito (literally, 'tuna person', not to be confused with maguro onna ('tuna woman') which is an insulting term for a lady who is too passive in the bedroom). It was voted Japan's best kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant. The sushi was delicious and of a very high quality, but I would have to take issue with Rough Guide's description of it as 'inexpensive'. Sure, dishes started at 140yen, but if you wanted any actual fish you would be looking at 280yen at least, and several dishes broke the 500yen barrier. I quickly racked up 2200yen (£16), and could probably have doubled that if I'd eaten my fill, since I'd skipped breakfast.

After that I strolled around Ueno Park, which appeared to be home to a lot of otherwise homeless people. Judging by the elaborate nature of some of their improvised dwellings, it would seem that the authorities are fairly relaxed about their presence. After satisfying my unfulfilled hunger for revolving sushi at a rather more downmarket kaitenzushi joint, I started my epic rail marathon.

Sitting on the first train, I did wonder whether I'd taken frugality too far, tripling the duration of my journey for the sake of saving about 5000yen (£36). However, it wasn't so bad. After six days of excitement, I was in the mood for just sitting around for hours. Thanks to my stealthily-charged Archos I could listen to some tunes (specifically, Super Furry Animals' excellent greatest hits album, full of forgotten gems of 90s alt-rock) and watch some anime (Paranoia Agent, which is challengingly weird even by anime's generally hallucinogenic standards). And, of course, I could also pass the time by blogging in my jotter, which brings us, Fight Club-style, to where we came in.


  1. This is a very interesting blog and so i like to visit your blog again and again. Keep it up.



  2. What's a yakata? Also Anna says you should have splashed some cash for a proper train.

  3. Do people in Japan tend to be sexist?

  4. Danny: Sorry, that was a typo. I meant yukata, which is a lightweight kimono-style robe worn for summertime merrymaking or just hanging out shortly before or after bathing in an onsen.

  5. You can take the man out of Scotland, but you can't take scotland out of the man.....On the one hand, I think you are crazy for being so tight, on the other I am pleased and relieved that you are the same Finlay I know and love :-)