You may have noticed a distinct lack of postage on this blog recently. This is because the missus and myself were back in the UK, seeing my family. There’ll be more Japan-related posts soon(ish). In the meantime, here are some photos from our little sojourn.
Sheep. Unsurprisingly, you see lots of sheep in the Yorkshire Dales. These ones were hanging about near Leyburn.
Having lived in Tokyo for over five years I should really know all there is to know about the place. But I don’t, and the place I probably know the least about is Akihabara. This once shabby district, which is five minutes from Tokyo station, has a global reputation for being the ultimate otaku paradise. While on the campaign trail former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso, a self-confessed manga geek, famously said ‘Tadaima!’ (‘I’m home!’) upon arriving in the area.
Akiba, as it’s also known, has become something of a tourist hotspot in recent years. A number of travel agents now offer guided tours that take in the delights of maid cafes, anime stores, used computer game markets and monster tentacle porn tryouts (probably). If, however, the thought of a tour bus full of other people (bleurgh!) is too much for you, White Rabbit Press’s Tokyo Realtime series might be right up your street.
Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara consists of a CD, a map and a glossy little photo booklet. The CD contains an audio tour of Akihabara. To start the tour, find your way to the starting point on the map, hit “play” on your iPod/iPhone/iWhatever and away you go.
Bonus points are awarded for the map: it’s plastic, so you don’t have to worry about it disintegrating into a soggy mess on rainy days.
The audio tour includes interviews with well-known otaku, such as Danny Choo (also known as the Tokyo Stormtrooper) and Morikawa Kaichiro. Morikawa, an expert on Akihabara, is a professor at Meiji University and the author of several books, including “Learning from Akihabara”.
At the time of writing I have yet to properly put the guide through its paces, but as I’ve got some time off work next week I might cast my inhibitions aside, don my tourist hat, string a camera round my neck and get stuck in.
You can buy Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara here. Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho is also available, though unfortunately it doesn’t contain any interviews with Nigerian bouncers, Russian hostesses or love-hotel owners. It does, however, have an interview with a rope-bondage artist.
Western television reports about Tokyo tend to focus on the ultra-modern. There will, almost without exception, be shots of Shibuya’s Hachiko crossing (above), kids dressed in epileptic-fit inducing outfits and random commuter trains zipping past a neon background. A few finishing touches are applied (the occasional fancy edit and pumping electronic backing track – preferably by Orbital) and Bob’s your uncle, Toe-key-oh!
Of course, there’s more to Tokyo than techno-wallabies, Akihabara uber-nerds, passive-aggressive identikit salarymen and whale-smoking, dolphin-slapping karaoke hostess bars. Before the Americans bombed the living daylights out of it Tokyo was an intriguing mix of ramshackle streets and wooden buildings; buildings that even then struggled to hold out against the changes that modernisation brought to the country. After the war, a few Soweto-like areas that weren’t burned to cinders became hotspots for black market trading and lady-related sauciness. Shinjuku’s ‘Golden Gai’ was one of them.
Despite the whippet-like pace of change in other entertainment districts the Golden Gai has managed to retain a sense of its old-world charm. The area is home to some 150 bars stacked on and around each other in higgledy-piggledy fashion, linked together by a grid of tiny footpaths and claustrophobic alleyways. In the 1970s it became a popular hangout for artists, writers, musicians and let’s-have-a-revolution-oh-feck-it-I’ll-kill-myself intellectual Yukio Mishima. These days you’ll find it populated by an eclectic mix of old regulars, twenty- and thirty-something white-collar workers and random tourists who read about it in a Lonely Planet travel guide.
Finding a decent bar in the Golden Gai is like a game of Russian roulette, only without the spattering of brains on the wall (Tip: do it on the beach and let the crabs clean up). A lot of places are filled with regulars who like to keep things… well…regular. For this reason you’ll find that most bars charge a fee – typically around JPY1000 – just for the exalted privilege of entering. It’s the kind of twattish bag-of-wank practice that makes bar-hopping a bit of a non-starter, but if you’re feeling flush and fancy something different then forget about the price and get stuck in. After all, you only live once… apart from my mate Cecil: he’s on his fourth life. The government know about it, but it’s all kept very hush-hush.
If you really do need to reign in the expenses then it’s Imperative (yep, with a capital “I”) that you apply the Golden Gai Coefficient:
Stick your head through a promising-looking door.
Ask the barman/barmaid how much it’ll cost you to drink there.
Scan the bar and weigh up the clientele. Do they look like the kind of people you want to drink with? (Remember: these bars are the size of a garden shed, and conversation is INEVITABLE.) Is there the possibility of something interesting happening? Kabuki theatre performed by a cete of impeccably-groomed badgers, for example?
Apply the Golden Gai Coefficient:
Cost ≤ Entertainment Value = Enter the bar (c≤ev=e)
Cost > Entertainment Value = Leg it (c>ev=l)
If you’re with your mates you’ll have to pool your calculations and put it to a vote. (Adopt first-past-the-post voting methods: don’t try to seek consensus on the issue, otherwise you’ll end up walking around for hours on end.)
Finding the Golden Gai is as easy as slipping on a wet bathroom floor and smashing your head open. Come out of Shinjuku station’s Kabukicho Exit and walk straight down (and I mean down as in the street that slopes slightly downwards) until you get to Yasukuni Dori. You’ll know you’re on Yasukuni Dori when you see this:
Head up Yasukuni Dori for about five minutes. Both sides of the street are packed with shops and restaurants. After a few minutes you’ll spot a Mr Donuts (a cafe, not an actual man that looks like a doughnut) on the left-hand side. To the right of Mr Donuts is a small footpath shrouded by trees and the homeless. This, laydees and gentlemice, is the gateway to the Golden Gai. Only the penitent man will pass, so don’t forget to kneel when you hear the buzzing of circular saws coming out of the walls. Here it is on a map:
The best time to visit the Golden Gai is Friday or Saturday nights, preferably after 10pm, and after you’ve already had a few drinkypoos. If you’re thinking about getting a late-night train back to your home/hotel, forget it: accept the fact that you’ll be out until 5am (when the first trains start running) or paying for a taxi and you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more.
Continuing with our birthday tradition of spending a night in a fancy Tokyo hotel (see last year’s post on The Peninsula), this weekend my better half and myself stayed at the Mandarin Oriental in Nihonbashi.
Rooms are very spacious. Starting from 50m2:
The bed is a decent size:
As is the TV (a 42 incher). You can watch both Wowow and Star Channel movies in full HD, which is ace:
If it’s your birthday the hotel provides a free bowl of strawberries, which is nice. You can see the bathroom through the vertical blinds in the background. The bathroom mirror is on rails so you can move it out of the way when you want to see Tokyo from the bath:
The bathroom itself has a solid granite sink:
All the knobs and handles are polished to within an inch of their lives:
The bath is a solid granite affair. Easily big enough for two:
I filled our bath with hydrochloric acid. It cleans the pores, deep down (to the bone):
The toilet is, as you would expect, a high-tech Toto super-loo:
The shower has a selection of free stuff by Aromatherapy Associates. My wife assures me that their stuff is the business:
Back in the bedroom, we have a yoga mat and brolly in the cupboard:
More views of the room. Wifey can be seen sat on the sofa, exasperated by my photo-taking antics:
Rooms come fully-loaded with booze:
And, erm, stationery:
Oh and you also get a pair of yukata’s and fan for poncing about the room in, feeling all imbued with the spirit of the samurai and all that guff:
We thought “Bollocks to it!” and ordered a room-service breakfast:
Green tea pancakes with maple syrup. Very nice:
And an omelette with assorted fried bits and bobs:
Finally, the view. Our room was on the 30th floor, which is the lowest. Bizarrely, the front desk is on the 38th floor, which means to get outside you have to take one lift from the 30th to the 38th floor, then get in another lift that takes you to the ground floor. Our room was facing east, towards Asakusa. There were a few cranes in the way as they’re building something next door:
Construction of Tokyo Sky Tree is well and truly in progress. The finished article will be 634 metres tall, falling some way behind the awesome Burj Khalifa:
The sumo joint:
The same view at night reveals a fancy ferris wheel:
And some very bright crane lights:
Oh and one more thing before we wrap this little photo tour up. The customer toilets on the 38th floor have a “pee on the plebs” feature which I had to take a video of (I don’t normally take videos in toilets, you understand, but this one was special):
All in all, the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo is a top-class hotel with a fantastic view, and I highly recommend it.
Japan’s second airline, All Nippon Airways (ANA), has decided to go back to the future by reintroducing this funky ‘Mohican’ livery, which was last seen in the skies twenty years ago:
Unfortunately only one plane – a Boeing 767 now operating between Tokyo and Kyushu – has been given the new (or should I say old) paint job. I think it looks fantastic, especially when compared with ANA’s current bland, identikit early-90s branding. Perhaps a concerted on-line campaign will encourage them to repaint more of their fleet.
Well, that might be overstating it somewhat, but I was interested to see that design agency Atkins has revamped Oxford Circus with a very Shibuya-esque spin. Now all that’s needed is people. Lots of people:
Here, ladies and gentlemen, we have Tokyo’s Imperial Palace complex. In the late 1980s some (very optimistic) calculations made this 3.5km² patch of land worth more than all the property in California:
It is said that from this castle’s windows the emperor likes to shout obscenities at passers-by. It is also believed that he is fond of throwing milk bottles at geese:
People walking towards Marunouchi from Yurakucho. The woman in the bottom right corner seems to have spotted me. She must have hawk-like eyesight:
Marunouchi by day. The elliptical structure in the centre-right is the Tokyo International Forum:
I was on a fairly busy train to work yesterday morning. As usual the seats were all taken so I stood towards the middle of the carriage. At one stop a woman boarded the train and stood next to me. Despite the fact that she was obviously heavily pregnant not a single person offered to give up their seat for her. It was only when a few people got off the train at Shinjuku that I was able to offer her the now-vacated seat in front of me, which she gladly accepted.
This kind of behaviour absolutely infuriates me. Surely any physically fit adult with a smidgeon of human decency would give up their seat for a pregnant woman?
While car companies are currently in a terrible financial situation, with sales having slumped in developed countries, most do see light at the end of the tunnel and anticipate a recovery. In Japan, however, the decline may be much harder to reverse.
In 2009 it is predicted that 4.86 million new cars will be sold in Japan, which would be the first time in 30 years that sales have fallen below five million. What is even more worrying for Japanese car makers is that young people – men especially – are far less interested in cars than they used to be.
While owning a car used to be a status symbol, Japanese youngsters these days are more likely to be spending their money on the latest mobile phones, MP3 players and other electronic gadgetry than on their first car. The convenience of public transport in urban areas also leaves childless 20- and 30-somethings with little reason to buy one.
So how can car manufacturers make their products more appealing to young Japanese? Perhaps one way forward is for companies to generate more revenue from car-related services than from car sales. A car-sharing scheme could prove popular, especially when coupled with an online “car booking” service that can be accessed from mobile phones. All for a monthly fee, of course.
What do you think will happen to the Japanese car industry?