Thursday, August 02, 2007

On our last day in Tokyo, the group was left to its own devices before a planned departure for the famous town of Nikko.

Prompted by my journey to Ryogoku the night before, I headed back in the same direction and spent a very happy few hours wandering around The Tokyo Edo Museum which spans the history of Tokyo (or Edo as it was known before the Meji restoration) from its inception in competition to Kyoto to just after The Second World War. A towering building housing a series of well laid out displays documenting the history of an astonishing city.

If the morning was history, then the afternoon was bang up to date as I headed to the ultra modern region of Shin-Jinku.

When people think of Tokyo (or certainly when they have thought of it in the last few years) they inevitably think of Bill Murray peddling out his usual tired old schtick in Lost in Translation which was based in this district of Tokyo.

You can see why they chose this for the location. It has everything one would expect to see when thinking of Tokyo, from neon lights towering overhead to hordes of people at street level heading in every direction.

Mind you, finding the right direction is easier said than done because Shin-Jinku Station is legendarily hard to navigate around and, with nearly two million people a day passing through its halls, intimidating to say the least.

I was there for one reason only however and, after a few wrong turns, I found what I was looking for. Piss Alley.

I believe the real name for this tawdry little street is Memory Lane, but Piss Alley is a much more accurate description of one of the few narrow lanes still surviving in Tokyo after the Allied fire bombing at the end of the war.

I read that it is due to be knocked down soon to be part of a new mega development in 2008, so I was determined to see what the fuss was all about before Memory Lane was nothing more than a memory.

The fuss, as it happened was about a handful of bars run by cross, fat men with beards grilling odd bits of animal over coals. I tried a few of them and in truth, most of them were not that great. The one place that was any good was, alarmingly, run by a smiley faced young woman who, after placing one of those memorably large bottles of beer in front of me, proceeded to grill me a bit of everything. Most memorable, garlic cloves which she dipped for a few moments into a vat of boiling water before placing on the skewers and grilling.

So, Piss Alley having been seen and quickly forgotten, I headed a few blocks further away from Shin-Jinku station to Tokyo’s notorious red light district.

Why, I wonder does every red light district get described as notorious? I mean, they are hardly ever going to be described as “ a regular haunt for Nuns on vacation”

Anyway, it was just what you would expect it to be. A lot of seedy bars, plenty of love hotels, a few brothels with pictures of unconscionably young looking girls on posters outside and the inevitable Pachinko halls.

By now, it was time to head back to the hotel and rejoin my tour party for the journey to Nikko.

For those coming from the UK where a journey of anything over 100 miles takes weeks of planning to take into account the disgraceful nature of our transport infrastructure, travelling in Japan is both a shock to the system and an unending delight.

We had been asked to purchase a Japan Rail Pass which can only be bought outside Japan to attract foreign tourism. For £200 you get two weeks unlimited travel around Japan on every train bar the very fastest of the bullet trains.

The result is, when added to the fact that trains run on time, seemingly to the second, is that one is able to plan journeys down to the finest detail and cover large amounts on the country in very short times and with no fear of being stuck in the middle of Butt Fuck Nowhere being offered an irregular “ replacement bus service”

The Journey to Nikko is relatively short compared to some we took, but, as we would be arriving at our destination rather late, we were advised to pick up some supper at the JR station to eat on the train.

Again, for those of us from the UK, the idea of purchasing anything at a train station conjours up images of chain store burgers, a Kit Kat bought on the run or a pre- prepped sandwich of no particular provenance. Not so Japan where most stations, even the small ones servicing local trains offer up a range of shops selling Bento boxes which would make even high end London Japanese restaurants blush with shame.

On the few occasions it was suggested we catch supper or, more often, lunch on the hoof, I was able to spend a little over £4 on a tray containing rice, pickles, fish, eggs, katsu and any number of things to keep the pangs at bay. Of the many things I shall look back on in Japan with great fondness, the joy of the train station bento will rank very highly.

OK, Nikko. A couple of hours out of Tokyo with a quick change to a local train saw us heading up to our pleasingly traditional Ryokan ( Japanese Inn) with its Tatame mat floors, slippers and robes in the rooms and large private bath overlooking a tumbling river. It may have been too late for supper, but it certainly was not to late for a drink.

One of the other beauties of Japan is the ubiquitous nature of its millions of vending machines. In just about any other country I can think of, machines like this would be a wreck in seconds and, in London, they would be covered with the inevitable grafitti informing the populace that “Kevin is a bummer”

Not so in Japan where vandalism seems to be almost non-existent. A by product of which is that these machines selling a bewildering variety of soft drinks and beers remain safe and sound for the likes of us.

So, over a few beers, I took the opportunity to get to know my fellow travellers better before the hotel curfew ( another, less welcome aspect of staying in traditional inns)

The next morning, I actually felt a little hung over. I hadn’t so far in Japan primarily because beer is expensive with a bottle coming in at over 500yen (about £2.50) and whisky or Sake being even more expensive. Upside, less of a pisshead. Downside, less of a pisshead.

The main reason for being in Nikko, apart from the fact that it is achingly beautiful with misty mountains and rolling rivers,

is the vast complex of temples surrounding the Tosho-gu Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to the first Shogun of a united Japan who later became venerated as a God.

After a quick tour of some of the area as a group, we split up which allowed me to go exploring on my own and then to head away from the complex which was becoming increasingly mobbed by local school children to head off in search of lunch.

In this case, some spectacularly good Tempura Soba

and some unagi

which gave me enough energy to climb back up the steep hill of the main drag to the Imperial Villa. The residence of the Imperial family outside Tokyo. After the obligatory removing of shoes, I was able to spend another hour or so wandering around the palatial interior of this villa of 100 or so rooms which was just as well as, by now, the heavens had opened.

It turned out to be the last defiant gesture of the rainy season whose end, it appears can be predicted with incredibly accuracy to, not only the day, but also the time of day in different part of the country. Even the weather, it would appear, runs according to schedule in Japan.

By the time I emerged from the villa, it was time to head back to the Ryokan and meet the others for a supper at a local restaurant. Harmless enough, a few more skewers along side some Yaki Soba (fried noodles) but it highlighted the problems of travelling with a group and therefore having to spend some mealtimes in communal dining. Not everybody has my penchant for bits of the animal that might otherwise end up in food for the pets. Some people, as they have every right to do, just view the food as fuel to give them energy for the rest of their holiday and, consequently, when we did have meals together, our guide had to work to the lowest common denominator and find restaurants that would provide sustenance for those whose tastes were more standard than mine.

I have to say that Yuka, our guide, did well. I never starved and, there were plenty of opportunities on the trip for me to head off and eat entrails. The other benefit, obviously is that it did give me the chance to get to know the people I was travelling with and, on this occasion, the supper was over quickly and we all decamped to a local Izakaya for plentiful amounts of a local 30% Sake and more beer that could possibly have been good for any of us.

Not a bad way to spend an evening, but perhaps not the best way to prepare for the next day which would see us ‘up sticks” and head to our next destination, Harkone.

We were not meeting up until 1pm, which did give me the chance to do two things. One, spend, oh, a good twenty minutes walking around the hugely unimpressive botanical gardens that, in reality, looked like my old back garden when I had not bothered to do anything with it for a few months.

Better, though, it gave me the chance to try Yuba, a local speciality of Nikko which is made from the skin created when soy milk is boiled.

The skin is removed and put in layers before drying. When needed, it can be soaked for use in soups and stews and is often served, as it was for me, in spirals in a small amount of broth. Along with some ramen noodles and five gyoza dumplings

it was a filling and cheap lunch and just about set me up for the task of lugging my 20kgs ( that’s nearly 50lbs) backpack through three changes of train and a bus ride to the next inn.

Hard work this travelling lark

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