Saturday, 28 February 2015

東京 | Tokyo (3) - Sumo and Akihabara!!

Intriguing post-breakfast drink. Bought it solely because it looked carbonated but it told me I should shake it?
On day 3 we decided that our punishing schedule had been enough to keep jet lag at bay a little longer, and took a slightly more relaxed day out. We went to check out the sumo as there's only a handful of official tournaments in Japan each year, and even fewer are in Tokyo. So the fact that one happened to coincide with the dates of our trip was quite serendipitous indeed.

We headed off to Ryogoku, home of the Ryogoku Kokugikan (try saying that 5 times fast) bright and early to get ourselves some day tickets, the cheapest but also the most likely to sell out.

The whole station seems to have been dedicated to sumo.
Once we were through the ticket barrier, we could see all kinds of old paintings of sumo tournaments, as well as what we later found out were probably photos of the current yokozuna or 'Grand Champions'. To become Grand Champion you have to win 2 tournaments in a row. There are a lot of stages to each tournament and a lot of participants, so to win once, let alone twice, is an intense feat in itself. Testament to this is the fact that there are currently only 2 or 3 Grand Champions still competing and only 71 have been named in the last 300 years!

Yokozuna handprints. They are HUGE. Interesting to see how they get bigger over time.
There's also a cute homemade height chart, so you can see how you measure up to previous yokozuna. Annoyingly, I'm taller than all but one of them. Sigh. Again, it was interesting to see how obviously genetics, diet and environment have made increasingly bigger contenders.

67th yokozuna Musashimaru Koyo and Ann-Marie. 6'3", 518lb vs a kitten. Beast. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

東京 | Tokyo (2) - Meiji Shrine, DOGS! & Merch

However unsavoury this might look, yakisoba sandwich was a true winner imo.
Another "surprise grab" breakfast from 7-11, and then we set off for some cultural and historical enlightenment. Off to Harajuku to visit the Meiji-Jingumae Shrine!

Sake barrels annually donated to the shrine as an offering.
Wash your hands in the icy January water before going in!
The weather was, again, wonderful, and we headed along the long path to the shrine with clear blue skies and bright, lukewarm winter sun overhead. What with it still being the first couple of weeks of 2015, there were a lot of visitors dropping by to make their wishes and prayers for the new year.

It was certainly very busy! I think actually there was a special event going on, as there were quite a large number of girls wearing kimono and furisode posing for photos. (EDIT: I've found out that by some stroke of luck we happened to visit on Coming of Age Day, which is a bit like a nationwide birthday for all of the people that turned 20 that year, the legal age in Japan)

Creepy sneak photo of a girl walking past in her furisode.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

東京 | Tokyo (1) - PKMN, Kyary, & Shibuya

Our first proper day in Tokyo! Looking back on it to write this, I didn't realise just how much we managed to cram into one day. In my mind I'd definitely spread these out over two different days, haha. So I'll apologise now for the sheer volume of this post, I'm too lazy to split it into two! >.<

First stop was some form of breakfast, and considering Ann-Marie and I were up and ready earlier than expected, and we had to wait for Tom to turn up (he was staying in a capsule hotel for the first few days) we headed out and bought some strange-looking things from the nearby 7-11.

In Korea, buying food isn't too much of an adventure anymore, because I can at least read the label and guess at what it might taste like. I can determine if I should expect vegetables, chicken, beef, fish, or anything else. But I can't read Japanese. Sure, I'd saved a hiragana and katakana chart to my phone, but when you're hungry and just want to grab something, spending 20 minutes poring over small charts searching for each individual character then hoping it's a word you know isn't the most appealing option.

So, up for an exciting food morning, we grabbed the most unusual and mysterious things we could find, including a radioactively-pink croissant and a few random onigiri. The onigiri were great, as you'd hope, and after a little effort, and mostly thanks to Ann-Marie's studies, we managed to read the description on the croissant. Apparently it was a "strawberry croissant". It was certainly interesting...and very sweet.

We waited by the station for Tom to turn up and then headed further into Ikebukuro to visit the Sunshine 60 building. I'm not going to lie, the main motivation for our visit was this:

The world's largest Pokemon Center. No I'm not "too old for that stuff". :p
It was absolutely PACKED. There was a queue to get in that doubled in on itself twice, and there was barely room to breathe once you got in (hence the lack of photos). From the abundance of people of all ages lurking around every free space outside and even trying to play whilst INSIDE the mass of bodies, it was safe to say there was an event on.

Thankfully I'd recently started Pokemon X and always bring my DS to Japan (mmm those sweet, sweet street passes!) and bagged myself a shiny Charizard and a special Pikachu.

Shrieking sweet nothings into the past at our 8-year-old selves, we all shuffled around grabbing various figurines and plush toys. It was quite funny to see a group of 23-year-olds suffering from intense internal debate over things like:
"Should I get this Torchic? But I love Squirtle..."
"I could buy this Fletchling plush...but it's the same price as these little figs of Meowth, Pikachu, AND Lucario..."
"Do I really need a Pikachu pencil case and 3 different kinds of Pokemon-adorned notebooks? And this hat? And keychain? And lunchbox set? And driving gloves? Who am I kidding, of course I do."

In the end I came away with my Fletchling, a little Absol, and my obligatory Pokemon Center coin.

The Sunshine 60 building is also famous for its observatory deck. Towering high above most of the rest of Tokyo, at 60 storeys it was the tallest in Japan up until 1991 (and was the tallest in Asia for a while, until Seoul went and outdid them by 3 storeys).

After buying your admission ticket to the top floor, you enter a lift. Rather terrifyingly, the lights turn off as you start whizzing up, but they're soon replaced with a cute array of glow-in-the-dark stars that I think were activated by a blacklight.

Top speed of 600m per MINUTE. Horrifying. I'm glad it doesn't have windows.
The weather was incredible and gave us really gorgeous views of Tokyo. It really lives up to its title of "metropolitan prefecture", with the unmistakable hi-rise skyline stretching literally as far as the eye could see in every direction. It's a little overwhelming, actually.

The bright windows and darker interior allowed for some really cool silhouetted photos, which I'm a bit obsessed with at the moment.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

東京 | Tokyo (Day 0.5) - Arrival

This post has been a long time coming! What with travelling, New Year's x2 and an abundance of guests, I've been too exhausted to get my thoughts down on paper (or should I say blog) but here it is, the start of a long series of posts:

The time had finally come. The big adventure. The one we'd been waiting months for.

There were a lot of reasons why we were so excited, the main two being:
- Fulfilling my childhood and teenhood dream of visiting Tokyo
- Finally being reunited with one of my best friends from home.

 Safe to say, it was always going to be a good holiday, regardless.

We got up early, checked we had everything we needed, unplugged everything, and set off on our longest journey outside of Korea so far.

I have this weird habit of taking photos of LV stores for my mum whenever I go abroad, ever since Year 9?
The flight was painless, and I think we're getting really used to short flights now. In the space of a year I've gotten on and off of planes 7 times, not including the two I'll be taking to and from Tokyo. So we ended up checking in and out pretty swiftly (not to toot our own horns).

We'd arranged, initially, to just meet up with everyone's favourite Hobbit, Ann-Marie, but as this was her first ever flight (what a way to go!) we figured it'd be nice to have some company and stuck her on a plane with our friend Mike.

However, when we arrived at the airport and found our friends, this is what we saw:
Not pictured: small hobbit on the right. (Photo stolen from Nick's Facebook)
BONUS FRIEND UNLOCKED. Tom also came to Japan! Tricksy.
So, we ate a meal together at the airport, rented a wifi egg (always a good idea), bought train tickets and drowsily headed towards our accommodation (although admittedly probably not as drowsily as the 3 people that just came off an 11 hour flight)

Despite me wanting to spend our bountiful riches on the private helicopter you can take from Narita airport to central Tokyo, we opted for the nicest (and quite possibly cheapest!) option, the N'EX.

It's a one-way train ticket from Narita to a handful of major stations in Tokyo, and only takes about an hour. For 1500¥ (about £8) when usually it's about twice the price, that's not a bad deal! The trains are very regular, and very spacious, and - what we didn't find out until the train ride was almost over - pairs of seats can be rotated 180° to make a booth for 4 people! And it doesn't affect the people sat in front or behind you. There's also enough room to recline the seats for weary travellers so basically this is the nicest train I've ever been on. I don't know if it was the time of day, luck, or just how it usually is but our carriage was also blissfully empty for most of the ride. Not that it mattered, as the N'EX ticket also gets you a reserved seat each, but it was nice to not have to worry about crowds.

We took the N'EX directly to Ikebukuro, which is where our accommodation was located. Ann-Marie had found a great-sounding ryokan which was also great value, and booked us some rooms there. Due to my lack of a sense of direction (and, more fairly, tiredness and the fact I've never been to Tokyo before :p), I managed to take us on a connecting train for about 20 mins in the wrong direction, soz.

The ryokan was easy enough to find with the directions we'd been given, and the walk only took us around 15 minutes, so it was really nice and close. There was also an abundance of bars, restaurants, and arcades all over the area, which gave me some cause for concern, but after turning down a quiet side street we found Kimi Ryokan and I was pleased to find it was almost silent and only lit by street lamps (just enough to be nice and dark for sleep, but bright enough to feel safe), despite its close proximity to all that life and noise.

(Photo stolen from Mike, I'm sad I didn't take any!)
For those that don't know, a ryokan is a traditional-style guesthouse where you sleep in tatami (woven mats) rooms on futons ('floor beds'). The rooms are sized by the mats, rather than how many people it can hold. So rather than a 'twin room' or 'single room', you can get rooms that have 4.5, 6, or 8 mats. It's really good for sharing with friends or family, as many conventional hotels don't seem to allow more than 2 people per room (maybe 3 if you're a lucky family), but an 8-tatami room can hold from 3~5 people comfortably, depending on how much kicking space you need :p

The bathroom area is shared with each floor, but they're kept spotless and there aren't too many rooms per floor. I don't think I ever really had to wait for a shower or toilet to become available. There's also a kitchen that's free for guests to use, provided they keep it clean, and a lovely little sitting area for evenings, rainy days, or meeting up with friends.

It was really nice to get a more traditional feel to our stay than a more generic hotel, and the staff were wonderful with great English to make up for where our Japanese was lacking. I would definitely recommend staying there for any kind of stay in Tokyo. It's close to a main line, good shops, excellent staff and service and incredibly comfortable.

Anyway. After checking in, dumping our bags and cooing over the fact each guest is given a yukata (a very casual kimono for lounging and wandering in, essentially the same as a dressing gown but lighter and longer) to use during their stay, we headed out to try and find some food and explore the area.

I can't quite remember what we ate (it was probably tonkotsu ramen, let's be honest) because we spent a rather unhealthy amount of time and money at the local arcade, sampling all the great games Japan has to offer.

the mech game is always a strange experience.
Hobbit sighting!
Taiko Drums are the ultimate experience in excitement, enjoyment, and heartache.

I don't really remember falling asleep. More next time!

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