Turning Japanese

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**By the time I wrote this, in September, this blog post was already outdated as I visited Japan during my summer vacation in August. For some reason I never got round to posting it…until now. Behold! A post about my trip to Tokyo, five months late.**

If you’ve learned anything about me by reading this blog, chances are it’s that I am incredibly behind when posting about events in my life. If you’re still reading this blog you probably don’t care though, and for that I am glad. Here’s another belated post for your perusal….don’t expect anything groundbreaking, it’s pretty much just a day to day account of my summer holiday.

It is standard practice for EPIK teachers to conduct Summer English Camps during the bulk of the summer vacation, and then to be given two weeks holiday for themselves whilst the students continue to study under the supervision of an unlucky (probably young) Korean teacher. Some teachers are resigned to deskwarming duties over summer to fill some time, but my school was kind enough to let me leave as soon as my classes finished…it’s not all doom and gloom at this place, after all.

I could write an entire post about the little annoyances of Summer Camp, but I won’t…largely because I was being paid a full wage for 3 hours work a day, could go home at 12.30 and spent a large portion of my time watching Wallace and Gromit. All in all, it wasn’t too bad even without a co-teacher to help me out with the uninterested little buggers. The main reason I won’t write at length about summer camp is because I want to write about something far more interesting, at least to me. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to read the self-indulgent ramblings of a nerd who finally realised a lifelong dream and visited Tokyo. Holiday post ahoy!

I’ve pretty much always wanted to go to Japan. In hindsight I think it was ever since my brother forced me to watch late night Channel 4 animes when he was supposed to be responsibly babysitting me, although I was far too busy cowering behind the sofa at Testsuo’s horrific exploding tumor-arm to have noticed the sowing of a holiday dream at the time. As time went on, more and more things came together to make Tokyo the only place I desperately wanted to visit, but the problem with Japan is that it’s reet far away from England (and ruddy expensive to get to) so I never honestly and truly thought I’d get to go. It was the pipiest of pipe dreams, which is as close to a Nintendo reference as I’m going to be able to Weedle* into this post.

* …get it, fellow PokéNerds?

With it being such a long-term super dream, perhaps you can imagine what it was like waiting at the airport. A part of me simply didn’t get excited because I honestly expected the whole thing to be cancelled at any moment, and even when we arrived I couldn’t fathom that I was actually there, in the place I’d wanted to go for so long. I’m not sure I ever did accept that I was actually there, perhaps five days in reality isn’t long enough to break through years of fantasising. My boyfriend, who accompanied me, likened the feeling to his previous trip to New York; you feel like you know a place because you’ve seen it so many times onscreen, and then when you actually get to live it you feel like you’re still watching it from afar. It’s a weird feeling, and one I’ll stop talking about now in case people have no idea what I’m rattling on about.

We stayed for all five days in a private (en suite…posh, eh?) room in a hostel in Asakusa, which seems to be the area chosen by everyone visiting Tokyo on a budget. It’s a really lovely old-fashioned area, and super reasonable when you consider that it’s in the inner city and near to a famous, tourist-attracting shrine.

Andy

Andy “improving” my photo.

After finding our hostel we decided to take to the streets and hunt down some food, a journey ending with us almost collapsing from the heat and trying proper Ramen for the first time. Thus began another (yet unrealised) dream, of learning how to make an egg so perfectly cooking on the outside, so deliciously creamy in the middle and so utterly pork-tastic as to confuse and delight the senses. Japanese witchcraft, right there. How can you improve an egg? Make it taste like pork…obviously.

I have dreamed, and still do dream, about that egg.

I have dreamed, and still do dream, about that egg.

On our first night we mastered the subway system and visited Shinjuku, one of those places I had heard of a million times but never knew what exactly it was famous for. Upon arriving, and at this point without the help of a tourist guide, we still weren’t sure and wandered aimlessly for a good few hours enjoying being baffled tourists. Upon returning home and stealing Wifi from the hostel, we learned that the area we had spent the most time in was in fact Kabukicho, primarily famous for being a red-light district and home to over 1500 yakuza members. We had wondered why there were so many people handing out naked lady leaflets, but thought Japan must just be more open-minded than Korea. You live and learn, I suppose, and (hookers aside) it was a pretty awesome place.

The next day we visited Shibuya, walked across the famous crossroads feeling like we weren’t quite there and (I) hid tears at the statue of Hachiko, Japan’s most faithful dog. We ate in a tiny sushi restaurant we had been told of days before by a Korean chap we ate dinner with at 5am back in Seomyeon…more on that story later, perhaps. Upon managing to find the place (Midori Sushi in the Mark Tower, if you’re interested) we were greeted with a rather substantial queue of Japanese folks stretching out of the door, clearly expected owing to the kindly positioned benches. We took this to be a good sign and, after a short wait, knew ourselves to be right. It’s kind of weird to be greeted by all of the chefs when you walk into a restaurant, and weirder to watch your food be prepared inches from your face, but it’s flipping awesome and more places should do it. Take note, please. We ordered two sushi platters, not really knowing what would be on either, drank the world’s most vivid green beverage and began what would be one of the best (if not the best) lunches of my eating career.

I won’t go into major foodie details because I’m really not too good at that stuff…but you should totally, totally go there if you get the chance. It wasn’t even that expensive, about £25 for both of us to be full of delicious fishies and other sea creatures. I shied away from the sea urchin but very much enjoyed the conger eel, which is not a sentence I ever thought I’d say.

Not pictured: My love for Yo Sushi! ebbing away at an alarming rate.

Not pictured: My love for Yo Sushi! ebbing away at an alarming rate.

Fishy goodness (continued)

Fishy goodness (continued)

After lunch we walked to Yoyogi Park (sadly bereft of cosplayers as we visited during the week) and had a lovely sleep in the sun, peaceful and perfect except for the GIANT Japanese ants occasionally scaling my legs like skin mountains. After the park we did some window shopping (the only kind of shopping that we could afford, Tokyo is expensiiiiiive!!) and visited Tower Records, which made me feel like I was in Empire Records, which in turn made me feel cool.

The only disappointment of the entire holiday came shortly after, when we tried to book tickets to visit the Studio Ghibli museum. Having not realised that the week we were there was a Japanese holiday, we didn’t know how quickly the tickets would have booked up. I was so, so upset when I was told we couldn’t go…it’s genuinely and truly one of the only places in the entire world I’ve ever been desperate to visit, and I was unashamedly bummed when I found out I couldn’t. It’s easy to say “you can go next time you’re there”, but in all honesty I don’t know if I ever will visit Tokyo again. Luckily my boyfriend was on hand to make me feel better and put up with my whinging until I felt better. It’s kind of difficult to stay upset when you’re in Tokyo (especially when your hostel provides you with unexpectedly awesome robes) so hopefully I didn’t put too much of a downer on the day. We made a plan to do something brilliant the next day to make up for it.

And boy oh boy, did we ever do something brilliant the next day! We braved the crowds of Japanese holiday-makers and hopped on a train to Odaiba, home of the Miraiken Science Museum (and a host of other super popular attractions) where we spent hours staring at awesome exhibits, watching demonstrations we didn’t fully understand and seeing Asimo. That little chap is just so adorable that he almost silenced the never-ending loop of “OH MY GOD IT’S A FLIPPIN’ ROBOT!!!” that was bouncing through my head. I nearly cried when he waved goodbye, I think I’ll be one of the first to sign up when robot buddies become available. On the way back to the train station we found ourselves (somehow) in the middle of a One Piece pop-up shop, which was a happy surprise. I wore a Tony Tony Chopper hat and literally shone with unbounded, childish glee.

DSC01326

I find it hard to believe that I let such a glorious piece of apparel slip through my fingers.

I was absolutely exhausted on the train back toward our hostel, mostly due to the heat and my slow, shuffling ‘museum walk’. I thought I wanted nothing more than to put on my robe on and crawl into bed…but then from the train window we caught sight of the Pokemon Centre and I decided that to not go would be a travesty. Owing to our lack of a map and generally shit sense of direction, it took about 45 minutes of hardcore walking to find the place…perhaps a lesser (less mental) couple would have given up or hailed a taxi, but not us. To back out now would have been to fail, and we weren’t having that when the sweet promise of PokéGoods was so tantalisingly near.

Eventually we found the place, and childhood dreams were immediately fulfilled. I hadn’t dared to hope for this, but the Poké Centre music actually plays inside!! That must be terrible for the staff, but whatevs…they get to hang out with cuddly Pikachus all day so their working days must be far more beautiful than mine, even with the repeating ‘do do do do DO!’ in their heads all the damn time. I’ve pretty much had that song in my head since 1998, they’re getting off lightly. Our time in the Pokémon Centre was mostly spent choosing souvenirs, posing for secret pictures and generally wishing we had all the money in the world. The only slight hiccup was when I tried to ask a shop assistant whether they had Snorlax keyrings in stock without realising that some of the names are different in Japanese. Still, kind of funny to have repeated the word ‘Snorlax’ a great number of times to an increasingly confused Japanese man.

A sleeping Pokémon is blocking the way!

A sleeping Pokémon blocks the way!

photo 2

Andy Ketchum

We had originally wanted to spend a couple of days in Kyoto during the trip, but quickly discovered that getting there would be pretty darn pricey. Instead we opted for a day trip to Nikko, a couple of hours out of Tokyo and famous for a number of shrines within a mountainside national park. Let me be the first to tell you that the tourist slogans (“Don’t say ‘beauty’ until you’ve seen Nikko!”) are pretty accurate…Nikko really is a beautiful place. It is also one of the rainiest places I have ever been to, and as well as the national park, shrines and mountains, we were also treated to a particularly in depth view of a man’s garage as we sheltered from the (so heavy it was actually painful) rain. Eventually it stopped long enough for us to wander around the park and see some of the shrines, but if you’re planning on going it’s worth noting that each shrine has it’s own entrance fee which dictates whether or not you can go into the outer area and not just whether you can go inside the shrine itself. As I said before, Japan is crazy expensive…if we had paid to go inside I can imagine the day having cost us more than our flights. Even with the rain the visit was totally worth it, if mostly for the numerous photo ops.

Worth a walk in the rain.

Worth a walk in the rain.

On our final day we visited Shinjuku again, this time to wander around the Harajuku district, ogle cool Japanese posers and eat delicious crepes. I love crepes. Once again we were totally bowled over by how expensive everything is, especially fashion, and wonder how anyone can afford to look so cool when a pair of trainers cost over £100. The crepe was a complete delight though, as you can tell my my ‘bowled over by this delicious crepe’ face. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I bloody love crepes.

Crepe, get in my face.

Crepe, get in my face.

We wandered around the Golden Gai district, famous for it’s hundreds of tiny bars crammed into an unbelievably small space and for generally being a cool place to be. I don’t mean to ramble on about the prices of Tokyo, but we soon realised that there was no way we could actually go there to drink so just took photos and enjoyed reading the super awesome bar names.

Golden Gai

Golden Gai

One of the many places we couldn't afford to drink in

One of the many places we couldn’t afford to drink in

DSC01414

Best bar name in the history of ever?

Our last day ended with a visit to Character Street, a row of shops dealing in all manner of adorable TV, film and comic characters hidden away under Tokyo Station. I happily accepted an early birthday present of Totoro dolls (to match the grey one I have back in England) and played with the put-money-in-twist-the-handle-get-a-prize-in-a-ball machines to my childish heart’s content. I love those machines, but I wish they had a shorter name.

The next day we arrived back in Busan, and I was relieved to find that I wasn’t all too bummed out about being back. Tokyo is a properly amazing place and I can’t express how glad I am to have visited, but it made me appreciate Korea’s quiet little weirdnesses much more than I expected. My companion nailed it when he described Korea as being like Japan’s nerdy little brother, cool in some of the same ways and trying desperately to catch up fully…with varying degrees of success. Some people say that in 30 years Korea will be as Japan is now, but I’m not certain I agree with that. The nerdy little brother will never catch up completely, but he’ll develop his own style along the way and no doubt it’ll feel more like home to me than Tokyo did. Everyone loves an underdog, and I’m just not sure I’m cool enough for Tokyo life in the long term.

For more pictures of my super visit to Japan, look to my Tumblr account (scroll back to around September): carolinelquick.tumblr.com 



 

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