After an estimated twenty or so hours of traveling, I get off the Keisei Skyliner and find Jason thankfully waiting by the exit of Ueno station. The journey from the Airport to Tokyo on the Skyliner has gently introduced me to Japan, with views of the city and the patter of Japanese voices.
It’s getting on for lunchtime by the time I’ve dropped my bags at Jason’s from the station; the flat is a convenient five minute walk. Lunch means it is time for my first meal in Japan. We pick a restaurant from several dozen as we walk towards Akihabara, a Korean Barbecue. This particular genre involves our cooking slices of beef on a burner in the centre of the table, and is sweeping Tokyo according to my guidebook.
After lunch we head out through the barely organised chaos of Akihabara. Akihabara is full of Anime stores — garish cartoons accompanied by even more garish music and sounds — and a market full of electrical oddities, including valve transistors and bugs.
We get the overground metro to Harajuku, passing several girls in maid outfits handing out leaflets at the station entrance. I get a Suica card, Tokyo’s equivalent of the Oyster card. Leaving the train we chance upon a man dressed in tight black trousers and a vest, erratically dancing to Elvis and watched over by a group of what my guidebook seems to describe as Gothic Lolita girls and equivalent chaps. It is somewhat surreal.
In another part of the park there is a wide boulevard with singers, mime artists and bands scattered along it. A curious phenomenon is that the male artists are surrounded by girls and the females by guys. There is a pleasant atmosphere along the way, with its oddly alternating groups of fans.
For dinner we meet one of Jason’s friends and go to a fairly up market Izakaya. We have a variety of raw fish, cooked fish, chicken and noodles, accompanied by some rather delicious Sake.
After, we go to a bar in Rappongi, which seems full of sleezy Westerners, cheesy music and a terrifying ladyboy I christen “Helga”. We return home quite late, considering I got up around thirty hours previously.
The second day we sleep in late. I blame jet-lag; I’m sure it was nothing to do with the beer and sake of the previous evening. We head straight out for food, ending up at a place where we buy tickets from a machine which we exchange for food and beers.
In the evening, Jason has been invited to a wedding reception and has managed to get me in as a friend. So I dress smartly and sit bemused in the taxi as we get lost trying to find the restaurant; the numbering system used to identify blocks seems completely illogical. I’m introduced to a number of people at the reception, but unfortunately their names still all sound terribly alien so I’m not too great at remembering the names. Nameless, they were very pleasant, and I manage to stumble my way through a couple of conversations.
We go for a late night coffee after the reception; the cafe is taking last orders as we arrive at 11. Tiredness takes over after this and we go back to the flat and sleep.
Various things conspire to make us leave the flat late the next day and it takes longer to exchange my Japan Rail Pass voucher for the real thing than predicted. It’s therefore late afternoon before the day’s chores are complete.
Jason decides to take me over to Tokyo Bay. We sneak up a tall hotel to get a great view over the bay — cheekily avoiding paying money to go up the tower next door. Tokyo spreads out below as far as the eye can see, sprawling and punctured by towers, many in the centre, petering further out.
The sun is setting and the clouds clearing slightly as we look out over the bay from ground level. We look from a lookout point next to a small replica of the Statue of Liberty which looks out over the impressive double-decker bridge which spans the bay. It’s incredibly pretty watching the city light up as night comes; I begin to see the appeal the city has for Jason.
After darkness falls we visit Venus Fort, a shopping centre conceived in the same mold as the Venetian in Las Vegas — it has the same “inside street” styling as the Venetian. The sky changes faster however, so by the time we sit down at a bar in a small square with a large fountain it has changed from dusk to dark.
Restaurants close early in Japan, as I find when we try to visit a local restaurant of Jason’s at around 8.30, situated in the back streets around his flat. The restaurant serves the best Tempura around, so disappointment abounds when an old lady turns us kindly but firmly away.
After this set back, we head onto a main street where the eateries will be open still. We pick on an izakaya, which I’m told is normal; to me it is a feast of dark wood and subdued lighting, a world away from a typical British pub. Unfortunately there is no English menu, so Jason resorts to asking for food he thinks they may have. This strategy pays off after a few false starts, producing raw tuna, chicken and pork on skewers, squid and, finally, strips of beef which we cook on a hot rock supported on a pile of salt. It is delicious.
We walk back to the flat through Ueno-park, where there is a large pond completely covered in large-leafed green plants. It is eery, the leaves stretching away silently across the obscured pond into the night.