I had been planning to go to Japan for years and years, but suddenly Air New Zealand were discounting flights and I had time to spare, so I snapped up some cheap flights and had three weeks to sort things out before I left.
Asking people who’d been to Japan before, I discovered that almost everyone had their own perfect Japan time that they really really wanted me to experience.
I had people really strongly trying to talk me out of going to places, and trying to get me to reenact their fun times. “There’s this shop, I’m not exactly sure what it was called, but it was near this park, and they had really cute paper. Um, you definitely should go there.”
In the end I decided to take a step back from the flood of recommendations and just play it by ear. Besides, it was much less work not having to plan anything beyond a train ticket and a few hotels.
The flight was good and I entertained myself by watching Air New Zealand’s selection of films, including “Goodbye Pork Pie” (I dozed off and missed the ending) and “North by Northwest” (apt, as that was pretty much the direction I was headed, even though it’s not an actual compass direction).
I arrived in Japan tired after an 11-hour flight and having had little sleep the night before or on the plane. I was running on enthusiasm.
While waiting to go through customs, a nearby New Zealand woman was telling people that earlier in the day there’d been an earthquake “up north somewhere”. Other New Zealanders in line, carrying lingering anxiety from the Christchurch quake, pressed her for details. It was seven-point-something but there was no major damage, no fatalities. Ok, cool.
I met Teh Matt at the airport and he presented me with two options: we could take the airport bus, which is longer but would take us straight to the neighbourhood where I was staying; or we could take the Narita Express train which was quicker, but would require both a short trip on the busy Yamanote line and also would mean making our way through Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world! – at rush hour. Crazy rush hour train station sounded perfect.
My memory of the journey to my hotel was a rush of following Matt, negotiating the train station turnstiles with my newly purchased Passmo metro card and trying not to get my suitcase caught up in anything or anyone.
Finally I made it to my hotel, which I chose mainly for its name: Hotel N.U.T.S. As the dots would suggest, it is an acronym, meaning New Urban Time and Space. What does this mean? I do not know, but the room was surprisingly large, it was clean and the room rate was good… for Tokyo.
Later that night I ventured out into Shibuya with my newly discovered posse – Matt, his parents, and his friend James. Apparently Air New Zealand had been discounting the Auckland-Tokyo route due to a drop-off in Japanese tourists after the Christchurch earthquake, so we’d all grabbed cheap fares around the same time.
Shibuya is that place that represents youthful Tokyo. It’s the place with the big pedestrian crossing and the giant video screens on the side of the tall buildings that line the streets. Even though I probably should have been in bed, the energy from the street kept me going.
We had dinner at a Thai restaurant because the menu had photos and English descriptions, then Matt tasked James and I with finding a bar while he guided his parents back to their hotel.
Find a bar in a city I’ve only been in for a few hours? Where I don’t even speak the language? Say wot?
We wandered about the streets and back alleys of Shinjuku looking for a bar. Everywhere seemed to look too sleazy or too Japanesey (why didn’t I pay more attention in third-form Japanese class?!). But eventually we stumbled across a bar that had a lot of English written on the window, which suggested there was maybe someone who knew a little bit of English.
Inside we discovered a charming wine bar and a barman who had a good grasp of basic English. We ordered a bottle of Chilean wine and I went through the arduous task of communicating our wearabouts to Matt.
I couldn’t text Matt because my rented Japanese iPhone was on a different network to his and, annoying, Japanese networks don’t allow cross-texting. So the solution was to tweet him with the GPS location activated, giving him a Google map of our wearabouts. “We are at a bar possibly called Baru,” which is hilarious because ‘baru’ is the Japanese word for bar. Except that might actually have been its name. Or maybe not. Nonetheless, he found it.
You know what else is annoying about navigation in Japan? Most streets don’t have names. Main roads do, but side streets have a numbering system. I don’t know how people find addresses without GPS. Probably just through the strength of street knowledge.