Places

Tokyo 7: C’est la vie

I was getting a little bit tired of the comforting daily routine of seeing parks and going for coffee at the local Doutor cafe. I was ready for the big, fun stuff, but all that was on hold. I had an idea.

I called Air New Zealand to see if they could change my flight to come back a few days earlier, figuring things would be booked out. But I was surprised to discover that there were seats still available on the next day’s flight. So obviously no mass exodus of fleeing New Zealanders.

On the last full day, we paid a visit to Akihabara, the electronics district. I was excited to visit the gigantic Yodobashi camera store. It seemed to stock every model of every camera made by every major camera manufacturer. For a moment, I wished I was one of those camera nerds with the bag packed full of accessories. But I like my cameras compact and full of functions.

I had a play with the Canon G12, but didn’t buy it because, well, there was nothing really wrong with my old faithful G9. Only the lens of my G9 got munted that very night (I’m going to pretend an earthquake-damanged girder fell on it, rather than it just being old and overused), making me wish I had reconsidered buying a new one.

The river that could

My final night in Tokyo was fun. I went to a local izakaya bar with a small group of fellow gaijin from the hotel, and a couple of Japanese speakers in the group ordered up lots of delicious foods and more frosty mugs of beer.

We were all sitting around talking about what had brought us to Tokyo, and how the earthquake had affected us. Everyone’s got their own stuff they’ve left in their home country. Some of us wanted to return to it, others wanted to avoid it for as long as possible.

Then there was some nice sake, and I was instructed in the ways of drinking sake like a proper lady. (I’ll get there one day.) It was a really good way to end my time in Tokyo.

Post-dinner carnage.

Back at the hotel later that night, James and I were up in the ninth-floor lounge and had been doing a bit of a blues jam on a one-string guitar and a glockenspiel played with a dessertspoon, when there was a strong aftershock. The building seemed to not just be swaying, but jolting up a bit. Shit.

So all of the ninth floor fled down the emergency exit, except one dude who said, “C’est la vie”. I was going to write that that’s not a bad attitude to have, but it was actually quite fun scurrying for my life down the back stairs, wondering if it was ok to use the hotel’s indoor slippers outside like that.

I was lucky that both Matt’s parents and James were leaving on the same flight as me (their original return date), so we had a group to travel out to the airport together.

The Narita Express train still wasn’t running (possibly as a power-saving measure), but extra airport buses had been put on and we quickly bought tickets and boarded the appointed bus at the appointed time. There was a little bit of traffic congestion, but we arrived at the airport much sooner than I expected.

Terminal 2 at Narita was busy but efficient. We had a little bit of a wait until the Air New Zealand counter opened, so we had lunch, during which was a big aftershock. It started as a distant rattle, which then moved through the building, shaking everything. I was pretty much too tired to be bothered reacting to it. I was so far inside the terminal that, had stuff started collapsing, I couldn’t have made my way out in time. C’est la vie. That is life.

Finally the Air New Zealand counter opened, and we sneakily were in the business class lane. Not only that, but I got to choose a window seat, and James and I had guest lounge passes via Matt’s parents’ card status. Sweet.

I heard a New Zealand man on the phone proclaiming to someone that “It’s a mass exodus! It’s incredible!” But I’ve heard the passenger numbers weren’t any more out of the ordinary from other busy times like the Golden Week holiday season. There were no crazy queues or long waits – everything was running smoothly.

Our man in Japan

So we set up in the Qantas Business Lounge (Air New Zealand doesn’t have a lounge at Narita), and spied Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe hanging out there too. He was on the same flight headed back.

It was at the Qantas lounge that I said farewell to something I came to really enjoy about Japan – heated toilet seats.

It sounds really extravagant, but they’re everywhere – Starbucks and McDonald’s both have heated toilet seats. And while it first felt a little odd to my Pakeha bottom, eventually I came to enjoy its warmth and comfort, like a warm hug for your bum. At the Kotoku-in temple in Kamakura, the visitor’s centre toilet rooms were cold from the outside air. The heated toilet seat took away the chill.

Even fancier toilets will have built-in bidet functions, with buttons for the bum, man-front and lady-front. Some of them have little symbols by the buttons, others only have Japanese characters, making it a surprise bottom adventure. If I push this button, what will happen?

So finally it was time to board and I got on the plane, watched a few movies, tried to sleep, and eventually ended up in Auckland.

Mum and Dad were at the airport, as were practically all the other New Zealand passengers’ mums and dads, as well as reporters wanting stories about passengers’ EARTHQUAKE HELL.

Since being back in New Zealand, I’ve talked to people who seem to think that as soon as the earthquake hit, my vacation started sucking and maybe I moved into a refugee camp or something. But it didn’t.

It was not the holiday I had planned (not that I had many plans), but it was still an amazing experience with a lot of enjoyable moments both before and after the earthquake.

I think I’ll go back to Japan some time. While things are still pretty terrible in the north-east areas and aftershocks continue, work is being done and the new normal (to coin a Christchurchian phrase) is taking shape.

I don’t necessarily want to complete the vague plans I had before the earthquake; I want to keep exploring the lovely country that is Japan.

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Places

Tokyo 6: Parks are the friend of a weary traveller

Lots of large stores around Tokyo were closed due to things like post-quake checks being needed and staff transport concerns, but I didn’t even feel like any massive extravagant retail experiences (it’s the fate of the unemployed traveller in Tokyo). So we ended up in Yoyogi Park. We found a clearing, with a large grassy area. The grass was yellow, having only recently emerged from under winter snows.

I lay down on the flaky grass, getting bits stuck all over my clothes. In the distance, the Docomo Yoyogi Building dominated the cityscape with its classic American skyscraper styles, but in the mid-distance, a Japanese flag fluttered in the breeze. Birds flew by, swooping low enough that I could feel them whoosh overhead.

It all felt quite ordinary and yet not quite normal. Something was different.

Relaxing

Because the local trains were running on a reduced timetable, the carriages got a little squashy. Not quite like those times when gloved train-squashers are on duty to help cram everyone into the carriages, but pretty close.

I was standing, grabbing on to a handstrap, with people on all sides pushed up against me. To get off the train amid that huddle required taking rapid but small steps. It was a matter of just instinctively moving with the crowd as one giant commuter blob, before slowly drifting apart in different directions. It was quite fun, and it seemed like, yeah, it’s an authentic Tokyo cultural experience.

Too much food. Belly too full. HALP

We found an izakaya bar and ordered up plates of food based on the generally well translated English descriptions. The bar’s ordering system involved a touch pad, and this exciting technology somehow allowed us to order too much. Beer – which comes in frosty mugs and is poured by an automatic beer-pouring machine, complete with a tilt to minimise bubbles – appeared on our table seconds after we ordered it.

It was nice to just eat lots of crazy fried things, meats on sticks and lovely salmon served with a raw egg yolk. And beer. That is also good.

I was a little worried about the radiation situation. It didn’t seem like Tokyo was going to turn into a radioactive spawning ground for millions of Godzillas, but I didn’t want to risk being in town if something showed up that would give me testicles and then testicular cancer in 50 years time.

It’s strange being faced with a nuclear incident. That sort of thing felt like a remnant of the past. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl – those were from the ’80s. Surely nuclear power station meltdowns were as out as acid washed jeans and Cosby-style sweaters? Oh wait, those are back too. Damn hipsters.

Coming from New Zealand, a country that prides itself on being “nuclear free”, it can be easy to feel glad to not be reliant on nuclear energy. Except New Zealand is.

It’s the fruits of globalisation. The things we buy from overseas come from countries that use nuclear energy. And it’s that nuclear energy that means things can be cheaper than they’d be relying on other means of energy. Or if they were made in New Zealand.

We live these lush 21st century lives. We are, one way or another, fuelled by nuclear energy.

One day street

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Places

Tokyo 5: Revised edition

The rest of my time in Tokyo switched from hardcore sightseeing to more laidback mooching around.

I decided not to go to Osaka or any of the other cities I’d been planning on visiting – yes, an earthquake was kept me from the Kobe earthquake museum. I was glad that I hadn’t been able to find the office on Friday morning to exchange my Japan Rail voucher into a non-refundable ticket.

The only thing I had really wanted to do in Tokyo was visit Disneyland. But it was closed due to post-quake safety checks being needed, and the car park was cracked and flooded from liquefaction.

Because Tokyo was so far from the earthquake-affected regions, it almost felt like all the devastation was taking place in a different country. It was something I watched on TV. It was not something I experienced. My relation to the devastation felt distant, like if I was in a nearby but foreign city like Seoul or Vladivostok.

harajuku

On Saturday, James and I spent the day exploring Harajuku. I also discovered I was a victim of kafunsho, a particular kind of Japanese hayfever brought on by cedar pollen – and there’s a lot of cedar around Tokyo. I was sneezing, coughing, my eyes were red and itchy – it felt like I had a cold but with none of the general unwellness. It didn’t occur to me to go to a chemist and buy an antihistamine spray until my very last day.

One of my favourite unintentional games to play was Getting Lost on the Way Back to My Hotel. I was a bit bored by the main route back to the hotel, so I’d always mix it up by taking a side street. Or at least I tried to.

More often than not, I’d end up lost, wandering the streets of Shinjuku at night, passing by interesting looking bars, occasionally stopping to get a bottle of water from a vending machine, and hoping I was heading in the right direction. Then I’d eventually spy a familiar landmark (or Google Map it) and end up at my hotel.

On Sunday, I switched hotels to the charming Ace Inn Shinjuku. It’s a capsule hotel, but with more of a social backpacker feel to it. Other guests tended to be tourists who where having a “WTF do I do now?” moment, and Japanese who were stuck in Tokyo.

We paid another visit to Harajuku. In the mid-’00s, Harajuku was known for the loligoth girls who’d dress up in crazy styles and hang out by Jingu bridge on Sundays to be all outrageous and fashionable. But I think Gwen Stefani made them too mainstream, so they’ve kind of died off. The only people left on the bridge were three guys doing the “free hugs” thing, one of whom was a perculiar performance artist called Old Boy.

Dad?

More fun was Two Rooms, a fancy rooftop bar that James remembered from his last visit to Tokyo. We sat outside in the sun and drank Bloody Marys, quietly enjoying the cool spring afternoon. Around us, expats sat drinking and eating – no one talked about the earthquake. Well, it’s nice to have a change of topic once in a while.

Leaving the bar, the maitre d’ discovered we were from New Zealand and excitedly insisted we meet the manager, also a New Zealander. So we had this funny little talk, like “Hello, fellow New Zealander! I am from Wellington! What about that earthquake, eh? Righto. Sayonara.” But he was a very nice guy and it’s a splendid bar if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.

On the street, old dudes from the local branch of Lions International were collecting for the Red Cross. I gave them some yen.

We went to Roppongi (which, if you’re a New Zealander, you pronounce Roppo-ngi, rather than Roppon-gi). It’s the good-time, party-time, on-and-on-till-the-break-of-dawn district, full of hundreds of different ways of spending all your money, thinking you’re going to get a root, and waking up with just a hangover. But, of course, because I was there, none of that happened. I couldn’t even get the photobooth to work.

Nearby was Tokyo Tower, with its top spire slightly bent from being shaken about in the earthquake. I’m glad I wasn’t up there when the earthquake hit.

Bent

When I got back to my hotel on the Friday evening, I found a table had moved about 30cm, a lamp on the table had fallen down the newly-created gap between the table and the wall, and in the bathroom, most bottles were tipped over or on the floor. I straightened everything up, and was just really glad I hadn’t been at the hotel when the earthquake happened.

I think I experienced the quake in quite a good place. Shinjuku Station is, I believe, base isolated (or a similar technology) so the effect of the quake wasn’t too severe in the building.

But I’ve heard people on the street had a much worse experience. I met a woman from California who had lost her balance and fallen over with the shaking and had injured her arm.

Back in Shibuya, we had a look around the mad variety store Don Quijote. It’s full of everything you could possibly need, and several things you don’t need, which are the ones you end up buying. I bought some fake glasses, and James bought a watch. As he was sorting out the tax-claim details, the shop assistant asked where we were from. When we said New Zealand, she gave us her commiserations for Christchurch. But, but…

We had dinner in a ramen bar in Ebisu. The chef, who had pretty good English, told us there’d been no rice on Saturday due to the delivery truck not being able to get through. But there was plenty of rice now, and ample supplies of delicious ramen.

I’d had quite a few requests from different media outlets wanting comments from me – Radio New Zealand, the Guardian, NPR, TV3, Newstalk ZB, and Classic Hits Waikato. A lot of them were hooked up via friends in the media, so I felt a little obliged to help out, but I think if I were in a similar situation again, I limit myself.

Not all of those eventuated into an actual interview, and some of the ones I did were a bit rubbish, with the reporter obviously angling for a “MY QUAKE HELL” story, with one telling me that “the shock” probably hadn’t caught up with me yet (what?).

The best interview was with Mark Bunting, the breakfast host of Classic Hits Waikato. I knew him from my old job at TVNZ, and he’s a nice guy. But as well as that, I figured it would be likely that my parents would be able to tune in and hear me. And they did.

Rooftop view

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Tokyo 4: When the world cracks

On Friday March 11 at 2.46pm there was an earthquake off the north-eastern coast of the island of Honshu. In the worst affected areas, it was a 7 on the Shindo magnitude scale, but a Shindo upper 5 in Tokyo. It shook almost all of Japan.

I wrote about the earthquake and the rest of Friday here. I wrote that because I wanted everyone in New Zealand to know I was ok, that Tokyo was ok, because no one seemed to believe it. Probably because all the images being shown on TV were of utter devastation.

The first thing I did after the quake (2.51pm, to be exact) was tweet that it had happened. I think I did this because it’s what lots of people in Christchurch seemed to do after the big one there. It serves a dual purpose – a “shit, something big just happened” and “but I’m ok”.

eqjp

I made a typo – it should have been Shinjuku, not Shinjulu. At the time, I noticed that I’d typed it wrong and I could have fixed it, but I just wanted to post the tweet as quickly as possible and go anywhere else.

I emailed my parents to let them know there’d been a quake and that I was ok. Hilariously, my mum hadn’t been watching TV that evening and so was unaware of what had happened. She thought I was talking about Wednesday’s foreshock, so she replied saying she already knew about it, knew there’d been no fatalities, and so she didn’t think I’d been hurt. Lol.

In the hours after the quake, I’d look at my twitter feed and notice people in New Zealand freaking out in my direction. No one was reading my tweets. Everyone thought I was in mortal danger. It was as if the quake-damanged and tsunami-ravaged regions hundreds of kilometres north of Tokyo were so powerfully awful that surely it all must have affected me too.

ftpr

To put it into perspective, while the earthquake in Tokyo was really unpleasant, willingly getting my corneas sliced with a razor blade when I had LASIK surgery on my eyes was more unpleasant. Slightly less unpleasant is Air New Zealand’s comedy safety-briefing videos.

I think I’m lucky that I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the live broadcast of the tsunami devastation. It sounds like some of that live footage – the sort that is never broadcast again because it’s too horrible – would have been genuinely traumatic to watch.

The New Zealand freak-out reaction was probably influenced by the Christchurch earthquake, which had only happened two weeks prior. But I felt a bit like a tourist in Wellington who having to explain to concerned friends and family overseas that she hadn’t been affected by the Christchurch earthquake and wasn’t going to leave New Zealand early.

And, you know what? New Zealand television news likes drama. It goes crazy with giant on-screen graphics, flowery language, picking up on the very worst and the desperate need for a “story”. But sometimes things happen that don’t tell a story.

After the quake

Leaving Shinjuku Station, a group of people stood standing around watching a public television showing live news. It reminded me of a very similar scene from just a couple of weeks earlier – shoppers at Moore Wilson’s supermarket in Wellington standing around watching live news coverage of Christchurch.

I think Christchurch is one of the reasons that the Japan earthquake didn’t come as a total surprise to me. Earthquakes were on my mind, there had been daily minor earthquakes in Tokyo since I arrived, and indeed the very first webpage I bookmarked on my rented iPhone was the very useful Japan Meteorological Agency’s earthquake information site. I was almost expecting a sizeable earthquake, just not that big.

Tokyo was ok. It had suffered only very minor damage in the earthquake (mainly cracking from liquefaction on reclaimed land), there was no tsunami, no nuclear troubles and no humanitarian problems.

Tokyo just felt toned down, like it had lost a bit of joie de vivre, like Wellington did the day after the Christchurch earthquake. It’s that really human reaction to a horrible situation.

Maybe it’s because Japanese are so aware of and prepared for earthquakes. There are frequent drills and training. Minor earthquakes are plentiful, so no one freaks out when there’s a little rumble.

After the earthquake in Tokyo, none of the locals seemed panicked. It was like, “Ok, the trains are down, I can’t walk home, so I’ll have to find somewhere to sleep tonight.”

So because no one in Tokyo seemed to be freaking out, I didn’t occur to me to freak out either. I was weird looking at Facebook and Twitter and seeing people ask “When are you coming home?!”, when it hadn’t even occured to me to change my flights. And I didn’t even feel like I was away from home. Home was where I wanted to be and that was Tokyo.

The news

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Tokyo 3: A good morning

On Friday morning, Jon had provided me with instructions on how to get to the Asakusa district. It required taking a couple of trains, but before I set off, I tried to find the Japan Rail office at Shinjuku Station to exchange my voucher for a JR Pass that’d let me do some travel around Honshu. I was planning to visit Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Kobe so I could visit The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution aka the Kobe earthquake museum. In light of Christchurch, I wanted to see how Kobe had recovered after its 1995 earthquake.

But the simple diagram of the ticket office location didn’t quite match the sprawling mass that is Shinjuku Station, so I gave up and headed off to Asakusa. Sitting on the train, I realised I was the only non-Japanese person, and that all the station announcements were in Japanese. But, really, it’s not hard to miss a stop when the recorded voice repeats it three times.

The Golden Turd

Asakusa is the home of Asahi Breweries headquarters. It includes the Asahi Beer Hall building, designed by Phillippe Starck with a giant golden flame atop it. Or as it’s locally known, the golden turd – which is exactly what it looks like.

I didn’t really know much about Asakusa, so I just wandered the streets. There were many enclosed streets, lined with the same sort of shops I’d seen in Kamakura. Asakusa is another spot that’s popular with Japanese tourists, and it seemed well geared up for souvenir requirements.

I wandered around until I stumbled across the Asakusa shrine, only I didn’t specifically know that at the time. One of the nice things about shrines is their park-like surrounds, though the urban location of this one meant that tall buildings towered behind the shrine buildings and the trees.

I glanced up and saw a billboard advertising something called the Amuse Museum. It reminded me of the sort of fruity little attractions you get in Anaheim, hoping to lure in Disneyland visitors. I had to investigate.

Grace Jones' android army

It turns out the Amuse Museum was dedicated to traditional Japanese textiles, arts and crafts. It had a large collection of homemade kimono sewn by working class families out of scraps of indigo-dyed cotton or hemp fabrics. The kimono were thick and heavy and would be worn both outdoors in cold winter weather, as well as indoors to sleep in on freezing cold nights.

There was also an display of tattsuke – handmade women’s working trousers, also made from indigo-dyed hemp. They were sort of proto blue jeans, and as a result have the look of styley streetwear, rather than lady-farmer long johns.

I wandered up to the roof-top area and had a look around the neighbourhood. The under-construction Tokyo Sky Tree towered above everything, with several cranes still working away 450 metres up in the air.

I figured I’d seen enough of Asakusa and made my way back to Shinjuku, where I met up with James. We headed to Shinjuku Station to catch the Yamanote line to check out the Harajuku district.

Then everything changed.

Sensō-ji

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Tokyo 2: The old, the gold and the bold

On Thursday morning, I was woken up by a little earthquake. It was like the kind Wellington gets from time to time, though it went on longer and jiggled a bit. But I just treated it like a Wellington mini quake and kept lying in bed, annoyed it had woken me up, and went back to sleep after it stopped.

This day was a visit to the seaside town of Kamakura. It’s just south of Tokyo, and it’s one of those places people go for day trips. It reminded me a little of St Kilda in Melbourne or Manly in Sydney. Or maybe even a little bit of Seatoun in Wellington.

Kamakura is known for its temples and shrines. On the way to the major Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shinto shrine, visitors on foot from the train station are cleverly channelled through streets lined with shops selling bags, shoes, chopsticks, sweets, kimono and other delights. Apparently during the Golden Week spring holiday period, the place is packed.

The shrine was lovely, and with it came that conflict I get when I visit churches, when I feel like a bit of a heathen and therefore not worthy of being in such a place. Um, something about how we are all God’s children?

Temple camera

We walked along Wakamiya Oji, the main road that leads from the shrine to the beach. It had a long path of cherry trees stretching down the centre, just days away from blossoming.

At the beach (a minor surf beach!), I was introduced to the concept of the street beer. One goes to a convenience store, purchases a can of beer, goes to a place outside and enjoys the beer. It’s quite nice.

There doesn’t seem to be a munter culture in Japan. It’s ok to drink in public because Aotearoa-style bloody stupid stuff doesn’t really happen. Yet I also get the feeling that people drink quite a lot in Japan, but they just deal with it better.

Beer in hand, we wandered through many side streets on the way to the other shrine. I like how Japan does residential side streets – it’s more like a wide footpath than a road. Cars are forced to drive sensibly, cooperating with pedestrians and cyclists.

A view from the top

We ended up at Kotoku-in, a Buddist temple. It’s home to the Kamakura Daibutsu, a giant copper statue of Buddha. But, um, I did not specifically see that because by then it was the end of the day and we were all a bit too tired to climb all the way up the hill, opting for the tearooms instead.

But the lovely grounds of Kotoku-in had plenty more to offer, including a gold statue of Kannon Bosatsu (the Bodhisattva of which Canon Electronics took its name), and a interesting cave that was only slightly reminiscent of Disneyland with its health-and-safety’d sealed walls and smoothed wooden hand rails.

Later that evening, Matt and I met up with my dear friend Jon, a Tokyo-based photographer who I hadn’t seen since a chaotic few days in Auckland, 2006.

Jon, who speaks Japanese, took us to a tiny bar that required climbing a staircase that felt like a ladder. We squished into a corner, sat on cushions and drank beer. The place was so small that to order more beeru, Jon just shouted down to the street-level bar.

Smoking restrictions in Tokyo are interesting. It’s illegal to smoke on the street. All around are stickers and signs reminding people not to walk and smoke. There are designated street smoking areas, but apart from that, you can’t be Mr Cool Dude strutting down the road with a fag in your mouth. The concern is that with so many people on the streets of Tokyo, someone could end up with a cigarette in the eye. A child could be maimed.

But it’s ok to smoke indoors. It took me back to a time before Smoke-free Environments Amendment Act 2003 was passed; before December 2004; when stilled people smoked in New Zealand bars. It felt quite crazy and rebellious to be hanging out with dudes smoking inside a bar. And it also brought back the unwanted side-effect – coming home smelling like smoke.

We had a street beer on a busy Shibuya Street, hanging out next to a shipment of shoes next to a shoe store, while all around, people hung out, going from bar to bar.

I’m not sure how I did it, but I made my way back to my hotel via two trains, a subway card problem, kindly passengers, and a non-English-speaking night station guard, and a vague memory of where my hotel probably was.

Street life

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Tokyo 1: Northwest by Air NZ

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).

Northeast by Air NZ

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.

Forever 36

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.

Wine and spices

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A day in the park

Before I went to bed last night, I prepared a quick-escape bag – a tote bag filled with clothes, shoes, water, snacks. Enough to pick up and grab if anything happened in the night.

Before the quake, the plan had been to jump on the shinkansen with my travelling buddy James and go to Osaka and Kyoto for a couple of days exploring. Osaka for the night life, Kyoto for the temples.

The shinkansen timetable had been stopped after the earthquake, but apparently the Osaka shink was back running on a limited schedule. But I didn’t really want to go anywhere that wasn’t walking distance to my hotel and risk getting stranded if the trains went down again.

So we decided to continue with our mission that had been so rudely interrupted by the Goddam quake – a visit to Harajuku.

The Yamanote line was running on a reduced schedule, but that seemed to mean trains every five minutes, rather than every two minutes. We arrived at Harajuku and started to explore.

It’s a cool area, full of crazy fashion shops, but today it felt quiet. Most of the shops that were open were smaller boutiques, with larger stores and department stores being closed, or opening later in the afternoon.

One icon of Harajuku is the Jingu Bridge, which is the hangout spot of the crazy loligoth girls and boys. They hang out, pose and generally be fabulous. Except today the bridge was empty. Only a few tourists wandered around, like it was a forgotten corner of an unremarkable neighbourhood. I guess a massive disaster takes the fun out of dress-up.

We wandered across the bridge to the Meiji Shrine. A wedding party was having photos taken. The bride was wearing a start white dress, her bridesmaids wore colourful kimono and the groom and his lads were in black suits. They stood, posed and looked happy.

At the shrine there were small wooden boards on which visitors could write a prayer. My eye drifted to the few written in English. On one a small boy’s shaky handwriting said “I want everything to be good”. Me too, son.

We then went on to Shibuya. Normally it’s buzzing with people. Today it was subdued, like a New Zealand Sunday afternoon. We wandered around, looked at some shops, including the truly mental Don Quijote store, a treasure trove of stuff no one needs and yet can’t live without.

I still don’t have any plans. I guess it all depends on how that whole nuclear power station thing pans out – which weirdly feels like a long-forgotten legacy of being a child of the ’80s.

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Observatory

The earthquake

I was at Shinjuku Station when it started swaying. Shinjuku Station is said to be the busiest train station in the world – two million people pass through it every day.

I was with my friend James, and we were planning on catching the Yamanote train to Harajuku to check out all the crazy pop culture. But then the swaying happened.

It felt like the earthquake simulator at Te Papa. It wasn’t the sort of gentle Wellington quake that I’m used to. It was this weird swaying, like standing on a platform on top of a giant spring.

It actually took a little while to figure out that it was an earthquake and not a random Japanese public transport bump. When I realised, I headed for a wall, fearful of debris, though the building seemed to be intact. My mental what-if earthquake plan, formulated post-Christchurch, was put into full effect.

After the swaying stopped – except it didn’t so much stop as just slow down -I noticed that everyone around was not paniced or freaking out. There was a general sense of calmness.

We headed up to the platform for the Yamanote train. The train was there at the station, but just sitting there, doors open, people inside. A station guard made regular announcements over the PA, but they were all in Japanese. A woman on the platform asked if we spoke English, and explained that all services had been cancelled. Hey, thanks!

Another announcement was made and suddenly everyone on the platform left. We followed, not really sure where to go.

Leaving the station, a large group of people were stood staring up at a public TV playing the news channel, watching the almost unbelievable scenes unfolding.

The streets outside the station were full of people. They were calmly walking along, in two neat lanes. I’d guess they were in normal rush hour pedestrian protocol, only it wasn’t normal rush hour.

I wanted to sit down and just have a steady floor. We decided to look for a Starbucks and – as if by magic – we turned a corner and there was one.

In New Zealand, I don’t normally go to Starbucks but this time it was absolutely where I needed to go. I ordered a big ol’ grande latte, took a seat and just took a little comfort in that warm, milky beverage.

We ended up walking to the hotel of my friend and Tokyo resident Matt’s parents (Air New Zealand’s cheap flights had lured four of us over here). The lift is out of order, but the hotel has power, water and – importantly – heating.

Getting only snippets of news from my iPhone, I wasn’t really sure of what was going on in the rest of the country. TV news revealed a fuller, awful picture.

At the moment we’re sitting around eating snacks from the local konbini (convenience store), and having beers. And man, a beer is welcome.

Having internet has been great – being able to quickly send messages to many on Twitter and Facebook is a valuable service. But I am aware that this is a luxury of such a modern, wired country as Japan.

Yesterday I was planning to take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka, but now those plans don’t seem so possible. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow.

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