x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Blown over by the bizarre in Tokyo

I'd seen a fair few toilets around the world by this point, but Japanese toilets were the only toilets I'd seen with a volume control.

A Shinkansen bullet train zips past Mount Fuji.
A Shinkansen bullet train zips past Mount Fuji.

I'd seen a fair few toilets around the world by this point, but Japanese toilets were the only toilets I'd seen with a volume control. With more functions than my iPod, the buttons along the side of the seat read "Melody", "Powerful Deodorizer" and "Flushing Sound". It also politely lifted its lid as I entered. Japan kept me in a constant state of enthusiastic amazement throughout my week there and I'm still left wondering whether half the things I saw were real.

Tokyo is made up of relatively self-contained neighbourhoods, each well connected by an easy-to-use subway system. Colour coordination and lines with both Japanese and English signs meant that I hopped on and off as I would on the London Underground. Unlike most of the South-East Asian countries I had been to in the past month, every road was clearly signposted in dual text, and I welcomed the experience of picking up a dual text map and just roaming Tokyo by subway, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and vending machine by vending machine. And there are vending machines for almost everything in Tokyo.

The first stop on my neighbourhood tour was Harajuku, famed for its ultra-modern, kitschy, fluorescent, hip Tokyo (mainly) teen subculture. If I could compare it to anything, it would be Camden Town meets Pokemon, but even that really doesn't do it justice. Armed with my Polaroid, the Japanese trend-setters loved posing with their neon-coloured, bizarrely sculpted hair. Although none of us could communicate in a common language, returning their peace sign was enough for them to smile for my camera.

Harajuku was also my favourite spot in Tokyo for shopping. The main street of Takeshita branches off into dozens of quirky alleyways, where I came across everything from surprisingly un-confusing anti-clockwise watches to seemingly ordinary-looking shoes kept in a glass fridge. By the time Tokyo's lights had turned on and the Harajuku girls had gone home in time for their curfew, I walked to nearby Shibuya to take in the Lost in Translation Tokyo we all close our eyes and imagine. The world-famous Shibuya Crossing makes Piccadilly Circus and Times Square seem like mini versions of it. I couldn't stop staring at the rainbow lights and swarms of well-dressed pedestrians pouring into the roads the minute the little green man appears. I found the best view to be from high up - there are a few bookstores and coffee shops with two or three levels overlooking the crossing.

A short walk from the crossing is Love Hotel Hill, a slight struggle to find since it's not an official district. I could tell you what I saw there, but you wouldn't believe me. I could have spent all night in Shibuya, sipping on a green tea latte and eating wasabi ice cream, but I had a very early start the next morning. I ended up having a lie-in and left at 5am for Tsukiji Central Fish Market, although I wish I had left at 4am so I could have caught a fishmonger in the heat of an auction. The market is full of never-ending rows of tuna, octopus, shark and some other crustaceans I didn't recognise, accompanied by unpleasant (albeit fresh) smells. Some of the fish were still moving when I saw them. It's rumoured that some merchant stalls have been in the market for more than 20 generations, and an estimated US$15.5 million (Dh55 million) worth of fish is sold here every day. I contributed about $10 (Dh37) that morning - at 5.30am - by sampling the freshest sushi I will probably ever taste. If you're not a morning person, become one just for this market. If you're not a sushi eater, become one just for this market.


View On the road in a larger map

The best decision I made on my trip to Japan happened months before I arrived when I bought a Japan Rail Pass. It allowed me to move freely from coast to coast with unlimited use of Japanese bullet trains, Shinkansen. As a foreigner, you can only buy it outside Japan, and the vouchers come in seven, 14 and 21-day passes. I bought my seven-day pass (£284; Dh1,608) from STA Travel in the UK and exchanged it very easily at one of the numerous Japan Rail offices. The pass allows you to reserve seats beforehand, once you have chosen your departure, and if you're planning to visit at least two cities, the pass is good value for money. The hostel where I stayed recommended an English language website - www.hyperdia.com - which made checking my next train route or connection very simple.

As soon as the train arrived at my platform (accurate to the second), I found my seat, opened up my sushi bento - lunchboxes found at stands at all stations and recommended by a local - and although I wasn't entirely sure what everything was, it all tasted delicious. Regrettably, I was in Japan at the tail-end of the rainy season and wasn't able to trek up Mount Fuji - it would have been great practice for Kilimanjaro. Instead, I requested a window seat on the Tokyo-Kyoto train, which gave me a good view of the snow-capped peak. I reclined my seat and enjoyed what I think was a type of squid, but I couldn't be sure. It turned out that the toilets on the bullet trains also had a button that read "Melody Sound". I think it played Bach.

Next week: geisha-spotting in Kyoto, the next stop on Ismat's journey around the world