Tokyo, Japan

On the way to Kuala Lumpur, I had a day layover in Japan. Since I knew I was coming back, I didn’t feel the need to rush into Tokyo. Instead, I relaxed in the relative tranquility of Narita. With the assistance of a lovely Japanese woman who’d just stepped of a plane from the UK (where she’d spent a year studying English), I got a train ticket and made my way to Narita. The whole process was slightly overwhelming, but, basically, it’s impossible to screw up too badly. You put some money in the machine, it gives you a ticket. If you make a mistake – pretty likely, since few of the signs are in English – you sort it out when you get off the train.

There are some interesting temples to see in Narita, and, as a wandered about, I happened upon a jazz performance by a high school band. The whole performance was good, but it was made great by the theatrics of a few exceptional musicians, who hammed it up toward the end – to the absolute delight of everyone there. Many of the children in the audience wore the traditional randoseru (backpack). It’s so cute when you see a phalanx of kids, all kitted out with with identical clothes and backpack.

After taking in some jazz and sampling 6 different varieties of hot and cold vending machine coffee, I started looking for a place to sleep. I found an exquisitely modern guest house, a short walk from the train station. It was beautifully decorated and had tatami flooring in the bedrooms. It’s the first time I’d walked barefoot on tatami and it’s really an excellent feeling. Although the guest house was relatively vacant when I visited, I’d recommend making reservations if you travel during the summer.

When I checked into the guest house, I received a free coupon for coffee at McDonald’s. Lately, I’ve taken a liking to McDonald’s coffee because they’ve gone through the process of refining their roast and making it different than the insufferably bad swill that it once was. I’d take it over Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, actually. In any case, when I went to redeem my coupon the next morning, I noticed that McDonald’s in Japan resembles a circa 1990 bingo parlor in Thunder Bay: i.e., it’s filled with smokers. So, the free small coffee turns out to be a bit of a Pyrrhic victory: you emerge with stage-four cancer, or maybe just emphysema.

On my return trip, I bypassed Narita and went directly into Tokyo. The train into the city takes about 70 minutes and was about $10. Although I ended up getting off the train one stop early, I enjoyed walking through the labyrinthine streets and some beautiful hidden gardens. Later in the evening, I eventually reached the hostel where I’d hoped to stay. Because of the recent bankruptcy of Nova (an English-language school in Japan), and the generally fantastic value of the hostel, it was packed. Thankfully, flaky backpackers and canceled flights conspired to get me a spot. Yaay! I stayed for four nights, met a lot of really incredible people, including Naoto, a hostel employee with more than 86 country stamps in his passport – but inexplicably not one from Canada!

During my time in Tokyo, I took the train to Shinjuku to see the crush of people trying to exit from and get into the trains during rush hour. It’s really something: more than 3 million people move through that station each day, and you do not want to be in the way of the salarymen (the name given to all the identically dressed men who work in offices). After work, you’ll see many of them staggering about, trying to make their way from the sake bar to the last train. Otherwise, they’ll overnight in a capsule hotel. From Shinjuku, you can take the free elevator to the top of the government offices to get a nice view of the city.

Another day, I visited the Imperial Palace and the fantastic gardens that surround it. From there, it was an easy trip to Harajuku, the inspiration for Gwen Stefani’s song, Harajuku Girls. It did not disappoint: cosplay and J-pop music was everywhere, including blaring from the creperie, where I grabbed a quick bit. So many flavours, none good for you. Excellent.

After Harajuku, I walked to Shibuya, where I was stunned (just like in the Simpsons in Japan episode), but the people, flashing lights and music. It was even more chaotic than Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. After leaving, Shibuya, I passed through Roppongi – the entertainment district, complete with love hotels and many, many bars.

{{travel:iron_heart.jpg?nolink }}My trip to Japan also allowed me to vanquish a demon I’d been fighting for a year: the complete lack of good denim in the US. You can, of course, find expensive denim from companies like Paper Denim & Cloth, Rock & Republic, Seven for all Mankind and so forth. All that denim is rubbish. It either trendily distressed (why do I want a hole in my jeans?), dyed in some asinine manner to make it look like you lost a fight with a tank of chlorine bleach, or made with a fabric so light fabric that it feels ready to disintegrate if you try anything more precious than sitting on a bar stool sipping artisanal vodka. I want none of that. I want an indigo-dyed, low-rise, boot-cut jean made with heavy-gauge denim. Is that so hard? Apparently. But the cult of Japanese denim specializes in such things and at Ueno’s Hinoya Plus Mart, I found exactly what I was looking for: Iron Heart, 461 Boot’s Cut. Hello, lover.

Turns out that there is a store three blocks away from me that sells the same jeans, but they are a lot more expensive (if you consider the trip to Japan a sunk cost). And…most importantly, buying jeans and arranging (in sheer terror) to have them tailored when you don’t speak Japanese and the shop owner doesn’t speak English was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Watching this must have been absolutely comical. In the end, I got exactly what I wanted and the jeans were shortened for me right in the shop in less than 10 minutes. That, my friends, is service and it’s worth paying for.