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My A-Z of Japan

Posted: April 3rd, 2006, by Marceline Smith

My photo diary is here. Enjoy!

ARIGATO – really the only word of Japanese you need and even that can be bypassed with enough bowing and smiling. I’ve never met so many polite and helpful people, from the convenience store staff that call welcomes in unison as you enter to the gift shop staff that package your purchases with intricate care.
BOTANICAL GARDENS – Our free day in Kyoto was my birthday so we went to the Botanical Gardens. I have a thing about Botanical Gardens. It was the most beautiful day and half of Kyoto had the same idea but this turned out to be the most Japanese thing we did all holiday with not a single other tourist in sight. More fool them. The cherry and plum blossom was out and glorious, there were carp in the lake, a garden of bonsai trees, small Japanese children practicing their English by shouting HELLO at us and plenty of room in between the camphor trees to just sit and relax. And all for fifty pence!
CHERRY BLOSSOM – The Japanese go nuts for cherry blossom and when you see it, you understand why. Our luck was in as the cherry blossom was a little early this year and there were pink and white trees blooming everywhere, usually surrounded by hordes of Japanese cooing and taking photos on their mobiles.
DEPARTMENT STORES – We were urged to go to department stores (indeed, our tourist maps from the hotels mainly had department stores and temples marked on them) but we were highly disappointed by the reality of floors and floors of western designer fashion. The two exceptions were Tokyu Hands, basically a hardware store full of cheap mentalism, and the enormous department store within Kyoto Station where we got lost numerous times and spent lots of money in the stationery department and in the little store entirely devoted to cute bunny-related wares.
EATING – Food was probably the most difficult part of Japan, as the hotel was expensive and proper Japanese places were a bit confusing (especially with a vegetarian sister). However, this did allow me to sample all kinds of random foodstuffs from local shops including some awesome chilli noodles and a very pretty (and tasty) bento box. The snacks were considerable fun as well. I’m now quite lost without my tubes of tiny cake slices and panda biscuits. Typically, the two worst meals I had were the ones on included tour days – some very dull ramen in miso and the ‘western style’ meal of barely warm breaded chicken with spaghetti.Why couldn’t they have taken us out for sushi?
FUJI-SAN – We were so lucky to see Mt Fuji. At first we were told we might not get to go at all because of heavy snowfalls then were were allowed up as far as the Fourth Station but there was thick cloud so no views of the summit. And then the clouds lifted magically for 2 minutes so we could see it and then closed back up. Fuji-san really is shy
GASHAPON – We call them egg machines here, you know machines full of plastic eggs containing toys of some kind. Japanese gashapon are full of amazing things usually for ¥100 or ¥200 (50p-£1). We soon started collecting ¥100 coins purely for gashapon and nearly hyperventilated when we found a little shop entirely for the purpose of gashapon in Shibuya. Best find was in the Pokemon Center – gashapon containing tiny Pokemon-branded working gashapon machines full of Pokeballs. Even better you got to build them yourself in ye olde Kinder Egg style. Awesome.
HELLO KITTY – Japan really takes Hello Kitty to a whole new level of madness. Not content with the usual lines of Hello Kitty, Japan has its own series of tourist souvenir Hello Kitty for literally every tourist attraction and destination in Japan. Hello Kitty Tokyo, atop Tokyo Tower with a camera; Hello Kitty Harajuku, dressed up like a cool teen in tartan and leather; Hello Kitty Kyoto, as a geisha; Hello Kitty Nara, wearing a deer costume; Hello Kitty Hakone, inside a black sulphur-cooked egg…
IKEBUKURO – Our base in Tokyo where we stayed in a rather fancy hotel with 25 floors and an all you can eat cake buffet (which, luckily, we only discovered on our final evening). It also sounds great on the automated train announcements. Ikebukuro, Ikebukuro!
JAPANESE FILMS – I watched two of them on the flight. NANA, based on a manga comic about two girls with the same name who meet by chance – one is in a punk band and the other is the most adorable puppydog girl that ever existed. I loved this. I also watched a film called Beat Kids, about some school kids who set up their own marching band and get back at their nasty teacher who tries to take all the credit. This was great until after the obvious ending where they do a crazy jazz routine at the inter-school competition it then carried on with an ultra-complicated plot about two rival rock bands that got so confusing I gave up.
KAWAII – Everything in Japan is kawaii. It only took about 2 days for our cuteness monitors to be reset at a much higher level. Our first afternoon’s shopping in Tokyo ended in Sunshine 60, a vast labyrinth of shops full of cute stuff where we reached a level of cuteness exhaustion that eventually had us on the verge of nervous breakdown in Toys R Us.
LEGWARMERS – My only actual birthday present on the day since technically being in Japan was my birthday present. Nicolette knitted them for me and I highly recommend legwarmers for cold temple floors when they make you take your shoes off.
MUSEE D’ART GHIBLI – The Ghibli Museum was amazing, one of the many highlights of the trip. The building is full of hidden corridors, nooks and staircases displaying original artwork and Ghibli ephemera, as well as explaining the concepts of animation The Totoro zoetrope is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, a revolving set of 3D models that magically come to life via strobe lights. It’s impossible to describe but it truly feels like magic. Biggest disappointment of the trip – adults not being allowed to romp on the huge cuddly catbus.
NARA – Home of the world’s largest wooden building which contains Japan’s largest Buddha statue. All this was very interesting but mostly we were amused by the hordes of “wild” deer that harass you for food. Taken singly they will bow to you for a piece of bread in a rather adorable way. In groups however, they become herds of scary zombie deer mowing down anything that gets in the way of FOOOOD.
ONIGIRI – Rice balls. I wish these were readily available in UK shops. I particularly enjoyed the element of surprise of what random foodstuff might be hiding in the middle. I even bought a big cuddly smiling onigiri pillow to take home.
PLASTIC FOOD – Japanese restaurants have creepily accurate plastic imitations of all the meals they serve laid out in the windows so you can see what’s on offer. Bowls of noodles are one thing but plastic imitation pints of beer made my brain hurt.
QOO – Simon P asked me to look out for Qoo which we spotted in the very first vending machine we saw in Japan. Not entirely impressed by what is basically orange squash in a cool bottle, we were still somewhat surprised not to see Qoo in any of the next lot of vending machines. A couple of days’ searching later we spotted Apple Qoo which was much nicer and thus we slowly got sucked into Qoo-spotting insanity and spent half the holiday peering at vending machines. Thanks Simon. Tropical fruit/milk Qoo – odd but nice. Fanta Grape – awesome. Suntory happy apple juice – double awesome.
RIVER KAMO – In some ways we didn’t really ‘do’ Kyoto, having only the one free day there and spending most of that in the Botanical Gardens (and trying to find our way through the vast, shop-filled Kyoto Station). We had intended to have a wander through the geisha district of Gion (an apprentice geisha being pretty much the first thing we saw after getting off the shinkansen) but the nearest we got was wandering back to the hotel along the River Kamo as the sun began to set. It was a lovely walk but we couldn’t work up the energy to leave the hotel again that evening.
SHINKANSEN – We got the bullet train both ways between Tokyo and Kyoto. The first time one went through the station we all collectively gasped at the speed. When you’re on it though, you don’t really notice how fast it’s going (up to 150km). The shinkansen doors are set remotely in Tokyo so they close on time regardless of whether you’re on the train or not!
TEMPLES & SHRINES – We were on an organised holiday tour called ‘Japan Highlights’ but we soon renamed it the Temples and Shrines Tour. Almost everything we were taken to visit or pointed out were Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines. Some of these were indeed amazing but really, how many do you need to see? I am still baffled by the people who went on the optional temples and shrines day out to Nikko rather than have a free day in Tokyo. Thank god for the guy on the tour who joined in our OOHing at the sight of Nintendo HQ.
UENO PARK – We were urged by our first guide Suzy-san, a cherry blossom nut, to go see the cherry blossom in Ueno Park before we left so we squeezed it into our last evening. I’m glad we did as the trees were strung up with lanterns, there were glowing 3D sculptures of animals outside the zoo and swan boats on the lake. I wish we’d had time to go in the daytime as well.
VIRGIN ATLANTIC – This was my first long haul flight and I was frankly amazed at how bearable it was. I’d packed a bunch of stuff to keep myself entertained on the 12 hour flight but barely touched it, thanks to the in-flight entertainment and constant provision of food and gifts whenever there was a risk of boredom. My highlight though was peering out of the window into the night and seeing all the constellations so big it felt like I could touch them.
WEATHER – was lovely, thanks. Snow on Mt Fuji, blue skies and sun for my birthday and warm and uneventful in Tokyo.
SAN-X – Thanks to Alice for recommending Kiddyland, 7 floors of toys and cute stuff. We spent so long on the San-X floor that one of the staff came over smilingly with a basket, obviously realising we were in for the long haul. San-X is impossible to describe but you need plenty time to fully drink in the madness of Mamegoma (honking seals of varying hilarity), Nyan Nyan Nyanko (a cat who likes to pretend to be food) and Wan Room (a set of furniture with dog faces).
YAMANOTE LINE – I am in awe of the logic, order, simplicity and cleverness of Japanese transport which is easier to use in Japanese than the London Underground is in English. The Yamanote Line runs in a circle round the centre of Tokyo and we spent much of our time on it (all the way round in the course of one day). We also fell in love with the Suica penguin, the mascot of Tokyo’s pay as you go rail pass who is all over the rail system.
ZZZZZ…. Jet lag, not fun.

Marceline Smith

Marceline is the fierce, terrifying force behind diskant.net, laughing with disdain as she fires sharpened blades of sarcasm in all directions. Based in Scotland, her lexicon consists of words such as 'jings', 'aboot' and 'aye': our trained voice analysts are yet to decipher some of the relentless stream of genius uttered on a twenty-four hour basis. Marceline's hobbies include working too much and going out in bad weather.


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