Saturday, April 26, 2014

Tokyo 2014 (Again): Minor Repetition and Leftover Observations

I'll admit that I found myself rather surprised at being in Tokyo again, just two short months after my last brief stay there. For some reason (I never got around to asking why me), I was selected to accompany my manager on a business trip to Tokyo, to attend a sort of overseas work expo, where recruitment agencies from across Southeast Asia would set up booth to interview prospective job applicants.

We made our plans and bought our tickets early- a smart move on my part as a few days before the flight when I logged in to check our seats I discovered that the flight was fully booked. The online system was fidgety when I first booked it- I'd called customer service and was asked to use the mobile site instead (on the PC- just imagine using on a cinema screen)- and the mobile site had its own problems as well. We flew Malaysian Airlines (MAS), which led to some jokingly wishing us a safe flight (Flight MH370 went missing just a few days before our own flight). Anyhow. We'd got ourselves a Thursday night flight, to arrive in Narita the next morning. This meant that I would have all of Friday and Saturday to myself. The expo took place on Sunday, and our flight back was on Monday night. Quite a bit of free time to wander around.

Having been in Tokyo only recently, I didn't have much of an idea of where to go. I'd briefly flirted with the idea of a day trip to somewhere else- perhaps Nikko or Hakone, but decided against it. Day 1 (Friday). I took the slower train out- the Keisei Express- much cheaper than the Narita Express. I'm not sure why I did so, since the company would be footing the bill for that journey anyway. There was one unintended side benefit of taking the slower train though, as I had to transfer at Oshiage station- right at the foot of the Tokyo Skytree. I lugged my heavy suitcase- the first time I've used a suitcase on a long distance trip- which was mostly filled with pamphlets to distribute on Sunday's event- up three or four flights of escalators, noisily rolled it out of the building, to see the Skytree looming high above. Probably not the best place to get a snap of the tower, but it's not like I'm getting a regular paycheck from TIME magazine anyway, so my photographic standards aren't very high.

I eventually made my way to my hotel of choice- the Sakura Hotel in Kanda Jinbocho, a sort of hotel/hostel hybrid. I'd picked the place for three reasons- first was the price: it had to fit within my claimable budget, which was why I didn't shoot for a 5 star hotel instead. Second was the location- it was pretty close to the city center, and had two subway stations within walking distance. Thirdly- I found it highly amusing to stay in a hotel with the same name as the company I work in- a reason as capricious as the flower itself. On the way there I noticed several old and dull looking bookshops- apparently I'd chose to stay near a tourist attraction of sorts- the "Kanda Book Town".

After dumping my bags and changing into a more airy shirt (completely ignoring the temperature, which was hovering around 10 degrees centigrade), I headed out for town, intending on making Shibuya my first stop, since I'd ignored it on my previous trip. Instead I got distracted by a large torii straddling the main road- curious, I went up closer and past it, eventually finding myself at (surprise, surprise) the internationally loathed Yasukuni Shrine. It's not my problem that a bunch of war criminals are interned there- I can't help but wonder why nobody makes a similar fuss about Uncle Mao and Ho's Mausoleums, but that's another discussion entirely. Putting that and the (at the time) lifeless Sakura trees aside, I was lucky enough to witness something interesting- some students from a nearby university (Hosei University, I think) practicing a Noh performance/routine/dance (?) on the shrine grounds. The music was nice, thought it was also helped by the lead dancer being a pretty lass... ahem. Right. After a rather pricey tempura udon at a restaurant just outside the shrine (and nothing like the one I had in Kobe two months ago), I was ready to move on.

Shibuya, the mecca for fashionable Japanese youth. I did feel slightly out of place- I felt countless pointed stares and whispers of 'old hag' floating around. I found the famous Hachiko statue fairly quickly- it was surrounded by a gaggle of youths. There were two separate clusters of kids giving free hugs- one cluster clearly had more patrons. I couldn't help but wonder if they were competing (the losers stay chilly, while the winners get warmer, perhaps). I didn't bother myself much with the department stores and shopping malls, thinking that they'd be populated by goods for ladies, and wandered the streets instead- I stumbled through budget store Don Quijote, and then happily chanced upon a Book Off and Mandarake.

I'd thought of heading to Jackson Hole (made famous by NANA) for dinner, but the chap I was supposed to go with forgot, so I put it off for another trip instead, and headed for Akihabara for more shopping- Uniqlo, Yodobashi Camera, and more books to fill up my now emptied suitcase. A store-girl sweet-talked me into buying something from her store (I picked a random key holder for my sister). I checked out an infamous multi-story store selling costumes and sex toys- a rather hilarious break of pace. This reminded me of one amusing observation I made on my last trip to Japan- couples nonchalantly browsed hentai manga in bookstores together, but women wouldn't go near a store selling AV (adult video) films, for whatever reason. Jealousy? The sex goods store in Akiba had a healthy mix of male and female patrons- though I think they were mostly solo visitors. Anyhow- that's it for a rather uneventful first day.

Day 2. I had set my alarm for 7.15am, but forgot that it was set to ring only on weekdays- and with the curtains drawn I woke up around 11am, wondering how early I'd woken up. Then from outside came a call 'room cleaning desu~' and I did an eyebrow twitch, unseen in the dark, wondering why they were doing it so early in the morning. I picked up my phone and saw the time then. Lesson learned.

I filled up my tank with a lovely Honey Toast from the hotel cafe- it came with diced nuts and a scoop of ice cream, and lots of chocolate cream. The menu had a drawing of a heart sign around it and said 'ladies' favorite item' or something to that effect. No social stigma for guys who don't mind having sweets for breakfast though, unless you're the type that persecutes yourself for fun. I didn't spend much today- the imperial palace just happened to be nearby, so I went for a walk along the moat, taking a short break to wander around some insurance company's building which was turned into a sort of semi-museum. Back outside, I noticed that one sandal felt somewhat damp and squishy- I looked down and saw a small dark spot, and wondering if I'd stepped on a stray berry, reached down to wipe it off with one finger- it came back up looking worryingly bloody. Off went the sandal as I brought my pale foot up into the sunlight- and there it was, a small circle of skin had come right off, probably due to dryness and the cold- and I didn't even feel any pain. It's worth noting that although 99% of me thought nothing of the temperature, everyone else in Tokyo must have thought I was either a suicidal nut or a skinny eskimo, as there I was going around in a light short-sleeved shirt and sandals, while they were going around in fully covered shoes and jackets. To go back to the earlier part of the last sentence- you're probably wondering "if 99% of him wasn't affected by the cold, what of the remaining 1%?". Well say hello to the two little purposeless lumps of flesh sticking out of my chest (nipples for the clueless). I think they must have been getting frostbite- each time they came into contact with my shirt they hurt oh so bad.

I finally reached my destination- the Sony Building in Ginza. There were a few interesting sights there, like a demo set for their Project Morpheus virtual reality headsets (or one of their earlier models)- but nothing particularly interesting besides that. I was mildly surprised at the sight of the Vaio laptops on display though- I guess they'll sell off whatever they can now that they've sold off the Vaio brand, and whatever they can't sell will probably end up in some discount bin in online stores. I went for a stroll outside, and came across a Ginza attraction by chance- the "Ginza Cats" (google it)- three pet cats perched on a metal Ginza 5-choume signpost. There were only two at the time though- I wonder what happened to the third. No idea who the owner was either, or why the cats found the place so comfortable. All done with Ginza, I moved on to the next spot on my plan- the Ameyokocho shopping street. I gave up on my feet and took the subway instead. I arrived at my destination and was promptly distracted by another Book-Off. A stroll down Ameyokocho and its many shops proved amusing, but there was nothing tempting enough for me to open up my wallet.

Back to Akihabara for more browsing, before I decided to turn to Shinjuku instead, or rather, the red light district of Kabukicho- to look for dinner. It was already pretty dark, and well-dressed touts (pimps?) were out in full force, enticing lonesome men with promises of a good night. One asked if I was cold, to which I replied 'it is a little chilly', and he masterfully and furtively suggested a session with a girl to warm up. I told him that hot ramen would be more than enough for me (cheaper as well), and he disappeared to look for another lonely looking chap. The great thing about these guys- they act really friendly and polite, so you don't feel intimidated or frightened at all. Each exchange with one of their kind was rather amusing, actually. Now I did mention going for ramen earlier, but I'd actually decided on okonomiyaki instead. I found one nestled on the top floor of a building- I had to wait for around 15-20 minutes before finally being able to get a seat, but I was in for a small surprise- it was a DIY restaurant. I had absolutely no idea how to make an okonomiyaki, and asked the staff if they could just make one for me, but the waitress (Chinese, surprisingly) just pointed at the 'how to guide' displayed on the wall facing me. She gave up once she saw me gingerly dropping one chunk of meat onto the hot plate(?)- to be fair, I was just testing to see if it was hot enough, though I did have no idea what to do next- she picked up the mix, stirred it, and poured it onto the hot plate, returning now and then to poke and flip it over. Simple but lovely food, and I left satisfied, and it probably showed on my face too, as not a single tout accosted me on my way back to Shinjuku station.

Day 3 (Sunday). A long and tiring day. Honey toast for breakfast again, and then a subway ride to Gaienmae station. I had some extra time before work- preparations were to begin at noon, and the hall would be open to the public at 1pm- so I wandered around outside for a while. There was a large stadium almost opposite the building we would be having the expo in, and it looked like there was a game about to start- rugby, I think. Hundreds of people in gaudy brightly colored clothes slowly filtered through the stadium gates. I went for a filling serving of curry rice for lunch, enough to last me through the rest of the day, before heading back.

My manager was there already, and we set up our booth, before walking up to the organizers, rival agents, and some other folks to meishi koukan (business card exchange / 名刺交換). 1pm. The doors opened and in came the interviewees. I did a preliminary interview in English, before deciding whether or not to pass them to my manager for a more detailed Japanese interview. The plan was for me to turn away anyone who could not speak even simple English, but luckily for me the quality of the interviewees there seemed to be higher than that of previous years, as most could speak English fairly well. One chap left a pretty strong impression on me- a longtime policeman who'd decided that he had done enough for his country, and wanted to try working for himself for a change. He spoke excellent English (having spent some years in the US), and his knowledge of Malaysia was limited to a ornate Malay tin teapot (of all things! I suspect that it was the type used for washing hands and not serving tea, though), which he won in a lucky draw as a kid, and became a prize possession of his family. Then there was the young guy who came in last, with a bouzu (bonze) haircut- a victim of pawa-hara (power harassment / パワハラ)... poor chap. I'd pick up my bags in a heartbeat if told to shave my locks.

We had a dinner session planned (5000 yen per person). Some of the agents had left immediately after the expo ended, leaving just 9 of us- 5 ladies and 4 guys. We split into two tables- smokers and non-smokers. I ended up with the ladies. I didn't speak much- most of the talk was recruitment related, which didn't really interest me (go figure) much- so I focused on the food instead, and the free flow of drinks. Surprisingly enough several glasses of umeshu seemed to have no effect on me at all.

Finally, Monday. Since there's been some talk of Tsukiji market being moved to another location- I'd made up my mind the previous night to check out the Tsukiji while it is, well, still in Tsukiji. By the time I got there, most of the produce was sold out- I wasn't particularly interested in catching the auction (which would take place before daybreak, if I'm not mistaken), but I did see some ridiculously big fish being carved up. Lots of blood and bones too, if you're into that sort of thing. On a whim I decided to have sushi for lunch- some of the restaurants had really long queues (probably tour groups), which I avoided- I managed to find one with more empty seats and an affordable menu. I had one 'standard set', topped up with one extra inari sushi (my fave). The standard set was somewhat shocking in that each piece of sushi was laced with hidden wasabi... I'm not a big fan of wasabi, but luckily for me I managed to make my way through it without puking. Ignoring the wasabi, it was actually rather well done.

Back to Shinjuku station for some souvenir shopping. I picked up a chocolate scone from Dean & Deluca's that I'd got on my last trip in January, dumped it into my bag and forgot about it until much later. I dropped by in Isetan and picked up some chocolate and cake for the family back home. The Isetan Menswear Building or whatever it's called was a disappointment, and I consoled myself by checking out more bookstores (pretty much the only thing I actually do, you would think) in Shinjuku, and then back in Akihabara where I tortured store staff by asking if they had any stock for a book whose title I'd forgotten.The last bookshop I visited had it- the store staff scratched their heads for a while before one finally remembered where he'd last seen it- displayed on the cashier's desk, and signed by the author, no less. After some time I decided that I had had enough- headed to Tokyo station and got a Narita Express ticket. I was slightly confused by the station layout, and panicked a little due to the timing- I'd gotten myself a ticket for the 5.30 train, and only had minutes to spare. I then headed to platform 4, only to be told that it was the wrong platform 4- the Narita Express has its own platforms, separate from the normal platforms. Running up and down staircases with a suitcase filled to the brim and with little time is no fun at all, I assure you. Once at Narita airport- after some last minute book purchases, a quick takoyaki break on the open-air observation platform, and much waiting- we were on our way back home, and to work on Tuesday morning. I had an empty seat next to mine, and we were flying in clear skies, with a full moon visible overhead- the closest I've ever been able to see it- which all made for a lovely flight home. fin.

Now I don't know if anyone would be interested in what comes next, but since I had to log my transportation costs so as to file my claim form later on, I actually went one step further and logged every single purchase I made. It was somewhat amusing at the time, but since it helped me to recall my every step on this trip (I didn't take many photos this time), I figured that I might as well post it here instead as a sort of memorial in thanks to my spontaneous decision to be a accounts ledger. Here goes:

Day 1:
01) Keisei Express, Narita to Oshiage: 1130¥
02) To Jinbocho station- two tickets, as I lost my first one: 380¥
03) Hotel, for three nights- paid by card: 17127¥
04) Tempura Udon: 900¥
05) To Shibuya: 190¥
06) Books from BookOff: 3810¥
07) Books from Mandarake- paid by card: 6603¥
08) Pastry form a random bakery: 190¥
09) To Kudanshita station: 190¥
10) Lemonade: 147¥
11) To Iwamotocho: 170¥
12) Two pairs of work pants from Uniqlo: 4980¥
13) Screen protector for my phone, from Yodobashi: 980¥
14) MG Sinanju OVA ver. and MG Buster from Yodobashi (paid by card): 8849¥
15) Got customer service to apply the protector for me (I'm terrible at it): 300¥
16) Sweet-talked into buying something- chose a key-chain: 800¥
17) Books from K-Books: 2520¥
18) Another book: 599¥
19) Groceries and dinner from Family Mart: 656¥
20) Back to Jinbocho: 170¥
Total: 50522¥

Day 2:
01) Honey toast for breakfast: 550¥
02) Ginza to Uenohirokoji: 160¥
03) Books from BookOff: 505¥
04) Don ricebowl for lunch at Ameyokocho: 892¥
05) To Akihabara: 160¥
06) Flavored Kit-Kat (by card): 556¥
07) Books from Mandarake: 630¥
08) Another key-chain for sister: 315¥
09) To Shinkuku: 160¥
10) Okonomiyaki and two glasses of umeshu: 1510¥
11) To Jinbocho: 210¥
Total: 5548¥ (One- tenth of Day 1? Yikes)

Day 3:
01) Honey toast for breakfast again: 550¥
02) To Gaienmae: 160¥
03) Curry rice for lunch: 800¥
04) To Jinbocho: 160¥
05) Snacks: 233¥
Total: 1903¥ (Drop in the bucket. To be expected, though)

Day 4:
01) To Tsukiji: 210¥
02) Sushi lunch: 920¥
03) To Shinjuku: 260¥
04) Scone from Dean & Deluca's: 294¥
05) Manga from BookOff: 1365¥
06) Chocolate from Isetan (by card): 1650¥
07) Bean paste pastries from Isetan: 1050¥
08) To Iwamotocho: 210¥
09) Ramen lunch (again): 800¥
10) Manga from K-Books: 590¥
11) To Jinbocho: 170¥
12) To Tokyo station: 160¥
13) Narita Express: 2940¥
14) Apple juice on the Narita Express: 200¥
15) Last minute manga purchase: 1200¥
16) Chocolates as souvenirs again: 1680¥
17) 6 piece set of takoyaki: 480¥
18) Enjoying hot takoyaki in the cool air while watching planes land and take off: Priceless.
Total: 11533¥

Grand Total: 69506¥
Grand Total (after claims): 47639¥

Still a rather large amount of cash to spend over 4 days- not something that I could possibly have carried out if I had not been able to find my bank's ATM at KLIA, to permit my card to be charged from overseas. Looking at this figure though, I can't help but feel that I might have lost my marbles and gone somewhat overboard...

p.s. Because I didn't spend any money there, I completely forgot that I'd gone up the the observation deck on the Tokyo Metropolis Office building (or whatever it's called). It was too foggy/hazy to see much,  but hey, it was free!

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