Woke up yesterday at 8.45 and after splashing some water on my face and pulling my jacket on, I was jogging down to the post office to wait around with a bunch of old people. Hallelujah! My Mastercard does indeed have some kind of racist aversion to 7-11 ATMs, and the post office ATM worked fine. I will not, after all, be stranded in a foreign land with not a penny to my name, dependent on the kindness of strangers. I strolled back to the hostel with 29,000 yen in my wallet and a warmth in my heart.

Then I got fucking mugged.

Not really. Arrived back at the hostel and boiled up some instant noodles in the lounge. Then Steve, bless his cotton socks, came down the stairs to cook everyone French toast. I slopped my noodles into the bin and enjoyed a damn fine meal, then went back to the room to brush my teeth and check my email (reassuring my anxious father that all was well re: money), before wandering down to the lobby to wait around for the others. Read the International Herald Tribune and bought a water bottle; ended up waiting a very long time because Steve thought he had time for a shower, or something. We ended up leaving around eleven.

At the train station Ellen had forgotten her rail pass (STRIKE TWO), so she went back to the hostel to retrieve it, accompanied by a stalwart Jamie. The rest of us abandoned them to their fate and took the subway to Shinjuku, a moderately impressive shopping district. Bought some chocolate to last us through the day (I’ve become addicted to a brand called Ghana, though Meiji is pretty good too), pushed our way through some kind of political rally, tried and failed to get to the top of the Cocoon Tower, and eventually set our sights on some kind of government tower – which actually rose much taller and commanded an impressive view of the metropolis. It wasn’t quite as jaw-dropping as Osaka, because it was day rather than night, but it was still cool. Is Tokyo the largest city in the world? Or is that Mexico City? Or New York? What I find really amazing is that so much of it is new, not just rebuilt after the air raids of ’45, but built from scratch throughout the post-war economic boom. All that steel and glass and concrete – the sheer weight of it – stretching out to every horizon.

yeah... i guess it's pretty big...

yeah... i guess it's pretty big...

We took the elevator back down and caught another train to a place called Harajaku, where a torii led into a leafy park criss-crossed with streams and ponds. Winter probably wasn’t the nicest time to visit it – especially when we reached an area where all the water had been drained and workers in plastic overalls were walking through the mud planting seeds, or reinforcing the walls, or something – but it was still cool. Leaving the park we headed through an extensive shopping district. Most of the stores were brands from Paris or London or the US, with names in English stencilled across the glass storefronts. I saw a shrine tucked away with a Roxy store on one side and a Tommy Girl on the other, both splashed with garish billboards, which would have mide a nice ironic photo if I could get the angle right.

You find the funniest things in Japanese stores - also the most terrifying

You find the funniest things in Japanese stores - also the most terrifying

Chris and I got separated from the others somewhere around that area, and we headed on foot to the next shopping district, called Shibuya – home of the famous scramble crossing. I’d gotten it into my head to buy a watch, and after looking at some of the insane prices everywhere (a vintage Omega that belonged to a 1950s sailor would be very cool, but unfortunately I don’t have 150,000 yen at my disposal) I eventually found a vintage/second hand store at the top of some stairs at the edge of a plaza, which was having a sale. At least, it claimed to be vintage/second hand, but everything looked pretty new to me. I looked around and eventually settled on a three-star Orient, which the salesman adjusted for me, and I walked out 6,000 yen ($120 AUD) poorer but with the ability to tell the time with the simplest of glances at my wrist – truly, an ability worth any amount of money!

Oh my good God

Oh my good God

Night was falling at this point, which suited us just fine, because Shibuya Crossing lay directly ahead and oh my dear God was it amazing. I’ve never been to Times Square, but I’m willing to bet that if any crossroad in the world rivals it, it would be Shibuya. Billboards and advertising are splayed across the side of every building at every level; there were at least three or four huge video screens, each playing a different ad and bellowing audio commercialism; on one building, the entire glass side was lit up through some huge projection device, urging us to buy Pocky and fly JAL and join the Japanese Navy, and if there was ever a convincing way to sell a product that has to be it. At ground level, the rushing traffic was brought to a regular halt by the scramble crossing, which felt like a medieval battlefield as thousands of pedestrians rushed across the blank asphalt to meet each other. Simply walking across that intersection, being part of that crazy ant’s nest of humanity, was awesome fun. I felt like I was living in some futuristic city of science fiction, walking through Blade Runner or Cowboy Bebop or the Fifth Element.

It is unbelievable that for all these people this is their daily, average commute home from work

It is unbelievable that for all these people this is their daily, average commute home from work

After taking as many photos as we could – unfortunately my camera sucks at night, goes all blurry – we hunted around for a place to eat dinner. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but after walking around more in a single day than I usually do in an entire month, I was just keen to sit for a while. We saw a menu outside one place which seemed fairly reasonable, and when we opened the door and saw that it consisted of japanese-style mats and low tables in private rooms along a descending staircase, our minds were made up. We eagerly removed our shoes, crawled into a booth and ordered some food, and our enthusiasm was only dampened when it arrived in miniscule portions. a main course should not be in a bowl the size of a teacup (and I’m not exaggerating). It’s just not cricket. These miniscule portions of beef, rice and pork ended up costing us a total of 3,000 yen ($60 AUD). We considered doing a runner, but it just wasn’t feasible – they’d catch us while we were still tying our laces up.

"It costs what?"

"It costs what?"

With our wallets considerably lighter, we explored a little more around the streets and alleys of Shibuya, played Time Crisis in a video arcade for old time’s sake, then caught a train for home. We were heading along one of Tokyo’s hundreds of railway lines when we caught a glimpse of the Tokyo Tower lit up in the not-so-distance, and immediately jumped off at the next station to make our way there on foot. It was a lot harder to spot at ground level, as opposed to an L-train, but we ran into an American who pointed us in the right direction, and after a walk down a freezing, windy street we found it towering above us.

Well that looks awfully familiar

Well that looks awfully familiar

The Tokyo Tower is a “self-supporting steel tower,” which is to say, an Eiffel rip-off. Aside from the red colour and a few aesthetic tweaks, they’re almost identical. It was built in 1958 for no apparent reason other than one-upping the French, since it’s a mere thirteen metres higher. We shelled out 3,000 yen to take the elevator up to the highest observation deck. The Umeda Sky Building was more impressive, mostly becauuse it was fresh and new. You can get accustomed to being in a foreign environment (in this case, a city large enough that the shops are open past 5 and the city council doesn’t shriek like an autistic child whenever anyone mentions the word “development”) fairly quickly.

After the Tokyo Tower it was just one long, windy, frigid walk back to the metro station that took us home, with a brief stop at a deserted shrine that we’d stumbled across. We’d considered going to the Akihabra electronics district, but it was pushing eleven and I’d already spent about two hundred dollars, so we headed back to the hostel instead. Before I nodded off to sleep,¬†Jamie entertained us with tales of how his attire had been treated with contempt by a bunch of flaaaaamingly homosexual Australians, which is amusing, because Jamie is the most stylish person I know. In Sapporo he successfully wore a neck-warmer as a bandana, for Christ’s sake.

Morning gave us a decision – take the two hour train to the historical temple district of Nikko, outside the city, or spend the day in Tokyo? We debated it for a while before deciding that Tokyo is much more impressive at night, and that we’d be back by seven-thirty or so. Ellen and Jamie were more keen on trying to see all the stuff they missed out on yesterday (good luck!), but the rest of us boarded a JR bullet train that was soon rushing through the countryside, or what passes for countryside on Tokyo’s rural-urban fringe.

Rob and Steve take the train to SLUMBERLAND!

Rob and Steve take the train to SLUMBERLAND!

Nikko was one of those places that gave a distinct impression of having a lot to see and not a lot of time to see it all, or even any clear indication of where all the sights were. we caught some random buses and walked up some roads, following the floods of Chinese tourists who were in turn following flag-bearing tour guides, and managed to find a decent amount of temples. I’m not sure how many of the shrines and temples were authentic and how many were reconstructions – Japan being regularly subjected to both earthquakes and giant monster attacks, making it difficult for buildings to stay around for long – but some of them were World Heritage listed, so I guess they were real.

Wash, rinse, repeat

Wash, rinse, repeat

Around 1.00 pm the sun retreated behind a cloud and the mercury plummeted, making the exercise somewhat unenjoyable and leaving me colder than I’d ever been in Niseko, since I wasn’t dressed for it. We found an ancient-looking temple and knelt with some Japanese tourists, listening to a priest(?) give some kind of sermon or tell a story or something, which was pretty cool, but then we scampered back down the slopes into a restaurant before we froze to death. I had a great meeal there, incidentally, tempura with udon noodles, very large and reasonably priced. The opposite of last night, in fact.

Thawing out my hands in the restaurant

Thawing out my hands in the restaurant

Overall Nikko was a cool trip and I’m glad we made the visit. It was pretty touristy (unavoidable, I guess) and it kind of ruins the effect to have traffic cones, plastic poles and information signs set against a backdrop of archaic shrines, but when you look past all that it’s an amazing place – and very beautiful, set amongst moss-covered stones, enormous pines and fir trees, distant snowy mountains and natural creeks. While we were sitting listening to the Japanese priest talk, in this ancient temple, surrounded by old things, I kept picturing the neon wonderscape of Shibuya Crossing at night. I can’t imagine any nation with such a contrast. I’ve never been to England, but I always thought there was something sad about all that venerable history, Roman ruins and old battlefields and crumbling castles, being covered up by motorways and Tescos and housing subdivisions. Even in that temple, as the priest was talking, there was a stand of knick-knacks on sale just to our right. Every second store in the town was a gift shop. Is it even possible to cling onto your heritage in a dignified way? Letting go of it entirely, embracing the Neuromancer-future of Shibuya Crossing, would seem to be one way. Relegating the past to the past. That’s depressing. Maybe the young nations, the Australias and Americas, are more fortunate than I thought.

Homeward bound

Homeward bound

We’re on the bullet train back to Tokyo now. Akihabara tonight, maybe?