28 May 2012

Japan I - Toyko, the home of Mario

Three weeks in Japan is going to take a lot of documenting, so this is going to be the first of quite a series of entries on the Blog.   If you've nothing better to do with your time and want to gain an insight into some of the quirkier idiosyncrasies that make Japan fascinating...then stay tuned!

A twelve hour flight from Heathrow to Narita, Toyko, which to be fair to Branson Air, was very good, still left us washed out and bleary eyed by the time we'd cleared all the formalities.  We then had to sort out our Japan Rail (JR) passes (of which more later), book reserved seat tickets on the Shinkansen for the 5th May (of which a lot more later) and finally find our way to the Narita Express, a direct JR non-stop line into the centre of Toyko and beyond and then to our first hotel at Ikebukuro.

Except it wasn't running.

 Much deep bowing and apologies from the young lady at the desk, but no, there'd been an accident and it wasn't running...so sorry.

So there we are, completly bewildered in a totality alien (or it seemed at the time) environment, with no apparent means to get the 100 miles or so from the airport to the hotel.

Great, just bloody wonderful! Bugger!

A little sign language though and some help from another member of staff found us on the JR slow train into Toyko central, where we had to change trains (eeeek!!!) to find our way to Ikebukuro, where the Toyoko Inn hotel (shown above) could be found about about 10 minutes from the station.

Toyko is big.  If you thought London or any any of the other major cities in the United Kingdom were big, they pale when compared to Toyko.

It's big, period.  In fact the vast majority of the Japanese are crammed into the coastal plain between the mountains and the sea and at the last count, Toyko central's nearly 12.5 million people (with a density of 5655 k/m) comprises almost 20% of the countries population.

Greater Toyoko is a complete and continuous conurbation almost from Narita to way beyond Yokohama, which is nearly 50 miles away.  Forget all frothy notions of rolling green English fields, with lambs skipping around and daffodils under oak trees.  In this part of Japan, any flat land will have a building on it and if it's not a building, it'll be a rice field. More to the point, it's so densely packed that the next building or house will be squashed in tight (a matter of feet) against it's neighbour.

Sounds like a bit of a nightmare, but there you'd be completely wrong.  The Japanese, being the people they are have managed to make Toyko and indeed the whole of Japan an enthralling and exhilarating place to visit but there are three crucial words you need to take into account...

Order, harmony and obedience...and those three words go a very long way to explaining the national psyche, but not all, as we shall see.

Just to illustrate.  There are no old cars and no dirty cars.  Traffic sticks rigorously to the speed limits and throughout the tour, I never saw any car overtake another!  There is no litter anywhere (and I don't exaggerate)  There is no graffiti...none.  There are no fat people (and apologies if the scales grown when you get on them)  In fact the best way to encapsulate the atmosphere in a nutshell is to imagine a scene from a Jim Carrey film, 'The Truman Show'...the whole country is like Switzerland on steroids!

Toyko is vast (but you know that already), however it's not quite as mind numbingly vast when you consider that for all practical purposes, it's a series of smaller 'towns' linked together by the sprawl of the conurbation which is in turn linked by the rather excellent (of which more later) rail network, thus we have places like Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ueno and Asakusa which are all part of Toyko but  which have separate identities in themselves.

Amongst the sea of skyscrapers are several ancient gardens which provide an oasis of tranquility.

The pic above was taken from the 42nd floor of an office block and shows the Hama-rikyu Gardens, one of the oldest in Japan and adjacent to the world famous Tsukiji fish market.

Remember order and harmony?  All the many gardens we visited throughout the tour were stunning and laid out in a meticulous, calming way...

...with many of the full sized trees being trained to conform to a particular style (the one shown above was  outside the Imperial Palace) with Alyson...

...in a couple of shots, with the Palace in the background.

To take just one further example, the pic above shows the world famous Shibuya crossing, taken as I was going across it.  Doesn't look much from the ground, but when it's seen from the railway station...

...you can see the tide of humanity crossing, and remember, this wasn't the rush hour.  Then it becomes something very different!

As our first taste of Japan, I found Tokyo and it's inhabitants fascinating and so much more could be written, but I haven't quite finished with it yet as the next exciting instalment will reveal but for that, you'll just have to be patient.

And what's all the stuff about Mario?...again, patience is a virtue.

To be continued.

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