Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Blundering Through Tokyo

I love Tokyo. With Kat's sense of direction and my understanding of information graphics, we managed to navigate the Tokyo subway system without fault for five days. Our social manners were less impressive. We were accidentally offensive from the second we arrived (the Skyliner from the airport has allocated seats ... we squashed toes and bumped heads down seven carriages with our bags) to the time we left (very definite rules apply to which slippers are allowed where in a ryokan, as I kept discovering when horrified staff members ran at me waving their arms, but more of that later).
On the first day, we lost ourselves in the crowds of Shibuya, ordered a ramen from a machine that was served by a human, got stuck in an enormous park for a couple of hours (the metro ran parallel so there was only one exit, which is all very well to know now). Finally escaping the park into the cute-overload of Harajuku, we headed to the Park Hyatt for a Lost in Translation tribute cocktail, but the New York bar wasn't open yet and a $50 glass of wine amongst tea-sipping tourists wasn't going to cut it, so back into the thoroughfare of Shinjuku. Thirsty and struggling to find an open bar (we inadvertently woke a few napping barstaff who all refused us service) or a beer for under $12, we headed for the red-light district, Golden Gai, figuring they'd surely serve a couple of nice girls an afternoon drink - we had been navigating Tokyo crowds for 7 hours. We sat on a couple of beers and some sesame-oiled cabbage in a second story bar (there's a whole other city that rises vertically from street level) watching Japanese toy-boys with white satin shirts and David Beckham hair (from all eras of his career, particularly the awkward pre-Posh years) attempting to lure women into their 'host clubs' with personalised packets of tissues. Next up we found ourselves in the most surreal bar I've ever been to - it was basically the bottom floor of a very small house, with five stools lined along a counter top bar. The guy behind the bar was hanging a cigarette over a frypan of fish in the corner when we fell into the room (which weirdly didn't smell at all). He sort of acknowledged us so we wedged ourselves onto two of the five available stools and pointed at a beer.
After about five minutes another guy entered, occupying the only remaining space in the room before we were all touching each other, which was great because our conversation about the Japan v. Ukraine soccer match wasn't going anywhere fast (at least I think that's what we were pantomiming about). It was impossible not to watch the game, as looking anywhere but the tv meant staring at each other, really closely. We powered through a beer and the slightly slimy potato (and turnip?) stew we were served, but when we figured out we were going to be served a bit of all the food our man was chain smoking over, we cut our loses (about $15) and evacuated. Hands down the most surreal drinking experience of my life.
The second day started with a walk through the East Garden of the Imperial Palace, followed by a few hours in Ginza walking past shops I didn't need a calculator to know I couldn't afford to shop in, and ducking in and out of little galleries with mostly awful contemporary art.
In the evening we watched the sunset at the Shoji temple and bumbled through the touristy night markets. A quick beer in what was apparently the oldest bar in Japan, then a fantastic grilled mushroom and pork meal next to some Italian travellers using their chopsticks like weapons (all the food we ate in Tokyo was great, except the raw snail, but getting to that).
A bottle of chilled red wine didn't really hit the spot so we moved on to sake - a decision to have enormous repercussions the following day. We found our way to a tiny upstairs bar called JiJi, where we were unwillingly bought several large sakes and plates of pickles by a harmless threesome of Japanese salarymen (see man behind Kat).
When that closed, it would have been a good time to call it a night, so we found ourselves in another dim bar for a few more mugs of sake. It was a riot of a night, but the sledgehammer hangover was so painful the next morning that with closed eyes I could visualise my brain as a 3D object, made up by points of intense white pain. However, the unventilated room with four people and an equally unventilated ensuite was so vulgar that we managed an early exit, and with a hearty ramen breakfast, make it to Ueno gardens, a shortish walk from the hostel. After a brief lie down in the park (a few meters away from hundreds of homeless men who were quietly and efficiently being organised in lines to receive food and supplies), we went through to Tokyo National Museum and spent the day in an exhibition of 'treasures' by the Rinpa Masters - scrolls, screens, ceramics and kimonos.
Our last day in Japan was spent with a trip to the Kabuki theatre - the costumes and sets were spectacular, but I'm not in a rush to buy the cd. The single act option (an hour) was a wise choice. With an early morning flight the next day, we stayed in Narita at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese guest house). It had a traditional hot bath, which was bliss to float about in for an hour, before having an eight course degustation meal in-house. I'm still a bit traumatised about the raw snail - when I get a chance to post the photos, the horror will be more apparent, but I'm not really ready to laugh about it yet.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The map above, from the VodkaTrain site, shows the route we're taking from Beijing to St Petersburg. The one below are the countries we'll visit after a week in St Petersburg: