David Chart's Japan Diary

October 5th 2003


I had a good night's sleep last night, although it wasn't quite as long as I would have liked. I'm clearly not fully over my jet-lag yet, although I did sleep straight through to 6am, which is progress. I'll have to get up at 7am tomorrow anyway, for the placement test, so that's probably enough progress. The flat still seems nice in the cold light of day, which is a relief.

In a little while I will go out to do some shopping, but I thought I'd start writing up the rest of my Tokyo activities before I did that. There is quite a lot to get though.

Friday (3rd)

I met up with Yuriko for dinner on Friday evening, so the day's plan was constrained by the need to be at Roppongi Hills for 6:30. That was, of course, no problem in the morning, but by the afternoon I had to think quite carefully about where I was going, to make sure that I could get to the relevant parts of the city.

As I mentioned earlier, Sawanoya ryokan does Japanese style breakfasts as well as western-style. The Japanese ones are a bit more expensive (900 yen instead of 3-400 yen), but they are much more substantial, and, in my opinion, a lot better. Of course, you have to be able to cope with cold fish, rice, and miso soup for breakfast, and being able to handle chopsticks is very handy, but if you do stay there I recommend having the Japanese breakfast at least once. I had two, and they were different each day, so I assume that they have a fair range of menus. You don't get a choice, though, and again this is standard. You just order that day's Japanese breakfast, and get what they are making.

The Imperial Palace Gate The gate to the Imperial Palace. The guard is standing in the centre because the two sentries are in the middle of changing sides.

I started my sightseeing by going to see the Imperial Palace. There isn't a lot to see here, although there is quite a nice formal park around it, because you are not allowed to enter the grounds. As you can see from the photograph, the gate is quite forbidding, guarded, and cut off with a barrier as well. It makes Buckingham Palace look positively accessible. Mind you, given recent security issues, it probably is. Anyway, after taking a couple of pictures there I walked over to Tokyo Bay, going through Hibiya Park, to the next main stop.

Hama Rikyu gardens The sea water pond and tea house at the Hama Rikyu gardens.

This was the Hama Rikyu garden. The Tokugawa shogun laid this out originally, but now it's open to the public, although there is a small admission charge. The garden has several different areas, including the sea-water pond with tea house shown in the picture. It's very pleasant, and it wasn't very busy while I was there. Admittedly, I did arrive at about a quarter past ten on a week day, so it might be rather worse later, or at weekends. I only had about half an hour to walk round, because I wanted to get on to the next stage of sightseeing, and I think I could have spent longer there. There were some bits of the garden I didn't see at all, and other bits that I didn't see properly. Still, I imagine that I'll be coming back here when Mum and Ray are over, as it's a bit of Tokyo I think they'll really like.

The Asahi Building The Asahi Building. It's a flame. Really.

From Hama Rikyu, I got the water bus to Asakusa. This is really a tour bus, not a normal means of transport, but it does give you an interesting view of the city. The guide names the bridges as you pass under them, and tells you things about the buildings you can see along the banks of the Sumida river. The buildings in the picture belong to the Asahi beer company, and according to the guide the golden... thing... is a flame, and represents the heart. Well, whatever you say, but that's not what it looks like to me.

Asakusa is where the most important Buddhist temple in Tokyo, Sensoji, is found. I got there just before midday, which meant that I could watch the mechanical clock on the tourist information centre perform. It was really quite impressive, with music and dolls showing scenes from a local festival. Unfortunately, my camera decided to go on the blink at that point, so I only have one picture of it.

After that, I went into Sensoji ('ji' means 'temple'). The entrance is through a Kaminarimon, which might mean 'Gate going to the gods'. The sounds are right, and Toushogu jinja in Ueno park had one as well. The gate is huge, and a massive lantern hangs in the middle. One interesting thing about Sensoji is that the swastika appears to be a traditional symbol there, because it appears all over the place. It's a proper swastika, rather than the Nazi version, but it's still slightly odd, coming from England, to see o-mamori with swastikas on for sale.

Through the Kaminarimon, you come to Nakamise Dori, which means 'Street through the shops'. And that's exactly what it is. There are dozens of small shops, rather like stalls in a covered market, selling sweets, clothes, souvenirs, and toys. The road was packed, and the shops seemed to be doing a brisk business.

Sensoji Temple The gate to the inner temple complex at Sensoji

At the end of the street there's another massive gate, and that's what you can see in the picture. This gate leads into the temple complex proper, although things don't get much less busy. There is a monastery, the Demboin, attached, and it has a five storey pagoda that towers over the complex. In the centre of the courtyard between the gate and the main temple, there is an incense burner, and people 'wash' in the smoke, to cure ills or bring good fortune.

Sensoji is dedicated to Kannon, the buddha of compassion, and was founded when two brothers fished a gold statue of Kannon out of the Sumida river, in the seventh century. The image is reputedly still held at the temple, but it is a secret Buddha image, which means that no-one is allowed to see it. The temple complex was almost completely destroyed in World War II, with only one gate surviving, so the current temple, despite looking very traditional, was built of ferroconcrete in 1958, with the aid of popular donations.

There's a Shinto shrine, the Asakusa jinja, in one corner of the complex, where the brothers who found the statue and the village elder who built the temple are enshrined as Shinto deities. Philosophically, this is rather as if Bath cathedral had an active shrine to Sulis Minerva in a corner of the churchyard, but in Japan it's normal; Shinto and Buddhism have worked together, and into each other, over the last fifteen hundred years or so.

I had lunch at a noodle shop, and had a short conversation with the Japanese couple who were put at my table. This is normal practice in busy Japanese restaurants; if there is lots of space at your table, another party will be put on it. The food was good, and I got a chance to practice Japanese, so that was fine.

A model of part of Edo A model at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, showing part of Edo near Nihombashi, the main bridge.

From there, I went to the Edo-Tokyo museum. This museum has very few original objects -- nearly everything is replicas. It tells the history of Tokyo from when Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, moved his capital to a small village in 1603, to the Olympic games in 1964. The labels are almost all in Japanese, but the museum has a really good system of volunteer guides, who speak a number of languages (including Japanese), and show you around, explaining the exhibits. You don't see everything -- it's quite a large museum -- but you do get a good overview. I started my tour with a guide to myself, although a couple of people joined us soon after we started. The groups tend to be small, under half a dozen people, and I highly recommend getting such a guide if you visit. This is another museum I'll have to go back to, possibly on a Friday so that I can get Mitsue Kato, my guide this time, again.

Me with Tokyo Me on the view deck at Roppongi Hills. You can't see much of Tokyo in the background, but it's there.

From that museum, I went back to the ryokan to pick up some things, before heading to Roppongi Hills to meet Yuriko. Roppongi underground station is enormous, and has lots of exits, something quite common in Tokyo, and it took me some time to find my way from the station to the station exit where I was meeting Yuriko. Still, I managed it in good time, so we met as planned. First, she took me up to the top of Roppongi Hills tower to see the view of Tokyo. This is spectacular, although it isn't cheap (about 1500 yen -- there are some discounts). The tower is the tallest in Tokyo, and the view is from the fifty second floor. You can see the whole city, because there are no other really tall buildings in the immediate vicinity. It was dark when we were up there, so we saw Tokyo lit up. You can spot Tokyo Bay and the parks by looking for the dark patches in the middle of the lights, and that's generally enough to orient yourself and work out what is where. It also helps that a lot of public buildings are illuminated at night.

After that, we had dinner together, and by the end of dinner jet-lag and frantic activity had caught up with me, and I went back to the ryokan and to bed.

Saturday (4th)

Yesterday was quite busy. In the morning I had another Japanese breakfast, as I mentioned, and then packed to clear the room. Fortunately, the ryokan was willing to let me leave my luggage there until the evening, so I didn't have to carry it around Tokyo all day. I made my reservations for the next time I'm in Tokyo before I left in the morning. It is a good ryokan, and for Tokyo it's fantastic value.

I was supposed to meet Saori at Tokyo Station Marunouchi North Exit, but I couldn't remember which Marunouchi exit it was. Unfortunately, there are three... I picked up my shinkansen ticket before I met her, and then checked the exits until I found her. As a result we were about ten minutes late meeting up, but it wasn't too bad.

Waseda University The statue of the founder of Waseda University, and the ceremony hall beyond.

Then she took me to look around Waseda University, where she is studying, because I had shown her around Cambridge when she was there. Waseda is not as pretty as Cambridge, but then very few places are. It looked rather like a standard university campus in the UK, with lots of students around even on a Saturday. In fact, we even saw some schoolgirls in uniform, which surprised me, but apparently this is the time of year for school festivals, and the students all have to wear uniform for that. It was interesting to see around, and Saori showed me the international section. Apparently, the international students hardly mix with the Japanese students, which seems a shame.

Yuriko and Saori Yuriko (on the left) and Saori.

While we were at Waseda I rang Yuriko, and, she told me later, woke her up. So that conversation wasn't as coherent as it might have been. In the end, I had lunch (Thai curry) with Saori, and then we met Yuriko at Takadanobaba station and went for a coffee together. After coffee, it was time to head back to the ryokan to pick up my luggage and return to Tokyo station to catch the shinkansen. Yuriko is from Nagoya originally, so she uses the Tokaido shinkansen a lot. This was helpful, because she knew where she was going. I was in plenty of time, and I had a reserved seat anyway, so it was easy. They stayed at the station to wave me off. I don't have a photo of the train, because my camera was on the blink again. However, Saori's mobile phone can take photographs, so she took some while we were waiting, and took one of me on the train.

By the time we set off, I was sitting next to a Japanese girl, Marina. She is fourteen, and had been in Tokyo on a day trip for a koto concert. All the other koto players were in their forties and fifties, and I strongly suspect that she wasn't originally sitting next to me, but that the others had sent her to sit next to me. This makes more sense that it might seem: her English was extremely good, particularly for a fourteen year old. We had an interesting conversation in a mixture of English and Japanese, which basically proceeded in one language until one of us got stuck, and then switched to the other until the next problem. As well as school, Marina plays the koto and piano, dances ballet, and until recently did karate (she has a black belt) and some other kind of dance that I didn't quite catch. Apparently, she has no free time, and I'm not surprised.

At Nagoya I had to change to local express to Okazaki. Marina was taking a differe line, but some of the other koto people were on the same train as me, so they showed me where to get on, and told me that I didn't have to buy a ticket for Okazaki in Nagoya. Instead, once I got to Okazaki I had to go to the fare adjustment machine and pay the extra. That's what I did, and it was only another 420 yen.

I phoned the school from the station, from the phone by the west exit. I had to go and wait by the east exit, of course. It took me very nearly as long to get there as it took the person who had come to meet me from the school. She did tell me her name, but I didn't catch it. The school is very close to the station, and we had to go back there for the office to take some details from my passport, and for me to sign the agreements on the flat. My big case had arrived, and then I was driven round to my flat. I bought some food from the convenience store across the road, and did some unpacking before I went to bed.


Today, I had to do some shopping. The flat was missing just about everything. First, I went to the supermarket, and bought lots of rice, and some other things, including some cookies called 'David Club'. They were very expensive by English standards, but I felt I really had to buy them. They're quite nice, although I think that wrapping the biscuits individually is probably excessive. Still, it means they won't go soft even though I don't have a biscuit tin. That was quite expensive, so I bought a bit less than I might have done, in case there is a noticeably cheaper place to shop for food.

After that, I went to the Daisou 100 yen shop, where (almost) everything is 100 yen, about 60 pence, or $1. There are a few 200 yen items, in special sections, but I got plates, knives, forks, chopsticks, soap, towels, scissors... Lots of things. There are still a few things I need, but I now have enough to survive for a day or two. I can cook rice, bacon, and eggs, eat them off something other than the floor, and wash up afterwards. I can even have a shower and shave before the placement test, which might be a good idea.

The most urgent thing I still need is a hanging rail for the wardrobe. They did have some in the 100 yen shop, but they only went up to 5 kg, which wouldn't be enough for all my clothes. I don't think I'll be able to actually screw something to the wall, so I might have to buy two or three, and hang my clothes on different rails so they don't fall down. Even so, that might be the cheapest way to sort it out. I also need to buy lots of bins, because rubbish in Japan has to be sorted into about four different categories, of which the most important are burnable and non-burnable. I suspect that this will be covered in the orientation session on Tuesday, so I'm just putting rubbish in carrier bags for now.

I don't know how people who cannot speak or read any Japanese cope when they arrive. I found food shopping difficult, because I can't read the packages easily. The 100 yen shop was generally easier, but I still had to find different kinds of soap by reading the packs. (I still need to buy laundry detergent -- mustn't forget.) The school does quite a lot when you arrive: I got a map, and one of the student services people went over it saying what things were, and some of the locations got pointed out again when I was being driven over to the flat. I assume that non-Japanese speakers would get that introduction in a different language, although I suspect that speaking Japanese made their job easier, as it meant that they didn't have to get a particular person into the school for my arrival time. (I arrived in Okazaki at about 7:30pm, which was a bit late.) With that, you could probably survive until school starts on Monday, and then I imagine you could find more help -- if nothing else, a student at a higher level with whom you share a language.

In case it wasn't obvious, I'm impressed with the school so far. The acid test is how well they can teach me Japanese, of course, but the student support system seems to be quite well organised and effective.

(I will take pictures around my flat and the school, but as there's no time pressure on doing that I've decided that I can't be bothered doing it today. Deal with it.)