This post covers the final full day in Tokyo on the first leg of our trip to Japan. Unexpectedly, it was also ‘Health and Sports Day’ – a national holiday to celebrate the Olympic Games that were held in the 60s. Al wasn’t feeling well (rather ironically), and so Grace and I headed out to do our own thing – finding most of Shibuya blocked off for various events that were going on.
There was the usual supply of bizarre mascots to be seen as well.
We initially decided to kick about Shibuya. We felt like we hadn’t quite made the most of it, and wanted to stay close by incase Al felt better and wanted to join us.
Luckily, that wasn’t exactly a hardship, and we spent some time taking photos of people who were milling about.
Probably partly just because everything felt so alien, but taking pictures was far easier in Japan than it is anywhere else. People generally didn’t seem to mind or notice, or were too polite to acknowledge a foreigner. If they did give you a curious look, a smile would usually be returned.
This guy did catch me though…
There’s a statue outside out Shibuya station of a dog called Hachikō, whose story is disturbingly similar to Greyfriar’s Bobby (the less said about that, the better). On this day, a cat was lying underneath the monument, and while you can’t see it in the picture, people were going crazy for it.
One interesting thing about Japan is that you find food court things in the basement of otherwise unassuming buildings – like shopping centres and train stations. You can apparently find pretty great sushi in these places, and we had a bit of a gander once we’d finished harassing the good people of Shibuya.
We ended up opting for some ramen though – which I think might even have been our first of the trip. It was at a tiny place where you choose what you want at a machine outside, and then take your ticket inside, where they make what you’ve paid for. An interesting system.
We found ourselves treading the same ground in Shibuya after that, and getting a bit frustrated. I think that part of the issue was that we were overwhelmed with things we could do, but not sure where best to start. In the end, we headed over towards Shinjuku. We had been avoiding this as we planned to go later, but thought having an early look couldn’t hurt.
I think it’s fair to say that as soon as we stepped off the train, we were glad we had bitten the bullet to go somewhere else. Much like many parts of Tokyo, Shinjuku felt like a totally different place from where we had been so far. It was much more of a built-up, modern, ‘downtown’ kind of feel, with (more) sleek buildings, and a distinct lack of younger people. It was more the ‘professional’ crowd – kind of like the financial district in London.
We were taking a picture of the above view, and an older Japanese man started chatting to us after he saw my Leica. He told us that he comes to this spot every night to take pictures (with one of his own Leicas), and it turns out that he used to live in Ohio years ago. It was a nice, unexpected interaction, and the sort that would be repeated at different times throughout the trip; something we came to really appreciate. Despite being acutely aware that we are foreigners in Japan, nobody really made us feel unwelcome because of that (with a couple of exceptions). In general, people were pleased to see visitors, and keen to get to know a bit about you – at least – when they had the confidence to speak English. Funnily enough, the most common question we were asked was ‘Why have you come to Japan?’, in a kind of genuine, confused way. Nobody seemed to get why we’d want to travel all that way, which seemed pretty crazy.
We wandered about some more, and I had a look in a few camera shops to try and find an old Canon 7 rangefinder, but all of them were too pricey for what I was after. I had hoped to discover a beaten up old gem, but the Japanese tend to look after their gear pretty well, retaining its value.
After a bit of Googling, we decided to return to Shinjuku another day, and jumped on the train again to head towards a place called Koenji. As it turned out, the area I was actually thinking of going was somewhere entirely different, but which also began with K. Ah well. It turned out to be a happy accident, as Koenji is apparently home to a thriving underground music scene, with cool bars and places to eat.
Compared to Shinjuku, Koenji was again, totally different – and much quieter. There were lots of shops underneath the train station in a long sort of tunnel thing, and we meandered down trying to find the rows of bars that supposedly were strewn about nearby. It definitely seemed like somewhere that you needed to know places to go, rather than stumbling upon them. We had a glass of wine in a wee place that was set up to look like a chic modern Italian restaurant, and then kept exploring.
It seemed like most of the places around weren’t quite open yet, but we found this wee place called ‘Stand Up Please’, which rather disappointingly had a few stools. Either way, the bar specialised in a variety of home infused spirits, like raspberry tequila, coffee bean rum, yuzu vodka, etc… and we spent a bit of time sampling a whole bunch.
We were the only people in the bar at the start, and we had an interesting time trying to communicate with the barman. We both made a valiant effort, and he was able to explain what some of the weirder spirits were, but sometimes we all just had to shrug and laugh. You could get a supply of ‘endless nuts’ for 300 Yen, and what really showed us up was when he had to explain to us how to crack them open.
More folk began to trickle in, and we all tried to communicate a wee bit, speaking our own respective languages, which didn’t go too far. Everybody was friendly though, and they waved us goodbye when we decided to move on. Grace got a better picture here.
By this point we were fairly peckish again, and we found a warren of wee food places. Everywhere looked pretty traditional Japanese though, and we were a bit tired and wary of ending up somewhere that we weren’t sure about – especially as we stuck out like a sore thumb even more than usual as foreigners in this part of the city. Though to that end, it just confirmed that we had found a cool place to explore. In the end, we found somewhere that seemed a bit less intimidating to grab a beer and some bits and pieces.
Funnily enough, they had a ‘world beer’ selection, including some from Scotland – though much to my dismay they used the English flag to mark them. We went for some Japanese options, obviously. Despite feeling awkward at first, and having some lost in translation moments, the guy who ran the bar was friendly, and brought out a huge selection of weird crisps and sweets in a big plastic ball thing.
We called it a night at this point, and headed back. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d end up back in Koenji before the trip was over. More on that later.
This post is part of a series looking back at my trip to Japan in 2016 along with Grace and Al. For a shared perspective from all three of us that was written at the time, take a look at japanatrois.wordpress.com.