Japan Part Six: Back to Tokyo (Part 2)

Sunday 13 October – Tuesday 15 October 2020

The next morning in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, it didn’t feel like there had been a storm at all. The sky was a clear blue and the streets were filled with people once again. Our first stop was Kappabashi Street, where the shops were open again. We wanted to buy some plastic food. Unfortunately we found out these souvenirs would cost actual money. I’d been hoping it would be relatively cheap so, not wanting to spend like £40 on a fake meal (however well done it was), I settled for a token noodle soup magnet instead of a life-sized dish. I couldn’t come away without anything after all.

My family and I then walked to Sensō-ji. I’d seen the temple in the rain yesterday but now my family needed to see it. The temple’s famous big, red lantern was still put away following Typhoon Hagibis but otherwise it seemed to be business as usual. My photos may have come out better now that the red temple was set against the blue sky but, as the place was now teeming with people, I kind of preferred yesterday’s wet but quiet visit.

There were some street food stands by the temple so we stopped for a snack before walking on. I bought some meat on a stick as well as a grapefruit with a straw. I really fancied some grapefruit juice but I was left disappointed with the little amount that actually came out of one grapefruit.

We walked for a little while along the river to see what it looked like post-storm (answer, pretty full) before hopping on the subway over to the area of Akihabara – famous for its cosplay and gaming scene (including its maid cafes, which I would have felt weird about going to anyway, let alone going with my Dad and brothers) and electronic shops. Now I am interested in neither of those things but it still sounded like an interesting neighbourhood.

We arrived to find colourful buildings covered in billboards. We stopped for a drink and I had some kind of milk with syrup and bubbles (I am not a fan of the bubble thing but the sweet milk was exactly what I needed in the heat). I did actually have a destination in mind. I might not be into gaming these days but I’d read about a vintage gaming place called Super Potato, which sounded like more of my kind of thing as much of my childhood was spent playing Super Mario and Pokemon games.

Super Potato was set over several floors of a building (the space on each floor was small). At the top was an arcade with some retro games that my brothers and I spent a while playing with (they found some kind of fighting game to play together, while I went for Tetris). The other floors had shops selling old games. I found old Mario and Pokemon Gameboy games that I was tempted by for nostalgia reasons but decided against – after all, I still have my old ones.

I ended up leaving my family at Super Potato for a solo activity. There was an immersive art exhibition called TeamLab Borderless which I had seen all over Instagram. I’d been um-ing and ah-ing as to whether to go and when I finally made up my mind, the exhibition website said that tickets were sold out for the day. I had a google and found that Get Your Guide was still selling tickets so I thought I’d buy one on there and hope for the best.

It was a bit of a journey over to the place but easy enough. The route felt like taking the DLR in London to the Docklands area. When I arrived, there was a bit of a queue but it didn’t take too long and my ticket was accepted so soon enough I was inside.

The main floor of the exhibition consisted of big, dark rooms, with the walls covered in projections that slowly changed and moved around to different rooms – i.e. it was artworks without borders. It did mess with your perception. It was cool but very Instagram; I actually wished I had tried to persuade my family to come along because I think, in that situation, having a (not serious) Instagram photoshoot is probably what would have made it the most fun. There was also another floor which was a bit more interactive / like a playground – that would have been more fun in a group but as it was I did a quick circuit and headed back to the projection rooms. I did still enjoy the “Weightless Forest of Resonating Life“, i.e. a room filled with giant colourful balloons.

Even once inside, there were a couple of areas that I had to queue for. The “Floating Nest” involved a queue of more than an hour. I wasn’t going to bother with it but I realised I had some time to play with and the fact it was so popular inspired me to join the line. Besides, I’m British. I can’t see a queue and not feel the urge to stand in it. As it turned out, it was not worth it. You basically go into a room and watch a light display – that wasn’t as interesting as the light displays in the other rooms – while lying in a giant net.

The lantern room (aka the “Forest of Resonating Lamps”), however, was worth the queue. It helped that it was a shorter queue but still about 30 minutes. Here you walk into a room of lanterns and mirrors that make the lanterns seemingly go on forever. It reminded me very much of the Yayoi Kusama exhibition I had visited in London a few years before, with infinity rooms full of lights and pumpkins and mirrors that made the small rooms feel endless.

I also enjoyed the “Crystal World” room, which is filled with hanging LED lights which change colour to simulate the idea of a passing day, although at one point I did feel very lost.

After I decided I couldn’t wander around anymore, I left and headed back to find the family. That night, it was the rugby world cup quarter-finals: Japan v Scotland. We decided that since we’d missed the cancelled England v France game that we’d had tickets for, we’d try and watch this match in Tokyo’s fan zone. That way, we’d at least be soaking up some good, local atmosphere.

I arrived ahead of my family. There looked like a bit of a queue but nothing that wasn’t manageable. I had yet to eat lunch so I did a lap of the area before settling on the McDonald’s next to the fan zone. I KNOW I’M SORRY. In my defence, I needed something quick and I did at least go for a burger which you can’t get in England so it was somewhat of a cultural option. It had an egg in it so it was like a burger mixed with a breakfast McMuffin. It wasn’t as good as a Big Mac.

As I ate, I started to get bombarded with messages from the family. I went to go and find them and realised that I had been very mistaken about the queue. It wrapped around the venue far more than I’d realised. It was so long that we didn’t think we would get in – perhaps not at all and certainly not for the start of the match. It turned out that one of my Dad’s friends had ended up with a spare ticket to see the rugby game in person (his daughter was meant to go but was feeling unwell) so he offered it to one of us (and by us, I mean them). My brothers found some way to pick between the two of them at random (I forget how, probably rock, paper scissors) as my Dad gallantly gave up his opportunity. The losing one was quite put out.

As we queued, we kept wondering when to call it a day. We were slowly getting closer and closer but that only seemed to be because people in front of us were leaving. We tried to think of other options. We could find a bar, but they would likely be packed by now. We could go back to the hotel and watch in our rooms, but that would be devoid of atmosphere. We were so indecisive that we ended up staying in the queue right up until when the game was about to start. We’d gotten so much closer by this point as so many people threw in the towel and then, all of a sudden, the staff just started letting people in. I guess by then the queue was so much shorter (and it turned out there was a decent amount of space left inside the venue) that they just decided to go for it.

The venue had two floors. The ground floor had a lot of tourists, as well as some locals. I could barely see the big screen so tried the first floor, which seemed to be filled with locals, many of whom were sitting down. I had to crane a bit but I could see. I stayed up there alone for the first half; watching the locals watch the rugby was excellent. As Japan got the ball and headed towards the line, the crowd would literally squeal.

As it got to half time, I decided to go and find my Dad and brother. Both being well over 6 foot – and wearing matching Japanese rugby tops – they were easy to spot. I found them, got a beer and decided to stay there. My view wasn’t as good but it was much more raucous. As the second half started, I could quickly tell that the majority of people down here were supporting Japan too. There was a lot of yelling, cheering and downing drinks and when Japan won everyone lost it. The brother who didn’t get to go to the game perked up very quickly. The atmosphere was infectious.

After the game, the three of us went to get dinner, with locals high five-ing the boys in the street (they liked their Japanese rugby tops). We wandered until we found somewhere that was still open and ended up at an Italian. It might have been another not cultural option but it was tasty and just what we needed.

The next day was our last in Japan (sob!) The plan was to go on a day trip to see Mount Fuji but as we arrived at the station in Shinjuku, we discovered that the trains were still cancelled due to the flooding caused by the typhoon and the bus situation wasn’t much better. It was a real shame but at least we had seen the mountain from the train – not quite the same but better than no sightings at all.

We found a food hall in the station where we could get some breakfast and re-group. I still wanted to go to the Robot Restaurant and so told my family that I would pay for us to all go. Tickets weren’t cheap but I’d already said I would take us out for a nice steak dinner so I would just do this instead (our steak dinner turned out to be more expensive than anticipated so I ended up saving myself some money with this plan!)

I booked us a slot for later in the day and in the meantime one of my brothers suggested Ueno Park, which he’d had recommended to him. I found it on some blog lists of tourist sites as well so off we went. It was a grey, drizzly day today but the park was still worth a visit. It was filled with temples and shrines and we spent a while wandering around some of these.

One of them sold fortunes in English so I picked us up some. Mine was actually a bit creepy: “You will be facing a busy time both at work and in private. Having either too much or too little sleep is not good. Try to keep regular hours every day.” As someone working in the City of London who often has issues with insomnia, this hit rather close to home. However, it also said that, in regard to my love life, “It looks like a lucky event is coming your way“, so if it was right about “health” then this made me feel more optimistic (spoiler, it was only 50% right and that 50% wasn’t my love life).

There was also a relatively cheap zoo in the park but I was sceptical about the conditions of the animals in what could only be quite a small space. We continued to wander around the big site until eventually we ended up on the other side of the zoo. We walked passed another entrance and eventually decided to go in. We’d walked quite far by this point and it would have been quite the walk if we’d tried to walk round. They did have some cool animals, including panda, but there were some sad looking animals and animals pacing backwards and forwards. This isn’t one I’d recommend.

Once we’d left, it was time to head back to Shinjuku and find the Robot Restaurant. The Robot Restaurant is not really a restaurant (you can eat there but most people don’t and everyone I know who’d been said not to) and nor are robots what you’d think they’d be. What it is a show – kind of like a twisted Disney parade, with people dressed up (sometimes as robots) and riding around on electronic floats (these are the robots). It was bat s**t crazy and easily the most bonkers thing I’ve ever seen. I absolutely loved it.

There was a huge snake that ended up with one of the girls in its mouth. There was a vampire scene which they included as it was the Halloween special. There was someone in a giant panda suit (I assume it was a person and not a robot). There was a mermaid playing an electric guitar. There was someone in a ninja turtle outfit suspended from a robot. If you are in Tokyo, you absolutely cannot miss it.

Back out in the daylight, we were all slightly stunned. In a good way. As it was our last night, this was our last chance to get some famous Japanese steak. I found a list of good steak restaurants in Shinjuku and which listed a Kobe beef place called Yakiniku Ikuta. I picked this one as it was a Japanese BBQ place where you cook yourselves at your table. I hadn’t experienced this yet in Japan so it was very much two birds, one stone. The mistake we made was not checking the prices beforehand.

We arrived early and the place was deserted. We were seated and opened the menus. Ah. My Dad always talks of a meal he had with my grandpa once where they didn’t check the prices and, when the bill came, my grandpa’s face just went white. This wasn’t that bad but it weren’t pretty. Since it was our last night, we decided to stay and ordered one of the set menus so we could try a few different things but keep control of the price.

I can honestly say it was worth it. This wasn’t just one of the best meals we’d had in Japan, it was one of the best meals I’d ever had. Our hostess was lovely. She showed us how to cook each type of meat and then we’d do it ourselves. The meat was thinly sliced and just melted in your mouth. Even the tongue that came with our set menu was quite nice. It was the perfect way to end our trip in Japan.

The next day, I had to bid goodbye to my Dad and brothers as I would be flying home solo (which was sad but at least, unlike them, I’d be flying direct!) I got to the airport with plenty of time, treated myself to a rather big lunch of noodle soup and gyoza, discovered that the Uruguayan rugby team were catching the same flight. Unfortunately, they were not in economy class like I was but at least I had some eye candy in the departure lounge (yes, I like rugby guys).

I’d had the most amazing time in Japan. I’ve been to several places in Asia but never anywhere like it. It was so… polished. It seemed unfair that so much cool stuff could exist in one place and there were so many traditional, historical sites on one hand and so much insanity just next door. In that way, it kind of reminded me of Berlin but on a completely different level.

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