I was in awe before we even touched the ground. The vast expanse of the Tokyo night disappeared into the limits of my vision. As the plane descended, foreign motor vehicles distinguished themselves, then did the many coloured lights of the Narita airstrips.
It didn’t take long for me to be impressed by cool Japanese technology. After we left the plane, an automatically operated light-rail shuttle was about to depart. Let me reiterate that this shuttle was automatic – there was no driver, this machine drove us on its own. Alice and I hopped on board and looked at each other in amazement.
The airport terminal was eerily calm and quiet as we approached customs. Every one of the airport staff wore protective face masks. These may be more prominent in Japan anyhow, but perhaps with the fear of H1N1 reaching its peak due to the approaching winter, their use could have similarly escalated.
After a random passport inspection from our friendly neighbourhood police, whose polite manner stood in contrast to some Australian officers I’ve dealt with, we collected our train tickets from the helpful JR staff person and quickly proceeded to the train platform. After confirming which train we were to board with one of the staff, who was calling out instructions in Japanese, we boarded the Narita Express bound for Tokyo, and we were on the home stretch of our long transit. As the train sped along, we watched the Tokyo lights become bigger and brighter, and arrived at the station about an hour later.
Aside from the overwhelming feeling of being in Tokyo Station amongst the many people and tracks, it was easy enough to get where we were going thanks to the English translations on the signs. We found our way to the Yamanote Line, a city loop service that helps put the immensity of the city in perspective. It covers Tokyo’s inner wards and a complete loop of its 29 stations takes over an hour. Compare this to the 16 minutes of Sydney’s City Circle and its 6 stations, and you get an idea of the scale of the city. We rarely had to wait longer than 2 minutes for a local train in Tokyo either, which made getting around incredibly convenient.
We took the Yamanote line north a few stops to Ueno Station and followed signs to the Asakusa Exit where some slightly vague directions led us along Asakusa-dori towards our Hotel. While we walked along we scoped out various places where we might get a late dinner, but first, we had to check in.
The Oak Hotel was not the backpackers hostel we expected it to be. Although the room was small, it had everything we needed, including a TV for watching crazy Japanese game shows, a fridge and an en suite that looked like it was assembled before installation. The bed and pillows were hard, but the vending-machine beer was big and cheap. ¥400 was all we had to pay for a 500mL Asahi. After the $8.50, sub-schooner of Asahi that I had from the Clock in Surry Hills the week before, $5.00 seemed so cheap for 500mL. Later saw them even cheaper elsewhere. We were to come back to those, but first it was time for dinner.
The safe golden arches of McDonald’s loomed nearby, but we dared not cop-out on our very first night in Tokyo – we knew we could do better than that. Our local section of Asakusa-dori featured a number of more interesting places to eat, including an Indian restaurant and a few Japanese outlets. We looked at the menus for something appetising and settled upon a gyūdon restaurant called Sukiya. The meals didn’t look scary and included pictures of the dishes, and the interior had a familiar style, somewhat like a western fast food restaurant.
We thought ourselves lucky that the menu included pictures, had a look at it, and spotted some potential choices. Before long however, the lone-employee brought over an English translation, which was very much appreciated for our first Japanese dining experience, and an interesting cold drink that seemed like something between iced tea and iced coffee. It was good though, and I came to enjoy the complimentary beverages that often arrived upon taking a seat in a restaurant here.
I couldn’t go past the Triple Cheese Beef Bowl and Alice picked a pork dish, so with our first meals selected, we summoned the staff member back using a button on our table that alerted him we were ready to order. The meals arrived soon after and we shared the dishes between us. Both tasted fantastic. The rice was perfect, sticking together making it easy to eat, the pork had a nice strong flavour.
We keenly observed someone in the restaurant paying for their meal before doing so ourselves, so we knew what to do. This person took their money to the counter and placed it in a small tray next to the register – that seemed easy enough. Alice followed suit and our first Japanese dining experience was a success!
Red Tracksuit Show
After dinner, we couldn’t help but try the vending machine in the hotel lobby. We picked up two of the 500mL Asahi cans and went up to our room to enjoy them in style while watch some crazy Japanese game shows. It was a fun challenge just to work out what was going on in the games we watched. Particular game show challenges of note included one where pulley systems were set up to fill buckets with water, which would be carried by the team to a water depository with a target level. The catch was that the system required one of the players from each team to insert a hook-like apparatus into each nostril and pull down, in order to keep the bucket, which was on the other end of the pulley, in place as it filled with water. As more water entered the bucket, it became heavier and subjected the players’ nostrils to more pressure. The longer the player could last, the more water would enter the bucket and more quickly could the team complete the challenge.
Another challenge saw contestants standing before a series of windows ready to throw softballs at them, hoping to choose the correct one. What I found interesting about this game and the others on the show was that a lot of the conventions we see in Japanese video games, such as character portraits facing off against each other, stylised displays of success and failure (e.g. GOOD! and MISS!) seem to be a part of other aspects of Japanese culture, and not solely of video games. The aforementioned GOOD! and MISS! would appear as each contestant took their shot at the wall of windows, as some of them seemed to contain gags and others would reward the team with points.
One of the most interesting games on another program, (it seemed, to our delight, as though 4 out of 5 programs on tv were crazy game shows), saw contestants getting up on stage and attempting to cause each member of a panel to break into laughter, as the panel attempted to keep straight faces. Indeed many of the attempts by the contestants showcased the Japanese capacity for silliness.
Still incredibly excited, and with a massive adventure ahead of us, we conceded that it was time for bed. The bed was hard and the pillows weren’t the most comfortable (in fact mine gave me a headache) but we made it through the night, and were doing it right!