Day 1: Tokyo - Ueno, Asakusa

by Xavier Villà Aguilar April. 13, 2019 330 views

It is still 6th of March, and I have landed in Narita Airport, Tokyo!

I have arranged to meet my first Couchsurfing host, Yuta, at the entrance of Higashi-Tokorozawa (東所沢) station a couple of hours after my flight had arrived in Narita. Both the border and the customs checks were smooth so I quickly arrived at the main terminal building. Just as I crossed the no-return gates with my bulky backpack I saw a group of journalists wandering around the lounge. One of them caught my eye, he grinned and he and a cameraman approached. They explained they were holding brief interviews to newcomers to Japan, and they wanted to talk to me. I eagerly answered their questions:

Why have you come to Japan?
How long are you going to stay?
What will you see?
Do you know anybody in Japan?

At the end of the small interview I asked them where the interview would be aired. They gave me a little pamphlet that said they were from a TV show called 'You何しに日本へ?  - What brought you to Japan?', by Tokyo TV. I would later find out it's actually one of the most popular TV shows in Japan, and that if you tell them exciting things you will do, they might accompany you in your adventures to broadcast it later; if I had known I would've explained something amazing and I would've gone to the bathroom to groom up first - I looked terrible after 16h of flying!

Anyhow, I digress. After the little chat with them I ran a couple of important errands at the airport - pick up my Japanese data SIM card and get a Pasmo card issued for the public transport network - and I headed to meet Yuta.

After 1h 30min and one train change, I made it to Higashi-Tokorozawa within the agreed time. I left the station and I sat down on a bench waiting for Yuta. I then tried to set up the Japanese SIM card in my phone but I couldn't make it to work. I had disallowed roaming with my British carrier, so the device was useless unless I caught some free Wi-Fi!

 'Nevermind' - I thought - 'I'm sure I'll be able to find Yuta without the need of constant access to WhatsApp. My parents didn't have mobile phones in their time and they still managed to do things!'. 

I had only seen one picture of Yuta in WhatsApp , so I hoped we could recognise each other. Time went by: 10 minutes, 20, half an hour... Well aware of the obsession of Japanese for punctuality, I started to get anxious: 

What if I got the station name wrong?
What if he's been here already but we haven't recognised each other and he's left, bored of waiting?
What if he's had a problem and he's suddenly cancelled on me?

I take a deep breath and I decide to focus on observing my surroundings with curiosity. I couldn't be more chuffed about it! It all looks exactly as I imagined it to be after countless hours watching anime and playing Japanese videogames. The cars look like toys:

The low-rise houses have elegantly curved rooftops and small yet exquisitely looked-after gardens with cherry, plum and pine trees carefully pruned, bending and reaching out to every direction:

An ume tree about to bloom...

An ume tree about to bloom...

Youngsters walk to and fro in their cute school uniforms, even kindergarten kids wear them with squared backpacks as big as themselves and funny-looking hats.

OK, not at Tokorozawa but at Tokyo Imperial Palace. But you get the idea!

OK, not at Tokorozawa but at Tokyo Imperial Palace. But you get the idea!

A lot of people, even the elderly, pass by cycling, and everywhere I look I can only see kanji and kana. No doubt this is the authentic modern Japan!

Fed up with waiting, I resolve to do the only thing I can - I walk to a nearby public telephone box to call Yuta to find out what's going on. I managed to get the public phone to work and I dialled his number, but nobody answered at the other side.

WHAT DO I DO NOW?

And it was in that moment, as I fought with my bulky luggage to come out of the tiny telephone box, that I felt a gentle nudge on my shoulder. I turned around and there was Yuta! Oufff, sigh of relief! We shook hands and he apologised for having had a delay with his train. I said it was alright now that we had found each other! We started walking towards his place while chatting eagerly.

Yuta explained to me that he started hosting Couchsurfing travellers not long ago, but that he's had a few, and that he still lives with his parents who, as long as he gets a chance to practice English, are delighted to have guests over. We walked along the road parallel to the railway and I remark that some cherry trees have started to blossom.

Early sakura blooming - or is it ume? Hard to say!

Early sakura blooming - or is it ume? Hard to say!

This one is not sakura (), but ume (梅), or plum tree - Yuta corrects me - which blossoms earlier. But I think you will catch the sakura at full bloom in your last days in Tokyo at the end of your trip!

I thanked the Universe for that welcomed gift!

We finally arrived at his place, a traditional Japanese house with a small hall to take off your shoes before you step on the wooden floor. Yuta had already prepared a pair of sleepers for me. We headed upstairs through a winding wooden stairway, which unlike ours in Edinburgh wasn't squeaky at all, and he showed me to our shared bedroom as well as where the toilet an the shower room were- yes, they were separate rooms, a common thing in Japan!

He offered me to shower, which I swiftly accepted since I felt super dirty and stinky after the long journey. Once clean and relaxed, he suggested that we go to a cool street market where we could grab a snack and then go for some lunch together. I was starving so I couldn't agree more with his proposal!

We got on the train and we headed to Ueno (上野), a central neighbourhood of Tokyo. We arrived at a bustling street market that spanned under the elevated highway, yet it was extremely clean. An arch at the entrance welcomes us to Ameya-Yokocho (アメヤ横丁).

Check Pac-Man at the screen!

Check Pac-Man at the screen!


Here you could find everything: fishmongers, greengrocers, butchers, Japanese confectionery... but above all, loads of street food stalls. Fascinated, I checked the prices of the different meals and, after I converting them in my head into sterling, I was delighted to realise how affordable it is to eat out in Japan!


Stopping every now and then to take pictures, Yuta suggested that we take a break at a particular food stall at the corner of the market. He proudly stated that they serve the tastiest and best value octopus balls or Takoyaki (たこ焼き) in Tokyo, so it didn't take him much persuasion to convince me to grab some as an appetiser. Indeed, 8 balls costed only 400円 (£2.70), and they prepare them fresh in front of you. I was particularly startled by the speed at which the lady turned the octopus-filled dough on the sizzling pan, so fast that she shapes them into balls from a rather flat initial shape: it takes some skill!

See the face of concentration of the turning lady! And her fit assistant...

See the face of concentration of the turning lady! And her fit assistant...

We garnished them with the typical sauces, seaweed and dried bonito flakes or katsuobushi (鰹節) and we sat to enjoy them. I had tried Takoyaki in the past overseas but wow, this one was beyond comparison!

おいしい!  Delicious!

おいしい! Delicious!

Once the balls had made it to our stomachs, we headed to a restaurant that Yuta knew and we ate Tendon (天丼): vegetable and shrimp tempura over rice and sauce. He didn't let me pay this time, insisting it was his way to apologise for the delay earlier on that day, but a glance to the bill told me it's also quite affordable. 

By now the sun was about to set, so Yuta took me through Asakusa (浅草) to see Tokyo Skytree Tower, which is impressive and delightfully lid up, the surprisingly gay-friendly Rainbow Bridge and the Asahi Beer headquarters, which boost a golden sculpture at the top of the building. It is allegedly a flame being blown by the wind, but by any standard it looks more like a shiny golden turd!

The Rainbow Bridge on the Sumida River

The Rainbow Bridge on the Sumida River

Yuta then took me to Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, where you can climb to the top floor for free and get great panoramic views of Kaminarimon (雷門), an imposing gate consecrated to the God of Thunder, and Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り), at daytime a commercial street as busy as Ameya-Yokocho with shops selling handcrafts, confectionery and souvenirs or omiyage (おみやげ), but at dusk a quiet, very elegant and traditional pathway into one of Tokyo's oldest and arguably most popular temples, Senso-ji (浅草寺).

Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り), from Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center

Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り), from Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center

Views from the top floor of Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center

Views from the top floor of Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center

Proof I was there :P

Proof I was there :P

Legend has it that in the year 628 AD, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, out of the nearby Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Senso-ji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon.  The precinct was completed for the first time in 645 AD and rebuilt many times after fires, earthquakes and bombings in the Second World War.  

We also got great views of the Tokyo Skytree Tower, so we asked some people at the rooftop to take a picture of us together. What a great shot!


We then headed to Senso-ji together, the sky pitch dark by then. We had Nakamise Dori pretty much to ourselves, the blinds of the closed stalls decorated with Japanese traditional themes to make the place cosy even when no business is carried out.

Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り)

Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り)

Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り)

Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り)


Still, a handful of shops were open for latecomers like us, and in one of these I purchased my first treat of the trip: a cat-shaped rice cracker coated with sweet matcha (抹茶). It was delicious! Savoury to start with, sweet at the end, like many things in life. 


After strolling around the area we pass under a gigantic red torii (鳥居), literally 'bird abode', traditional Japanese gates announcing the separation between the profane and the sacred ground, specially in the case of Shinto shrines and temples. We walked around the precinct, soaking in the beauty and calm of the place, marvelling at the beautiful 5-storied pagoda beside Senso-ji.

Yuta pretending he doesn't know I'm taking a picture...

Yuta pretending he doesn't know I'm taking a picture...

The Great Red Lantern of Senso-ji

The Great Red Lantern of Senso-ji

A Buddhist altar

A Buddhist altar

Senso-ji at nighttime

Senso-ji at nighttime

5-storied pagoda of Senso-ji

5-storied pagoda of Senso-ji

Within the temple precinct Yuta told me about omikuji (おみくじ), a very traditional Japanese fortunetelling tradition. You insert a donation into the charity box - any amount is fine, gods aren't greedy - and then you shake a big tin box with a tiny hole on the bottom until one stick slides out of it. This stick has a number in kanji, and then you open the corresponding numbered drawer on the wall and you find a little pamphlet written in Japanese which tells you your future. I gave it a try, see it for yourself!

Yuta kindly translated the content of the pamphlet and it said something along the lines of:

You will lose something of material value, but you will find a new friend.

It was a bittersweet prediction! Yuta told me that traditionally people will take the prediction home if it's a good one but if you don't like it you can tie it to a special wall in the temple so that it doesn't become true.

Source: www.freeimageslive.co.uk

Source: www.freeimageslive.co.uk

I hesitated about what to do. In the end, I decided that no matter what I was meant to lose, no material value exceeds the worth of a friend. So I took it with me!

It was only 8pm by now, but we finally headed back home, since the jet lag was starting to kick in. The commute back to Yuta's felt much longer and I couldn't help napping here and there, and so did he! Luckily he's developed the skill to wake up exactly at the right time for his stop so we got to his home safe and sound.

I lied down on Yuta's spare bed and, despite the mattress being extremely firm for Western standards, I quickly drifted into sleep with a silly smile on my lips, full of content at the amazing first day I had, so positive and thrilled about what was to come.  

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