Japan (2019)

The question why we wanted to Japan doesn’t need to be asked here. As anime fans, such a trip is practically a must. Although we thought we already knew Japan well thanks to the media, the country had some surprises in store for us. What also made our trip to Japan special was the occasion: It was our honeymoon. Where better to spend our honeymoon than in Japan? Completely exhausted after a long wedding celebration, my parents took us to the Weimar train station on August 31, 2020, the day after our wedding, from where we went to Frankfurt Airport. Several hours later, finally sitting on the plane (a Boeing 747 from Lufthansa), our eyes automatically closed and we woke up shortly before landing in the land of the rising sun.

Tokyo – Welcome to Japan

It is amazing how much one already knows Tokyo from the media and how one still gets surprised at how incredible this city as well as the whole country is. After the formalities of entry and the collection of our JR Rail Pass, which by the way is an absolute must for all Japan travelers, we spent our first train ride from Haneda Airport in the direction of Tokyo city center on a train whose carriages were decorated with numerous Pokemon. It was immediately clear to us: We are in Japan! The closer we got to the city center, the more we realized what it means to be in the largest city in the world. Tokyo is huge and although we were there twice on our trip, we only saw a fraction of it. When we arrived in the city center, we switched to the famous Yamanote Line. This is probably the most frequented railway line in Tokyo, because on its route it circles the entire city center with places such as Shinjuku, Akihabara, Shibuya, or Ikebukuro, where our accommodation was located. Ikebukuro is a young, lively and, above all, colorful district full of shiny neon signs on every corner. In addition, Ikebukuro is also considered the cosplay district of Tokyo. It deserves its title, since we met numerous cosplayers on the way to the hotel and later, when we passed a small park, we saw that a larger cosplay event was taking place there. Still completely amazed, we arrived at the reception of our hotel. When we handed over our documents for check-in, the employees passed the documents on to each other as if they were scriptures. They fasted them carefully, but with two hands, and bowed to each other when they were handed over. When they returned our documents to us, we tried awkwardly to join their ceremony. So many new impressions and that even though we were only a few hours in the country. Our hotel room was on one of the upper floors of a high-rise building. As is customary for large Japanese cities, and probably for Asian cities in general, it was very small but still very functional. It was just enough for a bed, a sideboard with a chair that was so close to the bed that nobody could use it, a small kettle with a few bags of green tea and two cups, a microwave and a television. Somehow the architects managed to build a bathroom on the side and at the entrance there was a small area to take off our shoes, which of course is always particularly important in Japan. However, the area was so small that we mostly had to take off our shoes in front of the room. The breathtaking thing about the room, however, was the view. One could look over the roofs of the city and not far the Tokyo Skytree towered up, which shone and blinked spectacularly at night. As soon as we had stowed our luggage in the room and freshened up for a moment, we were drawn outside again. We treated ourselves to our first meal in Japan in one of the numerous small restaurants. Kevin ordered katsudon, rice with meat and eggs, and I chose kakiage udon. It was thick noodles in broth with a slice of fish cake, some spring onions and a topping of fried shrimp. The restaurant was one of those where you would pick your food from a machine at the entrance and pay for it. Only then did you go to the counter, hand in the receipt and sit down. After a short time there was the chosen meal and free ice-cold green tea. I fell in love with these types of restaurants very quickly. The machines were easy to use, even if they didn’t always have an English user interface, as all dishes were shown with a photo next to them, so that you always knew what you were getting. In addition, there were no nasty surprises with the price and you don’t have to worry about tips, because that simply doesn’t exist in Japan. Afterwards we went to Sunshine City. Sunshine City is a huge complex with a shopping center, an aquarium and many other things. We strolled through the mall. Everywhere there were colorful or cute things and of course clothes and make-up, because the Japanese women were usually always well-styled, especially in Tokyo. In addition to a really nice Ghibli shop, there was also a Pokemon Center, which was basically a huge Pokemon fan shop, where we left some money there for the next few days. The most bizarre event still awaited us… While we were strolling through the mall we suddenly heard a horde of men roaring in unison. A little confused, I wondered if they were sports fans with their chants. The closer we got to the source, however, the more happy music with girls’ voices mingled with the roar. Before we knew it, we were suddenly in the middle of an idol concert. Idols are groups of young girls who sing and dance in colorful costumes. While the girls were performing their rehearsed choreographies on stage and always smiling happily, a horde of Japanese men stood in front of the stage. Some around our age, but I would estimate some to be around 40. Many held glow sticks and jumped, sang and danced along. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos of this event because there were signs prohibiting photography everywhere.
I allowed myself the fun to line up and join the dancing until Kevin pulled me away in shame. All the idol hype is a double-edged sword in Japan. At first it is fun. Everything is colorful and everyone is happy. The next moment, however, the bitter aftertaste mixes in: Many of the girls are minors celebrated by elderly men. In addition, Japan has the lowest reproduction rate in the world. While work stress makes a relationship impossible for many, idol bands turn young girls into infallible objects of desire, creating a vicious circle as no real woman can be as “perfect” as an idol. This downside became particularly clear when there was a competition after the concert. The winners were allowed to go to one of the idol girls to talk to her briefly and take a photo. It was an absolute tragedy because the winners unfortunately fulfilled all aspects of socially awkward nerds. They were shy young men, some even slightly overweight, which is very seldom the case in Japan, who stuttered to themselves while they looked at the floor in shame. Already on the first day in Japan it became clear to us that we were in an absolutely incredible country, but one that also has its downsides.

Walking from Shinjuku to Shibuya

The next day we went to one of the nearby supermarkets early in the morning. These are called either 7Eleven or Family Mart and can be found on pretty much every street corner. In fact, we have never seen really big supermarkets in Japan. The small markets were relatively well equipped for this. In addition to everything you need for life, there was also a large number of to-go food that you could warm up on site and eat yourself in the shop. Mostly there were small sitting areas and even free WiFi. The only disadvantage was that the prices were always advertised without VAT, so that you could only find out the exact price at the checkout. Kevin’s breakfast consisted of the things from the bakery department, where melonpan, a soft roll topped with biscuit batter and a layer of sugar, was probably the biggest highlight. I myself from then on always started my day with onigiris, filled rice triangles wrapped in nori sheets. Each time I played a game which I used to call onigiri bingo. I always looked for the onigiris where I either couldn’t read the ingredients or had no idea what they were. And in fact, during my entire stay in Japan, I didn’t have a single nasty surprise in this regard. By the way, the onigiris with bonito flakes were the most delicious ones 😉

Well strengthened we went with the Yamanote line to Shinjuku. We wanted to change money quickly at the train station. At the information desk, we found, typically Japan, a robot with a voice interface that was supposed to provide information. Unfortunately, he did not understand my question about where one can change money. Still, the robot was cute.

Our first stop in Shinjuku was the Godzilla head. A huge Godzilla head was placed on one of the numerous buildings, which, appropriately, also housed a cinema, and where Godzilla now looks menacingly down at passers-by. It’s funny to see how this Godzilla breaks through the Tokyo look and so it is of course a very popular photo spot too. From there we went to the Samurai Museum, where we joined an English-speaking tour. A funny young Japanese lady guided us through the corridors full of samurai weapons and armor and we learned a lot. At the end there was of course, quite touristy, a photo in samurai armor and princess robe. But something happened to Kevin in the museum that he kept coming across from then on. Kevin generally wears T-shirts with Japanese patterns and labels. So the tour guide was totally enthusiastic about Kevin’s T-shirt on which a large bowl of ramen, Japanese noodle soup, was ready to attack. From then on, Kevin was approached again and again about his cool Japanese t-shirts.

After our visit to the Samurai Museum, we finally wanted to get an overview of the city, even if that is probably not possible in its entirety. There are several viewpoints in Tokyo of which the Tokyo Skytree is probably the most spectacular, but also the most expensive with an entrance fee of around € 80 per person. In the run-up to our trip, we came across the tip to go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Governmental Building in Shinjuku instead. These are two skyscrapers, both of which have a viewing platform at the top. Every day you can go up to one of these viewing platforms for free. From there we looked over this huge city, which simply did not want to end. Sometimes you can see Mount Fuji from up there, but it was a bit too cloudy for us to see it that day. In the classic way, the viewing platform also had a souvenir shop, where we bought our first souvenirs straight away. At the time, there was a special exhibition on one of the lower floors about the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which have now been postponed due to Corona. So you could examine the medals and the Olympic flag and you could be photographed with the Olympic torches. We also learned that the Rugby World Cup was to take place in Japan this year. The opening game was on our last evening in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the tickets for the game were already sold out, but we immediately made a note of the fact that there should apparently be several public viewing areas. Since I’ve played rugby myself for 3 years and am therefore a big fan of this sport, of course I didn’t want to miss it.

From the viewing platform we had already seen a large green spot in the middle of the city. This was Yoyogi Park, which was also our next destination. Yoyogi Park is the green heart of Tokyo. Although the Tokyo city center is a sea of ​​skyscrapers, Yoyogi Park is so large and so densely forested that you neither see nor otherwise perceive the hectic city that surrounds you. In the heart of the park is the Meiji Shrine, arguably the most important and most visited Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Of course, the shrine is full of tourists who wanted to take photos of the tori, the red archway characteristic of Shinto shrines, at the main entrance. The trick was to use a side entrance, because there are also magnificent toris, but fewer people.

From Yoyogi Park, Tokyo’s oasis of calm, there was next the full contrast program. We went to the famous Shibuya crossing at which supposedly up to 15,000 people are crossing the street at the same time at peak times. In addition to the numerous business women and men as well as the school children in uniforms, there were of course countless tourists here, some with incredibly elaborate video equipment. I made fun of it when we passed the intersection, which Kevin found rather embarrassing 😉

Right next to the intersection was also the Hachiko statue. Hachiko was a dog who waited for his owner at the same time in the same place every day even after his death, although his owner would never come back. The story is so touching that Hollywood, among others, has made a film about it. The real Hachiko was waiting for its owner in Shibuya and received a memorial for his loyalty, which has now become one of the landmarks of the district. A typical Japanese scene took place in front of the statue. Where people in other parts of the world fight their way to the sights with elbows and tripods, in Japan you line up and wait until your turn to take pictures. This is a great system, because it means you don’t have any annoying people in the picture and everyone has a turn. The people waiting next are usually kind enough to take a picture of you, too. And so we have great photos of ourselves at the statue, without having to fight for it tourist-wise.

Imperial Palace and Akihabara

The next day we went to the Imperial Palace early in the morning. There was supposed to be a free guided tour there in the morning, but we had to arrive in time as the places were limited. In retrospect, we weren’t that overwhelmed by the tour, as you weren’t allowed to enter any of the buildings and the tour was generally rather dry. However, what was interesting to look at, and what apparently was a trend at the time that we saw more often in Japan, was the fact that some people, mostly Asian tourists, had stuffed animals with them. Whenever they took a photo, they would hold the cuddly toy in the picture as if it were a vacation photo of the cuddly toy.

Next, we went to the absolute nerd Mecca: Akihabara.
Even at the train station you will be greeted by anime characters on stands and neon signs. We spent far too long at Japanese capsule machines, the gashapons. These are machines that work in a similar way to a chewing gum machine. You throw in a coin, turn it around and finally a ball comes out with a small key ring, figurine or other odds and ends. It is common to have around 20 or even more of these machines in one place. On the machines themselves there were pictures of the things that could potentially be obtained. Whenever we had change and saw gashapons with promising pictures on them, we have tried our luck here from now on and in fact we mainly captured a large number of key fobs of our favorite anime characters. With mostly 300 yen (a little over 2 €) per use, the fun was also quite affordable.
Like everything in Tokyo, Akihabara is big. And when I write big, I mean absolutely huge. The entire district consists of narrow high-rise buildings, often up to 10 floors, and there is a different shop on each floor. Whereby it becomes less and less suitable for minors the higher you go. With wide eyes we climbed one skyscraper after the next. Particularly interesting were the numerous figurines of anime characters that were exhibited behind showcases and whose price range did not end at the top. We were also fascinated by the wide range of Weiß Schwarz cards and accessories. Weiß Schwarz is a Japanese trading card game that we like to play in a small community here in Germany, but that is more of a niche here. Most of the time we have to import expensive cards and accessories from abroad and many things are difficult to get. There were now whole shelves full of Weiß Schwarz, which was absolutely unbelievable for us. In addition to the skyscrapers with the trading cards and the anime accessories, there were also a number of skyscrapers, which mostly started harmlessly on the ground floor with automatic grippers or gashapons. If you climbed the narrow stairs, halls with arcade games usually followed, such as a game in which you had to drum in a certain beat, or dance games. Originally we wanted to try our hand at the games, but then were not brave enough because, on the one hand, everything was unsurprisingly in Japanese and, on the other hand, we saw numerous professionals beating the drums like crazy or jumping across the dance floor. Even higher up came slot machines that were adorned with well-known anime characters and had corresponding games. It seemed like a kind of “gateway drug” because the higher we got from there, the more everything around us mutated into gambling dens, until we stood in a smoky room where businessmen bet on horse races. Japan is a great country and we felt more comfortable as tourists than in any other country so far. And yet Japan also has its downsides and the numerous gambling dens, or pachinko halls, as the classic gambling halls are called, definitely belong to these downsides.

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