Sat 29 March 2014
After a couple of rough months interviewing for academic positions
(there's another blog post coming up on this topic, so stay tuned) I
headed off for some well deserved vacation time (and with vacation I
mean a hacker conference, SyScan 2014 in Singapore). As there are no
direct flights from San Francisco to Singapore I had to have a layover
either in Hong Kong or in Tokyo. I haven't visited either place and
Tokyo sounded like much more fun to visit, so I planned a two day
layover in this weird, crazy city.
Early on Wednesday I packed my stuff (10 minutes is enough time to pack
for two weeks) and headed to the BART and to the airport. I quickly
enjoyed the lounge at SFO (well, it's an US lounge so you only get
crackers, cheese, and some fruits) and off we went. I was pleasantly
surprised by the international United flight - they had a professional
team on board and the service was really good: plenty of food (2 meals,
and ice cream inbetween), lots to drink, and a generally nice
atmosphere. I was actually able to work most of the time and relaxed
with some movies inbetween.
Immigration to Tokyo was pleasant. I waited for 5-10 minutes, the border
officer did not ask any questions and I got my tourist visa. From Narita
airport it takes about 1 1/2 hours to reach the main city and I headed
straight to the hotel. When I was looking for the hotel I had my first
revelation that nobody speaks English. All the signs are Japanese only
and if you don't know what the hotel will look like you have no way of
finding it. Luckily, I vaguely remembered the front of the hotel as they
showed a picture on the booking.com website (that I booked more than a
month ago). The nice lady at the reception did not speak English either
but with we were able to communicate with hand gestures. I was told to
get the real Japanese experience I have to stay in a capsule hotel and
that's exactly what I did. The hotel was almost like a hostel with
shared bathrooms (including a hot tub!) and toilets but everybody got
his (these hotels are men only) own capsule with a little curtain. These
things are actually quite large, roughly the same size as a bunk bed but
you get "some" privacy. This hotel also allowed me to experience
Japanese night time rituals. Men bath together and in Japan they don't
have standing showers but sit on a little box and fill a bucket with
water that they then pour over themselves. After washing yourself you
head to the tub and relax for a bit. After the bath you hop into a night
dress that consists of large shorts and a weird shirt. They actually had
to give me an extra extra large one (sorry, no pictures).
The next morning I got up early (thanks to the jetlag) and went to the
Tsukiji fish market, walked along the merchants and saw lots of tasty
fish. After this mouth watering experience I stopped at a local
restaurant and ate fresh tuna on rice. Again, the owner did not speak
English so I had to kind of show him what I wanted. I think that the
Japanese don't really know breakfast as we do and just eat a regular
meal for breakfast. I must say it was very tasty!
After this great breakfast I headed out to Akhiabara, the electrical
city. According to the guide this is the place where Tokyo got the
"weird" attribute and I must say they sell a lot of crazy stuff there.
It was interesting to see the different electronics shops and if I would
have needed any new gadgets I would for sure have found them there!
I walked through the district and northwards to the Ueno park area,
through a nice little market that sold other crazy stuff. This place
also had a lot of casinos where a lot of people were gambling. I watched
the different games for 10-15 minutes but did not understand if they
were pure luck based or if there was some skill involved. The
interesting part was that these machines spit out little metal balls
that they collected in large plastic containers. The gamblers were all
smoking like crazy and some of them had 10-20 boxes full of these balls
stacked behind them. That was one of the weirdest experiences but I did
not dare take a picture (privacy, you know).
After reaching the park I saw that the cherry trees were in full bloom
and snapped a couple of nice pictures. I also experienced another
Japanese ritual. Some people reserve tarps under the cherry trees and
one guy waits (for hours) for all the others to show up. Then they eat
together under the trees and party.
In the afternoon I explored the Tokyo national history museum. The
museum was not too exciting but they had lots of old stuff with almost
no English signs, so this was a bit of a bummer. I looked at all the
stuff but without explanations it's only half the fun.
On my second day I visited the Imperial Palace. Basically it's a large
garden with some old structures, mostly guard houses. It was interesting
to see the architecture and to stroll around.
One of the fancy things in Tokyo are the hydration stations (hat tip to
Alessandro for naming them). Basically at every street corner and
inbetween you have these vending machines that sell hot and cold drinks
for roughly a buck a pop. Of course I had to try a couple but most of
them were quite weird.
After exploring the palace I already had to head back to the airport.
The Japanese public transport system runs fairly well and after you had
some time to adjust to the signs it is quite reasonable to follow. The
hardest part is that there are three different companies that run
different lines and it is not always easy to transfer. Back at the
airport I quickly checked in and headed to the lounge (as a privileged
traveller I get free food) and had a nice meal.
Thanks Tokyo, you treated me well. You were crazy but not as crazy as I
expected. I had lots of fun, saw some interesting cultural rituals, some
temples and got a good overview of this city.