Tokyo’s Yamanote line is bloody long but we’re nearing the end of the line now (well, it’s a circle so I guess I could just keep going)… 

6. Shinjuku – Ichigaya, Golden Gai, Meiji Shrine
Shinjuku is perhaps one of the wards that most often features in movies and postcard pictures of Tokyo. Arriving at the world’s busiest train station with over 100 exits is confusing to say the least. Shopping and nightlife are probably the most common reasons to come here which explains why pretty much everybody comes here! The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has it’s little headquarters in a purpose-built skyscraper overlooking central Shinjuku

Skyscrapers on the western side of Shinjuku station

and the neon bill boards are everywhere you go. For an escape from the mayhem you can head into Golden Gai which has escaped the knocking ball and still hosts traditional restaurants and bars in its warren of streets (though some restaurants may not want to serve foreigners).

For a clear mind head to Meiji shrine in nearby Yoyogi park (most of the park is in the city of Shibuja) where the towers and hundreds of trains vanish

Meiji Shrine, Shinjuku

from your mind. The shrine was created to remember Emperor Meiji. Another notable part of Shinjuku is Ichigaya which I best remember as the first place I saw of evening Tokyo. Watching people pay 500 yen to fish in the river by the train station was intriguing and the name just reminded me of students with skin problems or maybe that’s just my pronunciation.

7. Katsushika – my ward, Shibamata Taishaku-ten
Katsushika is mostly residential and it’s where I live. It’s the eastern-most of the 23 wards which make up Tokyo and the Yamanote line doesn’t run through this area but I thought it deserved a mention anyway. Despite there being no

Garden of the Shibamata Taishakuten shrine in Katsushika

Yamanote there are still several JR lines and other private railways which pass through the district. Nearby is a beautiful Buddhist temple called “Shibamata Taishakuten“. I visited this temple recently thinking that its location in one of the outer suburbs would mean that it would be almost free of visitors. I was quite wrong as the streams of tourists (both Japanese and foreigners) coming and going demonstrated. As with all parts of Tokyo the most heavily built-up parts are those surrounding train stations and Katsushika is no different with a bustling area of shopping centers, department stores, discount stores (well, discount in a Japanese sense) and massage parlors (for the over-stressed salaryman).

8. Koto – Odaiba, ageHa night club, 
First off is Odaiba which is a group of islands created from reclaimed land over the past century and linked to mainland Tokyo by the Rainbow bridge as well as others. This area provides the only real link to the big, blue sea near central Tokyo and it’s a popular place for entertainment, sunbathing (while shielding

New architecture (the twin, linked skyscraper) and old architecture (the wee church) meet in Odaiba, Tokyo

oneself from the sun under and parasol or UV tent) and shopping. Somehow the area reminded me of Salford Quays in Greater Manchester or the Docklands in London. There are modern forms of transport in the form of an alien-shaped ferry and a flashy driver-less monorail. On top of that there are wide open avenues and modern buildings which try very hard to look cutting edge with gaping holes in the middle of the tower or bridges linking twin towers together. And to ice the tasty cake even more there’s a big wheel and plenty of shopping. Including shopping for your dog or cat. In Odaiba you can rent a cat for half an hour, you can buy a new puppy or kitten in the mall, you can buy clothes including kimono for either pet and then treat the furry animal to a meal at a pet cafe where the only food available is for canines and felines. Koto ward is modern mainly because of the extensive destruction in the 1923 earthquake and bombing raids in WW2. One of Tokyo’s biggest and most popular night clubs, ageHa, is located in this area and popular with those not intending to get home the same day as they go out.

Last stop: Shinagawa with a little building called Sky Tree which is the largest tower in the world, Taito to see the pandas and Toshima…

Continuing the journey on Tokyo’s Yamanote line to explore what this mega city has to offer…

Route map of JR’s Yamanote line which forms a circle around much of central Tokyo. The larger or more important stations are in bold.

Some other Yamanote line facts for those hungry for useless information: A complete circle is 35km and takes about 60 minutes while visiting 29 stations. What really shows the scale of things in Tokyo is that 3.7 million people use this line every day compared with the 5 million who use all of New York’s subway lines (and its 468 stations) or with London and the 2.7 million who travel on the Underground’s 12 lines which serve 275 stations.

4. Minato – Shinbashi, Roppongi
Now we’re entering the west side of the Yamanote line. Minato is foreigners’ land. If you need your embassy then it’ll probably be here. And if you need a skyscraper then it may be in this city center too.

Roppongi at night

Tokyo Tower is around here somewhere too. It was designed to look like the Eiffel Tower and painted in red and white aircraft safety colours. Tokyo Tower was supposed to host the TV transmitters for the 40 million people who live in and around Tokyo but the ever-growing skyline means that Sky Tree has recently been built in Sumida to take over this role. And then there’s Roppongi where all the foreigners either live or head to at the weekend. It has Tokyo’s best-known night entertainment places and apparently the best. Be prepared to spend up to 1000 yen (GBP £8, €10, US$12) for a glass of beer though!

5. Shibuya – Yoyogi, Sendagaya, Harajuku

Tokyo Tower – Big but no longer big enough

This has to be the coolest ward or at least second to Shinjuku in terms of the number of neon lights and shops. Firstly there’s Shibuya itself which is home to Shibuya Crossing where you can join in the crowds and be one of 100,000 who cross a single road every hour in front of the train station. Or if you’re feeling a bit claustrophobic then head to Starbucks where you can drink a coffee and watch the crowds below instead! Even Starbucks is crowded so those in need of relaxation might want to go to Yoyogi park (see the Shinjuku section in the next posting). The stranger person among you may want to do a bit of shopping at Shibuya 109 which is world famous for creating the “kogal” subculture (school girl uniform style). If busy streets, school girl fashion and relaxing in the park don’t do it for you then why not a bit of culture at the National Noh Theatre, Noh being one of Japan’s traditional theaters and makes for a confusing conversation when you ask the staff questions like “Is this the Noh theatre” and they reply with the obvious answer “no(h)”.

Harajuku at the weekend

Harajuku is also in Shibuya and famous too for the fashion named after the area. Head here on Sundays to see the Harajuku girls walking the streets in clothes and hair that must have taken hours to prepare. This is “the” place to see Cosplayers in Tokyo and probably the most famous Cosplay area in the world. Two highly contrasting streets can be found in this part of Shibuya – Takeshita Street being the main street of Harajuku and crammed with cosplay teens seeking to spend all their money – and nearby Omotesandō which is trying to be western Tokyo’s answer to Ginza with dozens of high-end fashion stores. Take your pick.

Next stop: Shinjuku, the king of Tokyo’s cities, Katsushika for somewhere to sleep and Koto to try and find the sea…

No review, blog, travel guide or encyclopedic article about Tokyo would be the same if it didn’t mention some of the weird things one might encounter when visiting the city. So here’s a few of my own which I’ve noticed while trying to avoid some of the clichés mentioned elsewhere.

Inside a cat café in Odaiba

The School Run
In the UK and USA the school run means lots of parents driving their one of two children from the house to the school gates lest they get robbed, run over or their precious legs get tired. For Tokyo’s youngsters the school run is more of a walk. Volunteer parents (or possibly teachers) go door to door collecting children and then leading the children they’ve accumulated from street to street picking up more children. The parents and children all wear bridge yellow jackets and the kids wear bright hats and bags too for safety reasons. This is despite the fact that there is less crime in this city of 40 million than on my island of 80,000.

Vending machines

Lively vending machine in Harajuku

So far I have been slightly disappointed because the majority of machines only sell drinks. But they are everywhere. Many of them sell hot drinks in cans (hot coffee, tea or soup) and there are no CCTV cameras or warnings about not trying to rip the machine off because it seems that nobody would ever dream of doing that. Many of the machines will take SUICA or PLASMA cards which are Tokyo’s equivalent of London’s Oyster and Hong Kong’s Octopus cards. The few non-drinks machines I have seen included ice creams, batteries, snacks, sports cards and food tickets – you order your food from the machine then hand the receipt to the chef who’ll prepare your meal.

Don’t cross
I know that in Poland and parts of the USA you can get busted for jay walking if you cross a street when the red man is showing but I’m not aware of any such law in Japan. Yet everybody will wait for the green light. Even on a long, straight road where there is no traffic in sight. Usually I am not going to do this waiting lark if I don’t want to and it’s fun to see just how many locals will dare to cross after having seen the foreigner do it first.

Cafés

What would your dog like to eat today?

Firstly there’s traditional Kissaten coffee shops with comfy seating and tasty coffee served from what looks like a chemistry set. The more ‘geekish’ will like maid cafés where scantily-dressed maids serve drink to ‘Otaku‘ (Japanese geeks). Some maid cafés even spoon-feed food for the Otaku, provide massages and sit and chat with them. I’ve yet to sample a maid café but I’m thinking it’s something that has to be seen while in Japan. Or if you’re not in need of a drink why not get one for your pet at one of the many Dog Cafés?  Next up are cat cafés where people can pay for time in a room full of cats. This idea apparently took off because most apartments in Japan either don’t allow pets or are too small for pets and all Japanese love cute animals. Ugly cats not allowed.

Continuing the journey on Tokyo’s Yamanote  line to explore what this mega city has to offer…

Route map of JR’s Yamanote line which forms a circle around much of central Tokyo. The larger or more important stations are in bold.

2. Bunkyo – Tokyo Dome, universities, salarymen and baseball: that pretty much describes Bunkyo. Tokyo Dome with a little theme park attached is here so you can catch a Giants baseball game and then go on the Big Dipper. There’s plenty of universities here too and it’s where I’m working so fairly central too. Like all areas of Tokyo there are shops, department stores, several metro lines and shrines but there’s not much else to see here and even the Wikipedia article which I headed to to fill out the paragraphs was a bit lacking.

Fancy a pirate ship in the middle of downtown Tokyo?

3. Chuo – Ginza and TsukijiGinza, the main attraction in Chuo, feels like the most exclusive shopping area in the world and has prices to match. I happily, if a bit reluctantly at first, tried on shoes and glasses which cost double my salary. Even if I was rich I’m not sure if I’d pay 600,000 yen (€6,000 or US$6,500 or £5,500) on something for my feet or yet more glasses which I can leave behind on a train when I’m in a rush or had a few too many to drink. Come to Ginza if you fancy a bit of shopping in Dior, Chanel, Gucci, A&F or Luis Vuitton. What surprised me in this area is that unlike similar shopping areas in London and Milan you are actually made to feel welcome when you walk through the doors even if it is obvious to the staff that you’re not going to buy anything and more likely to try to slip some of their garments under your jacket on your way out. Other companies like Sony and Yamaha have huge stores or their head offices in this district. Tsukiji is a bit different to Ginza though. It is a large area reclaimed from the sea and home to the “Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market” or in simple terms “Tsukiji Fish Market“. It’s the biggest fish market in the world though not having traveled to many fish markets I’m not sure how big this one is going to be. Every year fish with a value of over 600 billion yen (US$ 5 billion) pass through this smelly warehouse.

Next stop: Minato, the foreign delights of Roppongi and Shibuya (for everything you could possibly want)…

A megapolis like Tokyo has plenty to do. Too much to see in just 3 months or maybe even 3 years. Most very big cities like London, Buenos Aires and New York don’t have one city center but several areas which are central to business, commerce, culture and politics. Tokyo is no different and in reality consists of 23 cities rolled into one. Many of these are suburban like

A 12 carriage JR Yamanote train

Katsushika where I live. This Tokyo city has a mayor, municipal buildings and a scattering of sights like Buddhist and Shinto shrines to visit but it’s the cities which surround JR’s (Japan Rail) Yamanote line which are where things really happen. The Yamanote line forms a circle in Tokyo encompassing many of the cities and a lap of the circle will take you just over an hour. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Route map of JR’s Yamanote line which forms a circle around much of central Tokyo. The larger or more important stations are in bold.

1. Chiyoda – Imperial Palace, Yasukini shrine, Tokyo station
The ward of Chiyoda is home to Tokyo station which is a surprise really as you don’t expect mega cities to have a single train station with such a name (there’s no London station or Paris station). It is, like so many stations in Tokyo, enormous and can be confusing to find your way around. It has connections to all over the country and all parts of Tokyo especially the eastern wards though it isn’t the busiest station in the city. Nearby is the Imperial Palace whose land occupying the center of the richest city on the planet is apparently worth more than all the real estate in California. Unfortunately the Emperor is a private kind of guy so much of the palace grounds are off limits to the general public.

Buildings near the Imperial Palace

You can, however, visit some of the gardens nearby which are beautiful and relaxing on a warm day with lawns, shaded wood areas and little lakes with turtles, koi and enough flowers to satisfy all of Tokyo on St. Valentines Day! Entry is free but strangely you have to queue for a ticket which you later have to hand back on your wait out. Then there’s Yasukini shrine which is infamous for enshrining some of the war criminals from World War II although the shrine is dedicated to remembering those who fought for the emperor.

Next stop: Bunkyo for business and sport and Chuo for the finest (and most expensive) shopping in Asia…

Streets of Tokyo – Wide, green but mostly empty

Tokyo has a lot of people. Apparently some 35 million of them commuting on the trains and subways, riding the elevators, drinking in its bars and driving their cars on its wide streets. But where is the noise? I’ve lived in cities with only 0.2% of the population of this metropolis and not been able to hear the voices in my head talking to me. It’s like some guy up above has turned the volume down to just above the mute setting.

The second to last train wasn’t as crowded as the one we took

Tokyo, like London, is one of those crazy cities where public transportation seems to ground to a halt after the big hand and little hand reach 12 at night. Why is this? Had the fortune (or misfortune) to take the last train home the other night. Morning and evening rush hour trains have a world wide reputation for being rather overcrowded but they don’t compare in any way to the LAST TRAIN. It’s like a war. Everybody knows that if they don’t force themselves into this sardine tin then they’ll be spending the next 4 hours walking the streets of Akihabara, slouched over a computer in a cyber cafe or drunkenly climbing into a 3rd story pod in a capsule hotel. Japanese people are known for their politeness and helpfulness. The assistants in stores from McDonald’s to Gucci will greet and bow to you as you enter and unfailingly thank you for your visit when you exit. Little coffee shops and family restaurants will refill your plate with whatever they think you might want to try and parking attendents, police officers in a Koban, builders on the construction site and anyone else in a shiny uniform will take the time to bow and say hello as you pass. However, the last train is rather different. Unlike in London there are no apologies as somebody forces you further into the carriage. They just keep pushing. I don’t know how they do it nor how they tolerate this madness. I survived only because I was taller so able to stand on tip-toes in order to breathe and carry on with my life. Others probably held their breathe for the 20 minute ride. But how do they tolerate it day after day? Nobody complained! Had this been London, Paris or New York the passengers would have risen up, strung up the train company officials and demanded extra trains put on.

100,000 people use Shibuya crossing every hour

To witness the huge numbers of people take a trip to Shibuja where over 100,000 people cross a single junction every hour, head to Shinjuku and arrive at the world’s busiest train station with some 4 million passengers per day and around 100 exits (best not to say to someone that you’ll meet them simply “at Shinjuku station”). The best part about these huge numbers is that everybody seems content, almost everybody has a job and everything works like clockwork. Observe the construction sites which always have several people at the main gate even though all they do is occasionally stop the traffic to let construction trucks in and out, wash the outer walls of the building area (so it looks clean like the rest of Tokyo) and turn on the digital displays outside which tell people nearby how many decibals of noise the site is making (generally fewer than a small Italian town). As you walk around areas like Ginza and Ikebukuroyou’ll see street cleaners traipsing the streets looking for trash even though there isn’t any. I kind of feel sorry for them that one day I might throw some trash in front of them just so they can pick it up and feel useful!

A man walks through Ueno Park wearing a surgical mask to avoid spreading his cough or cold

With this many people you might expect dirt, pests and diseases to feel at home here but as I said before, the dirt must have been shipped off to Europe to brighten up its streets. Often cities are clean because the municipal government have cleverly placed bins everywhere while others are filthy because there are no bins. Well, in Tokyo it’s spotless yet you’ll carry your trash around for ages always on the look out for a bin! And with no trash, rather clean air and a population which wash the walls of construction sites every day there are no pests either. People get sick in Tokyo as anywhere else but good manners mean that many of those with coughs and colds walk around with surgical face masks all day lest their fellow commuters or colleagues catch something from them. Others wear the masks to protect themselves from other people’s cooties. After witnessing the last train of the day I’m surprised that everybody isn’t wearing them!

The first part of the blog’s title is easy to explain. In just a few days I’m flying off to Japan to work for 3 months in Tokyo.

As for the moob part let me explain. I recently had a conversation with some friends about what might happen if I took birth control tablets. Not sure why I had such a conversation but one of the possible affects were that it may cause me to grow moobs. And this led to the idea of the Tokyo Moob blog. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

This is going to be a general attempt to write and picture all things strange, surreal, everyday and Japanese during my short stay in the world’s biggest city.

Here are a few examples of what makes Japan so interesting and that’s before I’ve even flown there.

  1.   A single piece of fruit can cost up to £300 in Japan (BBC News article)
  2. Japanese toilets are far more advanced than the rest of the primitive world use every day. While some parts of southern Europe haven’t advanced much beyond holes in the ground, Japanese people can park their arses on heated toilet seats which play gentle music and include a bidet nozzle beneath their lower cheeks.
  3. The most common breakfast in Japan consists of rice, the most common lunch consists of rice and the most common dinner consists of rice!
  4. 24 people have died in Japan because of bowing and hitting heads.
  5. Sumo is the national sport and traditionally younger wrestlers are required to wash their older colleagues all over!

So you can see that my time in Japan promises to bedazzle me every step I take!