Growing up, the one country I was most fascinated by was Japan. At my junior school, there was a Japanese boy in my class, named Kentaro and each school holiday he would go home to Japan for a couple of weeks and would return for the new school term with gifts for the entire class. Each gift would be different but I’m not talking about a stick of rock from Blackpool beach or an ill-fitting t-shirt with ‘Tokyo’ scrawled across it.
No, these were items like nothing any of us had ever seen before. Pencil cases with pop-up pencil sharpeners, fantasy gaming playing cards, trick yo-yos which would illuminate as they spun (yes, there was a yo-yo craze amongst kids in the early 90s) and notebooks illustrated with the most bonkers cartoon drawings I’d ever seen. I thought that I lived in a ‘First World’ country but to me at that time, Japan seemed to be from another planet.
Since then, I’ve always been in awe of Japan and when I decided (at a strangely young age) that I was going to become an airline pilot when I was older, flying a big aeroplane to Tokyo and exploring the city became one of my life goals. A couple of months ago, that dream became a reality.
Now, at this point I have to admit that this wasn’t actually my first visit to Japan. Back in January, my brother and I flew into Tokyo and then onto Sapporo to go skiing for a week but that was as a passenger so therefore didn’t count. (Slightly off topic, the skiing was INSANE. If you like your deep powder skiing, there really is no place better. We’re going back again next year so I’ll do a post on it then.)
The flight over was a long one, 12hrs 14mins to be exact. Leaving London at 3.30pm, we arrived into Tokyo Narita airport just before midday, a full 7 hours ahead in less than preferable weather conditions – low cloud, rain and a fairly strong wind. As you might expect for Japanese efficiency, the process through the airport was seamless and after a short bus ride we were checking into our hotel in Narita town. Now, Tokyo has two main airports – Haneda which is as much ‘downtown’ as you can get for a major international airport and Narita which is, well, ‘out in the sticks’. An inconvenience to making the most of my first Tokyo stop over? Yes. An immovable barrier? Hell no.
Get room key. Kiss good bye to the Captain ( no, not literally). Upto the 8th floor. Enter room. Quick shower. Open suitcase. Decant essentials into rucksack (cameras & clean underwear). Get some currency. Time to hit the town…
If you’re flying to Tokyo and have to fly into Narita, you’ve got a few options to get into town. Taxi is fine, takes around 1.15hrs and will of course drop you at the front door of your hotel. If you don’t want to stump up for a cab, there are hotel taxi busses which will reduce the cost but still take the same amount of time. What I’d suggest doing is taking the train and getting your first experience of what is quite possibly the best public transport network on the planet.
There are 3 different train options, but the all take roughly an hour and will take you to the central Tokyo station where you can change onto the subway system. It’s at this point that most travel writers would tell you how wonderful the views were on the train into the city, how they took in their first glimpses of their Japanese surroundings and admired the punctuality and efficiency of the train system. I’m not going to lie, I’d been up all night so promptly fell asleep.
The good news is that due to the Japanese work hard,/play hard culture, the sight of a sleeping human cuddling up to the corner of the train, even at lunchtime, drew zero attention. Before I knew it, it my semi comatose state, I had arrived at Tokyo central station with my rucksack on my back and camera in hand. I was ready to explore the city.
Some of you may be familiar with the acronym PPPPPP. It stands for Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. (If you were in the military, you’ll know that there’s an extra ‘P’ to get the obligatory swear word in). If you’re going to make the most of a short time in a city, you need to PPPPPP. Before I left home, I decided on all the things I wanted to do on this trip and made a list. LOVE a list. Food and photography was the order of this visit so onto Google I went and started my PPPPPP.
Google (other search engines are available – anyone remember ‘Ask Jeeves’?!) makes this super easy as not only does it give you all the info you need, but you can also find the location on a map. TIP NUMBER 1 – when you have found the location of your desired sushi restaurant/photography spot/karaoke bar, hit ‘save’ on the map and it will leave you with a lovely little gold star on the map. The more places you save, the more gold stars will accumulate on your map making it super easy to see where you’re heading. Overlay this with a map of the subway network and BAM! you’ve got yourself the most time AND cost efficient way of spending your day in the city without constantly going on back on yourself.
The first stop on my intinerary was the market at Nakano to visit a second hand camera store I’d found online to get myself a new tripod. One stop to Otemachi on the Marunuchi line then change onto the Tozai line and I was there in no time.
Street level is as busy as subway level and with a population of 20million people, this comes as no surprise. However, what I love about Tokyo is that despite the sheer number of bodies, everything just works. There never seems to be queues at the subway ticket machines, pavements don’t fill up with people waiting to cross roads and even during peak times on the trains, there are ‘pushers’ to cram everyone in. Sure, your feet aren’t actually on the floor but hey, you’ll be getting there bang on time.
Inzamon camera store has everything the amateur photographers needs. Lenses, bodies, bags, cleaning kits and staff who certainly know their stuff. Sadly I wasn’t in the market for another camera so found my way down to the tripod section (actually another smaller premises 30m downtown the street) where I found more tripods than I could shake a selfie stick at. Having played with several different types, I settle on a sporty little number which would fit into my ruck sack for just £9. Bargain.
Satisfied with my purchase, I headed back to the subway station and made my way to my first photography spot to put my new toy to the test.
Shibuya is one of the busiest areas of Tokyo, famous for it’s Scramble Crossing’ where every few minutes the traffic lights of the five feeding roads all turn red allowing the throng of pedestrians to cross any which way across the junction. If you want an elevated view of this orchestrated ballet of humans and traffic, head to the Starbucks, buy a coffee and head upstairs but be prepared to wait for a table to get front row seats to the show. However, if it’s decent photos that you want, you’ll be disappointed in here due to the nasty reflections off the glass. My advice would be to get down amongst it all and get snapping.
Check back soon for the next part of my guide to Tokyo!